Category Archives: neurophysiology

Julia Kristeva, Shakespeare, and the Unconscious

Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst is one of the primary influences on my intellectual and spiritual life.  Recently her term, semiotic chora, has been falling into place for me, tying together for me a variety of spiritual/intellectual themes that have drawn my attention for most of my adult life.

She borrowed this term from Plato’s “Timeous”, using it to describe a “space” between being and non-being.  This buffer zone might be thought of as the pre-conscious, a murky realm where our animality conjoins the symbolic realm, the domain from which will spring consciousness.  And between this chaotic, “non-sensical” realm there is discontinuity with consciousness which is related to the Oedipal transition and, in my estimation, the Biblical “fall” from Grace.  This is the domain of experience that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was aware of when he lamented, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”  Here Shakespeare was revealing one of the reasons for his literary brilliance, his “dull brain” was always teeming with effluvia from the semiotic depths of his heart which is why his work speaks so powerfully to the human heart even today.

With this foray into linguistic intricacy, I admit I am a bit over my head.  Let me be safe and put it into laymen’s terms…being a layman myself…there is a region of experience beneath the surface of our life which is unconscious.  All of us know about it though when it surfaces we often dismiss it with a simple lament, “Now why did I do that?” or “Why did I say that?”  And occasionally the playwright of this drama in which we each have a bit part brings along a character like Donald Trump who glaringly demonstrates this unconscious element of our individual and collective psyche.

Awareness of this unconsciousness could be completely stifling.  For example, the words I am spitting forth here are coming spontaneously.  They are flowing from my heart, driven by this unconscious dimension I have put on the table.  I am mentally healthy enough to not be so worried about my unconsciousness that I am fretting about every single thought that I convey here, or every single word I choose.  For, should I do so I would very quickly be so stymied by the resulting hypertrophied self-reflectiveness that I would not be able to do anything but sit here and, and, well…., ahem, alas and alack…probably just burst into tears at some point, a complete meltdown!

Mental health, or actually spiritual health, will allow us to recognize the presence of an unconsciousness in our life but not be so terrified of it that we feel out of control.  Recognition of this dimension of our life is merely acceptance of our human-ness and with that might come a dollop of humility which would allow us to be less strident with our viewpoints and more accepting of those who see things differently.


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“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger

Vision is subtle and frequently we “have eyes to see but see not” and, yes, ” ears to hear but hear not.”  And it is very challenging to realize that human nature subjects us to this limitation yet without meaning, necessarily, that we are a bad person.  But if we never let the wisdom of this quip from Jesus sink in it can lead to a lot of “bad” that will emanate from the resulting unexamined life.

Relevant to this subject, John Berger wrote a classic little book in 1972 entitled, “Ways of Seeing.”  When I discovered the book 25 years ago it grabbed me immediately even though it was written to artists by an art critic and I am far removed from either.  But at that time in my life I was very familiar with the ambiguity of life, including “ways of seeing” and readily grasped the wisdom from the eye of this art critic. Berger pointed out that seeing ultimately is not so much a deed as it is an experience as an evocation as we focus on an object and allow that object to evoke from the depths of our heart a meaningful experience.  Each of us have these interior depths though so often circumstances have confined us to the surface of life where we scurry about our three-score and ten without ever daring to venture into the deep places of the heart that hide the mystery of life.  Venturing there will force us to encounter the significance of the teaching the aforementioned teaching of Jesus about having vision and using it not.

Here are the opening words of Berger’s brilliant book:

Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.  But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words.  It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.  The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

 Berger realized the simple truth that object-relations theory teaches us in the field of psychology:  there is a gap between the subject and object, between the sense-perceiver and the perceived.  This is the “gap” that Deepak Chopra has made famous and therein lies the mystery of life.


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“Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”

John Donne’s famous sonnet, “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” reveals the intense spiritual passion of those whose “god-spot” in the brain is over-heated.  Donne’s sonnet vividly conveys his deep desire to know God with complete abandonment though he also realizes that it is his rationality that stands in the way of this experience.  He knows that this reason is itself a gift from God but intuitively knows that it has been “captive’d” by something or someone (i.e. Satan) so that it is useless in the quest for God without Divine intervention, unless his reason be “o’er thrown.”

Donne recognized that our reason is not the primary driving force in our lives, even with religious impulses.  Being a poet he was in tune with depths of the heart which most of us never have any awareness of.  He knew that the phenomena of “god” would come to fullest expression only from these hidden spiritual resources in our heart and never as the result of rationality.  Donne was bringing to our attention that life is much more complicated than we like to think, knowing that our “thinking” when given primacy will always keep us on the surface of life.

But life spent on the surface will always be shallow and sorely lacking, with the absent quality always beckoning for attention.  Some use the term “god” to refer to this driving force but any word choice is not important for words can never capture this experience though our “captive’d” would like us to think so.  Religion was created to address this issue, the word itself meaning to bind together something which is divided.

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Spirit Battles Form

My wife and I had an interesting discussion this morning about soul.  She was not raised with a definite spiritual tradition like myself and so she often brings a different perspective to “god talk” such as terms like “soul.” As a result of this discussion, another dimension of the soul became apparent to me.  The soul is not a static phenomenon but is dynamic, vibrantly dynamic as it lies at the very core of our being.  The soul is something we are born with and the fact that others would utilize some other term does not bother me in the least.  The soul is “the Christ child” which we are at birth…and even before…which the Chinese describe as “chi.”  This burst of energy that we were, and still are, was flung into being by what in my spiritual tradition is called “the Word.”  It is will, it is “elan vital,” and in some fashion is energy and at birth this “germ of being” that we were, vibrating with the energy that it was/we were, began its task of seeking expression in this world of form.

But the soul-quest, which Carl Jung described as our vocation, is a perilous venture for obstacles are present each step of the way for the duration of our life.  We could even say “Satan” immediately puts barricades up in our way to keep us from unfolding as this “Word” had intended for us.  And our life, being inherently a spiritual enterprise, is the story of the unfolding of this energy (I might say “Spirit of God”), seeking full expression and battling each step of the way the barricades that are necessarily before us.  For, with these “barricades” that the world of form puts before us, we are deterred from staying totally Spirit in which we would never enter the human race.  Though we might have human form, we would be some version of a blob of protoplasm.

And others unfold beyond this “blob,” but are still spiritually driven beyond the pale.  Their neurological “god spot” is over heated.  Those who suffer from this spiritual malady are often addictive personalities and are plagued with the desire to “Break on Through to the Other Side” as Jim Morrison of the Doors put it.  Unmitigated, this drive will accomplish what it did for Morrison who died of an over dose as a result of his psycho-pharmocological attempt to “break on through to the other side.”  This is spirituality run amok, which upon closer scrutiny is merely the ego’s co-opting of the soul’s quest for expression, turning the spiritual hunger into an unmitigated black hole.

But still another example of the ego’s intrusion into our spiritual development (one could even describe it also as a Satanic intervention) is to settle for some static level of development and at some point in the process of unfolding find certainty too intoxicating.  When we sip of this delightful elixir, at some point it becomes too intoxicating and our spirituality will be arrested, sometimes even fatally.  At that point we shut down the dynamic life process and when Life or, to use W. H. Auden’s term “Truth” presents itself, we “cling in panic to our tall beliefs and shrink away like an ill-treated child.”  This is the temptation that fundamentalist Christianity taunted me with.

Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but Donald Trump is relevant to this argument.  He, like all human beings have a soul.  We can see it in his frenetic, desperate quest for power which is ultimately merely a quest for love.  But early on, and certainly in his “terrible two’s” the world of form was not sufficiently present to teach him about limits.  He then became stuck in narcissistic splendor and then the family and environment in which he lived never set adequate limits for him when it was still possible.  By his mid-teens when he was kicked out of a boarding school, he demonstrated that he was not going to submit to the world of form.  What this meant is that the energy that he was/is, that soul-level energy, was closed in upon itself and, to borrow wisdom from my youth, “The person who lives by himself and for himself will be spoiled by the company he keeps.”  In other words, his soul became bound in the anguish of incomplete development but with his wealth and circumstance he was able to bully his way through life to the point that he will shortly be the President of the United States.  Once again, the “world of form” has not set limits for him, have not resolutely told him, “No, Donald.”  Now he is in the position to wreak havoc on our country and the world.  (And here I do not have the time to explore how this developmental phenomenon as relevant to those who put him in power and continue to not hold him responsible for his word and deed, also relevant to our entire culture.)

Words No Longer Matter

But I cling, nevertheless, to my childish fantasy that words do matter, in spite of what Trumpism is unleashing in our world.  Donald Trump demonstrated repeatedly that he could say anything, including with his behavior, and people would dutifully overlook it.  The best example was when he declared brazenly, “I could shoot someone in the street in Manhattan and not suffer at the polls.”  He was right.  He once told a crowd in Iowa after falling behind in the polls, “How stupid can you get?”  He carried Iowa easily in the election.

But I must admit that I play loose and easy with words.  I do not believe they are the “thing in itself” so that when you passionately affirm your faith in “God”, for example, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with God.  But, we live in a less esoteric world where the meaning of words in popular usage carries weight.  Therefore, if I cry “fire” in a crowded theater, I have crossed a line.  If I tell a hot young woman, “You have a fine rack,” then I have crossed a line.  Usage of language requires a sensitivity to decorum and sensitivity so that when I run for President of the United States in four years, I promise I will not be insulting or denigrating of my opponents on the debate stage.  I will not defend the size of my “male member”, though let me assure you, “there is no problem there!”  I will not refer to women’s private parts at all and if I had to do so I would not use the “c” word.  Use of words has a contextual dimension and involves a sensitivity to that context.  Someone with the neurological disorder Tourette’s Syndrome illustrates what kind of problems happen if someone lacks that filter.  He creates awkwardness in the social body and this “awkwardness” now being legitimized by Trump if not stymied can lead to chaos.

Yes, words have a hidden meaning, they “burgeon forth into a region beyond themselves” (Gabriel Marcel) but they also have value on the superficial, contextual level.  What we are witnessing now in my country is the breakdown of verbal propriety, of decorum, and people with a reptilian brain in over-drive are feeling empowered by Donald Trump.  They can say, and do, whatever they wish because “words do not matter.”  Words do not carry consequences.  Donald Trump has demonstrated that my country lives in a meaningless universe of its own making in which words, and deeds, do not matter.  This is “meaninglessness” and, per William Butler Yeats, “mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world.


Systemic Trauma in our Culture

When living in England briefly after the turn of the century, I had the honor of hearing a distinguished psychoanalyst,  Dr. Juliet Mitchell, speak in London on the subject of trauma.   One point she made etched itself deeply in my heart and mind— that a victim of trauma has suffered “the perforation of a membrane around their soul” which then allows a cascade of old brain fears and anxieties to cascade forth.  And with some trauma, such as sexual abuse, the real psychic pain is spiritual as down in the depths of the child’s heart, he/she is realizing that the person who purported to love him/her is stating with action, “I don’t give a shit about you.  I want what I want and I’m gonna get it regardless of how much damage it does to you.”  This trauma tells the child that he/she has no value to the perpetrator as a person.  And trauma never goes away.  The clinical task in my past life was to facilitate the grieving process and teaching adaptive responses to the anguish which would always lurk in the depths of the client’s heart.

But trauma can also be institutional and cultural.  This systemic traumatization is even more challenging as it teaches its victims on some level, “This is the norm.  Get used to it…and possibly learn to like it.”  Dr. Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at the Texas Children’s Institute in Houston, has spent his career working with trauma victims and in the current edition of the literary journal, The Sun, he is interviewed and shares about the neurological wounds that take place, particularly when the victim is too young to even begin to process what is happening/has happened in “rational” terms.  He also explained how the systemic trauma inflicted upon the lower socio-economic classes is very real and creates a core identity of deprivation, giving them problems like addiction, learned helplessness, and aggressive behavior.

Trauma usually comes at the hands of those in power who are always tempted to be seduced with the prerogatives of their power and the tyranny of their assumptions.  For example, in some families I worked with in my clinical practice, the sexual abuse was multi-generational, in some sense a “family tradition” and men, when but young boys, learned that women were property, “things”, and that by virtue of their masculinity they were entitled to use “things” as desired, even if they were your own children.  And this does not mean these men have no redeeming human values but their sense of prerogative and entitlement is so pervasive that when sexual desire is on the table it over rides little niceties like “the teachings of Jesus” which they are “devoted” to most of the time.  The real issues in life, individually and collectively, are always unconscious.

Entitlement is a core issue in any tribe.  Those who have climbed to the top of the heap, i.e. the “patriarchy” in contemporary vernacular, see the world through the template of their own unexamined values and wishes and feel perfectly comfortable manipulating individuals, and even the whole tribe, to accomplish their end.  And, once again, I’m not going to say these power mongers are necessarily “bad” people but they are unconscious and have a built-in resistance to even considering the phenomena of an unconscious.  It would be too troubling.  And out of the unacknowledged dark recesses of our heart always flows “bad.”

Perry’s observations accentuated for me the importance of the economic divide that is egregiously apparent in my country today.  The wealthy “One per cent” are so trapped in their own narcissism that they cannot see the harm they are doing to the whole country, even to themselves, by not giving due attention to the middle and lower socio economic classes.  And now my country has a president elect who could be the poster boy for Narcissists Anonymous as his disregard for “otherness” and the attending “self-reflectiveness” is sorely lacking.  The trauma has already been inflicted on the dispossessed classes but now an administration is being set up which appears to be designed to further their alienation and hidden despair, leaving them with nothing to do but “cling to their guns and religion.”

So often Bible verses come to my mind at this pivotal time in history.  “Where there is no vision, the people perish” just flashed on my radar.  When I approached life literally, I never really understood the meaning of this though, of course, I thought I did!  The lack of “vision” that the Psalmist had in mind is the dilemma of the narcissist as he/she cannot see beyond the end of his/her nose.  They see things only in terms of their own immediate interests and have no understanding about the long term effects of what they are doing.  And I don’t think Trump has any interest or capacity to ever venture into the “dark” when he is so comfortable in the glorious light of his own narcissistic splendor.  Nor do his devotees.

( Link to Dr. Perry’s interview in The Sun—



Obama to Serve a Third Term!!!

President Obama has finally put on his big boy pants and solved our current political mess, suspending the election and declaring he will served a third term.  I know this is true because I saw it yesterday on Face Book and…seriously…it was posted by a woman to whom I taught civics and history 35 years ago! My point here is how quickly we succumb to the temptation of “red meat” in a heated political season, often not able to pass up a tasty morsel that fits so nicely into our view point.  I know.  I’ve done it myself, even from the Face Book platter of delicacies, and I really felt foolish when I realized how stupid and naïve I’d been.  But all of us love “red meat” for it confirms our biases and we have at our disposal the neurological gift/curse of “selective attention” to facilitate this process.  In epistemology, it is described as confirmation bias or epistemic closure, that tendency to live in a safe little cocoon of whims and fancies that confirms our view of the world.  I do it, you do it, we all do it, “even birds and bees do it.”

So, what’s the solution?  Well, there is no “solution” that would put us all on the same epistemological page so that an objective reality was created.  Perhaps a sci-fi fantasy of an additive being added to the world’s water supply????  Then we would all think in the “right” way, huh?

I’m going to be succinct here as this subject of epistemic closure always gets me going.  Those of you who read this blog regular…both of you…know that it is a favorite subject of mine.  The “solution” is to allow that neo-cortex that we gifted with to wield its magic, a “magic” that we are often averse to, and realize that our view of the world is not as “objective” as we might think.  In an earlier historical era it would have meant to toy with the notion that the earth was not flat.  And if today we could introduce even a tinge of this meta-cognition to this current political maelstrom, we possibly can dial back some of the venom that we often feel.  If you want to see what it looks like when this meta-cognition is drastically lacking, just look at Isis, a group which illustrates what happens when iron-clad certainty reaches its logical conclusion.   Or, think about the Crusades when Christians, empowered by the good news of the gospel, were okay with leading people to Jesus at the point of the sword.

Shakespeare described neurological gift as “the pauser reason,” that god-given ability to filter our thoughts and not say the first thing that comes to our mind and certainly not act on it.  Red meat is dangerous!  And the same gifted soul offers us hope in this crucial historical moment, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”