Take Responsibility: Receive Freedom

dalailama-3The only way not to be a victim as we move through life is to realize that the current state of our life is a fairly accurate reflection of our choices—made consciously or unconsciously. I say “fairly” accurate because there are circumstances and outright evil acts that we obviously haven’t chosen. When an eleven year-old in China is forced to worked on an assembly line, for example, she is a victim of social conditions and unjust political systems. Or, in the case of physical and sexual abuse, nobody with a conscience is going to say that the victim brought it on themselves.

That said, in the Western World, even the emotionally and sexually abused are responsible, with support and resourcing, not to remain chronic victims. When we take responsibility for our lives, we are also making a statement that nobody else can take away our freedom—and freedom is arguably the highest value in an evolutionary process that has taken 13.8 billion years to produce creatures capable of claiming and enacting this inheritance. To choose to remain a victim is to squander this gift.

The psychotherapeutic process could be described in terms of the evolution of one’s capacity to act in freedom in all areas of one’s life. This requires that we take a hard look at the circumstances of our life—particularly when things are not going our way—and ask some very difficult questions about how and why we set it up to have these experiences. Ouch! This is radically different than complaining, “Why is this happening to me? It’s not fair.” It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair.

Until we get to the place of holding our life as our teacher, that we are creating and re-creating the very conditions necessary for our healing and growth, we will remain victims. Freud called it “repetition compulsion”, after noticing that his patients would recreate in their adult lives the very conditions that traumatized them as infants and children. I don’t believe that this is a cruel trick of nature. Rather, it’s life revealing to us, as often as we need, the failures of love (trauma) that are preventing us from acting in freedom. As long as we’re unconscious of these failures, we will compulsively recreate the conditions that enslave us to the past—a perpetual Groundhog Day.

Every time we’re emotionally triggered, every unpleasant social interaction that lingers in our consciousness, every negative thought, every judgment, every feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, every relationship in which we feel betrayed, is caused by suppressed trauma. If it wasn’t, we would be free to simply take in the experience, respond as rationally and resourcefully as possible, and then move on. But until trauma is consciously uncovered and integrated, it will be driving the bus. The good news in this is that if we can learn to witness every event and our every reaction in this way, our suffering becomes opportunity and our best teacher.

There is an exquisite and elegant wisdom at work in our lives that seems to want us to be whole. It’s not easy to work with the wisdom, because it’s going to lead us into suffering. But the avoidance of actual and original suffering is what leads us to generate so much unnecessary suffering in our lives. And it is the latter form of suffering that keeps us from being free.

Jesus himself taught this — again and again to his followers, that the “Human One must suffer…” What he meant, I believe, is that to be fully human we must be willing to undergo reality as it is, not as we wish it would be. Whether reality is pleasant or unpleasant is beside the point. It is what it is, and cultivating the capacity to accept life on its own terms is our only hope for salvation and sanity.

When I met my wife, the first couple of years were marked by insane love, along with feelings like destiny had found us. The challenge was that the love was deep enough that it brought up all my vulnerability. (This nasty stuff only comes up if we are all in.) But I was all in. Fear of intimacy, rage at perceived injustice, insecurity and jealousy, all came up for me to look at. I cut off from her emotionally. It was all a perfect reenactment of my past with my mother.

I could not act in freedom, because I was in denial about what happened to me, and therefore I could not take responsibility for my life. What we call “fate” is, in truth, history repeating itself.

The past is not dead, it is not even past”

—William Faulkner

Because it was all unconscious, the first thing I tried was to blame it all on her! She was the cause of all my suffering. If only she’d reacted differently. If only she hadn’t used that tone of voice. If only she…blah, blah, blah. This is the voice of the victim. Sure enough, after working it through with my  therapist, and in the context of sacred ceremony with plant medicine, was I able to see the source of it all.

And, wait for it, the source was me! Well, it was my reactions, my stories, my compensation patterns for suffering that I experienced. But as an adult, I am responsible to bringing these to consciousness, gaining insight, and then shifting from unconscious reactivity to conscious responsibility.

It took me awhile to realize that as long as I was playing the victim, I could not be free, and if I wasn’t free, then my life was not my own. Once you get this, in your bones, you will discover a deep peace and deep resilience. Nobody and nothing can rob you of your freedom. We will always be required to undergo what Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, calls “the passivities”—i.e. shit happens. Taking responsibility does not mean that we are in control of everything. In truth, we are in control of very little. But we can be in control of how we respond to the vicissitudes and exigencies that come our way.

You’ve heard the new age slogan: “We create reality”. It sounds like the ultimate expression of taking responsibility. It purports to be based in quantum physics, which states that we live in a “participative universe”. Based on some really interesting experiments in the early 20th century it was discovered that a photon can show up either as a wave or in particle form. It depends, weirdly, on what the observer is looking for. How does the particle/wave know? Reality “collapses” to assume the form of either the wave or particle, depending on the observer. Ergo, the observer participates in the construction of reality. This is then extrapolated and assumed to hold true for humans and the creation of their reality. We don’t create reality, in truth. We recreate trauma.

As humans our personal reality is created by core unconscious beliefs (CUBs) that are formed at a very early age in response to life conditions. Or you might called them premature conclusions about the nature of reality and our own nature. If we were mistreated, we come to conclusions (beliefs) such as “I am bad”, “I am wrong”, “I don’t deserve love”, “I am helpless”, “I am hopeless”. The list is actually endless. It’s these CUBs that actually create our reality and the personality we construct to compensate for them. This is why positive affirmations typically are ineffective. We can tell ourselves “I am beautiful” until we’re blue in the face, but our subconscious belief that “I am a waste of space” will trump it every time. Until, that is, we face the truth, and begin to dismantle these beliefs that are keeping us imprisoned by the past. After this, positive affirmations may be helpful.

Freedom is a hard won gift of a mysterious evolutionary process, through which consciousness has been infusing matter and life with an ever-increasing capacity for choosing a future. It is possible to become liberated from our past, and take full responsibility for our life in the present. What is required to claim our freedom is, above all, courage to face honestly what was once unbearable, but is no longer. And then, our life becomes our own again.

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