I‘m reading Emotional Genius by Karla McLaren, an out-of-print book that has two parts. The first section presents a model for the human identity based on Jung’s quaternity, and argues that our modern psychological and social problems stem largely from imbalance between the four elements of our identity. The second section presents a process for increasing awareness of the four elements, and looks at ten emotions that we mostly consider “negative” emotions to be suppressed, and how by channeling them properly we can appreciate their essential purpose and restore the balance.
This article is about the first section, since that’s as far as I’ve got so far.
I’ve written about the quaternity at least obliquely before, from a knowledge/learning perspective two years ago and in a short winter story I wrote four years ago. The diagram above uses the most widely-used four directions orientation (north at the top, and yes, some people think air/mind should be north and earth/body-senses should be south). The mapping to the seasons and times of day, and the animal identifications, are from aboriginal models, such as the Chulash.
The model asserts that in order to be whole, we must learn to keep these four elements of our identity in balance. When we are born, they are in balance, as this lovely quote from Robert Bly, cited in the book, proclaims:
The drama is this. We came in as infants “trailing clouds of glory”, arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life — in short, with our 360-degree radiance — and we offered this gift to our parents. They didn’t want it. They wanted a nice girl or a nice boy.
From birth, we are taught to suppress and deny our emotions, and that some emotions are inherently good and others bad. McLaren asserts that all emotions serve a vital rebalancing purpose that is unachievable when we don’t allow it to be expressed naturally. So either we repress it, or we let it explode in improper and unhealthy expression. Our education system worsens the situation, and McLaren argues that our industrial-scale schools are essentially morally run by the children themselves by default (they are too big and teachers too busy to worry about this aspect of children’s “education”). As a result, thanks to the effect of bullies and other emotionally damaged and unbalanced children, we all become unbalanced to some extent.
This is one form of trauma, and McLaren believes we are all, as children, traumatized to some extent. And since as many as half of all children are sexually, physically or psychologically abused by adults when they’re young, this trauma is epidemic.
Our modern society’s way of coping with this is to live in our minds — to let the air/mind quadrant of our identities dominate. We squelch our emotions (often without much encouragement, if we suffer personal trauma; with encouragement from traumatized children and incompetent adults otherwise). We ignore our senses, replacing perception with conception (reinforced by the school system). We are taught to distrust our instincts (they are “irrational”). So we end up completely out of balance.
Children (and adults) who are traumatized by abuse, deprivation or the horrors of war tend to learn to dissociate, take themselves out of reality. This, McLaren says, is a normal, healthy coping mechanism, but when the trauma is recurrent or chronic it can lead to a chronic unbalanced identity, as emotions are repeatedly either suppressed or expressed in violent and unhealthy ways. The solution, she argues, is to learn to channel the emotion in positive ways. The tribal initiation rituals used by many indigenous communities teach this skill: the intitiate is carefully separated, then exposed to an ordeal that is modestly traumatizing, and then welcomed back in a critical third healing part of the ceremony. McLaren prescribes five exercises to teach a process to identify imbalances and restore balance using a similar ritual model (I’ll talk about them in a future article).
When our emotions are out of balance, we tend to use one or more unhealthy coping mechanisms. One of these is dissociation (common among abused children and women, and PTSD-afflicted war survivors). Others will turn to addictions, distractions, escapes, and numbing techniques.
While I don’t usually put much stock in psychological analysis, I found this diagnosis of psychopathy quite compelling. Our society is awash in addictive, distractive, and numbing behaviours, and a large part of our economy (alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, prescription and non, sugared, salted and fatty foods, pornography, gambling, day trading, shopaholism, spending and debt addiction, porn and violent entertainment, TV and the Internet all feed entirely or substantially off these unhealthy and unbalanced behaviours). Bullying and other violent psychopathy is evident in school, gang and prison culture, crude initiation rites, and the psychological violence that prevails in many homes and workplaces.
In fact, I’d go even further. I have argued before that our entire culture has become a prison culture. Just as rats in an overcrowded and resource-starved laboratory begin (as Edward Hall showed) to exhibit universal psychopathic, traumatizing and traumatized behaviours (hoarding, violent attacks, suicide, and finally eating of the young), I think our whole modern culture is expressing this mass trauma and psychopathy.
I think we’re past the point at which we as a culture can hope to restore the balance that prevailed for the first million years of our presence on Earth. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, as individuals, learn to become more aware of these imbalances in ourselves, and do some very useful personal healing.
In fact, in occurred to me that my list of the “ten things that I do” are, to some extent, therapeutic, each designed to bring my identity into balance, since like most people I have lived far too much of my life inside my own head and am therefore far too unbalanced in favour of the air/head quadrant.
I also confess that I can relate to the stories of childhood trauma, not to as severe a degree as many children faced, but enough to explain, perhaps, some of the depression that has plagued me for much of my life.
More about the book when I’ve finished.
Addendum Feb 7/09: Melinda Fleming has drawn my attention to a recent post by Karla McLaren in which she acknowledges giving up her ‘healing’ practice, and shares some doubts and cautions about how much can be accomplished using ‘new age’ methods, and some of their excesses. This is not a repudiation of the value of self-healing therapies or a wholesale embracing of more traditional methods, just a caveat that, in her experience, healing is a complex and very challenging process, and that there are no magical solutions or shortcuts.
Category: Being Human