Face Not Recognized

I finally capitulated several years after everyone else and got myself an andoid – a telephone that is “smart,” like an I-Phone but not Apple. I’ve hesitated to do so, largely on account of my discomfort with further attaching my own consciousness and daily experience to digital devices. It’s a known fact that Google wants to be the third half of your brain. Are you okay with that? How does that alter your sense of self? Particularly your sense of your own human limitations?

Those questions aside, I wanted to report a truly psychological experience brought on by tethering myself to a device. When I told my android how I wanted to keep it secure from intruders, I first chose the option “Recognize My Face.” In case you’ve not encountered facial recognition software, let me explain. The android takes photos of your face and puts the data it collects from the images into an algorithmic structure. When it captures the image, a dotted line slowly encircles the perimeter of your face, and when it finishes, that version of your face is saved. You can do this as many times as you wish, in as many different lighting situations and with as many expressions and types of eyeglasses as you choose. The more versions of you that enter the algorithm, the more likely that the android will recognize your identity at any given time.

So, when I turn my phone on, it asks me to show my face to the camera. Then it tries to match what it sees to what it has seen before. If it does, quickly the android grants access. Many times, however, because of anything from bad lighting to bed-head, it says, “Sorry Face Not Recognized.” As I read this on the screen, the photo of my face in that moment mirrors an often sorry-looking me, in one stage of dishevelment or another, or with sunglasses on and bright light behind, or whatever. I am not recognized. I have dutifully taken what feels like hundreds of self-portraits for the software, but the failure rate for access has continued to annoy.

Gradually I have become ridiculous, and screw my face up into awful contortions when the android tries to recognize me, just so it won’t. It’s as though I want to flaunt my individuality—the impossibility of summing me up in an algorithm. After all, IT doesn’t have a face. IT is a digital reality, a reality that can be reduced to zeros and ones, faceless. I, on the other hand, am not. I want to say to this device, “Guess what, you can’t know me, and you can never know me, however smart you are.”

The obvious reference here is Martin Buber, the philosopher who distinguished between “I – Thou” and “I – It” relations. A device is an It. A person is a Thou and cannot be summed up or reduced down to its elements. A Thou is a mystery who can never be fathomed.

I could argue that an It also can never be fathomed given the mysterious nature of reality, but I will save that for another posting.

Relationship with the Unconscious

I remember sitting for a time with some Buddhists when I lived in California. By sitting I mean going to a center, which happened to rent space in a Quaker church, and sitting for a couple of hours, once a week. What did we do while we were sitting there? We listened to a teacher of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation, and then put his teaching into practice, which meant quietly paying attention–to our breath, to our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. I never took on the mantle of Buddhism myself, but the experience there has stayed with me.

Today it came to mind. I was thinking about thinking, and how in any given day, thoughts and feelings and images–the flow of our internal worlds–move along of their own accord. Sometimes it feels as though I have little say in how they move. They happen, quite forcefully at times, and I may find myself on the receiving end. In terms of depth psychology, we are continually fielding the forceful influx of the unconscious psyche.

I remembered something the meditation teacher said about how, when we quiet our minds and simply pay attention to what is happening, suddenly we realize how incredibly busy and noisy it is inside. It can be rather distressing. I believe the Buddhists call it the “monkey mind.” Stop for a moment, and notice all the crazy monkeys jumping and swinging about, making a big racket. And you thought you were master of your psychic house! Think again.

Okay, so now to transpose things into the milieu of Jungian psychology, or any depth psychology that acknowledges the unconscious as a significant force in the human psyche. The personal self or ego does not rule over the unconscious psyche. It is one player on the stage of a drama, and it’s not in charge of the production. But it does have a say; it can take a stand.

Broadly speaking, the other players consist of unconscious forces, which Jung calls complexes. Complexes are emotionally charged thoughts and images that have an autonomous life. They have a personal aspect, based in our individual traumas, biology, and patterns, and an archetypal aspect, expressed in the over-arching images of myths and fairy tales. In their archetypal aspect, the complexes are the gods and goddesses, who rather notoriously do not have personal human welfare high on their list of priorities.

So what of the human? What of the self that wants to take a stand? That wants to move from the receiving end of unconscious forces to the active, choosing end? That is not interested in being a plaything of the deities? It’s not an easy matter. Consider the mundane experience of moving through your day. A terrible mood may overcome you. A thought about an old relationship might take hold of you. A feeling about your unworthiness might convince you. An old wound might open up and suck you in. It’s hard in the moment to take a stand in relation to these psychological facts that happen to us. But say that you do. In your own way, you meet the force of the unconscious with a counter-force. You demand room for “me.”

I would propose that then, when you make that demand, the unconscious will respond differently. I am reminded of a dream I heard once. The dreamer had been chased recurrently in the dreamworld by a sinister figure. Finally, one night, something changed. The dreamer turned to face the persecutor, and things were different after that. Not necessarily easy, but now there was a more symmetrical relationship between the person and the forces of the unconscious. The prey had turned to the predator and said, in effect, “I see you!” And, “You don’t just get to do what you want with me. I have a say in this relationship.” Now there is the possibility for an encounter, a negotiation, and ultimately, the ability for the person to make a demand on the unconscious psyche to contribute something worthwhile. Maybe we can even imagine that the psyche has wanted this kind of encounter with us all along.

Longing for Paradise

I recently picked up a psychology book that I’ve had my eye on for awhile now. It’s written by a Jungian psychoanalyst named Mario Jacoby. The book is, Longing for Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype. Jacoby’s theme centers on the importance of the paradise archetype in psychological life and development, not to mention in the work of psychotherapy.

This is a bit of a different take on “paradise” for psychological thinking, and it provides a good jumping off point for some reflections.

The usual schtick in psychology on this matter smacks of “nothing but” reductionism. Reductionism happens when you take a complex phenomenon and break it down into its component parts, and say that the complex whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. Here are some reductive variations that you might come across on the present topic: The longing for paradise is nothing but a regressive wish to dissolve into infantile, oceanic feelings of oneness, free from the conflicts that real life involves. Or, the longing for paradise expresses a developmental failure to mourn the loss of unity with mother, and to accept separateness. Or, the longing for paradise afflicts those who didn’t get an adequate holding environment in infancy, and so they forever long to redress that early lack. Or, the longing for paradise shows a rejection of limitation, and should be analyzed away as an inflated identification with the realm of the archetypal, and specifically with the archetypal Mother.

These are all possible ways to understand thing A (the longing for paradise) in terms of thing B (some form of developmental / psychological problem). Thing B is supposed to explain how and why thing A comes about.

Jacoby, in what I’ve read so far, knows how to think about paradise in developmental and psychopathological terms. He points to the early holding environment, in which mother and caregivers must respond adequately to the hunger, anxiety, distress, and need for touch and loving attention in the infant. If a good-enough experience at this stage doesn’t happen, he offers, significant disruption of emotional and relational health later on is likely. An inordinate fixation on paradise and a pursuit of paradisiacal experiences might well grow out of an early trauma to the holding environment, in which some degree of paradise is actually appropriate for the sake of the utterly dependent infant.

Naturally, psychology wants to explain the longing for paradise in terms of the early environment and early relationships. Where else but with mother do we ever get some measure of paradisiacal experience? Infancy even entails a certain timelessness. The rhythm of relationship to mother is the ordering principle of the moment-to-moment experience of being that psychology imagines the infant to live. Grown up time does not exist for the baby.

Modern attachment theory and infant observation seem to support such thinking. Clinical experience also seems to support the notion that early traumas to primal relationships create suffering in clients, and that the therapeutic relationship, when it works well, can bring some measure of healing to the early wound. The image of paradise is one image among others that can come up in this area of experience, in or out of the therapy room.


I think we need to think symbolically about this. A psychological theory is a kind of symbol that happens to be highly differentiated. But it’s a symbol nonetheless. I am using the word symbol in the sense given by the depth psychologist C.G. Jung. A symbol, in Jung‘s psychology, is a living reality. It’s an image that forms in order to communicate something that words can’t express adequately in a rational way. A symbol expresses an unknowable reality that otherwise we could scarcely approach at all.

I’m proposing that the psychologist or psychoanalyst is using the image of a good enough mother-infant relationship as a symbol. It’s a symbol that psychology uses to communicate to itself something unknowable–in this case, the elusive image of paradise, imagined as a state of being that is touched in infancy.

It’s important to take note that when a psychologist looks at the realm of infancy and begins to make theories about the infant’s inner experience, there is naturally a significant degree of projection involved. What the therapist experiences in working with clients at this early level of emotional experience, as it gets expressed in psychotherapy, ends up as part of the theory about the infant’s inner life. Even the therapist’s own longing for paradise gets into the mix, and possibly imagined as a lost state of being that the infant must have experienced, or is supposed to experience when things go well.

And why not? It’s very legitimate to create theory out of clinical and even deeply personal experience, in addition to data such as the observation of infants and mothers, so long as we are aware of what we’re doing.

Stay with me a moment longer if you‘ve come this far. I know this is getting long, and perhaps muddled.

What I’m coming around to is the fact that no matter the brilliant insights of psychology into the developmental substrate of the paradise archetype… the image of paradise remains the image of paradise, and psychology will never divest that image of its power by explaining it theoretically. Sure, the archetype can cause problems in living and relating. But in itself it’s not something to be fixed, cured, treated, analyzed. The longing for paradise speaks to an experience common to all human beings, whether or not the primal relationship with mother got disrupted. That’s what’s meant by calling it an archetype: it’s typical of human existing to touch this particular place.

What remains to examine is how this archetype expresses itself in psychological life and in psychotherapy. I’ve got a ways to go in Jacoby’s book, and so maybe I’ll save the rest for another post.

Fear and Loathing in Therapy

I’ve been reading Hunter S. Thompson, for the first time. I’d never encountered the wild, destructive, creative force of this writer before. I’ve also been watching biographical movies about him, and of course the movie based on his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.

It may seem curious for a depth psychologist to take an interest in the originator of “gonzo journalism,” especially since my interest is not to diagnose Thompson’s psychopathology. It would be easy to pin him down with a few diagnoses from the psychiatric Bible–the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here is a man who suffered internally, a lot, took a lot out on those around him, indulged in consistently bad behavior, and made no apologies for his extensive alcohol and drug consumption. He would not be an easy therapy client, and as a matter of fact, he would likely never come for psychotherapy in the first place. In one of the interviews I watched, the interviewer asks about therapy and psychology. Thompson replies that he has no time for psychology; he is interested in politics.

His family and close associates give a picture of Thompson as both fiercely destructive and difficult, and keenly insightful and creative. It seems to me that his own personal madness may have given him a potent level of insight into the decadence of the society that he loved to rail against. In a poignant speech by his son Juan Thompson, in front of an audience in the author’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky, Juan says that his father taught him to see underneath the surface of things. It isn’t enough to go along with, for instance, the cover stories that we are told by the media and the government. You have to look for what is really true, even if it’s ugly and unpleasant.

I am reminded of a passage in the biblical book of Job. Job is a righteous man who’s done everything by the book. When his entire life is destroyed by tragic losses, he wonders how God could allow all this misfortune and chaos to happen. Job hadn’t done anything wrong. Towards the end of the book, God shows up and speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. At one point, God points to two wild and dangerous creatures that he’s created and says, in effect, check these two beasts out, Behemoth and Leviathan (traditionally believed to be the hippo and the crocodile). They are wild and powerful and beautiful. You can’t control them. They are fierce, and there’s nothing nice or pretty about them, but I made them. In fact, Behemoth is in some way the first of my creatures. In this passage, perhaps God is subtly revealing something of his own wildness to Job as well.

Who knows what this passage really means, but when encountering a wild force of a man, who broke all the rules, I am reminded of it. I can’t help but make the connection to psychology and its relation to wildness, or chaos. Psychology is no different from religion in that it tends to prefer the ordered, peaceful, well-behaved, and the safe. It will do what it can to enforce these values, with its diagnoses and its technologies of treatment.

Any therapy that lasts awhile is liable to encounter in some form the chaos that is part of living a human life. Not even the most sophisticated psychoanalytic theory and method will ever analyze away this element of the chaotic and uncontrollable. It’s a permanent fixture. Finding a way to relate to the Behemoth and Leviathan doesn’t come without great struggle. Destruction of self and other is all too easy to fall into. Yet for the psyche to be alive and in play, the individual has to forge some kind of creative relationship to chaos–one that gives the wildness a place in the work of individuation.

But enough, as Hunter might say, of my gibberish!

The Power of Not Now

Various popular renditions of spirituality and therapy in our current culture encourage us to live in the present moment. We are told to realize the true self in the now–to become conscious, aware, transformed. Sounds good, right?

That is my simplistic take on what seems a common thread of much spiritual and psychological and therapeutic thinking these days. The thread of “living in the present moment” has good precedent in Buddhist and Hindu thinking. I’m not for or against this thinking, but it’s worth playing with for a moment.

To begin with, I wonder why this goal of living in the now isn’t working better, for more people.

I have to wonder how well any of our popular spiritual and therapeutic self-help is working for us. Take a stroll through the self-help and popular psychology sections at Powell’s bookstore. While there’s some good stuff being written, at least now and then, these strolls tend to elicit a certain despair in me. So many theories, systems, and recipes for well-being. The striving for an elusive cure to what ails us goes on forever, aisle upon aisle, world without end. What does that tell us? We want to become conscious, live in the now, make sense of suffering, manage depression, cure addictions, alleviate anxiety, heal wounds, transform behaviors, and renew relationships. And we evidence an unending appetite for new methods of achieving these ends.

What if, instead of striving for a final solution, we slow down and spend some time with the longing in us that drives much of this striving? Our culture values drive, achievement, mastery, and consciousness, and does not encourage us to slow down and feel things that might not be terribly comfortable at first. But I suspect that the human heart, with its longings, confusions, stuck points, unconsciousness, and hurts, will ultimately evade our desperate attempts for a final fix. As a result, we may in the end feel like we’ve failed to live up to some psychospiritual standard of good living–being in the now, being conscious, healed, on top of things, whatever.

A more human approach might help us remember the power of “not now.” We need room to be stuck, confused, defended, and to let our development take the time it needs. The movement of psychological development–individuation, in Carl Jung’s terms–is a spiral path, some have said. Progress is made towards a center, but we also go round and round. That’s just how it is. We are chagrined to encounter our “same old shit” in new and deeper forms over the years. We come around again to the same old joys too, and remember how easy it is to forget them. Real change happens in this cyclical way.

Image of the Spiral

We sense the presence of the center as a kind of timeless “now,” though we don’t get to hang out there forever. If we actually did succeed in fixing / curing / redeeming the innate messiness of a human life, and living 24/7 in a state of ultimate conscious realization of the self, we wouldn’t be living a human life any more. We’d lose touch with the longing that reminds us that there is, after all, a center that we are circumambulating. We’d lose touch with the wounds that open our hearts to others that we’re sharing our lives with.

I think that this take on things makes room for letting go into a development of the self that truly gets the striving ego out of the center… which I think, in the end, is the point of those who tell us to awaken into the present moment–as it is, with all its messy glory, not as we’d like it to be.

Jung’s Red Book and Turning to the Psyche

I finally started reading the actual text–not the images or the commentary by the editor–in depth psychologist C.G. Jung’s Red Book. The first part is called the Liber Primus, which is Latin for First Book. I had been lucky a few weeks prior to watch a webcast of a seminar about The Red Book by Jungian analyst Murray Stein. That brought the material alive to me in a new way, and I’ve read a few sections now.

The Red Book is a big folio-sized volume full of visionary paintings and writings that Jung created during a difficult period in his personal and professional life. Over time he put the images and words together in a large red volume, whose blank pages he filled up with evidence of the quest to discover and embrace his own soul, which had become lost to him at that stage in life.

Pages from The Red Book

In the foment of his images and imaginative writings, so much is contained of what he elaborated over the years in his depth psychology. Here in The Red Book, his discoveries are in a kind of mythic or visionary form. In his scholarly and popular works, he teases out the meanings and implications of these same discoveries.

No doubt the publication of The Red Book, which for decades has been kept out of public view, will call attention to the roots of Jung’s psychology in his own experiences of the psyche–in himself, in the world, in the consulting room, in world mythologies, and in relationships with others. These roots are rather embarrassing to the modern way of thinking, which is so biased towards the methods of the natural sciences, and the statistical sciences. But the psyche–literally, the soul–has its own reality, to which anyone can pay attention, experience directly, make meaning of, and even elaborate in the form of psychological theory, in the case of Jung as the author of a depth psychology.

Jung often emphasized his scientific credentials and the empirical evidence that backed up his theories. He recognized that his psychology might not find its place in the world of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, if others categorized him as a mystic (which they did anyway), who turned to the imagination and soul rather than to science and its methods. His thinking is oriented both to the inward, imaginative, artistic, poetic, and mythical, on the one hand, and to the empirical and scientific on the other. To put it another way: He investigates the soul’s landscape in a disciplined, methodical way, but with room for the soul’s fluidity. A method of discovery should match the object of the inquiry–in this case, the psyche itself, which is naturally in flux, always changing, and charged with deep emotion and powerful images and dreams.

In the images and stories of The Red Book, we discover the rich ore from which a life’s work came. The creation of a psychology and a body of written work began here, in large part, with intensely felt experiences and an attempt to grapple with them in word and image. The material is archetypal, but it is also deeply personal and reflects Jung’s own suffering.

In a section that I found very moving, Jung has a conversation with his soul. The two of them, Jung and his soul, got separated long ago, and the desire to reunite is intense. I will save the details for a later post, but it must be this desire that compelled Jung to return to his own foundations, and to the processes moving forward in his own experience of the psyche.

Above and Below

In the few hours that I have so far devoted to psychologist CG Jung’s recently published, The Red Book, most of that time has been spent gazing at the many images, which have so painstakingly been reproduced by digital imaging.

One dynamic recurs in many of Jung’s paintings: two forces, one pushing up from below, and one pushing down from above, meet in the middle. The two forces are generally imaged by Jung as obelisk-like forms, or half circles, or other forms that convey the forceful movement from below upwards, and from above downwards.

Right there in the middle, there often appears a mandala of some kind. Here, in the middle, where there is a tension between two poles, that is where the soul takes shape. That is where the individual human life becomes what it was intended to be.

Theoretical as this may sound, it does convey something common to our experience of psychological development and healing. In one way or another clients (and therapists!) are bringing various conflicts, various tensions from inner and outer life. The most basic tension may be this: everyone struggles to be who they truly, spontaneously are, given outer and inner realities that prevent the true self from coming into being. On the one hand, the outer environment and relationships may stifle the individual’s true self; on the other hand, the inner life of the individual’s personality may carry wounded or estranged parts of the self, and these also can stifle the expression of a person’s true being.

Each individual is in a developmental process through the whole life span, whether it is made conscious at all or not. Therapy brings a focus to the tensions and conflicts, the lost parts of self, the unknown strengths, and change begins to take place.

Jung used his own development as a person — “individuation,” in his terms — as a kind of experimental field where he could observe firsthand, from the inside, what happens as a person goes through major changes and comes to live more authentically the life given to her or him.

The Figure of Mercurius

Depth Psychologist CG Jung was fascinated by the mythological figure of Mercurius, who shows up in ancient alchemy as a trickster deity. Jung sees alchemy and its fantastical images and chemical experiments as a reflection of human psychology, and especially of processes by which individuals and relationships go through developmental transformations. Mercurius is the imaginary figure who gets us started on a path of transformation, and is also the ever-elusive goal of the process.

Here’s what Patrick Harpur says about Mercurius in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire:

“In Mercurius we see the characteristic that so excited Jung: he (or, she, or it) is coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites, the point at which all the contradictions which rend existence are resolved. He is the beginning, middle, and end of the Great Work – prime matter, secret fire and Stone… Mercurius… is one’s own soul and also the Soul of the World; as personal as a lover, as impersonal as a god. Like the Tao, he is everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. Like a trickster deity he is both sublime and ridiculous, never allowing his spiritual side to become divorced from matter, never allowing the high mystical goal of the Great Work to become altogether divorced from its dark physical side.”

This is the language of alchemy and mythic consciousness, and is rather foreign to modern sensibilities. Yet the psyche, as anyone who pays attention to dreams and waking imagination knows, does not behave like a machine. Mechanical metaphors for brain and behavior tell us something true about a biochemical and behavioral basis for psyche, but to be in contact with the psyche means to be in contact with a fluid, moving, emotional, and image-rich level of your being. Here, in this experience of the fluid psyche, Mercurius is a guide. It is also the level where real changes in the individual can begin to take place as the process of becoming oneself – what Jung calls “individuation” – moves forward.

An image of Mercurius


Preferring “The Given”

There is an important phrase from the author Charles Williams (a friend of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) that I have remembered for years, especially when I have not gotten what I wanted, or have struggled to know and fulfill what I really want.

He speaks of “preferring the given.”

What does it mean to prefer what actually happens in our lives, rather than to cling to what we wish would happen?

For the most part, most of us spend most of our time wishing for things to be otherwise than they actually are. Jobs. Relationships. World events. Health concerns. Traffic. Whatever.

You could imagine preferring what happens, what is “given,” as a passive stance, as letting things happen instead of actively engaging and making changes. But that is not what Williams meant.

To prefer in this case is an active choice. It is to adopt an open stance to the world, to what comes into our lives. We don’t have to like things that feel bad–getting fired or dumped or hit with the flu–and preferring the given does not mean turning away from dark emotions. It doesn’t mean pretending that we are not hurt, angry, or grieving.

Imagine instead not having to like the bad stuff at all, not having to make anything nice or better when it really isn’t, but also standing with both feet planted on the ground, and facing what really is. So much of our energy typically goes into the frantic attempt to make things different, even the things that cannot be changed. What if that energy were freed up for other uses?

Sometimes we find that after releasing into life as it actually is, and actively choosing to face what happens both when we like it and when we don’t, then paradoxically the deep changes that we long for begin to come. It is as if our need to be (or to delude ourselves into believing that we are) in control creates a tight knot of feelings and thoughts and patterns that keep us bound up.

Nothing can move significantly if it is bound up. Preferring the given has the potential to create a clearer seeing, a spaciousness, and an open heart, and these shifts can loosen the knot in us that prevents our development from moving forward.

The center out of which we live can then shift from the “I” we thought knew the answers, or had the right plan, to another “I” in us that resides in a deeper place, and out of this deeper place a life and a self can emerge that feels more fulfilling, more authentic, and more trustworthy in the long run.

Charles Williams:

Charles Williams