Criticise them – But how to do so safely?

criticiseYes it can happen. No one likes their faults to be pointed out and some people with thin skins when you criticise them see this as a personal attack. They get shirty, defensive or bite your head off. You probably would think twice before taking the risk of saying what you really think to them. Yet keeping quiet means not doing anything about the problem.


“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” (Winston Churchill)

So what’s the best way to criticise someone?

Shirley needed to criticise her neighbour

Shirley was really getting fed up with her new next door neighbour who played his music loudly some nights after coming home from shift-work. Once, she had called round to ask him to turn the volume down, which was done, but the level of loudness would resume another night. It probably wasn’t bad enough to make a complaint to the local authority. The adjoining walls of their homes were not sound-proofed. She  had heard from someone that her neighbour could turn nasty if provoked. How could she deal with the problem which was upsetting her a lot?

Next time Shirley tackled the guy, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself not to shout and lose her temper. When you criticise it is important to keep the matter in proportion, neither overdoing things, nor being too timid. If she were to come over as arrogant, curt or annoyed, she probably wouldn’t be listened to properly. And were she to resort to insults and hostility the chances are the door would be slammed in her face.

How not to criticise

A Laurel and Hardy comedy comes to mind when the two friends engaged in a tit-for-tat war with their neighbour, each side doing things to damage the next door property, with the punishing actions mounting, until the ludicrous outcome was the destruction of both homes.

The film comically showed the pitfalls of an unkind attitude — using the opportunity to make the critic feel superior or perhaps want to provoke or vent a bit of anger. Shirley could soften her criticism by saying things like “I have made the same mistake myself…” It avoids showing any air of superiority.

Criticise showing respect

The common advice psychologists give is “Respect the individual, and focus the criticism on the behaviour that needs changing – on what people actually do or actually say.”

Good criticism generally comes with some degree of humility and respect for the  possibility of other equally valid points of view. In other words Shirley is advised to refrain from any criticism of the person but merely of the noise he makes. Giving respect means not assuming that he is being thoughtless, inconsiderate, or selfish.
Perhaps he is hard of hearing and doesn’t appreciate how others find loud noise annoying.

Once you start to jump to conclusions about someone’s character then you are liable to show this in how you talk to them revealing sarcasm, anger, hostility or condescension. People hear how you say things more than they hear what you say. You mainly communicate through the tone of voice and facial expressions.

Also choosing the right words still matter.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” (Zig Ziglar)

Criticise in a precise way

It is important to explain what it is that the other person is doing that is a problem for you and how you feel about it. Don’t say ‘You are causing me grief’ but say ‘I feel the noise is causing me grief.’

If the individual is respected with a bit of humour, and due credit is given to the possibility of their sympathy for your difficulty, it is vastly more likely that the criticism will be understood, and taken seriously.

To criticise can be less difficult

Shirley had the disadvantage of not knowing the person she wanted to criticize. It is easier to point out a fault if you have an ongoing friendly relationship with the person. You have a greater chance of counting on their sympathy or embarrassment. At least she could try to get into rapport with the neighbour before voicing her issue. Perhaps if she invited him into her own house when somebody else was also present when his music was on then her neighbour could more easily appreciate the nuisance he was causing.

When a relationship has already turned sour, then it may need a bit of patience, waiting before the right time and place arrive to make a fair criticism. It may take considerable effort to create the situation in which the criticism will be “heard”. On the other hand if the relationship between enemies is so bad the best thing may be to get a mediator for justice.

“Virtues which have to do with … moral wisdom … have various names, and they are called … integrity, kindliness, friendliness, modesty, honesty, helpfulness, courteousness; … not to mention many others…. In all of these justice and judgment prevail.” (Conjugial Love section 164 by Emanuel Swedenborg)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Healing presence – How to have this?

Healing presence
Carl Rogers

One of the conditions of a healing presence in counselling, according to Carl Rogers, is unconditional acceptance. The counsellor is not meant to judge the client who consequently becomes less fearful of talking about things about which he or she feels guilty or ashamed.

Some people believe that unconditional acceptance can be a healing factor also in ordinary interactions of everyday life. For them this would involve practising forgiveness when someone hurts you, and giving encouragement to those who fail to show good behavior, and even not criticising those who do wrong.

But just how realistic is this approach?

Difficulty having a healing presence with certain individuals

We don’t choose our neighbours, nor our bosses and work-mates, not even our relatives. Sometimes these people are uncomfortable to live with, difficult to talk to, or they just break the normal social rules. What they do may conflict with your own interest. So just how do you adopt a healing attitude irrespective of their behaviour?

Taking turns helps create a healing presence

One answer might be to do with the spirit of give and take. Children learn to take turns in throwing the dice in a board game. Adults resolve awkward situations in a similar way for example by taking turns with friends to pay for a round of drinks in the pub or taking one’s turn in the checkout queue at the supermarket. But this isn’t unconditional acceptance. You can have your turn on the condition I get my turn too.

Sharing helps create a healing presence

Children also learn to share things. They might share a toy. Each individual gets a slice of the cake. Restaurant staff often share out tips customers have left. When you come to think of it there are innumerable examples of how people practise sharing. The social norm is we give on the understanding we also receive. But does sharing amount to giving on an unconditional basis?

Not that people always take turns or fairly share things even in close intimate relationships.  Do you and your partner fairly share the responsibility of earning money, doing DIY, making social arrangements, maintaining the garden, looking after the children etc? Or does one partner do more of the work than the other?

Do you share decision-making in financial affairs? Or does one of you actually determine more of the important choices? In other words even in close relationships there are conditions – each feels it sensible to ensure their own needs are not neglected.

How not to have a healing presence

And the notion of unconditional acceptance seems even less realistic where the relationship is fraught and where you would rather avoid the other person if it were possible, thanks very much.

The trouble is we are obliged to communicate with all sorts of people regardless of any differences of opinion or any unwillingess to co-operate. Collaboration with such a person may be a non-starter – after all it takes two to tango and however willing you are to work on an issue the other person may not be.

In trying to adopt a healing presence it is perhaps easier to say what not to do. Not jumping to conclusions about the character of the person. Not discriminating against them on the basis of social prejudice. Not rejecting the person who behaves in ways you assess as unacceptable.  And of course not showing hostility.

Pointing out uncomfortable consequences can help create a healing presence

Sometimes you might get involved with someone who turns out to be quite needy. It seems that you are doing all the giving and the other person doing all the taking. This can happen at work, with your friends, or even in the family. You seem to be giving more and more of your time to listening to their worries and complaints — time that you would have spent doing your own thing. And when you try to put some limits on what you do for him or her, this person seems very good at pressing your guilt button. You start to dread that phone call or knock on the door.

Failing to set boundaries on one’s time for this type of person will likely result in you eventually getting burnt out: other people in your life just get less of you. Giving in to the demands of such a person may not help heal their inadequacy. Sometimes healing involves pointing out unpleasant consequences or issuing a challenge.

I would suggest that adopting a healing approach to people means looking for what is good in them, rather than being preoccupied by what is bad. Recognising their strengths and good intentions rather than feeling aggrieved about their weaknesses.

Negative self-attitude hinders your healing presence

I believe there can be a stumbling block hindering this healing attitude: it is to do with one’s self-attitude. In my view you can’t forgive others until you can first forgive yourself: you can’t encourage others until you can first encourage yourself: you can’t take care of the needs of others until you first take care of your own basic needs.

“Usefulness to oneself is also usefulness to others, for to be of use to oneself is to be in a state to be of use to others.” (Emanuel Swedenborg DLW section 318)

I would say that to be a healing presence you need to accept yourself ‘warts and all’ and then you have a chance of accepting other people. Physican first heal yourself!

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

How do we stop life drifting by?

longer version

Some people drift aimlessly through life reacting to events and never making things happen for themselves. spiritually adrift 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.

Inner Freedom
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.”
(Matt 6:24)

“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”
(Galatians 6:7)

“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

Self-control – How to exercise it?

Many of us have developed at least one way of acting that can hurt ourselves, annoy others or damage relationships. Something is lacking self-control. Examples include over-eating, self-controluntidiness, nagging, and telling lies. If we keep doing these things they become ingrained in our behaviour and may seem impossible to change.

The Basics of Self-Control

Yet we weren’t born with these actions and what is learned can be unlearned. Gaining better self-control over our behaviour can be done but requires a conscious effort and persistence.

To stand any chance of gaining self-control we need to be completely clear about why we want to change. Often our family and friends are more aware of our problem behaviour than we ourselves. We may not always realise when, and to what extent, we are at fault.

It might help to find out from somebody else at what times and in what situations where we are going wrong. What harm am I doing? What is embarrassing, upsetting or irritating for me or for others?

Our Free Choice

It’s never too late to stop a bad habit. When we have dug ourselves into a hole, the best policy is to stop digging! After all no-one is compelled to be untidy, to nag, be argumentative, tell a lie or get drunk. It just seems that way at the time.

We need to be especially on guard at the times when we are most at risk of relapsing into our old ways. We have reached a choice between yielding to, or exercising self-control over undesirable impulses. Having a sense of freedom in choosing between alternative actions is a familiar experience. It confirms out ability to make real choices.

Many self-indulgent desires are represented in images we remember seeing in the mass media. Because we merely have some connection with them, we need not allow ourselves to become enslaved by them but are free to ignore them. Because these impulses are not entirely part of us we can disown them.


For many moral issues call us to a deeper conflict. The tension is not just between indulging self and exercising self-control. Neither is it just about doing what is thought by others to be right or wrong. It is also about choosing to follow our inner conscience or not. When we try to have self-control over what is bad in our lives because it goes against our inner conscience, then temptation combat becomes inevitable.

Religion says to gain self-control we need the spiritual help of a higher power. Many alcoholics feel they have failed, despite doing all they can, to overcome the ‘demon drink’ and so many members of Alcoholics Anonymous surrender themselves to a higher power, many call God, believing that only with the strength of this force for good can they stay sober.

Having a belief that we are not fighting alone means a huge sense of confidence that the battle can be won. The problem drinker also has a part to play – it would be no good believing in a higher power without acting on that belief for example by resisting the temptation to buy alcohol at a shop or visit a drinking establishment.

The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg makes an important distinction between on the one hand the notion of resisting bad impulses by our own efforts alone and on the other hand resisting them in God’s strength ‘as of ourselves’. In other words we need both God’s strength and our own effort to turn away from what is wrong about our living and instead embrace what would be right.

In line with this teaching he criticised the orthodox Christian doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ that gives the only emphasis on belief in God at the expense of our additional responsibility to gain control over our own behaviour.

Importance of Our Own Efforts

The bad news is that if we make no effort to resist our own demons, no attempt to stop pandering to our baser instincts at the expense of our higher impulses, then we have taken a backward step towards gaining any control over our faults. What is bad in us will have acquired power over what is good in us. On the other hand if we do try hard to take control over the selfish and greedy desires, in God’s strength, then the divine spirit can then give us a new direction. This means self-restraint as well as enlightenment and inner happiness to replace the illusion that we are enslaved to self-indulgence.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Generous — How can I be more like this?

I suppose it takes one to know one, but I admit giving my money away does not come easy to me. It never seems to occur to me to buy an unplanned gift for someone to mark a special occasion. Some of us are a bit stingy and penny-pinching whereas others seem to be naturally generous. generousMaybe you differ from others in the extent you give to people begging in the street or in whether you make out monthly direct-debits to deserving causes. So if you are a bit like me just how do you learn to become more generous?

How generous are you?

The first step I’ve discovered is to privately acknowledge the deficiency of spontaneous generosity of spirit in myself. I don’t just mean donating money. The definition of generosity is broader. It can be defined as the desire to make others’ lives easier or more pleasant. Mowing next door neighbour’s lawn when he or she is ill. Offering to look after someone’s pets when they are away on holiday.

This leads to considering the way we do what we already are doing – whether it is domestic chores, visiting relatives, working at the office or factory floor. Some might view such activity as a time-filling grind whereas others may see it as useful service. For you is it boring toil or an opportunity to be constructively helpful?

Considering the benefits of being generous

Do you assume you have no power to positively affect the world around you? Yet even a small act of kindness like waiting to hold a door open may mean a lot for someone who is elderly or disabled. Arguably, a degree of self-absorption hinders us from noticing what others need. If so we could look for the potential benefits we can create. What the results might be if one performed allotted tasks in more of a spirit of generosity.

Thinking about self-sacrifice if generous

Giving can feel more like a hardship than an opportunity. Yet spiritual teachers say that giving doesn’t really entail sacrifice because you get more back than you put in e.g. a sense of usefulness, an uplift in mood, receiving thanks and appreciation.

Questioning one’s motivation to be generous

Sometimes people behave generously for self-centred reasons. However just because some people behave hypocritically does not mean everybody does. Psychological research shows that humans do sometimes genuinely want to help for the sake of others.  So, why not challenge the cynical view that people always help others in order to feel good about themselves.

Being more focused

You might write down two things you can give or do for three people you know. This entails thinking about genuine needs you are capable of meeting within your own means and time constraints and where you are not taking away from someone their responsibility to help themselves. For example I would suggest you think carefully before handing over money to someone you know. Being too generous might cause future difficulty in the relationship. If the person is asking you for money you might question what the cash is really for. An obvious example is money that is likely to be wasted on frivolous things.  Consider not only the intention about paying you back but how realistic he or she is about getting into a position to do so. Generosity is no use unless it is wise generosity.

Also I would like to add something about not forcing yourself into being generous. You could still be sensitive to and act on any kind impulses you have, albeit fleeting ones.

Working on your blocks

One block to watch out for I think is a grudging feeling when doing something helpful. It is all too easy for any weak inclination to help to be hindered by a penny pinching desire to get things for ourselves or by irritation with the other person who needs help. Buddhists talk about attachment to one’s material possessions which can only result in unhappiness.

Not depending on a generous nature

Religious people feel self-reliance isn’t powerful enough. This would mean not depending on your own strength to change yourself. The alternative is to seek help from whatever you believe to be the spiritual source of love. For many Christians this will be what they see as the divine human face of God. For others it will be some higher power greater than one’s own limitations.

Noticing the results of being generous

As you start to give more of yourself to people, you will probably find that others are doing more things for you. What goes around, comes around. Others may start to see you as a better person.

The spiritual philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, suggests that after death, if not in this life, we will be gifted with wisdom and joy. But this only happens if during life in the world one tries to live according to one’s spiritual beliefs and exercise a charitable attitude to others.

“Give to others, and God will give to you.” (Luke 6:38)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

How to approach death?

There is a cliché which says that there are only two things of which we can be certain in this life, that we are born and that we will die. Yet death is an aspect of life with which it is perhaps difficult to feel at ease. There may be many reasons for that, and I should like to consider some of them here, and at the same time to see if we might have a way of looking at the subject positively.

Fear and Loss
For many people, death is linked with fear, although that fear may have many parts. For example, we may be afraid of illness which leads to death, perhaps loss of strength, mobility, even speech and the ability to communicate in some instances. Death may be connected with loss in various ways in our minds, perhaps because we know that there are many things which we value in this life which we cannot take with us. That may include physical objects, but it may just as easily be relationships with people, hobbies about which we are passionate, treasured pets, abilities which we feel we have and many things which generally make  life worth living. Sometimes it may not be our own death which we fear, but that of those around us, to whom we are close. That may bring up not just a sense of loss in the present, but we may find past memories returning too. It may even be that what we remember are things which we might have said but didn’t, help that we thought about offering but somehow failed to do.

The Final Countdown
All of this can bring us to what I believe to be one of the key features when we contemplate death: because it has such a sense of finality, death forces us to think about opportunities, including lost opportunities. If we believe that there is nothing beyond death, that sense will be sharpened, and it would be surprising not to think then of what might have been. If there is no feeling of what might be beyond death then the tendency will be to focus on what might have been. That may tend to drag us down if we feel that there were opportunities we have made not just to our own lives but the lives of others also.

There is something about death which involves a weighing up of things, and that is perhaps something else which causes fear in us. The threat of death, our own or that of someone close to us, may force us to look at some aspects of ourselves or our relationship with another person which are not necessarily comfortable. That can include our sense of finding it difficult to know how we will cope without someone close to us. Entering into these thoughts offers an opportunity in itself. Many people have no chance to prepare for their own death or someone else’s and it happens suddenly and without warning. Even today, when medical science has achieved great levels of sophistication and progress, this does still occur. Some people advocate living the whole of life aware of our own mortality for this reason. It sharpens our sense of what it is to be alive and we experience life more fully with this awareness.

A Bigger Picture
I have talked little so far about what difference a belief in life continuing after death may make. That may depend greatly on exactly what is believed, but it surely makes a difference not just to how we approach death but to how we live life as a whole. If we believe that something of us lives on after death, it may help to release us somewhat from the burden of finality which we sometimes carry when facing death. If someone close to us dies we may think about our need to release them and to help them in whatever way we can to make the transition between this life and the next. That may not take away the feeling of loss, nor indeed the physical suffering and pain which may be present, but it gives us a larger picture. It is so easy to see death as everything collapsing or shrinking down to a single point like the small dot gradually disappearing after a television set has been switched off. That is what our physical perception sees, especially if we are confronted with this process over a long period.

A spiritual view of death is very different. I have already talked about opportunities, and death is a gateway which leads to many new opportunities. It may be a very narrow gateway, so much so that while we are on this side we cannot see through and even seem to be looking at the proverbial brick wall.

Swedenborg, Death and Angels
Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century scientist, wrote at length in the later part of his life about spiritual experiences and insights which he was given. One of these was to have an experience of what dying might be like. One of the things which he says is that when we die we are accompanied by angels. This is said to be true of the whole of our life, but the angels present around the time of death have the special function of easing this transition. For some people, as they near death they seem not only to drift in and out of another world, but they even seem to experience that world as populated by beings with whom they feel comfortable. For others there may not seem to be this unearthly beneficent presence, but it may instead be that they are not consciously aware of it. This may also act as a comfort to us if we experience the approaching death of someone; to focus on what the angels are doing to aid both the person dying and those of us who will be left behind.

Death is a powerful, mysterious and at times bewildering event to witness. It may not always seem to offer us an opportunity for spiritual insight or growth, but it is my belief that in one way or another it will always do.

Copyright 2012 David Lomax


Unwanted thoughts – How to be rid of them?

unwanted thoughts‘I must wash my hands again’, ‘I bet she fancies him’. ‘I might as well have another piece of cake.’‘Aren’t I stupid’. These sorts of ideas or mental pictures may pop into your head unasked. They are unwanted thoughts if they are repetitive, unpleasant or difficult to resist. They exacerbate compulsive acts, jealousy, temptation, or unreasonable guilt.

Unwanted thoughts seem to be more common during times of stress or changing circumstances e.g. when you take on the extra responsibility of a new job, or when having children.

Swedenbrog’s unseen spiritual world

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, there is an unseen spirit environment around us inspiring all our thoughts and feelings – both good and bad — although we are unaware of this.  People sometimes speak about “when the spirit moves me” and about “getting into the spirit” of something. Sometimes you may have noticed a guiding light that inspires hope and confidence. Other times you may have been aware of a negative idea that gnaws away unsettling you.

Relevance of spirits to unwanted thoughts according to Swedenborg

Swedenborg claimed the following 6 things:-

  1. He could communicate with the spirits of people in the after-life.
  2. After their bodily death, the earthly memories of individuals are gradually shut off and become inactive. So that in the next life, being aware only of the spirit realm, one will gradually become more conscious of one’s inner life and become less bound to what is external and worldly such as the imagery of spatial objects.
  3. Yet, some spirits, particularly those newly raised from bodily death, still instinctively hunger for things on the material plane.
  4. Being fixated on certain worldly things that have special associations for them, these spirits may try to fasten your attention upon such things.
  5. Just as you are unconscious of their presence, so they are not aware of you, as being a separate person from themselves, but believe that your thoughts are their own.
  6. When you have an affinity with them, you are liable to unconsciously attract those spirits who are the source of your obsessions.

Swedenborg’s method of tackling his unwanted thoughts

Swedenborg records that in one of his struggles against certain spirits who were obsessing his mind, he finally found refuge by fixing his gaze on a piece of wood, and from this his thought was led to the wood of the cross, and then to the thought of God. By a shift of attention, he thus broke the hold of the evil spirits.

CBT technique for tackling unwanted thoughts

Another way of shifting attention, that is used widely these days in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, is the following straightforward technique. If you notice you are obsessing about something, you need to shout the word `Stop’. If shouting out aloud is inappropriate because you are not alone, you can instead imagine that you are shouting the word. Immediately the train of obsessive thought is disrupted. For the technique to work you have to be able to believe that thinking can both block or promote your ability to cope.

Arguably, what Swedenborg is saying adds power to this approach. If you are plagued with obsessive thoughts, you probably assume that such thoughts have a compulsive power over you. This is understandable given their intrusive persistent nature. Also such a belief is likely if you assume that you are responsible for the obsessions.

A helpful change of attitude about unwanted thoughts

However, you may be able to accept what Swedenborg reports — that you are unconscious of both creative and unhelpful thoughts flowing from spirits. If so, then you will no longer attribute either the creative inspiration or the obsession to yourself but instead to sources outside of yourself.

The consequence of this changed belief is that you can be confident that it is possible to start to free yourself from the hold of the infesting spirits as long as you do not identify yourself with their desires and ideas. With practice you can more easily neglect to pay attention to what comes from them and so they will gradually leave you alone.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems