MEDITATION AND A GREAT PARADOX
In my consultation room where I conduct my clinical practice, there is hardly a day goes by that I do not come up against a great paradox. It is this: The more we change, the more we remain the same. I am borrowing here from a French proverb stated first by the novelist Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), but adapting it for use in a very personal and clinical way.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean. A well-educated and professional woman, in her 50's, fears the rapidly changing business environment of her profession in which she has been very successful. She tells me she feels she "does not belong" either in her professional group or her greater community. It is a thought she has been aware of since early childhood when her parents moved up their professional ladder rapidly, which meant she was always "the new kid" in the schools and communities where her family would move. The more she changed, growing older, moving around, the more she remained the same.
Then there is the executive in his 40's who is very bright but fears each day of his work life, particularly following promotions to new levels of his work, that he will be found out and exposed for who he really is. When I ask him what that is, he tells me that he is "stupid." The more he is promoted the more "stupid" he feels because his duties are more complex, and he thinks he should understand everything about them because everyone else does and the reason he does not is because he's "stupid." "And when did you conclude you are stupid?" I asked. Of course, his answer would not surprise any adult who has suffered through the trauma of those early classes in math, reading, science, etc., especially given the merciless pressure of our peer groups and the cruel inadequacy of some teachers. The executive with whom I was working also struggled with a particular learning disorder that made math especially hard for him, and in those classes he concluded that he is stupid. He said the other kids in his class would quickly grasp the concepts in math, and his classmates would laugh at him when he was asked to work a problem on the chalkboard.
One more example. This is a lady in her 50's who tells me she has been married three times and is considering leaving her present husband. The reason, she goes on to tell me, is because he withdraws from her to the point where they have no intimacy. When I inquire more deeply, I find out that something like this also happens with her friends. She has no close friends; they either leave or let me down, she says. Then she becomes angry with them and eventually goes on to find a new friend whom she idealizes until that one also lets her down and she becomes angry again. In this way, she cycles through her husbands and friends. The more she tries, she says, the more she is betrayed, just like she was hurt by her mother and father who could never be counted on to "be there" for her consistently when she wanted to be held and loved as a child.
In her ever-chaning world, this lady remains more and more the same: hurt, "betrayed" (in her mind), abandoned and abandoning, hopeful and then disillusioned. As in the first example, the more the woman's professional world changed, the more she felt she did not belong. And with the male executive, the more he was promoted, the more stupid he thought himself to be.
This is a great paradox, as I am describing it. It is the phenomenon that the more we change, the more we remain the same.
But notice with me what is actually going on here. Yes, the world is changing; yes, each of us is aging and thus experiencing all those changes that occur in our bodies as the years go by. And, yes, the Buddhists approach this reality of fundamental change in their doctrine of impermanence (anicca), that is summarized poetically in George Harrison's song, "All Things Must Pass, All Things Must Pass Away."
However, that is not quite true when it comes to our inner life, is it? As my wife reminds her young cello students, "practice does not necessarily make perfect; practice makes permanent." In other words, while change takes place all around us and within us, the psychological truth is that the mind carries within itself some very basic core beliefs that may be permanent for our lifetime. These are the thoughts such as those I described in the three examples above. These thoughts -- "I do not belong," "I am stupid," "Everyone I try to get close to disappoints me" -- these thoughts are "practiced" several times a day. Within the old neural pathways of our brain, they have become permanent. We created them in our earliest thoughts, and now they form the psychological reality within which we live.