Category Archives: group psychology

Something About “Nothing”

A friend noted decades ago that I often quipped and joked about negation.  That was the first moment I noticed this feature of my soul and realized just how it influenced the whole of my life.  Poet Anne Carson noted, “The poet is someone who feasts at the same table as other people. But at a certain point he feels a lack. He is provoked by a perception of absence within what others regard as a full and satisfactory present.”

However, I am not a poet.  I am, though steeped in poetry and have been since my mid-thirties when a friend gifted me a book of poems by W. H. Auden.  I think that poets have the ability and courage to dive into that “lack” buck naked, and come back with the gift of poetry.  I don’t think my lot in life is to get that naked, probably because of a lack of courage or the gods’ wisdom that I could not handle the vulnerability.  But the “lack” is present and I am growing more comfortable with it, finding that “chopping wood, carrying water” is effective in assuaging the soul’s experience of this emptiness.

This lack is now being presented to our entire culture in the person of our president.  He illustrates what happens when one sell’s his soul to distractions and is left with a gaping maw in his heart that seeks to destroy everything and everyone.  These distractions are what allow most people to have that “full and satisfactory present” mentioned by Carson above.  These “distractions” are a gift but when they become the soul focus in one’s life, or a culture’s life, a meaninglessness eventually finds expression.  Watch and listen to Trump and one can see meaninglessness and emptiness personified.


Emily Dickinson Offered Wisdom Relevant to Modern Religious Zealotry

The mass murder in New Zealand illustrates again the problem with “True Believers,” those who believe so strongly they will even resort to violence.  This is because if one knows the truth, and knows it with enough passion, it will shut down the “pauser reason” which would tell one that another person might feel differently about what the truth is so that violence would not be necessary.  Furthermore, it would reveal internal boundaries, i.e. discretion or “the faculty of judgement” which would allow for value of life, in all forms, so that any belief that one has would not merit acting with violence.

There is inherent in belief a peril as one can be so invested so strongly in his beliefs that the aforementioned discretion is obliterated.  This discretion involves a “still small voice” in one’s heart which might tell one thinking of acting in this fashion, “Well, maybe I don’t really have to go to that extreme.” And if this discretion is fully functioning, the issue of acting out will not even be on the table.

Poet Emily Dickinson offered wisdom about this matter of discretion and related it to meaning.  She wrote that at times, “a certain slant of light” will break through our consciousness and will bring an “oppressive” mood into our heart; it might even bring us “heavenly hurt” though “we can find no scars, but internal difference where the meanings are.”  The ability to feel “difference” in the depths of our heart, though often bringing distress, i.e. “heavenly hurt,” will offer us meaning to our life which will empower us to see meaning beyond the values and beliefs we hold dear to ourselves. The inability to experience “difference” that would offer a meaningful life will create a rigidity denying the “heavenly hurt” that is part of the human experience; it is then more likely that the resulting pent-up anguish will be projected on someone else.

People who can’t handle this internal “discord” which intrinsic to a heart that is alive, will inevitable have to “them” someone else or some group of people.  They will have to find someone who is seen as an “other” and vent their self-loathing on them.  This is a spiritual issue which is the reason why we find it so common among religious individuals and groups as spirituality often taps into a very dark dimension of the human experience leading to speech, attitudes, and deeds which can only be described as evil.

The Perverse Delight of Being Right

I grew up being right.  How did I know I was right?  Because I “knew” that I was right.  How did I know that?  Because I was taught what right was, and how to merit that label, and therefore it was simple to just adhere to the definition and make sure your thinking and behavior complied to its premises. “Right” is always something external to the subjective experience of a young child and gaining the delight of knowing that he/she is right requires dutifully imbibing the definition of right that is proffered.  I used the term “imbibing” because it is more than a mere cognitive matter; it is a matter of “soaking up” the nuances of the culture to acquire a subjective “experience” of being right, meaning it is not likely to be questioned.

I have questioned this “rightness” of mine my whole life.  Oh, somewhat less in my youth as just did not have the self-confidence, the courage to stand on my own two feet and think for myself.  “Thinking for oneself” in a collective mindset that discourages it will leave one with a sense of alienation and I got a double dose of that malady.  The experience of alienation was so intense that I desperately tried to comply, to believe the right things, to do the right things so that I would have the comfort of belonging.  But if you must “try” to belong, you are in deep shit as far as having the comfort that belonging offers.

This “splinter in the brain,” as Emily Dickinson called it, has tormented and blessed me, the whole of my life.  Even today, as I am standing on my own two feet, there is the deep-seated nagging realization that I am now defying nearly all of the offerings of the tribe I was born into that would offer one the “delight” of being right.  I now see that the desperate desire to be right of my early youth was merely the result of the implicit assumptions I had gained from my tribe that I was intrinsically wrong, leaving me with a deep-seated experience that my simple “being” in the world was wrong.  I now seek “The Joy of Being” wrong, which is the title of a very important book in my life by James Alison, the complete title being, “The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes.”  I personally believe this joy is what the teachings of Jesus was about, that he assured us that we could have this joy if we found the courage to relinquish all the pressures to fit in and just “be” present in the world.  This, in my estimation, is “salvation” which in the words of T.S. Eliot is, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”

A very important caveat is warranted.  This freedom to “be,” to live free of the bondage to social norms, does not allow one to live in disregard for the conventions of one’s tribe.  Many of these conventions might not apply to me but that does not give me the freedom to go on the war path against them.  In that case I would be guilty of the very same obnoxious contempt that a tribe utilizes to stamp out the individuality of a soul. But it does give me the freedom to speak out about perceived injustice and evil as long as I don’t get so arrogant with self-righteousness that I encourage violence, overt or subtle.

The inspiration for this discourse stems from an article I read this morning in the New York Times about an Indian woman, Gauri Lankesh, who had this courage to be herself and speak out about the injustice of her country. She was a journalist who was murdered in 2017 because of her bold, and at times brazen willingness to “speak truth to power”.  Extremism always springs from knowing you are “right” and the arrogance that gives one this assurance arises from deep-seated darkness that permits violence.  This darkness arises from primitive fears and anxieties so intense that the light of conscious awareness is disallowed, a light that would permit respect of difference.

Does “It Take A Village?” Yes, It Does!

“Families are to be from.”  This was a wry quip from a high school student of mine in the early 80’s when a sociology class discussion about families was wrapping up.  This young lady was grasping the complexity of family relationships even at her young age, recognizing poignantly that one needs to extricate oneself at some point in life from the familial orbit.  This is usually done with the normal developmental process as young people reach maturity, seek a mate, marry, have children, and begin a family of their own.  But sometimes even then the emotional ties with the family of origin will be inordinate and, one or both of the marital partners will not have “cut the cord” and complications will develop.

The family is a primary dimension of social life.  Family structure is the template in which a child finds his place and learns how to “find his place” in the family at large, i.e. the community, and eventually even in the world “family.”  The family is where connection is established, and explored, and the skills…or lack thereof…will be offered in the social body. The anchor of the family is the mother and father and if their relationship is not stable, or insincere, then the children will not have a stable basis upon which to find their roots in the family dynamic.  A college psychology professor of mine, decades ago, noted that for a child it is more important for a child to know that his parents love each other than that the parents love him.  For the connection between “mommy and daddy” provide an anchor for an inchoate identity and from that anchor will arise a knowledge of parental love that is not prosaic or formulaic.  The script always includes “mommy and daddy love me” but the nuances of the family dynamic, based on the connection between “mommy and daddy” often convey otherwise.

But let me close this grim assessment with a positive note.  The human soul is indomitable.  Most families provide what British psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott described as “good enough ‘parenting’” (his term was “good enough ‘mothering’”).  If parenting were perfect, then children would get a naive impression life is about and would be ill-equipped to face that “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” And a facetious note is here in order.  My children are perfect!  That is because my “children” are only whims and fancies of what might have been, whims and fancies that I pine for, but have never experienced.  That is because I never had the courage to take that important plunge into the “dog-and-pony show” of this human endeavor and father children, trusting that Life is good and that all would be well.  But I firmly believe that “there is a destiny that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them as we may” and that all is well in the end.  Yes, even with this current political maelstrom that is gnawing at the soul of my country.


The Perilous Safety of “Hunkerin’ Down”

There is a pale.  And there are those who spend their life beyond the pale, some so far beyond the pale that they merit the term “deviant.”  And then there are those who live very close to the pale, hovering just short of this boundary or just beyond it and do the work that offers art in its full gamut to the human race.  This pale is what defines reality and “reality” must have some definition if there is to be any civilization at all.  But there are times when the “energy” that has constellated at and just beyond the pale appears threatening to those who hover near the center of “reality” and then there is a tendency to “hunker down” and fiercely resist the precious offering of those “pale dwellers”—opportunities for change.  But the “hunker downers”, if they find a chieftain around whom they can rally, often will become adamant about maintaining the status quo and the social body will suffer, especially those who do not have the comfort of the “in crowd.”  Often those in the “out crowd” are easily manipulated and intimidated and can be convinced by their chieftain that it is in their own best interest to oppose the changes that would be good for the entirety of the social body, including themselves.

Change is scary.  As Shakespeare put it, “We cling to these ills we have rather than fly to others we know not of.”  The Bard knew that often we will prefer to maintain our misery rather than dare to take the risk that would be entailed in taking actions that might alleviate our suffering.  A psychiatrist I worked with in a psych hospital one time quipped in a staffing about a patient that we both worked with, “She clings to her mental illness with the same tenacity that most of us cling to our mental health.”  “Hunkering down” gives one, or the whole of a group, the illusion of safety.  As W. H. Auden noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”


Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

Erich Neumann Opines On Our Collective Unconsciousness

Erich Neumann was a psychologist, philosopher, and student of Carl Jung who in 1954 wrote, “The Origins and History of Consciousness.”  Neumann’s work also had an anthropological dimension, seeing the evolution of human consciousness was beyond the grasp of our conscious mind and would be understood only by utilizing mythology.

Neumann knew that the real “workings” of human civilization were beneath the surface and presented themselves occasionally as eruptions of chthonic energy known as, “archetypes.”  These patterns of instinctual energy, to the astute observer, are an essential dimension of human history and can offer something to one’s tribe, be it a, “prophetic word” or…more often than not…an example of gross mental instability.  These intrusions from beyond the pale of the cultural canon threaten what Neumann called, “the old order” even though the resulting “new order” could facilitate a revitalization of the canon. But the “old order” never goes quietly and bearers of this chthonic energy are “kept in their place” by the tribes’ repertoire of exclusionary devices; for example, shame, humiliation or even crucifixion.  If, however, this chthonic energy somehow penetrates the barriers and finds even a tentative footing, the “old order” will resort to “hunkering down” and reaffirm passionately the traditional values of the canon, often with reference to the prevailing religion.  This is when the leadership, i.e. “the tribal elders” need to use their authority in a mature fashion and facilitate the integration of the new and the old, allowing a healthy venture toward further maturity.  But often maturity is so often lacking in the tribal leadership and the machinery of government will be used to squash what it perceives as an existential threat.

Here are a trio of excerpts from Neumann’s book as he addresses concerns he had for the world in the mid-twentieth century, concerns which are very much related to this historical moment.

Excerpt 1:  Not only power, money, lust, but religion, art, and politics as exclusive determinants in the form of parties, nations, sects, movements, and “isms” of every description take possession of the masses and destroy the individual.  (NOTE:  For an individual to be a meaningful entity, it must have enough independence to not be merely a slave to the dictates of the group.)

Excerpt 2: The picture we have drawn of our age is not intended as an indictment, much less as a glorification of the “good old days”; for the upheaval which, taken by and large, is necessary.  The collapse of the old civilization, and its reconstruction on a lower level to begin with, will justify themselves because the new basis will have been immensely broadened.  The civilization that is about to be born will be a human civilization in a higher sense than has any been before higher civilization, as it will overcome important social, national, and racial limitations. These are not fantastic pipe dreams, but hard facts, and their birth pangs will bring infinite suffering upon infinite numbers of men.  Spiritually, politically, and economically our world is an indivisible whole.  By this standard, the Napoleonic wars were minor coups d’etat, and the world view of that age, in which anything outside Europe had hardly begun to appear, is almost inconceivable to us in its narrowness.

Excerpt 3: The collapse of our archetypal canon in our culture which has produced such an extraordinary activation of the collective unconscious—or is perhaps its symptom, manifesting itself in mass movements that have a profound effect upon our personal destinies—is, however, only a passing phenomenon.  Already, at a time when the internecine wars of the old canon are still being waged, we can discern, in simple individuals, where the synthetic possibilities of the future lie, and almost how it will look.  The turning of the mind from the conscious to the unconscious, the responsible rapprochement of human consciousness with the powers of the collective psyche, that is the task of the future.  No outward tinkerings with the world and no social ameliorations can give the quietus to the daemon, to the gods and devils of the human soul, or prevent them from tearing down again and again what consciousness has built.  Unless they are assigned their place in consciousness and culture they will never leave mankind in peace.

We are now witnessing the collapse of our culture’s archetypal canon as its “givens” are being challenged.  These “givens” are the medley of preconceptions and premises that we take for granted that are so subtle they are not apparent to the naked eye.  The absence of “apparent-cy” is necessary for this unconscious dimension to continue unthreatened by an “observing ego” which could be a reality check that would allow these subterranean influences to be moderated.  But keeping these influences unquestioned, and therefore unassailable, is the primary objective of the status quo which deems questioning as threatening to its very being.  However, without a reality check on the “very being” of a tribe, its heart will be nothing but a darkened prison, “where we bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the agreed upon lie.”  What we will take for light will actually be darkness, “having eyes to see but seeing not.”  And though it might be very comfy for those within the safe confines of Auden’s “agreed upon lie,” those who live beyond its pale will suffer.


Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

Auden, Despair, Picnics, and, “Build that Wall!!”

W.H. Auden is probably the poet I quote most often here. The story of his life and his beautiful poetry has been a great inspiration because it encourages us to look beneath the surface of things and find that the effort is worth the pain of the process. The first step in this process is to recognize there is a “surface of things,” an insight which in itself is challenging; for any culture imprints into the depths of our being that the “surface of things” is something to take as a given and not to be questioned.  To ask one to question the existence of this “surface” is like asking a fish to see water.

In the following excerpt of Auden’s, “New Years Letter,” the reader is encouraged to peek beneath this surface of life though with a warning that only, “despair can shape the hero who will dare the desperate catabasis,” and face the “snarling abyss” which always lies beneath the surface of life’s contrivances. However, it must be noted that despair is not necessary for all who travel Auden’s road to redemption.  “Despair” is for the “heroes” such as poets, artists, religious and even political visionaries.  Most of us mercifully face only a watered-down version of despair and encounter a mid-life crisis, or some persistent duress which cues us to also look beneath the surface in our non-heroic manner and do battle with our relatively tame horde of demons.  Auden and his sort were faced with, “slaying the demons” and most of us merely have to step into the ring for a moment with our “benign” demons, and gain the wisdom from the encounter that is there to be had, and then return to our very routine life.  But the wisdom gained from the encounter can empower us to lead a more productive and meaningful life.

Auden described the superficies of life, those amusements which distract us from the gut-level issues of being a sentient human being as a, “jolly picnic, on the heath of the agreeable, where we bask, agreed on what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the accepted lie.”    Here Auden brings to our attention the façade of normal, everyday, routine life which is too subtle to actually notice.  This “jolly picnic” is delightful for some…let’s say, for example, “the haves,” though the “have nots” are not so fortunate and look sullenly, angrily, and despairingly at the picnic, wishing they could have been invited also. Auden also notes that those who have been invited to this picnic always, “bask” in comfort, “agreed on what we will not ask,” tanned and relaxed in the comfort of the, “accepted lie.”

This “accepted lie” is essential for group coherence, providing the biases and premises which allow the group to exist in the first place.  For example, one basic premise of a group is exclusion; and Auden notes elsewhere there is no, “us” without a, “them.”  But these “lies” are necessary for the group to cohere, the problem lying only in circumstances in which the “lie” is so sacrosanct that it cannot be relaxed a mite to allow more access to those who are excluded.  But usually a siege mentality evolves in a social “lie” and letting down its guard and allowing any of the excluded to have some degree of access will be perceived as an existential threat.  Then will the cry go out far and wide, “Build that wall!”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Auden’s, “New Years Letter”:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?
(Excerpted from “New Year Letter” – 1/1/1940)


Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.