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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — February 2016

What Am I Adding to the Canvas?

What Am I Adding to the Canvas?

As a philosophical counselor, I often speak with clients who are immersed in an issue that has left them raw with pain and struggling for resolution to a point past exhaustion. At such times, I’m reminded that a problem can’t be solved at the same level that produced the problem. Invariably, what these clients need is a paradigm shift, a new and liberating way of looking at the situation that has them stuck fast, and the history of the sort of work we do offers many examples of brilliant facilitators who were able to evoke a realization or “reframing” that allowed the client to shift from contradiction and constriction to realization and release. Milton Erikson, Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl are three that come to mind. I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering ways that such a shift can be effected. No method works for everyone, of course. Philosophical counseling demands that the counselor remain mindful, alert, and intuitively open to the requirements of the client, the timing, and the situation at hand, and no formula can cover the endless diversity of variables.

One thing I’ve discovered that can help a client out of immersion and at least open the way toward the liberating paradigm shift is to step back from the conflicts with which he or she has been struggling and regard the situation as a painting that all of those involved are creating together. From this new angle of vision, right and wrong or true and false tend to fall away as the standard of the good, and the beautiful is allowed to come forward. It is a thoroughly Platonic approach, one that demonstrates how relevant and powerful Plato’s work still is today. The client, then, rather than thrashing about in the self-repeating details of an inadequate paradigm, tossed on waves of self-doubt and speculation, gets to ask a different sort of question: What am I adding to the canvas? The idea here is to add something good and beautiful, to assess one’s participation aesthetically by holding one’s choices up to whatever standard—generosity, nobility, compassion, detachment, serenity, kindness, etc.—speaks to the client as the most meaningful and humanly beautiful.

Here’s an example: Imagine two people in conflict. Each is convinced that he or she is right and the other wrong. Their perceptions, interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions are locked in a fight to the death. When such situations arise, it usually involves two people who care deeply about each other, such as romantic partners, family members, or close friends, since only two people who care deeply about each other will earn each other’s rancor. Rather than trying to solve (or resolve) the problem at the level that produced the problem, we ask these individuals to consider what they are adding to the canvas of their experience. Are they painting in the dark and depressing colors of blame and recrimination? If so, is this what they want to add? What might they add instead? What happens if they take a moment to recognize and take to heart each other’s pain, grant that something humanly valid is motivating the other, whatever it might be, perhaps even something long unresolved that has little to do with the seductive and intransigent context in which they are immersed, and put down their swords?

There is a story about an African tribe that deals in the most remarkable way with those who violate the social order. Instead of putting them on trial to determine a fitting punishment, they bring the perpetrator before the whole village. One by one, the villagers recount experiences they have had in which the one “on trial” behaved in a way that was heroic or selfless or merciful or noble or wise. Instead of retribution, they invite recollection of all that is good and beautiful and worthy. That is what they add to the social canvas. The effect, as you might imagine, is profound, for never is the good in us called forth and quickened more powerfully than when it is recognized and appreciated by those we love.

The resolve to honor the beautiful lifts us up, out of immersion and into the clear air of inspired thinking and acting. Note that such resolve is completely consistent with self-respect and self-care. Allowing that even the thief running in the night has his story and his reasons in no way obligates us to associate with thieves. We can extend compassion and forgive trespasses from a safe distance, and in this regard, I do not see much value in testing ourselves. There is no question, however, that remembering to ask, “What am I adding to the canvas?” and assessing our choices against the standard of beauty and goodness rather than right and wrong, can elevate us to the realm of truth that sets us free.

February 28, 2016   Comments Off on What Am I Adding to the Canvas?