Rule-Bound Adjustment is Deadening – Rule-Flexible Adaptiveness is Enlivening

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Fixity is death; fluidity is life.
—Winston L. King

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change.
—Charles Darwin


While driving on a road that narrows, the driver to your left or right refuses to yield in joining your lane, forcing you to make a choice. At some moment of your life you will be faced with a situation like this and your very life and those you love, whether in the car of not, will be deeply effected by what you do. Will you rigidly adhere to having the right of way since it is their lane that is merging into yours, or will you yield to preserve life and limb whether that conforms to the letter of the law, courtesy of the roadway, rules and regulations or not? Most of us would yield, perhaps grudgingly, reluctantly and with irritability moving quickly into anger spurred on by fear. Some drivers would not, thus forcing the situation onto the other driver, and either their yielding the right of way or having a car collision. This is the crux of this writing-will it be rule-bound adjustment that can literally be deadening, or rule-flexible adaptiveness that is workable and often enlivening. Which call will you hear? Which will you answer?

Rigid obedience and religious allegiance to the rules and regulations will not earn you any brownie points in heaven, mature your timeless soul or bring you one millimeter closer to God. As being muscle-bound can be perceived as an overdevelopment of muscles through overindulgence in weight lifting to look buff, strong and attractive, so being rule-bound is a rigid attachment to avoiding one’s shadow self by unconstructive strictness to compensate for insecurity. Being rule-bound is often associated with operating by adjustment, that is, getting by and making do within any social context, such as a family or workplace or vision of contribution, in order to survive it all and be right.

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To adjust mindlessly to rules often degenerates into being unworkably rule-bound, a hallmark sign of the imaginary self or ego. Further, any behavior that you are adjusting to rules bypasses critical thinking and consequential thinking skills, critical for a consciously lived life. Spiritual teacher and author Jiddu Krishnamurti stated, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Adjusting to a sick, manipulative or dysfunctional social environment, whether a family, community, organization or country, is tantamount to selling out your soul for an illusion of peace.

Take the example of asking for an exception to a rule, procedure or regulation given a legitimate real-life circumstance. Many times the person in authority will declare, “Well if I made an exception for you, then I would have to make an exception for everyone,” and refuses even consider the merits of the situation in deftly denying the request. Who hasn’t come up against this? Of course, such a statement that seems so reasonable and logical typically holds no substance whatsoever. Actually if the circumstances were honestly recognized, flexibly held and the options carefully weighed, much of the time taking some adaptive influence would be most workable for all parties.

Rule-bound adjustment misplaces apparent choice and the whole point of the activity, turning it into a means-ends reversal or ritualism in which the true purpose is waylaid and seemingly lost. In such a survival mode and having to be right, would you have any idea of what you’re doing? Rule-bound adjustment usually occurs when one has no dream, has misplaced their dream, or is disconnected from their called deeper purpose, resulting in only going through the motions of life and deadening one’s joyous spirit.

Remarkably, the so-called rules don’t apply to our dream lives, moments of intuition, times of brain-storming, other right-hemispheric and holistic processing, Presence and witnessing consciousness, all that is real and true, and when we inhabit our True Nature. Each of these ways of being is a free zone and a responsible inner place to stand outside the ego that ever aims to keep control. In awareness you can deliberately create a safe, secure space to engage in what is real without the ego’s edge.

Rule-flexible adaptiveness is a healthy alternative to rule-bound adjustment. To adapt and be adaptive is the ability to fully accept what is and functionally work with the realities present in this moment. Rule-flexible adaptiveness means to recognize the value of useful structures in insuring freedom and productivity. You have to know the rules of your society to break them. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. consciously broke the rules of their societies under the banner of non-violent civil disobedience given a higher law of common humanity and decency, Love and Divinity. This stance balances functional structure with built-in flexibility to, above all, be adaptive to the needs and conditions life presents each moment, while being responsive and respectful of a higher law. Naturalist and author Charles Darwin brilliantly postulated that the survival of any life species goes not to the most intelligent, strongest or fittest, but to the most adaptive.

Instead of adjusting to unacceptable conditions, rules, regulations and structures, the adaptive are aware and protect their vital values and principles, while simultaneously negotiating, restructuring and refining the social and organizational context of rules, regulations and structures. One who is rule-adaptive works within structures this one helped construct, reinvent or modify, like a composer playing with the spaces, phrasing and sequencing of a piece to achieve some emotional or moral purpose. Rule-adaptive functioning is propelled by enthusiastic animation over the present-time vision of realizing a dream. This prospect is naturally enlivening, enthralling and attractive.

The “silence between the notes” communicates the inner melody according to the violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. He is not alone in this view as validated by the great pianist Arthur Schnabel’s noting, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes-ah, that is where the art resides.” Without the inner melody, all communication falls flat and makes no difference since people usually turn out. Being flexibly rule-adaptive is a mutual respecting and honoring all parties in bringing presence in deeply listening to the realities and being willing to take wise influence.

The 1993 American comedy film Groundhog Day, one of the all-time great comedic films directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, is a stunning example of both being rule-bound adjustment and rule-flexible adaptation. Murray plays lead character Phil Connors, a self-absorbed, arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman who hates his assignment of covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and finds himself living the same day over and over. After blatant indulgence of hedonism, emotional reactivity, unbridled selfishness and repeated suicide attempts, he eventually begins to re-examine his life, values and priorities.

The protagonist makes the journey from showing self-righteous and closed-minded behavior and attitudes as well as being attached to rule-bound inflexibility and reactivity of adjusting everything external to him to get what he thinks he wants, to slowly shifting to an internal guidance in meeting this day, people and events just as they are. He begins to be more rule-flexible in adapting to changing conditions, situations and environments. One example of this shift in the film is his repeatedly stepping in the same water-filled deep pothole. At one point he is about to do this once again, and this time pauses, looks again and simply sidesteps the pothole. Another example is his repeatedly crossing the street to dodge a friend who happens to be a life-insurance salesman. At one point the Murray character directly approaches the friend, heartily and warmly greets him and wishes him well, all in sharp contract to the long-standing pattern of avoidance. These apparently small movements throughout the movie point to a hard-won and equally rewarding huge shift yielding ever more productive and satisfying results, especially in the greatly enhanced quality of his relationships, including with his female co-journalist.

The director and co-writer Harold Ramis provides a lovely hint of the larger reward awaiting anyone who traverses the domain of authentic life transformation by concluding the film with the protagonist waking up in a new day. This ending appears to be a thinly disguised metaphor for a whole new life of fresh, unconditioned experiences unmitigated by past programming. The ego-mind’s agenda to only find joyous happy times and avoid painful unhappy times is revealed as empty and pointless, only two ends of a mind-created polarity that distorts living in presence and true sustaining growth. Rule-adaptive people are not bound to the rules like an ill-fitting, restrictive straightjacket. They act more like a well-fitting coat with comfortable room to move, warmth and protection. Being rule-adaptive preserves true impersonal or divine will and the opportunity to use apparent choice in honoring useful structures that allows true freedom and follow purely what beckons, calls and summons from within. Sweet, indeed.

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