Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Short Jungian Interlude 1


Carl Jung with superimposed Mandala
Anyone who is accustomed to reading these pages will know my favourite authors, the ones I return to again and again.  The great twentieth century psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustave Jung (1875-1961) is one of those heroes.  This short interlude, then, is my reaction to having sat down and read his short and brilliant classic The Undiscovered Self  (Routledge, London and New York, 1957, 2010) this morning.  It is so short and readable that reading it in one session is eminently achievable.

This book was written in 1957 at the height of The Cold War which is adverted to throughout the text.  There are also many references to The Iron Curtain.  In a sense, then, one could say that it is very much a dated book.  However, as Jung always has exceptionally brilliant and eminently illuminating insights into the psyche to offer his readers, this short book is a psychological classic that offers universal and time-transcending truths.

Another important fact to mention about this little classic is that, unlike the majority of Jung's writings, this book can be easily accessed by the general public as it contains virtually no technical jargon.  Hence, it is a good book to start with if you are coming to Jung's own writings for the first time.  Also, at this stage in my career and life I am well used to reading works translated from the German which can often render the English somewhat stilted and strained.

I liked the title of the first chapter, namely "The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society" which also situates this book very much in the 1950s.  At this time the contemporary writers in philosophy were such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960).  These writers and others spoke about the alienation of man from his real self.  It is interesting that Jung refers to absolutely no writer from the field of philosophy or indeed psychology/psychiatry for that matter.  This is in no way surprising, as this book is essentially an introduction to his own thoughts on the human being, on the soul or on the self or the psyche (he makes distinctions between these terms later in the book).  It is also worth noting that Jung was 82/83 when he wrote this little classic.  Hence, it is a wise book written by an old man reflecting deeply on his experiences.

The Superficiality of Knowledge of Self:

An Hindu Mandala
Jung argues in the first chapter that most people confuse "self-knowledge" with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. (See op.cit., p. 3)  Now, Jung as an early disciple of Freud had long believed with his mentor that we know more than we are aware of about ourselves, that is, that much of our identity as individuals is buried in our unconscious and was consequently not available to the conscious mind.  With his mentor, he also would have believed that the goal of all kinds of psychotherapy was the making of unconscious motivations conscious:

People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them.  (Ibid., p. 4) 
The Average Man or Woman:

Without a doubt averages are very important in mathematics, physics and economics and certainly in psychometric testing.  However, Jung is quick to point out that such statistics are redundant, even quite irrelevant, when one is presented with a real live patient in the surgery or consultation room.  Again he mentions that most medical doctors, who certainly will know all their medical facts and figures, will also understand that individuals differ.  In short they are unique.  Let us return to the author's own words here:

Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.

These considerations must be borne in mind whenever there is talk of a theory serving as a guide to self-knowledge.  There is and can be no self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individual - a relative exception and an irregular phenomenon.  (Ibid., p. 5)
Jung maintains that scientific education is based "in the main on statistical truths and abstract knowledge."  The view of the human being, given by science, is consequently rational, dry and unrealistic.  He calls the individual in this book "an irrational datum," which doubtless s/he is.  This "irrational datum" is "the true and authentic carrier of reality, the concrete man as opposed to the unreal ideal or normal man" of science. (See ibid., pp. 6-7)

The State as Absolute:

Jung argues that what is lacking is an authentic experience of the unconscious, that aspect of the individual that makes him uniquely who he is.  Indeed, he contends that the individual of today is an anonymous social unit, a virtual slave of the state.  He is part of a mass-minded society and his goals and meaning no longer lie in his own psychological and moral development, but rather are determined by the external policy of the state.  In this way the individual feels very impotent indeed.  In consequence of such impotence, powerlessness and lostness, he is rendered more and more dependent on external definitions of self - definitions offered by the State and its many sundry organs.  In this set up, the individual is rendered diminished in all aspects of his nature as a human being. All ethics and morality, therefore, come from the laws and edicts of the State:

The moral responsibility of the individual is then inevitably replaced by the policy of the State (raison d'état).  Instead of moral and mental differentiation of the individual you have public welfare and the raising of the living standard.  The goal and meaning of individual life (which is the only real life) no longer lie in individual development but in the policy of the State, which is thrust upon the individual from outside and consists in the execution of an abstract idea which ultimately tends to attract all life to itself.  The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed and educated as a social unit... State policy decides what shall be taught and studied...  (Ibid., pp.  8-9)
Unconscious Forces at Work:

As I said above, this book was written in 1957 at the height of the Cold War.  Jung was consequently very conscious of the oppression of the totalitarian régime of The Soviet Union where the State certainly exercised extreme control over its citizenry to the point that they were mere automata or cogs in the huge State Machine, to use a rather simplistic metaphor.  He points out rather insightfully that such one-sidedness as exhibited in the suppression of rights and freedoms is "always compensated psychologically by unconscious subversive tendencies."  (Ibid., p. 9)

Our scholarly psychiatrist goes on to argue that where huge masses of people are present, as in the former Soviet Union, the sense of the individual disappears and that one of the chief factors for this "psychological mass-mindedness" is scientific rationalism.  This mass-mindedness, a word I love and typically German, robs the individual of his dignity:

As a social unit he has lost his individuality and become a mere abstract number in the bureau of statistics... The bigger the crowd the more negligible the individual becomes.  But if the individual, overwhelmed by the sense of his own puniness (Jung had already mentioned the millions of people who go to make up the population of the Soviet Union) and impotence, should feel that his life has lost its meaning... then he is already on the road to State slavery... But that is just what is happening today: we are all fascinated and overawed by statistical truths and large numbers and are daily apprised of the nullity and futility of the individual personality.  (Ibid., pp 10-11)

A Little Bit of Compassion 10

Una casa vecchia a Tropea, Gennaio, 2011 
Professor Gilbert outlines two positive emotion systems that exist in all our lives - I'll call the first system The Highs-Seeking System and the second The Calming/Soothing System. Now these are the two sides of the one coin as it were.  In my last post I dealt with the first of these two systems and I wish to treat of the latter in this present post

The Calming/Soothing System:

This is a system that helps to balance the other two systems, (i) The Threat and Defense system and (ii) The Highs-Seeking System.  This Calming/Soothing System is a major source of our feelings of well-being and connectedness.  Spirituality in the broadest sense of the word is all about such feelings of well-being and connectedness.

This system allows us to take time out, or as Suzie, the therapist or group coordinator in Bernard Farrell's play I do not like thee, Dr Fell, says: "relax, relate, communicate."  Or as I hear the young adults in our school say:  "Chill out!"  Gilbert is quick to point out that this state of mind - the chilling out or relaxation state of mind - can accompany very profound and positive feelings that are not just low threat feelings.  Once it was thought that such states of mind were simply the result of the threat system being on low volume or toned down.  In other words, such a view is tantamount to saying that peace is simply the absence of war.  In fact, Gilbert tells us that there is compelling new evidence that we have a special Calming/Soothing System in our brains that enables us to have a sense of well-being and of being at peace.  I would like to quote our author's own words here:

This system uses natural chemicals in the brain called endorphins and opiates.  Indeed, when people take manufactured opiates like heroin, they can experience a general sense of well-being.  They don't become charged up, excited and want to party or agitated or aggressive as can happen with the dopamine that stimulates the drive/excitement system.  So if you want to have the experience of happiness  and approach it purely from a mechanical, physiological point of view, then this is the system that you would be aiming to work on and develop.  It encourages you to enjoy and savour what you have as opposed as opposed to seeking more and more.  (The Compassionate Mind, p. 191)
Now we can learn to create brain states conducive to a calm and content mind by engaging in all manner of compassionate mind training like Zen meditation, Yoga,  general meditation, and a host of other visualization and relaxation techniques. 

As a firm believer in the theory of evolution, Professor Gilbert argues cogently that the arrival of mammals on earth was the start of the evolution of the significant strategy/archetype/social mentality that would eventually blossom to become the very foundation of compassion.

Interesting point on Paedophilia:

Notice, too, how kindness from others is often referred to as touch - "I was touched by your kindness" ...  It is tragic that our terror of paedophilia has led to teachers not been able to touch or hold distressed children, and to a situation where sun cream can only be sprayed, not rubbed, on them.  Such prohibitions could only have been made by people who haven't the faintest idea of how our psychology works, what happens in our brains when we are distressed, and what we need from others by way of comfort. There is increasing evidence that young children may find nurseries more distressing than has previously been recognized, and one possible reason for this, which needs to be explored, is whether or not these children are getting enough physical affection.  This is a very serious and urgent research question. (Ibid., p. 195)

Shop, Tropea, January 2011
It's no harm at this juncture to offer a brief summary of what Professor Gilbert is getting at in chapter five.  He is arguing that compassion arises from the balance and interplay of the three basic emotion sytems: (i) The Defense System of Threat and Self-Protection, (ii) The Highs-Seeking System and (iii) Calming/Soothing System.   This essentially works through the care-giving social mentality that orients us to focus on alleviating distress and promoting the flourishing of the individual.  All of this is accompanied by the release of natural hormones in the brain such as the opiates and and oxytocin.  In short, evolution has given us the above three basic systems that give rise to many of our feelings and brain states.

When we engage in any stilling and calming exercises like Meditation, Visualizations, Yoga, TM, Zen and Deep Prayer, we are essentially fostering compassion and kindness in ourselves. In all of this we are shaping our consciousness, and perhaps may well change the patterns in our brain.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 9

Il fiume Arno, Firenze, Estate 2006

The thrust of these posts of late has been about promoting compassion for the self.  The more compassionate we are for ourselves, the greater compassion we can have for others.  Compassion has had a long tradition in all the great religions of the world, even though much damage, mayhem and destruction have been done in the name of such religions.  It can, of course, be argued that it was the evil in some, if not a considerable minority, of the humans who make up such religious groups that brought this destruction about.  However, such argumentation, true as it is, is beyond the scope of my thoughts here.   If we look to the life and teaching of the Buddha and of Christ we see a considerable concentration on love and compassion.  We know from the actual lives of these great founders and from the exemplary lives of their most faithful followers that compassion for self and others does indeed work.  Our author, whose book I am discussing, Paul Gilbert argues that compassion is a good and useful skill we can all learn and use profitably to grow to our fullest potential as human beings.

Chapter four of his book The Compassionate Mind highlighted our primitive and primordial defense mechanisms in fight and flight, anxiety and anger.  Now chapter five explores the polar opposites of these ancient defense mechanisms and looks at our twin positive emotion systems which he calls (i) The Incentive/Resource-Seeking System and (ii) The Soothing/Contentment System, neither of which titles I find very memorable at all, and I will seek to give them names in this post which I'll be able to remember.  I feel Professor Gilbert could have taken more time and come up with more user-friendly terms.  For the moment I'll call the first system The Highs-Seeking System and the second The Calming/Soothing System.  Now these I can remember as they are the two sides of the one coin as it were.

System 1:  The Highs-Seeking System

Il Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, Estate, 2006
This is all about getting a buzz or a high from our activities and pursuits.  I have just returned from and hour and twenty minutes in the gym, and I am literally buzzing and on a high.  The goal for me is to lose about a stone in weight.  I have changed my diet and am going to the gym three times a week with my brother.  Now, I love the way Gilbert gives us good and decent scientific facts throughout the book.  If I may make one criticism, though not a particularly major one as I'm enjoying the book, his writing could be much clearer.  He makes the reader work to tease out what he is getting at.  In other words, he's not a great populariser, though his stuff is good.  Anyway, this criticism aside, I'm enjoying the effort of attacking his text.  He tells us that this Highs-Seeking System is partially regulated by a chemical in our brains called Dopamine. 

Also to describe this system we hear people used such terms as: "I was hyped up," "He's wired (to the moon)", "S/he's on a high,"  "It's a great buzz."  I've mentioned the gym already, but we can get these buzzes in all manners and means:- winning a game of chess, a computer game, solving a puzzle, working out a crossword, gaining a certificate, diploma or degree, running a 10k route, completeing a marathon, half-marathon or mini-marathon or simply going on a quick walk.  Things that give me a buzz: writing this blog, reading literature and philosophy, teaching, lecturing, going to the gym (a wholly new and exhilarating experience for me now - four times so far since I joined over a week ago.  Long may it last!) and so on.  Now winning the lotto is also another natural, but very rare occurrence!  That does help the dopamine to flow!

I have to agree with Professor Gilbert about how addicted a lot of young people have become to computer games.  The excitement of playing these games is the attraction.  Working half of my teaching time in an Asperger's Unit in a mainstream school I find that a high number of the AS pupils are addicted to these games, particularly those that involve aggression.  These games may indeed overstimulate the dopamine drive system.  Here is what Gilbert says and I believe he is correct:
Each time the children score or make a hit, their brains may be receiving little bursts of dopamine that stimulate both the incentive/resource-seeking and the threat/self-protection systems - after all, these games are deliberately designed to be tense and stimulating and to have this kind of impact on our children's brains.  The problem is that, if you overstimulate these systems, what happens when you withdraw the stimulant?  Well some people can end up being easily bored, needing constant excitement to produce energy, and can become agitated and anxious if they don't get their "fix."  The need to give ourselves constant buzzes of excitement can also be a cause of an addiction to internet pornography.  (Op. cit., p. 173)
Indeed, it is worth stating here that the sex act itself is a source of buzz or hype to a large degree, and indeed it is promoted much through advertising - indeed it is purposely used in that industry to sell the products of its clients.

A note on Drug Addiction:

I can see now how people can become hooked on drugs. These highs do indeed give us a great sense of well-being. However, we all have to put a hell of a lot of natural energy into achieving all the things noted above. Now, our innate laziness - which makes us seek out shortcuts to these much-wanted and much-praised highs - can and does kick in! In my 53 years on this wonderful, if at times painful and sad, planet, I have come across a growing minority of pupils who have sought and some who still seek to take the dreadful shortcut of drugs in order to exoperience artificial highs. How sad! One of my recent pupils, who is only 16, had to be told to leave our school because he was "using", and I believe he is now in some rehabilitation centre. Whether he will manage to become clean I do not know! Here's wishing he does!

One of the major lessons I have learned from life is that there are no real short-cuts, certainly not by the way of drugs. I freely admit that we are all addicts in a way. I also freely admit that I was, and no doubt still am, an addict to sugur and to all things sweet and wonderful. However, I am now a whole two weeks off eating sugary things and have lost 3 and a half pounds in weight. It is a struggle for me, but a struggle worth pursuing because I already feel so much better physically and mentally since I have started my weight-loss programme.

Now when people take drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine (all the rage these days) they are trying to simulate the more natural "hyped-up" or "buzz" sense of pleasure. However, they are really fooling themselves because they have not made the real physical or mental effort to so do. Something that is artificial is really tawdry and worthless! Who wants a plastic flower when s/he can grow real roses in the garden?

The Myth of More

As I write I am struck by a useful pair of opposites, viz., The Myth of More (I love alliteration!) and The Myth of Less is More/Better!  The former is a myth which promotes falsehood, I believe, while the latter is one which promotes the truth.  How often have we heard the cliché:  "Sure you cannot get enough of a good thing!"  From the moment we go to school we are trained to want more and more, to get better and better results.  Then the advertsining on the mass media hits home:  Why be satisfied with X, when you can have SUPERX?  Why be content with your Fiat Punto when you can have a FourWheel Drive?  Why go on one holiday to the sun a year, when you can go twice or even three or four times?  Why live in a council estate when you can get a loan and move up in the world?  Why not have an attic room, a games room etc etc?  I personally don't ever remember any teacher telling us that we could be content with what we have.  The whole drive is to better ourselves all the time.  Now, here is where my favourite subject philosophy comes in - what does it mean to be better or to better oneself?  Cannot Less be better?  Cannot less be more, to put the question more powerfully, if paradoxically?  There is also the importance of slowing down and living in the now if we are to become healthy human beings mentally and ophysically.  There is the sheer importance of learnin g to live in the now, learning to appreciate life, learning to stop and stare, learning peace and contentment.  These, I will discuss in the next post as they are appropriate to the second system, The Calming/Soothing System.

Half Empty/Half Full

Above I have mentioned the wonderful opposition between the Myth of More and the Myth of Less is More.  Now another pair of opposites hits my mind, viz., Half Empty and Half Full.  Advertisers want us to believe that our glasses are half empty, because they want us to strive to keep on filling that glass, to keep on spending and wanting more and more and more.  The whole capitalist system is built on this Myth of Fullness, another metaphor for the Myth of More.  Now in all of this we are compelled to compare ourselves with others.  Tom has X and so I want X to be as good as Tom.  Comparisons they say are odiuos and indeed they are.  It is a life-long struggle for us to relax and calm down and to stop wanting to be like X or Y or Z or in desiring what X or Y or Z may have.

I have found that much of my teaching is concerned with building self-esteem.  I am teaching children who are on the Autistic Spectrum as well as others who are weak at Maths and English.  Much of my time is spent setting work that they find manageable and in praising them for their efforts and achievements.  The effort is as important as the achievement.  The participation is as important as the winning.  The striving to do the particular problem as as important as getting the answer.  It is okay to have one's glass half full because we don't need it full all the time or certainly not over-flowing!  Don't believe what the advertisers tell you.  It's okay to work at your pace.  You're you, not X or Y or Z!