Many thanks to Natalie Connors for inviting me to kick off the blog tour for Lifeshocks, a moving memoir by Sophie Sabbage. I have an extract to share but first of all here’s the book info.
This is a book about all the unwanted and unexpected moments in our lives. They surprise us, they blindside us. They shock us. They command our attention. Some bounce off us, other strike deep into our being. These moments are collision points between how we see life and how life actually is. These are lifeshocks.
In her new book Sophie explains how lifeshocks awaken us. She offers her own deeply personal story as well as other case studies as a vehicle for bringing the theory and teachings to life. She focuses on three kinds of lifeshocks we all receive: limiting lifeshocks which challenge our arrogance and appetite for control; exposing lifeshocks which challenge our affectations and pretences; and evoking lifeshocks which challenge our closed-heartedness.
This groundbreaking new book reveals how these lifeshocks can bring healing, transformation and peace.
Illusions of ‘Personal Power’
Having worked in the Human Development movement for over a quarter of a century, I have long been concerned by the concept of ‘personal power’. On the one hand, I have been eager to find a version of it I could live with and nurture. On the other, I have become wary of how seductive promises of releasing one’s ‘personal power’ can appear, and how ripe for the ego to claim dominion in pseudo-enlightened clothes. ‘Personal power’ seems to have become an end in itself, with little definition or nuance. The Human Development market is flooded with ‘personal power’ products, some of which have integrity and some of which don’t. I have purchased and participated in at least a dozen over the years, during which I have been alarmed by false positive beliefs – which feed the illusion of limitless personal power – being taught as truths: ‘you can do anything’; ‘anything is possible’; ‘you create your own reality’. For example.
It is certainly true that we create our own emotional experience through what we believe, and act in line with those beliefs (although it is important to note that there are also clinical and chemical exceptions to this). It is also true that we can harness our inner resources – vision, purpose, skill and sheer hard work – to create espoused results. There is plenty of evidence to support this, and some great tools to become effective at it. However, human beings can’t ‘do anything’ and ‘anything’ is not possible. This is omnipotent thinking. We don’t have wings. We are not immortal. If we are trapped in flames, we burn.
Equally, the belief that ‘you create your own reality’ contains some liberating truth. Indeed, I teach people that our results reflect our dominant intentions. What we actually do tells us what those are. We may make a commitment not to eat sugar and, within a day, devour a packet of chocolate biscuits. This is because we have not noticed our unconscious conditions. ‘I will give up sugar provided that it is easy.’ Our ‘provided thats’ are the unconscious intentions that so often win. When it comes to manifesting our power through commitment and discipline, this is very important to understand. At the same time, there is a shadow being cast in the personal growth world by the tenet that ‘you create your own reality’. There is an absence of awareness about the sheer privilege of being able to engage in personal growth at all. There is a lack of consideration for people’s particular contexts, including their education, cultures and formative lifeshocks. Try saying, ‘you create your own reality’ to a shivering refugee being pulled off a boat in the Mediterranean or a young black man being pulled over by the police for the colour of his skin. No. This is irresponsible language that posits blame or deserved ‘karma’ where it is not due. ‘You create your own reality’ may be psychologically mature in some ways, but it is spiritually young, because there is an arrogant assumption that what we intend for our lives is more important than what life intends for us.
In my twenties, I worked for a management consultancy that put me through fifteen days of intense personal-growth training. We were taught that ‘there is no truth’, ‘there is no reality’ and ‘you can change reality by changing your perception of it’. As someone who was already aware of how transformational a shift in perception can be, I was almost convinced by these generalities until the trainer said, ‘The wall is only a wall because you see it as a wall. If you see it as pure energy, you will be able to walk through it.’ At this point, I challenged her to do just that, to be what she was teaching, but she couldn’t. The wall was adamant in its wall-ness. I resigned from the company soon after.
The fact that there are so many ‘personal power’ offerings in the market testifies to a deep need in our culture, a need born of people’s profound sense of powerlessness and inability to live the lives we dream of. We are reaching for something within that will bring us peace, joy, security and intrinsic worth – and better we reach for this within than chase it outside of ourselves. In itself, this is a huge leap forward. However, we need to be aware of how cunning and powerful the reactive mind can be. The more we are on to it, the more ways it finds to trick, dupe and seduce us – just like cancer mutates in response to the treatments we throw at it.
This means we need to be increasingly vigilant as we awaken and evolve. We need to notice when the ego basks in the glory of being a ‘life coach’ or ‘spiritual teacher’. We need to beware the teacher who cannot see their own shadow and is not willing to have it pointed out. The belief that we have ‘arrived’ developmentally or spiritually is a clue that we have lost ourselves again. Equally, the Human Development movement needs to be aware of the shadows it casts, one of which is the emergence of ‘personal power’ teachings that fuel a false positivity and the myth of our omnipotence: the notion that we have power over reality, that we are ultimately in charge.
At the other end of the scale are ‘spiritual’ teachings that discourage the quest for personal power because we are all ‘completely powerless’ and everything that happens is ‘God’s will’. Again, there are some essential truths here to reiterate: we are all mortal and impermanent; we are not in control of what happens; none of us is exempt from loss, frailty, vulnerability and death. At the same time, being taught that we are completely powerless can compound existing false beliefs that disable our ability to act, serve and shine as responsible, creative and compassionate human beings. It can become an enlightened excuse to turn away from the world instead of playing an active part in its evolution. More than this, it can fuel people’s sense of impotence, self-loathing, hatred and violence – which is what an underlying conviction in our powerlessness can lead to.
This is where the principle of veracity comes in. First, we need to get over our perceived powerlessness, which manifests in a variety of core beliefs: I’m helpless, I’m out of control, I’m weak, I’m ineffective, I’m a failure, I’m needy, I’m useless. All these beliefs generate a state in which we become victimised by whatever is happening and unable to respond effectively. They suck up our inner power. Core beliefs like this are invariably false. The ‘I am’ makes them erroneous – as if ‘weak’ or ‘helpless’ marks someone’s entire being, like the lettering through Brighton rock, permanently branding who ‘I am’. We need to understand that who we are and how we behave are not the same thing. We are not our behaviour. That we fail at something does not make us ‘failures’; that we have weaknesses does not make us ‘weak’. The reactive mind does not get this. It turns one into the other at lightning speed, writing us off with sweeping judgements instead of discerning the difference between our doing and our being. When my daughter crosses a behavioural line, like when she threw skittle balls at the television in a rage at the age of three (smashing the screen irreparably), I do my utmost to say, ‘What you did was not okay’ – which she is then required to repeat back to me so I know she got it – ‘but YOU are okay. You are always, always okay.’ Then some appropriate consequence (versus punishment) for that behaviour ensues. Happily, she hasn’t smashed anything since.
While working to overcome the false limitations we impose on ourselves, we also need to accept the true limitations set by life. The walls we run into. The events we cannot control. The deep-down vulnerability of our ultimate humanity. We need to challenge and release our delusions of grandeur and false entitlements, which are born of beliefs that over-inflate our powers: I am superior, I am better than, I am above, I am very special, I am always right, I can do no wrong. This is where we go when we cannot bear the pain of ‘I’m powerless’ (and its various cousins) a moment longer. We bury it deep in the unconscious and lash out at anyone who suggests we see ourselves that way. We steal our worth from others because ‘at least I’m not like them’. We avoid pain by asserting power over others instead of reclaiming the power of knowing who we are and what we are legitimately worth. Somewhere between our perceived impotence and assumed omnipotence lies our true power. It is time to drop the generalities, abstractions and absolutes. It is time to be precise.
Extract from Lifeshocks by Sophie Sabbage, published by Hodder, priced £17.99.