Meaning-Making

We all would really like to ‘make sense of it all’, wouldn’t we? So many religions, each attempting to explain, and guide, life and the world and human behavior; so many philosophies; so many psychological theories. There’s ‘unified field theory’ in physics — an attempt to explain all the workings of the universe in one neat package — except that there are many such ‘unified’ theories, hundreds of them during the 20th century, all claiming to be the ‘theory of everything’. Integral theory in psychology attempts the same unification, a singular, all-encompassing theory of consciousness.

On the surface, this approach seems simplistic. But is it possible? Who am I to say? We’ve yet to sort this out, and there are countless scientists, philosophers, and theologians attempting to do so.

This need to simplify, to find the One Answer, to put the fragments back together into a new whole — this need is entirely human. And to say that our world, our civilizations, have become fragmented, especially in the post-industrial, technological / information era, would be an understatement. It’s not only human to want one explanation, one Truth — it’s also quite human to want to put all of the pieces back together.

From fragmentation to wholeness.

In Asian cultures, less — or perhaps merely different — fragmentation has taken place over time. Cognition is predominantly wholistic, not categorical; abstract, not analytical; cyclic, not linear. With the interaction among global cultures, however, today at an astonishing rate, this too is changing. Western medicine with all of its specialties and sub-specialties is widely used; the disease model is increasingly prevalent; globalization brings categorization and specialization into the business realm. Cultures are increasingly less distinct from one another.

Behavioral psychology focused on human action and how that might be affected by conditioning. Analytical schools of psychology — first Freud and his ground-breaking conceptualization of the unconscious, followed by Jung and his theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious — greatly furthered our understanding of the human experience. Cognitive psychology used the computer as a model for the human brain, and information-processing as a metaphor for the mind’s activity. Humanistic psychology moved the focus more intently on the whole person, the human experience in total, not limited to behavior and cognition. All of these schools of thought have unquestionably evolved further today.

Transpersonal psychology has considered these earlier approaches to understanding the nature of being human, and reintroduced the spiritual aspect, metaphysical possibilities, Eastern philosophies, and the many and varied states of consciousness. In so doing, it has taken the best of what went before, and enhanced it.

We humans have attempted to understand ourselves and our world since the beginning of time. Great systems of belief and thought have been developed to provide answers. At our core, we strive not only to perceive meaning, but also to create it. In the stories that we tell, in our interpretations, in the cultures and societies that we build, we are constantly striving both to understand and to be co-creators of our existence. For the opposite — the possibility that there is no meaning, that there is no purpose, that understanding is beyond our capability — or that we have no say in the matter — is unacceptable.

We’re all in the business of meaning-making: individuals, couples, families, groups, societies, cultures, the human species.  And psychotherapy can be a means of facilitating this process, both in the the understanding and creation of meaning.

Transpersonal Psychology and Eastern Philosophies

Transpersonal Psychology, which emerged 40 years ago, focuses on health and human potential. Spiritual and metaphysical aspects are reintroduced into the study of the mind, and the physical body is equally considered. It integrates the philosophies of Carl Jung and analytical psychology, Abraham Maslow and humanistic psychology, and eastern philosophies and practices. In so doing, it includes pre-personal, personal, and trans- [beyond or in addition to; transcendent] personal realms of human cognition and experience.

The disease model of Western medicine and psychology is not utilised. Rather, a bio-psycho-socio-spiritual approach is taken, and ideas of harmony/disharmony, balance/imbalance, disintegration/reintegration, and fragmentation/wholeness serve to define the human condition. Human development is pursued equally in intellectual, emotional physical, spiritual, and social realms as well as creative expression. It posits a ‘superconscious’ in addition to a subconscious, and the study and exploration of multiple states of consciousness is prioritized. Mystical experience and shamanistic healing methods are also considered.

It is easy to see how this approach to Western psychology is respectful of and strives to include Eastern philosophies, and its premise of balance as a framework for health is closely aligned with that of classical Chinese medicine. Practices such as Mindfulness and Breathwork, meditation, and somatic and energetic therapies are included, and the psychology of the body is honoured.  The primary focus of transpersonal psychology is the realisation of our ultimate potential.

My therapeutic approach is served very well indeed by this model of psychology.

Chinese Medicine and Psychology

Chinese medicine, seated in Taoist philosophy, has been around since sometime before the Yellow Emperor famously had it codified and written down in the 3rd millenium BCE. Psychology as a scientific discipline is only about 120 years old, Western medicine  (out of ancient Greece) about 2500; the philosophies of that same era addressed cognition and mental concerns, but it wasn’t until Descartes proposed a duality of body and mind in the 17th century that a separate discipline for the latter could be considered.

Chinese philosophers never conceived of the mind and body as separate, so the medical system addressed both together in terms of patterns of disharmony or imbalance. Western medicine followed a similar path prior to the 17th century, though it is approximately 2000 years younger than that which originated in China. So both Chinese and early Western medicines considered and treated symptoms of emotion, or disposition, or ‘humours’ — the Chinese version being developed considerably earlier.

[A side note: TCM, “traditional” Chinese medicine, is a late 20th century nomenclature and influenced by Western medicine; classical Chinese medicine, the version practiced until the early 20th century before being outlawed for a period of 30 years, is what I’m referring to in this post.]

There’s some question in scholarly circles as to whether Western psychology and treatment methods can be imposed on Eastern cultures. Chinese scholars of psychology have recently developed a hybrid version, Chinese Taoist Cognitive Psychology, which integrates Taoist principles and practices. This is an exciting and promising new development — and correlates with my own work rather well.

Classical Chinese medicine identifies imbalances of emotion which correspond to physiological imbalances in specific patterns of disharmony. This is typically referred to as the Five Phase or Five Element diagnostic filter, and can be integrated with Western psychotherapeutic approaches.  In my practice, I utilise methods of diagnosis from Chinese medicine to discern these patterns, and include treatment recommendations from that perspective as appropriate.  It is my ongoing quest, my life’s work, to bring together the best of both East and West for a therapeutic approach that can benefit anyone — crossing cultural boundaries while remaining respectful of the distinctions.

Wisdom of the Body

Our bodies are very wise indeed. Homeostasis — balance, stability — is our natural state, and the body has numerous mechanisms to correct imbalances, though they can be defective or become overwhelmed and require intervention. The prevailing medical model of psychology identifies ‘chemical imbalances’ at the core of many syndromes, and typical treatment includes prescription medication.

Our body’s homeostatic mechanisms are one form of body knowledge. ‘Gut instinct’ is another, and a common human experience. So too is the physical experience of emotion, depicted in words such as ‘broken-hearted’, ‘belly laugh’, ‘heartfelt’, and indeed, ‘gut instinct’. Posture and movement patterns can say much about a person’s emotional condition and personality; breathing can reflect as well as influence emotional states. We have facial gestures and body language to indicate our thoughts as well as feelings, and guarding patterns — areas of our bodies chronically held tense against emotional experience, past or potential.

When we receive body-oriented therapies such as massage, osteopathic manipulation, or acupuncture, emotional content and/or memories can emerge. Clearly, there is a strong connection between our bodies and our minds — in fact, perhaps the distinction itself is a false one.

How can we benefit from this?

Somatic psychology is an approach to mental and emotional health that includes and even emphasizes our bodies. Through specific techniques, we can scan our bodies for areas of discomfort or other sensations, and access the knowledge and wisdom, the thoughts and emotions, being held there. Often, by going through a process to first identify and then explore this content, we find that it shifts or even resolves. We ask our bodies what’s going on–without judgment but with a gentle curiosity–and our bodies tell us. And tell us, and tell us. And we find that we have changed.

There is so much to be gained by reuniting body with mind and soul, and by learning how to listen to the wisdom harboured there.