Growth and transformation
The founder of person-centred therapy, Carl Rogers, wrote about the self-actualising tendency, and used potatoes as an example of what he meant. Even in conditions that aren’t life-giving, potatoes will grow eyes, shoots of life that have the potential to create more potatoes. He believed that humans, like potatoes, have the potential to develop and grow, even in harsh conditions. If we could grow in terrible conditions, then imagine the possibilities if we were placed in conditions that were wholesome.
The Buddhist understanding is similar, in that we are dependent on our conditions and circumstances. We are products of our environment. If the external conditions aren’t healthy, then we can’t expect living organisms to develop in a healthy way. If we want to produce a calm, confident, and caring person then certain conditions need to be in place. A great example to illustrate how we can produce a great leader is found in the Tibetan system. The culture is based on a long-standing system of beliefs that when the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, dies his spirit will be reborn. It is a system that has been developed to reproduce and bring to life an awakened and compassionate being known as Quan shi yin or Avalokiteswara.
From a very young age, the future spiritual leader is sought out and found. The monks in charge take the child from his birth home and move him into a temple surrounded by other monks who will teach him everything he needs to know and do, so that he develops the qualities and characteristics of an all-loving and compassionate person. The Dalai Lama is a living example of how to create a wise, compassionate, and spiritual human being.
Imagine if we treated all children in the same way, with the exception of removing them from their family home. What sort of adults would they turn out to be if they were given all the love and respect similar to the Dalai Lama, and were taught that they would grow up to listen to the cries of the world and help people transform?
To help people grow, develop and transform their suffering is what therapists vow to do. Therapists create spaces that are safe, warm, friendly and non-judgemental so that the client feels secure.
They provide a service in which the client can feel confident that they will be seen and not judged, listened to, and not condemned.
There are many conditions necessary in order to help us feel this level of confidence. Given all the different kinds of psychological models and theories, there is not just one school of thought, not just one set of techniques that will work for everyone in the same way.
The human mind is not a machine that can easily get its parts serviced and repaired. It may be possible to fix some body parts in that way, but psychologically, it can feel as if we go into a cocoon, turn into caterpillar soup, and emerge a butterfly.
Our state of mind, attitude, and outlook on life, are important conditions that need examining. Buddhism teaches that most of us aren’t even aware that we have a narrative that is governing and directing our lives. It is usually when we feel backed into a corner, or a crisis has occurred that we start delving into what went wrong and start to question our own narrative.
Buddhism is a rich tradition, with many different practices, that teaches how our attitudes can influence our development. One of the practice schools is called Pure Land. The Pure Land understanding of the human condition is similar to the Freudian one.
The first attitude is an acceptance that we are not perfect. We are complex, irrational, and swayed by desires that are often hidden from us and others. If we are not perfect then our love for others including ourselves will be flawed. This view of human fallibility and vulnerability isn’t regarded as a problem but a reality. This is how we are and we don’t need to look very far to get enough evidence to back this claim. It is a reality that if genuinely accepted will eliminate any tendency toward judgementalism. If we are imperfect then who are we to judge another person's imperfections?
Instead of judging a person from the outside, we see from our own state of imperfection that we are no different. Whatever status, or achievements we may have, we are still human and will still be able to connect as an equal because of our shared humanity.
For example, if someone has fallen into a river, then we would be able to relate to them because we might have fallen into a river once or we can imagine ourselves doing so. To help someone who is in the river, no matter who we are, we have a choice to go into the river or to remain on the bank with an attitude that we would never have got ourselves into the river in the first place.
Psychologically, this attitude of accepting that we are not perfect will lead to fellow feelings. If we have the attitude that we are fallible and vulnerable, we are better able to step into another person’s shoes and feel what they might be going through as their story unfolds. Instead of analysing from the outside, we might get a glimpse of how they see things and have fellow feelings and empathise.
From time to time, however, it is useful to step out of the water and get a view of the whole picture, but without entering into the water in the first place, it would be difficult to gain a real experience of what they are wading through.
To help us enter into the river requires deep confidence that all will be well. Confidence can be broken down into the latin words ‘con’ and ‘fides’ which means with faith. A person who has faith in the process, can trust that they are held by something greater than themselves.
Sometimes, this trusting attitude may get picked up by someone else. If we have an all-embracing faith or trust then even when things go badly or we transgress, we don’t give up and fall into despair. It is this attitude that can sustain and grow a level of faith and trust in life. Just as fear has its uses to protect us and keep us safe, so does faith in helping us to connect to others and feel less alone.
It can feel counter-intuitive to stop and go into a cocoon in order to move forward, however, this time of stopping and examining is sometimes what is required to transform.
The last attitude is called object-relatedness. This has to do with an understanding that we are not isolated figures alone in the water. It is an understanding that our emotional state depends on what we are looking at or focused on. How we relate to others is an important condition for our emotional state of being. If someone is angry at us, then we feel upset, equally, if someone flatters us then we feel wonderful.
This understanding helps us to remember that our river is a network of relations. Psychologically, when we examine our lives, it helps to explore our network, and all the significant people and events within it, rather than on our thoughts and feelings as isolated cases. It can help us to obtain a more realistic view of the people and events in our life.
It can also reveal that we alone didn’t create all the problems and psychological issues that we have. Moreover, it can lead to the insight that we may not have the power or ability to solve them on our own either.
It can feel counter-intuitive to stop and go into a cocoon in order to move forward, however, this time of stopping and examining is sometimes what is required to transform. We can trust that if certain attitudes and conditions prevail, then change, development and transformation into a butterfly is made possible.