tigerI have recently started reading the book: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, described as a “practical guide for enlightened living.”  In it, author Trungpa talks about breaking old habitual patterns.  He says that calling someone a toranoko- a Japanese term for tiger cub, used pejoratively is saying this “you mean that he is a paper tiger, someone who appears brave but is actually a coward.”  And Trungpa then makes the declaration, “That is the description of clinging to habitual patterns.”

Likely, most of us aspire to be more like real, living tigers rather than paper ones, so why all the focus on not clinging to habitual patterns?

Thinking about what a habitual pattern is, I realized there is a neurological aspect occurring simultaneous to the display of the habit.  In our brains, after we pass the age of three, we are mature enough to start making neural connections based on experience.  Up to that point, our Limbic System is primarily driving our behavior.  The Limbic System encompasses the functions we share with the animal kingdom, including such things as our “fight or flight” responses, our capacity for infatuation, as well as our process to store memories as pictures (as we mature we include narrative with memory).

The Limbic System is active our entire lifetime, however as we mature we start building neural connections that help us understand and, as possible, predict our environment.  For example, we start to verbalize our needs and desires, say for food, and when reinforced by the acquisition of a meal, we quickly make a connection in our brain (a neural connection) about the steps required to receive food the next time we are hungry.

Over a lifetime, the web of neural connections is immense.  There are millions of neurons in the brain, each one capable of making thousands of connections.  And herein lies the physical representation of what is described above.  Our habitual patterns aren’t just quirky ways we live in the world, they are also physical neural connections within the brain.  In other words, inside each habitual pattern that we find ourselves, there is a corresponding map of connections across neurons in our brains.

This web of neural connections can start to feel oppressive.  The term “breaking a habit” now takes on additional meaning, because we can see this as “breaking” the neural connection within our brain that is related to the habit.

However, when we break open a connection, we are vulnerable.  There is a waiting space while some new connection is made.  And I believe the goal that Trungpa is describing is to always allow this openness and vulnerableness, that is, to ALWAYS make a new neural connection when we take an action, and this means not having an expectation of the outcome.

As an example, what if your experience is that when you share your opinion, you are dismissed?  Either growing up or in your adult life doesn’t really matter, but somehow you have a neural connection that suggests that sharing your opinion will lead to a dismissal which will lead to pain.  So, your habitual pattern is that you are mainly a quiet person, sharing only socially acceptable opinions, if asked.

Each time you feel the urge to speak that neural connection is firing for you, and you have a choice of whether to speak.  Let’s say choosing not to speak is your “habitual pattern.”  Being able to find that moment to pause and not follow your habitual pattern is the waiting space referred to above.  Being able to wait in the moment, and allowing your brain to break its neural connection (or expectation of the future outcome) and waiting to see what happens after you speak is the goal.

In the waiting, you are breaking the habitual pattern and its corresponding neural connection.  However, in waiting for the outcome (and not simply creating a new habitual pattern by expecting to people to listen well to you) is what is being asked.

And so I ask you to comment, are you a paper tiger or closer to a real tiger?  Does it enliven your thoughts about habits to know they have a corresponding structure in your brain?

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5 Responses to “Are you a Paper Tiger or a Real Tiger?”

  1. Diana says:

    I've never tried "waiting." I always react instinctively. I will try this and see if there can be a change in habit.
    I often regret my instinctive reaction as it isn't congruent with who I am. Then I feel a loss of self-esteem for having been fake. But I didn't mean to be. It is conditioned to get acceptance. I had little to no acceptance in my family growing up. I was tolerated and conditioned to be different than who I am.

    Thanks for the idea. I never thought of trying to wait……

    I'm still confused if you meant that we should try not to be concerned with the outcome? This sentence consfued me: "However, in waiting for the outcome (and not simply creating a new habitual pattern by expecting to people to listen well to you) is what is being asked." Can you explain it to me? thanks

  2. Frank says:

    Hey, I was encouraged to comment by your Twitter not of today. I have had a ritual of once per year during the season of lent to give up something that I really like – beer. I am about to do it again. I believe that giving up something that you really like really puts a lot of your habits into check. I do not drink excessively throughout the year, but removing this habit is good for the spiritual and physical health.

  3. BrendaMurrow says:

    Hi Diana, thanks very much for reading and writing. Great that you asked about that sentence. What I'm saying is that it is a conditional habit to expect a negative response, as well as it is a conditional habit to expect a positive response. So, the key (I think) is to let yourself be open to either possibility each time you face a situation. The openness to the situation, and the waiting, are when you allow yourself the opportunity break your habitual pattern and really experience life as it happens. I'm just starting to read and understand how this all works, so I experiment with it myself. This is what I've found so far! I hope the best for you.

  4. BrendaMurrow says:

    Hey Frank, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Wow! That does sound like a difficult task, good for you for staying committed to do it each year. I like what you said about how quitting one habit for a while puts the rest in check also. I agree, I think it is good to remind ourselves that each thing we do is a choice, as sometimes we forget this if we routinely go through our lives. Good luck!

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