As I hinted at the end of the previous post, I don’t think the Transactional Analysis model goes far enough. It helps us develop a reasonable sense of part of the mind’s layout, but it lacks any contour lines to give us a real feeling of its depth.
One of the problems with TA is that it privileges the intellect – our head to use the everyday expression. In a way it has the same weakness as Kahneman’s model, discussed in detail elsewhere. Yes, we can clearly see the importance of distancing ourselves from our gut reactions, which Kahneman in my view mistakenly terms intuition. But, we have only our head to rely on in both these models. I don’t deny that this is far better at making wise decisions than our guts, particularly when complex situations are involved.
The TA psychotherapist who led the group I was in recognised that this emphasis on intellect was a weakness which is why she also drew on Gestalt therapy techniques and dream work in her approach. In fact, when I started to write this sequence of posts I had forgotten that and it was only as I thumbed through a journal I wrote at the time that I saw references to both techniques.
Even with the inclusion of both those methods, and I have given a vivid example in another post of how I used them to powerful effect many years later, TA still did not go far enough, as we will now see.
There are models that suggest we can and should go one step further at least. We need to be as suspicious about all our thoughts not just some of them. All our thinking is infected or at least influenced by ideas we have never questioned. We need to step back from our thoughts in their entirety just as I had been trying to step outside the prison of my conditioned reactions. Even positive thoughts may not be reliable.
While I was studying for my psychology degree at Birkbeck, I lived in Hendon, not far from the Psychosynthesis Institute. I’m not sure whether that’s what triggered my interest in that particular form of therapy. It may not have been, given the similarity between certain aspects of Psychosynthesis and TA, namely the exploration of subpersonalities. Jean Hardy, in her book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – explains that (page 38) ‘the concept of subpersonality is a means of approaching… hidden and often seemingly forbidden areas.’
That may have been what drew me to Psychosynthesis, but it was not the main idea I derived from my reading about it.
In the end what captured my attention was the psychosynthesis idea of disidentification. That it presupposes a transcendent dimension including a Higher Self, with which we can get in touch, might have been expected to put me off, given my agnosticism at the time, but it did not seem to. This approach also emphasises the importance of values, which we need to connect with in order to guide our use of will power (yes, Assagioli believes that discredited faculty does exist), but I don’t think that’s what hooked me at the time either.
Assagioli explains (Psychosynthesis – page 22):
We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.
Hardy quotes Assagioli on this issue (page 24):
. . . . the ‘man in the street’ and even many well-educated people do not take the trouble to observe themselves and to discriminate; they drift on the surface of the mind-stream and identify themselves with its successive waves, with the changing contents of their consciousness.
Psychosynthesis places great emphasis on practising disidentification exercises (see image below for an adapted example) so that we can learn how to step back from the contents of our consciousness and operate more calmly and wisely from a more grounded sense of ourselves. This of course immediately appealed to me, given that I was operating in a bit of a cauldron at work and needed to learn how to maintain my composure and presence of mind under pressure.
However, this was not the end of his influence. Assagioli himself, in the opening pages of Psychosynthesis, prompted me also to look at Existential Psychotherapy. At first I was only really aware of the importance this approach attached to meaning and choice: the perspective changing insight from existentialism came much later as I will explain in the next post. At this point in the development of my thinking I could see the importance of both meaning and choice, but somehow the existential approach to meaning seemed to ring a bit hollow.
Ernesto Spinelli’s valuable exploration of existential therapy – Demystifying Therapy – contains a passage that highlights what was the problem for me (page 294):
. . . . we are confronted with the meaningless of it all. The meaninglessness refers to the idea that nothing – not you, nor I, nor any ‘thing’ – has intrinsic or independent or static meaning. If things are ‘meaningful,’ then they are so only because they have been interpreted as being so. . . . . . Each of us, if we follow this line of argument, does not inhabit an independently ‘meaningful’ world – rather, we, as a species, as cultures, and as individuals in relation to one another, shape or create the various expressions of meaningfulness that we experience and believe in.
This sounds rather like Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books: in explaining the way of the warrior, he argued that the best we can do is achieve a kind of ‘controlled folly’ by investing meaning in the meaningless.
A warrior must know first that his acts are useless, and yet, he must proceed as if he didn’t know it. In other words, a warrior must know he is unimportant, but act as if he is important.
A Moment of Choice
I was struggling to discover where I stood on this for the whole time I was earning my BSc degree. Does life have a meaning or doesn’t it?
As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.
I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.
She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’
My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.
‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’
‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’
I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training.
In re-examining my diaries of the period in which I was doing my Clinical Psychology training, I came to realise that my world-view was fundamentally changing in a way I had failed to remember. I thought I was still resolutely agnostic at least if not downright atheist during all this time. It seems that this was simply not the case: my reality was slightly more complicated. I find the word ‘spirit’ occurring far more often in my journals of this period than I would have expected. The reason for that seems to have been my exploration of Buddhism.
I can still remember the day I stood in front of the Surrey University library shelves and took down a book on Buddhism. Memory says I did this because I’d had a heads up about how sophisticated the Buddhist model of the human mind was. This may have been the case. It may have been more complicated than that at the unconscious level, in that my aunt, by then in her late 80s, had asked me to investigate Roman Catholicism again and, refusing to see a priest, I had agreed to look at a book on the subject, pulled down from shelves in the same section of the library.
Whatever the reason, I not only read about Buddhism, I also visited the Buddhist Centre in London and attended classes on meditation. I can locate this accurately in time as I was in the first year of the course doing my child specialism placement. By the 11 January 1981 I was taking detailed notes from Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. My comment on my reading up to that point may be revealing:
That reading stemmed from my need for some moral or value focus in my life. Interesting that in 1792 the Retreat in York was founded by Tuke, a Quaker, on moral principles not knowledge, and yet achieved so much so far ahead of its time for ‘lunatics.’ And yet so much harm has been done by fanatics in the name of various moralities. Only a life-centred rather than idea-centred morality will serve. Buddhism comes closer than any I know.
A fortnight later, while reading Christmas Humphreys‘ book, my thinking has moved on:
Even being committed to the “right” side in a battle… blinds my mind to the transcendent realisation that both sides are in the last analysis one. Best to tend the wounded of both sides than fight, even for freedom!
I was already showing strong reservations about the limits of psychology and responding strongly to Buddhism:
I will continue to think about Buddhism. It’s shedding an unbelievably clear light on my problems and giving me the strength to cope with them.…. People and their welfare are more important than the sterile ideas peddled on the course, more important than any ideas at all in fact. I can at least use the experience of the course better to understand my fellow human beings and myself under stress – it won’t be wasted.
A year later I seem to have achieved a more harmonious perspective:
My life is slowly becoming simpler, more integrated, less fearful. I can see how poetry, psychotherapy and Buddhism fit together. And perhaps how they all cohere with my personal life.
More on my struggles to learn how to meditate next time and on one of the epiphanies that helped shift my perspective radically.