Posts Tagged ‘etymology’

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy student. Now I might be somewhat biased, but in my opinion, a philosophical training is an optimum preparation for psychotherapy training. This is no surprise when you consider that philosophy originally arose as an expression of humanity’s need to answer exactly the kinds of Big Questions that sit at the heart of much human suffering: how do I know the world is real? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What *is* life?

For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was already a form of therapy. I translate philosophy as love of wisdom, philo being the love part, and sophia being the wisdom part. It can be rendered as love of knowledge, but I think this fails to capture the point of engaging in philosophy in the first place.

Philosophy isn’t about knowing stuff; it’s about becoming wise. If philosophical insight doesn’t lead to an enriched sense of being, then it is a grape that has withered on the vine. One of my most painful experiences during my studies of philosophy was realising that a disturbing proportion of academic philosophy was constituted of sour grapes! The main problem is that philosophy has been split in the West into the analytical or anglo-american tradition and the continental tradition. The former focuses on intellect, the latter on intuition.

In my opinion, wisdom is a fusion of the two. Possibly a discussion for another day.

One of the unique challenges about being a philosophy student is that every other student thinks they know what philosophy is. This invariably gets expressed in the following dialogue:

Other: So what are you studying?
Me: Philosophy.
Other: Ahhhhh, but if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?
Me: No, it doesn’t.
Other: … I need to go over there now.

There is a good reason for asking a question as preposterous as ‘if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?’. Which, of course, is to provoke the student into thinking about their assumptions. The point in this case being that sound is a sensation, and that sensation is created by the creature that experiences that sensation. When a tree falls in the forest, it makes vibrations in the air; these vibrations need to be converted into the experience of sound by one with ears to hear. If Alfred the Evil Scientist were to eradicate all beings capable of hearing from the universe, there would be no such thing as sound.

The point of the thought experiment is to provoke serious thought about the nature of sensation, and this is very important for the practice of psychotherapy. Has it occurred to you, for example, that absolutely everything you experience is your own creation? Seriously. I can hear a car’s engine right now. That means that vibrations in the air have reached my ear, vibrated some sensitive bones, rippled through some fluid, been converted into electric impulses, then been converted into the experience of sound by my brain.

Question: where is the sound of the car’s engine located?

Answer 1: In the car’s engine.
Answer 2: In the stretch of air between the car’s engine and my ear.
Answer 3: In my ear.
Answer 4: In my brain.

In a way, sound is located in all four places because all four places are needed in order for sound to be possible. The experience of sound, though, is located in my brain. I can locate with a good degree of accuracy where the source of the sound is, and experience the sound as existing over there. But that’s projection; I experience as coming from something else what is actually being created by me. Yes, the car’s engine is vibrating the air, but the form the experience takes is my creation. Hence why we can only hear sound waves within a certain range of frequencies; our auditory equipment has physical limits that shape what it is possible for us to experience.

Vibrations are not sound; vibrations are one causal factor in the creation of sound. If you experience sound in your dreams, where are the vibrations? Nowhere; you create the experience of sound.

This is why the gestalt idea of need configuring the field is so important; we create our experience of our environment. The experience we create is heavily shaped by our needs. As we make our way through the world we live in, there is an infinite scope for what could come to our attention. So why is it that we focus our attention on this thing here rather than that thing over there? Why am I writing a blog post about the link between philosophy and psychotherapy rather than some other subject? Why am I writing a blog post rather than doing one of a myriad other things that are possible for me right now? And so on.

The fundamental lesson of the tree falling in the forest is the insight that I create my experience of the world. Now, if you really want to explode your mind a second, just take a look around you. Everything you’re seeing is your own creation. Light has entered your eyes, impacted your retinas, been converted into electric impulses that have fired along your optical nerves into your brain where you have converted those impulses into the experience of sight.

The reason we get such a sense of awe and majesty when we stand in a high place and see a sprawling panoramic is, I think, because at some level we know that we are creating that panoramic for ourselves. Every experience we have is our own creation. Which means that the possibilities available to us at any given time are also our own creation. Philosophers get lost in academic wrangles about technical points because that’s what they need to do to sustain an academic career (publish or perish as the saying goes). The real purpose of philosophy is to be a vehicle by which, through contemplation, we arrive at insight, wisdom, and peace.

That said, every insight raises more questions. Such as, if I create my own experience, then what is the nature of the external source of that experience and how can I know that there is one? Gestalt’s answer is that all experience occurs at the contact boundary between my self and my environment. No vibrations, no sound. No creature capable of hearing, no sound. Not only do both exist together, but one cannot exist without the other. The very idea of vibrations in the air necessitates the existence of something that can conceive of such a notion. In order to conceive of such a notion, some phenomena must provoke the conception of such a notion. The two cannot be pulled apart.

Did you ever do the bar magnet and iron filings experiment at school? You take a bar magnet and place a piece of plain paper on top. Then you sprinkle iron filings over the paper. This makes the bar’s magnetic field visible.

This provides an excellent example of the contact boundary because it’s only possible to know of a field by giving shape to it, and the shape the field takes is determined in equal measure by the nature of the field and the nature of the medium the field is influencing. The two make contact and produce an experiential skin. And that gives rise to the gestalt concept of contact. Nothing has a ‘true nature in and of itself’ because nothing exists in and of itself, everything exists in, and is shaped by, some context.

Even the laws of physics fail to express the true nature of an objective reality independent of human experience. The very idea of a human being defining something that is independent of human experience is actually quite amusing because the very act of definition demonstrates the subjectivity of the thing defined; we must necessarily define it in human terms.

And that means that reality, human reality, isn’t just relative; it’s relational.


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Theory. For me, theoretical concepts are like this special collection of toys that I can take with me wherever I go. The particular toy I’d like to play with today is Melanie Klein‘s concept of splitting (or rather, her development of the concept). I’m going to explore this with reference to the current coalition Government, and particularly in reference to the absolute hammering the Lib Dems took in the recent Local Government elections.

As psychoanalytic concepts are essentially myths psychoanalysts have created to convince themselves they know what they’re doing, I take full poetic licence to have no idea what I’m actually talking about (this is not a slight against psychoanalysts, the same holds true for gestalt concepts).

In a nutshell, I’d sum up splitting like this:

Splitting is when you deal with what you don’t like by pretending it’s not there.

That’s basically it. In gestalt terms, splitting is about tinkering with your awareness. Douglas Adams knew all about splitting when he wrote about a spaceship hiding in plain view disguised as an Italian restaurant; its shield worked on the principle that people won’t see what they’re not prepared to see. They split it off from their awareness (see what I did there? ‘They’ split it off, nothing to do with me!). And with good reason. Usually, pretending it’s not there involves putting it somewhere else.

If I’m invested in an image of myself as ‘peaceful’, for example, then angry feelings could threaten that image. Rather than wrestle with the contradiction and conclude that being peaceful is actually just one possible choice that I can make at any given moment, I can avoid the conflict by splitting off angry feelings and pretending they belong to someone else. That guy across the street is looking at me funny; my wife is pissed at me for no good reason; why are there so many damn angry people walking around? If they were all peaceful like me the world would be a better place! And so on.

For example, suppose your Government were to illegally raid a compound in another country in order to assassinate a suspected perpetrator of terrorist attacks who had never actually been tried by a court of law. You’d be forced to conclude that your Government had violated another nation’s sovereignty as well as the key democratic principle of the rule of law. But that would contradict the idea that your Government is a democracy and a force for good in the world. How to deal with this conflict? Take the negative and positive aspects of your Government, split them apart, keep the positive aspects in view, and throw away the negative ones.

That is pathological splitting. The inability to tolerate conflicting emotions/perspectives of something valued, leading to the splitting off from awareness of the unfavoured polarity. Anything that might be likable about Osama bin Laden is split off to avoid contradicting his arch-villain persona. Anything that might be sinister about the Government is split off to avoid contradicting the idea that they’re protecting us, that it’s all for our own good.

That wasn’t the example I was intending to use, but my fingertips seem to have a life of their own when I start typing (figure of speech), and I’m still quite affronted that a large number of people celebrated the assassination (in my opinion; the US Attorney General disagrees) of a fellow human being by dancing in the streets.

I’ll walk away from that one for now because, frankly, it’s just too big for a post about splitting. However, for bitterly ironic amusement value, consider that the word assassin is taken from “a fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect of the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’… with a reputation for murdering opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by eating hashish”. Brilliant.

Scaling down, I’d like to focus on the coalition.

Klein’s development of the idea of splitting is part of her wider theory of child development, and encapsulated in what is known as object relations theory. I dislike this term and the language of object relations generally for reducing human interactions to an internal drama of psychic objects; by definition, the language is objectifying. However, there is an idea here so important that it drives current speculation that the Lib Dems will be wiped out at the next general election; not the Conservatives who are the senior partner of the coalition and the driving force for the cuts that the Lib Dems are being punished for.

My hypothesis is that the conservatives don’t need to make a whipping boy out of Nick Clegg. In point of fact, they can’t make a whipping boy out of Nick Clegg, not unless there’s a significant body of people who are willing to play along. That is, there needs to be genuine rage, and a genuine hook for people to hang it on. Try making a whipping boy out of Mother Teresa; for most people, the hooks just aren’t there, she’s not a viable recipient for most people’s rage.

Klein theorised that children experience the world in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ie things are either entirely good or entirely bad. In the classic computer game mentality of much psychoanalytic theory, this is a stage of development that must be completed by successfully learning that things can be both good and bad at the same time. This is the End of Level Boss of the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ level which, once defeated, earns you progression to the next level… the ‘depressive’ position (frankly, I’d prefer a few hours on Streets of Rage, but that’s psychoanalysis for you).

The point being that the world is split by the child into good stuff and bad stuff, and the child’s internal world becomes populated by good objects and bad objects. So, mother meets your needs = good mother. Mother fails to meet your needs = bad mother. You internalise two separate mothers, the good mother and the bad mother; cue literary reference to wicked step-mothers in fairy tales.

I don’t buy object relations theory, but I do buy Klein’s idea of splitting someone into a good version and a bad version (I don’t think children internalise good and bad objects; I think children internalise holistically and learn to split their awareness through necessity). Applying the field theory formula (behaviour is a function of a person in some context), this kind of good/bad splitting is all about being in a situation in which only one side of the polarity is allowable. Children quickly learn when their parents can’t tolerate being the bad guy, and the roles of good guy/bad guy can often be divided up between parents and permanently fixed. Furthermore, the whole family can collude with the idea of there being a ‘golden child’ and a ‘black sheep’; the family selects people to embody what is good and bad about the family respectively, and then rigorously enforces these roles.

The British people are far from declaring David Cameron their golden child. However, Nick Clegg has stepped spectacularly into the role of black sheep, and I think he achieved this with one fatally symbolic error: a broken promise to students. I know for myself that a broken promise gets the child part of me raging. This isn’t to create a polarity between students/adults and childishness/maturity. Rather, I think that with age comes an accumulation of experiences of broken promises that can lead to a conclusion of ‘that’s the way the world is’ that is symptomatic of much apathy; generally speaking, students (thankfully) haven’t yet been ground into compliance. I was impressed that a large proportion of the student population took to the streets in protest, and am hopeful that a politically active generation is being forged.

This broken promise is important because it was a direct pledge to students ahead of the general election. It sits outside the logic of ‘as a junior partner in coalition we need to make compromises’ because it wasn’t the ‘if we become the Government’ pledge of a manifesto. It was a direct promise: ‘in the next Parliament, we will vote against tuition fees’. There is no better way of becoming the wicked step-mother than by being the coalition partner that breaks promises to young people and then makes excuses for it. Whatever one’s opinion about the Tories, David Cameron hasn’t broken any promises.

Ironically, that makes Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems a more appropriate recipient for the electorate’s rage than David Cameron and the Tories, with the net result that while the Liberal Democrats were taking their worst kicking in the Locals since the 80s, the Tories actually gained seats and Councils as well as successfully shelving electoral reform for the foreseeable future. That is a major Tory victory. And yet both parties are equally responsible for the policies of this Government.

In my opinion, the coalition currently resembles one possible family dynamic that encourages splitting. In this dynamic, one parent is utterly intolerant of being the recipient of negative feelings, while the other parent is excessively tolerant. The end result is that the kids can vent rage at one parent but can’t vent rage at the other; so one parent carries the rage for both.

Nick Clegg seems to believe in the new politics of compromise to such an extent that he has been excessively tolerant, whereas David Cameron is rapidly becoming famous for his lack of tolerance of criticism. If the Yes to AV campaign had demonised David Cameron the way No to AV demonised Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat heads would have rolled. It is very clear to all concerned, as it is in families, what the balance of power is between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. And, under Parliamentary convention, Ministerial positions are in the gift of the Prime Minister; Nick Clegg has no power to make ministers beyond that given to him by the Prime Minister.

How do I tie all this up with a gestalt-relevant conclusion about splitting? Like so:

In gestalt, confluence is a way of modifying contact with something by merging with it. The archetypal example is the married couple who no longer talk in terms of ‘I’ but in terms of ‘we’; husband and wife merge identities into a single identity and contact between them is lost. Hence the Daily Mail was able to create Cleggeron.

Ironically, merger encourages splitting because now Nick Clegg can carry not only the rage justifiably aimed at his broken promise, but all the anti-Tory rage as well, While David Cameron can happily carry whatever perceived benefits the Coalition’s policies produce. And all this with the end result that anti-Tory rage has actually strengthened the Tory position by weakening the Lib Dems’ Local Government base.

The merger of confluence never results in an even distribution of qualities. Instead, the merged couple polarise. This makes sense when you consider that, in confluence, the two people count as one person; so when you put the two polarities together, you get an evenly distributed whole. The reality is, there isn’t one person, there’s two, hence in real terms there is splitting and polarisation.

So the splitting polarises Cameron as powerful, and Clegg as weak. In practice, that means Cleggeron is a whole person; he is both powerful and weak, just like a whole person is at once powerful and weak. But Cleggeron is a confluent illusion. The reality is that there are two people, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and they are both powerful and weak.

David Cameron can’t pass legislation without Nick Clegg whipping his MPs; that is an exceptionally weak position for a Prime Minister to be in. On the other hand, David Cameron decides who gets to be a minister and who doesn’t; a very powerful position. Likewise, Nick Clegg decides who gets to be Prime Minister; an exceptionally powerful position to be in. On the other hand, the only patronage he has is given to him by David Cameron (contrast with Ed Milliband who has full power to create his shadow ministers); a very weak position for a party leader to be in.

‘Cleggeron’ is a confluent illusion, and so is the so-called ‘ConDem Government’. Our Government is a coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Parties; two distinct parties with distinct agendas. Punishing one party doesn’t punish both because ultimately both parties would rather be a majority Government.

In gestalt, the emphasis is on reowning polarities in order to raise awareness of how we actively choose where on the continuum between a given pair of poles we place ourselves. David Cameron can enjoy being the golden child now but he only has to look as far as Thatcher to see how that ends. Likewise, Nick Clegg can play at being the tolerant one but that means he gets all the rage that no one feels able to direct at the Tories; by definition, anti-Tory sentiment isn’t coming from the Tory support base.

By accepting that we encompass the whole of any polarity, we regain lost aspects of ourselves and, again ironically, gain greater choice over who we are at any given time. If I disown my anger, then that is a part of myself that I can’t control because, by definition, I have to pretend it’s not a part of myself in order to maintain the illusion that ‘I’m not an angry person’. In accepting my anger, I get to choose whether to express it or not.

Now clearly David Cameron has a lot invested in not accepting his weakness. But it only takes one person to break a confluence. Imagine how different the Coalition would look if Nick Clegg started accepting how powerful he is…

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It seems to me that there is a bizarre fascination in our current age of explaining present day behaviour by reference to a wholly imagined pre-historic past. Considering the hyper-adaptability of human beings to present situations, it strikes me as odd that one would attempt to explain current behaviour as an evolutionary adaptation to an ancestral environment. Evolutionary psychology; it’s not big, and it’s not clever.

This is, of course, my gestalt bias shining through; in gestalt, the focus is on describing what’s happening in the here and now, not speculations about the there and then. That isn’t to say that the past is unimportant (he who fails to learn from his past is doomed to repeat it and all that). But what’s important about the past in gestalt is the way in which past events are kept active in the present.

Consider armistice day, the holocaust, or the 9/11 attacks; these are events where we ‘keep the memory alive’ through commemoration. The events themselves are over, but their echoes are active present day forces. Jews continue to commemorate Passover specifically in order to keep that ancestral event alive in the present as a mobilising force within their faith. The gestalt bias is against the dry, historical analysis of the event as it happened, and in favour of the electric, living meaning of the event’s active influence in the present.

All of which meanders me in the general direction of emotion and the purpose thereof.

Every theoretical system has its biases, and gestalt is no exception. Along with gestalt’s bias towards here and now experience, I have been thinking recently about gestalt’s bias towards emotion and feeling. There is a general wisdom in gestalt that emotions are Good Things, and that feeling one’s emotions is better than not feeling them. I agree with this outlook but have been fairly vague on why I agree with this outlook. So I have been exploring my thoughts about the nature of emotion in order to arrive at a good understanding of my stance on the matter as distinct from what I’ve simply picked up (ie introjected) through training, practice, supervision, and my own therapy.

What I’ve arrived at is a relatively simple maxim: emotions mobilise situations for action.

A simple maxim, but one that requires some unpacking.

Let’s start with another foray into my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Emotion: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from M.Fr. émotion (16c.), from O.Fr. emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from L. emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (see move). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

And compare with Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Emotion: a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.

Emotions are active forces. Whilst the dictionary definition above captures the sense of strong feelings, it loses much of the background sense of emotional activity. All emotion is bodily activity. That doesn’t mean I reduce emotion to mere ‘chemical imabalance’, only that I recognise the physical basis for the experience of emotion. All emotion involves physical, bodily activity. Hence the background sense of agitation and outward movement expressed in its etymology.

Given that any mobilisation of the body involves a significant investment of energy and resource, the kinds of activity that emotions support deserve attention. This is where simple here and now description of what actually happens comes into its own. What actually happens when someone doesn’t just feel sad but emotes sadly? What happens when someone emotes angrily or expresses fear or hate or love?

What happens is that the situation they are part of responds.

At the heart of gestalt sits field theory, the observation that behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment. In crude terms, my issues are the result of my interactions with my environment, making my behaviour as much an expression of my environment as an expression of myself. I cannot be separated from my environment; at all times, I must exist in some situation or other.

Emotions are distinct from feelings in that where feelings are sensations, emotions are actions that arise out of feelings. There is a notable difference between feeling angry and being angry. That difference is physical activity. Feeling angry is becoming aware of a certain range of sensations that make a range of activity possible. Being angry is an elevation of those potentials into actual bodily expression.

The end result, if a feeling is allowed to grow into an emotion, is that some outward movement is made. Expressions of anger tend to involve raised voices, growling noises, and hitting things. Expressions of sadness tend to involve fallen faces, shedding tears and softer voices. And both have different effects on the situation a person exists within.

When someone cries with sadness, the most common supportive responses tend to be to offer comfort and to ask what’s wrong. The emotion of sadness mobilises the situation for supportive action. When someone growls with anger, again a common response is to find out what’s going on, what’s got that person mad. Where there’s a clear physical threat, the situation can then divide into support for physical violence and peacemaking. Anger mobilises the situation for conflictive action and resolution.

These are simplified examples but my general point is that emotion isn’t just about feeling something in a private internal world. Emotion is physical activity that gets responded to; British culture may be commonly described as generally repressive of emotional expression but even that is clearly a response. And a very instructive response. Where emotional expression meets with hostility and repression the lesson is clear: there is no support for your feelings here, this situation will not mobilise to support you. Other strategies then have to be found for dealing with forbidden feelings without emoting them.

So, how does this underpin my opinion that emotions are Good Things?

Because emotional expression allows for an open and honest expression of need. The result of suppressing emotion isn’t that the feelings out of which emotions arise go away (though we may block our awareness of them); the result is that we find different ways of coping with them that, to a greater or lesser extent, result in our genuine needs being frustrated. And repeatedly frustrated needs become cravings that continue to seek completion in the present out of our awareness.

I say open and honest because I’m not suggesting that emotional expression should always result in a meeting of needs. Rather, it allows for open and honest negotiation, based on the complex needs of other people, and the range of support available at the time. Emotional expression simply allows people to be aware of the range of need in a given situation. When emotions are suppressed, the underlying needs continue to seek completion but secretly and manipulatively.

Feeling one’s emotions instead of not feeling one’s emotions means knowing what one needs instead of not knowing what one needs. Furthermore, being able to express emotions means that when what you need is available, you will be able to get it. When emotions are suppressed to the point that feelings give rise to an automatic shutting down of emotive activity, it becomes impossible for the original need to be met. Think of your need as sitting in a room with a locked door; it isn’t enough to know intellectually what’s behind the door and what it needs. At some point, to be truly satisfied, the door has to be opened to allow what’s needed to get through. Feeling is becoming aware of the need behind the door; emotion is opening the door.

In order to enjoy the taste of your food, you need to chew it and savour it; physical activity that takes effort. Likewise, in order to enjoy human interaction, to be truly satisfied as a social animal, you need to engage in another physical activity that takes effort; emoting.

So, emotions are Good Things, and their purpose is to mobilise situations for action.

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This post has been moved to The Bristol Therapist: the psychopathology of boredom.

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