helping people find their way

Reflections on psychological absence

Some time ago my wife gave me an inexpensive skin care product, and due to its nature, she gave me several of them at once. This was a new and unusual experience for me: Up until this point I would always keep one of these products for personal use, and when it was finished buy another one, which always struck me as the sensible thing to do. The experience of having and using several of them at once was novel for me, and my block around it had partly been about the fact that this practice didn’t seem sensible to me: Why have several of the same product in use simultaneously when one at a time is perfectly sufficient? For some reason, this situation tweaked something within me and infused a dim awareness of a  way of being into my world, which up until then had largely escaped me: The quality and experience of abundance.

I have since come to rather enjoy having several of these products on the go at the same time, which in the past would have struck me as unnecessary and a waste.

In many ways this experience was fairly innocuous and could have easily passed me by. In the past I may well have either not noticed it at all or teased or criticised my wife for such an unnecessary frivolity.  However, for some reason it registered as a significant experience and left an impression within me.

My sense looking back on this experience with some distance and having just noticed another recent experience of this nature in a different sphere of my life, is that the time had come for this quality to become a more prominent feature of my life and my being. For whatever reason, its time had come for me. Something within me was open to and ready for it.

Psychological Absence

This has led me to reflect on the absence of certain qualities in our psychological make-up. How do we become aware of something which is absent from our psychological worlds and the way in which we perceive and experience life and other people? Chances are that any given ‘absent’ quality has been part of our lives and our environments, we just haven’t been consciously aware of it. It is probably fair to say that all qualities exist all the time within and around us, however we tend to select the ones which resonate with us for a host of different reasons. Often, an absent quality within us is more or less obvious to the people around us, and at times people or life will draw our attention to it. But the absence of an internal template for a given quality usually means that comments and references to it in our lives pass us by unnoticed as there is nothing within us that they can ‘hang on to’.

The absence of a given quality means that we miss out on a range of experiences and a certain type of quality within our lives. This of course will always be the case as it is highly unlikely that any given individual can be consciously aware of all qualities of life. However, it means that the more qualities and aspects of life we can be aware of and in touch with, the greater our capacity to engage with them and our environments in conscious, attuned, and compassionate ways. It will determine our capacity and the spectrum of people and experiences that we can meaningfully engage with.

Some Questions

  1. What is the effect of the absence of a quality on our life and how we experience it? And does any given absence matter? Does the absence of a quality mean that there was no need for it in our lives up until the point when it catches our attention?
  2. How do we recognise the absence of something which has never been a conscious part of our lives and our experience, and hence has no internal resonance for us? What activates the internal readiness or openness towards a quality when it wasn’t ‘on-line’ before? How can we jump outside of ourselves so that we can see ourselves more objectively, more how others see us? Or to speak with Freud: How do we make the unconscious conscious – or rather: what is the process which makes the unconscious conscious?
  3. Does the emerging awareness of a quality start a dynamic which brings it more into our (external) life from this point forward?
  4. In the case of a quality such as abundance this is obviously more desirable compared to other qualities which we may deem more ‘negative’, such as ‘selfishness’. Is there a difference in the psychological dynamics and our openness between qualities which we judge to be ‘positive’ as opposed to ‘negative? What are the factors which impede such an openness? What are the reasons for our resistance to becoming more conscious of certain qualities within us?

I will briefly address these questions in the sequence outlined above.

What is the effect of the absence of a quality on our life and how we experience it?

Generally speaking, we tend to take the status quo, what we are used to, for granted.  This status quo is usually the result of our early life experiences and familial environments which largely determine our initial capacities, and which tend to reflect the qualities, attributes, and values of our parental figures. In addition, there are of course also personal dispositional factors. In relation to my example of the absence of abundance this means that I will have certain types of expectations of life and other people along the lines of there being just enough but not too much. When we are used to such a status quo we generally won’t question its existence and occurrence.  This may mean that there is a certain kind of impoverishment to our lived experience but it is one that we are not aware of. We may occasionally notice this quality in other people’s lives and, in the case of a positive quality, evaluate it with a sense of  envy or admiration but it won’t really touch us.  At times there may be tensions with our environment when other people that we are engaged with on a personal or professional level have different expectations of life. These tensions may not have much of an internal effect on us as we can’t imagine a psychological life different to the one that we are used to and therefore the other person must simply be wrong. In other words, we may notice the tension but not give too much attention or importance to it. Alternatively, we may be open to learn about a different way of being in the world through observation of and engagement with the other person. Or, again, the tension may lead to an open conflict which then forces us to look at the issues involved. However, in such a conflict many people would initially focus on factors external to themselves, at least to begin with.

Does such an absence matter? This is a difficult question to answer. From an objective point of view it does, but given that the subject usually is unable to see this, it may not matter to the individual concerned. However, from an external vantage point, in the case of a positive quality at least, it deprives the individual and has an effect on the people around such an individual and thus ultimately on the collective. But this is the journey we are all on, and striving for greater self-awareness on an individual and collective level may matter in terms of the evolution of humanity and the planet as a whole, as awareness changes how we engage with one another and our environment.  In this way, others are affected by the absence of qualities within us. We are all interconnected and interdependent, which means that any change in the system will have a ripple effect on everything else. This presents one incentive for striving to be more self-aware which is paradoxically not focused on self. Does it mean there was no need for it in our lives up until this point? Again, this is difficult to answer. From a practical point of view, we can only focus on so many things at any given time due to our attentional limitations as we would otherwise be overwhelmed. And ultimately there is a time for everything and not everything can happen now. This is not to say that had we been aware of a given quality our life hadn’t been richer or less conflicted, but we can onhy be who we are at any given point in time.

How do we make the unconscious conscious?

Or put differently, how do we become aware of something which is absent from our psychological worlds and the way in which we perceive and experience life and other people? Probably the most common way in which awareness emerges are situations when problems in our lives arise which we are forced to deal with,  as in this process life makes us confront certain aspects within ourselves. Of course it is up to us how we deal with these, and awareness does not always arise depending on our choices.

Being forced to deal with issues constitute processes which we could classify as involuntary. But we can also aim to gain more awarenss of ourselves in more voluntary ways.

Let’s revisit Freud and what he taught us about making the unconscious conscious: He proposed dreams, fantasies, and ‘parapraxes’, or slips of the tongue, as fruitful avenues to get hold of unconscious contents of our minds. He recommended that we analyse the specific manifestations of them, and devised a number of guidelines and rules about how these processes work.  Since Freud many other ways of becoming aware of unconscious contents have been proposed. Many of them are essentially introspective and potentially solitary practices like other reflective and meditation practices, where we engage in focused and concentrated stillness in order to observe our internal worlds.  Observng our mind, rather than be identified with its contents, usually leads to greater self-awareness of the processes and meachanisms which operate within us and motivate our behaviours. However, one limitation to solitary practices is that we don’t get feedback from others.

One of psychoanalysis’ more enduring insights are relational psychological processes  termed ‘transference’ and ‘repetition compulsion’ which Freud showed could be utilised to make the unconscious conscious. Briefly, transference is a relational phenomenon which proposes that certain ‘here-and- now’ behaviours are significantly influenced by past relational experiences with significant others, usually primary caregivers. We can become aware of these patterns through a relational (therapeutic) experience in the here and now which is focused on making these patterns conscious. Transference is not limited to therapeutic relationships but rather is a natural phenomenon of all relationships, however, the analytically and relationally oriented therapeutic relationship is uniquely focused on making the effect of this phenomenon conscious.  In most everyday relationships becoming conscious of such patterns tends to be more accidental, but it does occasionally happen.

Repetition compulsion again is a natural phenomenon of most lives, and related to transference,  but it usually gets harnessed within therapeutically oriented relationships in specific ways. Strictly speaking it is not a relational phenomenon per se as it tends to refer to behaviour patterns but these often occur in relational contexts. Repetition compulsion is a description of a usually problematic behaviour pattern which tends to repeat unconsciously,  hence the term ‘compulsion’. The idea behind its purpose is that the repetition of a behaviour pattern is designed to ultimately provide us with repeated opportunities for awareness of the pattern and its determinants so that we can change it, but this does not always happen.

In essence, these ways of becoming aware of an absence require a relationship which provides such an opportunity. This is simply a reflection of the fact that in order to become aware of anything we require a distance between the object and the observer, which in our case is the gap between an unconscious quality, pattern, or issue and the individual who experiences them, as under normal circumstances these two are fused through our common identification with our experience. Apart from a self-reflective solitary stance, another way in which this space and distance is created is through the conscious engagement with another individual which externalises the issue through a targeted conversation. Such an externalising conversation puts the issue in the space between the two participants, who can then both look at it and discuss it more objectively compared to when it is fused within the individual concerned.

The more solitary, introspective reflective processes mentioned earlier, often include a relational element to becoming aware of absent qualities as most spiritual traditions place emphasis on discussing meditation and other experiences with the teacher, and generally stress the importance of being part of a spiritual community.

Another way of looking at how we become aware of absent qualities in our lives is through the lense of how we learn new things (about ourselves). Generally this tends to happen by someone else showing us something – either consciously or simply through our observation of another’s behaviours. This is somewhat different to the example I started out with as the focus of this communication is on how the process of becoming conscious of an absence happens. This is also one of the main differences between psychodynamically and relationally oriented therapies and intervention and solution focused ones: The former give much more space to making the unconscious conscious in a myriad of experiential, relational ways whereas the latter are more educationally oriented. Nevertheless, both can bring forth unconscious contents and increase self-awareness.

Does an emerging awareness of a previously absent quality create a dynamic where the quality starts to enter more fully into our lived experience through explicit external manifestations? 

Awareness of a quality enables us to select it more consciously from all the stimuli around us. An example of this is when we are interested in a particular car we suddenly see this model everywhere in a way we didn’t notice it before. And my thesis was that all qualities are always present, the reason they are not consciously present within us is to do with our selective attention. Hence when we are more aware of abundance as a quality which can be part of our lives we are more likely to spot, value, and engage with it in the same way we notice particular models of cars which have always been there but escaped our conscious attention. Once something within us has been ‘tweaked’ we start building antennas for it, which enable us to receive further signals which we can then process and integrate into our internal psychological worlds. Now there is something which serves as a faint initial foundation that other experiences can ‘hang on to’ and thus increase its radiance within us.

This means that consciousness, attention, and awareness can be intentionally directed. All these ways still require an inner openness so that we can engage with a given issue.

What makes us want to engage with a given quality consciously?

Is there a difference in the psychological dynamics and our openness between qualities which we judge to be ‘positive’ as opposed to ‘negative?

There are two elements to this situation: an internal ability and readiness to ‘receive’, notice and register any given quality, and the external manifestation of or encounter with a particular quality.

Encounters with unconscious or absent qualities tend to happen in three main ways:  Voluntarily, involuntarily, and accidentally.

As pointed out above, sometimes we engage in these processes voluntarily, through an interpersonal situation, therapy, meditation etc. This is often driven by chance, curiosity, or a willingness and openeness to learn something new about ourselves.

Pain and suffering, especially when it is protracted, usually forces us to look at something even though we may not want to. This can come in many different ways: Illness, accidents, separation, financial crises etc.

Sometimes we have ‘aha’ exeriences, where suddenly something falls into place for us. They appear to come from nowhere, although on closer examination they can often be traced back to a string of preparatory experiences.

What are the factors which may impede our openness to such a process? Often it is fear of the unknown or a fear of something unpleasant emerging, an image of ourselves which we find difficult to reconcile with our current idea of who we are. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as ‘selfish’ or ‘mean’ – but we all have these aspects within us. Knowing them and how they operate within us helps us to stand back from them and enables us to influence them rather than them simply emerging or bursting out of us in moments of inattention, intoxication, tiredness, or impulsivity.

We are all on a journey of expanding awareness, whether we know and focus on it or not. As we go through life issues come up and some fall away. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the world around us to engage with them as best we can, bearing in mind that our actions and inactions will impact on the people and environments around us and in ever widening circles gradually affect the whole. In this way we are all part of the One Consciousness. In this way psychological absence matters and is a call to conscious engagement.