John Heron

From Heron, J., Paradigm Papers, published by British Postgraduate Medical Federation, University of London, in association with Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, December 1981.

Persons choose

The main home of the concept of choice is in the philosophy of the person. “I choose, therefore I am”. My choices define my identity and status as a person. And because I am a person only in relation to other persons and a non-social world, my choices also necessarily define the sort of social and non-social world to which I relate. In exercising choice, I exercise my will, my personal power. I elect my reality in a fundamental sense. This paper is dedicated to the reclamation of personal power in the authentic, charismatic and non-oppressive sense of that phrase.

I will first of all explore the central area to which the concept of choice applies – autonomous choice, fully personal choice – and then consider important extensions of the concept to what I shall call conventional “choice”, survival “choice”, and transpersonal choice. The possible interactions between autonomous choice, the two sorts of “choice” and transpersonal choice, then gives us a comprehensive paradigm for the exercise of personal power.

Autonomous choice

By an autonomous choice, I mean a choice made by a person who is functioning fully as a person: that is, who is not choosing in an unconsidered, purely conventional and socially stereotypic way; and whose choice is not made unawarely from the compulsions of repressed emotional distress. Positively, I make an autonomous choice when it springs from my discriminating and well-informed grasp of the relevant facts of the situation, and from values and norms which I have freely grasped and understood, and to which I am independently and internally committed.

My values are those worthwhile states of affairs which, as a free, rational and sensitive being, I wish to see more of in the world. Such worthwhile states of affairs may be classified under broad headings such as: the personal and interpersonal; the organisational and political; the economic and ecological; the domain of knowledge, theoretical and applied; the aesthetic; the transpersonal.

My norms are those guiding principles of action which help to realise

my values, and to which, likewise I am committed as a free, rational and sensitive being. They may be broad, very general principles, such as the principle of justice, and of respect for persons; they may be more specific, such as being real/authentic/congruent in relations with other persons. I adopt them as indeed I adopt my values, because I see the point of them: they illuminate and motivate my understanding, my sensibility, and my capacity for action.

As well as the facts of the situation, values, and norms, there are several other parameters of personal choice. Thus I may choose now a goal ahead, I may choose now some means to a goal ahead; or I may choose now to do something which is an end-in-itself, something which is intrinsically worthwhile and enjoyable, which is its own goal, which has no end beyond the doing of it. Of course, something I choose to do as an end-in-itself, I may also choose to do as a means to some goal. Thus I may choose my daily work because it is intrinsically satisfying; I may also choose it because it is a means to the goal of social change of some specified sort, or because it is a means to the goal of receiving a monthly salary cheque.

If I am always choosing to do things which are only means to goals ahead, and never at the same time ends-in-themselves, then I am always living for the future, never living in the present. Such alienation from present fulfilment, from the immediate realisation of values, is less than personal, autonomous choice. The autonomous person, I suggest, achieves some interesting balance between choosing activities that are purely ends-in-themselves, activities that are both ends-in-themselves and means to some goal ahead, and activities that are only means to some goal ahead and not at the same time ends-in-themselves.

Another set of parameters define the process of choice. There are at least three facets to it: considerationselection and action. Firstly, there is the identification and consideration of the possibilities or options among which choice can be made. Secondly, there is the selection of one possibility or option for realisation now or in the future. Thirdly, there is action – the implementation of the option, the actualisation of it. These processes may occur holistically, intuitively and more or less simultaneously. Or they may occur with deliberation and reflection, and sequentially. Or with some integration of right-brain and left-brain methodology. An autonomous person is likely, over time, to balance all three styles: the holistic; the deliberative and sequential; the integrated.

Action, the implementation phase of choice, brings with it issues of follow through, of perseverance, of commitment, of staying with a decision made as long as it is appropriate to do so.

Finally, choice may be about external actions, which involve motion in the physical world: such actions may be solitary, without social contact, or they may involve interaction with other persons (or with animals, etc). Or choice may be about internal actions, in which I am making choices about my own state of mind andbeing. And these choices, about states of mind, may be about either very general and basic belief-systems (what sort of a world and reality I inhabit), basic sets of values (what states of affairs are worthwhile and worthy to be realised), basic norms (overall guiding principles of action that facilitate the realisation of what is valued); or about specific, existential states of mind and being -what is going on in me right here and now. Or choice may be about internal-external actions, in which I choose both states of mind and action in the world, interacting potently with each other.

I regard internal actions (and their follow-through in internal-external actions) as really quite fundamental in the reclamation of personal power. They are a prime area for the exercise of personal autonomy, since they are involved directly with the election of reality.

Conventional “choice”

I use the word “choice” in inverted commas to indicate a primitive, low-level kind of choice. It can be seen either as a primordial, embryonic form of full autonomous choice, or as a degeneration of the latter. Perhaps conventional “choice” is more embryonic, survival “choice” more degenerate. “Choice” is not made with full awareness, with independent rational and sensitive competence.

I make a conventional “choice” when I do what others do simply because others do it. I unthinkingly seek identity through imitation and assimilation of the surrounding culture. Young persons become socialised by engaging in the relatively unreflective processes of conventional “choice”. In this sense conventional “choice” is embryonic choice, is a necessary precursor to the later development of autonomous, considered, personal choice. Autonomous persons are like plants that emerge out of the soil of socialisation. They are rooted in the soil, and by selection and rejection of its contents, formulate an independent bloom of beliefs, values and norms.

In more formal language, I make a conventional “choice” when my “choice” follows from my apprehension of some prevailing socially accepted view of how to construe the facts of the choice situation, and from some prevailing socially accepted set of values and norms; and when such prevailing views are uncritically accepted by me – that is without the exercise of intelligent discrimination. When such a “choice” is challenged and I am asked to justify it, all I can do is appeal to social authority, to what is traditionally done, to what most people do, etc.

Conventional “choice” can be characterised in terms of the same sorts of parameters as autonomous choice. The difference, of course, is that the autonomous chooser is functioning with some degree of awareness of these parameters, whereas the conventional chooser is not.

The conventions that I “choose” may be of at least three sorts. They may be ritual conventions. By this I mean that they have an extra-functional symbolic or theatrical form to give meaning to some basic recurring feature of the human condition, such as birth, death, greeting, saying farewell, and so on. Ritual conventions may seem hollow and out of date, or apparently arbitrary, or they may have living, archetypal power to illumine with meaning those who “choose” them.

The conventions I “choose” may be functional conventions. That is, they may be relatively rational procedures that aid social coherence and the fulfilment of rational social purposes. Or they may be distress-determined conventions: tacitly agreed and accepted ways in which persons in a social system act out and displace their repressed distress emotions. Such conventional acting out of denied distress will be done unawarely, and the counter-productive, non-functional, irrational nature of the activity will compulsively not be noticed. Indeed, distress-determined conventions will be “legitimated” by those who adopt them as valid ritual or functional conventions.

It seems reasonable to suppose that for most people identity in a social system is the resultant of a mixture of conventional “choices” and autonomous choices. You can say, for each person, either that some choices are autonomous and some “choices” are conventional; or that each choice made contains elements of autonomy and conventionality in varying degrees. Either way round, the autonomy of the person is in a state of emergence from (or disappearance back into) the conventionality of a person.

A fully autonomous person can exhibit three sorts of behaviour in relation to the prevailing conventional behaviour. Some autonomous behaviour is different from the prevailing conventional behaviour – but the difference stems not from a rebellious, reactive response (which is pseudo-autonomy), but from authentic personal beliefs, values and norms. Other autonomous behaviour looks the same as some prevailing conventional behaviour. The difference is invisible: the autonomous person sees the point of the behaviour, is not adopting it just because others do.

Thirdly, the autonomous person may engage in apparent conformity, adopting a conventional behaviour not because he sees the point of it -indeed he may regard it as pointless – but because such apparent conformity he judges to be a necessary condition of entering into more significant and meaningful relations with those concerned.

Then there is the following anomaly. A group of autonomous persons may awarely choose to adopt certain norms of what they regard as autonomous behaviour. But others outside that group may unwittingly construe those norms as conventions to be “chosen” when in the presence of members of that group.

A very early, and quite fundamental kind of conventional “choice” I will call linguistic “choice”. This is the “choice” involved when a child learns and adopts a language in the second and third years of life. In “choosing” to adopt the prevailing spoken language, and especially the prevailing usage of that language, a child also “chooses” subtly pervasive belief-systems, values and norms implicit in that usage. A basic cultural world-view and world-evaluation is “chosen”. This “choice” of a pervasive world-view provides the conceptual content in the process of perception. And so the small person has “chosen” to perceive and experience a world of a certain sort and of a certain range of values. There has been an “election” of reality. This early “election” awaits revision in terms of autonomous election. The ordinary processes of education in our culture cannot be relied upon to elicit such autonomous election. Primary and secondary education, at any rate, tend merely to confirm the parameters of the inchoate “election” made in early childhood. For the linguistic usage the child picks up, is itself in part a product of the education to which the adults around have been subject.

Survival “choice”

By the term survival here I mean not so much physical survival as psychological survival, that is, the survival of my personal identity, my identity as an experienced being. Survival “choice” is more rudimentary and primitive than conventional “choice”. It involves a rapid, unthinking, subliminal mental mechanism whereby a person deals with a sense of potentially overwhelming emotional pain by denying it access to consciousness, and by displacing the tension of what is denied outwards into perceptions of, and behaviours in relation to, the environment, or inwards into attitudes to the self, or both. Such survival “choice” is a relatively blind, unaware emergency management of responses to stress, in order to ensure the maintenance of some kind of psychological identity and functioning competence in the face of highly threatening adversity.

The prime adversity for the infant person appears to be that very fundamental needs are not being met to a degree that precipitates unbearable and unmanageable amounts of distress – that is, of fear, and grief, and anger. These needs, I believe, are needs to be loved and to love, to be understood and to understand, to be chosen and to choose. Or to put them in more unitary form: to have a distinct expressive identity in dynamic relation with a wider whole including other distinct identities. On the current evidence available, from conception on the combined processes of incarnation and socialisation can lead to deeply painful interruption of such needs. The survival “choice”, when the pain is sensed to be too great, is to freeze the need, repress and deny the pain, and displace the whole configuration: the frozen need and the denied pain are symbolically acted out in the world or acted in against the self.

Survival “choice” is in one sense a degenerate, mechanistic kind of choice. It leads to unaware, compulsive acting out and acting in behaviours that become chronically maladaptive vestigial behaviours in the adult. But degenerate, blind and desperate though it may be, it is still a kind of choice, since the adult person can choose at the autonomous level of choice to undo and reverse the survival strategy “chosen” in infancy. In another sense, survival “choice” is a godsend resource to the infant person: it enables the person to keep afloat in the seas of early experience. Rather like a ship which, when torpedoed, has an instantaneous mechanism for sealing off the damaged water filled section of the hull, so that the whole vessel remains seaworthy, even though thereafter it may list hard to port or starboard, and have limited navigability.

The most striking feature of a survival “choice” is its obdurate nature. Nor is the reason for this hard to seek. It is made at a subliminal, primitive, low and relatively inaccessible level of consciousness: it is the psychological equivalent of a simple physical reflex. It is originally motivated and thereafter continuously sustained by a deep fear of loss of identity, or psychological death if overwhelming pain is not denied. Furthermore, the displacement behaviour, the acting out and the acting in, compulsively practiced for a long time, provides the only sense of identity the person knows, even though it is an unreal unsatisfactory, pseudo identity, alienated from real needs. Adults, then, may well have many potent threads of vestigial survival “choices” that sew up both their internal and external actions in ways that to the persons concerned are very resistant both to detection and to unpicking. And to the extent that this is so, their capacity for making autonomous choices is restricted.

What are the relations between conventional “choice” and survival “choice”? Some survival “choices”, or rather the displacement behaviour resulting from them, will be the same as conventional behaviours. I referred above to distress-determined conventions: the socially acceptable ways in which people tacitly collude and agree to act out denied pain. In my view, such distress-determined conventions pervade every facet of our social system, indiscriminately inter-woven with quite valid ritual and functional conventions. On the other hand, some displacement behaviour may be socially unacceptable and result in behaviours that our social system labels in many different ways: criminal, deviant, maladjusted, neurotic, psychotic, and so on. Finally, there are those very pervasive sorts of behaviour distortions that go on in homes, in families, in relationships, in organisations, which are not regarded either as socially acceptable or as socially deviant, but as the tolerated pathology of everyday living.

It seems to me important to note that valid conventions, that are not distress-determined, provide an intermediate, stable ground between fully autonomous behaviour on the one hand, and distress driven behaviour on the other. Such stable ground gives respite from acting out denied pain, and an opportunity to prepare for generating the personal beliefs, values and norms of autonomous behaviour.

I wish to point now to a very special kind of survival “choice”. This is the “choice” not to notice the transpersonal, originating source within, not to notice the well-spring whence my distinct personhood, my autonomous capacities, emerge. This source, this Alpha, this spaceless space, is where the metaphor of paradox abounds. It is not to be striven for, just to be noticed, acknowledged, encountered within. It is subtle and simple and potent. I can choose never to be alienated from it. I can also “choose” nescience, transcendental forgetting, alienation, not noticing and not knowing it.

What is the point of such survival “choice”? Why refer such a “choice” to the concept of survival? On the one hand there is the possibility that the source is too potent, too overwhelming. This numinous awe, this creaturely fear of the primum mobile, is the fear of loss of distinctness in a being emerging for distinctness. On this view, repression of the sublime, denial of the eternal bliss of emerging out of the full void, is a “choice” to retain identity over against the fear of its ecstatic dissolution. The fear is the fear that a precarious and precious distinctness of being will be incinerated in the fires of eternal enthusiasm, the most abundant creative passion of God.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that the processes of incarnation and socialisation can engender a subtle dislocation of awareness, an induced alienation of personhood from its source. The subtle discomfort, disquiet and pain that results, the pervasive dissatisfaction and anomie, is dealt with by denial. The person “chooses” not to notice the subtle pain, the longing, the source that sense of emergence from which is longed for.

On either view we may expect some symbolic displacement, the relatively unaware acting out of what has been denied. The denied fear of ecstatic loss of identity may be acted out through compulsive pursuit of a personal identity through achievement in the non-numinous, the peripheral, the phenomenal, the restricted and circumscribed zones of experience. The denied pain of alienation from, and longing for the sense of emergence from, the source, may be acted out through the compulsive pursuit of original bliss in a variety of different experiences which per se cannot deliver it. On the one hand, the displacement is into achievement, on the other hand it is into pleasure. This is not to discount either achievement or pleasure as valid experiences in their own right; only to suggest there can be an element of transcendental displacement in both.

These denied fears and pains to do with one’s source in the transpersonal sense, are not to be confused with the denied fears and pains to do with one’s physical conception, foetal life and birth. Neither one of these can be reduced without remainder to the other. But they may well be closely interwoven as primordial experiences of personhood. In the same way, survival “choices” that are to do with the early interruption of one’s personal needs and capacities, are not to be confused with the survival “choices” to do with one’s relation to one’s source. They are distinct and irreducible sorts of “choice”. Nevertheless, they and their effects on behaviour, attitude and thought, may interact and interweave in all sorts of subtle ways.

In other words, in our understanding, the two sorts of survival “choice” need to bekept clear and distinct; but experientially, for any given person, they may be fused together with much extraordinary variety. They also need to be kept clear and distinct in the process of reclaiming our personal power.

Transpersonal Choice

I call transpersonal Choice Choice, because it is the source of the very possibility of autonomous choice. It is the archetype of choice, the Ur-phenomenon of choice, the ground and being of choice in the autonomous sense. And yet in my view, without celebrating autonomous choice, we cannot enter into the simple heritage of its ground – Choice. Autonomous choice and being aware of Choice go together. Each achieves its fullness in dynamic relation with the other.

By Choice I mean the originating Act whence I as a distinct person, with distinct capacities, emerge. This originating Act is ever-present, in a sense outside time, yet feeding time with my personhood. All I have to do is notice it. If I search for it and strive for it, and try to notice it, I can’t find it. I simply choose to notice it; or I choose to notice its simplicity. I am being fed with Being all the time.

Such Choice is motionless motion, spaceless space, sounding silence, full emptiness. It abounds in paradox. It Chooses my autonomy. It generates and sustains and enhances the distinctness of my autonomy. It is transpersonal, it is not I, it is not you: it Chooses me to be, it Chooses you to be. It is pure Act.

Imagine your person as a flat spiral, a disc, a nebular vortex or circle. The outer reaches of the disc interweave with the world and are dense with experiential phenomena. The disc becomes more tenuous and rarefied as you move toward its centre. The central area of the disc is empty space, void. Where the central void meets the most tenuous substance of the disc, your basic human capacities continuously emerge from the void: your capacities for being loved and for loving; for being understood and for understanding; for being chosen and for choosing (and “choosing”). Yet the void sustains and contains and originates the whole disc all the time.

It is implicit in this metaphor that, as well as the originating Act whence my personhood continuously emerges, there is also a continuous Choice of whatever I choose or “choose”. So if I feel and believe myself to be confused, trapped, restricted in different ways by my choices or “choices”, it is useful to notice that always at the same time they are being Chosen. The first step to liberation, freedom, peace, enlightenment, or whatever else constitutes real expansion of personal being into splendour, is to lay back in the Void and notice that whatever I choose or “choose” is at the same time being Chosen, is originating in pure Act.

The agonies of religious guilt, of justifying a relationship with God, are but another sort of distress-determined denial of noticing the ever-presence of Choice, confused with a denial of all the grief and anger stored within through the experience of a parent offering only arbitrarily conditional love.

The theological problem of the deus escondidus, the hidden God, is not a problem but a psychological defence rationalised out as a theological problem. The source of personhood is not hidden; it is ever-present within. I just have to choose to notice it, that is all.

The election of reality

A central component of personal power I define as my ability through the exercise of my will to elect my reality, to define the sort of social and non-social world of which I am a part. I do not believe that this election can be arbitrary, that I can elect and define any reality. But I do believe that any statement about what is empirically given, what are non-negotiable data of human experience, is a statement that is in principle conjectural, open to revision, indeed rejection, as a function of further choices and explorations. The most that I can say is that I now choose in my present state of mind to regard certain features of the world (social and non-social) as not open to redefinition through my choices.

To a very important degree, then, I choose my reality. No one else can do it for me. But maybe I can only do it through dialogue; through reworking the way I use language, revising my early linguistic “choices”, in interaction with the written and spoken words of others. “Realities” shift their identities along the axis of shared beliefs and perceptions. If this is so, then a reality which I choose is also at the same time a reality which someone else to some significant degree chooses. Reality is chosen out of parity. “We choose, therefore the world is”. On this view, it is the agreement to experience a certain sort of reality that constitutes it as a reality. It is the element of identity among distinct personal choices that creates the real, that is, what those concerned agree to regard as real.

There is an inalienable, ineliminable quality about the personal choice that elects a reality. Any attempt to disband the concept of such choice itself involves a choice to regard the concept as redundant; and this is self contradictory. The fundamental act of human understanding – which is to discriminate how it will construe what there is – cannot be abandoned. Any idea that it can be abandoned is, in my view, a delusion. I may abandon opaque discrimination for translucent discrimination, fruitless discrimination for fruitful discrimination, but discriminating awareness per se I cannot abandon. It is one of the ultimate signatures of my distinctness of personal being. And that distinctness is always being Chosen. It issues forth from originating Act. I can choose to abandon the idea of the separateness of my personhood, the idea that it has no unity with anything else. To choose this is, ultimately, to choose to notice that my personhood has distinctness without separateness; that each of us is distinct within the unity of our world; and that each world is distinct within the unity of worlds.

In other words, the exercise of human judgement – about what there is, about what it would be worthwhile for there to be, about guiding principles of action for realising the worthwhile – is essential to distinctness of personal being. You can refine the judgement, enhance the distinctness and orchestrate it within ever greater wholes. You can’t destroy either in the interests of transcendence.

There is a phrase “destroying the ego” which some schools put forth as a key part of their programme for enlightenment. But the phrase is systematically ambiguous and therefore potentially misleading. If it is a recommendation to destroy distinctness of personhood, then it is a trap and a snare for the unwary; an invitation to participate as subject in an unidentified despotism of the spirit. For no such destruction in my view is possible.

If it is a recommendation to abandon the illusion of the separateness of persons, to transcend selfish and self-regarding attitudes, to open the mind up beyond rigid, restricted and limiting conceptual framework, to respond to wider reaches of awareness, then these policies as such are fine, provided always that they are seen as ways of enhancing distinct personhood within an ever greater whole, and that they are never dissociated from the exercise of discriminating awareness and human judgement. But then it is better to talk positively about developing the person, rather than to talk negatively about destroying the ego.

A manifesto for the reclamation of personal power

1.  I become powerful by choosing to notice that my personal autonomy originates in pure Act, is ever emerging now out of a transpersonal Choice. But I need to exercise my autonomy in order to choose to notice this. It is out of the pleasures of freedom that I notice the ever present well-spring whence I come. Choosing to notice how I originate in Act gives me unprecedented power. Not power over, but power with: power with my choices, power with others, power with processes that I choose to apprehend in the world.

2.  I become powerful by choosing to undo the survival “choices” that repress and displace my distresses about the originating, transpersonal source within. This is the choice to work through transpersonal defenses by transpersonal co-counselling, or some form of transpersonal therapy, or transpersonal encounter. I choose to become aware of these defenses, and to develop ways of dismantling them, and to work with the feelings involved.

3.  I become powerful by choosing to undo the survival “choices” that repress and displace the frozen needs, and overwhelming emotional distresses of foetal life, birth, infancy and beyond. I choose to use primal reintegration, co-counselling, some form of regression work that enables me to loosen the old knots of thought and feeling and action by which my personhood has been trapped and entangled.

4.  I become powerful by choosing to develop my capacities for being loved and loving, for being understood and understanding, for being chosen and choosing, in ways that are meaningful to me and to others to whom I choose to relate. I affirm and express my unfettered capacities with idiosyncratic personal style.

5.  I become powerful by electing – through dialogue with others through the written and/or spoken word – my reality. This is fundamental internal action. I choose how to construe what there is. I choose an ontological paradigm, a basic conceptual framework that articulates what for me and my peers constitutes reality. As well as a basic belief-system, I choose my values: what is worthwhile, both in actuality and yet to be realised. And I choose my norms, fundamental guiding principles of action.

6.  I become powerful by choosing what state of mind and being I shall be in now in this situation. I choose how I perceive and construe what is going on here. I choose how to manage what thoughts, feelings, moods, impulses action tendencies are precipitated in me by the situation. I choose spontaneity or restraint, sobriety or enthusiasm. I choose to see the situation in a way that heightens energy rather than depresses it. I choose not to act out old distress feelings. And so on and so forth. Above all I choose to exhibit these internal actions in appropriate external actions or in the appropriate absence of external actions.

7.  Finally, I become powerful by choosing to rework conventional “choices”, by deciding which conventions I shall adopt as personal norms, which I shall reject, which I shall transcend in terms of new forms of behaviour, which I shall simply appear to conform to for my own good reasons. This is autonomy at work in the social area, in the fields of social and organisational and political development: confronting rigid systems, breaking new ground in organisational structures and processes, creating alternative organisations, revising ecological, technological and economic arrangements, re-interpreting intimacy, relationship, friendship, education, the raising of children.

While all these seven facets of reclaiming personal power influence and are reflected in each other, there are two which seem to be quite basic: noticing my source, and electing my reality. And you can argue that of these two electing my reality has a certain paramountcy, since such election alone affords me the proper stance and status whence I can notice my originating source.

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