If we were asked to choose one of these two terms to describe ourselves, we wouldn’t waver.
Human beings are complex lifeforms made of interdependent systems, capable of handling a large amount of variables simultaneously. For example, you can be brushing your teeth while reading the label on the toothpaste, feeling that a tooth hurts, getting annoyed about it and deciding to call the dentist first thing tomorrow morning. Meanwhile you will have also been breathing, digesting, pumping your blood around, keeping your temperature stable and fighting the infection in the tooth, amongst many other things.
A mechanism is much simpler. A mere assembly of parts performing one function. It works linearly, ie: predetermined inputs will always produce the same outputs. Sometimes organisms can also act mechanically. That’s how reflexes work; they generate a fast automatic reaction. This is useful when there is an emergency, like pulling your hand away when you’re getting burnt. A certain behaviour can also become fixed as a pattern if it was useful, like saying please and thank you or always choosing the same toilet cubicle. However, we may find ourselves using this mechanic type of reaction in situations that are not so simple. This would be like a 2D reaction to a 3D issue: there are details that have been left out and it is bound not to serve us well. In fact, Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy, used the term “neurotic mechanisms” to refer to ways of coping with challenging circumstances by disengaging from reality, ie: stopping ourselves from experiencing it fully.
In these cases, it might seem like we’ve got stuck in a groove and can’t get out of it. Noticing that we’ve lost our freedom to respond is the first thing. Just noticing might break the spell, but otherwise, how about honouring our intrinsic sophistication as organisms to unfold all the different aspects of our experience and take them into account? The broader and deeper the experience of the now, the more choices that become available. What aspect of the situation did I not take into account? My physical well-being? An emotion? My values? A no? An opportunity? A wish? Responding coherently with the whole that we are may sometimes be no easy matter, but it’s the only way in which we fulfil our potential and our birthright as human beings to live creatively. And that feels reassuring and empowering!
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