Projections as an Obstacle to Self-knowledge

I have recently been re-reading Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. I first read it about twenty years ago and it made a big impact. It was both bracing and down to earth. And as an invitation to wake up, it certainly worked for me. However I do not meditate at all regularly. ( I struck out ‘unfortunately’ from the previous sentence, mindful of Joko’s teaching). Here is a passage from the book in which she replies to a student’s question. Q “Psychologists say that the first five years of one’s life are so impressionable that they form the basis of one’s life. Would you care to comment on that?” Joko “ Well there is the absolute point of view and the relative point of view. From the relative point of view we have a history. Much has happened to each one of us, and we are as we are at least in part because of our history. But in another sense we have no history. Zen practice is to see through our desire to cling to our history and to reasons (thoughts) for why we are as we are, instead of working with the reality of what we are. There are many kinds of therapy, but any therapy that leads you to feel that your life is terrible because of what someone did to you is at least incomplete, because each one of us has had a lot done to us. But our responsibility is always right here, right now, to experience the reality of our life as it is. And eventually to blame no one.”
I regard these comments as trenchant and insightful, an incentive to shift from victimhood, blaming others and self-pity to energetically acting in your present life, the only life you have.
We need to take back our projections. There was a period at medical school when I became quite depressed. Various attempts to help me were made. The best intervention was by a GP who sent me to do a physical examination on a thirty year old woman with spina bifida. She lived alone in a flat, and everyday got herself to work in a wheelchair. She was cheerful and positive about her life. My problems did not disappear, but I understood. I also realised the GP and this impressive woman had an arrangement whereby disconsolate medical students were sent to see her. The consultation was not about what it was apparently about. My difficulties were trivial by comparison with those she faced every day of her life. I didn’t stop being unhappy but I complained less and tried harder. As a matter of fact, about four years later, when I had found my way into psychiatry, and things were much better, I had a psychotic episode which put me in hospital for four months. I digress.
It was Freud who first described projection as one of his ego defence mechanisms in which the ego defends itself against unconscious impulses which threaten self-esteem, by denying their existence and attributing them to others. Jung said projections turn the world into your own unknown face. I remember a television interview with a man serving a life sentence for a particularly brutal murder. All around him he saw baseness and corruption, a vile world in which selfish impulses were everywhere. Even in prison, life is more complicated.
In the commemoration of the Last Supper, Jung saw the ritual swallowing of the holy body in the transfigured communion wafer as a symbolic taking back into ourself of our projections. The mystery of the Eucharist transforms the soul of empirical man, who is only a part of himself, into his totality, which is expressed by the divinity of Christ.
Rilke in two late poems refers to projection, although not by name, and with a self-deprecating irony so as to render the references, at first reading, unremarkable. This will be the subject of my next post.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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