Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
– me, part #001
I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)
There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.
(This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)
As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.
Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.
We’ll start with Ego.
A good enough theory of ego
- Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
- Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
- Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
- Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
- Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.
Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.
In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.
My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.
We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.
Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.
It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.
The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)
That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.
Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.
I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.
- Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Cal’s own Dacher Keltner, co-director of their Greater Good Science Center.
- Here’s a KQED interview with Dacher: Transformative Power of Awe. He did a number of interviews, many on youTube if you want more.
- The Power of Awe: Overcome Burnout & Anxiety, Ease Chronic Pain, Find Clarity & Purpose―In Less Than 1 Minute Per Day – seems pretty interesting if you can get past the title.
- A short but free interview with the authors The Transformative Benefit of Brief Moments of Awe with Jake Eagle, LPC and Michael Amster, M.D. short but free
- longer interview on the same network. Looks like it costs $1.99 – Microdosing Awe in Our Everyday Life with Jack Eagle, LPC, and Michael Amster, MD.
- One more. Here’s a fascinating interview with Katherine May, author of Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.
*1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.
*2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.