News & Views » Headcase

Paradigm shift

Headcase: for people deranged by 'normal'



I'm taking a break this week from the series I've begun on the image of the tower and memory to comment on the change of this column's name.

Regular readers will notice that it has been changed from Paradigms to Headcase. Although my editor assures me the name is not meant to be self-referential in the usual pejorative sense, I am already bracing myself for the opening insult of every piece of negative mail I receive in the future: "Well, you're right about one thing. You are a headcase ... "

That aside, I welcome the change. I've been writing this column about 10 years. It began as a much longer exploration of alternative forms of spirituality and healing. I tried to approach those subjects open-mindedly but with a skeptic's eye. My experiential forays were complemented by four years of studies and training in transpersonal psychology.

As someone who grew up with homeopathic medicine and who believes meditation was as important to his psychological growth as psychotherapy, I did believe well before I began my formal studies that much of what the American orthodoxy disregards is valuable.

On the other hand, it didn't take more than a few years for me to feel like I'd exhausted the opportunities for field study. Discussions with alien abductees, people who claimed to have been healed by dolphin surgeons and channelers of discarnate personalities who, coincidentally, taught the pop psychology du jour began to wear very thin. So-called New Age spirituality, frequently narcissistic in its emphasis on personal growth and inattention to community, looked to me as obviously more simplistic than the religions it wished to replace.

I won't describe all the bizarre moments, like being stalked by a minion of Elizabeth Clare Prophet with a "healing" painting of "St. Germane" in his hands that looked like a figure on a Breck Shampoo bottle from the 1950s. To me, that said everything that needed to be said: The New Age, once a visionary challenge to the dominant culture, had become kitsch, paranoia and fundamentalism.

Most of these conspicuously loony people who never questioned themselves were just as earnest as those practicing longtime traditions like Chinese medicine or Tibetan meditation. Of course, I found myself often condemned on both sides of the fence. The dolphin channelers thought I was being prejudicial in laughing at them while I accepted homeopathy. The total skeptics thought I was a moron for accepting anything not firmly established as true by scientific inquiry. (Never mind that we have recently seen multiple failures of scientific "certainty" -- in the areas of diet and women's hormonal treatment.)

The way out for me was through depth psychology. I enrolled in a new doctoral program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara to study, basically, the psychology of the unconscious. I say this was the way out because Freud and Jung, like James Hillman, whose archetypal psychology came to obsess me, understood that an image -- like a dolphin -- has a life of its own that is in a metaphorical or "as-if" sense quite real without being part of objective reality. It serves a function to consciousness but it also comments on consciousness.

This is not the same thing as a psychotic delusion from which the individual cannot detach. The problem for the "new-ager" is similar to a delusion, though, in that the image is taken literally. As my studies proceeded and I looked back on my experience writing Paradigms, I realized this was almost always the difference between crackpot new therapies and those traditions that had endured over time. The former literalized everything, while the latter worked in the field of the imaginal.

This is not always explicit and I don't want to oversimplify it. But an example might be the dreadful book Conversations With God, which we are to take as literal conversations with the supreme deity. The traditions understand prayer as something much more complex -- a function of the imagination in certain Islamic sects, for example. Only a narcissistic, consumer culture could believe you can have a chat with God in the way you talk to a voice in line at a fast-food takeout window and not realize that your own psyche is involved in the creation of God.

The particular doctoral program in which I am enrolled attempts to move depth psychology outside the consulting room, which is what Freud and Jung imagined. This is long overdue.

And that brings me, at last, to how this column changed and why it needs a name change. The purpose is now to look at cultural phenomena from the perspective of depth psychology, to uncover the unconscious in ordinary life. It's not exactly to pathologize our lives but in a sense it is exactly that, and that's why the comic word "headcase" works well for me. I mean by that to accomplish the same thing I do in work with clients -- to help people cultivate their eccentricity, to live self-consciously as headcases in a culture that, were they to become "normal," really would make them deranged.

Add a comment