Change leadership: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s got our number

IMG_5955This weekend at an environmental summit in Portland, when asked how to get people to change their consumption habits and commit to stewarding the planet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama pulled a Jedi mind trick on a coliseum full of 11,000 people. (Call me slow, but that was the first time it really occurred to me who Yoda might have been modeled after.)

Essentially, he told us the deep secret to getting people to change their deeply ingrained behaviors is this: They have to choose it.


mindsightDan Siegel, a UCLA neuroscientist, pioneer of the field of interpersonal neuroscience and author of Mindsight (along with a passel of other interesting books), takes a Western science crack at explaining why. In a collaborative set of talks with Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, Mindfulness and the Brain, Siegel describes how the neural pathways that guide day-to-day behaviors come into being… how in-the-moment firing across synapses, from neuron to neuron, becomes the wiring that drives what we come back to and build on over time.

(Health warning: Cultural anthropologist attempts physical scientific explanation. My partner, the real neuroscientist, always rolls her eyes at this point. Caveat emptor.)

Basically, what makes the difference between…

  1. One-time firing across a pattern of neurons that make up a specific thought or action, and then disappears, and
  2. One-time firing across that same pattern, which immediately begins to hard-wire

…is whether or not you truly want to be doing what you’re doing.

Siegel illustrates with laboratory experiments on rats. Rats made to perform a task will perform that task – even repeatedly – without ever hard wiring the firing sequence they’re using to perform it. But rats who choose to perform a task – even once – begin wiring the sequence immediately. The very first time.

YodaApparently, the guy in maroon is way ahead of us. No surprise.

And that leaves us with a profoundly interesting question. Whether it’s reducing consumption or collaborating with nature – or collaborating with anyone else, for that matter: How might we create the conditions in which someone earnestly, truly chooses an alternate path to the one they’re on now?

Eager to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ve embedded one of the Siegel/Kornfield talks, below. And may the Force be with us.

Images courtesy, Amazon, and

3 thoughts on “Change leadership: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s got our number

  1. Julie this is worthy of a far lengthier reply than I could ever responsibly post on a blog, but here’s a stab at the Cliff’s Notes version.

    In Buddhism it is all about intention. First thing every day we are told to contemplate:

    I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid ageing.
    I am of the nature to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
    I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.
    All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.
    I am the owner of my karma; I am born of my karma; I live supported by my karma; I will inherit my karma; whatever I do, whether good or evil, that I will inherit.

    Why? It’s not to be morbid, it’s to be focused in our motivation. There is a tremendous misunderstanding of what “karma” is. It isn’t fate, it is THE CUMULATIVE RESULT OF OUR INTENTIONS. My teacher John Yates puts it this way:

    “Karma determines not what happens to you – it determines who it happens to.”

    The results of our actions in the world as well as the conditions we experience are the result of our actions combined with that of an infinite number of others – that is what mutual causality and interdependent origination mean. We cannot and do not control OUTCOMES but we infallibly reap the results of our INTENTIONS.

    You could check out Joanna Macy’s “Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory” if you’re a true glutton for more on this, or I can write later.

    I’ll leave you with one last brain teaser knowing how much you like them. Want proof that causality isn’t linear? Okay, how about this: intention is based on what we think or want to happen in the future, and our predictions have a considerable degree of accuracy. This is an example of the future conditioning the past that happens constantly.

  2. Kevin, I am right down in the rabbit hole with you on this gem: “Karma determines not what happens to you – it determines who it happens to.” And Joanna Macy is now on my reading list! Thanks.

  3. This is great – I love your perspective. And as a sociologist, I particularly appreciated “Health warning…Cultural anthropologist attempts physical scientific explanation.” 🙂
    You have me thinking now on what it means to truly “choose.” Is that a lack of resistance? A deep knowing that it’s right for you? A yearning for something different? Is it a choice to move towards something instead of away from something? These are states that we could learn to cultivate I think, although I don’t know what the corresponding brain physiology would be.

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