"In a world marked by tension between individual and community, how then shall we live?" This bit of wisdom-tinged rhetoric, drawn from Leo Tolstoy, is one of the guideposts for study at my alma mater, Holy Cross.
Tolstoy's words have served to inspire me since I graduated and throughout my professional life, which is why I was so excited about the opportunity to interview Jason Fischer - a licensed psychotherapist who successfully marries Western psychology with Eastern philosophy in his practice. He's also the author of a new book, The Two Truths About Love, that addresses the question Tolstoy posed.
In the interview, we discuss the importance of living openly, the beauty in intercultural dialogue, and the enormous growth that can take place in our lives when we learn to relate to others with total acceptance.
As a practitioner of Taoism and Buddhism as well as being a licensed psychotherapist, you have a background in both Western psychology and Eastern philosophy. When and how did you decide to fuse these two seemingly at-odds perspectives on life?
My worldview and personal ideas about the human condition are heavily influenced by my past experiences with the cultural heritages of other countries. By the time I became a therapist, I had been studying and practicing Eastern philosophy and meditation for 15 years. I had visited and studied in Thailand, South Korea, China, Tibet, and India, as well as multiple Buddhist centers within the United States. The philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism in particular have always resonated with me on a deep level and, as a result, became absorbed into the fabric of my being.
As such, while meeting with clients in counseling, I inevitably viewed each client through a lens that was in part shaped by my extensive studies of Eastern thought. In reality, I can't say that this was much of a conscious choice. I never intentionally decided to combine the lessons of Eastern philosophy and with those of Western psychology. To me, the two seemed to fit neatly and seamlessly together, and effortlessly so. After all, the goals of each are the same, to help individuals alleviate suffering and achieve an elevated state of harmony with the world around them. This is precisely what I aim to accomplish through the philosophy I use in therapy sessions: less suffering, greater joyfulness and intimacy.
Your recent book, The Two Truths About Love, gives some insights about relationships that might be surprising to readers, such as 'you have 99 percent control of every relationship.' The book, and your general philosophy, seems to put responsibility on the reader to change themselves from the inside out. Can you talk a little about why taking responsibility for our emotions is not only important, but necessary for real transformation?
Absolutely! Most of us know how to live our lives tremendously skillfully while we are calm. I define "calm" as feeling any way that we do not mind feeling. In such a state, we readily say and do things that are in keeping with the goals we want to achieve. In short, we remain productive, creative and intentional.
However, when our calm gives way to a state of emotional reaction, usually in response to an external event, we lose our skillfulness. While reacting, we cease feeling a way we want to be feeling and are now suffering. This can manifest as such things as frustration, irritation, annoyance, impatience, anger, and anxiety. In this heightened emotional state, we tend to say and do things we don't truly mean, things that actually undermine our success, exacerbate our own suffering and push others away. This is what I call "acting out".
Taking responsibility for our emotions is not about prohibiting ourselves from experiencing our emotions, it's about understanding how to transform ourselves emotionally from a state of unrest to a state of calm instead. When we can do this, all on our own, we accomplish two essential goals.
First, we alleviate our own suffering, which in and of itself is a significant gift to ourselves, something we certainly deserve. We deserve to feel better, to feel okay in any moment.
The second goal that we accomplish is that we maximize our ability to skillfully respond to the situation at hand. We shift our focus from that which is outside us to that which we can indeed control, namely, ourselves. As we make a conscious choice to suffer less through giving permission, we regain our calm and intentionality. By embracing self-responsibility in this way, we adjust what we contribute to our circumstances, which in turn positively impacts others and our situation.
When our input changes, the whole equation changes. Instead of fighting to create an external change that we hope will later make us feel better (such as aggressively demanding that someone change a behavior we dislike), we take responsibility for our emotional state right now, feel better as a result, and then become best capable of attending, in a heartfelt and mindful way, to creating the eternal change we desire. We communicate lovingly and wisely, while making intentional choices, and others respond accordingly to this. People are infinitely more open to feedback when not feeling attacked or obligated to defend, justify or explain themselves. Once we see this in action, we realize just how much control (ironically, through not trying to control) we have upon others, hence the statement that we have 99% control or influence over any relationship. This is what works.
One of the central components of the book is the 'art of giving permission.' How will this concept help readers not just in their own lives, but in improving the lives of those around them?
Giving permission is indeed the core concept of my philosophy and book. It is, by far, the most important thing to understand, since it is our ability to give permission that is at the true root of our emotional experience. What I teach is a shocking but highly liberating truth: that whenever we are suffering emotionally (not physically, since that's a whole other story), the real cause of this is that we are not giving permission to something or someone to be what it is in the moment, including ourselves many times. That's it. It is always our relationship to reality, and not reality itself, that is the actual cause of our suffering. As such, that's great news! Since we are the cause of our suffering, we are also the solution. We can do something about how we feel. Instead of seeking to change reality or another person, we change our relationship to reality through the five steps of giving permission. Whenever we are giving permission, even if only unconsciously, we feel wonderful. When we don't, we suffer.
Also, people want to be given permission to be themselves. In fact, they crave this more than anything else. This is true for each and every one of us. We want to know that who we are, with all our own peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings, is okay. We know that we aren't perfect, but we don't want to be condemned or criticized or scolded for not living up to other people's expectations of us. We want to be embraced and supported, liked and loved, just as we are. Giving permission in this way is the single greatest gift we can offer someone, including ourselves. We say, "You're okay, just the way you are." As a result, the person not only feels more warmly towards us, but he or she learns how to better give themselves this same type of permission.
When we give ourselves permission, we improve our internal friendship. Consequently, our confidence and joyfulness grows. By giving permission to others, we reveal that this type of relationship is an available option. Chances are, they'll then start giving themselves the type of permission you've given them. Their own internal friendship will grow and they'll start treating others this same way, giving permission to others, on and on. Like this, a massive chain reaction of healthy relationships occurs that can eventually effect, in a positive and lasting way, every human life upon the planet. This is not to be confused with thinking that it's not okay for you to wish for a loved one to change in some way, such as if they are currently wrapped up in a negative cycle of self-destruction. Giving permission actually builds the foundation that leads to and inspires fundamental change.
As someone who has spent a lot of time studying both Eastern and Western spiritual, philosophical, and psychological practices, what do you think each view of the world has to teach us about relating to people of different cultures and worldviews with compassion?
This is what I teach when I talk about the role of understanding in giving permission. For giving permission to work, it must be sincere. It's not a con-game or mental trick. We don't simply tell ourselves that something or someone is okay; we understand that this is the inarguable truth. How so? Because, however something or someone is in the moment, even if it is a way you do not like or approve of, there are understandable reasons for this. Why is the blade of grass not as tall as the pine tree? Because it's a blade of grass. Why does the blade of grass not blossom into a flower? Because it's a blade of grass. And the same is true for each and every human. Each person is the way he or she is because of a combination of genetic inheritance and every cultural, historical, and personal experience that has shaped them into the person they are today, none of which was actually chosen by them. No newborn chooses their genetics or the country where they are born or the types of parents they have or teachers or classmates that influence them, in countless ways to become the person you meet in the present moment. Sure, you may not like someone or may not like something about them, but the truth is that, if you were them, you'd be the same way.
Instead of judging such a person, try understanding them instead. Try understanding that this person is actually innocent, that he or she did not ask to be this way. They are on their own unique path of learning and growing as a person, as you are. Then, if you desire to influence a change in them, give permission first and foremost and converse with them in a compassionate, understanding and harmonious way. Create a new experience for them, an experience that cannot help but have some small or great effect on the person they are becoming. If the world could learn to do this, aggression and violence would cease. We'd recognize our own selves in others, seeing past our differences (perhaps even celebrating them) and embracing our similarities more than anything else. After all, we are all remarkably similar. We want to feel individually joyful and get along well with others. This is the wisdom that exists at the heart of giving permission.
Do you think the art of giving permission can be useful to artists and in communication across cultures?
Without question! Giving permission is invaluable for anyone who wants to live a happy and fulfilled life abundant in close and productive relationships. It lays the foundation for extraordinary dialogues, which is something I talk extensively about in the section of the book that addresses "The Wisdom of Taking Responsibility". There is great power in language, not only inter personally, but in our inner dialogues and thoughts as well. When we take responsibility for our communications, which depends upon our willingness and ability to take responsibility for our emotions through giving permission, we discover how to fully engage in meaningful conversations that are cooperative in nature and move adroitly to deeper and deeper levels, rather than getting stuck in impasses of argument or circular, unproductive debates.
Instead of expecting someone with a contrasting cultural framework than you to view the world in a similar fashion, you give permission instead and seek to discover their perspective, valuing it as it is, just as it is. Rather than trying to be understood, you seek to better understand instead through asking genuine questions aimed at discovery and increasing familiarity. You let curiosity drive the conversation and, as a result, both yourself and the other person grow from the experience, and do so profoundly. With giving permission as a foundation, it's amazing the type of exchanges that become possible.