Autonomy (Wise Speech 3)

The doctor said if I kept eating this way, she’d amputate my toes”.

My good friend Debbie* was deeply unhappy about her medical results and the probability of surgery. The diabetes was out of control because her diet was a mess. Before the 5 strokes which nuked several parts of her brain almost 2 decades years ago, Debbie was a vivacious engaging person well-able to take care of herself. She lived and enjoyed life to the full with a large social circle and many opportunities to share her big heart and generosity. However, since the strokes, Debbie’s been on a disability pension with a life increasingly isolated because her speech isn’t always wise. She often speaks uncertainly or abruptly and either people feel pity for her or pissed off at her – their speech isn’t always wise either. Now down to a couple of good friends and her parents, her life has few opportunities for pleasure – a soap opera, superhero movies and tasty food.

Debbie doesn’t always make good decisions for her well-being which has major consequences as the diabetes results suggested but for the first time since we met, she was highly energized to eat better. If she continued as usual, her toes were likely to be removed but she didn’t know what to keep or throw away from the kitchen cupboards. I’m a health nut and did my best to support her new dietary direction but on occasion our conversations became tense. If I took control, she felt undermined and lost all sense of autonomy.

At some point, I realized we were reacting to different needs. For Debbie, it was about having autonomy in what to eat. For me, I wanted Debbie on the planet for as long as possible because she’s my good friend and I worried about her well-being. The tense conversations highlighted our unconscious needs which were expressed in unhelpful reactive ways.

What was clear about our reactions is that they were unconscious. That is, our reactions arose from the unconscious mind and our words were out of our mouths before we realized the impact on the other person. The reactions were so automatic they undermined our capacity to choose the best way to do things. And when we don’t have choice, we don’t have autonomy. I had an option to take a psychological step to look more broadly and see what was important and where our conflicts lay.

What became clear is that the most important aspect was maintaining Debbie’s autonomy because that was core to her happiness. And for this, she needed to express her values. And for this, she needed to be able to choose where and what she ate.

When we are reactive, we see few choices. When we are autonomous, we see more choices. But how to decrease the intensity and frequency of reactions? We need a kind heartfelt space to allow unconscious emotions to arise in a place that feels supportive. That’s where both meditation and counselling are useful. Either on our own or with a kind other, we learn to allow emotions to unpack the unconscious thoughts which make us reactive.

Meditation is a process to gain confidence, autonomy and faith that we have the resources to be with whatever arises. Autonomy is a big part of why I meditate. For me, it’s about learning to be less reactive in my own mind in order to be less reactive with others.

Here’s an example from a recent meditation sit. The first 20 minutes were calm. The body and mind were settled and thoughts arose and passed. Gradually, I became aware of a subtle discomfort. Then there was a desire to get up. The mind said Meditation is stupid and a waste of time. Oh, get up and do something, anything. Why would anyone bother with this? Have a cup of tea and stop this rubbish. I was sorely tempted to get up, do something, be active. I know this feeling well. I know I should sit but sometimes staying on the cushion is tough. I just don’t want to.

This is clearly a reaction. And if I hadn’t been meditating for all these years, I would have acted on the thoughts. However, in this moment, instead of getting up and making a cup of tea, I took the option to be autonomous and chose what to respond to. The meditation was in this moment and the tea could wait. In the meditation, I knew something didn’t want to be felt but it was still unconscious. And this is where the magic of meditation happens. Sitting, a bit unsettled and unsure of what’s going on.

After 20 years of meditation, this is what it’s like. Before I meditated, I thought every idea had to be acted upon but now I’ve come to see there are options. I’ve learnt not to react and this is the process for gaining autonomy. This is why I’m a relatively calm person nowadays. 20 years ago, I self-described as quick to heat up and slow to cool down. It’s been a long, slow process but I’ve done it.

People have different dispositions. In the Inner Voice blog, I describe 3 Inner Critic personalities: The Perfectionist, The Comparer and The Judge. As I have a Judge inner critic, the reactivity usually arises in response to feeling ashamed or humiliated. For the Perfectionist, the reactivity might arise with fear of failure or guilt. For the Comparer, the reactivity might arise with shame or unfairness.

Meditation is usually sitting quietly to allow the body to calm in order to allow and feel a reaction but not engage with it. By following this process over and over, the body and mind get used to not acting upon what arises in the mind. This process gives the mind space to go deeper and broader which allows a wider perspective of old events to give a new context.

My personal orientation with meditation is to focus on insight. So the sit is usually peppered with any or all of these three questions. What am I not seeing about this?, What’s the emotional tone of these thoughts?, and What’s important about these thoughts? This allows me to gain a wide understanding of a problem which allows me to integrate a variety of emotions. The follow on is that I see more choices in how to best respond with others – that is, I gain autonomy to be less reactive.

If I’d gotten up and made the tea instead of meditating, I’d have remained reactive to this unconscious emotion and next time I felt this way, perhaps in a conversation with someone, I could easily have reacted badly and this has real world consequences.

Think of a time when you took exception to someone’s comment and later realized that not only had you misconstrued it but that you’d spent a couple of days mulling over the interaction. Perhaps you’d recounted the conversation with a mutual contact, Do you know what they said!? This easily becomes gossip which can be very negative for relationships with family, friends, colleagues and elsewhere. And mulling over interactions also makes us unhappy.

This is why we need to integrate our emotions. By doing so, we gain autonomy and lose reactivity which then reduces the amount of harm we inflict upon ourselves and others. With Debbie, it would have been easy to take control or become frustrated but that wouldn’t have made either of us happy.

Below are ways to foster autonomy in conversations but before go there, I’d like to recap.

Thus far, I described how, by our unconscious reactions, we often speak unwisely and this can lead to a variety of unfortunate outcomes from misunderstandings, isolation, tense conversations, lost friendships and malicious gossip. I also explained that when we are emotionally reactive, we lack autonomy and lack of autonomy means not understanding the larger picture and how many options are available. Through meditation and counselling, we are given a kind space to own our emotional landscape and integrate feelings and different ways of understanding events – all of which increase our autonomy in everyday life.

In the previous Honesty and Empathy blogs to explore ways to foster Wise Speech, I used the practical framework provided in the book Rapport by Laurence and Emily Alison. The third part of building rapport is fostering autonomy. The authors state 4 lessons for fostering autonomy and its role in maintaining good relationships:

  1. to speak up about our needs

  2. to recognize a need for choice (theirs and ours)

  3. to think laterally to see more choices

  4. to find ways to enact choice.

1. To speak up about our needs.

The first autonomy lesson is to speak up about our own needs. If Debbie hadn’t spoken up about wanting to be in control of her food, her dignity would have lessened, she’d have become miserable and our friendship could have ended. Yes, she will live a shorter life but she’s not concerned about whether she lives having almost died several times. For Debbie, she wanted a sense of autonomy in her life.

2. To recognize a need for choice (theirs and ours)

The second lesson is to recognize other people’s need for independence and choice and see if there’s a way to incorporate their values in the discussion. The pleasure of food is a huge part of Debbie’s life. Trying new supermarket delights, enjoying cookery shows, going out to fast food restaurants and investigating delicious newcomers to the main street are major destinations for joy, and it’s one of the few fun things that remain available to her today. It was important for me to see the value of food choices for her happiness.

3. To think laterally to see more choices

The third lesson is looking for creative ways to include choice. At one point, I asked Debbie to prepare healthy meals for me to encourage her to eat more healthily or, we could have eaten at vegetarian restaurants or look for healthier supermarket offerings together.

4. To find ways to enact choice

The fourth lesson is choosing what to do at the time. For my meditation, it was deciding that being uncomfortable for a few moments was worth the effort. After I understood what Debbie wanted, I chose to follow her lead because it was Debbie’s need to choose what gave her joy that was the highest priority.

All these lessons highlight how autonomy is central to Wise Speech. Wise Speech is abstaining from false, malicious, harsh and useless speech. In other words, finding ways to not speak in a way that causes discord. If your emotional landscape is a foreign country, there’s more chance you’ll behave outlandishly (outlandish, 'out' 'land', means behavior that isn’t appropriate for where you are, it's from the out-lands).

By the way, here's what happened with Debbie’s toes. A few months later, it became clear that the reason the GP was alarmed by the dangerous diabetes result was because Debbie took the test after breakfast instead of an empty stomach.

So, all the panic was for a false reading.

Credit: Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels