The shadow of freedom: neurosis

How the absoluteness of group consciousness reappears in our neuroses through the back door.

Who doesn’t get weary once in a while of mention of another new mental disorder? Recently the newspapers reported on a new rising star: misophonia, hypersensitivity to sounds, such as smacking noises. And which coach doesn’t get into a deadlock now and then with a client who is unwavering in his or her image about their boss or job? Are we really increasingly suffering severely or are we becoming more and more (hyper) sensitive?

During the Nelles Institute’s summer academy in Germany, Malte Nelles cast an interesting light on this issue. His point, inspired by Wolfgang Giegerich, was: perhaps it’s not the client or coachee’s childhood or the family system that is the cause of the symptoms of a disorder or problem, but the consciousness we live in?

We cannot neglect the fact that with the emergence of modern consciousness in the West, many new diseases have appeared : the depression epidemic, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and many other compulsive disorders. And the media recently testified that burnout seems to be the new epidemic disease number one. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is growing very fast and the end is not yet in sight. 

You could say that the terrifying things that man saw outside of himself in earlier days, for example by glimpsing a pitiful but hideous plague sufferer, are now found in his inner self.

Where does neurosis come from?

The concept of neurosis was described as early as the 18th century by the Scot Cullen as a kind of residual category, a human suffering with no physiological cause. Essentially neurosis is an understanding of psychoanalysis. Freud explained neurosis as the expression of an unconscious conflict between the libido and the superego, the moralizing and criticizing part of our psyche, or of a trauma during a person’s childhood, but at least as a phenomenon at the level of the individual. Nowadays, it is defined as a largely unconscious psychic conflict whose symptoms are a derivative manifestation. An example is the constant washing of your hands, which really does not help against unconsciously experienced uncleanliness. 

Neurosis emerged on a large scale in society when the individual let go of his collective foundation, the convictions of religion, hierarchy, and paternalism, and had to stand on his own two feet.  In the past, the individual could always derive his beliefs from above, from the outside; now, humans have to answer the question as to what is right or wrong by observing their own inner being. And apparently, that is a struggle.

What does therapy do?

In therapy – let’s stay with the example of the anorexia patient – an explanation for the neurosis is often sought in childhood. Were there any traumatic experiences? How was the relationship with the parents? We mainly look at the person, although the surrounding (family) system is increasingly involved in the analysis. But the question raised here takes a different perspective. Do we also look at the consciousness in which we live, at the air that we breathe, so to speak? This is the question that therapy usually does not raise. If there are many sick fish in the sea, we can look for physical defects, even at what position they occupy in the shoal, and so on. But the decisive question is: what water are the fish swimming in? This question is rarely raised in therapy. 

Why not? Because, in terms of consciousness, therapy swims in the same water as the client.

Wolfgang Giegerich’s observations

According to Giegerich, neurosis emerged at the moment modernity emerged, when the question “Do I have to be”, or “How should the world be?” was still considered, understood and translated with inner criteria of absoluteness. Modernity was the time of freedom and, often, random choices. That was entirely different in the earlier period, that of group consciousness. Everything was absolute then: Heaven or Hell, God or the Devil, upstairs or downstairs. Giegerich says, “in the neurosis, something old which man actually wanted to take leave from suddenly comes in again through the back door, without anyone noticing, namely the absolute of the group consciousness”.

Do we recognize this, these kinds of statements, in the world around us? The “absolutely unacceptable!”, the “absolutely intolerable!”, the “absolutely necessary!”. But did modernity not bring us individual freedom? The anorexia patient, however, puts nothing in perspective. There is no compromise in an apple in the morning and a whole-wheat muffin in the afternoon. It is the pure acting out of the absolute. With this absoluteness, neurosis shows an imperative conviction that resists the rational insights and practical experiences that may well be helping and guiding others. Indeed, it may even be immune to it.

Giegerich adds: “The neurotic soul knows very well what it needs to know, but it does not draw the appropriate conclusions from this insight. For example, it knows very well that because the mother did not give it the love it wanted for over 25 years, it really is not probable that she indeed will give the eagerly awaited love today or tomorrow. But the neurotic soul insists on continuing to cherish this conviction. ……… In general, you can say that the neurosis implies the refusal to enter the real world”.

… and the LIP process?

Summarizing, Giegerich says: “Neurosis is the contrast between the soul and the modern empirical reality.” 

This is the point where his very rational reasoning ceases. This is also the point where the life integration process (LIP) continues and a new spiritual perspective can arise: to really enter reality and fully acknowledge it. LIP is a method of system constellations in which human’s various life stages are used. In this process, the client is usually put in the position of the adult, and representations of the past three stages of the client’s life are added to the constellation: the unborn child (your essence), the young child and the adolescent. In this model, the adult perspective is, in fact, a spiritual perspective: in the self-consciousness of the adult, one consents, in a self-evident way, to that what is, how you are, how others are and how the world is.

We are now talking about a spirituality of which Krishnamurti says, “the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self.” It’s actually a step that no longer faces the past, which no longer raises the question of how the world should be, who God is, or where the devil is. It is the willing and able step into the nothingness of the adult consciousness. That is another spirituality than that of most of the esoteric magazines which propagate a spirituality that does not seem to occur in reality but in the yoga class in Bali or in a sweat lodge in the Ardennes. Therefore, finally, Krishnamurti: “It is the reality that liberates, not your effort to be free.”