A thick wall of white noise made from the calls, chirps and growls of thousands of insects, birds, mammals and reptiles blasts through the Amazonian night. As soon as I blow out the candle which provides me with a tiny aurora of protective light and pull down the mosquito net around my bunk I hear hundreds of small, high velocity impacts as cockroaches and other flying insects fire themselves at it, hitting against the soft netting like paintball shots. I can hear jungle rats running obstacle courses through the rafters.
A month later I am back in London, one of the largest and most populous cities in the world – I complain to my wife that I can’t sleep – it’s far too quiet. Removed from the cacophony of the jungle, I again feel that uniquely human alone-ness.
In transpersonal psychotherapy which often has a new-age, pagan bent we sometimes are presented with a dualistic image of the static, quiet, peaceful and perfect ‘Mother Earth’ as distinct from chaotic and destructive humanity; we often frame our species as being in some way an aberration, a terrible mistake. It often seems that spiritual groups, spiritual therapies and other tuned-in circles share the belief that if we humans could just ‘ get back’ to nature then we would live in some kind of blissful union free of any form of destructiveness or discomfort. Free of struggle. When we hear of discomfort, distress or struggle it is our movement ‘against nature’ which is often blamed.
I do not think I have ever encountered more chaos, death and struggle than in the months that I spent in the Amazon,
In contrast to this, I do not think I have ever encountered more chaos, death and struggle than in the months that I spent in the Amazon, miles away from the trappings of civilization such as electricity, air-con or running clean water. The environment was in a state of perpetual miniaturized warfare. Everything was either eating something else smaller than it or desperately avoiding being eaten by something else bigger than it. Every piece of flora and fauna seemed to be competing for a slice of the ecological pie and attempting to fight its way into its own niche. What was striking about this for me as someone who had grown up in England (and particularly in London, the countries biggest city) was that there was constant relationship between the different denizens of the rainforest. Nothing was static or undisturbed, it was the disturbance and the constant change and disruption that made it so alive. I felt as a human being that I was part of something larger, a small piece of a great chaotic dance. When I came back to England it was noticeable how even in wild areas were cultivated – fields were planted as habitats for grazing animals, trees had been arranged by human beings, everything was so ‘ordered’. I wondered about this desire for order and the contrast to the chaotic inter-relationship of the jungle. This imposed order impressed a feeling of humanity being ‘in control’ of nature, rather than a part of it. A separateness, rather than a relationality.
The radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari has described something similar to this chaotic inter-relatedness versus static order in his book ‘The Three Ecologies’.. Guattari was responsible for running psychoanalytic programs at La Borde, a radical psychiatric clinic in France during the 1960’s. Being a radical left-wing activist as well as psychoanalyst, Guattari tried to shape his clinic to counter what he termed the ‘institutional object’. In this he was borrowing the language and theory of the famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and the object relations school of psychoanalysis and applying it particularly to institutions – such as the psychiatric ward which he found himself working in.
The ‘institutional object’ was (according to Guattari) something in the psyche of members of an institution which unconsciously caused homogeneity and squashed dissent. In effect it functioned a bit like the idealised ‘Mother earth’ mentioned above – any dissent or chaos was a result of people being ‘disturbed’ or ‘pathological’; out of balance with the great mother (the institution, in this case). Guattari believed that this unconscious object could actually make the inhabitants of these institutions worse as a result of their suppression. He devoted his time at La Borde to undermining the traditional roles and authoritarian structures (‘doctor’,’nurse’, ‘patient’) which would usually encourage this stifling conformity.
Michel Foucault one of the most prominent French philosophers of the last 100 years and Frantz Fanon perhaps the originator of postcolonial thought both spent time at La Borde
In doing this Guattari created a truly ecological psychiatric environment where patients were able to communicate with as much authority and independence as staff. Like the ecosystem of the Amazon, it was often chaotic and many perspectives which were disturbing and which may have been otherwise hidden in other institutions came to light, challenging traditional ideas about treatment and power relations. Much like the jungle – nothing was suffocated so everything got to breathe and express itself. It is worth noting as an aside that Michel Foucault one of the most prominent French philosophers of the last 100 years and Frantz Fanon perhaps the originator of postcolonial thought both spent time at La Borde. Both of these thinkers developed powerful critiques of psychiatry and may have owed some of it to their time at this experimental institution.
Clients often originally start therapy with the hope of maintaining the status quo – of getting back to some kind of benign stasis where they can experience some kind of idealised, civilized peace without having to make any really significant changes to their inner or outer lives
Although Guattari was applying his experimental techniques at an institutional level, I often see a parallel with my clients on an individual basis. Clients often originally start therapy with the hope of maintaining the status quo – of getting back to some kind of benign stasis where they can experience some kind of idealised, civilized peace without having to make any really significant changes to their inner or outer lives. In this early mode they are often fighting against recognizing the ‘psycho-ecological’ catastrophe which is often the root of their current problems. I find that my task as therapist is first of all to uncover some of the voices being suppressed, as well as pointing out the damage being caused by the suppression.
This drive towards purity – static, unblemished perfection – can actually be a form of violence, enacted against the multiplicity and pluralism of the psyche. The Archetypal psychologist James Hillman has commented on this as one of the central issues of our time – the enduring effect on us (both individually and culturally) of what he called the ‘myth of monotheism’ – the desire for one big overarching ‘order’ that could really tie it all together, leaving no loose ends. By attempting to enforce a perfect and singular order on a living chaosmos we instead end with a suffocating and split sense of self. We can’t hope to heal this until we start to look at what in ourselves we consider (consciously or unconsciously) to be impure. Blowing out the candle and getting to grips with the rats and insects.
The problem with this approach is that it is disturbing to the ego, it is not so pleasant at first when you face the darkness and those cockroaches begin flying at you, especially when you are used to a sterile, civilized order. We prefer options to be suggested which allow us to maintain a belief that we can just ‘keep calm and carry on’ and that eventually, with enough effort, all will go back to how it should be. Pristine and unblemished.
In writing this piece I remembered how I was recently struck by the disaster at Grenfel. What caught my attention was the way in which flammable cladding had been added to the outside of the tower in an attempt to ‘hide’ the discordant look that the old dilapidated tower block brought to the multimillionaire residents of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Rather than take an ecological approach of addressing and facing the deprived and dangerous living conditions of those who were living in the block. a sort of totemic fetish in the form of pretty yet flammable cladding was put in place to cover up the chaos, cover up the discord, and give an impression of harmony to the richer residents.
This spoke to me in terms of my work. I see many clients coming to me in an attempt to put pretty cladding around the rundown estates of their psyche; to continue to ignore the parts of themselves that are no longer able to cope, the parts that need to change or are crying out for some form of psychological investment. Sometimes we see it in families or cultures in which one member is made a scapegoat – ignored, targeted or exiled – rather than the group as a whole facing up to the inherent structural problems which have given birth to their behaviour. The dominant, conscious, ‘richer’ parts of our ego want to maintain their position and fear the chaos of change.
The question then is if we need a personal and cultural catastrophe before we are able or willing to face these issues – Will we remain ‘too quiet’, shore up the walls and attempt to maintain our failing order? Or will we allow the cacophony and multiplicity give birth to new ways of being?