Healing The Soul in the Age of the Brain
Becoming Conscious in an Unconscious World
by Elio Frattaroli, M.D.
Healing in a Time of Terror
As I write this, Afghanistan is under attack and people are dying of anthrax. It feels sadly ironic that only a few weeks ago we were all talking about healing. President Bush suggested we should heal by hugging our children, living our lives and flying to Disney World. Public officials said we should heal by spending money, getting back to “business as usual.” I suppose now it will be said we are healing by bombing Afghanistan.
Such misguided ideas about healing scare me more than bombs and anthrax. I can’t do “business as usual” worrying about when the next major attack is coming and I certainly don’t want to be in Disney World when I find out. Nor can I take comfort in attacking Afghanistan knowing that weapons-grade anthrax was mailed to Washington two days after the bombing started.
It’s typically American to equate healing with doing something. When we have a problem, we fix it, and we prefer to do it quickly. But fixing is not the same as healing; in fact it can easily get in the way of healing. Fixing is something mechanical, scientific, economic, military. Healing is something human, emotional, spiritual. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, as a patient and a person, I have learned that before you can fix a problem, you first have to feel the problem. Healing happens not through doing but through feeling.
Our feelings tell us what things means to us and if we don’t feel all our feelings about the current crisis, we won’t know what the crisis means to us—we won’t know what the crisis really is—and so we won’t be able to think clearly about how to deal with it. Instead, we will tend to look for quick-fix solutions—like going to Disney World or bombing Afghanistan—that don’t address the full meaning and complexity of our predicament but are primarily designed to get rid of disturbing feelings so that we don’t have to feel them.
For a psychiatrist, doing quick fixes to get rid of disturbing feelings is familiar territory. Psychiatry nowadays is all about fixing rather than healing, focusing exclusively on the physical and the external—brain and behavior—and ignoring the emotional and spiritual, the inner life of the soul. Society generally shows the same dehumanizing trend: In our pursuit of material possessions, creature comforts and physical appearances, we use the physical and the external as a quick fix to distract us from our deeper emotional and spiritual needs.
At every level of our culture, it seems, we have lost the proper balance between doing and feeling, fixing and healing. From the perspective of individual psychology, this imbalance reflects an inner conflict in each one of us between the need to be unconscious and the need to become conscious. Being unconscious means not having to pay attention, being programmed by the automatic reactions of the brain. Being conscious means paying full attention, living from the center of our being, the soul. Living unconsciously, we tend to operate according to the superficial values of materialism: the hedonistic, competitive pursuit of possessions and commodities; treating other people as possessions and commodities. Living consciously, we tend to act according to the spiritual values of love and compassion, respecting other people as fellow human beings.
Most of the time we are a whole lot less than fully conscious, as when driving from one familiar place to another without ever really noticing how we are getting there. We live a surprising amount of our lives like that. We’re on automatic pilot, moving by habit through our daily routine. We’re reactive rather than reflective, “being lived” by our brains, not living from our souls. To some degree this is natural and inevitable. Our personality is wired into the brain as a kind of complex web of neurological reflexes—habitual automatic patterns of reacting to people, to the world, and to our own emotions. The good news is that these habitual personality patterns provide a sense of stability and identity. The bad news is that they add up to a very superficial way of life. When we’re being lived by our brains we tend to pursue the quick fix, following the path of least resistance, trying to minimize uncomfortable feelings. As Freud put it, we are driven by an unconscious compulsion to seek comfort and pleasure by getting rid of disruption and pain. In this mode of unconsciousness, we react to anything unfamiliar as a threat to our stability, including anything unfamiliar in other people. And we are compulsively competitive, seeking to get rid of whatever/whoever makes us feel like losers and to possess whatever/whoever makes us feel like winners.
Deep down, when we stop and reflect, we may feel the emptiness of this way of life and feel the need for something more, but if we paid attention to those feelings we would have to change, and change is difficult and destabilizing, so it’s easier not to pay attention unless something jolts us into waking up. Very often, that jolt comes from the breakdown of mental illness. The symptoms of mental illness can serve as a wake-up call, forcing us to pay attention to the deeper needs of the soul. That’s why one of the guiding principles of my work is to “respect the symptom.” What looks on the surface like a disease or breakdown is at a deeper level the beginning of a healing process, an opportunity for consciousness.
On September 11 we all experienced such a breakdown, as we watched the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exploding in flames. The most common reaction initially was to feel shocked, stunned, so horrified by the destruction that it didn’t seem real and even our feelings of horror didn’t feel quite real. Of course for people at or near ground zero, and for those who lost family and friends, the reaction was much more visceral and immediate. But most of us watching on TV experienced a state of temporary disconnectedness, a sense of numbness, unreality, and immobilization, not unlike a mental illness. We had to stop, to withdraw inward, completely preoccupied with trying to absorb what was happening, unable to continue with the routine of our daily lives.
It isn’t hard to see how this temporary breakdown was a fundamentally healing response. We needed to stop, to disconnect, to become preoccupied, because we needed time and space to process what had happened so that we could begin to feel it.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, we were jolted from unconsciousness into consciousness, from doing into feeling. TV commercials, sitcoms and soap operas stopped; football, baseball and Nascar stopped. The Stock Market stopped. Before September 11, all those things seemed to matter. Afterwards we realized instinctively that they didn’t. Being disconnected from commercial TV, spectator sports and big business didn’t feel like much of a loss. Being disconnected from ourselves and from other people did. As we began to recover from our initial state of shock, we realized with great immediacy that what really matters is the preciousness of each individual human life, how we deal with human suffering, being able to connect with people, being part of a family and of a larger community, not only of Americans but of people in all countries, people of all religions. That felt healing, and it was. But it was only a beginning.
It has been difficult to hold on to that blessed feeling of connectedness because, in order to feel it, we also had to open ourselves to pain. We had to allow the collapse of the World Trade Center to take with it our sense of invulnerability, our privileged insularity from the world of suffering and fear. We had to feel our own suffering and fear. We had to break down. Emotionally, that has been a difficult place to live. Americans—American men especially—don’t like to break down, and we definitely don’t like to feel vulnerable and afraid. It’s so much easier to feel angry and vengeful, especially when that’s the righteous and patriotic way to feel.
Which leaves us now with the same choice we have always had—unconscious-ness or consciousness, doing or feeling—only now with a much clearer awareness of what really matters. We can follow the path of least resistance, trying to return to the comforting routine of “business as usual,” while taking revenge on those who would dare to stop us. Or we can respond to the terrorist attacks in a way that maintains and builds on our new global awareness, our feeling of connectedness with a larger human family.
Our task is not to heal from the trauma of September 11. The trauma is ongoing: anthrax today, who knows what tomorrow. To heal from this ongoing trauma—this ever-present threat to our way of life—we must deal with it consciously, with the full awareness of what really matters about our way of life.
But to know what really matters, we must first know what we feel. We must open ourselves to the destabilizing emotions we bring in each day with the morning paper: vulnerability and fear, rage and revenge. The path of consciousness is to feel the vulnerability and fear, to feel the rage and revenge, and at the same time to keep ourselves open to feel the connectedness, using all our feelings to guide us through the crisis. The path of unconsciousness is much simpler: react in rage to get rid of the fear, trying to undo vulnerability with vengeance.
The night before I began to write this, I dreamed about Armageddon. There was a Cuban-missile-crisis type confrontation that ended not like the movie but in a mushroom cloud. I was waiting to be blown away by the shock wave when I heard the TV announcers in the background, first describing the blast from a distance, then realizing that they were in the blast themselves. Then suddenly we were all....
I live each day now in fear of the next act of mass violence, not knowing whether it will come from the terrorists or from us. I fear the vicious cycle of revenge that can escalate all too quickly into Armageddon. I fear the kind of rage that demands violent revenge, in God’s name, against the evil ones. I fear the terrorists’ rage against us. I fear our rage against the terrorists. I fear that “infinite” justice can be as lethal to terrified Afghani and Iraqi children as “holy” jihad can be to our own children.
Fear is part of the healing process. By sensitizing us to our vulnerability it makes us aware of our interdependence, our need to make allies rather than enemies. By alerting us that our lives are in danger, it makes us cautious about acting rashly. It forces us to stop and think about what threatens us, and about how to neutralize the threat without provoking an even greater one.
Fear keeps us aware of the consequences of our actions. Rage demands a quick fix with little regard for consequences. I’m worried about those who can feel the rage but can’t tolerate the fear. In this “war on terrorism” the only thing we have to fear is not feeling our fear, closing ourselves off from feelings of vulnerability and connectedness.
Of course, rage too is part of the healing process. It counteracts feelings of helplessness and empowers us to be proactive in our fear, to keep attacking the problem until the danger is over. Rage inspires us to stand up for ourselves, to seek justice and freedom. But rage is impulsive. Overriding fear, caution, even thought, it can easily destroy what it seeks to protect.
Our feelings are in conflict. Our rage demands military revenge. Our fear warns us against it. And in the background is that hard-to-hold-onto third feeling, that blessed feeling of connectedness, of family, of love.
In our rage and fear, we are reacting only to the threat to our smaller family: those of the same blood, religion, race or country. In our love and connectedness, we feel the threat to our larger human family and recognize that all our brothers and sisters, of all religions, races, and countries, are in the same imperilled planetary boat that we are.
To heal the world’s conflict we must heal this emotional conflict within ourselves. It won’t be easy or quick, but the path of healing will be a path that respects all our feelings: our rage, our fear, and our love.
Elio J. Frattaroli, M.D.
October 24, 2001