Do you feel like your life is on autopilot? The days roll into a familiar blur of activity, anxiety and task. Life can feel like it’s happening to you and you are not in control.
Part of the alphabet soup we swim in is the idea of change. Change your diet, your weight, your relationships, your phone, your spirituality, your parenting skills and on and on it goes. Billions are spent on the industry of change. As a therapist and coach I am also part of that system. And yet, however much we try to buy, work or struggle out of it we often find ourselves back where we started, exhausted, disillusioned and cynical. It is almost as if an immovable power greater than our best efforts is sitting on our chests. Making it hard to breath.
In this article I am going to point at the real problem and one possible way to break out of the cycle of helplessness in the face of power.
Our brains are shaped by our experiences. How we experience reality is far from neutral. It is moulded by relationships with others and our reactions to those relationships. The conclusions we draw from an early age tend to be simple based on binary ideas of right, wrong, good and bad. This is not all that goes on in the brain but it does imbibe and soak up the unconscious but dominant discourses of the people around us. These discourses are often rooted in what some theologians would call the ‘powers and principalities’. These are controlling ideas that only have one function. To serve and maintain the structures of power. This is the absolute opposite of humanity. It is systemic and brutal when challenged. As a therapist I look at the impact of relationships on my clients. These typically include family, friends, colleagues and partners. When we look at contextual influences on anyone we find a spiders web of culture, age, gender, sexual orientation, geography, economics, race and so on and so on. While these forces all have a significant impact on how we live, I want to focus on the force of power.
Power is linked to maintaining a hierarchical structure. This may be to maintain economic, religious or social control. It is not in the hands of one person although strong leaders may represent the human face of this power. This system is all about empire and will naturally attempt to colonise or crush anything that looks different or a threat. This power deals with anything outside ‘the way things are supposed to be’ by pushing them into the shadows, becoming afraid of them and demonising the ‘other’. The other may be a different racial group, religion or political group. They are attacked with ferocity because any threat to the powers and principalities, to empire, must be obliterated.
When we get down to the level of our inner lives, we find that these have to some extent been colonised by the powers and principalities. I find this pattern in my own mind which slavishly follows the old patterns based on conformity to beliefs about ‘how things are’ and fears about ‘breaking the rules’. I have often believed for example that if I don’t entertain or please others I will be rejected and criticised. We see this in social media. if someone says the ‘wrong’ thing on twitter they will be eviscerated by a dogpile of condemnation and shaming. Shaming is the ultimate sanction of the powers and principalities because it calls into doubt our right to exist. You can spot the language of power in words like must, ought and should. This oppressive power is at work even in spiritual communities. I am most familiar with the Christian community where power and fear of change can hide behind language like love, community and fellowship. It sometimes shows itself if there is a threat to the financial power and security of the institution. Then you see the monster emerge with brutal force. The more our lives get saturated with the powers and principalities the less human we become. The angrier and more judgemental we are and ultimately the more self-hating we are.
So is there a way to jailbreak our own minds?
Yes but freedom can be costly. I would point to Christ as an example of what happens when the powers are confronted and revealed. They swing into punitive action to silence and kill while hiding behind the mask of religion and ‘reason’.
The jailbreak comes from a domain at the edge of empire. These are often shapeshifting spaces of imagination, poetry and creativity. To enter this space is to enter a mind that is not running along the rail tracks of a conditioned brain and society. My work is essentially to find and offer practices, processes and ‘rules of life’ that enable us to operate from this realm rather than bowing to principalities and powers. We can see this approach in the desert fathers and the monastic tradition but I also find it in improvisation classes, theatre and art. However even these jailbreak activities have largely been controlled by empire. They get squeezed and pushed into economically managed businesses and acceptable zones within the culture. In some cases they have even been co opted as escapist entertainment or advertising fodder.
Nevertheless, I believe in the creative and prophetic imagination which sees behind the veil and calls out the controlling darkness within. The key to all this is a simple question that saints and spiritual teachers from Jesus to Martin Luther King have asked
What if the world didn’t have to be this way?
What if we could create a new reality based on love and openness to the other rather than fear and hatred?
What if we accepted that the road maps given to us by the powers in charge are useless?
What if we created a new reality based on the imagination and improvisation?
These practices and patterns have always been practiced, often from the liminal spaces and margins of life. They are energised by imagination rather than conformity, improvisation rather than certainty and love rather than religion.