Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
with JAMES FADIMAN, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Transcending Limitations," and my guest, Dr. James Fadiman, is a distinguished psychologist, consultant, and author; past president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology; past president o
f the Institute of Noetic Sciences; and an individual who is extremely well known in the field of humanistic psychology, and has been for the last twenty years. Welcome, Jim.
JAMES FADIMAN, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. Before we talk about transcending limitations -- and I know we want to talk a lot about limitations, and how they're developed -- let's talk for a moment about human potential, what is possible. Why would a person even think that they could transcend their limitations?
FADIMAN: Well, a nice thing is that we use so little of what we have in almost every area you can imagine, that transcending limitations is the obvious thing to do on any given day. Anyone knows that they have said to themselves, "I can't do this," and then the situation changes, and they do it. Any parent knows that they can't possibly raise children, but they do. Every author knows they can't possibly complete a book, in the middle of it, and they do. Most students will tell you again and again if you try and teach them anything, "I can't possibly learn this," and they do.
MISHLOVE: Well, you're almost making it sound easy, as if all we have to do is carry on. A lot of times people blow it. I mean, a lot of children are not properly raised; a lot of books never do get written.
FADIMAN: Well, the part that interests me is working on those few small obstacles which are critical. I mean, if there's only one door between you and perfection and you never open the door, it doesn't matter if there are a hundred doors.
MISHLOVE: So what you're suggesting is that we could all be doing a lot more than we are, is that right?
FADIMAN: Well, the data's fairly clear -- that any child or adult, given a more supportive environment, eliminating some of the psychological drawbacks, given a little better educational opportunity, does very well. Therefore it looks like we could all be doing better, without any massive changes in the culture.
MISHLOVE: What would you say is the key here to how we hold ourselves back?
FADIMAN: It looks like the key is our own image of ourselves, our own self concept -- the way we actually see ourselves, the way we rate ourselves against other people: "I'm not as good as; I'm only as good as; I'm better than." The way we maintain our opinion of our abilities is the major stumbling block towards doing better than our abilities.
MISHLOVE: Now, a lot of people, I should think, if you asked them about their self concept, they would say, "I am who I am, and that's the way I am, and I can't change my self concept because I'd be lying. I know who I am. I have these limitations. They're real, tangible."
FADIMAN: Well, people know who they were. For instance, if you take a crowd of normal people and you say, "Who here is terrible in math?" you'll get a few hands. And then you say, "What's your evidence?" I'm amazed that many people will say the evidence -- they're now forty-six years old -- the evidence is what they were in high school, in their junior year in high school.
MISHLOVE: They got a C minus.
FADIMAN: They got a C minus, and therefore they have this scar deep inside their soul called "terrible in math." Now, if you simply get them to let go of the possibility that they're not stuck in high school, if you say, "Did you change anything else since high school? Are you a little more mature in other ways?" everyone says, "Of course. High school was dreadful." And then they can begin to see, well, if everything else has changed, maybe, without my noticing it, my ability to do reasoning and mathematics has changed. I've had case after case after case of people sending me letters that end by saying, "I did go back to school. I'm in an accounting class, or I'm in a computer programming class, and I just got an A on the final. Yours sincerely, I-Used-to-Be-Bad-in-Math, Jane."
MISHLOVE: So what you're saying is one way we can transform our self concept is rather than saying, "I am bad at math," or "I am a bad parent," to say, "I used to be."
FADIMAN: Well, as soon as you say, "I used to be," you're telling the truth. You have evidence that you used to be this and that. But it doesn't mean that you have to be in the future.
MISHLOVE: You're not locked into it.
FADIMAN: It doesn't squeeze down your future to be exactly like your past.
MISHLOVE: To what extent are we the product of our past experiences? Can we just break away from the past?
FADIMAN: Well, we can't break away from the past, but we can kind of slowly pull ourselves away from the past into the future, if we wish to. Example: if you go to a foreign country, you are going to start by speaking English, because you have an enormous past history of speaking English effectively and correctly and in all situations.
MISHLOVE: And people speak English back to me.
FADIMAN: So you're rewarded for it. Well, when you do that in Paris, people look at you hard.
MISHLOVE: They sure do.
FADIMAN: They would rather you speak French, and you therefore will begin to develop some new behaviors, and after a while, when someone walks up to you, you will speak in French.
MISHLOVE: A little bit.
FADIMAN: A little bit, and then a little bit more. You haven't lost your English. You haven't given up your past. You haven't become a new human being. When you visit the United States, you will find your ability to speak English is unimpaired.
MISHLOVE: Now, that's a tough one. I understand what you're saying, but you've hit me at a sore point, because I kind of don't believe I could learn French.
FADIMAN: Well, because you used to not speak French.
MISHLOVE: Right. All my life I used to not speak French.
FADIMAN: From when you were very small. Did you speak anything when you were born?
MISHLOVE: No. I babbled.
FADIMAN: You babbled, and not too well at that perhaps. But you learned English. Now, are you less capable of learning than when you were two years old?
MISHLOVE: I suspect I am, yes. Languages have been hard for me, so maybe it's a good example to talk about.
FADIMAN: Right. So when you were two years old, you were able to learn a language.
MISHLOVE: I was able to learn English very nicely.
FADIMAN: Now of course you were taught in a much more healthy and sane environment than you were in school, because you had people who loved you, and you had lots of practice, and they didn't push you beyond whatever you could do in a given day, and you had lots of rewards.
MISHLOVE: That's true.
FADIMAN: Well, it turns out that if you try teaching a language that way to adults, with running around and playing and singing and play-acting, and lots of things with food, people learn a language in one-fifth, one-sixth, one-eighth the time that our conventional educational system says it takes.
MISHLOVE: You know, now that you mention it, it's true. It's called accelerated learning, or the Lozanov method, Superlearning. In fact I even did attend a seminar, and learned how to speak quite a bit of Spanish in a few hours that way.
MISHLOVE: But I forgot.
FADIMAN: Because you had a belief system that says, "Since I'm not good at languages, even though I learned Spanish, a lot of it, in a few hours, that didn't count."
MISHLOVE: Yes, right.
FADIMAN: So what interests me is, what does count?
MISHLOVE: So my own attitude towards what I'm capable of doing is probably the biggest limitation that I or any of our viewers have.
FADIMAN: It looks like it. Now yes, there are social limitations; yes, there are economic limitations; yes, there are physical limitations. But if we look at a hundred disadvantaged people -- name your disadvantages -- and come back twenty years later, some of them have done magnificently. What happened? Why did those few do differently? When we ask them, they say, "Well, my attitude was different than the other people."
MISHLOVE: Other people around them will say it was luck.
FADIMAN: That's the people who are still there. I have a definition of luck. It's cute, but it's useful to me. It's Laboring Under Correct Knowledge, which is why some people have more of it. Why do some people tend to make better decisions much of the time? Well, if you ask them they say, "I don't know. I just pay attention and do the best I can." But it's the paying attention that turns out to be critical, and that gets back to their attitude about themselves.
MISHLOVE: If we have an attitude about ourselves that limits us, you might call that incorrect knowledge.
FADIMAN: Right -- such as, "I used to be bad at math" is correct knowledge. "I don't know what will happen in the future" is correct knowledge. "I am bad at math and don't you try and teach me anything" -- that's incorrect knowledge.
MISHLOVE: Or, "I am a bad spouse," or, "I am not a good parent." Any attitude in any area of life.
FADIMAN: Or, "I am an overweight person," which is the polite term.
MISHLOVE: "I can never lose weight."
FADIMAN: "I can't control my --" whatever it is.
MISHLOVE: Drinking, smoking, cocaine. All of these attitudes affect virtually every behavior.
FADIMAN: Well, it looks like if we're playing generations, there was the Me Generation and the Narcissistic Generation, the Human Potential Generation. Someone has suggested that our generation is the Anonymous Generation, because there are so many groups of Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. When you visit them, they're full of people with transformed attitudes. They're people who used to have the attitude of addiction, and now they have the attitude of power, pride, self control, and remarkable development. They are probably the most impressive people that I've been meeting, other than a few people perhaps in the computer world.
MISHLOVE: How do we all become so ignorant about our potential, that we allow ourselves to develop these attitudes? In many people, myself included I'm sure, they become very deeply engrained. I mean, there are some things I'd refuse to believe I could do.
FADIMAN: Well, if you go to a kindergarten, and you say to any kindergarten teacher, "What percentage of the kids in this class can learn to play a musical instrument?" the answer from any kindergarten teacher is one hundred percent. Now, if you go to a sixth grade class, and you say to the teacher, "What percentage of the children can learn to play a musical instrument?" the answer is about forty percent. What's happened? Well, we're not sure what's happened, but it looks like a combination of parents and the school system have snuffed out not the ability, but the willingness to have the ability. Because if you turn it around and get one of those kids who think, "I can't play no musical instrument. I got no talent. I can't practice. I hate to practice, and I'm tone deaf" -- the ultimate safety from learning any music -- if you take that child, or that adult, and simply get them to let go of the attitudes, they can learn to play a musical instrument, not as quickly as a kindergartner, but almost. It's that kind of letting go and taking up a new attitude that I find very exciting.
MISHLOVE: In other words, what you're saying is it doesn't matter how we got the attitude. No matter what happened to us -- our parents may have beat it into us, for example, if our parents didn't like us -- it's possible to change the attitude anyhow.
FADIMAN: Well, if it's possible to learn a new language by living somewhere else, if it's possible to learn to drive a stick shift if you've only driven an automatic, if it's possible to learn a computer, clearly we're capable of learning new things. Therefore if we look back at the things we've decided we can't learn, that's just an attitude.
MISHLOVE: It sounds a little too easy to me, Jim. For example, learning a skill seems to be something that most people can do, but sometimes changing your attitudes is different because of the emotional attachment. It's not just simple learning. You have to let go of something that you may have a very strong emotion about.
FADIMAN: Right, which is if you want to be that way.
MISHLOVE: Or if you're afraid to be different.
FADIMAN: Or if you would disappoint your parents by being better. Now I know that sounds paradoxical, but if you're brought up in a family with a couple of kids, in most families one of the kids is nicer, and everyone in the family knows who that is. One of the kids is smarter. Everyone knows who that is. And after a while, if you're the not-nice one, or the nice one, you don't get out of line. You don't disappoint your parents by being different than they expect you to be.
MISHLOVE: Conforming to an expectation or a role that you've grown into.
FADIMAN: And once you've grown into it -- take kids with reading. Children don't start out as bad readers, because they start out as non-readers, all children. Then they get into school, and some of them decide, "I'm not a good reader," for various reasons -- parenting, education, who knows? But then they can maintain it, usually with the school system's support. They then are moved into that special group -- you know: "Which reading group are you in?" "I'm in the Turtles." "What are the Turtles?" "That's the dumb kids. We're the bad readers." Then the child begins to think of themselves as a bad reader, as someone who is not as bright, and each year it's reinforced and redeveloped.
MISHLOVE: Through labeling.
FADIMAN: Through labeling, and through practice. So that if you take an adult who says, "I'm illiterate," the first thing you have to do in a literacy class is convince them that they are now going to stop being illiterate. That's why they came to the class. Otherwise they will maintain illiteracy through all the reading training, and go out saying, "Well, I went to a literacy class, and I'm still illiterate," which is they've hung on to the attitude. So unless you change the attitude first, a lot of what we call learning experiences are blown, are thrown away.
MISHLOVE: Well, can a person who has an attitude like this, to which they may have a strong emotional attachment, simply change it because someone else persuades them? Is it logic?
FADIMAN: No, it's desire. It's greed, in the sense if you aim for people's greed and lust, you will find they're very, very interested. If you aim for their higher spiritual development, some are interested, some are not. So for instance, if someone wishes to stop smoking, smoking feels terrific, that's why it's popular. Not smoking doesn't feel terrific to a smoker; that's why it's less popular. But if someone genuinely wants to stop smoking, they can, even though they're addicted and it's terrible and so forth and so on. At some point people will say, "Something in me is capable of making a massive change in a habit, an attitude, an addiction." And they literally take a cigarette and put it out and never pick up another.
MISHLOVE: But if people could change just because they had the desire, then a lot of psychologists would be out of business.
FADIMAN: Well, let us hope.
MISHLOVE: There must be other techniques, though. Let's suppose I fervently desire to change my habit -- let's say believing that I can't learn a language. But I feel blocked, I'm uncomfortable, I'm afraid, and changing my attitude creates a whole new set of problems for me.
FADIMAN: So there has to be information. Also you can't learn a language by sitting on the edge of your bed and saying, "I love French. French is so good. I'm now speaking French." Unless you have some French training, it's not going to work. There is a kind of human-potential attitude that if you shut your eyes and wish real hard, good things will fall out of the sky on you. It turns out that if you shut your eyes and wish real hard, when you open your eyes the first thing that comes into your mind is the first thing you need to do towards the goal that you've just wished for.
MISHLOVE: That's interesting. Why don't you repeat that again? I think you just said something important.
FADIMAN: What did I say?
MISHLOVE: If you close your eyes and wish real hard, the first thing that comes to your mind is what you need to do.
FADIMAN: Right, because what you've done is say to yourself, "I genuinely want this," and the part of you that lives in the world and notices things says, "Well, if you're serious, if you really want this, there are some things you might look for."
MISHLOVE: The answer is somehow within us.
FADIMAN: Well, there's a saying that the hungry man sees only bread, and that when you are motivated you become a little homing device. I have a cat at home, and I watch my cat. I'll open a can of something and the cat is thirty-five feet away, and I'll watch my cat's nose start to go into radar mode, and it starts to search, and as soon as it homes in on the direction of food, then it knows exactly what to do next. It doesn't take any attitude change or training. It takes desire plus practice, plus the information that opening a can is probably worth sniffing around for. Just the sound of a can opening begins the procedure.
MISHLOVE: Let's take a hard example now. You mentioned smoking earlier, and I know the research in psychology indicates that there aren't any real good methods as a whole, for helping people to give up smoking. Almost every method, if you look at that method overall, has more failures than successes. And yet there are successes. People do succeed. What's the difference there? If I want to give up smoking --
FADIMAN: Well, two things. Let's take it. One is, are you a smoker, if you're smoking?
MISHLOVE: Well, in my case I'm not. All right, a person who is a smoker has this attitude, "I am a smoker."
FADIMAN: Right. So the first thing is, they used to be a smoker, meaning up until the last cigarette. Because when I talk to hundreds of adults, and I say, "How many of you have given up smoking?" a certain percentage have given up smoking, a rather large percentage. And I say, "How many of you simply stopped cold turkey -- no methods, no techniques, no schools, no cigarettes with ever-diminishing filters, no crummy cigarettes that taste lousy -- just stopped?" About half. So it turns out --
MISHLOVE: No wonder none of the official methods work so well.
FADIMAN: So there's a magnificent method out there, which is believing in oneself enough, that one has enough capacity to actually do what you decide to do. And at that moment, not smoking is simply a difficult thing to do. I've been stunned, because I've also investigated some of the research on methods, and decided that it was amazing that they didn't work very well. They don't work very well because the people who go to these things say, "Nothing's going to help, but I'll try this mechanical outside system that won't bother my attitudes." There's a wonderful story in the alcohol world. One of the ways that people try to cure alcoholics is what's called aversion therapy, where you give them a drug which in the body is neutral, but if you add alcohol people get very sick, they get nauseous and feel horrible.
FADIMAN: Well, there were some people at a local VA Hospital, and they were all on Antabuse therapy, and they decided that they were very depressed by that, because they really would prefer to have drunk. They decided to support each other, so they fled the hospital, went to the local bar, and ordered liquor, took it, threw up, took some more, threw up. They basically supported each other and helped each other, encouraged each other, until they were able to overcome the effects of the drug and drink.
MISHLOVE: Marvelous for them. The power of transcending one's limits, right?
FADIMAN: So it works either way.
MISHLOVE: That's fascinating. What do you see in terms of some of the higher realms? For example, we have role models in our culture of outstanding athletes, outstanding scholars, mathematical geniuses. I'm very interested in psychic phenomena, which many people say is impossible. Do you think it's likely that in the far distant future, the kind of human behavior that we think of as exceptional would be considered normal, because people will have learned that they don't have to limit themselves -- that what we think of today as normal might be thought of as subnormal?
FADIMAN: Well, the nice thing is if you look at athletics, it's happening all the time. When I grew up, it was assumed that people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties didn't do much exercise and certainly didn't do it well, and certainly didn't do it very long -- let alone sexual behavior -- just normal exercise. Now there are marathons, and a man in San Francisco used to win in his age group, because he was in the eighty-plus age group, in every marathon. He was the only person running. At last -- I paid attention to this -- he is now ranked fourth nationally, and in any marathon he runs there is competition. Now, if people in their eighties can run marathons, what is normal behavior? So when I say I'm interested in human potential and we all use very little of it -- runners are wonderful people to talk to, because they all have their story, and most of them, particularly middle-aged runners and up, will say at some point, "I ran for the bus, thirty-two yards, and I panted and I sweated and thought I'd die, and I was ashamed, and so I started running."
MISHLOVE: A little bit at a time.
FADIMAN: A friend of mine is very typical. The first time he ran he made about a hundred yards on a clear day, dressed properly, and a year later he did his first marathon. Now how did that happen? He's not a great athlete; his athlete friends let him know he's not a great athlete. He's simply a normal human being who pushed just a little on his potential.
MISHLOVE: He set a goal for himself and worked towards that goal.
FADIMAN: He decided that if people he knew were no better than he was and could run marathons, so could he. So the sports world is now littered with what we used to call miracle stories. Now they're just what athletes do.
MISHLOVE: I suppose the same thing holds true in the realm of medicine. We used to believe that it was up to the doctors to heal us, and now more and more people are taking responsibility for their own health.
FADIMAN: Well, it seems odd that one would think a doctor could heal you. You don't think a doctor can make you sick. As someone pointed out, nobody can eat your food for you, and there are certain other things that you can only do for yourself. It would look like healing is one of them. So again, what we're finding out is if you combine your own attitude with whatever medical science is offering, the results are far better than if you assume that medical science is the only thing working.
MISHLOVE: Well, I should think that one of the techniques that must be very important here is being able to set goals for yourself, and to kind of focus on your goals and stick to them, because otherwise many people's minds, my mind, is like a Will-o'-the-Wisp -- this way today, and that way tomorrow, and I could vary and go in circles.
FADIMAN: Well, it turns out when you look at successful people, which is where this research starts, they're capable of maintaining their intention. Again, if you are going to walk up a mountain, every once in a while you have to remember which direction is up. You don't have to keep the top of the mountain in mind, because the mountain itself has a lot of hints, but now and then you have to remember, "What am I doing here, and what's my intention?" So in a sense, daily, perhaps more often, people remind themselves what they're really doing. One of the nice things about schools, since I've said nasty things about schools, is school continually reminds you that for an hour we're going to think about geography, and therefore if you say, "In division I'm having a problem," the teacher says, "Now, wait a moment. We're all thinking about geography for a while. Can you pay attention?" Can you earn attention might be a better term. What we're seeing is that in order to overcome limitations, to transcend whatever you used to be -- because at least you're going to be older, we know that one -- it takes intention, it takes a little bit of information, and it takes reminding yourself, and those are the kind of secret, occult doctrines of twentieth-century psychology.
MISHLOVE: We have a couple minutes left, Jim. Let's talk about reminding yourself. Is there any skill to that?
FADIMAN: Well, there's dozens of ways.
MISHLOVE: People talk about self hypnosis, affirmations, putting little cues up in the room.
FADIMAN: What do we do with an image we care for? We put it up on the wall, so when we look at it just for a moment we're reminded. If one reminds oneself, just by saying what one's goals are to oneself, or imagining them, or physically getting a touch for them, or a taste, or even -- what's it called? the sweet smell of success? Different people use different senses, and they all work. The thing is, there are buckets of methods, and the one thing psychology, or the human potential movement, has, is dozens and dozens of ways. Once people make the first step, which is "I want it, and I'm willing to accept the improvement," that is something which is not a technique, but an internal realization, and that's where we can educate and inform and have role models and lots of nice things.
MISHLOVE: At that point the universe will support us, because there's so much out there to help us.
FADIMAN: It looks like it to me, and I know that other people see very empty bottles, while I see ones which are pretty full.
MISHLOVE: Well, Jim Fadiman, it's been a pleasure having you with me on this program. We've really covered quite a range of approaches to the issue of transcending your limitations -- everything from the goals that you set, to the way you think about yourself and your attitudes and how you repeat them to yourself, to the way in which we relate to time itself. Thank you very much, Jim. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for being with me.
FADIMAN: Thank you.
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