Saturday, July 19, 2014

Integration and Faith

In the previous post [Happiness and Meaning] I mentioned at the very end that a cycle of growth and self-knowledge involves a process of ``inner integration'' and a process of ``purifying destruction'' (making things real). I want to expand on both themes and I start with the first.

This morning I was reading an article from Michael Eigen's ``Electrified Tightrope,'' [Amazon link], which is a collection of very interesting papers. (I bought it mainly because it contains an amazing article first appeared in a 1981 issue of The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, ''The area of faith in Winnicott, Lacan and Bion,'' an exceptionally beautiful paper!) The article I was reading this morning was on ``omniscience,'' in which Eigen argues that letting go of the illusion of omniscience (knowing everything) is important in the process of healing and growth. He describes `unintegration' as a condition of openness to new experiences and a state of playfulness.

What does enable us to open ourselves to new experiences? This is such an exciting and broad question, but if I have to give a short answer, I would say, a form of trust is necessary that I call `faith'!
I proudly present my own definition of `faith' as a condition of acting in the presence of basic imperfection in three areas of ``knowledge'' (not omniscient), ``ability'' (not omnipotent), ``responsibility'' (not omniliable, lol). Faith, in my view, contains not only letting go of the illusions of full knowledge, power, and responsibility, but also being able to decide and act in face of the disillusionment! Faith is a deep trust that we can, and should, live with these imperfections.

I emphasize that trust or faith is not an intellectual phenomenon. It's not enough for me to convince you that faith is a good thing and, boom, you would be open to new experiences. Almost anything worthy of being discussed needs deep understanding at the emotional, or even a lower, level and requires lots of practice. Here, many different form of practices such as meditation, mindfulness, Zen, playfulness and more come to mind.

Learning to trust and have faith requires a change at the deepest regions of brain. Stephen Porges ( `polyvagal' theory is relevant. (I have mentioned his work here, for example, in From Cesar Millan to Stephen Porges. This theory is so interesting and multifaceted that requires a couple of posts of its own.) The condition of trust and playfulness requires a form of coordination/integration across reptilian brain, mammalian brain, and neocortex. If this appears circular (trust is required for uninegration which is a prerequisite for integration, but trust requires integration itself), it is circular, and that is one reason why it is only obtained with practice.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Happiness and Meaning

The previous post, [Surviving Self-Destruction and Self-Knowledge], ends with a thought on ``inner integration.'' What do I have in mind by this expression and why is it important? (See also an older post: Journey to the Heart ...)

A couple of days ago I was reading the last several pages from the Viktor Frankl's ``Man's Search for Meaning,'' [Amazon link], and came across an interesting idea. Just as one cannot force himself to laugh (there needs to be a context and a motive---a joke, for example), one cannot force himself to be happy and content with life. This is a simple, fundamental point that 99% of the self-help books get wrong (even the best of them like Brene Brown's ``The Gifts of Imperfection,'' [Amazon link], which honestly goes a long way above and beyond a self-help book) by assuming that reading and rational/logical understanding and reasoning can make us happy or, more generally, cause lasting changes in life! (Direct pursuit of happiness would make your life miserable.)

So what is the context and motive for being happy in life? Viktor Frankl suggests ``finding a meaning and purpose for life.'' Even the most hopeless situations become tolerable (and dare I say enjoyable?) if one can devise a strong meaning and purpose for it.

And how do you come up with the meaning of your life? I guess here even Frankl goes wrong because he implicitly assumes that one can fabricate a meaning and purpose for his life using conscious, logical/rational thinking! But why not? An indirect argument uses the failure of the self-help literature and psychology in general in making lives more meaningful and happier. But a more convincing and direct answer was first revealed to me after reading Arnold Modell's ``Imagination and the Meaningful Brain,'' [Amazon link], and is being confirmed now as I am reading Antonio Damasio's ``Self Comes to Mind,'' [Amazon link]. These authors suggest that the set of meanings and values we give our life are deeply rooted in the ancient, emotional parts of our brain. We may offer beautiful, sophisticated expressions of our purpose and goals but they have to be rooted in our emotional side. Life meaning is closely related to our passion.

I suggest that finding our purpose in life and living a more meaningful and happy life requires working on two dimensions. First, a process of ``inner integration'' (that incorporates different aspects of our mind, body and life)  increases the chances of finding our purpose in life. An imperfect analogy is looking for a treasure on an island. The more areas of the island are integrated in the search area, the higher are the probability of success. Second, a process of making things real, in the sense of solidifying our sense of self and our top priorities. This brings us back to my previous two posts [Separating Fantasy from Reality and Surviving Self-Destruction and Self-Knowledge].

Surviving Self-Destruction and Self-Knowledge

I have not been able to find a rigid sense of ``self'' within, after a few years of introspection and different practices. I have moments that answering a simple question regarding my preferences is difficult for me. I am very emotional and sensitive, and yet, there is a disconnect between my emotional world and my decision-making. This inner disconnect, I believe, has been the driving force behind my depression. (With a slightly different combination of genes and environmental factors, I could have  ended up more like a sociopath. That is why I identify so much with some parts of the book, ``Confessions of a Sociopath,'' as I mentioned in [Confessions of a Sociopath] post).

In the previous post, [Separating Fantasy and Reality], I mentioned Winnicott's provocative idea that the way we confirm the reality of outside world, its separateness from our inner world of thoughts and emotions, is by unleashing imaginary destruction on it and verifying its survival. The imaginary destruction, in practice, becomes talks and acts of destruction and violence. In the context of our relationships, if the other person does not retaliate against our unrestrained anger and destruction, we (gradually?) become convinced that s/he exists outside our internal world. (Because small children do not posses the power of destroying their parents, this is done relatively naturally and harmlessly. In fact, the process infuses love, destruction, and joy for a child whose parent survives the destruction!)

My main question in this post: Can we use the destruction process to gain self-knowledge?

Between ages of 16 and 24, I became severely depressed, I cut my hands and burned them with cigarettes, and twice I attempted suicide. The memory of those days is hazy now. But recently, when I have episodes of acute depression that are accompanied with suicidal thoughts, I come out of it with a deeper understanding of myself, some revelation, or at least a sense of renewal. Even though on the surface these episodes are full of self-hatred and imagined violence and destruction, I would like to think of them as a self-verification of the type Winnicott suggested between a child and his parent, or between a patient and her therapist.

I have always thought of the episodes of emotional turbulence (including severe depression or anxiety) as signs of being alive. People like me tend to saturate their lives with self-imposed, imaginary constraints and constructs that enslave the soul and drown it to death. Just like the involuntary panic and distress of a drowning person, a lot of apparently illogical activities of someone enslaved in an imaginary prison of own thoughts are the last resort, and in a way, positive and meaningful.

When we see acts of violence and destruction, if we genuinely wish to improve the situation and not simply respond to it with violence, it becomes vitally important to ask ourselves, Why? If we cannot think as the person who commits the violence, there is no hope of having a lasting effect for us. And the main prerequisite for that, is a process of inner integration. We need to confront and accept the destruction and violence inside our selves at the deepest emotional level!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Separating Fantasy and Reality

I finished the previous post [Confessions of a Sociopath] by alluding to the mystical notion of removing the veil of fantasy and waking up from the dream that we call life. Incidentally, I was re-reading D. W. Winnicott's masterpiece ``Playing and Reality,'' [Amazon link], the 6th chapter, ``the use of an Object and relating through identification.'' It took me more than a year of studying psychoanalysis before I could start to understand this article (originally published in 1969 in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis), and even now I am not sure I can explain it clearly. I'll try.

The basic question is that, from a child development point of view, when/how does a child distinguishes ``objective reality'' from ``subjective fantasy,'' realizes the separation between self and the other, and accept that the other (mom) lies beyond the control of his mind. The implications, though, are much more widespread because, surprisingly enough, many stages of (child) development will have to repeat themselves throughout the life over and over. Therefore, even for an adult, it frequently happens that s/he needs to separate objective reality from subjective fantasy. (Moreover, the most exciting aspects of growth and creativity happens in the transitional space between objective reality and subjective fantasy, the area of ``Playing''! But that's another fascinating topic.)

The answer is simple and provocative and I am beginning to develop a deeper sense of its meaning: Imaginary constructs (of our mind) cannot survive the destructive power of our minds and our destructive wishes. Reality must survive imaginary destruction! Anything that you can change by the power of your mind is -NOT- reality, it is a product of your mind in the first place.

But things get even more exciting. So far, I have described a ``thought experiment'': If you can destroy something/someone in your mind, that thing/person is not real. However, when people confuse objective and subjective (e.g. children) they tend to act out their thoughts and feelings, and we end up with acts of destruction (via speech or actual action). Therefore, ``survival'' becomes something more than simply existing after the attack: it becomes non-retaliation which is specially meaningful in the context of human relationships (as objects do not and cannot retaliates naturally!)

Here are my own wild conjectures. First, I think we can generalize the idea to understand the acts of violence in a much larger context, even by groups of people and societies. (I guess people must have worked on this before, but I am not aware of it.) Second, and this is more original and exciting, I think you can apply the  idea to examine your self, to find out what is real about your self and what's imaginary! And this brings me back to the starting point. One thing I liked a lot about the book, ``Confessions of a Sociopath,'' was the author's description of a lack of rigid self/identity. I think this absence of the sense of self is deeper, more pervasive, and ultimately more important than its manifestation in the forms of sociopath/psychopathy, severe depression, or different types of personality disorders.

Confessions of a Sociopath

is a book [Amazon link] I finished last night. Even though I am not a sociopath but I enjoyed reading it very much. It offered me valuable insights and posed difficult, relevant problems and questions to ponder. But more importantly, I felt a deep understanding of the author, as if I have a sociopath "persona" inside and under different circumstances that persona could have dominated my life.

Since I started reading the book, I felt this urge to contact the author and share some of my own thoughts and experiences with her. Finally, last night I emailed her (via her blog) and thanked her for writing the book. I wanted to say more, but I did not. I read a post on her blog (Empathizer) that described an important and meaningful (for me, personally) situation, and I realized that most of the things I want to say, is already said to her by her enormous blog readers.

More importantly, I have learned through difficult and grueling experiences, that when I want to tell people my insights, it is for the most part a fantasy: the fantasy of being able to talk to part of my self that identifies with that person. Maybe the main sort of enlightenment that I have reached in the past year or so is that I can, sometimes, pull back the veil of fantasy and see the real world and real people. If you don't follow, it's a famous saying in Islamic mysticism/Sufism that the world is a veil to be removed by the seeker, or a dream to be woken from, and I am feeling half awakened now!

Freedom, Religion

A couple of days ago I read a discussion between some friends regarding religion, worship, freedom, and slavery. In Farsi and Arabic, the t...