Mental Health should be more than the absence of mental illness. It should be something akin to a vibrant and muscular fitness of the human mind and spirit.
Martin Selizman - PHD
When we consider maturity in relation to human development we can make a distinction between two different types, physical maturity and psycho-emotional maturity. As living organisms our physical maturity is guaranteed by virtue of our survival. For as long as we live our physical bodies are growing and developing in their own natural way, at their own pace and according to their own laws. This mysterious and interesting area of maturity is beyond the scope of this paper. In this article I will be focusing on emotional maturity, discussing the value of self-examination and exploring some of the difficulties that may arise in the maturational process.
Psycho-emotional maturity is something that we can never take for granted; levels of personal development and understanding vary enormously between individuals. It is a fact that some people are more fully evolved and developed than others. The reasons are complex; psychological growth depends on many factors: biological, intra-subjective and environmental, which will shape and become a part of a person’s inner world. In this way we are all made different.
Emotional maturity is a difficult concept to understand because it is not a singular entity. It is a composite of multiple interrelated aspects and like a multi-faceted diamond can be approached from many fronts. This type of maturity doesn’t present itself in isolation; it is always bound up with a measure of balance, wisdom, responsibility, sense of purpose, depth of presence and self-control. When these attributes are present they are a clear indicator that maturity is also around. These fine qualities are part of our birthright. They are present in all of us as potential but they do not emerge automatically by themselves. If we want to develop them we need to find them first. We will have to dig deep and work hard at understanding who and what we are. Individuals grow emotionally through self-knowledge. When people mature there is a broadening and deepening of their awareness accompanied by a change of perspective which allows the perception of hidden webs of interconnections that were invisible and unknown before.
An integral part of knowing ourselves is becoming familiar with the inner world. It is important to make space and take time to listen to our inner dialogue, to observe our thoughts, to register our feelings and to trace their influence on our being. To become aware is a gradual process. It comes from paying attention and being single-minded. One needs to be strong willed because the world we live in has great forces that militate against this awareness. Introspection is discouraged at every turn as our attention is drawn away from ourselves and is caught up by the infinite stimulations that assault our senses. Society in general has developed a culture of distraction and in this respect we are all deeply affected and unless we do something about it and reverse direction we will continue to remain impoverished, disenfranchised and disconnected from our core.
This process of alienation starts very early and can present itself in myriad ways. For example, when I was growing up children were discouraged to look at themselves in the mirror in case they became vain and bigheaded. As you can imagine this prohibition was not a good advertisement for self-examination and as a consequence introspection and self-reflection got devalued by association. Looking at oneself too much or for too long could be seen as suspect and people might start wondering if something were wrong.
The main focus of Western society is placed on what we do, what we can achieve, rather than on who we are; this situation creates barriers of insecurity, dissatisfaction and disconnection. Large sections of the population live with little awareness of the inner world hoping that discomforts can be remedied by new activities or new acquisitions. We grow when we are prepared to challenge and confront our ‘discomfort barriers’. The discomfort barriers are the rational and irrational fears and prohibitions that we carry inside and have the effect of limiting our freedom to roam and explore, to develop and to grow. The conditioned thoughts and habits that we have assimilated and identified with have become our own personal ‘psycho-emotional jailors’. They keep us artificially penned in. We develop by facing our discomfort and transcending our fears. Expansion of consciousness means that the inner eye opens to wider horizons, and that the contradictions of the heart begin to dissolve.
Our perspectives, opinions and views are upheld by our system of beliefs which are never fully examined and can never be fully articulated. For instance if we look at our beliefs regarding value, most people may agree that life has value; whether it has value in the Grand and Ultimate Scheme of Things we may not know but we do know that it has a certain value and meaning for ourselves and those around us. How we perceive and value our own life will have a profound effect on how we feel about ourselves, how we see the world and what we think of other people.
When we observe a person from the outside we only see fruits, foliage and flowers: the outer form of an inner tree. What goes on in the inside of the tree is something quite different. It is another world altogether, populated by thoughts, fantasies, feelings, emotions and sensations. We live in an ‘imaginal’ world, a world of the imagination, though we are only dimly aware of it. Imaginal doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel real and it doesn’t mean that life can’t be very painful, stressful and demanding. It is just that because of the way we are made we can never perceive reality directly. What we consider a fact is always mediated through the filter of our perception and given meaning by the thoughts in our mind. We have thousands of thoughts, fantasies, impressions and emotions going past us in a waking day and they live in our minds in the same way that fish live in the sea and remain there mostly unexamined and undisturbed. These emotional thoughts form the ‘psycho-climate’ of the inner world. There is no such thing as a thought on its own. Thoughts are like magnetic clouds and they attract energy. The energy they attract comes from our emotional reservoir. The more powerful a thought is the more emotional investment it will attract. A thought can be compared to a passing comet and the tail that it carries is made up of the attracted emotion that became attached to the thought. These emotional tails make up the psycho-climate, the internal atmosphere in which fantasies, affects and moods live and thrive.
Human beings are works in progress, never the finished product; we are perpetually changing, caught up in a never-ending process of transforming and being transformed by life. The natural growth process of the organism involves greater complexity, expansion, increasing autonomy and greater socialisation. In sum, self-actualisation.
No person is an island. We are never alone. Since the moment of conception, we are an integral part of an interconnected environment which is fundamental for the development of the self. The importance of our early years and the influence of family life in the development of our identity and our sense of self cannot be exaggerated. What we learned in the cradle we carry to our graves and our childhood experiences are the foundation on which the whole edifice rests.
If we study the development of the ego we soon discover that the ego as we know it was not born with our physical body. I call the ego the aspect of myself that is the captain of the ship; that part which I recognise as me. It coordinates things on the inside and guides the person through life. It has two faces: one facing in and the other looking out, in this way it is affected by the world and it affects the world. When a baby is born the ego is not there, the ego emerges in stages later on in life. There is a world of difference between a physical birth and a psychological birth. The newborn infant may have discernable features but it is not yet an individual. Though his body is in the world, his mind is not yet here, it remains fused with its early experiences as a foetus in the womb. During the first months of life the infant remains in what researchers have called and “undifferentiated matrix” where no distinctions exist. The young baby is a purely biological being, open and vulnerable in an alien world. For the ego to grow and develop out of this primary undifferentiation, it is going to need all the help it can get. To put it another way, the growth forces of the self will avail themselves of all the resources at their disposal in pursuit of their maturational objectives.
The maturational process is slow and arduous; the psyche has to undergo many transformations as it navigates the Great River. Every child will have to negotiate many hurdles in its journey to maturity; the Oedipal complex, the crisis of adolescence, finding a partner and having children are only some of them. As things get more complex more things can go wrong and sometimes they do give rise to arrested development and mental disturbances. It is important how we digest our experiences because that will determine the state of our relations with the inner objects of our psyche. As we live we are constantly having to adjust to changing circumstances. Adjustment is an inner process that is essential for our mental and emotional equilibrium.
The inner world is not a unified whole; it is composed of different forces or different fiefdoms often at loggerheads and sometimes cooperating with each other. The world of the inside can be quite often like a house divided or a dysfunctional family where love and hatred, greed, generosity, envy and the will to do good coexist in an uneasy relation with each other. It has been said that each individual is a battlefield between forces both good and evil. Creative and destructive forces are playing out their dramas within us all the time. The ‘psycho-world’ can be compared to the world at large in which different countries and corporations compete, cooperate, undermine, make wars or make alliances in pursuit of their individual interests. What holds it together is that we share this earth. We are all interconnected, we are inhabitants of this planet and whether we like it or not there is nowhere else to go. It is the same with the individual. Behind the mask we all have areas of strength and weakness where biological imperatives, unresolved conflicts and subliminal aspirations compete and cooperate. The friction of the strife generates psychic energy and the emergent ego is the result, the outcome of the struggle; the visible part of an invisible world.
We evolve through a dual process of differentiation and integration. As we mature we detach from who we thought we were: that with which we were previously identified and what was thought of as the ‘whole of ourselves’ becomes an integral part of an expanded sense of self. Changing our thoughts, ideas and beliefs is not easy. We have grown attached to our views and letting them go is experienced psychologically as a death of sorts. What is dying is a part of the ‘psycho-self’. When we outgrow and change our ideas, an old part of us, an emotional part that was attracted and attached to them gets dissolved and becomes part of a greater whole. We too, like the infant, have to be prepared to let go of old out-dated certainties and residues of narcissism that hold back the natural flow of our development.
I see the work of psychotherapy as an aid to individual growth and development and am pleased when psychotherapists are sometimes called “midwives of change”. This is a true and honourable title given that in our work we have to grapple with the basic human paradox: the inevitability of change and the fear we all have of changing. We know that change is unavoidable, we are all vulnerable and at the mercy of the forces of destiny. What life presents us with is something that we cannot control. We only have a say in the way we respond to situations. The manner in which we face life is an expression of our character and an exercise of our will. We always have choices in our responses and these choices are an expression of our subjectivity, the inner self exercising its will. How free the will is will depend on how free the self is. As Seneca said, ‘The fates will lead those who will – those who won’t, they drag.’
Everyone has problems, conflicts, difficulties and pain of one sort or another and everyone has unresolved areas in their hearts. It is as normal to be flawed, as it is to be vulnerable to the uncertainties of life. In my practice, I don’t focus so much on the problems that present themselves in the life of my patients. I can’t do anything about them anyway. My main interest and area of involvement is how these situations affect patients and to investigate together with them the effect of the impact on the inner world, the world of the person inside. For however long we live we will have to face the vicissitudes of life. This is a given, and for however long we live we will have to live with ourselves and this is a marriage that we can never dissolve. Since this is the situation, enlightened self-interest indicates that it would be wise to develop the best relationship with our self that we can muster.
Human development is not uniform; everyone has some areas more developed than others. Technical skills, Moral refinement, Aesthetic sensitivity, Relational abilities etc. are all independent lines of development that can be very different and have different destinies. Let’s take John as an example of uneven development. When I met him many years ago he was still a young man though he looked middle-aged and worn out. He was short and podgy, had never had any relationships and he had no friends. He was a man with strong fixed obsessional habits and had a deep depression that he had carried inside for as long as he could remember. He had been in England for about ten years. He had come from a very poor African country that was perpetually at war and he belonged to a white minority that was regarded by all around with envy and deep suspicion. He grew up very much a loner in a family where his parents were always stressed and emotionally disconnected from him. When the time came for him to go to school he was mercilessly bullied by the other children. He was frightened, miserable and had no one to turn to. He was a strong man because instead of breaking down completely in such an unpromising environment he managed to get himself a good education. He became an engineer and an expert in computer technology, which was a rare skill to have in the late seventies, and computers as a consequence became his world and his refuge.
John had lost all hope in humanity. He didn’t trust anybody and he believed that he was constantly being spied upon. To protect his fragile self he developed strong defences which were like an impregnable bunker. Nobody was allowed to come in and he didn’t dare to come out. Though he had come to me of his own free will and was referred by a psychotherapy organisation he was terrified in case I was in touch with his employers and reporting back to them. He seemed to live in an emotional isolation chamber that reminded me of Howard Hughes, the famous North American entrepreneur; he even had similar obsessive-compulsive tendencies and the same fear of contamination. Anything outside his little world was a potential danger that soon became real in his disturbed imagination and his imagination was all he had left.
In his development John had followed a path that felt safe and came easily to him, he was technically minded so he focused all of his attention on technology and computers and he avoided the dread of relations and intimacy as much as he possibly could. As a consequence, he had grown up in an extremely lopsided way with one part of himself, his ‘techno-self’, highly developed and the other part, the ‘psycho-emotional self’, atrophied and lifeless. His integral development had been severely impeded by his early traumas and his ‘psycho-climate’ was always dark, stormy and menacing.
In order to survive in the midst of his nightmares John felt forced to cut himself off from his roots, from the needs of his deeper self and from the impact of other human beings. He made himself into a mechanical man, a ‘techno-barbarian’ who believed that his self had the same limitations as those of a well-designed computer programme. By narrowing himself down in this way he was avoiding engaging with life and experiencing deeper layers of himself. To put it in another way, if one imagines that life is a circle with three hundred and sixty degrees, he operated on a tiny segment of only ten degrees. All the rest was blocked off and did not consciously compute. John’s ego had taken refuge and got lost in inner-space or maybe it was cyber-space for him. He didn’t know how to retrieve it and bring it down to Earth. Returning to Earth meant that he had to become grounded and in touch and John’s lopsided self could never become whole and grounded unless he was prepared to cross the ‘discomfort-barriers’ that stood in the way.
A very big part of him didn’t really want to be grounded. It was the last thing he wanted because he truly believed that opening up to the world would be his end. Over the years the world of human relations had been invested with so much fear and regarded with so much suspicion that it felt to him like a malignant castle infested by terrifying ghosts that frightened him to death and fenced off large areas of his life. On the other hand there was another part of him, albeit a smaller part, that was desperate to find a way out of his predicament and break away from his self imposed prison that caused him so much anguish and pain.
When he came to see me I got the impression that he was still alive though barely. In his despair this man had buried his life force so deep in the ground of his being that it was very difficult to find and retrieve. Our work together can best be described as a monotonous, circular and slow affair. John repeated himself endlessly: it was always the same old story, told in the same lifeless tone. It was as difficult and painful for him to move away from his repetitive defences as it was for me to endure them. The main problems we addressed in our work were issues of safety and trust. Would he give himself permission to come out of his shell and could he find the courage to step out of the old worn-out groove? Developing a relationship with me, a person, instead of a computer and creating a space in the consulting room where intimacy, respect and confidence occupied the central position was an unknown and frightening proposition. To his credit, in spite of his inner demons and his doubts, John persevered because somewhere inside him there was something akin to a little voice of hope or a tiny spark of faith that hadn’t been completely extinguished.
He did make some progress as he tentatively inched his way along the path of self-awareness. Towards the end of his therapy there was a bit more openness in John, a bit more flexibility in his responses and last but not least, he started to develop a sense of humour which is always a good sign. Something very heavy was beginning to lift; there was still a long way to go but at least he was on his way and he knew where he was facing, and he was still young. There is always hope but it takes courage, resolve and determination to face vulnerable areas. Sometimes it may look like one is going into hell but unless those dimensions are recognised the reality of inter-connectedness will be experienced as a closed mystery. The person’s self will be blind in a world of colour and deaf in a world of sound.
I have presented this example because it highlights what is in fact a common situation. It is not usually as black and white as in the case above but to a greater or lesser degree we all suffer from blind spots and ‘psycho distortions’ which need addressing. Bare attention is all that is required for healing because attention when bare is welcoming, fearless and detached. Our presence is where our attention is; when we don’t pay attention we are not present and we live on the surface of life. Depth of experience is an indicator of emotional maturity and the level of maturity of an individual is the same as the depth of presence the individual can sustain. This can vary enormously, some people can stay longer in an hour than others can in a week.
It is very easy to delude ourselves, we do it all the time. When our mind wants to it can be very shifty, snaky and full of guile. And what is more, the mind has a cohort of delusory allies that are specialists at distorting reality. Splitting, projecting, repressing are mechanisms of the mind that are ever present and ready to come into operation whenever an experience is not metabolised and for some reason or another is felt to be a threat. If we want to get to know ourselves, we have to recover our self. I don’t mean just getting rid of our destructive habits and addictions. These are symptoms. They belong more to the surface of our being, the world of effects. We must also focus and give some serious attention to the causes. We need to look deep so that we may rediscover and re-evaluate those experiences that we once distorted, discarded and condemned to become part of the untreated refuse of the psyche. Pollution is as rampant on the inside as it is on the outside. Self-mastery means being responsible, taking conscious charge of organising and running wisely the household of our mind. We cannot do this unless we have taken the trouble to get to know ourselves, unless we have spent time by ourselves and patiently observed.
Self-awareness is a process. It is founded on getting to know and becoming familiar with the different aspects that make up our inner world and have such a profound influence on our thinking and our way of being. Jack Kornfield says, “The secret of beginning a life of deep awareness and sensitivity lies in our willingness to pay attention. Our growth as aware and conscious human beings is produced by extending loving attention to the minutest details of our life.” With this type of attention we bring light into the dark recesses of our psyche. Dr. Nina Coltart said many years ago, “I know nothing about enlightenment. All I know is about gradual disendarkenment.” She was right, the journey towards wisdom and self-understanding is a gradual process, it’s like a pilgrimage, it has to be walked with patience, perseverance, discrimination and detachment. There can be no short cuts because what is short circuited is not seen and not heard and remains unknown and unrecognised and therefore cannot be integrated in a conscious way by the overall self. To understand oneself subjectively is to know oneself. It is not easy because like in the world there are areas of conflict, strife, violence and seedy places that one would rather not visit. It takes courage to take a “real good look in the mirror”: to challenge our cherished opinions, to disrobe ourselves of our delusions and to smash our dear idols which are all psycho-defences against emotional discomfort. This is the price we pay to become a mature individual. Maturity means being true to oneself. One can’t be called mature if one doesn’t ring true.
As in the case I described above, the quest for self-knowledge is often opposed by different aspects of our own self. If someone values and decides to pursue the path to emotional maturity the first obstacle he will encounter will be our ‘existential amnesia’. It is very easy to forget oneself. That is why Gurdjieff said that the Prime Directive was to ‘Remember to remember’. This first step is crucial as it gets one foot through the door. In turning the focus of attention away from the outer world and directing it inwardly a person will gradually become aware of an inner universe that is alive and in constant, vibrant and intimate communication with the body, the brain and the being. I call being what Ken Wilber refers to as the ‘proximal self’. He says that when we close our eyes and look into ourselves we see at least two parts. One part that is the witness of what is going on, the silent observer. This is the I, the part that is closest to our core. He calls this the ‘proximal self’. And then there is the Me, the characteristics that I am identified with. I am a man, I am a nurse, a soldier, a child etc. This is in Wilbur’s language the “distal self” because it is farther away from the core. To complete the picture he calls the combination of the two “the overall self”.
The second step on the road to maturity has already been touched upon. It’s what Kornfield called the exercise of loving attention. We have two main ways of using our attention. We can use it for judging or we can use it as bare attention. We use our attention routinely in an egocentric way to judge whatever we notice. We decide this is good, this is bad, this is indifferent, this I like, this is beautiful, this is ugly etc. We tend to judge things according to our personal preferences and mental conditioning. We have done this so often and for so long that it has become an ingrained habit, second nature. The problem with using attention in this way is that it is self-centred and it splits reality in an artificial way. Some things we can readily accept and those we can’t we either ignore, attack or fend off. We try to disassociate ourselves from what we don’t like. In this way, we defend a figment of our imagination while following an unenlightened conception of self-interest. We pay a heavy psychological price for our defence mechanisms, what we resist persists. The excluded parts are untamed and uncontained which means that they are not held in our loving awareness and as a consequence of this lack of care they are anxiously knocking on the backdoor of our mind clamouring to come in, to be recognised, to be included, to be dealt with and put to rest.
As we investigate the inner world we develop subtle senses like subtle vision and subtle listening. This is a natural process that takes place when attention detaches from judgements. Note that I have said ‘detach’. It does not mean splitting, cutting off, ignoring or disassociating. It simply means that the confusion between attention and judgement has to be resolved. Judgement has a legitimate place in our psyche, it is there to preserve our integrity, uphold our values and maintain our equilibrium. The function of judgment is of fundamental importance but it loses its legitimacy when it occupies the wrong space and an incorrect role. Attention needs to be liberated so that it can observe unencumbered and be free to notice without prejudices and projections. The very nature of attention is openness. When we really pay attention to something we open up to it and it opens up to us. When this attention is brought to bear on our “psychological-home” it leads to integration. To integrate means to bring parts together to make a greater whole. Our self grows in consciousness with each integrative step. Every time we recover a part of our being we are re-composing the body of our self. Psychic growth is bringing more and more aspects of ourselves into the awareness of who we are.
Growth is inevitable but whether we cooperate with it or fight against it is another story. The current of evolution is one. It is always there as part of the river of life, we can swim with it or against it. The complexities of our mind and of our life can be used to spur us on to paralyse our evolution. It’s all what we make of it. The road to maturity passes through the county of Inner Harmony. A more integrated self is a more contained and more harmonious self. It seems good and it feels important to have our psycho-home tidy and in order. Accepting who we are warts and all is a significant achievement. To be harmonious is to be serene, more real and at peace with life and with the world and with who one is.
Another point that we must consider when discussing maturity is that life has cycles and things that were appropriate and even necessary in one season may be obsolete and discarded in the next. It is appropriate in the spring for the child’s self to be protected and for his inner world to be unmodulated and in formation. In the summer it is appropriate for the self of the young adult to burst out of the bubble and test himself in the wider vistas of life gathering experiences as he goes along. It is appropriate in the autumn, when the thirst has been quenched, for the self to slow outer activities and make space for subjective depth. And in the winter it appropriate for the self to remain alive, aware, sensitive and engaged with life in a detached way. Each season has its own gifts and its own challenges. As we move from age to age there are periods of tension and indecision. Each new age brings into the world new and unfamiliar forces which gradually impose themselves on men and invoke response.
One last point I want to raise is about the importance of the benevolent eye, the benevolent ear and the benevolent tongue, like the Three Wise Monkeys who ‘See no evil’, ‘Hear no evil’ and ‘Speak no evil’. Benevolence is a natural quality of humanity, and loving-kindness is an attribute that needs to be fostered. This point can be easily misinterpreted. I want to make it clear that I am not saying in any way that we should avoid seeing the shadow side of life and the multiplicity of shadows that we carry inside. The shadows are there, they exist, they are inevitable, this is the way things are, they demand to be recognised and treated in a responsible manner with due care and respect. What I am saying is that we also need to extend our patience and compassion for the unresolved areas of our hearts. We must treat them with gentleness, patience and good humour giving them all the time and space they need to evolve and hopefully resolve and if by chance they don’t, then we learn to live with the paradox and don’t try to ignore it or explain it away.
To conclude, inside ourselves, behind the mask, we carry many competing voices in urgent need of our attention. Each one needs to be acknowledged and understood, treated with respect and given its proper place in our being. We need to take conscious responsibility for the organisation of our inner life and establish out of patient reflections our own hierarchy of needs, values and ideals which will need to be coherent with the way we live so that our life can become an accurate expression of our deepest truth. No one is born noble; nobility is achieved by mastering the lower levels of life. Stress accumulates when we don’t use our emotional intelligence and when we don’t live coherently. When we live in coherence with our core we become more integrated, we feel more whole-heartedly, we are more complete. As we begin to recognise the underlying unity between the experience and the experiencer, we lose our fears and are able to respond from a more authentic part, a place much closer to the centre of ourselves. In other words, we are more present. Emotional maturity like many things in life is often beyond words and scientific explanations. Very often the most important cannot be articulated – it can only be experienced.