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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Unconscious and Compassion for Self and for Others

From the beginning this post is going to trip lightly off the page.  Let's not get too bogged down in terminology, Freudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian or otherwise.  Sometimes we begin to trip ourselves up, and, I believe, this was far from the aim of Freud and his followers and even those who later diverged from him and his tenets.  All these great scholars were great human beings who sought to heal both themselves and others.  After all that's what therapy means namely healing and psychotherapy consequently the healing of the soul.

My Basic Starting Point:

My basic starting point with respect to life, and especially with respect to the mental life of my psyche is that I am in awe of its mystery and its working.  I have long been in awe of how we learn both the facts we need to survive in the modern world and society today and the wisdom we need to grow in appreciation of self and others.  I have also long realised that I am no repository of "the truth" or "truths"; I simply do not have all the answers. In fact I have very few.  However, I do learn all the facts I need with the help of others, and in like manner I garner the wisdom necessary to survive this life with their assistance also.  Hence, my approach has always been basically Socratic.  I first admit that I am ignorant of a certain fact and proceed from there to gain the truth of it as it were.

Some other necessary Presuppositions:

(a) In the field of therapy it has long been an accepted fact, and is almost axiomatic to state that the client or patient who knows exactly what is wrong with him or her is the most unlikely one to improve in knowing themselves or in solving as best they can the problem or problems that perturb and disturb them.  I think, it was Professor Eugene Gendlin from whom I first learned this interesting fact.  Nothing could be further from the truth for those of us who come with an open mind to therapy and who wish to allow the relationship with our therapist bring many of our repressed fears, guilt and anxieties to the fore or to the conscious mind.  I have already adverted to the fact the Freud described psychoanalysis as the process by which the unconscious is made conscious

(b) In all of this I find that an attitude of compassion is very necessary for me.  I believe strongly that I must exercise an attitude of compassion for my Self, for the wounded little boy in me.  When doing my daily meditations I often do my own visualisations based on parenting the hurt child within me.  This has been a powerful tool in getting to know and love and be compassionate for my inner being.  I am at present writing a second book of meditations and this is one of the visualisations I have written for that book.

(c) I, like many other kindred spirits, engage in what is commonly termed "soul work."  For me this soul work entails (i) writing poetry, (ii) writing a journal, (iii) keeping a dream journal - which I have been doing for more than ten years now, (iv) attending self-development, mental health and other psychology courses, (v) doing group therapy which I was engaged in for some five years or so, (v) doing daily meditation, (vi) writing this blog, (vii) reading self-help, popular psychology and more academic psychology books.  These are the ways I do soul work.  There are, of course, many other ways:- all types of art from painting to sculpture; hill walking, mountain climbing, being out in nature, going on retreats, listening to meditative music; engaged in complementary therapies like Reiki, Indian Head Message, Acupuncture etc.

(d)  A priest friend of mine used always say something to this effect: "Jesus came not alone to comfort the disturbed, but to disturb the comfortable."  I feel the same can be said of the good therapist.  When I get disturbed or anxious or uptight I can be sure that there is some unconscious material being stirred up, some repressed wish or desire, some old mental wound or injury, a repressed guilt or fear.  This is no harm, I find.  In fact, I believe it really sorts the men from the boys and the women from the girls.  It is at these times, especially, that I may most attention to my dreams because they often bring with them clear messages from the unconscious - clear indications of what those repressed fears and guilt may be.  I find when I get disturbed I attempt to go deeper and ask the question, "Why has this or that comment perturbed me?  Why did that behaviour by me or another make me uncomfortable?  Why was I uncomfortable reading this or that report? All these questions when slept on and reflected on in a slow methodic gentle and compassionate way will yield much gold in terms of insight into one's very innermost Self.

(e) Both Freud and Jung were very well read in all aspects of culture and they and their followers were to deeply appreciate the power of myth both in ancient and even in modern society.  The myths for Jung contained many archetypal images which cropped up in dreams.  Of these same dreams, Freud was to say that they are "the royal road to the unconscious."


I will finish this post with a few quotes as is my wont:

The unconscious sends all sorts of...images up into the mind...not only jewels but dangerous jinn...But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.    (Joseph Campbell, quoted in Michael Kahn's book, Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century, ix)

By exploring and understanding the origins and potency of the forces that reside in the depths of the soul we not only become much better able to cope with them, but also gain a much deeper and more compassionate understanding of our fellow man. (ibid., xii)

The above photograph I took again of the Atlantic, but this time off the coast of Kerry at Dún Caoin

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Unconscious 4

While we certainly cannot credit Freud with discovering the notion of the unconscious we can for sure acknowledge that he was the first to give it professional attention from a medical point of view and with underlining its important role in how we as humans act, react and behave.  The history of the unconscious goes back a long way indeed - a lot of the ancients were aware of the power of dreams which they would have seen primarily as visitations from the divine realm.  Freud would see such obviously as messages from the personal unconscious of the individual and Carl Gustave Jung as images aplenty from the personal unconscious and indeed archetypes from what he was to term the collective unconscious.

I have already alluded to the fact that Freud looked upon the unconscious as a pathology or as Anthony Storr so crudely puts it as a veritable "cess pit" containing all our repressed wishes and desires.  Perhaps Storr is a little too acerbic and not a little too exaggerative in this contention.  Be that as it may, we owe a lot to Freud as I have outlined in my opening paragraph. Freud was indeed contentious and courageously so.  Most of his theories were nothing short of provocative and he had to deal with much opposition in his professional and scholarly life.  All his theories, while they could be called speculative in the extreme, he endeavoured to root in "scientific" observation.  Here, I have no intention of going into Freud's firmly held conviction that he was a scientist and not a speculative theorist.  That is for another post.  I feel that Freud's understanding of what a science is differs markedly from what modern scientists might mean by the term.

However, Freud was a brilliant doctor and a no less brilliant psychiatrist who did provide a foundation upon which all psychoanalysis has been built.  We can only kick away the foundation at our peril.

Now I wish to explore another metaphorical attempt that Freud made at describing the human psyche.  [If scholars refer to Freud's theory of the three layers as his topographical model of the mind and to his notions of id, ego and superego as being his structural model of the same thing, then the follwing description I will call Freud's imaginal model at describing the psyche] Freud saw, as we have outlined previously, that consciousness was a small part (roughly 10%) of our mental life.  One of the images or metaphors he used to describe this phenomenon was that of a very large Entrance Hall (the Unconscious) where loads of mental activity is going on, but only some of this mental activity manages to get into the Smaller Parlour or Drawing Room ( where the Consciousness resides).  Now, there is, according to Freud, a Watchman on the door leading to this small room and he keeps out all those unwanted thoughts and feelings.  Once again Dr Kahn expresses this better than I, and he is worth quoting in full by way of conclusion to this post:

He [Freud] portrayed the unconscious as a large entrance hall filled with mental images, all trying to get into a small drawing room into which the entrance hall opens.  In that drawing room resides consciousness, with whom the impulses are hoping for an audience.  In the doorway between the entrance hall and the drawing room stands a watchman, whose job is to interview each impulse seeking admission and decide if that impulse is acceptable.  If it is not, the watchman turns it away, and it must remain in the entrance hall of unconsciousness.  If an unacceptable impulse gets just past the threshold, the watchman will evict it and push it back into the entrance hall.  The impulses that are turned back in this fashion are repressed. Once an impulse has gained admission to the drawing room, it still is not conscious until it has caught the eye of consciousness.  Such impulses, those in the drawing room but not yet seen by consciousness, are the preconscious.  The watchman who ejects, that is represses, unacceptable impulses is the same watchman who turns up as resistance when the analyst sets out to lift the repression for the liberation of the patient.  (Michael Kahn, Basic Freud, 18-19)

Above the cold, cold Atlantic. Once again taken at Deplhi a week or so ago!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Unconscious 3

In a recent article in The New York Times, Benedict Carey writes an illuminating and interesting article on what motivates the human being - both at a conscious and an unconscious level.  This article may be read here The Subconscious Brain. Interesting tidbits from this article may be profitably quoted here:

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it...

He then quotes Dr John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale as saying the following at a psychology conference:

“Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioural guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

We have, indeed, long been aware of the somewhat underhanded and cynical use of subliminal influences especially because of their use or misuse in the world of advertising in getting us to buy what we do not really want.  However, what interested me greatly with Mr. Carey's well balanced and well researched article is that it would seem that the more "unconscious" decisions are made in the primitive brain, that bottom part of the brain which we learned to call the "reptilian brain" when I was at college.  This, to my mind at least, parallels Freud's archaeological topography of the brain namely that of the layers - with the unconscious layer being the deepest, the preconscious layer next and then finally the conscious layer which would correspond nicely to the cortex of the brain.  Research suggests, according to Mr Carey, that the "ventral pallidum was particularly active" when unconscious decisions were made.  He continues by quoting the relevant research:

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Therefore, recent scientific research backs up our man Freud, and indeed we are little surprised with these results.  As I've often quoted in other posts we humans know more than we are aware of.  Also we have long been aware that our motivations are often very much unconscious.  How often have we said, "Why did I do that?"  "Why did I say that?" "Where did that thought come from?" "Why is he or she annoying me?"  "Why am I in bad form when there is no concrete immediate reason for being so?"

To my mind Freud and Jung were the two greatest and earliest elucidators of the role of the Unconscious in the motivations of the human psyche.  Yet, the latter, who had been the former's disciple for some ten or so years, was to diverge greatly from the founder of psychoanalysis.  One of the major differences between the two can be succinctly summarized as follows:  To Freud, the unconscious was equated with pathology while to Jung it also contained much healthy, even creative resources as well.

Above I have uploaded a picture of that marvellously resilient bush - the Furze on Howth Head!