Friday, June 25, 2010

Amazing May 20

Ontological Guilt


I had not realised that guilt had such a foundational root in humankind. I had, of course, been well aware of his preoccupation or obsession with guilt from personal experience, but that it was an ontological reality, no. However, it has been years since I heard the following apocryphal story. This person dies and is questioned by St Peter at the “Pearly Gates” and the questions as to whether he/she had done much wrong in their lives were satisfactorily answered. Then St Peter says, “Ah but look at all the personal potential you squandered, all the personal talents that you did not develop and your real self that you did not get to know.” Whether or not the apocryphal Saint sent the prospective candidate on to the Devil at the next gate I have quite forgotten, but the moral of the story is quite clear indeed.

We are, May and the existentialists argue, shaken to our foundations with anxiety when we are faced with the issue of fulfilling our potentialities, like moving on to get a new job, or starting a new relationship or changing from one area in a country to another, or even emigrating for that matter. All such possible developments of our potentialities fill us with anxiety. Now, we have already discussed how this anxiety is not just something we “have,” but is rather something we actually “are” in virtue of our human condition. It is likewise with ontological guilt. It is a state where the person denies these very potentialities and fails to fulfil them. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, guilt is not simply something one “has,” but rather is something one actually “is” ontologically. The German psychiatrist Medard Boss argues that such an understanding takes the real phenomenon of guilt seriously and with respect.

There is another type of ontological guilt that our psychotherapist friend May refers to and that is the guilt we share with all of our fellow human beings in virtue of the fact that we can only look at the world through our own blinkered vision of reality. We have no choice but to look at the world through our own eyes, with our own built in limitations. Once again, let’s listen to the May’s words here:

There are other forms [of ontological guilt] as well. Another, for example, is ontological guilt against one’s fellows, arising from the fact that since each of us is an individual, each necessarily perceives his fellow man through his own limited and biased eyes. This means that he always to some extent does violence to the true picture of his fellow man and always to some extent fails fully to understand and meet the other’s needs. This is not a question of moral failure or slackness- though it can indeed be greatly increased by lack of moral sensitivity... This guilt, rooted in our existential structure, is one of the most potent sources of a sound humility, and an unsentimental attitude of forgiveness towards one’s fellow men. (Ibid., p. 115)

Now, we would do well to re-read the above quoted lines from May, and especially the last sentence as it would have considerable positive influence not alone on our own lives, but on the lives of those whom it is our privilege to encounter on a daily basis.

May, at this point introduces us to three terms which are very much worth knowing, i.e., Eigenwelt, Mitwelt and Umwelt which he will discuss in chapter 9. The type of guilt where one fails to develop one’s potentialities is linked very much with the Eigenwelt, that is, our very own world, our inner world. The second form of guilt just immediately discussed roughly corresponds with Mitwelt, since it is guilt chiefly related to one’s fellow human beings. There is a third form of ontological guilt, which is related to what is termed the Umwelt, or nature or the world as a whole. This guilt is a “separation guilt” which we feel, having consciously separated ourselves out from nature and set ourselves above it as it were. Indeed, since Rollo May wrote these words in 1981, look at all the pollution and destruction we have subjected our planet to, all done to it in an objectified format as if we were not part of it at all. No wonder we suffer from repressed ontological “separation guilt.”! Much more needs to be written on this most complex and comprehensive aspect of ontological guilt. I will return to this topic when I deal with the concept of Gaia in future posts.

In summary, there is no escaping ontological guilt, because we are each participants in it in virtue of our humanity. Let us remind ourselves, should we need this timely reminder, that ontological guilt can never come from cultural prohibitions, but is always rooted in the fact of our very own self-awareness. Finally May cautions us that ontological guilt should never be confused with morbid or neurotic guilt. However, if it is unaccepted or repressed, it may turn into such a type of guilt.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing May 19

The Deep Rooted Nature of Anxiety and Guilt


As practising Special Educational Needs teacher now for a number of years and as a semi-qualified counsellor for a greater number of years I have always been fascinated by the prevalent and deep rooted nature of both anxiety and guilt. Also in my everyday life, having lived some fifty two years on this planet I have come across severely anxious people and people troubled with a profound sense of guilt.

It is interesting to learn that existential therapists like Rollo May see neither of these deep-seated complaints as being mere effects or emotions among other effects or emotions. They are, in fact, in a different league altogether from say pleasure, joy or sadness, and perhaps depression, which May does not mention at all. He states that the deep-rooted nature of both anxiety and guilt cut right down to our very existential roots. Speaking, firstly of anxiety, our existential psychoanalyst says that it is

an ontological characteristic of man, rooted in his very existence as such. It is not a peripheral threat which I can take or leave, for example, or a reaction which may be classified beside other reactions; it is always a threat to the foundation, the centre of my existence. Anxiety is the experience of the threat of imminent nonbeing. (Op. cit., p.109)

These are shattering insights for anyone who might take anxiety as a feeling among other feelings. I have been teaching and working with a 16 year old boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome and who has also been diagnosed with OCD. This latter complaint is crippling to say the least as OCD is primarily all about anxiety. This boy could check his pencil case countless times per day if he was allowed. He is currently under the care of a psychiatrist who has him on medication, which he needs badly. Without a doubt his anxiety is rooted in his very being at all times, and has almost become part of who he is when he suffers badly from this complaint. Anyone meeting Robert (a pseudonym) for the first time even would realise that he is a very nervous and anxious boy whose anxiety threatens the very foundation, the very centre of his being. In other words, I am describing Robert with the terms May gives us for the nature of anxiety above.

In short, to quote another psychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein, anxiety is not something we “have,” but rather something we “are.” I can clearly visualize Robert when he is very stressed and anxious as being a person who is literally experiencing the threat of the dissolution of the self. This is disconcerting stuff for the uninitiated to encounter, given that it cuts so deep into the very being or self of the person in question.

In talking about the difference between fear and anxiety this is what May says, and his insights are illuminating for any of us who have to deal with anxious persons:

The difference is that anxiety strikes at the central core of his [the patient/client’s] self-esteem and his sense of value as a self, which is the most important aspect of his experience of himself as a being. Fear in contrast is a threat to the periphery of his existence; it can be objectivated (sic), and the person can stand outside and look at it. In greater or lesser degree, anxiety overwhelms the person’s discovery of being, blots out the sense of time, dulls the memory of the past and erases the future – which is perhaps the most compelling proof of the fact that it attacks the centre of one’s being. While we are subject to anxiety, we are unable to conceive in imagination how existence would be “outside” the anxiety. This is why anxiety is so hard to bear, and why people will choose, if they have the chance, severe physical pain which would appear to the outsider much worse. Anxiety is ontological, fear is not. Fear can be studied as an effect among other effects, a reaction among other reactions. But anxiety can be understood only as a threat to the being itself. (Ibid., p.110)

Many existential philosophers and psychotherapists prefer the terms “angst,” anguish” or “dread” to the more tame term “anxiety” because such words capture its more foundational and ontological nature. The words “angst” or “anguish” come from the Latin “angustus” which means “narrow” or “tightened” or “choked.” This etymological base of the word would imply the pain experienced in the “narrows” of childbirth. So anxiety which is ontological shares the struggle of childbirth (often a struggle between life and death) through the narrow passages of the mother’s body.

Anxiety also causes deep inner conflict in the person of the sufferer. Is not this conflict precisely the conflict between Being and Non-Being in the person in question? Let’s listen to May’s poetic and wise words here:

Anxiety occurs at the point where some emerging potentiality or possibility faces the individual, some possibility of fulfilling his existence, but this very possibility involves the destroying of present security, which thereupon gives rise to the tendency to deny the new potentiality. Here lies the truth of the symbol of the birth trauma as the prototype of all anxiety – an interpretation suggested by the etymological source of the word anxiety as “pain in narrows”... This interpretation of anxiety as birth trauma was, as is well known, held by Rank to cover all anxiety, and was agreed to by Freud on a less comprehensive basis. (Ibid., pp. 111-112)

This is essentially why, given that there is a new, albeit symbolic, life to be born deep in (or from) the psyche, there is a strong connection between anxiety and freedom, a second major theme in existential literature. Kierkegaard, according to May, described this close connection between these two themes thus: “Anxiety is the reality of freedom as a potentiality before this freedom has materialised.” (Quoted ibid., p. 112)

I will leave the discussion of the ontological nature of guilt until the next post.

To be continued.

Amazing May 18

Being and Non-Being 3


A Note on Freud’s Structural Model of the Psyche

Freud’s structural model of the psyche has long been doing the rounds, and has been taught widely in psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy courses over the last hundred years or so. This is the model where he divides the psyche into three separate areas, i.e., the Id, the Ego and the Superego. I have discussed this structural model in these posts before – see this link here. The Id basically was/is a vast cesspit of repressed instincts, drives and desires. Then there is the Superego which was/is that section of the psyche which is formed by all the norms and rules of society, and so it acts as a sort of moral conscience. Then, I suppose the Ego is a sort of “jockey” or “arbiter” or “referee” which seeks to balance the other two contrary and contradictory forces. In a nutshell, that is the structural model of the psyche. As anyone can see, the task allotted to the Ego is huge and almost insurmountable.

May’s insight into this model

Freud proposed a view of the Ego that was relatively weak, and that it was mostly buffeted about by the instinctual powers of the Id. May argues that this view was in Freud “a profound symbol of the fragmentation of man in the Victorian period and also a strong corrective to the superficial voluntarism of that day.” (Op.cit., p. 105) However, the major error arises, May argues when the Ego is elaborated as the basic norm. Even, within the Freudian structural model, it was never elaborated as such. I suppose we today have allowed the ego to take charge, to ride the wild horse of the Id especially without much attention to the slow work-horse of the Superego. Again the era of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, and that of the uncontrolled international speculation between banks which in effect was gambling on a gigantic level are good examples of the wild stallion of the Id having been given almost free rein by the Ego. It is worth repeating May’s important words here:

The sense of being, the ontological awareness, must be assumed below ego theory if that theory is to refer with self-consistency to the human being as human. (Ibid., p.105)

Being itself is the fundamental reality we are. It is whole, authentic, real and total. These are all my terms, not May’s. I just want to get at the “irreducibility” as it were of Being, which I feel is so important than I am capitalizing the first letter of the word. Both people in any human encounter are irreducible beings. They are not merely a list of symptoms or a collocation of drives or instincts.

Non-Being

It is now time to reflect upon the other side of the coin to Being, namely Non-Being. I have hyphenated and capitalized this term, May does neither. In a sense, I suppose the theory of opposites is at play here. For instance how can we have a sense of the whiteness of something unless we have the blackness of something else with which to contrast it? It would seem that we have thousands of such necessary pairs: day/night, bright/dark, sweet/sour, love/hate, soft/hard, high/low, rich/poor. It’s impossible to envisage one without its necessary partner as it were. It would appear to me to be the same with life/death, living/dying, or as the ontologists would have it, Being/Non-Being.

This is essentially the reason for May’s “and” in the title “To Be and not To Be” of this very chapter we are reflecting on here. In short Non-Being is an inseparable part of Being. Let us quote more fully from our learned and wise author here:



To grasp what it means to exist, one needs to grasp the fact that one might not exist, that he treads at every moment on the sharp edge of possible annihilation and can never escape the fact that death will arrive at some unknown moment in the future. Existence, never automatic, not only can be sloughed off and forfeited but is indeed at every instant threatened by nonbeing. Without this awareness of nonbeing – that is, awareness to the threats to one’s being, in death, anxiety, and the less dramatic but persistent threats of loss of potentialities in conformism – existence is vapid, unreal and characterized by lack of concrete self-awareness. But with the confronting of nonbeing, existence takes on a vitality and immediacy, and the individual experiences a heightened consciousness of himself, his world, and others around him.

The above quotation is profound and wise and must be contemplated several or more times to assimilate the wisdom the author is both exploring and communicating. It is profound and philosophically consistent in an ontological sense. It is also wise on a lived-life level, at a meditative and contemplative level, at a Buddhist level as it were.

I find it hard to come up with my own reflections on this passage, but what follows is a small attempt at so doing. Life involves risk, and without risk it just simply would not be living at all or Being at all. Or, put it another way, life would be simply no fun without risk, and risk by definition implies the possibility of injury, even extinction. Take the young child who wishes to learn to ride a bicycle, to learn to swim, to learn to play any sport that involves physical contact – he or she needs to take risks, or engage with Non-Being. Take any person who wishes to learn to drive. Then, say take the risk of driving in another country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. Without risk, there simply would be no living, in fact no Being at all in the deep sense. So to live means to embrace risk, and risk essentially presupposes the possibility of failure, pain and even possible extinction. If there were no risks, no fear of possible extinction, if we could do everything automatically without the risk of pain, there would then be no real life, no real living, and no real Being. We would be little more than machines or automata.

All art, all literature, all music, in fact all the cultural characteristics of various societies have all come about due to the polar tension of opposites, that is, due to the essential, or perhaps more correctly the existential interplay of the polar opposites of Being and Non-Being. It is in the interplay of both Being and Non-Being that all the creative arts and all the creative sciences and even the natural sciences, which I assume to be also creative, have emerged.

Freud was fundamentally aware of both these poles in our lived existence. He called Being by the name Eros or more correctly Libido and Non-Being by the name Thanatos (Death). For him there were two drives, one the drive to life, i.e., Eros or Libido and two, its polar counterpart, the drive to death or the death drive, namely Thanatos. May is once again interesting on Freud’s concept of the death instinct. Let’s listen once again to his wise words:

The concept of the death instinct is an excellent example of the point that Freud went beyond technical reason and tried to keep open the tragic dimension of life. His emphasis on the inevitability of hostility, aggression and self-destructiveness in existence also, from one standpoint, has this meaning. (Ibid., p.106)

In summary, then, we may say with all the existential analysts that they hold that confronting death gives the most positive reality to life itself. It makes my individual existence real, absolute and concrete. In the end of the day I am aware of one stark certainty and that is that I am going to die, and this awareness is never something morbid, morose or creepy. Rather, it is, in fact, liberating and freeing of the soul in a great and profound sense. In fact, it gives my everyday existence a new and deeper value, or as May puts it “an absolute value.” (Ibid., p. 107)

As I have stated before in these pages, it is death and not sex that is the big repression of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Or to put it in Marcel’s or May’s more philosophical terms, the great repression is that of ontology itself or of Being and its necessary counterpart Non-Being.

I will finish this post with a quotation May takes from his friend the great existential theologian Paul Tillich. It is a sobering but rewarding thought to reflect on daily. One could do worse than adopt it as a personal motto:
“The self-affirmation of a being is the stronger the more nonbeing it can take into itself.” (Quoted ibid., p. 108)

Amazing May 17

Being and Non-Being 2


A different class of Realities

As to what reality is philosophers and physicists disagree among themselves and with each other. Be that as it may, what concerns us here is what precisely Being is on the one hand and indeed also what precisely Non-being is or is not on the other. May informs us that “being” belongs to that class of realities, like “love” and “consciousness” which we really cannot subdivide or boil down into different parts. In fact, we cannot abstract them at all without losing precisely what we set out to study in the first place. Needless to say, this does not relieve us from the responsibility of trying to understand and describe them, even if we cannot rigidly define them.

May quotes the French existential philosopher, Gabriel Marcel who commented that in modern culture what was lacking or indeed repressed was in fact a sense of Being, a vibrant ontology. We have lost our sense of being, Marcel argues, and consequently a vibrant sense of our own identity and meaning in the world because firstly we subordinate our being to our function in the world. We know ourselves as doctors, dentists, carpenters, mechanics, shop assistants, bus drivers or taxi drivers or by whatever economic function we hold in the world of everyday survival. Secondly, this modern world has “mass collectivist trends” and “widespread conformist tendencies” which dull anyone’s sense of his/her own being.

The Whole is greater than the Sum of its Parts

While May does not use the title I have quoted immediately above these words, the sense behind them is exactly what he means by encountering the person in his/her total Being or Dasein. I have capitalised these words for my purposes here, not May. In like manner, this is what Gabriel Marcel meant when he stated that when traditional psychoanalysis had done its best with a patient by isolating all the suppressed drives and instincts, it had dealt with everything except the person’s Being. A person’s Being simply cannot be reduced to its constituent parts.

The term the existentialist therapists use for the distinctive character of human existence is Dasein. Binswanger, Kuhn and others designate their schools as Daseinsanalyse. Da is the German for there and Sein means Being. The patient or the significant other is the Being who is literally there in all his reality, totality, uniqueness and authenticity. He/she is the Being who can be conscious of, and therefore responsible for, his/her existence. Existentialists talk about humankind as “Being in itself” and “Being for itself.” In other words he/she is a Being who can choose for himself/herself. His existing involves choosing or freedom. Also, to this extent man shapes the project which is existentially his lived life, as Sartre would phrase it.

Being must be understood, May argues, as a verb part, as a present participle. This implies that the person is in the process of actually being. Being for May, and indeed for all the existentialists, implies process and potential or “potentia” to give it its Latin form. Existentially, this implies that Being is a Becoming. Being is something akin to the “acorn” in so far as this latter contains all the potential of becoming an oak tree. Let us listen to May’s words here:

We can understand another human being only as we see what he is moving toward, what he is becoming and we can know ourselves only as we “project our potential into action.” The significant tense for human beings is thus the future - that is to say, the critical question is what I am pointing toward, what I will be in the immediate future. (Ibid., p. 97)

Again, May goes on to quote a rather wonderful and beautiful passage from Pascal where the latter comments on the human being’s awareness of his own mortality which existentially (my word, obviously not Pascal’s) separates him out from his fellow unself-conscious creatures. Because this passage is so beautiful, and so existential, dare I use this word yet again, that it is worth re-quoting here:

Man is only a reed, the feeblest reed in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the entire universe to arm itself in order to annihilate him: a vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But were the universe to crush him, man would yet be more noble than that which slays him, because he knows that he dies, and the advantage that the universe has over him, of this the universe knows nothing. (Quoted ibid., p.98)

Descartes got it wrong. He put the cart before the horse literally. For the existentialist it is never “I think, therefore I am.” It is always “I am, therefore I think, I feel and I will.” Indeed, it might be something like, “I am, therefore, I am a unique and authentic holistic Being, thinking, feeling and acting as a unity.” This last is obviously contrived and somewhat over-wrought as a statement, but nevertheless I believe it makes the point I am striving to express.

The “I-am-ness” of Being

The above subtitle is my awkwardness of expression, not May’s, but I cannot at the moment find a more suitable expression for what I wish to write about here in relationship to one’s own experience of being a subject or a Being.

(i) May points out that the patient/client’s experience of “I am“ is certainly anything but a solution to a person’s problems. Rather it is the precondition for the person’s working out of that solution for himself or herself.

(ii) The “I am” experience is an important step or milestone on the road to self-awareness and self-consciousness. It is a grasping of oneself at the very level of the Dasein, that Being actually, physically and really there with the significant other or with the therapist. The patient/client must do this grasping, and it can never be given to him/her by any therapist no matter how good. May says that such has been the major error of some therapies like “relationship therapy.”

(iii) May then makes a very interesting point that Being or the “I am” experience can never be reduced to introjections of social or ethical norms. This is what Nietzsche meant when he used the phrase “beyond good and evil.” To the extent that my sense of existence is authentic, it is precisely not what others have told me.

(iv) The “I am” experience is simply not a phase in the development of the ego. In fact the “I am” experience occurs at a more fundamental level of Being which is precisely the very conditions for the ego to grow and develop. Unlike the ego the sense of Being refers to one’s whole experience, unconscious as well as conscious. The ego is the subject of the subject-object relationship, whereas Being per se or in itself is logically prior to this very dichotomy. A contemporary trend in society to inflate the ego beyond its true role is in itself a symptom of the repression of Being, the repression of our sense of any ontological reality.



To be continued

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Amazing May 16

Being and Non-Being 1


This brings me back years to when I was first studying philosophy in Mater Dei Institute here in Dublin. It was my first introduction to ontology or the philosophy of being. However, as a young man of eighteen years plus, it was really all over my head. Like all young scholars, one learned it all off by heart for one’s essays and exams. I was, of course, familiar with Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy which he puts in Hamlet’s mouth, viz., “To be or not to be, // That is the question// Whether it is nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune etc.” With our teacher, Mr Michael McLoughlin, we ploughed through that wonderful speech and savoured the richness of Elizabethan English at its best. That this fine speech was Hamlet ‘s contemplating whether or not he would take his own life was an eye-opener for me back then as suicide was not an issue then openly discussed. The erudite and wise teacher, informed us that anyone of us was capable of so doing, and also, like Hamlet, capable of murdering another human being. We were young and innocent back then at school when, in Ireland, we were not subject to the age of information being blasted at us from all sides. Much has changed since then. Youngsters in Ireland are now as well educated, as street wise, as open to the multi-faceted influences from all angles through the internet and other mass media as their counterparts anywhere in the modern world.



To Be and not To Be

This is May’s title for chapter 6 of his book The Discovery of Being. However, the conjunction “and” instead of “or” is very significant because, unlike Shakespeare we are not contemplating the choice of whether to take one’s life or not. Rather, we are about to contemplate the healthy tension between Being and its counterpart Non-Being in any ontology worth its salt.

Encountering the Other

This is where May starts. He begins his philosophical contemplation by rooting his ontology in a practical therapeutic encounter with another human being. What does it mean to so encounter another? I hasten to add that we can take any real encounter outside the therapeutic process as our kick-off point as that is just as valid an encounter as the former in virtue of its being real. Here, we are involved in a one-to-one real encounter of one being with another being where each of us is Dasein – meaning the being literally placed or “thrown” there in front of the other. The nature of such an existential encounter means that in the case of the therapist he/she has to take the human person in front of him/her as an authentic and real human being, having no prior judgements or prejudices in his/her own mind.

I have already referred before to the fact that such encounters were practised early in psychiatry by the likes of Dr. Ronnie Laing and other great psychiatrists. They took the patient in front of them as human beings worth encountering, rather than as cases who exhibited such and such a combination of symptoms. Here May opines that “The data we learned about the patient may have been accurate and well worth learning. But the point rather is that the grasping of the being of the other person occurs on a different level from our knowledge of the specific things about him.” (Op.cit., p.92, May’s italics)

In line, then, with existential psychotherapy, or indeed, I should imagine all good psychotherapeutic approaches that the knowledge a counsellor or therapist has about a client must always be subordinated to the overarching fact of his actual existence. May also refers to the Greek and Hebrew understandings of the verb “to know” which in both languages has a close etymological relationship with the verb “to love.” Ludwig Binswanger calls such a deep knowing the “dual mode” of encountering the other.

A real encounter with another human being can be awe-inspiring or anxiety-provoking or elevating or ground-shaking. In can be any of these things if and only if it is real. Obviously, it will be none of these things if it is not real or if it is merely superficial. Sartre says that another human being can never be reduced to a bundle of “original data.” I think we would all agree with that, unless we are total materialists.

Our Obsession with Measuring and Counting

Ever since I read the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, I have been quite taken with his empiricism, that is, if something is actual or real it has to be measured on the senses somehow. Admittedly, I only read the learned gentleman in college book summaries etc. However, our lecturers were good, and most had wrestled with his works for many years. Today’s insights from physics, and especially from quantum physics would suggest that not everything is precisely measurable and that even the observer interferes with the data. However, here we want to refer to things in their wholeness as it were. I am at one with May in the following observations:

It is interesting that the term mystic is used in this derogatory sense to mean anything that we cannot segmentize or counted. The odd belief prevails in our culture that a thing or experience is not real if we cannot make it mathematical, and somehow it must be real if we can reduce it to numbers. But this means making an abstraction of it – mathematics is the abstraction par excellence, which is indeed its glory and the reason for its great usefulness. Modern Western man thus finds himself in a strange situation, after reducing something to an abstraction, of having then to persuade himself that it is real. This has much to do with the sense of isolation and loneliness which is endemic in modern Western world; for the only experience we let ourselves believe in as real is that which precisely is not. Thus we deny the reality of our own experience. The term mystic in this disparaging sense, is generally used in the sense of obscurantism; certainly avoiding an issue by derogation is only to obscure it. (Ibid., p.94-95)

Apologies for quoting such a long passage, but I believe it is so brilliantly put and so well expressed and sums up a lot about what the existential approach to psychotherapy is not and cannot be. The existential approach takes all human experiences as legitimate experiences of the real human being there in front of one – the Dasein – and treats the other as real, authentic and total in itself. This is the being of the other, irreducible to facts, figures or symptoms, though these will of course be important data to aid diagnosis and hopefully recovery.

As regards mysticism per se, it is interesting to point out that it was always treated with suspicion by the institutional churches because it meant a type of primacy of experience by which the ordinary being could commune with his/her maker. Obviously, this type of thing would be suspect as it took control out of the hands of the church which felt, and probably still feels, that it has the authority and power to dispense God’s bounties to the ordinary souls. As I grow older I now realise that churches, no matter of what denomination, are all about power and control over their members rather than liberating them to engage with the ground of their own being whether that be God, or gods, or N0-God or an impersonal principle of life. I would look upon myself as an agnostic who loves meditating and all things related to such activity from Buddhist to Christian to agnostic approaches. If it helps, I use it.

What May is at here, to my mind, is disabusing the minds of his readers of the contemporary obsession with measuring, counting, dissecting and reacquainting us with a more holistic way of encountering others, and indeed reality per se as a unity, as a whole or as a totality in itself. Perhaps for a believer, that can be boiled down (or even up) to a reality called God for him or her; for a non-believer, perhaps such an encounter with reality can be represented as an encounter with the impersonal force behind the universe. For the other sitting in front of us that encounter is a real meeting with another human being in his/her entirety or wholeness or totality of being as an authentic and real other. It is also an encounter with the real Self, with one’s very soul.

By way of conclusion, I should like to state that when human beings first became self-conscious and began to live in communities from which all great cultures grew, their primacy of experience or of encounter with reality was the most important experience anyone could have. That primacy of experience is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about all his life, both in his prose and in his poetry. It was essentially what he referred to when as a young boy his father brought him out along the country lanes and fields at night to observe the night sky. The older man referred to how as a young boy his mind had “become habituated to the vast.” Whether that is the vast in the macro-world of ever-expanding space beyond us or the vast in the ever-expanding space within us as we go ever deeper in depth psychology. Maybe quantum physics could link these two vasts within and without? Who knows?

Mysticism, I believe, is all about the primacy of our experiences over analysis. It certainly is never about denying such analysis. True mysticism will use figures and analyses to bolster up its primacy and give the facts soul as it were. Facts from the Dickensian Gradgrind School, uncoupled from more edifying real encounters with mystery, will only end up dehumanizing us and in the end driving us insane.



To be continued.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Amazing May 15


May’s insights into Freud


In fairness to May, I must point out that he does not write directly on Sigmund Freud. He had after all done that many times. What he does here in The Discovery of Being is to describe how Freud reflects or builds on some of Nietzsche’s insights. He starts with the erudite evaluation of Nietzsche by the father of psychoanalysis: Nietzsche had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.” (Quoted op. cit., p. 83) This is praise indeed coming from someone of Freud’s standing, and from someone who had a great knowledge of his own self. May is also at pains to point out that it does not detract from the genius of Freud to note that almost all of the specific ideas which later appeared in psychoanalysis could be “found in Nietzsche in greater breadth and in Kierkegaard in greater depth.” (Ibid., p. 84)

Freud’s Scientific Genius

Freud was a psychiatrist who had spent some six months studying under the great neurologist Dr. Charcot in Paris, so he valued the scientific method highly. If his later theories appear somewhat speculative, it was not for want of awareness of both the strengths and limitations of science. In fact, controversially Freud had always claimed that psychoanalysis was scientific. I have discussed this issue in these posts before when I was discussing Freud at some considerable length.

Freud’s achievement according to May was in his translating the depth-psychological insights of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche into scientific terms. Freud was most suited to this task given his training as a doctor and some time in neurology, the fact that he had a highly objective temperament and was capable of taking the infinite pains necessary for such systematic work.

Freud’s Understanding of Reason

Freud had a rather wide understanding of reason one which can be traced back to the Enlightenment. I will give hereunder May’s description of this matter:

Freud had a concept of reason which came directly from the Enlightenment – namely, “ecstatic reason.” And he equated this with science. This use of reason involves, as seen in Spinoza and other thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a confidence that reason can by itself comprehend all problems. But those thinkers were using reason as including the capacity to transcend the immediate situation, to grasp the whole, and such functions as intuition, insight, and poetic perception were not rigidly excluded. The concept also embraced ethics: reason in the Enlightenment meant justice. (Ibid., p. 85)

As Tillich, amongst others, argues much of the ecstatic character of reason had been lost, and it was reduced to the narrower confines of logic or to technical or mathematical reasoning. This was the kind of reason which both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche vehemently and constantly attacked.

In short, Freud’s greatest contribution was his effort to overcome the fragmentation of man by bringing man’s irrational tendencies into the light; making the unconscious conscious as it were, and finally bringing split-off and repressed parts of the personality into consciousness and acceptance. While Freud tried to rehabilitate the Enlightenment understanding of reason, unfortunately he left himself wide open also to a narrow technical understanding of reason also. Herein lies a deep ambiguity, perhaps more so on the part of his followers and interpreters than on his own part.

The crucial significance of the existential psychotherapy movement lies in the fact that it is a protest movement against the tendency to identify psychotherapy with technical reason. As May puts it, “It stands for basing psychotherapy on an understanding of what makes man a being; it stands for defining neurosis in terms of what destroys man’s capacity to fulfil his own being.” (Ibid., p. 87)

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche feared the subordination of reason to technical problems, and that such a subordination would mean that humankind would become little more than the image of a machine like de la Mettrie had argued at the height of the French Enlightenment. That’s why for them pain, anxiety (angst), finitude, mortality, suffering in all its dimensions were ontological rather than psychological problems – they were problems that were part and parcel of man’s very nature as a human being. That’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that science was becoming a factory, and the result would be ethical nihilism.

If Freud means anything, and his contribution to psychotherapy by way of his psychoanalysis and his major writings mean some little is that it is indeed possible to have a science of man which “does not fragmentize man and destroy his humanity at the same moment it studied him. It unites science and ontology.” (Ibid., p. 88)