The Spirituality of Behavior Change — Dying to Your Current Concept of “Me”

I’m attracted to simple, specific, and concrete methods of behavior change (such as BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program.) Yet there’s a profound shift that occurs whenever we change even the smallest behavior. It happens at a level that’s invisible, tough to measure and — some might say — spiritual.

I’m reminded of this whenever I pick up In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life by Robert Kegan, professor of adult learning and professional development at Harvard University.

Kegan sees the roots of behavior change in epistemology — what we “know” about ourselves.

More specifically, change calls on us to redefine subject (“me”) and object (everything other than “me”).

When I grow attached to a certain behavior — even if it’s something like smoking or overeating or watching TV for hours every day — it becomes “me.” I can identify with it so strongly that it becomes non-negotiable. To change the behavior would mean a kind of death — the loss of something that’s familiar. The loss of my current identity. The loss of ”me.”

Change only becomes possible when I make a break with the past and release that kind of attachment. All of a sudden, a behavior is no longer “me.” I can step back from it, observe it, reflect on it, let it go, and let something new take its place.

This is the sacred ground of change — the inward and invisible transformation that underlies the outward, visible, new behavior.

I’ll quote Kegan directly on this point (boldface added by me):

”Subject” refers to those elements of our knowing or organizing that we are identified with, tied to, fused with, or embedded in. We have objects; we are subject. We cannot be responsible for, in control of, or reflect on that which is subject.

“Object” refers to those elements of our knowing or organizing that we can reflect on, handle, look at, be responsible for, relate to each other, take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise operate upon…. it is distinct enough from us that we can do something with it.

… what we take as subject and what we take as object are not necessarily fixed for us. They are not permanent. They can change. In fact, transforming our epistemologies, liberating ourselves from that in which we are embedded, making what was subject into object so that we can “have it” rather than “be had” by it — this is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind…. as faithful to the self-psychology of the West as to the “wisdom literature” of the East. The roshis and lamas speak to the growth of the mind in terms of our developing capacity to relate to what we were formerly attached to.”

That is one big, beautiful idea.