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Thread: Open and Closed Psychologies: How Different Can We Be?

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    Open and Closed Psychologies: How Different Can We Be?


    The cultivation of the essential and the examination of the difference between the Principle of Nature (T'ien-li, Principle of Heaven) and human selfish desires are things that must not be interrupted for a single moment in the course of our daily activities and movement and rest. If one understands this point clearly, he will naturally not get to the point where he will drift into the popular ways of success and profit and expedient schemes. . . When one does not even know where to anchor his body and mind, he talks about. . . the task of putting the world in order as if it were a trick. Is that not mistaken?

    One outgrowth of the human problem-solving capacity is our ability to establish experiential independence, thinking and feeling more or less what we like. The problems inherent in this separation from the real setting are as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden and might be termed the basis of the Doctrine of Original Sin. No other species produces this degree of contextual freedom, and while our problem-solving abilities are estimable (when we first started lurking about, we did not much look like a world-conquering species or one that would burst the ecological system of checks and balances), this capacity itself can be seen as our nemesis: We are often just too smart for our own good. The quotation from Chu Hsi above reflects mankind's oft-grudging recognition of this obvious fact; open psychologies are attempts to curb the abuses potential to our intelligence.
    Open psychology is a mode of living based on the accurate reception of reality. There are a number of constants present in the multitude of such practices over the ages. Open psychologies are based on a broad vision of being which can involve God or Nature or some equivalent notion, and their central concern is knowing and serving this greater sense. Open psychologies focus on increasing respect for and attention to reality, and in order to contain escapist tendencies they generally involve some practice or discipline that can range from prayer to meditation to various forms of self-abnegation. The very presence of a determined adult role model in any group is evidence of some form of open psychology.
    In any case, the main issue in open psychology is not what you talk about, but the excesses you learn not to commit. Right now, maturity is a rather cloudy topic in Western society, to the point where this may be one of those rare societies without an actively practiced definition of the adult role. However, in most cultures, adulthood is traditionally defined as a time to "set aside childish ways" and accept mature responsibilities, i.e., assume a more rigorous relationship with reality.
    And this itself is the basis of open psychology; the main point remains the steady watch on reality. Although complicated theory may be helpful in this task at times, a frequent warning you receive in Java is that this analytical baggage can also be a hindrance, a distraction that keeps one from acquiring experience (similarly, it might be argued that religions often fall into this same trap when they cease being essentially practices for appreciating reality and become absorbed in the study of their own doctrines and beliefs).
    However, for capturing the kernel of open psychology, Plato's scolding tongue goes to the quick in terms that are rather easier for the Western mentality to grasp.

    To Dionysius, Joy
    Is it the best form of salutation to wish you "joy" as I have, or would it be better if I were to follow my usual custom and bid you "Do well"? That is the salutation I use when I write to my friends. You of course descended to flattery and addressed even the god at Delphi in these very terms -- such is the report of those who were in attendance at the time -- and wrote, they say, "Joy to you. Keep ever the pleasant life of a tyrant." I, though, would not even bid a human being, much less a god, to enjoy himself. Any such injunction to a god would run counter to nature, for the divine dwells afar from the sphere of pleasure and pain. I would avoid such a greeting to a human being, moreover, because in most cases pleasure and pain work harm and produce in the soul dullness and forgetfulness and folly and lawlessness. So much in regard to the salutation. When you read this, take it any way you like. (1971:1570)

    Open versus Closed

    The essential reason for defining a new category of "open psychologies" is to contrast them with more mainstream psychologies in the West, that tend to focus on ego management and experience control. Within Western psychology there are schools like existential and psycho-dynamic psychology and psychotherapy which sometimes go in this same direction, but psychology's main thrust tends to be managing crises rather than correcting the pathogenic behavior that spawns them. We are inclined to treat the hangover again and again rather than confronting the drinking problem.
    The idea underpinning open psychology is that life is necessarily something of a disturbance at times: events tend to knock you about. The difference between open and closed psychologies hinges on where you try to return to after such disturbances. In open psychology the effort is to go back to open receptivity, that is, a position defined by what is present, while in closed psychology the strategy is to return to some sort of established ego state based on defense mechanisms, i.e., a comfortable position. One necessary outgrowth of the first strategy is that the more sensitive you become, the less control you have over your experiential tone; however, a corresponding drawback to the second strategy is that the more effort you put into keeping yourself happy, the less sensitive you can be to the real situation (which can make reality-based behavior impossible).
    The gulf between the open and closed perspectives is illustrated by the difficulty those using one have in understanding people from the other camp. Some good examples of this problem are apparent in three anthropologists' writings about Java and Bali.
    The first example comes from Clifford Geertz and concerns the nature of open psychology. Geertz's apparent intellectual angst led to a rather intolerant appreciation of Javanese psychology. It helps to recall that this fieldwork was done in the 1950s, back when Western science still deemed itself omnipotent. In The Religion of Java (1960), Geertz describes the basic character of Javanese psychology and gives an overall impression of its central position in Javanese culture. However, Geertz's attempt to translate the ideas and terms of Javanese psychology without founding them in their own theoretical context unhappily made them appear idiotic.
    Predictably, the ideas Geertz had the most trouble with were the kernel concepts in this form of open psychology, precisely those that do not exist in Western psychology. For example, he defines tentrem ing manah as "peace (quiet, tranquility) in the heart (the seat of emotions)," that results from a practice designed to "minimize the passions altogether so far as possible, to mute them in order to perceive the true feelings which lie behind them." (1960:310) Geertz then attributes a psychopathological character to this, while depicting its repressive nature as "flattening of affect." (1960:241)
    In fact, tentrem ing manah is an expression related to "open reception" (rasa murni); tentrem ing manah is the solid, reality-graced experiential frame that arises out of open reception -- the peace that comes from being here. Any form of open psychology necessarily includes something along these lines, because this is what happens when you open up; for example, in the Christian tradition, this is close to "the reception of the Holy Ghost."
    A second example concerning the individual and society is from Gregory Bateson (1972) who struggled to explain what he found on Java's island neighbor and kindred culture in "Bali: The Value System of a Steady State," and admitted to being perplexed by Balinese social reality. Bateson realized that the theories and analytic tools he brought with him did not work very well, and concluded that the problem rested in the appreciation of what a human being is in a social setting. He went on to examine how Western ideas about interaction, exemplified by von Neumann's games theory, fail to account for Balinese behavior.
    Two basic game-theory assumptions that did not fit in Bali were ego-centricity in social action and the maximization of partial goals (money, position, etc.) as the purpose of members of a society. That is, the model assumes personal gain to motivate most social interaction, but: "It is immediately clear to any visitor of Bali that the driving force for any cultural activity is not [emphasis his] either acquisitiveness or crude physiological need." (1972:116)
    For Bateson, Balinese character was a result of their childrearing techniques, wherein "a continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for climaxes as the child becomes more fully adjusted to Balinese life." (1972:113) He then contrasts what he terms the "steady state" of Balinese life and the climactic emphasis of Western society by depicting attitudes about money and property, music, reward for service, and the level of community identification and even imputes a lack of orgasm (1972:113) in Balinese sexual relations. "There are very few Balinese who have the idea of steadily maximizing their wealth or property; those few are partly disliked and partly regarded as oddities." (1972:116) In open psychology as witnessed in Java and Bali, a person's primary "investment" goes into community and reality itself; they pay a frightful amount of attention to one another. This mutual attention is the fiber of community maintenance.
    Balinese child-rearing techniques are connected with this, but not primarily in terms of the unconscious attitudes they impart. They are part of the training to be open and receptive that the community itself is based on. The emphasis is not on maximizing your own condition and the devil take the rest (the zero-sum game that Bateson is assuming), but on receiving reality accurately and participating in a kind of cooperative plural game, wherein the profit being maximized is the state of the community itself.
    Similarly, by its very nature, climax is catharsis, but such paroxysms often amount to oblivious ways of releasing pent up energies not invested in the real context; since mature communities devote more energy to the real context, there is relatively less need for these escape valve climaxes. Sometimes climaxes are appropriate (as in sex), but the use of such gushes of feeling in Western movies and music and literature stands out as strange: they often have nothing whatsoever to do with the real context. The participating viewer or listener or reader leaves here and floats off into imaginings; this is fundamentally at odds with open psychology, which sees such energies better spent in paying attention to what is actually happening.
    Finally, for considering the individual, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson's Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942) provides a wealth of examples; the virtually undigested form of these vignettes, as well as the positivist period the couple was writing in, makes them particularly revealing.
    Mead and the Balinese pass like trains in the fog, each following its own carefully laid out track, but neither able to make out the other. Mead was a powerful personality; she clearly overwhelmed the Balinese.

    During our first months in Bali, before I had learned to understand the Balinese preference for theatrical emotions, I was at a loss to explain why my rapport developed so slowly with the people of Bajoeng Gede. Mothers whose babies I had medicated, although they returned for more medicine, remained so unwon that the babies screamed in terror in their arms whenever they saw me. The few days it takes to win over the women and children of a New Guinea tribe lengthened into months, and still the mothers smiled false anxious smiles, the babies screamed, and the dogs barked. Then I had the opportunity to study the behavior of other Europeans who had come to Bali as they might go to the theater, and saw how much more easily the Balinese responded to their exaggerated interest than they did to my affection for individual babies. Readjusting my cues, I gave up the communication of real emotion, upon which I had depended in all my other field trips and learned to exaggerate and caricature my friendly attitudes until the Balinese could safely regard them as theatrical rather than real. Mothers who had not loosened one tense muscle when I expressed my real feeling for their babies, relaxed with relief when I cooed and gurgled in tones which no longer had any relation to my real attitudes, their arms relaxed, the babies stopped screaming, the dogs barked less. (1942:31-32)

    This frustration is evident throughout the description of the Balinese as she protests against their lack of feeling,

    It is a character curiously cut off from interpersonal relations, existing in a state of dreamy-relaxed disassociation, with occasional intervals of non-personal concentration -- in trance, in gambling, and in the practice of the arts. (1942:47)

    competitive spirit,

    No appeal has ever been made to him (the Balinese) to achieve in order to validate his humanity for that is taken as given. . . Life is without climax and not the ultimate goal but the first impact of experience, the initial ping of startle, is the only stimulus that has real power to arouse one's interest. (1942:48)


    The Balinese distinguish clearly between fear and the expression of fear, and it becomes commonplace to hear people say fiercely to cowering or crying children, "Da takoet" ("Do not act afraid"), and this is the only reassurance which is ever attempted. Nobody would ever say, "Da djerih" ("Don't be afraid"). No one even attempts to furnish enough reassurance so that the child's internal fear may be dispelled. (1942:31)

    and intelligence.

    The Balinese learn almost nothing from verbal instructions and most Balinese adults are incapable of following out the three consecutive orders which we regard as the sign of a normal three-year-old intelligence. The only way in which it is possible to give complex verbal instructions is to pause after each detail and let the listener repeat the detail, feeling his way into the instruction. Thus all orders tend to have a pattern like this. "You know the box?" "What box?" "The black one in the east corner of the kitchen." "In the east corner?" "Yes, the black one. Go and get it." "I should go and get the black box in the east corner of the kitchen?" "Yes." Only by such laborious assimilation of words into word gestures made by oneself, do the words come to have any meaning for action. (1942:15)

    Mead's frustration reflected her inability to share or even understand how the Balinese felt: she could not "win over" the Balinese. Although she was a member of the dominant culture, she could not get them to accept or even willingly associate with her. She was always an outsider in Bali (in fact, virtually nobody not born into an open community can ever really fit into its exquisite patterns of interaction); her intense drive and her precious feelings were about as attractive as leprosy to the Balinese.
    As was mentioned above, one of the drawbacks of open psychology is a lack of control over experiential tone, and this is especially true when there is some unusually strong and unfamiliar stimuli. Being open, the Balinese had no choice but to try to be with Mead, and she herself could clearly see what relating to her did to them by comparing it with their behavior without her around:

    There is rarely any discernable relationship between the conversation of a group of Balinese and the activity which they are performing. . . One might listen at a spy hole for an hour to a busy group, hearing every word spoken, and still be no wiser in the end as to whether they were making offerings, or painting pictures, or cooking a meal. The occasional "Give me that!" is interspersed with bits of comic opera, skits and caricatures, songs and punning and repartee. As Americans doodle on a piece of paper while attending to the words of a lecture, so the Balinese doodles in words, while his body flawlessly and quickly attends to the job at hand. (1942:15)

    Evidently, they were not so retarded in this context. The affective tone in an open community is generally too subtle for a Westerner to participate in: there is almost nothing there. There is very little of our usual self-promotion through bragging or bellyaching, which in one guise or another seem to monopolize most of our everyday conversations. In open psychology, a great deal of emphasis is placed on not presenting yourself in such a crude, self-centered light.
    One of the causes Mead identified for her incommunicado status (and native obtuseness) was the Balinese mode of instruction:

    The flexible body of the dancing pupil is twisted and turned in the teacher's hands; teacher and pupil go through the proper gestures, and then suddenly the teacher springs aside, leaving the pupil to continue the pattern to which he has surrendered himself, sometimes with the teacher continuing it so that the pupil can watch him as he dances. (1942:15)

    In this way tone and skill are imparted together; a pupil is learning both about the activity and about community interaction at the same time. Open community is based on this experiential union, and as Mead recognized, this form of tutelage underlies all interaction:

    Learning to walk, learning the first appropriate gestures of playing musical instruments, learning to eat, and to dance are all accomplished with the teacher behind the pupil, conveying directly by pressure, and almost with a minimum of words, the gesture to be performed. Under such a system of learning, one can only learn if one is completely relaxed and if will and consciousness as we understand these terms are almost in abeyance. (1942:15)

    In her petulant fashion, Mead succeeds in touching on virtually all of the main characteristics of a mature open community, and also manages to communicate how profoundly different their open and her closed psychology are. In fact, she and Bateson attributed a schizoid element to Balinese personality, which further witnesses both to the stunning receptivity underpinning this community and to the estrangement Bateson and Mead suffered during this field trip. If anything, the self-destructive character of closed psychology has become even more obvious since Mead wrote during the Second World War. When you are unhappy with the way you and the world are, you change things to keep busy and call it progress. With the fury of our efforts to "progress" and find the ultimate hedonistic thrill, this planet is likely to be a good deal quieter soon.

    Last edited by Elok; 27 Sep 2021 at 06:36. Reason: Errors

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