The need for personal responsibility is an idea you will see me writing throughout this book (Power and Presence). In particular, I like to talk about cognitive responsibility, the capacity to assume the right relationship to the thoughts and feelings that arise within the mind-body dynamic. This includes our reactions to what we experience in the world.
I came to this awareness of the need for cognitive responsibility many years ago when I worked with some very advanced spiritual teachers in a far-flung corner of the world. They not only had very highly developed intuitive capacities, they were also very strict, thanks to the woman who founded the group. This was a small organisation with the prime purpose of helping people to heal from their emotional and psychological suffering. The leader, whom I shall call Jessica (not her real name) had experienced a very traumatic childhood, which included ritual sexual abuse. But when she reached maturity, she did not allow that to dominate her life and her identity. Instead, she set about finding the best way she could to heal from her psychological trauma. Jessica absolutely refused to take on any victim consciousness. This was years before some current social justice movements assumed institutionalized victimhood; and long before critics of those movements began to re-emphasize the need for more personal responsibility.
I recall Jessica one day lamenting before a small gathering that, “The hardest thing to do is to get people to damn well take responsibility!” That was about 25 years ago. The human tendency to want to avoid responsibility for our lives and our pain has been around a lot longer than current social justice movements. It is rooted in our psychology, and I would say is a reflection of typical levels of human psychological and spiritual maturity, as expressed in human civilisation over the entirety our history. In other words, there is an interplay of shorter social and political factors, as well as longer historical factors which impinge upon commonly expressed levels of human spiritual maturity. Within that dynamic, individuals and groups may also shift into typically higher or lower levels of cognitive responsibility, according to more localized or personal situations.
To help people to acknowledge their tendency to give away their power by avoiding personal responsibility, Jessica developed the idea of “levels of responsibility,” as well as an intuitive way to assess how much responsibility a person was taking for their life. It wasn’t an infallible process, but I felt it had much merit, and it helped me and others who worked with Jessica to reflect upon how much cognitive responsibility we were taking for our life experience.
Having said this, there is nonetheless an issue many people have with taking on too much responsibility in certain situations, and blaming themselves for life experiences which they have had little or no control over. Yet this is irresponsible responsibility, rooted not in a desire to develop the right relationship with life, but in a need to reject and diminish oneself. This is a self-destructive narrative and belief structure that we can unconsciously carry, and it is typically picked up in early childhood, because the child may have no way to properly appreciate why painful things are occurring to them, or why others are abusing them.
There were several key insights that I drew from working for several years with Jessica’s process; both with her and the group personally, and during the years after I departed that group and country.
- Higher levels of cognitive responsibility are positively correlated with expanded stages of consciousness evolution.
- The degree of our victim consciousness is inversely proportional to our level of cognitive responsibility.
- Our need for drama is directly related to our unwillingness to assume responsibility for our lives and especially our emotional experience.
- Our sense of personal empowerment (agency) is positively related to cognitive responsibility, and inversely related to our need for drama and identification as a victim.
- A key barrier to assuming higher levels of cognitive responsibility is the often unconscious fear of the emotional pain that we will (possibly) need to feel if we do so.
- Addiction to an identity of victimhood (“Poor me!” “Please feel sorry for me!” “You owe me!”) is a key barrier to assuming higher levels of cognitive responsibility.
- Counter-intuitively, the rescuer complex is often rooted in victim consciousness, or the fear of one’s personal pain. The rescue may be a “drama” designed to ensure that one’s personal pain does not need to be addressed (while we focus upon another’s pain).
- The persecutor complex may also be inversely proportional to the willingness to assume cognitive responsibility. The rescuer avoids pain by being the good guy; the persecutor avoids his/her deepest pain by playing the “bad boy/bad girl”. Conversely, the victim identity avoids pain by refusing to accept responsibility for it, and/or leveraging pain for attention and power.
All these insights are generalisations. For any given person, self-reflection is needed to develop an awareness of these habits of mind which may have become resident within their own psyche.
Sometimes, just the “aha!” moment of seeing the pattern is enough to change a person’s life story and behaviour. But typically, it takes some time and diligent focus upon the problem before the behaviour shifts. Typically, that shift occurs in degrees. Recurrences of the drama and its underlying story and beliefs will tend to occur over time.
In my own life the victim mindset was once quite deep, but I have largely transcended it. This deep mental habit was offset to some degree by another of my sub-personalities: the warrior archetype. We all have competing sub-personalities within us, but at any given time (or situation), one or more will tend to be dominant, others latent or undeveloped.
I was very shy and quite emotionally damaged as a child. But the warrior was also there, peeking out from behind the curtain. That was the part of me looking at myself and saying, ”Hey! You don’t need to be so scared all the time!”
At age 17 I decided to play rugby league, which is a fierce game requiring lots of physical strength and courage. I had not developed much of either of those things at the time, but somewhere within me I felt a need to “come out.” My first few games of league were frightening, and my playing ability painfully inadequate. But I persisted for years. Eventually I became a reasonably good amateur player. But it took a decade or so of persistence and blind faith to get there. Playing rugby was a very important part of my spiritual development. I didn’t become a great ball player, nor was I necessarily the bravest on the team. But the experience permitted the warrior energy to be integrated within my psyche.
In my early thirties, just after I had stopped playing rugby, I threw myself into self-healing work in much the same way I had thrown myself onto the ruby field while being grossly unprepared. I stumbled upon inner child work with Jessica’s healing group. The process was unfeasibly difficult. Even though I was expressing great emotional vulnerability before others – deep grief, shame, fear and seething anger – it required true courage to allow myself to trust others enough to share my deepest feelings with them.
My personal pain was incredibly deep, I soon discovered. One night, not long after I had joined the group, I had a dream that I was sitting around in a circle with other members of the healing group. Someone called my name and said it was my turn. I stepped out into the centre of circle feeling frightened and vulnerable, and sat down. Suddenly a great wall of flames engulfed me, and I begam to scream in terror as scorching pain filled my being. I abruptly awoke and sat up, literally sweating with fear. I was relieved to realise that the experience was only a dream, but as I relaxed into my bed I began to sob. For at that moment that I realised just how deep my pain really was.
As my intuitive awareness and embodied experience developed, I came to see that my suffering was rooted not only in my personal biography, but in much deeper ancestral and karmic consciousness structures. None of us walks through the world alone. We inhabit a dark forest entangled via vine-like threads with both our human ancestors and contemporaries. Many of those threads represent entangled suffering.
Our belief in separation is a persistent illusion.
As the years passed, I refined the process I was shown by Jessica’s group to help heal my emotional body. Today, whenever I experience turbulent feelings, I still employ this emotional alignment method (my sharing those understandings is a big part of what this book is all about). Simply put, I deepen into embodied presence and allow any emotional disturbances that show up in my life or in my dream/meditative states to have a healthy expression. I simply permit emotional and intuitive feelings to be expressed and to pass through me, without resistance.
The key point I want to make is that such “disturbances” still emerge from time to time in my life. But I now have the skills to be able to align with them. I rarely experience these emotions as “suffering,” no matter how “painful” they may be. By reducing judgment of them, relaxing with them and allowing them their place in the light of awareness, I have developed a healthy relationship with them. I am rarely afraid of them.
I write “rarely” because sometimes big issues do emerge, and a fear of looking within can arise. Yet I am now quite familiar with that resistance, and am proficient at working with it. Some adjustment of self-concept may be required. For example, I may have to reset my self-description from a delusional “healed,” to “work in progress.” This is a process in letting go.
Cognitive responsibility does not come without a price. We often have to release some agenda of mind (at least for a time), parts of the ego which are insisting upon an external outcome. Instead, we may have refocus upon the body and the present moment, and allow ourselves to experience what is arising spontaneously within us – including psychological and emotional disturbances. When our personal agenda and that of spirit are out of alignment, we have a choice about whether to gently acknowledge that, and return to the body – or ignore it. Yet what I learned as that such ignoring also has its price, and one that I came to see as being much greater.
This article is an edited extract from Marcus T Anthony’s upcoming book, Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Weaponized World