This week we are celebrating Sukkot, a beautiful cosmic window of time when the energy of protection, mercy, kindness, and joy is available to us in abundance. It is an opening of what kabbalists call Or Makif, surrounding Light. It represents our potential for greatness, all of the amazing things we have to achieve and give but are not quite yet manifesting in our reality. The Torah describes Sukkot as “the holiday of ingathering,” meaning harvest. While at face value it refers to the harvest of crops, it is also the time for the ingathering of all the blessings and gifts that are available.
We can’t fully connect to the abundance and power of Sukkot without thinking in a different way. It requires a shift. One of the simplest ways to change thoughts is to change the environment. A Sukkah is constructed for use during the seven days of Sukkot. A Sukkah is a temporary structure, like a hut, with a roof made up of branches. Eating, socializing, prayers, and connections are all held in the Sukkah. Men and boys often sleep there at night.
What I find so interesting about many of the kabbalistic traditions is just how smart they are. Rav Ashlag put it like this, “Once one has chosen an environment, one is subjected to it like the clay in the hands of the potter.”
The emerging field of environmental psychology focuses on how our environment changes thought patterns and, thereby, behavior. We engage with our surroundings. Unquestionably, the bed we wake up in, whether we drive to work or not, what kind of work that we do, who we interact with daily, all influences our thoughts and actions.
In one study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a large cohort of German college students were given a personality inventory to measure the ‘big five’ personality traits. Assessed traits were Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability. Half the students stayed in Germany, and half studied abroad for at least one semester. The study abroad students showed a marked increase in the areas of Openness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability when they were reassessed after returning to Germany.
Ergo, when we change our surroundings, we change not only our thoughts and behaviors but our core personality traits, and not just temporarily.
So, on Sukkot, we go sit in a tent for a week. So smart!
But, most of the time, we aren’t sitting in a hut, studying abroad, or going on vacation. We are going about our day-to-day routines. The average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day according to research published by The National Science Foundation. Of those thoughts, 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before.
How can that be?!
If your routine doesn’t change, you wake up at the same time in the same place, make coffee with the same equipment in the same kitchen, drive the same route to school or the office, your day unfolds according to your routine until you go to bed at night… When you think about it like that, it’s not surprising at all how repetitive our thoughts really become. And this sameness of thought is death.
I don’t use that word lightly.
Having 95% of the same thoughts day after day is like being trapped in the plot of the movie Groundhog Day. There is no creativity, no change, no growth when stuck in this loop. It’s not just spiritual death either. Thinking the same thoughts, over and over, doesn’t create new neural pathways in the brain, and over time, can result in cognitive degeneration. Neuroplasticity is paramount.
Merriam Webster defines neuroplasticity as: the capacity for continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the living brain and nervous system in response to experience or injury.
Dr. Michael Merzenich is known as “the father of brain plasticity,” and he explains that travel, new experiences, and learning languages make it far less likely to experience cognitive decline. Anything that gets us off auto-pilot will create new neural pathways and lead to greater neuroplasticity.
Changing our environment, going on a trip, trying a new food, challenging ourselves to get outside the comfort zone, learning something new, and experiencing unfamiliar customs or processes shouldn’t be goals for someday when we have time. These things are the purpose of life, not the rewards of hard work to be relegated to ‘some day.’
“There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”—Dr. B.J. Fogg, Director of Stanford Persuasive Lab
We like to think that our thoughts drive our habits, but Fogg’s research has found that it’s the cart driving the horse. We take cues from our surroundings, take mental shortcuts, and ingrained habit kicks in, despite whatever our intentions to change those habits may have been. That’s why it is much easier to change a habit when you are away from home and away from all the visual cues and routines.
We all want joy and abundance. Most of us desire to live up to our potential for greatness and achieve all the goals we have set for ourselves. But we’re not going to get there if we are thinking 95% of the same thoughts every single day. Make a conscious effort to change your environment, expose yourself to new ideas and opportunities, and break out of your comfort zone of habit and routine. While not all of us can immediately book a vacation or retreat, we can go for a walk, take some phone calls outside in nature, or take a different route next time we get in a car. The smallest changes to our surroundings can lead to a change in our thoughts. Do it for your brain, it’s desperate for some new neural connections!