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!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 4

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 4

The Roots of our Malady

Would that we knew the roots or causes of our malaise. We have long understood that treating symptoms, while it relieves the pain, only does so temporarily until the illness re-surfaces again. Hence, to get to the root cause and tackle the problem there at base, as it were, is a far more important action. So then, what does Rollo May see as the roots of our present malaise? (I believe sincerely that the situation of the USA in the fifties is similar to the situation we are experiencing currently in Ireland, which has, indeed, been slow to come of age. It is only now that the age-old hierarchies have fallen: clerical, medical, judicial, financial, bureaucratic, civil and governmental – all our so called princes are in fact now revealed to be very naked indeed.) However, there is still another sense where what Rollo May writes is of the perennial philosophical variety. His words fall into souls through our ears because they touch on wisdom rather than knowledge.

Loss of Values

May speaks about the loss of values at the centre of modern society where commercialism and success have replaced the traditional values of honesty, integrity and community. He sees modern society (again remember he was writing this book in the early fifties of the last century) as being in a state of transition, and just like individuals, when society is in such a state it becomes confused and lost. Competition has become the god of the moderns. Indeed, very few of us are our own economic bosses and most of us depend on others to provide us with work. Linked with competition as a god there is another one called “individualism.” Each human being is very much on his own in this modern world.

Loss of a Sense of Self

May refers at length to Arthur Miller’s brilliant and seminally modern play Death of a Salesman to illustrate the rootlessness and meaninglessness of modern life – that is life based solely on the twin gods of competition and of individualism. The central character is Willie Loman, an ageing salesman who can no longer “produce the goods,” to use a rather apt phrase, and he is now just about “thrown on the ash heap” and useless and so is made redundant. Here is how May paints this sad picture for us:

Willie is caught in great bewilderment, and keeps repeating too himself, ‘But I was best liked.’ His confusion in this conflict of values – why does what he was taught not work? – mounts up until it culminates in his suicide. At the grave one son continues to insist, ‘He had a good dream, to come out number one.’ But the other son accurately sees the contradiction which such an upheaval of values leads to, ‘He never knew who he was.’(Ibid., p. 30)

Roots of the Loss of Self:

I agree with May here that the ultimate cause goes back to René Descartes (1596 – 1650) who split the human person into two – a thinking spirit in the husk of the body, what we may term the “Cartesian dualism” here, and a term I appropriate from philosophy. I believe we can trace that further back still to the works of St Paul and indeed St Augustine and St Thomas who separated out the supernatural soul from the temporal body. This was the beginning of the malaise and the splitting and fragmentation of the human being. Then all the theologies and philosophies went on to split the human being further. The Enlightenment spoke of the primacy of reason – pure rationalism was the queen of the sciences, and anything beyond rationalism was suspect to say the least. Therefore, the irrational, and even the non-rational, were all consigned to base instincts and from there repressed into the unconscious. Hence, we had Freud eventually coming on the scene with his psychoanalysis in the hope of “putting Humpty Dumpty together again,” or in making the unconscious conscious, in the effort to re-unite the old unity of man.

For modern human beings, May argues that the reason, the emotions and the will are split or separated in each of us. We seem only to let our reason work at school or college, our emotions when we make love and will-power when seeking promotion or doing an exam. And so we have a splintering and a fragmentation of the whole person, of the unity of the psyche. Prophets, then, in this context are those who warn us against further splitting and fragmentation and point us towards wholeness. May mentions Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka as such early prophets. Freud, Jung and Rogers would be later ones. There are also others from the political world like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, JFK and Nelson Mandela. These have always defied disunity and fragmentation and heralded greater hopes of unity and peace, the very resolution and end of conflict.

May is good on Nietzsche, on the death of values. In this regard , the philosopher spoke of the ‘revaluation’ and ‘transvaluation’ of all values. In this sense, Nietzsche, a non-conformist unbeliever, uses the death of God as a parable or metaphor for the death of values. In other words God in Nietzsche’s work is just a metaphor for values. That in itself I believe is a wonderful thing. I have always believed that religion is sheer, if beautiful, metaphor – part of our cultural enterprise.

The Loss of a Sense of Worth and Dignity:

I suppose, with the demise of old communities where everyone was valued and had their own important roles to play, humankind has lost a sense of its worth and dignity. It’s hard to feel valued in our concrete and steel cities where we often feel we are cogs only in a vast indifferent machine. Here, Nietzsche opined that we were individually being swallowed up by the herd, and that consequently we were living by a “slave-mentality”. (See ibid., p. 35)

This loss of a sense of Self, and of self-worth and dignity May saw reflected in much of the literature he had read as a young man, viz., in the novels of Aldous Huxley, in the poetry of W.H. Auden and in the novels of Albert Camus. We get a startling sense of this loss of Self, of self-worth and of dignity in the latters little and deeply disturbing novel L’Étranger. (See ibid., p. 38)

May also makes much of the importance of laughter and a sense of humour and avers that they are deeply linked to our sense of Self or Selfhood. I remember once accompanying a good friend into the neorological wards of Beaumont Hospital here in Dublin – his father had had a brain tumour removed. Many of the other patients had been in horrific car and motorbike accidents, and I recall one good soul with a sort of metal scaffolding around his skull joking and laughing. That’s all we can do in the face of our mortality – by joking and laughing we step back at one remove from these gross injuries. Real laughter gives us a soulful perspective on life by putting things in perspective.

Losing the Language of Relationships:

Because we live in such a technocratic world we have all the latest vocabulary related to computers, films, automobiles, jet planes etc. Needless to say PCs were not around at the time May was writing this little classic. However, he mentions the fact that most people were bettere acquainte with the parts of an engine of a car than they were with the language of human relationships. (See ibid., p. 42) May makes the striking point that language is always more powerful during periods of tremendous intellectual and spiritual progress (my words, and I am using “spiritual” in its widest possible connotation.) In short, he avers that

.. when a culture is in its historical phasew of growing toward unity, its language reflects the unity and power; whereas when a culture is in the process of change, dispersal and disintegration, the language likewise loses its power. (Ibid., p. 43)

Losing our Relationship with Nature:

This lack has often been lamented, right back as far as Wordsworth who said in a poem that

This world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bears her bosom to the moon,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune


We have lost our capacity to see ourselves and our moods in nature, to relate to nature as a broad and rich dimension of our everyday real experiences.

The Loss of a Sense of Tragedy:

The great tragedians like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, followed by Shakespeare, Marlowe, O’Neill, Arthur Miller and many more, all have this deep sense of tragedy, that we men and women are mortal and flawed beings, full of greatness, but this greatness is essentially destined to fall, to decay with the advancement of time which wears everything out. The loss of this sense of tragedy, of our insignificance and greatness rolled into one in a terrible tragic and paradoxical mix, has brought with it a loss of our conviction of the worth and dignity of the human person. When we go to such tragedies we experience the sense of our worth has human beings, flawed though we be. May quotes Arthur Miller’s wonderful introduction to his play Death of a Salesman:

The tragic character is one, he writes, ‘who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity. And ‘the tragic right is a condition of life, and a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself.’ (Ibid., p. 51)

May has some interesting things to say about the tragic hero in traditional drama and in the characters of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, but they are beyond my purposes here. (See ibid., pp. 52-53)

May finishes this chapter with a rousing call to each one of us to find “a centre of strength within ourselves,”as this is the only way to avoid the abyss of worthlessness (my terminology, not May’s, here). It is also, he avers, the best way we have at our disposal of making a contribution to the well-being, not alone of ourselves, but of our fellow human beings. It is our task, should we choose to accept it, to try to find the elusive sources of our inner strength.

To be continued.

Above, my one solitary rose left in my garden. Ah, a thing of beauty is a joy forever!!

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 3

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 3

May divides Man’s Search for Himself into three distinct sections: (i) Part 1, he calls Our Predicament, (ii) Part 2, Rediscovering Selfhood and finally (iii) Part 3 he aptly calls The Goals of Integration. In this and the next post I wish to address my comments to Part 1 which has two chapters, viz., The Loneliness and Anxiety of Modern Man and the Roots of Our Malady respectively.

The Loneliness and Anxiety of Modern Man:

May points out that in the wake of World War 1 mankind (his word from 1953 – we would undoubtedly prefer humankind as the substantive here) was lost. According to our psychotherapist, modern man suffered from a deep malaise which he was struggling to come to terms with and to solve. May reminds us that other experts including Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis, had suggested various causes for this malaise. Freud suggested that the general malaise was attributable to individual sexual problems (early 1900s); Otto Rank saw the source of alienation as originating in feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and guilt (1920s) while Karen Horney blamed the competitive nature of society for this debilitating spiritual malaise afflicting modern man (1940s). Now we come to 1953 when May was writing this wonderful little classic. May, a foremost existentialist psychotherapist attributed this modern malaise and spiritual alienation to what he terms “Emptiness.” He described this feeling as being such that his clients just did not know what they wanted from life, and further they seemed not to know what they were feeling anyway in the first place. May goes on to quote from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Hollow Men, from which he quotes some six lines. I have often quoted this same poem in this blog before and shan’t delay on re-quoting them here. So the emptiness modern beings experience may be called being “lost,” “hollow,” “fake” or “phony” (as Holden Caulfield calls those lost adults in Catcher in the Rye). May quotes one of his clients as a having said that he was “just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.” (Op. cit., p. 4)

He refers to the mind-numbingly boring lives lived by a lot of moderns called “suburban” residents. He sees much unacknowledged frustration and much repressed hostility there. Many suburban men die of boredom, May believes, when they retire. (See ibid., p. 9) Then, he follows these observations with the following warning, still true, alas and alack some 60 years later: “The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities.” (Ibid., p. 11) May also uses other words for emptiness, viz., vacuity and sheer powerlessness (ibid., p. 11).

Related to this sense of powerlessness of modern beings is knowing that what they want and what they feel really make no difference to their plight anyway that they give up wanting and feeling. He points out interestingly that “apathy and lack of feeling are also defences against anxiety. This is really a final line of defense. (See pp. 12-13). Indeed, what Americans were experiencing in the fifties of the last century we have only experienced in the last 15 years or so here in Ireland. He quotes Erich Fromm and points out with him that today people no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under “anonymous authorities.” (See ibid., p. 12)

As one well acquainted with the religious/spiritual/monastic impulse, I have long well understood the important distinction between loneliness and solitude. The former is a debilitating and soul-shattering experience while the latter is therapeutic and soul-building. I was lucky to have spent some three years of my life in a religious community, and two years of that in novitiate with monastic type regulations. The solitude was wonderfully self-building or soul-building. In loneliness one feels abandoned and forsaken while in solitude one feels anything but alone – one feels embraced by well-being.

May points out that for modern man loneliness and emptiness go together, and that they are in fact two phases of the same basic experience of anxiety. He adverts to the sheer loneliness felt by many after the horrific exploding of the Atom Bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima – such wanton destruction of human life in such large numbers at one swell swoop left many alone with the thought that we can destroy ourselves and leave only some behind to pick up the pieces in sheer loneliness. There is a paradox at play in our experience of self. May puts it succinctly: “...the human being gets his original experiences of being a self out of his relatedness to other persons, and when he is alone, without other persons.” (Ibid., p. 14)

Or again we get the following wonderful insight into our fear of loneliness:
The fear of being alone derives much of its terror from our anxiety lest we lose our awareness of ourselves. If people contemplate being alone for longish periods of time, without anyone to talk to or without any radio to eject noise into the air, they generally are afraid that they would be at “loose ends”, would lose the boundaries for themselves, would have nothing to bump up against, nothing by which to orient themselves.(Ibid., p. 17)

In other words we define ourselves through our boundaries, but many moderns have so pushed out their boundaries that they have lost sense of themselves, and become totally unaware of their boundaries and in consequence are so dispersed that they lose all sense of self. Such losing of a sense of self can lead to psychosis.


However, it is to the experience of anxiety that May attributes most power in the lives of human beings. Obviously, he had encountered many patients presenting with this problem:

Anxiety, the other characteristic of modern man, is even more basic than emptiness and loneliness. For being hollow and lonely would not bother us except that it makes us prey to that peculiar psychological pain and turmoil called anxiety.

Needless to say, in 1953 when May was writing this wonderful little classic he had lived through two world wars and the dropping of the Atomic Bombs, through economic depressions following the great Wall Street Crash. No wonder he could write that the twentieth century was essentially the century or the “age of anxiety.” We know, despite all the self-help organizations and media and literature of all types that we still live in such an anxious age on the cusp of the twenty-first century. What the next 90 or so years will hold for humankind we dare not envisage. We were never ever before in our human history taking such volumes of drugs to keep our anxiety at bay as we are today. May also makes some throw-away remarks about the rise of totalitarianism – be it Fascist or Communist – stating that economic bankruptcy, coupled with moral and spiritual bankruptcy on the part of any state will leave that nation prey to totalitarianism. (See op. cit., p. 20)

He also takes a tilt at the then “witch-hunts” for communists in the McCarthy era during which he was writing his book. That was a sad, distrustful and horrible period in the history of the USA. Our modern anxiety comes out in our psychosomatic illnesses, which I was surprised to learn were known about very well indeed in the early fifties of the last century. Our anxiety comes out of our very lostness (my word), our sense of being cut adrift on a vast ocean of confusion, “with no direction home” to quote the words Dylan: “We are anxious because we do not know what roles to pursue, what principles for action to believe in. Our individual anxiety, somewhat like that of the nation, is a basic confusion and bewilderment about where we are going.” (Ibid., p. 21)

I love May’s differentiation of anxiety from fear. In fear, he states, we actually know what is frightening or terrorising us, while in anxiety we never really know what the object of our anxiety really is. He states succinctly: “In anxiety, however, we are threatened without knowing what steps to take to meet the danger. Anxiety is the feeling of being “caught”, “overwhelmed”, and instead of becoming sharper, our perceptions generally become blurred or vague.” (Ibid., 23) And so anxiety can have varying degrees of intensity and it is well the present writer knows that. I am a teacher of young adolescent boys on the ASD spectrum and all of them suffer from anxiety at various levels of intensity. One poor lad suffers from extreme anxiety and has been diagnosed recently with OCD and is driven wild by his anxiety. At the moment he is medicated for this. The other boys are not quite as anxious, but they all have it at one intensity or another.

May points out perspicaciously that it’s the quality rather than the quantity of anxiety that is important, and that it is the hell of uncertainty about what might be causing our anxiety that can be quite unhinging. I also liked his definition of neurotic anxiety: “Normal anxiety cannot be avoided; it should be frankly admitted to oneself. This book will be chiefly concerned with the normal anxiety of the person living in this age of transition, and the constructive ways this anxiety can be met. But of course much anxiety is neurotic... that is, anxiety disproportionate to the real danger, and arising from an unconscious conflict within himself.” (ibid., p. 25) Anxiety strikes us at the core of our being, or to use other metaphors at the very roots of our tree of life or at the very foundations of our home. We are bowled over, knocked for six, use whatever cliché you will, because we are bewildered as to the real cause of our anxiety, confused as to who we really are, and even more confused as to what we should do about our anxiety. However, it is here that May introduces the antidote for this crippling illness, that is, awareness. He points out that just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, our very awareness of ourselves can destroy our anxiety.

This is the Good News, as it were: “...the stronger our consciousness of ourselves, the more we can take a stand and overcome anxiety. Anxiety, like fever, is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress.”(Ibid., p. 27)

To be continued.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 2

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 2

Wisdom, unlike knowledge, never ages. Knowledge is built upon, brick by brick, stone by stone, but wisdom grows like a great everlasting oak – it is always relevant, because it gives us insight into who we are and into our quest for meaning as a human species. Indeed, like the Navi we can live within its embrace in a healthy and protected way. I quite despaired recently when I heard some reviewers quip that the great modern film epic Avatar had no great story line, but was merely good from a special effects point of view. Whatever film they were at, they certainly were not at the one I was privileged to view and appreciate in all its depth, height and breadth. My goodness, these critics must have been soul-less not to see that this film was Epic in the sense that the Bible is, in the sense that all the great tragedies of the ancient Greeks – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – and those of the greatest dramatist of all time – Shakespeare – are, and, indeed, the plays of all who followed in this wonderful tradition of the stage. Ultimately Avatar lies firmly with this Epic framework and those who lost its real meaning are blind to the very richness of our culture.

Now back to Rollo May who not alone was wide awake to the richness of our culture (or indeed cultures) but also was aware of the lies that modern alienated humankind had swallowed at the behest of would-be leaders in values alien to the human soul. As an existential psychologist and brilliant psychotherapist he had listened keenly to the “lostness” of modern humankind. What surprises me about the book I am at present reading from the pen of the late Rollo, namely Man’s Search for Himself is how relevant what he writes is to us today on the cusp of the twenty-first century, that this little book is as fresh now in 2010 as it was when it was written way back in 1953, five years before the present writer was born. As I said in my opening paragraph, which got lost somewhere in its passion for mythology and for the dreams of humankind, if not of our great mother Earth, Gaia, wisdom lives on and is as enlivening for us today as it was 3000, 2000, 1000, 500, 100 or 10 or 1 year ago or even yesterday.

In this wonderful little classic Rollo May deals with the anxiety of modern humankind and offers us a lot of wisdom in facing it and dealing with it. His argument is simply stated. We are so alienated from our real selves, so lost, and so soul-less that we experience severe anxiety and are almost unaware of this until our diseases wake us up with a start – be they that of a heart attack, stroke or cancer etc.

However, May does see a positive in anxiety, and a great one at that, namely that anxiety can and does lead to awareness. This has long been one of the clarion calls of the Eastern religions, that is, to wake up, to become aware of our very life, our very being, our very soul. Call this entity psyche, if you will, a word I love, both because of its antiquity and its profundity. The goal for humankind, according to May, and according to many, many others is that of inner integration (another one of my gurus Dr Anthony Storr uses the very same word) and self-realization (also used by Carl Ransom Rogers). In all of this May recognises the pain and the struggle of Everyman and Everywoman against the background of the middle of the twentieth century when everything external to human meaning seemed to be breaking down and disintegrating. Remember May was writing this book less than ten years after the Second World War and was listening to of his clients in the wake of the horror unleashed on humanity by that war.

It is no wonder that he quotes much from philosophers and writers and artists who between them had distilled much of the suffering of the century and previous centuries into their words and works. He quotes both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche many times, two of the first great existentialist philosophers to be pioneers for generations of meaning-seekers and meaning-makers. I’ll finish with a quotation from both, the very ones that May picked for the flyleaf of his little classic book.

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose oneself... And to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of one’s self.” Soren Kierkegaard.

“The one goeth to his neighbour because he seeketh himself, and the other because he would fain lose himself. Your bad love to yourselves maketh solitude a prison for you.” Friedrich Nietzsche.

To be continued.

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 1

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 1

How does one become attracted to one author or another? Well, one follows the recommendations of one’s teachers, professors, doctors, psychotherapists and others in choosing whom one should read. Perhaps also, one might take stock of what reviewers of books might advise in either print or on-line copies of good newspapers. Then again, one might hear one’s favourite broadcaster recommend this or that author. It was in such a way that I began to read Irvin D. Yalom, and, indeed, I became quite besotted with his work. Then, I began to read the books by the people whom he quoted most often. It was in that way that I began to read the seminal work of Rollo May. Indeed, what inspires me about May is the richness of his insight as well as the breadth of great authors from whom he quotes, and those quotations have been digested and integrated by this wonderful psychotherapist.

Here, from a brief perusal of the index of Man’s Search for Himself is a list of the philosopher’s I find quoted in this work: Albert Camus, René Descartes, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pascal, Plato, Bertrand Russell, John Paul Sartre, Schopenhauer, Socrates and Spinoza. Then his list of literary allusions to well-known authors contains such notables as: Aeschylus, Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Balzac, Nicolai Berdyaev, William Blake, E.E. Cummings, Dostoevski (sic), T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Goethe, Ernest hemingway, George Herbert, Aldous Huxley, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth.

Then he refers, quite obviously, to many scholars within the psychiatric, psychological and psychotherapeutic fields, viz., Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, William James, Carl Gustave Jung, Otto Rank, Harry Stack Sullivan and John B. Watson. Outside that, he refers to some religious, mythological, theological and spiritual schools from various traditions, viz., Athena, Clytemnestra, Ecclesiastes, Electra, Faust, The Furies, God, grace, Hebrew-Christian values, Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Orestes, Prometheus and Paul Tillich. May also quotes from the world of the Arts, viz., William Blake, Paul Cézanne, Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. As I have mentioned above Rollo May just does not allude to these in passing, but rather it is obvious to the informed reader that he has digested and absorbed what all these experts from these various fields of knowledge and artistic activity have given our culture in terms of wisdom and knowledge.

To be continued.