The Light WithinRead Now
One of the more common, as well as most enduring prejudices against psychotherapy is that it is alleged to make people so self preoccupied that they become excessively consumed with what they are thinking and feeling and by doing so, lose all vital connection to others, to the world, to life itself. In truth, becoming so self preoccupied that finding meaningful relationships based in reciprocity and mutual trust becomes impossible would indeed constitute a problem for anyone who happened to suffer from it. But the idea that such a problem must always trace back to an introspective disposition and that its solution can be found only by making an outward engagement in the world often comes a little too automatically, usually without consideration of the actual difficulties that the person in question may be experiencing. Moreover, whenever introversion is condemned as a disposition, little thought seems to be given to the dangers of extroversion, the opposite disposition, in which preoccupation with external affairs turns the inner world into a dim and alien realm of experience. In contrast to the introvert, the problems that the extrovert tends to face are less about his failure to form relationships with others than they are about finding any meaning within his internal experience of being himself. Yet, although this can be no less serious a problem than what the introvert faces in his inability to relate to others, the dangers of introversion are usually regarded as somehow more serious.
Ideally, of course, there should be a balance between the two tendencies and we might say as generalised prescriptions that the introvert should find renewal by looking outward and the extrovert should be encouraged to cultivate a more reflective attitude in order to discover the enriching possibilities of introspection. But as a therapist, I find that popular opinion greatly favours extroversion over introversion and tends to regard introversion as almost inherently pathological. And this bias, I would argue, suggests a widespread popular mistrust about the uncertain realities of the inner world that affects almost every individual's attempts to make sense of his or her self experience. Don't look within, such conventional wisdom advises, for there is nothing there but dangerous and empty self indulgence. And most of us believe this advice, even if it is unhelpful or even harmful, as well as untrue. Although an introspective turn can often indicate a withdrawal into sterile inwardness, looking within can also hold the possibility of finding depth and meaning within the farthest reaches of inner experience. As mystics of virtually all traditions attest, travel far enough within the self and an inner light that illuminates all things can be found. The question then is how such a potentially enlightening journey can be made, especially when the far more common experience of turning inward is to find confinement in a dark space within which the only possible light could seem to come from exterior sources.
The terms introversion and extroversion were coined by Jung to describe a person's characteristic orientation to either the inner or outer realm of experience. According to Jung , these characteristics are not much different than physical traits like height and eye colour and so forth, but unlike such physical characteristics which remain more or less fixed throughout a person's life, a psychological disposition can change over the course of a lifetime to become its opposite in accordance with the principle of enantiodromia, a pre-Socratic concept which Jung took from Heraclitus. In Jungian terms, enantiodromia may be understood as a psychological process of transformation in which a conscious position reaches an extreme limit and then begins to change into its opposite. How this principle applies in any particular case will always be an open question, but in general, both introverts and extroverts would experience life from different orientations before migrating to the opposite position. What induces this profound shift is that if an orientation becomes deeply unsatisfying it will produce any number of symptoms of distress verging on breakdown. Indeed, Jung went so far as to claim that a neurosis is a signal of a psychic imbalance that desperately requires redress.
People may come into therapy suffering from all manner of psychological complaints, but they seldom think about their difficulties in explicit terms of introversion or extroversion. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with being either introverted or extroverted, either disposition could be problematic if it impedes adaptation or personal growth. If, for example, a client comes in claiming that he is suffering from loneliness and an inability to relate to people, his problems probably spring from an introverted disposition. And if another client comes in complaining about how bored and empty she feels whenever she finds herself alone, it is likely that her extroverted temperament rules her life. As always, it would be necessary to examine each case to see how a person's disposition affects the problem at hand. The starting point in all cases would be what the client finds disturbing in his or her self experience. In general, introverts will tend to focus on themselves and their feelings of self inadequacy, while extroverts are more likely to complain about external circumstances and why they can't achieve insight for the conditions they chronically suffer. But introversion and extroversion require each other as complements or counterparts for locating self experience in the world. This means that we are never without others even when we are alone. But it also means that we are always alone in our self experience, even in the company of others. RD Laing once made an astute observation by analysing the term self consciousness which illustrates this duality in action. On the one hand, self consciousness refers to being self aware as an individual subject; on the other, it refers to being self aware as an object of interest to others. But the two perspectives oscillate so frequently that we may fail to notice that they are actually apart.
Indeed, it is possible to be trapped in a cycle of futility as either an introvert or extrovert, though in rather different ways. An introvert may rehearse his frustrations in endless rumination, while an extrovert may follow a pattern of heedless behaviour without any meaningful self reflection. One may be immured in self defeating preoccupation with possibilities that will never occur, while the other may be infatuated with trivial things. But in both cases, the self becomes engrossed in affairs that will bring neither satisfaction nor self insight. Buddhism teaches that by regarding both self and world as transitory phenomena they can be seen for what they are and the light of consciousness can shine with impartial radiance over all things. Both the inner and outer become illuminated, but the light comes from within. Indeed, that is what consciousness in itself is and by cultivating mindfulness, or awareness of things without preference or self interest, consciousness becomes increasingly clear. Although finding the light of awareness does require introspection, it as much a matter of seeing through our self preoccupations as it is of looking inward and away from from external concerns.
Finding the light within is not what psychotherapy is usually all about. Therapy usually goes into those dark cul-de-sacs of the self that hold the shame or trauma of past experiences with scant hope of finding any light within them. Yet, making things conscious is what therapy is all about, even if reaching such consciousness appears to be a humble achievement. Sometimes, therapy does as much as it can do by helping people stop being foolish. But that in itself may open the possibility of becoming more self aware and even of finding the light within.
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