Our Psychic Life

Here is an excerpt from an article by Jacob Needleman called Psychiatry and the Sacred, in the book Awakening the Heart, John Welwood, editor.

Beneath the fragile sense of personal identity, the individual is actually an innumerable swarm of disconnected impulses, thoughts, reactions, opinions, and sensations, which are triggered into activity by causes of which he is totally unaware. Yet, at each moment, the individual identifies himself with whichever of this swarm of impulses and reactions happens to be active, automatically affirming each as “himself,” and then taking a stand either for or against this “self,” depending on the particular pressures that the social environment has brought to bear upon him since his childhood.

The [sacred] traditions identify this affirming-and-denying process as the real source of human misery and the chief obstacle to the development of man’s inherent possibilities. Through this affirmation and denial, a form is constructed around each of the passing impulses originating in the different parts of the human organism. And this continuous, unconscious affirmation of identity traps a definite amount of precious psychic energy in a kind of encysting process that is as much chemical-biological as it is psychological. The very nerves and muscles of the body are called to defend and support the affirmation of “I” around each of the countless groups of impulses and reactions as they are activated.

Several years ago, when I was moderating a seminar of psychiatrists and clinicians, the real dimensions of this affirmation process were brought home in a very simple and powerful way. We were discussing the use of hypnosis in therapy. At some point during the discussion, one of the participants began to speak in a manner that riveted everyone’s attention. He was a psychoanalyst, the oldest and most respected member present.

“Only once in my life,” he said, “did I ever use hypnosis with a patient. It was in the Second World War, when I was in the Swiss Army. There was this poor soldier in front of me, and for some reason I decided to test whether or not he would be susceptible to posthypnotic suggestion. I easily brought him into a trance, and simply by way of experiment, I suggested to him, that after he awoke he would stamp his foot three times whenever I snapped my fingers. All perfectly standard procedure. After I brought him out of the trance state and we spoke for a while, I dismissed him, and just as he was leaving the room I snapped my fingers. He immediately responded and stamped his foot according to the suggestion. ‘Wait a minute,’ I shouted. ‘Tell me, why did you stamp your foot?’ His face suddenly turned beet red. ‘Damn it all,’ he said, ‘I’ve got something in my shoe.’ ”

The speaker slowly puffed on his pipe and his face became extremely serious. The rest of us could not understand why he seemed to be making so much of this well-known phenomenon of posthypnotic fabrication. But he maintained his silence, staring somberly down the length of his pipe. No one else said a word — it was obvious that he was trying to formulate something he took to be quite important. Then, with his face suddenly as open as a child’s, he looked up at me, and said: “Do you think the whole of our psychic life is like that?”