"Scrutinize the mystery underlying all things. Seek in higher dimensions of understanding a meaning behind all of our sufferings. Unmask what appears to be the caprice of human destiny." Pir Vailayat Inayat Khan
"To make no mistakes is not in the power of man, but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future." Plutarch
2. INTERNAL BARRIERS
When sailing a ship we are going to encounter problems; this is normal--it happens to all sailors. But because of these difficulties we shouldn't feel unworthy of our voyage. Instead, we need to understand what is causing the problems, so we can more wisely choose how to respond to them. The same is true in living. A boat sometimes needs an anchor for resting safely. It also needs to be freed from being anchored in order to make further progress. Similarly in our lives, ingrained habits, patterns, and points of view provide security and stability for us. However, these qualities can also form internal barriers that inhibit us from making progress. The more we become stuck in them, whether out of fear or laziness, the more difficult it is for us to grow. By discovering these internal barriers, we can better overcome them. Sometimes people may feel as if they are more "mixed up" and unhappy than others. They also may feel they are inadequately prepared to handle the difficulties of living, just as all people at one time or another feel as if they are failures. Such feelings are not abnormal; they are a natural part of living and learning. When we look at others, we often may not see the problems which they conceal. Yet it's important to realize that all of us have a host of problems that are inherent to being human, and we all have to work through them if we're to live to our fullest. Rather than being alone in our pain and frustration, in our fundamental problems we share a remarkable similarity with the rest of the world. There are two important keys in dealing with these basic problems. The first is realizing that they don't make us bad or unworthy: having these problems doesn't erase the intrinsic worth with which we are born. The second key is knowing that by learning about our internal barriers, we are more able to deal with our external problems. Because we can better understand and control the forces in our lives by looking at them from different viewpoints, two views of internal barriers are presented here. Although the first is much simpler than the second, it can still be very helpful.
VIEW #1: OUR PROGRAMMING Throughout our childhood, we gradually acquire a large collection of feelings, beliefs, behaviors, and ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. This acquired aspect of ourselves automatically springs into action whenever it is aroused by something in our surroundings. Part of this pattern is necessary for protecting ourselves and being integrated into society, but other parts of it block us from achieving our potential. The underlying problem with this collection of automatic responses is that as children we were not experienced and knowledgeable enough to make wise decisions about what to accept and what to reject. All children naturally acquire some self-defeating patterns of responding to the world--and just as these unhelpful patterns are learned, they can also be replaced by learning more appropriate patterns. These recurring, automatic responses can be compared to the programs that comes on whenever a radio's "on" or "play" button is pushed. If the station isn't changed, then every time the radio is turned on, the same programs will again be played. If we don't like the programs we keep getting, rather than just ignoring the problem, we need to recognize it and do something about it. The most reasonable way to change the programs is to change the radio to another station so that each time the radio's "play" button is pushed we'll get better programs. Additional alternatives some people seem to pick, other than continuing to listen to an undesirable program, are destroying the radio or buying the radio station itself (equivalent to destroying oneself or excessively trying to control one's environment), and both have tremendous drawbacks. The first step in changing our programming is recognizing when it isn't giving us what we want, and that it keeps repeating. A wise adage says that it is foolish to continue doing the same thing when it keeps producing the same unwanted results. Therefore we need to push ourselves to acknowledge when we're not getting what we want, and that we won't unless we make a change. Then we have to push further to identify which thoughts and behaviors keep repeating. Also important is to identify the beliefs that accompany and reinforce our thinking. Often these recurring behaviors, beliefs, and ways of thinking that cause us problems have been with us since childhood. We can help identify these recurring traits by going back in our memory to see which ones we've had for a long time. The second step is identifying specifically what we want to use in place of our old program. This replacement can be a specific, different way of thinking or acting, a new belief, or a combination of these. Without this step we are more likely to replace the old program with an unstable or unsuitable new one, along with its related problems. In addition, without this step there is a high probability that the old program will come back and the new one will be dropped. Choosing a specific replacement is important to successful change. The next step in changing our programming is altering our system one part at a time. We don't change a radio's program by simultaneously altering the radio's antenna, volume, location, power source, and tuner. Similarly, attempting too many simultaneous changes in our lives reduces our probability of success. By choosing to put energy into making just one modification, we are more likely to concentrate the effort needed for integrating the change into our lives. Also, when we make one modification and give it sufficient time to work, we can more fairly judge its effect than if we divided our effort into making several modifications. The last step is evaluating the change--is it working by giving us what we want? If it isn't, then we need to go back and try something different. A big temptation is to give up because of an apparent failure. But even when we try something and it doesn't work, it's only a complete failure if we don't learn from the experience. Every time we do something that doesn't work out, we have the opportunity to learn what doesn't work and what else might. With this new information we can try something that may work because of what we have learned. If the change is giving us what we want, we need to give it adequate time to become firmly established in our habit patterns. Our programming is like a habit--in order for an old habit to be firmly replaced by a new one, the new one has to be practiced until it becomes an established habit that overrides the old one. Like learning any new routine which replaces an old one, this process requires conscious effort and time. Once the new routine is firmly established, we can go on to the next change we want to make with the confidence that the last change has become ingrained deeply enough in us to be lasting. As we have learned certain beliefs and ways of thinking and behaving in the past, we likewise can now form new beliefs and learn new ways of thinking and behaving that are more appropriate and up-to-date. By incorporating these into our lives, when our "play button" is pushed we can respond with a new, updated program instead of an old, inappropriate one. To make such changes we have to push ourselves to honest self-examination, and ask meaningful questions which lead us to alter how we live. Then in making changes we need to move step-by-step, yet not too slowly. Not only does change require time and energy, but also patience and perseverance. Most of all, it requires a commitment to creating a better life.
Some questions we can ask about our programming:
1. What beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and ways of thinking can I trace back to when I was much younger, and now occur as an automatic program?
2. Are my programmed beliefs about fundamental principles based on sound information? Does my thinking include updated, more rational information even when it disagrees with old material from the past? How can I incorporate such rational information into my way of thinking when it conflicts with old information?
3. What is my programming for dealing with my feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that I don't like? Does it produce the results I really want? What specific new program would I like to adopt and use in place of an old program?
Examining ourselves is essential to dealing with these issues, but it can also be very helpful to enlist the assistance of an honest, knowledgeable person in our process of self-discovery. Despite all our efforts, we can't alone see ourselves as fully as when we have such a person assisting us. There have been several times in my life when I couldn't understand what my real problem was originating from, and this lack of perception interfered with finding an appropriate solution. Finding a wise person to help me gain a greater understanding of the origins of my problems enabled me to find and apply better solutions.
Next is the second view, which is a summary of the basic origins and manifestations of internal barriers.
EARLY ACQUISITIONS During infancy when our basic needs are met, we feel contented and connected to our world without any sense of inadequacy or of right and wrong. But as we grow into early childhood, we experience a variety of common situations that are important influences in our development.
1. To children it's natural for adults to appear as big, powerful, dominating figures. Added to this perception is the fact that children are dependent on adults. Therefore, children, without realizing they are doing it, see themselves as inferior in comparison to adults. This perception causes them to have feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, while the adults appear to be superior and to have more value.
2. As children progress, they become gradually separated from those parenting relationships that provide most of their nurturing and security needs. This separation is deeply felt with a great deal of anxiety and often fear, but the discomfort is not always noticeable to parents. Although as adults we usually don't remember these childhood feelings on a conscious level, they still remain deep in our memories.
3. Children model their behavior primarily on the behavior of their parents and other authority figures. Whether or not this behavior is effective at producing happiness doesn't prevent the child from modeling it; the modeling is not a result of reasoning, but is due to simple observation and imitation. This mimicry is illustrated in the old saying "Like father, like son," or now better put, "Like parent, like child." Whether parents are happy or not doesn't stop a child from imitating what he or she observes; children are like dry sponges ready to absorb the first water they come in contact with.
4. Children are told by their families and culture what they are and aren't capable of doing (attributes), and what they should and shouldn't do (injunctions). Whether any of these are actually correct makes little difference as to whether these messages are incorporated into their lives. Because of the power of parental figures and culture, and because of children's lack of experience, knowledge, and reasoning ability, children incorporate--with hardly any resistance--these attribute and injunction messages into their thinking, and subsequently into their feelings. These messages become an important part in a child's version of reality, which is then carried into adulthood. Often such messages are invalid and/or counter-productive, but children will still usually accept them like an empty vessel will accept any water. This process is frequently carried further when children are also told that the differences in people and lifestyles are either good or bad, and consequently that the bad ones should be suppressed. While some of these differences may be genuinely bad for people, sometimes they are labeled "bad" only because they are different. But because children don't have the psychological resources to question the "badness" of these differences and whether these "bad" differences should be suppressed, they incorporate this suppression, both the just and the unjust, into their lives. Eventual targets of such suppression can range from the differences in life-style such as sexuality (heterosexual versus homosexual; celibacy versus monogamy versus promiscuity) and family values (simplicity and frugality versus opulence and luxury; encouragement of independence versus adherence to family custom), to the differences between the races, religions, and nationalities. The result is often unjust discrimination and harmful intolerance against those with the characteristics that are different and deemed "bad." Sometimes it leads to the destructive hostility of racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism. Children also take this implication that different means "bad," and therefore needs to be suppressed, and unconsciously apply it to themselves. All children will at times perceive differences in themselves, and frequently they will attempt to suppress these differences because of the messages they have received that being different is bad. Because of this internal suppression, children learn not to value some of their more creative and joyous aspects, and they often have internal conflicts about who they really are. Usually this internal conflict and loss of creativity and joy is unconsciously carried into adulthood.
ENDURING EFFECTS These childhood experiences are so inherent to being human that they can be called universal. Though they may vary a great deal, every child has them to some extent. As a result of these experiences, each of us acquires in childhood certain beliefs, feelings, and behaviors:
1. That I am inadequate and inferior--I'm not OK and I don't have much value.
2. Feelings of isolation and separation from the rest of humanity; that I don't belong.
3. That my ability to live and grow is within narrow and fixed predefined limits.
4. Problem solving and relationship behaviors that are ineffective, counter-productive, or sometimes even destructive.
5. The feeling that something is missing and incomplete in my life, and if only it could be found, the world would be ideal.
As adults we generally aren't aware of such early beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. However, they become imbedded deep within us, and their residual effects have more of an ongoing influence on us than we usually realize. The acquisition of these beliefs, feelings, and behaviors happens to some degree under the best of circumstances and in the best-parented families. Therefore parents shouldn't view themselves as inadequate or as failures because this happens; it's a natural part of being human. Yet parents need to understand that they have learned their way of parenting primarily from their own parents, and that their parents were doing the best they knew how as a result of the conditioning and knowledge they had picked up. And just as with our parents, sometimes even when we do our best, things won't go right because our old programming and lack of awareness gets in the way. Whether we are examining the parenting we received or that which we're giving our children, condemnation doesn't improve the situation. Condemning ourselves just makes us feel worse about ourselves, and condemning our parents or our culture just helps to shift our responsibility away from us. Nevertheless, parents can become more aware of how children learn from these experiences, and then they can interrupt their old programming and help their children handle feelings and form beliefs and behaviors in such a way that fosters greater happiness.
DUBIOUS SOLUTIONS The most basic needs of people are food and water, adequate clothing and shelter, and to be reasonably safe from harm. Once these needs have been met, people will try to overcome the anxiety which stems from the feelings of inadequacy, separation, and incompleteness that began in childhood. Based on superficial appearances, there may seem to be many approaches to overcoming these feelings. But when these approaches are carefully examined for their underlying similarities, four basic ways of dealing with these feelings become distinct. Although they often blend together, they can be listed separately as the following:
1. Pursuing some form of power or control, frequently by acquiring a position of status and/or material wealth; sometimes this will involve a position of leadership. Power or control may even be pursued through a renunciation of these or other things, even food. Such renunciation can range from anorexia to self-inflicted poverty or severe self-denial for philosophical or religious reasons. The underlying factor in these behaviors is the effort to gain some sense of control in an attempt to escape unwanted feelings.
2. Distracting or numbing ourselves from our feelings through an excessive pursuit of pleasure, entertainment, or work. This can be accomplished in many ways, such as an excessive interest in sports, hobbies, sexual activity, or drugs (certainly including alcohol). It can often be seen in compulsive exercising or working (sometimes called workaholism). Quite common is the "entertainment addiction," in which people pursue forms of entertainment as a means of avoiding the reality of their situation--but when the entertainment stops, their old unwanted feelings return, which causes them to again seek entertainment in order to escape their feelings.
3. Compensating for feelings of unworthiness and trying to obtain love or approval through self-sacrifice. This can be seen when someone, because of his or her own needs, takes on inappropriate responsibility for another person or even a group. By making the sacrifice of taking on someone else's burden, the helper feels more worthy, or more likely to receive love or acceptance. Such self-sacrifice can also be a way of avoiding responsibility for ourselves; by spending time helping others, we can avoid doing what is really needed for ourselves. This behavior can also be detrimental to the person being helped if his or her growth towards self-responsibility is hindered instead of promoted. Attempting to escape anxiety through such compensating, along with the accompanying drawbacks, is a major component in the current concept of "codependency."
4. Conforming to a group and getting others to conform to it. The members of the group feel united, less isolated, and more valuable as a result of belonging to the group. They may also gain a feeling of superiority from being critical of people outside their group. Although this is easy to see in its more obvious forms (ranging from exclusive social groups and clubs to such extremes as the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis), it usually happens in more personal and subtle forms, of which most people are unaware. An example is when a person, without being conscious of it, looks down on another person or group and feels superior in doing so. Such feelings of superiority frequently are related to economic status, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and race; sometimes this leads to hatred and harsh, unjust discrimination based on these criteria. In addition, this drive for group conformity also causes people to give up much of their individuality and creativity. In doing so they lose an important part of themselves that could add to their development, and ultimately their happiness.
These four general behaviors, however, when practiced with appropriate moderation and care can provide considerable benefit to society. But they become detrimental when people rely upon them for their self-worth or when they are used to an excess which interferes with recognizing the intrinsic worth of all people and developing the inner qualities that lead to a feeling of wholeness. These ways of attempting to alleviate the feelings of inadequacy, separateness, and incompleteness also have a quality referred to in the chapter on happiness: they all depend on something outside ourselves, and therefore have the unfavorable characteristics of externally based happiness. In our journey of growth, it can be very helpful to understand how the beliefs, feelings, and behaviors we acquired long ago interfere now with achieving a better life. By questioning ourselves about these issues, we can gain insight into how to overcome the problems that result from them. Then we need to question ourselves further about how we try to relieve our anxiety and discontent, and if it's producing the results we really want. This process can also be facilitated by finding a knowledgeable and relatively objective person, or group, to help us. Yet it's also important not to dwell on these issues--doing so can block us from taking the actions necessary for overcoming our problems. Many times people will become stuck in analyzing the dynamics of their lives or bemoaning their problems related to the past. Whenever this prevents us from taking action, we need to push ourselves past the analyzing or the grievances and do what is needed to resolve our problems.
INHERENT DEFENSES Other sources of internal barriers are the natural occurrence of mental defense mechanisms and one basic, innate tendency. These occur in everyone and can have value in protecting us from excessive instability, anxiety, and pain. However, the mental defense mechanisms of denial, rationalization, and selective perception often interfere with realizing our potential. In addition, a basic tendency we all have as children is the avoidance of pain, which naturally leads to an inherent avoidance of discomfort; frequently this tendency to avoid discomfort prevents us from doing what we need to do to improve our situation. Selective perception and the avoidance of discomfort are dealt with in chapter seven. Denial limits a person's accurate view of what's true. Its influence becomes similar to that of sailing a ship in the fog and pretending the fog isn't a problem; the denser the fog, or the greater the denial, the more likely is disaster. Denial on a limited basis can have a positive role in protecting us from too much anxiety, but the more it's used, the less we base our thinking and actions on accurate information. Rationalization--a flawed justification or excuse for one's actions--is often used for explaining and continuing behavior that is harmful to oneself or the world. It's similar to a captain piloting a ship using inaccurate bearings for navigation just because the bearings support his or her preconceived opinion. He or she then guides the ship according to these bearings, but since the bearings are flawed, the ship goes on a more dangerous course. The lure of rationalization is that it's actually a thinking process which makes us feel as though we are justified or right, merely because we are thinking. The problem with it is that some aspect of what we are thinking about is distorted or ignored in order to maintain our own viewpoint; rationalization blocks understanding instead of promoting it. These inherent defenses usually happen on a level which is below our awareness. The key to reducing their negative effects is in first understanding how they block our ability to grow, and then increasing our awareness of how we use them in our thinking. This awareness by itself improves our situation--in changing from being unaware of our defenses, to being able to see them, we gain greater control of them. The process of overcoming our internal barriers requires sustained, conscious effort, but the benefits of living a life based on more factual, up-to-date information is worth it. We are products of our past, but we now create the future.
Questions we can ask about our internal barriers:
1. What feelings, beliefs, and behaviors can I trace back to my childhood? How do they hamper my progress?
2. Are my beliefs about important aspects of living based on sound information? In what ways do I exclude rational, factual information? How can I increase the up-to-date, accurate information I use in my thinking?
3. What are the ways in the past that I've dealt with feelings that I didn't like? Do I still use these methods and do they produce the results that I want? What am I doing now that may be a way of dealing with feelings of which I'm not even aware?
4. When do I restrict my view of the world by denying that which conflicts with what I already
believe? When do I use the flawed reasoning of rationalization as a justification for behavior that is detrimental to myself or the world?
Suggestions for further reading:
"The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer
"The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil" by Erich Fromm