Saturday, April 21, 2007

Everything Happens for a Reason? -- Subpersonalities and Meaning


I collect books the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes -- which is to say, it's an addiction. This morning I was doing a little spring cleaning, looking for some books to sell to create room for books I have recently acquired. I came across one that I had started many times but never finished.

Everything Happens for a Reason: Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives, by the psychologist Mira Kirshenbaum, proposes that everything that happens to us -- good, bad, or otherwise -- happens for a reason, if only we know how to see it.

She offers 10 reasons for everything that happens to us:

1. To help you feel at home in the world
2. To help you totally accept yourself
3. To show you that you can let go of fear
4. To bring you to the place where you can feel forgiveness
5. To help you uncover your hidden talent
6. To give you what you need to find true love
7. To help you become stronger
8. To help you discover the play in life
9. To show you how to live with a sense of mission
10. To help you become a truly good person

Kirshenbaum's own story figures prominently in the book. She was a Holocaust surviver as a child. She has experienced many difficult events in her life. For much of her adult life, she rejected the notion of seeking reasons for life's challenges and focused on simply how to live with what has happened. But one client changed her point of view. She eventually began a research project, which resulted in the book, to discover how people make meaning of difficult life experiences.

She comes from a Judeo-Christian point of view, believing in God, but such a viewpoint is not necessary to adopt her sense that everything has a purpose. However, you will need to believe that the universe is designed to help us grow and evolve, to provide life lessons such as the ten she offers.

As I began to read her book again this morning, I was struck by the sense that how we make sense of the world will depend on our worldview, or to use Wilberian language, our altitude (developmental level) and our values line (the Spiral Dynamics model). In a sense, this is integral theory 101.

But I think it is also more complicated than that. I would contend that how we make meaning in the immediate sense will depend in large part on which of our subpersonalities get triggered by the event or experience. In the larger, long-term view, it will also depend on whether or not we can bring the Witness to bear on the experience -- that part of ourselves that sees the bigger picture without concern for our egos.

From the AQAL glossary:
The Witness: The transcendental Self, anterior self, consciousness as such, consciousness as emptiness. The Witness itself is purely empty and devoid of content.
Subpersonalities and Meaning

It seems easiest here to offer some experiences from my own life. The ways that I make sense of things has a lot to do with which subpersonality gets triggered, which is also dependent on the type of experience.

For a lot of things, meaning comes for me through a rational understanding of what has happened. This is true most often in health and psychology issues -- I look for the physiological and/or biochemical mechanisms involved. I have a subpersonality that is only comfortable in this realm (his name is Apollo).

My reliance on a rational, scientific explanation for things has driven some people in my life absolutely mad. Often, it has served me well (aside from the theoretical fights it has sometimes created). When Apollo gets triggered, however, I am completely unable to see anything other than the rational explanation, and when others are unwilling to see my self-perceived wisdom in that viewpoint, I can be terribly persistent in arguing its validity. From this stance, I am incredibly willing to eviscerate what I perceive as magical thinking or New Age psychobabble. This version of Apollo lives in a scientific flatland lacking any vertical orientation in Spirit.

On the other hand, when I am confronted with the suffering and doubt of those I love in a more existential sense, my response is much more compassionate. From this stance, I tend to espouse points of view not unlike some of Kirshenbaum's ten reasons. This subpersonality (whom I have named Sophia) is more connected with emotion and the need to make sense of our suffering in ways that are empowering and growthful. Sophia is empathetic and wants nothing more than to alleviate the suffering of those I care about, often through emotional communion.

The existence of this subpersonality is a relatively recent development in my life -- perhaps in the last ten years or so (which coincides with my study and practice Buddhism -- make of that what you will). The seeds for her existence were planted much earlier than that, but she did not become a fully functioning sub until much later in my life.

Obviously, these two subpersonalities have very different ways of looking at the world -- which often results in conflict, although Apollo is clearly dominant in many instances.

So, if we look at this from an integral point of view (referencing the graphic at the top of this post), Apollo is operating at an Orange altitude (focused on rationality and self-esteem), while Sophia is operating at a Green altitude (focused on self-actualization and emotional bonding).

To make this a little more interesting, let's also look at an older and a newer subpersonality and how they respond to life's challenges.

The older sub is a pessimist -- he sees the worst in everything, and tends to blame himself for most of what happens, especially in the areas of abandonment and loss. This sub (his name is Cyman, short for cynical young man), is the favorite target of my inner critic. Cyman takes everything as his failure. He tends to withdraw when faced with challenges and confrontations. He pouts. He broods. He thinks everything is stacked against him and that he (I) lacks any resources for creating positive outcomes in life. He lives in a constant state of poverty mentality.

The newer sub is just emerging, perhaps as a result of Buddhist practice, therapy, and integral studies. Because this one is new and not yet fully formed, it remains unnamed. For the most part, I relate to it as a rudimentary form of higher self (a variety of higher self definitions can be found here), a more evolved version of who I am now, offering a perspective that is more expansive than my current developmental center of gravity. It tends to look for the big picture, the patterns hidden in what might appear to be chaos. It synthesizes a variety of viewpoints in order to make meaning. But because it is not a fully formed sub (meaning that my center of gravity as a self has not yet transcended and included its worldview), it is something I must access consciously rather than something that gets triggered the way other subs get activated. It's possible that this is not a sub, but an emerging worldview or a new altitude in my consciousness. Either way, it's useful when I can have the presence of mind to activate it.

So, the older sub, Cyman, is clearly operating from an egocentric stance, what might be seen as a Red altitude in the Wilber model. But it also has an absolutist Amber tendency that sees itself as a pawn in a mythic struggle of good and evil (it sees itself as somehow evil -- how else to explain its suffering?). But for Cyman, the struggle is less about God versus Satan than it is about the struggle between the superego and the id (to borrow worn-out Freudian terms). Meaning is based on how well he can live up to the expectations of the superego (and the inner critic, just to make things more complex) and reject the drives of the id and the needs of the ego.

The newer sub (or worldview) seems to be operating from a Teal perspective (between Green and Turquoise in the chart above, the first stages of integral consciousness, what SDi refers to as Yellow). Here is how SDi defines Teal/Yellow:
YELLOW Integrative MEME—starting 50 years ago
Basic theme: Live fully and responsibly as what you are and learn to become
  • Life is a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies, systems, and forms
  • The magnificence of existence is valued over material possessions
  • Flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality have the highest priority
  • Differences can be integrated into interdependent, natural flows
  • Understands that chaos and change are natural
The reason I relate to this as a higher self is because it has not yet emerged as a part of my personality, which allows it to be mostly free of the pathologies it will be subject to when (or if) it becomes a part of my self-sense. However, because it is a higher worldview, it can only be experienced through the lens of my current worldviews in most instances. Sometimes I can access it directly and see through its eyes, but generally, any such experience will be subject to distortions from lower altitude stages.

Those are four of my particular subpersonalities -- and I have others who are less dominant (one is a very vain and narcissistic sub that cares only about making other people like him -- he makes meaning by being accepted). Everyone will have their own collection of subs operating at various altitudes. How we make meaning of challenges, tragedies, and common life experiences will be determined by what subs get activated.

[In a future post I will look at how subs develop, which has a lot to do with explaining why one sub might be triggered by one experience and why a different sub will be activated by a different event.]

It would be enlightening to look at how we make meaning as a culture when tragedies occur, such as the Virginia Tech shootings. We have seen a lot of talk about evil and Satan in the media, especially on Fox; or conversely, discussions about mental illness and its treatment; or finally, about forgiveness, compassion, and unity in the face of tragedy. These can all be seen as different altitude responses to the event -- Amber, Orange, and Green respectively.

I also think that our cultural psyche can have subpersonalities as well. Gretchen Sliker touches on this a little bit in her very useful book, Multiple Mind: Healing the Split in Psyche and World. As an aside, this book was my first exposure to subpersonality theory and psychosynthesis.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Depends on who you ask -- or which sub is active when you ask them.

From my own perspective, I can hold three very different answers to that question in my mind when I am operating from my observer self. I can say that "No, it's all random and meaningless;" and "Yes, life conspires to help us grow and evolve;" and "Maybe, it depends on how we can make meaning from what otherwise might seem like chaos."

All of these answers are true in a given mind-frame. And none of them are true in any absolute sense.

In the end, I've decided that I will keep Kirshenbaum's book. I find some of her explanations and attempts to make meaning to be absurd and over-reaching, but there is also something useful for my Green sub in trying hold some elements of her vision of meaning-making.


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