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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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Who Do You Think You Are?

The modern paradigm of medical and mental health has a built-in bias for diagnosis, due in large part to its historical interest in isolating and treating pathology of various kinds in the body and mind. A consequence of this bias is that while we can zero in on what’s wrong or not working properly, our understanding of what constitutes psychic (mind) and somatic (body) wholeness is less developed.

Individual sufferers go to professionals for help, many of them privately hoping that their psychosomatic health and quality of life will be elevated as a result. Instead they find themselves subjected to ‘treatment plans’ designed to suppress symptoms of dis-ease rather than actualize genuine wellbeing.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s in counseling I was surprised – and increasingly more aggravated – by the requirement put on students to choose our guiding theory from among current orthodox protocols of diagnostic psychotherapy. As professional therapists we would need to work closely with insurance companies, with doctors who could prescribe drugs, and (of course) with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is continually inventing more categories to pigeonhole the symptoms of suffering among the general population.

Even then it was obvious to me that a concept of ‘disorder’ must presume some deeper grasp on what ‘order’ (aka health, wholeness, or wellbeing) is, but this was barely discernible in the literature and never explained in the classroom. I began to suspect that some larger conspiracy might be directing our training as students and future professionals in the field. As counselors (and not drug prescribers) we could offer short-term talk therapy for clients, but the real money lay in tying client symptoms to more serious disorders with a basis in neurobiology that could justify pharmaceutical interventions.

Now, I’m not denying that some cases can benefit from a combination of talk and drug therapy – although the trend these days is to get patients through counseling and on open-ended prescription medication plans if their symptoms persist, which in 70% of cases they do. Strong research suggests that this rather abysmal success rate of therapy (of either type or in combination) can be attributed not to the particular protocol used, but to the fact that individual sufferers don’t readily take responsibility in the salvation they seek.

And this, in my opinion, swings back around to a diagnostic paradigm that effectively ignores the person and reduces suffering to symptoms seemingly outside the individual’s choice or control.

If we are to take responsibility in our suffering as well as creative authority in our pursuit of wellbeing, we need psychotherapeutic models that envision us as actively engaged in the construction of both suffering and wellbeing. In a sense, that’s what I am working toward in this blog. So it’s in that spirit that I offer another installment on the question of identity and our human journey.

My diagram contains a lot of terminology relative to the construction of identity, but we’ll step through it in a way that simplifies things considerably. Let’s begin at the middle, where the executive center of identity known as our ego is represented. Ego is how we identify ourselves, as the starring actor in a story we’re continually telling ourselves and others – our personal myth. Every myth has a supporting cast of other actors whose importance in the narrative is a function of their proximal influence on matters concerning our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

Each of these four feeling-needs (referring not to the fact of our being safe, loved, capable, or worthy, but our need to feel we are such) presents itself at a critical period of our development, in this precise sequence, rising upon earlier ones and setting the stage for those coming later. (As is often the case with my diagrams, information should be read organically from the bottom and flowing or growing upward.)

The four feeling-needs further organize into two broader concerns connecting to ego’s need to belong (or fit in) and be recognized (or stand out) – the two polar drives in our construction of identity. Belonging answers our need to feel safe and loved; recognition satisfies our need to feel capable and worthy.

You can appreciate their polarity in the way they pull against each other: the effort to gain approval (a type of social recognition) often involves a willingness to give up some anonymity (a type of social belonging). Conversely, if our first priority is to hold a position of acceptance (another type of belonging), we will try not to draw undo attention to ourselves (another type of recognition).

In dynamical systems, something called an ‘attractor’ is a recurrent code that draws a system into persistent patterns of organization. In our consideration of the pattern known as personal identity (or the construct of who you are), two polar attractors drive development: at one end is the secure base (an attractor for safety, love, acceptance and belonging), while at the other end is the proving circle (an attractor for personal power, worth, approval and recognition).

Archetypally these correspond to our mother (or mother figure) and father (or father figure), respectively. A number of Freud’s most enduring insights can be liberated from his theory of sexuality and better understood archetypally in these terms instead.

The unique admixture of temperamental predispositions, environmental conditions, and personal life events tends to ‘lean’ our personality more toward one attractor than the other. Even within the range of so-called normal psychology this is the case. A normal well-adjusted personality can value belonging over recognition, or vice versa. The important point is that both attractors and their associated values are critical to our identity and mental health.

What this suggests is that our individual personality can be understood (not diagnosed!) as either security-seeking or esteem-seeking. Identifying more with one doesn’t mean that we have no interest in the other; healthy identity is somewhere in the balance of both. If you happen to value safety and love over power and worth, it may simply reveal that close relationships are more important to you than personal achievements, not that accomplishing things and making progress don’t matter.


You were probably waiting for me to mention this: It can happen that the balance snaps and we get stuck at one pole or the other. Security becomes everything and we end up giving all our energy to pleasing and placating the people we feel we can’t live without. (This is common among children of addicts and victims of abuse.) Or else if we’re caught at the other end, we stay busy trying to flatter and impress others so they’ll esteem us as somebody important and worthy of praise. (This is frequent among celebrities and performers of various kinds.)

The goal of development is to hold the balance and use our stable center of personal identity to leap (or drop) into a larger (or deeper) experience of wholeness and wellbeing. More about that next time …

 

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