Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Visiting the Underworld - Preparing for our Death.

I have never doubted for a moment the universal importance of symbols and of myth. Myth-making like religion-making, like poem-making, like novel-making and indeed like science-making is quintessentially about making meaning. What separates the human animal from his brothers and sisters among other animals is this very thrust to meaning. We are meaning-making animals, and we weave our myths in the sciences as well as in the arts. I shall return to what I mean by this very loaded and controversial sentence when I get some time in a future post to explicate the nature of myth. Here, I wish to expatiate on the image or symbol or myth of the underworld. In this respect I am continuing my engagement with existential psychotherapy and with some little reference to the great contemporary psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Dr Irvin D. Yalom.

The Underworld:
Here, I do not wish to discuss its meaning with reference to any notion of an afterlife at all. Rather, in the tradition of Freud and Jung and others I wish to discuss its reality, perhaps even its genesis, in mythology or in dreams or in both, whichever came first - or perhaps, indeed, they emerged simultaneously. For me it is the world of shadows where life is not life as we know it as Dr Bones McCoy used have it in the first great inimitable Star Trek. The underworld presents us with beings who live a very mysterious or shadowy life indeed. On-line encyclopedias put too much emphasis on the reference of this underworld to the afterlife, which to my mind is a sort of "Christian reading-back-into" the pagan myths. I could be wrong in this contention, but there it is nevertheless. If anything this shadowy world was more of a hellish place than a heavenly one to my mind. To that extent, it could certainly be a very dystopic reality, that is the direct opposite to a utopic reality. There conditions of life would be miserable and characterized by poverty, oppression, war, violence and/or terror, resulting in widespread unhappiness, suffering, and other kinds of pain, whereas the latter, Utopia, represented an ideal society, where justice and peace and equality ruled the day.

Sometimes the underworld is identified as "Hell" because Hell/Hades is thought to be under the Earth. Hence we read in many myths and in much of the literature of the world about the descent into the underworld. Such an image as this which occurs again and again is called a mytheme in the study of mythology, that is one of the most basic units in any study of myths. Here is what the WIKI says on this interesting topic:
The descent to the underworld is a mytheme of comparative mythology found in the religions of the Ancient Near East up to and including Christianity. The myth involves the death of a youthful god (or goddess: Persephone, Inanna, for instance) who is a life-death-rebirth deity, mourned and then recovered from the underworld by his or her consort, lover or mother. (See here: Underworld)
The most famous story about the descent into the underworld is that of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. While fleeing from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), Eurydice ran into a nest of snakes which bit her fatally on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus travelled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following and in his anxiety as soon as he reached the upper world he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.

Thoughts on an Image:
The image of descent, then, or "going down" is very significant. As I write I think of the many resonances in my mind of what "going down" means: sexual, carceral, spiritual and philosophic. It is interesting to muse (I suppose that's the way one amuses oneself!) upon that famous Irish film "I went Down" (1997 - nearly 13 years ago - Good God, how time flies!) has the same resonances, too. That's the famous film that was directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Conor McPherson that starred Brendan Gleeson, Peter MacDonald, Peter Caffrey and Tony Doyle. If you haven't seen it, get your hands on it and feast your eyes - the photography is done by Cian de Buitléir - Éamonn's son. Anyway, it's no surprise that McPherson should use such a connotative title as after all he is an M.A. from U.C.D. no less. I seem to recall from my distant philosophical studies that a few of the Platonic classics begin with the words "I went down" or, at least, certainly contain that motif. "Going down" is all about purification, all about renewing one's spirit, all about dying, or at least learning from experience to come to terms with what dying and death is all about.

Okay. Let me talk about illness now for a while. I have recalled my own illness when I was forty already many times in these pages, so I shan't bother the reader with it here again. However, I will remind you that anyone who has ever been seriously sick, and who has recovered that they face the world anew. They begin to see things from a different perspective, from a different optic, from a different viewpoint. They begin to live each day as if it were their last, or perhaps better, as if it were their first (just a change in perspective again!) You only get one chance at life, and if it's nearly taken away from you, you begin to value it more dearly. And so our sicknesses and our illnesses bring us down, and we should not struggle too much against them, but go with them, and then when it is time, we then begin to fight back and recover. You see, our illnesses teach us many lessons. It is said that the great Romantic poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and most certainly poor young John Keats could have written volumes on the subject. The Illnesses of The Romantic Poets would make a great title for a book. I wonder has it been written yet?

And then, our dreams come into play here. I suppose, to some extent, we dream with greater intensity when we are sick. Ask anyone who has been in hospital, or who has gone under a serious operation. Most of them dream very clearly indeed. In other words, dreaming is all part of the "going down" into the unconscious. I have written many posts about Freud in this blog prior to thus and you can hit the link for him on the right side of this blog to read more about this great man, one of the major founders of modern civilization with the great theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, who refused to let the great doctor psychoanalyse him, as like Joyce with Jung, he was afraid his gift of genius might abandon him. Our dreams tell us much about our fears and when we write them down, dialogue with their images and their meaning we become stronger and stronger. We begin to be able to face our fears head on, begin to be able to face and indeed fight our demons - again this is the really deep meaning of the myth of St George's slaying the dragon. We all have to become our very own St George and slay our very own dragon. Or, once again, let me use another image or metaphor - we all have to become our own David and slay our very own Goliath. Indeed, this last image came to me in a wonderful dream after I had stood my ground against a bully six years back. When I awoke and wrote the dream, and dialogued with the meaning of the image, I confirmed myself in my actions. I grew stronger. A few nights ago I dreamt that someone who is close to me had died, but I knew that he had not physically died. What had died was what he represented in my dreams. In like manner, I have already dreamt about the deaths of my mother and father, long before either of them had or have died. (My father dies in 1993, RIP, and my mother is still alive at 93, though she is completely happily demented, and smiles all the time because every minute of the day is new to her as her memory is wiped totally clean!)

And so "going down" to the underworld is not that bad at all. It's like jumping in at the deep end of the swimming pool without knowing how to swim - the wrestling with the water is frightening, but if we think rationally and let go our fear, we become calmer and can manage a few stokes to eventually bring us to safety.

In short, ascent or descent in dreams, often express direction in life. Ascent represents aspiration and achievement; descent may represent decline or failure, or it may refer to the transition into unconsciousness. Stairs can stand for deliberate, step-by-step advances, escalators for steady progress, lifts for instant transitions. If dream ascents or descents are interrupted or reversed, this can imply a need for the dreamer to reflect upon his or her life, or to try to change the direction in which he or she is moving.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

To Medicate or not to Medicate, that is the Question 2

In short, my argument in general is that both medication and psychotherapy work hand-in-hand and are complementary. Both/and, not either/or as I have argued above. Okay, there are some cases where psychotherapy alone will work, but for more complex cases and deeper suffering a combination of drug and talk therapy is needed. There probably are extreme cases also where no talk therapy could ever be used as the patient is too disturbed. But that is surely the exception.

What has brought all of the above to my mind? Well, I have been listening to an old broadcast, a podcast of an interview by one of my favourite broadcasters, Andy O'Mahony with Dr Daniel Burston, Associate Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University, Pittsburg, USA. The tenor of their discussions centred around the influence of these three great psychoanalysts: Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson and the famous Scot R.D. Laing on psychiatry in general and psychotherapy in particular. Erik Erikson (1902–1994) was a Danish-German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on social development of human beings. Erich Seligmann Fromm (1900–1980) was an internationally renowned social psychologist, psychoanalyst, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. Of R.D. Laing the WIKI has this to say:
Ronald David Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989), was a Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness – in particular, the experience of psychosis. Laing's views on the causes and treatment of serious mental dysfunction, greatly influenced by existential philosophy, ran counter to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day by taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder. Often associated with the anti-psychiatry movement, he himself rejected the label as such, as did certain others critical of conventional psychiatry at the time. (see this link: Laing )
However, these three "greats" could be seen as viewing the client from a very wide model of therapy, not from a narrow pharmacopsychological one. O'Mahony and his guest began their discussions with the present reality or nature of teaching at third level, with both lamenting a certain deterioration of standards that have resulted in too high a level of grades being given out. Sadly, both also felt that there was a consumerist approach to education today, just as there is a consumerist approach to health in all its incarnations whether mental or physical. They then discussed Erich Fromm's marvellous division of the nature of authority into three types, viz., (i) Rational, (ii) Irrational and (iii) Anonymous.

The first of these three types, Rational Authority, teaches by example. It's an accountable authority which is transparent, never secretive or mystifying or confusing. In short it is a freeing and empowering authority that is not based on coersion. The second of these types, Irrational Authority thrives on secrecy and deception, and eventually perpetuates or continues conditions of inequality. Here, the lecturer or master is remote and superior and always remains so. I only experienced a little of this type of leccturing with a few individuals in UCd in the early 1980s. Thankfully, they were a rarity, though where they did occur, they left us students mystified and confused. Rational Authority, on the other hand, brings student and teacher onto an equal footing. (It's interesting that Fromm was talking with the Nazi or German Fascist Movement in mind.) The last of the three types, namely Anonymous Authority depends on the vagaries of the market. Here people are conformist in attitudes, opinions and actions. Also one gets such reactions as the fear of rejection, of not belonging in this type of authority as, in short, it is based on the principle of the herd mentality. Quite obviously, counselling or psychoanalysis would use a rational approach to authority, if it were to use any.

Erik Erickson was against the over-medicalisation of psychiatry. In this regard, Daniel Burston, laments a similar type of over-medicalisation in what he calls Polypharmacy. This is where a psychiatrist writes multiple prescriptions for a child. If the first drug they use does not work, these psychiatrists add another without withdrawing the first. They, then, Burston argues, keep going in this manner until the child is stable. Such use of "polypharmacy" is patently wrong. Now, the long term effect of these drugs on children is sketchy to say the least. Burston also feels that psychiatrists rush to diagnosis far too quickly with children. He believes that many psychiatric problems in children are more social or psycho-social, that is they result from bad parenting, break-ups of relationships and so on. A quick chemical fix is often the easy way out for everyone. That's why I expressed my fear in relation to one of my SEN pupils in the previous post. Perhaps in his case, the medical fix is the easy way out. However, I'm not 100% convinced either way, though I will remain open to the ideas and suggestions of other experts, both educational and medical.

Then they discussed the views of Dr. Joseph Biederman, who is Chief of the Clinical and Research Programs in Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Biederman is Board Certified in General and Child Psychiatry. Burston referred to the New York Times' declaration that Dr Biederman was/is in collusion with certain drug companies and that he had recommended the use or over-use of drugs for child/pediatric bipolar disorder (PBD). The discussion then ranged as far as a worrying modern tendency to tranquillize children "in utero." One gets the scent of the sulphur of some Huxleyan Brave New World here, does one not? See this link here: PharmaGossip . Then I read the following at Boston.com:

Home / News / Local / Mass. Senator broadens inquiry into psychiatrist Suggests MGH doctor was biased in research By Liz Kowalczyk Globe Staff / March 21, 2009 Email Print Single Page Yahoo! Buzz ShareThisText size – + Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has widened his investigation into well-known Harvard child psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Biederman, questioning whether Biederman promised pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson that his research into the company's drugs would yield positive results before beginning the studies. Dr. Joseph Biederman last year was also accused of failing to make timely disclosures of drug company payments. Embattled psychiatrist The expanded inquiry is based in part on slide presentations that summarize projects at the Johnson & Johnson Center for Pediatric Psychopathology Research, a center at Massachusetts General Hospital that was funded by Johnson & Johnson and headed by Biederman from 2002 to 2005. (See this link here:Boston.com )

So it seems O'Mahony's guest, Dr. Burston, is not too far from the truth. One can only heartily declare with O'Mahony and guest that psychopharmacological interventions are very important indeed, but they must be ethically as well as scientifically controlled. We need to always direct our efforts, medical and psychotherapeutic, to getting at the root causes always, and that while medical interventions may control the symptoms, we do indeed need to dig deeper. Burston and O'Mahony are at one that the neglect of the ideas of the likes of the three great psychoanalysts alluded to in this and the previous post has indeed led to the phenomenon of OVERMEDICALISATION of our mental health problems in modern society.

I am also at one with both Burston and O'Mahony in their contention that R.D Laing was fundamentally correct , when in the tradition of Dr. Harry Stack and others, that if we are to help heal the psychoses of others, the healers themselves must be in touch with their own "psychotic side," not that they themselves should be going through a psychotic episode at the time obviously!

During this learned and deep interview there were also lovely throw-away remarks like: "We are all a little bit madder than we think, and also a little bit saner." Lovely! I also loved Laing's comment on schizophrenia: "There but for the grace of God go I," that is, we all share to some little or perhaps some greater extent in a common ground with our clients and patients, be they psychotic or neurotic. That's what I loved about R.D. Laing: he did sincerely believe in and sincerely did achieve in practice what he preached, namely that the psychiatrist, psychotherapist or psychoanalyst can communicate in a human manner with their patient. He really believed thoroughly in what Rogers called the healing or therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient or therapist and client.

I also loved Burston's insight into what so-called "normality" really is. He describes it in this interview as "just an assumption merely", "a cultural congruence" and a "statistical average" and that we must never forget that. We can then ask as to whether such "normality" is really set in stone for all time. Surely it can change also. And then, does normality change from society to society? And will it change with whims or fashions? The questions are legion, but highly important annd necessary. Such appeals to "normality", Burston contends, do not of themselves, "confer the benefits of robust mental health." With both O'Mahony and Burston, I, too, lament the demise of psychoanalytic psychiatry as practised in the 1950s and 60s. I, too, lament the fact that psycholanalysis has lost its place in the Social Sciences and that it has now migrated into the Humanities where it has become most eclectic indeed. However, I also share their interest in the work of the modern psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault who both belong to the antipsychiatric pantheon.

In short, there is much wisdom to be gained and many insights to be had by listening to Andy O'Mahony's wonderful radio programme called Dialogue.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

To Medicate or not to Medicate, that is the Question 1

We have all read of the Anti-Psychiatric Movement with its glaringly obvious condemnation of the over-prescription of anti-psychotic and other pharmaco-psychological drugs. This is an issue that touches us all intimately. After viewing the recent statistics available at a reputable site who could disagree that this topic is extremely relevant. The prevalence of depression in the USA is estimated as "5.3% adults (USSG); 17 million people; approximately 4% of adolescents get seriously depressed (NIMH); annually 12% of women ; 7% of men; lifetime risk of an episode for women 20%. 3-4 million men USA." (Quoted from this link here STATS and accessed on December 26, 2009, 23:21 GMT)

Anti-psychiatry is now quite a dated term used to refer to a configuration of groups and theoretical constructs that emerged in the 1960s and were considerably hostile to most of the fundamental assumptions and practices then and still current in psychiatry. Its igniting influences were Michel Foucault (1926-1984), R. D. Laing (1927-1989), Thomas Szasz (1920- ) and, in Italy, Franco Basaglia (1924-1980). The term was first used by the English psychiatrist David Cooper (1931-1986) in 1967. Some now prefer the term critical psychiatry to avoid connotations that may appear oppositional merely, though the two concepts are distinct.

These critics and today their contemporary colleagues-in-arms argue that (i) the specific definitions and criteria for various psychiatric complaints (as promulgated in the DSM) are extremely vague and even arbitrary, thereby leaving great elbow room for clinicians to diagnose what they consider more likely, rather than basing their conclusions on the rigours of more scientific criteria. They also argue that (ii) psychiatric interventions are often more harmful than helpful to patients. Other key arguments have been the fact that the psychiatric profession has (i) overused and over prescribed anti-psychotics and anti-depressants and other drugs, (ii) have ruled out or are exceedingly sceptical of alternative or complementary approaches, (iii) the abuse of authority and power with respect to patients and their families and (iv) the compromising of medical ethics by alignment with certain pharmaceutical companies and insurance groups.

From my relatively narrow study of psychotherapy over the past number of years, it would seem that Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy belongs firmly to the anti-psychiatric group. Reality Therapy is an approach to psychotherapy and counselling which was developed by the psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser in 1965. It is based on choice theory (originally called control theory). It has become well-established in the US and internationally and it has also been widely applied in education. It also has a strong foothold in Ireland. Its anti-drugs stance in psychiatric complaints is quite delimiting in my opinion, and I speak from personal experience.

What's needed in psychiatry is a holistic approach, a "both/and" approach, not an "either/or" one. I suffer from clinical depression of the unipolar variety. I went through several extremely disturbing bots of depression before I was properly diagnosed. Since then, some twelve years ago, I have devoured as many books as I could on the subject. The one which most appealed to me was was called Malignant Sadness by the atheistic biologist, a wonderful scholar, Lewis Wolpert. I cannot remember if I reviewed that book in these pages as I read it some ten or more years ago. It is full of science and explains the whole psychiatry thing in a biochemical fashion. I loved it, because Lewis Wolpert wrote with scientific knowledge and a passion and a certainty I did not find in other books. He also described my own peculiar symptoms, which I shared with him, in precise detail. I also learned that many patients spend years trying to get a proper diagnosis because, while there are many common early symptoms, there are also ones peculiar to the personal chemistry of this or that individual. Anyway, psychopharmacological intervention helped me and continues to do so. It's at my peril that I discontinue my medication...

It's a long story, which I cannot summarise in full in this wee post, but which I want briefly to allude to. The central distinction for me is the distinction between Reactive Depression and Endogenous or Clinical Depression. After being hospitalised for some seven weeks after a particularly frightening breakdown, my consultant psychiatrist had diagnosed "reactive depression." Even though, I was adamant that I was not suffering from depression of the reactive variety, I bowed to the superior knowledge of the wonderful consultant who was responsible for my getting better. Why did I not believe that I suffered from reactive depression? Well reactive depression results from a negative reaction to one's work environment. However, I knew well that, while I certainly suffered from the normal stressors that go with teaching - belligerent or defiant students now and then - I certainly never hated teaching. In fact, I loved it and enjoyed the verbal jousting and even boisterous interaction of every class, good, bad and indifferent. Therefore, while I was well, I still doubted the diagnosis. In line with his diagnosis, the doctor withdrew the anti-depressants gradually over the following year while recommending counselling and psychotherapy which I did attend. However, lo and behold, when I was off the drugs for a number of weeks the depression returned. This time, I found that I did not go quite as deep into the pit of desolation as I had the first time, but rather on this occasion I went down a certain depth, but disconcertingly remained down there for a longer period. This time, while the experience was not as violently agitating, it was more disturbing insofar as it was impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

To make a long story short, after twelve weeks of experimenting with this and that drug an appropriate one was found. For the last twelve years I have been well and medicated, and have only missed two days from school in that long period. For me, this is the success of pharmaco-psychology. However, I readily admit that I also look after myself and do attend courses on self-development, have gone to therapists and counsellors, and general keep myself mentally and physically healthy as best as I can.

Let me talk about a few other cases I know. A friend of mine, who is 55 years old is also on the same medication as I. However, he has reactive depression. He goes on and off this medication after attending his G.P. when he feels depressed or under pressure. I have told him often that this is the wrong way to go. What he needs is psychotherapy or counselling to deal with the obvious environmental and psychical stressor namely post-traumatic stress after a rather violent attack on himself by an armed robber at his business premises. This brave, if silly, man went back to work that afternoon as if nothing had happened to him. From that instant he could trace his bouts of depression. Fine, for this gentleman, the drug therapy is necessary to calm him down or decrease his depression or anxiety. However, he needs concurrent and post medication counselling. Such on-going counselling will eventually allow him to never (or only very seldom) have to use those antidepressants in the future.

Another worrying case is that of a special needs student in my school who is extremely weak and has Asperger's Syndrome coupled with a recent diagnosis of crippling OCD. He is extremely anxious at all times and is heavily medicated. Well the psychiatrists and psychologists say that they cannot do any CBT with this young boy until the meds have kicked in. His case is complex. However, as a teacher who has studied psychotherapy for some years and as a medicated and "cured" sufferer of endogenous depression, I feel that his problems are more deeply rooted in the human condition. My preference for Rogerian Psychotherapy or Person-Centred and the more existential approaches of the likes of my current guru Irvin D. Yalom suggest to me that this boy is suffering from an angst or anxiety of high intensity - sheer existentialism to the nth degree. My diagnostics in numeracy, communication and language and in literacy show him to be operating at a second or third class primary level. My contention and that of his Special Needs Assistant is that his anxiety comes from the fact that every day that he walks into class he feels inferior or worse, he feels that he is an uncomprehending nobody, an insignificant little thing who can understand nothing of what's going on. No person should have to feel thus, much less a young adult. His mother has rung me in a distraught condition about her son's anxiety which shows itself in considerable anxiety and agitation at home. He can shout and roar and protest. The poor lady videoed the poor lad on her mobile phone to show us and his psychiatrist and psychologist his sheer distress. The SNA was disturbed and so was I to a lesser extent. (Remember I have spent 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital and have also counselled some people in my time as well as helping calm agitated souls.) The SNA and I feel his troubles are of the reactive existentialist variety rather than of the endogenous variety. So putting him into class may not be a good idea if that's what's causing him to stress out. The quandary is that now this poor boy is highly medicated for anxiety and stress. Are we treating symptoms rather than the underlying problem? Therein lies the crux of the matter.

To be continued.

Above a tree "lives" in Death Valley, California.

Life and Death and Life in Death and all that Jazz

If the Christmas season achieves anything at all, it achieves a period of rest for most of us, and if we are lucky, a period of reflection, - sustained reflection if we're exceptionally lucky - on where our individual lives are taking us. In that sense it achieves the purpose of what going on retreat is all about: stepping back from the constant involvement in Doing and just being able to be open to Being. It would seem, to this writer at least, that we need these twin realities in our lives if these latter are to be fulfilling at all. We need both TO DO and TO BE. Too much doing can weary the soul too much. Too much being can lead to all types of self-delusion, egotism, boredom, megalomania or just plain silliness. Each needs to be leavened by the balance of the other. Likewise Life needs to be balanced by Death and Death needs to be balanced by Life. My experiences of life, my studies in psychotherapy, my being both counsellor and counselled, have all taught me that both these realities literally do go together "like a horse and carriage." Or better still like light and dark which we cannot really understand or even have one without the other.

In these reflections, I have been helped by my continued reading of Dr. Irvin D. Yalom's deep, if painful and inspiring by turns, book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,the meditative books of the Dalai Lama and many other books on popular psychology, philosophy and psychotherapy that I have at my disposal. Yalom writes a wonderful chapter in this just mentioned book on his own personal experiences of death and how they have made him the person he is, how they, in fact, have transformed his living into a deeper sense of awareness and appreciation of life.

Above, Life and Death by REDJUICE. This is also an optical illusion!

Circular, not Linear!

One of the myths that we so-called moderns have all rather too readily bought into is that of what I call linearity - let me write it large for emphasis: THE MYTH OF LINEARITY. Yes, that's a powerful myth indeed, traceable all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, I believe. The thinkers of the Enlightenment gave great support to this myth with their own parallel one of indefinite progress. Let me write that myth large here for you: THE MYTH OF PROGRESS. However, more often than not, the wisdom, garnered over long years of living, of the ancient religions, seems definitely to contain a little more of the truth - certainly much more existential truth, that is truth as it is involved in the daily experience of living. They proposed a circular myth. Let me write that large, too: THE CIRCULAR MYTH. One could write this myth in other words, too, like: THE MYTH OF CYCLES. Linearity is a pretty one-dimensional one (also bi-directional, given that a line points in two opposite directions) whereas the circular/cyclic one is more dynamic and this can spiral outwards and inwards and on and on and on.

Anyway, the Christmas Season is, indeed, quintessentially a mythic one. Christmas itself is a profound MYTH. Santa Claus and Christ belong to the same mythic dimensions, and we poor human animals need to be inspired by our more profound myths. Let me return to the cyclic myth here. I contend that the cyclic myth is a healthier one for a number of reasons: (i) it is in harmony with the seasons and with planetary movement (I refer to astronomical principles here, not to the pseudo-science of astrology), (ii) it is more in harmony with the nature of the human animal, who as a creature participates in the cycles of conception, growth, decay and death and so on and on and on and on and (iii) it also appears to me that it is more psychically true - that is, we grow not in a linear fashion, but in a cyclic one. For instance, take my regrets as I grow older, for hurting X or Y or Z; for not doing A, B or C; for not saying "sorry", for not telling X or Y that I loved them before they "shuffled off this mortal coil" etc. Sometimes, I quite fancy that I have dealt with these "hurts" and "hurtings", to have quite dealt with them, "sloughed them off", only to have them return, as if within the circle of regret, no sooner have I erased an outer circle, a further inner concentric circle raises its ugly circumference. It were as if as soon as I had peeled back a layer of the onion of regret I had only exposed a deeper-seated eye-watering layer beneath.

Back to Dickens:
The work of all great novelists is replete with wisdom and none more truly than that of the great story teller Charles Dickens. One of my favourite books by Dickens is his wonderful Tale of Two Cities, with those opening lines, worthy of a medieval divine in their import: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." How we all might wish we had the wit to pen them. Yet, I still would like to quote some other lines from this famous book, coutesy of my current favourite contemporary analyst, Dr. Irvin D. Yalom:
For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in a circle nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind of smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now by many rememberances that had long fallen alseep. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, quoted in Yalom's Staring at the Sun, 149.)
I am reminded by the lines from one of my favourite modernist poets, T.S. Eliot which run thus: "In my beginning is my end. ..In my end is my beginning."--from Four Quartets, "East Coker."

Enough. Walk lightly on Mother Earth, my friends, and open yourself to the cyclic experience of living.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas and all that excess...

Being only half-awake (or half-asleep) this morning I seem to recall some minister of religion on the radio saying how he had quite frankly grown tired and bored about people trotting out the more than obvious observation that Christmas had grown very commercialised. Indeed, the reverent gentleman was and is very correct. This particular phrase has become cheapened and trite by its constant repetition, and is now little more than a cliché.

Whatever about the growth of commercialism around the Christmas season, I wish here to allude to excess. There is, in lexical terms, quite obviously, a distinct difference between commercialism or commercialisation and excess. Commerce and indeed commercialisation can and do bring about improvement in someone's lot at least - more than likely that of the shopkeeper or business person. It is often our naive hope that their wealth will trickle down to the less well off. Whether that contention is true or not is beyond the scope of this post.

And now to excess. Excess is simply waste, and waste in a world where so many dwell in want is nothing short of obscene. And yet, we post-Celtic-Tiger Irish have been partying and buying as much as ever. I don't base this conclusion on any statistics or indeed newspaper articles or books read, but rather on my own experiences and observations. I, like many of my colleagues, am doing the round of parties, am giving and receiving presents, am eating and drinking and doing all the seasonal things like visiting relations and friends. I don't believe that I'm doing any of these things to excess, and yet, the question remains as to how exact my judgement of my own motivations really is.

As I drove down early this afternoon on my way to my brother's house for Christmas dinner , I heard the following lovely song on the car radio. It is worth printing the lyrics here in full. They run as follows:
I did my best to notice when the call came down the line
up to the platform of surrender
I was brought but I was kind
and sometimes I get nervous
when I see an open door

close your eyes, clear your heart
cut the cord
are we human or are we dancer
my sign is vital, my hands are cold
and I’m on my knees looking for the answer
are we human or are we dancer

pay my respects to grace and virtue
send my condolences to good
give my regards to soul and romance
they always did the best they could
and so long to devotion, you taught me everything I know
wave good bye, wish me well

you gotta let me go
are we human or are we dancer
my sign is vital, my hands are cold
and I’m on my knees looking for the answer
are we human or
are we dancer

will your system be alright
when you dream of home tonight
there is no message we're receiving
let me know is your heart's still beating

are we human or are we dancer
my sign is vital, my hands are cold
and I’m on my knees looking for the answer

you’ve gotta let me know
are we human or are we dancer
my sign is vital, my hands are cold
and I’m on my knees looking for the answer
are we human or are we dancer

are we human or are we dancer
are we human or are we dancer
The above song is, in fact, about excess as far as I can determine. The name of the song is, of course, Human by The Animals. I really love both the lyrics and the melody of this song. The mystery of the meaning of this song rests in the cryptic nature of the chorus: "are we human or are we dancer", which is quite ambiguous and also contains a glaring grammatical mistake or at least a grammatical oddity in that the second substantive disagrees with the first in number. It also blithely leaves out the question mark, but, as it is sung, who, quite frankly, gives a damn? (Interestingly, I've put one in for the previous sentence, and I do give a damn, quite obviously). However, maybe that poor grammar is just because of the eccentricity of the song writer or even, perhaps, for musical reasons (I'm glaringly ignorant of the principles of music, obviously also).

This beautiful, if mysterious, song is, in fact, based on a quote by Hunter S. Thompson that runs similarly to the song: "We are raising a generation of dancers." In keeping with his rather late beatnik philosophy he implies that we are losing basic humanity and becoming mere dancers living on the whim of the moment. This might be unfair to committed dancers, but I think Thompson was referring to those of us caught up in the "excessive" and rather "superficial" and "trivial" nature of indulging our senses. Therefore, the writer of the song considers that we, the acquisitive, selfish and gluttonous people of today, in the words of the song actually do "Pay my (our) respects to grace and virtue//Send my (our) condolences to good//Give my (our) regards to soul and romance //They always did the best they could". People today, according to the song-writer concentrate more on what dance club we'll be at over the weekend.

Now back to the writer, who declared that the U.S.were 'raising a generation of dancers'. In this he was commenting on the "softness" of America's youth. Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937 – 2005) was an American journalist and author, most famous for his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. He is also known for his use of psychedelics (that is, drugs, rather akin to the way Timothy Leary)used them, and also for his over-use of alcohol, firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. This obviously endeared him to the Hippie generation.

Above a Christmas scene in O'Connell Street, Dublin. I took this picture in December, 2006.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Literature and its Allure

My romance with literature is a complex one, like any other romance indeed. On the one hand, I find literature - and by that term I mean all written works whether fictional, prose, poetry or in any of the sciences, popular or professional - a marvellous escape from the work-a-day world and paradoxically, on the other, a deep and reflective involvement in that same world.

As I write these lines, I am trying to recall where and when that romance with books first began. I suppose it goes back to the dark and dismal 1960s when we were quite a poor working class family. I was a sensitive kid who knew that education provided one escape from the drab and miserable world about me. Then, I had good teachers, especially Mr. Murray in fourth class in primary school, who was a wonderful teacher and an absolutely fine gentleman who encouraged the young pupils he taught. While, like all the teachers of his era, he did use corporal punishment, I can never remember his abusing it, or even over-using it. He had a deep respect for his charges and, indeed, for learning. I learned a lot from that wonderful teacher, and I think he was the primary reason why I became a teacher myself. Under his stewardship I became an inveterate reader. I remember getting prizes of books for my academic achievements, the first one being Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe when I was ten years of age. It was one of the first great books that I read. Needless to say, in the sixties and early seventies I read numerous books by Enid Blighton and all those wonderful Biggles books by Captain W.E. Johns. I also loved the poems and the stories recounted in the school textbooks, which pale into insignificance with respect to layout and illustrations beside the modern ones that our young people have at their disposal today. Nevertheless, they were wonderful to the extent of their literary content. We were challenged, not alone with the wonderful world of words, but with the magic and wonder and allure of marvellous literature. What those books lacked in illustration, they made up for in their literary breadth and depth.

Another formative book I remember reading was the wonderful Twenty Years A-Growing by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, which I read later in the original. This book touched me greatly in both languages, and it led to my deep interest in the Irish language. Interestingly, it was Muiris's actor son, Eoin Ó Súilleabháin, who was one of the presenters of Buntús Cainte who caught my interest with his wonderful natural pronunciation of the Gaelic.

Anyway, there I was yesterday like a child in a candy shop while I looked through all the remaindered books in Hodges Figgis bookshop here in Dublin. Also I am addicted to the Amazon Book site where I buy all too many books. Be that as it may, I suppose book buying is a relatively harmless habit to have. I always tell myself that I should be spending far more if I were a smoker or a heavy drinker. Anyway, here are some books to wonder at, peruse or perhaps buy. These are the ones I bought in the last week:

1. Man's Search For Himself - Rollo May.

2. The Recovery of Being - Rollo May.

3. When Nietzsche Wept - Irvin D. Yalom.

4. The Schopenhauer Cure -Irvin D. Yalom.

5. The Yalom Reader -Irvin D. Yalom.

6. Cosmos - Carl Sagan.

7. The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing - Richard Dawkins.

8. 50 Mathematical Ideas - Tony Crilly.

9. 50 Philosophical Ideas - Ben Dupré.

10. Advice on Dying - The Dalai Lama.

11. The Form of Things - A.C. Grayling.

12. Origins of The Modern Mind - Merlin Donald.

13. The Voyage of the Beagle - Charles Darwin.

14. Our Universe - An Introduction - Patrick Moore.

15. Going Inside - John McCrone.

16. The Human Story - James C. Davis.

17. Freud's Wizard - Brenda Maddox.

18. Symposium and The Death of Socrates - Plato.

19. Empire Falls - Richard Russo.

Above a picture I took of the above pile of books.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Power - it's Use and Abuse

We are indeed strange creatures - an extraordinary mix of good and bad; creatures, prone to extreme selfishness on the one hand and complete altruism on the other; with a nature that succumbs quite readily to the basest temptations of the flesh in one instance, as illustrated so effectively and forcefully in what the Catholic Church used call (and undoubtedly still does) The Seven Deadly Sins and in another instance a nature that succumbs to the highest motivations, as shown most powerfully and effectively in the exercise of what are called The Seven Virtues. I have written about these polar opposites already in these pages.

However, we strange creatures are also beset by lure of power: see the following post The Seven Deadlies Undoubtedly, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride can be, and often are motivated by power.

- Power is a measure of one person's ability to control the environment around itself, including the behavior of other person's in that environment. When we are "thrown" ignominiously into this strange and hostile world as little helpless babies, to use Heideggerian language, we soon realise that we are very much dependent on that most "significant" other in our lives, namely mother, to provide for our every need. We cried to get our needs fulfilled, and therefrom we gradually learned to act upon our environment. In other words we gradually, if painfully, learned to use our power. We were also not long in learning that the world, which was often hostile to our needs, acted upon us. In other words, there were other "powerful" persons struggling with us in new relationships of power.

I am interested in the psychology of power as I encounter it in my everyday life - how all our relationships - especially professional ones - rely to a great extent on both its use and abuse, whether conscious or unconscious. Buddhism, and the Eastern philosophies call us to awareness of not alone the motivations of others, but, most essentially and importantly, our very own motivations. This psychological pragmatism has long appealed to me. The WIKI in an interesting, if rather cumbersomely comprehensive, article has this to say on the psychology of power:

Recent experimental psychology suggests that the more power one has, the less one takes on the perspective of others, implying that the powerful have less empathy. Adam Galinsky, along with several coauthors, found that when those who are reminded of their powerlessness are instructed to draw Es on their forehead, they are 3 times more likely to draw them such that they are legible to others than those who are reminded of their power. Powerful people are also more likely to take action. In one example, powerful people turned off an irritatingly close fan twice as much as less powerful people. Researchers have documented the "bystander effect" in which they found that powerful people are three times as likely to first offer help to a "stranger in distress". A study involving over 50 college students suggested that those primed to feel powerful through stating 'power words' were less susceptible to external pressure, more willing to give honest feedback, and more creative.

What interests me here is the finding that the more power one has, the less one takes on the perspective of others. How true this is, when one applies this simple, if frightening, finding to the attitudes of the high echelons in the government, the civil service, the medical, the judicial, and indeed the episcopal worlds where we hear the erstwhile assistant bishops of Dublin singing their innocence with great and obvious sincerity. Yes indeed, we know they are good and decent men who did nothing wrong. But as that rather stentorian theologian, the Rev Dr. D. Vincent Twomey puts it, and rightly so, "they did nothing wrong; but they simply did nothing." Theirs was a sin of omission, of failure to do anything, a mere fitting into the then accepted culture of the hierarchical church in the archdiocese of Dublin. Probably, most of us reading this blog would have done the same. It's all too easy to "fit into" the prevailing culture - and we often do so blindly and unconsciously. But, does that lessen our guilt? The German people have long realised their conscious, and often unconscious, "fitting into" the Nazi culture was indeed a grave wrong. It is, unfortunately, a similar situation for the former auxiliary bishops of the Dublin archdiocese. For the sake of true justice, authenticity and simple decency, they must resign. Nothing less is acceptable.

The allure and misguidance of power is such a powerful drug. It dulls the senses and allows the conscience to fool itself with the subtlest of arguments - often an unconscious blindness in itself. However, such subtleties pale into insignificance before the unsubtlety of the deep injuries wrought upon so many innocents in the clerical abuse scandals of the Dublin Archdiocese and indeed further afield.

In short, power is all too often a mercurial liar.

Above at top is Rev Donal Murray, D.D., the Bishop of Limerick who has just resigned. He lectured me many years ago and is a very fine gentleman who possesses a very fine intellect - perhaps the brightest odf all the bishops, indeed. While one could not fault him personally, he simply had to resign. The case must surely be the same for Bishop Martin Drennan, Bishop of Galway. He has to go for the sake of (i) the victims of abuse, (ii) the good of the Church in general and (iii)for the sake of good of leadership in general in Ireland. We need resignations from politicians and bankers, too, truth to be told! Leadership in sadly wanting in all areas of society in Ireland, not just in the Church sector.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 8

Here I continue with a brief summary of what Dr Irvin D. Yalom suggests as a way of therapy, and indeed a way of living, that overcomes the terror of death through what he terms connection. We have already discussed how through (i) the healing human touch, (ii) empathy and (iii) the power of presence in and through friendship connection may be made with the suffering and dying other. Such “connection”, Yalom argues, overcomes the inevitable gap of estrangement and sheer existential loneliness caused by the inevitability of death.

The Importance of Self-Disclosure:

Another intimate sharing between human beings that is therapeutic is the reality of self-disclosure. For the therapist, this could theoretically be seen as a useful technique that can be acquired and practised. However, such a technique must become more than a technique, it must be genuine and natural and totally unforced. Otherwise it is rendered useless. Let us return to the words of our learned psychiatrist once again:

Because many therapists have trained in traditions that stress the importance of opaqueness and neutrality, friends willing to reveal themselves to one another may, in this regard have an advantage over professional therapists…. Self-disclosure plays a crucial role in the development of intimacy. Generally relationships build by a process of reciprocal self-revelations… (Yalom, p. 131)

Our Values and Actions ripple on through Generations:

It has often been commented that religious people who see life as continuing in some form after this earthly existence are happier and more content souls. However, not having the consolation of religious beliefs need be no hindrance to one’s personal equanimity or sense of acceptance in approaching death as the appreciation and realisation of the on-going ripple effect of one’s actions in the world can lead to similar consolations. How often have we heard people aver that they hope to leave the world a better place than when we entered it? The effects of our good actions ripple out from us and transform to some extent the world in which we lived and moved and had our being. Admittedly, some people have the consolation of living on in their children. However, whether one is married or not, has children or not, real happiness and contentment are literally an inside job, my appreciation of my own meaning and significance in and of myself. If I have valued my real self much, I will also have valued the true and authentic self of every other human being. I will also have sent out positive ripples or vibes which will radiate out further, long after my demise.

Yalom refers to a medieval morality play called Everyman where the eponymous character sought a companion everywhere to accompany him on his lonely road through death and on into the next world. However, everyone turned him down until finally in desperation he found one person only who had the courage to go with him and that was a character called Good Deeds. Let me continue by using the words of our brilliant and inspiring psychiatrist:

… the Christian moral of this morality play: that you can take with you from this world nothing that you have received; you can only take what you have given. A secular interpretation of this drama suggests that rippling – that is the realization of your good deeds, of your virtuous influence on others that persists beyond yourself – may soften the pain and loneliness of the final journey.(Ibid., 134)

The Role of Gratitude to enhance Rippling:

Yalom then recounts an exercise often given by Martin Seligman, one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, at his workshops. The exercise went something like this: “Think of someone still living to whom you are very thankful, and to whom you have never expressed this gratitude. Sit down and write a letter to that person for ten minutes. Then pair up with someone in the group and share your letter. The final step is that you must, as soon as you possibly can, pay a personal visit to that person.” (My paraphrase of Yalom’s recollection of Seligman’s instructions.)

Discover your own Wisdom:

Yalom rightly traces this advise back to Socrates. The role of the mentor, teacher, facilitator, counsellor or friend, following the Socratic method is to ask pertinent questions which force us to go deeper into ourselves and mine our very own wisdom. In this we must also learn to parent ourselves as we travel the road deathwards.

The Value of Regret:

I shall resist paraphrase here as Yalom’s words are pared to the bare essentials, and this better to quote the man in full:

I often counsel myself and my patients to imagine one or five years ahead and think of the new regrets that will have piled up in that period. Then I pose the question that has real therapeutic crunch: “How can you live now without building new regrets? What do you have to change in your life? (Ibid., pp. 145-146)

Savour the Awakening:

The awakening to which our learned and wise psychotherapist refers is the awakening of the soul to its mortality. The author encourages us to savour it, appreciate it, value it, take advantage of it. Such an awareness helps us to really value the importance of life, of living in the now, because we only live once. We can never repeat our one and only performance. What a pity to waste it!

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 7

Given what I said in the last post that we each inhabit a private world known only to ourselves. This, along with our alienation from ourselves and from others, makes up existential loneliness. In short, following Kant and others, especially Freud, Jung and certainly Sartre, we very much make or create our own world, shape and define ourselves, in other words, make our own meaning of it and in it. And then, yes then, we observe it crumble away as we die. This is the very heart of existentialism. What then does Yalom suggest in his psychotherapy? It is to that we now turn.

The Power of Touch:

While Yalom does not go into detail about the power of human touch, he illustrates it beautifully by referring to the wonderful film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman called Cries and Whispers. It is a Swedish film, made in that language needless to say, which was made in 1972. This film is set in a mansion at the end of the 19th century and is about two sisters who watch over their third sister on her deathbed, torn between fearing she might die and hoping that she will. Here is how Yalom describes the power of this film:
In the film, Agnes, a woman dying in great pain and terror, pleads for some intimate human touch... but neither can bring herself to touch Agnes. Neither has the ability to be intimate with anyone, even themselves, and both shrink away in terror from their dying sister. Only Anna, the housemaid, is willing to hold Agnes, flesh to flesh. (Yalom, p. 123)
I have long believed in the healing power of human touch and of the importance of hugs in our lives. I have experienced, like so many of my fellow human animals its healing power in my own life and in those whom I know and love. It is Anna's embrace that enables Agnes to complete the journey into death. Yalom places this topic of the power of human touch under the heading of empathy. However, I'd prefer to place it under its own title or under the title of intimacy. Be that as it may, we will now turn to the topic of Empathy.


Having spent two years of my life studying psychotherapy, empathy is seen as one of the three central and important core conditions in good psychotherapeutic practice. Indeed, it was Carl Ransom Rogers who pioneered and promoted what he termed the three core conditions of counselling or therapy, viz.,congruence (realness), acceptance and empathy. Here is Rogers himself speaking on the nature of empathy and its centrality to the therapy process:
The third facilitative aspect of the relationship is empathic understanding. This means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. from Carl R. Rogers, Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.115-116
Connecting with the anxiety of the Dying:

Through real and authentic human touch which holds, contains, but can never explain the mystery of human life in all its vicissitudes, in all its highs and lows; through the really human experience of empathy, with Yalom we can state that both these realities can heal the frightening gap between the desire for the fullness of life on the one hand and its inevitable extinction on the other. This is the task of both the therapist and the client, the healing or bridging of that frightening gap. During so is at the heart of existential therapy. Let me quote Yalom once again:
You can't connect or offer the dying what Anna does in this film unless you are willing to face your own equivalent fears and join with the other on common ground. To make that sacrifice for the other is the essence of a truly compassionate, empathic act. This willingness to experience one's own pain in concert with another has been a part of the healing traditions, both secular and religious for centuries. Yalom, p. 124
Hence, the power of family, friends and support groups cannot be underestimated.

The Power of Presence:

I have referred to the power of presence in the last post. To be present to and with another is a sacred and graced act, especially if that person is suffering or dying. A good teacher, professor, doctor, psychiatrist or counsellor is really present to his clients. He or she is there with the client, student, patient in the nowness of being, and is not distracted by one thing or another, and certainly is not elsewhere in mind or spirit. We instantly warm to those who are truly present to us. There is no substitute for real presence. We know it immediately we experience it. Let us listen to Yalom again:
One can offer no greater service to someone facing death... than to offer him or her your sheer presence. (Ibid., p. 125)
In all of this connection is paramount, connection with another suffering human being. This very connection is the healing factor. I return yet again to the powerful words of Yalom:
Whether you are a family member, a friend or a therapist, jump in. Get close in anyway that feels appropriate. Speak from your heart. Reveal your own fears. Improvise... Once, decades ago, I was saying goodbye to a patient near death, she asked me to lie next to her on her bed for a while. I did as she requested, and, I believe, offered her comfort. Sheer presence is the greatest gift you can offer anyone facing death (or a physically healthy person in a death panic. (Ibid., 130)

To be continued.

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 6

There I was the other day viewing a talent show on RTE 1 which showed the inimitable and still youthful Dana - she of Eurovision fame - judging contestants from Ulster for some all-Ireland competition. I was not really interested in the contestants at all, but was quite taken by the quality of her judging. Several times she either complimented or criticized a contestant on their possession of or lack of what she termed "connection" with the audience. I felt her judgements were excellent, and her own "connection" with the contestants was superb.

Then, I recalled the phraseology of current political, social and economic pundits on the media. They invariably speak of what they term "a disconnect" between the Establishment and the people on the ground - the ordinary "Joe Soap" or punter in the street. Once again there is much sense and not a little wisdom in these criticisms.

Here is where I come to more existential insights into life as I continue to meditate and contemplate the words of Dr Irvin D Yalom, a wonderful contemporary psychiatrist and existential psychotherapist. Let's examine and explore what is meant by "connection."

As a teacher, I feel and believe that I truly understand what both Dana and Irvin D. Yalom are saying. When I was a young teacher, I can remember hearing a senior colleague refer to what he believed was the most important factor that went to make up a good teacher - he called that factor "presence." He'd say something like: "That young man/woman will make a good teacher: they have presence."

After some thirty years in the main-stream classrooms I am retraining as a Resource Teacher which means that I am now teaching boys with Asperger's Syndrome, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Mild and Moderate General Learning Difficulties. Now, most of these classes are either one-to-one, groups of two or three or at most groups of six. To become a Resource Teacher one needs to be able to really connect with these pupils. It can never simply be a question of knowing one's subject. One needs a deep empathy with one's students, a real ability to connect with the student who most times will be struggling to understand whatever the curricular area being covered is. Indeed he or she may be struggle to "connect" with the world if they are autistic or in any other way disabled. How much greater the struggle would be if the teacher was unable to "connect."

Enough illustrations and examples. Let's get to the reflections on the nature of "connection" and "dis-connection." I will continue these reflections by following quite closely the musings of Irvin D. Yalom. Let's begin.

Human Connectedness:

Yalom avers that we human beings are, from our very conception, hardwired to connect with others of our species. In our very essence and in our existence we are creatures designed to connect. All psychological studies show convincingly, if indeed we did need to be convinced, that intimate relationships are a sine qua non for happiness. In other words the desire for "connection" or "connectedness" is at the heart of our very nature. However, that many in our modern world feel "cut off", isolated or disconnected goes without saying also. They feel that their very nature is thwarted, twisted and suffocated - use whatever metaphor you wish. We can call this the existential experience of alienation if we wish. In this regard we are very much an "unfinished" work of art.

Death: The Greatest Disconnect:

One cannot speak about existentialism without discussing the reality of death. Death is always an issue in any philosophical discussions, never mind existential ones. However, there is also the reality of dying to cope with, too. Indeed, very few of us mind death in the sense that if it is an eternal dreamless sleep, akin to our state of non-existence before our conception or birth, then it may indeed be quite attractive. Dying on the other hand we dread because it may be painful in many ways: physically, obviously and psychically as we let go our strong desire to live, our strong desire to reach out and connect. In short, dying is the breaking of connection - indeed the extinction of all connection or possibility thereof. I have long subscribed to the contemporary psychological truth that the real repression in modern life is not sex but rather death and indeed dying. Everywhere one looks life proclaims the power and beauty of living, the desire to live life to the full with all its endless possibilities. We drink all this in - along with the myth of possessions and power and success.

Yalom quotes another of my favourite authors on Buddhism - that is, Sogyal Rinpoche. This quotation is worth reflecting on here:
When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings. (Quoted Yalom, p. 115)
And so when we comes to therapy, or indeed when we face any crisis in our lives, we are caught in a quandary which at its existential base, no matter what the crisis is, is a conflict between the desire to survive versus the threat of ultimate extinction. This is essentially what all existential literature and drama is about. The ways the ordinary soul deals with its mortality are as follows: Denial, Diversion, Displacement. Denial can be seen all around us: even when a person is faced with a terminal illness, almost the first reaction is that of denial: this cannot be happening to me! Displacement is where the person displaces death anxiety onto minor concerns - "Oh, I could not do that, it is too risky or dangerous," etc. Diversion is where the person gets involved in this, that or the other activity, and let's include all addictions here, to obliterate the thoughts of extinction.

Let me quote Yalom directly again:
Dying, however, is lonely, the loneliest event of life. Dying not only separates you from others, but also exposes you to a second, even more frightening form of loneliness: separation from the world itself. (Op.cit., 119)
Yalom goes on to declare that there are two kinds of loneliness linked with this contention: (i)everyday and (ii) existential loneliness. The first requires no elucidation here, while the second refers our being born into a world not one of us asked to see, being "thrown" out into it, and having to reach out from our own little world of self into that world shared with others. We also have to exit from that world alone, break the ties we have painfully made over the years of our earthly existence. Not alone that, but we each inhabit a private world known only to ourselves. All of this makes up existential loneliness. In short, following Kant and others, especially Freud, Jung and certainly Sartre, we very much make or create our own world, make our own meaning in it. And then, yes then, we observe it crumble away as we die. This is the very heart of existentialism.

To be continued.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Existential Psychotherapy 5

In The Dry Salvages (Number 3 of "Four Quartets") we read the memorable words:
"but the sudden illumination— We had the experience but missed the meaning."
Since I first read T.S.Eliot way back in the 1970s under the wonderful direction of Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., an erudite and wise lecturer in English literature, I was captivated by the above quotation. Michael Paul introduced us to the magic and wonder of literature which has never ceased to captivate me. I have always been grateful that I was so lucky to have such a wonderful teacher. Michael Paul is now a professor of fundamental theology in the Universita' Gregoriana in Rome. He could equally be a professor of English literature. As well as that this erudite and humble man is a fluent speaker of at least three languages outside English.

Jesuits are great practitioners as well as thinkers. They reflect a lot on life - indeed, in their training they have a lot of time to do that. To reflect on lived experience is one way of expressing their very raison d'etre as an order in the Catholic Church and they can trace such a reflection back to their founder St Ignatius Loyola. Hence, the significance of the above quotation for Michael Paul, for the Jesuit way of reflection, for a modern way of doing theology - not theoretically from above (that is, starting with revealed dogma and imposing it on the human being), but practically from below, taking the reality of human experience and then reflecting upon it theologically and theoretically. Such a valuing of experience enhances and strengthens theology as a science firmly rooted among the social and human sciences. As one who is a qualified theologian, but has long left Catholic tenets behind, I still value the superb training I got to Licentiate level in a Jesuit College here in Dublin.

Be that as it may, let me now return to my topic, namely Existential Psychotherapy. The relevance of the above preliminary reflections is this: too few of us have the luxury or the time to reflect on lived experience. Also, too many of us lack the luck of having a secure and balanced centre of gravity. I speak here from personal experience. I had a nervous breakdown half-way through my STL and I felt myself abandoned on a terrifying sea of confusion, bereft of meaning, broken, fragmented and existentially adrift in a terrifying and tormenting mental ocean. There seemed to be no land (of meaning) ahoy. I did eventually recover and did manage to struggle ashore like some shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on a small island in the sun to complete my degree with first honours under the direction of another wonderful, erudite and humble Jesuit, Dr. John Macken, who alas died all too young (51) in the mid nineties of the last century. I owe John a lot, both academically and personally. He was a wonderful man and gifted academic. Anyway, existentially, I was, during that particular period in my life, physically and emotionally unable to function, let alone reflect on my experience. Needless to say, I did get the opportunity to so many times later in my life.

Central to existential therapy is the lived experience. For us existentialists, the vicissitudes of existence is always prior to reflection. In the world of existentialism, we say that existence always precedes essence, that existing is simply prior to reflection which can only occur later. In a sense, the experience of living always defies efforts to capture it in thought, though we humans strive to do so by working, writing, composing - in short by being creative. Music is a most wonderful, non-cognitive way (to some extent, though I'm sure the act of composing needs good cognitive skills) of giving meaning to life.

Anyway, there I was last week working hard, doing too much as usual, feeling a little under pressure, if not a little stupidly and selfishly self-pitying, when I was graced by the presence of several suffering human beings. Firstly, there was young Tom (I've changed his name for anonymity), an academically weak adolescent boy with a diagnosis of Asperger's, mild general learning difficulties, severe anxiety and recently the added diagnosis of the scourge of OCD. This poor soul exists in an extremely anxious world of continually checking, checking, checking little things. He finds it impossible to relax and is a major worry for his poor mother. Let's call this woman Ann - she is full of anxiety about her son's angst if that not too tortuous a way of expressing my meaning here. She herself is feeling abandoned and powerless to do anything. Such a feeling of powerlessness is often at the heart of the existential nature of human living. I listened. My fellow resource teachers listened as did the school counsellor. We may not have solved any problems, but we did listen. Listening was all we could do indeed. But, such listening is the most importanr thing any of us can do for another human being. Never underestimate it!

Then there was Julian (also a pseudonym) who was/is equally lost. He is a young man, also diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, who unfortunately has a severe kidney disease - he only has some 25% kidney function. He will either have to be on kidney dialysis or have a transplant by the time he is 25. Well, poor Julian came to me a few days ago and told me he has to have a heart scan in the next few days as the Doctor fears he may have some heart damage due to his very high blood pressure. This is existentialism in its very essence, if the reader will forgive the forced paradox. As I listened, I offered no consolations, no soft advice, now words of wisdom, absolutely nothing that would reduce Julian's sense of lostness. That was his to own and to express in his own unique way. That was his alone to make his sense of, and to make some meaning of in his own unique way. I was merely the listener, the facilitator of that act of making meaning. I was the sensitive ear, the listener, the rock on which Julian could sit for some 40 minutes or so. Of course, I did say some things, I did share some reflections from my own experiences, but I never offered any cheap answers. I am too old and have suffered too much myself and have done too much work in psychotherapy to have offered any cheap advice. I know how to sit and listen and how to carry and contain myself and any other who wishes to confide in or lean on my own healing brokenness.

As I write I am listening to RTE Radio I which is broadcasting a wonderful programme on an Irish musician who is losing her hearing: Documentary on One:Beethoven and Me where Flautist Elizabeth Pectu talks about the hearing loss that led her to leave the RTE Concert Orchestra and her passion for the arts. See this link here: Documentary on One This programme nicely summed up the human predicament - namely, our powerlessness over much that happens us in life. Think of the irony or paradox of being a musician or composer of music and to be losing your sense of hearing. This must surely be a dreadfully disorienting cross to carry in life. Yet this programme also heralds the strength of the human spirit in transcending that loss. Like Beethoven, Elizabeth Pectu is transforming her life into something wonderful and beautiful by continuing with her work, by continuing to play her instrument despite her hearing gradually being lost. She has sought out new hearing devices, devised by recent medical research, which can at least give her some sense of sound. This search for meaning, be it indeed very anguished, is in itself a central part of the existential nature of life. That is, we humans must, if we are to survive in this life at all, seek to give meaning to our lives, seek, in fact and in strife, to make our own meaning. If we give up in this task we will succumb to the bottomless pit of depression and possible suicide. The existential task of making and creating ourselves is always at the heart of the very project that is life, that is living. This is in itself the very essence of the existentialist project which we all experience in the here-and-now of our own lives.

"Angst", that central word of existentialism, sometimes called dread, anxiety or even anguish is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be the experience of freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that "nothing is holding me back", one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one's own freedom. Or again, having attended a lot of lectures on autism we are told as resource teachers that practically all autistic people experience such a deep sense of anxiety that it is akin to the feelings of petrification a person who fears flying experiences who is about to board a plane, with this essential difference that the poor autistic person feels that way all the time when faced with the seemingly frightening world of other human beings. In that very real sense, then, "hell is others" for the autistic.

One of the major offshoots of existentialism as a philosophy is existential psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Ludwig Binswanger, a clinician who was influenced by Freud, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who had studied with Freud and Jung as a young man. His logotherapy is a form of existential therapy. Frankl's most famous book is called Man's Search for Meaning which he first wrote slowly and deliberately, word by word, sentence by sentence, in his mind to keep himself alive in the hell of the Dachau concentration camp. In effect, his logotherapeutic method grew out of his practical lived experience, in his ability to create meaning even in the hell of meaninglessness, in the very heart of evil and suffering.

An early contributor to existential psychology in the United States was Rollo May, who was influenced by Kierkegaard whom I have already discussed at length in some previous posts in this blog. One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of existential psychology in the USA is Irvin D. Yalom whose contributions to this area of therapy I have also discussed before in these entries and to whom I intend to return before long.

Now, the importance of anxiety or angst in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often offer existential philosophy as an explanation for anxiety. The assertion is that anxiety is manifested of an individual's complete freedom to decide, and complete responsibility for the outcome of such decisions. Psychotherapists, using an existential approach, believe that a patient can harness his anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his full potential in life. Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existential psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets. Terror management theory is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when they are confronted with the knowledge they will eventually die.

As I come to an end of these reflections, I am all too conscious of how scattered and broken and fractured these thoughts are in themselves. Maybe that in itself is appropriate as I am deeply moved by the scattered, shattered, broken and fractured nature of the human animal itself. We are simply "not made whole" at any stage of our human existence never mind at the age of Christ if I may quote from the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella
I read that I have looked my last on youth And little more; for they are not made whole That reach the age of Christ.
The challenge is to integration, and indeed to re-integration, in trying, however unsuccessfully and partially, to put "Humpty Dumpty" together again as best as we can. No perfection exists in the world of human making and human longing. There is too much angst, anguish and anxiety associated with the desire for perfection. We live in an all-too-imperfect world. Yes, indeed, let us look for excellence and desire it, but never, never, never, confuse it with perfection, which surely does not exist.

The most we can hope for is a wholeness that includes our very imperfection and brokenness at the heart of living and being in this all too sad, if at times beautiful and exhilarating world.

Above a black and white version of the famous painting called "The Scream" by Edvard Monch, one of my favourite works of art.