I looked at Henry, my 52-year-old businessman client, and said, “I want to apologize for making this sound so easy.”
He looked a little puzzled, “I like how clear and simple your explanations are. That’s one reason I’m hopeful about this therapy.”
Smiling at him I replied, “Thank you! I do try to make things accessible and fun to hear. But I’m actually talking about something a little different.”
I went on to explain how inspirational speakers, therapists, spiritual teachers, and agents for positive change tend to hype how easy it is to think and act better. The central theme is endless versions of: “Just decide! You can do almost anything!” I wrote a whole book—Mindful Manifestation: Yearn, Discern, and Act to Create Daily Miracles (not yet published)—that integrates a bunch of such systems. Although all of them at some point say change is not an instantaneous or easy process, they universally imply huge easy changes are possible by following the steps of their systems.
We like things simple and easy. Audiences enjoy extreme statements, and everyone wants quick fixes.
In our hyped-up media culture, promotional material for retreats/workshops/webinars/classes/books (especially self-help books!) is geared to extravagant statements. “In only six weeks you can completely change your life!” “Research shows that doing this practice once a day for five (ten, twenty, two, whatever) weeks is guaranteed to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, increase happiness, and intensify orgasms!”
Sure, these claims might do all those things for some, but such practices tend to be hard to learn and difficult to maintain. I’ve concluded that just teaching a manifestation system influences you to offer extravagant claims. When writing Mindful Manifestation, I kept finding myself wanting to suggest easy progress, while simultaneously emphasizing regular, patient practices.
As for quick fixes, the realities of growth are sometimes not much fun. Even though we can always decide to do better or worse—be more or less healthy—nervous systems resist change and usually incorporate new, healthier, habits of thought and action slowly.
Integral Psychology, developed by my friend Ken Wilber, demonstrates how we grow through developmental stages, which can’t be skipped. We need to fully embody our current way of being—be true to our current beliefs and principles—to flow into the next developmental wave. You don’t go from beginner to maestro on the violin overnight. You have to do the work.
Spiritual teachers seem to fall into the “it’s so easy” trap more than most—partially I think because some realizations are easy for them to remember and live by (though usually after years—even decades—of personal work and struggle). For instance, if you’re a spiritual teacher with a stable realization of everything connected to everything else across time (you actually feel connected most of the time), it’s easy to imagine others sharing this experience. Most of us can share such insights in transcendent state experiences, but don’t carry them with us always without doing a lot of work. Teachers help us experience such expansive moments—often accelerating the process by imagining everyone present awakened to new worldviews and perspectives as they guide us through different processes—but then we need to continue practices to create enduring growth.
The pressures of people’s hunger for easy change and marketing’s push to amplify hype push teachers to promise easy (or miraculous) transformations, which unfortunately can lead clients and students who haven’t achieved consistent bliss in the promised time to blame themselves for not trying hard enough.
Most teachers and therapists know that people have powerful internal forces that regularly make it extremely hard to do the honest and sometimes painful, humbling work of self-reflection and practicing new habits. A few teachers really believe their systems routinely create sudden dramatic results, but I’ve found such instantaneous shifts to be rare.
Wise teachers know that their job is to make learning and change sound fascinating, accessible, and doable, without promising easy answers and quick fixes.
They guide us to patiently seek the right kinds of information and support for us, and practice the right kinds of new behaviors for us, so we can gradually make effective, sustainable positive changes—with the occasional lightbulb-going-off-“Yes! I’ve got it!” experience showing up in the process.
Our nervous systems are so resistant to change—even when we know we need it—because our evolutionary past in the forests and savannahs of ancient Africa shaped our emotional relationships with the world. Ancient hunter-gatherers needed to balance a healthy fear of the unknown with their human craving for discovery and novelty. So a cave-guy might say to himself, “Yeah, I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill, but maybe there’s a lion over there, so what am I gonna do?”
This kind of push/pull, approach/avoidance type of situation is perfectly reasonable, but has frozen hundreds of millions of people in their tracks over the last 200,000 years. Our brains and bodies resist change when feeling unsafe, and seek novelty when feeling safe. Angry or hurt couples, depressed or anxious individuals, or anyone unhappy with their current situation usually feels unsafe. Instead of reaching out to make changes, they’re likely to resist them.
In other words, those who might most benefit from help—people who feel insecure and disconnected—are often those who are the most steeped in resistance and denial about what could make them feel and act a whole lot better. So change agents like myself try to make progress sound safe, easy, and accessible.
After I told all this to Henry, we sat in companionable silence for a moment. For several sessions I’d been after him and his wife to just get naked and cuddle together a couple of times a week, something they hadn’t done for years. So far they hadn’t been able to do it once.
“Look how hard it’s been just to take a shower and fool around for few minutes,” I said to him. “You guys feel unsafe with each other around your sexuality/sensuality, and so you’re scared of even tiny changes.”
Skilled therapists help clients assess their unique situations and tackle the paradox of wanting change and resisting change simultaneously. What I try to do is to make new thoughts and behaviors sound so easy that clients will use focus and intent (two of our most powerful human gifts) to reach through resistance to create more love.
So, I apologize for making things sound so easy. It actually is hard to think and act differently when we don’t feel safe—and it’s when we’re feeling unsafe with our spouse, kids, friends, or workmates that we usually most need to try something different to give us a chance to have things turn out better than before.
As for Henry, the following week he and his wife took a shower and enjoyed cuddling naked for the first time in years. It was a little step that felt like a major breakthrough, but they know they need to do a lot more work to turn their relationship into the warm love affair they both yearn for. Steady effort and progress over years does create miracles, but it’s usually not as easy as it sounds.