Any inner work, and working with the instincts in particular, requires a generous helping of self-compassion. When the ego gets involved — and it likes to do that 😉 — sometimes we fall prey to a “whip-and-carrot” approach to our own evolution. From a purely transactional standpoint, this seems reasonable. But here’s why it’s not.
In our world, we’re used to achieve things with force. Yes, all of us — not only Eights, but most everyone. Study hard, get the grades. Push yourself in exercise to get stronger and fitter. Work hard to get more money, credit, opportunities, or whatever we’re coveting. And this is so often transferred to inner work, too. But forcing inner work is like trying to force a rose to bloom: it’s utterly pointless and, at best, achieves nothing. More often, is creates unnecessary challenges for the rose, and at worst, we destroy it in the process. That’s what we get for waging war on roses — and on ourselves
“What, war? I’m just being diligent!”
Of course, many people will feel they are not waging war on themselves. On the contrary, they are helping themselves by applying themselves. “I’m being diligent. Goal-oriented. Self-disciplined. Striving to become a better/more peaceful/less conflicted/happier/nicer person. Surely, that’s not the same as waging war on myself?” Well, okay, maybe war is a bit strong. But there’s still force involved. Effort is a kind of force; it is striving against something to achieve something else. And in that “against” lives an energy that doesn’t lend itself well to inner work.
Sometimes it’s very subtle. Believe me — I’m an Eight. While we’re not known for “subtle”, we are known for employing every variant of pushing there is. If there is a way to push, I have likely employed it at one point or another. And no, this warfare does not look like beating myself up, or setting harsh schedules for myself, or berating myself for being inadequate (my superego tends to go about its business in other ways, which I wrote about in a previous article). But there is an undercurrent of being the doer in everything I … well, do. Of making things happen. The alternative would be allowing things to happen, which hasn’t been my strong suit. And, even though I’m sure my fellow Eights might be the first to agree with me, it turns out we’re not not alone in this predicament — not by a long shot.
Self-discipline — friend or foe?
Okay. So, effort equals resistance. But isn’t there good resistance and bad resistance? Don’t things like self-discipline and diligence have a place in inner work? Yes, as a matter of fact, they do. As Suzuki Roshi once said: “Gaining enlightenment is an accident. Spiritual practice simply makes us accident-prone.” This is true not only for enlightenment and spirituality, but for any insight or increased balance of our inner world, including in the psychological arena.
Disciplining yourself into evolving is pointless. You cannot make yourself have a realisation. What you can do, to some extent, is the opposite; you can make it hard for the realisation to arrive. You can fill yourself with noise — be it through entertainment, through eating and/or drinking or through any number of dissociative activities or adrenaline kicks — which makes it harder to enter the state you’d want to be in for the realisation, whatever it entails, to happen. This is using effort (although it likely doesn’t feel like effort) in the opposite direction. T0 keep going with Roshi’s analogy, it’s like we are using a belt, suspenders and a safety pin to avoid being present with our inner experience. Not so accident-prone, then.
Leading a horse to the water
There’s an expression that says you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Leading the horse to water is the “making yourself accident prone” bit. In terms of inner growth, we might want to use a bit of effort to set aside the time. Time to sit. To give up a bit of space for emptiness and silence. And for that, self-discipline is a great help. But once we’re there — once we do take the time (in whatever format we choose to do that) — we need to leave “discipline” at the door. We are engaging, or wanting to engage, with our innermost self. This includes bits of ourselves that we have pushed away, denied, refused to deal with, been scared to meet or maybe just not been in touch with for a long, long time. It’s like taking ourselves off into the woods and sitting down in anticipation of a close encounter with a wild animal. To make ourself go, sure, again, we might need a bit of effort. But then to sit there, peacefully, inviting the shy energies in through our sheer lack of force, we need to just let go — of expectations, of agendas, of judgements. Those things activate effort again, and effort negates peace.
To sit there, peacefully, inviting the shy energies in through our sheer lack of force, we need to just let go — of expectations, of agendas, of judgements. Those things activate effort again, and effort negates peace.
Working with the instinctual drives
Nowhere is the call for self-compassion, patience and respect for the process as great as when we want to work with the instincts. They are, after all, almost literally — or at least, as close as we get to — wild animals inside us. They are not shy in the sense that they keep away, but they are automatic, fast as lightning and often happen before we realise what’s going on. To a large extent, they are designed to operate under our conscious radar. This is so that we will automatically carry out behaviours necessary for our survival, regardless of whether we “feel like it today” or not. In this respect, they are, in fact, exceptionally “wild” parts of us.
Watching, accepting and allowing
For this reason, essentially, working with the instincts actually starts with something very far from “working”. It starts with us being still. It starts with being vacant — not in a soulless, absent-minded way, but as in making ourselves available to our own experience. Especially if something is currently “going on” — when our buttons have been pushed and our inner reactivity has kicked into gear — we have a golden opportunity to explore the instincts in real-time. Often, though, it’s hard to start there.
Because of the wild, faster-than-lightening nature of our instinctual impulses, we might not even realise what’s going on until it’s over. However, if we can find our way back to the “charge” of the situation, even retrospectively, we can take some time to explore what was triggered and what that looked like inside of us.
For this to work, we need to have no agenda: no specific goal, no expectations, no judgement of that which we notice or experience inside ourselves. If you knew your parents would get angry with you for breaking a glass, wouldn’t you be less inclined to own up to breaking it? Well, it works much the same way with what goes on inside of us. If we’re approaching it with a ready-to-pounce superego waiting in the wings, not much will reveal itself. Instead, we have to sit back, accept what we see and allow it to unfold without evaluating it as good or bad.
The difference between allowing an inner experience and acting on it
Some people express worry when invited to explore their inner reactions, leanings, desires and impulses. “What if what I want is something bad? Will not my indulging the experience increase the likelihood of me acting it out?” As far as my experience goes, the opposite is much closer to the truth. The more ownership we accept for what goes on inside us, the less likely it will be for that (whatever is going on) to force our hand from behind the scenes.
The more ownership we accept for what goes on inside us, the less likely whatever that is will be to force our hand from behind the scenes.
Let’s say I have a strong craving for chocolate, but I’ve the conscious intention of steering clear of it for the foreseeable future. When the chocolate craving comes knocking, there are two paths open to me. I can try to focus on something else (much like dangling a set of keys in front of a baby to take her focus off of what just threatened to have her start crying), or I can explore the impulse. Redirecting my focus away from the impulse may well be an easier and more airtight way to avoid falling prey to the urge in this moment.
However, this solution is only as efficient as my redirection of focus, and it’s still rooted in resistance to what’s going on. It’s the war on ourselves again. Sure, it’s subterfuge warfare, not downright fighting — but it still takes an effort and bargains on me (that is, my conscious, rational awareness) staying in control. There’s still an element of aggression, however faint and benignly cloaked, where the head strives to rule the gut.
In the second path, instead, I turn towards the impulse and welcome it. While counter-intuitive to our force-happy, head-focussed culture, this is strangely rewarding. It turns out not only can curiosity be lethal to cats — it also frequently kills instinctual impulses. Like a child calling for mummy’s attention again and again when she’s in conversation with someone else, the instinctual impulse is often happy to be heard, acknowledged and welcomed, only to then continue on its merry way without insisting we do something with it.
If we’re approaching it with a ready-to-pounce superego waiting in the wings, not much will reveal itself. Instead, we have to sit back, accept what we see and allow it to unfold without evaluating it as good or bad.
I might even find that in my chocolate craving, the chocolate was a substitute for me checking in with myself, listening to myself for a bit. (If so, it might be strangely satisfying just stopping an doing just that. If the craving is indeed for some substance, it might of course be that it takes some weaning for the physical aspects of it to fully change — but chances are the experience of them without the deeper need that initially fuelled them will be a lot easier to handle.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This was not meant to be an article about the actual work. My point was more around the attitude which we bring into it. And it can be summed up like this: As long as you are willing to be present and allow whatever happens inside of you, you will never need whips or carrots in this inner work. Love for curiosity about yourself goes a long, long way ❤️