Do They Even Know?

To Create an Enemy, Sam Keen
Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.
Dip into the unconscious well of your own
disowned darkness
and, with a wide brush
stain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.
Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
your own.
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
. . .
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphosed into beast, . . 
Quite a nasty recipe!
A few words on projection. An online definition summarizes this process as follows: “a psychological defense mechanism wherein a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions; then ascribes them to the outside world, often to other people. Thus, projection involves imagining or projecting the belief that these aspects of oneself originate in the feelings of others.” Freud, the originator of the term in its modern use, maintained that projection’s primary ‘use’ was that of helping the ego split out emotions which the individual finds disturbing or unacceptable as personal attributes; thereby reducing one’s anxiety. A rather unusual variant of ‘not in my backyard’!
If we accept Freud’s contention that projection develops as a ‘defense mechanism’ in aid of making our lives a little less harried, it can’t be all bad. Right?  After all, some other of these ‘mother’s little helpers’ include sublimation (shifting socially unacceptable motives to a more benign form: better to play out international differences on a World Cup pitch with a football, than on a field of battle with guns!); identification (modeling oneself on the admired attributes of another’s behaviour or character); even humour and rationalization often make the ‘helpful cut’.
Evidently, from Sam Keen’s take on this process, the answer to the above question would be: ‘well, not necessarily — helpful, that is’.  As is so often the case with matters addressed in a regular mindfulness practice, the pivotal issue here is one of awareness.  Sam’s sardonic piece portrays what can (and so often, does) happen when we distance ourselves from our own process, fail to own our own issues and, for the sake of our own comfort, project them safely away from ‘our own backyard’. The sequence he lays out is common enough:
1.    pick a neutral and generic target;
2.    identify (unconsciously) those issues with which we regularly struggle and are perhaps the least satisfied with in ourselves;
3.    attach a pejorative label to our (previously) generic figure — befitting the content we’re about to assign him/her;
4.    remove our intimate connection with this person; making him/her less the individual and more ‘representative’ of a ‘group’ or type;
5.    and finally, engage the ‘black and white’, all or none process of polarized thought — leaving only the negatives and conveniently forgetting or downplaying the mitigating positives.
Last week’s blog suggested a simple meditation of self-exploration: Who Am I? A variant on this exercise as we sit is to become aware of subtle signals that may foretoken a bit of projection at work. The signs are simple enough: those issues or people who most trigger us; those individuals we most readily identify as representative members of a particular group / point of view — and feel most compelled to vilify and paint (a la Keen) with a single colour, removing all the nuances that necessarily comprise the ‘complete individual’. The awareness in this case: turning one’s vision inward (again); and ‘catching’ oneself in the act of projecting. Making oneself conscious — always preferred to being ‘unconscious’.

Audio Version: 

Who Am I? podcast link from Sounds True:

Of Integrity and Ego

When I search the etymological roots of integrity, I find its origins are from the Latin, integer, translating as whole, intact, untouched, complete — and it started me thinking. Even in English, integer carries a very similar meaning: ‘a whole number, not a fraction; a thing complete in itself’. How rare!
I suppose what pushed this concept fully into consciousness this past week was the sinking awareness of how ‘spinning’ finds its confusing and unhelpful presence so frequently into our days.  In the selective retelling of an exchange with a third party, with the casual exclusion of a detail or two; the adoption of a point of view, stressing ‘facts’ that support, downplaying those that don’t; the reshuffling of story elements, to minimize an anticipated confrontation; or simply reversing oneself — as the situation ‘demands’. Rarely are these ‘spun versions’ rooted in malice or the intent to deceive; often rationalized as ‘just good story-telling’, perhaps a memory lapse; the need to save face, self-enhance, or just to ‘not look the fool’. All at relatively little cost — save personal integrity.
Casting about for a little ‘light entertainment’ a few days ago, my wife and I streamed an episode of a recent BBC sitcom, ‘In The Thick Of It’, a satirical look at the politics and personnel of a marginal ministry in the British government. And its daily challenge of justifying its own existence, its programs, what it supports and what it eschews; and most particularly, the irrelevance of fact and truth and the preeminence of appearance and press- and public-friendly postures — even if it means reversing itself multiple times in a day. My wife’s summary comment was that this perhaps would have been amusing — if it wasn’t so close to the truth.  
Which may be why The Ides of March caught our shared attention as our ‘home movie of the week’ choice.  More politics — but with a ‘spin’. As the title suggests, the film is a contemporary re-examination of the motivations that fueled the political assassination of Julius Caesar, set against the backdrop of an Ohio Democratic primary with the victor an almost shoo-in for the presidency. The spin in this case is, ironically, found not in the political rhetoric, which would be just too cliched to be interesting; but in the morality of brinkmanship, party and campaign loyalty (or, more properly, the lack thereof), and the chess games that measure, position, and re-position — always with the eye on the long term ‘win’. To the extent possible, everyone ‘wins’ in the short-run, save the single character who maintains a position of personal integrity throughout. The cost of victory, in typical Faustian fashion, is one’s soul, as the hollow-eyed ‘winners’ suit up for the next round; and the loser, accepts his ‘prize’: a dignified exit from the world of politics (and spin), and gets on with his ‘integrated’ life.
What is evident is the ‘end justifying the means’ stance that informs most choices in the film. And most compellingly, the compartmentalization within self, the ‘fractionation’ of the individual if you will, that allows this process to continue. Carl Jung describes the process of maturing psychologically, somewhat tellingly, as one of growing individuation. In this process, elements of the immature personality, typically at that stage kept more or less in the dark, one from another, gradually begin to coalesce into a unified whole — to integrate, become acknowledged and accepted by the individual as ‘parts of him- or herself’ — for good or ill — and begin to inform his/her choices in a fully conscious fashion. In short, the individual develops integrity — both psychologically and morally. To the extent that this process is truncated or incomplete, our thoughts and actions are guided, at best, only by a part of self, generally one driven by ego — and its self-enhancing, self-aggrandizing motives.
Mindfulness practice approaches this integrating process from ‘the other end’ — but with the same, essential goal. Regular meditation is, among many things, an opportunity to become very well acquainted with our ego, its wants and needs, goals and demands. The intention is to better recognize the grasping and rejecting, the attachment and avoidance that instruct our choices — and to let go of these. In meditative language, to develop an ‘egoless awareness’. In his seminal book, A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield describes a meditation he entitles: Who Am I? In it he suggests, either alone or with a partner, to repeatedly pose this question to self during a meditation as a vehicle for discovering the elements that most define your ‘I’ — your ego, your identity. He suggests, that, as the answers arise (‘a man’, ‘a teacher’, ‘a mother’, ‘a . . .’ ) they will typically move from the superficial identifiers, labels, roles to deeper levels of values, emotions, intentions.  The answers themselves are less relevant than the process: that of openly — and courageously — examining the elements that comprise your self, your ego. The end is not to judge the goodness or badness of aspects; not to decide which you will ‘toss out’ and which to keep; which to openly ‘own’ and which to ‘spin’. But to cultivate an awareness of their presence — no different really than Jung’s individuation process, becoming an integrated whole. 

Trial by Facebook

“This is crap!”: the indignant, very public and mid-act summary pronouncement (on a production of Two Gentlemen) from a ‘patron’ at the Studio Theatre a few years back. Followed by a welcomed, albeit attention-grabbing and disruptive departure from the building by said patron — not without a little staff assistance. I daresay we’ve all had similar (thankfully sotto voce) opinions of the occasional staging over the years — when our particular vision is challenged; when we’re a little cranky for whatever reason; or it’s just not great theatre. But do we stand up and ‘share’ our view for any and all to hear? Not usually. That’s generally the province of the critic.
Ah, Facebook, (or Twitter, or . . .) — the social media. In a conversation with a twenty-something recently, I was not a little surprised to hear of his resolve to close his Facebook account. Seems, among some other rather good and defensible reasons for his decision, he was fed up with this forum wherein issues that were essentially between himself and another individual found their way into the public courtroom of the social media. Remember our old high school grammar: between is used when two things are involved; among when we’re referencing more than two – like the rest of the digital world. I believe the straw that broke it for him was the respective other’s pronouncement (not unlike our Studio Theatre attendee) that it was a ‘gutless’ move to deal with their differences in private, via a one-on-one communication. What a novel concept: if I have an issue with someone, to address it with him/her face to face (or at least email to email), without inviting the opinion, input, or judgment of several (hundred, or thousand) outsiders of whose business this is none (awkward avoiding that preposition at the end).
I was reminded (to the extent that the movie, Social Network is a reasonably faithful account of the origins of Facebook) of just how this viral vehicle all came to be. If memory serves, the then undergrad at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg, thwarted in his attempts to establish a relationship with the object of his affections, turned his considerable programming skills to creating an online ‘rating system’ for female students at the university. The intent of course was hardly that of providing a ‘helpful dating guide’ for other undergrads. Rather it was petulant, vindictive, decidedly pathetic, and mean-spirited. Essentially, to publicly shame the individual with whom he’d been unable to establish a ‘real’ relationship. Facebook was born. . . for better or worse.
An article appearing in this week’s Globe (Dating Violence on the Rise, June 8, 2012) examines the ‘appropriateness’ of utilizing a social media forum with potentially much higher stakes — but with quite similar parameters to my conversation above. What has historically been viewed as ‘intimate’ (aka, private, personal) in relationship is increasingly exploited on one hand and trotted out as ‘proof’ of one’s world-readiness on the other. What used to furnish ‘Monday morning bragging rites’ at the back of high school home room is readily ‘published’ in a medium that is neither containable nor reversible. The report assigns a measure of responsibility to the very public aspect of social media as, once again, ‘shaming’ individuals into more extreme behaviours than their personal value systems would countenance; bullied into ‘saving face’ by putting out.
In the spirit of babies not being tossed out with bathwater or guns not killing people, people killing people, I suspect the essence of the problem is not with the instrument, the medium. Clearly public accountability, Arab Springs, the assorted ‘Occupy. . .’ movements, and innumerable other socially progressive forces would be hugely crippled were Facebook and its ilk to be put back in the box — even if that were remotely possible. What my young friend was making a plea for was the sensible and selective use of a more intimate forum for addressing issues that are clearly ‘between’ (not ‘among’) differences. He had plainly begun to despair that such was even possible within his particular social group.  The ‘conversation’ (if that’s even an appropriate descriptor) in his group had become so dependent on and exclusive to social media vehicles for communication, that it had come to be viewed as somehow ‘cowardly’ to eschew Facebook in favour of a good old fashioned one-on-one. That he was somehow attempting to avoid public scrutiny and commentary on private matters.
Back to guns and babies. And a final word to mindfulness roots. Buddhist teachings caution against being motivated in our daily lives by Eight Worldly Winds (or Influences). Consisting of four pairs of opposing forces (pleasure / pain; gain / loss; praise / blame), the fame / shame dimension has some very real applicability in the present case. An indisputable conclusion around the viral growth of the social media is that they provide potentially very public exposure for anything and everything that finds its way into this digital space, for good or ill — the 15 minutes of fame hook. Sadly, the ‘fame’, as it were, is most decidedly not limited to 15 minutes. It is perpetual. Posting an ill-considered comment, photograph, or account of an exploit, may be cute or witty in the moment — but the ‘half-life’ of these postings approaches that of Strontium 90 (that would be in the hundreds of years!).  Equally, comments motivated by intention to hurt, shame, judge, reactively hurled into cyberspace instantly become fodder for public debate. The ‘pseudo-support’ garnered from the endorsements of disinterested parties (that old ‘thumbs up’ for a particularly cutting comment) is really pretty meaningless — not much use in resolving personal issues.
Far from a ‘gutless act’, my young friend’s choice reflects discretion, courage, sensitivity, and respect for the other.  Rather than loading up his ’357 magnum’ and blasting off a few shots, he chose to holster his Facebook — maybe permanently — and talk, really talk.

Audio Link:

Courtney Shea’s ‘Weekly Challenge’ in the Globe offers a very accessible alternative to digital communication: