One of the things that is unique to humans is our ability to find patterns, to naturally seek and identify structure in everything we observe. Abilities like recognizing visual shapes, spotting harmonious musical arrangements, and detecting consistent concepts, all lie at the heart of human intelligence. In fact, we are so focused on finding patterns in the world, that we often falsely identify meaningful patterns in random, meaningless situations. This phenomenon, called Apophenia, is something that all of us have experienced at some point: The hidden messages when you play the Beatles records backwards, the tree that looks like a crying man, and of course the face that stares at you from the power outlet.
In the extreme, the inclination to see patterns everywhere makes us superstitious. We come up with patterns and rules that make no sense, so we can meet our desire to see structure in the chaos: Shooting a paper ball into the bin will make me pass the test (or if I miss the first time, two out of three), a sighting of a black cat will bring me bad luck (but spitting on the ground will bring things back to normal). We are sensitive to the existence of patterns in the world, even overly sensitive.
Yet when it comes to our own life; to our behavior, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, we often fail to recognize even the simplest patterns. We are smart when we look out, but dumb when we look in. Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So true, yet we all do it. We repeat the same mistakes or continuously miss out on opportunities, failing to recognize the patterns that emerge from the way we act.
To stop the insanity circle and detect what it is that we uselessly repeat, we must somehow try to step outside of ourselves, and try to examine life from the outside, to go away to a place where we can see ourselves without the debilitating bias of looking inside. When I turned 40, I did exactly that. I went away, rode my motorcycle across the country for a few weeks, alone on the road, and separated from my daily routine. I looked at my life from the outside did some pattern recognition. Once I could see the things that I was doing repeatedly and ineffectively, it became easy to change them, and I came back knowing what steps I should take to turn my life around.
As the New Year starts, go on the road. Think of a way you can detach yourself from your everyday schedule for a little while. Go on a silence retreat, take a road trip, or simply visit someplace where you’ve never been before. It’s not a vacation, just a means of introducing some distance from your life, so you can look at it from a different vantage point. Being away and alone will allow you to do the thing that we all do best when we look outside: identify the patterns, especially the ones that do not get you the results that you want. Once you see them, you can easily resolve to change them and create the new you in 2015.