The Strange Paths to Change

Among the varied categories of moral change, the jailhouse conversion may be the best known. A man who finds himself behind bars (or, in a more modern facility, behind hermetically sealed, computer monitored solid metal sliding doors) may be particularly receptive to messages of spiritual rejuvenation. His head is clear, he has time on his hands, and he has no one to face but himself. This combination of circumstances may contribute the desperation that is often an essential element in the elixir that produces spiritual rebirth.

Parole boards, of course, have learned through hard experience to roll their eyes at the inmate who, when the time comes to ask for freedom, suddenly begins waving religious literature about the room. A person who will spend months constructing devious means of sneaking illicit substances past the most elaborate security systems known to man is certainly clever enough to understand that, if your rap sheet is twenty pages long, its going to take a miracle to convince five experienced people that you wont offend again. And if your in the market for miracles, its a good idea to cozy up to God.

The problem is that, dispersed among the ministers of convenience and the jailhouse fakers are many who have come to understand a fundamental truth; if someone is sinking rapidly into the mire, and suffocation is not to be in his immediate future, he needs something outside himself to hold onto. When reaching out in such circumstances, any available branch, if sufficiently stout, will serve nicely in allowing him to drag his muddied self from the bog. Spirituality is just such a branch.

These days, though, everything from momentary sadness to ones desire for tomato soup is thought to be related to the brain, and spiritual orientation is no different. My own studies in the area of neuropsychology have led me to conclude that the moral precepts that guide behavior, like the Ten Commandments or the Torah or the Koran, are highly routinized verbal memories encoded in the brain and connected with emotional responses like guilt and shame to tell us what to do in circumstances of confusion.

Those of us who attended Parochial schools in the fifties and sixties can probably still recite by heart segments of the Baltimore catechism (Who is God? God is the Supreme Being). Though at first glance these responses may appear rote they were connected to a much larger system of emotional reactivity that helped us to understand what was right and what was wrong. I can still remember breaking a tiny window on a dilapidated garage in my neighborhood and being plagued by guilt until I found a way to rectify my crime; I sneaked up late one afternoon and left money under the welcome mat of the house associated with the garage. I never knew if the old man who lived there, the neighborhood drunk, ever discovered the bills, no doubt sodden with rain and heavy with dirt, but I felt better.

Of course it was considered camp in those days to denigrate as empty activity the rote learning of spiritual precepts. But today neuro-imaging is revealing that that which fires together wires together; meaning that behavioral and verbal sequences engaged in repeatedly, particularly during the very impressionable periods of childhood, are likely to demonstrate great resiliency in later life. A habit, for brain science, is nothing more than a group of neurons that have become a familiar network and so are easily triggered. Anyone who has struggled to avoid relapsing to cigarette smoking when having a relaxing drink with friends can testify to the power of familiar sequences of behavior. And that’s why its easier to do the right thing if you are accustomed to doing the right thing and, unfortunately, visa versa.

The question, then, is whether spiritual learning integrated later in life can effectively counter the heavily ingrained antisocial patterns resultant of decades of misguided behavior. Are the bad irrevocably bad? Can that lunkert you’ve tolerated for what seems an eternity turn over a new leaf and become the humanoid you always knew he could be? Or is the only answer to toss him in a locked cage and throw away the key?

The answer? Definitely maybe, yes and no.

My experience (much of it hard experience) tells me that fundamental character and temperament is in fact biologically determined and does not change; the tiger does not change his stripes or the leopard his spots. However, as human beings we preserve the capacity to use our intelligence to understand and anticipate our habits and predilections and devise methods to change. Of course, such fundamental change requires near constant self-supervision and openness to feedback and guidance by others. That is why insight has historically been such a powerful predictor of change; not because we necessarily need to understand our problems perfectly in order to grow, but because we need to be willing to grab onto the branch that is there if we are to pull ourselves out of the mire.

And thats why, among the desperate and the false, there are those few who are sincerely inspired to invest the effort into change. Whether the new digs are the jailhouse or the poorhouse or the outhouse, change can lead to inspiration, and inspiration to the disciplined self-governance that bestows a new freedom.