Zenho Chad Bennett
Deliberately Developmental Psychology, Principle of Engagement
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Engagement: “Good interventions disrupt pretensions”
Here is some extraordinary context for where we may stand as a species. At some point we became self-conscious, aware of ourselves, unlike our predecessors. Then, at some other point, we realized that we were not only self-conscious but that we were evolving, we were becoming even more complex. And then, many moderns have added the perspective that we can intervene with our own evolution. So not only are we self-conscious and evolving creatures, but the very creature itself can impact it’s own evolution and therefore the evolution of the species. It's rather mind-bending.
No one takes up psychotherapy or other deliberately developmental practices hoping to be exactly the same person they were when they began. We’re arguably pulled toward a healthier or more developed or even transcendent version of ourselves. Engagement means leveraging our intentions, to align with that already in us which wants to be “better”. This can include surface forms of better such as “feeling better” or deeper forms of better like “being better” or even self-transcendence.
However, your ego is not as interested as you are in feeling better, being better or especially, being transcended. In fact, it’s not interested in change or even happiness as much as it desires to preserve homeostasis or comfort. Comfort in what's familiar, that is. The ego will tolerate a lot of pain and go to great lengths of harming self and others to protect itself from being disturbed. So the ego does not want the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar or the unknown. If unchecked it runs the show, growth is left to chance and randomness.
In a way, this polarity is at the core of our troubles. Part of us intuits our greatness in higher development and yet part of us just doesn’t want to do the work. We’d prefer to stay busy or rest rather than engage. The work requires wanting to know the truth. A deliberately developmental practitioner loves the truth and gets great meaning from uncovering what is true. This can causes great pain to the ego- “the truth hurts”. But those who make the most progress in deliberately developmental psychotherapy engage in a way that deepens their own inquiry more than taking the alternative of skating around their issues, or avoiding pain in any number of conditioned ways.
Deliberately developmental practitioners, then, actively engage the homeostasis of ego with a steady, long-term commitment to knowing the truth of one’s experience while routinely disrupting patterns which subvert transformation. Patterns are disrupted by adventurously questioning, inquiring, not settling too long in the familiar. And over time the intentional discomfort is recognized as how development actually feels. I call this the “right kind of pain” as opposed to our typical suffering.
Let’s distill this a step further. “Good interventions disrupt pretensions”. Pretensions are filters or “frames” that distort perceptions of reality. When we say someone is pretentious, we get the sense they are pretending to be someone they’re not. They possess a frame of needing to appear special to preserve the egoic homeostasis discussed earlier. A pretentious person doesn’t want to know the truth of their actual abilities or talents and so they don’t make their life a deliberately developmental practice. Breaking the frame would be too painful so the suppression of all the images, memories, feelings of not so special remain unconsciously hidden in the frame. They do into shadow. But we see the pretense.
A good intervention challenges, disrupts and sometimes even breaks this frame. This is what effective therapy does. It breaks up the frames so that the truth can shine through in a less filtered way. For our pretentious person to grow, they will gradually need to experience the deficiencies underneath the pretense and heal them, becoming increasingly real with themselves, less filtered.
If this person continues to break more frames, thereby continuing to confront increasing degrees of discomfort (remember, that old ego does not want to budge!), something very transformative begins to happen. If pretensions “distort our perceptions of reality”, then it follows that the cumulative habit of disrupting frames reveals reality through fewer distortions in perception. In other words, this person grows! Growth is being able to see more of reality, more clearly.
Let’s take two more examples on the extremes of the developmental spectrum. First a very early stage issue and then a very late stage issue. Imagine a person who suffered physical abuse in the earliest stages of attachment. To this person, the need of basic safety was absent and violence took its place. This person will likely continue to grow but there might remain a frame of never feeling quite safe in the world. In other words this person is living under the “pretense” that the universe is not a safe place to be (assuming that this person is not under objective threat). A disruption of this pretense could look like a therapist offering safety, soothing of fear, and nourishment. In time, when the fearful “part” (another way of saying frame) has received enough of what it needs, it will relax. The person, over time, will see that the perception of the universe as largely unsafe was actually a pretense, an unchallenged way of seeing reality. The frame doesn’t hold up which gives rise to insight.
Now here’s another interesting note about frames. As development continues, the frames we contend with become more global. Lower level pathologies are perceived from “higher” points of view. I propose that the more we clean up our individual lower frames, an exponentially cumulative payoff tends to occur as we gain greater perspective on our frames. Development gains momentum. Breaking frames at some of the higher stages of development, then, can have the added effect of whole constellations of problems falling away, precisely because it’s seen that previous ways of looking at frames were, in themselves, frames. This is a higher level of insight with more powerful growth potential. It's not merely insight about one's psychology, it's insight into how psychology and cognition actually work.
So for a final example, let’s take an advanced meditator who is operating under the “pretense” of having a separate sense of self. This is a high level more global frame and we can see that all “lower problems” are at least theoretically contained within the frame of “self”. Good meditation instructions force this meditator to challenge the frame of perceiving themself as separate from reality. In this case, “the framer” itself is being challenged. Hence, the “meditator”, or the frame of seeing the world from the point of view of a separate observer can be included as a “thing”, an object, in the meditation. Over time this challenges and eventually can break the frame of having an existing separate sense of self.
Some traditions would say that “enlightenment” is the state of living without frames. This is a very high level of insight. Whether you believe this or not, we could at least say that living without frames would allow perception to process a whole lot more of reality than, say, our pretentious person.
Whatever the case, practicing good interventions (that is, the appropriate intervention to meet and then free up a particular pretension) is to actively engage the homeostasis of ego with a steady, long-term commitment to knowing the truth of one’s experience while routinely disrupting patterns which subvert transformation. This is not a one-time activity but a useful “frame” for how to practice just about anything that might bring self-development along. Like all forms of meaningful practice, the payoff is in the long term.