"A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Change is a fundamental issue for people in their everyday lives. How can I change, be different (stop smoking, eat more healthily, live a less stressful life, etc.)? Change is also at the heart of conversations in coaching or therapy. There are many theories and approaches to change, however I also think it’s fair to say that significant and enduring change can be incredibly difficult to achieve. We are often defeated in our efforts, although there may be short-term success before the status quo is restored.
How can it be that so much effort is put into such an important subject but with such relatively limited success? In this blog I’m going to suggest that we are held captive by a certain picture of the world, a picture reinforced by the language we use, and a picture that misleads us in our efforts to change. I’ll also offer an alternative picture that may help us in changing our ways of being-in-the-world.
The Cartesian picture: the mind in the head
Western thinking for the past few centuries has been captured by Descartes’ picture of the relation between mind, body and the outside world. In this picture the mind is located inside the head as a separate entity, looking out upon the world. This formulation has created insuperable philosophical problems about how the mind interacts with the body and the world (the so-called ‘mind-body’ problem), Nevertheless it dominates our way of understanding ourselves, and as part of this, how we understand change. In this picture, change is about changing minds, which in turn leads to changes in behaviour. Failure to change is therefore explained primarily in terms of mind, with statements about mindset, willpower, commitment, taking responsibility, and so forth. The ingredients for success, and the sources of failure, reside in the mind. A good contemporary version of this is Immunity to Change (Kegan and Lahey). In this approach, it is deep-seated unconscious beliefs that undermine our attempts to change. For example, I cannot change my capacity to challenge people, because I have the assumption that others will reject me if I do. If I can unearth these assumptions, test them and change them, then change can then take place.
An alternative picture: Being-in-the-world
"Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself“ Merleau-Ponty The Phenomenology of Perception
“I am the space where I am” Noel Arnaud quoted by Gaston Bachelard
The Cartesian picture is both compelling and highly abstract, a philosophical position that has western culture in its grip. I’d like to offer a different picture, a picture that is not philosophically abstract but one that catches people in the midst of their ordinary everyday living. The picture I have chosen in by Renoir, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette. There is nothing that makes this picture particularly special as an example of what I mean; I could have used other paintings by Renoir or other artists. I could have chosen photographs of people in everyday situations. The point is to find a picture to ‘work with’; a picture that catches a familiar everyday scene.
In this picture we see people absorbed in everyday activity; doing ‘what one does’ in such situations: dancing, drinking, talking. People in the picture are familiar with their situation, in the sense of familiarity as discussed in the blog ‘Being-in-the-world: Familiarity and withdrawal’. Mostly the people won’t be thinking about what they are doing, rather acting upon the basis of pre-conceptual, tacit know how that provides an understanding of the situation and how one behaves. They are not present as ‘minds’ peering out into the world, rather they are embodied persons, skilfully dealing with what’s expected on the basis of well-honed habitual patterns of relating (knowing how to greet people; invite someone to dance; offering food and drink etc.). The individuals don’t have to separately make sense for themselves of the situation because everyone knows what’s happening. It’s announced in the name of the painting, and because we too are familiar with such situations we immediately grasp what it’s all about. The picture also conveys the mood of the dance, an atmosphere all will be aware of; variouly light-hearted, gaiety, amorous.
Of course, each person at the dance will have their own ‘take’ on the situation; each their own particular way of being involved. How can we understand what it’s like for individuals without falling into the traditional dualism of mind and body? A way forward is to play with the terminology of previous blogs; each person will have their own-way-of-being-in-the-world and therefore way of being in the dance. One person may be excited and enjoying themselves and the possibilities of the dance; another might be loathing it all, pushing back on the gaiety but feeling trapped and seeking to find a way to escape. Each of us has our own way, or ‘style’ of being-in-the-world, which has developed from birth amidst the particular circumstances we are ‘thrown’ into – the culture, the family, school, workplace and so on. One way of putting this is that each of us is ‘attuned’ to the world in a particular way (see the earlier blog on Mood and Coaching), and so are involved in it in a particular characteristic way. I may characteristically be the ‘life and soul’ of the party; alternatively, always the unwilling conscript. However I am attuned, it is an attunement within the situation.
Changing our being-in-the-world
What if I am dissatisfied with how I am in situations and want to change? what if I am tired of being the unwilling conscript and want to enjoy the dance and make the most of its possibilities? What does the shift from the Cartesian to the Being-in-the-World picture suggest about facilitating change? Well it will be a case of changing, or better, modifying the picture. In the modified picture I may shift from being on the side lines, probably feeling trapped and hostile to the whole thing, to being involved with others, maybe enjoying conversation and dancing.
It is easy to say ‘modify the picture’ but what is involved here? The sense of familiarity comes from the everyday taken for granted ways of being-in-the-world of the culture, shared ways which us have made us what we are from birth. Thinking, cognition, has played a small part in this. We become absorbed in ways of being much like we’ve absorbed in language; such ways arise in us and become, without conscious effort or desire, just the ‘way it is/the way I am’. Change involves changing these habitual ways of being, which are, at the same time, keyed into the situations with which we are involved. To change we have to modify not just the behaviours but also the world that configures and make sense of such behaviours. And these behaviours are tacit, skilful ways of engagement with the world that have been honed over a period of time, maybe over a lifetime.
There is an additional vital aspect to this – the emotion or mood that is inseparable from particular ways of being. Phenomenologically, i.e. in my own experience (and you can check this against your own experience), I think there is considerable comfort in doing the familiar, a kind of settling into a familiar rhythm or habitual way of being, like getting home, having a drink, turning on the television, checking emails, and so on. Such comfort holds us in, and draws us back to, the status quo. Change, on the other hand, is discomforting, as we so aptly say, ‘stepping outside our comfort zone’. I think this emotional draw, like the relentless force of gravity, pulls us back to the familiar, to the default of the habitually patterns of behaviour that synch perfectly with a particular way of life.
On the basis of the above, it’s small wonder that change is so hard to make and sustain, and that ‘changing mindset’ often has such a limited shelf-life before the familiar picture is restored. We’ll pick up more directly what is involved in successful change in the next blog.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior