“Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.” ~Junichiro Tanizaki

image descriptionWe all have our habits, things we do a certain way every time, mostly without even thinking about it. Have you ever found yourself pulling up at your job and realizing you can’t remember the trip that got you there? It’s like the car knows where to go. Actually, it’s your brain that knows where to go. There is a “go to work” groove carved into your gray matter so you don’t even have to think anymore.

Sometimes this works against you. Have ever been driving somewhere that involves a similar but different set of directions? You get to the light and…wait, I needed to turn left instead of right! What happened? The familiar place is to the right and if you weren’t being present at that stoplight, to the right you will go. It’s your pattern.

This Is Your Brain On Patterns

When you picture a brain, what do you see? Probably a gray mass with lines and grooves all over it. But that is not how your brain starts out. If you were to see a newborn baby’s brain it would be the same color but it would be smooth. Does that mean your brain gets wrinkles because it is getting old? No, the reason is different.

You brain actually changes physical form as you develop habits and patterns. To say that something is “etched in your brain” is an accurate physical description of what happens. The more times you do the same thing, the deeper and more visible the physical impact is.

This is why changing patterns can be so difficult. You are fighting gravity. But your brain is like putty, it can be reformed with a little regular effort.

The Young Need to Establish More Patterns

The young and smooth-brained need more patterns. This is why a child cannot be given the responsibilities of an adult. They just don’t have that toolbox of patterns established yet.

My then nineteen year old son was a great kid. But he used to drive me nuts in his mid-teens because you couldn’t count on him for anything. I don’t mean that he wasn’t personally reliable, I mean you never knew what he would do next — or not do next. He wasn’t deliberately lazy or flaky. When you pointed out to him, again, to do something a certain way he would go straight to it with a smile. He just didn’t have the patterns down yet.

Then practically overnight, it changed. Now at twenty two he is a far more predictable fellow. A few years of grooving on his brain has made all the difference. I’ve noticed this with all my kids: they are a kid, a kid, a kid…wham! they turn responsible. They reach a critical mass of useful established patterns.

Of course kids create dysfunctional patterns too. Fortunately their young brains are supple. Parenting is all about observing and molding their patterns with the objective of giving them the tools they need in the adult world.

The Mature Need to Fight Their Patterns

Here we are now in the adult world. Mom and Dad no longer have the say they once had. Our patterns are our most valuable possessions. Employers may look at resumes for schooling and work experience, but what they are really after are well-honed patterns. We do the same ourselves. We look for great patterns in the friends we choose, and the lovers. Yes, we become all about the pattern.

At a certain point in life, you have patterns for pretty much everything you do. You have a pattern for how you walk the trashcan to the curb and how you design the next propulsion sub-assembly for the whosywhatsit, if that’s your line. You even have patterns for how you handle things you don’t have patterns for.

The young have a green field, a blue sky, an empty whiteboard. They can just plop a new pattern in there any time with room to spare. But when you are more experienced, these patterns start to rub shoulders and sometimes they rub each other the wrong way.

It can be very disruptive to establish a new pattern at this point. Beginning a new habit like going to the gym first thing in the morning may interrupt your sleep pattern or when you have breakfast or even what you have for breakfast. It can be unsettling to have our existing patterns ruffled.

Patterns also have a shelf life. A pattern that used to work great can break, or it can become no longer applicable. It can be hard to let go of something from which we have so many fond memories of success. But let go we must.

Everyone Needs to Challenge Their Patterns Sometimes

Do a pattern inventory. Be mindful as to which patterns serve you and which do not. Are you settling for “good enough” when a superior pattern may be worth the effort to embody? Are you accepting “I’ve always done it this way” when maybe it shouldn’t be done at all?

Create some space. Unplugging the television (or the internet or the cellphone) may give you room to establish a new pattern of reading regularly. Clearing the junk food out of the house might make the option of a piece of fruit more appealing. Some patterns while not harmful might just not be worth keeping. Sweep the driveway without hosing it down. You’ll develop a new habit of saving water. Make some room for the next pattern you haven’t even thought of yet.

Commit to something new. Developing a new pattern comes down to intention. Do you intend to establish a new habit or are you just going through the motions? Are you on a “diet”, secretly longer to return to “normal”? If you don’t get your intent right, you may be succumbing to fooling others or even fooling yourself. Save yourself the time and disappointment by getting your head and your heart in the game first.

“Are your patterns helping you or hindering you?” click to tweet

The rhythm of life happens in familiar cycles. We enjoy the safety and reliability of things we can trust. All humans need certainty in their lives. But we also need variety. So break some molds and set some new ones. Build up a useful set of patterns but always be willing to set one down and pick another up. You are going to have a wrinkly brain so make sure they are the wrinkles of your choosing.

Where have you creating a new, beneficial, empowering pattern? Tell us about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: Lola Rossi

The Problem with Patterns
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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Patterns

  • Permalink

    I wouldn’t mind creating some new patterns but I’m bothered by the idea of giving up the patterns I have now. They work for me. It’s hard to add in more.

    • Permalink

      Yes, don’t give up the ones that are still working. But really, can you honestly say you don’t have some useless or even harmful patterns? Take inventory. Don’t “horde” patterns. They are not more important or more valuable because they are “yours”. In fact, they mostly were created by mindless habit rather than mindful choice. The good news is you can be mindful about them now and, if need be, make a different choice.


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