Turning things around

“When any of the three poisons [greed, aggression, delusion] happen in your life, don’t see them as a problem or as a promise. Instead, say, “May this aggression [greed, delusion] be a working base for me. May I hold it to myself and may all beings thereby attain freedom from aggression.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I recently worked for someone who, to my eyes, had very poor boundaries. He seemed to be constantly questioning me and suspiciously commenting on my behavior in a completely unreasonable way. Our styles and cultural backgrounds are very different, contributing to the confusion. I’ve always been very lucky with bosses and co-workers, so this took me aback. Internally I reacted defensively, while outwardly trying to be reasonable and understand what he really needed from me. At a deeper, more unconscious level, I was weighing my own safety in the situation, urgently debating fight, flee or freeze, while trying to figure out how to get things to go differently.

Suddenly I remembered Trungpa Rinpoche’ s teaching, and I just stopped and thought, “May this dilemma provide a working basis for me and all beings to wake up.” Immediately I relaxed inside. It no longer seemed dangerous. I didn’t have to solve it or resolve it, get out of it, stay in it, or make it change; I just had to remember my basic intention – my “prime directive” – to wake up. When I vow or pray that this situation provide a basis for waking up, I open to a wider world that goes beyond success, failure, blame and praise, and encompasses both inside and outside, the possibilities and the mysteries of change.

Neuroscientists have coined a term: neuroplasticity. The brain is incredibly malleable and is always changing. Everything that we do and everything that happens changes our minds, moment by moment. This can mean digging even deeper the ruts of unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, or it can mean changing and growing towards healthier ways through insight and training.

We tend to do the same things over and over, feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, not because we are weak or bad or shameful, but just because that’s how the brain works. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Neuron firing sets up chain reactions in the brain, and neurotransmitters (like dopamine and seratonin) add emotional rewards for repeat performances.

How can we use our neuroplasticity instead of being used by it, to paraphrase a Zen slogan? How can we learn to work with the flux that the mind and brain actually are?

One of the key ways we can influence our brain is by learning to set intentions effectively. There are things that we want to change. But we may be trying to change ourselves or the situation before we’ve taken the time to understand and appreciate, and this gives rise to an internal (or external) power struggle. We need to find words, phrases, intentions and vows that we connect to, that don’t lead to beating ourselves up when we can’t make it happen.

To set an effective intention is to introduce a new train of thought that is reality-based and more in accord with our deepest values, and then to keep bringing it up as often as possible, memorizing phrases and slogans, talking about them, firing new neuron chains, and creating associations to happiness and to other positive feelings. Not in an attempt to gain any control over our brains or over the situation, but rather to create a parallel track and encourage the conditions that would allow our brains to “jump the track” to a new way of thinking.

Actually, this happens to us all the time, as individuals and as groups. Frances Moore Lappe (World Hunger: Twelve Myths) points out how people used to believe in the divine right of kings. Then we stopped, and it’s doubtful we would ever go back. There were things we believed in our teens (invincibility?) our twenties, our thirties (depending on how old we are!). Our attitudes and beliefs change quite naturally as new information enters our brain. That is, unless we get stuck in an old pattern that causes us to ignore new information.

For the new understanding to take hold it has to be more true than our former view, like seeing through the divine right of kings or the emperor’s new clothes. “I’m a failure” can give way to “I’ve learned how to do a number of things and there are other things I would like to learn.” “I can’t” can give way to, “I’m scared but with enough help and support I would give it a try.” “This situation is hopeless” can give way to, “May this very situation be a working base for me, and may this effort bring benefit.”

Trungpa’s slogan is an effective intention par excellence. It gets completely away from trying to change something in ourselves or in the outside world that may or may not be ready to change. Just, “May this difficulty provide some basis for benefit, I don’t know how, but may I find a way.”