Can You Change?

If we hear a saying enough – especially at an impressionable time and/or spoken by someone we respect – we may accept it without applying critical thinking to determine if it’s actually true. For me, one such saying was, “People don’t change.”

As a young adult I heard it said by a guy I looked up to, and I remember thinking he must be wise. He stated it with triumph and bitterness – as a keen insight that would allow him to never be hurt again.

In writing this article, I googled “people don’t change” and “people can’t change” and got about 4 million hits for each phrase. Clearly this is a prevalent idea. But is it true?

When psychologists Dan Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, and Timothy Wilson set out to investigate perceptions of personal change, they discovered something surprising: most people believe that they have gotten all of their changing over with. Interviews with 19,000 participants revealed that young people, middle aged people, and old people all saw themselves as having changed a lot in the past, but believed they had more or less “arrived” at who they would be from now on. The scientists called this the “end of history illusion.” They used the word “illusion” because . . . we’re almost always wrong.

Perhaps this widespread view of ourselves as unlikely to change spills over onto what we expect of others – i.e., that they won’t change either. But we might ask, when someone believes that people don’t change, did it originate as a rational assessment of the likelihood of change? Or did it begin as a way of saving face, as in, “It may look like I got blindsided, but I actually saw this coming – because people don’t change.” Or as ammo for self-punishment, as in, “I’m a fool. I should have seen this coming – because people don’t change.” Or as the basis for blaming others for our pain, as in, “I was relying on you to become different so that I could be happy, but I’m not happy – because people don’t change.”

I happen to be in the business of tracking change. A few folks come to me for health maintenance, but I like to empower people to do most of their maintenance themselves, so the majority of my patient visits are from humans wanting the same thing: change. They want their body to change or their mind to change or their life circumstances to change. Because my task is to help facilitate this change, a significant part of my job is to be a change tracker. As a change tracker, I can assure you, people change all the time, often dramatically. If they didn’t, I’d feel like a charlatan.

But of course, we all have recurring patterns. In Vedic philosophy, these are considered to be expressions of our samskaras – the imprints of past experiences. Samskara literally means “impression” – like a footprint in the sand or a groove cut in the earth – and we tend to fall into them over and over, just as water naturally follows ruts in the land. Likewise, as experiences “flow” through our consciousness, they are manipulated by these contours of our psyche. Our capacity for discernment, called the buddhi, is said to be impaired by the presence of samskaras because they cause us to see things differently than they really are.

Scientists in the field of psychoneuroimmunology discovered that there’s a biological basis for this behavior. The repetition of the same thoughts, feelings, or behaviors strengthens a particular neurological pathway. These neurons “wire together” making a more efficient channel for nerve impulses to flow through, much like a groove in the sand. This increases the likelihood of our continuing to repeat the thought / feeling / behavior and thus to further strengthen the pathway and increase the potential to revisit it.

What can we do about this? There are many useful strategies, most of which amount to the cultivation of clear vision and perspective. Traditionally, this is one of the central purposes of yoga – meditation, specifically – which is said to be like polishing the dirty mirror of the buddhi so that it provides accurate reflections.

Meditation is like walking to the top of a mountain, where we can see the big picture (something impossible to do when we’re stuck in a rut in the ground). Here we can determine our most efficient course of action. Here we see the grooves of samskaras and “fill them in” through forgiveness, love, and acceptance. Here we can see the ways we have changed, and, indeed, see that big change is inevitable for ourselves and everyone else.

Take a few minutes today for a mental fast. Close your eyes and allow yourself to rise above the chattering and judgements, the push and pull of emotions, and perceive what kind of change would bring you into closer alignment with your inner being. Then set an intention to allow this change to happen. Perhaps even ask your highest self to reconfigure you to experience peace more readily. A change is gonna come.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

24 thoughts on “Can You Change?

  1. I’ve never used meditation to activate “change” though I meditate daily…have for decades! I welcome the new light provided here.

  2. And Ayuervedia and the term sanskara is not new to me. Was I just not able to really hear (have motivation to act) until you last two books?

  3. Where do you access such beautiful photo’s? (Love everything about this woman on the bridge. In particular seeing one person clearly…the one in the now, not ahead or behind but in the moment.) I enjoy the haptic and appearance of the Rituals For Life cover. The mountains appear to be similar to a painting I’ve viewed from a FB friend of Briana’s…no?

    1. Hi Susan. I’m glad you liked the article and presentation. I am not sure where that photo came from, but guessing that one of our designers found it on a stock photo site like shutterstock or istockphoto or getty. And the blue watercolor for Rituals for Transformation was done by our employees Erica Nelson and Brian Kubat, who manage our design work and much, much more.
      be well,
      Peter

  4. Exactly what I needed today.

    1. Glad to hear it!

  5. A lot to think about

  6. Utterly beautiful and divinely timed. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Robin!

  7. Amazing introspect! This is exactly what I’m looking for, to expound on, and include in my life’s journey!

    1. Thanks, Michelle. I’m glad it was helpful.

  8. Bless you for this. Perfect timing as s reminder that change is the only constant and I am constantly changing! Love it!

    1. Thank you, Sharon. I will take all the blessings I can get. 😉

  9. Thanks for this great artical and reminder how important meditation is in life!!

    1. You’re welcome, Charn.

  10. I used to be more optimistic about people’s ability to change if they truly we’re open to the idea and could see the rewards but as I have reached the near end of my life, I seem to have lost that optimism. I don’t want to be cynical but my life experiences have pushed me in that direction. Pam M

    1. Hi Pam,
      I’m sorry you’ve lost your optimism. Maybe cut down on consumption of news. There are lots of great sources of positive news out there, stories of people being amazing, and books about triumph. Your choice of what you expose yourself to can make a huge difference in your outlook. Meanwhile, in your day to day interactions, if you consciously offer your gifts and strive for connection and service, I believe you will see something in more people that may change your mind.

  11. Needed this in the best way!

    1. Happy to provide.

  12. Beautifully written with hope of change in people…if they choose to.

    1. Thank you, Kim.

  13. I feel I’ve been working for some changes and keep falling back into old patterns. Your comments have helped me forgive myself for not “getting there” and understand why it seems to hard to get out of those “ruts.” Your observations re-inspire me to continue to work toward those changes I seek in my life. Namaste

    1. I’m glad to hear this article helped illuminate these mechanisms for you, Michele. Yes, you’re not destined to live forever in those ruts. But REMEMBER this, as often as possible.

  14. I’m struggling to emerge from a lifelong recurrent samskaras ( now I understand what it is). Step 1 – I’m aware of it. Step 2 – I now accept what it is. Today begins my conscious work to let it go. It does not enhance my life. Thank you for this insight.

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