Wanting to create change in your life just now? You might like today’s musing. I’d like to say the theory is mine. But I picked it up from the 92-year-old Russian Chinese man who taught me to hypnotise myself when I was 21.
Eugene Veshner was a former civil engineer who was told at age 40 he had only a year or two to live. He had diabetes. So had his mother and sister who both died at 40. He’d already lost part of his eyesight. To deal with the pain of such news he used his scientific brain to develop his own method of self-hypnosis to shift his outlook, which then, to everyone’s surprise, transformed his health.
The guy kept on living… another 50-plus years. And he got back most of his eyesight. And his carefully developed theory became the basis of the Nursing Mother’s Association huff ‘n’ puff classes.
I was Eugene’s last patient. He’d retired the year before, but he took me on because, he said, “You’re messy”. I’d been working in a womb-ish, burgundy-curtained feminist café (it was the ’90s in Canberra and such things did in fact exist) and I’d quit because I couldn’t handle the two shifts a week I was doing serving coffee. My boss rang Eugene and asked him to see me.
Messy? Specifically? Well, to be honest, I’m not ready to share that story. But let’s say I was unwell. I gasped for breath. I also had insomnia. We can discuss that for now.
I loved Eugene. And I loved that I got to sit in his Jason recliner in his modest brick veneer home liberally snowflaked with doilies and always with a sprig of Jasmin in a little porcelain vase on his desk
I loved how he drummed his fingers on his desk when he explained important points. “Bad habits – and insomnia is a bad habit – can’t be reversed or eliminated. It’s not how the brain works,” he said. Drum, drum. He drew a line on paper with his fountain pen. “This is a habit, a series of thoughts. They clump together to form a neural pathway and the more thoughts you add to this the thicker it gets.” More lines drawn over the top.
“You don’t change a habit, ” he said. “You build a new one.”
Scratchy new fountain-penned line, this time parallel to the first clump of lines. “You feed this new habit, over and over. Thoughts clump, layer by layer and eventually it becomes stronger than the old habit.
“It overtakes and little by little the Titanic shifts direction.”
If we can believe for a moment that Captain Smith of the Titanic had known about those damn icebergs, I can tell you what he wouldn’t have done. He wouldn’t have, in a bold display of determination, jerked the steering wheel sharply to the left, steering the ship 90 degrees off course. Chandeliers wouldn’t have wobbled in the ballroom, martinis on topdeck wouldn’t have spilled.
No, he would have calmly turned the liner by one small, gentle degree. That’s all. And then, calmly, he would have loosened his grip on the wheel and let things chug along. As they were.
Nice and steady, the liner would have naturally eased a little to the left, and then a little more. One degree at a time. And, in good time – and all good things happen in good time – it would have breezed smoothly past the iceberg. Calamity averted.
With Eugene I slowly averted calamity by building new habits to counter my old ones, one by one. My old habit was thinking I had to get up and go to the toilet again in order to sleep. My new habit was getting the urge, and resisting it calmly. I visualized this. I pictured lying in bed and being cool with not getting up. After about three weeks of doing this every day, it played out in real life, in bed that night.
I worked through years of bad habits in this way, one clumpy neural path at a time. And so sleep came.
This is how change happens. I learned this back then. Neuroscience in the past couple of years confirm Eugene’s techniques. Our brains are no longer seen as rigid entities. They’re now referred to as being like plastic and we can shape them and steer them, and we do it by inching and building and clumping our way forward.
Yes, small moves, not Big Once and For All Overhauls. Which is a relief because not everyone can drop their responsibilities to totally change their lives. While we buy tickets to learn how to Unleash the Giant Within ™ and activate The Law of Attraction™ most of us get home to our ugg boots and Crime Scene Investigation On the Couch Nights and realize we don’t want to do a 180 degree, or even a 90 degree, flip. We have mortgages and partners and a family barbeque next Saturday that will actually be a lot of fun.
Besides, and this is the very important bit for anyone who is a little bit messy right now:
when you’re in a spot of bother, and need to make changes, you don’t tend to know what the One Overhaul is that will fix you.
That’s far too big a decision to make. Far better to inch in a general direction, even if the destination is merely “forward”.
Don’t you agree? Are you in a spot of bother? Would knowing you only have to move one degree at a time help?