I write this on New Year’s Day, a traditional time when people around the world make resolutions to be more responsible, love each other more deeply, and finally do something about the dreams they’ve been procrastinating on. In 30-days time, which is about how long it takes for real change to get established or abandoned, we’ll check in again.
It doesn’t always or even typically go the way we had hoped it would.
In a post titled Life Without Hope I defended the importance of hope against a trend in popular psychology which regards it essentially as yet another way human beings divert attention away from the present moment into things that aren’t real. As the expectancy of something to come, hope pulls us out of the here-and-now and thereby undermines our one genuine touchpoint in reality.
Of course, the hopeful person is still very much in the present moment, for there is nowhere else one can be, but the investment of awareness is being channeled away from what is to a future prospect of only what might be.
What this argument fails to take into consideration is the fact that our brains, particularly the most recent and uniquely human part called the prefrontal cortex, have evolved (quite literally) with the future in mind. Generally speaking, animals with more evolved brains and nervous systems are able to anticipate, predict, and plan their actions in view of future (i.e., hoped for) outcomes. Not only does this give them an advantage over animals lacking the talent, but such a future orientation allows for creative options denied to lesser brains.
Naturally the challenge is to live in touch with the present as we plan for the future. Each of us is familiar with the way that obsessing over tomorrow can cause us to overlook the priceless gift (present) of today.
As I see it, hope is one of those undeniable forces that shape human progress. As we prepare ourselves for another year, our anticipation of what it might bring and our plans for what we hope to accomplish exercise a powerful influence on what actually comes about.
But another force works in opposition to hope. I’m referring to the deep grooves of habit that hold us in well-established patterns of behavior and belief. Just like hope, habit is sometimes denigrated as a negative influence that prevents us from fully engaging in present experience. We do something long enough, or it was set in place early enough, that now we don’t even have to give it a second thought. Whether we learned it through repeated practice and discipline like a skill, or picked it up more or less spontaneously in reaction to trauma or chronic stress, habituated behavior and its associated beliefs constitute a good deal of what is meant by character.
Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” He was referring not to some magical power in belief itself, but to the power of habit in shaping our judgments regarding our own creative authority. If we routinely (i.e., habitually) dismiss or deny our capacity to change current reality and bring about something new, that deep and familiar groove will eventually deliver us to our grave.
The real danger in habit has to do with the way it locks us inside behavioral patterns and mental boxes that stifle our creativity. We become hostages of our own convictions, spellbound by the mystique of certainty, and dead to the creative intelligence that got us thinking in the first place.
Each of us has an ego, a separate center of personal identity that strives both to fit in and stand out at the same time. From birth our tribe began prodding and luring our behavior in the direction of communal aims, all the while giving support to the emergence of personal ambitions regarding our future goals. Some of those goals never crystallized out of the fantasy state, where they functioned more as a therapy of mental escape from the fixed conditions of everyday life than as motivators of actual progress. As we know, a habit of insecurity, entitlement, self-doubt, and procrastination can keep us perpetually stuck in the daydream of what we wish our lives could be.
In that daydream we tend to live out of touch with our body (since it is where our trauma and shame are stored) and equally alienated from our soul (which is where intuition and unity-awareness are found). If we could only pay attention, symptomatic messages in the body would reveal where our creative energy and higher human progress is currently blocked – in hang-ups around security and power (gut), attachment and love (heart), or meaning and truth (head).
The body itself is informed by a deep instinctual intelligence with roots reaching back into our evolutionary prehistory. Those urges, drives, and reflexes were formed over millenniums of symbiotic adaptation to the limits and opportunities of the environment. Even though the innovations of culture have liberated us somewhat from the force of instinct, we are foolish not to include our animal nature and its visceral intelligence in our New Year’s resolutions. No diet, whether endorsed by medical doctors or Hollywood movie stars, will produce a healthy body if we have lost attunement with the body’s own primal knowing of what is truly wholesome and beneficial to health.
Opposite the dark urgencies of instinct are the bright revelations of wisdom, guarded (or ignored) under the stewardship of our diverse cultures. The soul’s insight into the truth of things is like a transcendent light shining through the stained glass icons of meaning that our cultures honor and protect. Oftentimes this light illumines the genuine beauty and grace of those icons. But sometimes, particularly when they have become dogmatic, inflexible, and absolute in their claims on truth, it may inspire the birth of new images and metaphors in pursuit of a higher meaning.
Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge or “being smart.” Throughout its history, the evolving stream of human wisdom has been contemplated as carrying the ethical insights and mystical realizations that can help us live more authentically, more compassionately, and more peacefully together in community. Wisdom will always challenge us to sink deeper and open wider to the present mystery of reality, always beyond the moral judgments and doctrinal orthodoxies that currently divide us.
Our progress, both individually and collectively, will be short-lived so long as we continue to believe and behave as if we’re separate from (and superior to) the rest. Wellbeing – truly being well (a cognate of the term ‘whole’) – is about living with the Big Picture in mind and promoting wholeness in all we do.
In my diagram the double arrow between instinct and wisdom is bigger yet less distinct than the single-direction arrows from habit to hope, while the latter are more pronounced. This is to make the point that as long as we stay in the grooves defining who we are and what’s in it for me, access to the deeper force of instinct and the higher force of wisdom will be largely unavailable to us. And as long as that’s the case, our human progress, both in this coming year and in the decades still to come, will be questionable indeed.