I feel ill-qualified to write a blogpost about depression this morning; there are hundreds of millions of articles on the internet about it, many of which are written by medical doctors who've been studying psychology for several years. Having depression doesn't necessarily qualify a person to write about it for two reasons.
I'm about to give my sixth Enneagram presentation next week and whenever I do it, I always shrink before the task of describing the early holding environment, and how babies develop their ego selves. Don Riso and Russ Hudson do such a good job in their one-hour Ireland talk that [used to be?] posted on their website (their website got a major overhaul earlier this year). When you hear a master do it, or two in this case, it's hard not to feel inadequate when you do yours. Plus, I don't have a baby, so how do I know what stages of development they go through?
So I've turned to Sandra Maitri this morning, who provides a good summary of the stages. I actually heard her give a variation of this talk in Los Angeles in 2013 and it was an honor to be part of the audience- she does it so eloquently. In her book, though, The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram, she takes a different tack, quoting bits and pieces from A. H. Almaas' Facets of Unity, and rounding out her references with some preeminent developmental psychologists and psychoanalysts like Rene Spitz, Heinz Hartman, Margaret Mahler, D. W. Winnicott, and of course, Freud himself.
So when we're babies, we're in contact with True Nature. In the womb, we're connected to our mom's body, being fed vitamins and minerals through her amniotic sac. All our needs for development are met; our little bodies are in perfect homeostasis with our dark and moist environment. Our mom is our world, and we're in perfect unity with our world. We even share emotions with our mom- we pick up on her joy and her stress, and we're so connected, we don't know any difference between her experience or ours. Those who have done a lifetime's worth of meditating and have dug deep into the personality structure have told us that in pre-cognition stage, we're aware of a deep connection to all other beings, that at a certain level, we all emerge from the same source.
As infants, once we've emerged from the sac and had the initial shock of separation, for a while, that feeling of oneness is still there. We are unable to differentiate between our own body and mother's.
It is probable that while a child sees differentiations between things, he does not actually know that they are separate. He might feel the warmth of his mother's breast milk, for instance, and see the redness of his rubber ball, and feel the hunger pangs in his belly, but he probably does not conceptualize these experiences as different from one another. Warm, red, and hunger would all be part of the unity of his experience (Maitri, 2000)
Cognition then starts developping in stages. The first stage is a distinction between pleasure and pain. At the onset, we don't yet have our memory function connected to the right neurons to remember what causes pleasure and what causes pain, so first we go through a phase of just experiencing everything without trying to avoid or move toward any particular experience. As those neuron connections are made, however, we start remembering: being with mom equals pleasure, being put down in my crib for a nap and separated from her equals pain. Freud told us that the most fundamental principle underlying the ego structure was striving for pleasure and avoiding pain, which we see being laid here.
Margaret Mahler described this phase as the normal symbiotic phase- when the baby is aware of his mother, but is unable to distinguish between his body and hers.
Maitri moves us on to the next phase- a sense of inner versus outer. As the nurturer touches our bodies, we become aware of the sensations of our outer edges. "The collection of sensations on the periphary of the body coalesce into a sense of the body's boundaries", says Maitri. This is our first hint that we're separate from everyone else, that our skin is the boundary between "me" and "them", a distinction that forms the basis of object relations theory. "I am the subject, mom is the object." Margaret Mahler would call this the individuation phase. We start crawling and then walking away from mom, exploring our environment, and yes, coming back to her, but less and less frequently.
By the time we're four years old, our ego self has matured into a fully-formed understanding of the child's being separate from the rest of the world, founded in their experience of themselves as a physical beings who can leave and come back to mom. The development of the ego, then, coincides with our disconnection from True Nature- that essential state where we feel like we're one with everyone else. Maitri reminds us that religious traditions call it falling asleep, ignorance or darkness.
But we need that ego structure, it's not all bad. "Developing this structure", explains Maitri, "is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual development, since part of the ego's attainment is self-reflective consciousness. Without it, we couldn't be aware of our own consciousness."
And so as we grow and develop through to adulthood, we develop a greater and greater capacity to self-reflect, while the ego performs its job of getting us through school, navigating our social circles, and helping establish ourselves in the world.
Eventually, maybe in our twenties or thirties or forties (some seniors we're still waiting for), we begin to find that the ego is no longer needed; we can afford to shed some of the protective layer that has encrusted itself around our Essence self. If we do the work necessary to become more and more self-observant, we begin to shed the layers formed by social and psychological conditioning and relax into our True nature- the self we were meant to be beyond the ego structure.
About a decade ago, I read in a magazine that if you want to lose weight, buy a full-length mirror. Then again, a few years ago, I was at a musicians' workshop, and the guy at the front said, "if you want to improve as a musician, the
I once heard someone say that Type Eights wake up angry. I thought since that's a pretty core emotion for the Eight, the other types must wake up to their go-to emotion too, so I decided to see if I, as a Four, woke up melancholic.
Of course, nobody wakes up immediately feeling a certain emotion. There's that timeless ethereal white space first thing between sleeping and waking where you're processing your dreams and you just want to stay like that forever, unaware of who and where you are. And then you remember you have a meeting that day, or something jolts you awake and suddenly, your regular thought patterns shoot back into place. As your psyche fishes for its ground, it must grab what feels the most familiar.
My first thoughts aren't always necessarily about melancholic things (?), like let's say my first emotion is anxiety, but I'll settle into a melancholic feeling about the anxiety. Sometimes I'll just have to take a look at the heavy feeling that's settled over me and say, "Hey! What happened there? I was feeling so good before!" and the awareness shooes the clouds away....
I was reminded the other day about this idea of the Holy Perfection of all things, a concept I don't really like that much as it seems a little flaky, spiritually gratuitous, and frankly, unnecessary. There is good and there is bad in the world. No need to be trying to squint our eyes a certain way to see the essential "good" underneath someone's evil behavior. What is the purpose? Aren't we letting ourselves off the hook of confronting the wrong-doer by trying to see their essential qualities? Who cares about their essential qualities when they need to be make aware of their wrong-doings?
This topic came up in the context of a conversation about raising a family. Parents who try to improve their children without doing any inner work on themselves are "bad", I said, in the sense that they're imposing their ego delusions on someone else without stopping to examine them. So when the kid grows up, they not only have to deal with their own egoic delusions, they have to wade through the ones imposed on them by their parents. Basically the parent is asking the child to do their own inner work for them. They're saying, "Here, I don't want to examine my motives or sift through all this psychic material I've inherited. You do it." The kid has to separate all the layers in therapy. I mean, this happens all the time, but for a parent to still hang on to their ego-structure long after the child has left the house? To never have examined their own lens? Basically to go through life never having any big existential crisis about your own ego story? Isn't that bad parenting?
What I tell parents who want to help their kids is, "The best gift you can give your child is to do your own inner work." You're definitely going to start out thinking you have all the answers, which is natural, but when you realize your lense on the world is only one of several, and there are other valid points of view out there, you start incorporating them and you get a little humbler and a little humbler until you realize, like the Fool in the tarot card journey, you're back at the beginning of your journey. What you "knew" throughout your life was your own ego story and when you transcend that a bit, you start doing some digging to see what else you've been missing. I attend Enneagram workshops, and the median age of the attendees has to be around 45-50, that age when people start seeing a bigger picture beyond their limited worldview that they parented out of.
The answer given to me in this conversation this past week was no one HAS to do inner work. It's optional. There is still an inherent goodness in that parent who constantly feels the need to impose their egoic lens on your worldview. Goodness, she said, in the sense of the the Type One's holy idea- that of Holy Perfection, not "goodness" in our egoic way of judging one thing against a standard of an ideal. While we see stubbornness and self-importance and self-delusion, an enlightened person sees someone who is "inherently and implicitly perfect, that [they] are just right as [they] are, that [they] do not need anything added to [them] or subtracted from [them]", says Sandra Maitri. She goes on. "From this angle we see that [they] do not need to become better, that [they] do not need to be different, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with [them].
She quotes A. H. Almaas here,
To see things as they really are, which is to see things objectively, we have to put these [judgements and preferences, likes and dislikes, fears and ideas of how things should be] aside-- in other words, we have to let go of our minds. Seeing things objectively means that it doesn't matter whether we think what we're looking at is good or bad-- it means just seeing it as it is.
It was "good" to be reminded of this, although I'm going to need a bit more enlightenment in this regard. :) This gets into the idea of the child parenting the parent, which surely does happen. When the child develops the leadership skills that the parent won't develop, or can't... or to use this new phrase from Robert A. Johnson that I love... when the child provides the container for their parents' psychic energy and learns to see their parents' Essential qualities.
I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.
I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.
First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of. There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other. The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.
Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity. If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences. Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena.
There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind. As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself. However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain. Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.
Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions.
To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind.
Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was. His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had. While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together. Here is Siegel's own working definition:
The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
But there are other concepts that are still undefined. Think about it. Can you define consciousness? Neither can psychologists. What about self, or identity?
The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head. As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet. The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping. As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."
Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types. I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations. For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons". There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon.
I'm teaching someone the Enneagram, and I'm trying to remember not to go too fast. The first year you discover your type, you're just noticing your primary mood. Like a Type One will probably just spend their entire first year noticing their anger hidden boiling under the surface of their sense of duty and striving for perfection. I spent the whole first year noticing that I was giving the worst possible interpretation to events, and as a result, I was sad all the time. It's one thing to know you have depression; another thing to be able to attribute the overall rumbling river to its trickling tributaries.
The next year after that, I noticed my five wing, and all the ways in which I wanted to preserve my short reserves of energy. I had a telephone coaching session with someone I regarded very highly in the field (and still do), but she talked non-stop with hardly any breaths or pauses between her sentences-- probably to give me the best value for my money-- and it was information overload to the point that my brain blew its breakers. I was super angry that she was giving me all this valuable information and I couldn't keep up, and I asked for a five-minute break to process everything mentally before I took in anything else. I put down the phone and went to another room to unwind, and at that moment, lying on the bed, I had a dawning realization that I had a five wing. I went back and joyfully told her my new discovery. From then on I noticed how I tried to keep conversations and situations out that would "steal" that energy, and how I would read or otherwise process information to re-ground myself.
The year after that, I think, is when I discovered my instinct stack. I thought it was the worst possible instinct stack compared to everyone else's and I remember being really down about how I didn't have the Social instinct in the top two (there are three instincts, and three places that they can occupy. The top two are the best two places to have an instinct). If there had been an Enneagram god, I would have complained bitterly at her/his shrine, pointing out why my instinct stack was the worst possible one for the work I felt called to do and how there must be some mistake. I learned a lot about how I shrivel up around groups of people, but find incredible joy in the intensity of one-to-one interactions, especially with someone of my own instinct stack. I remember trying to come up with a mental image for my need for intensity, and if I really exaggerated the feeling in my imagination, it looked like I was becoming a flame, or trying to become one. It was only when I was a flame that I could experience true flow, but as long as I was with socials who were always trying to spread out my intensity, I felt like an absolute, miserable social failure. Or if I was really bored, or my life was flatlining, I'd look around for some loose thread I could pull or something I could rupture.
In the fourth year, I started paying attention to my body while I was stressed. I read one of the biographies of Gurdjieff (the grandfather of the modern Enneagram) and learned about how he would teach his students to always be aware of their bodies and keep them relaxed, especially under stress. During lessons, he would have his students become aware of all the muscles that held tension in their bodies, and would send a child around to palpate everyone's faces to make sure they were as relaxed as possible. Of course, the idea isn't to be a floppy, boneless body, but to notice that when we're clenching our muscles, it impedes a more intangible kind of flow- the flow of our "essence", let's say. For example, when you're trying to remember a word, and it's just on the tip of your tongue, it helps to notice your body's tensions, and when the tension is "noticed", the body relaxes, and the word comes to you at that point (ie. think of getting nervous and forgetting your name while flirting with someone of the opposite gender). Also, in dangerous physical conditions, like in times of war like Gurdjieff's students experienced, having a relaxed body was the prime state for being aware of noises in the night and dangerous trekking conditions underfoot.
As my fifth year approaches, I have a good idea of what's coming around the bend for my next "layer" of unfolding, but I'm going to let it stay unspoken for now and I'll see if I'm right. I'm pretty excited about it because my life needs it really bad.
Of course, I learned other things about myself during those years, those were just the big themes, and no one is going to have the exact same unfolding process. Those were just really broad brush strokes, but within those strokes were lots of individual nuances, so I wouldn't use anyone's personal experience as a template.
My favorite ritual is making my smoothie in the morning. I've been drinking a smoothie every morning since late 2007, and because I go long stretches before I change the ingredients, I'm usually going through the same motions every day-- four steps to the fridge- get out five ingredients- add them to the cup, put the ingredients back; three steps to side cupboard to get the greens, peanut butter and honey, put them in, put them back; three steps to back cupboard to get out supplements and protein powder, put them all back. I will never get tired of this.
It's a great time for meditating because when you're doing something simple, with all the steps memorized, you have more presence to pay attention to the inner critic and watch your internal reactions to their nit picking in the background of your mind. So the two big complaints my inner critic has is that 1) I'm not making my smoothie fast enough and I could be moving more efficiently-- like grabbing the supplement bags between two fingers so I don't have to make two trips to the back cupboard-- and 2) I put too many ingredients on the spoon, and I won't have enough room in the cup for the rest of the ingredients. Other favorites are that the counter is messy, and I'm using too many spoons and should just re-use an old one so there's a balance of forks, knives and spoons in the dishwasher next time I do a load, and I'm not just doing a load because I'm out of spoons.
What's beautiful is I can just notice the nit-picking and see where it lands. If I'm not able to catch it, it lands somehwere in my muscle tissue, resulting in tenseness in my neck or back, and by the time I'm done, and I don't know why I'm so tense. When I can notice it, I just watch it dissolve like a snowflake on the pavement. It's the most wonderful thing- I don't know if I'd call it relaxing- it's freeing. I walk away from every smoothie-making ritual a slightly freer woman.