Personal change is usually glacial and we sometimes wonder whether the endeavour is worth the effort.
Essentially, the pace doesn't matter, but some of us want to know whether we're making progress.
The more enlightened know we shouldn't judge how we're doing, but us less enlightened know it happens all the time.
“The classical understanding is that a spiritual life is how we live each day,” said meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “It’s how we relate to our children, how we relate to our parents, how we earn a living, how we speak to one another, how truthful we are.”
One way to find out how we're doing is to go home, or any place that's a cauldron of conflict, crisis and controversy, where debate is a full-contact sport.
When we go home, no matter how old we are, we often fall into the role we played as a child, like an actor returning to a series after being written out. If we're conscious and mindful, we turn down the traditional role; we always have the choice to be an actor rather than a re-actor.
Einstein said the theory decides what we believe. No matter what we believe, we look for evidence to support it, and usually ignore or attempt to explain away what doesn't. When we can accept contrary evidence and toss the theory, we're open to change.
Salzberg tells a story about her teacher, Trunga Rinpoche, which supports that point. The Tibetan Buddhism master took a white sheet of paper and drew a floppy, V-shaped object. He asked his students what it was.
“It's a bird,” he was told.
“No, it's not,” he said. “It's a picture of the sky with a bird flying through it.”
Old thinking patterns can be as hard to kill as a great white. If old reactions erupt like sharks out of the deep, we have the opportunity to observe and choose whether we will be the actor or re-actor.
“Everything has a pattern, and that pattern is the key to creating a specific event,” Robert J. Gilbert wrote in Shift magazine. “All human beings go through stages of increasing self-awareness of their psychological and emotional patterns.
“In many cases, we are victims of these patterns until we recognize them and act to change them.”
We recognize them by being constantly mindful of what we think and do. A study, using an MRI to scan the brain, proves we can even defuse old reactive patterns by naming them instead of reacting to it.
When we feel threatened, the amygdala, which plays a primary function in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events, kicks into high gear. If we label the emotion, it doesn't.
“One way to practise mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I'm feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said research scientist David Creswell, lead author of the study.
If we are true to our beliefs we accept people, even family, for who they are and look at ourselves to see if we are responding and behaving according to our beliefs, or if we revert when our patterns are pushed.
If we do, it's a great opportunity to observe ourselves, to be aware of those old patterns of thought dictating how we behave in the present.
“It can be very difficult to shift a firmly entrenched model of reality. We can get pretty attached to what we think is true, important and real — even when presented with evidence to the contrary,” it says in Living Deeply, the result of a 10-year study on transformation.
“To a great extent, our world view determines what we’re capable of seeing, and therefore determines our perception of reality. What our worldview doesn’t expand to contain quite literally escapes our perception. We just don’t see it. This perception of reality colours our perceptions and actions every moment of every day.”
We don't, of course, just simply switch our worldview, although that happens. What's more important is the shift to how we see ourselves, which usually means we see the world differently.
If we're walking down the street at night and see four large men walking toward us and we think the world is an unsafe place, we're likely to run or cross the street as we press 911 on our cell. But if we believe it's a friendly universe, we'll walk on and say hello as we pass.
It has been said many times that when we change how we see the world, the world we see changes. That doesn't mean we go out of our way to say hello to hooded men on dark streets. Spirituality does not negate common sense.
The world responds to us at the level of our belief; it is done unto us as we believe. And change involves the present. When we look in our rear-view mirror, we see our past receding, but if we keep our eyes front, we can see where we're going. Just as our past dictates our present, our present determines our future.
If we're not paying attention now, we shouldn't be surprised where we end up and who we become.
We summons our experiences with our repetitive thoughts. If we can see the divine in others, especially our parents and siblings, it becomes easier to feel the divine in ourselves, creating an endless feedback loop that transforms us and our world. We become the change we seek.
That might take practice and persistence, but we do have a lifetime, and really, nothing better to do.
In moments when we're tempted to be the re-actor, there’s an old saying that's easy to remember and can prevent so much grief:
“Lord, make my words as sweet as honey, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.