Making people happy

“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” – C.G. Jung

Neurosis develops when we try to avoid “legitimate” suffering in ourselves or others.

Legitimate suffering is the unwanted conditions of our reality. If I’m poor but don’t want to accept it, sick but don’t want to face it, lonely but don’t want to admit it; in every case it is healthier to admit and face the unwanted conditions as our starting point, rather than twist and writhe in efforts to deny or offset the discomforting truth.

Today I realised that since I was a child I have wanted people to be happy. In all relationships and interactions I took it as unquestionably good to wish for the happiness of others and, where possible, help them in their own striving for a happy state of being.

I took this benevolence for granted, and didn’t even consider it open to doubt.

But I was wrong. We each create our own reality, and the happiness of others is categorically none of my business.

This might sound harsh but the fact is that we all have unwanted conditions in our own reality, and no one can remove those conditions for us. No one can make us happy.

I can’t control other people’s moods, nor they mine. We are each responsible for our own happiness.

And the path to happiness cannot bypass acknowledgment and making peace with unwanted conditions. In other words “legitimate suffering” must be faced for us to move on to genuine happiness rather than neuroticism.

Trying to make other people happy is itself a recipe for neurosis. When we do things for the people we love, it is our own love of them that inspires us. And our inspired actions are best accomplished when we do not carry the impossible burden of making people happy.

Evolving spiritual beliefs

Spiritual or metaphysical beliefs represent how we see ourselves in relation to all that is.

Our metaphysical beliefs matter, even if they don’t seem to figure in everyday life.

But even our metaphysics are influenced by our individual personalities. It’s not easy to reconcile a “self-made man” ethos with a belief in divine providence. Personal responsibility doesn’t sit well with a belief in an all-powerful God.

On a different tack, the impersonal nature of Daoist or some Buddhist beliefs might appeal to, or repel, people depending on how they relate to the idea of a personal deity.

It’s not just that faith means different things to different people, but that different people are drawn to different ways of relating to existence itself, or conceiving of that relationship.

My metaphysics were unwittingly shaped by traumatic experiences as well as my underlying temperament; hence I was drawn to spiritual perspectives and practices where the individual mind finds peace and wholeness by realising its unity with a divine and transcendent truth.

Everyone knows that words themselves aren’t the way, they can only point the way; hence it doesn’t matter if you call that transcendent being God or Sunyata, or the Dao. But it does matter what we are trying to accomplish in relation to that transcendent being.

I always emphasised the loss of self in the divine, the search for security and sureness and freedom by surrendering individual boundaries and letting go of personal preferences and will.

But now I can see that this was also a way of retreating from conflict and trauma, surrendering boundaries and a sense of self that were already extremely fragile. I neglected the fact that the union of the human and the transcendent is an intermingling. We connect to the divine not to surrender a flawed human experience, but to complete it and make it whole.

Some mystics wrote of losing themselves completely in the divine…but they found enough of themselves afterward to speak or write about it.

New wine

Jesus said “Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”…and I don’t know what he was talking about. Why would you want to keep a hateful life for eternity?

I don’t worry anymore about things that don’t make sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it probably isn’t meant for me. But at the same time, I’ve outgrown some things that used to make sense.

It used to make sense spiritually to deny myself, hate my life, and look for the freedom of retreating into something I knew to be perfect, pure and free. But now I’ve decided that life is supposed to feel good, and be good. My life is supposed to be happy.

And all of a sudden I saw the shift in my spiritual beliefs: I am not meant to be losing myself in a greater, transcendent whole. I am a part of the whole, to which the greater, transcendent, divine being extends and communicates itself.

How does trauma change personality?

Three years ago I was writing about the Big 5 personality traits and how they might correspond to temperament and MBTI.

In the three years since I’ve done heaps of work on finding relief, focusing on more positive thoughts, and letting go of past trauma.

Today I was inspired to redo my Big 5 test for fun and see if my results have changed. Clearly this is a very subjective test for me to take, but nonetheless the results are very satisfying and reflect the shift in my personality and self-concept.

First, here are my results from three years ago:

Back then I was surprised to see conscientiousness and agreeableness come out so low. I concluded that perhaps trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Now let’s look at the new results:

As you can see, neuroticism is waaaay down (yay!) and conscientiousness and agreeableness are way up!

Openness to experience has also decreased a little, by about the same amount as introversion.

So, at risk of correcting myself again in another three years, what is going on here?

The most significant thing is that I am now better able to tell when my personality is being shaped by a trauma-based response. That’s the main reason why my neuroticism score decreased so much: while I am much more calm and relaxed in daily life, I also know now that calm and relaxed is who I really am, and each day I practice letting go of neurotic responses.

Being less anxious and stressed, I’m also less driven to find new ideas and different perspectives. I’m better able to sit still and appreciate where I am rather than restlessly searching for “new” answers and solutions.

And so, contrary to what I thought three years ago, I am happy to own my conscientious and agreeable traits, untangling them from neurotic impulses as well as neurotic standards of perfection.

My desk is still messy, but in other aspects of life I am the first to tidy and clean and sort. During the past three years I found a way to enjoy cleaning the kitchen, rather than feeling burdened and crushed by the chore. I love being organised…it’s just that neuroticism derived from past trauma vastly increases the internal cost of any such action.

I won’t just tidy my desk one day; I’ll buy a whole new desk that is optimised to meet our needs and be easily cleaned and organised and tidied, a desk that is a pleasure to own and to use.

And ultimately that’s where I hope my future Big 5 tests will go as well: with a self-concept based on the congruence of what feels good to me and what I actually do.

The long term goal of healing from trauma is to have no uncertainty as to how I really am, because I do what feels good to me.

Defining verbal abuse

Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of verbal abuse:

the act of forcefully criticizing, insulting, or denouncing another person. Characterized by underlying anger and hostility, it is a destructive form of communication intended to harm the self-concept of the other person and produce negative emotions. 

Verbal abuse is a maladaptive mechanism that anyone can display occasionally, such as during times of high stress or physical discomfort. For some people, it is a pattern of behaviors used intentionally to control or manipulate others or to get revenge.

A 2015 Psychiatry Investigation paper on verbal abuse in Korea offers this account of the harmful effects of verbal abuse:

the effects of exposure to verbal aggression on its victims have been commonly overlooked regardless of their seriousness and harmfulness. Young adults with a history of verbal abuse (VA) are susceptible to display various psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety and dissociation; VA can also cause children to display negative cognitive styles including self-criticism and hopelessness, which are related to psychopathology.

The effects of VA on mental health are comparable to those of other types of abuse, sexual or physical, which are more commonly considered to be severe, and these harmful effects are persistent regardless of whether the abuse was perpetrated by parents or peers. Additionally, VA is thought to cause scars on the brain; reduction of fractional anisotropy of white matter tracts in sufferers, including corpus callosum, arcuate fasciculus, cingulum bundle, has been reported.

Verbal abuse is clearly very harmful. But what does it look like? The paper quoted above utilised a Verbal Abuse Questionnaire (VAQ) designed to measure and assess individuals’ experience of verbal abuse. While not exhaustive, it offers clear, practical examples of verbal abuse in action.

The following are the 15 items of verbal abuse from the VAQ.

For people raised in verbally abusive environments, such items can seem like normal components of human interaction. These are in fact extremely harmful, inappropriate, and abusive forms of communication.

Flow State for Swordsmen

The priest Chung-feng said, “Maintain the mind that releases the mind.”

This saying has two levels of meaning.

The practice of the first is as follows: if you “release” the mind, do not allow it to become fixated when it reaches its destination, but unfailingly make it return. If you strike once with your sword, do not let your mind stop at that strike, but bring your mind back securely to yourself.

The deeper meaning is: in releasing the mind, you let it go where it wishes. “Releasing the mind” means letting it go and not letting it stop anywhere.

The Life-Giving Sword, by Yagyu Munenori

Yagyū Munenori was a 17th Century sword instructor and adviser to the Tokugawa shogunate.

His manual for the Yagyū Shinkage-ryu sword style includes numerous passages outlining the correct frame of mind to hold in combat, and the obstacles to this free-flowing state of focus.

The parallels to flow state are obvious. But we don’t need to be swordsmen fighting to the death to cultivate a flow state.

His book contains many admonitions to not obsess, not let the mind stop, not dwell on any particular thought – including the thought of not dwelling!

In everyday life it is the same. We can let go of obsessive focus on any subject and just relax and follow our impulses as they arise and fall seamlessly.

What Abraham-Hicks brings to this equation is that the whole point of flow is to feel good. It’s not meant to feel austere or ponderous. And if it doesn’t feel good to try to flow, then stop trying and just appreciate something in your right-now experience.

Abraham presents alignment as a state where things do flow, but it is nonetheless just a very pleasing point on the spectrum of emotional guidance.

But for some of us it is useful to emphasise the shift in consciousness, not just the improvement in emotion.

So go, feel good, and, if you can, enjoy the lightness and ease of your flow state.

In the zone: autotelic/flow states for anxiety and depression

Flow states are often discussed in terms of peak performance, both individual and group.

Mystical experience is presented as spiritually therapeutic, enlightening, and consciousness-expanding.

The two are closely related – mystical texts often draw on common experiences of flow to engage the reader. Mysticism is flow, and flow psychology seeks to demystify it.

An autotelic state is an end-in-itself. Flow feels so good; yet flow psychology also frames it in terms of performance, encouraging forward-thinking corporations to enact flow-positive policies and practices to enhance productivity.

Crippling anxiety and depression led me to explore mysticism in hopes of understanding the fundamental meaning and purpose of existence, along with the promise of complete freedom from suffering.

Many years later, flow psychology provides an apt mainstream depiction of a better way of being, primed for synthesising with law-of-attraction-based theories and practices.

What Abraham-Hicks calls “getting into the vortex”, “alignment with your inner being”, and myriad other wordings, is in essence the same as achieving flow state in everyday life.

What does flow state feel like? Letting go of your sense of self and bringing your focus into the present; allowing impulses and ideas to arise naturally, flowing seamlessly one to the next.

I found my perfect expression of flow state/alignment in the Japanese texts “The Unfettered Mind” and “The Life-Giving Sword”. The former comprised of letters from a Zen monk to a famous samurai on the essential congruity of their mutual professions; the latter comprising the samurai’s personal collation of methods and techniques for combat.

What they describe is a flow state, a state of consciousness where “the mind doesn’t stop” in the sense of getting caught up on any single thought or fear or detail of immediate experience.

But it proved difficult to enter this state while burdened with many negative beliefs and physically ingrained trauma. Difficult to enter and difficult to maintain.

Over the years I let my focus shift to cognitive and finally to somatic methods of releasing past trauma and retraining my body and mind into a more healthy homeostasis.

At the same time, the Abraham-Hicks material completely reframed my understanding of the flow state, what it means, and how to get into it.

Abraham teaches that this state of alignment is simply an “allowing” and “receiving” of everything we have implicitly asked for throughout the contrast of life experience.

Our inner being already knows what we want and how to get it. We don’t need to strive or struggle at all. Simply focus on thoughts that feel better, and when our resistance is low enough “the vortex will take you in” – which is to say, you will naturally enter a state of flow if you aren’t doing something to hold yourself apart from it.

It requires practice and it requires focus. But I discovered for myself that in the context of sparring in a martial art that our body and mind don’t need to be told “don’t get hit”. In a state of flow, if someone throws a punch and the punch is on a trajectory to hit you, your body will naturally respond in the most appropriate way possible.

But if you stand there thinking “I mustn’t get hit! Oh no he looks really quick! Damn that’s a good punch! I should block it with this technique…” your own thoughts will interfere with what your body and deeper mind know to do.

Likewise Abraham teaches that our inner being doesn’t need us to constantly pick at or push for or worry about our desires in life. If we allow ourselves to enter a state of flow, we immediately begin receiving thoughts and ideas that are as naturally our response to life-itself, as an intuitive deflection is to an incoming punch.

This is where the law-of-attraction context is important, because it facilitates in everyday life what the flow psychologists have found predominantly in a goal-oriented context, with unpredictability and risk also contributing to the achievement of flow.

Abraham would tell us that we don’t need risk or unpredictability or big goals. All we need is focus. And the law of attraction gives us a perspective of reality that makes an everyday focus far from “mundane”.

We each create our own reality. Our thoughts and our focus shape what we are able to receive. The flow state is what happens when we allow ourselves to receive thoughts and impulses coming from our inner being without resistance.

Following these thoughts and impulses within a state of flow feels great. It also leads us in the direction of everything we desire. As most of us can attest: strange and miraculous things happen when we let go of our resistance on a subject.

Meaningful coincidences that feel like magic despite our attempts to rationalise them. Feats of timing and the coming together of ideas as if we are being guided by a benevolent and omniscient deity. Subtle shifts in our own and others’ personalities that effortlessly resolve seemingly impossible situations.

Abraham’s teachings give us reason to see each moment of the everyday as an opportunity to enter the flow, not for the sake of these miraculous coincidences, but for the pure appreciation of how good it feels to not resist, and align at last with the deeper, all-powerful part of us.

Flying dragon in the heavens

Life is a flow.

Outcomes are outcomes.

We can look to outcomes, taking stock. But the outcomes are not life as it is lived.

The stream of well-being flows, it is not an outcome.

To manage the flow of life, that is where intentions and feelings come into focus and balance; while fixating on outcomes produces confusion.

Hexagram 1, 5th Line contains the following attributed to Confucius:

Things that accord in tone vibrate together. Things that have affinity in their inmost natures seek one another. Water flows to what is wet, fire turns to what is dry. Clouds (the breath of heaven) follow the dragon, wind (the breath of earth) follows the tiger. Thus the sage arises, and all creatures follow him with their eyes. What is born of heaven feels related to what is above. What is born of earth feels related to what is below. Each follows its kind.

Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

Child abuse is typically framed in terms of physical and sexual abuse. The seriousness of verbal abuse is yet to be popularly acknowledged, despite evidence that:

Scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing can be as harmful as physical abuse, sexual abuse outside the home, or witnessing physical abuse at home

The original study can be accessed here.

Why is verbal abuse so harmful?

The study authors note that “Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it’s often more continuous”. Indeed, rampant verbal abuse can be unrelenting and diverse.

But apart from its potential frequency and unrelenting nature, verbal abuse is harmful because it purports to convey the abuser’s perception of reality – their truth – to the detriment of the victim’s own perception of reality.

Children depend entirely on their parents or caregivers for survival, and strong psychological bonds of attachment are formed between children and their caregivers, all things being equal.

All forms of verbal and non-verbal communication are of utmost importance to the attachment bond. The child knows nothing of the attachment figure beyond what is communicated to them, directly or indirectly.

Verbal abuse, when examined in specific forms such as scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing, communicate supposed “truths” of the caregiver’s reality.

They communicate hostility, negative assessment of the child’s worth and value, and indicate to the child that there is something wrong with the attachment relationship, and that it is the child’s fault.

Verbal abuse says to the child “in my eyes, this is the kind of treatment you deserve”.

In the context of total dependence on the parent or caregiver, the child either takes these communications at face value and internalises their content, or recognises that the person on whom he or she depends is unstable, untrustworthy, and potentially hostile. Neither of these bodes well for the child’s development.