Monday, July 24, 2006

Exploring the Overundersidewaysdown of Mental Space

Being that I’m already short on time, I thought I would try to tackle a couple more reader questions from a few weeks back. That way I can save time and avoid the middle man by not having to think up my own question to ask Petey this morning. We probably won't have time to finish, but at least we can open the discussion. These questions touch on some vitally important issues that can be very difficult to sort out, both in the individual and the collective.

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):


dicentra said...

I was also raised by a Narcissist, though not a terribly malignant one, who is still among the living. I am also trying to pull myself together after living with someone with a PD. (Here's the rub: he's a retired psychology professor.)

I don't know where GB was going with this, so it's a little hard to comment.

I've discovered a few parts of me that are a direct legacy of living with a Narcissist: learned helplessness, a feeling that I don't deserve to exist, and other depressive though patterns.

Not sure what to do about them, either.

Hoarhey said...

>>"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."<<

Would you say that the "drug experience" might be an attempt to recapture the gift of that sense of connectedness to the infinite people had as children and begin to lose in adulthood?
And would you have an explaination as to why it actually takes sober effort to regain a true and sustainable sense of the infinite in aduthood as opposed to the 'cheap grace' of the drug experience which usually ends in the paint factory explosion?
Also any theories as to why the seeming disconnect from childhood to adolesence/adulthood?

dilys said...

Love your intersubjectivity meme. Long may it wave.

I suspect, among other ways to speak of it, that the focus and discipline of regular religious practice, including conscientious self-examination via therapy, may serve to oil the hinges on the swinging door that is an exit from the intersubjective space of the particulars of our universally bent history as referenced by CY and dicentra, into the taste of an interSubjective space -- in shorthand human:Divine -- that is ultimately uncontaminated. Demonstrating experientially the difference between "spaces," with the result of more easily avoiding, dispassionately ignoring, and even eventually conveying into the dark places the Light that lightens up this world of ours.

Glimpses of the purity of that Other space provide subtle orientation toward behavior and environments that improve the old, admittedly toxic ones. As well as more creativity and courage to pursue them. Becoming a bit more merciful, receiving more mercy, mysteriously, not as a simple quid pro quo. Demonstrating that it is always to a significant degree "our" stuff, even if only as an underdevelopment of the "right stuff."

Usually a Lurker said...

dicentra wrote:
"I've discovered a few parts of me that are a direct legacy of living with a Narcissist: learned helplessness, a feeling that I don't deserve to exist, and other depressive though patterns."

You're so right about that! I thought I'd dealt with a lot of my issues that resulted from growing up with a malignant narcissist, but am freshly aware of some of the fallout, and I really relate to your description of that legacy.

I was hoping someone would post with some helpful tips on how to cope. My first thought is of medication for the inevitable depression that cycles in and out. It's not fair to me or those who have to deal with me to be so dark at times. I pray a lot about it and feel I have put my life in God's hands as completely as I can moment to moment.

Just the other day, I realized that the more I keep my darkest thoughts and feelings secret, supposedly to protect my spouse, the more they create and inhabit a whole dark universe full of dreadful and persecuting thoughts.

In my case, I would describe the "not deserving to exist" as more of a feeling that anything good in me simply DOESN'T exist. I'm not sure if that's a meaningful distinction.

Thanks for your insightful comments, and Dilys' reminder of the Light. I think that's the Light I shut out when I go into my secret world.

Alan said...

dilys: Wow! I admire your insights
....just a thought: intersubjectivity => "when two or more are gathered in my name"

Sal said...

Hoarhey -

Not everyone loses that connectedness. I never did, not even during my brief fling with the '70's, which was cut short by plain old guilt, thanks to the connectedness...

I can, however, count about five significant spiritual breakthroughs in my life - which appreciably moved things up to a higher level. These were almost surely the incremental results of a lifetime of spiritual practice - the boring part, some would say. Co-operate with grace long enough and you get somewhere - though where might be a surprise.

I think all the spiritual masters would agree that the quick fix never works in the end.

Thanks for an interesting thought.

Bubba Kartoffel said...

Just doing a little catching up and thought I should mention that it was alan who asked the 'stuff' question. I would hate to take credit for an intersting query I did not posit.

As always, however, very enlightened discourse here.

grant said...

I see in your interests list that you read Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa. Waddya make of the "Psychic Being" that they discuss? Is it a construct of the mind or is it something else entirely, such as an actual intrusion from a greater environing consciousness (i.e., God)? Jeez, am I off topic here or what?
Godwin, I know you can't answer that question but I'm just curious about what you might speculate because you are a sharp one.
Anyway, I posit that narcissism cannot exist in the presence of the psychic being, so one "treatment" for narcissism could be to simply call out to the psychic being to come forward and then see what happens.

bradford said...

The projection responsibility of self exploration is better shared thanks for your collective conscious connection.