Exploring the Mystery of the Self
Posted October 5, 2009
Two of the greatest enemies of growth and change are arrogance and ignorance. These two extremes waste more energy than any other defensive maneuver. In fact, if we avoided both of them, growth would happen almost spontaneously and naturally. Zen Buddhists have a great proverb that illustrates this: "Face reality and effortless change will take place."
Arrogance occurs when we export (project) the responsibility for our failures and mistakes. The words that reflect this process is going on are: projection, blaming, excusing, absolving, exploring, rationalizing, mitigating, and contextualizing.
The more subtle the words and sophisticated our excuses, the more we hide the following central truth from ourselves: We have a primary role in removing the blocks to growth and change.
At the other end of the spectrum is ignorance. This occurs when we take all of the responsibility for failure in a way that results in our feeling negative about ourselves. Such self-debasement does not lead to insight, personal responsibility or true humility. Instead, it only results in feeling guilty, shameful, or seeing ourselves as failures.
Also, since behavior that we wince at turns into behavior that we wink at, such self-blame eventually burns itself out. So, we feel overwhelmed rather than empowered, discouraged rather than enlightened, and we avoid further understanding rather than delve deeper for information that will help us be freer.
Some of the ways we describe this destructive process include: self-condemnation, over-responsibility, being hypercritical of self, and having overly perfectionistic tendencies.
As a positive alternative, therapists encourage their patients to be intrigued by their behavior, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. They want them to be detectives who explore the mystery of the self. Spiritual guides offer the same encouragement. Buddhists, for instance, recommend that people watch themselves objectively-neither condemning nor excusing so they can see their own grasping tendencies and the problematic results such attitudes cause.
Mentors of all sorts often tease people to get them to realize how overly serious they are about their mistakes. In response to people condemning themselves, the comment may be: "I don't think anyone in the world has ever made such a creative mistake before!" Breaking up the tension to understand the dynamics, rather than being involved in ruminations, is an essential part of intrigue.
Furthermore, at the other end of the spectrum, projection of blame onto others is discouraged as well: "If the source of the problem resides fully in the world outside of us, then we will have to change everyone else for it to improve. Quite a job for us!"
When we give away the blame, we also give away the power to change. But if we neutrally look at our own role with a sense of intrigue, not self-condemnation, we can increase the power that is within us. This takes practice. Accordingly, I suggest people go through several steps to encourage intrigue:
•Anytime you have a strong feeling about something, immediately act as if it is someone else experiencing the feeling
•Observe any temptation to blame others or condemn yourself
•Be a detective who is awed by the subtle temptations to be arrogant or ignorant and get intrigued about the process of uncovering the mystery of the real cause of the problem.
Robert J. Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland, and the author of BOUNCE: Living the Resilient Life (Oxford University Press), RIDING THE DRAGON (Sorin Books) and a new book on spiritual mindfulness entitled PRAYERFULNESS (Sorin Books).