In my last couple of posts I have discussed consciousness rather abstractly, even when addressing ambivalence and anxiety, which can only be truly appreciated as first person phenomena. But whenever the word consciousness is invoked, it tends to refer to the processes of consciousness rather than to the actual experience of being conscious. Looking at consciousness in this abstract way can be useful, not only for examining its various modalities and functions, but also for gaining a certain critical distance from our first person experiences which can be deceptive. The report of our senses, which comes from an ongoing stream of sensory data that we must select, organize and interpret for our interests, serves a subject or self that appears to operate on a principle of self gratification. But we seek to gratify not only our bodily urges, we also try to confirm our mental conceptions of things. Moreover, we primarily see what we actively look for and tend to ignore anything that seems irrelevant to our interests. But this doesn't mean that we always experience what our mental constructs prime us to see. On the contrary, sometimes we encounter something completely unexpected which can profoundly disrupt our fixed beliefs about experience. At these times, we might simply fall victim to circumstances as when accidents, illnesses and other random misfortunes descend on us seemingly out of the blue. And if we are fortunate, we not only find the means to cope with such losses, we also learn from them. At other times, though, unexpected misfortunes occur and we may feel there is nothing random about them at all. We may lose our relationships, our possessions or our standing in the world, and though we might be genuinely baffled by these losses, they appear all too familiar to us. "These things always happen to me!" we may then cry. And the sense that we have experienced all these misfortunes before, yet never learned what caused them or how our volitions might have helped bring them about, only increases the helplessness we feel. On these occasions, our experience of samsara, the sorrowful round of rebirth, seems anything but theoretical. It manifests itself as a punishing reality that we feel helpless to escape.
Why we don't see the unexpected misfortunes that we spring on ourselves may be regarded as something of a pseudo mystery, though it is no less bewildering for that. But demanding to have our expectations fulfilled in terms that accord with our prior understanding assures a constancy of frustration. And our refusal to see the impermanent nature of the things we attach to condemns us to perpetual disappointment, even when our affairs seem to be working out in our favour. Indeed, this is when the illusion of permanence becomes most seductive. We forget that impermanence doesn't only destroy the illusory objects that we should never have believed in. It also takes away those things that we believe we would always live for--the people and things we love; the causes that we believe are right; the very sense of being alive and sentient. All of these things, worthy though they may be, are metaphysically certain to perish. Yet, quite understandably, we cling to our cherished attachments as if our very being depends on them. Perhaps in a way we are right. For we understand ourselves through our comportment towards the things we cherish and by losing them we lose our bearings, as well as our sense of being in the world. It is possible to see past our attachments and even let them go. But this is no easy task and it is one that few us would undertake except when some crisis of self compels us to do so. Only then, it seems, are we willing to consider letting our attachments go. But then we often discover that our attachments are not always ready to let go of us.
This goes beyond freeing ourselves of relationships and other commitments, difficult though detaching ourselves from them may be. More difficult is freeing ourselves of the habit patterns, the samskaras, that configure our mentality for our being in the world. Samskaras are not themselves attachments; they are the means by which our attachments are experienced as essential to our being. Even Buddhist monks in the most remote isolation must labour to remind themselves about the pervasive power of their attachments. "This is not me; this is not mine; this is not myself, " they say referring to all the mental and physical phenomena on which the self automatically lays its imperial claim. But when psychotherapy encounters attachments in clients it finds that the hold of samskaras on the self can exert an even stronger, more desperate grip than what renunciates face. For unlike the serious contemplative, someone whose place in the world is in peril does not feel that losing his attachments will lead to spiritual liberation. On the contrary, it seems to herald a dreadful self nullification as the imagination for being appears utterly lost.
This appears to remain true even when an attachment such as an addiction is clearly harmful and the addict yearns to be free of it. Even the most terrible vice can be taken as a refuge when we feel we have nowhere else to turn.
In my previous post I argued that ambivalence can lead to an expanded sense of possibility. But we usually feel little hope of finding any such possibilities in the throes of dealing with a painful or stubborn attachment. Struggling with such conflicted feelings can be likened to wrestling with self consciousness. At its worst, it's like facing an opponent whose resourcefulness and endurance are certain to defeat the most determined efforts to find an escape. People often turn to psychotherapy or some other psychological treatment in order to find an escape that they can't find by themselves. And though this is often certainly the right thing to do, finding an escape is not necessarily the best that can be hoped for. Moreover, therapy may not offer any particular insight into any given case of self conflict. Sometimes, self conflict is a sign of self development, intensely painful though it may be. The contradictions of self experience which had once lain quietly buried and dormant may now be emerging into conscious awareness with burning intensity and can no longer be ignored or dismissed as mere curiousities. Nor should they be too swiftly categorised as pathologies which require treatment, pills or the talking cure. There are times when just bearing witness to the client's painful ordeal of wrestling with self consciousness is the best that therapy can do. But we should not underestimate how beneficial such bearing witness can be.
I believe that the communication of self experience is at the heart of all true psychotherapy. Recognising psychological conditions and having strategies to deal with the problems of living may figure importantly into therapy, as well. But therapy achieves its deepest effects when it goes into the depths of the client's self experience and finds those occasions of self reflective wonder that precede every act of volition. I have expressed this in temporal terms in order to convey how fleeting and transitory these opportunities for self reflection are. Usually, in fact, we aren't even aware of them as we go into the future as if destiny ordained our passage. We hardly ever notice that we are obliged to make up our paths into the future as we go along. However, once therapy discovers the hidden source of our actions, meaningful change based on our true possibilities and most conscious intentions becomes possible. But we should not overlook that it was only by virtue of wrestling with self consciousness that we felt any need to make such a liberating discovery.
My friend Simon Schwarz responded to my last post with a pointed question. "Could you explain how the inherent ambivalence of consciousness may be one of the essential properties of higher consciousness?" he asked. I should say at the outset that perhaps I can't explain it and even as I made that assertion I qualified it by using the verb phrase "may be". But Simon seems to be calling my bluff so I shall try to defend my position here even though I have to confess that I make my defence with some uncertainty. I suspect that what he finds most questionable is my use of the term "higher consciousness" which is often used as a synonym for mystical consciousness. But I don't mean to imply that ambivalence--feeling divided in thought and emotion-- is a characteristic of mysticism, though I am inclined to think that experiencing a certain profound ambivalence may be a prelude and perhaps even a precondition for mystical experience. But my more basic point is that ambivalence is intrinsic to being human and is one of the attributes of consciousness that distinguish us from other animals; hence, my claim that ambivalence is a property of higher consciousness. I assume that this claim is fairly uncontroversial. What is more questionable is my implicit suggestion that ambivalence not only distinguishes us, but also discloses higher possibilities of experience for us. After all, feeling ambivalence is often experienced as confusion and anxiety and once ambivalence crosses a certain threshold of intensity it becomes an affliction, as well as an impediment to conscious functioning. How then can ambivalence be seen as a property of higher consciousness when it is experienced as little more than a vehicle of anxiety and confusion?
Anxiety, of course, is one of the main reasons people come into therapy and I know from experience that most clients would gladly abandon any claim to higher consciousness in order to be free of the worry and confusion they suffer. But as Sartre argued, anxiety is an attendant feature of the freedom to choose which is imposed on us by being human and conscious. We are condemned to be free, as he memorably put it. But although I agree that freedom does entail anxiety from not knowing how our actions will ultimately play out, as a Buddhist I believe that I have some sense of how things will unfold, even if my ability to foretell the future is as dim and as limited as everybody else's. Moreover, anxiety itself can act as a harbinger of the necessary, but painful truth that nothing we can apprehend can last forever, least of all a self that desperately fastens to a false perception of permanence as a means of preserving its claim on existence. Even so, a moment of anxiety may seem to offer little more than a demonstration of the inadequacy of consciousness. Far from being a preparation for realising a difficult truth, anxiety, it seems, only makes us yearn to be free of its grip. But anxiety reveals to us the depth of our ignorance.
A recurrent theme of this blog is the nature of avidya or ignorance. Avidya is not intellectual ignorance of something like string theory or even the more obscure points of Buddhist doctrine. It is, rather, more of a disposition that blinds us to a truth that would be apparent if only we bothered to look for it. Why we don't bother to look may depend on a number of karmic factors, but at bottom it may come down to our wilful refusal to see the truth of things if they fail to accord with our predilections. Always looking for things that will satisfy the cravings that sustain our sense of self, we overlook the possibility of finding lasting freedom from those cravings. Moreover, once we base our personalities on our predilections, we fall easily into the delusion that they constitute an inner truth that lies beyond our powers to change it. The Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, James Low, expresses this insight with an apt metaphor. "The self" he said in a workshop I once attended, "is going to sleep inside a habit." Sometimes, though, the self is shaken so violently from its slumber by circumstances or events that remaining serenely unaware is no longer possible. The question then is how to respond to it?
It is all too easy to say the best response to anxiety is to go into therapy or follow Buddhism. Indeed, these are the paths that I myself have taken and now encourage others to travel. But they aren't the only good responses to anxiety; moreover, without reflecting on the possibilities inherent in anxiety we may overlook what it is that makes Buddhism and therapy so potentially liberating. As I wrote in my previous post, we tend to go through our lives in a state of forgetfulness and respond to our circumstances automatically. We forget that our intentions not only preprogrammed our automatic responses, but also mapped the world in such a way as to serve our prior interests. But when the world as it is begins to cave in on the world as we expect it to be, our impending sense of doom can be overwhelming, And we are not always to be blamed for suffering such anxiety. Even our best, most worthy and selfless intentions can be cruelly rubbished by the caprices of a heartless world. Old age, sickness and death, the three marks of existence which Buddhism identifies as ineradicable features of the conditioned world, will always undermine any designs for achieving perfection that we can conceive. And although we know that uncertainty and anxiety come with being alive, such wisdom hardly helps us unless it actively informs our thoughts and actions.
This is where ambivalence can serve to expand our consciousness of the possibilities that the world holds. Indeed, the world as we experience it hinges on the understanding that we have of ourselves as participants in it. Although circumstances limit what we can do, ambivalence suggests how much we can do within our perceived limits. The self does prefer to fall asleep within its habits and usually reacts to being rudely awakened with anxiety or anger. But by becoming awake to our ambivalence we find ourselves on the pivot of wonder from which we find meaning for ourselves in the world.
There was a small item in the news recently which would seem to deserve more attention and consideration than it has received. It appears that many newspapers, including prestigious ones like the Los Angeles Times, are now using computer programmes to write stories for their financial pages. I gather that these articles are, for the most part, dry, statistic laden reports about movements on the stock exchanges and other commercial activities, which would be of interest only to those who follow financial markets in order to make investments based on financial trends. Yet, these articles are said to be surprisingly well written and convey complex information with a clarity and precision that many human writers would be unable to match. Although there is nothing in the way of personal expressiveness to be found in such reports, this can hardly be considered a defect for the requirements of this kind of journalism. But the obvious question lurking behind this development is could programmes that generate texts for this type of news reporting also be used for other kinds of writing? Software designers are only too confident to assure us that they can. But even for computer illiterates like me, it's quite easy to imagine all sorts of texts being produced by computer programmes. For something which strongly resembles a computerised style based on stylistic predictability already affects many other forms of journalism and popular fiction, to say nothing of political speeches. And the so called predictive texts that serve so well for sending messages from mobile phones could easily be extended to more complex kinds of writing. Indeed, such programmes could become so proficient that the labour of writing would come to seem an increasingly pointless activity. But this raises the important question that prompts this post. If computer programmes can do our writing for us, who or what is supposed to do our thinking and feeling for us?
Many thinkers, including my hero Raymond Tallis, believe that computers merely process information by human design and can't actually be said to think at all. Others, such as the MIT computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil, believe that computer technology is rapidly approaching what he calls a singularity after which computers will completely surpass the conscious capacities of humankind. According to this line of thinking, computers will no longer follow our commands, we will obey theirs, as ever more comprehensive programmes will take over and determine our affairs. If this sounds like a scenario out of a science fiction horror movie, it is plausible enough to alarm Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, none of whom can be described as ignorant techno-phobes. But perhaps the important concern for these informed observers may not be about whatever debatable consciousness computers might possess so much as it about our increasing reliance on computers in virtually every sphere of human activity. Even now, we are beginning to see and experience the world only through the portals that computer technology provides. Computers, then, wouldn't have to be truly conscious in order for them to determine the consciousness that we have of the world. But the question that inevitably follows on from this is how will the advance of computer technology affect the consciousness that we have of ourselves?
Craftsmen have always identified with the tools that express their skills. A carpenter manifests his will through his hammer. A soldier may see himself as his rifle. And even if he uses a more sophisticated instrument for writing (as I'm doing now with my laptop), a writer often identifies with his pen. But computer technology is so pervasive that it influences almost every human activity and penetrates deeply into our understanding of how we act in the world. Identifying with computer processes, then, is by no means restricted to the professionals who devise them. For even if we reject the notion that computers are conscious, it is all too easy to regard them as identical to the consciousness that we possess. It almost requires a deliberate effort to remember that human consciousness is not a programme which comes packaged in flesh and bone hardware. Still, any conscious activity that we happen to engage in can appear to be the true purpose of consciousness itself, particularly when doing seems to attain to being. But of all activities, thinking takes pride of place when it comes to both being and doing. "I think, therefore I am," Descartes asserted. So does this mean that if computers think for us and do it better by being more logical and precise with vastly more information at their disposal, then they could also take possession of our being?
Because almost everything we do requires information and because information can be processed much more efficiently by computers, many people believe that any information we possess can serve no higher purpose than to meet the biological requirements that our genetic inheritance imposes on us. Information, according to this view, only serves the interests of individual survival and the perpetuation of the human species. Yet, few, if any of us actually experience ourselves in this way. Of course, biological necessity drives our instinctual urges to eat and have sex and it is these drives that sustain us both individually and as a species. Yet our drive to be is hardly arrested by the satisfaction of these base desires. For our urge to be is also an urge to create. And while our creations may not always satisfy us and may even cause us great misery and regret, making something actual from the merely potential is perhaps the most distinctively human thing we do. Moreover, we must create, not just cities, institutions, machines and works of art; we also need to create reasons for doing what we do. And those reasons may have nothing to do with our survival. But we don't usually think of the matter in this way. We usually think that needs descend on us from our circumstances and drive us to action in a straightforward causal sequence. We overlook that we might have responded differently and could have created other possibilities for ourselves. We forget that our intentions lie buried within all our experiences of the world. And before we acted on those intentions there was indecision and perhaps even doubt.
Will computers ever become sufficiently conscious to experience such indecision? Or is indecision itself a sign of a feeble consciousness, uncertain of its foothold in the world? One of the attractions of computers appears to lie in the belief that some day they will become so hyper-conscious that they will never face indecision at all. Presented with a problem, computers will simply arrive at the correct solution with relentless logical force. Unfortunately, what constitutes both a problem and its solution depends on the values upon which any judgement is made. In the beginning (the biblical echo is intended), these judgements must be made by human programmers, presumably to serve human interests. Later generations of computers may, however, arise without direct human intervention, which could, conceivably, terminate their interest in human affairs. But could computers ever generate their own interests, independent of the instructions of human programmers? And if they have their own interests, could those interests ever conflict? Finally, if computers ever become truly conscious, what would they want to become conscious of?
These are questions that have stimulated science fiction writers ever since Karel Capek first conceived of robots almost one hundred years ago. And as in science fiction, my questions about the consciousness of computers are really about us. Arriving at solutions with relentless logical force is widely considered an ideal, particularly by people who believe that computers will surpass us in their capacities of consciousness. But although computers will undoubtedly help us advance in knowledge, trying to eliminate the ambivalence inherent in being human may not represent an advance of consciousness at all. Indeed, recognising the inherent ambivalence of consciousness may be one of the essential properties of higher consciousness. Rejecting that ambivalence on a dream of reaching absolute logical certainty then would hardly be an advance. It would only be an abdication of being human.
Recently, I came across Raymond Tallis's glowing review of Why Freud Was Wrong by Richard Webster and shared it with a couple of friends, including Jeff Harrison. I am a great admirer of Tallis and I found his review characteristically wise and perceptive. I happened to read Washington's book shortly after it first came out twenty years ago and like Tallis, I thought Washington had pretty much put the boot into psychoanalysis's pretensions to be a science. Jeff, however, was a bit more restrained in his admiration of Tallis's review (I don't know if he has read Webster's book), though he did largely agree with it. But he felt that repression, a key concept in psychoanalysis, was unfairly dismissed by both writers. I suspect that this is Jeff's bone of contention, Tallis's criticism of Freud's theory of repression: "...the theory of repression is both unnecessary and incoherent. When Freudians talk about the unconscious they are often simply talking about things of which we are conscious but are not yet conscious of reflectively...As Sartre pointed out, the unconscious has to know what it is that has to be repressed in order to (actively) repress it; it has to know that it is shameful material appropriate for repression. If however, it knows both these things, it is difficult to understand how it can avoid being conscious of it." Most therapists, perhaps even many Freudians, would probably agree that it is difficult to understand how people can remain apparently unconscious of their own psychic contents. Yet, most therapists have had ample experience of dealing with clients who can't see what they apparently refuse to see. So does Jeff have a point?
Let's begin with the concept of repression. According to Freud, repression is an unconscious mechanism that prevents disturbing thoughts, feelings and impulses from rising to conscious awareness. The matrix of repression, Freud argued, is the Oedipal complex, which develops when the pre-verbal infant becomes aware of his erotic desire for his mother, as well his murderous jealousy towards his father. Consumed by shame, the infant pushes these impulses out of his conscious thought processes, only to become haunted by them through a variety of psychological afflictions that are carried forward into adulthood by what Freud called the return of the repressed. Repression then, is a defence mechanism that begins as a protective device before it eventually becomes a major source of psychological affliction in itself. But repression is also what Freud's critics such as Webster and Tallis find so unacceptable. To repeat their criticism, how is a pre-verbal infant supposed to know that certain desires are both forbidden and shameful and then repress such feelings without being aware of any of the stages involved in such an operation of consciousness? In fact, scientific research does not support the concept of repression as it was originally conceived by Freud. While suppression, the conscious, selective process of pushing things out of attentional awareness, has been clinically demonstrated to play an essential role in conscious functioning, repression as a completely unconscious operation is impossible to test or verify. A cognitive psychologist, Daniel Wegman, compares it to trying to determine whether the light inside a refrigerator stays on when the door is closed.
This observation leads to another, perhaps even more serious criticism of Freud and psychoanalysis which Tallis expresses with particularly scornful fervour. Psychoanalysands may remember nothing of what they are alleged to have repressed, but on the strength of an unproven theory psychoanalysis presumes to peer into the infantile experiences of its patients with the brazen confidence that the analyst will always know more about their patients than the patients themselves do. Tallis, an MD himself, is particularly appalled by cases in which Freud defended his diagnoses by browbeating his recalcitrant patients into accepting them. In one case cited by Webster, a young patient died after Freud had misdiagnosed her abdominal lymphoma as a case of hysteria. Freud however, remained unshaken in his conviction that not only had he made the correct diagnosis, but also that he had actually cured her of her neurosis. Cases such as these, as well as the suspect foundations of his theories, have led Tallis to dismiss Freud as nothing more than a quack who wrote beautifully in German. Given Freud's stature as the first true psychotherapist, as well as one of the most influential thinkers in modern times, Tallis's verdict may indeed seem unfair, as Jeff maintains. Nevertheless, as Webster's study demonstrates, Freud was seriously wrong about so many important things that it is no longer possible to regard psychoanalysis as anything remotely like an empirical science. But does this mean that Freud was completely wrong and that such flawed ideas of his as repression deserve to be completely forgotten?
While the rigid adherence to the dogma of the Master that once prevailed in early psychoanalytic circles may now seem little more than the beliefs of a bizarre fin-de-seicle cult, it is important to remember that virtually every form of psychotherapy followed from Freud's original vision of the therapeutic encounter. To be sure, many of psychoanalysis's early successors such as Jung, Adler and Rank, were regarded as apostates who became disloyal to both the Master and his creed. But each of these figures went on to develop their own distinctive approaches to psychotherapy which were based on their own original and valid insights concerning human nature, though their theories were hardly any more scientific than Freud's psychoanalysis for that. Over the years, even Freudian psychoanalysis has gradually departed from Freud's colossally vain belief that he had discovered the scientific key to human nature. Jeff points out that Adam Phillips, the contemporary psychoanalyst and essayist, regards Freud's work more as a poetics of the psyche than as a valid scientific or medical paradigm. So it seems that even some psychoanalysts admit that the Oedipal complex is about as scientific as the Greek tragedy that inspired it. Repression, then, may be regarded as little more than a conceit that doesn't so much explain a function of the psyche as it sustains a particular discourse of the self.
Yet, repression, or something very much like it, does seem to affect us all. For we may all fall into a state of forgetfulness about things that influence us, seemingly in order to remain blind to their influence. When Freud wrote The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which details the missteps, the accidents and the slips of the tongue that betray the secrets of a person's inner life, he was surely on to something, even if the dynamic behind such phenomena wasn't quite so automatic as he made it out to be. Indeed, as his critics point out, the flaw in Freud's theory is that by describing repression as entirely mechanical, he deprived it of intentionality. Even so, their objection still leaves an important question unanswered. How could anyone intentionally deceive himself, even assuming that one would actually make such a self subverting choice?
In fact, disguising our intentions from ourselves is not only easily done, it also requires a certain scrupulous self vigilance to prevent it from contaminating our self understanding. For any time we confuse desire for necessity we risk losing a critical perspective that prevents us from mistaking our wants for our needs. The fact that self discovery often does follow from pursuing our desires complicates things even further. For we are prone to think we are most true to ourselves when we cleave most ardently to our desires, even if those desires clash with our better self interests. Alternatively, we might credit ourselves with noble self denial when we simply lack the courage to act on our passions. But perhaps we will always be susceptible to self deception as long as we feel compelled to improvise whatever self understanding we can achieve in the unpredictable circumstances that a capricious world provides. What Freud called repression, then, may be caused by the self knowledge that we cling to, which has the effect of blocking out the deeper, more complete self knowledge that we could have.
The Buddhist concept of avidya, which is commonly translated as ignorance or delusion, may be another useful way to understand our tendency to self deception. Avidya is usually taken to mean ignorance of the truth that Buddhist doctrine or the dharma, reveals. But avidya also has a more particular meaning which is relevant to each individual. It occurs when someone falls into delusion by allowing craving to determine his or her experience of things. This is not repression as an unconscious turning away from infantile shame as in classical psychoanalysis. It is, rather, a matter of our failing to see things as they actually are because of our pre-occupation with what we want or fear to see. But like repression, once the self deception of avidya becomes established, it becomes very difficult to break free of it. Freud may have been wrong about many things. But he was certainly right about that.
There is an excellent op-ed piece in the Guardian this past week by Aditya Chakraborty, entitled "Britain's Epidemic of Private Despair..." which I recommend highly. The article discusses the private, personal misery that many working people are forced to endure because of the austerity measures that were introduced by the government following the financial crash five years ago. "Looking back, you can boil down the story of the financial crash to a sentence: bankers ran off their profits, we got stuck with their losses," Chakraborty writes. "After socialising the bankers debts, we privatised despair." Although I have vowed to try to keep this blog free of politics, occasionally politics weighs so heavily on the concerns that psychotherapy deals with that it becomes impossible to ignore its influence. Chakraborty argues that the effects of austerity are not visible to public view, but are suffered in private, behind closed doors. But as a therapist, those problems have always been walking in through my door and I am in a position to confirm what Chakraborty observes in his article. I don't mean to suggest that everybody's problems can be traced to free market capitalism. But I would argue that the values it promotes are a major source of stress which can aggravate the particular frustrations that any individual might happen to suffer. Let me illustrate this with the following fictional case study which is based loosely on the cases of a number of clients that I have worked with.
Alison lived alone with her disabled father for years, taking care of him by cooking and cleaning after coming home each evening as a care worker in a nursing home. Although she was not paid well for her work, she did take some satisfaction in helping people who were clearly worse off than she was and sometimes seemed truly grateful for the attentive way she cared for them. By contrast, her father never appreciated her efforts, for he did little but watch television and drink cider all day and seldom spoke to her except when he wanted something done. Even so, she knew he needed her and when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack she felt the centre of her world had suddenly collapsed. Although Alison tried to carry on at work and did show up dutifully, she felt as if she had to make her way through an emotional fog in which nothing seemed to make any sense. Her work suffered as a result, but her employers were hardly sympathetic. For they ignored her grief, but did notice that she had become irritable and somewhat forgetful. She began to draw the worst shifts and was forced to deal with the most difficult residents in an apparent attempt to drive her out of her job. It worked. One day, during a particularly gruelling shift, she lost her temper in dealing with an old man who reminded her of her father, not so much by the way he looked, but more by the gruff way he always demanded her help. Although her outburst was unprecedented and quite uncharacteristic, she was sacked. Consumed by shame, Alison came to see me for what she considered to be her anger issue. It was only after several sessions that she began to look at the possibility that sadness and anxiety might have figured into her expression of anger. But she never considered that her stressful working conditions might have played a part in losing her job.
A case like Alison's would present a rich text for interpretation for virtually every psychotherapeutic orientation. Psychoanalysis, for example, might begin by examining her attachment to her father and her inability to form an adult relationship with anyone. Another approach could point out that her loneliness and need to please others suggest low self esteem. CBT would probably identify a number of deleterious beliefs that keep her trapped in a pattern of emotional frustration. Each perspective might be true as far it goes. But there would be a major flaw in any approach if it failed to recognise the malign influence of her working conditions in making her feel unworthy of respect or love. Indeed, by overlooking those conditions therapy would be tacitly condoning them. Yet, both psychotherapy and Buddhism often seem reluctant to express opposition to social injustice. There appears to be good reason for such reticence. Both might insist that unfairness is simply an intrinsic feature of life and that it is far better to learn how to deal with it than try to eradicate it. Moreover, Buddhism has always recognised the folly of trying to construct a perfectly just society and believes that pursuing even such noble ideals as justice and fairness can turn out to be just another form of grasping. From its position, therapy often has to deal with massive wrongs for which finding justice or retribution is simply impossible. For what can be done when an abuser disappears and escapes justice or an unfaithful romantic partner has run off and found love with someone else? Learning to cope with such misfortunes can develop resilience and the ability to adapt to unfairness. In the best cases, finding the resources to deal with emotional loss can lead to wisdom and compassion for the misfortunes of others. Even so, in the case of someone like Alison, therapy shouldn't regard her as the sole or principle agent of her misfortune. Much of the blame must fall on a society that values profits over the welfare of people which creates the conditions that magnify the problems of Alison and countless others like her. For she is hardly alone, even though loneliness is an intrinsic feature of her suffering.
Psychotherapy should never deny that life can often be brutally unfair in spite of the best human efforts to ameliorate it. But when free market capitalism exploits the inherent unfairness of life to further the advantage of those who prosper from it, psychotherapy must observe the inversion of values that this represents. In a better world, the obscene idea that wealth is a sign of moral superiority would receive nothing but scalding ridicule. Yet, in the global society that we now live in, it has become the governing ethos that guides the actions of politicians and statesmen, financiers and bankers and corrupts us all. Wealth created by the privileged, we are told, "trickles down" to the rest of us. In fact, apart from increasing the disparity of wealth between rich and poor, such an inversion of values erodes our faith in the possibility of making a more just and equitable society. We lose out not just materially, but also psychologically. Psychotherapy must recognise that life will always be unfair. But it must also recognise that we become better by trying to make it fair.
In my last post I discussed Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I left the discussion dangling on a more general consideration of the self. I pointed out that Buddhism does not believe in a core self, but does concede that we all have a core sense of self. This paradox appears to vanish once we understand that what Buddhism really asserts is that there is no permanent self, but there is a functional sense of self experience, which may make the idea seem more understandable. Unfortunately, what we might be prepared to accept in theory, we are slow and reluctant to acknowledge in experience, especially as the perception of permanence, particularly regarding the self, appears to be one of our most cherished illusions. One of the chief goals of Buddhist meditation is to see through that illusion and realise the truth of impermanence as an actual reality. Merely saying we are impermanent may be little more than a grudging concession to observable fact, as when we are forced to admit that we have grown old. Yet, oddly, we seldom notice impermanence in action when things improve and our desires become fulfilled. This, we tend to think, is how things should be and should remain unless seemingly better possibilities arise. But how can we grasp the truth of our impermanence as individual subjects without thinking of it as the annihilation of self consciousness?
My oldest friend, a gifted poet who has experienced dissociation, shared an interesting observation which sheds some light on this issue. "I have no doubt that I have been experiencing dissociation since late childhood," he writes. "During these episodes I don't wonder who I am, I wonder where I am. I am conscious of not being in the thing that notices that I am not there." The "thing" to which he refers is his body, which we normally consider an essential part of our being. Yet he didn't blank out or become unconscious. He simply experienced himself as somehow absent from the alien object that his body had become. In other words, as if he were exiled from his own bodily presence, he felt like he was nowhere.
My friend's reported experience would be quite familiar to most therapists. Clients often come in with similar reports and sometimes even re-experience dissociation in the act of recalling it. Their feeling is usually one of dread and nullification, which is often expressed in such words as "I felt like nothing." Yet, even in the depths of their dissociation, the desire for self integration appears to remain. This usually manifests itself as a desperate fantasy of being someone or somewhere else, away from the traumatising experience which led to the dissociation. It can be compared to reaching for a lifeline in a different identity or place in the world and coming away empty handed. But it may be rather misleading to describe the experience in this way. Generally, people don't intentionally dissociate (unless they're trying to induce a trance or taking drugs). Rather, dissociation happens to them, often on the trigger of a vague memory that never develops into a clear recollection, but remains subliminal in everything but its terrifying affects. Healing may occur by making sense of a traumatic memory by converting it into a meaningful, though certainly not a happy episode in someone's self narrative. But we still might wonder where the space of dissociation--the sense of being nowhere-- actually is.
As I mentioned before in my previous post, some people can fall prey to experiences of dissociation in their spiritual practices. Yet, perhaps more commonly, others on a spiritual path experience ego loss without any attendant feeling of anxiety or dread. On the contrary, ego loss for these people is experienced as supreme liberation. Nirvana, after all, means to blow out or extinguish and refers directly to halting the drive for self perpetuation. Moreover, Buddhist meditation can bring about states of consciousness in which the meditator's sense of self dissolves through meditative absorption. From another tradition, Ramakrishna, the great 19th Century Hindu mystic, compared enlightenment to merging with the divine and described the experience with this striking simile: "By constantly keeping one's attention on the Source, the ego is dissolved in that source like a salt doll in the sea." As in dissociation, mystical rapture can induce a feeling of being nowhere. Yet, the difference between dissociation and deep spiritual experience couldn't be greater. But even if the similarities between dissociation and states of egoless mystical rapture may be superficial, the question remains: why does the mystic find an abiding tranquillity in being nowhere, whereas others experience being nowhere as terrifying self negation?
It is all too easy to say that attachment to the self is the root of the issue. In fact, as I have consistently argued throughout this blog, the self is always the issue, both for psychotherapy and spiritual practice. But if the self is conceived as a psuedo-entity that must be constantly fed with the things it craves in order to be sustained, we may begin to understand both what unites and separates dissociation and enlightenment. Dissociation involves craving for self integration that the helpless sufferer cannot find. Enlightenment permits the effective surpassing of the self by abandoning craving altogether. But rather than resort to the empty truism that the best way to deal with dissociation is to become enlightened, we should consider that the crisis of self that brings someone into therapy presents an opportunity for experiencing things in a different, hopefully better way. Fortunately, therapists don't have to be enlightened to assist in this process. But we do have to be aware that the way to understand anyone's experience of self is by understanding his or her attachments. As for being nowhere, the testimony of mystics suggest that in itself may not be the problem. The problem may lie in the feeling of desperately needing to be somewhere else.
A friend of mine sent me an e-mail recently which raised a question that I believe goes right to the heart of being a Buddhist psychotherapist. "Would you as a psychotherapist say that most people have a very mild form of Dissociative Identity Disorder? Or is it just me!!!" In order to answer her question, I think we need to examine it in some depth and the obvious place to begin is by defining the three terms dissociation, identity, and disorder, each of which come fully loaded with questions that disallow any simple answers. I realise that psychotherapy--and certainly psychiatry--tends to be defensive about its nomenclature. But sometimes it is necessary to subject diagnostic terms to close analysis in order see how much conceptual weight those terms are able to bear. I do not doubt the reality of dissociation or question that it can constitute a major problem for people who suffer from it. But as a therapist, it seems to me that psychotherapy is both morally and intellectually responsible for the diagnostic terms that it employs. Moreover, those terms should be as accurate as possible in the interests of our clients, if for no other reason.
The term dissociative identity disorder, which is more widely known as Multiple Personalities Disorder, has a rather questionable status due in large part to popular stereotypes which many people seem to have about it. Unfortunately, the idea that someone might have multiple, distinct personalities, all vying within one person in a desperate struggle for dominance, lends itself all too easily to an operatic understanding of how the disorder affects people. But dissociation is seldom, if ever so clearly demarcated and therapists usually prefer to speak of separated personality states rather than of distinct personalities. Moreover, what usually characterises this disorder, apart from dissociation, is pervasive depression, a state which commonly provides the affective ground for so many other psychological maladies, as well. In DID, the movement from within a depressive disposition, going from one personality state to another, is always an abrupt and disjointed transition which leaves the sufferer with a bewildering feeling of discontinuity. I have dealt with clients who have suffered from extreme dissociation and I can confirm that their experiences of dissociation did indeed leave them feeling deeply destabilised, which affected both their sense of identity and self presentation and led them to act in ways that they later found bewildering, out of character and even mad. Yet, in my admittedly limited experience, their experiences of dissociation did make a certain skewed sense when seen within the contexts of the pressures they experienced themselves to be under. Therapeutic work, as I understood it, consisted in large part of discovering what those pressures were.
But let's return to the three terms that constitute the description of the disorder. Dissociation means to split off or disconnect, which does seem an appropriate term for the essential dynamic of DID. But it should be remembered that we all dissociate whenever our focus wanders away from its intended object of attention. Perhaps more to the point, to dissociate by losing attention through daydreaming or trying to abstain from focussed thinking before going to sleep, is entirely normal and even necessary. Even so, to dissociate from one's actual identity may represent a dangerous self abdication which negates the possibility of achieving meaningful self understanding, as well as truthful interaction with other people. But it should also be remembered that everyone has multiple identities which are meant to accord with the various roles we each have to adopt in society and in our relationships with others. It is only when there is a severe disjunction between an individual's multiple identities and core sense of self that his or her identity would become dissociated and deserve to be called a disorder. But an important question still remains: what do we mean by core sense of self?
Much like David Hume, Buddhism has always argued that there is no core self, though it does concede that there is and should be a core sense of self. But if there is no self than how would it even be possible to develop any sense of it? And if this is possible, isn't it rather like saying that we need to cultivate a certain sort of self illusion? But what is essential to Buddhism's argument is that the illusion of self thrives on its attachments---indeed, the attachments themselves constitute the illusion. A fixed or rigid sense of identity is certainly a kind of attachment, in fact one of the strongest attachments that anyone can have. Yet, paradoxically, it can also be understood as a form of dissociation, though not dissociation from any sense of self. On the contrary, for if we are only looking for objects that sustain or interfere with our sense of self we would overlook anything that would appear irrelevant to our prior self interests. The dissociation, then, would consist of withdrawing our attention whenever an object or situation failed to stimulate our self interest. Of course, such a broad definition as this would make dissociation into such a general phenomenon that it could hardly be called pathological. And as we noted before, everybody does it just by daydreaming or fading off before going to sleep. But viewing dissociation in this way, as a form of ignorance or avidya, may still be useful in helping us to understand DID.
"Who am I?" is one of the most potent questions that anybody can raise and has always featured prominently in both spiritual and philosophical enquiry. But the question can evoke terror when it disturbs a person's core sense of self, even if it arises from a spiritual or philosophical interest. Although the philosophical or spiritual question of identity would seem to have little in common with psychopathology, the crucial issue of the indeterminacy of the self may be fundamentally the same. My friend notes, for example, that two contemporary mystics, Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie, both suffered prolonged suicidal depressions before experiencing their mystical awakenings. Whatever we might make of these figures, their experiences certainly agree with reports of other mystics throughout history. The Dark Night of the Soul that St John of the Cross had to endure appears to be a peril for anyone who embarks on a spiritual quest, no matter what their religious orientation happens to be. But can these experiences be compared to what people undergo when they suffer something like DID?
Although the comparison should not be pressed too far, I do think there is more than a passing similarity between the ordeals of the mystic and the torments of people suffering from conditions like DID. But perhaps the more important question is how do they differ? This is something I would like to discuss in a future post.
One of the hottest debates in philosophy these days concerns the nature of consciousness. What is consciousness? How did it originate and what purpose, if any, does it serve? Although the present controversy about consciousness has been enlivened by recent scientific research, these questions have always been with philosophy and in fact, actually preceded it. For consciousness itself is like a great root of wonder from which religion and magic arose, well before philosophy and science blossomed afterwards. Even so, the questions of consciousness sometimes seem to fall into retirement as its apparent mystery appears to be solved by plausible explanations. God, for instance, though himself considered far beyond human comprehension, was once seen as the source of all consciousness and explained everything from the movement of the stars to the thoughts and moods in our heads. But those explanations no longer carry the authority they once did and the idea of God's role in creation increasingly appears to be the product of the human imagination fabricating explanations for mysteries that were once believed to be forever closed to human understanding. We now know, of course, that the sun, moon and stars do not wheel around a stationary earth. And the solar system itself is an infinitesimal speck in an unimaginably vast universe that contains billions and billions of galaxies. Although some people still maintain that a divine hand is responsible for the cosmic order, science would have never advanced without first removing God as an explanatory principle. The same appears to be true of our understanding of consciousness. The divine spark that was once thought to explain the light of consciousness has now been superseded by the complex structures of the brain that modern neuroscience has just begun to reveal, but with dramatic results. The brain, many investigators now believe, is merely an organic computational device that blindly follows the biological instructions that are hard-wired into it. We are simply "the clumsy robots of our selfish genes", as Richard Dawkins puts it. Moreover, for all of the brain's undoubted complexity, many scientists and philosophers do not regard consciousness as an unfathomable mystery, but instead see it as a problem that is just about to reach a conclusive explanation. "Consciousness Explained" is the title of one of the books by the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett which brazenly expresses this view.
Yet it is possible to be dazzled by what science has to tell us about the brain and its processes without believing that consciousness has been completely explained by these revelations. It would be more accurate to say that many of the mechanisms of consciousness are becoming better understood though scientific investigation, but important questions about consciousness still remain. Perhaps foremost among these questions concerns subjectivity. What is it to be a conscious person, not just considered archetypally, but what is to be a "me", that is a self reflective subject with a unique history and point of view, whose experience must, in principle, be unique? Although there are metrics for virtually every physical and mental human characteristic--height, weight, intelligence, temperament, sexual orientation and so forth can all be fit into pre-determined categories--none can fully illuminate human experience without reference to self consciousness, indeed, to being a self. To say the self is an illusion, as Dennett does, does nothing to dislodge the illusion of selfhood or begin to dispel the problems of being a conscious person. Still, in some respects Dennett is clearly right. We are often mistaken about the truth of our actual condition as we inevitably hold false beliefs about ourselves and the world. In fact, our understanding of both the self and the world must be flawed by the necessarily provisional knowledge we form about both. But in the darkness we inhabit, perhaps we may be forgiven for sometimes mistaking the dim fires of consciousness for the bright light of truth.
Yet, no matter how much we overestimate the veracity of our understanding, we all recognise that that there are matters about which we will always be ignorant. Much of our ignorance is general and collective and is so remote from our affairs that it scarcely seems to impinge on us. Nobody could possibly know what might exist beyond our sensory and cognitive capacities to apprehend them. Wondering, for example, what happens in those billions of distant galaxies that we will never be able to explore would seem a pointless question because there can be no intelligible way for us even to imagine it. But even the most immediate and commonplace items of experience become subject to unanswerable wonder if we ask why they--and we--exist at all. In truth, why known things exist is far more mysterious than what unknown things might exist. For the mystery of known things presses in on us by their very presence as soon as their mystery is admitted into our awareness of them. And from any experience of wonder it is just a small step to wondering about wonder itself. What enables us to wonder and why is it so compelling once it claims our attention?
For some people of a strongly rational disposition, these questions may seem frivolous and pointless. Wonder is useful to such people only insofar as it can be converted into active curiosity about knowable things. As for mysteries that can't be investigated by rational methods, hardened rationalists believe that such things are best ignored and should be treated as virtually nonexistent. Yet some mysteries can be neither dismissed as trivial nor investigated by rational methods as we discover whenever we find ourselves in a state of suspense about concerns for which there can be no clear predetermined answers and no way of regarding them as unimportant. Such questions as "Will he/she love me?" or "Am I going to recover from my potentially fatal illness?" may never rock the epistemic foundations of scientific knowledge. Yet, if forced to confront such questions personally, each of us would be held transfixed in a state of anxious wonder. For we can never solve such mysteries, but can only live them out with the understanding that our fate depends on how our concerns will unfold. Of course, seen objectively as examples of perennial phenomena, falling in love and falling ill may be taken as nothing more than biological processes, as natural and as unmysterious as leaves falling off trees. But as individuals living out our lives we are compelled to wonder whenever such things happens to us, as we experience them as mysteries that endow our lives with emotional meaning.
Mysteries are not always enchanting. They can sometimes be agonising, as the example about serious illness shows. They can also be merely vexing, as when we wonder when the traffic jam we are stuck in is going to clear so that we can be on time for an important appointment. Mysteries can also arise out of factual confusions. No gods ever caused the sun to disappear behind the moon at midday, even if a tribe's misdeeds would seem to have angered them enough to do it. And though we can now easily see past such a confusion with our superior understanding of astronomy, it would be arrogant to suppose that we are no longer be liable to similar misunderstandings. For our understanding of things can only be provisional and must be revised whenever new discoveries inform our ideas about them. But the notion that we as individuals will always be in a position to wait patiently for all the facts to come in is to misunderstood the human situation. For we are always in danger of being worried about being late for important appointments, to say nothing about finding love and dying too soon. Our lives always depend on eventualities whose outcomes we can never know in advance.
This is where psychotherapy can be helpful. Not by providing answers for unanswerable mysteries, but by enabling people to deal with them, which is something that no scientific theory of consciousness will ever be able to do. Buddhism tells us that the law of impermanence infiltrates all things and offers a path of escape from the flux of existence. Therapy helps us negotiate the mysteries in our lives within which that path lays concealed.
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.