ON CHANGE: And What It Takes To Make It Happen.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on January 1, 2013

It is the end of another year, and the beginning of a new one. After the holidays and celebrations, this is a time when many consider what the past has been about and the possibilities that the future might hold. It is a time when people make resolutions to do something or change something in their lives. The ‘new’ year harbors the potential for  change, the possibility for a new beginning, a promise of hope, of renewal, of reparation and/or  transformation. So this post is about change, what it might mean and how it might happen. Not in the “ten easy steps to…” or “how to…” kind of change, but in the why change is hard kind of way.

Let me start with a tentative definition. Change is a rather difficult word to define. What does it mean exactly? To change, to shift. It implies movement. Does it require a motive? An intention? It certainly requires a conclusion, a particular end. So perhaps change is about the ending of what is. The ending not the movement of what is to what could be. For the philosopher Krishnamuti, only if the ending has a motive, a purpose, if it involves making a decision, does it constitutes a change from this to that. Notice that what moves change from being the ending of what is to something else is the act of deciding, which is an act of will, which is a representation of desire.

Aha. Desire. Yes the movement of change is in desire. As in: I will do this, I won’t do that. When desire is involved in ending something it becomes the cause of its end. Where there is a cause there is a motive and so there is no ending at all. There is movement to something. There is change.

Change. Perhaps it is difficult to achieve because it necessarily involves desire. One of my favorite Buddhist stories about desire comes from Mark Epstein’s retelling of it in his book “Open to Desire”, it goes something like this:

A man sits in the center of a marketplace, crying his eyes out surrounded by a platter of peppers he has been biting into. One after another he tastes them, crying uncontrollably.

Concerned, his friends ask him “What is the matter?” “What are you doing?”

“I am looking for the sweet one” he answers.

Ah, desire. It keeps us doing some very strange things, often eliciting suffering yet persevering in its search for…the sweet one. Epstein sees this as the basic message of both psychoanalysis and Buddhism- the unbridgeable gap between desire and satisfaction and what happens in between. Indeed such a gap houses much of human suffering and struggle, and when it comes to change -the ending of something due to the desire for something else-  suffering is always involved in some way. Change involves an end, a renunciation, a giving up of, as well as an acknowledgement of desire (I want this not that) before something else can take its place, and so it inevitably involves suffering in the process. Many of my clinical hours are spent with people who want to change something in their lives yet remain stuck in the very situations they want to change, often repeating a pattern of suffering that seems to have no end. So change requires not only an act of will, an intention, a decision, a coming to terms with our desire, it involves much more…

Some time ago I wrote a post about the repetition compulsion (to view click here:  http://drceccoli.com/2012/03/play-it-again-sam-on-the-compulsion-to-repeat/) in which I addressed some of the ‘more‘ that is required for change to happen. It was a piece about the fact that early relational experiences are hard wired in our brains and actually lay down neuronal pathways that are  based on those interactions.  For example, when someone has suffered early trauma, (either through parental impingement or abandonment) it sets up a yearning for a type of relationship that can never satisfy and continues to reproduce itself in all relationships of import. Even for those who grew up in an environment in which it was possible to negotiate disappointment without losing a connection to the other, the neurobiological equation still holds true: early experiences are embedded in the brain’s physical substrate and influence subsequent emotions, perceptions, behaviors, relationships and experiences. These are reinforced over our lifetime, and when they are triggered by events in the present they color and influence what we feel and do. So change requires not only an act of will, a conscious decision. And a coming to terms with our desire. It also requires the development of new skills, new behaviors and a new language (with which to re-label experience) in order to re-wire brain patterns. Additionally, it requires new relational experience(s) in order to grow and stimulate new brain wiring.

The decision to change something activates many of our past experiences and their concomitant emotions. It activates early desires and disappointments and their relational contexts. So even though the change may be welcomed, it may still elicit fear of the new and unknown, the pain associated with loss and with giving something (known) up, along with specific behaviors and feelings associated to what change might mean to each of us. Take  a deceivingly simple example like food and dieting. Many people begin the new year with the intention of eating better and perhaps losing some weight. Behaviorally this entails making a decision, choosing a diet, making time to exercise and sticking to it. And it is in the sticking to it that many people falter. Why? Because it is sticky territory. It is where we shift from individual behavior to relational configurations of emotion and interpersonal meaning that affect that behavior. For one thing, food has multiple and varied meanings for people (established early on). It potentially  fills that gap between desire and satisfaction (the one we are constantly negotiating). For another, our relationship to how we care for ourselves is an internalized version of how we were cared for. Not as simple as ten easy steps to a thinner and better you. Behavioral solutions are helpful but they do not address the entire story. They do not address how one might go about approaching change and negotiating disappointment.

Yes, this type of change requires time, practice and relationship. Time to reconsider the old within the possibilities of the new. The practice of new skills and behaviors that support the change in question and begin to substantiate its results experientially, so that it is felt from the inside and incorporated into one’s life. And it requires relationships. Since behavior, perception and emotional interaction is all established within early relationships that then shape the very structure of our brain and nervous system, it turns out that relationships are a necessary element to meaningful and lasting change, and this includes our relationship to ourselves as well as to others.

So here is to the process of change. To endings and beginnings and to the space in between, to the gap between desire and satisfaction and to those relationships that help us navigate it successfully and meaningfully.

Cheers.

 

* Watercolor by Roderick Maciver at  Heron Dance Art Studios.

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