Sept. 6, 2019
In his prophetic 2013 book, the existential psychotherapist Kirk Schneider illuminated the concept of the polarized mind — that mind which is so rigidly fixed and polarized that any competing point of view must be utterly annihilated. No other competing point of view is allowed to exist.
It's a problem that's plaguing our culture and sending people to offices like mine on a regular basis, and we need to do something about it.
The problem we all see
From bullies at school to bullies in political offices, from tyrants in other countries to tyrants in the home, we've all come in contact with this problem in some way. Sometimes it's the person who insists they have everything done "their way" because "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself," who then crumbles under the weight and tyranny of their own rigid mindset. Their stress and anxiety become overbearing.
It can show up in any arena of life: religion, politics, our lust to live as if we are of infinite capacity, and our cultural idol of rugged individualism.
Not a denial of right and wrong
To be clear for a moment, I'm not talking about right and wrong. Many great leaders throughout history have made firm stands in these and other areas — there are certainly things worth taking a firm stand for. If you've been around my blog for any length of time, you no doubt know that I am a very spiritual person who believes in truth and good and evil. I would say this isn't so much about one's relationship to reality as much as it's about one's relationship to oneself. Let me explain.
The rigid, inflexible self
The rigid self is a propped-up god, a custom made tyrant designed to keep us from encountering unpleasant realities like our own fragility or finiteness. The person who rigidly clings to the illusion of control (in life, relationships, etc.) is, deep down, terrified of how little control they truly have.
Several things are missing from the polarized mind, among them humility, courage, and awe. I'll discuss those in a moment. The essential points to understand about the polarized mind are that it isn't new, and it isn't destiny. Polarization and rigidity have been a part of the human condition for ages. In individuals and cultures, it happens when in the face of some existential crisis like our own fragility or the unknown; we find ourselves in the grip of existential panic. Terrified, we cling to the rigid confines of our own perspective. Often, there is a power dynamic involved. Consider racism, sexism, and every other "ism," or the tyrant in the living room.
Polarization has many victims, many survivors … and it has a solution.
How do we un-polarize and become more resilient?
The polarized mind may seem to itself to be in a position of strength, perhaps because of the power it amasses in order to hold tightly to a polarized worldview and annihilate competing points of view. In truth, however, it is the opposite of the resilient mind. Research has shown us that mental agility, the ability to be adaptive in not just what one thinks but how one thinks, is a crucial component of resilience.
I mentioned three things that are noticeably missing from the polarized mind earlier: humility, courage and awe. These are critical in both combating polarization and in building resilience. And, as I've mentioned previously, it all starts with cultivating presence. From there, we have a stable starting point to begin the work of encountering ourselves at a new level.
Humility, it's been said, is not thinking less of ourselves, but rather thinking of ourselves less. Humility is being able to fully immerse ourselves in the present in a unique way. You see, if you were to meet a humble person, your first thought of them probably wouldn't be how humble they were, but rather how present and attentive they seemed. Able to be completely attuned and attentive to your experience and the present moment.
It's that person that makes you feel truly heard by reflecting on and responding to what you say, rather than waiting to say their piece with no regard to what you are saying. The humble person has done the deep work of reflection and self-exploration and knows and embraces their finiteness and fragility as well as their potential and capacity. It's that base of humility that fosters real courage.
Courage is not the absence of fear; it can't be, because it's how we face fear. Courage actually requires fear to exist. A courageous person does not suppose themselves above this reality. To truly take our eyes off of ourselves and expand our scope of awareness is actually a very courageous act. To be humble is to be courageous, and humility and courage lay the stage for wellness, healing, and resilience at many levels.
Awe, the humble curiosity and excitement toward life, is a powerful ally in our path to resilience as well as mental, social, and emotional wellness. Whole books (some of which were written by Schneider as well) have been dedicated to it. Spiritual practices and religions across the ages and face of the planet have found it to be a fundamentally necessary part of the human experience. In a future post, I'm going to discuss this topic on it's own so I won't spoil it by giving you the good stuff just yet. Awe is the opposite of the polarized and rigid mind.
In every aspect of our health and our resilience we need humility, courage, and awe. We need to combat the polarized mind in our culture as well as in ourselves.
Dave Hughes is a therapist who specializes in trauma and resilience in the body and mind. He practices at Aspire counseling group in Raleigh, NC. Dave speaks and writes about resilience and the intersection of faith and mental health. He also teaches military resilience in the Army reserve.
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