We give people tickets for driving under the influence of alcohol because it alters their perceptions, and yet most of our lives are spent under the influence of equally distorting mind states. One of the most pernicious influences is the atmosphere created in early childhood. We are under the influence of how our child’s mind stumbled to make sense of the world and of our self-perceptions at that time, not yet been not refined by objectivity. Many of the deepest impressions originated in moments of extreme frustration or abandonment, moments of screaming in the crib with no one to comfort us.
These memories and perceptions don’t need to be conscious for us to be under their influence. Often they are not. It may not be until they are challenged that they rise to the surface. It’s when someone loves us and we find it hard to trust that, or we try to reach out to take in more sustenance from the world and we find ourselves immobilized. What is it that holds us back? The restraint can be felt as tangibly as if someone were physically stopping us. The invisible bars of our prison are created by mental representations, ideas in the mind.
These are strong influences, capable of overriding natural instincts. For example, I know a woman who is touch aversive. Yet touch is an innate human need. It soothes and nurtures the body as well as the emotions, stimulates the immune system, and has several other functions. To experience even loving touch as aversive is being under the influence of something pretty powerful, in this case memories of abusive touch and the belief that all touch is parasitic. I know another woman who is very capable and has a lot of inner strength, yet often experiences herself as a helpless infant who cannot act in her own self-interest. While under this influence, she can’t do a fraction of what is clearly within her capacity. Can being under the influence of alcohol be any more damaging than this?
How can we break free from these tenacious influences? Different healing approaches offer different suggestions. I don’t think anyone can say definitively which is most effective; it all depends on the receptivity and inclinations of the people involved. I think it makes sense to try to erase the influence on multiple levels simultaneously. It’s like pulling up weeds. If you don’t get all of the root, the weed is just going to grow back. If we don’t address the beliefs, the identification with certain feelings and self-images, the behavioral patterns and the stuck energy in the body, we will be leaving behind parts of the weed that chokes off our life.
It’s a big job and one that will usually take significant time and effort. “Recovery” is a delicate process, because any time some part of the pattern is re-stimulated, we are at risk of falling under the influence again.
One of the most important tools is the ability to disidentify. It is seeing that the feeling or response or self-image that just came up is a result of some influence and that we don’t have to get stuck in it. We don’t have to identify with it, saying in effect, “this is me.” If we don’t identify with it, the feeling, reaction, or self-image can more quickly pass through. Then instead of being under the influence for a period of hours or days (if not weeks or years), we are under the influence for the briefest of times. The moment we disidentify, the spell is broken.
Disidentifying doesn’t come easily. We’re used to identifying with our subjective experience and not really looking at where it is coming from. To get out from under the influence, we need to see the influence as an influence, a filter that is coloring our perception. So if, for example, we start to feel inadequate, we have the presence of mind and awareness to recognize that it is just a feeling and may not be true. It is an inner atmosphere that got stimulated by something rather specific. Sometimes we can reflect back and identify what the specific trigger was. It might be the inadequate feeling comes as a result of an assault by the inner critic. Or perhaps we stumbled on a particular task, but it doesn’t mean we’re a fumbling idiot. We have strengths and weaknesses, like everyone else.
Not long ago I went through a period where it seemed as if all my childhood feelings and complexes were triggered again. Working with them, I recognized that what was needed was to not go down the same roads. I renewed my meditation practice, and this helped strengthen my ability to witness. When I later experienced triggers that would normally induce states of depression and despair, I found myself not going there. At times I wondered if I was blocking, but it felt so light inside that it didn’t seem like a congested state. I didn’t feel disconnected from myself and didn’t need to sleep (a sure sign of repression for me). There was more aliveness and more curiosity. Learning to stop the pattern at the beginning brought a great sense of empowerment and freedom.
This is the hero’s journey: to not be stopped by inner demons. It is recognizing that your experience, however real it appears, is usually much more subjective than objective. It is like recognizing that you’re in a dream and that someone can stab you without harming the real you. This helps us step out of our dramas and back into reality.
This stepping out from under the influence is not only something we’re concerned about when doing psychological work. It is also a goal of many spiritual teachings to become free of the influence of the limited and false self.
From several spiritual perspectives, the solution is to come to rest in your deeper nature which is unconditioned and thus not under the influence of these historical factors. It is coming into the now.
Although most of us have had the blessing of touching this freedom, it is unfortunately a temporary respite. We are not used to identifying with something as amorphous as the openness that we are, and so we gravitate back to a more familiar place.
As we mature spiritually, we learn to let our actions and perceptions grow out of the openness, a space that is void of personality and which we encounter in deep meditation and other moments. Some say that only by dropping mind are we free of its conditioning.
It is an awesome thing to transcend the past, however you learn to do it. Imagine someone who has always been depressed stepping out of the filter of depression, or someone who has always felt unloved stepping out from under the influence of that one. Stepping out from under the influence is being given a new life.