When people face a dark hour, as all of us have to, what is the best way to move out of it? The kinds of darkness haven’t changed over the centuries, but our response has. The greatest change is that medicine has replaced religion as a way to explain what is happening. We speak of depression and anxiety as disorders, not as curses or as signs of sin. In the aftermath of trauma we don’t ask why God wanted t punish us; we cope with post-traumatic stress disorder through therapy, either talking to a professional or taking a pill. Thus the doctor has replaced the priest as first choice for dispelling the darkness when it descends.
The medical model is free of judgment; it removes blame from anyone who is afraid or depressed, who suddenly loses faith in themselves or wants to give up out of sheer hopelessness. This is all to the good. Yet there was something valuable in the spiritual model that we can’t afford to lose: the notion of the divided self. In the world’s wisdom traditions, darkness is inescapable, because Nature contains both creation and destruction. That includes our own nature. Everyone contains creative impulses and destructive impulses inside themselves. Being self-aware, we watch both at work, and since the destructive side – aging, sickness, fear, and depression – causes suffering, we yearn to escape it. Every society has a dispeller of darkness who is responsible for keeping the dark forces at bay. In the past the role was taken by priests, shamans, and gurus (the word “guru” means dispeller of darkness in Sanskrit).
Doctors can serve as modern replacements in order to alleviate immediate mental pain, but when it comes to wisdom or long-term change, they are relatively helpless. Even in an age of countless therapies and practitioners who train for years in psychology, real change depends on the sufferer himself: studies show that 75% of people who achieve significant improvement with their psychological problems did it on their own. The divided self isn’t going away, nor is the darkness it brings. So each of us must take responsibility for dispelling your own darkness, and that begins by seeing what is effective and what isn’t.
The paradox of suffering
Suffering is universal, and yet pain isn’t a good motivator for change. One can undergo years of darkness without finding a way out. If you stand back, it would seem paradoxical even to ask someone to deal with the destructive forces inside themselves. How can the divided self be both the sickness and the healer? No problem is more difficult to solve, which is why most people find it hard even to start. They feel too overshadowed by their problems. When fear, depression, anger, regret, helplessness, loneliness, or despair comes calling, it takes over the mind too easily; like a familiar guest, it knows just how to settle in and make itself comfortable. It does no good to blame yourself or wring your hands. It’s not your fault that negativity can gain such a strong hold. The divided self makes it inevitable, because life is constructed out of opposites, and the contest between light and darkness, evolution and entropy, growth and decay, good and evil, God and the Devil – pick any pair of opposites you prefer – keeps nature in balance and provides the dynamism for the cosmos itself.
But you can’t make the symptom the solution, which is what countless people do. They try to use the divided self to cure its own negativity. This happens in three ways:
Passivity: The vast majority of people do nothing. They wait for things to get better. They seek distraction (studies have shown that when they face psychological difficulties, 65% of respondents report that the main thing they do is watch more television). They indulge in wishful thinking and hope that someone else will rescue them or at the very least offer reassurance. If given a choice to see a therapist or doctor, they procrastinate as long as possible. To an outsider, it’s obvious that passivity is self-defeating. The person has taken refuge inside the “good” half of themselves, waiting out the “bad” side until it goes away. And since time does heal some wounds – or puts a bandage over them, at least — wishing and waiting provides an illusion of comfort. Actual healing, however, doesn’t take place.
You can tell if you are resorting to passivity when any of the following responses has turned into a pattern:
Asking for constant reassurance
Pleading for help but never getting enough
Putting up with difficulties until they reach the breaking point
Fantasizing that you will be rescued
Depending on someone stronger to tell you what to do
Ignoring good advice after you seek it
Presenting the weak side of yourself because you think that’s the only way you will get any attention
Feeling confused and dull when faced with problems
Waking up to feelings of fear or panic
Seeing only the worst when you look into the future
Failing to stand up for yourself
Seeing yourself as a perennial victim
Pursuing distractions rather than relating in a real way
Wasting time for days on end
Self-discipline: Realizing that they can’t simply react passively, some people will try to control their negative side. In fact, all mature adults achieve some measure of impulse control. They deal with anger and anxiety by shutting it out or facing it down. There is practicality in finding a measure of self-discipline. Your behavior will be more socially acceptable, for example. But when impulses are tamped down, hidden, repressed, secreted away, or denied access, the darkness doesn’t go away. The energies of the shadow, as Jung called this aspect of the psyche, are part of us. They can’t be manipulated forever. Eventually they will find a way to express themselves, with painful results. Physical illness is associated with repressed emotions, yet we don’t have to turn to medical studies to tell us that the longer you repress your negativity, the more numb your emotions become in general. Those who cannot feel pain also cannot laugh or love. There was wisdom in the Buddha’s teaching that pain and pleasure are woven together; pursuing the goal of pleasure that is devoid of pain leads to a dead end. People who use self-discipline probably wouldn’t describe this as their goal; it doesn’t feel pleasant to have to control yourself. But they are trying to force darkness out of sight, which is much the same thing.
You can tell if you are resorting to self-discipline when any of the following responses has turned into a pattern:
Working all the time
Not affording more than a few moments of relaxation
Ordering your day with rituals that you hate to have disturbed
Growing impatient with other people’s shortcomings (as you see them)
Turning exercise into a fetish
Focusing on perfection
Insisting on strict morality and enforcing it at home
Giving up on spontaneity or disliking it in others as frivolous
Rejecting the childlike; demanding mature, responsible behavior form yourself and others
Micro-managing, directing criticism at others over tiny details
Clamping down in the face of stress
Rarely showing emotion when anyone else is around
Settling for a loveless existence in order not to take risks
Judging against emotions in general
Overcoming: The third option is to build up your positive side so strongly that negativity is too weak to defeat it. If the good can overcome the bad, you become a winner compared to all those people who give in to negativity. We hear from competitive sportsmen how they use their fear to achieve higher levels of performance. “Feel the fear but do it anyway” became a familiar slogan for a while. At its simplest, this tactic comes down to an insistent belief that there is no gain without pain. At its most sophisticated, there’s a belief in stoicism, the philosophy that confronts suffering by accepting it as inevitable but building a better self through that realization. The flaw with overcoming is that you can never truly overcome yourself. Everything you defeat is part of you, and therefore you are sacrificing aspects of your own nature (such as tenderness, vulnerability, compassion, and self-acceptance) that aren’t useful to a winner but are necessary if you want to be a complete person.
You can tell if you are resorting to overcoming when any of the following responses has turned into a pattern:
Dividing people into winners and losers
Turning everything into a competition
Focusing on your self-image, hating it when someone makes you look bad
Refusing to give up until you get your way
Boasting of your accomplishments while diminishing the accomplishments of others
Worrying about status, rivals, and power struggles
Fighting for position, even when it doesn’t matter
Being the strongest or most appealing person in a group
Over-achieving; insisting on achievement from your children
Seeing your children as a reflection of yourself, especially as the world views you
Seeing weakness as your enemy
Fearing that you will fall from the top
Fighting to be as good as possible
Seeing every situation in a positive light, with no tolerance for negativity in yourself or others
Secretly believing that only losers are afraid or depressed
Excessive hero worship; admiration for strong authorities who keep the peace (at whatever cost)
As you can see, a wide range of human behavior falls under these three categories. You can spend your whole life using the means of passivity, self-discipline, and overcoming. Depending on which strategy you prefer will often determine your occupation (the police and military honor discipline; doctors overcome disease; athletes overcome pain). There is no doubt that the divided self forces each of us into a response. Yet the problem still remains: How can we dispel the darkness when it is part of our own nature?
(To be cont.)
Published by San Francisco Chronicle