CHOICE: A PARADIGM OF PERSONAL POWER
From Heron, J., Paradigm Papers, published by
British Postgraduate Medical Federation, University of London, in
association with Human Potential Research Project, University of
Surrey, December 1981.
The main home of the concept of choice is in the
philosophy of the person. "I choose, therefore I am". My choices
define my identity and status as a person. And because I am a person
only in relation to other persons and a non-social world, my choices
also necessarily define the sort of social and non-social world to
which I relate. In exercising choice, I exercise my will, my
personal power. I elect my reality in a fundamental sense. This
paper is dedicated to the reclamation of personal power in the
authentic, charismatic and non-oppressive sense of that phrase.
I will first of all explore the central area to
which the concept of choice applies - autonomous choice, fully
personal choice - and then consider important extensions of the
concept to what I shall call conventional "choice", survival
"choice", and transpersonal choice. The possible interactions
between autonomous choice, the two sorts of "choice" and
transpersonal choice, then gives us a comprehensive paradigm for the
exercise of personal power.
By an autonomous choice, I mean a choice made by a
person who is functioning fully as a person: that is, who is not
choosing in an unconsidered, purely conventional and socially
stereotypic way; and whose choice is not made unawarely from the
compulsions of repressed emotional distress. Positively, I make an
autonomous choice when it springs from my discriminating and
well-informed grasp of the relevant facts of the situation,
and from values and norms which I have freely grasped
and understood, and to which I am independently and internally
My values are those worthwhile states of affairs
which, as a free, rational and sensitive being, I wish to see more
of in the world. Such worthwhile states of affairs may be classified
under broad headings such as: the personal and interpersonal; the
organisational and political; the economic and ecological; the
domain of knowledge, theoretical and applied; the aesthetic; the
My norms are those guiding principles of action
which help to realise
my values, and to which, likewise I am committed as
a free, rational and sensitive being. They may be broad, very
general principles, such as the principle of justice, and of respect
for persons; they may be more specific, such as being
real/authentic/congruent in relations with other persons. I adopt
them as indeed I adopt my values, because I see the point of them:
they illuminate and motivate my understanding, my sensibility, and
my capacity for action.
As well as the facts of the situation, values, and
norms, there are several other parameters of personal choice. Thus I
may choose now a goal ahead, I may choose now some means to a
goal ahead; or I may choose now to do something which is an
end-in-itself, something which is intrinsically worthwhile and
enjoyable, which is its own goal, which has no end beyond the doing
of it. Of course, something I choose to do as an end-in-itself, I
may also choose to do as a means to some goal. Thus I may choose my
daily work because it is intrinsically satisfying; I may also choose
it because it is a means to the goal of social change of some
specified sort, or because it is a means to the goal of receiving a
monthly salary cheque.
If I am always choosing to do things which are only
means to goals ahead, and never at the same time ends-in-themselves,
then I am always living for the future, never living in the present.
Such alienation from present fulfilment, from the immediate
realisation of values, is less than personal, autonomous choice. The
autonomous person, I suggest, achieves some interesting balance
between choosing activities that are purely ends-in-themselves,
activities that are both ends-in-themselves and means to some goal
ahead, and activities that are only means to some goal ahead and not
at the same time ends-in-themselves.
Another set of parameters define the process of
choice. There are at least three facets to it: consideration,
selection and action. Firstly, there is the
identification and consideration of the possibilities or options
among which choice can be made. Secondly, there is the selection of
one possibility or option for realisation now or in the future.
Thirdly, there is action - the implementation of the option, the
actualisation of it. These processes may occur holistically,
intuitively and more or less simultaneously. Or they may occur with
deliberation and reflection, and sequentially. Or with some
integration of right-brain and left-brain methodology. An autonomous
person is likely, over time, to balance all three styles: the
holistic; the deliberative and sequential; the integrated.
Action, the implementation phase of choice, brings
with it issues of follow through, of perseverance, of commitment,
of staying with a decision made as long as it is appropriate to do
Finally, choice may be about external actions,
which involve motion in the physical world: such actions may be
solitary, without social contact, or they may involve interaction
with other persons (or with animals, etc). Or choice may be about
internal actions, in which I am making choices about my own
state of mind and being. And these choices, about states of
mind, may be about either very general and basic belief-systems
(what sort of a world and reality I inhabit), basic sets of values
(what states of affairs are worthwhile and worthy to be realised),
basic norms (overall guiding principles of action that facilitate
the realisation of what is valued); or about specific, existential
states of mind and being -what is going on in me right here and now.
Or choice may be about internal-external actions, in which I
choose both states of mind and action in the world, interacting
potently with each other.
I regard internal actions (and their follow-through
in internal-external actions) as really quite fundamental in the
reclamation of personal power. They are a prime area for the exercise of
personal autonomy, since they are involved directly with the
election of reality.
I use the word "choice" in inverted commas to
indicate a primitive, low-level kind of choice. It can be seen
either as a primordial, embryonic form of full autonomous choice, or
as a degeneration of the latter. Perhaps conventional "choice" is
more embryonic, survival "choice" more degenerate. "Choice" is not
made with full awareness, with independent rational and sensitive
I make a conventional "choice" when I do what others
do simply because others do it. I unthinkingly seek identity through
imitation and assimilation of the surrounding culture. Young persons
become socialised by engaging in the relatively unreflective
processes of conventional "choice". In this sense conventional
"choice" is embryonic choice, is a necessary precursor to the later
development of autonomous, considered, personal choice. Autonomous
persons are like plants that emerge out of the soil of
socialisation. They are rooted in the soil, and by selection and
rejection of its contents, formulate an independent bloom of
beliefs, values and norms.
In more formal language, I make a conventional
"choice" when my "choice" follows from my apprehension of some
prevailing socially accepted view of how to construe the facts of
the choice situation, and from some prevailing socially accepted set
of values and norms; and when such prevailing views are uncritically
accepted by me - that is without the exercise of intelligent
discrimination. When such a "choice" is challenged and I am asked to
justify it, all I can do is appeal to social authority, to what is
traditionally done, to what most people do, etc.
Conventional "choice" can be characterised in
terms of the same sorts of parameters as autonomous choice. The
difference, of course, is that the autonomous chooser is functioning
with some degree of awareness of these parameters, whereas the
conventional chooser is not.
The conventions that I "choose" may be of at least
three sorts. They may be ritual conventions. By this I mean
that they have an extra-functional symbolic or theatrical form to
give meaning to some basic recurring feature of the human condition,
such as birth, death, greeting, saying farewell, and so on. Ritual
conventions may seem hollow and out of date, or apparently
arbitrary, or they may have living, archetypal power to illumine
with meaning those who "choose" them.
The conventions I "choose" may be functional
conventions. That is, they may be relatively rational procedures
that aid social coherence and the fulfilment of rational social
purposes. Or they may be distress-determined conventions: tacitly
agreed and accepted ways in which persons in a social system act out
and displace their repressed distress emotions. Such conventional
acting out of denied distress will be done unawarely, and the
counter-productive, non-functional, irrational nature of the
activity will compulsively not be noticed. Indeed,
distress-determined conventions will be "legitimated" by those
who adopt them as valid ritual or functional conventions.
It seems reasonable to suppose that for most people
identity in a social system is the resultant of a mixture of
conventional "choices" and autonomous choices. You can say, for each
person, either that some choices are autonomous and some "choices"
are conventional; or that each choice made contains elements of
autonomy and conventionality in varying degrees. Either way round,
the autonomy of the person is in a state of emergence from (or
disappearance back into) the conventionality of a person.
A fully autonomous person can exhibit three sorts of
behaviour in relation to the prevailing conventional behaviour. Some
autonomous behaviour is different from the prevailing
conventional behaviour - but the difference stems not from a
rebellious, reactive response (which is pseudo-autonomy), but from
authentic personal beliefs, values and norms. Other autonomous
behaviour looks the same as some prevailing conventional behaviour.
The difference is invisible: the autonomous person sees the point of
the behaviour, is not adopting it just because others do.
Thirdly, the autonomous person may engage in
apparent conformity, adopting a conventional behaviour not
because he sees the point of it -indeed he may regard it as
pointless - but because such apparent conformity he judges to be a
necessary condition of entering into more significant and meaningful
relations with those concerned.
Then there is the following anomaly. A group of
autonomous persons may awarely choose to adopt certain norms of what
they regard as autonomous behaviour. But others outside that group
may unwittingly construe those norms as conventions to be "chosen"
when in the presence of members of that group.
A very early, and quite fundamental kind of
conventional "choice" I will call linguistic "choice". This is the
"choice" involved when a child learns and adopts a language in the
second and third years of life. In "choosing" to adopt the
prevailing spoken language, and especially the prevailing usage of
that language, a child also "chooses" subtly pervasive
belief-systems, values and norms implicit in that usage. A basic
cultural world-view and world-evaluation is "chosen". This "choice"
of a pervasive world-view provides the conceptual content in the
process of perception. And so the small person has "chosen" to
perceive and experience a world of a certain sort and of a certain
range of values. There has been an "election" of reality. This early
"election" awaits revision in terms of autonomous election. The
ordinary processes of education in our culture cannot be relied upon
to elicit such autonomous election. Primary and secondary education,
at any rate, tend merely to confirm the parameters of the inchoate
"election" made in early childhood. For the linguistic usage the
child picks up, is itself in part a product of the education to
which the adults around have been subject.
By the term survival here I mean not so much
physical survival as psychological survival, that is, the survival
of my personal identity, my identity as an experienced being.
Survival "choice" is more rudimentary and primitive than
conventional "choice". It involves a rapid, unthinking, subliminal
mental mechanism whereby a person deals with a sense of potentially
overwhelming emotional pain by denying it access to consciousness,
and by displacing the tension of what is denied outwards into
perceptions of, and behaviours in relation to, the environment, or
inwards into attitudes to the self, or both. Such survival "choice"
is a relatively blind, unaware emergency management of responses to
stress, in order to ensure the maintenance of some kind of
psychological identity and functioning competence in the face of
highly threatening adversity.
The prime adversity for the infant person appears to
be that very fundamental needs are not being met to a degree that
precipitates unbearable and unmanageable amounts of distress - that
is, of fear, and grief, and anger. These needs, I believe, are needs
to be loved and to love, to be understood and to understand, to be
chosen and to choose. Or to put them in more unitary form: to have a
distinct expressive identity in dynamic relation with a wider whole
including other distinct identities. On the current evidence
available, from conception on the combined processes of incarnation
and socialisation can lead to deeply painful interruption of such
needs. The survival "choice", when the pain is sensed to be too
great, is to freeze the need, repress and deny the pain,
and displace the whole configuration: the frozen need and the
denied pain are symbolically acted out in the world or
acted in against the self.
Survival "choice" is in one sense a degenerate,
mechanistic kind of choice. It leads to unaware, compulsive acting
out and acting in behaviours that become chronically maladaptive
vestigial behaviours in the adult. But degenerate, blind and
desperate though it may be, it is still a kind of choice, since the
adult person can choose at the autonomous level of choice to undo
and reverse the survival strategy "chosen" in infancy. In another
sense, survival "choice" is a godsend resource to the infant person:
it enables the person to keep afloat in the seas of early
experience. Rather like a ship which, when torpedoed, has an
instantaneous mechanism for sealing off the damaged water filled
section of the hull, so that the whole vessel remains seaworthy,
even though thereafter it may list hard to port or starboard, and
have limited navigability.
The most striking feature of a survival "choice" is
its obdurate nature. Nor is the reason for this hard to seek. It is
made at a subliminal, primitive, low and relatively inaccessible
level of consciousness: it is the psychological equivalent of a
simple physical reflex. It is originally motivated and thereafter
continuously sustained by a deep fear of loss of identity, or
psychological death if overwhelming pain is not denied. Furthermore,
the displacement behaviour, the acting out and the acting in,
compulsively practiced for a long time, provides the only sense of
identity the person knows, even though it is an unreal
unsatisfactory, pseudo identity, alienated from real needs. Adults,
then, may well have many potent threads of vestigial survival
"choices" that sew up both their internal and external actions in
ways that to the persons concerned are very resistant both to
detection and to unpicking. And to the extent that this is so, their
capacity for making autonomous choices is restricted.
What are the relations between conventional "choice"
and survival "choice"? Some survival "choices", or rather the
displacement behaviour resulting from them, will be the same as
conventional behaviours. I referred above to distress-determined
conventions: the socially acceptable ways in which people tacitly
collude and agree to act out denied pain. In my view, such
distress-determined conventions pervade every facet of our social
system, indiscriminately inter-woven with quite valid ritual and
functional conventions. On the other hand, some displacement
behaviour may be socially unacceptable and result in behaviours that
our social system labels in many different ways: criminal, deviant,
maladjusted, neurotic, psychotic, and so on. Finally, there are
those very pervasive sorts of behaviour distortions that go on in
homes, in families, in relationships, in organisations, which are
not regarded either as socially acceptable or as socially deviant,
but as the tolerated pathology of everyday living.
It seems to me important to note that valid
conventions, that are not distress-determined, provide an
intermediate, stable ground between fully autonomous behaviour on
the one hand, and distress driven behaviour on the other. Such
stable ground gives respite from acting out denied pain, and an
opportunity to prepare for generating the personal beliefs, values
and norms of autonomous behaviour.
I wish to point now to a very special kind of
survival "choice". This is the "choice" not to notice the
transpersonal, originating source within, not to notice the
well-spring whence my distinct personhood, my autonomous capacities,
emerge. This source, this Alpha, this spaceless space, is where the
metaphor of paradox abounds. It is not to be striven for, just to be
noticed, acknowledged, encountered within. It is subtle and simple
and potent. I can choose never to be alienated from it. I can also
"choose" nescience, transcendental forgetting, alienation, not
noticing and not knowing it.
What is the point of such survival "choice"? Why
refer such a "choice" to the concept of survival? On the one hand
there is the possibility that the source is too potent, too
overwhelming. This numinous awe, this creaturely fear of the
primum mobile, is the fear of loss of distinctness in a being
emerging for distinctness. On this view, repression of the sublime,
denial of the eternal bliss of emerging out of the full void, is a
"choice" to retain identity over against the fear of its ecstatic
dissolution. The fear is the fear that a precarious and precious
distinctness of being will be incinerated in the fires of eternal
enthusiasm, the most abundant creative passion of God.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that
the processes of incarnation and socialisation can engender a subtle
dislocation of awareness, an induced alienation of personhood from
its source. The subtle discomfort, disquiet and pain that results,
the pervasive dissatisfaction and anomie, is dealt with by denial.
The person "chooses" not to notice the subtle pain, the longing, the
source that sense of emergence from which is longed for.
On either view we may expect some symbolic
displacement, the relatively unaware acting out of what has been
denied. The denied fear of ecstatic loss of identity may be acted
out through compulsive pursuit of a personal identity through
achievement in the non-numinous, the peripheral, the phenomenal, the
restricted and circumscribed zones of experience. The denied pain of
alienation from, and longing for the sense of emergence from, the
source, may be acted out through the compulsive pursuit of original
bliss in a variety of different experiences which per se
cannot deliver it. On the one hand, the displacement is into
achievement, on the other hand it is into pleasure. This is not to
discount either achievement or pleasure as valid experiences in
their own right; only to suggest there can be an element of
transcendental displacement in both.
These denied fears and pains to do with one's source
in the transpersonal sense, are not to be confused with the denied
fears and pains to do with one's physical
conception, foetal life and birth. Neither one of these can be
reduced without remainder to the other. But they may well be closely
interwoven as primordial experiences of personhood. In the same way,
survival "choices" that are to do with the early interruption of
one's personal needs and capacities, are not to be confused with the
survival "choices" to do with one's relation to one's source. They
are distinct and irreducible sorts of "choice". Nevertheless, they
and their effects on behaviour, attitude and thought, may interact
and interweave in all sorts of subtle ways.
In other words, in our understanding, the two sorts
of survival "choice" need to be kept clear and distinct; but
experientially, for any given person, they may be fused together
with much extraordinary variety. They also need to be kept clear and
distinct in the process of reclaiming our personal power.
I call transpersonal Choice Choice, because
it is the source of the very possibility of autonomous choice. It is
the archetype of choice, the Ur-phenomenon of choice, the ground and
being of choice in the autonomous sense. And yet in my view, without
celebrating autonomous choice, we cannot enter into the simple
heritage of its ground - Choice. Autonomous choice and being aware
of Choice go together. Each achieves its fullness in dynamic
relation with the other.
By Choice I mean the originating Act whence I as a
distinct person, with distinct capacities, emerge. This originating
Act is ever-present, in a sense outside time, yet feeding time with
my personhood. All I have to do is notice it. If I search for it and
strive for it, and try to notice it, I can't find it. I
simply choose to notice it; or I choose to notice its simplicity. I
am being fed with Being all the time.
Such Choice is motionless motion, spaceless space,
sounding silence, full emptiness. It abounds in paradox. It Chooses
my autonomy. It generates and sustains and enhances the distinctness
of my autonomy. It is transpersonal, it is not I, it is not you: it
Chooses me to be, it Chooses you to be. It is pure Act.
Imagine your person as a flat spiral, a disc, a
nebular vortex or circle. The outer reaches of the disc interweave
with the world and are dense with experiential phenomena. The disc
becomes more tenuous and rarefied as you move toward its centre. The
central area of the disc is empty space, void. Where the central
void meets the most tenuous substance of the disc, your basic human
capacities continuously emerge from the void: your capacities for
being loved and for loving; for being understood and for
understanding; for being chosen and for choosing (and "choosing").
Yet the void sustains and contains and originates the whole disc all
It is implicit in this metaphor that, as well as the
originating Act whence my personhood continuously emerges,
there is also a continuous Choice of whatever I choose or
"choose". So if I feel and believe myself to be confused, trapped,
restricted in different ways by my choices or "choices", it is
useful to notice that always at the same time they are being Chosen.
The first step to liberation, freedom, peace, enlightenment, or
whatever else constitutes real expansion of personal being into
splendour, is to lay back in the Void and notice that whatever
I choose or "choose" is at the same time being Chosen, is
originating in pure Act.
The agonies of religious guilt, of justifying
a relationship with God, are but another sort of distress-determined
denial of noticing the ever-presence of Choice, confused with a
denial of all the grief and anger stored within through the
experience of a parent offering only arbitrarily conditional love.
The theological problem of the deus escondidus,
the hidden God, is not a problem but a psychological defence
rationalised out as a theological problem. The source of personhood
is not hidden; it is ever-present within. I just have to choose
to notice it, that is all.
The election of reality
A central component of personal power I define as my
ability through the exercise of my will to elect my reality, to
define the sort of social and non-social world of which I am a part.
I do not believe that this election can be arbitrary, that I can
elect and define any reality. But I do believe that
any statement about what is empirically given, what are
non-negotiable data of human experience, is a statement that is in
principle conjectural, open to revision, indeed rejection, as a
function of further choices and explorations. The most that I can
say is that I now choose in my present state of mind to regard
certain features of the world (social and non-social) as not open to
redefinition through my choices.
To a very important degree, then, I choose my
reality. No one else can do it for me. But maybe I can only do it
through dialogue; through reworking the way I use language, revising
my early linguistic "choices", in interaction with the written and
spoken words of others. "Realities" shift their identities along the
axis of shared beliefs and perceptions. If this is so, then a
reality which I choose is also at the same time a reality which
someone else to some significant degree chooses. Reality is chosen
out of parity. "We choose, therefore the world is". On this view, it
is the agreement to experience a certain sort of reality that
constitutes it as a reality. It is the element of identity among
distinct personal choices that creates the real, that is, what those
concerned agree to regard as real.
There is an inalienable, ineliminable quality about
the personal choice that elects a reality. Any attempt to disband
the concept of such choice itself involves a choice to regard the
concept as redundant; and this is self contradictory. The
fundamental act of human understanding - which is to discriminate
how it will construe what there is - cannot be abandoned. Any idea
that it can be abandoned is, in my view, a delusion. I may abandon
opaque discrimination for translucent discrimination, fruitless
discrimination for fruitful discrimination, but discriminating
awareness per se I cannot abandon. It is one of the ultimate
signatures of my distinctness of personal being. And that
distinctness is always being Chosen. It issues forth from
originating Act. I can choose to abandon the idea of the
separateness of my personhood, the idea that it has no unity with
anything else. To choose this is, ultimately, to choose to notice
that my personhood has distinctness without separateness; that each
of us is distinct within the unity of our world; and that each world
is distinct within the unity of worlds.
In other words, the exercise of human judgement -
about what there is, about what it would be worthwhile for there to
be, about guiding principles of action for realising the worthwhile
- is essential to distinctness of personal being. You can refine the
judgement, enhance the distinctness and orchestrate it within ever
greater wholes. You can't destroy either in the interests of
There is a phrase "destroying the ego" which some
schools put forth as a key part of their programme for
enlightenment. But the phrase is systematically ambiguous and
therefore potentially misleading. If it is a recommendation to
destroy distinctness of personhood, then it is a trap and a snare
for the unwary; an invitation to participate as subject in an
unidentified despotism of the spirit. For no such destruction in my
view is possible.
If it is a recommendation to abandon the illusion of
the separateness of persons, to transcend selfish and self-regarding
attitudes, to open the mind up beyond rigid, restricted and limiting
conceptual framework, to respond to wider reaches of awareness, then
these policies as such are fine, provided always that they are seen
as ways of enhancing distinct personhood within an ever greater
whole, and that they are never dissociated from the exercise of
discriminating awareness and human judgement. But then it is better
to talk positively about developing the person, rather than to talk
negatively about destroying the ego.
A manifesto for the reclamation of personal power
1. I become powerful by choosing to
notice that my personal autonomy originates in pure Act, is ever
emerging now out of a transpersonal Choice. But I need to
exercise my autonomy in order to choose to notice this. It is
out of the pleasures of freedom that I notice the ever present
well-spring whence I come. Choosing to notice how I originate
in Act gives me unprecedented power. Not power over, but
power with: power with my choices, power with others,
power with processes that I choose to apprehend in the world.
2. I become powerful by choosing to undo
the survival "choices" that repress and displace my distresses
about the originating, transpersonal source within. This is the
choice to work through transpersonal defenses by transpersonal
co-counselling, or some form of transpersonal therapy, or
transpersonal encounter. I choose to become aware of these
defenses, and to develop ways of dismantling them, and to work
with the feelings involved.
3. I become powerful by choosing to undo
the survival "choices" that repress and displace the frozen
needs, and overwhelming emotional distresses of foetal life,
birth, infancy and beyond. I choose to use primal reintegration,
co-counselling, some form of regression work that enables me to
loosen the old knots of thought and feeling and action by which
my personhood has been trapped and entangled.
4. I become powerful by choosing to
develop my capacities for being loved and loving, for being
understood and understanding, for being chosen and choosing, in
ways that are meaningful to me and to others to whom I choose to
relate. I affirm and express my unfettered capacities with
idiosyncratic personal style.
5. I become powerful by electing - through
dialogue with others through the written and/or spoken word - my
reality. This is fundamental internal action. I choose how to
construe what there is. I choose an ontological paradigm, a
basic conceptual framework that articulates what for me and my
peers constitutes reality. As well as a basic belief-system,
I choose my values: what is worthwhile, both in actuality
and yet to be realised. And I choose my norms, fundamental
guiding principles of action.
6. I become powerful by choosing what
state of mind and being I shall be in now in this situation. I
choose how I perceive and construe what is going on here. I
choose how to manage what thoughts, feelings, moods, impulses
action tendencies are precipitated in me by the situation. I
choose spontaneity or restraint, sobriety or enthusiasm. I
choose to see the situation in a way that heightens energy
rather than depresses it. I choose not to act out old distress
feelings. And so on and so forth. Above all I choose to exhibit
these internal actions in appropriate external actions or in the
appropriate absence of external actions.
7. Finally, I become powerful by choosing
to rework conventional "choices", by deciding which conventions
I shall adopt as personal norms, which I shall reject, which I
shall transcend in terms of new forms of behaviour, which I
shall simply appear to conform to for my own good reasons. This
is autonomy at work in the social area, in the fields of social
and organisational and political development: confronting rigid
systems, breaking new ground in organisational structures and
processes, creating alternative organisations, revising
ecological, technological and economic arrangements,
re-interpreting intimacy, relationship, friendship, education,
the raising of children.
While all these seven facets of reclaiming personal
power influence and are reflected in each other, there are two which
seem to be quite basic: noticing my source, and electing my reality.
And you can argue that of these two electing my reality has a
certain paramountcy, since such election alone affords me the proper
stance and status whence I can notice my originating source.
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