Over and Over Again

“And what will be the focus on your prolonged retreat?” I asked. His response: “I want to allow this truth to deepen within me: I am profoundly loved, delighted in, graced unconditionally. I have believed it on occasion, but mostly end up judging myself unmercifully.”

“How simple,” I thought. “How profound. Yet, how difficult to believe, really believe.”

I asked: “How will you practice internalizing this truth?

For most of my life I have sought personal change through insight. If I could “see” it, I would change, so I believed. How often, with great anticipation and excitement, I turned to books, articles, lectures and conversation in search of awareness. I loved, perhaps to the point of addiction, the excitement of a breakthrough, that eureka moment when the “lights come on.”

Yes, insightful awareness is the first step. It opens up options. But for the longest time I assumed that insight, by itself, was transformative. I thought that awareness produces behavioral change. It doesn’t.

When it comes to learning a language or a musical instrument, we don’t make this mistake. It’s understood that progress requires about 20% understanding and 80% practicing. Only on-going practicing and more practicing, preferably with others, can deepen habits of speaking or reading or playing an instrument.

The recent research of neuroscientists helps me understand the power of practicing “over and over.” In their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwatz address how behavioral change happens.

Let’s imagine this example. Our pre-frontal cortex (the hard working part of the brain, the insight part) decides to make a significant change in behavior, such as, learn to drive a car or change one’s diet or master a new song on the piano or, in my friend’s case, treat oneself mercifully, not judgmentally. However, another part of the brain, basil ganglia, is hardwired for routine, set habits and familiar activity. So when the pre-frontal cortex begins to focus on the desired change, the basil ganglia rises up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Come back to what is familiar!” Usually, as with New Years resolutions, the effort to change a particular behavior is too uncomfortable to sustain. More often than not, the sabotaging pull from the habitual part of the brain will prevail.

Initially, it seems, a particular practice is the work of the pre-frontal cortex. It requires a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes—until new patterns and connections of the brain are formed. Eventually, with “over and over again” practicing, the new pattern becomes familiar and routine. Then basil ganglia takes over as primary motivator. The new behavior in time—it may take a long time—becomes an old habit.

My friend hopes to move the insight of being Loved, abiding in Love, and conduit of Love from his pre-frontal cortex to his basil ganglia where loving and being loved in more habit than idea.

I wonder what practices he is calling on. That’s my first question upon his return.

2 Responses to Over and Over Again

  1. As a musician I can attest to the differences in how humans learn factual knowledge and how it differs from acquiring the ability to “learn” a skill such as training in voice pedagogy. While spending years of study taking voice (singing) training I would be unable just by thought sing a higher pitch needed to perform a desired composition. After working several months in times spent in practice to extended my voice range I would not find success; then with no more “factual” understanding, I suddenly could reach the higher pitch and be able to extend my repertoire.

    The renowned vocal pedagogue Dr. Ralph Appleman of Indiana University explained skills are developed in series of steps or “skill plateaus” acquired through practice. He explains “plateau or skill learning” is best acquired through rather short, but frequent times spent in practices rather than through long and less frequent sessions of pracjtice. Whereas, acquiring intellectual facts such as in learning mathematical computations of facts are learned differently through a more continuum incline of knowledge advancement. In the process of factual learning longer periods of instruction and study may enhance the process of learning facts, but are learned differently than how skills are learned.

    I am not sure how these concepts can be applied to your topic Mahan, but perhaps it can help someone a bit. Again, I find it difficult to prioritize the needed time to focus on what I need to learn and practice at this point in my life as I become older. First, I must reach inward into my “spiritual center” for direction in my continued journey into retirement and then practice to become whatever comes from its source. Thanks, Mahan


  2. Jim Strickland says:

    Your words fit perfectly with comments I heard from David Daniel, Enneagram teacher and psychiatrist, at a conference recently. He
    said, “the brain is a pattern machine.”
    Jim Strickland


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