A while back a client of mine repeated something she had heard: “Energy follows patterns.”

I have been repeating this phrase ever since. It helps explain how, among other things, habitual responses, dysfunctional dynamics, and seemingly inescapable cycles get locked in. For example:

· Whenever Lucy feels a fight coming on with anyone in her family, she starts cleaning the house. It creates a sense of order and redirects a lot of uncomfortable emotion into something that feels practical.

· When Dave starts to feel intense intimacy building in a relationship, he begins to distance himself and go into his head. Switching vantage points allows him to be more judgmental and intolerant. Focusing on flaws and shortcomings relieves the pressure he is feeling, protects his heart, and justifies his desire to back away.

· Whenever things at work start to go well for Tim, he makes a glaring error. He forgets an important meeting, he accidentally erases a presentation, or he gets into an accident with the company car. Each time he takes full responsibility and apologizes profusely. Everyone really likes him and thinks he’s really talented, but they’re starting to agree with him when they hear his catch phrase “I guess I’m just a screw up”. At this point there is no chance he’ll ever be promoted because nobody dares trust him with anything important.

These patterns structure and contain the energy moving through us, and they channel it into familiar outcomes. Some are healthy and some aren’t, but even if the outcome is undesirable, patterns help us avoid chaos. They give us predictability, manageability, and help the world make sense.

Often, we reach for a pattern in that split second when the energy is coming at us fast, so the ones we end up with turn out to be the ones we saw used during our childhood. We are confronted with abuse and we activate Dad’s victim pattern. We are overwhelmed with unmanageable emotion and we activate Mom’s addict pattern. We feel humiliated or belittled by our partners so we lash out and attack them the way our older brother used to.

For some, the day comes when you outgrow the pattern. It doesn’t fit who you are and, perhaps more importantly, it finally causes enough pain and loss that it makes it worth doing the work to let go of it. If you’re very lucky there is a teacher, therapist, or wise friend to help guide you through not just the letting go process, but also the formation of a healthy substitute pattern. You learn what not to do and what to do instead.

This second part is critical because, without knowing it, most of us are governed by a very basic, unconscious rule that prevents us from releasing patterns without a ready replacement:

Something is better than nothing.

It doesn’t matter how destructive or horrible the habit is. As long as this rule is in place, we rarely surrender what we have until we have something ready to take its place. That’s why it’s so much easier to break up with someone when you have someone else to go to. There is a fundamental, primitive logic that says having is worth more than not having.

But what about those times when the next thing isn’t ready to go? When there’s no guarantee that anything will ever fill that empty space that is being created?

What happens when your beloved spouse dies, or you get fired from your dream job? What if illness or accident robs you of something that changes your sense of identity forever, like the ability to walk or speak or make music? These are all patterns that shape and channel large amounts of the energy that flows through our lives.

Whether we are holding on to an obsolete pattern, trying to fill the space that has been vacated with anything and everything, or are stuck with an emptiness that feels like it can never be replaced, the challenge is formidable. It requires great patience, consciousness, willingness, and faith.

Next time I’ll discuss how one might begin to address this painful dilemma.

This is the kind of Spiritual terrain that I help people navigate. If your Spirit is prompting you to have a conversation like this, I encourage you to get in touch with me.

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