John Beaulieu was our guest workshop presenter this past weekend at CIIS. I’m always amazed (and amused!) by John’s breadth and depth of knowledge, clinical experience, and artistic expression. Most of all, I notice my awe at how comfortable he appears to be in his own skin. It’s not just an appearance – it’s an energy he exudes. It’s part of his healing art form. When someone is fully self-possessed, in all their humanity, without self-judgment, it is healing to be in their presence. That’s what I took home from the power of his work with us. He came of age during the 1960s, experimented with everything that came across his path, sought out new experiences, new teachers, new ways of thinking, new ways of working. He created his own life, step by fearless step. He built his own strength by adapting and changing throughout his own life, facing opportunities, crises, and choices, always building his muscles of change. And now he helps share that insight with people through his teaching, his practice, and his products.

One story of many that stuck with me from this weekend was John’s question to us: “What’s the difference between rats and human beings?”

We all paused in silence, trying to think of a funny or pithy answer.

John’s answer was to summarize one series of experiments performed by the “father” of behavioral psychology, B.F. Skinner. He built two of the same mazes – one sized appropriately for rats, with cheese in the middle; and one in the basement of the building large enough for humans, with a 5-dollar bill in the middle. Skinner found that there was no difference in learning time between rats and humans (so much for the hypothesis that we learn faster!). Within one day, all of the rats found the cheese and all of the humans found the five-dollar bills.

On the second day, the cheese and the five-dollar bill were removed from the maze, and the same participants were asked to repeat the maze. All of the humans repeated the maze, but only seventy percent of rats repeated their maze. On the third day, only thirty percent of rats repeated the maze (still no cheese). But nearly all of the humans kept repeating the maze. After a week, none of the rats would repeat the maze, but a significant percentage of the humans kept running through the maze (to find no five-dollar bill). After a month, there were still several humans who kept returning to the lab to run through the maze. Skinner took down the maze after one month, and the basement of the laboratory was broken into by one of the subjects, still in search of the elusive five-dollar bill (or perhaps just the maze itself).

The point? Well, what IS the difference between rats and humans, based on this set of observations by Skinner?

Rats know when to give up. Maybe they give up too soon. But they also know when to move on and stop torturing themselves with the idea that they might get the cheese, once it’s clear that there is no cheese to be had.

Humans have the capacity to keep repeating the same pattern of behavior based on a single experience in the distant past, if they believe it holds the promise of some reward, no matter how small. Maybe these were starving students who so highly valued the chance at a five-dollar bill that showing up every day to run the maze didn’t seem like a big sacrifice. But imagine the number of days of disappointment that the human subjects were willing to keep on experiencing, even as the memory of that one five-dollar bill faded further into the distance!

We suffer because of our mind’s propensity to attach to outcomes. We may get up every morning of our adult lives, and willingly run through the maze, because of our hope for the five (million) dollar bill waiting for us if we just get to the end. We might even get that “five-dollar bill” one time, and it doesn’t set us free, but instead keeps us locked in the same patterns that got us our “success” the first time. We might not bother to move on and look at different ways to get that money (or even more than a five-dollar bill), or we may not even realize we’ve been running in someone else’s maze.

And what’s the upside? We humans persist and persevere. We have faith. We believe in things, because we can imagine the possibility of something in the future, provided with just a hint of hope, and hold onto it so tightly that it keeps us going. We also create, holding a vision in our minds and never letting go until we bring it into full expression through all resources available to us. All of these are beautiful qualities we enjoy about being human, and are also tendencies we have to keep running through the maze. They are all expressions of the same nature of our minds.

So, if most of us – being human – are running around the maze, the question is, what happens when your maze is taken away? Will you need it so much that you’ll have to break in to the basement, looking for it? Or will you have the strength, flexibility, and balance to find new routes to rewarding yourself? How will you build the muscles of flexibility if you’ve been running through that maze every day for so long?

Will it come down to survival? And how will you thrive, in all your humanness, during our collective run through the giant maze of life? Can you change your mind?

Better start practicing now.