Posted on July 1, 2014
I thought I would get into the 4thof July spirit and talk this week about freedom. In past posts, I’ve discussed the truths and limits around concepts such as free will and volition. Neuroscience is demonstrating that we have much less freedom of choice than was assumed when we created our government and the systems it controls. The power of past experiences and unconscious processes play a much bigger role in the choices we make than we could have imagined in the past. While the societal implications of this are huge, I want to find the freedom we do have, and how we can help ourselves and our clients find this moment of free will.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” – Victor E. Frankl
This space Frankl discusses is brief and fleeting, but it is nevertheless accessible in every choice we make. We now know that this freedom is only available for a fraction of a second, and that we must consciously override our programmed and unconscious response, and find a path forward that is different than the path traveled in the past. Our brains are designed for efficiency, and repeating past habits, thought patterns, and emotional responses is much more energy efficient than choosing to adapt to a new way of being.
An Independence Day is a moment when a person or group breaks through, not only the chains of those with power over them, but the chains within their own minds as well. As Albert Einstein said, “He who joyfully marches in rank and file…has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.” When we are able to mindfully access the space “between stimulus and response,” we move out of the trappings of our past and unconscious into a space where revolutions happen and change occurs.
We are only able to stop marching “in rank and file” when we realize we are marching to a beat that does not come from within ourselves, but from an environment we all too often participate in maintaining. This moment of realization or enlightenment capitalizes on the fraction of a second our mind has to stop our next step in this programmed march. Free will, in the true scientific sense, can only happen once this realization has occurred.
Once our eyes are open, we become aware of a choice to step out of line and find a new path forward. Stepping out of the “rank and file” is not easy, as it forces us to look at the person we have become by joyfully marching to the beat of our past. For someone with unresolved trauma, this means confronting not only their past demons, but also the person they have become in order to survive those demons. Many of our clients with traumatic pasts are well outside of the “rank and file” – instead, they are trying to step out of the pain and hurt of their past. This is the greatest freedom one can achieve, and yet can also be the most difficult to accomplish, as the traumatized brain is one primed for survival and not self-realization and insight.
Early in my career, I used to marvel that so many people living in pain seem to choose to remain in their hellish march instead of changing their behaviors and accessing services like housing, medical care, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment. Now I understand that the choice is not really accessible for so many people, who instead are focused on survival and establishing some kind of safety in their lives. Yet the possibility of freedom and independence from past pain and suffering lies within the neurobiology of each and every human being.
We learned long ago that it is not the referral that heals but the relationship. As helpers, we show people that they do have the choice, and through the safety and security we establish in our relationship with them, we help them see that there is another path. In truth we, as healers, are in the business of freedom. Freedom from pain, illness, suffering, stigma, racism, homelessness, and freedom from the prison of the physical brain.
This 4th of July, celebrate our country, but also celebrate yourself. We are the ones that carry on the promise given to all Americans in the past, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While our “Founding Fathers” gave us the words, the “Founding Mothers and Fathers” in our professions pushed our country to live up to this promise by pushing for rights and dignity for all people.
Our job is not done, as there are still many groups, including those we call clients and patients, which have been robbed of the access to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The good news is that we have never been able to march “in rank and file!”