The Rehabilitation of Oneness

June 1, 2007

He was young, schizoid, and had experienced brief periods of psychotic-like disorganization. We worked together in psychotherapy for many years. None of the then available psychotropic agents were helpful. He believed, however, that marijuana was helpful, and, if he smoked a joint in the hours preceding a session, his way of relating to me was different. He was less "there," more deeply into himself. His descriptions of the marijuana experience never varied. "I am," he would say, "at peace. I feel connected to everything. I am part of the universe, part of nature, part of God." He was, I thought, a person with significant ego boundary problems who, for the most part, maintained his basic sense of self by distancing himself from both the world and inner turmoil. Marijuana appeared to lead to the internal experience of greater connectedness and peace, although I felt he was less available to me after using it.

He was young, schizoid, and had experienced brief periods of psychotic-like disorganization. We worked together in psychotherapy for many years. None of the then available psychotropic agents were helpful. He believed, however, that marijuana was helpful, and, if he smoked a joint in the hours preceding a session, his way of relating to me was different. He was less "there," more deeply into himself. His descriptions of the marijuana experience never varied. "I am," he would say, "at peace. I feel connected to everything. I am part of the universe, part of nature, part of God." He was, I thought, a person with significant ego boundary problems who, for the most part, maintained his basic sense of self by distancing himself from both the world and inner turmoil. Marijuana appeared to lead to the internal experience of greater connectedness and peace, although I felt he was less available to me after using it.

Does this young man's experience of a peaceful merger have any relationship to spiritual or mystical experiences, often thought of as self-transcendence, in which what is described also centrally involves a merger (usually with God or nature) and great inner peace? I have heard such experiences described by some of the candidates I have evaluated for the Episcopal priesthood, but these persons showed no evidence of schizoid or other major psychopathology. This observation that experiences of merger appear to occur in persons with very different personalities and in very different contexts has attracted the interest of academics from multiple disciplines for many years. Psychiatry, however, has until perhaps quite recently only pathologized merger experiences.

Fifty years ago, any suggestion of a person's merger with the surround was seen in psychiatry as clearly pathological. As a resident I was taught that such experiences strongly suggested an underlying psychotic process. In retrospect, it is hard not to conclude that the then prominent psychoanalytic emphasis on separation-individuation as the major (or only) process underlying healthy development may have played a role in pathologizing oneness experiences that appear to be the opposite of sharp self-object distinctions.

As they say, a lot has happened on the way to the forum. During the past 50 years, psychoanalytic thinking has become much more relational. Healthy development is now seen as the product of both separation-individuation and the processes underlying the capacity for psychological intimacy. Intimacy is defined as shared subjectivity, a temporary merger of sorts. This increased theoretical emphasis on relational processes has had many implications, one of which has been a more process-oriented understanding of ego boundaries.

Polster,1 for example, has written of the need to rework the old physicalistic conception of ego boundaries with its emphasis on delineating the person from his or her surround to a more dynamic, process-oriented set of functions that, under the best of circumstances, allow moment-by-moment oscillation between separateness and inclusion. As such, ego boundaries are more accurately understood as describing the ongoing relationship between person and surround rather than as solely characteristics of the person. Polster suggests that each person has a characteristic balance of the processes of inclusion and separateness. For purposes of this column, however, what needs emphasis is the suggestion that the continuum of inclusion includes at one (not necessarily pathological) extreme, "oceanic feelings of oneness, union, or merger with the surround."

"Not necessarily pathological" does not, however, imply that experiences of oneness can be good for the person. Here "good" is used in the sense of psychological growth. The premise that oneness experiences may have positive impact takes us back to the controversial work of Silverman,2 the subliminal presentation of the "Mommy and I are one" stimulus, and the subsequent temporary improvement across a wide variety of psychological functions.

Silverman, a psychologist-psychoanalyst, was interested in laboratory experiments testing the validity of psychoanalytic concepts, and he published scores of studies for almost 30 years. His early interest was in the role of unconscious symbiotic fantasies in schizophrenia. He and his associates presented the sentence, "Mommy and I are one" tachistoscopically at speeds that were unreadable. In the short term, many persons with schizophrenia showed improved functioning in several psychological processes (eg, fewer cognitive distortions) that was not shown following similar presentations of nonsymbiotic material.

To make a long and complex story manageable in this column, Silverman prompted a major uproar in academic circles. As his work was extended to persons without schizophrenia and the same positive impact was shown, the disbelief grew. As investigators who were not associated with Silverman verified many of his findings, the uproar continued. I have known, for example, several serious thinkers in psychology who can only discuss Silverman's work with clear contempt. I have wondered whether this reflects Silverman's early conclusion that there exists in all persons an unconscious wish for reunion with the early good mother.

In 1990, Hardaway3 published a quantitative review and meta-analysis of 56 studies involving 111 different samples. Despite the need for various methodological improvements, there is a clear and robust conclusion that the subliminal activation of symbiotic fantasies ("Mommy and I are one") increased temporary adaptability in a wide variety of persons with various preconditions who were tested in a number of laboratories. It is impossible to read this careful overview and not reach the conclusion that there is something to the oneness construct, whether symbiotic or not. Psychology and psychiatry need to attend more closely to the theoretical and clinical relevance of experiences of merger, oneness, and self-transcendence.

Support for this position recently surfaced from an improbable source-the use of brain scan technology to study mystical states. d'Aquili and Newberg4 presented findings that suggest that during periods of loss of self-world distinctions in meditation and intense prayer, similar portions of the brain are activated (or deactivated). Although this intriguing work is being conducted with small numbers of subjects and the experimental methods are complex, the findings are provocative. For present purposes, however, I note that these investigators have suggested a continuum of unitary experiences. Starting with "baseline reality," the continuum moves to aesthetic experiences (sunsets and symphonies) to romantic love. Next come numinous experiences (spiritual-religious), cosmic consciousness, and progressive trance states; the continuum ends with experiences of "absolute unity," which includes the obliteration of time and space. Although one can easily question the ordering of this continuum of oneness, it does encourage a thoughtful reexamination of oneness phenomena in our understanding of the self and its pathologies.

It seems to me that oneness is gradually undergoing a type of rehabilitation. Exactly where this will lead and what implications it may have for clinical work are impossible to know at present. Perhaps the important message for clinicians is to stay open to future possibilities rather than holding on to earlier theoretically based assumptions.

References:

References


1.

Polster S. Ego boundary as process: a systemic-contextual approach.

Psychiatry

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1983;46:247-258.

2.

Silverman LH, Lachmann FM, Milich RH.

The Search for Oneness

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Madison, Conn: International Universities Press; 1982.

3.

Hardaway RA. Subliminally activated symbiotic fantasies: facts and artifacts.

Psychol Bull

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1990;107: 177-195.

4.

d'Aquili E, Newberg AB.

The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience

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Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress; 1999.