Exploring the Overundersidewaysdown of Mental Space
The first one is from Bubba, who asks, “as a ‘spiritual psychologist,’ how do you clearly identify what is your patient's ‘stuff’ vs. your ‘stuff’ (i.e. how do you avoid projection)? I think this is especially important in the blogosphere as we comment on other's writings."
A related question was asked by CY about “the relationship between narcissism and evil in families (not just society at large). I grew up in a nuclear family with one parent who met the DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.... I'm still trying to crawl out from under (or recover from--maybe a better metaphor) their malignant influence. Sometimes I feel beset by a sense of oppression or downright evil that's hard to define but feels very real, even though both of these people have been dead for several years. I suppose a Freudian would say it's either just signal anxiety or free-floating anxiety, but that type of ‘horizontal’ explanation just doesn't fit. I'm sticking my neck out and asking about this because you must have encountered some patients over the years who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after a relationship with a narcissist.”
In order to understand or even properly think about such questions, we must have a reliable model of the mind--an accurate way to “think about thinking,” without which many subtleties will elude our grasp.
First of all, as discussed a few days ago here, it is a mistake to think of the mind as being confined to individual heads. If the mind worked that way, we could never have become human to begin with. But at the same time--except for purely genetic and biological brain conditions--it is specifically within the realm of our intersubjectivity that virtually all psychopathology lies.
(I’m having to simplify matters a bit here, so I am specifically excluding a couple of important areas, first, purely existential issues that afflict every sufficiently conscious human being, plus purely spiritual issues that arise from our “fallen” nature.)
It is difficult to say what consciousness is. As you know, any two philosophers or psychologists will have three opinions on the matter. But one thing we can say with certainty is that consciousness is not a bag. And yet, many people naively picture it as such, either explicitly or implicitly. Even many psychologists have only a slightly more sophisticated view, picturing the mind as a bag, only with some of the most important contents hidden from view--i.e., the unconscious.
That’s true as far as it goes, but the mind is much more analogous to a multidimensional projective space, with content constantly flowing up and down, inside and out. And perhaps “flow” is the wrong word, because it’s closer to the mathematical concept of transformation, through which, in the flow of content, some things are altered while others remain constant.
For example, when you are looking for evidence of projection in a patient, you are looking for something that has obviously “escaped,” so to speak, from his or her mind to the outside world or into other people. But it is not a literal projection. It’s more like, say, an abstract impressionist painting.
For example, place one of Van Gogh’s paintings side by side with what it was he was painting. The painting is in some sense a projection of the scene, filtered through the artist’s mind. In examining the two, you will notice a correspondence between them, but it won’t be a “one to one” correspondence. Rather, the scene will have been transformed, sometimes in obvious ways, other times in very obscure ways. You might say that the psychotic mind is like an extremely abstract painter, so much so that you can no longer recognize what it is that the artist was trying to paint.
But one of my mentors, W.R. Bion, believed that we are all inhabited by a more or less psychotic painter. One of the purposes of therapy is to understand this painter and what it is he is painting. Often it is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. You look at a piece and say to yourself, “that’s supposed to be flower? I don’t get it. It just looks like an explosion in a paint factory to me.”
The truly psychotic mind is an explosion in a paint factory. So too is the infantile mind. You can see this in interacting with an infant. They have 1) no fixed boundary between inside and out, and 2) no way to modulate their intensity. Imagine such a world, and you can imagine the parents’ role in helping their infant learn to contain and adapt to that frighteningly infinite space.
For the space is literally infinite, or as close to infinite as we are capable of imagining. It is within this space that the most basic mechanisms of the mind are rooted: projection, splitting, projective identification, envy, greed--as well as empathy, love, and fusion.
You know what? I am plumb out of time to get any further into this discussion. I have to be in Ontario in a couple of hours, and it’s probably already 80 degrees outside. I better get moving.
In the meantime, here is your scrawny old Gagdad trying to keep cool while joyously fused in the infinite space inhabited by him and his psychotically happy Gagboy (don't be fooled, people. Like Barney Fife, it is all muscle):