This is the first article I wrote for my early web-site, back in 2005, and still one of my favorites. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent a few years idealistically exploring New Age methods and communities. I met some very nice, smart and responsible people, but also many who were ready to believe just about everything that sounded nice, or were simply full of… manure. Now that I have quite a bit more experience and a much broader perspective, sending this message out seems even more important on a global level. I’m privately kinda proud that since first publishing this article, I only needed to change a few words in it.
Living our own lives
One of the most valuable lessons in human life, in my opinion, is learning to trust yourself and listen to your inner voice, rather than anybody else’s. By uncritically accepting the beliefs and opinions of other people, we renounce our own responsibility and power, to the extent that we cannot even call our successes our own. You can probably remember an example from your own life, when you put a lot of trust in the ideas and opinions of certain other people, only to realise one day, whether in an easier or more difficult way, that they didn’t have all the answers and that their truth doesn’t necessarily have to be yours. This is a very important lesson and I believe that everybody needs such an experience, often more than once.
Not even the authorities you respect most will always have a correct answer. Nobody in the world can know it all, even if we see them as enlightened. Even if they could, there is always the question of whether there is such a thing as an absolute truth applicable to any situation. If such truths exist, then I believe them to be small in number. Maybe you have experienced a situation when you felt an inner urge to do something that wasn’t quite attuned to your beliefs, only to realize after some time that this action created much more benefit for both you and other people than if you had stuck firmly to your ideas. Life is endlessly diverse; people, relationships and circumstances are unique and our inner voice can access a much more powerful source of information than our rational mind.
Unfortunately, most religions and spiritual approaches require the observance of many arbitrary rules, sometimes very detailed ones, in every aspect of human life; this doesn’t allow much space for listening to your inner voice and personal truth. I believe that while seeking security and trying to build self-esteem, through following such rules, we emotionally try to please a spiritual authority just as we tried (unsuccessfully) to please our parents during childhood. If this requires suppressing our healthy urges and feelings, sooner or later we will fail.
Why do people seek to please authorities?
Not even the most caring parents are always able to fulfill their child’s needs. Some parents do not have enough love and respect for their child as an independent human being, while others are too overwhelmed by work and other duties to be able to provide for the child’s emotional needs. Hence, the child soon learns that love is given “part-time” and conditionally and starts trying to earn it by striving to be perfect or, if possible, better than others. In adulthood, blind following of other people’s rules is a subtle result of this need.
Moreover, many children learn not to trust their inner voice and their own decisions, if the parents keep correcting them in a discouraging way. As adults, they can continue to seek advice and direction from other people, rather than accepting the risk of making a mistake. This creates a more or less subtle dependency on external authority. For this to occur, another aspect of the problem must exist – that of the person who places himself in a position of authority to be able to wield power over others.
Most people tend to trust authority as they were taught to do. It appears that we have not only emotional, but also evolutionary need to follow our parents, the need that guaranteed survival through millions of years of evolution. Emotionally too, for a child it would be too frightening not to be able to trust the parents. From experience with parents, many people learn to trust a person who seems to be very certain of their own opinions. If something is written in a book or a newspaper, many people will automatically accept it without question. While some people who have a great need for power try to present their ideas as absolute truths, others can easily be swayed just by somebody’s self-confident approach.
The greatest damage is often done by people who are subtle manipulators. You can often find yourself in a situation where everything you are told sounds reasonable and correct and it’s difficult to find a counter-argument, yet you still feel that something is wrong or missing. My suggestion in such situations is to take a moment to really listen to that subtle feeling in your body, to try to put it into words. Information acquired this way usually will ‘disarm’ the person who is trying to manipulate you better than any argument that you come up with rationally.
We should accept doubt as a useful and friendly feeling. Without it, it would be easy to get carried away by any idea and we would be much more vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Doubt motivates us to question and differentiate between what are sometimes very similar ideas and information. It’s quite normal for scientists, who by definition should have firm proof for their theories, to have very different and conflicting ideas; old theories are thrown away and new ones are ‘proven’… and how much easier it is to create theories if we substantiate them only with proof created within our own minds.
Listen to that “gut feeling” whenever you read a book or talk to someone. Still, be aware that a feeling of resistance can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy resistance is the one when you can find a reason for your resistance and disagreement when you examine your feelings; the unhealthy one is typically irrational, often more suppressed and we can feel it even if we are aware that everything we read or hear is acceptable and without manipulation.
Unhealthy resistance comes from suppressed infantile rebellion against authority and its demands: for example children who were forced to behave unselfishly before their brains were naturally ready to develop that quality might easily develop a resistance towards any encouragement to be unselfish. If you notice feelings of resistance, explore which words and idioms trigger it. The difference between healthy and unhealthy resistance can be very subtle and sometimes both of them can appear simultaneously. Still, it’s possible to learn to recognise them through practice and familiarising yourself with your emotional reactions.
Use your brain
Don’t take anything for granted. Check the information you are given, notice the words and idioms the other person is using. Try to think up reasons why some claims might be incomplete or misleading. For example, if someone shows you the result of a research study, ask yourself what could have influenced that research to make it insufficiently objective and reliable (don’t forget the possibility of the research being paid for by interested parties, as this appears to be a very common practice lately).
It is possible to sound very intelligent even if what we say doesn’t really make sense. Some people who are skillful with words, are able to easily create different combinations of words and make them sound meaningful, even wise. I have met some such people, and so did probably you, too. Just for practice, try reading some ‘highly intellectual’ books, and then explore within your body which words sound to you as carrying a certain depth and which sound like hollow intellectualizing.
One way of manipulating people is to draw conclusions from unproven and unreliable statements. Many people will be too blinded by the apparent logic of the conclusion that they will not pay attention to the reliability of the facts from which they were deduced. Even if the person is not lying consciously – how are we to know that the facts they have are correct? Many people will give you suspicious information with good intentions.
Since you yourself are not perfect either, it is equally important to check your own behavior; however, since self-examination is the topic of many other of our articles, we will not focus on it here and now.
Manipulators often try to hook you through your positive ideals and aspirations, using big abstract words such as love, light, truth, spirituality, God… This often covers up a lack of sincere, sensible arguments.
(A true quote: ‘You must let your Higher Self show you I’m right!’ This is an example of quite an obvious, non-subtle manipulation – really skilful manipulators would be much less direct.)
A good advice that I was once given was: if somebody talks in big, abstract words, check what they want from you! Some people might only want your approval or admiration, while others might want to take advantage of you in much more specific ways. Even a simple lack of respect for your own personal choices and beliefs, is a sufficiently good reason to be cautious, even if you feel that the person might have a point.
In an average human communication, actually, it’s very rare to hear something that we can accept as a truth without any reservation. Talking from one’s own limitations and beliefs, creating conclusions on the basis of a small number of examples, selectively adjusting ideas or facts to one’s own beliefs, or to the needs of the situation, embellishing a story for one’s own benefit (or just for effect), accepting ideas only because they sound nice or help build one’s ego… There is an infinite number of ways in which reality can be twisted, even if unconsciously and unintentionally.
Keep this in mind while talking to people you trust and who you know do not wish to manipulate you. And regardless of how much you appreciate somebody’s intelligence, experience, wisdom, or even spiritual authority, always keep in mind that even that person could make a mistake at any moment. Not for the purpose of criticizing that person – it’s completely unrealistic to expect anybody to be perfect – but rather in order to stay with your own truth and live your own life, rather than somebody else’s.