footprints

Ow, make my patterns stop hurting!

There’s this semi-creepy deja vu thing that starts happening when one of your patterns kicks in. You know when it’s happening when you catch yourself thinking, “Again?!” Or “Oh boy, here we go again … ” Or, “I can’t believe this is happening again!”

In fact, the worst thing about doing something you wish you weren’t is that sinking feeling of again-ness. Here we *are* again. Again!

Sometimes it’s a peaceful conversation with your parents/partner/roommate that goes whonky and devolves into conflict. Sometimes it’s finding yourself beating yourself up verbally for a really familiar mistake. Sometimes it’s just there you are with the refrigerator door open, with no idea how you got there. It doesn’t really matter which pattern.

The point is: Aaaaaaargh, Patterns!

Truth is, of course, we’re in pattern mode all the time. The way you stand, the way you react to certain smells, the way you breathe. It’s all patterns and patterning. But you tend to only think about it when one specific pattern is driving you batty and you just can’t find your way out of it.

It’s not your fault. It’s your brain!

Before you start hating on yourself for succumbing to those irritating habits and patterns, here’s the out, and it’s legitimate, too: it’s not your fault that you repeat the same behaviors over and over again. That’s your wiring. It’s the job of your brain to follow patterns. That’s how it works, so that’s what it does.

Not that shifting all the blame to your brain is any great reassurance, but there you have it. Your zippy little neurons, bless them, like doing familiar things so they can zoom off on autopilot. No “road less traveled” stuff for them. They like the old, familiar path.

Your brain is filled with neural pathways. They’re formed by your oldest habits and memories, and (this part is kind of crazy) are actually strengthened every time you repeat a familiar action. Or react emotionally in a similar way. Or mull over how much you can’t stand something or someone.

I’m not bringing this up to scare you (we’ll get out of the scary in a second, I promise). It’s just amazing to me the way you can sometimes almost see the neurons in your brain whizzing right past the less deeply marked pathways and following the old road that they know so well. Whoosh!

You can picture those neurons pretty easily if you think about what water looks like when it’s following a path on the windshield in the rain. The raindrops that hit your window don’t go any which way. They find their squiggly little groove and stick to it.

It’s exactly like the way that path formed in your yard, the one from the door to wherever you go the most. There were all sorts of other routes that path could have followed, including tiny variations, but there you have it. The path you trod into the grass is “the path”. For now.

The good news: it’s all change-able

The same malleable, squooshable, impressionable (literally!) quality of the brain that made it so easy for your old patterns to form is exactly what’s going to help you make new ones.

The brain takes to new things really well, as long as you throw repetition into the mix. In brain science terms we call it neuroplasticity, which basically means that you have the ability to create NEW grooves and pathways, and the existing ones will heal up and disappear if left on their own.

If you stopped taking that path in your lawn and made a habit of jumping over to a new patch of grass, voila a new path. The more you take the new path, the more obvious its “pathness” will become. In time, the old path sprouts green stuff and stops calling to you. In the brain, this process is even faster.

So what does this mean in real life?

  1. You’re not a slave to your patterns, even though it often *really* feels like you are.
  2. Depending on how you look at it the malleability of the brain can be your downfall or it can be your salvation. But you get to choose.
  3. Every single time you stop and jump from the old path to the new one, it’s good news for you and your brain. Even if you’re already waaay down the path, the second you take a step off of it, you’re strengthening the new and softening the old

As my partner likes to say (he saw it on a t-shirt): Science works, bitches!

There’s probably a way of getting that point across without offending anyone who reads my stuff, but nothing is coming to mind (sorry, mom). But you know what, you can also take that sentiment and replace “science” with “yoga”.

The yoga of changing your brain

The world of yoga philosophy is where I first encountered these concepts of pattern-changing. In yoga there is a concept called samskaras — patterns in the consciousness.

These patterns can take physical form in pain and stress, or in the way you remember what relaxation feels like. They can be your thought patterns. Or they can be bigger life patterns that show up over and over again. These are the things some people call karmic patterns, psychologists call “very interesting”, and other people call bad luck.

Those fun and not-so-fun brain grooves are literal applications of samskaras. The way you change your samskaras is the same way you change anything else. With practice. With acknowledgment, love, patience and a lot of self-forgiveness. Over and over again.

If you don’t feel like those things are readily available to you, you do it by paying attention to your patterns so you can learn about them. And by being open to the possibility of maybe, eventually, becoming someone who can handle a little acknowledgment, love, patience and self-forgiveness coming your way.

The yoga teachers and the brain scientists agree on this one. The thing that makes it so hard to make changes is actually, with practice, the thing that will make it easier for you to stick to them. Yep, another paradox.

But the cool thing is, once you know how patterns work, it’s easier to jump off that garden path and onto the new one. When “again” becomes a clue and not a reason to smack your forehead, you’re on your way.

Why this stuff is *so* important

So here I am, spending my life helping smart, creative people change their patterns so they can go do “that thing” they know they want to be doing. And still, people want to know … “So what’s the point of working on my patterns again?”

Well, I kind of have a lot to say about that, but in the interest of brevity, let me give it to you in bullet points. Working on your patterns gives you:

  • freedom (the ability to do stuff differently at will)
  • choice (the ability to spend time with that compassionate loving person you suspect you might sometimes be)
  • power (the ability to do the thing when it needs doing and trust yourself to be great at it

And if you’re interested in doing some deep work on those patterns, specifically patterns related to “growing the cool thing you do, putting it out there, making monies with it and feeling comfortable with that”, I’m doing a special version of my Habits Training group coaching program this September. The theme is Mindful Biggification. More info on that coming soon.

In the meantime, here’s another resource. It’s a book!

To learn more about this mind/brain intersection, read Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. This is not one of those “think positive and it will change your life” self-help-ey books. It’s actually a really interesting look at how the brain actually works, how you work and what choices you have.