Richard Harvey - Psychotherapist, Author and Spiritual Teacher

Richard Harvey

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Releasing Yourself from Playing Roles

Who are you really? When everything that’s attached is stripped away, what remains? Who or what is it that you truly are?

We can start this classical, timeless enquiry by answering, “I am not what I do.” (Later “I am not what I have” and “I am not what I appear to be” may join).

What we do casts us into the area of roles. So, let’s look at them. For this you will need a notebook and pen or pencil to hand (I was born in the twentieth century, before keyboards were dominant).

Roles are important in our life. Sometimes so important that we cling to them, as if to a life raft to stop us from drowning. Some years ago in a workshop I met a man called Alan. In the initial sharing that precedes most of my workshop processes, Alan started with, “I am an architect ...” Inner work attracted Alan and after a number of workshop sharings, all begun with, “I am an architec...” I felt the time was right to lift the mask off. So, following the group sharing I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “You are not an architect.” He looked at me quizzically and then, deepening, insightfully, then, deeper still, excitedly ... “and you know you’re not an architect,” I added.

Alan looked at me surprised and grateful, as layer upon layer of conditioning, conformity, expectation, parental wishes and others’ aspirations rolled off him in waves of cathartic energy, crying and trembling. Sorrow and frustration pooled before him and cleared the way for his inner journey to self-knowledge and self-awareness. It was great for him—the “I’m not an architect”—insight. And it was great for me, for it reinforced my confidence and trust—as a therapist, an agent of transformation, you must gauge when it’s the right time to be confrontative and act!

This anecdote illustrates the importance of transcending your roles and not identifying with what you do, because who you are is different to what you do and you fulfill a tremendous variety of roles in your life.

I want you to write down a whole bunch of these roles… let me show you. This is me—well, my roles anyway: father, psychotherapist, retreat organizer and leader, writer, author, cook, domestic cleaner, dog-walker, administrator, hole-digger, driver, shopper, lover, friend, husband, musician…

Now, I didn’t think about this list. I just wrote it down and that’s the way I encourage you to do it ... [Pause for you to write your own list] ...

Now, draw three circles, one in the middle of the page, one around that one and a third encircling the second circle. You now have something resembling a sombrero or a cone with three elevations or levels seen from the top! Re-write your list, this time evaluating each entry, so that the roles you are most attached to, the ones that are most important to you and central in your life (inner life?) are written in the middle circle, the ones you are slightly less attached to are in the second or middle circle and the roles you are least attached to and are least central in your life are in the third or outer circle ... [Pause while you complete this] ...

Next, either in the three circle diagram, alongside it or on a separate piece of paper, if there’s insufficient space, I want you to write in some qualities, some associations with each of your roles. For example, father—duty, material joy, restrictions; psychotherapist—meditation, status, healing role....

Finally, I want you to contemplate the work you have done. First, you have delineated your roles, which are the labels you ascribe to your acts of doing, your enterprise, your achievement-oriented self (or selves). Second, you have graded your roles into three areas of importance and attachment. Third, you have described what each of your roles means to you, which may in time reveal how you are attached to them.

Once you have seen how and why you are attached to your roles you may be able to work at releasing yourself over time, freeing yourself to be yourself and paradoxically you will be even better at what you do. As I often advise people who are looking for a therapist, “Find one who’s not attached to being a therapist (because they will also be attached to your remaining a client)!”

The complement of this work on roles is to sit quietly with yourself. You are a miracle, an individual, an unrepeatable event, existing at a particular point in time, living in a particular location in space. Breathe. Recognize your uniqueness, your glowing individuality, your precious qualities, abilities, talents and essential humanness. There is something beyond roles and appearances, beyond even the individual separate heart. Let it glow and move and experience within you, deeply and totally. Let us not call it spirit. Let us not call it soul or love or bliss or inspiration or peace or truth or contentment, wholeness or unity consciousness, awareness or understanding or insight. Because it is all of these and more.

It is indescribable. It is you.

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This article is to be published in Spiritual Guidance on in November 2012.

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