Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Frightening Depths of the Unconscious

There are many things in life that frighten us - too many to enumerate in this short post.  Today there is almost an interminable list of phobias from which many humans suffer - with new ones being discovered as time goes on.  We have all heard of the more obvious ones like agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and its opposite number claustrophobia.  There are literally hundreds listed here List of Phobias , and I'd seriously question the existence of some of them, though I'm sure counsellors, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts have come across many a strange phobia. Be that as it may, fears and anxieties are huge negative feelings which we humans have to suffer or endure.

The most seminal advice given by the spiritual traditions of all major religions and most New Age, Self-Help or Complementary Health movements is to endeavour to live in the Now.  This, of course, is more easily said than done.  To live in the now means we have to have achieved a more integrated sense of ourselves; to have achieved a certain amount of self-knowledge or individuation as Carl Gustave Jung would put it; or to have made a good deal of the unconscious conscious as Freud would put it.  Okay, what do I mean by that?  Well, it seems to me that lots of us - and certainly I can vouch for this being true in my case - suffer from crippling guilt with respect to the past and crippling fears with respect to the future.  The only way to live in the Now, to my mind at least, is to attempt to deal with our guilt issues from the past and with our fear issues as regards our future.  Only when we have, as it were, put both this crippling feelings to bed, can we in any good sense live in the present.

Buddhism and Buddhist psychology have long appealed to me because they have been very helpful in dealing with my personal issues of guilt and fear.  What do I fear at this particular juncture in my life?  Okay. I'm a fifty year old single man who wishes to take a break from his career and possibly find a new one.  My fear list would run something like this: (i) Will I be able to cope with having a different routine? (ii) Will I be able to survive for a year without earning a salary? (iii) Will I be able to cope academically if I get the course I want? (iv) Will I be able to cope personally as the course I wish to do in one in psychoanalysis?  There are, of course, other fears too like the question of my medical health - I suffer from hypertension and endogenous or clinical depression.  Then, there are other fears too around relationships - fear of failure etc.  Anyway, any or all or various combinations of these and others of which I am unaware, that is, unconscious fears, all conspire to create an amorphous anxiety in my life as it were.  On a daily basis I meditate, read, write my dream journal, write this blog, write a few poems, go for walks etc, all in an effort to lessen this sense of what I have called "amorphous anxiety."

A few preliminary ideas that I have found useful.  Firstly, I find Freud's distinction between "fear" and "anxiety" marvelously astute and enlightening.  He said that "precise language" would use the term anxiety when the person, client or patient did not know what he or she was anxious about and would use the word fear when he or she did.  This, I find exceedingly helpful to me indeed.  I know many people who are in varying states of anxiety and quite a number of them are unaware of so being. 

Another idea, which again I owe, to Dr Michael Kahn (I have being reading his Basic Freud for the past two weeks and have finished it before I sat down to write this post) is that too little anxiety (or fear) is bad for us (as we'd end up courting danger far too often and doing silly all-too-dangerous things) while obviously too much anxiety is crippling in the extreme.  Freud divides anxiety into three categories, viz., Realistic, Moral and Neurotic.  I will finish this post by quoting somewhat at length from Kahn as he is an extremely clear and vivid writer:

Anxiety is a function of the ego, and the ego has three demanding forces with which it has to deal: the external world, the id and the superego.  Each of these produces its own anxiety.  Realistic anxiety is fear of something in the external world (the attacking lion), and moral anxiety is the fear of being punished by the superego.  (If I do this contemplated thing, I am going to feel painfully guilty.) Neurotic anxiety is fear without a consciously recognized object.  (I feel afraid and don't know why).  Neurotic anxiety stems from a buried impulse, one generated in the id.  Once the hidden impulse is revealed, it turns out that the anxiety is either realistic or moral.  The reason the impulse was frightening in the first place, and therefore repressed, is that acting on it will bring realistic danger or punishing guilt. (Kahn, op.cit., p. 112)

And so, my task or the task of any patient or client or analysand is to strive with the therapist to make conscious as far as possible our repressed anxiety.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of my shadow one day on Donabate Beach. Our shadow self is, according to Jung, very much unconscious.

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