Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 2

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

As for what boiled potatoes have to do with anything? Wait and see... 

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

Part 2: A Body with No Answers

I'm not going to go through everything I discussed in counselling. Not all of it is relevant, a great deal of it is probably extremely tedious, and the conclusions are likely obvious to all except the protagonist. My counsellor, Jules, was brilliant at drawing me out, getting me to reflect on myself without too much criticality. She didn't try to diagnose or explain, but let me draw my own conclusions and thus internalise each successive realisation.

I learned - perhaps it would be better to say 'reinterpreted' - a lot about myself in those five hours of discussions, but the standout experience is one that happened several times. When I was struggling, either for words or in discomfort, Jules would ask 'How are you feeling right now?' I never had an immediate answer.

In fact, I didn't really have an answer at all. Feelings are embodied things - they happen in the 'gut', the 'heart', sometimes the spine or the back of the neck. Jules would ask me, and (the first few times) specifically direct my attention to bodily sensation. I would frown, expecting an immediate answer (who doesn't know how they're feeling at a given moment?). When that didn't happen, I would interrogate my body, a technique I've learned for fiction writing.

And there would be nothing there. There were physical sensations - the chair, sometimes a headache or a dry throat, ordinary itches or aches - but no emotional ones. What I could identify of my emotions - usually a sense of dread about where a question might lead, how I might be pressured to change my behaviour - were 'head' things, and not sensory. It was the racing-thought, future-chasing anxiety seeded by stereotypes of therapeutic exercises ('Feeling lonely, you say? Okay, GO INTO TOWN AND START ASKING RANDOM STRANGERS FOR A HUG'), something that for all its unpleasantness is almost entirely mind, not body.

Trying to describe the silence in place of expected sensation is difficult at the best of times. I managed to be intellectually disturbed by the solid flatness of my chest - not cold or hard, like stone, just... there, like a well-plastered, plain-painted wall - but couldn't even feel afraid of it.

Occasionally, on the cusp of some realisation, there would be a vertiginous moment, a yawning, teetering on the edge of a bigger, more daunting perspective. That, at least, was a sensation, though mainly around the crown of my skull, sometimes spilling into my eyes as a headrush. It was all I ever managed to report to Jules.

I was self-reflecting the way I'd learned to reflect on everything else - Analysis, with a capital, historical A, a clinical process of standing outside an idea, surgically peeling away its context, tracing each vein and neuron one at a time. There's a time and place for that, perhaps, even when the idea is your own self, but it cannot, must not, be your only paradigm for thinking.

(part 3)

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