True Progress is in Awareness

I haven’t been able to ignore how there is a seeming increase in numbers of birds announcing the wake of dawn. The natural world making itself known. It’s soothing on the one hand, but with a hint of prophecy. Their symphony says, “You’re not that relevant!” I try and let it be my meditation. I try and rest my mind on it in order to avoid getting too caught up in my own inner chirpings.  We take ourselves way too seriously.  Apart from my own more private struggles, I’ve been waking up worrying about the developments of the virus. More lately, I wake up worrying about the developments of ignorance. If there was a time to make good sense of our lives – it is now.

A month ago, philosopher Slavoj Zizek made a call for us to act with cooperation, awareness, deep ethical choices and wisdom. By “wisdom” he was referring to the need to “become aware of what a fragile entity we are; these humans on earth”. Referring to the biology of Corona he said that we are now threatened “by the most stupid reproductive mechanism one can imagine…It’s a good lesson in modesty.” Chomsky, his philosophical opponent, who is now in his 90’s (has lived through several world crisis by now) argues that humans themselves are the real threat; especially humans like the man he emphatically describes as “The Buffoon”, Donald Trump. Chomsky believes humanity will recover from Corona but not from Trump. Whether we are talking viruses, poor leadership, or conspiracy theorists – I think both Zizek and Chomsky would at least agree that we are really at war with ignorance and that poor decisions will be our demise, not viruses.

I could no longer hear the birds over Zizek and Chomsky arguing in my head. Fiona lifted her cheek from my chest. Perhaps my heartbeat gave it away. She smiled a pleading smile at me, “come sit with me, just for 10 minutes”. By “sit” she means meditate. I haven’t formerly sat on a meditation cushion since the beginning of lockdown. There is panic living somewhere in my body. I haven’t wanted to greet it. Meditation is not all about “bliss”. The cultivation of awareness can sometimes be a real grind and, at the same time, it is the greatest freedom to simply turn within.

I spoke to a man yesterday who was deeply disappointed with himself for finishing a bottle of brandy. He was trying to shake the feeling that he was now back on “day one”. I have a problem with this 12-step kind of logic. It is ill aligned with the nature of human development. Before I could say anything, he reflected a bit further: “I would rather think of it as picking up from where I left off”. Setbacks are real but with consciousness, growth is inevitable. Although it is alarmingly easily to re-awaken problematic patterns of thought and behaviour, “relapse” is a problematic concept. It focuses purely on external behaviours rather than internal struggles. True progress lies in the development of awareness, not in simply changing behaviours. Why do we do what we do; when we do it; in the way that we do it; and, with what intention? I have worked with many people who have managed abstinence or sobriety for considerable years and yet the underlying states of mind that evoked their cravings remain unaddressed. They may still not have made sense of themselves to themselves yet.

Psychology is an attempt at making both a science and an art of the sense-making process. Specifically, with the hope that this may lead to change; even if this change is simply a change in perspective. If there was ever a time in the history of our lives to be making sense of things, it is now. Even when things will never make sense, we can’t resist our attempts to do so. And, when things don’t make sense or we don’t like the sense things are making – we often invent other, more convenient, truths. This is human nature.

Attempting to contribute to a making sense of what my client was diluting with brandy, I shared some of my ideas from the previous blog post. I told him that I had the impression that he sometimes seems alone in his marriage. He replied, “only because I close the door from the inside”. Such an honest moment. How often do we all “close the door from the inside”? Failing to admit it, we cry “abandonment” to those on the outside. We went on to talk about why he might be closing that door form the inside.

There is a beautiful rule of thumb in psychology that – no behaviour is likely to be repeated unless it serves a function. Our behaviours might often seem completely senseless, but at closer inspection, there is usually a function they serve. Even if a less conscious function. Most of the decisions we make in our lives are not terribly conscious ones. Nevertheless, they have their causality and their consequences. I believe the recent surge in conspiracy theories is driven by our difficulty to face things for what they are. Buddhists call this “being with what is” and it isn’t always easy,

Are you sure? Are you not sure?
Well, things that start badly are never going to improve with age
The world has done things to you, but you’ve done more to yourself
Oh Robert! There’s something in the air
Slow release me now come on
From this awful night, I cannot stand the thought of all those lies
So I run from the light, from the thought I might
Not have done something right
At the back of your head, there’s an open door
There’s the shock and awe
It’s just shock that’s all

Chris Letcher

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