Are you a Paper Tiger or a Real Tiger?

Oct 7, 2009

I 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?

Note:  I originally published this post on on February 14, 2009.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Share with others

No Responses so far | Have Your Say!

Comments are closed.