Monday, June 25, 2012

Do They Even Know?

To Create an Enemy, Sam Keen

Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.

Dip into the unconscious well of your own
disowned darkness
and, with a wide brush
stain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.

Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
your own.

Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
. . .
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphosed into beast, . . 

Quite a nasty recipe!

A few words on projection. An online definition summarizes this process as follows: "a psychological defense mechanism wherein a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions; then ascribes them to the outside world, often to other people. Thus, projection involves imagining or projecting the belief that these aspects of oneself originate in the feelings of others." Freud, the originator of the term in its modern use, maintained that projection's primary 'use' was that of helping the ego split out emotions which the individual finds disturbing or unacceptable as personal attributes; thereby reducing one's anxiety. A rather unusual variant of 'not in my backyard'!

If we accept Freud's contention that projection develops as a 'defense mechanism' in aid of making our lives a little less harried, it can't be all bad. Right?  After all, some other of these 'mother's little helpers' include sublimation (shifting socially unacceptable motives to a more benign form: better to play out international differences on a World Cup pitch with a football, than on a field of battle with guns!); identification (modeling oneself on the admired attributes of another's behaviour or character); even humour and rationalization often make the 'helpful cut'.

Evidently, from Sam Keen's take on this process, the answer to the above question would be: 'well, not necessarily -- helpful, that is'.  As is so often the case with matters addressed in a regular mindfulness practice, the pivotal issue here is one of awareness.  Sam's sardonic piece portrays what can (and so often, does) happen when we distance ourselves from our own process, fail to own our own issues and, for the sake of our own comfort, project them safely away from 'our own backyard'. The sequence he lays out is common enough:
1.    pick a neutral and generic target;
2.    identify (unconsciously) those issues with which we regularly struggle and are perhaps the least satisfied with in ourselves;
3.    attach a pejorative label to our (previously) generic figure -- befitting the content we're about to assign him/her;
4.    remove our intimate connection with this person; making him/her less the individual and more 'representative' of a 'group' or type;
5.    and finally, engage the 'black and white', all or none process of polarized thought -- leaving only the negatives and conveniently forgetting or downplaying the mitigating positives.

Last week's blog suggested a simple meditation of self-exploration: Who Am I? A variant on this exercise as we sit is to become aware of subtle signals that may foretoken a bit of projection at work. The signs are simple enough: those issues or people who most trigger us; those individuals we most readily identify as representative members of a particular group / point of view -- and feel most compelled to vilify and paint (a la Keen) with a single colour, removing all the nuances that necessarily comprise the 'complete individual'. The awareness in this case: turning one's vision inward (again); and 'catching' oneself in the act of projecting. Making oneself conscious -- always preferred to being 'unconscious'.

Audio Version: 

Who Am I? podcast link from Sounds True:

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