Walking the Familiar Paths | Developing Curiosity in and through our Patterns
Last week I was walking a dog, Marley. This is funny, but only to those of you know my history with dogs. I’m in the middle of a healing process of learning not to disdain and compete with dogs for spaces in homes. I’m allergic, and because of dogs, there were numerous middle school sleepovers that I could not attend. But, recently, I’ve been charged with the care of the 6 little people with whom Marley shares a home, and by extension, Marley himself. So I now find myself walking a dog, trying to extend kindness to him, without touching him (he is also hypoallergenic, so that helps a bit).
Anyway, while on the walk, I felt an anxious need to walk the exact same way I have walked him 5 times already, even after I noticed a beautiful little path off to the side, specifically designed for walks of this kind. And, though there are only 3 roads that make up the small town I now live in, apparently I had no interest in finding a 4th. The side path was named quite romantically: Lae Braes Walk. Despite the apparent perfection of the path to my left, it felt painful to consider not walking the dog on the same route I’d grown accustomed to taking the dog and that I’d walked many times on the way to the grocery store, bank, bar, library and my friend’s house. Somehow, by repetition, I felt wed to it, and I was aware of this compulsion to remain wed.
At first, I found this humorous, and then I made a quick movement to annoyance and pity: What is this obsession with mundane routine you have, dear sweet Annie? You sad, sad girl who is still constrained by simple little needs.
Here is what I went to thinking pretty quickly: How could such a small matter create so much inner turmoil in the life of a self-aware person living during a very difficult time in our world? Who am I to feel pain about tiny things that pale in comparison to the pain of people suffering quite deeply from war and famine and neglect? I am self-obsessed. Why on earth is this hard for me? Stop being like this. C’mon Annie, figure yourself out so that you can have more efficient, kind, meaningful thoughts and feelings please.
And then I took a breath.
And then my second line of thinking went more like this: Isn’t it interesting that it feels so hard for me to turn left right now. I wonder why that it is? And why it feels so familiar? Is this the classic self-preservation way of interacting with the world? I wonder why I want comfort? There might be a reason or maybe this is just the normal “path my brain walks.” Oh, well, I suppose I have just moved across the world and started a postgraduate program and new job in a place with a language structure that is similar, but different and still sometimes hard to understand. Ah, yes, I’m probably craving some regularly scheduled comfort as well as some extra comfort due to a season of great transition. Feel free to walk the comfortable road Annie, whyever you might need something so absurd to feel at home.
And then, just as I had given myself permission to walk the well-trod path, I turned left on Lae Braes walk. I don’t mean to make such a big thing of something so small. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything that I took the side road. But, on the other hand, the decision to do something that felt actually anxiety inducing a few minutes before was quickly decided upon only after the movement towards curiosity. If I had stayed in judgement mode, then it would have kept the decision to turn left as the right or wrong thing to do. But, by entering into curiosity mode, the decision itself had little moral meaning, only that in either case, I was free, interesting, and lovable in the exact moment I was in, just as I was, bundle of anxiety about the most mundane issue imaginable.
Allow me to conclude some things about all of us, from this story about one of us: We are not wired for change. Stay with me, even if you are a Type 7 and you are like “hey this enneagram lady doesn’t know her stuff because obviously i’m wired for change—it’s my biggest problem—how do I stop all the flux in my life?” Actually, no, you aren’t wired for change. If you were, then moving through pain and onto the next exciting thing so quickly wouldn’t be hard to re-wire in your brain…you’d just change that. This is not to say, however, that we can’t change, because if that was true then this would be a dead-end conversation. Read up on neuroplasticity!
For some reason our bodies work hard to get our needs met quickly and without self-reflection, no matter if it is no longer an appropriate or altogether helpful method.. If one path worked well last time, the body learns from experience and continues to use that tool. If I cry and my mom soothes me, I might cry next time I need to be soothed, or even if I just want attention. Crying works. If I cry and no one shows up, then I might not cry as much, maybe I'll learn how to pull people in with my silence. Or maybe I'll start to say interesting things. Whatever it is, I'll keep doing it…over and over. And that’s why it can be hard to change. There are ruts, deep, deep ruts in our brains, and some shallower ones too — like my new path I’ve been walking this month. If i lack a feeling of familiarity, my body knows that repetition creates familiarity, so my body screams at me to STAY ON THE SAME PATH.
Most of the time I’m really glad for ruts in my brain, like when I go to put on my clothes or make a healthy and delicious breakfast or type really fast. The ruts, though, can take us out of awareness—presence to the unfolding reality within and all around us. So we have much coming to us these days about the importance of mindfulness.
The lack of awareness, of mindfulness, does not always present as a problem. But sometimes it does, like when I go to interact with my family and turn into the high school version of myself; or when I want to listen to a different album than I have been for the last year but simply cannot not listen to the Hamilton Soundtrack; or when I want to postpone breakfast for an hour to get something done but must eat now even if I’m not hungry, because this is what I do; or when I want to date somebody but instead I make him into my best friend forever or try to get my friend to date him; or when I want to turn left on Lae Braes Walk but have to go through a huge internal dialogue to do so. I have a lot of defenses set up against these seemingly simple activities, defenses that pretty much look like me needing and doing the same kinds of things over and over for reasons that I cannot rationally express, even when called upon to do so.
Another oft-travelled, problematic rut is self-judgment as a mechanism for self-change. I’d be willing to bet many of you share this rut with me. It is an interesting process that many of us go through, even when we “know better.” Why do we think that shame and violence towards ourselves will yield the results we want? Certainly culture shows us no better alternatives, and that’s not helpful in terms of personal or communal transformation.
It’s like we are asleep on the highway of our brain, headed towards the places we always go. But, as in a dream, there are moments when we know “something isn’t right here.” I could do this differently, but I’m not awake enough to to know how. Let’s stay on this road because other roads aren’t even presenting themselves. Sometimes we have to wake up enough to look for an alternative route.
So, change is slow like waking up can be slow. And it’s slow for all of us in our own ways. But, as I say over and over (repetition!) in my workshops and retreats: be kind to yourself. Instead of shame and violence, it turns out mostly it’s trust and curiosity that win out in change. Can we trust ourselves and the world enough to try something new? Can we be curious about what shape that newness might take? Extending trust and kindness to ourselves may actually be the most effective way to make changes, though we think that beating ourselves might lead to a quicker result. This is true of how we treat others, too, but I question whether we can extend a deep, abiding sense of kindness towards others if we can’t receive it ourselves.
I began by speaking of a familiar walk and how I decided to turn left. It is important to note (and probably silly in this benign example) that if I didn’t want to turn left, I didn’t have to. If I only wanted to turn left because everyone said that turning left was the better way, or because I was scared of becoming the person who walks similar paths each day, that’s probably not enough motivation to make a change. Usually in our lives, there is a thing or couple things that continue to come up—desires we have that are blocked by how we are wired for sameness—and these are usually the movements that have enough impetus to be accomplished.
Pay attention to these. This is discernment. As Parker Palmer might say, “Let your life speak.”