I never intended to use this blog to air my political opinions, but I do think the recent Torture Report released by the US Senate raises an issue that is relevant to the concerns of psychotherapy. According to the report, the CIA hired two American psychologists , Bruce Jesson and James Mitchell, to design an interrogation programme that would induce a profound sense of " learned helplessness" in detainees who were suspected of being terrorists. The CIA thought so highly of the two contractors that they were paid a whopping $80 million to come up with such interrogation techniques as water-boarding, rectal feeding, anal rehydration and putting prisoners in "stress positions" by tying their elbows and ankles behind their backs and forcing them to lie face down for prolonged periods of time. Although the CIA was highly satisfied with the the consultations provided by Jesson and Mitchell, the Senate Report rejected CIA claims about the usefulness of these methods for gaining actionable intelligence. Since then, a number of debates--or rather, rancorous arguments--have erupted questioning both the morality and legality, as well as the effectiveness of using these illegal coercive techniques. My interest here, however, has less to do with these important questions than it does with the use of psychology for such abhorrent purposes. In fact, using psychology for torture violates the most fundamental moral principle of psychotherapy which is respect for the experience of every human being. So what happens when the putative insights of psychology are used for such an intrinsically immoral practice as torture? Can it even be called psychology, understood as the study of human mental and emotional processes? Or, by becoming a dedicated and systematic practice of cruelty, does it become an entirely different practice altogether?
"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Blaise Pascal
I got a phone call recently from a friend of mine who was worried about a close friend of hers. It seems that her friend has returned to a long term relationship that had brought little but disappointment and heartbreak, even though she had resolved to end that relationship and move on to find someone who would appreciate her more. "Why is she doing it? Doesn't she know how stupid she's being?" my friend asked in exasperation. I am acquainted with the woman in question, and though I don't know her well, she certainly doesn't strike me as stupid. On the contrary, she appears intelligent and self possessed, as well as quietly attractive. So I have to admit that I was rather surprised to learn that she would have a weakness for a man who, at least in my friend's opinion, is incapable of emotional commitment. But my friend who had phoned me for some wisdom or insight into what she considered to be her friend's self defeating behaviour, expected more of me. "Aren't you a therapist? You're supposed to know about these things!" she said accusingly. In fact, this sort of issue is one of the more common problems that people bring into the consulting room. But as I tried to explain to my friend, I really couldn't form any opinion about what the problem was unless I spoke to her friend about it. "Who knows?" I said. "Maybe she doesn't regard it as a problem, at all. Maybe she has finally worked out her differences with her boyfriend." But my friend was unconvinced: "I think you're being as stupid as she is."
Perhaps I was. But the idea that therapists have any special ability to see through the problems that bring people to therapy, especially from a hearsay report that is certain to be incomplete and is most likely unreliable, is a dangerous illusion that even some therapists seem to believe in. Indeed, pop psychology, which presents itself as a distillation of therapeutic expertise, offers little more than ready made conventional wisdom expressed in the self-mystifying jargon of therapy. Although there may be a thriving belief in the possibilities of pop therapy for women who love too much or men who don't know how too get in touch with their feelings, true therapy doesn't really begin until both therapist and client are prepared to deal with the particularity and uniqueness of the client's situation. This is not to say, however, that there are no such things as common pit falls or that people aren't unwise by repeatedly falling into them. But what may be clearly self defeating to impartial observation is seldom, if ever remedied by simply getting someone to look at their problems "objectively". For it is only by appreciating the subjective sense of someone's experience that understanding his or her actions in the world becomes possible. Or as Pascal might have put it, the heart has reasons of its own.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher and mathematician who never dreamed of such a thing as psychotherapy. Moreover, his most famous quotation referred to a spiritual aspiration to know God, which may seem rather too ethereal for the coarse, dark matters that psychotherapy typically deals with. Yet, he has another, lesser known quotation about the heart which shows that his understanding of human nature did not lay credit exclusively on the side of the angelic. "How hollow is the heart of man and how full of excrement!" he wrote. We might surmise that this unflattering fecal reference earned the approval of Freud centuries later. For like Pascal, Freud argued that it is usually base emotions, not reason, that govern our actions. Ever since Freud, psychotherapy has always tried to be be alert to the possibility of base passions disguising themselves as expressions of reason and morality. Yet, therapy errs by supposing that higher, more selfless aspirations never figure into the client's experience of desire. Indeed, according to Buddhist psychology, it is by discovering a capacity for wisdom and compassion that people can conceive the desire to rise above their more lowly desires and discover their true spiritual possibilities. But how can low, base passions become transmuted into higher aspiration? Or, to put it into Pascal's pungent terms, how can the heart rid itself of excrement?
It begins with radical, indeed unconditional self acceptance. This is not the same as being non-judgemental, though suspending one's preconceptions and biases is certainly a pre-requisite for finding such self acceptance. But far from eschewing critical self judgement altogether, a deeper, more searching form of self enquiry takes the place of reflexive judgement. This enquiry allows one to see attachments and aversions as defences that are maintained in order to preserve a sense of permanence. Such a realisation makes it possible, at least in principle, to let them go. But letting go of attachments and aversions--the heart's excrement, as it were-- is seldom easy, even when people recognise that they are harmful. Indeed, sometimes they are not even thought to be detachable, so essential do they feel for self identity. To Buddhism, however, attachment to identity can only be illusory, as Buddhism regards the self as nothing more than its attachments. Dropping attachments to find the ultimate truth of no-self is what the Buddhist path is all about. But the truth of no-self can almost be just as valuable for psychotherapy which seeks to free the heart for experience in the world.
Few things reveal the potential danger of identifying with desires more than blind romantic attachment. Although almost everyone would admit that desire is not the same as love, it can be difficult to keep this truth in mind, especially when desire overpowers caution and rules the heart. For passionate desire has the power to seize us unawares and rob us of our better judgement, intoxicating us with intimations of a romantic love that will last forever. And sometimes an enduring love really does follow from passionate desire, though seldom in quite the way that desire imagines it. Unfortunately, it is also common for the passionate craving for love to turn into no less passionate hatred. Certainly every therapist has ample experience of clients crawling into therapy out of the ruins of failed love and everyone has witnessed tender lovers become bitter enemies. A cruel variation of love that goes wrong occurs when jealousy arouses more passion than the failed love that caused it. None of this is to argue against falling in love, which in any case would be as futile as arguing against any other force of nature. But only by looking into the heart and seeing what blind attachments it holds can there be any hope of letting them go and making a deeper affective realisation. Although there is little hope and not much point of making the heart reject its reasons, it may be possible to rid it of its excrement.
By now, everyone will have heard of and passed judgement on the recent "Black Friday", which inaugurated the spending season that runs up to Christmas. We all know that retailers offered massive discounts on merchandise in order to kick start their Christmas sales which brought throngs of eager buyers to stores, supermarkets and shopping malls throughout the UK. We also know that some people behaved very badly at these sales, as there were widespread reports of crowds of shoppers shoving, punching and kicking each other in order to advance their position as competitors in a veritable frenzy of consumerism. One shopper in Cardiff. Ross Lewis, told the BBC: "People were biting each other, pinching, punching, kicking--it was just absolutely horrendous, it was so, so bad." Yet, in spite of such unseemly, violent behaviour, retailers counted the day a great success as records were broken for both in-store and on-line sales. In fact, Black Friday exceeded all previous records for on-line sales, even though the websites of several major retailers had crashed because of the high volume of on-line traffic. So, notwithstanding the misery that the day caused, Black Friday must still be regarded as a resounding commercial success.
For those who lament the loss of the spiritual importance of Advent, the term Black Friday may appear strangely appropriate. For it seems like nothing so much as the feast day of Mammon who has long personified wealth and greed in Christianity. I myself was puzzled by how suddenly and deeply the term Black Friday has been taken into public consciousness without any apparent deliberation by anyone. Wikipedia, that indispensable, if not entirely reliable source of information, tells us that the term was first used in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 1960's to indicate the heavy road and foot traffic that routinely occurred on the day after Thanksgiving which has always kicked off the Christmas sales season for American retailers. Later, the term was used to indicate the most profitable time of the year, when sales would take companies out of "the red" of financial loss and into "the black" of profitability. But finding the meaning of any word is not a matter of tracing its origins. Meaning consists of the way a word is currently used, which may have changed completely from its original usage. As a term, Black Friday may have begun innocently as a morally neutral term of description. But with its more recent associations of violent mobs of frenzied shoppers driven by mindless craving, Black Friday now carries a more disturbing meaning.
There is, of course, a documentable history behind the changing use of the term Black Friday, which surely corresponds to the rise of consumerism in contemporary culture. Indeed, "black" as a sign for profit and hence, a positive value, shows how pervasive commercial values have become for society in general. And witnessing ugly mobs of rapacious shoppers on television and other news media surely accounts for some of the term's more unsavoury connotations. Yet, I suspect there is something deeper that resonates in the term that speaks of a more thoroughgoing corruption. The manifestly spiritual values of good will and generosity that were once celebrated as the essence of the Christmas season have been almost completely supplanted by the unrestrained indulgence of our most avaricious passions. This is hardly a new insight so there would be little point in repeating some trite sermon about how crass commercialism has robbed Christmas of its spiritual importance. We all know that. Yet, most of us feel powerless to resist this joyless season of excess that consumerism has imposed on us. And that, I suspect, is what gives Black Friday its power as a sign of truth.
More than a century ago, the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, observed that through what he termed a collective consciousness [Fr. conscience collective] a society shares a number of beliefs, attitudes and ideas that are not necessarily explicitly stated. Things are done and known by customs which everybody follows without consideration or reflection. Although people may like to think that their social habits were bequeathed by divine dispensation and have a timeless heritage, in fact they all originated in particular events and out of particular circumstances. Nor are they timeless or static. Customs and beliefs are constantly shifting, sometimes dramatically and cataclysmically, but more often, subtly and imperceptibly, like the face of someone who looks the same for years but then suddenly seems old. We might see this as an example of the law of impermanence in its relentless action. But it doesn't tell us much about how things change. How, for example, did Black Friday eclipse Advent Sunday as the day when the Christmas season is seen to begin? And how did Christmas cease being celebrated as Christ's mass to become the feast of Mammon?
This, I think, can be partly explained by Jung's notion of the collective unconscious, which far from being historically determined, draws on a particular idea of the eternal. According to Jung, behind every psychic phenomenon there is an archetypal energy that gives rise to an archetypal form, which in turn informs psychic activity. Archetypes may disappear for a time, but they never entirely perish. They recur upon circumstances which can arise mysteriously and unpredictably, long after the gods that once represented them have been forgotten. Mammon may no longer live as he once did, but his spirit appears more robust than ever. And although there may be no exact precedent for Black Friday as the inaugural shopping day for consumerism's busiest season, the experience of societies going dangerously adrift on a tide of material greed and moral decadence has been recurrent throughout history. What is eerie now is how the term seems to catch the sense of our collective spiritual decline without anyone intending it to be understood that way. And with the planet being dangerously overheated due to human activities that are directly linked to rising material consumption, the term seems to carry an additional connotation of our self destructive tendencies reaching terminal climax: Black Friday, indeed.
How does Black Friday affect the practice of psychotherapy? Probably very little in most individual cases. But I think Black Friday is symbolic in the Jungian sense in that much of its meaning lies beyond conscious apprehension, yet still affects people's general sense of being. This is to suggest a very vague, perhaps even unverifiable influence in the conflicted lives of clients. After all, if a client's marriage or relationship is in peril, what would a mere shopping day have to do with it? Nothing directly, perhaps. But I suspect that the devil's dance of consumerism plays like background music in the private lives that many people lead. For Buddhist psychotherapy there might be something else at work in the phenomenon of Black Friday. Buddhism asserts that craving or trishna is the source of suffering and that avidya or ignorance prevents us from seeing it as such. Witnessing the eruption of greed, anger and delusion that caused Black Friday, a Buddhist therapist may have some insight as to why people were so eager to participate in it.