Turning a Ship: How to Create Lasting Change

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For much of my adult life I’ve been gripped by a very simple question: “How?”

I teach meditation and communication to people all over the country: at meditation centers and local groups; for businesses and medical doctors; in schools and online. Wherever I go I ask people, “What would you like to be different about the way you live?” Without fail, everyone is able to identify their aspiration for a life of more meaning, happiness, peace and equity.

We know what we want. We stumble with the next question: How do we get from here to there? What is the method for bringing about real change in ourselves, our relationships, and our world?

I’ve learned through my own practice and teaching that lasting change often occurs in two stages: an initial shift followed by a period of diligent work to sustain and integrate that shift.

The Tyranny of Habit

An elder once said to me, “Habit is the greatest tyrant.” By the time we reach adulthood, we’re each carrying decades of habits. We’ve become accustomed to the routines and patterns that we’ve cobbled together to get by in a world that is so often deaf to our hopes and needs.

In spite of our best intentions, without an initial spark of change and some clear path to sustain it we can remain paralyzed by fear or despair, locked in numbness, or strung out by our addiction to comfort. Whether for individual or collective change, the vehicle to transformation remains stalled if we are unable to break the spell of unhealthy habits.

Among these, our patterns of speech and thought are some of the most tenacious. We’ve all had communication training—it’s just been unconscious and unintentional. We’ve been trained to think and speak by our families, our schools, culture and society. These modes of communicating are like the air we breathe—they’re so pervasive we hardly notice them.

Holding a Steady Angle

When seeking change it’s tempting to reach for the dramatic catharsis. We long to break the mold in a burst of sudden enlightenment. The reality is often far more humble and mundane. Things change slowly, over time through incremental shifts. Human beings are complex, living systems, where a small change can have far-reaching effects.

I liken the process of transforming habits—in particular of communication—to turning a cargo ship at sea. A large vessel with that much momentum can’t make sharp turns. However, a one- or two-degree course correction of the rudder, if held steady, will take that ship in a very different direction over time.

This process of change often occurs in two stages. First, we gain an insight or new understanding into some aspect of ourselves or our world. This is the initial spark that sets the cycle of transformation going. Insight turns the angle of the ship’s rudder.

Insight can feel great. Clarity dawns and a weight has been lifted. Seeing things in a new light often comes with a rush of inspiration, a sense of freedom or spaciousness. A lot of energy in both meditation and communication training is aimed at facilitating such shifts in awareness or understanding.

Many practitioners make the mistake of stopping there. Insight is the beginning of transformation, not the end. It opens us to a new possibility, but as quickly as we change the angle of the rudder the currents of our life come rushing in. The tyranny of habit exerts its force, pushing us back towards our old ways.

“Insight is the beginning of transformation, not the end.”

This is the second stage: holding the angle. It’s what turns a moment of insight into lasting change. We work in a patient and steady way, applying effort to integrate this insight. Each day, we recollect the new perspective and practice this new way of being. Inevitably, we lose our grip and the rudder slips back into its old position. We course correct, readjust, and work to hold the angle.

The second stage of change isn’t glamorous or exciting, yet it’s where real transformation takes place. It takes a certain quality of dedication, patience, and genuine interest to sustain. It’s the meditator showing up at their mat each morning, come what may; the artisan diligently throwing another pot on the wheel. If Rosa Parks and Emmett Till changed the rudder in 1955, the decade of marches and boycotts that followed held the rudder.

Heading towards Land

Over time, the steadiness of that effort takes root and a new way is forged. The old habit is replaced with a healthy one that supports well-being. The transition often occurs so slowly that we only notice it in retrospect. One day we turn around and realize something’s different.

A lot of our happiness depends on using the tyranny of habit to our advantage by developing healthy habits of body, speech, and mind. As we sustain and integrate our insights—as we hold the angle of that rudder—happiness becomes more and more effortless. We look out at the horizon and see that our ship has changed course, and we’re headed towards land instead of into the endless ocean.

Oren Jay Sofer is a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC and teaches meditation and communication nationally.  He holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is a member of the Spirit Rock Teacher’s Council, a CNVC Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication, and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for healing trauma. Oren is also author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or join his monthly newsletter for a free guided meditation and e-book.

See Oren’s upcoming trainings and events.

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