The most radiantly alive person I’ve spent time with recently is a woman with terminal bone cancer. She revealed this within ten minutes of meeting, at which point she’d already dazzled me with her ebullience and sheer zest for life. She was in her skin in a way that few people are. Maybe it’s awareness of how little time you’ve got left that creates such a state, but I know too that’s not true for some. And it’s a reminder that for so many people, it’s only near-death experience that brings them nearer to life.
Oh dear, there I am being judgmental again. Only…am I? Is it really the case in seeing others that I am perceiving my own shortcomings? Broadly speaking, I’d go along with that interpretation. Not wholly though: there are times you can just see something for what it is, through having been there yourself: recognising that a toddler is having trouble walk is merely an acknowledgement that they’re going through a developmental stage. Besides, that’s one of the functions mirror neurons serve: in giving us insight into how others are, some degree of recognition is inevitable, and who’s to say whether that’s perception or judgement?
There’s something I’ve been puzzling over for a while, and it’s tricky even to define what the issue is. Bear with me. Much of the literature of personal development is concerned with individual liberation. And that’s fantastic, and something I’d applaud. Until we recognise what we’re capable of individually, how can we truly say that we’re making free and informed choices about our lives?And that’s where we come across the flipside of this increase in personal capability…if we’re all self-determined souls going about our business, what happened to society?
We are social creatures. Have never been anything but. Only, when people set out after whatever they think they’ll find when they discover NLP, Osho, Druidry or whatever it might be, there’s a tendency to emphasise the self. There’s a reason it’s called personal growth and not anything to do with family or community. And that concerns me.
There’s a paradox here, or so it seems. You sign up for a course, and learn about how you’ve been conditioned by family, by society, by language. Whatever your paradigm deems to be the oppressor in this equation. And you acquire some tricks for spotting how that conditioning works. Lo and behold, you declare yourself free. At any rate, until you find out there’s another course offering even greater levels of freedom, since now you’re more aware you can perceive deeper levels of conditioning.
Rinse and repeat a few times, and what have you got? Something like this classic Life Of Brian scene. Typically, you don’t get the en masse experience of the ‘We are all individuals’ chorus. But after a few dozen people give you essentially the same riff…one that they’ve come across through having their previous conditioning partially exposed and some new beliefs and weirdness stuck in there without any indication that there’s more to it than a philosophy you can put on a t-shirt…
My most recent experience in this regard was with an outfit called The Template who are an offshoot of what was The Emin Foundation. Genuinely sweet people, but with a particular form of social pressure exerted that brings to mind Timothy Leary’s declaration he’d seen the same games being played in prisons, universities, and terrorist groups. First, a belief that the group is somehow apart from the population at large. In this case, there was a consensus that those in the room were ‘switched on’ in ways that people at large are not. Second, the use of techniques to exclude individuals within that group, and penalise them for behaviours which do not match the norms of this allegedly more evolved bunch. So, one guy’s contributions to the group, though superficially welcomed, were distanced by the others from the ideas that they put forward: clearly not as evolved as the others, in unspoken ways.
Same old same old. I’ve seen a particularly funny variation on the theme in a Quaker meeting. The idea there is that you remain in silence until God moves you to speak. So, ten minutes go by. Someone pipes up. Four minutes later, God speaks through someone else. And this time, He’s subtly disagreeing with what He said earlier through that first person. And so on. Rinse and repeat. I caught a gruesome version behind the scenes at a Bandler event, where someone in charge of the assisting team was belittling an older assistant for falling short one way or another.
Not all communication follows that pattern, thankfully. There are moments for all of us, when with particular friends, or at certain moments, the layers are peeled back and something else happens. Call it connection. You can’t bottle it though there are maybe some things that make it more likely to happen. Interestingly, they don’t include many of the rituals of NLP. The paraphernalia of matching and mirroring, of pacing language patterns and so forth, all of that is if anything more likely to create distance between you, if only because you’re going to be partially dissociated in your interaction wondering what technique to bung in next.
The terminally ill woman I met didn’t have any of that. Her disease had stripped her down to her essence, and what I found most powerful about that was how others were encompassed in her world and priorities. At a time when her own resources were depleted, she chose to lavish attention on those close to her. Which is something I’ll hold onto the next time I come across someone who claims to have achieved enlightenment but has left humanity in the process. Not, in such cases, that they’ve left humanity behind. No need to intellectualise about it though. Let Aretha put you right if you haven’t got it yet…