Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Neuropia: Conditioned Insanity

Hey you crazy people, it's Night the Cat here. My human is pretty busy now, what with trying to find a job so as to keep the tuna flowing around here.

Call me a mush if you want, but I've got a soft spot in my heart for humans. Sure they're stupid and self-destructive and hideously vain, but goddamit, some of them at least try to overcome their evolutionary disadvantages. Problem is that sometimes you of the two-legged crowd are just so damned pitiful, especially the way you worry over every little turn in your miserable lives. In my world, if there's a couple decent meals a day, a reasonably clean litter pan, and a warm place to crash, I've got no room for anxiety over the meaning of life and such.

Oh, that reminds human had promised you guys an excerpt from one of his books, something about "neuropia"—one of those crazy words he comes up with all the time. Anyway, here's the download of the entire chapter, and below you'll find a little piece of it. He says you'll understand what it has to do with those nuts in Washington he's always writing about. Now I'm down for a little nap...I haven't slept in almost an hour!

We are not born loveless, violent, intolerant, aggressive, or ridden with conflict: we learn these attitudes and behaviors. Nor are we born with any sense of estrangement from Nature: we learn that, too. But as long as they go unquestioned, unexamined, the beliefs that lead us into the realms of opposition, self-abasement, and warfare will seem to be entirely natural. For example, it is well known that even those of us within the “helping professions” will implicitly accept the ideology of Guilt and Blame: whenever a client or patient expresses that inner torture known as guilt, we are taught to ask ourselves, “does this person truly have something to feel guilty about?” instead of asking, “how did he possibly come to imagine that guilt has any psychological validity?”

The same goes for all the other aberrations of consciousness that are pressed into us during the course of societal conditioning, which is an ongoing, womb-to-tomb process. Yet all we have to do, in order to begin to understand more truly, is to look at Nature, and therefore, within ourselves. Look into the sky tonight, or down at the earth, and try to find the mildest evidence of striving, competition, hatred, guilt, violence, or arrogance in the stars, the moonlight, or the trees that reach toward the heavens as they draw life from the earth. Nature is always calling us back, whenever we are ready to listen, toward our organic place within its vast and simple Presence. It shows us itself: open, welcoming, and somehow inscrutable to the machinations of thought. It is always ready to teach us a more encompassing way of understanding and being in this world. It is always prepared to reflect our inner light and to reveal to us its own; to show us that in every moment that we attend carefully and sincerely to its living messages, we will be made whole and united in Nature, with all the forms that share our planet.

So, for a culture that makes a pretence of believing only in a scientifically or empirically demonstrable truth as acceptable, it is very curious indeed that we should thus tacitly accept the inner phantoms of guilt, innate aggression, and the other oppressive fantasies of a corrupt and inherently feudal ideology; that we should so readily assume that the universe is a malevolent or indifferent realm, governed by a vengeful or punishing external Deity, or that things are so because there is no such guiding Presence. And to the extent that we project that destructive consciousness onto the universe, onto the planet that is our Home, then the negativity is received and perpetuated; and the activity of the Cosmos reflects that icy indifference or black-hearted consciousness right back at us. This, from a general or cosmological perspective, if you will, is the illness known here as Neuropia.

The Etymology and Meaning of Neuropia

As we have seen throughout this book, words bear their own unique dangers. But the danger comes from using a term to distract or overwhelm (as with erudition or scientific pretension); or when a word is loaded with too much meaning—that is, with more association than is suitable to its natural purpose. This happened with one of the two words that I combined to come up with neuropia, namely, neurosis and myopia. Neurosis became so overburdened with diverse and frequently opposing meanings that psychiatry eventually threw up its hands and said, “Enough.” Unfortunately, it devised a scheme of definition in response to the confusion that was so narrow and at the same time lifeless in its associations that it ended by only creating a new kind of confusion. We will avoid these dangers by relating our new word to the lived experience of real people, while at the same time describing the appropriate borders of neuropia’s meaning. We will begin with neurosis, and continue with myopia, to develop a sense of our composite term, neuropia, that each of us can use uniquely.

Neurosis: The Trap of Conflict

For our purposes here, we can think of neurosis as a deep sense of discord within the psyche; a movement away from the natural self. Neurosis happens inside a person’s whole being—it is not confined to the intellect, but involves the feeling aspects of the personality. It is also primarily and often completely unconscious; the person suffering is generally unaware of the cultural dimension of his illness; its essential character as learned behavior or ways of thinking. This is exactly as we have seen in the prior discussions of family life, work, and relationships: people completely overlook their own suffering because they deny it through externalization—they blame someone or something else for their misery.

Neurosis also encompasses conflict—specifically, inner conflict whose source and direction are repressed, and therefore inaccessible to consciousness. The result of the conflict is, as we have already pointed out, externalization of the cause or source of the discord, and a division or “splitting” of the psyche—in other words, the same kind of bipolar patterns of thought and negative emotion that we have observed earlier in this book. The net effect of this nexus of conflict, externalization, and splitting is neurosis and estrangement.

Understanding neurosis is the first step in understanding the broader concept of neuropia; it will also lead us toward a clearer perspective on the darkness and estrangement that keep us from living truly and fully as unique individuals. From that perspective will come a further glimpse of the path through the darkness and out of the grip of neuropia; so perhaps a quick review of the primary insights contained in our definition of neurosis will help us to start from a firm foundation.

Neurosis: A Practical Definition For the Rest of Us

No, this is not “neurosis for dummies”: it is simply a practical definition that we can all refer to in understanding the meaning of the intense torment we often feel amid the conflicts of modern life. The goal here is not to construct or support a school of thought or a theory of the personality—as if such a thing were even possible. Our objective is simply to have words that can help us in expressing our suffering and finding a conceptual orienting point that connects thought and feeling, unconsciousness and awareness, in a way that will help to lead us out of the darkness of estrangement. To this end, then, our working definition of neurosis, summarized:

Neurosis is characterized by inner conflict—a painful sense of discord within the psyche, usually from we-don’t-know-where, that feels like a splitting of the self into competing or even warring components.
Neurosis is unconscious—we’re either completely unaware or only vaguely conscious of the source, direction, and meaning of our feelings of discord and conflict. We’re very conscious of the pain and inner combat that’s going on within us, but we’re not aware of its cause; we lack a conscious perspective on what the pain is telling us.
Consequently, neurosis leads us into that form of projection known as externalization: we blame other people, events, things, or abstractions (such as a malevolent God, an indifferent universe, society, or just a dark star following our life’s course) for our misery, our sense of bitter estrangement. Externalization only further separates us from self-understanding and spirals us into darker and more malevolent conflicts, which in turn lead us into a deeper cycle of division, splitting, and estrangement— both from others and from our true nature. Neurosis, at its worst, is the dark and recurrent atonal noise of inner death.

In arriving at this perspective, we are allowing the teaching aspect of the illness to guide us: adversity always has a healing message, if we listen closely and carefully enough. The famous Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung, also perceived this healing potential within neurosis. In his famous Tavistock Lectures of 1935, he gave us the following insight:

I am not altogether pessimistic about neurosis. In many cases we have to say: ‘Thank heaven he could make up his mind to be neurotic.’ Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure, just as any physical disease is partly an attempt at self-cure....Modern medicine—internal medicine, for instance—conceives of disease as a system composed of a harmful factor and a healing factor. It is exactly the same with neurosis. It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams—only rather more forceful and drastic.

We can take this message a little further and say that a neurosis is offering us information about ourselves which, if we attend to it through inward-turning and guiltless self-examination, will teach us something about ourselves and our suffering that can help to lead us clear of the darkness and conflict. Thus the meaning of the title of the book you are holding: “drinking from the darkness” is all about learning ways to walk into the liquid depths of one’s suffering and sense of estrangement, taking in the teaching, clarifying message that adversity always contains. We do this through self-examination, meditation, and by perseveringly asking questions of our darkness, our conflict, our neurosis. Given a little guidance and the small but persistent efforts at mindful questioning of the unconscious currents within our darkness, we can penetrate the darkness and enter the light of our true nature.

Myopia and Emmetropia

Myopia, which contributes to the second part of neuropia, is a much more conventional and generally accepted medical term than neurosis. It comes, of course, from ophthalmology, and is one of several functional disorders of vision. Myopia is nearsightedness, or an impairment of distant vision, and has subsequently come to mean, in a more metaphorical context, a lack of perspective or foresight in the assessment of people, resources, and situations. But let’s stay for a moment with the medical sense of myopia, because it contains a valuable lesson in how we may conceive of health or normalcy, depending on whether we’re guided by a belief system or by our feelings. In Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, the following distinction is made between myopia and what is presented as a lamentably rare state of health:

In approaching the patient with reduced vision, the first step is to decide whether refractive error is responsible. In emmetropia, parallel rays from infinity are focused perfectly upon the retina. Sadly, this condition is enjoyed by only a minority of the population. In myopia, the globe is too long, and light rays come to a focal point in front of the retina.

I find this to be an astonishing perspective: is the doctor writing this article saying that “emmetropia” is vision of such perfection as to be all but a mere ideal? Or is he suggesting that such a healthy “condition” is so rare among people that it may as well be considered an abnormality? It is difficult to resist a metaphorical interpretation of this passage: rare indeed is the person with such insight upon her place within the Cosmic Whole that “parallel rays from infinity” find perfect focus and balance within her! But it is also true that most of us have had what might be called “emmetropic moments” in our lives—where we have a kind of insight that so exceeds the conventional as to be an epiphany of sorts. William Butler Yeats left us a poetic record of such a moment:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed, and could bless.

In emmetropia we find a clue to the kind of vision we would like to have—one that involves the total organism, and not just a single sense or intellectual function. The vision that Yeats had was only begun through the activity of outer vision: his “gazing” was suddenly and inexplicably absorbed into a transformative state in which his “body of a sudden blazed.” Now that is vision that not merely sees through appearances, but actually demolishes them in a whole-being union between the self and the Ineffable. What if it were true that emmetropia were our natural state of being and seeing—that all we had to do to experience recurrent and frequent emmetropic periods were to clear out our inner being of the dust and grime that Ideology has cast into the Rays of Infinity?

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