By: Frank A. Gerbode, M.D.
This article and other similar articles can be found in AMI/TIRA Newsletter Volumes 1-2: Selected Reprints 2004-2005 (currently out-of-print)
The topic I want to address is the basic choice each of us has in life, which, unlike what Hamlet said, “to be or not to be”, is rather “whether or not to allow oneself to be aware”. The choice is between awareness and unawareness. We’d think it’s kind of a dumb idea because we’d think that obviously, given that choice, everybody would choose awareness, but that’s not the case. In many cases, people choose unawareness, and they do it for very good reasons. Sometimes those reasons have to do with the past instead of the present.
This is reflected in certain things like science fiction movies. There is a movie that seems relevant, the 1956 movie called “Forbidden Planet”. There’s a planet where there’s a machine, that when you connected yourself up to the machine, it would make your wishes come true in the real physical world. There was a scientist who had a beautiful daughter and this hero came in a spaceship to visit the planet, fell in love with the daughter, and then monsters started appearing. They were ravaging and trying to destroy the spaceship and so forth. It turned out that these monsters were an expression of the unconscious desires of the scientist who had been hooking himself up to the machine. This idea is not a new one: that if you really let loose with your innermost motivations, the result would be catastrophic. This concept is a very well-entrenched in our society, that if you really let yourself get in touch with the real deep things inside yourself, the result may very well be devastating.
One curious thing about awareness is when you have awareness that you have a certain very basic intention or desire, if the awareness is really at an experiential level, not just an intellectual thought, but if it’s really getting in touch with a desire, the result has to be action. You can have other ideas the results of which are not necessarily action, but this kind of awareness inevitably leads to action. This makes it a potentially dangerous kind of awareness, depending on what you get in touch with.
The thing we seem to be scared of in our society is somehow getting in touch with our deepest motivations because we’re not sure whether the result would really be good, depending on what we think is the basic nature of human beings. If we did really get in touch with those deep desires and our nature were not necessarily fundamentally good, the result would be action and it might be destructive action. So then we’d need a society that could control our behavior so that we do good instead of following our natural impulse act selfishly and do evil, or at least to act chaotically and antisocially. With that world view, we’d need that kind of society rather than one that emphasizes freedom and personal power, because if you give people too much freedom and personal power, they might start expressing these bad things that are inside them. Hence, what we are talking about here is an other-determined society, a society in which what people do is determined by the surrounding environment and the people around them, rather than being determined by themselves. None of us, I don’t think, really wants to be controlled and have our life determined by external forces.
So, there’s a choice to be aware, and the most fundamental form of self-awareness is awareness of one’s deepest motivations.
The privilege of knowing what we really want, and allowing ourselves the freedom and power to get it, carries with it the necessity and responsibility of knowing what we really want at an experiential level. My own view, prejudice if you like, is that I agree with what Carl Rogers said about human nature, which is that people are basically good at the core. Whatever hang-ups, neurosis, bad habits, etc. they might have, at the core we are dealing with beings who want to do the best, want to survive, want to have a connection with other people, etc. When they do destructive things, it’s because whatever hang-ups they are in the middle of have distorted their view of things so that they think those are the right things to do, at the time they do them. When we are dealing with individual people, which we do in our method of Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR) and other related techniques in Applied Metapsychology, we are always dealing with an individual person. So, for any given person, we are starting with the conviction that there is something at the core of him or her that is good, and we can work with that.
I think when people are expressing their self determinism, they tend to be happy and feel energetic and this is a “good” thing. So why do people choose not to be aware? The reason is that there is pain involved in awareness. The two concepts go hand in hand. We choose not to be aware because we don’t want to experience the pain. I define pain as “an experience that is hard to experience”. In other words, a pain is basically an experience to which one has an aversion.
So, what is the aversion to in the painful situation? The aversion, I believe, and the thing that is thought of as painful, is frustration and negative emotions connected to the frustration. I think a painful incident is always an incident in which some basic need or intention is frustrated, usually in a sudden and shocking manner. For instance, if you have a need to survive and somebody holds you up at the point of a gun, that can become a traumatic, emotionally painful experience because there’s a sudden threat of failure of this need to survive. So your response to that is to experience a negative emotion. Negative emotions go along with failure just as positive emotions go along with success. Any severe frustration will be associated with strong negative emotion. The frustration, and the negative emotion that goes with it, are the part of the experience that’s most difficult to confront and the part that one tends to shy away from and not want to experience.
That is where you have the choice of two ways of dealing with an experience that is painful for you. You can either deal with it by pushing it under the rug, repressing it, suppressing it, using ego-defense mechanisms, etc., and go the anesthetic route, or you have the choice of opening yourself to this experience, allowing yourself to experience it in its full intensity, going through the fullness of intensity and mastering it and coming out stronger on the other side. And that is the choice that people have.
As the Tibetan commentator Osho (a.k.a Bhagavan Sri Rajneesh) wrote on Tonglen (the Heart Meditation) in the Book of Wisdom:
“The moment you accept the pain with no reject anywhere, its energy and its quality changes. It is no longer pain. And once you have found the key, then you can share it with the whole existence.”
Because the thing about pain is once you really open up to it, it is no longer pain; it becomes intensity and part of the richness of life.
If you choose to repress a life experience instead of facing it, that experience follows you around for the rest of your life and, in fact, becomes a traumatic experience. My definition of trauma is an experience in which one made the choice of anesthesia. One chose not to be aware of it. One tried to put it in a box, but experiences don’t go away that easily. When you try to put them in a box, the box follows you. It follows you until you open the box and take a look at it. You keep getting reminded until you finally say “Okay, darn it” and you open the box and complete that act of awareness. You regain that strength and power that you would have had if you had faced up to the incident in the first place. The method of TIR is the method of doing just that, finding old boxes that haven’t been opened, and opening them in a very systematic way.
It is very understandable to me why one would have the concept that staying in touch with one’s feelings is dangerous, and it is. But the danger is not what it is in the movies; the danger is not that you’re going to do something bad. The danger is you’re going to choose to turn towards the pain instead of turning away from it. That’s the real danger. But, of course, that’s also the real opportunity because that’s where the personal growth comes in.
As I have mentioned, you can undo the anesthesia even if you have anesthetized yourself in the past and thereby created traumatic incidents. You can, at any time, take the stuff out of the box, sort it out, and that’s the end of it. You do have to take the stuff out of the box. That’s the point. And when you do this, you not only learn what you needed to learn from the experience that you took out of the box, but also as you keep doing this, keep confronting the past experiences, you start realizing that it’s really okay to look at things, and you don’t have to flinch. You start getting more courage to face life in its full intensity, and in moments of pain, you learn to turn towards the pain and transmit it into something else by becoming aware of it. The thing about pain is once you really open up to it, it is no longer pain; it becomes intensity and part of the richness of life.
TIR facilitators, technical directors and trainers are at the forefront of a whole new way of thinking and living, providing a high degree of service to those who seek relief from the negative effects of past traumatic experiences.
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