Not getting stuck in the past

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on ….. their children than the unlived life of the parent. Carl Jung

I had a conversation today which made me reflect on the way that parental patterns have a huge influence on us even as adults. This notion has been around for a long time. In the Old Testament it was believed that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. This was at times interpreted somewhat simplistically as a a way of explaining inherited illnesses or chance misfortune. However, in another sense it seems to accord with what can be found in modern psychology.

Some of the behaviours which we see in adult life are in response to unconscious traces left by experiences had in childhood. In general these experiences we have when little  frame us into certain judgements about the world. We come to see it as either predictable, stable and nurturing or uncertain and precarious. Our parents also had their own emotional and relationship patterns and ways of dealing with anxiety, and frequently played these out in their relationship to each other, impacting upon us as children. From this we drew our conclusions as to how to deal with the world, and how to develop our own relationships. This parental wound – or the places where our parents got stuck – has a huge influence on our own inner life. The inner world we form as a child will replicate what we see in the outer world and then as an adult we can gravitate towards situations that replicate this inner world dynamic.

We tend to do this by repeating the pattern or by being determined to do the opposite. However, because the opposite behaviour is undertaken in response to the parents’ way of behaving, we are still defining ourselves by it and end up strengthening the dynamic rather than weakening it. A lot of adult neurosis or anxiety can be understood as a part of the self looking to discover its full development away from the narrow confines of the family of origin. A repeating way of doing things or a rigid personal style is a clue to the original place of lack or neglect. Our minds love habits, even when they hurt us.

It is a slow work to recognize the limited nature of the early strategies which we have incorporated into our personality and begin the work of healing by no longer acting on them.

Telling the truth of our soul to ourselves is the first task. Living that truth is the second task. And telling it to other is the third. Such truth-telling will be the supreme test of our lives.

James Hollis

Developing a Secure Sense of Self 3: Attunement and how meditation can help

In order for a secure sense of self to develop, caregivers need to be attuned to the child’s desires. They need to be able to set aside their own needs in order to have the space to respond to the child’s emotional and physical needs. On the one hand, this means that they address the child’s needs promptly, so that the child feels secure. Using modern means of communication as an analogy, at times they need to respond to the child as if they have received an Instant Message and not wait for an email.

However, as well as being able to respond to certain needs swiftly, they also have to be able to leave the child alone, without insisting that it be there for their needs. They have to provide a non-demanding presence during times of rest so the child can simply be and develop its sense of being, before any need to do anything or earn the parents’ attention. In this way the child learns to simply enjoy each moment, without any intrusive aims or fears.

Winnicott calls this state “going-on-being” and writes about the importance of this capacity to allow the child simply exist: The mother’s non-demanding presence makes the experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude possible, and this capacity becomes a central feature in the development of a stable and personal self. This makes it possible for the infant to experience …a state of going on being…out of which…spontaneous gestures emerge.

We can see here the importance of being before doing. If the parent is excessively working through its own needs then it can happen that he or she impinges on the child’s quiet time, and continually draws the child’s attention.  One consequence is that the child has to attune too early to the needs of others, rather than having time just for itself.  In later life as an adult he or she can repeat this dynamic in a number of ways. One is by repeating the parents’ pattern and continually create interruptions and dramas. So, for example,  when a relationship is in danger of being reliable the person repeats the drama of the parents – because that is more familiar – thus preventing the  other person getting too close. The parents’ dynamic means that only unhealthy relationships are maintained; sadly, ones that have the potential to grow are rejected.  Or the adult compulsively neglects his or her own needs, looking after others in an excessive way. In both cases we can see that, in a sense, the child has never managed to leave home.

This is where meditation practice can help. As Jon Kabat Zinn stated again in a talk which I was present at recently, we are essentially human beings before we are human doings. Sitting practice recreates a period when we can just simply be, without having to acheive anything. We simply watch the mind and body without holding on to anything or pushing anything away. This has the capacity to recreate and heal our early life experiences. As Gil Fronsdal has said, mindfulness practice can act as an antidote to the hurt caused by parents who did not have the space to truly see their children. He says that by being mindful, by quietening the mind, by being simply present with our experience, we are loving and healing ourselves. We learn to sit with ourselves and our lives as they are, without having to be afraid of them and try continually to fix them.

Things we are not aware of

When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual … does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict.

C.G. Jung

A lot of the time, we are not fully conscious of everything that is going on within us; our unlived life, or the parts that have been formed by the unlived lives of others,  is out of sight but exercising influence over our choices. We can see this sometimes when we look back at decisions made or life choices and wonder why we ended up in a certain place. Or when we see repeating patterns in our relationships. Jung suggests that if we do not attend to what is going on inside us, things or people appear in our outer lives in accord with that inner dynamic, and the outer choices we make reflect this inner drama. He suggests that the more we ignore the inner issues, the more we act them out in the world  around us. If we do not do this work, we risk remaining on the surface of life, rather than than incorporating our opposites into healthy choices.

Spiritual Bypassing

Following yesterday’s reflection on the need to assimilate the feminine and masculine dimensions within ourselves, another post on integrating the different aspects of our lives. John Welwood has written some excellent books on the links between relationships, psychology and spiritual growth. He draws attention to the need to ground our selves in the vulnerability of our human condition, not run away from it.  He reminds us that we exist on different dimensions, including the key one of close relationships with other people, and notes the difficulties we can have in bringing our full awareness to that area.   A key concern of his is understanding how we relate to love. One term he uses is “spiritual bypassing”, which happens when we use the spiritual life to run away from our actual life, or from human, psychological work which needs to be done.

While many teachers are extremely warm, loving, and personal in their own way, they often do not have much to say about the specifically personal side of human life.  Coming out of a philosophy based on traditional Asian societies, they may have a hard time recognizing or assessing the personal, developmental challenges facing Western students. They often do not understand the pervasive self-hatred, shame, and guilt, as well as the alienation and lack of confidence in these students. Still less do they detect the tendency toward spiritual bypassing— using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional “unfinished business,” to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment. And so they often teach self-transcendence to students who first of all need to find some ground to stand on.

In this way, spirituality becomes just another way of rejecting one’s experience. When people use spiritual practice to try to compensate for low self-esteem, social alienation, or emotional problems, they corrupt the true nature of spiritual practice. Instead of loosening the manipulative ego that tries to control its experience, they are further strengthening it.

How you talk about others says a lot about you

We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.
The Talmud

New research carried out at Wake Forest University has found that we reveal a lot about ourselves in the way we talk about others. They found that how positively we speak about others is linked to how happy and emotionally stable we are ourselves. The study, which appears in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found strong associations between how positively a person judges others and then how happy, kind-hearted,  emotionally stable and capable they are described by others.

By way of contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. As Dustin Wood, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest and lead author of the study states,  A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively. The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders.

Thus our speech about others reveals information about our own characteristics, such as our well-being, and our mental health. Mindfulness helps us be more deliberate in the words we use, by enabling us be more aware of  all the discussions taking place in the committee of voices running our minds. By practicing right speech, this study seems to suggest that we not only help our relationships become kinder. We also change our own level of happiness.

Wood et al, “Perceiver Effects as Projective Tests: What Your Perceptions of Others Say About You”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  July 2010

Stories 2: How the past defines us

More on story and myth, this time from an excellent recently-published Buddhist perspective:

The Buddha taught that,  over time, the unobserved thought settles into character. Character is more than our temperament and personality; it is the fundamental way we see life, including our suppositions, ideas and views of who we are and what life is. When we look out of our eyes we see what we have been conditioned to see, and part of that conditioning is the assumed reality of the person who is having the experience.

Character is reinforced through our narrative, the ongoing story of “me”. We confirm our current reality through the recollection of how we have always been. For instance, if we have assumed a victim mentality from our past, we may have a predisposition to overcompensate and react strongly when we are imposed upon. Our personal narrative reveals our strengths and limitations, and engenders a self-attitude. As our story moves on, each chapter predisposes “me” to behave in a certain way, and though this proliferating tendency was never specified in our early history, the ongoing story gets captured within its momentum.

Rodney Smith, Stepping out of Self-Deception