By Eric Francis
The other day, an email came floating into my inbox from a website called Care2, an activist website, claiming 12.5 million subscribers. The subject header of the email read, “Monogamy vs. Polyamory: Do Open Relationships Work?”
Naturally, I thought: this ought to be pretty interesting.
The writer gave her analysis a title like a boxing match or a legal case. Mono versus Poly is now in session! All Rise! The article commenced as such (literally, its first words): “Non-monogamy is about one thing — sex. And sex is good.”
(You can tell she learned her writing style from The Bible.)
It went downhill from there, fast. Faster than I ever thought possible without jet propulsion and a lot of lube. “And sex with different people — either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime — is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex.”
When you see the word ‘but’ you can usually tell how things are going to go. Her premise is that since polyamory is about sex, and since sex isn’t everything, polyamory is nothing special to concern oneself with. The author, whose name is Polly, continues: “I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won’t be, ‘I wish I had had more sex with more people’. Maybe if you’re a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn’t.”
I will spare you any more. This article, while one of the less eloquent and less favorable recent mainstream reviews of polyamory, shares one thing in common with every other article on the topic that I’ve ever seen: it sets polyamory and monogamy against one another as irreconcilable opposites.
While the author is less tactful about her prejudices, she does us the favor of expressing them overtly: for example, there is in many discussions the lurking suspicion that people who don’t claim orthodox monogamy are perverts, but the word is rarely used. Or they don’t really like relationships, and can’t handle intimacy; they just want to get laid. Facing these prejudices repeatedly is enough to push nearly anyone who tries to be openly polyamorous back into the closet.
Yet I wonder what the real issue is. Studies done over the years on the incidence of cheating reveal that 45% to 65% of women and 55% to 80% of men stray outside monogamous commitments.
The variance is because some studies ask whether people have ever cheated while in a monogamous agreement; some ask whether they have cheated in their current relationship. Other studies show that women tend to understate their sexual conquests, and men tend to exaggerate. The two stats may be much closer than the studies show. Neither sex has a claim on fidelity.
In any event, we’re talking about a large portion of the population whose definition of monogamy has at one time included, and possibly includes today, sex with more than one person. For a fast check, ask yourself: do you know anyone who hasn’t been through this at least once? How about three times? How abut five?
Notably, the accepted definition of monogamy has changed in recent decades from one partner for life (now considered archaic), to one partner at a time, as often as you feel like moving on. That’s a big difference. The revised term is ‘serial monogamy’, but I prefer to think of it as serial polyamory: we tend to have multiple partners, one at a time (that is, while we’re not having multiple partners, two or more at a time).
By any realistic description, some versions of monogamy sound a lot like polyamory. Those who are proponents of monogamy at all costs, who advance the cause of abstinence-only until heterosexual marriage for life, sound like they are in reaction to the observable data, which basically proves that most people are simply not that way; that, and living in reaction to their own feelings. So do a lot of romantics, cruising for The One. True, there are some who choose a mate for life. For some this actually works beautifully and for some it creates misery. In any event, we only know their story up until today. We don’t know about tomorrow.
No matter how we experience relationships, I would propose that there are more similarities between what we call monogamy and what we call polyamory. For one thing, they both involve modes of relationship. No matter what the outward style, relationships boil down to a one-to-one meeting between two individuals. Those meetings are set within a larger context with many complex interrelations: a community.
That community either supports the relationship or it weakens the relationship. The relationship either offers something back to society, or it does not. Who has sex with whom seems to be incidental — except for one thing, jealousy. I won’t say much about jealousy in this article, except I would state upfront that in my view, if one issue is choking off the potential of the human race, choking our relationships and doing incalculable damage to sex, that’s the one.
From Self to Self: The Inner Origin of Relationships
But let’s go back to the egg. One must be a self to have a relationship with someone else. Being a self implies an inner awareness of existence, which is a relationship to existence that is in truth a relationship to self. The quality of this core relationship determines nearly everything that follows. No matter what kind of external relationships you engage in, your primary relationship is to you.
How do you feel about your existence? Do you love yourself, judge yourself, hate yourself, struggle to ‘be yourself’? What threatens you and what makes you happy? To what extent do you take ownership of your life? What threatens or enhances your sense of existence? How do you relate to death?
And, a kind of operative question that results from all of these: why do you want to be in relationship with others? What is your motive? Most of us want relationships, but we have different drives. Is the reason to share pleasure, learning, and food? Is it to share work and a mission? Is it to exchange misery? Is the purpose to seek completion in another, or to explore your wholeness with another? Is the purpose to protect you from something or to celebrate and explore a sense of safety? Do you seek love or attachment?
Each of these themes appear to be mediated by one’s relationship to oneself. Each individual brings an agenda into the pairing, and that agenda is internally mediated. It’s usually based on a level of maturity and experience in life, and one’s level of awareness. In other words, you decide and express your agenda in a relationship based on your relationship to yourself. Notably, this is the relationship that we typically seem to lose sight of when we’re ‘in a relationship’, which might feel like losing one’s independence or sense of identity.
Many people feel like they’re a ‘different person’ when they’re with a partner, and ‘go back to being themselves’ when a relationship splits up. This is a sign of inner fragmentation.
Our inner relationship is the real thing that most of us struggle with, most of the time we’re struggling. Even if we think we’re struggling in a relationship, what we’re actually struggling with is a relationship with ourselves. If we could figure that out, we would have fewer problems and more solutions. We would know where to look for those solutions.
From One Self to Another Self: Dyad as the Basic Bond
One subject that rarely arises at polyamory conferences (the places polyamorous people come to talk about relationships, make friends and exchange information) is monogamy. I mean, it’s mentioned, but the topic of the depth of one-on-one bonds is secondary to the issue of how things are doing with the other partners, the rules of engagement with other partners, and so on. Rare is it to hear open conversation about the need to relate one-on-one or the need to be in an exclusive relationship for a while. You meet couples at polyamory conferences that are monogamous before they branch out, but I’ve never met a couple at a conference that was choosing to keep their relationship exclusive.
I think that most people who identify as polyamorous know this and honor when others do this, but individual relationships seems to play second fiddle in poly culture when in fact, so far as I can tell, they are the second most basic foundation of poly culture. The very most basic is where one stands with oneself; and the second is the quality of our one-on-one bonds.
Now ‘monogamy’ and ‘polyamory’ have a second key element in common: they both use dyadic (that is, pair) bonding as a structural basis. Strong dyads share the same basic properties, no matter what the style of relationship: they are based on agreements; they are based on honesty; they are based on a desire to share; hopefully they are based on love.
Relationships have a purpose, and they express that purpose within a tribe or community. Remember that marriage, our society’s most basic and seemingly most coveted bond, is often performed in a public ceremony, officiated by a public official (traditionally by a minister, a judge, the mayor or a sea captain). The community is generally invited as witnesses.
The relationship is presumed to have public implications and the marriage license is a public document, filed with the city clerk. This suggests that the pair bond is part of something larger: society or a community and often, a family.
Relationships involve a contract or agreement of some kind, even if that is just to be together. Whether they’re happy affairs or not usually involves whether the individuals involved feel that the agreement is honored; whether the individuals get their needs met; and whether the arrangement works for both people. These facts apply whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, whether the individuals are members of the same race or economic class, or whether they are of similar or very different ages.
Most of us would agree with “whatever makes them happy.” Whatever makes us happy, if we can arrange it. Whether the individuals involved choose to have sex with other people would be covered by all of these concepts.
The Many: We All Have Multiple Relationships
One thing does not change, whatever kind of relationship is involved: those individuals relate to other people. Unless they are really, really lonely, they love other people and other people love them. Partners in healthy monogamous relationships have loving relationships with others. One bit of revisionist history is that the ‘nuclear family’ is the basic unit of society: parents and kids. Until recently, these relationships were set within a complex social structure called the extended family. The dyad was part of a much larger structure that included many kinds of loving relationships.
Referring back to the beginning of Polly’s article (polyamory is all about sex), the truth is our relationships are always about so much more. It verges on hilarious that someone would accuse polyamorous people in particular of focusing on sex; poly folk spend so much of their time obsessively involved with the details of their relationships it’s amazing they have any time for cooking, much less for sex. But even the ‘let’s meet at the motel for a quickie’ kind of affairs have a way of becoming deeper emotional involvements.
Yet even if we presume sexual monogamy — someone who only has physical sex with one other person, for a long time — we all have bonds and commitments with others. Some of those, while ‘nonsexual’ in the physical sense, can be profound, intimate and long-lasting connections. Imagine a man is married, in a healthy relationship with his wife. He also has a secretary who has worked for him for 20 years, and they love and trust one another deeply. They haven’t shared sex, but their bond of love is as powerful as that of any marriage. Most people would not call that polyamory; I would.
And most of us have extremely active fantasy lives. Fantasy knows no bounds; yes, some people feel guilty about it, but that usually makes it so much hotter. And fantasy takes us outside the bounds of monogamy.
One thing I’ve always found interesting is that monogamy has many rules that don’t involve sex. Some monogamous couples do not ‘allow’ one another to have close friends of the opposite sex. Some monogamous people feel threatened when their partner has any friends at all. Some don’t ‘allow’ their partner to go to community college. Some feel threatened when their partner checks out a cute guy or girl, and some encourage one another to be open about their attractions and even their erotic fantasies, unfettered. Others would be profoundly threatened by this. Still others invite their friends to have sex with them.
Since nearly everyone has sexual desires and fantasies about others, the core issue running the show — that is, the thing that determines our choice to have more than one partner, and whether to be honest about it — would seem to be jealousy. Everyone gets jealous at times; some make a religion out of it. Some make it their dharma to work through it and be free. Those who dwell on jealousy relate to others with a different set of presumptions and expectations than those who process it in a healthy way. As it turns out, in an attempt to avoid the jealousy issue, a great many have sex with others without telling their partner about it. In other words, from what I hear, many people would openly want or admit to being with more than one partner or lover if jealousy were not in the way. One common equation is, “I want to be sexual with someone else, but I’m not going to because you might, and if you do, I will be jealous.”
When we talk about polyamory, what we’re really describing is an agreement to take up all the boundaries of a relationship consciously, rather than applying a term that seems to presume the nature of those boundaries, but more often denies their existence. In other words, polyamory is what we talk about, more than what we do. Most people choose to remain silent about their sexual reality.
Why ever would we do that? Well, since your first relationship is to yourself: ask yourself.
For further reading:
Jealousy and the Abyss by William Pennell Rock
A Crazy Little Thing Called Compersion
Organic Love: An Ecology of Sustainable Relationship
Compersion Letters from Planet Waves Readers
“Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Wilhelm Reich, from The Mass Psychology of Fascism
by Enceno Macy
Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing
He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?
– John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1965
In a 1982 speech in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sister Anne Montgomery, a legend in the U.S. peace movement, gently proposed that some of us need to go to prison and offer our lives to stop the killings, abolish nuclear weapons, and save the planet.
Today other courageous souls propose yet another reason to go to prison: to crash the system of mass incarceration built on plea bargaining. For such crusaders, prisons are a wake-up call not so much to their inmates as to the society that builds them. Sadly, it’s a wake-up call going unheard.
Sister Anne’s noble suggestion spotlights one of the oldest and least recognized functions of prison. Since before the time of Socrates and Aristotle, prison, death, and banishment have been used by those in power to silence the voices of dissent, criticism, protest, common sense, and often wisdom. From its earliest days, the United States vigorously employed its prisons and police to control public opinion. Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a Vermont congressman was jailed for accusing the Adams administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” (After serving his sentence he returned to his seat in Congress.)
During the First World War, the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 sent offenders to prison for up to 20 years for “speaking disloyally” or voicing any doubt about U.S. involvement in the war. Twenty years after those laws were repealed, the U.S. stripped citizens of their property and businesses and imprisoned them in crude “relocation centers” for the crime of looking Japanese, while conscientious objectors who refused military service were confined in “Civilian Public Service” camps. And just last month, presidential candidate Jill Stein was arrested for providing supplies to protesters blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.
Holding captives in custody has been common practice for thousands of years, and the U.S. from birth adopted the practice with gusto. An obvious example is the taking of prisoners in war; official statistics compiled at the end of the Civil War show a total of 340,000 prisoners held by both sides. The most pervasive use for prisons, however, is to maintain or enforce social order, to remove from so-called polite society both its critics and its failures. Whether as open slavery or forced labor, whether for punishment or exploitation, whether called relocation centers or Civilian Public Service camps, America has practiced them all. And common to them all has been a universal “out of sight, out of mind” public attitude that prevents oversight or reform.
This is hardly surprising, since our belovéd country began its existence as a prison colony. What is not taught in the average history class is how many early Americans came to this country as prisoners. Britain indulged in international prisoner trade for more than 150 years, between 1717 and 1775, transporting more than 50,000 convicts to America. Many of us are direct descendants of convicted criminals. These were early vagrants uprooted by the industrial revolution who thieved and schemed to stay alive and keep abreast of a fast-growing society full of others just like themselves.
In keeping with its origins, colonial America had more jails than public schools or hospitals, and almost as many as churches and taverns. Most early Americans were poor immigrants who, in sometimes-justified stereotypical fashion, became unruly or less than civil in social situations. By the late 1600s, the basis of our current class system had formed, from the all-powerful masters, i.e., the rich and their next in command, the overseers who ruled over the commoners (third-class citizens). The fourth class comprised servants and convicts, only slightly better than the very lowest, those immersed in perpetual slavery.
Emancipation of slaves after the Civil War in many cases simply shifted blacks from slave quarters to chain gang, as prisons became the de facto means to prevent their integration into white society. From that time to this, prisons have served as a reservoir of racism in America.
“The more laws and order are made prominent,” wrote Lao-tzu nearly 3,000 years ago, “the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
Inevitably, just as perpetual war became a source of corporate profit, a prison industry arose and thrived on a nation’s lust to punish and silence perceived threats. Out of the Great Depression grew a greater and greater use of imprisonment, along with an altered attitude about prisoners and convicted felons. From 1925 to 1939, the nation’s rate of incarceration climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents, correlating directly with the increased percentage of blacks who were being imprisoned. Social attitudes were changing as cities grew and the poor and jobless migrated to urban areas in hopes of employment, a majority of them being of African descent.
At the front end of the industrial revolution, it was easier to warehouse the unfortunate and disgruntled than to keep constant surveillance on potential offenders, not to mention the increase in crime as the desperate turned to any avenues that might provide food for themselves and their families. Adding more crimes, like Prohibition laws, added yet more to the exploding prison population.
During World War II, prison populations decreased, but with the subsequent Cold War, prison warehousing became much more common. When you warehouse convicts and force them into involuntary servitude while depriving them of meaningful work, recreation or mental exercise, resistance will eventually occur. The more convicts you put together, the greater the number who may be willing to rebel.
New York’s Attica Correctional Facility was home to the bloodiest rebellion in U.S. prison history, resulting in the deaths of 43 people (all but one killed during the police action to re-take control) in 1971. And in 1980, 33 deaths were reported during a riot in New Mexico’s State Penitentiary. These violent disturbances were fueled by appalling overcrowding, terrible prison conditions and staff abuse. The result was massive funding for prison programs, especially for prisoner control.
In 1974, the nation’s incarceration rate began to increase at an unprecedented rate, rising within ten years from about 162 to 318 inmates per 100,000 people. By 1995 it had doubled again. At this rate, criminologist Elliott Currie suggested at the time, by 2005 our incarcerated population would double yet again and our national rate of imprisonment would reach 12 times the rate of any other country in the advanced industrial world. Currie wondered whether we might feel “that something was terribly wrong with our society if we had to resort to the confinement of such a large part of our population, especially since we would still suffer far and away the worst levels of serious criminal violence in the developed world.”
Currie’s attitude was mirrored in a 1997 survey that found a “vast majority” of Californians would rather spend money on programs to prevent youth violence than on further incarceration. Four out of five Californians said that our biggest priority should be to “invest in ways to prevent kids from taking wrong turns and ending up in gangs or violence.” Instead, the budget for California’s prison system steadily increased from about three percent of the state’s general fund in 1980 to 11.2 percent for the 2012 fiscal year. Meanwhile, funding for higher education dropped from ten percent of the general fund 30 years ago to 6.6 percent, according to the California Department of Finance.
“How can we afford to spend more on prisons than on higher education in our increasingly competitive, knowledge-based world?” asks Les Leopold.
The real question is not how, but why $7,748 billion of the 2010 U.S. budget was spent on federal correctional activities (doubled from the 2000 budget), while only $3,631 billion went to research and general education (a 17 percent increase from 2000). In that same ten-year period, what also doubled was the amount a student had to pay for a four-year-degree at a state college; by 2010 it cost the average student $55,502 in tuition and fees, board and dorm charges for a four-year degree. Fifty-three percent of students needed loans that would cover barely half of the total cost. With interest rates and the median income around $32,000 a year, it would take many years for the average college graduate to make a dent in such a debt.
Instead of at least equaling the 100 percent increase in prison funding during that period, education and research aid rose less than a quarter of the prison increase. It is therefore more financially sensible to become a correctional officer straight out of high school than to spend four years going in debt to get a college degree.
The huge gap between education and prison funding is the direct result of political exploitation of the drug epidemic to convince the public that the cure is to incarcerate more offenders for lesser offenses for longer periods of time. The “war on drugs” is responsible for extreme increases in the prison population since the 1970s. About 50 percent of people in federal prisons and 20 percent of state prisoners are there for drug-related crimes. The number would be much higher if we included associated crimes committed in pursuit of acquiring drugs and paying drug debts.
Similarly, political scare tactics — “tough on crime” campaigns — brought tougher laws against both violent and property crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. Most criminologists agree that there is little relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment, but the massive funding involved makes it extremely difficult to reverse incarceration rates. Corrections now being a multi-billion-dollar industry, many companies have intense interest in perpetuating and expanding this cash cow:
– The prison-building industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy, raking in profits with little oversight over the safety or integrity of their constructions or locations.
– Many states have outsourced prison administration totally to private prison companies, which make obscene profits by providing as little care as they can get away with, paying personnel minimum wages, feeding inmates condemned or outdated food, providing no rehabilitative services at all, and fostering an atmosphere of unrestrained brutality.
– Both private and state-run prisons have outsourced medical care to appallingly incompetent, unregulated companies that profit greatly by charging the state for substandard, often nonexistent health care.
– Similarly, and also with no oversight, predatory companies and prison administrators enter into kickback arrangements whereby both the companies and the prisons charge prisoners and their families exorbitant rates for phone service, vending machine products, clothing and “company store” commissary items for which inmates have no other source.
– Many prisons in America make huge profits by paying pennies on the dollar to inmates who are forced to work long hours producing goods for sale, but who never see a single penny, as all their pay is ostensibly dedicated to their upkeep; they are in effect and in truth, slave labor.
Common to all state, federal and private prisons is the lack of funds allocated toward rehabilitation and other deterrents to criminal activity. In fact, the opposite is true: prisons and prison policies are geared toward further increases in incarceration and recidivism rates, because that’s where the profits are.
Take a typical prisoner. We’ll call him Jim. He is a 33-year-old eight-time drug offender serving a five-year sentence for his first distribution charge. Previous charges were a variety of small-time, petty thefts, possession of minimal amounts of methamphetamine, and burglary. In and out of county jail and two stints in prison, he has never stayed out of lock-up long enough to establish any kind of positive rhythm to his life. The few times he tried to stay sober, he was turned away from even the most menial jobs. He was fired from a fast-food dispensary after two weeks for poor performance; he was fired from his only other real job for attendance issues and suspicion of stealing.
Jim grew up in a lower-class neighborhood with an absent mother and an abusive drunk for a father. His role models were his drug-dealing brother and the rough-and-tumble crowd that he tagged along with in the streets. After he failed eighth grade for lack of attendance, his brother’s buddies taught him to steal and con to finance his growing marijuana habit. At age 14 he drank too much at a party where a woman twice his age stuck a needle in his arm and gave him his first shot of meth. Two weeks later he was a full-blown addict. After his first stint in juvie and a beating by his father, Jim packed his few things and moved to the streets.
Since he was 15, Jim has spent a total of only 18 months as a free man. He has attempted drug treatments, but after his third try with no follow-up support, he relapsed again and gave up. Now, with multiple felonies, an ex-girlfriend refusing him visits with a child she claims is his, and all his bridges burned, he looks ahead into a bleak, futuristic void. Reflecting now on his many mistakes, in his heart he truly wants to start a new, productive, meaningful life. But he has no job skills, no resumé, and very few options for employment upon his release. Few if any landlords will rent to him because of his felony record. Also, he has never functioned in society as a sober, responsible adult and has no idea how to do so. Jim needs help.
But his state provides no real rehabilitation services. The few treatment programs available do not adequately reconfigure a person’s way of thinking or teach real job skills. They emphasize how bad a drug lifestyle is, which he already knew, and after telling him not to use drugs anymore, send him back on the street with a few phone numbers for charity housing. They do not teach Jim how to function in normal society, how to interact with people who have no experience with the lifestyle he came from and cannot identify with what he is going through or the fact that he is re-learning how to live.
In 1867, two prominent reformers, Enoch C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, reported to the New York State legislature, “There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline.” They recommended that reformation of offenders should be the primary aim of imprisonment. It’s 146 years later, and their voices are still unheard. The few rehabilitation programs available in some states have dwindled to almost none, as they are the first to fall to budget cuts and political “tough on crime” campaigns. How then can we expect someone like Jim to change when the system has little or no interest in helping him integrate into the world? What chance does he have?
Other countries have attempted to give people like Jim a sense of worth and equal standing in society. Amazingly, when they are treated less like animals and accorded basic respect and dignity, offenders act less like criminals and become productive, valued members of the community. A $252 million, 75-acre facility for 252 inmates in Norway offers such an approach to incarceration, with a resulting 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to some 60 percent in the U.S.:
Halden, Norway’s second largest prison, … embodies the guiding principles of the country’s penal system: that repressive prisons do not work and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. … “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”
….The cells rival well-appointed college dorm rooms, with their flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges. Designers chose long vertical windows for the rooms because they let in more sunlight. There are no bars. Every 10 to 12 cells share a living room and kitchen. With their stainless-steel countertops, wraparound sofas and birch-colored coffee tables, they resemble Ikea showrooms.
Halden’s greatest asset, though, may be the strong relationship between staff and inmates. …There’s plenty of enthusiasm for transforming lives. “None of us were forced to work here. We chose to,” says Charlott-Renee Sandvik Clasen, a music teacher in the prison and a member of Halden’s security-guard chorus. “Our goal is to give all the prisoners — we call them our pupils — a meaningful life inside these walls.” It’s warmth like that, not the expensive television sets, that will likely have the most lasting impact.
-From Time Magazine, Norway Builds the World’s Most Humane Prison
A meaningful life. What a concept! What a contrast to America’s race to strip people of their rights and warehouse them in brutal, comfortless compounds with no access to rehabilitative programs, no hope of improving themselves or learning how to live outside the wire.
Both the statistics and the realities of America’s prisons are an urgent message going unheard as the profits roll in, and like the banks, the prison industry becomes too big to fail.
If no other statistics can make you sit up and listen, consider this: more than 90 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons are there because they pleaded guilty — often to crimes they didn’t commit — in order to avoid a trial and a threatened harsher sentence.
Listen, I am NOT making this up! Ninety-four percent of state prisoners and a staggering 97 percent of federal prisoners accepted plea bargains instead of going to trial. What this means is that more than 90 percent of our entire criminal justice system is no more than a mass production prison-filling scam: prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and judges openly conspire to incarcerate people wholesale, without regard for their right to trial or even the pretense of presumed innocence.
It also means that if even a fraction of people currently being coerced into plea bargains were to refuse and assert their right to trial, the entire court system would collapse:
From the point of view of American University law professor Angela J. Davis … the system of mass industrial incarceration is entirely dependent on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised their constitutional rights, then there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the flood tide of litigation.
Without anyone noticing, legislators loyal to corporate donors eagerly criminalize more and more activities to fill the concrete compounds spreading throughout the land. Just as eagerly, the gullible public spouts manufactured rage at the notion of “rewarding” criminals in “country club” prisons replete with luxuries like health care and showers.
Nowhere man, please listen! First of all, something you do legally today may be declared a crime tomorrow — or just as possible, you will be coerced into pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t commit — and you’ll find yourself here, behind the wire. Second, the so-called country club prisons are only for white-collar, white-skinned corporate criminals who strip-mine continents, poison the seas, alter the planet’s climate, and steal trillions of dollars: the bigger the crime, the easier the time. And third, you forget that the rest of us enduring the brunt of official sadism in America’s prisons will some day get out.
If you do not care what happens to us inside the wire, why should we care what happens to you out there?
Lyrics to Nowhere Man
Songwriters: John Lennon and Paul McCartney
He’s a real nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing,
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.
He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, don’t worry,
Take your time, don’t hurry,
Leave it all ’till somebody else
Lends you a hand.
He’s a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
By Nikki Pison, PhD, LMHC
“Trust your heart”… “Follow your intuition”… “Do what feels right”
I am embarrassed to admit that I have fallen prey to both giving and taking this kind of cliché advice. Don’t get me wrong, the sentiments are worthy. There is definitely a time and a place for listening to your inner voice. Still, there are unexpected pitfalls to following your intuition that should be explored to help avoid catastrophic decision-making. Here is the crux of the problem: We often subvert our truly knowing selves to what we want in the immediate moment. We experience particularly strong inclinations that can easily be confused for intuition. Instead of making a thorough investigation of where these impulses come from, we become vulnerable to selfish and childish yearnings and seek to immediately gratify ourselves. The subterfuges of our unconscious can mislead us into complacency when we should act, or risky self-sabotage when we should think more and act less.
Because of our desire to manifest fantasies that are neither possible nor good for us, we get sucked into relationships that do not serve us, stay with incompatible partners too long, and forego hard work because we imagine that our genius is just about to be discovered. We may fall into the trap of believing that everything will all just magically work out, because it feels like it should. This can lead to an avoidance of taking necessary risks or making important decisions. Learning to trust not just your intuition, but your higher mind is a critical skill for making sure that you are the primary actor in your life, and that life is not just something that happens to you.
Do Not Follow Your Heart
There, I said it. I’m guessing nobody ever told you that before.
The heart is a very rudimentary entity, both literally and metaphorically. The physical design of the organ in our chest functions very well to steadily supply blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Although we may appreciate its life-sustaining singularity of purpose, it is not very good at much else. In the metaphoric sense, the heart has a more encompassing purpose. It represents our deepest, most fundamental need for attachment and connection. Unfortunately, that functionality is similarly limited. The need for overlap and intersection with others is so strong that it is likely to confuse our sensibilities and lead us to sustain dissatisfying relationships. We are likely to defer our own best interest to maintain even a faulty connection. Our hearts are not very good at discerning trustworthiness, judging how likely someone is to change, or convincing us to work through issues with a partner who is triggering a reaction in us.
The good and bad news for us is that, like every other organ, the heart is actually controlled in the mind. We feel someone shaking our hand because the nerves in our skin are connected to pathways in the brain that are responsible for that sensation. You may feel pain in your knee, but you are actually experiencing it in your brain. Similarly, you may feel that urgency in the pit of your stomach nudging you to try something new, but it is actually your brain manufacturing the chemicals that cause that gastric churning. The good news is that the brain is an incredibly sophisticated piece of equipment. What it is really good at is finding patterns. This capability is the reason you can read sentences even when letters are missing or transposed. The problem is that the advanced pattern recognition tendencies of the brain also make it prone to certain types of errors. Research shows that the mind’s tendency to “fill in” missing information leads us to see things that are not there, remember things with a high degree of inaccuracy, and can even lead to creating entirely false memories.
We also ignore incredibly obvious information when we are paying attention to something else. A study out of Harvard asked participants to watch a video of people playing basketball and count how many times the ball was passed between players. The researchers found that while participants were engaged in that counting activity, they were completely unaware of an actor in a gorilla suit walking back and forth across the screen. Our minds block out what it considers non-essential, even when it is as blatant as a gorilla. Humans are very unreliable witnesses because our memories are largely shaped by what we have been told happened and by our expectations and assumptions. The bad news is that because the heart is really in the mind, the heart is similarly fallible. We see what we want to see. We feel what we expect to feel or what our emotional histories have taught us to feel rather than what the reality of the situation requires. This is why couples have different accounts of the same argument and why it is so easy to injure someone without ever intending it. The smallest slight feels much more intense to one who has experienced a thousand previous cuts.
So why, exactly, should we trust ourselves? Why, indeed, should we listen to ourselves or anyone else for that matter? Despite the common perceptual errors we make, in general our brains are very good at making correct decisions. We balance our bodies and objects all day long, but only really think about our coordination when we trip on a step or drop something. At those times, we insist we are clumsy, although our balance has functioned in countless ways for hours on end with no errors. Unfortunately for us, our brains have developed to pay more attention to failure than success. We recall the times that have caused us pain because they are more emotionally salient, and paying attention to what may hurt us contributes to our survival in an evolutionary sense. While this feature of the brain was designed for attending to critical incidents that can enhance our survival, it gets applied to all aspects of our functioning, because the brain is, above all else, a pattern recognition device. As a result, all of the times we change lanes at the grocery store and then get stuck behind someone counting coupons becomes solidified in our mind. It is not as emotionally important to us to recall the countless times we switch lanes while driving and successfully move along faster. Instead, we only recall when we change lanes and get stuck in traffic.
The same principle applies to when we make other more meaningful decisions in our lives. It is much scarier and more painful to change course and find ourselves in the wrong lane. Because of this, many of us stay put, succumbing to the fear that the second we take action, the universe will swoop in and cause a coupon cutter to emerge in front of us. We experience the negative more strongly, and this gives the illusion that we are failing more than we are and that taking action is riskier than it actually is. We hang on to these small failures, which overshadow all of the countless good choices and sound judgments that we make every day, and we are likely to say, “This ALWAYS happens to me.” This is not realistic, given the small proportion of failure we actually experience, but we recall it emotionally as if it is a fundamental truth of the universe that speaks to our intrinsic worth. Ironically, the mechanism in the brain that promotes our survival by keeping us alert to danger and negative aspects of our environment is also the aspect that can cause the most disturbance in our sense of self.
The pitfalls that most frequently undermine the quality of our experience are something I like to call the three “F-Words” of our thinking behavior:
F-Word # 1: Feelings
Feelings are not facts, but they sure feel true and we sure treat them like they are true. One of the most troubling errors we make is that we are prone to see our negative impressions as the whole truth. We mistake the sense we have that things always go wrong, that we always get stuck in the wrong lane, as a fundamental truth of the universe. By regularly mistaking our feelings for facts, if we feel incompetent or unlovable, that becomes an inarguable truth in our minds that cannot be remedied by any amount of evidence. This basic cognitive error, or mistake in processing information, factors significantly in why many people end up with significant emotional problems. Hampered by our baggage about who we are and what we deserve, often shaped by childhood messages or other old emotional wounds, we listen to our feelings instead of trusting the reality before us. This can lead to an extraordinarily biased self-appraisal that is geared toward negative interpretations and to dissatisfying or naïve life choices.
F-Word # 2: Fantasies
No, we’re not talking fishnets here, people. Fantasies refer to our overzealous brain processing anytime we manufacture illusions in order to attempt to meet deep emotional needs. Our brain not only leads us to negatively skewed interpretations of our success-to-failure ratios, but then bolsters our failing self-worth by generating imaginary successes. Whereas we may cling to the negative as a way to justify not taking appropriate and needed actions in our lives, we can also invent fantasies to justify taking inappropriate actions. Because we have been brainwashed in this culture to “do what feels right” we can use that logic to rationalize all kinds of deleterious choices. For instance, what if it feels right to me, but hurts my partner or my children? What if it feels right to me, but puts me into a bad financial position? What if I am really, truly gratified, even if it is only temporarily, by something that is inherently bad for me or those around me?
One part of becoming an adult is letting go of immature fantasies. My friends who are musicians in their forties and fifties play music out of the sheer joy that activity still holds for them, not because they have illusions about becoming rock icons. Similarly, if you can make a living doing what you love, more power to you. If you have a stable job and a family to support, though, it might be unwise to “follow your heart” and quit your job, spurred on by the fantasy that you will support yourself weaving potholders, even if you really, really, really like potholders.
We do the same things with relationships. The dearth of successful long-term committed relationships can be partially explained by many who succumb to the fantasy that they would not have the current struggles with a new partner. Little do they realize that the seductive fiction of starting over with someone new is often a disguise for avoiding conflict, and that true intimacy arises from resolving conflict with a trusted partner. They are likely to be doomed to re-create and re-experience the same romantic drama and trauma over and over again until they are willing to sit with themselves and work through their issues with one partner who accepts them. That is a terrifying concept, and it is much more appealing and immediately satisfying to think of starting over fresh with someone who has never seen you at your worst.
Alternately, many people have the opposite problem and stay with incompatible partners long past when it is beneficial to anyone involved. They experience the intense fear that changing lanes in their love life will cause a roadblock to appear ahead, or even worse, will leave them all alone forever. They settle for mediocre attachment because they either A) believe the fantasy that their partner will change or B) believe the fantasy that if they change something and take a risk that they will be doomed to failure and loneliness. The same forces are at work with other important life decisions when action is taken without regard to consequence, or when fear immobilizes someone who desperately needs to act. Which brings us to our final “F” word:
F-Word # 3: Fear
Has anyone ever told you that you have a fear of success? What poppycock! I had a classmate in eighth grade who was not a stellar student. He was repeating a grade for the third time. I used to be baffled by his behavior when we would take a test in class. He would fold his arms and sit back in his chair, not even looking at or attempting to take the test for the entire period. Now I understand that it was less painful to him to get a zero than to try to take the test and get half the answers wrong. If we try and fail, like the lane changer, this emotional experience can be almost unbearable. If we never try at all, however, we are in control of our failure. It is predictable and we can always say, “Well, I didn’t really try.” I have come to realize that none of us are really afraid of success; we are afraid of trying and failing.
If we try and succeed, well that is almost as bad as trying and failing, because with success comes added work, added responsibility, and added pressure to succeed again. Therefore, we do fear success in the sense that it may be even more overwhelming than failure, because success opens you up for more opportunities for failure in the future. Many attempts at self-sabotage can be viewed in this light. Holding the belief that eventually I will screw it up, I might as well do it right now. Then I’m in control of destroying the good things that are happening to me rather than having to have the painful experience of having those things taken away from me when I inevitably mess up. The destructive fantasy in this picture is “Failure always happens to me.” This is not an actual fact, but is a remnant shaped by our attention to the negative that informs how we feel about things going wrong in our life, since it is the things that do not work out that are the most present in our minds and the most easily recalled when we are trying to make decisions about the future.
The three “F-Words” in our thinking can be restrictive at best or dangerously self-destructive at worst. Distinguishing how to handle and divert these impulses is the task of the Higher Mind.
So, what exactly is the Higher Mind? The Higher Mind is greater than the fleeting instincts, impressions, and fantasies that we often self-indulgently label our “intuition.” At one end of the spectrum, we are seduced by childish longings and make terrible decisions that may fulfill our needs in the moment but do not ultimately help us. At the other end of the spectrum, we pay so much attention to negative fantasies of what might happen that we become too paralyzed by fear of failure to take actions and participate fully in our own lives. We can battle these natural, but unhelpful, functions of our brain by attending to our Higher Mind. The Higher Mind is perfectly neutral. It is not burdened with painful emotional resonance, fear, or a dangerous drive toward wish-fulfillment. It is not a feature of the brain, but rather a process of thoughtful soul-searching that can lead to knowing what to do. The Higher Mind tells us not to do what feels right in the moment, but to do what actually is right.
There is no current scientific formula for achieving Higher Mind, but there are many useful strategies. Here are three that I have found personally useful:
We are incredibly biased by our past experiences. Situations which baffle us are often plainly solvable from the outside. The only way to battle the distortions and cognitive errors of the mind is to consult with others. Our secret wishes and negative distortions become veritable monstrosities if we do not take advantage of the universal mirror that we have in others. Consulting with those we trust unfailingly reflects back to us those things we can’t see for ourselves. Be careful who you select to trust with your inner process. Try not to fall into the trap of conversing with someone who may very well be close to your heart, but who has their own agenda for your behavior. It is generally not safe to reveal your inner process to someone whom you have experienced as judgmental or critical.
- Listen for Truth
When you are speaking with others, listen to the words that are used, and listen for when something “rings with truth.” This is your brain’s way of telling you that it has detected a pattern that may not be conscious, but that resonates with some aspect of your personal truth. Listen for words that come up frequently. Some might argue that this is not a “coincidence” but some kind of universal or divine intervention. Another way to look at this is that this is evidence that your Higher Mind is picking up on a pattern that you can’t consciously detect. Since the majority of brain processing and functioning is unconscious, you can develop the trust that your brain is actually more aware of things than you have given it credit for.
You can also listen to your body. Certain emotional responses feel the same in the body. Fear and sexual arousal can cause similar physiological reactions, for instance, which can lead to unfortunate misinterpretations. Anxiety and excitement are also confusing. We often spend so much time avoiding anxiety that we don’t listen to what it is trying to tell us and we miss opportunities to let it help guide our behavior. Anxiety is the brain’s way of telling us that it has recognized a pattern. There is good anxiety and bad anxiety. Good anxiety lets us know that something important is happening and that we need to pay attention and possibly take action. Bad anxiety occurs when we are dwelling on negative stuff that has already happened, or negative stuff that has not happened yet and will likely never happen, or when we are doing something we really have no business doing. We need to learn to tolerate the good anxiety if we hope to ever make meaningful changes in our lives because it is almost impossible to be really productive without having some good anxiety pushing us forward. However, we also need to listen to when our bodies tell us that we are in the wrong place or wrong situation, even if it is only in our minds, and that we need to change some behavior, even if it is only thinking behavior that needs to change. If we are wracked with the bad type of anxiety, we are probably thinking wrong.
Now, many could argue that thinking is not a behavior because we can’t see and measure it. This perspective becomes less persuasive as technologies for measuring brain activity become more advanced, and researchers are able to track the places in the brain where thinking goes wrong. Evidence is also accruing for the idea that we have much more control over our thinking than we usually believe, and that changing our own thinking behavior holds the key to changing our emotional experience of the world.
- Do the Next Right Thing
When all else fails, it is hard to go wrong by doing the next right thing. How do we know what is the next right thing? Often we can figure it out by figuring out what it is NOT. The next right thing is not giving in to whatever immediate compulsion overtakes us, whether it’s eating a sleeve of cookies or picking up the phone to dial an ex. It is not turning on the TV instead of conversing with a spouse or reading to a child. It is not rushing through a conversation with someone who really wants your attention because you have other priorities. It is not rushing out to buy more, drink more, or do more. Doing nothing is often the next right thing.
The Next Right Thing has no drama. It is not dazzling or riveting and not all that sexy… at first. It is creating space for pure, uneventful connection with others, or lingering over a cup of coffee for uneventful reflection alone. Sometimes doing the dishes or sleeping on a problem is the next right thing. Often, an apology or just reaching out to support someone else is right. It can be picking up a piece of garbage that is not even yours, or spending an extra five minutes with someone who needs you (you really can spare that five minutes, I know you can). The non-events of our lives fill up 99% of our time, so paying close attention to how we are spending that time is critical for developing the patience and the stamina for higher-minded living. We are rewarded by a sense of mastery, a sense that life is not always so urgent, that what happens in every moment is precious.
In that peace and absence of drama, beautiful priceless relationships unfold, including a deeply trusting relationship with ourselves. Now, I’m not one of those people who will tell you that you need to love yourself before you can let someone else love you. To the contrary, we are truly lovable to ourselves when we find genuine connectedness with others, when we let others in and make space for their foibles, when we show them ours and they show us theirs. That can’t ever transpire until we trust others, listen to them, and do the right things in our lives and relationships. And then, trust me, the right thing can be very, very sexy indeed.