I came across an interesting question last week: “How much of the psychological and spiritual suffering in contemporary affluent cultures is due to unrecognized failures of growth?”* The writer, his credentials of professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies at UCLA notwithstanding, did not provide an answer. Nor shall I, but as a therapist who sees a fair share of human suffering and distress, it is possible to suggest: a lot.
One of the central tenets of the Human Givens approach is that psychological suffering is not present when a person is getting their physical and emotional needs met appropriately, and one of these important needs is the one for growth – to be challenged and stretched mentally. According to Walsh (2008) “the mind contains an inherent developmental drive towards growth, and given appropriate conditions and practices, the mind tends to be self-healing, self-actualising, and self-liberating”. It is clear then that ‘inappropriate’ conditions that fail to provide opportunity for intellectual nourishment, stimulation and learning; and practices or interaction with the environment that leaves the need for mental challenge and stretching unmet, will remain unhealthy, unfulfilled, and stagnating.
Now, it is not as though the distressed people who see therapists can describe their malaise in this way, hence the ‘unrecognised’ in Walsh’ question. Contemporary affluent cultures tend to create the illusion of growth; people are immersed in a constant flow of information, yet remain essentially ill-informed; their senses constantly stimulated yet so often they remain detached and bored. They become perplexed and believe in the ‘myth of more’ – without realising more of the same will bring in its wake, more of the perplexity and sense of stagnation.
Walsh provides four antidotes to stagnation:
- Awareness: for with awareness comes choice, and a sense of autonomy and control over their environment and interaction with it, leading to mental challenge and growth.
- Growth-orientated relationships: couples, groups or communities provide the benefit of shared endevours, mutual support, encouragement and enthusiasm.
- Teachers: and the love of learning. As James Michener once proclaimed at a life-enhancing moment: “I am going to associate with people who know more than I do” – perhaps explaining his accumulation of 35 honorary doctorates in five disciplines before his long and productive life came to a close.
- Regular sustained practice: perhaps the most important of all as Walsh concludes: “I have seen some very impressive friends and colleagues fall into traps of stagnation, depression and addiction”.
Antidotes that are all possible in an affluent culture, providing that innate drive is allowed to express itself fully and appropriately.
*Walsh, R. (2008) Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4:3