Saturday, March 06, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 8

Freedom Continued:

Freedom is the most prized possession of humankind. Every nation under the sun has faught for this most precious gift, and many millions of our number have died in its defense and indeed pursuit. In my last post I adverted to Hans Kung's perspicacious contention that real freedom is recognised more in its being a freedom for than in its being a freedom from. I also referred to May's contention that real freedom is the very growth and development of self-awareness. The more self-aware we become, the freer we are in fact.

May avers 
That consciousness of self and freedom go hand in hand is shown in the fact that the less self-awarewness a person has the more he is unfree.  That is to say the more he is controlled by inhibitions, repressions, childhood conditionings which he has consciously forgotten but which still drive him unconsciously, the more he is pushed by forces over which he has no control.  (May, op.cit., p. 123)
French Existentailism and Freedom

Freedom has long been a cardinal concern of French existentialism.  Indeed, its very essence is its belief in the capacity of the individual to care greatly about his freedom and inner integrity.  He or she will, in fact, go so far as to die or commit suicide in their struggle to attain their personal freedom.  Much of the essence of Sartrian existentialism, and indeed of the other varieties also, was born in the throws of the struggle for freedom during the Second World War - in The Résistance.  May continues:
We agree with the fundamental Sartrian precept that the individual has no recourse from the necessity of making final decisions for himself, and that his existence as a person hangs or falls in these choices; and to make them in the last analysis in freedom and isolation may require literally as well as figuratively an agony of anxiety and inward struggle.  (Op.cit., p. 124)
However, May has grave reservations about the growing negativity of the Sartrian movement in existentialism, and that its negativity increased the more it became unhinged as it were from its origins in the French fight for freedom, or, in other words, the further in time the Sartrian movement moved away from the passion for freedom that energised the Résistance of WW II.  May continues poetically and insightfully to my mind with his erudite criticism of Sartrianism thus:

But the fact that human beings can choose with some freedom, and that they will at times die for this freedom (both very strange things, quite contrary to any simple doctrine of self-preservation) implies some profound things about human nature and human existence.  No one will die for the negative side of a debate or for any other negation.  A person may die for a lost cause, but he is dying for very powerful positive values, such as his own dignity and integrity.  The emptiness of the Sartrian viewpoint arises from the failure to analyse those very presuppositions in the freedom which he is avowedly dedicated to. (May, ibid., p. 124)
Then May reminds us that real freedom does not come to us automatically.  We do not receive it whole as it were as a gift.  No, in fact, it is achieved over time, and oftentimes, if  not mostly, through struggle.  Dignity and integrity are two essential attributes of the real and true self.  Our freedom grows as we develop more and more in our integrity and dignity.  When these are forcefully taken away from us we indeed would sooner die than be reduced to a state of being without them - a veritable state of non-being.  In many senses, then, we gain our freedom anew every day as we grow and grow in integrity and dignity.  The basic step, May argues, in achieving one's freedom is summed up in the Kierkegaardian phrase of "choosing oneself."  This, May argues, is "an attitude of aliveness and decisiveness; it means that one recognises that he exists in his particular spot in the universe, and he accepts the responsibility for his existence." (Ibid., p.125)  Again, May gives us a good insight into Nietzsche's philosophy of life, i.e., that the latter philosopher did not simply mean the instinct of self-preservation when he alluded to the "will to live."  No, rather, Nietzsche meant precisely what Kierkegaard was on about in the above phrase of "choosing oneself", the very will to accept the fact that one is one's self and no one else, and that one must accept the responsibility for fulfilling one's own destiny, which in turn implies that one must make his own basic choices for himself.


I remember some years back attending a conference led by Dr Tony Humphreys.  That day he was speaking on "a new discipline" for teachers.  One of his sayings which struck home to me then was " all control is self-control."  These words struck home, and went on to form the basis of the way I later disciplined the students in my care.  If all control is self-control, all discipline is self-discipline.  May talks about such a type of discipline.  For him, self-discipline is a discipline from within or from inside the self.  It should never be a discipline from outside, and if it is it will be nothing short of crushing.  This discipline from within is one of the main results of the consciously chosen life, of the exercise of the right to choose one's own life, one's own identity, the deep desire to know the self, the deep desire for integrity and wholeness, the deep desire to know and love the Self in its wholeness and unity.  May concludes this chapter thus:

This self-discipline can be given fancy names, Nietzsche called it "loving one's fate" and Spinoza spoke of obedience to the laws of life.  But whether bedecked by fancy terms or not, it is, I believe, a lesson everyone progressively learns in his struggle toward maturity. (May, ibid., 129)

To be continued

Above, the Bank of Ireland, night time, Dublin, Christmas 2009

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 7

Freedom and Inner Strength is the title of Rollo May's fifth chapter.  There can be no more important fundamental value for the human being than his freedom.  May begins his chapter with a parable of what happens to the human person when his total freedom to be autonomous is taken away.  In the parable this representative of humankind is gradually reduced to an unthinking animal and then he becomes insane.  In our society we believe that taking away a person's freedom is the ultimate sanction we have against those who transgress the values we as a society hold dear.  And indeed, no one likes his/her freedom to be restricted, never mind taken away.  I remember years ago reading that famous, erudite and ground-breakingly brave and original theologian Hans Kung who declared that freedom for was more important for us human beings than freedom from.  Indeed, Kung was particularly perspicacious in this observation.

We all desire to be free from oppressions of all kinds be they political, social or monetary.  Who wants to sweat under the jackboot of the oppressor?  However, a far more importrant insight into freedom, Kung argued was our very freedom for - our freedom to be creative, to compose literature and music, our very freedom to procreate, to look after others in love and compassion, our very freedom to break the chains that bind others.  And, then, perhaps, a further freedom to break the chains of delusion that bind our very selves.

To my mind, May is very much at one with Kung's positive understanding and framing of what freedom really is.  Let me return to the succinct words of Rollo May:
Freedom is man's capacity to take a hand in his own development.  It is our capacity to mold ourselves.  Freedom is the other side of consciousness of self: if we were not able to be aware of ourselves, we would be pushed along by instinct or the automatic march of history, like bees or mastadons....Consciousness of self gives us the power to stand outside the rigid chain of stimulus and response, to pause....That consciousness of self and freedom go together is shown in the fact that the less self-awareness a person has the more he is unfree.  That is to say, the more he is controlled by inhibitions, repressions,chidhood conditionings...the more he is pushed by forces over which he has no control....They (persons) are unfree - that is, bound and pushed by unconscious patterns.  (May, op.cit., p.119)
The circle image:

Images are always far more potent than mere words. They capture a lot.  May uses the image of a circle when referring to the powerful concept of self.  He avers that every successive exercise of real freedom - that is ijn the sense of freedom for in Kung's language - enlarges the circumference of the circle of the Self.

Freedom as a Going With not a Fighting Against:

There is a lot of wisdom in the heading above.  Let me start with a piece of wisdom I learnt from a judo coach and friend Alan Martin.  He once told me that if someone is attacking you with considerable power or strength you don't tackle him head on as his power will certainly injure you.  No, what you do is try to intervene from the side as it were and use the aggressor's power against him.  In short, your defense is in fact a way of fighting against the enemy using the enemy's own energy.  Now, that's what I mean by "going with" not "fighting against."  I can still fight the aggressor by going with his power than by directly opposing it.  In like manner, I believe that this is the most effective way we should fight our illnesses - we go with them, atatck them from the side as it were.  In other words, we fight our illnesses not by denial of them, but by a firm acceptance of them, and then we use some of the energy in them to disempower them to some extent.  In other words we grow as persons, enlarge the circumference of our |real Self and in this growing self-awareness we disarm our diseases to a great extent.  Now, please note that, with May, I am not saying that we cure ourselves or anything of the kind.  What we do, in fact, is heal ourselves, and healing is a far more enriching reality than cure.

To this extent, then, we can really delve into the depths of wisdom of the likes of Meister Eckhart, Kierkegaard, Epictetus and Nietzsche.  Let's look at some of their collective wisdom as recounted here by May.  We can now understand the depths of the wisdom of this phrase from Eckhart: "When you are thwarted, it is your attitude that is out of order."  Or again we can appreciate the truth of Kierkegaard's contention that the man who is devoted to freedom does not waste time fighting reality, instead he "extols reality."  Or indeed, we can further accept the contention of the ancient philosopher and Stoic, Epictetus (who was born a slave and had no easy life by all accounts) that people are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.  And then finally, we will absorb the wisdom of Nietzsche's saying that freedom is the capacity "to become what we truly are." (See May pp. 121-122)

To be continued.

Above a photograph I took of the latest book I bought on Nietzsche

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 6

Rollo May entitles his fourth chapter The Struggle to Be.  There have been so many books, more than any one person can count, on the subject of self-awareness.  If I have learnt anything in the course of my life, it can summed up in the statement: awareness is all.  Let that be ocur song!  In other words self-consciousness is the goal, or, in the words of the grand old man (Freud) of psyhoanalysis: making our unconscious conscious.  At least, then, we can face the inevitability of our own mortality with some little equanimity.

As I write I am observing a colleague come to grips with his own mortality.  The poor man has had a leg and a hip amputated due to cancer, and he is now back in hospital awaiting three weeks of radiation to stem the progress of cancer elsewhere in his system.  His, now, is a great struggle as it would be for all of us.  This poor gentleman in question is perhaps one of the most driven of people I have ever come across in life, one who buys into achievement, is a workaholoic who seemingly cannot let go, who is ego-driven mostly and who really loves control.  Now, none of these words are a criticism - they are simply observation, because the person in question is a good man, a great worker, a marvellous doer and has no more faults or failings than most of us.  What I am about here is illustrating May's chapter, rightly called The Struggle to Be.

Achieving  consciousness of self involves struggle and conflict. The present writer went through this struggle when he was forty years of age and had to be hospitalised for seven weeks due to clinical depression.  That was akin to going down into a private hell of lostness somewhere in the unchartered spaces of the entanglement of synapses and of mind and of self.  And, what an entanglement that is, a labyrinth of daedalian proportions.

The young child has no sense of self when he or she is thrown into this world to use language of a Heideggerian twist, but his/her entire life will be one of differentiating the self.  Let me quote May's succinct words here:
All through life a person is engaged in this continuum of differentiation of himself from the whole, followed by steps towards new integration.  Indeed, all evolution can be described as the process of differentiation of the part from the whole, the individual from the mass, with the parts then relating to each other on a higher level. (Man's Search for Himself, p. 86)
On the road to self-realization or integration, call it what you will, there are stages which we all go through, and the following are the ones Dr. May adverts to: (i) Cutting the psychological umbilical cord which involves what he terms The Struggle against Mother.  In this regard he refers to the myth of Orestes.  Indeed, there is a complex called the Orestes complex which in psychoanalysis is an unconscious desire of a son to kill his mother. Matricide by sons appears to be dominated by incestuous elements, and the term 'Orestes complex' (after Orestes who, under the influence of his sister, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, as revenge for the death of his father, Agamemnon) has been coined to describe a sexually immature son trapped in a dependent but hostile relationship with a possessive mother culminating in a murderous psychological crisis.

I would like now to advert to an interesting distiction May comes up with, at least I have never come across it in any of the psychological literature I have read, viz., loving inwards and loving outwards.  In this he returns to the story of Aeschylus's great tragedy or trilogy of tragedies The Oresteia.  Orestes, according to May, vows that he will not "!waste inward," and that he has "fallen in love outward." Then he explains the symbolic meaning of this interesting directional imagery:

It is by no accident that Orestes uses the terms "inward" and "outward" several times in these few lines, and that he says the main trouble in Mysenae has been "incest."  For incest is simply the sexual physical symptom of being turned inward on the family, and of being able correspondingly to "love outwardly."  Psychologically, incestuous desires, when they continue past adolescence, are the sexual symbol of morbid dependency on the parent, and they occur predominantly in persons whom have not grown up, have not cut the psychological umbilical cord which binds them to the parent.  Sexual gratification, then, is not too different from the oral gratification the child receives in being fed by the mother. (Op. cit., p. 97) 
The next section May entitles The Struggle against One's Own Dependency.  In this section he reminds us of the timely and universal moral of the myth of Orestes, namely that what has to be killed is not the physical mother, but rather the symbolic mother with all her infantile ties of dependency which bind the child to the parent .  The struggle to become a person in one's own right does bring considerable anxiety as the present writer well knows, and often it brings actual terror.  I remember having several dreams about the death of my father before he died, and many years ago I had several dreams about the demise of my mother, who happens to be still alive but is quite happily demented in herself in a nursing home.  At the time I honoured these dreams by writing them up, acknowledging them and, after working with them at different levels, I realised that I had finally broken those strong parental bonds. 

While ancient Greek tragedy presents this struggle with the parental bonds in an almost external and literal way, that is, in the actual slaying of the mother (or the father) figure, later tragedians like William Shakespeare took these old themes and made them new by internalising the struggle, for instance, Hamlet's "struggle to be" is an internal conflict within his own mind or conscience and his struggle is consequently frought with guilt, much anguished thought and not a little procrastination and indecision.

Then, our scholarly author, Dr May, outlines his own personal thoughts on the various stages of the consciousness of self which he describes as (i) The stage of innocence - that is, of the child or infant, before the dawning of any consaciousness, (ii) The stage of rebellion - the terrible twos and/or threes, and later that of adolescence, (iii) The stage of ordinary consciousness of self.  This is relatively stable and healthy state of personality and (iv) The stage of extraordinary consciousness which is rarely experienced.  This is where a operson gets sudden insight into a problem or situation, where one is finely attuned like an antenna, as I read in Professor Ivor Browne's wonderful Music and Madness, which I reviewed and summarised in these posts some two years ago.  Indeed, in agreement with May and Browne, I can confirm that sometimes such insights come in dreams.  In these cases, our unconscious is offering up the answer to our particular situation.  This is also called "objective self-consciousness" in Eastern Religions and Philosophies and is also what Nietzsche refers to as "self-surpassing consciousness".  Another term would be the "self-transcending consciousness" in ethical-religious traditions of the West.  In psychology, May reminds us that this type of awareness is also called "ecstasy".

I love May's sheer erudition, his ability to refer with such a lightness of touch to ancient classic, to ancient mythology and to contemporary literature both belles lettres and scholarly and scientific.  I love his quotations from Nietzsche especially, but here in this section of this chapter he quotes a beautiful  few lines from Simone de Beauvoir which bear repeating here:

"Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself.... if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying, and human existence is indistinguishable from an absurb vegetation.... "  (Quoted ibid., p. 102)
All in all, this fourth stage of awareness, can never be accessed on demand, but it will occur at moments of heightened receptivity and relaxation, rather than in the midst of activity, and certainly not at stressful times.  Just like our dcreams, these insights often come quite unexpectedly, but we can train ourselves to raise our awareness by exercises of awareness and in other soul-building pursuits like writing, painting, listening to music, in other words by engaging in creative pursuits.

I took this picture in the Vatican Museums, February 2010.