Behavior change can be bewilderingly difficult to achieve, and just trying can quickly become the work of the weary. However, I submit, much of the struggle arises from how we conceive what is changing. The received view is that behavior is what follows from the intentions of a rational, self-determining agent; to initiate change, we simply need more will, more discipline.
In contrast, the practice I outline here, ecobehavioral design (EBD), implies a different take. From the EBD perspective, the individual in interaction with their environment is construed as a complex adaptive system, an organizational unity of diverse though interdependent parts that self-organize to meet adaptive needs, where behavior is a relational term that describes the attunement between embodied subject and changing milieu. Like the tuning pegs on a violin, our behaviors turn in the space between harmony and chaos, the space of dissonance, mostly returning us to the consonance of familiar tunings, but sometimes, when adaptivity demands, settling upon novel ones.
The future behavior of any complex system, not least us, is virtually impossible to predict, though with some understanding of their dynamics, tight enough feedback, and an iterative design process, I believe individualized change can become relatively reliable. In what follows I give a taste of the primary elements in this practice and conclude by enumerating some surprising benefits.
It’s just struck me how Mark’s delineation of what is required to affect a change in habit, even the smallest, most modest habit, illustrates a reason why it is so difficult for us to set aside futility.
Nassim Taleb in a Twitter exchange today talks about how those without “skin in the game” are horrified when asked to let go of demonstrably wrong maps. They would much rather follow a wrong map than admit to not having a useful one and have to admit to not knowing what to do. He talks about the way someone with “skin in the game,” say a potential passenger on a plane to be flown by someone who insists on using the wrong map would sense the danger and refuse to fly.
His point does dramatize half of the dilemma. I would say that most of us most of the time cannot allow ourselves to admit we do have skin in the game and we would, and do, repeatedly, get on that flight.
Mark talks about what happens when we admit that our lives depend on making a change as a special case. It’s true, when we are confronted with an emergency, an emergent situation that over-rides our conditioning, we will do what needs to be done because our lives depend on it. But, deep in the way our culture works is a pervasive and ongoing set of conditions that work ceaselessly to keep us from ever having that kind of liberating moment. We are embedded in learned helplessness and fed belief in some form, any form, of external salvation while we are shown in every form of media that without external controls we would fall into ANARCHY!™ We have to work very hard to ever recognize what might be a life or death decision for us to make for ourselves. This even goes so far as choosing whether to take care of ourselves, as in Mark’s example, and even whether to continue with a life threatening habit like smoking or drinking.
This gets to the point. If and when we recognize that something is a question of life or death we are capable of changing, just like that! Outside of such realizations we are left with the kind of tiny, baby steps Mark lays out. And can only even get to that point if we are able to let go of the myth of trying to change via willpower or what have you.
This is true in every case. This is true a thousand times a day for each of us. Add in the complexities of relation and the ways in which our actions and thought affect everyone else around us and vice versa and we begin to see how much inertia there is to overcome at any and every moment.
This is, as is every elucidation of a present futility, a chance for what I’ve called Joyful Disillusionment. A chance to let go of an identification with one of our binds and a chance to free some of our energy to actually meet the moment creatively. But none of this will get anywhere unless we fully face the depths of the futility blocking what we would “normally” do. What we are conditioned to do. And, unless we put the energies released by each moment of clarity into more fully exploring the limits of what we expect can be done and work together to give the extent of our difficulties the serious attention it deserves we will only continue to bounce the rubble, rushing on to some vision of a conclusion that is at once the result of insisting on a failed map and at the same time a refusal to recognize our skin in the game.
You’ve written in this comment a beautiful post in it’s own right.
“This is, as is every elucidation of a present futility, a chance for what I’ve called Joyful Disillusionment.”
That’s so well put. When I finally had to let go of Buddhism I discovered “joyful disillusionment” or rather rediscovered it as something I had always felt but never consciously articulated; until I really accepted that the person was a matrix of impersonal processes and dispositions hovering on the cusp of dissolution.
There is a huge tension in Marx between the concepts freedom and necessity. He was daring enough not to try to resolve that tension in some grand system. He was happy to let it be resolved not in philosophical thought but in sensuous human practice, a concept that was anything but systematic and purposely so.
Are we free or determined? Zen uses the polarity as a way of harnessing the creative energy of “not knowing but simply doing”.
Hope to see a post by you in the near future eh?
Thank you Patrick.
I’d love to do a post. Someone will need to give me access to the site, say Author permission, for me to do that. In the meantime I’ve just posted this at my home site: https://antonio-dias.com/2019/01/27/the-question-of-bad-faith/
If anyone here wishes, feel free to reblog it here.
I truly appreciate the welcome I’ve found here on top of the quality of the posts. This has been instrumental in my finding voice again after a long dry spell.
This is no doubt because even these few small interactions have brought a sense of conversation, of a relation of writing to a particular circumstance, that I’ve increasingly found to be essential if one is not to just go on getting more and more hypothetical and removed.
My main blog has been Horizons of Significance: http://horizonsofsignificance.wordpress.com/ I welcome anyone here to read and comment there if they care to. My other sites can also be found via my home site: antonio-dias.com.
I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone here to cross-post on my domains if they care to. Just send me a note via the contact page and I’ll be in touch.
Thank you and Michael for making me feel welcome.
What is your email address, I’ll send you an invite to author.