“We’ve never seen anything like this!” shouts the general to his cadre in the crowded Situation Room.
An alien menace has humanity at its mercy. Nothing in our mighty arsenal has any effect against it. We will be dominated or destroyed within days … unless we apply Yankee ingenuity, create experiments that reveal our nemesis’s vulnerabilities, and find a way to exploit them.
The unknown enemy and the heroic victory against it has appeared in countless science fiction stories. The plot’s turning point is always an Experiment. The Experiment is also, often, the key to our own victories against the depredations of UnBalancer, the collection of forces that collude to prey upon our sense of equilibrium.
We all started out as experimenters. Beginning in infancy, Experiments are how we learn about ourselves, the world, and the way things work. What happens if I close my hand around my foot and pull? What if I tug on my mother’s hair? What if I put that in my mouth?
Unfortunately, like the hapless generals in science fiction stories, we often lose track of our experimental attitude as social conditioning insidiously snuffs it out.
Many of us learned to stop experimenting before we left elementary school. Instead of continuing our own explorations, we were taught to look to others and to existing methodologies for ways to deal with our problems. Sometimes this tactic works fine — it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel! But when existing solutions fail us and we can’t maintain equilibrium, we need to learn how to experiment again.
ReBalancer and The Experiment
Most of the time, a semi-automatic response system I call Balancer monitors our thoughts, feelings, and actions so we can maintain equilibrium. When this semi-automatic system can’t deal with a situation, Balancer starts to tilt, and we tilt along with it. Then ReBalancer, an auxiliary system, kicks in.
ReBalancer is Balancer’s Chief of Staff. When UnBalancer rages and Balancer tilts, klaxons sound — ReBalancer’s cue to take over the helm. But before ReBalancer can act, it has to determine what the problem is and whether it has the means to resolve it. The need for an Experiment arises either when the problem is unfamiliar, or when there is no existing method to solve it.
ReBalancer goes through a decision tree algorithm:
- QUESTION: Have I seen this problem before?
- IF YES, THEN: Do I have a method to handle it?
- IF YES, THEN: Use that method to beat back UnBalancer.
- OTHERWISE: Gather data and conduct an Experiment.
The goals of ReBalancer’s Experiments are similar to those of scientists and the heroes of science fiction movies. An Experiment provides new data that generates insights into the nature of a problem, and from those insights come new potential solutions. How long this takes to solve a problem depends on the problem itself and on ReBalancer’s skill in designing and implementing Experiments.
The Power of The Experiment
Without Experiments, ReBalancer (and we) are stuck in a loop, trying to solve new problems with old solutions, a formula for failure.
The Bill Murray film Groundhog Day is a textbook example of the power of The Experiment. When the movie starts, Murray’s arrogant weatherman character, Phil Connors, is eager to get together with his producer, Rita Hanson, played by Andie MacDowell, but he’s far too much of a jerk for her to respond. After a day of filming together in Punxsutawney, PA, on February 2nd, Phil inexplicably wakes up to an exact repetition of the previous day. He’s trapped in a time loop, living Groundhog Day again and again.
Phil’s fate seems sealed until, after many iterations of that day, he decides to Experiment. By applying what he’s learned from previous repetitions and seeing what changes, he learns to grow emotionally, becomes more aware of the needs of others, and work to improve the lives of the townspeople. After many repetitions, he’s become someone worthy of Rita’s attention. The next morning, he awakens on February 3rd, freed from his time loop, a transformed and more authentic version of himself. Score: ReBalancer 1, UnBalancer 0.
Another example comes from the annals of medicine. For decades, the medical establishment maintained that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much stomach acid, and they were treated — ineffectively — with bland diets, antacids, and acid reducers. In 1982, two Australian doctors hypothesized that ulcers were actually caused by the bacterium H. pylori. Because an entrenched ulcer-medication industry was invested in the ineffective treatments of the day, these doctors (who years later were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery) couldn’t get permission to test their hypothesis on patients. So one of them, Barry Marshall, conducted his own Experiment: He drank the contents of a Petri dish infected with H. pylori.
Within two weeks, Marshall developed severe gastritis, a precursor to ulcers. Then he quickly cured himself with antibiotics known to be effective against H. pylori. Marshall’s Experiment completely transformed ulcer management. Marshall commented, “Everyone was against me, but I knew I was right.” Score: ReBalancer 1, UnBalancer 0.
My own life has been a series of Experiments that shifted me in ways I needed to shift. Sometimes an Experiment started something new. The Flower Mandalas that accompany my book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas, for instance, began as an Experiment. For several months I’d been using a photo editor to transform photos of clouds, rocks, wood, and other subjects into mandala-like images. Then one day I spotted a dandelion seedhead and photographed it. A few days later, looking at it on my computer monitor, I wondered what would happen if I “mandalized” something that was already mandala-like. From this Experiment came my first Flower Mandala, the Flower Mandalas book, and the blossoming of a new way for me to see.
Experiments have also helped me overcome fear and expand my abilities. Sometimes these expansions have been specific to a particular situation, but often they have led to a more general, permanent change. Here’s the “before” and “after” of a recent Experiment in motorcycle maintenance:
Before The Experiment: Back in the ’70s, motorcycle maintenance was an integral part of motorcycling for me. When I returned to riding a few years ago, after a 33-year hiatus, I wanted to recapture that aspect of the experience. My skills, however, were as rusty as my 1972 Yamaha Twin. Simple tasks like changing the oil or cleaning the carburetor were scary, and when I encountered an unfamiliar problem, I often panicked. If something didn’t work the first time, I’d repeat it with increasing force and a feeling of urgency, hoping against hope that what hadn’t worked the first time would do the trick the second, third, or fourth. The net effect was broken parts, expensive repairs, and deepening discouragement. Score: UnBalancer 1, ReBalancer 0.
The Experiment: Though I didn’t know it at the time, what I needed to restore emotional balance (and maintain my bike) was an experimental attitude. A valve-adjustment Experiment turned that around.
My bike’s four valves need adjusting every 5,000 miles. When I looked up the procedure in the repair manual, manipulating a feeler gauge, a wrench, and a screw driver in the cramped space available seemed daunting. So on a family visit to Syracuse, ReBalancer kicked in and I asked my brother Mark for help. Mark is a mechanical engineer and motorcycle instructor with more than 40 years experience, and he has an engineer’s confidence that if one man can design a piece of machinery, another can maintain it.
On his first try, Mark couldn’t get the feeler gauge in place. My body tensed up, ready to panic again, but Mark just paused, thought about what he’d learned from this attempt, and conducted an Experiment, bending the feeler gauge so it more easily reached the gap. This got him closer, but there was still a problem with the adjustment nut. So he stepped back again and designed a new Experiment, switching to an angled wrench. By the third Experiment, he got it, and he quickly adjusted the remaining valves.
After the Experiment: Since then, I’ve incorporated The Experiment into my own motorcycle maintenance practice, regaining not only the mechanical agility I left behind in 1979 but also a deeper sense of self-confidence. Score: ReBalancer 1, UnBalancer 0.
The psychotherapy treatment room is a laboratory for Experiments. I have witnessed many clients make Experiments that empower them to tackle the much larger challenges they face. Clients ask: What if I were to test this limit, take steps down that path, plunge into these waters? Over time, they become emboldened to do what their parents, teachers, or peers had convinced them was impossible.
One young client detested writing assignments. He hated school and believed that his teacher wanted him to write essays that showed how much he liked it. To redirect his helpless rage, we experimented with using irony and sarcasm. He was thrilled to discover that his teacher had no idea that the conventional-seeming sentiments he was expressing were the opposite of what he actually believed.
The idea for this Experiment had come from one I’d inadvertently conducted in college. By the time I got to James Joyce, I had started to hate literary criticism. In a paper on Joyce’s Ulysses, I imitated the critics I was reading by homing in on a trivial point in the book and exhaustively supporting it with obscure footnotes from the text. Unlike my client’s fourth-grade teacher, my professor saw through me. He said that what he most enjoyed about the paper was my relentlessly negative attitude toward the assignment — but he gave it an A+ anyway and suggested I clean it up and send it to the James Joyce Quarterly. Score: ReBalancer 1, UnBalancer 0.
A more striking Experiment was executed by an art student I worked with several years ago. His life was a mess, fraught with addiction, depression, dysfunctional relationships, and a hostile and unsupportive family. He needed more help than he could get from counseling alone, but he’d learned from childhood experience not to ask for it. So we devised an Experiment: He would, at least once in the next week, ask for help in a situation where normally he would remain silent.
On a windy, bitterly cold afternoon a couple of days later, he stopped at a McDonald’s for a hamburger and coffee. Looking around, he saw that all the tables were occupied. He buttoned up and was about to eat his burger outside in the biting wind when he remembered The Experiment. Instead of leaving with his food, he asked a young man sitting alone at a table for four if he could join him. The young man said “yes,” and my client and he had a lively, animated lunch together.
This small Experiment was a turning point. My client realized not only that he could ask for help, but also that when he did, he was likely to get it. Over the course of the school year, he received assistance and advice from several sources and was able to quit using drugs, leave a job where his coworkers expected him to be the “party boy,” return to making art, and resolve major issues with his family. Even his lover quit drinking and drugging. Score: ReBalancer 1, UnBalancer 0.
COMING SOON: How to Design Your Own Experiment
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)