The Threshold

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

David Bowie, Blackstar

 

This week, in a rather longer post, I would like to touch on a piece of information that might be relevant for some readers at some point and, I hope, interesting to all. It deals with one of the ways the human mind has evolved to deal with trauma. The reason it is a necessary subject to deal with in this set of posts about subjectivity is that it gets to the heart of what it means to be an embodied awareness. It does so by showing us how that awareness behaves under extreme duress.

One of the more interesting things about our understanding of ourselves as human beings is how the so-called occult, or discarded knowledge of our culture often forms a mirror-like impression of what the mainstream knowledge contains. If the mainstream is convex, the occult underground is concave. Among the many tales of ghosts and angels, spirits and demons, magical and psychic powers found in the occult literature, there are traces of actual events people have experienced. Many of the events are encountered in what we call altered states of consciousness, states that range from the slightly unusual to full twilight consciousness in which we seem to be transported bodily to other realms or places.

Some altered states seem to teach us more about our body and mind in the place we actually are. These are what we seek in our contemplations of ecology. Other altered states seem to go the other direction, providing us an escape from the material world, leaving the limitations of the body and earth far behind. Anyone who engages in any spiritual discipline needs to know about these very different currents. If I may indulge in a too simple metaphor for a moment I would suggest this is why Buddhists meditate with their eyes open and seek the middle way. Others teach meditating with the eyes closed and seek cosmic consciousness. There are two currents. This makes things sound black and white which in practice are anything but, yet there is an important distinction here that this simple metaphor captures.

One staple of the occult literature is the out of body experience, or OOBE. This is said to be a separation of the soul or mindstream from the body it is currently occupying. The soul is then free to wander the so-called astral planes. Much of the literature describes visits to other planets or realms populated with a menagerie of alien beings. Magicians and mystics of every stripe have added their stories to this semi-underground cultural inheritance. It is quite a mixed bag. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. And a few, we can assume, know the score.

One of the things that quickly becomes obvious as one stays with ecological studies (remaining mindful of ecology) is that there are any number of loud, self proclaimed experts who are absolutely clueless. This is a very, very important lesson to take to heart. These are all those people who are misrepresenting the facts, as we best understand them, concerning global warming, ocean dead zones and acidification, the sixth extinction, the poisoning of land and water in fracking operations and so on, right through the rest of the list of horrors we who do study ecology know so well. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. None, evidently, really know the score.

The same lesson should be applied to sources that speak to the human condition as well. Our inheritance includes any number of works by people equally clueless about what they are really discussing, just as clueless as the ecologically ignorant of our day are. The OOBE books are, I suggest, propaganda for the Descartes Error we have been exploring: that the mind is more real than the body, which is presented as little more than an optional appendage. Some of this occult tradition, including OOBE material, is the production of liars and con men flat out, nothing more. It is hard for some people to imaging using spirituality this way, just to make a buck and get laid, but history shows there is no shortage of such people. I’ve always thought this might be a really bad way to go about messing around with people if there ever turns out to be a real god or a real day of reckoning in any form. Anyway, this group is not the most dominate. Among the authors of reported OOBEs the majority are true believers. They have experienced something unusual and have done the best they can, given the contextual intellectual tools they have, to integrate that unusual experience with the rest of what they know.

There is no question that it is possible for the human mind to experience itself disembodied. There are reports by the bushel full of people seemingly leaving their body and looking back on it still lying on the bed, or the operating room table, or the floor of their torture cell. Something like this can happen. The data is there. The question is, what does it mean? Are these actual experiences of crossing the threshold of death? Epistemologically, are these experiences of the mind dying or of dying itself?

There is another set of literature in our cultural inheritance that also deals with OOBEs. This is not the occult traditions but the psychiatric ones. Here is a typical case report:
“During the raped I found myself looking down on the act from on high, from a point in the corner of the ceiling. I was looking down on my body but it wasn’t me, it was like a doll, a puppet …”

The point to see here is what has happened to the victim’s subjectivity. The body of the victim has been used as an object. When the victim reports seeing their body from a third person perspective, they too have taken the view of the perpetrator. They too are now seeing themselves as nothing more than an object to be used. There is a body over there, just a body, not my body. I – all my inner feelings and memories, cognitions and images – am up here floating; as insubstantial and invulnerably untouchable as a ghost.

The abuser has forced themselves into the mindstreams of their victims and displaced them. How? In a mistaken attempt to feel some power over what is happening to them, a part of the victim takes on the role of the perpetrator. If your only choices are between being the abuser or the victim, the urge to survive insists we take on the power the abuser seems to have. This is perhaps most familiar in the Stockholm Syndrome in which victims of kidnapping come to identify with their kidnappers, explaining to all who will listen that they really are not such bad people after all. Patty Hearst was the poster child for my generation of this frightening feature of the abused mind’s potential.

What power is that which the perpetrator wields that causes such pervasive disruptions to a person’s identity? The power to blind oneself to the value of another sentient being’s subjectivity. That is it. That is the great magical power – but it only enchants those who use it. It does not change the reality of the victim’s subjectivity. It is kind of like the two year old making the world disappear by covering their own eyes. The perpetrator pretends not to see the relationship with their victim as one consisting of I and Thou, but this is to deny what is obvious to the senses. The perpetrator knows that what they see in their victim’s eyes is equivalent to their own subjectivity. In a confused attempt to make the “I” real, to assert their own abused subjective value, they try to make the “Thou” unreal by pretending it is an object and not a fully sentient being. Then the rules governing a relationship between I and It take over, instead of the rules that are to govern relationships between I and Thou. In the narcissistic delusion the mind believes that by doing so it will become master of the world, no longer vulnerable to the shame and humiliation only another Thou can deliver.

This, then, becomes the ideal adult. It is the one we in the over-developed world have come to worship: the asshole, the action hero quick to kill a few hundred in every picture show, the gangster warlord who is a tough son of a bitch and seems to have the whole world just eating out of his or her hand. We are trying to decide right now which is the coolest – the soldier who drops cluster bombs and wipes out a few bad guys along with truck loads of children and brags about patriotism, or the CEO who lays off ten thousand hardworking household providers, then eats a feast that would have cost his workers a month’s salary and sleeps well that night. You know the types; they are on every channel, every day with the same old tiered script: “Look how awesome I can be because I do not care what you feel at all, I can torture you and eat a sandwich, doesn’t phase me a bit!” In our pain we come to believe hard-heartedness is humanity’s peak achievement.

Torture was supposed to be condemned, not worshipped.

The perpetrator has tortured their victim using sex, violence and emotional-cognitive manipulations. As the victim tries to process what has happened to them, particularly as children with no means of escaping the environments in which such tortures take place, a type of amnesia is created. Imagine, if you will, what it is like to wake up each morning in a home where you never know if you will be beaten again today, or worse. Additionally, if this is a child’s mind we are trying to empathize with, we need to add the fact that they have yet to know if they will ever be able to live a life outside the influence of their abusers. Children have yet to prove to themselves they can make it on their own. They know, in fact, that they cannot yet. They are not stupid.

The psychological solution that aids their survival is disassociation. One part of the self comes to know things about the truth of one’s own story that other parts of the self do not normally have access to. Sadly, a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The shunned part, like a thief in the night, will break into the daylight consciousness whenever the strength of repression grows weak. When that happens the human being will respond in less than skillful ways. The part that identified with the abuser will come clothed in anger at the vulnerability of the victim part that was sensitive enough to suffer so. Therapy consists of making some kind of peace between these warring parts. Healing comes when the person recognizes that the introjected abuser that is within them is not the same as the external person who caused the actual abuse. That, in fact, it is sharing the same body with all the rest of the parts of the mind’s psychological makeup.

The self is normally grounded through a set of nerve pathways connected to the major energy processing centers and senses of our physiology. When the therapist asks their client where they feel their pain they will typically point to one of the chakras. We can think of these nerve pathways as cords tying the mind to the gauges and instruments it uses to maintain homeostasis and orient itself within its environment. In the OOBE those cords are cut. To protect the ego from shattering in madness, the self is taken to a safe place concocted by the imagination. Another part of the person comes to take the place of the absent self and takes on the burden of the trauma. This part is then so disowned, repressed and denied that they come to feel like they are in another body entirely.

This becomes the source of the disassociative pain that accompanies most people who were abused as children throughout their lives. The part forced to play the role of the self remains a source of confusion as it continues its semi-conscious existence. It seems to get stuck in time and remains always on the lookout for the next attack. Abusive events in the external world of the adult can continue to trigger this part, which then takes over and deals with things as best it can. It has its say, speaks its truth to power, as it were, in binge drinking, violence, cutting or whatever and can then settle down again for awhile. When these things happen we say we were ‘not ourselves’ or ‘I don’t know what got into me.”

All people deal with this phenomenon to one degree or another. Consciousness itself seems to depend on opposites which creates a continuum of disassociation. Psychological maturity consists of re-associating these disparate parts so that we come to recognize, for example, that our early caregivers had elements of both good and evil in their hearts. Psychological maturity in general consists of the ability to tolerate complexity instead of insisting on the black and white thinking of childhood which would separate everyone into the overly simplistic categories of sinners and saints, angels and devils: Us and Them.

The painful dissociative confusion will remain a driving factor in the victim’s life to whatever degree the traumatized part remains un-integrated with the rest of a person’s life story. The direction is not further out into space on the wings of the ghost, out there with Major Tom that Bowie warned us about. We are not seeking the great Gnostic revelation of what the universe is all about. We are seeking to know that part of the universe given to us to know intimately. The direction is down and in. The work is to get to the place where the monster dwells and to unmask it by seeing the truth of our own past. Then we are succored by our own individual pain and our own individual joy. It puts an end to provisional living. We recognize we are living in a sacred world.

This is where this whole thing about working with dissociative persons gets rather fascinating. It is reported by councilors who work with the severely abused that often when they are dealing with a part like this, that part does not believe they are in the same body as the client. These clients suffer under the false idea that each part has its own body. The acting out associated with emotional pain often bears this mark. Those who cut themselves or who have eating disorders, to site two common examples, can be modeled as consisting of dynamic psychological parts that are using the body to make themselves heard or to satisfy their unmet needs – as if that body belonged to someone else. They use the body as if it were an object, instead of who and what they are. They treat themselves the way their abusers taught them to treat themselves.

This is where Descartes Error leads. Or, perhaps, this is where Descartes Error comes from.

The body, mind and imagination are all working together in this OOBE move to protect the survival of the victim. There is something within this body, mind and imagination complex that understands just what has happened in the psyche. It remains unconfused about what is real. The same physical continuity remains throughout all altered states of consciousness. The body does not lie, it knows the score.

There is a whole collection of psychological techniques designed to bring this truth to the alienated part, to orient the part again to the person. It is a milestone in treatment when someone is able to realize all the parts share the same body. Typically this insight requires a confrontational approach. One technique, for example, uses two chairs side by side. The councilor asks, say, the angry part to stay in the current chair while the client moves to the one next to it. Once the client is in that second chair the councilor , making eye contact, asks puzzled, ‘Hi angry part, why did you not stay in that chair?”

This might sound just too strange and of no use to us trying to get by in a time of ecological ignorance. What does it mean for a traumatized individual to recognize that all their psychological parts share the same body? Of course they do.

Yet, here we are – building weapons of mass destruction and mass deception as if we could poison one part of the earth’s skin with radiation and not poison ourselves in the process, or poison the public marketplace of ideas and not become fools ourselves. It is not a good thing that the war hawks are talking again about winning nuclear wars. It is not a good thing when we insist we can treat other human beings without concern for their individual differences, lumping the ones we do not like into object categories based on religion, race or politics and then treating them all like dirt: the ultimate It. We even treat dirt like dirt when we saturate our soils with chemicals and force it to produce the yield we desire. This too is not a good thing. All this is not much different than those occult treatises describing all manner of colorfully imaginative alternate realities the soul visits once it is freed from the shackles of the gross body. Somehow, long after the oil is gone and food harvests have become unreliable, we won’t mind because we will still be able to go shopping: our reward for keeping the faith and prioritizing economic growth above all else. We are acting as if we really believed this.

In our cultural confusion we honestly act as though a new, purified earth awaits us on the other side of our social and ecological collapse. To those who would abuse us so, to those who would hurt the earth this way, we should raise our voice and say the word that undoes the bewitchments: No. Not on my watch, not as long as I draw breath. The only tool I have in my arsenal is rational discussion. It might seem pale next to slo-mo close-ups of monsters and gore, but it has a power all its own. We cannot stop the abuse handed down the long generations. We are not personally responsible for the weapons of the mind or the weapons of the nucleus. We are asked to live our story, to contribute our thread to the tapestry of life this precious earth uses to cloak her nakedness from the cold of space. We should live them well, mindfully.

We do not need to remain in the liar’s double bind: “I am both responsible and helpless.” We can learn to train in both / and after we have graduated from the school of either / or. We do not need to remain Or Men, those who would cut everything Right In Two. It is not the case that our only choice is a bad one between becoming victims or perpetrators ourselves. We can choose to be compassionate adults, wise in the ways of the world. We can face our monsters and recognize when our gods are scarecrows of our own invention. We can learn to nurture the child within and protect the child without, the hope of our species. We can wake up. That is, we can learn to recognize when we are dreaming, dealing with psychological projections and emotion laden-images even when our eyes are open, and when we are not dreaming, when we are dealing with real things in our real molecular world.

“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen,
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all,
Your Eyes…”
David Bowie, Blackstar

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