Category Archives: psychology

“Families Are to be From”

Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families.  She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time.  If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity.  My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years.  And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical.  It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns.  Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.

The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family.  I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more.  She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.”  Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.

There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture.  This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation.  T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:

What we have written is not a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.
It is possible you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

Human Bondage and the Mystery of Truth

I want to continue to explore the Carl Sandburg poem, “Who Am I?” and focus on the notion included in the poem that Truth is a “captive” quality in our heart.  It makes no sense that such a noble quality of Truth is hidden, even imprisoned in our heart, suggesting that beneath the surface of our conscious life there are things of which we are unaware.  Truth is usually seen as a commodity in our life, a body of wisdom that we can claim as our own if we subscribe to what we see as essential tenets of Truth, and hold steadfast to them.  But poetry, and certainly Holy Writ such as the Bible, if taken superficially will lead us to believe that “I” know the truth and so would anybody else that listened to my passionate affirmation of this “fact.”  But Sandburg throws a monkey wrench in this mind-set, insisting that “Truth” is not factual but is a hidden dimension in our heart always seeking expression but only in the context of our conscious wish to avoid it.  If we understood this wisdom, it would give us pause about our certainties and encourage us to hold firm with them but to realize that other people’s understanding of the matter might be different than our own.  The absence of this humility is daily on display in our world in the Trump administration.

Poet John Donne understood the bondage of his will on this issue, declaring that the Reason he has assumed would lead him to Truth, is “like an usurped town to another due…(and) is captive’d and proves weak or untrue.”  In the beautiful sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” he portrays this internal conflict in the human heart that wants the freedom of truth but is stymied on the pursuit without Divine intervention.  Here is an excerpt from this sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Sandburg and Donne realized that humankind has a divided heart.  Yes, we want noble qualities like “Truth” but fail to realize that on another level, “No we don’t!”  They realized that Truth is very disruptive to our status quo, personally and collectively, and does not come without a willingness to pay the price of disillusionment.

Thinking vs. Feeling Our Way Out of Life’s Wounds

Shakespeare knew that unacknowledged fear could stymie a person and keep him from meaningful action.  This was best illustrated in Hamlet whose internal conflict led to a tragic end.  In his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy he said, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Hamlet was tormented by Oedipal issues which he could not acknowledge and thus was driven to unconscious “acting out,” leading to a tragic course of action.

In King Lear, we find another example of this truth.   Goneril said to Edward, “It is the cowish (cowardly) terror of his spirit/that dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs which tie him to an answer.  Our wishes on the way may prove effects.” Lear, like most people, did not have the courage to face the terror in the depths of his heart that left him powerless to “undertake” or to commit to action.  This was because he had experienced “wrongs” in his youth which were so profound that his adaptation had locked him into a pattern of avoidance, a pattern which could be broken only by “feeling” these wrongs.  Because of this imprisonment, the whims and fancies (i.e. “wishes”) were only the “effects” of unconscious wounds and the not the result of conscious, purposive intent. Instead of being the driver in his life, he was driven.

Shakespeare grasped a powerful insight of modern psychotherapy.  Gut-level issues that wound us deeply cannot be resolved with band-aid interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy in which “thinking” and “thinking about our thinking” are utilized, albeit often with a degree of effectiveness.  But he knew that the real core issues of human experience, those that tie us up in knots, must be addressed with “feeling” and not with thinking.  These issues we must “feel” our way out of as we can never “think” our way out of them. I think the emphasis of cognitive based clinical intervention, though certainly of some value, ultimately reflects our culture”s wishes to keep maladaptive behavior and mood disturbances on a surface level and not address the gut-level dimensions as depth-psychology seeks to do.  Until we are willing to acknowledge the subterranean dimension of life, and go there when the circumstances of life nudge us in that direction, our life will be, as Ranier Rilke noted, merely, “The toy of some great pain.”

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The following are three blogs that I offer.  Please check the other two out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

“Literary License” and Personal Narrative

I became “literary” lew when I started this blog about six years ago.  I increasingly realize that the choice of that moniker was more astute than I realized.  These six years have helped me explore further the inner recesses of my heart and I’ve learned that my early grasp of the world was very “literary.”  Then I was taught that the world I lived in was a very literal, linear-thinking world.  I dutifully complied and I’m glad I did, but wish I’d have done so with less passion! But now, pretty late in the old “ball game”, I’m using this literary license very freely and enjoying the freedom to interpret life from a less rigid perspective.  The world is multi-dimensional and I’m finding life much easier and pleasant, having slowly allowed this wisdom to sink in.

Decades ago friends introduced me to the notion that life itself is but a story and approaching it as such makes it easier to pose the question occasionally, “Now what’s the point of this story going on here, the one I’m being presented with, or the one that I find myself immersed in personally.”  This is simple use of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which, if employed here and there, can allow us to make better responses to parts of the story that we are presented with.  Otherwise, we will be unwitting participants in a narrative that is, unbeknownst to ourselves, setting the course for our life.  One simple example, drawn from my clinical practice of the past, is the “martyr complex” of someone who finds himself/herself constantly playing the role of the victim throughout life, not realizing that some unconscious need is being fulfilled.  When one self-created crisis has resolved itself, this person will seem to ask upon awakening the next morning, “Hmm.  Now what’s underway in my life today that will allow me to perceive myself being the victim, allowing me to start the drama mill of my life to going again?”  This person seems to pray daily, “Give us this day, our daily crisis…”

Though most of us aren’t martyrs or victims, we inevitably play some role that we are only barely aware of if at all.   I’ve found this “literary license” helpful in gaining some degree of awareness.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Psychotherapy & Negative Capability

Poet John Keats offered the term negative capability to describe his ability to embrace a host of subjective experiences that most people avoid.  In a letter to his brother in 1817 he defined negative capability in these terms, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason… in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”

In an article in Contemporary Psychotherapy, Diane Voller applies this notion to her work as a therapist, declaring, “‘Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.  (http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-2/negative-capability/)

Voller introduces the concept of “space” to describe the intimacy of a close relationship that can be found in therapy or with any care-giving relationship, professional or personal. This is the ability to get out of oneself and realize that the distinction between “me and thee” is not as definite as we are taught that it is and yet avoiding the pitfall of co-dependency.  It is the ability to enter the domain of “no-boundaries” even as one maintains his/her own “boundaries.”  The 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi best described this essential spiritual skill, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.”  Rumi keenly grasped the need of getting beyond the distinctions of “me” and “thee” if we are to enter sacred space with another person and clinical work is intrinsically spiritual.  Or it should be.

Voller is simply putting on the table for therapists and care-givers the notion of vulnerability.  It is so much easier to practice clinically when one is ensconced in jargon and “shop-talk”, hiding behind a diagnostic knife which always keeps the client “out there” separate and distinct from oneself.  And relevant to vulnerability, my mind always comes to a pithy observation from Norman O. Brown, “To be is to be vulnerable.”  If one is invulnerable, he/she lacks ‘be’-ing in the world.  He/she is just another object in a world full of objects, devoid of any spiritual (i.e. “spacial”) presence.

Post-modernism and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as the Prince of Denmark.  Hamlet, as well as many Shakespearean characters, portray for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades, I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome,” the plague of many young men…usually not women…who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, there is a “common-sense” consciousness that one is given by his community and one’s lot is to be immersed in it fully; and to step outside of this comfort zone for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness. Asking one to take this meta-cognitive leap is like asking a fish to see water. For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it” and this escape, or even its temptation is terrifying.  The terror of this leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

But, awareness of this issue does not relieve one from the onslaught of unconscious influences. Consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best one hope of doing is to own a very skewed view of the world and hope that as he continues to age his “skewing” might be more amenable to other viewpoints, leaving one free of the hubris of “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre. But this post-modern view of the world is, and will continue to be, totally incomprehensible to those who are still comfortably ensconced in a linear view of the world.  I grew up in that linear world and remember viewing askance what was then labeled as “relativism”, often affirming brazenly, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But most of the people who still live in that mind-set are not bad people nor is their view of the world.  I’m sure an equal number of “bad people” see the world as I do.  “Badness” is not a function of our world view but of how much we are under its tyranny.  The more rigidly certain that our way is the “right way” the more liberty will we feel that to impose our will upon other people, even under the name of God!

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.)