Using Instincts for Optimal Decision Making

When the ancient Greeks needed answers, they consulted oracles. Oracles were priestly men and women at designated locations, like stone temples, who offered wise counsel or predictions about the future. The source of this wisdom and predictive powers was said to be the gods. That is, the oracles used a form of divination to guide others.

Imagine wrestling with a difficult problem where no single answer seems to present itself. Maybe you are considering a new vocation, starting a family, going on an extended trip, or invading a foreign land. What to do, what to do.

When our minds wrestle with difficult problems, it can be mentally and emotionally draining, leading to physical fatigue. Decision-making is hard work. We don’t know what the decision will mean to us.

We tend to fear making the wrong decision. The Latin root of decision means to cut off or kill; to decide is to cut off or kill other options, which our minds dislike doing. So we often avoid making difficult decisions. This, of course, only prolongs our anguish.

Instead of wrestling with the problem or decision, imagine letting an oracle bring clarity to the issue. And because you trust that oracle wholeheartedly, you know that he or she will provide proper guidance. Problem solved. Tension resolved.

The Source of the Oracle’s Wisdom

Did the source of the oracle’s wisdom stem from some external source like the gods? (Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, apparently had a pretty good track record; she was considered to be infallible.)

From a modern psychological perspective, we would say these oracles were attuned to their personal unconscious and perhaps the unconscious of the collective. That is, these ancient intuitives were connected to their inner worlds and the collective inner world of their culture.

It can be comforting and supportive to get outside guidance and wise counsel when problems arise. And I’m not suggesting otherwise. There are many psychologists, social workers, coaches, mentors, teachers, pastors, rabbis, friends, and parents who can offer wise counsel in times of need.

External Wisdom Versus Internal Guidance

But Abraham Maslow and other humanistic psychologists found that self-actualizing people—those that tend to have more positive mental health—are less dependent on others and tend to be more autonomous and self-directed in making life decisions.

Instead of consulting others about their problems, they tend to direct their attention in the opposite direction: inward. They call on their own deeper nature and latent resources and creative impulses to solve their problems.

Tapping Into Our Deeper Nature

Coming to trust one’s own inner guidance, however, doesn’t happen overnight or by simply deciding to. Much of our inner, deeper nature is unconscious to us.

Freud explained that our deeper nature is actively repressed because it is feared, disapproved of, or foreign to our conscious egos. And many aspects of this inner nature are simply forgotten, that is, neglected, unused, overlooked, or suppressed. This process begins early in life, largely as a response to parental and cultural disapproval.

Instincts Lost and Regained

Before we can come to trust our inner center, we must first connect with it and open up to it. That is, we must forge a bond with our personal unconscious.

As modern folks living in a technological age where many of us live in urban dwellings, we have largely become divorced from nature and our instincts. Maslow writes in Toward a Psychology of Being, “Humans no longer have instincts in the animal sense, powerful, unmistakable inner voices which tell them unequivocally what to do, when, where, how and with whom.”

Yet, “Authentic selfhood,” Maslow continues, “can be defined in part as being able to hear these impulse-voices within oneself, that is, to know what one really wants or doesn’t want, what one is fit for and what one is not fit for, etc.”

Maslow’s perspective is actually reminiscent of the ancient Greeks’ who saw the soul as an inner organizing principle that gives meaning and direction to each life.

Locating Your Inner Oracle

Just as there are many pathways for travelers on the road to authentic selfhood, there are many practices to begin tapping into these impulse-voices and intuitive messages.

Here are few paths worth exploring:

  • Carl Jung offered the practices of dream work and active imagination to help connect, communicate, and integrate your divine inner center.
  • Eastern practices like Qigong and Yoga have their own integrative methods that connect the body’s instincts with the mind’s higher capacities.
  • An active journaling process and integrative therapies like Internal Family Systems can help get us acquainted with our inner voices.
  • Communing with nature is another suitable means for reconnecting with our instincts.
  • Being still, staying quiet, and listening carefully can be the most basic yet highly effective means for reconnecting with our soul (that is, practice mindfulness meditation).

The challenge is that connecting with our inner nature takes practice, that is, ongoing work. It’s easy to think or believe that we’re tapped into our higher self when we’re, in fact, simply listening to our ego’s wishes. Make no mistake; without effort, our inner oracle remains elusive.

Why is practice and development so important? Maslow and others assert that mentally healthy individuals (self-actualizing, individuating) naturally make better choices than the rest of us. That is, when you’re mentally healthy—when you’re not driven by neurotic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—you can naturally make choices in favor of your biological, social, and self-actualizing needs.

True mental health does not happen by accident. Becoming an integrated, mature adult takes effort: owning your shadow, meeting your basic needs, resolving internal tensions, healing your psyche, and so on.

But with practice, we can begin opening up to an infinite wellspring of inner guidance and wisdom that flows effortlessly, feeding our souls and leading us on a meaningful journey through this precious life.

On the Walls of Delphi

Let’s go back to Ancient Greece for a moment. The term “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” was apparently inscribed in the front courtyard at Delphi. This translates to the famous Greek aphorism found throughout the writings of Plato: know thyself.

More than just an idea or principle, “know thyself” is instruction. Through inner work, we can actualize this aphorism and locate the oracle within.

The Four Stages of Learning

After reflecting on my previous post on our drive for growth and our need for safety, I was reminded of another psychological roadblock to self mastery that often hinders our progress.

In order to grow, we must first become conscious of our incompetence in whatever areas we want to grow. When we first become conscious of what we’re not good at (for example, managing our finances if we’re in debt, playing an instrument if we never have, or working with our negative emotions), it tends to bring up feelings of weakness and inadequacy. And we don’t like those feelings.

An awareness of our incompetence is actually a very normal part of any process of learning and development.

Learning takes us through four stages. Let’s take a closer look at each stage:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

First is the stage of unconscious incompetence where we don’t know the degree of our incompetence. You don’t know how awkward it’s going to feel playing the guitar until you pick one up and try to strum a chord.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

The next stage is conscious incompetence. Our minds are now aware of the fact that we are at the beginning of a long learning curve. It is this stage that brings up feelings of weakness and inadequacy, feelings that our egos would like to avoid.

This stage of learning requires commitment, an inner decision to follow through. While you may have experienced a burst of excitement and enthusiasm when you began stage 1, that initial energy tends to dissipate in stage 2. And this is where many of us bail out of the growth cycle. This stage requires self-compassion, discipline (the cultivation of will), and hard work.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

If you’ve committed yourself to consistent practice with devotion, patience, and friendliness toward yourself, you manage your way through the many plateaus and long periods of hard work (practice) that occur in the learning process. To reach this stage, you must first welcome or at least work through the uncomfortable feelings that come with conscious incompetence.

Now, however, you have observed your progress. Your confidence has grown. You feel somewhat competent in your ability. You remember where you once were and can marvel at your improvements. You still need to focus intently on the object of learning (perhaps a new skill), but your development is undeniable.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

The real magic occurs at this final stage of alchemical transformation. From total darkness, awkwardness, discomfort, and frustration experienced in stages 1 and 2, through the herculean efforts of consistent practice in stage 3, emerges a new level of being.

With unconscious competence, conscious focus is no longer needed to perform a skill effortlessly. This is the state of being “in the zone” or “in the flow.” It is a Taoistic, thoughtless state of being. We witness it in great athletes, musicians, orators, and anyone who walks the path of self mastery.

Realizing Peak Experiences

But this transformative state is available to all of us. Abraham Maslow spent a great deal of time studying peak experiences, a euphoric state of harmony and interconnectedness, a selfless state of total absorption often followed by feelings of love, joy, and wholeness.

And here’s the best part: while everyone has access to these peak experiences at various time of our lives, Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals had significantly more peak experiences. It appears our biology favors the prepared souls who walk the path to self mastery. What good news!

Ten Tips on Your Path to Self Mastery

Now that we have a better understanding of some of the psychological drivers that block our growth, let’s turn our attention to what we can do about it.

Here are ten tips for breaking through resistance and building momentum on your path to higher self-actualization:

1) Accept Your Resistance

Accept the fact that you have a resistance to positive change. It’s easy to beat ourselves up when we see that we’re standing in our own way. Feelings of shame and guilt, however, only delay our progress because when we feel badly, we tend to reinforce bad habits. In contrast, self-acceptance and self-compassion allows us to take note of our resistance without judging or criticizing ourselves. You’re going to need to find ways to negotiate with your resistance to change if you want to stay on the path to self mastery. Kelly McGonical’s The Willpower Instinct is an excellent course guide on navigating through your resistance.

2) Cultivate a Compelling Vision

A clear vision will serve you in whatever areas you’re seeking growth and improvement. Without vision, your efforts will be aimless and tend to meander. Compelling is the operative word; make the vision something you want to move toward, something that inspires you (and not something you just think you should move toward).

3) Commit to Long-Term Practice

Understand that lasting transformation doesn’t happen in a moment; it requires long-term practice. No matter whether you’re learning a new instrument, practicing new communication skills, or meditating, every activity or skill requires your brain to make new connections and enforce those connections through repeated practice. Our brains are amazingly elastic, but as we age, it takes longer and longer to make lasting changes. Repetition through daily practice will yield optimal results.

4) Expect Backsliding

Even when you know about the process of homeostasis, it will still influence you. Backsliding is inevitable on the path to growth and self-mastery. If you know this, you’ll be less discouraged when you observe it in yourself. Here again, self-kindness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion will serve your efforts; getting down on yourself will halt your progress.

5) Live by the Principle of Moderation

We often demonstrate a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement when we begin on our growth path. We see a world of possibilities and positive change at our doorstep. In these moments of excitement, we often push things too hard, triggering a homeostatic response with high alert. Self mastery is not a sprint; it’s a long-distance run. In Qigong, they teach you to practice with 70% of your capacity. When you push or strain yourself, you induce involuntary tension in your nervous system. Operating at 70% helps you stay relaxed and engaged while avoiding injury. This same principle will serve you in most areas of your development.

6) Lighten Up

If you take yourself (or the process of growth) too seriously, you’ll invariably derail your efforts. Your inner animal, or the primitive parts of your brain, will eventually revolt against you, sabotaging your efforts. So take a light-hearted approach. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Be playful and find ways to make your practice something you enjoy doing (while still accepting the fact that it will bring discomfort at times).

7) Set Mini Goals

In any path to mastery, you learn to practice for practice’s sake, not to achieve any specific objective. But while a compelling vision keeps you focused and inspired, mini goals can help you measure your progress. Your attention shouldn’t be on simply achieving these goals; setting mini goals can help you stay engaged in your practice.

8) Cultivate Physical Energy

No matter what road to mastery you walk, you need a healthy reserve of physical energy to help manage stress, overcome resistance, and follow through. Our willpower has a kind of fuel tank. It gets depleted when our energy supply runs low. If you commit to daily practice in the morning, you’ll be more likely to follow through because you have more energy after a good night’s rest. After a long day of work, our egos are depleted, and practice becomes more difficult. Conscious effort in cultivating physical energy through proper diet, sleep, exercise, posture, breathing, and stretching will greatly serve you on your path to self mastery.

9) Be Honest

Self-assessment is important for anyone on the path to self mastery. We invest a tremendous amount of energy lying to others and ourselves. It’s easy to fall prey to ego inflation (seeing ourselves as bigger than we are) and ego deflations (seeing ourselves as less than we are). Self-honesty and integrity free up all the energy our egos expend keeping up our house of lies. Start by honing in on your own true feelings. Try keeping a private journal where you can express your hopes, dreams, fears, and other emotions you may not feel comfortable sharing or expressing.

10) Establish Empowering Rituals

All great athletes have rituals for getting into the ideal mindset to perform at their best. Establishing rituals that you perform at the beginning of your practice sessions can be helpful. Establishing a daily practice is perhaps the most powerful ritual in itself.

Our Resistance to Growth (and What to Do About It)

We know we tend to fear failure to varying degrees. After all, nothing about failure feels good. It can evoke emotions of shame, embarrassment, frustration, worthlessness, and defeat. It can hurt our self-esteem.

But it’s a part of life. And with courage, we learn to face our fear of failure and trek onward.

Did you know that humans tend to fear success, too? The reasons for this one isn’t as obvious. Success can bring a sense of achievement, internal and external rewards, and greater confidence. It can also bring us a better quality of life and new opportunities. So why do we fear success and often self-sabotage our own development?

We fear success for the same fundamental reason we fear failure. Movement in either direction—up or down—means moving out of the known and into the unknown. Our internal systems are designed to maintain homeostasis. We are biologically wired to stay in balance, essentially, to stay within what is known and comfortable.

What is Homeostasis?

Our bodies, brains, and behavior have built-in mechanisms to stay within a narrow range and return to equilibrium when they move outside these narrow limits. And it’s a very good thing.

Homeostasis refers to the body’s automatic efforts to maintain a constant, “normal” state. In our blood stream alone, homeostasis regulates the content of water, salt, sugar, fat, protein, calcium and oxygen.

What would happen if your blood-sugar level dropped by 10 percent? Big trouble!

All self-regulating systems have ways of maintaining homeostasis and keeping us in familiar and safe territory.

Homeostasis in Action

To better understand homeostasis, consider your home’s heating system. You set the temperature at, for example, 65 degrees. When the temperature drops below 65, a signal is sent through the system to kick the heat on until the environment returns to the set temperature.

Homeostasis is a vital function in all self-regulating systems. Keeping human beings in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interconnecting electrochemical signals coursing through our brains, nerve fibers, and bloodstream.

Homeostasis: Our Friend and Our Foe

The challenge is that homeostasis doesn’t distinguish between “change for the better” and “change for the worse.” Homeostasis resists all change. This means we each have a pre-installed biological mechanism designed to hinder our growth.

For example, let’s say a 40-year-old man named Peter has lived a sedentary lifestyle without any exercise, stretching, or movement for many years. He knows this isn’t good for his long-term health, and he’s beginning to feel its effects. (Here’s an important article on the damaging effects of sitting too much.)

Peter decides to go for a light jog in his neighborhood. He’s proud of himself for taking action, but around the third block, something happens: Peter starts feeling sick and a little dizzy, with a slight sense of panic. He feels like he’s going to die. Peter stops running and slowly walks home.

“I tried,” he tells himself. “Perhaps I’ll join the gym one day.”

The sensations Peter experienced were homeostatic alarm signals detecting measurable changes in respiration, heart rate, and metabolism. His internal systems were telling him to stop what he is doing immediately.

Remember, homeostasis is designed to maintain your current state. After years of sedentary living, a light jog throws Peter’s internal systems into high alert. Because Peter didn’t know about homeostasis, he interpreted those signals as a threat, and unfortunately, opted out of installing good habits and making beneficial life changes.

If Peter understood the principles of homeostasis, he could have persisted through the discomfort, slowly shifting his “normal state” to a stronger, healthier set point.

Homeostasis Operates in Social Environments Too

Homeostasis isn’t just biological; it operates in social and cultural spheres as well. Staying with the same example, if Peter’s peer group tends to be sedentary, avoiding physical exercise at all cost, when he decides to engage in physical activity, his friends will likely exert a social pressure to stop his efforts.

Not only does Peter have to contend with his own biological resistance, but he must also overcome the gravity of his social (as well as cultural) forces.

This downward pressure can be experienced whenever you adopt an empowering, new behavior. Although you might expect your family or friends to support your new changes, group homeostasis often exerts pressure to maintain old patterns.

This process operates unconsciously, that is, they may not even be aware of their unsupportive behavior. Despite your loved ones’ best intentions, those closest to you may try to keep you where you are.

When you grow, you’re different. The homeostasis of your environment, including friends, family, and co-workers, is affected. This can cause pressure and discomfort for others (since they have an unconscious desire for growth, too). People around you may look at you differently. They may admire your changes; they may be inspired by your efforts. But they also may envy you and secretly despise you. They may prefer the “old” you.

The Psychological Fear of Growth

The path of self mastery, of evolution, creation, and growth, can be a lonely one. Discovering a great talent within yourself that demands nurturance can be exhilarating, but it can also bring feelings of danger and responsibility. It may demand that you stand alone, cultivating inner strength instead of seeking support from your environment. (Although you can find those that will support your efforts, too, especially if they are on their own path to self-mastery.) This can feel like a heavy burden, a thankless endeavor we might consider avoiding at all costs.

The path to growth and self mastery is invariably difficult at times. It’s uncomfortable moving out of the known into the unknown. Even if the known is not ideal or even desirable, it’s familiar to us. And since all humans have a need for safety, there will always be an attraction to staying within the familiar.

Make peace with homeostasis, but continually challenge yourself to establish higher homeostatic set points. Honoring your need for safety, courageously guide yourself into the great unknown. Enjoy practice for practice’s sake. Transform yourself slowly, steadily, and daily.

On the Road to Self Mastery

We all have an innate motivation toward growth.

This drive toward growth is easily observable in an infant’s will to master walking, basic motor skills, and language.

But what do we observe in most adults? In some adults, this drive for growth is still observable: we find curious individuals who remain committed to improvement of their brains and bodies, developing skills for both work and play. We find self-actualizing people in virtually every field of interest, including business professionals, artists, musicians, philosophers, painters, doctors, psychologists, athletes, and martial artists.

Many adults aren’t committed to continuous growth and development, but many of us are. We simply become consumed by life’s countless demands.

Sometimes, we give ourselves excuses to forego our developmental path. We say things like I don’t have time or I’m too tired or I’m just not sure what I want. But is there something else driving us away from growth, blocking our personal evolution?

Two Powerful Forces: Growth and Safety

There are two powerful sets of forces within the human condition: a drive for growth and its opposing force, a drive for safety.

Growth propels us forward toward wholeness of Self to discover our own uniqueness (what Carl Jung called the process of individuation).

An opposing force leads us to defend our current self, clinging to safety out of fear of the unknown. The force of safety keeps us where we are now, clinging to the past and afraid to take chances in order to improve our current conditions (internally and externally).

This safety seeking side is afraid of independence, freedom, and separateness—the very things our growth side is demanding.

If nothing else, you might find it helpful to consciously observe both of these opposing forces within yourself, especially when the call for higher growth is felt within you.

The Delight of Growth and the Anxiety of Safety

What we focus on tends to guide the direction of our lives. If we focus on the dangers of growth, our need for safety wins the day. But if we minimize the dangers of our emerging uniqueness and fuller expression of Self while enhancing our attractions toward growth, a world of new possibilities presents itself.

Maslow points out that we are confronted with an ongoing series of choices throughout life between safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity.

We grow when the delights of growth (and anxieties of safety) are greater than the anxieties of growth (and the delights of safety).

Growing Pains

There is a valid reason to fear growth. In addition to the rewards and gratifications, growth also brings pain. Each step forward brings us into the unfamiliar, into possible danger. Each step forward requires us to give up something familiar and satisfying. Growth can imply a separation, a death and rebirth as well as the grief and mourning that comes with loss of the old.

We grow toward greater complexity. This means when we grow, we might have to give up something easier and simpler. The path of growth often means taking on more demands and responsibility; it can mean a more difficult life.

Is there any wonder anyone would avoid such a path?

Safety Is Important Too

Does this mean we must throw aside our concern for safety in the service of our development? Absolutely not. Safety is a more basic human need than growth. In the absence of a feeling of safety, the will to grow is not generally present.

Consider, for example, a young child clinging to her mother’s leg while she attempts to walk for the first time. If the mother abruptly exits the room to answer the phone, the child would likely terminate her herculean effort.

Sometimes, choosing safety is wise and appropriate when it helps us to avoid more pain than we can bear in that moment. But ultimately, we know that if we consistently choose safety over growth, in the long run, we find ourselves in a state of disappointment.

If we cling to safety for too long, we wake up one day and look back on a life that never was—an unconscious life filled with regrets and missed opportunities. Moving in the direction of safety, we deny our unique destinies.

Checkpoints on the Road to Growth (and Safety)

How do you know when you’re on the road to growth?

There are numerous subjective indicators: you’re more likely to experience feelings of happiness or euphoria, of a zest in living, serenity, joy, and calmness. You feel confidence in your ability to handle the inevitable problems along the way and the stresses and anxieties that accompany them.

When the force of safety dominates us, we show signs of self-betrayal and regression and we become fixed and rigid out of fear. Here, we are consumed by a different set of emotions: anxiety, boredom, despair, inability to enjoy, aimlessness, emptiness, a lack of identity, intrinsic guilt, and intrinsic shame.

Crafting Your Plan for Self Mastery

What then can we do to promote our continual growth and development?

Start by becoming acquainted with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. All of our lower needs—biological, safety, love/belonging, and self esteem—must be gratified before growth can become a central focus. If you’re mainly wrestling with what other people think of you, for example, it’s difficult to channel energy into self-growth.

Next, become conscious of the areas you would like to grow in. If you don’t know where to start, try the Wheel of Life exercise. Categories may include: physical health and wellbeing, mental health, emotional mastery, professional development, conscious relationships, compassion (open heart), contemplative development, skill building, artistic self-expression, and cognitive growth.

Then, envision a compelling future for yourself. (Even if your life is great right now, challenge yourself to see a more integrated, more developed Self.) Imagine what your life could be like if you commit to growth in specific areas. Make it compelling. Give the vision color, movement, and sound; bring it to life in your mind.

Consider the following questions:

  1. What will this new future self mean to you?
  2. How will realizing it bring you greater purpose and richness to your being?
  3. How might growing in this area enrich other parts of your life?

Right down your answers in a journal. Make it real for you. Get inspired to pursue growth for growth’s sake.

Fear and the need for safety won’t go away, nor should they. The drive for safety helps support our survival. But courage and the need for growth are also part of what it means to be human. In courageously walking the path of growth, we can realize our true potential and live a uniquely meaningful life.

To Be Self-Actualizing

What does it mean to be a self-actualizing person?

Abraham Maslow drew a line between people motivated by growth needs and those motivated by basic needs. If you recall from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, the first four levels of the pyramid—physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem—are basic needs. He also called them deficiency needs. In their absence, we feel that something is missing in our lives, leading us to experience tension and exhibit neurotic behavior. Without a roof over our heads, for example, our need for safety is threatened.

Until these basic needs are gratified, our attention is focused on gratifying them. But once gratified, we can shift our attention to growth needs. Whereas basic needs are external, growth needs are internal.

Maslow called these growth-motivated folks self-actualizing people. He defined self-actualization as:

  • Ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities, and talents
  • Fulfillment of mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation)
  • A fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s own intrinsic nature
  • An unceasing trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within the person

Think of self-actualization as the need to become what one has the potential to be. One realizes this potential for its own gratification—not for any external gain or concern of what others will think or say (external esteem needs).

Characteristics of Self-Actualizing People

How do you know if you’re on your path toward self-actualization?

Maslow observed thirteen characteristics of self-actualizing people:

1) Superior perception of reality

Self-actualizing people possess an unusual ability to judge others accurately and detect dishonesty in the personality. With superior perception comes the ability to determine what’s good for the person and make effective decisions.

2) Increased acceptance of self, of others, and of nature

Maslow found that these mentally healthy people had less overriding guilt, crippling shame, and severe anxiety. Self-actualizing people can accept their own nature, including their shortcomings and contradictions, without feeling real concern.

3) Increased spontaneity

They are more spontaneous in their behavior as well as in their lives, thoughts, and impulses. Their behavior is marked by naturalness and simplicity.

4) Increase in problem-centering

They are more focused on problems outside themselves as opposed to personal problems (ego-centered). They often have missions in life and tasks to fulfill that demand much of their energies.

5) Increased detachment and desire for privacy

They are comfortable being by themselves without the neurotic need to always be around people. They positively like solitude and privacy to a greater degree than the average person.

6) Increased autonomy and resistance to enculturation

They are relatively independent from their environment. Motivated by a drive for internal growth, they are dependent on their own development of their potentialities as opposed to being dependent on social or cultural forces that motivate the average person.

7) Greater freshness of appreciation and richness of emotional reaction

They have a beautiful ability to appreciate, freshly and innocently, the basic elements of life with awe, wonder, and pleasure long after these elements become stale to others.

8) Higher frequency of peak experiences

Maslow originally called this a mystic experience or oceanic feeling. He found that these mystical experiences are more intense forms of experiences where there’s a loss of self or transcendence of it.  According to Maslow, everyone has access to peak experiences, but self-actualizing people have them more often.

9) Increased identification with the human species

This has been confirmed by later research in developmental psychology; humans develop from being identified exclusively with themselves (egocentric) to identification to a group, whether it be family, religious, or political (sociocentric) to identification with all of humanity (worldcentric).

10) Improved interpersonal relations

Capable of greater love and more obliteration of ego boundaries, they have deeper relationships than other adults. But they may only form these deeper bonds with a select few individuals, maintaining a relatively small circle of friends.

11) More democratic character structure

They are friendly with anyone of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color. Because they are more identified with the human species, they are less determined by (and often unaware of) any of these classifications.

12) Greatly increased creativeness

A universal characteristic of all self-actualizing people Maslow studied was an increase in creative expression. This is not a special-talent creativity that takes years of devoted practice to cultivate, but rather a more innocent, playful, and spontaneous creative expression found in young children.

13) Certain changes in the value system

With their philosophic acceptance of the nature of their selves, of human nature, and of physical reality, they establish a firm value structure. With an appreciation and acceptance of human nature, many of our so-called “problems” are seen as gratuitous and fade out of existence.

Maslow did his best to isolate the characteristics he observed in his self-actualizing subjects, but he was quick to point out how interconnected these qualities are.

Accessing Your Level of Development

Reviewing this list, can you assess the progress in your own development? For example, are you more spontaneous than you were 10 years ago? Are you more autonomous now? Are you more comfortable being alone? Do you have a more democratic character structure? Have you improved your ability to form deeper bonds? Are you living a more creative life?

Your Path to Self Mastery

In the weeks ahead, we’ll explore various ways to walk the path of self-actualization and self mastery. We’ll look at the common roadblocks that can hinder our progress and find strategies for overcoming them.

An exciting journey lies ahead. Stay tuned!

Beginning Anew

When we can’t see the circles and cycles in our lives, we simply aren’t paying attention.

Today, with this blog post, I begin a new circle (or rather, a new level of a spiral) in my writing development.

In October 2012, I completed two books that consumed my attention for over six years. Combined, these two works represented over 125,000 words with over 300 references. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

When I completed these projects I felt a sense of relief, but I also felt physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and creatively depleted. I felt like I would never want to write again. This feeling persisted for an entire year.

But as the great psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” The absence of writing over this past year left me feeling unsettled. Maslow is correct.

And so, without further delay, we resume our journey to realize more of our human potential, to the further reaches of our development, and to a transformation of our total being on the path to self-mastery, healing, and wholeness. That is, I shall now begin blogging again.

A meaningful journey to all of you!

On the Nature of Belief

Standing on solid ground provides an inherent sense of security. We tend to take this for granted except perhaps for a few seconds after disembarking from a plan or a boat.

Just as our bodies find stability on solid ground, our minds seek their own form of stability. A primary way our minds attempt to achieve a sense of stability is through the cultivation of conscious and unconscious belief systems.

A belief is something a person accepts as true or real. Beliefs often come in clusters or constellations, which is why we often call them belief systems. Some belief systems are held as absolutes, as in the case of religious fundamentalists. Other belief systems are held more loosely but are still accepted as true or valid.

Belief systems can provide us with a sense of meaning in an apparently chaotic world. They give our minds something to stand on. Even if we’re only standing on something as unstable as a Frisbee soaring through the air, any stability feels better than no stability.

This helps explain why we tend to cling to our belief systems: they give us a sense of safety even if the belief isn’t true. A belief can help us feel grounded even if the belief ultimately prohibits our growth and development.

Transcending Belief Systems

Letting go of our cherished belief systems can be frightening because it means being willing to float in emptiness with nothing under our feet. The notion of emptiness isn’t too compelling when we cling to our belief systems. Resting in emptiness means sleeping with the unknown, trusting in forces beyond our understanding (hence, it has been called the unconscious).

Transcending our beliefs means setting aside the very foundation of our previous sense of existence, letting go of a false sense of security we once enjoyed. In so doing, we learn to accept inherent paradoxes and live with contradictions found within others, the world, and ourselves.

Courage is a prerequisite for the daring adventurer. But even more important than courage is the need to understand the true nature of our suffering and the role our belief systems tend to play in masking our suffering.

The price of holding onto old beliefs—even those that provide us with a false sense of security—is our freedom. Liberation only comes to those willing to challenge that which we hold most dear. It’s a wild adventure, definitely not for the faint of heart.

With clarity of heart and mind, we can examine what we believe to be true—even what our most esteemed teachers and guides have told us. Our perception of truth is always changing. A lesser truth will always be replaced by a greater truth; such is the evolution of Spirit.

If we’re courageous enough to challenge what we “know” to be true, we can set those beliefs aside that no longer support our development. We can be flexible and grow, or we can remain stagnant and wither away. The choice is always ours.

Tasting Inspiration

Mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that we can write from one of two spaces: intention or inspiration.

Intention requires conscious effort, a stepping forward into the writing process. Inspiration arises from letting go, a stepping back from the conscious, rational mind.

Both forms of writing are valid and useful, but inspirational writing is decidedly more rare. Inspiration requires a great deal of humility—a high degree of self-honesty, where we admit that we don’t have all the answers, that life is still a mystery to us, and that we are confused and ignorant about more things than we care to admit.

Inspiration and illumination also require periods of reverie, as creativity researchers have consistently found. Our culture, with its incessant drive to stay preoccupied both at work and at home ensures that few of us get to taste inspiration with any frequency.

Taming the Ox, Quieting the Mind

With the help of modern science—developmental and transpersonal research as well as neuroscience (I’m thinking in particular of the work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson)—the West is beginning to awaken to the value of meditation, conscious breathing, and mindfulness. These practices help us find greater inner stillness, soothing the mind’s endless chatter.

These practices, it turns out, have multiple benefits: reducing muscle tension, lowering our resting heart rate, improving concentration and memory, heightening our senses, enhancing our self-control, increasing our level of energy, and much more. The sum total of these benefits is greater awareness of ourselves and our environment. And this awareness helps us increase the probability of realizing our creative potential.

Thankfully, none of these practices require us to retreat from an active mode of living. They can be practiced a little bit each day. The more we learn to quiet our minds—to “tame the ox,” as it is described in the Zen Oxherding pictures—the more we open ourselves up to the light of illumination, the messages proceeding from the unconscious.

Only then do we have a chance of becoming whole, accessing and integrating reason and intuition, the conscious mind and the unconscious, the masculine and the feminine. Then we can operate from both intention and inspiration, fluidly shifting from one to the other depending on the needs of the moment.

♦ ♦ ♦

P.S. For those interested, Doctor of Truth: The Life of David R. Hawkins is available on for pre-order. The book is expected to ship out next week.

The Tao of Results

Those who have learned the Tao of Results—the way of realizing meaningful objectives—often find attainment effortless.

Effortless attainment occurs in the state of flow. Effortlessness is our natural state that unfolds when we remove the barriers to flow.

Desire is a primary barrier. It is the root of all suffering, Buddha said. The energy of desire pulls our attention out of the present. Flow can only be experienced in the present.

Desire implies lack. Abundance implies the absence of lack. We can’t have and lack simultaneously. As like goes to like, lack goes to lack; that is, scarcity tends to breed more scarcity. Therefore, if you desire a result, you may be energizing lack, not the result.

Striving toward results, therefore, isn’t the answer, but neither is complacency. Complacency arises from either apathy or pride. Sad is the soul who lives a complacent life.

What Buddha called the Way is found in the harmony of opposites. The Way is positioned between striving and complacency: One can have clarity of purpose, holding a result clearly in mind, while remaining detached from it.

There is no contradiction here: Identify what you want, but let go of wanting it. Disciplined thoughtful action, or desireless right action, is the Way.

Desire leads to suffering because the energy of desire doesn’t dissipate when the object of desire is attained. The desire simply shifts to a new object or to the fear of losing the object once attained. Those who haven’t achieved their desired results are skeptical of this truth. Many who have achieved their results have found this to be so.

Ultimately, some results you aim for will manifest. Others will not.

Some things that you think you want, you’ll later discover are not in your best interest.

Other things you think you don’t want you’ll later discover are best for you.

Accepting all possibilities brings one closer to wholeness.

Realizing both sides gives way to the Tao.

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