One of the ways I work with peoples sometimes is by using the analogy of states. If we think about our own inner world, we might begin to notice that we tend to shift from one state of being to another and then to another again. In one day we literally go through many different states encompassing many different mind sets and many different emotions.
A good way to conceptualize our personalities and traits and quirks is to think of ourselves as consisting of many different parts or states. We are empty in the middle but the edges seem to entail parts and states that come into existence. One of our most fundamental mistakes is we identify with these parts and states as being us. But let’s leave that for another time.
Sometimes we even have parts of ourselves that seem to be at war with each other. One part of us wants to do this and another wants to do that. We are divided internally or at least the edges that we think are us are. Finding ways to manage that internal conflict is extremely important, but for now I just would like to focus on the more general paradigm of shifting states.
When thinking about our different states of being most of the time these states seem to own us and to varying degrees we become stuck in these states at varying points in our lives. We might think of depression as a large stuck state as one example.
If we observe depression we begin to notice fluctuations in mood, intensity, motivation, bodily and psychological distress. When we are observing we are effectively in another state which is separate from depression. There is “you” observing the “depression”. If we are able to observe and also are non-judgmental then we create further space and in turn enter yet another state.
There is usually a lot of psychological benefit in being able to observe ourselves in this manner. Additionally, it is the most reliable way we can start to really get to know how we tick and operate in the world. Understandably many people want to shift from being unhappy to happy. This form of observation does not necessarily shift, in fact the point isn’t to shift anything, it is to notice and accept. The same is true of mindfulness practices, they are by and large intended as mechanism of acceptance and methods of paying attention to our minds.
It is true that in paying attention in this way that often there is a type of relief where much of the original intensity dissipates. This is largely because the secondary effects of suffering are not bought into it. For example, we do not typically become depressed about being depressed when observing in this fashion. It is also true that by just observing in this way, we can sometimes break the pattern since we are learning to disrupt old habits by doing something different.
Sometimes however, despite our best intentions and best practices we still find ourselves stuck. At other times we might find that observation becomes an exercise in detached living where all the joy and energy of life are sucked away.
There are ways we can shift ourselves out of states that are not helpful for us into other states which provide a more beneficial route. If we look through our experiences we might find a happy time or something in memory which causes a shift. For example, if I think of my niece when she was younger, I am often able to harness a positive energetic state of being – one that often involves compassion and empathy.
If I want to shift into a more relaxed mode, I might think of times I spent on the beach. Perhaps the word thinking gives the wrong connotation. Usually just to think on memories is not enough. We have to recall how our bodies feel and get our bodies to feel the same. So if I want to relax, I mirror how my body felt in the memory until my physical body is thoroughly relaxed. I might mirror my breathing rates, slow down my thoughts etc., but most importantly I want the physical sensation of my muscles relaxing.
Another example, if I want to write in a poetic way, I think of the times when love has been most prominent in my life. Again it’s less about the thinking memory and more about capturing and mirroring the somatic memory. It’s the actual physical body sensations that we want to shift and then we find that the thoughts and emotions usually follow.
We can also start to track how we feel experientially at other levels. For example, we might notice that we can feel like children at times and other times feel like we are in the zones. We could call these a child state and an adult state. In fact, we usually have a number of child states and a number of adult states.
If we recall the times when things went astray, we often feel like it’s not us. Many a time we act like children at these times. In fact if we are really observing well, we can pick up on the edges of feeling like a child. The opposite usually holds true, when we make good beneficial decisions, we usually are operating from a place that feels grown up and responsible and feels much more together than at other times. We usually are feeling good about ourselves and the world. It is what I would call an adult state or at least one of them. Another might be more an intuitive adult state and so on.
Enter fear and anxiety and much of the beneficial stuff of life goes away. In fact we often become control freaks and usually try and control life from child states.
Recently when returning home from staying at a friend’s place, I listened to an adult man describe situations where he was in conflict with other persons. This went on for the entire drive, nearly a couple hours’ worth of descriptions all revolving around confrontational conflict. A large part of his need, was to portray himself as victimized. Unconsciously, he was acting out old childhood patterns which had now turned destructive in adulthood. Effectively in each situation he was in the throes of a tantrum.
There are several common difficulties that this individual encounters.
- He does not observe himself. Instead he always manages to blame everyone else, including the unfairness of the world.
- Because he does not observe himself he has little psychological acumen and little understanding of how operates in the world. There is no sense of this man taking responsibility for his actions and his part in the conflicts.
- In being stuck in these destructive childlike states, he is cut off from empathy and in turn compassion.
- Because of the lack of empathy and compassion, he is prone to escalating conflict and violence.
- He operates in an extremely black and white manner. He is either the victim or attempting to fix the world by persecuting others.
If he were able to observe his own states and recognize how he contributes he might be able to shift out of these childlike states into something much more productive. One of the ways he might do that is to use his own religion. Being a Muslim, he is into the Koran. Personally I do not think much of the Koran or any religious text for that matter, but he does and that can be used in his own service.
One of the fundamental principles of Islam is Allah the most compassionate, the most merciful. He could make a practice out of compassion and mercy and in this way get into a different state and circumvent the child state. He could find himself acting with grace, empathy and compassion without necessarily losing his own boundaries. And that’s really the trick isn’t it, to be able to hold our boundaries without losing our own grace under fire.
That kind of behaviour requires a very functional adult state in order to manifest it. It will never ever occur when acting from states that are detrimental to us.
I think a good way to think about life is knowing when to use different states at different times. For example, we do not want to get rid of a child state, instead we want to know when and how to use it properly. I have a young nephew and niece and I am often in a childlike state with them. There I am playing and joking and making a fool of myself in order to entertain and connect with them. They enjoy it and so do I. Most of my life is not serious, so I often am a bit like a child when I interact with others, even adults. Mostly it’s about frivolity and having fun and that’s ok. But there are other times I should not be in these childlike states.
For example, before I see a client I spend a few minutes shifting into therapy mode. I have to ensure that my stuff is left behind and that I am fully engaged and present with the client. In this state I might be a bit more analytical and a bit more rational. Yet I would also be getting into highly intuitive states and states which allow me to connect with my client. There is a time and place for everything we just need to recognize the time and place.
Sometimes we have to shift states by using an intermediate state. For example, if we are intensely angry and want to move to a more rational state, we might have to use a relaxation state first. Another example, if we are emotionally distraught to the point of being overwhelmed, we might first want to breathe deeply, and then as we begin to get calmer we try and get into a more rational state.
In the next week or two, try and pay attention to how you shift states. Begin by observing but also see if you cannot get into different states in the manner I described above. Try and bring a high level of consciousness to all this, as its delicate work. Delicate but rewarding if followed through.