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Monkey Mind II: Mysticism, Childhood, and Mental Health

"Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creation out of void, but out of chaos." -- Mary Shelley

We are all mystics before the age of five, before the development of ego, hence “a little child shall lead them.” Hence also the labile ecstasies and undefended agonies which fly through a child’s consciousness from one moment to the next. Those around us know exactly how a child feels, who hasn’t learned to inhibit those feelings, undisciplined and spontaneous. Look at the face of of laughing child, “more tickle,” or feel the pain of one sobbing, “I cry, I cry.” So those around us, particularly our close family, get to share the mimesis of those joys and sorrows, even as we lend the tactics and strategies of self-regulation to our young charges. This is, of course, how children learn the language of the emotional life that they will soon protect and defend largely by keeping private, too often even hidden from themselves, but still “mine, mine.”

Yes, it is the development of ego that makes it possible for us to bear “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or even those moment by moment anxieties that can otherwise paralyze us. Yes, sadly, consciousness can make “cowards of us all,” “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” making it difficult to sustain the “native hue of resolution,” and “lose the name of action.” This is how we bear those fardels, and “grunt and sweat under a weary life.” Ego integrity, one of our greatest developmental accomplishments, is also the bastion within which we bear “the whips and scorns of time,” and the greater threats of “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurn that patient merit of the unworthy takes” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1). The lessons by which we vouchsafe our egos integrity are not easy ones, hence the value of their accomplishment, part of many reasons for their defense. As Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said at his son’s graduation from middle school in June 2017:

"From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will fro time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you will be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortunes. "(Quotation from Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 The Coddling of the American Mind.)

I have long thought that the closer I stay to the remembered pain of such lessons, the better of a person I can be. I know my arrogance for the defense it often is, so I am well aware that it can result in my turning into an asshole, oblivious to Dr. Jekyll tuirning into Mr. Hyde.

So, yes, despite its value in negotiating life’s vicissitude, the ego all to easily becomes the master, our fuller actual self its slave, and loosening the activity and the connectivity of even the brain’s “task free network,” our “default mode,” something which might valuably be sought. As with the creative genius of childhood, we all find some of this in sleep or in deep relaxation. In the interpretation of dreams, and the constructions of memory beneath the defenses of ego, we may have, as Freud put it, the “royal road” to what we hide from consciousness. Both long-practiced meditation, and a range of other techniques, including the ingestion of psychedelic drugs, may produce a sufficient reduction of default mode network activity to constitute what Robin Carhart-Harris calls a “superhighway” to the unconscious. He should know, as it was his early training in psychoanalysis, steeping him in Freud and Jung, frustrated by its lack of scientific rigor, and by the limitations of its tools for exploring the unconscious, that led him to Stanislav Grof’s 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. After completing a Master’s in psychoanalysis in 2005, Carhart-Harris got his doctoral training in Neuroscience under David Nutt, a professor at the University of Bristol, notorious for being fired from the British government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for saying that LSD was safer than alcohol. Dr. Carhart-Harris is now Head of Psychedelic Research, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Imperia