This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, iBooks in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 593 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Thoughts on Jeremy Griffith's "Freedom : The End of the Human Condition" - Part 1

Let me first explain what I'm doing here. As regular readers of the blog may be aware, I was once a supporter of Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith and his writings on the human condition. Over time, however, I have become more and more critical of them. A lot of my own writings have grown out of my response to what I read in Griffith's work. Now he has a new book out. I'm only just beginning to read the book. It's a big book. It may take me some time. I have a lot to say about Griffith's ideas arising from the previous books I've read, and I'm sure that the reading of this book will give me more to say. So what I am doing is to write down my thoughts as they come to me. So this can't be viewed as a conventional book review, more like a free-wheeling running commentary. I began on Goodreads, but they have space limitations which I hit pretty quickly.

If you want to know more about Griffith and his organisation The World Transformation Movement, you can find plenty of information on their website.

I won't bother to illustrate these posts, but I will number them to make it easier to read them in order and when I add a new one I'll place a link to it at the bottom of the previous post.

Preliminary Thoughts

The author of this book believes that it is very important. So important that, when he submitted a pitch for a feature article about it to Scientific American in October 2014 and they turned him down saying that any successful application would have to be “more in the realm of science”, he described the rejection as “the most serious crime that could possibly be committed in the whole of humanity’s 2-million-year journey to enlightenment.”

I have a long familiarity with Griffith’s theories, having first encountered them in about 1989 when I read his first book Free : The End of the Human Condition. I went through a period of being an advocate of his work. I wrote a very positive review of his second book for an Australian left-wing newspaper. I wrote some articles on the net which attracted a fair bit of attention. But over the years my relationship to these ideas changed. When you desperately want to believe in a complex of ideas (and who wouldn’t want to believe that someone had found a basic scientific understanding of human behaviour which could set us free from all of our social problems and guarantee us a future?) it can be hard to really grapple with it and discover its flaws. I believe my ability to assess it rationally has increased in parallel with my development of an alternative approach to many of the issues it raises.

My personal philosophy revolves around the concept of unconditional self-acceptance. If selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering individual, and withholding acceptance from ourselves causes us mental suffering, then to learn the habit of accepting ourselves - all of our thoughts and feelings - unconditionally, will lead to us being less selfish. Our rationale for not accepting aspects of ourselves is generally that we want to improve, but it is just this withholding of acceptance which keeps us insecure and holds us back from all forms of improvement. Unconditional self-acceptance also provides a sound basis for rational understanding. If we are insecure about ourselves then we may feel the need to block out certain ideas or aspects of reality or to exaggerate others in order to avoid the pain of having those insecurities exposed. We see this phenomena all the time in the area of politics. We could talk all day about the terrible things done by members of the party we oppose, but we often explain away the misdeeds committed the one we support. If we feel no need to prove anything about ourselves through our allegiance to a particular party our view of this aspect of the world will be less distorted.

A high-level of self-acceptance is crucial when reading Griffith’s work. This is because it comes from the perspective of extreme idealism. He says of his first book, that it “grew out of my desperate need to reconcile my extreme idealism with reality.” Griffith’s books are not simply pleas for more idealistic behaviour. His belief is that our non-ideal behaviour needs explaining, and that a thorough compassionate understanding of it will bring it to an end. Because he is coming from an idealistic perspective, his explanation is, to use his term, “confronting”. He believes that what confronts us is his “truthfulness”. I think that what confronts us, if we are confronted, is his idealism.

Idealism is corrosive to self-acceptance, and thus to mental health. The more we accept ourselves, the more mentally healthy we are and the more honest we are capable of being in our thinking as we don’t have to pussy-foot around our insecurities. But the constant message of idealism is “you are not good enough”. If we take this message on board (and it can be hard to resist), it will make us more selfish, and if we are exposed to too much hurtful idealism we may become angry at this implied criticism and lash out at those who express it or remind us of it.

The reason I say that a high-level of self-acceptance is crucial is partly because this will protect us from being discomfited by Griffith’s extreme idealism. Griffith claims that most people find it hard to make any sense of his books at all when they first attempt to read them due to what he calls “the deaf effect”. He sees this as entrenched alienation from truthful thinking, but I think it could equally be seen as the insecure mind instinctively protecting itself from exposure to the unjust criticism inherent in idealism. I didn’t experience this “deaf effect”. I knew immediately what Griffith was saying when I read his first book, but I found the exposure to his idealism intensely painful as it undermined my self-acceptance. Of course his book also provided a “defence for humanity” the relief of which was supposed to greatly outweigh that pain. I don’t think it ever really did, but the fact that I believed Griffith was saving the world, and that I had a chance to support him, helped me to transcend that pain. It was only later, when I had lost my faith in Griffith, that I would find a way to heal it.

I’ve decided that I will slowly work my way through Griffith’s new book, writing commentary as I go. It’s a long book and I dare say my commentary will be long too.

You may ask me why I’m bothering to do this when I have already rejected Griffith’s central thesis based on his previous books. I think the value that lies in Griffith’s work is the challenge it poses. He is right when he says that the future of the human race will be short if we keep on as we are. And he is right that the root cause of most of our problems, from the political to the economic to the ecological, is psychological. The psychological rehabilitation of the human race, the healing of those aspects of our psyche which lead to our destructive behaviour, is the key challenge facing us. It really is a choice between self-knowledge or self-destruction. If Griffith doesn’t have the answers, we can at least consider his writings as the opening of a conversation we need to have. To dismiss them without a thorough analysis is to fail to take full advantage of the challenge they represent.

Let me first give my extremely simple explanation for how I believe the human condition really works. Our principle motivation, as with other animals, is the pleasure principle - we try to seek out pleasure and avoid suffering. And we are born with a tendency to accept those around us unconditionally. When someone causes us pain or we encounter some obstacle in our pursuit of pleasure, we experience frustration. We either express that frustration or we repress it. Repressing it interferes with our spontaneity and our ability to experience joy. But expressing it may lead to punishment or criticism. Criticism and taught values are incorporated into our ego in the form of what we call our “conscience”. What we think of as the battle between “good” and “evil” is between restraint of our frustrations in deference to the conscience and expression of our frustrations. Consciences are varied in how oppressive they are, depending on how extreme is the idealism on which they are based. And the amount of frustration the individual feels varies according to the traumas and trials of their life. Within this situation the key factor is self-acceptance. We begin entirely self-accepting. Criticism and frustration can eat away at that state. What gives the conscience its power is that it is instilled as conditions for self-acceptance. If we are “good” our conscience will not trouble us, but if we are “bad” it will pull our self-acceptance out from under us, a feeling we experience as guilt. We may try to compensate for a lack of self-acceptance in other ways. We may try to fill that hole with material extravagance, success in some field, token idealistic behaviour, or something else. Extreme instances of altruism can occur when an individual’s self-acceptance is so dependent on a conscientious principle that they feel that even a painful death would involve less suffering than a life lived knowing they had betrayed that principle. So extreme altruism is driven by the impulse to avoid feelings of guilt, but loving cooperation, because it feels good, is the healthy expression of the fully self-accepting individual.

The central question Griffith is grappling with is why we depart so far from what is ideal. Are we good or are we evil? The ideal behaviour that he has in mind is cooperativeness and selflessness. These are not the only ideals which have existed of course. The Nazis had the ideal of racial purity. The puritans had the ideal of asceticism. An ideal is a concept of perfection in some aspect of life. Undoubtedly he is right to look at cooperativeness as something to be valued. But what do we mean really by “selfless”. If taken literally, the word is nonsensical. To be without a self would be to not exist. But we use it as an opposite to “selfish” to indicate altruistic behaviour. What do we really mean by it, though? A person’s behaviour may serve the interests of others, but why does the individual engage in that behaviour if not to either increase their own good feelings or decrease their own bad feelings. This isn’t selfishness in the pathological sense of behaviour which deprives others of what they need or want in order to meet the psychological rather than physical needs of the individual. The unreachability of true selflessness, however, can make the concept a particularly powerful one for anyone who might want to gain influence over others by undermining their self-acceptance. While Griffith defines “love” as “unconditional selflessness”, I think that love is something else. I define it as a form of communication characterised by honesty, openness, spontaneity and generosity. Though we forget ourselves in love, it isn’t useful to think of it as “selfless” as it carries with it the reward to the self of, for that period of time, not being alone. For me, when Griffith talks of selflessness, I think of something oppressively conscience-driven rather than self-forgetfulness in the bliss of love and creative activity. This is, perhaps, an unhelpful prejudice on my part.

Why greed, hatred, rape, torture, murder and war? Griffith asks. Within my own conception of the human condition (or what I prefer to call “the human neurosis”) above, it makes sense that we are desperate to find some kind of resolution for the frustration/conscience dichotomy. Greed is an addiction to material relief from compromised self-acceptance. Because we are liable to feel guilty about our greed it forms a negative feedback loop which keeps it ever increasing. Hatred is a projection of the self-contempt of the non-self-accepting individual. Violence in general is an overflow of frustration, and sometimes a way of trying to compensate for compromised self-acceptance through a show of dominance. It is driven by the wounded ego. And war is a case where the desire to let out pent up frustration may actually align with the conscience. The conscience of the warrior tells him that the right thing to do is to defend his country and to kill the “evil ones”.

One area where I think Griffith is right is that our insecurity about our own worth has held us back from acknowledging holism - “the tendency in nature to form wholes” - and thus from achieving a functioning understanding of ourselves and the world. When we lose our capacity for unconditional self-acceptance we become selfish. To be a healthily functioning part of a whole we would have to focus outwardly, towards other people. Being forced to acknowledge that would throw our selfishness into stark relief. It would make us feel guilty. Guilt is the feeling we have when our self-acceptance is being further eroded. So we have two options here if we don’t want to make our personal situation worse. We either need to avoid recognising the tendency in nature to form wholes, or we need to develop the habit of unconditional self-acceptance in order to liberate us from guilt and thus free our minds to think holistically without feeling criticised.

I don’t consider Griffith to be a true holistic thinker though. Too much of his writing revolves around trying to reconcile dualities - “good” and “evil”, men and women, left wing and right wing - while retaining the conceptual distortions and oversimplifications inherent in dualistic thinking. He also thinks in terms of humans being “imperfect”. Perfection is an illusion that the holist needs to be rid of. The wholes we see in nature did not come about through seeking or achieving perfection. Evolution proceeds by “mistakes”, i.e. mutations. And a whole does not arise by insisting on some standard of perfection, it arises through inclusivity not exclusivity. Holism requires pragmatism not idealism. And, it seems to me, if the human race is going to come together into some kind of healthy functioning whole it will happen through an erosion of idealism in favour of love for ourselves and our fellows in all our messiness.

Harry Prosen, in his introduction, gushes about Griffith with the passion of a religious convert. I’m afraid the more someone gushes and engages in grand rhetoric the more I suspect that they are trying to keep themselves persuaded. I sometimes feel the same way about Griffith. His writings are, for something which is supposed to bring complete understanding to the human situation, rather low on concise clarity and high on verbose, emotive rhetoric. There is, however, a relatively simple theory at the heart of all this. That needs to be assessed, and so do the conclusions Griffith extrapolates from it. The tests are internal logic and the ability to illuminate the complex social phenomena of the world. There may be a simple psychological formula behind the apparent chaos of human behaviour just as simple mathematical formulae can underlie chaotic systems, but if the “proof” relies on reducing individuals to stereotypes it is no proof at all.

Griffith gives a good description of the human condition. He rightly rejects arguments that our aggressiveness is genetic. He rightly points out the limited effectiveness of most strategies for dealing with it. For those who support him, I think this is a major reason. No-one else I know is as uncompromising in their acknowledgement of the problem. The big question though is whether his attempt at explanation brings with it some form of genuine therapy for that condition. A doctor has to do more than diagnose, he has to provide a treatment.

Griffith quotes Arthur Schopenhauer : “Man is the only animal which causes pain to others with no other object than causing pain…No animal ever torments another for the sake of tormenting: but man does so, and it is this which constitutes the diabolical nature which is far worse than the merely bestial.”

Idealism exists only in humans also. Where there is idealism there will also be the diabolical, as the diabolical (as Schopenhauer describes it) is driven by the need to rebel against the oppression of the ideals. Idealism corrodes self-acceptance and enforces the repression of feelings of frustration. In particularly vulnerable individuals this creates so much resentment that they feel compelled to do the very opposite to what that idealism insists upon. Idealism says we must be kind and generous, especially to the innocent and vulnerable. So, if someone is driven to hell by the corrosive power of idealism, they may specifically pick the innocent and vulnerable to inflict terrible suffering upon. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong to be kind, the problem lies in the insistence and undermining of self-acceptance (the guilt-tripping), which is the motivator of that compulsion. Love is the only sustainable motivator of kindness and generosity, and love begins with self-acceptance. The more we insist that people not be egotistical or aggressive, the more egotistical or aggressive we force them to be.

Now Griffith is not openly insisting on idealism. Ostensibly he is trying to heal the egotism, aggressiveness, alienation, etc. through understanding of these aspects of human behaviour which is both rational and compassionate. But is his explanation sound? And does it have the capacity to achieve that healing? If not, the poison of the idealism which lies behind his work may mean that it does more harm than good.

Read Part 2

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