not smiled into existence. . .

Family fighting.  It can be excruciating.  A feeling of the walls around us caving in and crushing us.

Dreams of happy homes, conflict-free.  What would it even be like?  Is there such a thing anywhere in the world?

Generations of parents in the front seats on car trips, desperate for the bickering, pestering screaming fighting behind them to just stop.

Family conflict can be so overwhelming and so enervating, there is no energy left for parents or kids to recognize that fighting is developmentally important, perhaps even necessary.  Like tissue culture media in which cells can divide, anger is a medium of INDIVIDUATION, separating off from what we are part of.   We figure out–we create–the boundaries of our beings partly through conflict:  I’m not that!  I’m this!  I hate thatThat is nothing like me!

In childhood, parts of the self get born through conflict.  Coming into being is a violent act.  Skin is torn, blood flows, pain surges; screaming, crying, tears.  Differentiating one’s self from those one is closest to can be violent.  New beings are not smiled into existence.  Transformation is upheaval.


A pear is a pear


Image via Wikipedia

A pear is a pear.  It cannot become more orangey.   Nor, it seems, could it want to.  A giraffe is a giraffe and cannot become like a zebra.

Being human is different.   We have “will power,”, which is wonderful and frightening.  Will:  the ability to desire new possibilities.  Power:  the ability to DO things to achieve our desires.

   ‘I wish to be a parent.’    

  ‘I want to become an excellent marksman,’

  ‘I like spicy food and want to eat it often.’ 

  ‘I want to grow my hair long and change the way I’ve always looked.’

   ‘I want a job where I work with my body.’ 

We have such desires and the abilities to work towards them.

Imagine a creature who could think:  ‘How lucky they are, those humans!  They can desire to change, to grow, to be different.  And they can DO it!’

Yet these amazing human potentials can be overwhelming to live with.  It is hard to figure out what we truly want, sometimes harder than it is to bring about what we want once we know what it is.  It is hard even to feel our own feelings.  They so easily get buried beneath expectations, roles, duties, guilt, conditioning.  Our open-endedness, our expansiveness, our freedoms:  they can be terrifying.

Spaceship Earth

Buckminster Fuller

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On June 2, 2010, the BBC reported that six Russian cosmonauts-in-training were beginning a project called Mars500, which the scientists say will help them to understand how humans would cope on a long journey to another world, such as a trip to Mars.

The cosmonauts had just entered a sealed facility at a medical institute in Moscow, where they would spend 18 months with no windows and only email contact with the outside world.

“Psychological factors are crucial to the success of any space mission,” one researcher said.  How conflicts will be resolved in such close quarters where there is no escape from one another—these things must be worked out very carefully.

Buckminster Fuller used the term “spaceship earth” in the title of his 1968 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.  He  refers to “our little Spaceship Earth,”  which after all is “only 8,000 miles in diameter,” while “our nearest star—our energy-supplying mother-ship, the Sun—is 92  million miles away, and the next nearest star is one hundred thousand times further away.”   Fuller wanted us to think of Earth like the Mars500 sealed facility in Moscow.  8,000 miles in diameter really doesn’t provide much of an escape from each other.  Psychological factors and resolving conflict are crucial to the success of any mission.

Do we need to learn how to get to Mars in order to learn how to keep on making it here on Spaceship Earth?


I notice in psychotherapy work an enduring theme in the soul lives of many people:   a feeling of isolation, of a shell or wall separating a person from other people, which feels difficult or impossible to break through from the inside.  Along with this is a hunger for the barrier to be broken through from the outside, by other people.

Eventually, most of us have to face the fact that much of the work of puncturing that shell will come down to us; the breakthrough will happen  more from the inside than from the outside.  In a song by Everything But The Girl, they sing,  To know yourself is to let yourself be loved.  Letting others in can be the hardest work.  Receiving can be more difficult than giving.

Robert Frost catches these things wonderfully in his poem, Revelation:

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

generation to generation

One of the top secrets of being a parent—one that few parents ever admit to their kids, though the kids learn it themselves before long—is how insecure parents commonly feel toward their kids  Even when the children are young,  parents know  they will grow up to judge them, just as they themselves have judged their own parents.  This is humiliating to contemplate because you know your kids will know some sides of you best of all.  Their verdict will be the truest.

But awareness of this painful truth can lead us to a further awareness that there are many ways in which other people see us more clearly, more truthfully, than we see ourselves.  Can facing this truth open a place in our self that is less full of ego, that might be a step or two further on the trail of spiritual evolution?

fibers of the self

A psychotherapist must be comfortable to an unusual degree with negativity, because part of what often needs to happen in therapy is for the nay-saying voices to be let out, to say, scream, cry all their pent-up feelings.  To call this “catharsis” is to trivialize it, because nowadays that word implies something like shitting:  getting rid of the waste.  But letting one’s disapproved-of feelings come into greater consciousness and expression is more like the process of working out.  Toxins are released, yes, but muscle is built.  Anyone who has experienced a deep process of psychotherapy knows that one can exit the room feeling like a major workout has just ended.  The muscles here are the self.  The fibers of the self are built and regenerated through rigorous workout, stretching, pulling. lifting, sometimes cramping and tearing.  No pain no gain.

Anger & sadness

Bas-relief in Persepolis - a symbol Zoroastria...

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We may find it easier to feel angry than sad.  At other times,  sadness comes more easily than anger. (It is an interesting question whether men are more commonly in the first group and women in the second.)

Feeling anger more readily than grief is illustrated in epic vividness by an account in Herodotus, the ancient historian:

On his march to Babylon, Cyrus [the Persian king] came to the river Gyndes. . .Cyrus was preparing to cross this river, for which boats were needed, when one of his sacred white horses, a high-spirited creature, entered the water and attempted to swim across but was swept under by the rapid current and drowned.  Cyrus was so furious with the river for daring to do such a thing, that he swore he would punish it by making it so weak that even a woman could get over it in the future without difficulty and without wetting her knees.  He held up his march against Babylon, divided his army into two parts, marked out on each side of the river a hundred and eighty channels running off from it in various directions, and ordered his men to set to work and dig.  Having a vast number of hands employed, he managed to finish the job, but only at the cost of the whole summer wasted.  Then, having punished the Gyndes by splitting it into three hundred and sixty separate channels, Cyrus,  at the beginning of the following summer, resumed his march to Babylon.

Personalities are so different.  Another person may have wept, entered a prolonged period of withdrawn grief over the beloved companion’s death by drowning.  But  in Cyrus the Persian king, his horse’s death sparked a surge of testosterone, a volcano of aggressive energy that had to be discharged, whatever the cost.  The soul  of a conquerer.

an intimate humanness

Jefferson Nickel obverse

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When we learn that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with a slave, we may think,  What a hypocrite!  The downfall of the righteous!  Just like all the other narcissistic deceitful no-good politicians!  Some Founding Father!

But what if Jefferson was actually self-aware enough to realize full well what he was doing, the apparent hypocrisy of it, and also the un-hide-ability of it.  Did he really think this would never come to the light of day?  What if he was aware that it could, and yet felt such a strong need for whatever that relationship was, that he was willing to do what he did?  What if, in fact, a relationship is what it was?   What if his respect for people of African descent was such that he could be in real relationship with the woman?  (Was he so desperate for sex that that’s all it was about?)  What if, in this way, his rhetoric of freedom and dignity for all is entirely consistent with his having a relationship with the slave woman?  What if Jefferson experienced an intimate humanness with her?

music to the eyes

Patterns generated by a kaleidoscope.

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There is an entrancing iPhone app called videoscope.  It is a kaleidoscope that uses the phone’s camera to feed colors and patterns to the kaleidoscopic transformer within.  (You can even use your own face as fodder for transmogrification, which is usually grotesque.)  But unlike any traditional kaleidoscope, you can reduce or enlarge the image by “pinching,” just as with other images.  You can also set the whole frame spinning at any speed, which introduces a whole new riot of patterned colors.

To those of us who do find such abstractness captivating, what is it that captivates?  Do our minds just happen to like color and pattern, as our tongues like tastes?

I think there’s more to it than the fun of sensory stimulation.  To explain, consider these descriptions of what I see as I gently move the phone and watch the changing shapes upon the screen:

  • they break apart, then open up, then join hands
  • the little shapes are overtaken
  • symbols of cultures–a star of David, a Moroccan splay of stars & octagons–morph into others
  • hard angularity becomes expansive, turning inside out on itself
  • the contracting space at the tips of 3 triangles sucks itself into itself, then vanishes into nothing, then reappears at the edges, now the container of what had been contained

One need not have the phantasmagoric imagination of Carl Jung to read these descriptions as also applying to soul, that is, to psychological life.

  • In our relationships, we sometimes break apart, then open up, then find our way back together.
  • On a playground, in politics, at the office, “the little ones” may be overtaken.   Power exists everywhere.
  • Cultures are not as distinct as we often assume and as our language sometimes suggests.  When we look beneath the surface of any culture, we always find multiple influences, sometimes from precisely those cultures with which there is tension and conflict.  One tiny example:  Felafel, thought of by many as the signature Israeli food, is itself an Arabic word.
  • Sometimes we feel, act, and even look angular, sharp, harsh, judgmental; then something shifts within us, the shell recedes and the inside comes out.
  • The final image may have sexual associations or a hundred others.

In these ways, the shapes and their transformations in the amazing iPhone kaleidoscope behave as symbols.  The abstractness of shape and color conveys feeling.

Of course this is what music is, with sound.  Sound–when it is organized and patterned–carries emotion.  No accident that sight metaphors are used to describe music:  a chromatic scale, a blue note.  And colors come in tones.

Moods and feelings may be described similarly:  feeling grey, feeling blue, seeing things through rose-colored glasses, “purple prose.”  Feelings exist, and very strongly, though they may be abstract, like tone and color.

Sometimes a person in therapy will say, “I don’t know why I feel this so strongly.  I mean, it [the original experience] wasn’t such a big deal, and it happened 15 years ago!”  It can be very frustrating to feel pushed around by strong feelings that have come unmoored from specific causes.  They are like the cold spots in a lake.  They shift around, surprise us, change us.

the infinite things love is

Especially in therapy with men and women in their 20s and 30s, I find a major theme is the evolving understanding and experience of what love is, or rather the many, indeed infinite, things love is.

We find our own relationship to love just as we do to our work, our career, to money, to solitude.

Is love going to be a defining force at this point in my life–a quest for it,  a suffering over it, a sacrifice for it, a flow of it?

Is it something I feel strongly and strongly need?  Is it a mystery to me:  What is this thing everyone talks about? 

Is it, to the extent I’ve felt it, nice but not worth the trouble?

Do I know it most strongly through pain?

Am I clenching tightly to this pain even as I feel I’d give anything to have never had it happen?  Would I not know myself without this suffering?

And two of the biggest questions:  Am I capable of loving another person?  Am I loveable?