By Fiona Robertson
We’ve all done it. We behave in a way that feels painful, or is destructive, or that we think we shouldn’t, and we resolve to behave differently in the future. We believe that the way to change behaviour A is to take up behaviour B. And what we discover is that, however fervently we wish to change our behaviour, it’s usually not that easy. We can’t just drop behaviour A just because we’ve decided to for whatever reason.
Whatever behaviour A is – smoking, drinking alcohol, getting angry, eating too much, not eating enough, spending too much, criticising others – and whatever behaviour B is (usually the opposite to behaviour B) – we’re convinced that our repeated failure to move from one to the other is evidence of our weakness, dysfunction, or incapacity. As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This time, we tell ourselves, it will be different. Occasionally, it is. Most often, it isn’t, and we find ourselves back on the same old treadmill yet again.
Convinced that the only way to change our behaviour is to behave differently, we miss the fact that how we behave is not really the issue. This is not to suggest in any way that our behaviour doesn’t have consequences. Of course it does, both for ourselves and for others. But the real issue is what drives our behaviour. What comes prior to the cigarette, or the evening spent sitting on the sofa stuffing our faces with food and television?
Before I met Scott, I had developed some basic understanding (like many of us have) that looking more deeply at our unresolved issues is the key to changing our behaviour. Some old patterns had shifted, and I no longer smoked or criticised myself quite so harshly. However, I’d never learnt how to look so deeply and specifically as we do in the Living Inquiries. And it turned out that the devil really is in the detail.
Let’s take a personal example. In my late teens and early twenties, I developed moderate bulimia. I say moderate because I didn’t induce vomiting or take laxatives, and my binges were more restrained than some. I was, however, obsessed with my food intake and body image. Staggering as it seems now in the internet age, I had no idea that what I was experiencing had a name. It wasn’t until I was twenty-two, and through the worst of it, that I read about bulimia in Cosmopolitan magazine. It was a revelation to discover that other women had this too. I’d never discussed it with another soul, and it was some time before I did so.
Whilst the outward behaviour – the bingeing and starving – fell away after a few years, the inner patterns remained. And I believed for a long time that my only recourse was to be resolute, to use my willpower to control and manage the inner urges. On one level, I was successful. I never did go back to the worst excesses of the binge and starve cycle. But as anyone who has controlled an addiction or compulsion through sheer effort or force of will knows, it takes a huge effort to do so. And the basic pattern – the obsession itself – remains more or less intact.
My attention returned to looking at my food and body image issues a few months ago. Now in my mid-fifties and with a changing body, it’s been challenging to find myself putting on a few extra pounds in the last few months. My first response was to – you’ve guessed it – change my behaviour. I thought it all through: I’d eat less, exercise more, and set myself targets. We can get so wrapped up in all that activity that we lose sight of the fact that we’ll simply be doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome – yet more insanity. I resolved to stop eating sugar for a while, and did so. I spent a few weeks feeling the glow of the righteous – until I stepped on the scales and discovered that I’d actually put on more weight. Shocked, I dropped the idea of doing anything else and started to really look deeply.
That same day, I lay on the sofa and began to feel the sensations and feelings that had arisen as I’d seen the figure on the scales. Staying with them for a while, a memory emerged from my first year at senior school: I was in the staff section of the school dining room, having volunteered to clear up after the teachers had finished their lunch. One of the perks of volunteering was eating their leftovers. As I looked at the memory, emotion welled and I went with it. Then words came; I’m still that girl. More emotion followed, and the looking continued.
We often find that a relatively small number of images, words, and feelings hold a whole pattern of behaviour in place. In my case, looking at the memory of the school dining room gave me access, as it were, to long-suppressed feelings from that time in my life. It became clear just how the cycle had begun in the first place. I spent time with that twelve year old girl, utterly bewildered by events happening around her over which she had no control.
Since then, I’ve kept inquiring into these and related issues by myself and with other facilitators. As I’ve looked, my behaviour has changed naturally and without effort. I still haven’t really eaten any sweet food, and yet I’ve had no sense of denying myself anything. I’ve bought new clothes for the first time in a long time, clothes that I feel good about myself in and that reflect who I am now. And I’ve marvelled at how, when we stop, rest, and inquire, change happens. We simply find ourselves behaving differently. Transformation occurs not because we make it so, but because we’re willing to look and feel.
Fiona Robertson is a Senior Facilitator/Trainer of the Living Inquiries, and the co-creator of the Anxiety Inquiry. She loves her work, and she also loves writing, music (she used to be a bass player) and dancing (in the kitchen, mostly). She intends to live in a house by the sea one day. You can find out more about the Living Inquiries here: www.beyondourbeliefs.org and you can read Fiona’s writings here: www.whilstwalkingjack.blogspot.com. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org