In the Hindu religion, indeed, there are three planes of consciousness – the subconscious (instinctive and affective thought): the conscious (ideological and reflexive thought) and the superconscious (intuitive thought and the higher truth).
(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 66)
When I began writing this sequence of posts I thought I knew what it was I wanted to say. As I got half-way through it hit me that I was writing it in a way that missed the most important point of all for me. So, this is now a complete re-write. What was meant as a simple tribute to the value to me of one school of psychotherapy has become something much more complicated. Why shouldn’t that surprise me!
In the Beginning!
To do this properly now I have to go back to the beginning of my psycho-spiritual journey.
After my father died of cancer in 1967, for seven years I anaesthetised myself. As far as I remember I never cried. I can’t check that out because I wrote no journal then.
I gave up smoking immediately, because I didn’t want to die that early, but carried on drinking because I didn’t want to feel. This carried on until 1974.
That was when I had my weekend encounter group experience in London in the early 70s. It was then I first discovered the existence of an intense pain within me, previously undetectable beneath an invisible threshold I didn’t even suspect existed.
This is what happened as I recall it.
I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the bare walls and uncarpeted steps. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and/or pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there. The process was blended from at least two approaches popular at the time: Primal Therapy and Reichian Therapy.
Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.
Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.
It was an Emily Dickinson moment:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .
I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.
Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.
I was still largely blind to my predicament. I had no idea what this well of tears signified. Connecting with it rather than concreting it over was hugely important, though. It showed me previously unsuspected depths to my own mind, even if what they meant remained a mystery. And what I could do about it was still unclear.
My move from teaching into mental health marked the next rung on the ladder, but not for any obvious reason that I could have guessed at in advance.
When I began working in the field of mental health, the main problem for me was not the clients but the staff. The tensions ran very high, so high in fact that at the end of about eighteen months or so, of three people who had been newly taken on at the same time, one of us had had a heart attack and the other two were heading for the exit as fast as possible. One of those two, after leaving, could not pass by the place he had worked without his heart racing at the memory of working there.
Things were so intense initially that I needed two glasses of wine to calm me down when I got back home after a bad day.
I began reading self-help books to assist me in managing the stress. I can still remember one key insight, though I’ve no idea now where I read it. The book raised the question of how we should deal with intense reactions to other people’s behaviour. It asked, ‘Why do we give other people so much power over our own minds?’ This was an early encounter with Frankl’s insight that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it.
Sad as it seems, that was a revelation to me. I’d thought that reactions were the almost inevitable consequences of a stimulus.
I needed more than that book though to help.
Transactional Analysis (TA), the creation of Eric Berne, proved to be one of the keys for me to managing this testing situation. I was determined that this bad experience would not drive me out of the career I had set my heart on pursuing.
I attended a TA group for 18 months or so.
It helped me see that interactions between people often took the form of a ‘game.’ In this brief overview I will only explain enough to convey the flavour of this model in simple form: for a deeper understanding a good place to start would be Stan Woolams and Michael Brown’s TA: the total handbook of transactional analysis.
Games are sequences of interactions with a pay off. One person would be unconsciously trying to hook another person into a kind of social dance to their advantage. This is done by acting in a way that consciously and superficially communicates a harmless message, but which also carries a second message beneath its surface with a potentially destructive effect. For example, ‘Can I help you?’ could be an honest offer of assistance. However, if the speaker holds the unconscious opinion that the person he is speaking to is a worthless loser, this is the potential start of a game.
To do this they would be acting in a way shaped by unconscious negative patterns of acquired behaviour called scripts, which drive them to try and trigger similar states in others.
Scripts are unconscious patterns of action and reaction, either emotional or cognitive, that lead us to feel or think things and which end up with us starting and/or joining in a destructive dance. The aim of the game is for one of the participants to get a pay-off. This confirms that we are bad or useless, or at least that they are better than us, and wins the game. TA defines these kinds of end results as states of being I’m OK: You’re not OK or even, if the instigators are quite damaged themselves I’m not OK: You’re not OK, or even, if their damage is worse still, I’m not OK: You’re OK. The only acceptable position is I’m OK: You’re OK.
Most of us, when we start off, are not in a good place to keep clear of these games. The Adult part of us, as TA describes it, is contaminated by negative messages we have acquired usually in childhood or perhaps from later traumatic undermining experiences. That’s what the diagram on the left is meant to illustrate. We can’t think clearly or constructively because we have a critical parent shouting at us in our heads and a negative adapted child (ie one who has bought into all this criticism and thinks its true) weeping and wailing inside us, drowning out any calm and sensible thoughts and constructive feelings we might have.
From TA’s point of view the first thing we have to do is become aware of this and begin to realise that all this noise is not reality, so that we can begin to quieten it down and tune into our Adult mind so that we can respond to hooks designed to catch us like fish by ignoring them, and choosing to respond in an entirely different way that cuts across the game and leaves us feeling OK, no matter how the other person ends up. We’re not out to destroy them, merely trying not to join them in their folly and damage ourselves.
This is of course easier said than done, and without the TA group I probably wouldn’t have learned to manage the situation as well as I did. Also, it has its limitations, for example about how we learn to enact our highest values in situations that drag us down.
I’ll take a quick look at a working example next time to illustrate the psychobabble before we move higher up the ladder.