Several exciting sessions recently got me thinking about dark matter and dark energy. These are the matter and energy that cosmologists and physicists these days believe make up 95% or more of the universe. I have always loved this stuff. I love trying to wrap my head around it. Rudy Rucker is a mathematician and computer scientist who wrote a book called “The Fourth Dimension”; in it, he remarks that in a lifetime of trying to visualize the fourth dimension, he’s had about 10 minutes of success. Even the three dimensional distances involved are, for most of us, nigh impossible to grasp. By way of example, if you shrunk everything down to 1 billionth its size here’s what things look like: You and I would be the size of an atom, something that can only be seen through an electron microscope. The earth is a little over a centimeter in diameter, about the size of a small marble, the sun about the size of a short adult human. The moon is a foot away, the sun is about a city block away. Jupiter is the size of a grapefruit, 5 blocks from the sun; Saturn is twice that far. The nearest star is 25,000 miles away. (PS: Don’t forget that the nearest star – 25,000 miles away in 1/1,000,000,000 scale – is in fact 4 light years away. But our little galaxy is over 100,000 light years across; it’s separated from the nearest neighboring galaxy by about 2 and a half million light years, and the number of galaxies in the universe is unknown but believed to be well over 100 billion. )
The point of all that is to illustrate how much nothing there is. Look at the sizes of the earth and sun, for example, compared to the distances between them. But now it turns out that this vast emptiness was illusory. Turns out that the matter we observe – stars, planets, dust clouds, gas – is only about 5% of the actual stuff in the universe. Same with energy: The energy we know of accounts for only about 5% of what’s there.
Why am I talking about this in psychotherapy blog? Because it’s the same discovery patients make when they hit on all the feelings that lurk behind what they do, behind the symptoms that bring them into sessions. Ron is someone I wrote about at some length in the main website. Let me remind you this is a very charming, accomplished, educated, and socially graceful young man, very gentle and popular with women. He was not a “player”, and when he ended it with someone he did so with consideration, full disclosure, never suddenly. There was almost never anything tempestuous or dramatic in these relationships and most of the women remained friends with him.
Despite all this, Ron was always uncertain both with women and in our sessions. In fact he could be quite boring to me, speaking with timid politeness and great restraint even after we had been meeting for years. It always took him a long time to warm up in session.
Evan, too, could be very dull in session. With both of these patients there were long stretches in our work where despite my efforts it seemed that I was in one of those vast distances between the planets and the stars where supposedly nothing exists. Evan was so convincing in his resistance to all that was going on inside him that I would find myself forgetting that this is a man who suffered from frequent nightmares which awakened him in a cold sweat, from morning episodes of nausea and dry heaving, and who when we first met could not even gently object to being interrupted at a business meeting that he was in fact running, a meeting where he was the boss!
Ron was even more adept at putting us to sleep. Yet when he made contact with in his words “the massive” – all the feelings and fears that lurk beneath his otherwise placid veneer – he told a very different story. For example, he came in one day and told me about a vivid fantasy he experienced crossing the street just outside my office. He found himself full of anxiety and actually imagining that from around the corner would come a woman he had recently broken up with; she would be carrying an Uzi and would rip him to shreds with it.
One patient, David, found himself sobbing on the floor of his apartment in the middle of the night, as he told a friend of a rather trivial rejection by a woman he didn’t even like that much. Moreover, as David told me in a session around that time, he was becoming bizarrely paranoid at work. He had been brought in as a high level consultant for about two months and the job was going wonderfully. He was received with nothing but appreciation, the results of his work were all positive, and so on. Still, David found himself struggling with the perception – which he easily recognized as “nutty” – that he was an irritant only, an unwanted and difficult child who got in everyone’s way.
I brought this patient up with Evan, as an illustration of something, and Evan speculated that David was insecure about whether he would live up to the expectations the company had about him as the out-of-town expert. I point out to him and to you that such anxiety, even if present, does not remotely explain the degree of terror David experienced, the persistence of his perception that he is an unwanted and pesky child, or the despair he suffered on the floor of his apartment. In offering this explanation, Evan was looking for something simple, something that does not tap into “the massive”, the 95% that exists in many of us. No surprise that Evan tried to resist such things in himself, often so successfully that I, too, would forget about his nightmares, nausea, dry heaves, and other symptoms!
As I write these examples here, it may seem obvious to you. In reality, however, it is astounding how common such flight into superficiality is. How many times do you hear people say “it was just”, “I was just”, followed by something banal and safe but which does not explain the thing they were describing? How many times have you heard somebody insist “it was just a joke” when it’s pretty clear that there was more behind whatever they did than that?
And why is all this important? Because the answers to what bothers you about yourself, your life, your behavior, your feelings – the answer to your symptoms – lie in that 95%! (If this seems a bit hard to swallow, hang on for another paragraph.) As I discussed in the website when people make contact with that 95% their symptoms go away and they come alive. David’s despair, triggered by among other things the rejection by an unimportant person, touched that 95%. It came from his unhappy past. Once he identified it, however, he didn’t feel worse; he felt better. He also felt freer, was more expressive and happy, and more fun to be around. He also reported feeling much better even though bouts of sadness continued. Once again, when you finally face head on the things you – unconsciously – spend all your energy avoiding (i.e. resisting) it hurts but you end up feeling and functioning better.
Before anyone turns away from this blog – if you haven’t already – groaning that I must not be in touch with the newer developments in cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, let me point something out. Cognitive therapy has always been about uncovering the unconscious material; they just don’t call it that. They call it hidden assumptions, underlying schema, and other terms with a similar cognitive flavor, but the thrust is the same. There are thoughts, attitudes, assumptions that lie outside of awareness (i.e. that are unconscious) which are strongly influencing if not dominating one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, i.e. which are causing your symptoms. Furthermore, both cognitive and psycho-dynamically oriented therapists – if we are any good – provide people with the necessary “tools”, “coping skills”, and other concrete assistance as needed; we analyst types don’t just sit and explore your feelings about swimming and never having lessons when what you need is a life preserver. Still, I have always found that providing such skills is not as powerful a cure as is making contact with the 95%. Some people of course are not ready for such work, but if you are it is very exciting and very healing.
I may even be safe in suggesting that this 95% is what makes some movie actors so compelling to us, their moments so enduring. Lines like “you can’t handle the truth!” (Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”), “just when I thought I was out they pull me back in” (Al Pacino in Godfather 3) are not brilliant lines. It’s the delivery. These are people who perhaps manage to reveal to us at least some of that 95%. I wonder if the same is true in other arts, for example Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, Magritte’s “Le Viol” (“The Rape”), or Picasso’s abstract Cubist works. As one art critic put it “Picasso had a way of making you feel the silence of things”. I believe it is not an empty silence we are responding to, but a silence filled with that 95%.