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Psychotherapy: a journey to liberation

part 2



Co-creation: you'll see whatever you're looking for

Whatever is to the forefront of our mind, we'll see it in the world we perceive. If we are thinking about changing our car to a particular model, we will automatically see more of them. If we're looking for a new winter coat, or a new mobile phone they seem to pop up everywhere in the world around us. Sometimes we marvel at coincidental occurrences which seem to happen as if by magic: you're planning a holiday and you meet someone who has just been there.

There is a natural law at work here: you selectively draw forth from the world whatever your mind is focused on, both within and without. A fundamental law of consciousness is that whatever we focus on expands. To illustrate this for yourself, look around the room and count how many things you notice that are red in colour. When you are finished, and without looking around again, ask yourself how many things were blue. If you don't know how many, it's because you weren't looking for blue at the time. By virtue of the fact that you were searching for red, you were unconsciously excluding blue. The implications of this simple experiment are awesome, as it demonstrates how valued judgements and prejudices are so loaded in favour of one direction even though others exist.


The mind becomes that which it contemplates.

— Shelley


If you are depressed and thinking ‘I'm useless, there's nothing I can do, people don't care, life's too difficult' then you will selectively highlight your faults, seeing only what's wrong with your life. The opposite is also true — if you make a conscious decision to really examine if any aspects of it are working, then you'll find there are some. It's a case of whether you see a half full or a half empty glass. In other words, you construct the world from behind your eyes.

Depression reflects a state in which the mind has foreclosed on any new ideas. All thoughts, feelings and behaviours are being filtered through a helpless and bleak mindset. Rather than take in new information, all you experience are the stale repetition of tormenting memories of a self left over from yesterday. There is no evolution, no new co-creations, only stagnation, disorder and decay. Like looking for only the colour red, those with a dark and hopeless outlook on life only draw in evidence that is commensurate with that. In other words, in this brain-locked state misery sees only misery.

Your stream of consciousness is made up of thoughts which are either supportive and user-friendly (green thoughts) or critical and hostile (red thoughts). These latter thoughts are largely fed to your mind by years of conditioning. With an awareness that thoughts can influence both how you feel and how you behave in either a positive or negative way, then if you wish to feel and behave in ways that benefit you rather than harm you, it makes logical sense to eliminate the negative thoughts. This process involves learning to examine your stream of thoughts as they flow by your window of perception. From this perspective you have a choice to make.

Either you allow the flow to continue willy-nilly, and download every thought into your triangle of thinking, feeling and behaving without discrimination, or in your own best interest you consciously decide to intervene. From the passing flow, you might now choose to separate the green thoughts from the red, allowing the latter to flow on by without reacting. In this way you are guaranteeing that the thinking part of your triangle is relating to as many green thoughts as possible, screening out negative influences from going on to adversely affect the other two aspects of the triangle. If you begin to notice red thoughts which say that ‘you're a loser' (conditioned by your father's or mother's voice) then wouldn't you be ill-advised to entertain them, if you're hoping to build up your self-esteem and feel more contented in yourself? Would you invite your worst critic to sit in your company all day, and wonder why you felt awful at the end of it? Would you tolerate a radio station or watch a soap that you intensely dislike?

We exercise free will constantly in every respect but relative to our thoughts, operating under the premise that we have no choice at all but to react to every passing thought. In fact, the position is that we allow many thoughts to go by without reacting to them. The rules of the road are a trivial example of thought discrimination or editing. Despite having the momentary inclination to do so, we choose not to run a red traffic light, exceed the speed limit or ignore the old lady on the zebra crossing. Entire schools of philosophy are based on the practice of thought management — the use of ‘right thought' is fundamental to many spiritual traditions. Shakespeare was a pragmatic realist in this regard: ‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so'.


Because Sarah sees her husband as a ‘total bastard' she feels utterly abandoned by him. What she fails to acknowledge is that he is still a very good father and provider, resources which she can rely on. This perspective would make her less helpless, but the trade-off for feeling so means that she would have to give up indulging her wish to remain a victim.


Peter has to learn to derive self-esteem from areas independent of activities in which he proves himself, where he can value himself for who he is rather than what he achieves, the yardstick his father used to measure worth. He has to learn to appreciate qualities which he never valued before, such as his sense of humour, loyalty, creativity, adventurous spirit, and love of nature and music.


Martin has to discipline himself to concentrate on the medical evidence that he had been given, that a panic attack can never harm you, and to take his focus off the worse case scenario, such as collapsing or losing control, which were not factual at all.


Acceptance : the prerequisite for change

Acceptance has got bad press, many taking it to mean acquiescing, putting up with things, being a doormat. Yet, paradoxically, no change is possible unless there is acceptance of things exactly as they are now, they way they have unfolded, contrary to what you might have thought possible. Wishing things hadn't happened changes nothing. No matter what painful things were done to us, no matter how unjust, or by whom, the fact is they have happened, and nothing can change that. As we move through the stages of loss — denial, anger, bargaining, depression — trying reluctantly to integrate the event as irreversibly now part of our personal story, we frequently stall at the last stage, acceptance.

Often the losses are subtle and internal, rather than external and obvious like death. Loss of an illusion or dream we had — that we would be successful and happy, that love would last forever, that we'd always have our health — means our game-plan vanishes and, stunned, we struggle to integrate its demise. Dis-illusionment is in this sense an inseparable and integral part of depression, the helplessness in the face of the inescapable reality that our bubble has burst, a fact we cannot accept. The emotional response of depression is triggered as this awareness dawns on our rational mind. Often a deep reviewing of our contract with life itself is on the cards now. We begin to ask the big existential questions, and the dis-illusionment becomes more global as it draws us in to the museum of our past, where we re-view similar setbacks. Do I want to go on living in a world that continues to deliver such shocks? What else might be in store?

Many people experiencing depression turn over and over in their mind certain turning-point behaviours, those which if they hadn't done them would mean ‘it would never have happened'. It's as if the compulsive reviewing process might air-spray out of existence the initiating step of the entire experience. ‘If only I hadn't been so trusting…' ‘If only I'd never met him….' ‘If only I hadn't listened to so-and-so's advice…' All these statements have in common an underlying non-acceptance of the historical events, as if one could undo them. This denial also leads on to tremendous levels of anger, but more importantly to certain bargaining policies for future prevention. These range from never, ever trusting anyone again, to never taking the advice of others again, and so forth.

Acceptance doesn't stop you hoping the future will be different. To do so is healthy, and is also a prerequisite for change. But acknowledging things as they are now, not as you wish they were comes first. Acceptance is the most radical position a human being can take as it creates a starting point, a new beginning.


In the words of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


This wisdom can often be difficult to achieve on one's own, such are the roadblocks placed by the conditioned mind, but can be achieved in psychotherapy. Patricia has to acknowledge that, contrary to her plans or to what she would ever have dreamt possible, her career has indeed taken an unfortunate turn. She will not move on until she can let go the notion that she can change her bully or expect support from more senior colleagues, and she must admit that the department's ‘bullying policies' have no teeth. Likewise, acceptance is critical learning for Peter, and even more so for Sarah if she is to progress through the stages of grief for her lost marriage.


Symptom as messenger

Just like thoughts, feelings and behaviours, symptoms are another important aspect of you which, if you learn to witness them, can yield vital information which can point you in the direction where change is needed. Symptoms are expressions of imbalance in our lives. In much the same way as a pain in our big toe draws our attention to an ingrown toenail, likewise your depression is not there by accident, but is trying to draw your attention to an underlying problem.

Imagine pasting over the flashing oil light on the dashboard of your car. Doing so is perilous, because now the need for lubrication goes unheeded and unmet. To anaesthetise your depression with emotional painkillers, attempting to medicate it out of existence, is an unwise move. Its valuable message will be missed, if the underlying cause is not explored in psychotherapy.

If your feelings of depression were to be seen as messengers, what would they be telling you?


Becoming a responsible choice-maker

What does it mean to take responsibility? The word derives from the Latin respondere which meansto undertake to perform one's part in a solemn engagement which is expected of us'. In other words, to come up with a creative solution to the task at hand. And not to do the opposite, which is to despond, meaning to abandon, to lose, or to yield. Responsibility means standing one's ground, taking it on the chin, thinking creatively, and choosing to do what one wants and needs to do, rather than what one ‘should' do or has been told to do by others. A sense of responsibility for oneself instils the notion of personal agency, the ability to act on your own behalf.

In many other areas, we acknowledge and accept that it is up to us, and us alone, to act. If our car breaks down we don't sit in shock at the side of the road letting the hours tick by, hoping someone will notice and do the necessary for us. No, we take steps to get it to the garage. If we run out of milk we don't keep checking the fridge every couple of hours to see if by some miracle it has filled up with milk — we go to the shop.

Only when you've learned to stand back and witness, and can see how your conditioning has shaped you, and when you've managed to accept the situation you face now, only then can you become your own agent, an informed choice-maker. This paves the way for freedom, flexibility and personal growth. With these in place you no longer have to behave like a bundle of conditioned reflexes that are constantly being triggered by people and circumstances into predictable outcomes of behaviour, where you respond mindlessly, as if you were a performing seal.

If you want to move in the direction of personal liberation, you have to accept that you are the creator of your emotional responses to situations and predicaments. No-one can be to blame for how you have chosen to respond. Within this framework, statements like ‘he made me so angry I had to hit him' are invalid. A responsible reading of the situation would be ‘he pressed some button in me which made me feel angry, but since it's my button, and I own that, if I want to I can chose not to hit him back'. Only with a witness in place can you see that this choice could be a more conscious one, rather than an unconscious, hair-trigger reflex. As Deepak Chopra has it: ‘If I were to insult you, you would likely make the choice of being offended. If I were to pay you a compliment, you would most likely make the choice of being pleased or flattered. But think about it : it's still a choice. I could offend and you could make the choice of not being offended. I could pay you a compliment and you could make the choice of not letting that flatter you either.'

Feeling you are a victim of circumstances and blaming others for your distress ad infinitum is a frequent feature of the depressed state. This blocks change and healing as it limits us to just one emotion, diverts our hope for change to an outside agent, putting the control in someone else's hands. How many depressed individuals hang their liberation from such an emotion on the apology of their perpetrator? If Patricia's healing is going to depend on the acknowledgement by her bully of his actions, and she as his victim, she is paradoxically giving him more control, because her state of mind now depends on him, and as such she is in danger of never moving forward. She has been victimised but she can choose not to remain a victim forever. Sarah might usefully ask herself if all the fault did indeed belong with John, or was she partly responsible? Might she have lost touch with him through her over-investment in the children, and her failing to see the cracks in the relationship when he embarked on serial affairs? To do so will move her out of the victim role and back in control of her emotions.



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