Essay

How Much Change Can We Expect? Lessons from Juggling

By Duff McDuffee on January 28th, 2011 1

Most people with average coordination can learn to juggle three balls in an afternoon. Beginning with one, you practice throwing from one hand to the other and back without moving your catching hand. Once you have the perfect throw basically down, try with two. As the first reaches it’s peak, throw the other. At first they might collide, or go way out in front of you or to the side. But after 50 or 100 tries, you’ll get the hang of it. Then comes the tricky part, adding in the third ball again messes everything up. Your once-perfect throws seem possessed by an invisible force field only to fly out away from you. Perhaps you return to two balls again, get your confidence back, and then try three. After several or perhaps many unsuccessful but very close attempts—suddenly, “I’ve got it!” Miraculously, you catch all three balls on their descent.

It may take a week or up to a month to really master the three ball cascade (as jugglers call this basic maneuver), as you go from 3 catches in a row to 100 or more. Once you reach 100, you will rarely drop the balls at all—even if you stop practicing and only rarely try this trick with three oranges at the grocery store. But if you get cocky, you might find yourself making an embarrassing mess in public!

The next level up in the cascade isn’t juggling 4 balls, but 5. With four, you are really just juggling two in each hand, which is quite difficult in its own right, but not a cascade where the balls go from one hand to the other. It is well-known amongst jugglers that while learning the 3-ball cascade only takes an afternoon or maybe up to a month to master, learning the 5-ball cascade reliably takes a full year of practice—up to an hour a day. Learning the 7-ball cascade takes even longer—several years at a minimum—and the 9-ball? Forget about it unless you juggle four or more hours a day for many years. One juggler put it this way to me—the more balls you attempt to juggle it takes exponentially longer to master, but if you put in the hours you will inevitably get there. It’s just a matter of what you want to devote your life to learning.

Juggling is a metaphor people often use to describe multitasking or productivity: “I’m trying to juggle 5 projects right now.” Usually people mean to indicate that in attempting to juggle multiple things, they are really busy, or even very overwhelmed. My experience of learning to juggle has been that it is quite fun, albeit sometimes quite frustrating, but eventually I inevitably reach a flow state of concentrated coordination. I think juggling can be an excellent metaphor for what we can expect to achieve through conscious personal development and how much work is required for mastery of a given area of life.

For instance, addicts in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous say things like “once an addict, always an addict.” I used to think this was a pretty pessimistic outlook on the prospects of recovery from addiction. Why not say “I used to be an alcoholic, but now I’m not” if you haven’t taken a drink in years? But there is a deeper wisdom in this aphorism—you can’t really get rid of old neural pathways or bad habits completely: in a crisis or certain context, the temptation may come rushing back all at once, which is why someone in recovery must continue to be on guard for life. There’s always a chance you might drop the ball.

The good news is that I’ve found bad habits, old wounds, or unpleasant emotions or reactions tend to diminish with effort on a kind of exponential curve. In my early years, I suffered from near continous anxiety. With enormous acts of courage on apparently little things, I was able to open up windows in time where I didn’t feel anxiety but felt confidence. My basic experience was still anxiety, but with a few cracks in the continuity. Eventually I opened bigger and bigger windows of confidence and courage to where I was only mostly anxious, and the amount of courage needed was much less. Eventually I reached a tipping point where I was mostly confident and calm, and only sometimes anxious. Finally I reached a point where I felt I was never anxious, but then would sometimes be surprised and humbled by some old anxious patterns of feeling and behavior from time to time. A year or so ago I found a reservoir of deep-seated anxiety that I thought I had transformed only to resurface, but now that too has passed and again I feel I am pretty much never anxious, but I am now less surprised when I am. It’s as if I’m anxious less and less often on a logarithmic scale with some periodic interruptions to that pattern.

Similarly, I’ve wrestled with depression in my life as well. Learning the technique of Core Transformation as well as Vipassana meditation have helped me to go from being intensely depressed for many months a year (used to be all winter long), to moderately depressed for several week periods, to mildly depressed a day or two a month, to moody a few hours here and there, to irritated or sad a few minutes at a time with some longer periods and more intense moods from time to time…which is downright normal, if I do say so myself. Once one is depressed only for a few minutes here and there, this level of “depression” is completely tolerable and one could say that one has “overcome” depression. But again, the AA expression holds true—being on guard for the black dog, one can more quickly calm it down when it attacks and prevent it’s savage bite.

There are some exceptions to this model of change however. For instance, sometimes a very simple intervention can eliminate a lifetime phobia of bees or heights in a matter of minutes. There is a specific technique from NLP sometimes called “the fast phobia cure” or more accurately “visual-kinesthetic dissociation” that does exactly that (here’s an example of the NLP fast phobia cure done in 7 minutes successfully with a 25-year followup*). But this technique doesn’t work every time. When it does work, it’s miraculous, and it’s common to never feel the old way again about that specific triggering context.

Why does it work when it works? I tend to think it’s because the problem and therefore the change required can be superficial or deep. Superficial change can take place very rapidly. “Superficial” doesn’t mean “not painful” or “hasn’t been around a long time” though—sometimes very traumatic childhood memories can be healed in a session or two with the right technique, trust, and rapport. But other times healing may take months or years! It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether a problem is superficial or deep, but deep change requires more of a nervous system transformation, a leap to a new level of integrated complexity. Perhaps this is like the difference between learning another 3-ball trick once you know the 3-ball cascade (which is relatively easy and brief) versus learning the 5-ball cascade. It also may be the difference between a very specific contextual problem like a phobia of bees versus a very general problem like a sensitive nervous system that leads one to feel generally anxious.

Given that caveat however, I think the logarithmic scale is a model for what we can expect for deep positive changes we want to make and deep negative patterns we want to change about ourselves. We never totally arrive at a state of complete and perfect mastery, but we can get to a point where we almost always act in the ways we want with some rare or context-specific exceptions (circumstances notwithstanding). Yet the more mastery we have in one area of our lives, the less time we have necessarily devoted to other things. If you spend 4 or more hours a day working on that 7-ball cascade, you aren’t working on something else, so juggling better be one of the most meaningful things to you. But on the other hand, you also have less time available for indulging in bad habits like drinking alcohol in excess, and there usually is beneficial carryover into other activities that comes from disciplined practice. If we develop a sufficiently high level of mastery in one area of life, we at least know what it takes to do so again in a different area if we so choose.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickgray/484851206/
*Note: I work for Steve Andreas who is in the NLP video, but did not get paid to write this article or post this link.

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15 responses to “How Much Change Can We Expect? Lessons from Juggling”

  1. What a great and detailed post. I can echo the way your genes have expressed as mine give off the same color.

    It came at a good time. Thanks.

  2. Eric Normand says:

    Great post, Duff.

    These are things that I find hard to accept: that we have real limits and we need to be patient with ourselves. Of course, personal development salesmen want us to believe that we're just doing it wrong. And sometimes, it seems worth investigating what they have to offer. If it only takes a few hours, why not?

    I'll tell you why not. Because there are way more offers than hours in your life. Anything worthwhile takes time, patience, and work. And any time we spend trying out the next get-whatever-quick scheme is time we aren't doing it the slow and steady way. We'll wind up old and asking ourselves why we never accomplished any change in our lives. We flitted from one guru to the next. Each flit seemed minuscule, but in total, they consumed our lifetime.

    Work consistently and work often and you'll see results. Start now and refine as you go.

  3. Bud Hennekes says:

    Not nearly as many RT's or comments when you aren't so controversial. 😉

  4. Fraser says:

    Hi, nice article. I can relate to your experience, having suffered social anxiety for some years. I've failed to solve it using the advice I've found in self help, but discovered fairly recently that REBT works for me. Amazing really, that the empirically proven therapy would work and the stuff the quacks teach wouldn't……. 😐

    Btw, did you know that Genpo Roshi has just been caught cheating on his wife with one of his successors? That's a fascinating revelation to me.

    • REBT can be super helpful for anxiety for many people. Some CBT (related to REBT) methods really helped me as well, especially early on for me. I found that somatic methods (see Focusing by Eugene Gendlin for example or S.N. Goenka's style of Vipassana meditaiton), spontaneous dance, and Core Transformation helped later to clear up stuff CBT didn't seem to be able to help with. Focusing I think is empirically based (but I haven't searched for the studies), and there are some methods of mindfulness body-scanning meditation—especially Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction—that have a proven effective record as well. I'm open to methods not-yet-tested as well, but there is an enormous amount of junk in the self-help world and/or stuff that works well for the creator but not all that well for the general population.

      Interesting tidbit re: Genpo Roshi. Do you have a link, or is this just "grapevine" information?

      • Fraser says:

        I am open to not-yet-tested methods too. I've been doing the 'Big Mind Process' which is how I found out about Genpo Roshi's indiscretions. It was announced on the live broadcast on BigMind TV a few hours ago. His 'sangha' was very upset. Most of them have apparently known for a few weeks now.

        Genpo wasn't there. The talk was held by one of his students. I don't know which successor he was cheating with. I actually got the information that it was a successor from a comment on here. http://www.intent.com/blog/2009/01/07/zen-sex so it's possible that bit wasn't true, but it probably is.

        That guy links to a thing which talks about when he cheated 20 years ago, but what he said about the recent cheating turned out to be true anyway. If you want more info maybe message him.

        • Woah–an announcement on his own TV show. That's pretty wild!

          Despite my problems with the man, I think the technique of Big Mind is pretty useful.

          Thanks for the link!

          • Fraser says:

            Yeah, I can only speak for myself but doing the Big Mind Process has had many benefits. Release of stress, expansion and opening of consciousness. Relief of suffering. Maybe some draw backs too that I'm not fully aware of.

            I suspect that the BMP does something to the way you experience life, but not necessarily all positive. For example, it could allow you to let go of resistance where maybe resistance would be a good thing. This could apply to ethics, or something like motivation to exercise. You could end up tampering with things that are working well.

            I think many (especially desperate) people ask the question "does it work?" rather than "what are the effects?" The former implies that if it works it works in exactly the way they imagine they want.

            I think another problem is that Zen is mired in bullshit as much as self help. The idea of enlightenment is, I believe, a form of superstition. As is the 'dharma' and much of what the Buddhists hold sacred. I see all spiritual techniques as technology for manipulating one's experience of life. And they really do something, but I believe the process is 'blind' – i.e. it doesn't necessarily produce 'wisdom' and it isn't guided by some inner wisdom that knows what's best for you. Evolutionary biology tells us that we are essentially arbitrary. That sounds pretty zen actually. No inherent purpose to anything. Well, I suppose I agree with that bit. 🙂

            re: the Genpo situation. I don't understand Genpo's mentality, but it's been a useful wake up call. Made me think about all this stuff.

          • I think many (especially desperate) people ask the question "does it work?" rather than "what are the effects?" The former implies that if it works it works in exactly the way they imagine they want.

            This is very well put. All sorts of things "work" but for what end? And what are the side-effects if any?

            I tend to think dropping resistance is a good thing, but I like your line of thinking. When parts of us resist, they usually do so for good reasons, even if the way they go about it isn't so good. The best solutions integrate these good purposes into a complete approach.

            I do think Zen and Buddhism general has a fair amount of B.S./dogma, but don't necessarily think dharma is superstition. "Enlightenment" is an interesting notion and I've participated in a lot of discussion as to what this means, discussions kicked off by folks like Daniel Ingram and Ken Folk and others in the "pragmatic dharma" community. I do think people can get better, cause less suffering to each other, become more compassionate, and yes, even become much more wise. But what is wisdom? That's a very, very big topic.

          • Evolutionary biology tells us that we are essentially arbitrary. That sounds pretty zen actually. No inherent purpose to anything. Well, I suppose I agree with that bit. 🙂

            As far as this goes, acceptance of the conclusions of evolutionary biology does not imply meaninglessness in the least. There are multiple potential views or interpretations here:
            a) no inherent meaning to anything, humanity, etc.,
            b) an evolutionary teleological view (evolution is headed somewhere, usually implying humans have some special role in the process, etc.),
            c) a "beyond our comprehension" view, which may or may not include God or some kind of diety,
            d) a "God does not play dice" view (to quote Einstein), wherein one experiences awe, wonder, and meaningfulness when contemplating how the Universe is understandable and predictable according to Science,
            e) Deism, wherein God kicked off the Universe but now doesn't interfere,
            f) Existentialism, wherein meaning is human created/chosen (similar to a, with many variants)
            g) selfish gene theory, wherein human meaning is in conflict with genetic drives, which is used both for justification of selfish Social Darwinism and conversely various forms of Humanism that argue we are smarter than our drives and should consciously oppose them,
            h) views of human life from evo bio that emphasize empathy (see Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization)

            …and many more possible interpretations still including lots of progressive Christian theologies that accept and account for evolution, etc.

          • Chris says:

            Yes to all that — and evolution, even on its own terms, doesn't claim to explain the origin of life — it doesn't deal at all with why cells came into being, but with why multi-celled organisms change over time. Evolution also has difficulty explaining why human beings are concerned with anything more than survival and reproduction (or survival after reproduction — why aren't humans designed to just kill or eat people who are past their reproductive age, for instance?)

  5. […] addition, anything other than just working on your habit is not working on your habit, and fundamental changes simply take time. While it can be helpful to learn a few things about successfully forming habits, it is all too […]

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