Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chuang Tzu, Perceived Reality, and Psychology

What we determine as real determines who we.  But who are we really?  Psychology claims to assist us in finding the reality of our internal self.  Psychology helps us cope more efficiently with conflicts in our lives.  “You are being taken advantage of because you are not assertive enough.  Let us help you be more assertive.”  It certainly helps to be one.  But in some ways it introduces another reality.  If you are to be mentally healthy, you must be assertive.  Or we hear psychological theory that believes in good self-esteem.  “You need to feel good about yourself.”  So a person who uses to feel ok for feeling ok now feels bad for feeling ok.  Or a person who uses to function well dependently is now labored co-dependent.  The national bestseller, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, claims cognitive therapy to be substantially superior to the use of antidepressant and traditional psychotherapy.[i]  This is to be applauded.  I love the David Burns’ statement regarding self-esteem. 

“Then how can I develop a sense of self-esteem?”you may ask.  The answer is—you don’t have to!  You don’t have to do anything especially worthy to create or deserve self-esteem; all you have to do is turn off that critical, haranguing, inner voice.  Why?  Because that critical inner voice is wrong![ii]

While cognitive therapy is a wonderful tool research also indicates that approximately 50 percent of those who recovered experience relapse within the first two years.[iii]  It is also interesting to note that even among those who receive treatment, the functioning level is still at one standard deviation lower than norm.[iv]  While cognitive therapy contributes significantly to the treatment of depression it seems to suggest that when you do not think right you feel wrong.  Feeling bad does not belong to the human experience.  In essence cognitive therapy suggests that one feels wrong because one thinks wrong.  There is nothing really wrong except that one feels wrong.  And this feeling wrong is the wrong feeling.  So think right.  While this reframing is enlightening, it also suggests at the very same time that feeling wrong isn’t right.  A potential conflict is introduced at another level. 

Another interesting example of this complexity is introduced by Foucault regarding psychoanalysis.  Freud sees neurosis as a symptom of repressed sexuality.  Foucault takes this a step further and suggests that repression is caused, in the first place, by the construct we create.  It is not so much repression as the construct that results in repression.  So Freud can psychoanalyze and brings everything to consciousness, thereby resolving conflicts.  But other causes remain, a defined sense of self carefully constructed  resulting in other forms of repression.  Reflecting on Foucault’s critique of psychoanalysis Dreyfus writes:

The ultimate form of alienation in our society is not repression and exclusion of the truth but rather the constitution of the individual subject as the locus of pathology.  Given our modern Western understanding of reality in all accounts of ourselves, whether hey be pseudoscientific or existential, “Man has a relation with himself and inaugurates that form of alienation that turns him into Homo psychologicus.”  All forms of psychotherapy can at best provide only isolated and temporary “cures.”  As manifestations of our everyday cultural practices, all psychotherapies solve individual problems without combating our general malaise.[v]   

 Every claim to reality whether, it be theological, philosophical, or psychological, brings with it potential conflicts.  Every reality implies a self one ought to be.  Psychological theories introduce ideas aiming at resolving conflicts.  But one needs to be aware, every idea has an inherent potential for resolving and creating conflicts. 

While we struggle with the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ in mental health, Chuang Tzu introduces us to wu wei, the art of doing nothing.  Psychological theories seek inner reconciliation through cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal interventions.  The difference between current psychotherapies and religion

"lies in the present historical context where psychological theories have heightened awareness of the self.  This context forms the new reality through which one assesses oneself and others.  The self that must be reconciled is the self that must come to define itself through this awareness.  In this awareness, the language has changed.  Instead of sin, we have the libido.  Instead of mutual dependency, we speak of codependency.  This is the reality that the self must be reconciled to…This is also where wu wei differs from these approaches.  While wu wei may employ, to some extent, cognitive and behavioral interventions, it questions the philosophical and theological basis of this definition of the self.  It questions the interpretation of reality upon which our culture arrives at the meaning of 'healthy self.'"[vi]

Chuang Tzu invites us to return to the basic, the undifferentiated reality, to the principle of heaven and earth.  It is a return to the self as is.  It is a return to what is before we become dissatisfied with ‘is’ and obsessed with ‘ought.’  It is a return to the state prior to the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ distinction.  In this message, Chuang Tzu invites us to the sacredness of life. 


[i] This research studied 44 severely depressed patients.  19 of the patients were given cognitive therapy while the rest received antidepressant only.  Results show that 15 out of the 19 showed a substantive reduction of symptoms after twelve weeks of active cognitive treatment.  Two showed some improvement and one dropped off.  On the contrary, only five of the twenty five fully recovered.  Eight dropped off because of side-effects and the rest only showed partial improvement.  A. J. Rush, A. T. Beck, M. Kovacs, and S. Hollon, “Comparative Efficacy of Cognitive Therapy and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatments of Depressed Outpatients,” Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1, no. 1 (1977): 17-38.[ii] David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Avon, 1980), 79.[iii] National Institute of Mental Health/National Institute of Health (NIHM/NIH) Consensus Development Conference Statement, “Mood Disorders: Pharmacologic Prevention of Recurrences,” American Journal of Psychiatry 142 (1985):471.[iv] Leslie A. Robinson, Jeffrey S. Berman, and Robert A. Neimeyer, “Psychotherapy for the treatment of Depression: A Comprehensive Review of Controlled Outcome Research,” Psychological Bulletin 108, no. 1 (1990): 40.[v] Dreyfus, Foreword, Michael Foucault: Mental Illness and Psychology, xxxvii. [vi] Sorajjakool, Wu Wei, Negativity, and Depression, 47.


Chuang Tzu, Foucault, and Deconstruction

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual is filled with pathologies.  Eating disorders.  Sleeping disorders.  Anxiety disorders.  Mood disorders.  The list runs on and on.  This is truly helpful in assessing and observing the phenomena of the intrapsychic functioning.  But an observation is an observation. It observes certain connections.  It observes certain causal relations.  It is a wonderful tool for people seeking to nurture souls.  But is it real? 

I once asked my therapist what he thinks of the DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for psychological assessment). He replied, “A fiction, a necessary fiction.”  Chuang Tzu writes,

Now do you say that you are going to make Right your master and do away with Wrong, or make order your master and do away with Disorder?  If you do, then you have not understood the principle of heaven and earth or the nature of the ten thousand things.[i] 

James Hillman explains, “So long as the statistics of normalizing developmental psychology determine the standards against which the extraordinary complexities of a life are judged, deviations become deviants.  Diagnosis coupled with statistics is the disease.”[ii]  This is where, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have become the Creators.  The story of the fall is pretty clear.  Sin originated from Adam’s awareness of the knowledge of good and evil.  This is perhaps the sin of our society as well.  We create fashion models and make heavy people feel bad. We create social behaviors and make some feel out of place.  We create dependency and call others codependent.  We create civilization and name others uncivilized.  We create truth and see others in untruth.  The more creation, the more division.  The more pathologies, the more disorders.  If slim isn’t right and fat isn’t wrong then a conflict does not exist.  If dependency does not necessary mean emotionally healthy and codependency, unhealthy, then tension is dissolved. The problem is, we do not like what we have and hence we create right and wrong.  Reflecting on webbed toes Chuang Tzu writes:

 That which is ultimately correct does not lose the characteristics of its nature and destiny.  Therefore, joining is accomplished without a web, branching is accomplished without extraneousness, lengthening is accomplished without a surplus, shortening is accomplished without inadequacy.  Thus, although a duck’s legs are short, if we extend them it will come to grief; although a crane’s legs are long, if we cut them short, it will be tragic.  Therefore, if what by nature is long is not cut short, and if what by nature is short is not extended there will be no grief to dispense with.[iii] 

French philosopher Michael Foucault would have agreed with Chuang Tzu that webbed toes becomes marginalized only in relation to the society that pathologizes it.  Pathology, as we understand it today, is rooted in individual psyche.  Madness expresses itself in behavioral aberration that ultimately lands a person in social isolation and alienation.  Alienation, perpetuates madness itself and the cycle continues.  Foucault sees this whole process differently.  It is the reversal of the process, argues Foucault, that leads to mental illness.  Commenting on this argument Herbert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy, writes:

In Foucault’s account, social contradictions cause alienation, alienation causes defenses, defenses cause brain malfunction, and brain malfunction causes abnormal behavior.  In short: “It is not because one is ill that one is alienated, but in sofar as one is alienated that one is ill.”[iv]

To Foucault, social categories and norms create conflicts and conflicts, in turn, result in changes in brain chemistry causing various symptoms.  Social alienation is based on an assumption of truth and its deviation.  According to Foucault, the 19th century has brought along the concept of bio-power that aims at the betterment of human life.  Betterment is possible when one can grasp the true meaning of self through knowledge.  There is a self that one ought to be and through acquisition of knowledge and scientific methodologies, one can show the community what this ideal self ought to be.  In an attempt to move humanity toward its betterment, power seeks to classify, quantify, hierarchize, appraise, and label.[v]  With classification, evaluation, and label, we can now realize where people are and how to correct that.  Now there is the mad and the not-so-mad.  There is a neurotic and a psychotic.  There are subtypes of psychosis with numerical identification.  In his introduction to Mental Illness and Psychology Foucault points out, “The analyses of our psychologists and sociologists, which turn the patient into a deviant and which seek the origin of the morbid in the abnormal, are, therefore, above all a projection of cultural themes.”[vi]

 Hence there is a self that one ought to be and webbed toes do not belong in this category.  Webbed toes have to be unwebbed to belong.  But without the classification or quantification for the webbed or non-webbed, there is no alienation and therefore, no pain.  The problem according to Foucault is that we’ve allowed politics to defined and determined mental health and thus classified people accordingly. 


[i] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 102.  [ii] James Hilllman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York: Warner Books, 1997), 30.  [iii] Victor Mair, trans., Wandering On the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 76. [iv] Hubert Dreyfus, “Foreward to the California Edition,” Michael Foucault: Mental Illness and Psychology (California: University of California Press, 1976), xxvi. [v] Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 142-44. [vi] Michael Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology, 63.


Chaung Tzu and Reality

Whom shall we get to decide what is right?  Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide?   But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?  Shall we get someone who agrees with me?  But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide?  Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us?  But he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide?...Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer.  Shall we wait for still another person?[i]                       Chuang Tzu

 “Whom shall we get to decide?”  This is a very good question.  When my son was little an elderly Chinese lady came to visit.  She looked at him with a smile and said, “You are so ugly.  Ugly…ugly…ugly!”  How could it be right for someone to call others ugly?  Under normal circumstances none of us would appreciate such a comment.  But I remembered listening to her remark with a sense of pride.  In her world, there are demons that like good looking children.  But these demons are so codependent that they depend on human opinions.  The trick is to trick the demons.  So when this elderly Chinese lady said “ugly” I knew better.  She actually meant, “You are so cute!”  How can calling people “ugly” be right?  Who is to decide? 

It was 8:30 in the evening at King’s College, a regular weekly meeting of philosophers and students of philosophy.  The date was October 25, 1946, a day not to be forgotten. 

This was the only time these three great philosophers—Russell, Wittgenstein, and Popper—were together.  Yet, to this day, no one can agree precisely about what took place.  What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy—whether there were indeed philosophical problems (Popper) or merely puzzles (Wittgenstein).[ii]

Many interpretations of this event expressed, many versions written.  There were allegations and arguments over what took place.  The ten-minute exchange between two great philosophers was about what can be known and what cannot be known.  The irony, every one saw what they saw and took with them what they thought was taking place.  What really took place?  What was real?  Who is to decide?  

Reality is tricky.  A Buddhist monk once said to me, “A dream is a temporal reality.  Reality is a very very long dream.”  Perhaps this is the reason when Buddha was asked if he was the enlightened One, he just replied, “I am awake.”  The awaken Buddha was silent when asked about the Ultimate Reality.  Lao Tzu would have agreed.  The real cannot be named.  But our society is extremely proficient in the art of naming reality.  This chapter explores the impact naming of reality has on the human psyche from Chuang Tzu’s perspective.  If Chuang Tzu had read the Velveteen Rabbit he would have agreed with the Skin Horse, “Once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who do not understand.”[iii]      

So we learn from Kant that the real world we are in (noumenon) is not the real world we live (phenomenon).  We all think it is real but it is as real as we think it is.  My wife came home one evening and told me an incident at the psychiatric ward she was visiting.  A schizophrenic patient rushed to the psychiatrist in despair crying “Doctor, doctor…I see people.”  The doctor turned and pointed toward my wife and her colleagues, “You mean, these people?” 


“Don’t worry, they are real people.”               

What is real to one, may not be to the other.  The spirit world of ancestors is real to many Chinese but not to most Caucasians.   There is only one God to Muslims but there are millions to Hindus.  There are angels.  There are no angels.  There are miracles.  There is no miracle.  Good begets good.  Deceitfulness reaps rewards.  Which reality?  Who is to decide?

Kant tells us that there is an organizing principle in each of us.  This organizing principle, which exists a priori, makes possible for our connection with the external world, the phenomenal world.  David Hume takes it a step further.  There is no external causal relation nor continuation.  Everything is the creation of the mind.  Human beings are just a bundle of perception, hence the expression, “no matter, never mind.”  When we sit and observe a mountain, according to Hume, we only see because of our sense perception.  When we close our eyes, the mountain no longer exists for us.  When we look again, it is there.  Every time there is a mountain, there is sense perception.  The continuation of existence is only our rational interpretation.  We question Hume’s common sense.  But the question remains especially through modern psychiatry.  Aren’t we wired to see, hear, sense, and feel a certain way?  We learn the darkness of melancholia in relation to neurotransmitters.  And why do some people hear what is not spoken, see what is not there?  Carol North recounts her struggle with psychosis:

Without even a knock on the door, the nurse burst into my hospital room.  She held out a Dixie cup containing a little green pill and a little white pill.

“Military pellets?” I asked.

“No, this is Haldol.  Dr. Hamingway wants you to take it.”

I swallowed the pills.  The nurse, satisfied with the completion of her mission, turned on her heel and exited.

Next, a man in a long white coat and a tie burst in.

“Is there no privacy?” Hal protested.

“No!” said another voice.  “It’s the day of the eagle.”

“Hi, I’m Dr. Dolby,” said the man in the white coat.  “Can we talk for a little while?

Not filtering out my irrelevant ideas, I asked him, “Are you wearing white because this is the Day of the Eagle?”

He looked at me strangely, then repeated, “No, I’m Dr. Dolby,” in a louder-than-normal voice, as if I were hard-of-hearing.  Positioning his yellow legal ablet squarely on his clipboard, he said, “Can you name the last five presidents?”

It sounded like some kind of trick question to me.  Too bad he didn’t realize I had the power to diffuse my molecules and slip right through the brick wall to the outside.  He could never keep me here.  In the meantime, I decided to answer his question: “Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Hal…”[iv]

“Who is Hal?”  Or to be more accurate, “Who the hell is Hal?”  His voice is real to Carol as the other that talks about the day of the eagle and that of Dr. Dolby.  Did Dr. Dolby realize that she could diffuse her molecules and slip right through the brick wall?  Perhaps not because they both were wired differently.   

We learn through studying brain anatomy that temporal lobes are related to memory, language and learning.  “Clinically,” says Robert Hedaya, “euphoria, auditory hallucinations, and delusions are usually associated with impaired function of the dominant temporal lobes.”[v]  We also learn that vision and visual memory are associated with occipital lobes.[vi]  Referring to the role of the temporal cortex Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb write, “Common symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy include olfactory and gustatory hallucinations, déjà vu, derealization, depersonalization, and repetitive motor acts.”[vii]  Regarding the parietal cortex, “a patient with a right-sided lesion may deny that the left arm exists and may even fail to put clothes on the left side of the body.”[viii]  But does the left arm exist?  If we are wired differently, will we see differently or hear differently?  If so, what has this wiring, this mental circuit, to do with reality?  What is reality?  Who is to decide?


 [i] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 43-4. [ii] David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 2. [iii] M. Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit and How Toys Become Real (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanich, 1983), 14-16. [iv] Carol S. North, Welcome, Silence: My Triumph over Schizophrenia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 249-50. [v] Robert J. Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry (New York: Norton, 1996), 4.[vi] Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry, 4. [vii] Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb, Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994), 101. [viii] Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb, Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, 101.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Think Small and Be Ordinary

Perhaps a glimpse of freedom is reflected in an image of a person who finds satisfaction in just being ordinary. It is freeing to be ordinary. When one has to strive to be something more than what one truly is, one moves into the area of the ‘conditional.’ In this circle, life is determined by others. The public face is of ultimate importance. In the conditional, one betrays one very own self. Hence to move toward the unconditional may just be the journey toward the ordinary. To just ‘be’ in the ordinary sense of the word is liberating. It is serene. It frees us to become the very being from which we were called by God. It releases us from the pretentious public obligation. It offers a space for us to breathe deeply and invites our souls to the realm of rhythm and poetry. In the unconditional, one moves and flows, reshuffling and reconfiguring. One just becomes in the transformation of self. I remember vividly as a teenager sitting on a bus one afternoon. Two old Chinese ladies got on, one at the front and the other, the back. They wore funny clothes. They were clumsy but cheery, carrying funny stuff with them. They talked loudly exchanging words all the 45 passengers on the bus could hear. And I thought, how embarrassing. But now I wish I could be like these two old ladies, old self-differentiated ladies. They were free and liberated. They had no need to fit-in. They had no need to strive. They were just two old Chinese ladies happily traveling on the bus having a great conversation and sharing their intimate information about their husbands to all the 45 passengers.

In chapter six of the Inner Chapters, Chuang Tzu reflects on what it means to be a real person.

What is a true man? The true man of old did not oppose the minority, did not strive for heroic accomplishments, and did not scheme over affairs. Such being the case, he did not regret it when he made a mistake nor feel smug when he was right. Such being the case, he could climb high without trembling, enter water without getting soaked, and enter fire without feeling hot. Only one whose knowledge can ascend the heights of the Way can be like this.

In our quest for spirituality, the way is unknown, the path is unnamed. Transformation takes place not by transforming. We live in a noisy society. There are many voices that keep reminding us of what we ought to be, of various standards and multiple criteria. These noises make us want to move in various directions complying to their callings. In the midst of these seductive invitations remains a lost soul. Silence, on the other hand, is how we come to really hear the essence of who we are. Not by judging nor analyzing but just listening. The soul finds its destiny. Be ordinary. Flow in the stream of life and one may be awaken to the real discovery of oneself in the presence of God. Jasmin Cori provides a possible description of such a person.

Running through the village
embracing everyone she meets,
she laughs in ecstasy.
People call her mad.

“New eyes!” she cries.
“I have been given new eyes!”
And it is true.
For the scales which had previously blinded her
are gone now, erased
revealing such utter glory
that her mind took flight,
leaving only a rapturous heart
in an old, weathered body
racing through the streets
on fire with love.