Sunday, February 28, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 6

Rollo May entitles his fourth chapter The Struggle to Be.  There have been so many books, more than any one person can count, on the subject of self-awareness.  If I have learnt anything in the course of my life, it can summed up in the statement: awareness is all.  Let that be ocur song!  In other words self-consciousness is the goal, or, in the words of the grand old man (Freud) of psyhoanalysis: making our unconscious conscious.  At least, then, we can face the inevitability of our own mortality with some little equanimity.

As I write I am observing a colleague come to grips with his own mortality.  The poor man has had a leg and a hip amputated due to cancer, and he is now back in hospital awaiting three weeks of radiation to stem the progress of cancer elsewhere in his system.  His, now, is a great struggle as it would be for all of us.  This poor gentleman in question is perhaps one of the most driven of people I have ever come across in life, one who buys into achievement, is a workaholoic who seemingly cannot let go, who is ego-driven mostly and who really loves control.  Now, none of these words are a criticism - they are simply observation, because the person in question is a good man, a great worker, a marvellous doer and has no more faults or failings than most of us.  What I am about here is illustrating May's chapter, rightly called The Struggle to Be.

Achieving  consciousness of self involves struggle and conflict. The present writer went through this struggle when he was forty years of age and had to be hospitalised for seven weeks due to clinical depression.  That was akin to going down into a private hell of lostness somewhere in the unchartered spaces of the entanglement of synapses and of mind and of self.  And, what an entanglement that is, a labyrinth of daedalian proportions.

The young child has no sense of self when he or she is thrown into this world to use language of a Heideggerian twist, but his/her entire life will be one of differentiating the self.  Let me quote May's succinct words here:
All through life a person is engaged in this continuum of differentiation of himself from the whole, followed by steps towards new integration.  Indeed, all evolution can be described as the process of differentiation of the part from the whole, the individual from the mass, with the parts then relating to each other on a higher level. (Man's Search for Himself, p. 86)
On the road to self-realization or integration, call it what you will, there are stages which we all go through, and the following are the ones Dr. May adverts to: (i) Cutting the psychological umbilical cord which involves what he terms The Struggle against Mother.  In this regard he refers to the myth of Orestes.  Indeed, there is a complex called the Orestes complex which in psychoanalysis is an unconscious desire of a son to kill his mother. Matricide by sons appears to be dominated by incestuous elements, and the term 'Orestes complex' (after Orestes who, under the influence of his sister, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, as revenge for the death of his father, Agamemnon) has been coined to describe a sexually immature son trapped in a dependent but hostile relationship with a possessive mother culminating in a murderous psychological crisis.

I would like now to advert to an interesting distiction May comes up with, at least I have never come across it in any of the psychological literature I have read, viz., loving inwards and loving outwards.  In this he returns to the story of Aeschylus's great tragedy or trilogy of tragedies The Oresteia.  Orestes, according to May, vows that he will not "!waste inward," and that he has "fallen in love outward." Then he explains the symbolic meaning of this interesting directional imagery:

It is by no accident that Orestes uses the terms "inward" and "outward" several times in these few lines, and that he says the main trouble in Mysenae has been "incest."  For incest is simply the sexual physical symptom of being turned inward on the family, and of being able correspondingly to "love outwardly."  Psychologically, incestuous desires, when they continue past adolescence, are the sexual symbol of morbid dependency on the parent, and they occur predominantly in persons whom have not grown up, have not cut the psychological umbilical cord which binds them to the parent.  Sexual gratification, then, is not too different from the oral gratification the child receives in being fed by the mother. (Op. cit., p. 97) 
The next section May entitles The Struggle against One's Own Dependency.  In this section he reminds us of the timely and universal moral of the myth of Orestes, namely that what has to be killed is not the physical mother, but rather the symbolic mother with all her infantile ties of dependency which bind the child to the parent .  The struggle to become a person in one's own right does bring considerable anxiety as the present writer well knows, and often it brings actual terror.  I remember having several dreams about the death of my father before he died, and many years ago I had several dreams about the demise of my mother, who happens to be still alive but is quite happily demented in herself in a nursing home.  At the time I honoured these dreams by writing them up, acknowledging them and, after working with them at different levels, I realised that I had finally broken those strong parental bonds. 

While ancient Greek tragedy presents this struggle with the parental bonds in an almost external and literal way, that is, in the actual slaying of the mother (or the father) figure, later tragedians like William Shakespeare took these old themes and made them new by internalising the struggle, for instance, Hamlet's "struggle to be" is an internal conflict within his own mind or conscience and his struggle is consequently frought with guilt, much anguished thought and not a little procrastination and indecision.

Then, our scholarly author, Dr May, outlines his own personal thoughts on the various stages of the consciousness of self which he describes as (i) The stage of innocence - that is, of the child or infant, before the dawning of any consaciousness, (ii) The stage of rebellion - the terrible twos and/or threes, and later that of adolescence, (iii) The stage of ordinary consciousness of self.  This is relatively stable and healthy state of personality and (iv) The stage of extraordinary consciousness which is rarely experienced.  This is where a operson gets sudden insight into a problem or situation, where one is finely attuned like an antenna, as I read in Professor Ivor Browne's wonderful Music and Madness, which I reviewed and summarised in these posts some two years ago.  Indeed, in agreement with May and Browne, I can confirm that sometimes such insights come in dreams.  In these cases, our unconscious is offering up the answer to our particular situation.  This is also called "objective self-consciousness" in Eastern Religions and Philosophies and is also what Nietzsche refers to as "self-surpassing consciousness".  Another term would be the "self-transcending consciousness" in ethical-religious traditions of the West.  In psychology, May reminds us that this type of awareness is also called "ecstasy".

I love May's sheer erudition, his ability to refer with such a lightness of touch to ancient classic, to ancient mythology and to contemporary literature both belles lettres and scholarly and scientific.  I love his quotations from Nietzsche especially, but here in this section of this chapter he quotes a beautiful  few lines from Simone de Beauvoir which bear repeating here:

"Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself.... if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying, and human existence is indistinguishable from an absurb vegetation.... "  (Quoted ibid., p. 102)
All in all, this fourth stage of awareness, can never be accessed on demand, but it will occur at moments of heightened receptivity and relaxation, rather than in the midst of activity, and certainly not at stressful times.  Just like our dcreams, these insights often come quite unexpectedly, but we can train ourselves to raise our awareness by exercises of awareness and in other soul-building pursuits like writing, painting, listening to music, in other words by engaging in creative pursuits.

I took this picture in the Vatican Museums, February 2010.

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