Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Art of Happiness 13

Shifting Perspective

Self in perspective with the Ionian sea behind - Rocella Ionica
How often do we say in answer to a question, "Well, it depends on your perspective" ?  We could, of course, have said, "It's all relative, you know."  Years ago I remember living in a huge novitiate called Orlagh College in Templeogue.  This was an old period landlord's house dating back hundreds of years.  I always marvelled that no matter what room you went into on the top floor you got a wonderful but different perspective or view on the same scene below.  It struck me that life was like that.  We all look out on the same scene or view (call it reality or life for the viewer wherever he or she is in the world) but we all see it somewhat differently, that is, from our particular perspective.

Some Metaphors

Aren't metaphors wonderful?  I've already used that of the big house with the many windows.  These metaphors are images that make things more understandable and graspable.  An erstwhile lecturer, the wonderful and brilliant Jesuit scholar, Professor Michael Paul Gallagher used use the metaphors of magnifying glass and telescope to describe two divergent perspectives on life.  Having suffered from depression, and having worked with people of all mental dispositions, including those who suffer from OCD, the first metaphor is very relevant here.  These poor souls see everything through a magnifying glass, that is, they magnify everything out of all proportion.  In short, they become anxious to such an extent that they lose all perspective on life.  One boy I taught could check his pencil case and bag innumerable times even during a ten minute period.

When one uses a telescope or even binoculars one can view far away objects more clearly.  The metaphor here is that one can get a better perspective on things that are happening.  The General organizing his troops for battle can plan his campaign with greater accuracy that with the naked eye. Of course, alternating between naked eye and binoculars can give further perspective again.

Lungomare, Rocella Ionica
Another metaphor that I really like is that of viewing a painting.  Obviously if you stand right up near it, all you will see are brush strokes and colours, while if you stand back you will see the picture from a better perspective.


I came across this philosophical theory in reading Nietzsche some years back.    Here is what the WIKI says on this theory:

Perspectivism is the philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively "true", but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid. ( Perspectivism)
Shifting Perspective

Shifting perspective is a great way of coping with the suffering that confronts us in life.  Cognitve therapies, which include REBT, are methods of helping the client change their faulty patterns of thinking and consequently change their feelings.  Albert Ellis speaks about replacing irrational with rational beliefs.  There's a lot in this, and now that I'm reflecting on these matters, there is a strong link here with the philosophical theory of perspectivism.

The Dalai Lama's words are so "full of perspective" if I may use this strained expression:

You might reflect on the fact that when you are really angry at someone you tend to perceive them as having 100 per cent negative qualities.  Just as when you are strongly attracted to someone the tendency is to see them as having 100 per cent positive qualities.  But this perception does not correspond with reality... the reality is that no one is a 100 per cent bad...
Generally speaking, once you're already in a difficult situation, it isn't possible to change your attitude simply by adopting a particular thought once or twice.  Rather it's through a process of learning, training, and getting used to new viewpoints that enables you to deal with the difficulty.  (The Art of Happiness, p. 146)

The Dalai Lama goes so far as to suggest that venerating one's enemies gives us the opportunity to grow in compassion and love.  This is very hard to swallow indeed, but we know that the Lama and many others of his deep compassion have done so.  In other words, it's the very struggle of life that makes us who we are.  And it is our enemies that test us and provide us with the resistance necessary for growth.

Both Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama recommend strongly the development of a suppleness or pliancy of mind or the ability to change perspective.  Obviously, this is an on-going and life-long journey.  Cutler talks about the Lama's suppleness of mind in these words: "His awareness seemed to move so easily from taking in the complete landscape to focusing on a single bud, a simultaneous appreciation of the totality of the environment as well as the smallest detail.  A capacity to encompass all facets and the full spectrum of life." (ibid., p. 156)

Cultivating a supple or pliant mind allows us perspective, allows us to go from a closer perspective (microscope) to a farther one (binoculars) and back and forth and even in-between.  This is what we mean by a suppleness or pliancy or flexibility of mind.  Obviously without such a kind of mind we become very rigid, and as we all know if we are in an accident and we are holding ourselves in a very rigid way we become very brittle and become more susceptible to injury. Fear, anxiety, obsession, paranoia and a whole plethora of neuroses render us brittle and vulnerable in the extreme.

A suppleness of mind brings perspective and this perspective is shown in the Buddhist approach to life and living: a belief in the underlying goodness of all human beings; a belief in the value of love and compassion; a policy of kindness and a sense of being one with all living creatures who live on Gaia.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interlude - Review - When Nietzsche Wept

The Significance of the Title

Author in Rocella Ionica, August 2011
This novel When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (1992, 2003) is a tour de force as it seeks to explore the origins of psychoanalysis from a creative point of view, rather than from a straight historical one as is the rightful province of fiction. This makes for a lovely combination of historical fact and sheer imagination. It concentrates on the happenings of one specific year, viz., 1882. Josef Breuer (1842 - 1925)  and his younger disciple, colleague and friend Sigmund Freud, (1856 – 1939) both Viennese doctors along with Friedrich Nietzsche (philosopher) (1844 – 1900) and Lou(ise) Salomé (legendary beauty and femme fatale and later an accomplished novelist and psychoanalyst)(1861 – 1937) comprise the central characters of this novelIndeed, this Josef Breuer can be reckoned as one of the founders of psychoanalysis with Freud, even though his name is not that much associated with Freud these days because Breuer was quite an original medical researcher interested in such a variety of general medical questions, not just mental ones.  Although Sigmund Freud has been associated with (and is indeed responsible for) much of the notoriety surrounding psychoanalysis and its rise to acceptance in Europe as well as the United States, Freud himself credits the birth of psychoanalysis to Josef Breuer and his work with Bertha Pappenheim. (The famous case of Anna O. as she is called in their book) Unfortunately, Breuer died before it received full acclaim.  It was their joint study Studies on Hysteria (1895) that launched the psychoanalytical revolution. 

Now the subtitle of the novel is also significant as the author, Irvin Yalom calls it "a novel of obsession."  The dictionary definition of the word "obsession" is the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire.  In this novel Breuer is obsessed with Bertha Pappenheim while Friedrich Nietzsche is obsessed with Lou Salomé.  The plot of the novel gravitates around their mutual psychoanalysis.  In the novel Breuer (who never met Nietzsche in actuality) persuades the philosopher to engage on healing the doctor's "despair" in return for the latter's medical treatment of Nietzsche's physical condition of chronic migraine.  The person who schemed their supposed meeting was none other that the femme fatale Lou Salomé.

The two manage to heal each other through their mutual analysis.  Breuer, in this novel, checks his opinions and considerations by using his young friend Sigmund Freud as a sounding board.  Now both Breuer and Freud were interested in philosophy and would have read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Their mutual cure comes in a very classical way, viz., namely helping each other to make their unconscious desires, instincts and fears conscious. Yalom has his Nietzsche say the following about the nature of the mind, which is essentially a discourse on its unconscious dimension:

The psyche does not function as a single entity.  Parts of the mind may operate independently of others.  Perhaps "I" and my body formed a conspiracy behind the back of my own mind.  The mind, is, you know, fond of back alleys and trapdoors. (Ibid., p. 97)
Somewhat later in the novel Yalom also relates a fictional encounter between Breuer and his protegé Freud in a Viennese restaurant where they discuss the possible goals of a new way of helping patients - obviously psychoanalysis.  Breuer suggests that his goal in working with Nietzsche (he tells Freud that his patient's name is Herr Muller to protect his identity) is to liberate the "unconscious consciousness" of his patient, but Freud corrects him with the suggestion that "liberation" might not be the correct term, but rather "integration of the unconscious." (See ibid., pp 152-153 and following)  Obviously, while all of this is true, it is patently a later formulation written back into history.  But as Yalom has suggested with his quotation from André Gide, quoted below, that such could plausibly have occurred. Generally, in this novel, though, I hasten to add, there is more indeed than classical psychoanalysis going on - there is, in fact, a deep existential psychotherapy taking place.  To this extent, there is an anachronistic modern therapy superimposed upon or written back into history.  However, this is a very small complaint, indeed it really isn't one as one could certainly imagine it happening.  It is certainly believable and not at all improbable.  

It is also interesting to note that Yalom discovered in 2003, years after the first publication of his novel (1992) that actually friends of Nietzsche had attempted to get the philosopher to consult Breuer.  He quotes what I consider to be a perspicacious comment from the French author André Gide: "History is fiction that did happen.  Whereas fiction is history that might have happened."  Indeed, Yalom's highly imaginative work could therefore have happened.  This shows us, to my mind, the great truth of the imagination embodied in a true creative act.

Obviously, Yalom knows his Nietzsche, as we have shown in these posts in this blog before ( See here and previous posts), and he has certainly mined his works for insights into his thoughts, and especially for views upon which an existentialist therapy can be built.

“It is not the truth that is holy, but the search for one’s own truth! Can there be a more sacred act than self-enquiry? My philosophical work, some say, is built on sand: my views change continually. But one of my granite sentences is: “Become who you are.” And how can one discover who and what one is without the truth?” (Op. cit., p. 68)
Breuer's obsession with Bertha Pappenheim and Nietzsche's with Lou Salomé are both merely screens that mask the failure of the human soul to face head on the facts of its mortality, namely the above mentioned existential concerns.  In fact, one of the turning points in the novel happens where Breuer and Nietzsche take a walk through the city of Vienna Central Cemetery, where, while viewing his parents' grave the learned Doctor opines that he had long believed that "life is a spark between two identical voids." (ibid., p. 238) This is pure existentialism and the action of speaking these thoughts and other related ones in a graveyard, with one of the founders of existentialism, is nothing short of potent therapy.  Here, our two obsessed individuals are learning to look into the real issues of life as they constellate around the centrality of our mortality and in so doing learn to begin to go beyond their obsessions which were a way of avoiding facing those issues.

There is also a discussion between Breuer and Freud on the significance and interpretation of dreams where the latter opines:  " Perhaps dreams can express either wishes or fears.  Or maybe both.  But tell me, Josef, when did you first have this dream?" (Ibid., p. 39)  Later in the novel, Yalom has Nietzsche opine: "I wonder whether our dreams are closer to who we are than either rationality or feelings." (Ibid., p. 242)

Now, there is nothing extremely comforting in this novel which is dedicating to exposing one's own individual soul or real Self or true identity.  As Nietzsche says, on his first encounter with Dr Breuer:
"You, Doctor... dedicate yourself to making life easy.  I, on the other hand, am dedicated to making things difficult for my invisible body of students."  (Ibid., p. 67)  Even hope, for Nietzsche, is a form of denial, indeed it is "the worst of evils because it protracts torment." (Ibid., p. 69)  Then we get the second of Nietzsche's granite sentences, that is, "Whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger." (Ibid., p. 97).  He then asks Breuer how much truth he can stand.  In other words, the task of self-analysis or any type of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is having the courage to face the real Self, the real me and facing that requires courage and acceptance.  Can I live with myself, with my own faults and failings, with my very own shame?  Again, these thoughts from the writings and thoughts of Nietzsche are at the heart of existential psychotherapy.  They both agree that we must take risks in this matter if we are to find out who we truly and really are. 

There is also much discussion on motivation in this novel, as indeed there is in any form of psychotherapy.  Our motivations are often unconscious, so, therefore, when we question our motivations we are getting at unconscious aspects of our personality.  There are also discussions of power and will, and indeed the will to power, which was never meant to be interpreted in the way Nazis would later.  For Nietzsche the will to power is essentially being able to garner one's own power to face the self, not to wield power over others.

A young Friedrich Nietzsche
Breuer pleads with Nietzsche to help him cure his despair: "I have killed God.  I have no supernatural beliefs. I don't know why to live!  I don't know how to live!" (Ibid.,140)  Nietzsche teaches him to look his own mortality squarely in the eye, to go beyond his obsessions as does Breuer Nietzsche.  It is this facing of one's own truth in all its nakedness that is part of the cure, represented symbolically in the visit to the cemetery.  In getting to know the self, to unravel one's own personal truth one begins to accept the self in all its dimensions, good and bad, and indeed to accept and love one's own fate, that is, in Nietzsche's own Latin expression, "amor fati," that is, to accept that this is my life and I willingly accept and indeed will it to be such.   First I must learn that the key to living well is to will that which is necessary and then to love that which is  willed.  In other words I will have learnt to have chosen my path in life, have chosen well, and to love that choice with all my heart. (See ibid., pp. 282-3)

We also encounter other of Nietzsche's famous arguments in this novel, like that of eternal return or eternal recurrenceThe basic premise proceeds from the assumption that the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is finite. If either time or space are infinite then mathematics tells us that our existence will recur an infinite number of times.though Nietzsche resurrected it as a thought experiment to argue for his concept of amor fati outlined in the previous paragraph.

All in all for Nietzsche the best truths were bloody truths, figuratively ripped out of one's own life experienece.  At one statge our philosopher says to Breuer that his method of self-analysis is to "drive the blade in deeper." (ibid., p. 207)  In the end our only goal is to get to know ourselves authentically, " to become who we are.  Become strong: otherwise you will forever use others for your own enlargement." (Ibid., p. 269). 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Art of Happiness 12

Suffering as Self-Created

Relaxing on lungomare, Badolato
We are at least partly conscious that we can create a lot of our own suffering.  Admittedly, much of our suffering comes from unconscious drives and stymied desires.  We show our partial consciousness of our own responsibility in creating a lot of our own pain when we say such things as: "He is his own worst enemy," or "She doesn't realize that she provokes Tom so much," etc.  We also, of course, create more suffering for ourselves by refusing to admit that it is a natural part of life.  No matter how positive one is, there will always be pain and suffering. 

In fact, even the way we learn incorporates suffering, e.g., when we say that we learn by our mistakes we are, in fact, saying that we are learning from painful occurrences, as mistakes are by definition evil in so far as they cause pain, suffering, harm or damage to someone or something.  When we learn to incorporate suffering into life as an integral part of it, we then allow ourselves to be less reactionary and less railing against life, against our bad luck.  Also we learn to cease to be victims.  It has often been said, and rightly, too, that the refusal to accept suffering as a natural part of life can lead to viewing oneself as a perpetual victim and/or blaming others or this or that for our problems.

Re-playing old Hurts

We are strange creatures indeed, as we are almost obsessional in our re-playing in our minds tapes of when X or Y hurt us.  Yes, indeed, we often continue on with this for years, never mind months or days.  This is irrational behaviour obviously.  We must learn to let go of old hurts, old gripes and cease to be consumed with bitterness or regret or even guilt.  All of this obsessional behaviour increases our suffering.  And, yes, all of this in certain cases can escalate out of all proportions and destroy the lives of some people.  As some wise person once remarked to me whether Mr X or Ms Y speaks to me or not, praises me or not, is simply not my problem - it is their problem (obviously, I am referring to a scenario where the other refuses to acknowledge me despite my best efforts and has nothing whatsoever to do with my actions.)

Inflating our own Importance

Crucifixion, Vatican Museum
There are dangers when we personalize our pain.  Everyone is out to get at me in one way or another.  In fact, they are doing it intentionally.  One might even become paranoid.  All of these reactions are irrational, and as Dr. Aaron Beck puts it, we must strive to recognize these irrational beliefs, and once we have done so begin to replace them with rational ones.  This is one sure way of lessening our personal suffering.

My goodness, we are such self-conceited and egotistic creatures. If anything, a lot of our cultures have inflated our importance completely in the scheme of things. Hubris or unbounded pride has brought about the downfall of many a self-important leader. The mythical story in the Bible about the tower of Babel is a wonderful little story that portrays humankind's hubris in seeking to build the highest tower possible that would reach into the very heavens. According to this mythical account, it was as a consequence of humankind's unbounded pride that Almighty God punished humankind by inventing a plurality of languages.

Dr Howard Cutler tells the story of Jacques Lusseyren, who was blind from the age of 8 and who went on to be the founder of a resistance group during World Wat 2 and was subsequently thrown into a concentration camp.  Lusseyran gave the following interesting insight into happiness/unhappiness:
Unhappiness, I saw then, comes to each of us because we think ourselves at the centre of the world, because we have the miserable conviction that we alone suffer to the point of unbearable intensity.  Unhappiness is always to feel oneself imprisoned, in one's own skin, in one's own brain. (quoted The Art of Happiness, p.126)

 A Note on Karma:

The Dalai Lama defines the word  Karma as "action,"  that is that no matter what we do results in consequences.  Every action has a consequence.  The Buddhists will see Karma as related to reincarnation and former existences as well, of course, as our present lives.  Our actions in a former life as well as those in this one have consequences.  I remember once reading Deepak Chopra who defined Karma as basically "cause and effect."  Here are the words of the Dalai Lama on this concept:

Karma is a very active process.  And when we talk of Karma, or action, it is the very action committed by an agent, in this case ourselves, in the past.  So what type of future will come about, to a large extent, lies within our own hands in the present.  It will be determines by the types of initiatives that we take now.... This indicates that there is an important role fort the individual agent to play in determining the course of the Karmic process... (Ibid., p. 128)
Therefore, we are not just victims of fate - we can, in fact change it and fashion our destiny.  In this way the Karmic process is active and not passive, to use the Dalai's terminology.  Hence, this concept properly understood and actively implemented can and will lessen one's suffering.

Coping with Change

Anyone who has lived any length of time in this world will know that coping with change is a major source of stress and suffering for individuals.  In my field of work, teaching in an ASD unit, all my charges literally hate change and are extremely uncomfortable with it.  Of course, it's not just Autistic and Asperger boys who fear change.  We all do.  Within the world of work, it is one of the major sources of contention in any office or factory.  Hence, we can agree with the Dalai Lama and Dr Cutler that one of the primary causes of suffering is our resistance to change.  Change is obviously linked to the central Buddhist axiom of the impermanence of things: "So at any given moment, no matter how pleasant or pleasurable your experience may be, it will not last.  This becomes the basis of a category of suffering known in Buddhism as 'the suffering of change.'" (Ibid., 135)

The concept of impermanence plays a central role in Buddhist thought, and the contemplation of impermanence is a key practice.  As I've said many times in these pages, life is change.  I've often quoted the famous assertion of Heraclitus that no one can step into the same river twice - as it has literally flown onwards and is certainly not the same water one stepped into firstly.  Hence, meditating on this notion of change on a personal level will help those of us worried by ageing or by the wrinkling of the skin or the graying or balding of the hair.  Having idealised images of our looks is setting ourselves up for more suffering, e.g., the extreme suffering of an anorexic person is based on the false belief that they are literally too fat and too ugly for this life.

Also, we must be aware that change is also a central characteristic in our relationships as we all grow, and to grow is to change.  Here is some wisdom from Dr. Cutler on change in relationships which is worth pondering:

We may discover that it is at the very time when we may feel the most disappointed, as if something has gone out of the relationship, that a profound transformation can occur.  These transitional periods can become pivotal points when true love can begin to mature and flower.  Our friendship may no longer be based on intense passion, the view of the other as the embodiment of perfection, or the feeling that we are merged with the other.  But in exchange for that, we are now in the position to truly begin to know the other.  (Ibid., pp. 140-1)