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Incremental Learning

Donald NorfolkFools say ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but sages place their trust in a more positive folk axiom: ‘It’s never too late too learn.’ Even people set in their ways have the potential for beneficial change. William James, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology, claimed that by the time we reach the age of twenty-five we are all a ‘bundle of habits’. If those habits are bad, our health will be poor. If the habits are good, our chances of leading a long and healthy life are greatly increased.

This is a process we must control. It’s all too easy to make the excuse that we’re creatures of habit. This is a cop out which neatly sidesteps the fact that we’re also creators of habits. First we shape our habits, and then forever afterwards our habits shape us. But those routine behaviour patterns can be changed, if we modify them in a slow, methodical fashion. Whatever our age, we are all a work in progress.

This is the strength of the Buddhist approach. Anyone who wants to adopt the Christian or Islamic religion is expected to make a quantum leap, from infidel to pious Muslim, or from pagan sinner to Christian saint. With Buddhism all you have to make is a slow but steady, step-by-step progression on the five-fold path. This is in line with the Buddhist proverb: ‘If you are facing in the right direction, all you need do is keep walking.’

Some while ago a reporter asked a Tibetan lama how he managed to make the perilous escape from Tibet to China across the treacherous Himalayan mountain passes. ‘One step at a time’, was the monk’s short, but profound, reply.
Any task becomes easy if it’s tackled in a steady, progressive fashion. This is a tried and tested method of behavioural change, known to educationalists as incremental learning. It’s a system which can be applied to anything from sports training to academic studies and health promotion.

Jay Cochrane had a fear of heights, which was somewhat unfortunate since he wanted to make a living as a high wire walker! Early in his career he was overcome with terror as he set out to span the gap between two tower blocks. He didn’t want to disappoint the thousands of spectators gathered in the streets below, so he took his courage in his hands and inched his way slowly across the wire. Now he inspires others who lack the courage to pursue their goals. ‘Life is a tightrope walk’, he explains. ‘It’s one step at a time – and don’t look back.’

There’s no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval in between. To help you achieve your full potential, this site will provide a regular succession of tips which over the months will build up into a complete programme of self-enrichment and growth. Adopt the ones that suit your temperament and needs, and do your best to put them into daily practice until they become a grooved part of your habitual routine. That will leave you free to take the next step in your incremental journey to attain your chosen goals, whether you’re aiming for equanimity, vitality, vigour, joy or peace of mind.

Health is a process rather than a destination. The taxi meter keeps ticking whether you’re moving forward or standing still. You, and you alone, are responsible for your future, for as the Chinese sage affirmed: “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”