The Individuation of Bowie – Blackstar

The first album I ever purchased was David Bowie’s 1973 album Changes. I was 13. I have remained an ardent fan ever since and influenced by Bowie in many domains of life. I wrote this shortly after David Bowie’s death. I have been thinking about this video a lot lately, so I have decided to share this again. It is my stab at a Jungian interpretation of something so profoundly symbolic, and so connected to the entirety of Bowie’s persona, and I ultimately is an expression of his Self, his final attempt at individuation.

In reading a review of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, in the New Yorker, I was struck by the writer’s assertion that the imagery of Blackstar exemplifies Bowie’s typical “willingness to embrace meaninglessness” in the sense that imagery and narratives stylishly shocking and/or erotic but are fragmentary in the sense that they extract a sensibility from a would-be narrative, but are ultimately a post-modern exploration of linguistic and imagistic signifiers with no real reference back to any narrative. The author respectfully asserts that Blackstar is more of this same exploration of fragmentation. When the article was released, the author was unaware that in a few days, Bowie would be gone and that the doors of radical reinterpretation of the imagery would open wide. In fact, in a postscript, the author so much as acknowledges this necessity of re-assessment, and finds evidence of the images expressing Bowie’s attempt to “bridge life and death”. Nonetheless, the writer holds to his assertion that Bowie’s “struggled to articulate the human struggle to articulate”, as if Bowie has some difficulty in being coherent.

Bowie’s cryptic language and imagery could be construed as stylish and compelling, but ultimately fragmentary and meaningless, and indeed the writer of the article asserts, “It was rare for Bowie to embrace clear meaning”. However, “clear meaning” and “meaninglessness” are not necessarily opposed. I have always sensed that what Bowie has been able to do within the particular stylistic and narrative concepts of each album is to create fantasy worlds with their own suppositions and values, of which the strange references and phrasing are snippets of the experience, narrative and impressions of the players in their dystopian or dreamscape worlds, and as such, there is a coherence to his narrative in terms of that world. This coherence-in-context compares in a sense to the language and imagery of Clockwork Orange which Bowie has indicated as an early influence and whose language he does use in a track on the album.

Shortly before Bowie’s death, I had finally finished Jung’s “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”. Needless to say (as with most people who tackle any volume of the Collected works) this endeavor had a profound and assuredly permanent impact on my awareness, and I could not help but notice the strikingly mythological symbolism in the video and lyrics of the title track of the album, Blackstar. My own impression was that is was probably the most meaningful and possibly the most personal entry into Bowie’s long catalog of dramatic self-utilizing representational imagery. In the track Blackstar, I believe Bowie connects with one of the most profound experiences existence – personally and necessarily confronting the nature of death. In doing so, he explores its visceral and transcendent natures in powerfully symbolic language and image that is classically mythological in content; or an expression, if you will, of the collective unconscious.

As always, and again, in Blackstar Bowie establishes a world in which he is the protagonist of a fantasy drama in an alternate, but parallel world. The video begins with as shot of what any Bowie fan is probably going to agree is the space suit of Major Tom, bearing the “smiley face” patch, a symbol of era he was established as Bowie’s avatar. It is the story of Major Tom after his death. Through an unknown, mystical or ritualistic circumstance, the Major’s skeleton is separated and his skull is preserved and bejeweled. The skeleton body discarded and makes its way to a Black Star, where the implication is it will be immolated. The skull, preserved in Tom’s suit falls/is sent to ground on a planet discovered/collected by a female, cat-tailed humanoid resident of that planet, who immediately acknowledges its Messianic significance and transports it to her city, possibly to a castle on the hill, the “Villa of Ormen”, where a candle has been burning for all eternity. Later, in the narrative, a priestess uses the skull as a in a ritual of transformation of a group of female inhabitants.

In Jungian terms, the decapitation and separation of head from body symbolizes the separation of the base from the transcendent. The head is the “heaven of the body” and therefore the “heavenly stuff” is separated from the earthly. The earthly body will be reduced to “ashes” in the black star. Blackness symbolizes a return to the unconscious or the primordial – to the void. The blackness will later represent death in the video, and death is one of the most powerful implications of black in all symbolism. The skull is not only preserved, but is elevated to that which can transform. In alchemy, by which Jung was profoundly influenced, the philosopher’s stone is the substance that can transform base metals into gold – in the psychology of transformation, the fragmented person into the whole self. This is the jewel-encrusted skull of Major Tom. It is the ritual totem that is used as the catalyst for spiritual transformation.

In the Villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle which is an eternal light, but which is precious and must be earned and therefore is protected and hidden from common access up high in a castle. As the world of Black Star has no sun, this eternal candle may serve as well as the symbolic sun. The “Villa of Ormen” is the center of the world, as in the city Jerusalem. It is the heart of the planet and within that heart is the eternal light, gold, life – the attributes that are alchemically attributed to the sun. The black Star again is death of both body and spirit and will figure prominently in the second narrative. It is the counterpart to the start. Bowie sings hauntingly of the “solitary candle – and in the center of it all – your eyes”; eyes through which streams the light of consciousness; consciousness that is indeed “in the center of it all”. Consciousness is life.

A second, much less linear narrative is established in tandem and using much of the same symbolism, concerning what seems to be a series of impressions and vignettes which I see as expressing Bowie’s internal processing of his death. Bowie is directly the protagonist in these images. In this more dream-like or “active imagination” scenario, Bowie engages in a transformative process in a dark attic, through whose rafters shine a heavenly light. He is also a purveyor of “the word” in a shoddy black paperback emblazoned with a black star to a group of 3 vulnerable-looking younger people, a thin, white boy, a dark boy, and a girl with mousy hair. Later in this symbolic tableau, a shaman-like creature with a hooked arm menaces three decrepit and monstrous scarecrows that are crucified in a field.

In the attic, a man guides an unsettling dance of the three young people. There is a pale young man, (conceivably his persona), a dark man (his shadow) and a young woman (his anima). Bowie is blindfolded. He can no longer see. The light is not coming in to consciousness. There are buttons on his bandages, as if to say that his body, his eyes, are becoming a thing of the past – dead things. It is time for him to transform. The shaking is a symbol of transformation, of shaking off the material body. Death, at least in the material sense, called “Blackstar” has begun to overtake him. Death, with his dark sense of humor, taunts Bowie that his worldly possessions will be taken away – his passport, his drugs, his shoes – all symbols of aspects of material life and activity. Blackstar asserts, “I got game”. Of course he does, he will eventually take us all.

Bowie’s professed ambivalence toward religion, but obvious cultural possession over him (is this not the case for us all?), is expressed by his holding aloft of the shoddy little paperback that nonetheless projects well-thumbed with meaning. We have seen this gesture before, in the famous image of Chairman Mao holding aloft the red book, which likely was Bowie’s artistic influence, but most archetypically as Moses holding up the commandments. This is the “word” of God, and the book acts as a vehicle between heaven and earth. Via this book will come integration of Bowie and his “parts of the Self”, whose shadows are cast on the “sky”, an obvious backdrop, also symbolizing like the buttons-for-eyes the diminishment of things that are of prime importance in life, but which death will take as it ushers out the material world.

At the time Bowie created this video, he is obviously wrestling with the two paradoxical notions of death: that it is entirely transcendent and can yield an integration into the eternal, but that for the time being it is vile and taunting. The agonized scarecrows in the worst aspects of suffering death, crucified in a the dark primordial underworld of Chaos. Christ, crucified, is a symbol of the ultimate suffering – and are these crucified figures not imagistic metaphors of the excruciating attack by the slow decay of cancer? There is also an element of what Jung would call “the trickster” in shaman/sheep-like menace, taunting and terrorizing the inhabitants of the underworld with his hook for an arm. This also seems to represent the brutal force of disease that claws at us, bringing us down evermore. Yet, the central scarecrow taunts the creature right back by sticking out his tongue – a gesture of defiance in the face of the inevitable. It is said Bowie worked as hard as ever during the last months of his illness, and as all know, he bravely kept his illness from the public.

Why is it that the skull of Major Tom, an ordinary, fallible human being who who suffered from heroin addiction and possibly depression at one point in his life (we know Major Tom’s a junkie…hitting an all time low) transformed into the highest substance of transformation, the philosopher’s stone, after his death? As far as those of us who loved, are influenced by, and indeed “worshipped” Bowie we are concerned, the most poignant symbolism of the video. People who were influenced by Bowie, often were profoundly influenced. The author of the New Yorker review asserts Bowie “struggled to articulate” his message as an artist. I do not think he struggled at all. Bowie had the uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious and express it, perhaps not rationally, but on a much deeper level. That is what makes Bowie’s “meaningless” imagery so compelling – and this is an ability that great artists possess; a category to which Bowie has belonged from the beginning . It is indeed the output of his “jewel encrusted” creative mind, which is the philosopher’s stone for the artistic transformation of a generation of young people who felt somehow deeply connected to something unconventional and otherworldly. Bowie, if the response to his death is any indication, has himself become an archetype.











Our Perplexing Parts – My Introduction to the State Model of Consciousness

I am intrigued with the concepts of “parts of self” and all ways that different theorists characterize them. Freud, for example, iconically divided the psyche into Id, Ego and Superego. Object relations theorists, such as W. R. D. Fairbairn, suggested that parts of the self “split off” to merge with the inner (sometimes bad) characterizations of parents (objects), Winnicott indicated that a child must frequently develop a “false self” to similarly align with the perceived demands of the mother.  Carl Jung’s model of psyche was clear that it was a multiplicity, including persona, shadow, anima/animus, elements of the collective unconscious etc. If these theorists are describing a universal truth about human consciousness and implications for human behavior, which I believe they are, then how does this dynamic of “multiple selves” play out in our lives?

In my ongoing attempt to understand the effects of attachment, trauma-related and dissociative disorders, I have gone further in this realm, as the divided self is strongly associated with these issues. I recently attended the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation annual conference in Baltimore, at which I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Dr. Frank W. Putnam, MD expert on childhood trauma and one of the leading experts on Dissociative Identity Disorder (an area of great interest for me). His exhilarating presentation prompted me to purchase his book, “The Way We Are – How States of Mind Influence Our Identities, Personality and Potential for Change”.

In his book, Putnam puts forth a “state” model of psyche, or how the consciousness of individuals is comprised of a multitude of states. We are all born multiple, and infant research has proven what we can observe – infants switch from state to state rapidly, each almost a different “baby” – sleepy, crying, sleeping, disconnected, smiling etc. As we grow, our “states” increase dramatically in number and become personalized with our experience. We build up a portfolio of ways of acting, feeling and being in different circumstances, and influenced by different emotions. This portfolio is what can be characterized as “selfhood”. How smoothly we transition from one state to the other is primarily determined by the quality early caregiving. Secure parenting can teach an infant to transition smoothly, and have an undergirding of continuous memory of each state. This dynamic decreases with more traumatic caregiving, in which the states must learn to “split off” or dissociate from each other in response to perceived or actual life threatening situations, often losing the continuity of memory.

However, if everyone exists as multiples, even healthy individuals, certainly the state model has some implications for moral behavior. Why is it that we say one thing and act another? Could the state theory explain the paradoxical nature of human belief? If we are truly comprised of multiples, then maybe that can explain much of our perplexing behavior – even our conflicting beliefs. Pertaining to one manifestation of this, hypocrisy, Putnam states:

True hypocrisy does exist, no doubt. But it is also likely that many inconsistencies of character that we point to as evidence of moral failure actually represent examples of state-dependent identity, learning and memory organized around conflicting roles and identities – so the individual behaves in contradictory ways but is not troubled by the discrepancy. What at first may seem like hypocrisy and duplicity may be more complicated and less calculated than they first appear.

The state model would certainly explain why certain politicians are so inconsistent! But it also sheds a light on our own perplexing behavior and the dynamics of our relationships. Who are you in front of your boss as opposed to your best friend? I am sure we have all experienced our partners as totally different people from time to time – some who we like more than others. How often have we awoken after a struggling through a particularly hard time or a period of illness felt like a “totally new person”? Can you become a raging inferno of anger out of the blue and then 10 minutes later shamefully wonder who that was?


The great psychological theorists have some form of acknowledging the existence of parts of self, and the state model is a fascinating characterization that holds many implications. The state model is, as Putnam characterizes it, “a big idea – that our consciousness can be chunked into basic units we call states…” Yes, it is a big idea, a new variation of long standing theories, and a fascinating way to make sense of behaviors, often perplexing, of yourself and others. I am excited to pursue this idea further, and to discover what gems it will offer for the enhancement of therapy.

Tao de Ching – #7, #8 – Containment


The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.


The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.


There is a concept in psychotherapy called “Containment”. This is the ability to sit with a patient in distress, sometimes dire, and tolerate the outflow of negative emotion – even if it appears levied toward the therapist. There is something about this that mirrors what should be the good attachment relationship that perhaps a patient has not sufficiently experienced now or in the past. Containment is a way of being with the patient that is non-judgmental, and that projects acceptance and love. What these two poems illustrate is that attitude. Containment is generous and selfless, without an egoic sense of superiority. It is more a joining with the patient in their experience, detached from “all things”, in the Buddhist sense of non-attachment to the flow of emotion whatever that may be, and one with that flow as the therapist receives it in all of its rawness.

In containing the patient, the therapist is attending closely to them in the moment. Negative affect and distress is allowed to be felt. In this secure one-on-one environment, the patient can be with their emotions and experience these feelings fully without the sense that they need to “get rid of” them. The therapist remains in the “low place” that perhaps the other people in the patient’s life have “disdained”. By the receiving, and working through the pain in the presence of someone just being there “nourishing without trying to”, the patient can feel “simply themself” as they are at that moment, and through this acceptance, the message is conveyed that as such, they are worthy of respect.



Out of the Shrink’s Office and into Grandma’s House – Report of an Ayahuasca Ceremony

I have been interested in some of the ongoing research into the clinical use of plant-based and other hallucinogens for the relief and treatment of psychological symptoms and addiction disorders. Probably at the forefront of my mind is the compelling evidence that the substance MDMA (associated with the “club drug” Ecstasy), has more or less proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD. There are also long-term studies at Johns Hopkins University pertaining to the psychotropic benefits of substances like psilocybin, iboga, and DMT – all derived from plants that have been used in traditional ceremonies for thousands of years to increase spiritual awareness and promote mystical experiences.

Coincidentally, I recently ran into an acquaintance, which had said he had attended what was termed a “Grandmother Meditation”. This is a variation of an Amazonian ceremony designed to facilitate spiritual and psychic transformation through the use of ayahuasca tea.

ayahuasca cup

This substance is a brew of vine leaves and other indigenous plants, and its active ingredient is the aforementioned DMT. It’s effect on the psyche can vary, but in general it is said to increase self-awareness and connection to the spirit world through the “Voice of the Plant” which is characterized as feminine – as a grandmother that can be nurturing or remonstrating, but always ultimately benevolent.

I asked him to tell me about the experience and whether the ritual was useful to him, and he kindly obliged me. I write about it this variation of his report, which he has allowed me to publish anonymously:

“We were directed to bring bedding for the night, and other items necessary to spending the night in an open group space. During the period leading up to the ceremony, we were to refrain from any psychotropic and recreational drugs. If applicable, people could not take their anti-depressants, if they were on them, and had to sign a waiver stating that they had been off them for a few weeks. Three young people, (who turned out to be talented and versatile musicians, and who would be playing throughout the night) facilitated the ceremony. They were wearing clothing that resembled the garb of the traditional Central and South American shamans who presided over this of this type of ritual.

“The ceremony began with a dedication of a central square altar on the floor. The altar was decorated with candles, flowers, plants, and a variety of familiar religious images (Buddha, Jesus, Shiva etc. ), and the four sides of the altar were associated with the four elements. Each element would mark a part of the night-long ceremony, which would honor the element – Air, Fire, Water, and Earth – which was to go through the night, leaving time to integrate the experience in the early to mid hours of the morning. At the beginning of each part of the ceremony, we would be given a cup of ‘medicine’, the ayahuasca mixture, and, being encouraged to sit up as much as possible, enter our psyche under its influence. The shamans would enhance and guide our experience with music and various sensory stimuli throughout the night.

“Each element coincided with the progression of the experience, and each segment of the experience was approximately 2 hours long and would be preceded by a new dose of the ‘medicine’. During the initial segment, Air, we were asked to open our psyche to its affects without resistance. Fire would be the transformative segment, in which we would take the experiences and allow them to burn off that of our psyche, which required change. Water would be integrating this change with flow and non-resistance. In the wee hours of the morning, Earth would not be accompanied by medicine, but would the segment in which we took the experience of the night and brought it back to solid ground

“Throughout the night, any chance of drifting off into sleep was prevented by music, noises of various indigenous instruments, wafting incense, and occasional fanning with dried leaf or feather fans doused with scented water, and some sub-rituals involving a strong tobacco. Occasionally the facilitators would gently touch our bodies with these items. This for me was the most challenging aspect of the exercise as, being a natural introvert; I could feel myself wanting to be alone with my experience and to dissolve into reverie; to be with my psyche alone. While these stimuli were calming on their own, I found increasing impatience and irritation with their persistence. Although I much enjoyed the feeling of the ayahuasca, (the effect of which I liken to very strong marijuana) I did not have a hallucinatory or mystical experience, and I found that the substance wore off quickly, leaving me exhausted and ready to leave the confines of the ceremony and its activity and to find a nice bed.


“However, several people seemed to be having significant experiences. Some laughed, some danced, some groaned. One older man, in particular, who had never used any hallucinogenic substance of any sort, was besieged by what seemed to be an out-of-body experience and other troubling intrusions of his psyche. He approached the facilitators frequently, anxiously whispering his concerns in hopes of guidance and calming. They seemed to accommodate him as much as he needed, which impressed me, as did their energy to keep up with the activities of the ceremony and their ongoing musical performance. The next morning during what they termed, ‘integration’ (reports and assessments of the experience), he seemed to feel profoundly changed and grateful for what had occurred during that fitful and alarming night.

“I had written my intentions in a little book at the beginning of the ceremony: to decrease my tendency to judge and to react negatively in a thoughtless manner, to stop living in the past and future, whilst paying little attention to the present, to be less self-conscious and self-critical, and most of all, to develop my capacity for patience and to move more slowly, rather than run slipshod through tasks and chores in order to draw them to quick conclusions. I found that throughout the experience, all these vices were actually laid bare and I experienced a heightened sense of this all, as I found myself judging, reacting, wishing it was over, and being very resentful that I was not allowed to sleep”

“I believe, however, my insight came later…probably beginning a day after the ceremony and now ongoing. As I reflected on the way the substance affected me, and how, while pleasant, was more instrumental in heightening my awareness of the negative to the point where these vices were exposed for me to examine tangibly. Now that I have the memory of this exposition, I feel more sensitive to when these arise and are able to catch them more quickly and remember that they can be dispelled to some extent by employing my initial mindful intention.

“I remember one of the facilitators indicating that particularly physically challenging ceremonies, such as the sweat lodge, had a way of enhancing spiritual transformation after the act of enduring such a hardship. Possibly for me, this might be the case. I found the night exhausting, over-stimulating, and uncomfortable, as the room was sauna-warm. However, I now wonder if the lack of physical comfort and quiet, which I seem to always seem to default toward, might have not enhanced my ability to reflect by necessitating my ongoing psychic engagement.

“Now, looking back over the experience, I see the potential for an increased capacity to be patient, I am moving more slowly and being more careful during the execution and completion of tasks. This increased patience seems to be resulting in a decrease of reactive judgment against others and against myself. So, I guess my conclusion is, while the experience was not the instant spiritual transformation for which I was hoping, the results are assisting me to fulfill my original intentions.”

I have recently written about Gabor Mate, who advocates the use of ayahuasca to assist with the self-exploration necessary to connect with authenticity. He very clearly indicates that the ceremony itself is critical. While my friend did not seem to have reacted to the ceremony as planned, I will venture to say that even this unplanned reaction seems to point in a positive direction for ongoing consideration of ancient rituals and medicines in a time when we need options to treatment as usual. Those being heavily reliant on the idea of “evidence-based” interventions and heavily advertised pharmeceuticals. It would seem from my friend’s report, that these ceremonies and “medicines” may work on the unconscious in surprising and healing ways.



The Root of All Evil – Gabor Maté on the Importance of Attachment

I am really starting to pay attention to Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who has worked for many years with the most vulnerable drug-addicted population in a part of downtown Vancouver, which he characterizes as the most densely populated area of addicts in all of North America. His assertion is that all addiction is a result of early childhood trauma. Actually investigating his work is new to me, so this is just some early reflection on material that I see potentially significantly informing my practice. I also reflect on some treatments that are either already part of my toolbox, or rapidly becoming so.

Having worked with  people who have had significant early childhood trauma,  Maté’s observations and assertions ring deeply true. His insight on the impact of childhood trauma include the following:

  • The major contributing factor to all illnesses, psychological, addictive AND physical originates in infancy and childhood in the form of attachment disorder – insecure, intermittent or abusive caregiving in the earliest years.
  • As the brain develops under these adverse conditions, attachment trauma results in weak executive function. The lack of guidance by a loving caregiver in ways to soothe negative emotions results in a “narrow window of tolerance – the inability to tolerate peaks or valleys of emotion. In adulthood, and a client thus effected will spend much of their time either scared and angry, shut down and listless, or in escape mode – in the latter often where addictive behavior is found
  • Attachment rupture inhibits neurobiological development: the circuits that produce positive neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are not working optimally. Therefore, the client will substitute with drugs, alcohol, workaholism, eating, shopping etc., all of which provide a pleasurable chemical “kick” that brains who don’t get enough soothing and pleasurable neurotransmitter activity crave.
  • Maté sees the “genetic” explanations as “nonsense”. He characterizes this popular explanation as a convenient way to pass off responsibility for the problem rather than address it at its root. Mate asserts that by “passing the buck” to the unchangeable genetics, society can justify a go-go world of success, profit and power where women’s maternal leave is a fraction of the 2 years he recommends, and caregiving is passed off to surrogates like daycare, nannies, video games and smartphones

The discovery the now well-known concept of neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to re-wire in accordance with new experience, appears to justify time-honored methods of cultivating attachment, and is prompting many of the new trauma paradigms of trauma treatment, now that there is hope of cultivating neurologically healthier brains in adulthood. At the bottom of these methods is some type of way to give the children the attunement and and capacity for self-soothing that they never had; the treatment goal of these new methods is “earned secure attachment”.

Besides a complete reassessment by society of the importance of long term and frequent mother-to-child connection, Maté envisions the remedy for these deep seated attachment issues in adulthood in the realm of rediscovery of Authenticity – of who we really are mirroring D.W. Winnicott, the an early pioneer in the study of attachment, who famously drew our attention to what he termed the True/False self (p 140). As an infant involves itself in hard-wired attachment to the mother, her acceptance cultivates the burgeoning personality.

The more of the baby’s true self expressions  the mother accepts and encourages, the more likely the child will grow up feeling “authentic”. However, when the mother responds to the baby’s efforts with anger or neglect, the baby learns to suppress those offensive “authentic gestures” that trigger the mother’s ire, or devise strategies to get attention that otherwise would not have emerged naturally. With time, these messages create a self that is True, based on acceptance of spontaneous gestures, or partially or completely False, based on suppression and the inauthentic responses necessary to maintain the critical survival bond.

But how do we cultivate this often forgotten and elusive “True Self”? .

Much of psychodynamic therapy is based in the healing and reparative relationship of therapist and client in a thoroughly confidential environment. Winnicott, as do all psychodynamically trained therapists, felt that if people can be fully accepted as themselves, as they are in the therapy room, they could gradually develop a secure attachment with the therapist. This incremental re-wiring of the brain to learn the inner meaning of secure attachment could lead to the client accepting and finally embracing her “true self.”

Anyone who has seen the “Gloria” films knows that Carl Rogers had an iconically personal way with clients. By helping the client express verbally their true emotions, he could work toward an alignment with what was verbalized and what was felt fully within the body.  By mirroring the narrative expressed in therapy back to the client as best he understood, and as the client agreed or corrected his interpretation, they eventually would arrived at a felt sense of “congruence” in which themselves as a living being aligned with what they expressed.

But what of severe trauma? What happens when one’s childhood has been traumatic and filled with abuse, neglect or worse?

Besides the necessity of a safe and warm therapeutic alliance, and within the framework of psychodynamic therapy, I turn, as an adjunct, to Janina Fisher for additional help. Fisher who worked for many years in the clinic of famous trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk has created what she calls a “new paradigm” for trauma treatment. Her method, which draws heavily on the neuroscience of attachment, as well as other established methods, breaks down each defense against or in compliance with the “scary” behavior of caregivers manifests in “parts”, each one arrested at the age in which it was forced to emerge. By seeing the parts as individual entities of various ages, the client can be gently guided to use the high functioning parts of themselves to slowly get to know and learn to welcome these parts with the love and security they still perceive is lacking.

For many decades, the concept of attachment has been identified and elaborated. With thousands and thousands of studies to its credit, it is about as well researched a psychological concept that exists. Virtually every therapist in practice today is familiar with the concept, knows the damage that insecure or traumatic attachment can cause in adulthood, and incorporates this knowledge into their work. What Maté is proposing takes attachment to the true forefront of virtually all human maladies. His implication brings the realization that healthy attachment is not a luxury; it needs to be seen as a necessity. This makes the notion of earning a secure attachment all the more vital for a healthy life, society and world.

Tao de Ching – #6

The Tao is called the Great Mother

Empty, yet inexhaustible

It gives birth to infinite worlds


It is always present within you

You can use it any way you want.


There is great, indeed infinite, flexibility to an “open mind” or “thinking outside the box”. The capacity to be open to all stimuli, to “resist nothing” is what allows for the greatest creativity and the the best possible solution for the moment.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1973), there is a passage concerning the American way of governing, and how inbuilt into its philosophy is the pragmatism of using the best solution for the problem at the time. Harry Truman said, concerning his administration’s programs, “We’ll just try them—and if they don’t work—why then we’ll just try something else.”

But we seem to have reached a point in our nation’s history where the parties have rigid, ideological stances that are perpetuated on an individual level through social media. We have lost our flexibility in general. In keeping with our stuckness, our Shadow, the anti Harry Truman is all about enforcing his way rather than follow the Way.

Solutions can be found where you least expect, but if you are not open to them, you won’t find them. We are in Chaos, the Void. Infinite possibilities are available. Will we force one, or let Tao guide us? We can only make individual choices

ZAMM Reflections – Phaedrus’ Quality

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is known for being one of the best selling popular philosophy books of all time, and for encouraging a slew of disaffected youth to study philosophy. However, one of its major lasting contributions was an exploration of the notion of Quality. Later, in his follow-up Lila (which I have not yet read) he expounds on this philosophy as the “Metaphysics of Quality” (MoQ).

Phaedrus, the “crazy” genius, who is the narrator’s electroshock annihilated self, but re-emerging ghost throughout the novel, became early in his professorial career, obsessed with the quest of Quality. Ultimately the sheer magnitude of the meaning implicit in this “metaphysical mountain climbing” led to his psychic demise. The narrator picks up where Phaedrus left off, and with snippets of memory and having read the “a trunkful of notes”, attempts to create a useful version of the theory.

As Phaedrus goes through the ringer trying to figure Quality out, his thought process is something like this:

As soon as you try to define quality, you lose it. Yet, you know what it is. You could name certain attributes: unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on. But how do we understand it? Any irrational attempts to define it fall apart. Since you can’t define it, it has to be defined irrationally – it has to be sensed.

We know it exists, he says, because if you were to imagine a world without quality, it would be a rational world – a world where all needs were met, but nothing more. It would be grey, bland, banal. There would be nothing else but life support delivery. Imagine 1984, or Communist Russia. These are quality-free dystopias. To us, this is unsettling at best and hellish at worst. A lack of quality is apparent, and is negative. Therefore, Quality exists and is critical.

The Classicist wants to define it, but it is the Romantic who understands it. Yet, we see it in Classicism too. So what is it? Is it what unites the two? Is it somewhere in between? Perhaps the Quality of the Romantic is aesthetics and the Quality of the Classicist is function. Romantic problem is the experience of aesthetics in the present. Classic quality is long term, looking to things working in the past, now, and in the future. Again, these reflections point to an immaterial emergence. So it is not subject nor object, but where the two meet. In the Trinity, God is the Object, Christ is the subject. So maybe Quality is the Holy Ghost?

All of us seek quality, what’s better. If we did not seek what is better, we would cease to exist. So, Quality is an innate goal-direction that keeps us looking for food, looking for mates, looking for warmth. As we build up a repertoire of analogs of quality, our specific notions of Quality become individualized dependent on these experiences. Quality is the continuing stimulus that our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. Collectively, in this way we end up creating all the categories of man, creating our world: Heaven, Earth, Good, Evil, Philosophy, Art, Science “ All of it, every last bit of it”, he says.

With this statement, something shifts in Phaedrus – He then realizes he can no longer attempt to break it up as “types” of Quality, Romantic, Classic, elements of the Trinity, any component at all. “He put his pencil down and then—felt something let go. As though something internal had been strained too hard and had given way. Then it was too late.” He has begun his climb up the metaphysical mountain, into the mystic.

His realization: Quality is the source of everything. He sees it now, not as a completion of the Trinity, not Classic vs. Romantic, but as absolute monism. Quality is the pattern behind everything. He picks up the Tao de Ching, and, by replacing the word “Tao” with “Quality”…

Quality is all-pervading.

And its use is inexhaustible!


Like the fountainhead of all things—

Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.

I do not know whose Son it is.

An image of what existed before God.

…realizes that Tao is Quality. “He had broken the code”. With this realization, he tumbles down the mountain into madness.

The narrator picks up where Phaedrus leaves off. Not only is he not certain about Phaedrus’ conclusion, he does not believe any comparison will do. All Phaedrus has done is come full circle back to Reason, that which he was bent on destroying. He has come to compare Tao with Quality, acknowledging two absolute entities and attempt to grasp them, neither of which they are, or can be.

Quality is, yes, indefinable. Like the Tao, you can point to it, but you will never catch ahold of it. All you can do is, like the Taoists and like the mystics, live you life in accordance with it.

The narrator finds something in Phaedrus’ research that parallels his own view of Quality – the revelations of 19th century mathematician Henri Poincaré. Poincaré, mulling over the crisis in mathematics, being the early 19th century discovery of the impossibility of proving Euclid’s fifth postulate (parallel lines), realizes neither geometry is “true”, they are tools for handling facts. Since facts are infinite, we must choose from the best ones, but how do we do so?

There is not an absolute, a priori “truth” that we discover in science and mathematics, rather, something else that facilitates the emergence of something that seems right and true. This something he called the “subliminal self”, that which guides through the morass of facts and determines an underlying harmony that we, as a species, innately agree upon. These patterns become apparent through the work due to something like elegance – an aesthetic that the scientists and mathematicians know. His reflections left an “unfinished edge”, though. What about the aesthetics that artist knows?

“What brought tears of recognition to my eyes was the discovery that these unfinished edges match perfectly in a kind of harmony that both Phædrus and Poincaré talked about, to produce a complete structure of thought capable of uniting the separate languages of Science and Art into one”; The unification of Classic and Romantic. While categorically entirely different, the way an artist and a scientist determine quality is the same – it is universal.

So how does Quality manifest in day-to-day existence? Through Care and Meaning. What is meaningful, what you care about – this is where you will find Quality. The narrator cares about the maintenance of his motorcycle and demonstrates this care in the ongoing narratives of its maintenance. His careful, in-the-moment attendance to his machine is propelled Quality; the “psychic gasoline” that keeps him suspended in timeless pursuit of “better”.

Once as established as best he can, much of the novel, and many more of the narrator’s “Chautauquas” (edifying reflections) are dedicated to pointing at the moon of Quality. He also gives some advice on how to get back Quality engagement when it is lost to a “Gumption trap”, which I addressed earlier in this blog and in this one. So now that a sense of Quality is outlined, really the best way to further understand it is to see it in action and learn some life lessons. I advise you read, or re-read the great ZAMM.