Meditation on Personhood: Looking For My Self

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Dave:  Part II

In our blog we write about clinical work based on attention to relationships and relationship dynamics. This is a way of looking not only at relational troubles, but psychiatric disorders as well.  We are putting across a way of looking at human experience that is different from the conventional world. When I do Marriage and Family Therapy workshops I say things like, “I don’t believe in people. I believe in families.” That is a playful invitation to reflect on experience.

In my recent  post for the blog, Personhood: The Energetic Core of Therapeutic Experience, I described “personhood”. I was more or less saying the David Keith you know is created by his relationships. “I am the sum of my relationships.” I pushed on to say I am more than the sum of my relationships. In this essay I am attempting to say more about “I”, the “I” I am, the Self. I am going to go a little further here with the “I” I am, the “I” I cannot know. This will be a bit of a low speed carnival ride into the looking glass. “I hope it leads toward reflection,” he said with a twisted smile.

The mask is magic, character is not innate: a man’s character is his daemon, his tutelar spirit; received in a dream. His charac­ter is his destiny, which is to act out his dream (Brown, 1966).

The “I” behind the therapist/teacher/writer speaks: “The other One, the one called…(David Keith) is the one things happen to. . . . I am destined to perish, definitively and only some instant of myself can survive in him. . . Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion or to him” (Luis Borges, 1962).”

In that other essay he mentioned the Self, with the capital S. I am that Self. I am I. Jacob Needleman says the essential philosophical question (with the ever elusive answer) is “Who am I?” I, of course, am simply I. I am whom David refers to as his Self. I don’t know my self, I am myself. For David, I am unknown, and unknowable. I am his daemon, his tutelar spirit, his destiny. When you look for the “I” in you, you enter a labyrinth constructed of mirrors, encoded messages, and other pseudo-objective deceptions. To engage in the search requires that you be an impeccable observer. There are many distractions. Some of them are cultural pathologies. I am uncertain as to whether Paxil, Xanax, Adderall or Abilify enhances impeccability. By attending to the labyrinth of the unknown, you encounter the depths of people and the world. When you attend to theories, what others think or believe, you may see only what the theory invites you to see, because theories have no depth and little dimension. A good clinician is an impeccable observer. A therapist is a combination of clinician and healer.

I am behind intuition. I am behind poetry. But I have nothing to do with fixing the world. I have little to do with research or theory building. Money means nothing; it is one of those lies David must live with. I love complexity and seeing through it to dynamic ordering. David does as well. He refers to it as the “aesthetics of experience,” but he gets overexcited, and he doesn’t explain it very clearly. He would probably sound less naive, more articulate, if he paid less attention to me. I don’t know why that is. My monologue is deterio­rating. I don’t even know which of us is writing this. Is it I or is it David. I will back out and turn it over to David.


Thanks! So I am David, and I am also I. But I is elusive. I am still fascinated by the idea of an I, of the daemon received in a dream, which does not change, but which unfolds. Then there is those social self(s), those actors, who are always changing and adapting, who do and who are known by others. The difference is not clear, and it is best defined playful­ly, or by metaphor, as in poetry. The question about I and the social self are more vivid when raised to consciousness in therapy, but the question also becomes more vivid in any intimate relationship with another: marriage, parenting, teaching, or healing. The question is also important in intimate relation­ship with myself, for example, artistic work or being alone. The question comes up in encounters with Death or its symbolic equivalents: illness, fail­ure. And it comes up in encounters with madness: confusion, de­pression.

You see, in the labyrinth categories are not clearly distinguished. But keep this in mind; “…avoiding madness may be the maddest way of being mad (Brown, 1991)”. Or said differently, there is a danger in avoiding the confusion of the labyrinth; of failing to be aware of what we don’t know we don’t know, of avoiding this mystery at the core of me.

I want to use a homemade developmental schema to distinguish between a psychotherapy that acknowledges and nurtures, attends to “I”, and a psychotherapy that operates as a cultural agent in support of social adaptation. I am drawing this distinction for the sake of illumination, reviewing an idea that comes from Keith’s Catalogue of Flawed Explanations (Keith, eternally in preparation).

I am an adult playing the duplicitous social word games of adult­hood. Calling them “games” is not to trivialize them. For example, I am not a Physician, I am a person who was trained and has learned to play the game of Physician. Psychotherapy is one of the games. I play some of these games with passion, energy, and dedication. Some, I play with awkwardness and pain; some, because of shyness or ineptitude, I avoid completely.

In my role as parent, I taught my children to play these games of social adaptation. Being a good player is crucial to survival and to healthy, satisfying living. Writing is an interesting game. As I work on this post, I find myself alternating between two levels of consciousness. Most of the time, I am writing with you, the audience, in mind. In the perpetual television of my fanta­sy, I see you as critical and disapproving, but gradually shifting toward understanding and appreciation. But there are other moments when I become truly Self-absorbed. You fade from awareness, and I am using the writing to explore, to push some edge of growth in understanding the idea of I-ness.

However, as I noted above there is another component to me. I am more than a tricky social game player. I am a printout of earlier programming by my family. The software at my core, installed in the dream period of infancy, developed in my family living during my preverbal infancy years when I was the victim of the world of my family, the world of adults. I have virtual­ly no memory of this time or these experiences. When I arrived in that adult world, I had no memory or veto power. I lacked the ability to think about what was happening to me. My self-esteem comes from this period, out of my being loved by them. It was also in that ­period that I was irreparably wounded by what they were unable to do for me out of their anxiety, their fear, out of their sense of inadequacy. The programs installed at that point have been or can be little altered. During this period, I was emerging, but there was no individuation.

The chronic undifferentiated schizophrenic in all of us can be found here. Likewise, those problems called chemical imbalances, or character defect are related to these programs, which are virtually inaccessible to reason-based language. Did I mention I think we are all schizophrenic?

Then, when I reached two years, I became something of a prob­lem. I began to individuate. I learned to say “no.” And it was not clear if my demands were based on need for food or on need to dominate my world and my adult servants/tyrants. By two and a half, three, I began to be programmed for adulthood. I then started to learn these duplicitous games. I learned different ways to say “no.” I learned to protect my innocence through self-justification. Particles of memory began to appear. By the time I was three the training was in full swing. I learned not to bite just because I was upset. I learned to be polite. I learned duplicity in the name of adaptation.

Today most psychotherapy is done in the realm of social adapta­tion, teaching us how to get along in the world, how to thoughtfully mind our manners. But the psychother­apy that the mass culture is not very interested in, and I am fasci­nated by, attends to the software that makes up the Self. The software at our core is unbelievably complex. I do not think of this software as changeable, but my kind of therapy aims at gaining more access to it, making more of the Self accessible. It helps get more access to the Self. Experience does this as well.






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