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Soulful Sundays: Structure

"You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” -Bruce Lee

I have been pondering this question recently: What is our modern obsession with the concept of change all about? We see "change" constantly alluded to in popular media. We see it in political rhetoric. We see it in conflicts involving gender, identity, and race. You can't escape it during discussions about climate, war, or economics. Even when talking to my friends about their day-to-day living, I hear what I would describe as an underlying narrative of change. Acceptance of its absolute truth has almost become a moral imperative, and if you don't get on board then you are more than ignored. You are shunned, humiliated, and labeled as bad. Stability, structure, traditions, standards, virtues, systems, logic, and mythology. These are all words describing the counterbalancing force to change. Today, we will discuss why change is not the only constant after all.

Change goes by many names. Fluidity, adaptability, pivoting, and dynamism are just a few. It derives its allure in the same way that an unopened present does - the excitement for the unknown. Human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty, but only when that activity holds the promise of more reward. You wouldn't keep opening presents if each time they released a noxious smelling gas. At some point, the reward (dopamine) pathway switches over to more dependable sources of pleasure. This is how the system self-corrects. But some rewards are just too addictive for us to override their negative attributes. Take the infamous rat/cocaine experiment as an example.

Rats placed in a cage where they can self-administer cocaine over food will "choose" to starve to death. I believe that the rhetoric of change is akin to cocaine for our modern psyches. For example, social media feeds, which represent a dynamic and endless flow of ideas, comparisons, and memes, are just as addictive if not more so than cocaine. And just like in the rat experiment, the substance can cause the subject to lose touch with the foundational elements of health and well-being. Substitute other forms of change for cocaine and what you see is a tidal wave of obsessive and addictive behavior and thought patterns geared toward moving change forward as quickly as possible, often at the peril of the rest of the world. We are seeing it now in the Dutch Farmer Crisis, the Gender Nonbinary debacle, and the wholesale destabilization of traditional family structures.

But there is one piece that is commonly left out when people reference the aforementioned rat study. Context.

Another leg of the study looked at the behavior of rats who had access to exercise equipment and other rats to play with when compared to the isolated and suicidal rats who chose cocaine over food. What the scientists found was that the more structures that were in place to promote healthy and normal rat behavior (i.e. running wheels, rat friends, sunlight, etc) the less likely the rats were to choose the cocaine. That seems like a no-brainer. Create the appropriate environment for thriving and the temptation of addictive behavior is easier to manage. This is the foundation of my point for why we need to commit to more structure and less change as a society at large. Ironically, change emerges as a positive by-product of our commitments, and because it takes longer to develop, the change tends to be more lasting.

So what kind of structures do I suggest? Individual answers will vary, but I think there should be some kind of system shaping each component of a holistic lifestyle - one for diet, one for exercise, one for mental well-being, one for relationships, one for livelihood, and one for spiritual growth. There can (and should) be overlap between the different areas, and the more connective tissue there is between practices, the stronger they will become. The key is to find a system with longevity AND consistently engage with it. A good rule of thumb for the longevity of a system is seven generations, meaning that the person that you are learning from has at least six practitioners above them. The philosophies are more likely to have been tested and vetted for truth. Be wary of traditions that overpromise and don't have humility for revision. Also, be sure that the person that you are learning from embodies virtues and practices that are worthy of emulation. Some immediate examples of systems are religious traditions, martial arts, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, ancestral dietary patterns, natural history and land stewardship, and traditional family systems.

While structure and discipline don't sound as sexy as change, they are necessary complements. The Good is worth the hard work that produces it, and what comes easily is so often squandered. Next time you are compelled to reach for some exciting change in your life, ask yourself instead 'what personal responsibility can you take to make life more worth living?' Do the hard thing first and the reward will follow. Change comes from within.

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