Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Trying New Things

Why new experiences are so important to have

My wife and I are similar in a number of ways, but we're completely opposite in how we feel about trying new things. I resist and often fear it, while she positively craves it. For as long as I can remember, I haven't even liked trying new foods (an aversion my family and friends have alternatively found amusing and consternating), preferring instead to eat what I already know I like. My wife, in contrast, almost never orders the same thing twice. In fact, when we go out, she rather not even go to the same restaurant twice. I, of course, prefer restaurants I already know. I thrive on routine, finding myself for the most part perfectly happy to do the same things day after day (never tiring of them because I love doing them). My wife, on the other hand, finds routine to be poisonous to her passion for life.

One benefit of enjoying routine, I routinely point out to her, is that it supports discipline, which I have in spades, enabling me to commit to lengthy projects and actually finish them. My enjoyment of routine also makes me incredibly reliable. As my wife has remarked to our family and friends many times, when she asks me to handle a routine chore, she never has to worry if it's ever been skipped: I will do it faithfully, day in and day out, without fail, ad infinitum.

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Still, despite these benefits, I've known for some time the real reason I resist trying new things and prefer routine is fear (what else?)—fear of the unknown. Studies suggest we fear an unknown outcome more than we do a known bad one. What if I don't like this new dish? What if that foreign country is dangerous? I have an extremely active and fertile imagination, and though it's a great advantage in writing, it can sometimes be a disadvantage in living.

There are many things of which I have no fear whatsoever: I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to succeed. I'm not afraid to look foolish (though I don't like it any more than anyone else). I'm essentially mostly afraid of being in situations where I perceive I might be in some way unsafe (that fact, coupled with the general tendency we all have to fear the unknown, probably best explains my fear of death, which I wrote about in an earlier post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death).

It also explains an apparent paradox: not only am I not afraid to try some new things, I'm often actually eager. As long as I perceive no threat of harm, I like the stimulation of the new. This blog, for example. The benefits writing it has brought me have been wonderful and mostly completely unexpected. Which highlights the reason I try to challenge my fear of new things: it almost always brings me something good.

One of the strangest new things I ever tried was Nichiren Buddhism. I'd always been attracted to the idea that enlightenment might actually be a real thing, possible to attain in a way that made a real difference in the subjective quality of a person's life. Yet the strangeness of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo made me so uncomfortable at first I spent a lot of time wondering if I'd lost my mind in even opening it up to the idea. But I'm so glad I did. In previous posts, I've described some of the benefits my Buddhist practice has brought me over the last twenty-three years.

But even if it had brought me not a single benefit and I'd stopped practicing soon after I'd started, I'd still consider my decision to have tried it one of my proudest moments. Nothing I'd ever tried before or since has represented a larger move away from what was safe and familiar to me.

Opening our minds to a new thing or a new way of thinking is often frightening because by definition it's unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity often rings the alarm bell "danger—potentially unsafe." But if you think about it, most of the things we fear don't actually come to pass. What's more, we're often unable to anticipate the good things that do occur as a result of our trying something new.

In summary, here's a list of things I try to remind myself whenever I'm faced with trying something new:

  1. Trying something new often requires courage. And needing to summon courage is itself a benefit. Once it's released it will, like its second cousin once removed, anger, indiscriminately engulf everything in its path. How wonderful to open a flood of courage and be carried on its waves to destinations of unexpected benefit.
  2. Trying something new opens up the possibility for you to enjoy something new. Entire careers, entire life paths, are carved out by people dipping their baby toes into small ponds and suddenly discovering a love for something they had no idea would capture their imaginations.
  3. Trying something new keeps you from becoming bored. Even I, the most routine-loving person I know, become bored if I'm not continually challenged in some way. And it's not the new challenges I'm eager to take on that represent my greatest opportunities for growth—it's the ones I'm not.
  4. Trying something new forces you to grow. We don't ever grow from taking action we've always taken (the growth that enabled us to be able to take it has already occurred). Growth seems to require we take new action first, whether it's adopting a new attitude or a new way of thinking, or literally taking new action. Thrusting yourself into new situations and leaving yourself there alone, so to speak, often forces beneficial change. A spirit of constant self-challenge keeps you humble and open to new ideas that very well may be better than the ones you currently hold dear (this happens to me all the time).

Which is why it's usually this last point that wins me over. For me, trying new things isn't about just enjoying a new activity or food, for example. I really am content enjoying all the things I already enjoy. But straying into foreign lands, both metaphorically and literally, has always forced me to challenge my beliefs. And as painful as that is, nothing, I believe, contributes to our happiness more than shattering the delusions to which we cling, unable as we often are to distinguish between beliefs that are true and beliefs that are false (especially beliefs about ourselves). And for better or worse, we simply seem unable, most of the time, to identify a belief as delusional unless some experience shows us.

In the end then, I find the spirit to try new things synonymous with the spirit of self-improvement. And while I can't honestly say I'm intrinsically interested in the former (and sometimes need a gentle reminder to do it from people around me), the latter is a large part of the reason I'm here.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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