Accommodating Zebras

Accommodating Zebras

I began this month’s e-newsletter originally this way:

Swiss biologist Jean Piaget developed his theories of cognitive development almost 100 years ago, profoundly influencing our understanding of learning and brain adaptation ever since. His most famous example illustrating assimilation (new facts fit theories or mental categories we have already constructed) vs. accommodation (our established schemas have to change to accommodate new realities) talks about young children developing new cognitive structure to accommodate “zebra” as a new category of animal rather than assimilating zebras into the already established category of “horse.”

We all have to accommodate zebras every day, stretching our capacities to accommodate new ideas, new realities, that don’t’ easily fit into our experiences and established views. We hope that the money we’ve invested in a home or SEP-IRA will hold its value through retirement, that the love we’ve invested in a marriage will hold its value through old age, sickness and death, that the time and effort we’ve invested in training for a marathon will pay off in crossing the finish line in better shape than when we started, and that the bedrock of values we’ve built our life on will stay stable to guide us far into the future. And life throws us zebras to accommodate, disguised as curveballs, all the time. We have to accommodate “inconvenient truths” on a daily basis, and we don’t always want to.

Modern neuroscience has dramatically updated our views of what happens in the brain as it actively adapts to new realities – encoding zebras that require new neural circuitry – rather than passively accepting new information that can comfortably flow on the old pathways. This month’s e-newsletter explores recent discoveries that can help us stay more open to new experiences, even painful, unwanted ones that threaten to shake up our carefully crafted identities and securities. We can apply the discoveries of modern brain science to becoming even more skillful at managing cognitive dissonance and shifting schemas. We can support our brains’ accommodation of even the most challenging of zebras to ongoingly re-structure our views, our rules.

Accommodating zebras can definitely become more challenging as we age. Aging itself is a pretty big zebra to accommodate. We often resist or avoid letting aging shift our sense of who we are. Yet as we age, our mental processing slows down, our neural patterns can become more rigid, less flexible, what neuropsychologist Louis Cozolino so deftly labeled “hardening of the categories.”

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck

May these explorations of “avoiding the seduction of certainty and letting the brain have its arguments” be useful to you and yours as life throws its curveballs.

And then…

As has happened three or four times in the writing of these monthly reflections, life events suddenly opened the portal to dramatically deeper levels of accommodating zebras…. In one brief day, in the midst of pulling together the stories and quotes for this issue, I learned that a dear friend’s father had fallen the night before, hit the back of his skull on a concrete floor, had gone into cardiac arrest, and was expected to die in the next 2-3 days. Struggling to accommodate that new reality, just a few hours later I bumped into a former colleague at the farmer’s market. I learned that the downtown in the economy a few years ago had so dis-oriented and demoralized her husband that he had been briefly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. I never knew. And before I even got home from my errands, trying to keep my mind and heart open to those two zebras and offering support to the friends more impacted, I got a call on my cell phone that the 11-year old grandson of someone in one of my Deepening Joy groups had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and was undergoing further tests to determine treatment.

Whatever I write here of useful tools of accommodation, about staying open to uncertainty, learning from mistakes and failures, trusting our feelings and intuition to guide our thinking, tolerating complete paradigm shifts of what we thought we could count on – must be true enough and encompassing enough to accommodate the biggest zebras of all – death, loss, tragedy – as well.

Truly, may this month’s reflections and exercises be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Accommodating Zebras

One of the most revolutionary updates to Piaget from modern cognitive and affective neuroscience – neuro-imaging peeking inside the black box of the brain – is, of course, that neither assimilation nor accommodation – the architecting of schemas nor the re-modeling of them – is an exclusively conscious, cognitive process. The turning upside down of 2,500 years of Western thinking about thinking and learning, mistakenly over-privileging rational “thinking” over emotional “feeling” and the wisdom of the body, has been one of the more daunting zebras of the last 20 years to wrap our heads around. New discoveries about the role of neurotransmitters, of empathic resonance, of implicit emotional memory in all aspects of learning, in the wiring and re-wiring of the brain itself, requiring the re-thinking everything we thought we knew about thinking. MAJOR accommodation.

The conscious brain may get all the attention. But consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it’s a slave to everything that works beneath it.
– Joseph Ledoux

The recent New York Times bestseller How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer makes very accessible much of the neuroscience triggering this grand-scale accommodation. One tidbit: the anterior cingulate cortex – which we already know helps the brain focus attention and is a major switching station between the “thinking” structures of our brain and the “feeling” structures – i.e., the ACC integrates how we think about our feelings and how we feel about our thoughts – “is densely populated with a very rare type of cell known as a spindle neuron. Unlike the rest of our brain cells, which are generally short and bushy, these brain cells are long and slender. They are found only in humans and great apes, which suggest that their evolution was intertwined with higher cognition. Humans have about forty times more spindle cells than any other primate.

“The strange form of spindle cells reveals their unique function: their antenna-like bodies are able to convey emotions across the entire brain. After the ACC receives input from [the neurotransmitter] dopamine [the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward, the interruption of it essential to accommodation as we’ll learn below], spindle cells use their cellular velocity – they transmit electrical signals faster than any other neuron – to make sure that the rest of the cortex is instantly saturated in that specific feeling. The consequence of this is that the minor fluctuations of a single type of neurotransmitter play a huge role in guiding our actions, telling us how we should feel about what we see. ‘You’re probably 99.9 percent unaware of dopamine release,’ says Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University. ‘But you’re probably 99.9 percent driven by the information and emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.’ ”

How We Decide (see Resources below) focuses on the emerging neuroscience of decision-making, especially high-stakes, life-and-death decisions that must be made in less than a second. [Hence the emphasis on the emotional brain which can process millions of bits of data in milliseconds.] I found several of Lehrer’s analogies helpful in understanding the struggles our brains experience with accommodating zebras.

The Seduction of Certainty

We all know how to ignore early warning signs of disturbances we don’t want to deal with. How to ignore evidence that would contradict what we already know. (“My mind is made up; don’t try and confuse me with the facts.”) We all know how to “silence cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.” (One of the most challenging of all zebras to be accommodated, that the earth revolves around the sun in a planetary orbit, took centuries for the human mind to fully re-structure itself around. We’re experiencing similar difficulties today trying to comprehend the “inconvenient truths” of global warming.)

Lehrer explores the seduction of certainty in his chapter “The Brain is an Argument.”

“It feels good to be certain. Confidence is comforting. This desire to be always right is a dangerous side effect of having many competing brain processes inside one’s head. While neural pluralism is a crucial virtue – the human mind can analyze any problem from a variety of angles – it also makes us insecure. You never know which brain process (thoughts, feelings, intuition) you should obey. It’s not easy to make up your mind when your mind consists of so many competing parts.

“This is why being sure about something can be such a relief. The default state of the brain is indecisive disagreement; various mental parts are constantly insisting that the other parts are wrong Certainty imposes consensus on this inner cacophony. It lets you pretend that your entire brain agrees with your behavior. You can now ignore those annoying fears and nagging suspicions, those statistical outliers and inconvenient truths. Being certain means you aren’t worried about being wrong.”

Lehrer then quotes psychologist and researcher Drew Westen: “Essentially, it appears [people convinced of their opinions as ‘truth’] can twist the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

The high cost of such certainty, of course, is that a refusal to allow new facts to change our previous conceptions blocks all learning, often the very learning we need to make wise decisions and avoid disastrous consequences. (See Stories to Learn From)

Lehrer suggests that the way out of the inflexibility of certainty into the option-creating flexibility of uncertainty is to “let the brain have its arguments.”

“The only way to counteract this bias for certainty is to encourage some inner dissonance. Good decisions rarely emerge from a false consensus. We must force ourselves to think about the information we don’t want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs. When we start censoring our minds, turning off those brain areas that contradict our assumptions [those annoying fears and nagging suspicions], we end up ignoring relevant evidence.”

Lehrer offers a delightful vignette to illustrate the importance on a larger scale of allowing the brain to have its arguments. Alfred P. Sloan, the chairman of General Motors during its heyday, once adjourned a board meeting soon after it began. “Gentlemen,” Sloan said, “I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here…Therefore, I propose we postpone further discussion of the matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is all about.”

Lehrer draws an analogy of how the brain could stay more open-minded in the face of uncertainty and better entertain competing hypotheses. Cockpit Resource Management is now a widely used decision-making protocol that has reduced airline crashes attributed to pilot error dramatically in the last 20 years. At the heart of CRM is creating a decision making environment in which a diversity of viewpoints is freely shared. The captain is no longer the authority on the aircraft. The co-pilot and flight engineer are expected to constantly communicate with the pilot; each member of the flight crew is responsible to catching errors from their point of view.

Training in CRM is now also used in hospitals nationwide to reduce surgical mistakes. “CRM deters certainty and stimulates debate. With CRM, evidence is looked at from multiple angles and accommodated, so new alternatives can be considered. Such a process not only prevents mistakes but also leads to startling new insights.”

We can apply CRM to brains as well, if we take the time to create the open-mindedness that allow competing feelings and thoughts to have their say, to not shut down the inner argument too soon, to embrace uncertainty as a vehicle for more resilient accommodation. (See Exercises to Practice)

Mistakes – Learning from vs. Avoiding

It is a deep wisdom of life that we can/must learn from our mistakes. The chagrin and remorse would be unbearable if we couldn’t. The opportunities for learning lost would be enormous. If we remain reluctant to accommodate that zebra about the necessity of learning from mistakes for wiser living, neuro-imaging is now demonstrating that mistakes are how the brain re-wires itself and learns.

The same anterior cingulate cortex, that pays attention to the instantaneous communication of our neurotransmitters and our emotions, also notices any “uh-oh!,” any pre-patterned expectation (prior learning) not being met. The ACC is the brain’s circuitry of surprise. (Lehrer reports many neuroscientists refer to the ACC as the “oh, shit!” circuit.)

Because any expectation not being met interrupts the release of dopamine (the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward released when a prediction is met) our whole being reacts to a “mistake” negatively. Even deeper than any personal feelings about being “wrong”, our brain cells react to being “wrong” by learning to get it right the next time around, avoiding pain and re-gaining pleasure. The brain, especially the sub-conscious brain, is constantly correcting itself, detecting subtle patterns, accommodating more data than we can consciously comprehend, correcting course in milliseconds, often in one try, making sure its neural patterns are completely up to date.

Psychologists and educators are now focusing on learning from mistakes as one of the most crucial ingredients in learning how to learn, period. When students in research studies were praised for their intelligence (innate smarts) they took in the message “Look smart; don’t risk making mistakes.” Researchers discovered this fear of failure actually inhibited learning. When similar students were praised for their efforts (their choice to work hard) they began to perceive mistakes as building blocks of knowledge. They worked hard to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors, to figure out how to do better. They were willing to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first, and wound up performing at a much higher level than their “smart” counterparts.

“The most effective way to get better at anything is to focus on your mistakes. Expertise is the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged, on the contrary they should be cultivated and carefully investigated.”

(Even at 15 years of age, as a competitive ice skater, I knew if I wasn’t falling down, I wasn’t trying anything new, I wasn’t learning anything.)

“Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process. This insight applies to everyone. Learning is rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells which are constantly adjusting their connections to reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Over time, the brain’s flexible cells become the source of expertise.”

Kathryn Schulz is a journalist and author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. As a “wrongologist,” she has spent the last five years studying the moral, intellectual, creative leaps that can happen when we can tolerate being wrong as a necessary part of being human. And the disasters that happen when people stubbornly insist their view of reality is right and stop entertaining the possibility that they could be wrong – like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico or torpedoing the global economy. 1,200 years before Descartes posited him famous maxim “I think, therefore I am,” Saint Augustine said, “I err, therefore I am.” See Schulz’s terrific TED talk of March 2011 inviting us to step out of the tiny, terrified space of rightness into the vast complexity and mystery of “I don’t know.”

Paradigm Shift – Shaken to the Core

A third challenge to accommodation occurs when the new experience or information we’re being asked to accommodate requires a complete overhaul of our previous views and identities. This is the realm addressed in the January 2011 e-newsletter on Living Deeply. (The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life.)

We can get into deep trouble in our psyches if we can’t take in or refuse to accommodate new zebras. When we can’t tolerate a shake-up of our fundamental certainties, we either go into denial or experience such cognitive dissonance that we can be emotionally traumatized, triggering a spiritual emergence-y.

And, with determination and practice, we can find our way through the emergency to a genuine emergence into self-transformation and spiritual growth.

Transformation really means a change in the way you see the world – and a shift in how you see yourself. It’s not simply a change in your point of view, but rather a whole different perception of what’s possible. It’s the capacity to expand your worldview so that you can appreciate different perspectives, so that you can hold multiple perspectives simultaneously. You’re not just moving around from one point of view to another; you’re really expanding your awareness to encompass more possibilities.
– Frances Vaughan

Crisis, suffering, loss, the unexpected encounter with the unknown – all of this has the potential to initiate a shift in perspective. A way of seeing the familiar with new eyes, a way of seeing the self in a completely new way. The experience that I have in watching people with cancer is that the more overwhelmed someone is at the beginning, the more profound the transformation that they undergo. There’s a moment when the individual steps away from the former life and the former identity and is completely out of control and completely surrenders, and then is reborn with a larger, expanded identity.
– Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

(See January 2011 e-newsletter Living Deeply for more reflections and resources.)


We want the facts to fit the preconceptions. When they don’t, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the perceptions.
– Jessamyn West

* * * * *

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly to whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing.
– Thomas Huxley

* * * * *

It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong.
– Martin H. Fischer

* * * * *

Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.
– Carl G. Jung

* * * * *

There are no mistakes when there is learning.
– Julia Butterfly Hill

* * * * *

Learning is always rebellion. Every bit of new truth discovered is revolutionary to what we believed before.
– Margaret Lee Runbeck

* * * * *

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.
– Alan Cohen

* * * * *

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
– Anais Nin

* * * * *

To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly.
– Henri Bergson

* * * * *

New ideas stir from every corner. They show up disguised innocently as interruptions, contradictions, and embarrassing dilemmas. Beware of total strangers and friends alike who shower you with comfortable sameness, and remain open to those who make you uneasy, for they are the true messengers of the future.
– Rob Lebow

* * * * *

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
– Samuel Smiles


When accommodation doesn’t happen…

I once saw a couple that came into therapy over disagreements about their social life. Something seemed “off” in the first session, so I got a release to talk to the psychiatrist of one of them. Even though this person had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia 18 years before and had been on medication every since, the other partner, who had been informed of this diagnosis and its implications many times over their 20 year relationship, had somehow managed to avoid registering this information in his conscious awareness. When I confronted him at the next session with this rather startling refusal to accommodate this reality, i.e., to allow the reality of this diagnosis to impact his view of his partner and of himself, he reacted by shipping his partner back to live with his parents the next day. (!!!) The second partner’s inability to take in new information and let it shift his very core perceptions of himself and his partner abruptly severed what had been a stable long-term relationship.

When accommodation does happen….

Lifetimes ago, I was on a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, giving myself some time to feel my way through a possible career transition. When I shared with the guide that if I had another lifetime, I would become either a psychologist or a marine biologist, he looked me square in the eyes and asked me how old I was. I told him (early 40’s at the time) and he said, “You have this lifetime.” I was in graduate school in psychology in less than a year.

When accommodation is in the middle of happening…

William Bridges begins his classic Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes with the story of a woman who burst into tears in the first day of his transition workshop. She couldn’t understand why she was crying; she was happily married, had just had her first baby; her dreams were coming true; why all these tears? Bridges helped her explore the huge transition she was navigating, shifting her identity from a carefree single career person to a settled, responsible wife and mother. She was having to accommodate the re-wiring of her core sense of her self and her life.

How We Decide is full of stories drawn from military intelligence, football, aviation flight simulators, trading on Wall Street, the folly of sub-prime mortgages, firefighting, political analysis, playing world class poker, etc. One of my favorites to illustrate letting the brain have its arguments: (heavily abbreviated)

On July 19, 1989, on a routine flight from Denver to Chicago, cruising at 37,000 feet, Captain Al Haynes had set his United Airlines DC-10 on autopilot. All was as he expected from flying dozens of times on that flight path.

An hour into the flight, an explosion suddenly blew out the middle engine in the rear of the plane. The plane shuddered and lurched to the right, but kept flying on its two remaining engines. As co-pilot Records tried to pull the plane out of its steep bank and steer the plane back on its flight path, Haynes had two minutes to shut off the fuel supply to the damaged engine – but the fuel lever wouldn’t move. He was scanning the engine failure checklist in his pilot manual when his co-pilot Records said, “Al, I can’t control the plane.”

The circuit board looked normal; so did the onboard computers. Then Haynes checked the pressure on his three hydraulic lines: they were all plummeting toward zero. “I saw that and my heart skipped a beat,” Haynes remembers. “It was an awful moment, the first time I realized that this was a real disaster.” The hydraulic systems control the plane. They are used to adjust everything from the rudder to the wind flaps. Planes are always engineered with multiple, fully independent hydraulic systems; if one fails, the backup system can take its place. This redundancy means that a catastrophic failure of all three lines simultaneously should be virtually impossible. Engineers calculate the odds of such an event at about a billion to one. “It wasn’t something we ever trained for or practiced [even with 30,000 hours of flight experience], Haynes says. “I looked in my pilot manual, but there was nothing about a total loss of hydraulics. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.”

What wasn’t supposed to happen was happening. Life or death zebra. The only other time an aircraft had ever lost all of its hydraulic controls (a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Osaka in August, 1985) more than 500 people died when the uncontrollable aircraft crashed into a mountain – the deadliest single aircraft disaster in history.

Focus under pressure…Haynes began making a mental checklist of the cockpit elements that he could operate without hydraulic pressure. There was only one – the thrust levers – the gas and brakes of the plane. At first Haynes dismissed the idea of using the thrust levers as crazy – like trying to drive a car with gas and brakes intact but (no hydraulics) no steering wheel.

The idea was desperate; time was vanishing; Haynes began experimenting, using the thrust levers to raise the right side of the plane and to steer the plane by idling one side of the plane while boosting the other, alternating idle and thrust on each side of the plane. Twenty minutes after the initial explosion, Haynes and his crew had restored a measure of control to the uncontrollable plane and began planning to land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa.

A few short minutes after using the thrust levers to keep the plane lever and steer the plane from side to side, the plane began to pitch up and down, normal enough to manage with hydraulics, impossible without. Again Haynes had only the thrust levers and only minutes to think through…he could increase the speed of the plane on the downhill – a DC-10’s engines are under the wing – to thrust the nose of the plane up. Completely counter intuitive to then also brake on the uphill. “When the nose started up and the air speed started to fall, and then you had to close the throttles, that wasn’t very easy to do. You felt like you were going to fall out of the sky.”

But it worked. Then Haynes and his crew had to invent how to land with no way to control their rate of descent (no hydraulics – no elevators on the tail wing). They used the thrusting levers to make long slow circles over the airport, jettisoning fuel in a heroic feat of airmanship, landing the plane in the middle of the runway, wheels down and nose up.

[Because the pilots had no hydraulics, no control over the speed of the plane as it landed, the plane still skidded off the tarmac and broke up in a cornfield. The toxic smoke from a fire in the fuselage killed 112 passengers, thought the relentlessly quick thinking of the flight crew meant 184 passengers survived.]

The post-flight analysis of the 34 minutes of communications among the flight crew between the explosion and the touchdown revealed that the pilots were processing thirty pieces of information per minute (the normal is 10) with peaks of nearly sixty per minute. How did Haynes and his crew take new (disastrous) information in second by second, focusing only on the data relevant to the emergency while simultaneously keeping their minds open to improvising options that hadn’t ever been invented yet, keeping their minds open to input from each other, recalibrating decisions moment by moment until the moment the plane landed? [We learn later in the book this United Airlines crew had been trained in the Cockpit Resource Management protocol mentioned in Reflections.)

Lehrer describes the processes of the brain this way: “The pre-frontal cortex can take an abstract principle – the physics of engine thrust – and apply it an unfamiliar context to come up with an entirely original solution. Haynes could model the aerodynamics in his mind and imagine his engines correcting the plane’s steep bank to the right.

“The pre-frontal cortex can manipulate and analyze information in working memory, working with all the information streaming in from other cortical areas [from the body and emotional processing centers, too]. It can determine what information, if any, is relevant to the problem it’s trying to solve. It can re-structure information and make creative association as seemingly unrelated sensations and ideas overlap. That’s why Haynes could think about thrust levers while simultaneously thinking about how to turn the plane. Once this overlapping of ideas occurs, cortical cells start to form connections that have never existed before, wiring themselves into entirely new networks. And then, after the insight has been generated, the prefrontal cortex is able to identify it: you immediately realize that this is the answer you’ve been searching for. “I don’t know where the idea for differential thrust came from, Haynes says. It just occurred to me, all of a sudden, out of nowhere. I’m no genius, but a crisis like that sure can sharpen the mind.”

Accommodating Zebras

How do we manage to stay open to new experiences, even painful, unwanted ones, and support our brains’ accommodation of them, to ongoingly re-structure our views, our “rules.” How do we get even more skillful at managing cognitive dissonance and shifting schemas, when we’ve already figured things out and don’t want anything to change anymore?

Family therapist Virginia Satir developed a powerful guided visualization called the Parts Party. It’s an excellent tool to evoke various inner voices, let the brain have its arguments, and then come to a consensus. The basic instructions are below, with suggested variations at the end.


When you’re ready, you imagine you’re outside a theater, a stage theater where they present plays. Imagine the building, the doors, the posters outside. When you’re ready, walk up to one of the doors, open it, walk into the lobby; walk on through the lobby to one of the doors into the auditorium, open that door and walk into the empty theater. Walk all the way down to the first or second row and take a set in the center of the row. Now you’re seeing an empty stage in front of you. All is quiet.


Now imagine the first figure to come out on the stage is your wise guide, standing in the center where you can see them clearly. This is a figure that to you represents wisdom, acceptance, compassion; it may be your Larger Self that you feel completely safe with

Now we’re going to imagine other characters on the stage one by one. All of the characters embody a particular quality about your self. So it could be someone you know, yourself at a different age, someone you know from the movies or history or literature, could even be a certain character or an animal.

The first character embodies a quality about your self you really, really like, any quality at all, just something you feel very positive about yourself. Take a moment to let that character on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.

Now a second character comes on stage embodying another positive quality about yourself you really, really like. Take a moment to let that character materialize on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.

Now a third character comes on stage embodying yet another positive quality about yourself that you really, really like. Take a moment to let them materialize, remember them, jot them down.

Now you have three characters on stage that embody qualities about yourself that you really, really like, and your wise guide. Take a moment to remember them all.

Now, you bring a fourth character to the stage that embodies a quality about yourself that you really don’t like all that much. In fact, you wish it weren’t true, but you know it is. And this character embodying a negative or afflictive quality about you comes on stage; take a moment to materialize this character, remember them, jot them down.

Now you bring on a fifth character that embodies another negative or afflictive quality about you; take a moment to materialize them and remember them, jot them down.

Now you bring on the last character, a sixth character embodying just one more negative or afflictive quality about your self, a quality you don’t like very much and wish weren’t true but it is. Take a moment to materialize them, remember them, jot them down.

Now you have on stage your wise guide, there characters embodying positive qualities and three characters embodying negative qualities. In your imagination, ask each character in turn, what special gift they bring to you by being part of you. What lesson do you get to learn from them by their being a part of you. Ask each of these characters, the positive ones first, then the negative ones, and listen carefully to what they have to say to you; each one has some wisdom or learning to offer.

Now, in your imagination, briefly thank each of these characters for coming to be with you in this way today…. Have them exit off the stage one by one, the wise guide last. Then imagine yourself getting up out of your seat, walking to the aisle, walking back up the aisle out of the auditorium, through the lobby and back outside the theater. Turn around to look at the theater where this all happened. Then slowly come to awareness again of sitting in this room, your breathing, and when you’re ready, open your eyes.

[Note: When the Parts Party is repeated over time, the characters will evolve, different characters will come on stage. A helpful record of the integration of the psyche over time.]

When all the characters are assembled on stage, identify a particular decision you need to make or a problem you need to solve. Ask each of the characters in turn for their view, for their input into the decision. The characters don’t have to agree with one another; the diversity of opinions is a healthy part of the process. After you have heard from each character in turn, take a moment to let the various opinions settle in your consciousness, and then ask your wise guide for his/her view. Let the view of your wise guide settle in your consciousness, then slowly exit as before.

When all the characters are assembled on stage, identify an event that has already happened, that you have some misgivings or remorse about. Again ask each of the characters for their view of what happened, listening quietly even to views that make you uncomfortable. After you have heard from each character in turn, take a moment to let the various opinions settle in your consciousness, and then ask your wise guide for his/her view. Let the view of your wise guide settle in your consciousness, then slowly exit as before.


How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Mariner Books, 2009

A well-researched exploration of the neuroscience of decision making, written in a breezy, accessible style. Full of dramatic stories and useful factoids. More topics available on Lehrer’s blog The Frontal Cortex.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. HarperCollins, 2010.

“A funny and philosophical meditation on why error is mostly a humane, courageous and extremely desirable trait.”
– Dwight Garner, New York Times

Living Deeply: January e-newsletter on the art and science of transformation in everyday life. An exploration of the challenges and powers of accommodation.