whose voice is it anyway?

To punish me for my contempt for authority, 
fate made me an authority myself.
~Albert Einstein

As a psychotherapist, I meet many people oppressed by a voice in their heads, an internalized parental voice or the voice of social norms particular to their culture.  Freud called this Superego, the highest stratum of the psyche sandwiching the ego between impulse and self-restraint. 
Some think the Superego is the home of our conscience, our inner voice or moral compass, but the Superego is merely attuned to doing things "right" according to what others think, an external authority we have unconsciously assimilated, not for others’ sake but for the sake of our own survival.  

Obedience to authority is how we learn to stay alive in our family and culture. 
The word "obey" originally meant to hear.  But we can hear others without necessarily doing their bidding, and we can listen to ourselves without harming others.
Take, for example, a boy with ADD.  Such a boy has a hard time doing what parents or teachers ask, not because he is lacking conscience but because he has difficulty filtering incoming information.  He may be disobedient, but not as a result of not caring about others.  He is just firmly anchored in impulse.
Conversely, a girl with Anorexia tends to be highly obedient, not because of conscience, but because of a strong internal voice insisting on self-restraint.  She allows herself to be bullied by this voice to the point of ignoring biological impulse, often feeling divided between the Devil telling her to Eat, and Reason telling her to Restrict (in secular society Reason is God).  I often re-label Anorexia as the Devil to encourage Anorexics to reconnect with eating’s life-giving impulse. 
The root of the word authority is the same as that of author, auctor, meaning agent or creator, and comes from the Latin augere which means to increase or grow.  Interestingly, the word authority has come to mean a person of influence, like God the Creator has become Judge and jury, and therefore has become synonymous with an external authority.  Inner authority, on the contrary, is a voice which grows the self rather than restricts it in obedience to an external source of guidance.
One of my favorite philosophers, Spinoza, an atheist who refused to listen to the dictates of either of the religious cultures of his time, talks about conatus as the essence of man.  When we live in harmony with this, we feel empowered and joyful, the authors of our actions. 

As I see it, most of our work consists in freeing ourselves from the oppressive internalized forces bearing down on the innate capacity for fullness, wholeness, or health.  It is like trying to breathe freely.  We do not have to "do" anything in order to breathe; in fact, the more we do, the less we allow the breath to arise by itself. 

Many spiritual traditions talk about this "not doing anything" because there is nothing to do once you connect with your innate wisdom.  You cannot find your inner auctor, because it is never not there.  But you can identify imposters.


  1. Beautifully put.

    The balance between one meaning of authority (obedience/compliance) and the other (author/creator) is of special interest to me. The quest for inner growth frequently leads me to recognise cultural conditioning, in the most subtle forms. Discernment is essential.

    It is important to clarify the meaning of the words we use and to be precise within the context that we use them.

    All to often people get entangled in their interpretations and confuse the meaning of works like "emptiness" or "effortless". Some of them even go on to teach their dubious interpretations.

    For example, I think you hit the nail in the head when you mention "not doing anything". To me, "effortless" practice means not to oppose experience, not to oppose what is already there, in very much the same sense as "not doing anything", just recognising.

    But other people have a very different interpretation:

    "These days some people are trying to market meditation as "effortless". It's not. Sorry. It's a lot of time and energy spent coming back to the present moment. We're so used to being distracted that it actually takes a great deal of effort to come back to right now." (http://huff.to/1xZPrin)

    To my mind, this is completely misleading. That's not at all what the word "effortless" means in the spiritual teachings context. I wonder how people that simply don't get it, feel qualified to teach. So full of themselves, it is revolting. This is the type of authority that hampers personal understanding.

    Again, discernment is essential.


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