factors in ourselves

We are a society that attaches our hopes for a better world onto material advancement far more than on psychological advancement.  Technology:  controlling, manipulating, transforming the material world.  If we only had a few more Gates Foundations, we would really be able to solve the world’s major problems.

A psychological point of view sees things differently.  Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen puts it plainly:  “Sooner or later, we will have to discover how to work with factors in ourselves.”  (Rage, 172, my emphasis)   C.S. Lewis said much the same thing from a different angle when he noted that advances in technology always mean the power of some people over others.  (The Abolition of Man, 69)  How can we keep not learning that no matter how technologically smart we get, the world’s major problems always come back to factors in ourselves?

How to work with factors in ourselves (psychotherapy) is a drastically less developed area of understanding in our society than how to bend nature to our wills (technology).    We are like the caricatures an artist draws at a street fair:  Our brains are overblown, our hearts shrunken.  Our hearts here represent not simply feeling, but our capacities for intelligence wedded to feeling, and therefore our potential for growth and change.

Change in a person doesn’t appear to be a solely intellectual project.  This is obvious on the macro level of political change:  Martin Luther King was not moved by his mind alone, nor did he move others that way.  The “Arab Spring” was not conceived of and initiated by political scientists.  Nor does revolution within a person come about or progress through mainly rational channels.  (And of course, where else does the political begin than in individuals?)

10 years

People who were in and around New York on September 11, 2001–and I’m sure it happened in Washington, DC, as well–remember the spirit of compassion and kindness and care that came about in their bewilderment, their wonderment, and fear.  Seldom does the phrase, “We’re a family” feel authentic when used about organizations or companies or almost any group other than a family.  But many people seemed to feel, in the weeks after the disaster, a link with others–even, and perhaps especially with complete strangers–that might well be described as a family sort of feeling.

Aldous Huxley remarks in The Perennial Philosophy that a saint is one who knows that every moment of our life is a moment of crisis.  A very spiritually evolved person “is able to be aware continuously of the divine Ground of their own and all other beings. . .and to meet all, even the most trivial circumstances of daily living, without malice, greed, self-assertion or voluntary ignorance, but consistently with love and understanding.”

In the crisis of that September, some taste of this attitude towards life and other people was present.  To think that the outer reaches of both the worst & the best of human potential can exist in such proximity–and that the best sits waiting, available.


There is a sting and a stigma for some people in the term ‘psychosomatic.’

Give me a break with your complaining.  It’s just psychosomatic.”

“Come on, there’s nothing wrong, it’s all in your head.”

But blushing is psychosomatic.  An erection is psychosomatic.  Sweating when you’re nervous.  Butterflies in your stomach on the first day of school.  Crying.  Laughing.  Getting a cold when you’re stressed out.  Not getting better because you’re grieving the death of someone you love.  An orgasm is psychosomatic–hopefully.

In all of these experiences, the psyche–let’s define it for the present as the ocean of thought, feeling, and will inside us that we call ME–is affecting the body.  Psyche on soma.  Soma on psyche.  (Soma is Greek for body.)  Feelings are in the body.  And in the psyche.  No:  they are in the psychesoma.

But even to put it this way is to start with a distorting assumption:  that a self is put together from a psyche and a soma, like a vinaigrette is put together from some vinegar and some oil.

What we encounter, what we are, is a whole person.  It can be useful in our thinking to dis-integrate a person into a psyche and its soma, as we can dis-integrate the heart from its blood.  But neither term is alive without its partner.  If we do not re-integrate after dis-integrating, what is lost is the life.

Taking apart without putting back together–analyzing without synthesizing–is like getting into a great song, studying it, outlining its harmonic structure, tracing its rhythmic development–and never listening to it again.  (This recalls what sometimes happens in the doctor-patient relationship:  We go for the appointment, explain our problem, and then become a specimen for analysis, never to be listened to again.)

In exploring a human being, we need to see the whole first, then move to parts that thinking can identify, and then back to whole.  Like studying light by using a prism to divide it into its rainbow of colors, and then back to the whole, the experience of light.

“Come on, it’s just psychosomatic.”

There’s no ‘just’ about it.  Being human is being psychosomatic.