Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 5

One of the joys of reading an author as erudite and as wise as Rollo May is the finding of poetic gems like these three beautiful lines from Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with animals... They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. (Quoted, op.cit., p. 58)
Well, my friends, the point here is nothing if not obvious – we pay a high price for our self-consciousness. It would appear from scientific evidence, at least that available to May in 1953, when he wrote this lovely little book, that humankind’s awareness of self emerges at around the age of two. The wee child becomes aware that he is an “I” or a “me” separate from all other persons and things. This same self-consciousness is widely recognised as the single most important determinant that separates humankind from his animal brothers and sisters.

Because of this wonderful self-consciousness, humankind can stand outside itself and thereby can influence its own development as persons. He and she is self-aware and can change the way they act, say they are sorry, can ask for forgiveness and be forgiven, can engage in all types of creative activity from painting and drawing to composing poems and music and further still to building the most wonderful cathedrals and buildings that trace an interesting skyline over our modern cities. There is seemingly no limit to our creativity – we can even send our own kind into space. However, all of this comes at a price. Let’s listen to the words of Rollo May once again:

But these gifts come only at a high price, the price of anxiety and inward crises. The birth of the self is no simple and easy matter. (Ibid., p. 59)
Then, to my mind, May gives a very good exposition as to what the self is. He dismisses with kind and considerable attention those reductionist scientists who question the “real” existence of an “entity” called the Self. Here is his descriptive definition of this obvious reality:

We do not need to prove the self as an “object.” It is only necessary that we show how people have the capacity for self-relatedness. The self is the organizing function within the individual, and the function by means of which one human being can relate to another. It is prior to, not an object of, our science; it is presupposed in the fact that one can be a scientist. (Ibid., p. 63)
May goes on to point out that we experience ourselves (that is, my distinct self) as a feeling-thinking-intuiting-acting unity. In this sense the self as I have often heard it put is very much “more than the sum of its parts.”

Once again, our author impresses us with the breadth of his reading in literature and mentions in detail several works by Franz Kafka, which illustrate in graphic detail how people can lose their sense of self if they do not choose to develop their potential as people or, indeed, if they have their freedom to do so taken away and severely, if not completely, curtailed. These character, then, our man argues, become sort of non-beings or non-persons, e.g., those nameless central characters in The Trial and in The Castle. Then he adverts to one of Kafka’s short stories where one person becomes so de-personalised that he turns into a cockroach. These stories are parables of what happens to us when we lose all sense of our potentialities as persons. Not alone do we stagnate, no, much worse than that; we change into creatures that are way beneath our capacity.

May then gives us an interesting insight into pride, self-inflation, self-delusion and bullying. I’ll quote this piece in full as it’s as informative as it wise:

Self-inflation and conceit are generally the external signs of inner emptiness and self-doubt; a show of pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety... The person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart... Tremendous pride was exhibited in fascism, as everyone knows who has seen the pictures of the strutting Mussolini and psychopathic Hitler; but fascism is a development in people who are empty, anxious and despairing, and therefore seize on megalomaniac promises. (Ibid., p. 68)
May interestingly points out that true self-confidence comes with real and authentic self-consciousness and with it the wonderful trait of spontaneity. The more we grow in consciousness and in self-consciousness the more we can relax and the more we will become in control of everything in our lives.

Losing our Connection with our Bodies

This has long been one of my hobby horses, ever since I was hospitalized for clinical depression for some 7 weeks way back in 1998 at the age of 40. This lack of connection with our bodies has escalated in modern times as we ourselves are no longer hunters, gatherers and foragers, no longer even farmers who use simple tools, no longer manual workers, but rather just functionaries who look at screens or tap certain buttons to earn our daily bread. We have become alienated not alone from ourselves, from meaning and purpose, but from our very bodies. When we are alienated from our bodies we become very quickly alienated from our feelings. Therefore, there is a deep lack of connection with our real selves as a result. I have already adverted to the fact that the Body and the Soul are deeply connected, and that the Cartesian dualism that has been bought into by modern man has been the cause of much of our modern woes.

Therefore, modern human beings have been visited by heart attacks, strokes, cancers of all types as a result of his neglect of his body, his feelings, his heart and his soul, or in short, as a result of his neglect of the unity of the Body-Soul.

I work as a Resource Teacher teaching a range of adolescent boys from those with Asperger’s Syndrome to those with Mild to Moderate General Learning Disabilities. Some of these boys, especially those with ASDs and those with ADD and ADHD lack an ability to know how they are really feeling – they are not at home or in sympathy with their very own bodies and feelings. I use a lot of relaxation exercises and meditation techniques to help them become aware both of their bodies and their feelings. This does work to some extent. Progress is slow, but it does happen.

Let me return to Dr May’s insightful words once again:

This also means that we need to recover our awareness of our bodies. An infant gets part of his early sense of personal identity through awareness of his body. ‘We may call the body as experienced by the infant ,’ says Gardner Murphy, ‘the first core of the self.’
May goes on to recount how the child’s early experience of itself as a sexual organism through stimulating its genitals gives it a powerful sense of its own identity, of its own self. Unfortunately, through toilet training and taboos linked with sexual experiences the child learns to see all these activities as “dirty” or somehow “soiled” (my words, not May’s here.) Our psychotherapist here offers the opinion that such taboos are the origin of the tendency to despise the self in contemporary society.

Finally, illnesses and sicknesses hit everyone, and especially those of us who keep going through life unaware of our true self. Eventually our Body-Self cries out in illness: “Listen to me! Listen to me! Don’t ignore me, because I am breaking down here and you are not paying any attention! Wake up! Become aware! Stop and Stare! Ponder. Meditate. Reflect! Slow down!” and many other words we could compose to express the same sentiments.

The more integrated a person becomes, the more conscious and aware he or she becomes of their unconscious drives and motivations, the less compulsive become their motivations and drives. In short, they become less driven and far calmer and at peace in themselves. The person becomes more of a thinking-feeling-willing-intuiting unity, a far more whole and wholesome person, who begins to react to all about him or her in a far more authentic, real and true fashion, thereby becoming a spontaneous liver of life. Spontaneity, May argues, is the ability of being able “to respond to the total picture.” (See ibid., pp. 80-81)

Again, the more integrated a person becomes the more alive he becomes to everything. He begins to remember his dreams and to listen to their powerful insights. He takes his Body-Soul for real, and he has the ability to become far more creative in his response to daily problems.

As per usual, May just casually mentions little gems of wisdom from the greats of the ages. Try this one from Kierkegaard for brilliance: “The more consciousness, the more self!” (Quoted, ibid. p.82) Or again his throw away quotation from Chaucer about the man (merchant) who substituted activity for awareness: “Methinks he seemed busier than he was.” (Ibid. 83)

Sopra ho messo una foto dei fuoci artificiali di Ferragosto ad Isca Marina, agosto 2009!

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