Monday, September 04, 2006

Freud, the Subconscious and Tradition

A big discovery for me upon entering religious life was that the Catholic Tradition possessed a field of 'psychology', even if it isn't always referred to as such. In fact, I would even submit that it has ideas about concepts, such as the subconscious, that are often thought to have been invented by Freud or other late nineteenth-century scientists of the human mind.

I have recently returned to reading Freud in conjunction with the work I am doing with the eight logismoi, or principal thoughts, since there are interesting similarities in Freud's developmental psychology and the progress one makes in battling the thoughts (the parallels are even more striking in Freud's student Erikson).

To be sure, there are important differences. Perhaps Freud's great contribution in terms of the subconscious is not the invention of the concept, but of giving it a dynamic existence. Cassian and Teresa of Avila both clearly understand that there are hidden motives, desires and injuries in areas of the mind not available to casual inspection and regular consciousness. To make progress in the spiritual life involves for both of them penetrating deeper and deeper into the heart and mind to allow grace to purify these motives and desires and to heal the wounds of sin, both ours and others'. However, both of these saints tend to view the subconscious as a storehouse. When we put a memory in it, it stays there until we look at it again.

For Freud, when we bury a memory, it continues to have an active and dynamic existence. Memories develop and influence behavior in ways that we are not aware of. Small injuries can grow to enormous proportions and come to dominate our lives. This is an important insight, and one that perhaps was simply not available until the advances in a developmental understanding of humankind that marked the nineteenth century in general.

On the other hand, Freud also holds to a materialistic and 'hydraulic' theory of the subconscious which poses serious problems for someone who attempts to integrate his ideas with Catholic tradition. In this model, problematic motives and desires that are denied any expression build up pressure toward a dangerous exploding point. They thus need either sublimation or some other type of expression. This approach is particularly problematic with the more outwardly-directed energies of the human person: namely sexuality and irascibility. This gives rise to the supposed need to relieve sexual tension by illicit acts and the supposed need to 'vent' anger. In fact, Catholic tradition would insist that acting on these impulses, far from exhausting the springs of energy, rewards the errant desire. In other words, we condition ourselves to lustfulness and irritability by acting on these impulses. Here, the behaviorists can help balance Freud's theory with their understanding of the conditioning of human response to stimuli.

The very notion of a subconscious, however, is very helpful. Fr. Thomas Keating has written a number of works in which he refers to the 'false self', that is, the apparent self that is in fact a facade built of actions controlled by unconscious motives and desires. The disciplines of Centering Prayer (which I am not necessarily advocating) are meant in part to drive a wedge between the thoughts that arise from a wounded subconscious and our conscious minds, so that we learn slowly to achieve the freedom offered to us by Christ, the freedom to say 'no' to the wayward impulses of an unredeemed subconscious. This is strikingly akin to Cassian and Teresa's understanding of the active life's goal: identifying sin in the hidden places within ourselves so that we can freely renounce it.

God's blessings to you!

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