Some people drift aimlessly through life reacting to events and never making things happen for themselves. However, whatever the personal problem, it is often necessary for us to take the initiative in doing something about it, rather than letting things drift. Otherwise, it is only when some crisis occurs that eventually the situation forces us to make decisions about say a job, home, or even a close relationship. Better to prevent difficulties getting out of hand than allow circumstances no longer under our control to push us into a corner.
Often and in various ways we may slide into letting life around us govern how we think and behave – in a way that enables us to blame ‘it’ if ever we feel criticised. So it tends to be “someone else’s fault – not mine!” But spiritual healing may be needed.
Perhaps we are willing to be of help to others even when it is an inconvenience. It is good to be selfless and charitable. However, do we sometimes allow others to exploit our better nature? One sign of this is if we were to feel fed up with the way others take advantage of us or feel quietly resentful when sidelined, or put on.
It is not necessarily the fault of the other person. We may be adding to our troubles by the way we regularly give in to what someone wants. At times perhaps even acting like a doormat for them to wipe their feet on. Like when we find ourselves meekly submitting to what our family and friends demand; limply agreeing to go where someone asks us to go and doing whatever they suggest. We do not have a sense of our true selves because we are too busy meeting others expectations. Without thinking we fall in with what they say.
Adolf Hitler once said:
“What luck for the rulers that men do not think.”
Why would anyone be so daft as constantly to do things that another person wants instead of thinking through their own views? It may be because we value ourselves less than we value others. This might show in conversation: “I’m sure you’re right.” “I’ll leave that up to you.” Some of us believe ourselves to be happy if we relate to others in this way but without our realising there is an inner assumption that what we want does not count, or that we do not really matter. Thinking so little of ourselves, the idea that we have any choice does not occur to us; in other words, tamely trying to please for fear of someone disliking us. We keep striving for the unobtainable, not realising that we can never gain everybody’s approval.
Just as we may need to be less passive with other people, so we also may need to learn to take the initiative in relation to ourselves. Having a healthy relationship with others also means having a healthy relationship with oneself.
In psychotherapy it is generally accepted that if patients persist in blaming some other person or thing for their problems of living, then no real therapy is possible. A therapist may ask such an individual whose partner keeps running him or her down or using violence why not do something about it like insisting on a trial separation to bring the other person to their senses. In not accepting the responsibility for the way they live their lives, they cannot start to take hold of their own self and destiny. Thus for such people any personal growth is delayed.
The trouble is that many people are told that they are not at liberty to change their ways and that human freedom is questionable. For example, psychoanalysis – a branch of psychotherapy that follows the writings of Sigmund Freud – says we are not free because we are unaware of our unconscious complexes. Moreover, many behaviourists argue that our freedom is illusory because we are conditioned by the world around us e.g. the rewards and punishments in the family or the workplace, that shape our attitudes and life choices.
There is some – albeit – limited truth in these viewpoints. None of us is free to change our inherited disposition and the home environment when we were young. Because of differences in for example types of temperament and parental attitudes, we need to individually travel on our own unique spiritual journey. How the individual develops will be limited according to his or her makeup and life circumstances. We start at different places. The role models to whom we happen to be exposed affect how we mature.
Both nature and nurture will both influence our development and affect in what ways we need to change and the opportunities for so doing. They will affect what lessons in life we may learn. You cannot so easily learn French without a foreign language teacher. However, you do not need special learning if French is your native tongue. In one sense, the whole of the explanatory findings of psychology studied as a science demonstrate the restrictions on, and handicaps to, our individual freedom. These could be for example from:
· Our beliefs and attitudes acquired conforming to the cultural norms of home and society
· Our levels of self-esteem and self-confidence due to the behaviour of others
· Our levels of talent and ability, emotional stability and physical strength, due to inherited constitution.
Our social, financial and physical circumstances affect the opportunities around us for personal growth. According to the situations they find themselves in, people vary in what they are obliged to do and thus what social roles others expect of them. The need for earned income, family home-making, care for sick and elderly, supervision of children, etc. will vary from one person and circumstance to another.
These are clear physical, economic, legal, social and moral limits as well as psychological restrictions on our freedom to do certain things and act in certain ways. There may be very real boundaries to what we can do in any set of circumstances.
Despite all these factors apparently determining our behaviour, we actually feel individually free to choose what we do and make up our own minds about things – including whether to believe that we are free to make up our own minds! In other words, we all tend to believe in our own free will.
Isaac Bashevis Singer once said:
“You must believe in free will; there is no choice”
This may seem like a paradox! However, unless we are free to reflect on things our thinking would lack any discernment. Many people recognize that being human, we do have many private choices in life; whether to try to read this book or give up thinking about what it says; whether to go along with the crowd or to do our own thing; whether to choose worldly or spiritual values. We may make decisions using so-called `enlightened self-interest’ or alternatively ethical ideas like what is fair or sincere. We can choose to travel on one road or on another.
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
“One is the road to wealth, another the road that leads to Nirvana.”
(Dhammapada, 75. Buddhist tradition)
Psychotherapists who take an existential approach to therapy tend to believe that whatever the particular types of theoretical formulation, techniques employed and therapist’s personal style of conducting treatment, the client will only benefit if also the therapy influences the person’s will. The therapist can neither create nor infuse the individual with a new will, but the therapist can help the patient to liberate will – to remove encumbrances from the bound, stifled will.
Although our choices may sometimes need to remain hidden until outward circumstances change, inwardly we are in a state of balance between for example optimism and pessimism or honesty and self-deception, Which we turn to is our own choice.
Swedenborg’s view is that this balance is a state of equilibrium between good and bad influences on us from inside our minds. We have the option of directing ourselves towards higher or lower things. By deciding between two different ideas, or plans of action, we express our essential awareness of ourselves as an individual.
Yet, in so far as some of our attitudes are unconscious or conditioned then we are not free to tackle them. With increasing frequency, patients seek professional help with vague, ill-defined complaints. A first session may be finished with no clear picture of the patient’s problem. The fact that the patient cannot define the problem is the actual problem.
Psychotherapy and personal counselling can help throw light on these hidden processes. For example, the overweight person may feel anxious about leaving food on the plate because of parental disapproval concerning waste when the individual was a child. Arguably, clearer self-insight actually increases our inner freedom.
And in my experience if I asked patients about the aspects of therapy that they found particularly useful, they often cite the discovery and assumption of personal responsibility. However, readiness to accept responsibility varies considerably. For some individuals it is extraordinarily difficult and this issue is the main task of psychotherapy; once they assume responsibility they give spiritual healing a chance, and therapeutic change almost happens automatically without much further effort for the therapist.
Rationality and Freedom
I am suggesting we each have two spiritual faculties, which make us human. The first of these is the ability to think for ourselves; being able to see things in a rational way from a higher perspective. This could mean for example seeing some family squabble in a rational way without one side or the other unduly swaying us emotionally.
With reasoning comes increased freedom – the second faculty. Only when we are able to see things from a rational perspective do we become free to choose between more than one viewpoint.
It is when we appreciate what a newspaper article is really about, that we can then freely choose whether to read it to the end. We use our head to think about what the writer is saying and our hands to turn the pages. However, we also need a heartfelt interest in the truth about the subject if we are to really learn anything from the printed words. Otherwise, our response to it is just going through the motions based on a reflex habit. Then we may go to the shop, buy the newspaper and return home, settling down in the chair and reading whatever is written because this is what we do everyday.
Likewise, only when we really think about the consequences of a crowd’s behaviour, can we then freely decide whether to join in. The emotion of the moment may capture us. Everybody is shouting the same thing and focusing their attention on the same place. Therefore, we feel ourselves drawn to conform to what everybody is doing and saying. Yet, we are rational human beings. We can transcend the social pressure by using our ability to think about what is right in the situation. Is the crowd doing something in accord with what we value? What is the truth of the matter? In other words as Christ says “the truth will set you free.” Otherwise, we are simply reacting to the pressure of habit or social conformity.
Humanistic psychology is an approach in psychology that focuses on how people fulfil their individual potentials as a way of overcoming personal problems. Human freedom is said to be real, and must be consciously acknowledged, exercised and experienced for any authentic human existence. In other words a person within certain limits, may become whatever he wills to become. We can all choose to develop any aspect of our makeup that we please. The explorer has opted to develop his or her curious and adventurous spirit. Couples, in deciding on parenthood, have decided to focus on their caring and nurturing side. Conscientious objectors and protestors have chosen to act on principles and ideals learned in youth despite the risks involved. To my way of thinking, the opening up of the higher mind widens our inner freedom. This means seeing things from a higher perspective and acting on these insights. Until this happens I would argue, we will simply follow our natural tendencies and conditioning along the lines the psychoanalysts and behaviourists have indicated.
We can also point to the importance of wise teaching by parents in the formation of the higher mind in the child. They brought us up with good ideas that initially develop this level of mind. The spiritually minded think of those early beginnings as the foundation for the building of conscience – through which an inner light can allow us to see when we are going wrong. I believe it is divinely inspired into the hearts and minds of those who want to follow what is right and good.
It is for instance when we believe that people should keep to the civil and criminal law because it is based on principles of justice and social order. Another example is the belief that doctors, architects and other occupational groups should follow their codes of practice and professional ethics because these derive from the value of high standards of work done for the benefit of clients. Essentially a true conscience includes a caring attitude to others, tolerance of their imperfections and following what is right in life.
I believe a higher self within us is our link with the bright light of divine inspiration. This is the source of our understanding of rational considerations and spiritual principles. These create new horizons and new ways forward. All of us can actually hope to achieve this. If we do not pursue this path, our bodily-centred illusions will limit us. Such an illusion for example is the fallacy that the route to happiness is to `eat, drink and be merry’. Actually, experience teaches us that such activities, of themselves, can bring no lasting contentment beyond the pleasure of the moment unless life also consists of things of the spirit – such as quality time with others or the deeper satisfaction that comes from being part of useful activity. Bodily-centred illusions come from the mere appearance of things according to the senses of the body uninspired by higher meaning.
Playing Life’s Cards
As we gain a reasonable appreciation of our own character, we then become free to choose whether to leave behind our personal hang-ups and instead develop our natural talents and personal potential. Such self-insight usually happens in counselling and psychotherapy.
A form of psychotherapy known as Reality Therapy, assumes that people develop psychiatric problems because of an inability to fulfil their needs and that fulfilling needs means taking on an attitude of responsibility for others as well as self. If a cure is to be effected the patient must be involved with other people or at least with one other person. Therefore, one cannot completely lock up oneself in oneself and one’s own needs if therapy is to make any progress.
Yet, most of us do not need professional help. We can all choose to make better use of the opportunities that life presents to us. The more we put into the things we do the more we are likely to get back – whether it is an occupational training course, a friendship, or a business.
Personal responsibility comes from our freedom to react to what life throws at us in the way we choose. In other words, it is not the hand of cards that life deals us that determine our destiny but rather the way we play those cards. We are responsible for whether we take hold of life or not.
A man sat in a bar in New York. He was homeless, friendless and penniless having pawned or sold everything he owned for alcohol. He had not eaten for four days. He sat there thinking. He had often said that he would never let himself be cornered and when the time came, he would find a home at the bottom of the river. However, he was too ill to walk even a quarter of the way to the river. As he sat there thinking, he seemed to feel some uplifting presence. He did not know what it was. He walked up to the bar and pounded it with his fist making the glasses rattle. Those who stood by drinking looked on with scornful curiosity. He said he would never take another drink. However, the thought immediately came that if he wanted to keep this promise he had better go and get himself locked up. Therefore, that is exactly what he did. He went to the nearest police station and the officer placed him in a narrow cell. He said it seemed as though all the demons that could find room came in that place with him. However, he prayed to his God and, although he did not feel any great help, carried on praying. When finally released he found his way to his brother’s house where he was looked after. The next day he went to a local outdoor religious meeting and with great difficulty made his way to the space near the platform. There was a huge conflict going on within him but as he listened to the testimony of other alcoholics, he made up his mind that he would grasp the nettle and completely give up drink with help from a higher power. He promised God that if he were to take away his appetite for strong drink he would work for him all his life. The man’s name was S. H. Hadley who became an active and useful helper of alcoholics in America.
Taking the Bull by the Horns
Not all of us get ourselves into such dire straights but at some point in our lives, we all need to change something important. Human nature being what it is – a mixture of positive and negative traits – there are things in all of us that we need to face up to. The bad habits, attitudes and desires that we have confirmed in our daily living for which we are culpable. For no one else but us has chosen to remain in our negative patterns of behaviour. These elements of our heart, head and hands need reversing if we are to grow in maturity and spirituality. It is not enough to acknowledge our difficulties and opportunities; not sufficient to see things in rational light. We also need to accept in our hearts that personal amendment is necessary if we are to find personal growth. This means paying attention to the issues and making a conscious effort with clear intention to change.
In other words, an act of will freely made is required. The spirit of truth will hold us responsible for how we act. When we better understand the problems we are causing ourselves and our families, we may then either do nothing about it or we may actually then resolve to change for example, our addiction to work, our avoidance of some personal issue or our emotional dependence on some particular person etc. We need to make a decision to take hold of our life rather than drift on as before. If psychotherapy is about anything, it is about personal change and spiritual healing. The same goes for religious affiliation. It applies to all of us. It means acknowledging the truth about something, resolving to do something about it and then acting. Our destiny is in our own hands – whether we stay sober, put our financial affairs into good order, are fair and honest in our dealings with others, or change our passive attitude to life. Reaping as one sows is the law of karma.
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows”
“Whoever has qualities is the doer of deeds that bring recompense; and of such action surely he experiences the consequence.”
(Svetasvatara Upanishad, v, 7. – Hindu tradition)
Transpersonal psychology is a new approach in psychology that is interested in aspects of people that go beyond ordinary experience to matters of ultimate meaning studying for example meditative and mystical experiences. Man books by writers in this field echo the idea of a mature stage of human growth when we start to take responsibility for our own development. Just a few or many may achieve this but, although individual transformation is necessary, it is an opportunity open to all. They say it involves pain and discomfort. This is because it means questioning all the roles one has been playing. Yet, there is more to us than just the roles we play. We are not just a spouse, member of an occupational group, or sportsperson. If we identify solely with our role, we risk an identity crisis if we are compelled to lose it for example when our circumstances change and our role is no longer needed or viable.
Many therapists, who are concerned with their clients’ well-being, try to help them to explore and work through any inner conflicts between different roles or feelings about which they were often not fully aware e.g. between being a parent and a worker, or between a fear of, and desire for, an intimate close relationship. In this way, the various parts of the personality can start to work in greater harmony together.
Psychologists often mention the notion of integration as a help to understanding personal growth. The various diverse desires, fears, ideas, hopes and aspirations become compatible with each other as the individual starts to resolve conflicts, choose priorities and find over-arching values. However to find this level of integration of the various sides to our makeup requires not just our hearts and minds but also bodily actions to be in harmony.
Taking the bull by the horns seems scary at first. After all it is easy to imagine the bull may turn round and gore us to death. But if we take courage we find that it is not so dangerous as we thought. We may have had no suspicion that there was any courage within us to be found. Yet my experience with many anxious clients shows that courage arises within when they started to take responsibility for their own development; rather than passively allowing themselves to be swayed this way and that by the events of our lives; rather than complacently drifting through life. Having the deeply human faculties of reason and freedom, we can all take the initiative in creating our own world; not the world that society has tried to pre-ordain for us but rather the unique world of experience that we want for ourselves. That way we find our true self.
“Everyone has what is truly human from rationality, in that he can see and know, if he will, what is true and what is good, and also that he can from liberty will, think, speak and do it.”
(Swedenborg. Divine Providence section 227:5)
Extracted from the book Heart, Head & Hands