Sunday, December 06, 2015


This is not ME.

The first thing to remember when exploring deep meaningful experience is that no two people are the same.  They are the only experts on themselves so their voice is what counts.  Their “voice” might not be formal words but rather images, gestures, dance, music, or even behavior re-enactments of an unresolvable life riddle.  This means that helping one boy explore himself is a mix of science and art.

The way evolution has shaped us is that our identities are largely made of memories, but when something is really an unresolvable problem we either suppress it  (maybe forever or maybe until there is a better time to figure it out) or we obsess it, stuck on the problem so much that nothing else can be dealt with.  One effective way the Gestalt therapists use to trick the brain into spilling its cherished problems (they tend to become possessions) is to set up two chairs facing each other.  

The problem wrestler sits in one and the other is empty except that the wrestler pretends that the problem itself or the key person (dominating father, smothering mother, dance-away lover) is sitting there.  Then the wrestler engages in conversation with this ghost, speaking for both, because often the problem is believing something about what other people are saying that is not supported by facts.  The therapist is the referee and a memory monitor.  The chairs can be icons of dialogue with meanings of their own.  (See the “Red Chair Poems” by the Smash Street Boys, which are included in “Just Before the Cure.” )

Since people are an on-going process, a time-art, sometimes it’s helpful to reflect on the stages of development in which crippling traumas arose, maybe because of beliefs from the culture about that stage.  A woman told me her uncle began to rape her when she began having periods, because he had no moral barrier against rape, but he thought it was wrong to rape children.  He believed that sex and procreation were the same thing and that legal restrictions or intimacy had nothing to do with it.  A woman was a cow.  

Some believe boys can’t be raped because they can’t get pregnant.  Sharon Brogan, the Missoula poet (“Watermarks”, was once a therapist working with groups of men incarcerated for sex offenses.  She wrote a poem listing all their rationalizations, which they mostly believed but which were culturally damnable.

Saul McLeod

Saul McLeod on his blog ( suggests that Freud’s development stages are based on sex, a preoccupation of his culture, while Erik Erikson in contrast based his stages on identity as reflected throughout a whole lifetime.  (His preoccupation was personal as he did not know who his father was.)

“According to Erikson, the ego develops as it successfully resolves crises that are distinctly social in nature. These involve establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future.”

(McLeod also provides material on some of my favorite theorists: Piaget, Kohlberg, and Maslow, all dealing with stage theories.)

McLeod provides a little chart of Erikson’s ideas which he discusses.  I’ll list just the “psychosocial crisis” he identifies with each stage:

Infancy ( 0-1 and a half). . . . . . Trust vs. mistrust
Early Childhood (1 1/2 to 3) . . . Autonomy vs. shame
Play Age (3 to 5) . . . . . . . . . . . .Initiative vs. Guilt
School Age (5 to 12)   . . . . . . . .Industry vs. Inferiority
Adolescence (12 to 18)  . . . . . . Fidelity
Young Adult  (18 to 40) . . . . . . . Love
Adult hood (40 to 65)  . . . . . . . .Care
Maturity  (65+)  . . . . . . . . . . . . . Wisdom

Are you my momma?

In other cultures, esp. the ones where lifespans are short, a person might never get to wisdom or even love (whatever that is).  In some more brutal contexts, an infant may have to fight to survive starvation and violence -- trust is a moot point because no one can be trusted.  Likewise, shame and guilt only have meaning in terms of the adults involved.  The mini-culture might have nothing to do with the larger culture, which is invisible.

Lately I’ve been thinking about stage theories in terms of physical and mental development, not so much learning as anatomical unfolding.  Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had.

1.  Gestation

The Conceptus (very early embryo) divides itself into three parts.  One of these three divides again into three parts: skin, brain, and gut.  These are the most basic and earliest of cell specializations.  They are also basic elements of sexual contact.  The skin divides what is the creature from what is the environment; the gut begins working bits of environment through the cell from in to out; the brain oversees the homoestasis needed from earliest life.  These three elements operate through the same electrochemical pathways: one really does “think” with the gut, except that it won’t be conscious unless there is trouble.

Those dominated by Cartesian thought, which tries to exclude the animal part of identity, will not consider visceral neurology though it is an entire “thought” system controlling life itself: heartbeat, breath, electrochemical homeostasis, hunger, thirst, desire and arousal.  Outside the lab or the lecture hall, this is crippling, a mutilation.

2.  First three years (walking and talking)

Even someone holding a very young primate (any species and also puppies) will cradle it in their arms and rock the little one gently while holding eye contact.  One metaphor for what is happening is that the two parties are creating a kind of field between them which is the basis of connection, attachment, bonding.  As the baby grows, so will this playing field between, which will come to include objects and eventually will allow material objects (teddy bears and blankies) to stand for this connection.  If a person is damaged at this stage, it seems likely that taking them back to this stage so they really experience it and believe in it will help them.

Winnicott is excellent on this stage.  He describes the “mother” as an anchor for identity so that the toddler ventures away a few feet, then reaches the limits of his or her courage and comes back for safety.  We’ve all watched little ones who have managed to stand independently being called to walk by the held-out hands of an adult.  The more “magnetic” the caller, the harder the baby tries to reach those hands.

3.  Primary skills (reading, counting, ordering)

At the most basic level this is putting clothespins in milk bottles, making towers of blocks and knocking them down, pushing things around, dropping and throwing them.  This is when I began to have memories.  I had a collection of small objects, a row of small ceramic cats, that were almost radioactive in their meaning to me.  (So now my household includes living cats who refuse to stand in a row.)

4. Adrenarche  (geography, history)

These are the community years about learning social dynamics.  Many children’s books intended for these ages (the first “chapter books”) are stories about a child of this age having to cope with contradictions, desertions, betrayals, and finding courage and strategy to do it.  “Jack in the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood.”

In many cultures kids this age will group, some places separating boys from girls if the work of the culture is bi-gender.  (Boys form hunting groups, girls stay with Mom to cook.)  In some places gender is not a concern and friendships form without sexuality.  In other places children this age are considered old enough to work and have no play life.

5.  Adolescence

How to be sexual is the issue.  Hopefully the culture has mechanisms to protect the inexperienced without confining those ready for more exploration.  It is crippling that in our culture during this period the media is saturated with sex/love stories but access to information is denied.  Sex is mixed with violence and ownership at one extreme.  An impossibly idealistic relationship at the other.
6.  Maturity within the culture
7.  Abstract and meta-concepts

I’ll have to go to new entries for these last two.  My premise is that as we approach death, the line of development begins to circle back to the earliest issues.

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