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Gendlin, E.T. (1984). The political critique of "awareness." The Focusing Folio, 3(4), 139-157. From

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The Political Critique of "Awareness"

E.T. Gendlin, Ph.D.

University of Chicago

A critique of the current "Awareness Movement" comes from two sources. Psychoanalysts call the movement "narcissistic." Marxist and other political thinkers also use that term. They point to the impossibility of a "merely inward liberation" in an unchanged society. Political theory assumes that internal oppression has external causes in the social system. In an unchanged society a merely inward liberation has to be an illusion. (Telos #44, 1980; #59, 1984.) I will discuss this notion: "merely inward."

On the basis of what we know from focusing and psychological processes I will first try to correct a serious theoretical error in the Freudian and the political theories, concerning this external source. In the second section I will arrive at some political principles. These sections of my paper will defend the Awareness movement against the critique.

In the third section I will show that a part of that critique does hit home. Whereas my first two sections move from focusing to political principles, the third and fourth shows how our practice of focusing (and every inward process) needs a conscious political context around it. I do not mean only that social action is needed. Even for our private individual purposes focusing needs a structural political consciousness.

In the fourth section I will begin to show how such a consciousness can provide what is lacking.


Let us first understand the psychoanalytic critique.

The Awareness Movement was brought about largely by psychoanalysis and its offsprings. All during our century psychoanalytic theory has influenced social forms in every field. It has brought recognition and open discussion of inward experience. It forced the shared language to open not only to forbidden topics like sex, but to whole reaches of human feeling and interaction. Much of what Freud found is now common parlance. Today most people are aware of quite a lot that used to be outside common [Page 140] consciousness. Psychoanalysts had hoped for this society-wide lessening of repression. Why are they now so critical?

On subways and buses today, one hears psychologically sophisticated, introspective conversations. Twenty years ago these could have been heard only in a therapist's office. Today many millions are involved in various kinds of psychotherapy, self-help networks, encounter groups, ashrams, meditation, and other inwardly centered processes. Bookstores offer walls of popular paperbacks on these subjects. A major social change is taking place.

Why do psychoanalysts find themselves in opposition to this social phenomenon which is so largely the fruit of their own labor?

The psychoanalytic critics call the people in the Awareness Movement "narcissistic," and that word has also crept into the political discussions. The word points at a problem which must be taken seriously. People in our movement are said to lack responsible forms of bonding, ethics, and stable relationships. The critics see a disintegration of the social forms of love and work. The traditional patterns of marriage and occupation have become meaningless for many people. No new form (let alone, a new kind of form) has replaced the old. These people have no stable channels of interaction even with each other. Despite their emphasis on intimacy, they move from relationship to relationship. There are millions of them, yet they are often lonely and alone in the world. Purely inward preoccupation seems to ignore interaction and the world. The psychoanalytic epithet "narcissistic" points to this problem.

Psychoanalysts always favored not only a lifting of repression but also a strengthening of the ego. They said that otherwise removing repression will have bad results.

There is no doubt of the current weakening of some of these social forms. Many people are no longer enabled to love and work through these forms. The question is whether this is only a failure at ego-development, or whether it might mean something more interesting than the old kind of ego-development. In other words:

Is it only pathology when people cannot love and work in the old social patterns, or do they sometimes experience more complexity, intricacy, and order than the old patterns could accommodate?

In psychoanalytic theory this question cannot be framed, because its [Page 141] most basic terms make all order depend on social forms. Psychoanalysis is not alone in this regard. Most of the modern tradition assumes that the newborn brings very little organization, and human beings are almost entirely social products. Then there is no way their order or complexity can exceed the given social forms.

Rank long ago noticed the problem. He refused to think of the artist as just pathological, and thought that the neurotic is in some ways a sort of artist, failing to fit because of more intricacy rather than less.

Jung fully broke with the assumption that all order comes to the organism from outside. The organism is highly organized and not at all just by the externally given social forms.

Freudian psychoanalytic theory defines the ego as the "reality principle," reality being social. The theory holds that without externally imposed social norms and forms, human experience is formless, chaotic. In psychoanalytic theory there is no inward organismic order. The "id" is "a cauldron of unorganized drives." Only society provides a patterning which enables the "discharge" of these "drives." No form or patterning originates in the organism. Only externally derived forms provide channels of action, and interaction. This assumption has very many consequences.

In psychoanalytic theory everything that is not under the ego must be classified as "narcissistic"—insufficient ego-formation, a very infantile disturbance. Psychoanalysis has nowhere to put our whole experiential complexity, except in that one (pre-ego) bin. Most of the concepts in the theory are about later development. Psychoanalytic theory has little subtlety about experience other than ego. It must all be infantile and have come before ego-formation. Experience that exceeds ego must repeat preoedipal experience, which is to say, it must be narcissistic.

"Secondary narcissism" is a "reflux of libido" from the object back to self. Thereby organization can only have been lost. Difficulty with the extant social forms of love and work cannot be due to greater sensitivity to real factors. It can only be a return to infantile experience, which means to less realism and less order.

Psychoanalysts do not exactly want this consequence, but they have not yet changed the theory. Therefore they struggle with the term "narcissistic" in all sorts of different applications. People too concerned with inner [Page 142] experience are narcissistic, but so are Kohut's people whose trouble is that they have too little inner experience. Mathematicians are considered narcissistic because they spend so much of life alone. Artistic experience is narcissistic because it exceeds ego-forms. Spirituality is the narcissistic return to mother-child fusion. All these kinds of experience can only be classified as repetitions of infantile experience.

According to that theory, the organism contributes no order. Pre-oedipal experience is ordered only from the mother-child relationship.

It is well known that the neuroses Freud described (the "classical oedipal neuroses") are infrequent today, except in rural areas where there has been little social change since his time.

In the psychoanalytic language our current social change has made our egos "weak." This means that we are often unable to love and work in the given social patterns. The strong ego is gone, and mourned.

What were those people like, whose passing is so regretted? They rarely felt psychic intricacy. They were thoroughly identified with their social roles to the point of being their roles. They were their religions, their nationalisms, and their assigned cultural places. They did not often doubt "reality." Today "everybody has personality problems," but no one could have convinced them of that.

But such people are not gone—this kind of ego need not be mourned, it has not disappeared. It is rather that, today, when we meet people like that, we assume that they have not yet developed very far inside themselves (and we hope and expect that they soon will.)

Such people's egos seem to be the simplified external structures. Complicated inner experience is mostly feared. Religion is the services, rituals, and prescribed statements. The Nation is us, and therefore good. The right way to behave is the way of our subgroup, and others don't know how to act. Education is what you have to learn to make your way in the world. Originality is odd. Such people do feel great emotions, rage, fear, guilt, shame and dishonor, but their emotions are those that come in the traditional situational patterns and story plots.

The old, strong ego is an inner closure toward the greater complexity of experience. That closure never completely succeeds, but the "strength" of such an "ego" lies in its capacity to minimize any experience that exceeds [Page 143] what is called "reality."

This conception of the strong ego is health only in theory. Few psychoanalysts who meet this type of ego today would call it "strong." It does not do well in our society now. Everyone knows that an increase in experiential awareness is desirable. But the concepts have not changed yet. There are no psychoanalytic concepts of a greater valid awareness. Theoretically it is a breakdown and a return to narcissistic infantilism.

Psychoanalytic theory has always been caught in this dilemma: On the one hand its ideal was full consciousness. On the other hand, it was always afraid of inner experience. For example, every graduate of a Psychoanalytic Institute has come through this bind: Be open and undefensive, let your Training Analyst see your pathology—but don't have real pathology! Candidates that are defensive won't graduate, but neither will those who are open.

The dilemma, put theoretically, favors experiential openness but there is validity only "in the service of" the ego. For example, until recently psychoanalysts attempted to force unhappily married people (especially women) to remain in their marriages. Internal experience was to be made conscious, but not given any validity where it was in conflict with the social patterns of life. Psychoanalysts wanted a woman to be aware of her dissatisfaction, but would not grant that it could be caused by her present life. Her more intricate experience could not be an apprehension of "reality" where it conflicted with the simpler social patterns. "Most everyone manages the marriage pattern, so you can too," they said.

In that theory "reality" consists of patterns that have no interior complexity. You "just" do that, you "just" act in a normal way. It seemed that normal people don't have all these complications.

Today most people don't use the psychoanalytic concepts like that. But the concepts still imply that any complexity you sense is pathology. In practice we know that pathology is mostly simpler, repetitious, and less subtle than the norms. In contrast, a greater sensitivity and complexity is something else. But in psychoanalytic theory that complexity must be a narcissistic return to infancy.

But Freud wrongly identified these round social patterns lacking in interior complexity with our "I" (his German term for "ego" was "das ich," [Page 144] the "I"). By identifying the inner "I" with the social patterns he left no place for more intricate experience.

Let me use G.H. Mead's theory for a moment, not to sell that theory, but only to help me describe the experiential difference Freud missed here. Mead distinguished between an "I" and a "me." He used the word "me" to stand for the socially given forms, patterns and definitions. He used "I" for the constantly fresh impulse, that in us which says and feels "I." Mead describes a back-and-forth movement: the "me" presents how what I am about to do looks in social terms, the "I" responding to that in some spontaneous way, then the "me" again defining how that would look in the social perspective. Mead, the founder of "social psychology," certainly agreed that the individual is inherently social. But Mead also made basic the difference between "I" and the social patterns. Freud does not distinguish these, with the result that there is no place at all in his personality structure for our experienced "I" to exceed the social patterns.

Freud's concept of the ego fits people who feel themselves identical with their social role and posture, except for occasional puzzling eruptions of primitive impulses (not a complex texture of experience).

But this view of the "I" leads to a horrendous practical result:

The theory defines as unreal all our apprehensions of reality which exceed, contradict and complicate the simple social patterns.

But this was not caused by Freud's theory; it is rather a social fact which Freud took into his theory.


It is society which defines these simplistic patterns as "reality," and thereby defines our experienced complexity as unreal and merely internal.

I am arguing that each of us individually fails to fit, and not only in terms of unacceptable desires or impulses.

The more intricate texture of "inwardness" does not fit. And what it fails to fit is the "external reality" made of seemingly smoother patterns that make no room for the complexity.

This is the origin of the very notion that experience is "merely inward," the phrase I promised to discuss. Reality omits us and seems "external."

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Most people think and speak of their inwardness as unreal and denigrated by the "real" external. They feel their inner life as "too" complicated, oversensitive, too emotional, too demanding, too dependent, and so on. The word "too" implies that such experience is not an apprehension of reality. It is merely inward.

We no longer have the old ego that could shut so much experience away. But we retain its denigration in the external/internal split: "reality" is external to us, "real" without us.

But now we see that the old ego's social "reality" was largely fictitious. The simple patterns "everyone" lives were not, in fact, livable. Everyone has problems, no one is normal. These patterns were far too small a part of reality. What we thought was merely internal and crazy, what we actually felt and perceived, that was often a real and accurate perception of reality.

This derivation of the internal/external split leads me to posit what I call political principles. I call them political because they define the external source of inward oppression. Political theory holds that what we experience as our own inward oppressive experience has an external source in the social and economic structure. I tried to show that one external source is the very notion of "external" reality itself, the fact that the social patterns leave no room for our more complex apprehensions. The ordinary routines leave nothing open for us to fill in. We are assumed to fit without interior complexity. The job is structured before we take it on. The classroom pattern is there, we are only asked to fit it. Small talk at the party limits "socializing." The patterns are complete without us. We are trained in the deep-felt belief that we ought to fit. What does not fit the simple forms is "merely internal," unreal, therefore crazy. But this oppression of the "external" needs to be fought.

Let us refashion the concepts. Reality is not the simplistic patterns without us. Let us stop saying that we are liberating ourselves "inwardly." This word "inward" surrenders the world.

We have not been liberating ourselves "only inwardly." That would have meant giving up on living, loving, and working with others. On the contrary, we try to create new forms of social interaction. Of course these forms are "unstable" since they are newly made in each new interaction. Nor is the [Page 146] instability due only to new improvisation. We often fail to make any workable forms, and so we fail in the living we tried to do. Or we make very insufficient forms.

Of course when we fail to love and work because of more order, the result can look similar to failing from pathology and disorder. Either way we didn't manage the old forms. And pathology is also present, besides. There is far more failure to look at, than new forms.

The question can now be restated: The breakdown of old forms should not be denigrated nor idealized. What is certain is this: The breakdown of these forms reveals behind them not only chaotic drives and infantile mother-child fusion, but a more complex texture of experienced reality. Can we now succeed in making social structures that leave room for this intricacy? We don't know yet. But the alternative structures of fifteen years ago foundered on personal and interpersonal factors which could not then be handled. What was crucially lacking is now being developed. The structural political emphasis will return.

Political theory has oversimplified the human subject. It is not always "false subjectivity" when one senses oneself as more complex than the socially given life-patterns.

There is also another problem: Subjective complexity can paralyze action. Action is simpler. But there is a new kind of simplicity. A step of focusing can lead to a simple action that feels whole.

The FUNCTIONS performed by the old ego can be done in a new manner. To find ways of interaction from the complexity of experience takes a lot more strength—a new kind of "ego strength." By first respecting our intricate apprehensions, we can devise new livable patterns. It involves resilience and the energy to arrange circumstances.

Because many people are still just finding their intricacy, we are not yet discussing this new kind of ego-interactive functioning. Most people are still fighting the old training to ignore themselves; so they talk of self-assertion. But that is only half the ingredients; form-making also needs listening to the other persons so their intricacy can participate. That makes devising new forms doubly hard.

Form-making also requires what I call a "structural" understanding of social organization. The forms are part of social and international economic [Page 147] structures. For example, finding work that connects with our experience runs counter to how work and pay are organized in our society. The structural political and economic detail must be seen, else form-making will be superficial.

Most people now have to give up on being honest to their experience. It seems that love and work can be had in this world only by closing against experience and living in the old patterns. Making new patterns is another way, but to claim that it is always possible is not true at this time. Those in fortunate spots can. The rest of us will blame ourselves for having been unable to do that, if we are not aware of the structural factors. We also need that awareness to work on what limits form-making now.

It is tempting to foresee a social system in which form-making itself becomes routine. Form-making would become an expected part of most situations. There would again be shared patterns, but they would be patterns of mutual pattern-making. But it is too early even for such a sketch.

I will now discuss the current critique from political theory. The psychoanalytic view that one must choose between the old social forms or "narcissism" has largely entered political thought. Current political thinkers also call the Awareness Movement "narcissistic." For example, one sees a loss of

the project of structural change (in favor of a) "strategy of withdrawal from society. (There are) . . . loose associations of people with a private eclectic religiosity . . . psychologistic doctrines with a veneer of scientific ideology. (Four lines of 'brand names.') These offer techniques for personal salvation and selfenhancing lifestyles based on the sacralization of the narcissistic self. . . . That any public philosophy . . . could emerge from this is preposterous." (Casanova, J. Telos No.59, 1984. My italics.)

Or, take Foucault:

In the California cult of the self one is supposed to discover one's true self . . . thanks to psychological and psychoanalytic science which is supposed to tell you what your true self is." (Interview with Rabinow, 1984.)

These thinkers assume that what seems to us to come from the organism [Page 148] must be a result of imposed doctrines.

Marcuse had sympathized with the beginnings of this movement. But his theory is implicit in the current rejection. He shared the psychoanalytic assumption that only externally imposed forms can provide human interaction. He agreed with Freud that a rebel against the social forms must be like the Narcissus of the Greek myth. Like Freud, Marcuse believed that inward experience can only be childish, selfish, and autoerotic. But rather than accept the repressive political function of the social forms, Marcuse very bravely chose "Narcissism" as the better alternative. He extolled Narcissus, and accepted selfishness and self-enclosed living as preferable to domination in the system of social control. Narcissism has been read into the Awareness Movement ever since.

But let us copy his bravery, not his theory.

The political theory which says: "No inward liberation can be genuine in an unchanged society" is correct, and yet it misunderstands the Awareness Movement! That movement's "inwardness" is social, and constitutes the very rejection of social forms which these political people have long called for. Like the psychoanalysts, the political critics are in the odd position of opposing what they always advocated, the rejection of the old forms.

The opposition from the political side misses the inherently political character of the current form-improvisation. What could be more social than the living rejection of the traditional patterns of love and work? But it is often presented apolitically (and is in that sense unconsciously reactionary, as if social change were not needed). Just as often the Awareness Movement calls for social change, but without a structural analysis. Then its proposals and efforts are superficial. But structural political-economic analysis has long been associated with the assumption that social change must be imposed on people.

These critics do not believe that social change can come from inside people outward. They believe it must come from social engineering, from the outside, in. Like Freudians, the Marxists assume that the externally imposed social order is the only kind of order. They do not see the organism's order talking back to social forms.

Their assumption instances and unconsciously imposes the oppression of the "external"/"internal" split! But the assumption is also false. Let us [Page 149] see how it came about.

Marx showed that the social organization of work also organizes much of people's lives. For example, family farms make for different personal relations and feelings, than urban commuting and working with strangers in factories. This insight was extended into an "economic determinism," because historically the work-organization is first imposed on people; then the personal changes result. But it is not essential that the economic patterns must change first. What is theoretically inherent, is the indivisibility of work and personal patterns. If the latter personal patterns were somehow to change, the previous organization of work could not continue.

Marxists would deny the possibility expressed by my word "somehow." There is a long history behind the theoretical assumption that social change can occur only from the outside in, from the top down, from a changed social structure into the individual. The practical oppressive consequences of this assumption are well known. If the theory were right, social change could never be liberating. It would always have to be imposed, programmed into people from the economic "side."

The theory assumes an erroneous dualism between two "sides," as if "internal" experience were not social until it is socialized by the public structure of economics, the "external" side. Of course the theory also denies this dualism and says that both are interlocking parts of one whole. The interlocking is right, but the necessary primacy of the external is mistaken. Change also occurs in human experience and alters social structure. The two "sides" are in constant interaction, they are two aspects of every bit of living.

Individual experience is inherently social, had by many people with each other. It is therefore true that individuals embody the present social system and cannot come up with a new one. Neither can a new system be derived from theoretical engineering and imposed on people from the outside in. It is in living that we change the old forms; we differentiate and newly augment them. Such change is social change, and can change public structure.

An externally imposed new system turns out to be the old one over again, without the differentiations of long usage. The people of such a new system are the old people, and the industrial type of production is also again the [Page 150] old one with its managerial, technical, and bureaucratic class. The old forms are implicit in the individuals and in the society; they cannot be dropped. It would also be foolish to call them just bad—it is in these that we developed beyond them. The assumption is false that individuals are mere copies of such forms. If that were so we would not feel their narrowness. Rather, the organism is highly organized—animals are already quite complex. Recent research also shows that newborns arrive with much more organization than had been assumed. Social patterns organize the individual, but organisms are also a source of order that elaborates the social patterns.

The old forms are too simple, but they are products of long evolution and have been elaborated and differentiated by much living. New forms are not easily and immediately better. But the current improvising stems from more lived intricacy. Patterns that make room for that will be better.

A purely "inward" and merely "individual" liberation is indeed impossible, but that only shows that the current experience of millions of people is not rightly described. Their experience is not an illusion. If we reject the (very common) thinking which unknowingly splits individual and social, we quickly see the social and political character of the so-called "inward" liberation; it liberates from narrowly "external" social forms.

The current political thinkers will not believe this. They assume that any experienced change can only instance and unknowingly obey the internalized social values in which we were trained by living in this society. They do not see that from this living we can experience what needs to change. They think that individuals can only change from one socially programmed way to another, although we might not recognize it as such.

It will turn out that answering this objection is not simple.

So far I have only corrected a theoretical error, to make room for the contribution of the organism's order and its elaborating of social patterns. But can we recognize when that happens, as against when we only reinstance some training we cannot want to alter because of this very training?

As a too simple example, the current social training in America makes us all feel "individualistic." We get to choose among identical gas stations and airlines. A million of us are stuck at the same moment on the [Page 151] expressway in our individual cars. Isn't this "individualism" a self-disguising conformity?

Now more to the point: Isn't the current freeing which lets people find "their own motivations" a current fad? I am not disturbed by the fact that many people are doing the same thing at once; that is what makes it social change. But can we distinguish between an organismically arising elaboration of social patterns, and a mere imposition? Some people do say to themselves: "Shame on me, I don't have my own thing." They are conscious of the social pressure imposed on them. But is the change in the rest of us only an unconscious response to that pressure?

I believe that we can distinguish the organismically arising change-steps that come in focusing from the kind that are self-impositions. Even that will not solve the whole question.

The political people do not know the kind of change-steps we find in focusing. Those who do know them must think about this problem.

I will present two short examples of focusing-steps (Hendricks 1985, in press) which will let me illustrate the argument.

C: It's almost like . . . it kind of feels like . . . sitting here looking through a photo album. And like each picture of me in there is one of my achievements . . . because I wasn't achieving for me. I was always achieving for . . . someone else so they'd think I was good enough.

In the next bit, note the sense without ready words:

It's like . . . that . . . I don't know quite how to say it . . . It's like the feeling is there, but I can't quite put words on it. . . . (silence) . . . Yeah, . . . it feels right somehow to say it's like I've chosen this person (prospective mate) as my challenge . . . knowing that I'd be defeated. That this person wouldn't respond to me. So that I could kind of buy right back into the photo album being flipped through.

(silence, checking inwardly)

Yeah. I think so. I think so because . . . yes, this person feels inaccessible. Yet, not so inaccessible that . . . it's not a total impossibility. So it's like I keep trying out my worth . . . on him . . . and keep coming up against, "yeah, I like you, but . . ."

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T: I like you but . . . Always qualified.

C: That's how I felt when my mother "liked me," when we related. I like you but . . . But there was always something missing. Some big flaw that was so awful, she couldn't quite love me because of it. It feels like such a hurt spot. (begins to cry) and, I always had to . . . I always had to . . . be a star or she wouldn't love me.

Here is an example of the current freeing from the motivation to achieve for mere approval. The implication of the "photo album" metaphor is: I don't want to do things just for that, anymore. This might be unlikely if many other people around this person were not similarly changing. That is social change. But can we see the contribution of organismic order in this kind of step:

Note focusing's characteristic attention to a "felt sense," something sensed right there, with a life of its own, but not yet clear. (See underlining above.) Note the way the felt sense is checked against. Is what was said right? A time of silence . . . Then, "yes . . ." (Or it might have been, no, that's not right.)

Here is another person's example: Please notice both the focusing attention on a felt sense, and the several steps which arise from that. At each such step the organism leads to a change of what had seemed true.

(silence, checking inwardly)

Like . . . like I feel almost like I'm trapped in my own self or something like that . . . it's hard to describe the feeling . . . like that . . . that it's not going to get better . . . And I guess, like you said, there doesn't seem to be a light at the end for me, and I can't see right now . . . or at least I can't see the light.

T: There's an element of . . . of . . . hopelessness. Perhaps that's too strong a word, but . . . you don't immediately see any hope of resolving this feeling.

C: . . . (silence) . . . Well, it looks pretty hopeless to me right now . . . but then, when you said that what came to me was . . . I sort of had an angry place that . . . Hopeless maybe, but I'm not helpless, like that bugs me if someone thinks I'm helpless because . . . even though it does look hopeless right now . . . Like I've always been able to fight and work things out before . . . for myself . . . but if . . .

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—somewhere inside me there's . . . there's something real hurtful.

. . . (long silence) . . .

And, my reaction to that is that I just don't care (sobbing) . . .

Later on:

'I don't care' is my anger. It protects the hurt place. I um (cries) . . . could care . . . but I'm still too hurt.

The focusing type of steps can be observably distinguished (EXP Scale, Klein and Couglan, 1984) from the sort in which people impose values and ego-forms on themselves.

It is no "emergence" of what was. What comes has already changed.

There are many small steps: trapped, helpless, hurt, could care. Each step alters the whole picture. We could not have predicted the next step from the previous. Each makes sense, but by altering what was true at the previous. Some steps flatly deny what had just been affirmed, and yet they are not mere denials. They can be followed from what had been affirmed.

Some of these steps first go from speech to an unclear "felt sense." Then, when that shifts, a new saying comes.

The bodily sensed texture is more intricate than old concepts and forms. A greater intricacy comes to fix what had seemed inherently unfixable in the form in which it was conceived.

We can reject the assumption that every event is determined by prior form. Present living can give more order to extant forms.

These recognizable characteristics mark this sort of step off from an experience-closing type of change.


In the last excerpt we can also see the problem of political conformity. Note her saying: "that bugs me if someone thinks I'm helpless." Here is the old social code: if you're helpless and poor, that is your fault, be ashamed. Therefore keep working, try never to be helpless. This code keeps people performing. Here is the political-economic injunction: "earn your keep" which functions within her individual personality and change process.

Today many millions have lost their jobs. Most of them are helpless and ashamed. They blame themselves, although they have no say in how the economy [Page 154] is run. Such super-ego attacks make it noticeable. We all work in the work-forms that are given, and we don't control the conditions.

But the organism's order is not all from social structure. Animals also fight against being helpless. A desire for control of action and environment is inherent in an organism. Rejection of helplessness is not purely a socially imposed value. In this excerpt, perhaps her step is akin to the new ego-strength I spoke of earlier. Is she moving from her own new intricacy, and with energy to find new ways? Perhaps it is not shame which drives her in this step. But she says "if someone thinks I'm helpless." She has not differentiated her own organism's rejection of helplessness from the added and imposed shame. Perhaps just now she doesn't need to differentiate these. But can we differentiate them?

We need not differentiate between "her own organism" and social forms. In humans the complex animal is always also elaborated by social forms. But as the organism lives these forms it can reject and further elaborate them in turn. What we need to distinguish is the kind of step which does that.

We can observably distinguish such steps (as in focusing) from the closed manner of self-imposing steps. The distinction between the two kinds of steps lets us know when we organismically elaborate the social forms further, as against when we only reinstance them.

But do focusing steps necessarily free us from oppressive social forms? They do; but we can not say that they always do so in every respect, that every oppressive form will change. This is no minor limitation!

We live in a structural political context and it can help to sense ourselves within it. That is what I would like to discuss next.


Let me try to show experientially how a political context enables private freeing steps beyond the usual limits.

My purpose is to develop a structural political context from rejecting the "internal"/"external" split leading to detailed structural analysis.

I must first show what I mean by having a "political context" around individual process. I will take my first examples from the movements of blacks, women and gay people, who already have such a context. Then I will talk about the rest of us obtaining it.

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Humans are social. Therefore it is difficult for one person alone to have a complete conviction that the society's message is wrong. You need other people. Your training may say: "Shame on you for needing the judgment of others." But you live in relation to others. Of course, you may know a social pattern to be wrong—a small child often knows what would be right instead. But this knowing might not make a bodily sureness, alone.

You may know that you don't even want to fit the prescribed routines. But a lone person may not be strong against self-attacks, insecurity and inferiority feelings.

People in so-called minority groups gain a lot of strength from discovering that such subjective difficulties are not their individual traits, but are systematically generated by the experiences the social structure assigns them. Recognizing this, an individual becomes stronger.

This well known strengthening comes from knowing oneself to belong to a politically oppressed group. This effect does not occur if one knows merely that others suffer similar difficulties. A group of heart patients are somewhat helped by talking to each other, but not in this way. The strengthening comes from the political aspect—let us see how that word works, here.

"Political" oppression has its common origin in structural arrangements of social living, definitions of situations, conditions of work, patterns of love, roles of social and economic structure. It is not just individual fate accidentally shared. Therefore it gives one an energy.

The person's self-denigrating turns into positive energy. The person feels as one of millions who had criticized themselves individually. The shortcomings are recognized as results of political deprivation. Suddenly a shy person who has always been interrupted and has no experience in arguing can speak up. The inability to speak well is no obstacle now. The person points to it, saying, "See, I don't speak well, that's because of how I was trained only to listen, that's my point!"

We need to extend this political strengthening to everyone. Blacks, women, and gay people also need this strengthening as human individuals, not only as members of a "minority."

What I have characterized as the origin of the "internal" /"external" split lets us extend this political consciousness to everyone, and to fill it in with political-economic detail.

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Just as the women's movement opposes not men, but certain structural patterns, so I am not opposing people but structural arrangements. Everyone is trapped in those. People in business and finance are currently abandoning their slots in droves. They seek new professions—often mine. Nor am I speaking negatively about the present society. Our greater individual capacity and intricacy developed in its relatively great openness, its literacy, wealth, production, communication, and other sophistications, as well as its history of constant evolution. The idea is not to turn against it, to stop loving it, but to sense where it is killing the life in us.

This political awareness is needed for social action, but also for private experiential process.

You might find how you oppress yourself by identifying and joining old forms, for example those that say: produce, perform, don't upset those in charge, don't ask too much, make no waves, look good, be deserving.

Does not paying a bill make you more tense in your body than oncoming traffic? Can you accept help from a friend but certainly not money?

Do you feel ashamed about not earning a good living?

Or, perhaps you are so good at pushing and winning, that you oppress that in you which would like to stop, to look around, to sense, and to get to know others in depth.

Perhaps you insult and shut away your own inner "ugly," "dependent," hurt part so that your creativity closes, and you lose many accurate ideas and perceptions.

People differ in what they have developed, and in what is now a freeing step for them.

If you are good at business and finance, but bored and wanting more, you might not have to leave it, as so many business people are doing today. You need not surrender to the system that divides professions. If you can afford to leave, perhaps you are also free to stay, or half-stay, and play. You might try to find the others who are bored but hide and cannot leave. You might experiment with change and come up against the hard, structural reasons why things are still as they are. These need to be understood, studied and written about. Don't expect to change them by yourself.

In a political context we sense ourselves as limited human creatures. An individual may have challenged the collective structures but can not have expected to win alone. That saves from hurt and gives energy and humor.

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The political turn can free you from feeling like a refugee from the business world, beginning from scratch at midlife, blaming yourself for not knowing what you want, as if your developed capacities will have no role.

A different sort of person expressed a deep hurt this way:

"The little child's soul arrives all open. It sees all this suffering, and horror. Then it becomes sad and wants to go home."

This feeling surrenders the world. Certainly the soul can long to go home but it did not come to get discouraged. Life-energy backing up is not the "detachment" intended by the spiritual literature. This person expresses a very deep and right apprehension of the preciousness of life and the pain of seeing it defeated in people. But that sense is experienced alone and isolates the person. The hurtful patterns seem to be "the world."

Without a political translation there may not be enough energy to free us from hurt, anger, shame, etc. Their stuckness keeps us in the forms we consciously oppose. We see through these forms, but our bodily capacity is not enough to walk freely through them.

New forms don't just pop up, they are augmentations of old forms. They come from freely sensing the old forms and how they don't fit. Avoiding them from pain is almost like respecting them. Then we don't get past them.

It may seem that we should first be good at these games. But no, that still says we deserve respect only if we win. Besides, many people are good at them. Not good at them—free with them is what we need.

Many spiritual people have given up on performance games but they are afraid and inexperienced in those very games. They don't go to the party both because they see through empty forms and because they are scared to go and feel the old hurt of not fitting.

But the energy can turn. There is another way to see through the party. Don't stay home just because you "don't fit" and "don't belong." Crash the party, and laugh about how you got by the doorman.

I am speaking of an energy shift. The political translation helps to bring energy, resilience, some of that new ego-strength I spoke of.


Please send me every kind of comments.

Gene Gendlin

´┐ŻEugene T. Gendlin

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