Running In Place, Going Nowhere

Why does it seem so hard to change, even though we want it so much?

One of the reasons is that I hear a voice that says, “Play it safe.”

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be safe. There’s a part of me that’s always focused on keeping me safe.  That’s its job.  We all have this inner drive, and we share it with other living things.

We want to stay clear of danger, and enjoy life.

Every creature senses its surroundings.  It compares its current experience to its past experience to identify desirable, irrelevant, or dangerous situations.

An animal’s sense of danger is focused first of all on its own physical safety.  An animal’s sense of self, and sense of danger often goes beyond personal physical safety. Many animals are also tuned into danger that affects their mates, children, herd, food, or territory.

Your sense of life, and your sense of danger go far beyond physical threats to you, and to people and things that are part of your life.  Your life has physical, emotional, and mental components. And your sense of danger includes threats to your feelings and thoughts, as much, and sometimes more, than physical threats.

How can your feelings and thoughts be threatened?
They can’t be threatened unless those feelings and thoughts are partly based on lies.

What kind of lies?

Lies that we should never have to tell ourselves.
Like, “I’m perfect. I don’t make mistakes. I’m doing the best I can.”

Our culture is obsessed with mistakes. We’re so afraid to admit that we’ve made mistakes, and that we’ll make mistakes again.
Why are we trying to pretend to be so perfect?
I think that we all want to be special. We all sense that somewhere inside us there must be something unique and great that’s waiting for us.

But in the absence of pursuing it, revealing it, nurturing the greatness that’s already there, we settle for a pretend greatness that we make by building exaggerated stories around our lives.

When a person or idea comes along, and threatens to wake us up to the truth, and damage our stories, our lies that substitute for a true sense of self, there is no greater danger.

Maybe I tell myself that I’m a person of action.  The problem is that I have some areas of my life where I’m scared to take the needed action.  Sometimes I avoid real action by choosing easier, more pleasant actions than the actions that are truly urgent and important. 

If I’ve built a pretend self who is a “man of action”, then it’s important to me to pretend to be a person of action, and  I  find ways to ignore, erase, or bury my moments of  inaction.  

Maybe it’s “his fault” or “her fault”. 
Maybe I find ways to pretend that what I choose to do is more important than what truly needs to be done.

We’ve built up ways of avoiding certain truths, and sidestepping the action that’s needed in our lives. 

Our tricks work to a certain extent, within the usual circumstances that we face in our familiar life.

The Threat of Change
Then change comes along and threatens the stories we tell ourselves. 

What if our everyday predictable routines changed? What if we couldn’t largely predict the situations that we’d face, with our tested routines for stretching and hiding from the truth?

What if we faced unpredictable challenges that revealed our lies?  Our manufactured self would be revealed to be a puppet, a toy, a fake.

Little wonder that we want life to be predictable, and unchanging, so we can safely tell our stories.

Still, despite our best efforts, some unpredictable challenges and changes come and awaken us a little to our emptiness.   We feel that something’s missing and we move toward it.

Then what happens?
As we get farther away from our comfort zone, our resistance and discomfort get stronger and stronger, and we snap back like a rubber band.  We look to return to a place of equilibrium, a place of predictability where the unfamiliar resistance and discomfort are greatly reduced or eliminated.

And once we re-enter the familiar, relatively comfortable spot, the place of least resistance, then our restlessness returns and we start reaching out again for what’s missing.

Have you ever seen a swinging pendulum?
It swings far to the right away from its center. It seems to be getting somewhere.
Then forces pull it to the left, and it seems to be moving backward. Eventually this reverses, and it moves to the right and seems to be making progress again.

Too often we live like this, thinking that we’re making progress when we’re really just going back and forth.  Robert Fritz writes extensively about this concept of movement that goes nowhere, which he calls oscillation. 

He distinguishes this from movement that actually goes somewhere and involves real change and growth. 

Fritz writes about the creative process that has gone beyond oscillation.

Creating for him can be reduced to a few key fundamentals:

  • Forming a goal that matters to us, and seeing clearly where we want to go, in a time frame that is near enough to be real to us (medium-term)
  • Seeing clearly what our current reality is.  This isn’t a judgmental, beat myself up kind of activity.  Without judging myself for it, I have to see clearly where I am
  • Holding both those images in mind together.  The real desire to create something that isn’t here now, together with the clear perception of where I am creates a force, a “structural tension” that moves us toward the goal.

The heartfelt goals that will drive us to create are not about getting away from where I am. These goals are not primarily focused on how bad the current situation is.
Rather they are focused towards what I want to create.

But let’s get something straight. Even when we get on the road to greatness, and we’re accomplishing and creating great things, we’ll still be imperfect, and we’ll still make mistakes.

Our goals are about great achievements, but not about absolute perfection. We’re not going to tell that story ever again.

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