Thursday, May 08, 2014


The psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic sites I informally monitor are struggling to reconcile the ideas developed by major figures of the past -- all based on observations of patients and introspection in their own lives -- with the molecular, anatomical, observable phenomena recorded on our very specialized flesh ware.  We can now “see” a single neuron take in information, translate it and pass it on to the next neuron. It’s very complex stuff -- we know that it’s intermeshed with what we can “see” subjectively but not quite how.  In the meantime, life goes on and people in distress need help.

At the simplest level I think of it this way:  a concept is like a token inscribed with sensory information embedded as a kind of GPS.  The person may or may not have a word for that concept.  By definition the unconscious concepts cannot be named but they are still there and still interact.  In addition, there also appears to be a lot of undefined “stuff” just floating around, not even well-enough developed to be an unconscious concept.  Sometimes it’s just a hole where a concept needs to be.

The surface of the cerebral cortex has the body mapped onto it.  Also, at a different level, there is a kind of grid that seems to guide concepts (tokens) as they move around.  This evidently creates metaphors, formulae, graphs, and other ways of recording relationships, if-then code, and theories about life, like what matters.  Even the ineffables.  Let’s say one’s inner life is the tokens moving around on this game-board map which has little stacks of consequence cards, dice to roll, and rules of the game.  One plays with other people through empathy.  

A psychoanalyst uses empathy to “feel with” a distressed person and respond in a kind of model.  Howard B. Levine describes working with a little boy who had been badly abused and who had a “volcanic eruption of emotion” when he came to a mental “place” where he had no concept.  One day the boy was afraid to leave the safe therapy space, couldn't convey his distress, and blew up.  Instinctively, without thought, Levine pretended to be a wolf and howled, demonstrating something to be afraid of.  The boy froze, processed, then acted out being a wolf himself and went into the hallway snarling, fangs bared, empowered.  In ensuing days he used that until he didn’t need to anymore.  It was a sensory capture of an inexpressible concept.

As I understand it, which is only in a beginner’s way, dissociation is when a person comes to a situation so overwhelming and unaccountable that it cannot be conceptualized or named or managed.  It’s like the game Eric Berne called “Uproar” in which a person -- for instance playing chess or cards -- knows they cannot possibly control or even play the game, so they dump over the table, tokens and board onto the floor.  We have become used to seeing these uproars played out politically and militarily.  But dissociation needn't be the warrior's berserk.  It could be quiet.  Blank.  Gone.  Deleted.

After "Uproar" there are two tasks: rounding up the tokens again, and perhaps redesigning the game board.  Maybe a third is changing the rules of the game.  If in this time space the larger society has criminalized your game, both the orderly previous version and the Uproar strategy, there is a time and space of ruin and chaos.  When all this happens within the mind,  maybe to a child who is sexually assaulted or a young man in combat, the result can be dissociation -- a gray desert plain with no landmarks and no tokens -- or it can be a re-eruption of “Uproar.”  I think a lot of us are beginning to understand this.  We live it.  It can “present” in conjunction with drugs, because it is about the management of consciousness.

But now I’m asking, “What is the relationship between the extreme and desperate dissociations, sometimes violent, and the redemptive liminal time/space described by Victor Turner?”  Is it the ritual of the community's coming together as a “fourth brain” that supplies a new board map?  Is it the making of new tokens from strong sense memories?  Is it “permission” to throw out some assumptions and expectations that just don’t work anymore?  Probably all of the above.

One of the most valuable things Pam Munter taught me was to ask for time and space to think.  She said something, looked at my face, stopped and said,  “What just happened?  You look as though I’d just suddenly begun to speak Chinese!”  I was flooded.  Too much to think about, no pattern for organizing it all.  I could do it, but it took a little time.  When I was preaching and I saw that stunned, processing look on the faces of the congregation, I'd stop talking for a minute to let them catch up.

Levine says that he had to constantly guard against impatience, trying to “explain” it all to the person trying to solve something on the inside of his head alone.  Who else is in there, after all?  But it helps to have a trusted person sitting there with you, which is what Gendlin is so helpful about with his idea of “Focusing.”  He says it even works to have a trusted person on the telephone but saying nothing -- just being there, supplying patience.  Video on Skype would be even better.  Witnessing.  A whole congregation can do it.

The strange land of dissociation  This site has a lot of information that seems pretty well grounded, including a self-test.  “Skipping” or “blanking” is susceptible to interpretation as pathological or even signaling organic problems.  But in the context of liminality, it might be called meditation or transcending the self or even entering a vision.  

Sometimes it’s just preoccupation, like me carefully spreading cat food on my morning toast instead of the cream cheese on the counter right next to the cat food can.  The absent-minded professor syndrome.  12% of the population of Winnipeg that was tested (over a thousand people) reported some kind of dissociation.

Barbara Sukowa as Arendt

Last night I watched the movie called "Hannah Arendt about her reporting on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker.  Her conclusion was that Eichmann was not “evil” in some satanic deliberate way, but rather simply was “incapable of thought.”  The movie included actual footage of the real Eichmann in his glass cage being “grilled like a steak” as he put it.  Flat affect.  Facts only.  He did what he was told to do.  Twitches but no real emotion, in contrast to people in the audience including one man who seemed to have fallen on the floor in a paralyzing agony of grief.  

Eichmann looked like a case of dissociation to me.  If he was dissociating -- sleepwalking -- when he signed the death warrants of thousands, that was criminal, pathological, but also, if he had only a game board and no tokens, self-preserving.  Arendt recognized that.  But she was the one who caused uproar by saying so.  The community would not accept it.

The real Hannah Arendt

Banality is only an extreme version of the moral error called “from is to ought,” which posits that if things are a certain way and have always been that way to the knowledge of the person, then that’s the way they ought to be.  Status quo.  Gays have always been persecuted, Jews have always been blamed, women have always been assaulted -- that’s the way it is.  There is no other standard or strategy.  Except Uproar.

It’s a long way from teaching a little boy to handle fear by pretending to be a wolf to teaching a numb and banal man like Eichmann how to find a new life view.  If his community was insisting on the Nazi game board, it would be hard to think of a new move, inviting death.  Jesus’ Gospel in the New Testament has NOT changed the game board of the Old Testament patriarchs, persecutors, war-mongers, and revenge-takers.  Some of us STILL want to use a game board meant for walled cities defended by men in chariots who were okay with harems and slavery but not gays.  Nice try, J.C.  No cigar.

The “fourth brain,” the consensus-bearing, confirming community of people who enter liminality in a spirit of possibility and enlightenment, can be a nation, the United Nations, or a book.  A book can be a liminal space/time.  Too bad the Bible -- both testaments -- was organized by politicians trying to preserve their own status quo.  We could try again.  Or we can space out.

(Another movie tonight:  “Upstream Color.”  Which is scarier?  Relationships or guinea worms?  Or maybe it's about psychoanalysis, trying to re-associate what has been separated.)

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