Excerpts from the Arnold Siegel’s Autonomy and Life Coursework

By Arnold Siegel

When we study Autonomy and Life we observe and evaluate the opportunities and prohibitions for autonomous individuation emerging from our common democratic inheritance. Our efforts are informed by a pragmatic understanding of the human predicament that transcends metaphysical explanations for visible and invisible phenomena and focuses on self-mastery and competitive maturity and cognitive and communicative skills in dialogue as the primary means for effectively challenging the antagonism prevalent in human conditions and circumstances. We intend to build an enlightened independence, a remarkable presence of self and voice and a fulfilling professional and personal life and lifestyle, one suited to individual temperament.

Of course, we don’t begin our studies with a blank slate. Involuntarily, we are inserted into the world –into human conditions and circumstances. Moreover, we are inserted, also involuntarily, with specific characteristics. No one chooses his parents, her color, his country, her shape, his genes, her energy level, his native intelligence. Even our “receptivity” to life, to human conditions and circumstances, is somewhat fixed before we get the big picture and have any say-so about it.

If we are fearful, we are fearful. If we are inhibited, we are inhibited. If we are irrepressible, we are irrepressible. If we adapt easily, so be it. Neither nature nor nurture is ours to choose.

Many of us go through life making little attempt to understand who we are, to acquire (or even inquire about) a greater perspective and means for personal authority and for transforming ourselves.

For example, some of us rely solely on material acquisitions as the mark of a worthwhile life. Some of us live in circumstances too impoverished to address these issues; the basic problems with survival consume us. Some of us have an energy-filled momentum that seems to drive us through life; we don’t have the temperament to pause and contemplate. Some of us are raised in an environment so defined that each of life’s goals, choices, etc. seems obvious. In other words, some of us are not thinking about who we are, where we are going, what it all means, let alone about what would be involved in making some serious changes.

Then there are, of course, those of us who do attempt these inquiries, but the means we use prove, upon final analysis, to be unproductive; our mission ends in failure.
Now, we come to you and to me. We are inquisitive of the life of the mind. We would like to gain a greater perspective on the circumstances in which we, as individuals, and we, as one among many, find ourselves. We want to learn about ourselves, our nature, our specifics, our possibilities. But we’re not merely curious. We have undertaken a quest with a condition: We desire to acquire an enlightened independence yet we desire to stay connected to our feelings, to nature and to our community of people by adapting to the community’s civilized spirit. We look at past failures as blind alleys or dead-ends that we encountered in our determined search for what we have now found.

We have a sense that transforming our human potential into a strong personal authority will help to make the most of our existence and individuality. Yet we have learned that autonomy requires more than freedom from the constraints or interference imposed by others. Autonomy must be accompanied by an impressive self-discipline.
This being the case, of course there is work to do. The transformation is something we win. Indeed, autonomy is a victory repeatedly won over reflexive fears and desires, over excessive self-indulgence, over all sorts of unpredictable challenges heroically confronted.

Arnold Siegel Helps Define Our Predicament

By Arnold Siegel

Let us define our predicament—yours and mine—as follows: Each of us is challenged by our culture’s tradition as well as by more primitive instincts to negotiate reality successfully. If we use a metaphor and compare this predicament of life to a game of chance, we might say that from the great cosmic deck of all the cards available, each of us was dealt a hand of cards. These cards that are to be our resources and burdens have been dealt in the main by the time we reach maturity. They have become facts of life.

Some of the cards—our genetic heritage—were dealt round by birth. Our access to science and technology may allow for some changes (plastic surgery or organ transplants, for example) in how the genetic heritage appears and works. By and large, however, those cards remain the same throughout our lives. As you know, this is usually called the “nature” part of our heritage.

Some of the cards are dealt after we are born. These cards are referred to as the “nurture” or conditional and circumstantial part of our heritage.

In short, not all possibilities are available to every single person born. Some things to some people come easily, some things do not. But “easy” or “challenging” is something to factor in—not a sign from nature about choices you must make. Should you abandon your arduous pursuit of a goal that comes more easily to others? Not necessarily. However, of course, you’ll want to be realistic about allowing for the proper amount of effort that must be exerted.

So, even though you were dealt, by nature and by nurture, by accident and by design, a hand of cards, you don’t necessarily have to stand “pat.” You can acquire new cards and, perhaps, there are some you can discard.

Of course, even when you are playing with your, for now, current hand, there are other factors coming into play that may affect whether you win or lose. By being an astute player, you can be successful with less than desirable cards. After all, continuing with our metaphor (that life deals us a hand from the great cosmic deck of all available cards) life is a game of chance and skill. We’ve all heard the metaphoric possibilities. In life, as in poker, you can up the ante, raise the stakes, beat the odds; bluff. [In poker, you can sometimes demand a new deal. Unfortunately, this is not true in life!]

But in life, the stakes, odds, conditions, opportunities and players do change. You can seek teaching that will leverage your holdings, i.e., help you to play better. You can make plans and practice your strategies for accomplishment. You can reassess how your hand of cards will play against the competitors. You can choose fields of contention or games wherein you are likely to be a better competitor.

Yes, it is nice, very nice, to have good cards, but there are many consummate players of relatively poorer ones. So, it is critical that you assess your hand.

Now, how do you know if your assessment is objective, accurate? How do you know if you are overstating your honors? Do you look at your resume, your track record, at what your neighbors say about you, at the size of your mortgage?

No. I think you’ll find the questions below more useful to your assessment. They come from a “pragmatic” perspective. They’ll help you to “get real” about cards you only wished or imagined you had, to figure out how to acquire cards to leverage your holdings, or how to use a better understanding of how the game is played to revalue your cards.

As compared to your vision for yourself in the marketplace, your concern for a functional stake in productive society, assess your cards. Assess your ability to exchange equivalent value. How desirable is your hand? How well do you play it?

As compared to your vision for yourself regarding love, intimacy, friendship, companionship, compatibility and belonging, assess your cards. How well do you play your hand?

As compared to your vision for yourself regarding contributing to others, assess your cards. Are you skilled at reconciliation, can you forgive and forget, can you bring forth love and empathetic connection, are you sensitive to the suffering of those less able than yourself, does your way of being help to comfort or raise the spirits of those to whom you are connected? How desirable is your hand? How well do you play it?

Expectations, Beliefs and Discipline:Two Experiments, Two Challenges

By Arnold Siegel

Expectations and beliefs are a fact of life; however, they may not be thoughtfully promulgated. Odds are, our expectations and beliefs exist by virtue of blind force, cultural impress, fantasy or gamble. They may bear little relationship to how the world works or to the control we have over ourselves and circumstances. Yet unfulfilled, they are insidiously harmful, motivate irresponsibility and blame, and lead to gripes, excuses, spite and self-antagonism, alienation, retreat.

For the sake of experiment, try this challenge. For a period of time you designate, be willing to consider my assertion that an important number of your beliefs and expectations may not be based on carefully considered gathered intelligence and native intelligence; you simply have them. Be willing to take responsibility for disappointed expectations.

What do I mean by “take responsibility?” For the sake of this experiment, take the point of view that your expectations are your responsibility. When they do not materialize, try to locate where you were cause in the matter. This does not mean that you must pretend to have control over circumstances beyond your reach. Rather, by locating where you were unrealistic and failed to formulate your expectations properly, acknowledge the part your presumptions, suppositions, wishful thinking, naïveté, decisions, judgments, nonfeasance and actions played in the matter.

On paper, this experiment may seem remedial. But before you begin it, think about how often you experience discontent and disappointment. You live in a free country and are already more privileged than the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Although life is not fair and yes, some people may have more stuff than you do, you’re not someone who has been excluded from all of life’s opportunities and pleasures. Certainly no one else feels sorry for you. Yet disappointment and discontent dog your experience of life. So, once again, for the sake of experiment, try this challenge.

For the sake of experiment, try another challenge. This one is related to self-control, self-management and self-discipline.

As adults, we tend to think we are already self-directed, autonomous and rational. Certainly, when we talk to ourselves, we can “make sense” of practically everything we do. Yet we are also nature’s experiment, beneficiaries of chemically induced feelings that emerge in just the way that they do (rather than by executive decision). Close to home and familiar, this primal authority is immediate and compelling.

In other words, beneath the polish of rational explanation is an unruly mass of chemicals. Many of our choices, decisions, motivations, priorities, advances, retreats, etc., with respect to our carefully conceived objectives are “authorized” by the immediacy of feelings. While some of our feelings seem to move us toward accomplishing our civilized objectives, some seem to hinder accomplishment. This means we must learn to impose order on this aspect of immediacy—harness or temper feelings that are counterproductive (given our objectives).

Feelings are generally tempered by means of discipline; initially by the discipline our early caretakers impose upon us. To the extent we didn’t acquire this discipline, it is now up to us as adults to impose it upon ourselves.

Discipline is acquired incrementally, systematically, repetitively, in due course and over time. However, most of us have countless unverified reasons why we are somehow superior to the rest of us who must learn or acquire incrementally . . . in due course and over time. Therefore, putting our unrealistic notions to the test of reality in order to learn the practical truth about our own actual embodied competencies can be a useful learning endeavor. It can also be empowering; we seem to have more confidence, optimism and equanimity when our self-descriptions are accurate, when the powers we ascribe to ourselves have actually been tested.

If you would like to find out for yourself just how much competence you have at discipline, please set up a 28 or 30-day discipline project and “keep score” marking your progress. Please choose an activity at which you have historically failed or at which you are incompetent.

Example: Regarding your fitness program, did you do what you said you would do when you said you would do it? Please be very specific with the details: What will you do? When will you do it? Where will you do it? How will you do it?

Why be so seemingly remedial? Well, most of the time we are successful with our primary institutional roles. However, on playing fields where we do not “fit” so comfortably or where there is no structured program for accomplishment, our successes may be fewer. In order to succeed, we must “discipline” ourselves by turning ourselves over to or inserting ourselves into a structure or program that will yield accomplishment, and we may have to go to the drawing board many times. There’s no reason to believe that even well-conceived structures will not have to be redesigned and redesigned as we face inertia, criticism, novelty, complexity, disappointment, ambivalence, breakdowns, obstacles, stumbling blocks.