Choosing To Be Free

Woman with sunset or sunrise in the background with arms out and broken chains hanging from her wristsElephant slavery begins when they are small babies. One ancient training practice is to chain the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. This limits her ability to freely roam around. As the elephant grows bigger and stronger, she could easily pull up the stake and go foraging for food. She doesn’t. Even with the hawser unconnected and visibly lying on the ground, the feeling of the manacle around her leg is enough to restrain her, as if connected by an unbreakable invisible chain. This highly intelligent creature remembers the feeling of restricted movement and simply stands still whenever the shackle is in place. Bound by invisible chains to habits, behaviors and attitudes we too learned at an early age, how different are we from this elephant in our actual behavior?

In 2002, eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bike in his rural Missouri hometown. Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza parlor manager who was generally known as an innocuous, nice enough kind of guy. Devlin abused and tortured Shawn … with a very strange twist, Devlin acted out a fatherly role pretending Shawn was his son. He even gave Shawn the freedom to go outside. This all happened in plain view of his neighbors and only an hour’s drive from where he went missing. Shawn even assumed his abductor’s last name. Shawn made friends, played video games and even used the Internet freely-yet he didn’t attempt to escape. His captivity was finally discovered four years later when Devlin kidnapped another boy, Ben Ownby, who was discovered with Shawn four days later.

This kind of identification with and sympathy for abductors got a name in 1973 during a six day long bank robbery in Stockholm. Those held captive by the robbers started defending them, even after they were let go. What is now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome has deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. The longer someone is held, the more likely it can happen. Some may remember the heiress Patty Hearst joining up with the Symbionese Liberation Army who had kidnapped her.

Why does this happen? One explanation that makes sense to me arises out of evolutionary theory. If you think back across the enormous span of human development, our ancestors mostly existed in small tribes. What anthropologists have observed, and recorded history confirms, is when neighboring tribes go to war with each other, the winners often enslave the losers, especially the women. Even without war, abductions from neighboring tribes, especially of attractive females, has probably been going on for a very long time. The ones who resisted were likely killed and didn’t leave behind any ancestors to contribute to our contemporary gene pool. But those who were compliant, adapted to their new setting and produced children, contributed genes that selected for that behavior. In this way, some researchers think submission to authority has been baked into who we are, setting up the development of larger scale civilization, and interfering with our yearning for individual freedom.

While being submissive may have value for scaling up civilization, it can be a huge liability in relationships. The attempt by one person to control another can easily degenerate into emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Mostly it is wives who are abused by husbands. Quite often the women do not leave these situations, sometimes defending their abusers even after suffering bodily injury. From the outside of the relationship, this willingness to stay with an abuser doesn’t make any sense. An explanation may be the evolutionary glue that keeps people together long enough to reproduce and raise children embedded in our tribal development.

And, like slavery, helplessness and hopelessness can stop the process of resisting abuse.

Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (I have an excerpt at the end to look at)  opened my eyes to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of captivity. The mind numbing suffering field slaves experienced is captured in these words:

If at any one time of my life more than another,I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of [his harsh] discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished … the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me ; and behold a man transformed into a brute! p.63

Douglass’ servitude was real and unchosen. Yet what broke him was Mr. Covey’s ability to activate his capacity to submit. This willingness to submit rather than resist, to allow invisible chains to hold us and interfere with seeking freedom, also operates in far more subtle and insidious ways in the human mind, Think of compelling habits exhibited in the way many of us consume unhealthful food and unwholesome media to which we submit. What about the prejudices we unconsciously act out with our eyes and our attention. And then there are the life denying and self-limiting beliefs we’ve developed to lock ourselves in the prison of our own design. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.”

Well, today I declare that we are capable of breaking the bonds of submission. We have the inner power to unlock these invisible manacles and move toward freedom. As Walt Whitman put it:

Great is Liberty! Great is Equality! I am their follower, … Yours is the muscle of life or death – yours the perfect science – in you I have absolute faith.

Our minds, the gift of consciousness, can lift us from being brutes. Reading opened the door to liberation for Douglass. Through reading his awareness grew to help him see his own inherent dignity and the corruption of slavery. Before reading he knew the oppression of slavery in his body. The physical hardships were terrible to him, but he didn’t understand the evil of the institution itself. Reading the abolitionist arguments opened his mind to the moral injury of slavery and hardened his defiance.

That defiance took the form of resisting the inhumane abuse of his master, Mr. Covey by striking back. This could have easily gotten him killed but luckily for him it didn’t. After fighting his master for two hours, finally exhausted Mr. Covey left him. Douglass describes the effect of successfully defending himself from abuse:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force-the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, how ever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. p. 73

It thrills me to read this to you because in it we see the flowering of the dignity of the human spirit. This is the awareness of freedom that begins to lead us out of bondage.

Yet this moment of fortification of spirit is not enough to secure one’s freedom. The flush of courage can be washed away by the fear of consequences. It can be mighty hard to sustain the drive for freedom. Just a little hunger and thirst in Sinai had the Jews wishing they had stayed in Egypt by the fleshpots over the fire and not followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom.

Because our courage and new understanding can be tender and easily shaken, we need others who can support and encourage us. Douglass needed a network of abolitionist support to plan his escape. Domestic violence shelters, like Equinox here in Albany, can support the inner growth and fortification of the spirit to stand up for oneself and one’s children and begin to end their abuse. Peer support groups are some of the best ways to deal with substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns. Groups like Weight Watchers have been perfecting the psychological methods and techniques to help people establish healthier eating patterns. Evolution has also selected for group bonding that can be harnessed to seek freedom.

Yet, no matter how well we recognize those invisible chains and how many people are around us supporting us, we still have to choose freedom. And not just once. We need to continue to choose freedom to follow our own inner guidance rather than be compelled by our past conditioning and habit. That takes patience and persistence … and risk.

The safer thing to do for Douglass was to remain a slave and not try to escape. Like the elephant allowing the manacle to bind him, many slaves did a rational analysis and decided it would be safer, not more pleasant by any means but safer, to not run away and risk death or recapture. Recapture could mean being sold to a plantation in the deeper south where they imagined their suffering would be far worse. Better to just stay with the devil you know.

This choice of freedom over security is huge for most of us even with our far more comfortable lives than what slaves endured. The consequences of our choice of freedom are unknowable in the moment the choice is made. And often we are not making it for ourselves alone. Our families and friends will have to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Before he departed for freedom, Douglass wrote about the sadness he felt leaving his friends behind. He writes:

I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,— friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. p. 106

And sometimes we can do no other than to choose freedom. It was that for Douglass or die trying. Douglass writes about how he felt when he made it to New York City:

It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. p. 107

Choosing freedom is a moment that creates the next moment. There is no final ending choice but one that conditions the next moment of choice. It is a path to be walked every moment of every day. And some days we veer off the path, and later find our way back.

What I can testify to from my own choices to move toward freedom is the inner satisfaction and sense of creating meaning for my life those choices have yielded. And Unitarian Universalism celebrates and prizes those free choices. May we be so emboldened to choose freedom, not just for ourselves but for the good and benefit of all.

Reading

from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ” If you give a negro an inch, he will take [a yard]. A negro should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best negro in the world. Now, said he, “if you teach that negro (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty, to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment,I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. p. 33

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled ” The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book… I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave…

What I got from [this book] was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. … The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which [my master] had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. p. 40

Liberating Habits

Woman doing a yoga pose with the sun setting over the ocean behind her.Here is the service on habits I did this Sunday to kick off a series of three sermons on Purpose.

Call to Celebration

The Buddha encouraged his followers to make four great efforts:

 

 

  • to prevent from arising negative states that have not arisen
  • to let go of negative states once they have arisen
  • to give rise to positive states that have not yet arisen
  • to sustain positive states once they have arisen.

 

These efforts encourage the cultivation of positive patterns as a means to help overcome negative patterns. But although they are simple, they are by no means easy…

Beneath the surface of our consciousness lie numerous mental and emotional patterns that, when certain conditions arise, prompt us to behave in a destructive, self-defeating manner. These patterns are easily triggered and once triggered take us to those same familiar but painful places. Yet, if we spend time cultivating constructive and positive responses in their place, we will discover that they have the capacity not only to weaken the power of our negative patterns but even to disable the trigger mechanisms that spark them. Much of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice consists of a systematic cultivation of positive patterns that enable us to engage creatively with those negative patterns that cause us pain.

Batchelor, Martine (2007-06-27), Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits (p. 18-19). Wisdom Publications. (Kindle Edition)

Readings

Hundreds of habits influence our days— they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves.

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. (p. 270).

Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business . Random House Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition)

 It takes around 21 days to form a habit. That means repeatedly practicing said habit and stopping yourself when you aren’t employing it where it should be used. Adjusting your behavior in that way for 21 days forms a habit that you will from there onwards no longer need to work on so vigorously. After that 21 days it will have become a part of your normal thinking and behavior and thus will reinforce itself automatically…

All great habits of people with great character are learned. Some consciously, others by a process of acquisition over time and as a result of other habits. The beauty of bad habits, if there is such a thing, is that they are often easily acquired. This is because you often do not realize you are forming them, you are doing the behaviors for whatever reason you choose to and the habits form. The beauty of that is that it can be applied to good habits. This means no obsession over results or progress is necessary, actually it’s a hindrance. All you need to do is apply the behavior when it’s necessary, and trust your mind to do it’s job.

http://resonateswith.me/all-habits-whether-limiting-or-liberating-are-learned-heres-how-to-improve-your-life-with-great-habits/

 Sermon

Good habits guide us away from trouble. Bad habits get us into trouble. No surprise here.

The surprise is how hard it can be to undo bad habits and create good ones … unless we understand how the habit formation process works in our brains. Changing bad habits and creating good ones is much easier than you might think once you know how.

Rats and people form habits in similar ways. Researchers at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done some ground breaking work measuring the brain activity of rats running mazes. They put a rat in a T shaped maze, at the base of the T, and let it explore. On the hidden left side of the T, there was a piece of chocolate. The rat could smell the chocolate but couldn’t see it. The rat got very excited moving round sniffing and seeking the chocolate. Researchers measured a lot of activity in the rat’s brain as it searched. Finally it found the chocolate through a random search. Very quickly the rat learned to run to the end of the T and turn left to get its reward. What was interesting to the researchers was the steep decrease in brain activity. The rat stopped thinking and just reflexively ran through the maze. How different are we when passing a cookie on a plate, or drive past a Starbucks or McDonald’s and automatically pick up the cookie or turn into the pickup lane for something to eat or drink?

Brains are energy hogs, more than any other organ, using up to 20% of the available fuel. Habits reduce our brain’s energy consumption … and can save our skin. I wouldn’t want to be thinking too hard about what to do when a tiger appears out of the jungle and starts sniffing my scent. I’d want my plan already programmed in my head. Soldiers drill their routines over and over to make them automatic. Hear a loud sound or see a flash, don’t think about it, drop to the ground immediately.

Imagine if we had to figure out each morning how to stand up, put our clothes on, brush our teeth, make breakfast, and all our other routine tasks as if we’d never done them before. We’d be exhausted before starting our day. Habits have been critical to our survival as a species … but also a source of a lot of problems.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, does research with monkeys. He wanted to understand what happens inside their brains during the habit formation process. His subject for this experiment was an eight pound macaque named Julio.

He inserted a very thin electrode in his brain that allowed him to observe neuronal activity as it occurred. Then he put Julio down in front of a computer monitor. When yellow spirals, red squiggles and blue lines appeared on the screen AND Julio touched a lever at the same time a drop of blackberry juice came down a tube near his lips.

Julio really, really, liked blackberry juice.

At first he didn’t recognize the connection and was restless. It didn’t take him long to make the association between seeing the shapes, touching the lever and the reward. Once he figured it out, he stared intently at the screen without moving. As soon as he saw one of the colored shapes appear, he pushed the lever, got his reward and smacked his lips contentedly. Dr. Schultz measured a spike on his instruments of neuronal activity he associated with Julio’s pleasure sipping the blackberry juice. Julio had formed a strong habit pattern.

Dr. Schultz didn’t let poor Julio just play with the lever and get his reward. He sometimes didn’t give him any blackberry juice when he pushed the lever. This made Julio agitated and angry. What Dr. Schultz measured on his instruments was even more interesting. The more Julio repeated the habit, the spike of neuronal activity moved forward from receiving the juice to seeing the shape on the screen even before pulling the lever.

When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression. (Duhigg p. 47)

Combine craving with habit’s non-thinking, automatic quality and we start to get a sense of how powerful habits can become. Habits don’t sit in our minds like a computer program that can be easily erased by flipping a switch. Habits are laid down as synaptic connections. Once they are made, they are there for the rest of our lives. Rats, taught to run a maze will remember how to run it for the rest of its life.

That’s the bad news about habits. They are permanently wired into our brains and cannot be removed. They can however be changed.

To understand how, we need to better understand cues, behaviors and rewards, the three elements of a habit.

Habits begin with cues, something that triggers them. Cues predominately come from one of five sources:

a location
a time of day
the arising of an emotion or urge
an interaction with another person or
An action or sensation that precedes the habit starting.

These can be identified by asking five questions about a habit activation.

Let’s say you have an urge to buy a soda, a common habit. Ask:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
What time is it? (3: 36 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (no one)
What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

If you were to do this over several days, you’d find variation in all but the primary driving cue for the habit that would be unique for each person.

The cue initiates a sequence of behaviors that stimulate a reward, some positive affect that motivates the behavior. Like the cue, the reward may not be obvious. The reward that is sought may not be sweetness of a Coke. It might be the caffeine lift. It could be the stimulation of the bubbles. It could be the exercise of walking. It could be passing an attractive person’s desk and stopping to chat.

To modify a habit, it is critical to understand both the cue and the reward.

Now, for the hard truth about habits. Because of the physical mapping in the brain of cues to rewards, they can’t be removed. We can’t forget them. The cues and the rewards remain intertwined for the rest of our lives. This is sobering to reflect on as we consider initiating or repeating unhealthy behavior patterns. On the other hand, initiating and reinforcing healthy behavior patterns can program them into our brains. (This is a great gift to our children, establishing life affirming habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.)

What we can do is substitute a new pathway between the cue and reward that is far less destructive and far more healthy.

That’s what Mandy did to solve her nail biting problem. And a big problem it was. She nibbled on her finger tips so much, she had scabs all over them. Those scabs caused her to walk around with her hands in her pockets so no one would see them. Embarrassment about the appearance of her fingers with missing nails interfered with her dating and spending time with her friends,. Yet she just could not stop the nasty habit she had repeated daily since childhood. Finally she broke down and sought a therapist skilled in habit reversal training for help.

First the therapist helped her identify the cue that triggered the habit. She would run her thumb along the surface of her nails. If it caught or she felt some tension, into the mouth they went. Mandy was surprised by the cue question because she hadn’t even considered that there was a cue for the habit. She was only aware of the habit when it was already well underway.

Mandy was also unaware of the reward she was getting from causing herself all this discomfort. After considering several different alternatives, she finally landed on the sense of completion she experienced after biting all her fingernails.

The next step was to make her aware of when she felt the cue. The therapist gave her an index card and asked her to put a check on it when she felt the urge. She came back the next week having checked the card 28 times. But something had changed already. She had only chewed her nails three times that week. Her awareness of the cue had given her a new option. But that wasn’t quite enough.

Now the therapist introduced a new behavior for her to do when she felt the cue.

Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation— such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk— anything that would produce a physical response. (Duhigg p76)

After a few weeks, the nail biting habit, one that had tormented her for years, was gone.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training says:

It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” (Duhigg pp. 76)

This is good news that can give us hope. Hope that we can change our habits if we understand our cues and rewards then rewire them with new behaviors.

But it doesn’t always work since the old habit is still there along with the new one. Sometimes those habits revisit us when we are under stress.

The most heartbreaking for me are cases of addiction relapse. An alcoholic has been in recovery for years, hasn’t touched a drop, then has an emotional crisis. A beloved relative or pet dies, a relationship breaks up, a job is lost and all of a sudden the old urge takes over. The patterns of behavior are right there in the brain waiting to be reactivated by an unanticipated cue. It’s why in Alcoholics Anonymous, the expression, once a drunk, always a drunk lines up with what we know about habit formation. The patterns don’t go away even if new patterns are added. The risk of relapse cannot be eliminated.

But some people under stress do not relapse. One critically important factor in preventing relapse is belief.

Is it belief in God? Not necessarily. There are plenty of devout believers in church who are active alcoholics and drug users. Not a few priests who serve communion become dependent on the sacramental wine outside celebrating the Eucharist.

The concept that AA uses of the Higher Power points to something outside the self. My favorite higher power that worked for one fellow was a bed pan. He chose his bed pan as his higher power, worked with it, and it worked for him.

The key insight of belief in a higher power is the process of believing itself. Firm belief that somewhere, somehow, there is some resource that is dependable and not self-created or controlled that can be called upon in a crisis to help, does make a difference.

Is it God in disguise? Is it the Spirit of Life? Is it the Power of Creative Imagination? What the alcoholic discovers, and usually discovers in a crisis situation, is that the process of having a belief is enough to not drink for one more day. And that is sufficient.

J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who has studied AA for over a decade said:

I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing—but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.” (Duhigg p.85)

So if we want to be free of bad habits and develop good habits we need both determination and we need faith. One or the other is not quite enough. Enduring change requires effort and the confidence there are resources that we can rely on to see us through.

May we seek those resources as we strive to bring peace to our troublesome habits and to our troubled world.

Benediction

William James, whose story of overcoming youthful ennui could be an inspiration to young people who have yet to set upon a meaningful purpose to guide their lives, sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length on free will. James wrote to him:

 “I must not lose this opportunity of telling you of the admiration and gratitude which have been excited in me by the reading of your [work]. Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom.… I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of the moral life; and I can assure you, sir, that this is no small thing.”(Duhigg pp. 272-273)

 Let us use our self-determination to shape our habits in ways that lead to freedom for ourselves and others. Let us not squander our most precious asset, our will.