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.
Dr. Peter Borten