Monday, June 18, 2012

More about "ego deflation at depth"

First, a correction: A.A., as an organization/entity, does not, it seems, itself use the phrase "ego deflation at depth" in any of its official literature.   That phrase was apparently used by Bill Wilson in a talk he gave before the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism in 1958 - and he was referring, specifically, to the initial approach to the still-drinking alcoholic.

Here's the quote itself; Wilson's talking about an alcoholic patient of Carl Jung's - a man who had tried for many years to stop drink but had found it impossible.  (My bolding below.)
In substances, Dr. Jung said, "For some time after you came here, I continued to believe that you might be one of those rare cases who could make a recovery. But, I must now frankly admit that I have never seen a single case recover through the psychiatric art where the neurosis is so severe as yours. Medicine has done all that it can for you, and that’s where you stand.

Mr. R.’s depression deepened. He asked: "is there no exception; is this really the end of the line for me?"

"Well," replied the doctor, "There are some exceptions, a very few. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotional rearrangement within you. With many types of neurotics, the methods which I employ are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description."

"But," protested the patient, "I’m a religious man, and I still have faith." To this Dr. Jung replied, "Ordinary religious faith isn’t enough. What I’m talking about is a transforming experience, a conversion experience, if you like. I can only recommend that you place yourself in the religious atmosphere of your own choice, that you recognize your personal hopelessness, and that you cast yourself upon whatever God you think there is. The lightening of the transforming experience may then strike you. This you must try- it is your only way out." So spoke a great and humble physician.

For the AA-to- be, this was a ten-strike. Science had pronounced Mr. R. virtually hopeless. Dr. Jung ‘ s words had struck him at great depth, producing an immense deflation of his ego. Deflation at depth is today a cornerstone principle of AA. There in Dr. Jung’s office it was first employed in our behalf.
(The Jung story is also found in Chapter 2 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (PDF), AKA "The Big Book," originally published in 1939.  To my way of thinking, it's not really the discussion of a "transforming experience, a conversion experience" that's doing the work here; it's the simple, short statement at the end:  "It is your only way out," that does the job.)

Other sources say that William James is the one who first used the phrase - but I haven't found a citation to that effect.  In any case, the phrase is well-known in A.A. circles; it's very much part of the oral tradition.

And, of course, A.A.'s literature does say, in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, that:

Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God into our lives.
 And you'll find this passage (my bolding below) in this PDF copy of Chapter Five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous:

Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:

a)  That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
b)  That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
c)  That God could and would if He were sought.

Being convinced, we were at Step Three, which is that we decided to turn our will and our life over to God as we understood Him. Just what do we mean by that, and just what do we do?

The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody, even though our motives are good. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self- sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.

What usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think life doesn't treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?

Our actor is self-centered — ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the minister who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?

Selfishness — self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kill us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God's help.

This is the how and the why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn't work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most Good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom. When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our own little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn.

We were now at Step Three. Many of us said to our Maker, as we Understood Him: "God, I offer myself to Thee — to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!" We thought well before taking this step making sure we were ready; that we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to Him.”
So "ego deflation" - i.e., "the cutting away of self-will," at least, really is the entire A.A. project - even if the "at depth" part referred originally to the initial effort to break down the alcoholic's resistance utterly. 

Anyway:  I'm finding it very interesting to keep in mind, too, the way James Alison describes "the two approaches to desire" in his "Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology"  (again, with my emphases below):
First the folk-psychology approach, which I sometimes characterise as the “blob and arrow” understanding of desire. In this approach, there is a blob located somewhere within each one of us and normally referred to as a “self”. This more or less bloated entity is pretty stable, and there come forth from it arrows which aim at objects. So, “I” desire a car, a mate, a house, a holiday, some particular clothes and so on and so forth. The desire for the object comes from the “I” which originates it, and thus the desire is authentically and truly “mine”. If I desire the same thing as someone else this is either accidental and we must be rational about resolving any conflict which may arise, or it is a result of the other person imitating my desire, which is of course stronger and more authentic than their secondary and less worthy desire. Since my desiring self, my “I”, is basically rational, it follows that my desires are basically rational, and thus that I am unlike those people who I observe to have a clearly pathological pattern of desire – constantly falling for an unsuitable type of potential mate and banging their head against the consequences, or hooked on substances or patterns of behaviour that do them no good. Those people are in some way sick, and their desires escape the possibilities of rational discourse. Unlike me and my desires.


The understanding of desire which Girard has been putting forward for almost half a century, and which is often referred to as “mimetic” is about as far removed from this picture as you can get. The key phrase which I never tire of repeating is “We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging when it is illustrated in the way the entertainment industry creates celebrities, or the advertising profession manages to make particular objects or brands desirable. For few of us are so grandiose as to deny that some of our desires show us as being easily led and susceptible to suggestion. It becomes much more challenging when it is claimed that in fact it is not some of our desires that are being talked about, but the whole way in which we humans are structured by desire.

For what Girard is pointing out is that humans are those animals in which even basic biological instincts (which of course exist, and are not the same thing as desire) are run by the social other within which the instinct-bearing body is born. In fact, our capacity to receive and deal with our instincts is given to us through our being drawn towards the social other which inducts us into living as this sort of animal, by reproducing itself within us. And what makes this draw possible is the hugely developed capacity for imitation which sets our species apart from our nearest simian relatives.

What both A.A. and James Alison/Rene Girard are pointing to is the effort to get the ego - otherwise known, in the Alison/Girard view, as the "the social other" that runs its desires - to let go of its stranglehold on our hearts, minds, and lives.   You can approach the problem from either direction, IOW - and the key to it seems to point to exactly the same idea.

And both, BTW, point to prayer as a vitally important key to and part of the process; at the heart of both approaches is the idea of beginning to listen to, as James Alison puts it, "another Other," and to 'allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike we ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition, unlike the social other and its violent traps, to gain access to re-creating us from within, to giving us a “self”, an “I of desire” that is in fact a constant flow of treasure.'  (Liturgists like Derek will agree with this, too, I'm sure; I think he'd argue that this is exactly what liturgy does.  It gives the  "other Other" voice, via liturgical poetry, music, texts, scripts, actions, and concepts - and frequent repetition of all of the above.)

And again, I argue:  that's what the church is for.  Because what human being doesn't, in his heart, long to truly live - and while she's at it, to find access to "a constant flow treasure," consolation in distress - and a blessed release from fear and all crippling negativity?

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