I was recently reminded of an old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
The joke is funny because it hits upon a truth that we don’t really like to look at; we laugh at least in part because it makes us uncomfortable. This particular joke popped up in my mind when a friend asked me about the herbalism and naturopathy practice I used to run. She wanted to know why I had quit and turned to writing instead. I had to admit that I ended up closing the practice because I got tired of pushing against a wall, trying to get people to change when they didn’t want to. The vast majority of my clients could have resolved their health issues with simple changes in diet and lifestyle but they didn’t want to make those kinds of modifications. They just wanted to pop a pill – but they wanted it to be an all-natural pill with no side effects. The few who were willing to make those changes were the ones who had reached the end of their rope, sometimes literally – they were going to die if they didn’t do something, and do it soon.
I have to wonder what perverse aspect of the human psyche makes us so reluctant to alter our life habits. And I’m no different from anyone else. Once I’ve worn a groove in the universe, so to speak, I find it takes a great effort to drag myself up out of that groove to a different path. For many of us, only the direst of circumstances will motivate us to shift to a different path. I used to have a terrible fear of doctors and hospitals but when my first child was born with a severe orthopedic disability I forced myself to move past that fear. That was my only choice if I was going to help her get the care she needed and it wasn’t easy. Had I not hauled myself up out of that groove, she might have died. I’ve known people who cleaned up their diet and started exercising after a heart attack but not before, in spite of their doctors’ dire warnings. Often it takes a major shake-up in our lives for us to find the ‘oomph’ to change. No matter how much the old light bulb sputters and flickers, we like to wait until it explodes before we change it out for a new one.
We get stuck in habits because they’re easy, whether they’re habits of behavior or thought or emotion. We’ve worn that groove in the universe and walking in it requires far less effort than climbing out of it. Besides, the path we’ve already walked is familiar. We know where it goes and how to move along it. Who knows what some other path might look like? Change is scary because it’s unfamiliar. After all, what’s the Tarot card that signifies the most profound change of all? Death. Even small changes require a kind of death, a loss of what’s familiar and comforting.
Habits are also easy because we don’t have to think about them. They don’t require conscious effort to maintain. We’ve done them long enough that the subconscious can run the game and we don’t even have to work at it at all. Consider the ever-popular New Year’s resolution: We joke about making them and inevitably giving up when we can’t stick with them. It’s just too hard to shift out of that familiar groove, and a subconscious groove is the worst of all. It takes a lot of effort to haul that habit up to the conscious level where it can be changed.
I know a lot of people make resolutions on January 1, at the beginning of the calendar year, but I prefer to make mine at the Spring Equinox. That’s the point in the year when the energy begins moving and becoming active again, expanding and growing in power. I find it much easier to haul myself up out of those familiar grooves at the same time the Earth is hauling itself up out of winter’s slumber. I can ride that wave of increase and opening, allowing myself to sync with the season and bloom in my own way.
This year I’m working on building some new, positive habits: Making an offering of water to the Earth every morning, connecting with the spirit of the place through that substance that all life on our planet shares. Listening, really listening, when someone is talking to me, instead of thinking about what I’m going to say next. Eating mindfully, focusing on the experience of connecting with my food, feeling gratitude for the plants and animals that sustain me.
Instead of dwelling on what I’m losing (bad habits, a lack of mindfulness) I’m focusing on what I’m gaining. I hope that will be enough motivation to rub a new groove in the universe, one that benefits both me and the rest of the world. What new paths would you like to walk this year?