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Learned Helplessness

How do we undo learned helplessness? Traditionally, three steps are described. One formulation, from martial arts, is:

“Know what to do; learn the skills; remove the blocks.

We study to understand what’s involved. We then adopt a discipline that trains the necessary skills so that the skills become part of us. Then we work to remove the internal blocks that prevent us from using what we know.

An alternative formulation from Buddhism is:

“Recognize the problem; develop a practice; continue until the problem is gone.

The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Then we develop a practice that brings attention to the problem and, particularly, to the patterns that underlie it. Finally, we continue that practice regardless of what arises until the problem is gone.

These are difficult instructions. When we follow them, we come up against the power of the system as it has been internalized in us. Fairy tales are full of stories about the young prince or princess going into a castle guarded by dragons, demons, sorcerers and tyrants, inadvertently waking them up by asking an inappropriate question or breaking a rule and then having to fight to find a way out. These are “no holds barred” stories, in which the prince or princess uses skill and awareness to kill the apparitions and conquer the apparently overpowering forces arrayed in opposition. And there is a cost.

When the internal identification dies, we feel as if a part of us has died, and it has. When we violate the dictums of the system, we will feel that we are being violent, and we are. When the system dies in us, we will feel that we have killed something, and we have. We step outside consensus reality. We cease to look to the world to confirm our existence.

We come, instead, to rely on our direct experience of what arises and we act according to our observation of the needs of the moment. We may even choose to work in an institution, follow a tradition, or pursue a profession. But our choice is conscious and we knowingly accept the responsibilities and obligations that come with our chosen path.

The practice of Buddhism could be described as a way of dismantling learned helplessness. Renunciation, leaving society, and reliance on one’s own experience are central themes in the life of Buddha Shakyamuni. The practice of meditation requires the willingness to stand in the face of internal material and know we are not that material and to stand in the face of death and non-existence.

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