Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Intelligent Life - It's What You Do

My previous post was about faith, belief, will, thought and finally just being. To establish the conditions for a new life and break down old habits, to end the downward spiral of depression and hopelessness one needs to change one's beliefs. This includes one's beliefs about oneself.

The techniques of meditation and mindfulness are key to this process, which is as much about disabusing oneself of false notions as about establishing faith in new ones. It's destructive creation! We are leading to a new understanding of ourselves and others. Beyond the self our relationships with others have a powerful effect on our understanding of who we are and where we are going. Patterns that we have established in our relationships over a lifetime can be ingrained, worn-in, habitual and enormously debilitating and destructive to our mental health and our interactions with others in intimate contact with us.

To fix these relationships and truly grow we need to change our behaviour, not just our thinking, since without behavioural change, there will be no lasting cognitive changes.

In his book "An Intelligent Life", psychiatrist Julian Short aims to help us make our lives happier. His message is about love, individuality, relationships and self respect. (He draws a distinction between self respect and self esteem). In describing the book he says:

If we are not sick or in some way physically threatened, there is no emotional problem that is not caused by either our fear of being alone, unloved and rejected or our fear of weakness, belittlement and loss of control. Because of this, the quality of relationships is central to our self esteem and to our happiness and therefore central to An Intelligent Life.

To feel good, we need to act well. We see ourselves in the mirror of other people's reactions and if we want to like the person we see, we need skills for loving and getting love while maintaining our adult equality and making sure our own needs aren't swamped by others. Looking after ourselves means looking after our relationships.

Thinking is one kind of action, and our actions are in a feedback loop with our feelings. Acting well helps us feel well. Friendships and relationships of some level of intimacy and meaning provide us with the ground or stage where such actions play out. Not only that, but they open us up to love and encourage a sense of belonging.

For those of us who suffered a disrupted or disordered attachment to our primary caregivers as children this sense of belonging is something very precious. Julian Short argues that a threat to this belonging, a fear of being alone, is the cause of emotional problems. The book details how our relationships not only provide the opportunity for us to develop self respect through a sense of belonging but also by enabling us to act with kindness, to act better, and therefore earn that respect from others too.

The counterweight to this is self assertion, which is like a territorial defence of individuality. As has been shown in assertiveness training, when practiced in a positive, caring way, this self assertion also contributes to our self respect.

In my previous post about the book "Eat Pray Love" I was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's realisation that freedom, mental release, could be achieved through control of one's thoughts. Julian Short seems to be saying something similar, that individuality and self respect, even happiness, can be achieved by controlling one's behaviour.

The concepts of understanding and discipline seem to be intertwined here, and we seem to have arrived at the same ancient truths espoused by various religions via an exploration of philosophy and modern psychology.

Of course, progress on this path is easier said than done, this is the path of The Hollow Man, whose essential goal is authenticity and whose reward is self respect. What could be holding him back from achieving his true dignity? Fear.

But there's nothing to fear but fear itself! For no loss will ever be as great as the loss of attachment that broke his selfhood as a child.

Eat Pray Love - An Inspiration

While critics have expressed irritation at the solipsism and  self-centredness of the protagonist in Elizabeth Gilbert's popular memoir "Eat Pray Love," there is some enlightenment to be found in her journey. Initially impatient with her self-indulgent episodes I began to feel sympathy for the woman. If nothing else, she was good at expressing how it feels to be in pain, and how lost one can feel at the bottom of that particular well of loneliness.

So I began to give her the benefit of the doubt, and isn't that the beginning of faith? She began the book on the road of The Sinner, with a big hole inside her that she tried to fill with Italian food. This sojourn comforted her for a while, but fortunately she had planned to move to India to feed her soul as well. This is where she embarked on the path of spiritual growth, the path of Moonchild, The Adventurer.

Here's what I found interesting. It describes her discovery of the meaning of free will versus fate and how this can develop into faith. The task she describes is the essential task of The Adventurer, to exercise will, to control one's thoughts, if you like, rather than have them control you.

We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses – one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will."

....I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.

This last concept is a radically new idea for me... This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That's the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can't learn to master your thinking, you're in deep trouble forever.

On first glance, this seems a nearly impossible task. Control your thoughts? Instead of the other way around? But imagine if you could? This is not about repression or denial. Repression and denial set up elaborate games to pretend that negative thoughts and feelings are not occurring... instead admitting to the existence of negative thoughts, understanding where they came from and why they came they arrived, and then – with great forgiveness and fortitude – dismissing them. This is a practice that fits hand-in-glove with any psychological work you do during therapy... Of course this all takes practice and effort... It's constant vigilance

Sometimes we forget that the discussion of free will is actually about that joyous concept called freedom. By examining and controlling our thoughts we are exercising our freedom to be self-determining. In Eat Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert says, "I need to do it, for my strength. Devo farmi le ossa is how they say it in Italian. 'I need to make my bones'."

Do we not make our own soul?

"The true God is the God within us," is how Robert M. Wallace says it in the first chapter of his as yet unpublished book to be found on his website where you will also find chapters from his book "Hegel's Philosophy of Reality, Freedom and God." The personal growth that we achieve by travelling the various paths through the dreams of The Sleeping Beauty is a kind of destructive creation similar to that described by the philosopher Hegel. Embracing contrition we create forgiveness. By controlling our thoughts we create our freedom. By exercising and examining our inner life we admit God within us, though God is beyond everything. This is a kind of faith, perhaps you could say it's a philosopher's faith in a philosopher's God.

Curiously, once your life is transformed by this faith, something takes over. One day my psychiatrist told me, "Just be." That was the answer to my question about what the end result of my therapy should be, how I should live once I had defeated my depression and my mental illness. So what I now realise, and have yet to achieve, is that through exploring freedom one discovers faith and beyond faith one just is. With no need for belief, the answer is just to be yourself. This is probably when you come close to knowing the God within you, your soul, and acting for your soul in the external world you are, I guess, someway toward living in harmony with what Christians call God's will, or what a philosopher might call transcendence.

The above quoted works are copyright of their respective authors and are quoted on the basis of fair use.