I’m currently reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. This is a wonderful book with practical information but also scientific details about how the brain works. I’m finding a lot of blog-worthy material that applies to depression. But for now, I want to draw a link between Hanson’s ideas and analytical psychology — the result of the ground breaking work of Carl Jung, the turn-of-the-century Swiss psychologist.
Hanson describes physical and mental discomforts as the “first darts” of existence. These are painful yet inevitable and arise simply because we are human with human emotions and human attachments. But where most of our suffering comes from are our reactions, the “second darts” we, ourselves, throw at ourselves. Second darts often trigger a chain reaction. We react to something and then react to our reaction! For example, we get angry and then feel guilty for getting angry. Or we react to a loved one who then reacts to our reaction and then we re-react and so on.
Jung would have called these second darts “complexes.” A complex is an emotionally charged group of ideas or images. A complex tends to form its own little personality. It has a physiological effect — it can upset the stomach, breathing, heart, &c. Whenever we “over react” we have, most likely, been hit by a “second dart” and “caught in a complex.”
Hanson describes four stages of personal development and growth through which we go as we work to tame our reactions to things and to throw our second darts less often and with less force.
Stage one — you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and don’t even realize it: your partner forgets to bring milk home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.
Stage two — you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself: internally you’re squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.
Stage three — some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out: you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.
Stage four — the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue: you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.
I’m not sure I agree that stage four is actually attainable but the first three are spot on. Our complexes never go away completely. Our goal is to make them less “toxic.” In fact, Jung maintained that they shouldn’t go away because they are the drivers of all energy in our psyche.
One aspect of my father complex is “father is always right and is never questioned.” The most salient example for me is one day in junior high school I asked my dad to buy me some craft sticks (aka popsicle sticks) for a project. When he came home from work he told me the sticks were on the dining room table. I looked on the table and all I saw was a package of wooden clothes pins. I picked them up, walked into the kitchen where he was sitting, and thanked him profusely. He laughed and told me to look again. Sure enough, the craft sticks were there. Had he really bought me clothes pins, he would have been wrong — plain and simple. But I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him. Father knows best. Father is always right. Not because he is actually infallible but because he is beyond reproach.
Fast forward a few decades and I’ve become a student of Carl Jung. I look up to Jung as a father, an authority, someone I learn from. Because he is a father figure for me, criticism of him triggers my father complex. If someone says Jung is wrong, or mistaken, or should have done such and such, my father complex is triggered and I blindly, emphatically, and passionately defend him. Jung is beyond reproach, after all! I’m stuck in stage one. I over react with neither knowledge nor understanding of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
As I grew and developed, learned what to look our for, and began to understand my father complex I began to catch my over reactions. I clearly remember one day during a reading group. Two women were commenting on Jung’s bias against women and expressing their unmet expectation that he should have been more progressive. I was instantly caught in stage one and began defending him as a “product of his times” and pointing out all his other very progressive ideas and going on about his not being a god but a man. I was quite animated. Suddenly, I switched into stage two. It was as if part of me was able to sit back and watch the other part of me over react. I couldn’t do anything about it at first but I was able to watch myself in the tirade and chuckle about how foolish I was being. “What an ass you are, Ken!” Slowly, I reigned myself in and quieted down and ceased my rant. Afterward, I apologized to the women and to the group and explained a little about my how my father complex “caught” me.
After that, I moved into stage three. I can quickly sense when my father complex is about to be triggered and I am able to keep my cool and react more appropriately. I still feel the irritation that Hanson describes but I remain in control. Sometimes I maintain silence and let the other person express their opinion without rebuttal. Other times I give a counter opinion but with a calm demeanor.
It feels really good to be in stage three with this particular aspect of my father complex. There are still other aspects that I’ve not quite tamed but I’ll get there. But now I have the advantage of being aware, of being able to monitor myself instead of flying off the handle. And this awareness extends into other areas of my life where my other complexes try to ambush me.
Hanson says that stage two is the hardest and the stage at which we most want to quit. I totally agree. It’s easy to over react without restraint. It’s easy to say, after the fact, “I don’t know what came over me” and go about my day without giving it another thought. It’s difficult to see myself as an ass but that’s what it takes. Stage two is extremely difficult, but, believe me, stage three feels really good. You’ll be happy and quite proud of yourself when you get there.