Friday, January 29, 2010

Back to Basics

Based on a bunch of discussions I've had of late as well as some of the comments I seen on various blogs and discussion groups dedicated to the philosophy of happiness, I thought it might be good to get back to basics.

Before starting, I want to be clear that I have absolutely no credentials to speak of; I'm not certified in any way in regard to the philosophy of happiness. Also, I would note that if you're someone who actually looks at credentials to validate what someone is saying, well... please stop now.

Clarifying Terms
Once upon a time (in the early 70's or late 60's), a man named Bruce Di Marsico invented something that he called the Option Method (and at times, Option Therapy). I would note that under the threat of severe saber rattling and ultimately a court order, I am compelled to not refer to Bruce's philosophy by the names applied to it by others. I know, it's silly and perhaps unbelievable, but people nonetheless. Sigh...

Anyway, as far as I can tell, all the core principles of Bruce's philosophy such as stimulus-belief-response and the method of talk therapy referred to as the dialogue all originated with Bruce.

Among the small group of people to whom Bruce taught the method was Barry Neil Kaufman who subsequently wrote several books about it, renaming it and trademarking the name. He also established a 5013c n0n-profit religious organization that among other things offers workshops that facilitate experiential learning the of the philosophy. The tag line for his teaching center in the Berkshires is "A place for miracles", and I must say that, in my experience, it is.

All this is to say that, when I refer to the philosophy, I'm referring to the core system of philosophy that originated with Bruce. I'm not referring to Bruce's specific instantiation (The Option Method) nor Kaufman's trademarked version of the same nor the non-registered trademarked place that the Kaufman's established; I'm just talking about the philosophical core.

The Foundation
Bruce's critical insight that forms the basis for everything else is simple: our emotions are voluntary actions, not involuntary reactions. Everything we feel is something we do, not something that happens to us. Being something that we voluntarily do, every emotion, every feeling is a choice. In particular, for Bruce and others, happiness is a choice.

OK, that's it. Nothing more, nothing less. As Einstein said, "Everything should be made a simple as possible, but no simpler."
The first principle is:
our emotions and feelings are not involuntary reactions to stimuli,
they are activities that we engage intentionally

Beliefs Cause Emotion
So, if our emotions and feelings are choices we make, why doesn't it feel that way. For most of us, our emotions absolutely seem to be involuntary reactions to the world around us. They're pre-programmed, they're reflexes, they're automatic. Something happens and we respond.
  • My boss yells at me in front of a group of people and I feel embarrassed.
  • A guy cuts me off in traffic and I get angry.
  • My mother passes away and I feel sad.
  • Someone points a gun at me and I feel scared.
  • My boyfriend breaks up with me and I feel hurt.
And yet, we don't all respond the same ways to the same stimuli. People respond differently to any given stimulus. Walk a photo of George Bush around Dallas, Texas and you'll get one set of emotional responses. Walk the same photo around Cambridge, Massachusetts and you'll get another, completely different set of responses.

If emotions are involuntary reactions to stimuli, how is that we all react differently. Bruce answered this question, by suggesting that our emotional reactions to stimuli are based on our beliefs regarding the stimuli. Everything we see and hear is filtered by our beliefs; this filtering process determines our reactions.
  • My reaction to getting fired is determined by my belief in regard to my capacity to get a new job.
  • My reaction to the death of a loved one is determined by my belief regarding afterlife.
  • My reaction to someone holding a gun is determined by my belief regarding her intention.
It is our beliefs regarding the stimuli that drive our reactions, not the stimuli themselves. Further, there are always many beliefs at work. My reaction to getting fired is determined by a combination of beliefs: Was I unjustly fired? Do I need a job? Can I find a job? Can I find a better job? And so on.
An second principle is:
Our reactions to stimuli are not directly caused by the stimuli,
they are caused by our beliefs regarding the stimuli.
A corollary to this is:
A good way to change how we react to stimuli,
is to uncover and change the beliefs that drive the reaction.
Isolating Causal Beliefs
As humans, each of us is a walking, talking constellation of thousands of beliefs. So, the question that arises is, "How do I know which beliefs to change in order to change my response to a given stimulus?"

In response to this, many who have learned the philosophy would tell you that you want to look for judgments. The topic of judgments vs. assessments is one about which many people seem quite confused. I believe this is simply because the Kaufman's got it a bit confused and they've taught more people the philosophy than anyone.

One teacher will often explain that there is an important subset of beliefs called judgments. Judgments are beliefs that have a charge: good/bad, right/wrong and so on. When looking for beliefs that cause unwanted responses, we want to look for judgments. The teacher will then distinguish words that represent judgments from words that represent assessments giving examples of each.

With this explanation, we've already gone completely off the rails. As one of my professors would say, "Not even wrong."

The idea that some beliefs that are assessments and others are judgments is just silly. There is nothing inherent to a belief that makes it a judgment or an assessment. There are just beliefs.

However, different beliefs hold different emotional charges for each of us and these emotional charges vary over time. Believing that your wife is going to leave you is just a belief. You may feel quite sad and concerned about that (negative charge), or you might feel quite excited and enthusiastic about it (positive charge), or you may not really care that much (no charge).

Our emotional response to a belief is directly proportional to the amount of charge that we've associated with that belief. Beliefs that carry a big charge cause a big emotional response; beliefs that carry a small charge cause small emotional responses. So, if you want to isolate the beliefs that are causing you to react in ways you want to change, look for the beliefs with the biggest charge. The important thing to remember is that the charge associated with any belief is completely variable from person to person and from time to time.
A third principle is:
To uncover the beliefs that have the greatest impact on your response to a stimulus,
look for those beliefs that carry the greatest emotional charge.
Modifying and Discarding Beliefs
Once I've uncovered a belief that is causing a specific response, I can process that belief to see if I want to keep it, modify it, discard it or replace it. This brings us to another critical principle.
A fourth principle is:
There is no such thing as an irrational belief;
every belief has a logic and rationale that drives it.

A corollary to this is:
Because every belief is rational and logical,
it can be understood and changed.
I've often heard people who are avid philosophical enthusiasts talk about irrational fears or irrational beliefs. Again, not even wrong.

One of the things we'll often tell ourselves is that we have irrational beliefs. We'll say things like, "I know it doesn't make any sense, but I just can't get past believing that..."

The problem is that, when we do this, we shut down any possible exploration of why we're doing what we're doing. We get 'stuck'.

By starting with the assumption that everything I do, no matter how irrational it may seem, actually has a logical and rational belief system driving it, I open the door to exploring my beliefs and changing them. With this principle in hand, we can break down our beliefs into the underlying beliefs and assumptions on which they're built. As we break our beliefs down into their component elements, we uncover flawed steps in our logic and the assumptions that, upon seeing them, no longer make sense.

Within the philosophy, our ability to logically break down and understand our beliefs is the basic method by which we change them.

So Far
OK, that's enough writing for this morning. Mark Twain once said something like, "I wanted to write you short letter, but ran out of time, so I wrote a long one."

Let me quickly summarize what we have so far:
  1. The philosophy exists independently of any branded or trademarked processes or organizations
  2. The foundational principle on which all the rest of the philosophy is built is that our emotions and feelings are voluntary actions, not involuntary reactions.
  3. Our emotions and feelings are not direct reactions to stimuli, but instead are reactions to our beliefs regarding stimuli.
  4. The degree to which a belief influences our reaction to stimuli is directly proportional to the charge that we apply to that belief. Highly charged beliefs yield big reactions.
  5. If we want to change how we respond to something, then we want to find the relevant beliefs with the strongest charge.
  6. All beliefs are logical and rational and can therefor be analyzed and understood.
  7. As we become clear on the logic and assumptions that drive our beliefs, it becomes easier to make changes to them or completely replace them.
  8. By changing our beliefs, we change how we respond.
OK, that's my first crack at the theoretical underpinnings of the philosophy. I'd love to hear your feedback and insights.



  1. Q#1.Why do you assume you are the last person on the planet Bears would want talking to anyone about Option?
    Q#2.What about fact versus opinion? Isn't it that an assessment is based on a fact and a belief is an opinion in which a person assumes is true based on their past experience?

    Thanks in advance for the clarification.

  2. A#1: This is a belief - unless stated clearly by Bears -and even then: we would have to believe a) he ment what he said b) he still mean it

    A#2:Q#3 "This is cold" - is that a fact/ observation or an opinion? Is it important to understand or is it just important to look at where the strong feeling/ reaction and look for what fuels this? then we could call anything that seems neutral for us "assesments" (or assesment-like) and any thought which fuels feelings or reactions "beliefs".

    Q#4: are there any fundamental differencies between Option and Cognitive Psychology (CP)? CP started in the late 50's/ early '60 and Bruce's work - even if it is philosophy and not psychology - seems related.

    I know that many cognitive psycologists believes that feelings comes before "reactions" (which might not be a difference, we just adress them the same way in the option dialogues) and I know that some believe that there are things which are unchangable (but yet we do see times when the unchangable does change).


  3. Thank you Teflon......for your awesome summation about the gift of an Option approach or perspective towards what we do as the spirits we are having this human experience.

    I can vouch for Tef, having gotten the same sense of a peculiar need to control OI's trademark? The only thing that comes up for me is that it is some aspect of fear.....this pre-occupation with having to control.

    When I questioned Bears in person, many years ago, about his reluctance to roll out more quickly, more effectively, the news.....he explained it was about his desire to control or have a handle on the quality/quantity of the how or when he wants to share this exsquisite gift he discovered while he and Suz were with Bruce. I accept this, lovingly, admireably. I do none-the-less, keep poking him and everyone, lovingly, to 'get on with it.' ;)

    It continues to be a choice to be thrilled to observe OI continuing to roll out and to present this increasingly to the masses. Their recent forey into video's and online video messages, I applaud, cheer the family to join in expanding and sharing... bw

  4. VisionQuester,
    Good point on Q#1. My comment probably requires more details than would be interesting, so I'll refrain from them in the future. My main point is that Bears and I have had many long discussions regarding Option. There are places where I believe we are completely aligned, and places where we strongly disagree. I think that what I wanted to convey, but didn't convey very effectively, is that my understanding and description of Option may be differ significantly from Bears in many instances. I don't want anyone to think that my ideas represent those of Bears, but I may be trying too hard on that front.

    Regarding Q#2, Iris and I had a great discussion about that yesterday driving from the Berkshires to NJ. One of the distinctions that we often draw in discussion of Option is the difference between fact-observation and opinion-belief. (In this context, I would use opinion and belief interchangeably.)

    From a pure theoretical perspective, we only ever have opinion-belief. Everything we take in passes through a lot of processing and filtering on it's way to becoming an observation. So, from that perspective all we have is beliefs.

    From an operational perspective, the distinction between fact-observation and opinion-belief is quite significant. My thinking is that, operational, the significance lies in the absence or presence of charge. Without context, if I were to say, "so-an-so is 6'3" tall", one might classify my statement as "fact-observation". However, if I made the statement in the context of a discussion regarding sense of inferiority due to my small stature, we might actually see it as a judgment.

    So, I'm not sure where I come out on the distinction between fact-observation and opinion-belief. On the one hand, it's a useful construct that can guide us in our exploration of beliefs, on the other hand it can be a bit misleading in that the same phrase uttered in one context may simply be an observation whereas in another it may be a judgment.

    I want to think about that one a bit more. What do you think?

  5. Joy, normally I would say:
    "It's -5 degrees" would be a fact/observation,
    "It's cold" would be an assessment, and
    "It's friggin' cold!" would be a judgment.

    Let me think on this some more, because I'm on the edge of something, but not sure what yet.

    Iris has been reading a lot about positive psychology lately and we've been talking about it in the context of Option. I see lots of places where they are aligned and others where the disagree a bit. Examples of disagreement (or complement depending on your perspective) include the benefit of specificity and the focus on optimism/pessimism versus happiness/unhappiness. More to come on that as well.

    If you have any specific references I'd love to hear about them since I'm pretty clueless on the subject myself.

  6. lol I too have questioned Bears whenever it seems OI is focused on the value of being non-judgemental. how oi refers to judgements being bad, period. Whereas I find it more useful, to simply accept judgement as a natural part of who we are, and suggest accepting it, and looking instead not on being non-judgemental, but on exploring the quality of the judgement, and what it does for is it useful, what is the motivation for choosing the judgement. I agree the choosing to be non-judgemental is most useful when being a therapon with another. bw

  7. What cold means happens rather instantaneously does it not? why observe anything if it has no relavance by association to the observer? bw

  8. I thought this might be relevant...

    Bruce Di Marsico, From "Beliefs are not a problem"

    "Now the only judgment and beliefs that are really going to affect your happiness are judgments and beliefs that have to do with your happiness. It might not make much of a difference to your happiness for you to make a prediction about where the stock market is going to go, as long as your money, or your lack of it, is not going to be something that you’re going to make a judgment that you’ll be happy about or not. A person who is really being happy might not make judgments or beliefs about their happiness, but they might make them about anything else, knowing that they are only just judgments, they are only just guesses, they’re only just beliefs, which they’re doing in order to get something or to conduct some business or to negotiate or to relate to someone."

  9. Hey Teffy, was just exploring beliefs....Are they not simply expressions of value judgements? Are not all judgements simply value judgements, and therefore assessments? That it is 5 degrees means nothing until we judge its value and make up meaning. We could pretend or pronounce 5 degrees to be 'cold.' It could be something different to a polar bear could it not? Have you judged yet, determined what it is you're on the edge of defining yet? ;) bw


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