What we know as the "individual self" in Western psychology does not exist and never has. There is not a single self and certainly not one that is stable and consistent or pathological. It is long overdue to reject antiquated and pathologizing concepts and turn instead to current knowledge in physics, Eastern psychologies, and feminist approaches that demonstrate human psychology's mobile and morphing nature. My effort in this article is to introduce you, the reader, to these revolutionary ideas in simple and accessible terms. This new thought is likely to revolutionize your ideas about sentient life. At least, I hope it does. As a psychologist and theorist, my work is part of the search for the psychological Higgs particle (theorized but just discovered to provide the glue of the universe and the very existence of matter instead of just forces). I name it mattering and the field of forces, influences, and matters that comprise the Mattering Map. I propose that it provides the glue of the psychological universe. As gravity holds us to the earth, mattering connects us to each other.
Feminist contextual theory has made significant contributions to psychology since its inception in the early 1970s by a few other colleagues and me. Early in development, the focus was largely on gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and their contributions to the psychology of girls and women. Over the ensuing decades, this perspective has expanded and become more complex until it now provides a complex, multi-dimensional and dynamic approach to understanding human psychology in general.
Separation and Discipline
While a close and narrow focus is often crucial for the advancement of human knowledge, there eventually comes a time to integrate seemingly disparate ideas. The arbitrary boundaries that define the disciplines often create the illusion of separation rather than the reality of connection. One goal of knowledge is to dissolve illusory boundaries.
All too often, these metaphorical markers are taken to be materially real, and, at that moment, they deceive us about the complexly intertwined nature of all human and non-human experiences. The existence of boundaries and disciplines is an invention of the human senses and the human neurological system. No theorist or practitioner should marry a metaphor.
Each of us appears to reside materially inside our own skin; not only is that skin porous, but our influence on others and the surroundings far exceeds the seeming boundary known as skin. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the field named psychology. Psychotherapy, in particular, can engender profound change in an individual using the tools of verbal and body language. While extensive research is being conducted on neuroscience, beginning with brain and nervous system mapping, we are only in the early stages of connecting these neurological events to the complexity of experience. Neuroscience is only in the early stages of mapping the brain, as I am in mapping the energetic gravity of human life.
It is primarily vision that not only separates but creates the illusion of empty space. No space is empty; it is filled in a way that our human senses do not perceive. Nothing demonstrates this fact more clearly than my recent work with blind people. Without sight, they do not perceive separation except through the presence or absence of sound. Touch can signify presence to the human senses, but not emptiness. The Western mind cannot easily understand that the space that appears empty to us is far from empty. Think of a jazz composition without the space between the notes or the difficulty of decoding early writing, which did not contain spaces between words. Even in the visual arts, the use of space is a significant aspect of any work.
Buddhism and Eastern Thought
The distinction between inner and outer experience is illusory or constructed by human perceptual apparatus. I do not mean this statement to equate imagination with construction; neither can I separate these two activities of the mind. Schrödinger, more than fifty years ago, asserted, "Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have been broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist."
Western science is overdue a reunion with its long-lost sibling, Eastern philosophy and practice. In my opinion, Buddhism is perhaps the most impressive system of psychology to have been introduced in all human history. It is a fully developed philosophy of the mind and has been, for me, a significant source of constructionist thought and practice. Feminist and constructionist thinkers had been using mindfulness for decades before the cognitive-behavioral practitioners, who successfully introduced it to large numbers of Western psychotherapists.
Neuroscience and experience combine to inform us that the human brain is, among other things, a pattern detector. This is at the center of human experience, whether creativity, madness, or the quotidian. The nervous system cannot do otherwise than organize and perceive patterns. Once discovered/invented, these patterns become emergent and are almost impossible to "unperceive." The task of consciousness work in political groups and psychotherapy becomes, in a sense, the "unseeing" of accepted patterns of "reality," the dissolution of constructed boundaries.
We do not see what we have not learned to see. Here is an example that I often use in supervision and training. I divide my time between California and Costa Rica, the two San Josés that have come to define so much of my life. When I first visited the jungles of Costa Rica decades ago, my friends excitedly pointed out the monkeys in the trees. They were all around us, everywhere, hundreds of them, but I could not see a single one. A native of New York City, I could spot a mugger or a taxi from blocks away, but a monkey in the trees, never. My eyes were not trained to this sight. It took practice, learning first to distinguish the patterns of greenery from each other until I began to see little faces embedded in them everywhere. And once I saw them, I could never go back, could not "unsee" them. It is a sight that my brain, and not just my eyes, now recognizes. Similarly, the eyes of the psychologist or the biologist, the astronomer, or the archeologist are trained to see what each discipline defines as its monkeys. Even more importantly, each of us constructs a life, a worldview out of what is possible for us to see and names it reality when it is instead merely possibility.
This sort of myopia can also be significantly affected by the corrective lenses of diversity and complexity, which depend upon keeping as much as possible in view. It requires multiple and shifting perspectives and continuing to ask the question of a child's puzzle, "What is missing from this picture?" "From whose perspective is this picture drawn?" "Whose eyes are the official eyes that define the questions and so the answers?" Those of us who do not have a pair of officially sanctioned optics find this exercise a bit less daunting than those who more easily adhere to "official reality." Yet to maintain the scanning and questioning stance is not easy for the individual human mind, which is designed to seek out/discover/invent patterns and settle comfortably into them.
Quantum theory posits a probabilistic rather than a deterministic universe. The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics claims that, rather than things or facts, only potential and possibilities exist in the atomic and subatomic world. Human psychology is also a combination of potential and possibility that form themselves into patterns perceived by the human mind just as material reality depends upon the human sensorium.
Training as a psychologist or psychotherapist certainly depends heavily on training the eyes and other senses to recognize specific repeated patterns and to see them rather than other possibilities wherever we can. It is the act of observation itself and the eyes of the particular observer that freeze probability into a pattern. Once there is a pattern or the solid stuff of the human senses, then there appear to be boundaries that define this solidity. But what we are experiencing yet another illusion.
Startlingly to many scientists, the emerging field of epigenetics has demonstrated changes in actual genetic coding as a result of experience (Reik, Dean & Walter, 2001; Sutherland & Costa, 2006). This is genetic coding that can still be seen three generations later and must inform our ideas about the influence of genetics not in contrast to, but combined with, the effects of personal/contextual experiences. This idea is revolutionizing psychological perspectives on trauma and the inheritance of trauma. If we are to move beyond dualistic thinking, we must learn to mistrust any question that has an "or" in its midst. That is, for example, is nature or nurture, biology or learning crucial? The answer is "Yes."
I will continue each month to present a different aspect of the Mattering Map translated from academic theory to the quotidian.