Choices that turn out well are made in a calm state of mind at the right time and the right place. When circumstances change or you get new information you alter course. This careful, yet flexible approach allows you to experience life with spontaneity and liveliness.
By contrast, choices made when you are upset, in a hurry or influenced by unconscious complexes may seem justified at the time. But these choices only add to the difficulties you are trying to resolve.
After enough disappointments you may ask yourself, what am I doing wrong? Acknowledging that what you are doing is not working means you are in the first stage of change.
The Process of Change
At its best, life is an ongoing process of change and growth. We are free to resist, but holding on to what is obsolete can cause pain and suffering. In that sense, pain and suffering are allies that tell us it is time to let go of what is not working.
Most people connect the word change with worse not better. This is because the human brain is wired for pessimism. After all, the big woolies on the tundra ate optimistic humans in prehistoric times.
Although you inherited the genes of anxious ancestors (the calm folks did not survive), the brain evolved over time to include the ability to differentiate between safety and danger. Even so, resistance to change is the primal brain’s first response, especially when change threatens the ego’s defenses.
Defenses are hard to identify because they feel like you. And since the ego has to be right (I’m not the problem!), it fights against threats to the self-image; such as when someone says you are saying one thing and doing another.
When you get tired of fighting you decide to do whatever it takes to succeed, including asking for help.
Now you are in the second and most difficult stage of change, stopping what you are doing that is not working. This stage of growth is like pulling dandelions; just when you think you got rid of defenses back they come.
In addition to the pull of old habits, criticism from those who are close to you can cause you to lose your resolve. To relieve the pressure you go back to what they want you to do.
Success in any endeavor depends on the ability to tolerate what Jung called the hell of not knowing. Sitting at the crossroads of conflicting desires until clarity comes is the hallmark of mental fitness.
After enough back and forth and ups and downs (enough varies with each of us), certainty replaces doubt.
With equilibrium restored, you move into the third and final stage of change, when new choices become the norm. Even then, you keep an eye on what would tempt you to relapse. And, you are grateful for what and who helped you to grow.
Adaptation to Failure
Where do you learn to repeat choices that do not work? The laboratory for failure is an authoritarian, neglectful, alcoholic, violent, incompetent, overly religious or a highly sexualized environment.
More accurately, the decisions you make in reaction to a disturbed environment determine the outcome of your life, until you change those decisions.
For example, based on what you experienced you decided life always lets you down. And so it does, until you develop realistic expectations of yourself and others.
Because you were neglected you decided early on that you are not worthy of love, until you decide to love yourself, even when you make mistakes.
The work of adult life is to recognize and change adaptations to what you believed was true. Examining these adaptations takes courage, since they kept you close to the people you depended on for survival.
Severing ties to what helped you to survive feels like suicide to the ego, which is what makes change so hard. The old way feels right because it connects you to the past. The new way feels wrong because it separates you from the past.
Paradoxically, a sense of belonging comes when you feel whole and complete within yourself. Getting there takes a great deal of work.
The following are examples of adaptations and changes that lead to a new and better life:
· You work for a boss who is not up to the job. You stay where you are and seethe in silence, or you passively rebel against his authority. Finding work that makes the best use of your strengths leads you to a boss who values those strengths. Or, if you are ready for the responsibility you become your own boss.
· You take care of others’ needs at the expense of your own needs. Self-sacrifice can be noble, but not when giving endangers your mental and physical health. Balancing your needs with the needs of others feels unfamiliar, but it rights the relationship with yourself, and others.
· You try to be perfect and then wonder why you feel alienated and alone. Rejecting aspects of yourself that are painful to admit causes you to project these qualities onto others (it’s them, not me!). Accepting the darker aspects of your personality not only connects you with yourself, it also connects you to your fellow human beings (humility is endearing).
Like hoeing soil before you plant seeds, reflection prepares the mind for a bountiful harvest. One seedling that emerges is discernment, the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality.
Reflection Reward #1: Discernment
Discernment is defined as deep understanding of a person or circumstance. Discernment implies good judgment, the ability to accept life on its own terms, not as you imagine or want it to be.
As Jungians say, a discerning mind holds the tension of opposites, the positive and the negative, the light, the dark, and all shades of gray.
As an example, you get angry with someone and you see the good about that person. You fail and you feel capable. You accept another’s point of view and you hold on to your principles.
Discernment helps you to become more compassionate and more realistic as you grow older. Discernment connects you with the power that is within you, the kingdom that Jesus called the pearl of great price (Matthew 13: 44–46).
Reflection Reward #2: Freedom
Merriam Webster dictionary defines freedom as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
Being in a physical body constrains some of your choices, particularly as you age. And, depending on where you live in the world, freedom of movement and thought can be constrained.
But you are most constrained when one part of your mind dominates the other.
For example, when emotion floods the boundaries of the rational mind there is chaos, witness the wars that ravage the world, and endless family conflicts.
When thinking dominates feelings life is a sterile existence, alleviated by material achievement. But if more is more then why does reaching the top fail to satisfy?
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill was an example of dominant thinking. He was an advocate for intellectual freedom, decrying the conformity of his time.
“Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.” Mill wrote in his essay, On Liberty, a tribute to tolerance and open mindedness. “[This is because] they are less capable of fitting themselves into molds that society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.”
Ironically, Mill’s own character underwent a transformation when he experienced a nervous breakdown and depression. Valuing the mind over the feelings was Mill’s adaptation to his equally brilliant father.
In his autobiography, Mill said music and poetry set him free from his intellectual prison, particularly the nature poems of Wordsworth.
“I needed to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation,” Mill wrote. “Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.”
Like many people today, Mill’s mind was stuffed with knowledge, but he lacked self-awareness, until great art connected him to the ground of his being.
As the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti said in The First and Last Freedom, “it is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.”
Krishnamurti’s gift to the world was showing how to free the mind from the tyranny of the expected.
Reflection Reward #3: Growth
Imagine you are in a laboratory for success; success defined as feeling free to make choices that work. Where are you? What are you doing that is different from what you did in the past?
Now, imagine you have a model of success to copy. Describe the choices this person makes, such as:
· I am kind and helpful, and I take on only what I can handle at this stage of my life.
· I make money doing what I do well, after a great deal of effort.
· I accept all parts of my human personality.
· I wait until my mind is quiet before I make a choice.
· When I have a strong emotional reaction that lasts for more than 30 minutes I look within for answers.
· I welcome input from others.
· I ask for help when I need it.
· I pray for daily guidance, exercise, eat a balanced diet, and get plenty of sleep.
· I laugh frequently.
If you take each example above and write the opposite you may see what you are doing that is not working. Then you can do the work change requires. Be assured, when you bring peace to your inner world you bring peace to the world.
The process of growth is not always comfortable; in fact, it can be so frightening you go back to what you know, even though it causes pain and suffering. If you persevere through doubt and disbelief, however, the clarity, freedom and depth of feeling you gain is well worth the effort.
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