Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Art of Happiness 13

Shifting Perspective

Self in perspective with the Ionian sea behind - Rocella Ionica
How often do we say in answer to a question, "Well, it depends on your perspective" ?  We could, of course, have said, "It's all relative, you know."  Years ago I remember living in a huge novitiate called Orlagh College in Templeogue.  This was an old period landlord's house dating back hundreds of years.  I always marvelled that no matter what room you went into on the top floor you got a wonderful but different perspective or view on the same scene below.  It struck me that life was like that.  We all look out on the same scene or view (call it reality or life for the viewer wherever he or she is in the world) but we all see it somewhat differently, that is, from our particular perspective.

Some Metaphors

Aren't metaphors wonderful?  I've already used that of the big house with the many windows.  These metaphors are images that make things more understandable and graspable.  An erstwhile lecturer, the wonderful and brilliant Jesuit scholar, Professor Michael Paul Gallagher used use the metaphors of magnifying glass and telescope to describe two divergent perspectives on life.  Having suffered from depression, and having worked with people of all mental dispositions, including those who suffer from OCD, the first metaphor is very relevant here.  These poor souls see everything through a magnifying glass, that is, they magnify everything out of all proportion.  In short, they become anxious to such an extent that they lose all perspective on life.  One boy I taught could check his pencil case and bag innumerable times even during a ten minute period.

When one uses a telescope or even binoculars one can view far away objects more clearly.  The metaphor here is that one can get a better perspective on things that are happening.  The General organizing his troops for battle can plan his campaign with greater accuracy that with the naked eye. Of course, alternating between naked eye and binoculars can give further perspective again.

Lungomare, Rocella Ionica
Another metaphor that I really like is that of viewing a painting.  Obviously if you stand right up near it, all you will see are brush strokes and colours, while if you stand back you will see the picture from a better perspective.


I came across this philosophical theory in reading Nietzsche some years back.    Here is what the WIKI says on this theory:

Perspectivism is the philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively "true", but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid. ( Perspectivism)
Shifting Perspective

Shifting perspective is a great way of coping with the suffering that confronts us in life.  Cognitve therapies, which include REBT, are methods of helping the client change their faulty patterns of thinking and consequently change their feelings.  Albert Ellis speaks about replacing irrational with rational beliefs.  There's a lot in this, and now that I'm reflecting on these matters, there is a strong link here with the philosophical theory of perspectivism.

The Dalai Lama's words are so "full of perspective" if I may use this strained expression:

You might reflect on the fact that when you are really angry at someone you tend to perceive them as having 100 per cent negative qualities.  Just as when you are strongly attracted to someone the tendency is to see them as having 100 per cent positive qualities.  But this perception does not correspond with reality... the reality is that no one is a 100 per cent bad...
Generally speaking, once you're already in a difficult situation, it isn't possible to change your attitude simply by adopting a particular thought once or twice.  Rather it's through a process of learning, training, and getting used to new viewpoints that enables you to deal with the difficulty.  (The Art of Happiness, p. 146)

The Dalai Lama goes so far as to suggest that venerating one's enemies gives us the opportunity to grow in compassion and love.  This is very hard to swallow indeed, but we know that the Lama and many others of his deep compassion have done so.  In other words, it's the very struggle of life that makes us who we are.  And it is our enemies that test us and provide us with the resistance necessary for growth.

Both Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama recommend strongly the development of a suppleness or pliancy of mind or the ability to change perspective.  Obviously, this is an on-going and life-long journey.  Cutler talks about the Lama's suppleness of mind in these words: "His awareness seemed to move so easily from taking in the complete landscape to focusing on a single bud, a simultaneous appreciation of the totality of the environment as well as the smallest detail.  A capacity to encompass all facets and the full spectrum of life." (ibid., p. 156)

Cultivating a supple or pliant mind allows us perspective, allows us to go from a closer perspective (microscope) to a farther one (binoculars) and back and forth and even in-between.  This is what we mean by a suppleness or pliancy or flexibility of mind.  Obviously without such a kind of mind we become very rigid, and as we all know if we are in an accident and we are holding ourselves in a very rigid way we become very brittle and become more susceptible to injury. Fear, anxiety, obsession, paranoia and a whole plethora of neuroses render us brittle and vulnerable in the extreme.

A suppleness of mind brings perspective and this perspective is shown in the Buddhist approach to life and living: a belief in the underlying goodness of all human beings; a belief in the value of love and compassion; a policy of kindness and a sense of being one with all living creatures who live on Gaia.

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