Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Inner Tyrant

In last week’s blog I mentioned fundamentalism, the tendency to pick up an absolute one-size-fits-all belief to ward off the anxiety of ambivalence and ambiguity. Of course it’s generally pretty easy to see the dangerous, narrow-minded fundamentalist in the other- the group or individual with whom we disagree.

So, what if we turned our attention, just for a moment, to our own inner fundamentalist? What if we asked ourselves, what do I take to be absolute in all situations? Where do I fail to ask open-ended questions? Where do I terrorize myself and/or others with the “right” way?

I’ve been a fundamentalist about truth-telling. Now, that might not sound like a bad thing, but stay with me. Because of certain patterns in my birth family I used my mind to attempt to meticulously keep track of “facts” to give me some sense of control in a situation where, as a child, I had very little control. This led to a lifetime of hyper-sensitivity to falsehoods and a seemingly admirable commitment to telling the truth.

Now what could be wrong with that? Telling the truth is good isn’t it? Well, here’s the thing: first of all, reasonable people, who have witnessed the same event and have no interest in distorting the facts, will tell very different stories about what happened. So, what’s the truth? This of course, gets hazier with the passage of time and/or any vested self-interest, not because we are terrible people but because we are fallible, and the way in which we create meaning and make sense of our lives includes selective remembering and shaping of events.

Once, when discussing a conflict I was having with a friend, I said to my son Brendan, (as if it was the trump card to end all discussion) “She lied!”

Brendan smiled and shrugged and said, “Yeah okay, she lied. Human beings lie.”

I’ve thought a lot about this since. He’s right of course. Human beings lie. They also tell the truth, love, laugh, cry, sleep, eat, make-love, plan etc. They lie because they are afraid, or they misremember, or they forget, or they go unconscious, or they see and experience things differently . . . .but wait a minute- that’s not really lying, is it?

So, here are some of the many problems with being a fundamentalist about truth-telling:

1) Facts do not necessarily reveal the truth. Sometimes the truth has to be seen beyond or despite the facts, and focusing on minute facts may make me miss the truth.

2) Individuals and groups see, remember, and emphasize different aspects of the truth, so it gets pretty tricky to determine any one “truth” in a particular situation.

3) Human beings lie. That means sometimes, I lie. And if I have absolutely no tolerance for lying, I will have to lie unconsciously, which makes it pretty hard to be honest with myself, let alone anyone else.

4) Like all fundamentalism, with the right combo of risk and threat, I can become a menace to others, brow-beating them into seeing the “truth” as I see it or, with a verbal agility that would put a court-room lawyer to shame, cornering the other in his or her “lie.”

5) I can similarly beat myself up internally for feelings that are not consistent with the factual “truth” my inner fundamentalist sees as so important.

What happens with any fundamentalism is that the principle that is being held takes precedent over human beings, over life itself. And our inner fundamentalist cannot keep us safe. Even if it was possible to know and tell some kind of mythical absolute truth 100% of the time, that would not keep me “safe.” Because of all the wonderful things life is, safe is not one of them, and at the root of any fundamentalism is anxiety- sometimes terror- about the wild and woolly risk of living fully, knowing that difficult things can and will happen.

So, what does your inner fundamentalist look like?


  1. Good Morning Oriah,
    Thanks for calling on me to look in the mirror. We are kindred spirits, this I believe from all your writing. Today, I resonated so deeply with your writing, that I thought my inner fundamentalist was a truth-teller too. But in sitting still with this a bit longer, I became aware of the inner aspect of myself that can still be disturbed by others behavior. I see that I am more accepting about lying, ignoring, hiding from or modifying the truth than I am about lack of kindness and awareness. I have felt judgmental about my new step-daughters ignoring me and being self-absorbed and have had difficulty letting these attributes just be (internally as I experience them). I see now that I have an inner fundamentalist that requires others to be conscious and considerate. oops. That doesn't always happen! Thanks for helping me to become aware of how to work/play with myself more deeply. Blessings to you this day, Laurel

  2. After reading the posting this week about fundamentalism, I spent some time doing some internal examination into my own absolute truths and found there a complex mix of teachings from my childhood, the religion I grew up in, and the formal education I gained. Over my lifetime I have found that some of these conflicted, and I grew even rebelliously determined to eradicate some of them within me as I grew older, especially teachings from the conservative religion of my younger days. However, above all things that softened the edges of the absolutes I held, was not the teachings and the environment in which they presented themselves, but in the experiences within and sometimes because of those absolutes.

    Through time I have learned that there are three things that cast a light on all those fundamental beliefs that may in some way still be part of me. These are compassion, respect for life, and tolerance.

    I read somewhere a quote from the book The Cloud of Unknowing that goes like this: “In the interior life we should never think that our own experiences are the norm for anyone else.”

    I hope that in the individuals that come to this blog, in the world at large, that somehow as we live with the uncertainties, as we struggle with our own point of view, that individually and collectively we may move from a place of compassion, respect for life and each other, and tolerance.

    This is my hope, this is my prayer.

  3. Oriah,

    Another great thought-provoking blog! :-)

    With regard to your example about truth-telling, one of the factors that is important to me is "intent". Truth is relative and often times based on perception. So, when I find myself responding emotionally to what I perceive as an "undesirable" word or deed, I try to think about what that person intended. It might be a selfish notion, but I think hurtful or unkind behavior is a lot more "tolerable" if we are able to conclude that it was not intentional.

    My inner fundamentalist is very "absolute" about "good" people not being defined by their religious beliefs. Good, righteous, conscious-living people live in every country and culture. And they represent a multitude of different belief systems and "faiths". I am not very tolerant with people who firmly believe that their theology is the "right" one and the "only way" to live a meaningful existence and secure a respectable place in an afterlife. And I suppose, similiarly to your example, it is a product of my experiences.

    Currently reading "Seat of the Soul" by Gary Zukav. While I don't agree entirely with everything he says, I am finding value in focusing less on the personality and more on the soul of both myself and others. In light of your blog today, I suppose it will make our "collective" fundamentalism a little easier to tolerate :-)

    Thanks again, I will enjoy sharing this with others this week!


  4. Robin, now there's an idea: are we fundamentalist about other people's fundamentalism? Do we think others are always "wrong" to adhere to a "this is the way it is for all of us" point of view? I'm not talking here about behaviour (I have no trouble with saying I am not OK with any of us shooting people because we disagree with them) but about not seeing the other as human- and not seeing the tendency we judge in others, in ourselve. Thanks Robin.

  5. Thank you Brenda. I like your description of "soften the edges"- more doable in the moment than an absolute directive to change. And a little softening goes a long way!

  6. Laurel, hmmmm. . . where am I self-absorbed and ingoring others? Now there's an uncomfortable question. Thanks for the insight.

  7. Oriah,
    First, I must gush with a little 'fan'(I should think of a better word!) energy. I've checked your website often over the last few years hoping you were healing and finding respite. And, hoping you'd continue this dialogue. I'm so thrilled to check this week and find the new website and blog.

    So much of your beautiful writing has resonated for me. And, as I continue the journey home to myself your words today ring true.

    What came up for me is my disdain for self-righteousness - people who believe differently from me and who have a 'my way or the highway' attitude about what they believe. Yes, I can see that I have a charge on that... for a reason. Where did I get it, how do I release it? I will sit with those questions.

    With gratitude for what you give. May you continue to thrive.


  8. Oriah, like Jeannine - I am a fan too. And I also felt immense gratitude when finding your blog posts synchronistically as I did.

    My inner fundamentalist is most definitely a member of an Authoritarian Personal Responsibility Force bent on making people see the role they play in the circumstances around them - and pushing them to do something constructive about it.

    I either need more recruits or I need to let it go - because my inner fundamentalist's strategies are simply not working for me. While I hold Personal Responsibility in very high esteem - I fill all available space when I puff up in that role ... which prevents me from seeing others through the eyes of Compassion rather than Judgement - and blocks opportunities and key information.

    So many archetypes dwell within us all - learning to work them in the positive remains the ongoing challenge.

    Thank you for this opportunity to comment. Blessings to you and your readers ...

  9. Love the image of puffing up- imagined it like one of the bull frogs in our pond. The trouble is that if we don't know our Shadow (the parts of us like the inner tyrant we don't like to think exist) we end up doing good- with the best intenstions- badly!

  10. Your post prompted me to look up "fundamental" in the online etymology dictionary: "primary, original, pertaining to foundation".

    I'm reminded of the lines from one of my favorite poems:

    I want to know
    what sustains you
    from the inside
    when all else fades away.

    And I suspect that this would be my "foundation".

    I am a fundamentalist about many of the things that you and the other commenters have shared, e.g., facts, truth and righteousness. And when I think about releasing the fundamental tenets I hold dear, around which I construct my reality - my safety net - I do feel anxiety ... and yet your invitation to consider the wild and wooly world of living fully helps me remember another line from the poem, about ecstasy and dancing wildly ... and so I can better recognize the costs of my self-imposed limitations, but I'm not sure I'm willing to let go ... yet.

  11. It was nice to found your blog! Reading your invitation regurarly and receiving hope to every day through that..

    The truths, aspects, attitudes - fundamentalists. In my phase of life (if you see life as a journey) I see this more personal dignity and awareness issue. If you really know yourself - your own fears (at least most of them), good skills and level of readiness. You are able to see that truths, visible and unvisible are not always issues dealed through our humanity, but completeness what we should try to understand (as you wrote)..

    Many times it is lack of our readiness to understand (see, hear) which is forcing us to "lie". But through the awareness we should be able to deal our fears one by one and become more close to truths - less lies..situation. If I hear a saying or answer to my question - or receive, see behaviour - I try to see over the situation/moment/picture and recognise elements (outside us) that are affecting to me and the other, but also listen to souls. Many times it seems that our souls are always walking straight..:)

    THANK YOU! for being you...

  12. First I am thrilled to have found this blog. I have been seeking people to explore life and being human with. I have luckily found one person who is willing and able to disscuss and exlpore with me but my fear is that I will be to intense and scare him away.
    My inner fundamentalist tends to be absolute about the things mention in other posts and that people should let things go and not fight. I will sit with where this could be a problem as I had not previously considered that thought.

  13. Drucilla, thank you for this. So maybe the question is: where do I need to be willing to fight? (and by fight I am not meaning physically harming others but standing our ground.) Or maybe it's where do I fight but pretend I am not because I hold letting things go as an ideal (and then the things that havew not really been let go, go underground into the unconscious and come out in wierd ways.)

  14. Dear Oriah...
    It never ceases to amaze me that, so far, each post of yours has been EXACTLY what I have been grappling with.

    I posted on November 25th on my blog:

    As I work on my three different “writing projects,” I can’t help but wonder, regardless if it is “fiction” or “non-fiction”: what is “truth” and why does it matter…or to what extent does it matter when there exists a story ‘begging’ to be told from anyone’s perspective? The biggest lies being the ones we tell ourselves, not just to be able to sleep at night, but to live with the choices we make. The human brain’s ability to justify and rationalize any action is incredible.

    If anyone wants to read the rest:

    I am a fundamentalist when it comes to truth-telling and wanting to be conscious and intentional. I am finally more easily understanding and accepting(and putting into application this understanding and acceptance during my discussions with close friends and encounters with strangers) that we are all on a spiritual journey, whether we know it or not. We must be compassionate towards those who may not know it yet or be as readily accepting of it if they do know it.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this which served to open the forum for other soul-diggers grappling with similar tyranny within.

    I really appreciated Patricia's wisdom which helped me understand someone's recent actions: "Many times it is lack of our readiness to understand (see, hear) which is forcing us to "lie"."

    I will provide a link for this thread on my website as well so the light may shine even farther.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  15. Last night I watched a video from a conference in which the relationship between the inability to live with and accept ambiguity and fundamentalism was discussed. It was a new cocept for me but tonight I find it is not new to you or to others. I am again surprised and delighted by Oriah. I knew about The Invitation for years, but was not interested in reading something written by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. Finally a friend insisted that I take her copy. I am now hooked! I like The Dance even better It is honest and basic and real. At 70 I don't have time to waste on warm and fuzzy. lizzie