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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