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 Conversations Toward a New World View: The Changing Face of Psychology 
 
Interview with Joan Borysenko PhD
   as interviewed by Russell E. DiCarlo

DiCarlo: In your work you talk about the three stages of courage: willful, psychological, and spiritual. Could you explain their significance?

Borysenko: Sure. First of all, it's very important to have some sense of courage if we are to effectively deal with life. Without courage, when faced with difficulty we would just fold. But there are three stages, three types of courage. In "Fire in The Soul" I talked about my mom who had quite a bit of willful courage. That is, she could rise to any occasion, and do whatever needed to be done next. She could just "keep on truck'n" and go through it without looking forward, and without looking back, and without necessarily enquiring into the meaning of anything. She just said, "this is where I am right now, this is what I am supposed to do, and I'll do it no matter what." That will take you pretty far in life, but you can get a little bit further if you enlarge the idea of courage beyond the plain old will to keep on going.

Psychological courage, the second type of courage, comes from self-awareness. For example, there is a book out there that essentially says, feel the fear but do it anyway. Oftentimes, that's what we have to do in this life. You can do that through either through willful courage--"feel the fear and do it anyway"--or through psychological courage, where you enquire into the origins of that fear. You look and see what the fear has to teach you. Through that, you become a lot wiser and your heart tends to open. You develop compassion. And so that's a broader form of courage.

The third type of courage, spiritual courage, comes from having a higher perspective on the whole situation. From a psychological point of view, we can look at who copes well when under duress and we say they are stress hardy. They are optimistic. They look at change as a challenge. But when we look at it from an even a broader view of spirituality, that's when we reach a whole new level of transformation. I want to borrow a line from Ram Dass, who once said, "we have a choice in either viewing ourselves as human beings who might have an occasional spiritual experience or viewing ourselves as spiritual beings who happen to be having a human experience." That is the viewpoint of spiritual courage. It reveals itself when you have contemplated the meaning of life, and have come to the point where you recognize that no matter how difficult, no matter how painful, no matter how non-sensical something may seem to be, that there is a higher form of meaning involved. It is the faith that though our perceptions may be clouded, on another level of experience, things make sense and that the universe is a friendly place.

DiCarlo: The pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow was noted for his emphasis upon our higher possibilities and potential as opposed to the prevailing fixation within the psychological profession on emotional and mental illness that you mentioned earlier. The people whom he studied were able to bring out and express their latent potential and wholeness and he referred to as being "self-actualizing." Many understand a self-actualizer as being a better performing human being, displaying a multitude of talents and abilities. Is there more to the story?

Borysenko: It's interesting...I think we have to be very, very careful when we talk about self-actualization because everybody has a slightly different idea about what a truly creative human being is. For me, a truly creative human being is one who has gotten some sense of what their unique gift is and is using that gift. The gifts vary. The gift of one self-actualizing person may be that they are extremely nurturing and their gift is to mother. Sometimes in this particular society we look at someone who has made the choice to mother and we say, "Oh my, poor thing. She hasn't actualized her potential--shes just being a mother." So I think one of the first things we have to do is take the blinders off our eyes and let people be who they are and to recognize that self-actualization has to do with being who you are. It's not about being a perfect person in some way. One self-actualized person may in fact be highly creative in one area, and yet still have blindspots in another. They are not "perfect". What they are able to do is say, "I see I have this blindspot or that blindspot. I'll try to deal with it as well as I can, but it is part of who I am at this time." So I would say that a self-actualized person has a degree of self-awareness and has become spacious enough that they can accept the pairs of opposites that they are. They can accept that they are great in some areas, but maybe not so great in others, and that's OK.

DiCarlo: So they would to some degree be in touch with their inner core?

Borysenko: Oh, yes. Without being in touch with your inner core at some level, you don't have enough of a feeling of spaciousness to become who you are.

DiCarlo: I suppose that the opposite of being whole and self-actualizing is to be fragmented...When we say someone is fragmented, what do we mean?

Borysenko: When somebody is fragmented it means that they have become identified with one aspect of themselves and have closed off other aspects. Much like an individual with multiple personality disorder has different alters or personalities, we all have different subpersonalities. This is the theory called Psychosynthesis, created by the Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli. For example, many people have the subpersonality called the victim. They grew up in an abusive home or an alcoholic home and they might have a variety of subpersonalities. There might be the hero, or the mother or the teacher. All are different aspects of themselves, and they go from subpersonality to subpersonality rather unthinkingly. Somebody who is used to being in a victim subpersonality most of the time and doesn't have much conscious awareness of it, will tend to associate--because it is behaviorally familiar--with other victims who then support one another in their sorrows. Or a person might associate with the subpersonality of being an aggressor, because they are used to that. Or if they are used to being victimized, they may associate or marry people whom they can rescue because that is their best way to get out of that victim sense of self.

When this happens, other aspects of a person are blocked from awareness because the person has become so identified with one aspect, one fragment of themselves. So this is what we would call being fragmented. A person who is aware of their different subpersonalities, aware that "yes, I have all of this within me" is more spacious. So when this comes up, instead of necessarily feeling like a victim, they can see the old feelings and that part of themselves might rise to the occasion but they can also make the choice to respond from a larger aspect of self and not fall back into the same holes. So a person who is integrated has far more choice. They are more flexible and they are more creative. To the extent that they have become more whole, they will tend to respond to people and situations with more kindness and love.

DiCarlo: Would this integrated person, this whole person, be balanced in mind, body and spirit?

Borysenko: Well, in balance generally, but I think we can also go overboard with this because there's a sense that once you are "on the road to self-actualizing" you are going to be an idealized human being who is not going to fall into periods of depression, jealousy, anger or anything else. I think people need to give up these limiting ideas up and realize that these so-called negative states are all part and parcel of being human. But as you begin to recognize these negative emotional states sooner, you begin to realize that you have some choice. All emotions that come up in someway serve the realization of our wholeness. But you must be willing to pay attention, accept the message and not get stuck there. So wholeness, once again, is not about perfection. Its about awareness and choice.

DiCarlo: You state in your book that the number one affliction of those of us in American Society is a sense of unworthiness, which perhaps causes us to disconnect with this inner core that you speak of. Why is low self-esteem so prevailent on our society?

Borysenko: To discover the reason for this prevailing sense of unworthiness, you need look no further than the media. From the time we are children, we are sold a bill of goods about what it is to be a worthy person in our society and it has everything to do with money and looks. Most people don't have that much money and they don't look like models. You can see this preoccupation begin to take root as little children, when little girls five and six years old begin to look in the mirror and say, "I'm too fat" or "my nose is too big". What a sad thing to measure our value and worth as human beings by. We have a very injurious society that sets people up for a good deal of self-judgement. We have a very injurious society in terms of defining the value of a life well lived. If we could define the value of a life well lived in terms of a person who develops some compassion, caring and a strong community--a community of people who help one another--and if we determined that a truly fine human being is one who has let go of judgements, and helps others, self-esteem would be a lot higher because these are qualities that a person can choose to cultivate.

Our sense of low self-esteem and unworthiness can also be traced to some old, European ideas about how children were supposed to be raised. Most of us in this country are still heir to the old type of child-rearing that says, "a child should be seen and not heard" or "adults know best." Every time a parent, with an authoritarian point of view, raises a child, self-esteem will be low because the child never quite measures up. In some way you are being told what's wrong instead of what's right. There has been a great deal written about changing modes of child-rearing. That has everything to do with self-esteem. The more authoritarian the parent, the lower the self-esteem of the child.

DiCarlo: Do the roots of our unworthiness also trace back to traumas that may have been suffered during this lifetime or others?

Borysenko: Sure, it has to do with lots of different things. In "Guilt is The Teacher, Love is the Lesson" which was my second book, I discussed child development, self-esteem and experiences of shame--whether we were shamed by a parent or shamed by a teacher or shamed by peers--at length. It turns out that shame is the master emotion, and that as soon as you feel shame, which is the feeling that you are so unworthy that you wish a hole would open up in the ground and swallow you, it brings with it other negative emotions. Shame is the master emotion.

Kids who have had very shameful experiences carry the wounds of those throughout their whole lifetime. Oftentimes they are associated with school experiences, where an unthinking teacher shamed a kid in front of their peers. Some people who have had parochial school education may have had many positive experiences, but many people are beginning to step forward and say, "Gee, I was beaten by the nuns." One little girl I know peed on the floor in front of the other students when she was shamed by a nun. She never got over the experience.

Throughout our lives have these kind of experiences and we have got to know how to integrate them. And I don't think the wholeness of who we are is limited to just this lifetime. Who knows? Every parent will tell you that their child has a personality that they noticed from the time their child was just a few months old. Beyond the nature-nurture controversy--"is it in our genetics or is it in the way we were brought up?"--there are personal differences that go beyond that explanation and which are most likely soul experiences, soul residue. Old patterns that we bring in, whether from past lifetimes, or parallel realities, who knows? That's all within what I would call the purview of the sacred mystery.

DiCarlo: In a recent conversation with noted Biofeedback researcher, Dr. Elmer Green, he stated that he accepts the yogic description of the real constitution of the human being( ie. etheric, emotional, mental energy fields? In your view, are these energy fields metaphorical or are they real?

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