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Cultural Repair

What was seldom addressed in COP21 were the underlying cultural and social dynamics that constrain people from acting in ways that fit their espoused values. While there are clearly political, scientific and artistic interventions that impact our culture, what might a psychotherapeutic one look like?

As a psychotherapist concerned with the extraordinary denial and disavowal of the climate crisis we face on the earth, I am involved with how to bring psychotherapeutic thinking out of the confines of the consulting room and into the wider culture. I want to explore how to work with unconscious processes outside of the consulting room. How can psychotherapists, as those understanding something of collective dynamics, participate in the urgent need to work with the cultural wounds and complexes that may prevent our children inheriting an endangered and impoverished world?

A current example, following Christopher Larsch’s understanding that some symptoms that can be understood within a narcissistic framework, is our cultural love affair with machines. We have as a species clearly withdrawn our interconnection with the earth that has become both an inert object to be exploited and a dustbin for our waste. While our government is occupied with attempts to measure ‘happiness indices’, our planet is in crisis with what looks like human ecocide. Our technological industrial culture perceives the world as an inert object to be exploited and a dustbin for our waste. This is in direct contrast to many indigenous cultures, whose intimate interconnection with their world is often endowing with awe. We may be able to diagnose denial of climate change as a dangerous cultural complex, or recognise our love affair with technology as another version of Frankenstein, but how to work with unconscious processes outside of the consulting room?

Our western culture has been characterised as 'narcissistic’, ‘escapist’, ‘delusory’ and ‘perverse. We train our children to be consumers from infancy; we have industrialised our food into a cheap, exploitative production line; we have bred super-resistant bacteria through over-use of antibiotics; and destroyed countless animal and plant species. Yet we seem to have become largely cut off from the consequences of our actions. Any psychological reading of this collective malaise would suggest deep dis-ease. Why do we not recognise our own madness?

Ronnie Laing pointed out in the 1960s that pathology and madness were more centred in the family than in the individual. Expanding this notion from the family to the culture, we could say that the source of our modern, or post-modern, suffering - alienation, depression, destructive violence, narcissism, self-harm, uncare and dissociation, to name a few symptoms – is our culture. While psychologists test other species with the ‘Mirror test’, which gauges self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognise its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself, our species delights in the parody of this with the ‘Selfie’. Our mobile phones have become the fetish objects that support this strange bubble of self-reference and instant gratification. How can such a constricted self-consciousness, shielded by the ever-present mobile phone, be impacted by events that are ‘outside’ its terms of reference?

So much of the language through which our cultural life is propagated has become self-referential and seldom points beyond ego. Self-referring at a cultural level means a divorce from the environment – as if we are not dependent and as if there were no real consequences to our exploitative actions. Pathological narcissism can be regarded as an esteem dysregulation that leads to an imperious sense of entitlement. Sally Weintrobe writes in the Culture of Uncare:

Our current way of life is largely dictated by the needs of a globalised deregulated economy, founded largely on the principle that the polluter never pays, short-term profit is all and true costs are discounted. The result of this form of globalization is that everyday products we now buy are produced in ways that hugely damage the environment and the social fabric. How do we live with knowing we are necessarily implicated in at least some of the damage? How do we square this with our ordinary sense of decency, our deep-seated need to be moral caring human beings and our awareness of depending on a healthy Mother Earth for our survival, both literal and spiritual? How do we manage the emotional discomfort when we see the logic of our daily lived lives so often pulling in a different direction from thinking in a joined up caring way about reality?

She goes on to suggest that, “In such a situation the culture of uncare performs an ideological function. This is to insulate us from experiencing too much anxiety and moral disquiet. It provides us with justifications for what we know deep down is an inherently damaging way of living.” And, “the culture of uncare’s underlying aim is to promote a way of thinking ‘as if’ there is no shame and guilt about damage caused by our current way of life and ‘as if’ there is no psychic cost attached. But shame and guilt are important feelings that also act as important psychic structures that help us to know when we have gone too far and need to apply the brakes.”

Shame and guilt are often understood as coming from internalised judgements about what I have done or what I have thought. There is also an existential dimension to shame and guilt that is not about past actions but about what I have not done – how I have betrayed my deeper nature by not acting in accord with my true values. This dimension is not something to be cured of! Yet drawing attention to this dereliction, as climate change activists have attempted in the past, can easily be associated with neurotic shame and guilt and so felt as persecutory. The resulting communication impasse – don’t talk about climate change - is a psychological problem that simply focusing on positive messages about the future does not really resolve.

Grief is a paradigm exemplar of symptoms that show themselves through individuals but really belong to the collective. Naturally there are losses that are specific to individuals, such as the death of a family member, and sometimes the flood of grief that overtakes seems to come from outside those specific individuals, as if there were a collective store of grief waiting to find a channel.

Solastalgia, a term coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, gives a name to a kind of homesickness caused by environmental change such as when your endemic sense of place has been violated. This is distinct from nostalgia in which homesickness is experienced by individuals separated from home. We may be afflicted by solastalgia as a distress about the loss of other species with which we are familiar, the impact of large industrial mining or oil excavation on our locality or any environmental damage to our home environment.

And what do we feel is our home environment? Even if we do not live on a boat we might be distressed about the degradation of the oceans through dumping toxic waste and plastic beads.

Restoring the broken vessel

In my work with students of psychotherapy, I often use the term, grasping the nettle, to signify the requirement to face into painful, distressing feelings that have previously been split off into the unconscious. The cultural dilemma facing us requires just such a diving into our brokenness, into the immense grief of our ongoing losses, as an essential gateway to repair. The continued failure to do so means carrying the haunting weight of our hungry ghosts - that unmet grief within us leading to depression, despair, addiction and disease.

Within the consulting room, these hungry ghosts are often taken personally. The issue is not so much projective identification but collective introjective identification. The grief I may suffer through my sensitivity to a collective trauma, can be confused with my personal loss. I take personally what is not solely mine. The desperate terror at feeling lost, dysregulated, uncontained gets placed at the feet of my personal mother. Because of our culture’s ideological bent to individualism, we can easily take such symptoms as belonging to personal history. It is as if our cultural hearts have been blocked, choked by the dark grief that threatens to overwhelm and destroy us.

We may even perceive such grief itself as to blame for our sense of traumatic rupture and loss of connection, and want to attack the messengers who attempt to face us with the challenge. Melanie Klein (1929) pointed out that, for children, allowing these terrible feelings of loss leads to an inner image of the wounded, maimed mother. In a similar way allowing solastalgia requires facing the wounded maimed earth (Mater Lacrimosa), the collective image for the effects of our industrial rape.

Understanding and giving an appropriate place to these powerful complexes both relieves us of the impossible task of singlehandedly resolving the climate crisis and opens the way to a vital if contained way of experiencing the solastalgia. In a parallel manner Melanie Klein used the term ‘reparation’ to indicate the child’s endeavours, for instance in offering a cherished toy to the wronged other, to heal the parental image that it feels itself to have damaged by aggressive attacks. Through grieving and reparation, we move towards accepting the hateful part of ourselves that we know to have been destructive.

At the same time as industrial exploitation, there has been a growing recognition of claims for legal reparations through the justice system. Although this shift stems from recognition of the Holocaust, it is not limited to it. It has brought with it a growing sense of collective responsibility for crimes committed under the authority of leaders. I remember vividly while in Russia in 1989 and visiting a memorial for those disappeared in a Stalinist era, our young guide announced, ‘I am responsible’. Even though he was not even born at the time of these atrocities, he was willing to hold himself responsible and bring that chastened awareness into his present behaviour.

In 2010 Polly Higgins submitted a legal proposal to the UN to make ecocide a crime against humanity. She points out that Ecocide law seeks to re-balance the greatest injustice of our time: the lack of a legal duty of care. As such, existing duties prioritise profit. Profit that arises out of ecocide has long-term, significant adverse consequences: at the moment it is not a crime to cause extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems.  As a result, dangerous industrial activity continues unabated and the knock-on impact of loss and damage remains unaddressed.

We may see her courageous initiative as part of the move towards restoring the broken vessel. Jung had a excellent term for this collective shift when a system had unbalanced and was on the threshold of rebalancing, he called enantiodromia – defined as the tendency of things to change into their opposites, especially as a supposed governing principle of natural cycles. It is perhaps only a world on the brink of disaster and in need of radical repair that can lead to a new awakening to the larger world outside of our limited vision.

Cultural Interventions

Some of my colleagues say that when they are working with the individual they are simultaneously working with the culture in which that person is embedded. To a degree, this is true and there is a spectrum as to where you give attention in a therapeutic session. This article is exploring the spectrum between individual and collective.

What I am referring to as ‘Culture’ here is not high culture as in theatre, art or opera but more primally how we cook, how we dress and perhaps most significantly how we speak and tell stories. These, cooking, dressing (including painting our skin) and story telling are the means by which we identify ourselves in groups; how we locate what is foreign and where we belong. This leaves the depth of the term ‘culture’ rather open. Winnicott in his seminal paper, The Location of Cultural Experience, was similarly equivocal about a definition linking it to an inherited tradition.

This inherited tradition is not just what shapes us into our humanity. It is also what we are shaping through our creative adaptations. We are embedded within culture and it is through it that we come to experience and relate to our world. Culture is the medium through which we perceive the world. Our technological industrial culture perceives the world as an inert object to be exploited and a dustbin for our waste. This is in direct contrast to many indigenous cultures, whose intimate interconnection with their world is often endowing with awe.

The point here is that ‘culture’ being the medium of the perception is critical in any notions of reflecting on ourselves and attempting a transformation. Ronnie Laing pointed out in the 1960s that pathology and madness was more centred in the family than in the individual. Expanding this notion from the family to the culture, I am saying that the source of our modern, or post-modern, suffering - alienation, depression, destructive violence, narcissism, self-harm, uncare and dissociation to name a few symptoms – is our culture.

While psychologists test other species with the ‘Mirror test’, that gauges self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognise its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself, our species delights in the parody of this with the ‘Selfie’. Our mobile phones have become the fetish objects that support this strange bubble of self-reference and instant gratification. How can such a constricted self-consciousness, shielded by the ever-present mobile phone, be impacted by events that are ‘outside’ its terms of reference?

So much of our language through which our cultural life is propagated has become self-referential and seldom points beyond itself. Self-referring at a cultural level means a divorce from the environment – as if we are not dependent and as if there were no real consequences to our exploitative actions. The naivety of some of some development policies implemented in the pursuit of ‘progress’ has been as embarrassing as they have been economically disastrous.

This has been a brief sketch of in what ‘we’ have a problem at the level of our culture. I aim now to explore what we might do about it. There are clearly political and artistic cultural interventions that shape, or attune to flow with an emergent shift in a culture. The feminist movement is an example of an ongoing intervention. We might also consider Robert Bly’s work with men. The Irish peace process is another example and perhaps we would include John Lennon’s ‘Give peace a chance’. But what would a psychotherapeutic intervention to the culture look like?

Shamanic Healing

The traditional role of the shaman is to act as an intermediatory between the human and other-than-human worlds. David Abrams describes the function of shamanic ritual healing as ensuring the relation between these worlds is balanced and reciprocal. Human illness is traced to a disequlibrium between the community and the wider life within which it is embedded. “The scale of the harvest or size of the hunt are always negotiated between the tribal community and the natural world that it inhabits….Disease, in such cultures, is often conceptualised as a kind of systemic imbalance.” (1996. 7)

Jung was fond of a shamanic story about a rainmaker told him by Richard Wilhelm – the translator of the iChing. It offers us a model for what a cultural intervention might look like if we can read the story metaphorically – as a story about the inner aridity of our culture as a mirror for the disturbance we experience in the outer climate.

A certain province in China was suffering a terrible drought. They had tried all the usual magical charms and rites to produce rain but to no avail. Then someone said there was a rainmaker in a distant province who was supposed to be effective in producing rain. The local dignitaries invited him and sent a carriage to bring him to the drought area. In time the rainmaker arrived and alighting from the carriage was greeted by the local officials who beseeched him to help produce rain. The rainmaker sniffed the air, looked around and pointed to a small hut on the side of a mountain. He asked if he could reside there for three days.

Three days later storm clouds gathered and there was a torrential downpour of rain. The inhabitants were jubilant and a delegation, led by the officials went up to the cottage to thank the rainmaker. But the rainmaker shook his head and replied “But I didn’t make it rain. You see, where I come from everything happens as it is supposed to. It rains when it’s supposed to rain and stops when it is supposed to stop. But when I alighted from the carriage in your province I recognised that you are all out of harmony and so it was no wonder that it did not rain when it is supposed to. Being here myself I became infected by your disharmony and I became out of sorts. I knew that if anything could be done then I would have to put ‘my own house in order’ first. And that is all I have been doing for the past three days!

Following shamanic tradition the rainmaker does not look for scapegoats or external causes for the drought. He locates himself in that intermediate zone between the village and the mountains.

From a psychotherapeutic perspective, the first thing that the rainmaker’s explanation points to is that he felt infected by the local disorder. Just as psychotherapists are potentially infected by clients, the rainmaker allows this disturbance to enter him. Psychotherapists now acknowledge the potential for mutual healing if they can utilise and work with this psychological infection. Clients themselves arrive carrying the disorder of the culture through the symptoms that they carry. They are unconscious carries of the culture’s toxicity. While talking about balance, the rainmaker is permeable to imbalance. He does not defensively attempt to remain in perfect harmony but trusts that the disharmony that links with the drought will rebalance if he attends to how that disharmony operates within him. I will come back to the importance of attention but am stressing here the value of not defending against being infected. If we are going to work with the culture we need to expose ourselves to it rather than seek immunity. Staying away from toxic news maybe necessary for our personal rebalancing but we will not escape from our culture.

As I noted earlier, in the consulting room we are simultaneously working with the culture in which that person is embedded. It could be argued that the consulting room is just such an intermediate zone and as the client crosses the threshold, they move into a potentially transitional space in which cultural experiences are located. Whether such culturally transformatory space can be constellated within a consulting room will depend largely on how the psychotherapist imagines her room.

The rainmaker is not sitting in the open. He locates himself in a hut. This suggests that an external container is needed for that vulnerable shedding of psychic skin that allows the necessary permeability for infection and to hold the demanding healing work. The walls of the hut are no barrier here, for they are as much part of the mountain as the trees and the rocks. The development of distinctiveness and emergence of difference are not contrary to connection.

Jung framed the rather mysterious process of what the rainmaker did in the hut as participation mystique - a term borrowed from Levy Bruhl to describe a collective relationship that Jung likened to the collective unconscious. Jungians also draw on the refusal of the rainmaker to claim credit for the rain. Even his name is a misnomer – he is not a rain maker. He did not make the rain. His own inner attunement, ‘putting his house in order’ seemed to have an acausal or synchronous relation with the coming of the rain but there is no responsible for this. There is a deep trust in the healing potential that spontaneously emerges when the need is attended. Working at this deep level is more to do with getting out of the way – a surrender that makes space for that greater healing to operate through wound that is calling it.

The rainmaker seems disinterested in correcting what may have led to the disharmony within the province and offers no comment on the individual or social responsibility. This may be a compassionate response to their suffering but his non-action is aligned with the Taoist philosophy. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes about a watchful awareness that leads to a non-interfering action. If the universe already works harmoniously why try to improve it? If you exert your will upon the world, you will disrupt likely the harmony.

I can imagine the desperate Chinese officials response to this kind of patient watchful awareness. They have already set the rainmaker up as a heroic rescuer and he is doing nothing. Why isn’t he trying to save them and bring the rain? There are probably voices wanting to spy on him or demand some positive action. But after three days, this frustration may have become exhausted and at the very point that they give up this hope for being saved, the rains spontaneously come!

There are many lessons here for cultural interventions as the world seems not to be in harmony and our climate is disturbed. It is a challenge to trust that things will work out and make attuned interventions. I suspect that we need to learn the Wu Wei of putting our house in order.

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