Psychology


I do not believe the gods test us. To be fair, I don’t believe in gods. But if you’re going to subscribe to this idea, that life is testing you, then your life is basically one continuous, never ending test that you can’t be graded on.

There is only the decisions we make and that is the sum totality of our being. I wrote this in my journal after an abrupt shift in my personal life and shortly after, I came across the following quote by Carl Jung. He describes a vision he had when delirious and ill:

jung

I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me… Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me… I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am.” (MDR: 290-291)

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rwanda-20-years

The New York Times Magazine is featuring an article with photographs of Rwandans. Each portrait features “a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.” I think these stories of forgiveness can serve as an example to all of us.

The act of forgiveness may not seem like act that benefits oneself. In fact, when one is so wronged, to forgive sometimes seems like an act of self abnegation, especially in the absence of justice, vengeance or some kind of tipping of the scales closer to even. But really, when you truly forgive, even if it is by degrees, you are getting the fuck over yourself. Getting the fuck over your suffering, your wounds, your losses, your former life, your self. Getting the fuck over the fact that because of someone else, because of no good reason, certain things are, and always will be, hurt or dead to you. Getting the fuck over the obscene contingency of life. Forgiveness is no small task.

“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.” – Dominique Ndahimana

My project is an ethical one, but it is also entirely amoral. The difference between morals and ethics is nothing new, but of course, this might strike some as odd as the terms are used synonymously by many. But I have come to see them as radically different in a number of ways.

Morality is a set of rules and behaviours, of shoulds and should nots. Universally agreed upon or largely consensus based dogmatic lines in the sand that the one is willing to die for, or at least, work oneself up into a self righteous indignation when these lines are crossed.

An ethic, as I have said before, is ontological. It is alive, spontaneous and responsive. There can be no predetermined form or set of forms that describe an ethical person like there is for a morally upstanding person.

apocalypse now

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The difference I make may not seem very important but the above quote by Solzhenitsyn illlustrates to me why I make it. With morals, one is tasked to destroy a piece of the heart. One shuns, oppresses, represses etc. aspects of the self that do not fit into one’s idea of what a moral person should be because they are deemed “bad.”

Because ethics is about your being, one’s ethic is can only be a result of integrating all aspects of the self, including the baser, instinctual aspects of ourselves such as aggression, fear and appetite. As such, an ethical person lives wholeheartedly.

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Sometimes, ethics doesn’t look like what you would expect. Ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, which gives a connotation of specificity. I believe everyone’s ethic is personal, and it is probably the closest thing to selfhood I can think of in these postmodern times.

I do not know where my ethical nature has come from. As much as I may try to work with it and analyze it, it remains very much, at its root, an instinctual thing.

Gaia-House-garden-oak-tree

Some people grow up in an environment that nurtures their ethic. Others, having been raised in an ethical void, must forge this out of sheer will and determination. It matters not. An ethic, if strong, is undeniably, beautifully, unique to an individual and that individual’s life experience, regardless of how it is revealed. And an ethic, if strong, will shine through a person.

You have probably met such a person in your life. You will recognize this quality immediately. It need not be loud to have an irrepressible force. You will know them by their liberation for they are truly themselves and cannot be otherwise.

In this way, a human is without limit. To become ethical is to be plunged into the infinite. One is never finished.

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zoe

Today, I’m taking time out to remember an artist from Halifax, Zoe Nudell. She died last week after being struck by a drunk driver at 33 years old.

We were not close, but I have many happy memories of staying with her and her partner when I visited them Halifax with mutual friends. Whenever I met with them, I was always struck by their openness, their kindness. I always looked up to them and say without equivocation that she was one of the most genuine people I have had the opportunity to meet.

They say grief comes in waves. In this way, it reminds me of love. It splits you open and takes you beyond yourself. And the only way I know how to be in love is to submit to it. And so, one submits.

peggy's cove

Peggy’s Cove, 2006

 

Existing in a chronic state of crisis is not an easy place to be. The mind grasps for easy solutions to flee the discomfort and uncertainty. It wants to oversimplify things in an attempt to gain (a false sense of) control.

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I love this yoga mudra because I think it so neatly encapsulates our human tendency to narrow cognitive functioning in the face of a crisis. As this was taught to me, the three fingers represent attraction, repulsion and indifference. These map on nicely to the three primal physiological reactions to an immediate threat: fight, flight or freeze. Extremely useful for emergency situations, life saving actually, but not all that useful for… everything else.

Knowing this has saved me from making pretty dumb decisions in the past. Instead of attacking without thinking, avoiding/running away from shit or becoming numb with apathy, I trash all three approaches and instead, work on being receptive enough to reframe a threatening situation differently and reorient myself along the lines of understanding, honesty, genuine suffering, etc. rather something reactionary. I won’t lie, this process can be fairly unpleasant, but in time, the binds of one’s narrowed perception will loosen. Let it relax wider and wider, and wider still, until the heart speaks. Then you will know the ethical way forward.

Anyways, give the wisdom of this mudra a whirl sometime when you find yourself framing something in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of way. Life is rarely lose-lose.

I recently attended the annual Mind Matters conference, hosted by the Jungian Society and the University of Toronto’s Buddhism and Psychology Students’ Union. Unfortunately, the out-of-town speakers were unable to attend, due to inclement weather, but José Cabezón sent his presentation and a copy of his lecture while Paul Fulton sent a recording.

The year’s theme was desire, of which each presenter gave a very different perspective, although all four had a background in psychology. The entire conference was taped and I believe will be posted on YouTube, so instead of describing what each professor spoke about, I thought I might write briefly about desire in a distinctly modern context. Because it seems to me that desire in modernity is conceived of very narrowly – often in ways that satisfy basic biological drives or in the context of consumer goods – and perhaps because of this narrow view, modern people are in some ways, very lacking in desire. For all our tendencies toward instant gratification from material goods, our neurotic obsession with food, our pervasive preoccupation with sex, we lack a lust for life.

I’m not sure if we can call our modern culture as one of desire so much as a culture of irrational, sometimes rabid, often anxiety-riddled consumption. And sadly, in a kind of puritanical American context, desire becomes twisted into something ugly: addiction, vice, “guilty pleasures” and so on. At best, desire is hijacked into incentive seeking behaviour where we reward or treat ourselves (you deserve it!), a kind of immature mentality in which people are taught to feel entitled to the adult version of a cookie or a gold star simply for behaving well. What happened to ardent desires for more profound, less transient things? A healthy community, or for a deep connection and engagement with nature, or to collaborate in a team? If we cannot yearn for such things the way most people burn with a fervent desire for material (and often unnecessary, disposable) goods, I don’t know how much positive change we can expect to make in the world.

I think the first step to addressing this dearth of more complex, other-oriented desires is to learn about how desire is manufactured in modernity. To start you off, here’s a documentary that was recommended by the president of the Jungian Society about Edward Bernays, father of public relations and population control.

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