This article has been translated from Spanish to English. The article originally appeared as a cover piece for the Sunday magazine of La Nación newspaper, Argentina’s leading daily, and one read widely in neighboring countries, on the subject of “Is it possible to change?”
The original article can be found here. Terry is featured in the section “Life as Classroom”.
Winds of Change
by Fabiana Fondevila
Books, videos, courses and seminars promise to turn us into better versions of ourselves. But beside the lure of instant transformation, some actually dare to jump in, plumb their depths and take the steps towards change.
Gain confidence and never lose it. Discover the seven laws of success. Rekindle your passion for your lover. Promises of change and even of complete reinvention beckon to us from the covers of books, television shows and workshops of every sort. After decades of self-help culture, it’s right that we should ask: did our lives actually change for the better?
Although the literary genre known as self-help or personal development took root in the last quarter of the 20th century, and especially in the 1990s, the idea of offering instructions for living a better life is almost as old as man. In Ancient Rome, Cicero gave all manners of advice in On Friendship and On Duty. Ovid did the same in The Art of Love, and the Egyptians of the age of the pharaohs conducted their affairs according to a series of tomes titled, appropriately, Codes of Conduct. It could even be argued that the Bible is the all-around best-seller of the good life manuals, with legions of faithful fans.
But modern-day self-help has some features of its own. With its rosy New Age positivism, this social phenomenon seduces many with the illusion of unlimited transformation. According to the tenets espoused by many of its gurus, everything rests on the proper intention. If one falls short on the road to fame, success, mental peace, perfect health or enlightenment (whichever may be the preferred goal), there is no one to blame but oneself.
These are no doubt seductive proposals. In the United States, one of the countries where the genre and fad took hold, the sale of self-help books rose by almost 100 percent between 1991 and 1996. Today, this segment of the publishing industry generates some 2 billion dollars a year. It is also a well-known fact that the consumers of self-help products display an addictive behavior: as soon as they finish one book, workshop or seminar, they are already on the lookout for the next.
But even this mega-successful industry has not been able to answer the one key question: Is it possible to change at will? Perhaps it’s best that we start by defining what we mean by “change”.
Estanislao Bachrach, an Argentine biologist who studied in Harvard, author of the successful Ágilmente (a play on words that could be translated as Swift minds), has just published a second book titled Encambio. Aprendé a modificar tu cerebro para cambiar tu vida (Changing. Learning to change your brain in order to change your life). In it he points to the fact that our brains are a lot more malleable than we once thought. He therefore suggests we undertake a sort of self-directed neuroplasticity campaign, resorting to different exercises and techniques designed to incline our thoughts and emotions in the direction of positive change.
But even with a decidedly optimistic outlook, the author warns that change always involves a certain level of pain or discomfort, something that the brain seeks to avoid as a mechanism of self-preservation. This is why we need to work hard to convince ourselves that a new habit or attitude will work in our favor in the medium or long term.
Is everybody willing to make that effort? “No,”says Bachrach outright. “Some people can’t, because their lives are too tough and they don’t have the time or energy. Others want to, but they get discouraged at the first difficulty. And others just don’t want to. In my team we have seen that only between 10 and 15 percent of those who say they want to change are truly committed to go through with it”. The first premise, then, is the honest decision to get out of one’s comfort zone. And once there is a genuine determination to change, can we steer in the direction of deep and lasting transformation, or can we only aspire to slight adjustments in course?
Virginia Gawel is a psychologist, the director of the Buenos Aires Transpersonal Center and a longtime promoter of Transpersonal Psychology, a discipline which brings together the wisdom of East and West, and incorporates a spiritual outlook. She says, “I like to think of change as a vertical movement, one that moves upwards in spirals. There are people that work hard at studying themselves and move up one circle and then another throughout their lives, so that we could say they are the same people they were when they started, but at the same time their outlook is different, they have a deeper view of themselves and of reality itself. In that context the word ‘change’ amounts to transmutation, like when coal goes through a long and arduous process and turns into diamond”.
But if that movement is horizontal –Gawel continues-, the person “makes pseudo-changes, going round and round at the same level of consciousness, trying out different options and interests without any real depth or commitment. These changes will be of an adaptive nature; a way to make sure that everything stays the same”. This perspective highlights an ingredient that is not too popular for our culture of instant satisfaction: pure, undisguised effort.
Self-help books can be “a signpost that points to the right path, but only as long as we actually walk the path. Reading alone is not enough –Gawel underlines-. It is crucial to practice, to delve deep into one’s emotions. And, as is the case with our physical health, to make sure we are not substituting a book for a specialist who can walk the road with us and keep us safe.”
Something even more complex is at stake when it comes to workshops, courses and seminars. So complex, in fact, that a name has been coined for the distortion they can sometimes bring about: “the Weekend Seminar Syndrome”. This is how it goes: for a few hours or a few days, people share practices and experiences in an atmosphere of complete harmony. During that time they experience powerful emotions and, sometimes, even the impression of sudden illumination. They leave happy and eager to begin their new lives. What is left of that transmutation two weeks later? Studies reveal: little or nothing.
So the question is: what went wrong? Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the epicenter of the human potential movement in the 1960s, was one of the first to detect this phenomenon. He extended the workshops to last several weeks, then a few months, but the backwards kick occurred all the same, just as predictably as the initial ecstasy. In a book he co-wrote with George Leonard, he stated this conclusion: real change can only be brought about by committed and sustained long-term practice.
So here is the second ingredient in our recipe for genuine change: action that is consequent through time.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist and author of Mindset, a pioneering book in the area of social and psychological research, launched a new concept in the vocabulary of the social sciences: growth mindset. This attitude distinguishes people who see challenges and even failure as an opportunity to expand their capacities and not a reason to give up. At the other end of the spectrum is the fixed mindset, which describes people who are convinced that we are all born with a limited number of talents and abilities. Neuroscience confirms that the first attitude is in fact correct, since every challenge we face creates new neural pathways and places more resources at our disposal.
In studies done with university students, the researcher found that young people with a fixed mindset did not recover well from bad grades and spent more energy trying to cover up their mistakes than in learning. On the other half, their colleagues with a growth mindset tended to study their mistakes and derive useful lessons from them.
Dweck’s findings produced some useful childrearing advice: in order to promote a growth mindset in children, it’s important to reward their efforts and their willingness to face challenges over their actual accomplishments. A third element, then, is the ability to get back in the game after a setback, and to do so without shame, fear or regret.
LOOKING IS NOT ALWAYS SEEING
The art of transformation is also subtle and complex in the context of a group. Ontological Coaching is a discipline that promotes transformation on an individual level and in collective contexts. Carola Herrscher, an ontological coach and the co-founder of New Paradigms in Organizations, explains: “Coaching invites people to review their judgments and preconceptions about themselves. The aim is to help them see through a wider lens so that they can consider more creative options. One of the premises of this discipline is that language doesn’t just describe reality, it also creates it. That’s why we try to guide people to review the way they speak about things, and to change their interpretations of reality.”
But even dealing with large groups, says Herrscher, change always begins at an individual level. “The first thing is for people to own up to what they feel and how they see the things that happen, instead of projecting them onto others. For someone to be able to say ‘I feel unseen’ instead of saying ‘Nobody sees me’ or ‘Maybe I don’t express myself clearly enough”, instead of ‘Nobody listens’” –says the coach. “When I see the same group in different moments, I perceive that they have been able to start talking about things they couldn’t before, and that is a big step. In my experience, the biggest problem in groups is not technical, the biggest hurdle is the things that don’t get talked about, either because they’re not seen or because they’re difficult to discuss.” A fourth facilitator of change, then, especially in groups, is self-observation and taking responsibility for one’s way of seeing and acting in the world. Growth, it seems, is also something that starts at home.
LIFE AS CLASSROOM
We could also pose a more radical question: How much to change? When to declare ourselves satisfied with our progress and just give ourselves the chance to enjoy our accomplishments? If we don’t, isn’t it possible that in our penchant for constant renewal, we might forget that other assignment, that of simply and purely being?
“Like everything else, change is something we can undertake with a healthier or a less conducive attitude. But the impulse to improve ourselves is not only appropriate, it is necessary. Life is a school, and it brings us the same lesson over and over again, until we learn it.” So says Terry Patten, coach, international speaker and coauthor, with Ken Wilber of Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening. Wilber is a contemporary philosopher who set himself the titanic goal of combining all of the wisdom collected by humanity in a single multifaceted theory (which he presented in a volume entitled, with no false modesty, A Theory of Everything). But having developed the theory, there then came the time to bring it down to earth and help people put together an actual integral life, in which no important aspect of existence would be left aside. This integral practice which Wilber and Patten propose consists of a synthesis of the most important teachings of the ancient mystical schools and the postulates of modern science and psychology. In dialogue with La Nación Revista, Patten explains: “The challenge of our time is that we live in an era of great privilege, we have access to so much knowledge, so much wisdom, and, at the same time, we have a hard time dealing with this volume of information”.
As a way to carve a path through this maze, Wilber and Patten propose a wide menu of practices, divided into four main areas: mind, body, spirit and shadow. This last category refers to the exploration of one’s emotions (through some form of psychotherapy or individual work). And although their advice is to opt for those practices which are more amenable to one’s own life and personality, there are some techniques which they consider primary because of their proven effect as motors of change. One is meditation, or some form of contemplative practice.
But no matter what vehicle each of us chooses in order to move forward, it’s clear that Patten views life as a directional process. “As we grow, we begin to see that each moment is an open class taught by the universe. And when we become aware of this journey we are on, we also notice the small choices we make every day. As Viktor Frankl pointed out, even in the extreme conditions of a concentration camp, some people became loving and saintly, while others became degraded. We also have the chance to choose at every moment the path we will take.”
Are there any guidelines to help us choose well?
There are three sure paths towards growth: one is to sustain a daily practice. In general, that means a short period of physical exercises and some form of meditation. Another is to consider the many opportunities afforded by each moment. Any pause can help bring us back to awareness, even just walking a few steps or breathing consciously for a few minutes. And a third road is to see each endeavor we take on (writing a book, buying a house, seeking a partner, raising a child) as a part of our practice, and acting with the intention that that action becomes part of a transformative adventure.
There are no formulas for change, then, but there are time-proven paths. To be flexible, persistent, to go back to the drawing board as many times as necessary; to observe oneself, to strive, to make a commitment. And to always remember that which wise men say at the end of the journey: change, like love and fresh bread, must be made anew every day.