Synthesis and Plurality: Stories of the Self
Wright, J. (
Synthesis and Plurality: Stories of the Self
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his essay was inspired by an epiphany, which
Toccurred whilst on a lonely holiday to Turkey in
1997. As I lay beside my hotel pool exhausted
from looking at rocks piled up by the ancients, it
occurred to me that ideas live in us as we live in the
world. We are the medium of ideas—they live, breed,
and die in us. I became fascinated with this as process,
and as imagery that helps me describe the work I have
done over the last 12 years treating people who are
struggling with addiction.
I work at the CORE Trust, a London-based center
that uses a holistic multi-disciplinary approach to
addiction involving complementary therapies and
psychotherapy (individually and in groups), with the whole
project held as a community. In this context we
understand the unifying intention to all the therapies is a
spiritual one: we work within a transpersonal metaphor and
see the fundamental issue facing the addicted person is
the choice of whether or not to live: to live even in the
face of devastating early-life trauma and alienation,
inadequate parenting and dysfunction.
In its raw form this basic question is an insoluble
and often torturous dilemma: Should I live, or not?
Here, the assumptions about the nature and qualities of
the self that are at stake remain unexamined. In therapy
this question can and often does transform into the
more useful question, What self am I, that I might want
to live? Although narcissistic, this question opens the
door to useful inquiry. From here it becomes possible to
explore how the self-image of the client is organized,
and how its organization might be made secure enough
to be sustained over time.
From a Buddhist perspective, of course, this self is
an illusion. However, this is not simply the end of the
matter. Rather, it piques us with the question, What is
this self that I experience? Following from the imagery
above and my multidisciplinary work at the CORE
Trust (note, readers interested in learning more about
CORE are encouraged to visit www.coretrust.co.uk), I
was unable to sustain my image of self as a “thing” (i.e.
onticly and diachronically secure). Rather, it seems to
me, in a semiotic and narrative context, that an image
of self exists at the point where a person’s inner
conscious and unconscious stories and outer stories of
community and culture meet. This self-image is identified
as me. However this is not a self as thing but as a process
that alters with the ever-changing tides of inner and
Here I am thinking about process as does
in terms of Alfred North Whitehead’s process
processes, structures of activity, and the evolution of
those structures to be inherent in the character of
reality, in the “continual creative advance of nature.”
If the self is also such a process, then the key to
transformation in psychotherapy is moving beyond the
personal self to the process behind it: transcending the
fixed ideas of self and encountering the self as an
ongoing process. The focus moves away from the artifact of
this process (i.e., the personal self ) and into the process
itself. Following Pickering’s argument, I would view
these processes as being essentially semiotic in nature —
that is, composed of culturally-meaningful signs—and
negotiated through narrative. Here then we return to
the inspirational images that open this short paper.
Access to this process would then mean access to the
possibility of more effective and more useful narratives,
a process that can radically change the self-experience of
the client. Here we meet James
that you need to heal the story, not the person.
How do we approach this? What might be the
mechanism of this self-process? In his book, Approaches
to Consciousness (2004), Les Lancaster brings together
cognitive neuroscience and mysticism to explore the
nature of consciousness. I shall use his ideas here to
think about how we might generate and sustain the
process of self, how we might think about redefining
those narratives, and the cultural milieu from which
For the purposes of understanding consciousness,
Lancaster recognizes the link between cognitive
neuroscience approaches and mystical approaches. For
example, consider the following elucidation of the
perceptual process as understood by Abhidhamma practice seen
in conjunction with processes of consciousness as
defined by cognitive neuroscience. Lancaster identifies
the fact that the process of identifying a “self,” or
“I-tagging,” comes late in this sequence of six events that
make up the perceptual process.
There are six stages in Lancaster’s model of this
1. In the process of seeing an object, a set of neurons fire
and are analyzed through the visual cortex.
2. The memory process responds to the input.
3. Various schemata are activated through neural
4. Identity of an “object” is established separate from the
5. For Lancaster, this is the moment when the
I-narrative and the perceptual process come together. The
perceived object is incorporated in the individual’s
ongoing meaning narrative. In Abhidhamma this is
known as javana. There is no literal translation for
the word javana, but it conveys an active role in the
perceptual process—there is a clear transition from
perceptual mechanism to narrative.
6. Finally, memory is updated by relaying back the
current perception, including the narrative interpretation.
The important feature to grasp is that this activity
goes on outside of normal awareness. The sense of I-ness
is added prior to the normal waking experience of
consciousness, but late in the perceptual process. Under
mundane conditions the nature of I-tagging is powerful.
The sense of self is continually reinforced by registering
new I-tagged perceptions into the individual-meaning
The advantage of studying this process from a
mystical perspective such as Abhidhamma is that it points
out this deconstruction of the perceptual process.
Lancaster suggests that such deconstruction, through
meditation or other mystical processes, offers the
opportunity to decrease the reinforcing nature of the I-tag,
and thereby allows the possibility for a greater number
of associative schemata to reach consciousness.
Here then we are back to the key for
transformational process in psychotherapy: moving beyond the
personal self-image to the process behind it, to the
thoughts of the world, or the mind of God. Through
altering the relationship between the narrative of self
and the narratives of experience, it becomes possible to
develop more effective and more useful narratives. Here
we are immediately into the ground of
psychotherapeutic work, be that in a classical psychoanalytic frame such
) model of transitional space or a
, 1996) view of narrative reconstruction
or soul making from a case history to teleological soul
How does this operate in my practice as a
transpersonal psychotherapist working with addicted people?
The essential frame is to effect a de-identification with
the self- image within “me” in order to imagine
differing possibilities. The goal, if there is one, is to develop
an overarching narrative with the client, one that
enables the client to cope with his or her experience
creatively rather than destructively—a narrative that is
open and containing rather than destructive and
constraining. Sometimes I feel as if I lend an alternate self
to the client—both as a stop-gap tool for coping and as
an example of the narrative reconstruction process—
until such time as the client grasps the process enough
to do his or her own reconstruction.
Working with a client in this way requires some
skill and art at perceiving the individual content streams
within the client’s narrative and then helping the client
to re-weave them. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is
with a brief clinical example:
B was 41 at the time of presentation. Her father had
been deceased for 10 years, her mother was still alive,
and she had one sister. She had been treated violently by
both parents throughout her childhood. She left home
and school at age 15, but had gone on to work in
demanding and prestigious jobs. These are the bare
bones of the personal narrative, with significant
defining features such as violence, death, and action in the
The client presented to CORE with alcohol,
polydrug habits and difficulties with eating. In individual
therapy she identified her violent and abusive
experiences in childhood as causing problems, particularly
with respect to difficulties in relating to people, a
tendency to isolate herself, chronic low self-esteem and
habitual self-destructiveness. The client’s narrative of
these symptoms as drivers of her addictive behavior
indicated a compatibility between her ideas and those
held by CORE as an institution. Here is the experience
of shared narrative ideas that is essential to developing
the therapeutic work.
B attended well during her time at CORE, but
experienced initial ambivalence toward the community.
She found it difficult to talk in group, and would lay
down on the floor hiding her face, speaking rarely, and
then not in a self-disclosing manner. Here the CORE
narrative and her personal narrative came into conflict.
It was not possible for her to determine the safest way to
meet the needs of the CORE project as caregiver, so she
attempted to control the situation by evoking her
familiar narrative cycle of non-compliance and the violence it
historically evoked. Within the analytic frame of
repetition compulsion, the kernel of the story is here.
Concurrently in her individual therapy, the client
and her therapist explored issues of trust and
relationship, examined her difficulties with shame, and her
linkage of violence and intimacy. Toward the end of the fifth
month, B was beginning to recognize that she had
agency in relationship and was not simply the victim of
circumstance. Here we evidence a fundamental
alteration of the client’s narratives in relation to herself,
CORE, and perhaps to a normative narrative. She was
able both to contain and reveal difficult feelings and the
story behind them, whilst developing a new overarching
narrative in which she was no longer trapped in her
circumstances as a victim.
However, the client’s non-compliant behavior in
group was still at issue. The conflict between the two
narrative streams became unbearable and she relapsed
into addictive behavior. Ultimately the newfound story,
and new self-image, contained her and, in this context,
historic experiences that had previously been unbearable
began to emerge into consciousness. Over the next few
months the client explored many of her intimate
relationship, particularly with members of her immediate
family. Most significantly, she was able to bear the
memory of her father’s sexual abuse. She considered that she
might be able to pull the parts of her self together to feel
Her personal narrative was being negotiated within
the containing narrative framework of CORE, and a
deeper sense of self slowly emerged. As part of this
process, she read her own case history. In response she
It’s very strange, and enlightening, to read a case
history of yourself, someone else’s version of your
narrative. Firstly of course it isn’t long enough; it doesn’t
begin to explain the circumstances or the level of
distress that I felt to start using when I was 12. Before
alcohol, I self-harmed: burning myself, bouncing my
head off walls, stitching my fingers together, trying
to find a way I could cause myself more pain than
what I already felt, but couldn’t understand. My
linear narrative didn’t start until I was nine, just
fragmentary memories of agues. Alcohol made me not
feel pain, as later did heroin, tranquilizers, and
cannabis; cocaine and speed made me not care
whether I felt pain or not. When I got to CORE, I’d
used alcohol for 29 years and drugs for 26….
Substance free, it became apparent that there wasn’t
a time without the feelings that made me want to
self-destruct…. Through CORE I have repaired
myself enough to attempt a fulfilling, clean and
sober life, and I am fortunate that support is
available through CORE’s weekly after-care treatment
that I attend. Another strange thing is how
completely different I feel for the vast majority of the
time. I still have bad days when I plummet to the
depths of despair and self-hatred instantaneously,
but I can contain my feelings without using. That is
As of this moment, the client is still in
psychotherapy and has remained clean for 15 months since leaving
CORE. She is continuing in higher education.
It is through the interaction of differing narratives
that such changes in the client’s narrative stream were
possible. She became capable of tolerating her experiences
and re-envisioning herself; this new and more useful
selfimage better contains her narrative and her experiences.
We are back to the main idea for defining self: a set
of confluent narratives woven into a master narrative,
which through time and the process of the psyche
develop into the image or icon called “self.” Through
deconstruction of the narrative stream it is possible to engage
the underlying process and avoid over-identification
with the images it throws up. Transpersonal
psychotherapy is not just about the content of our being, but also
learning to be aware of the context within which we
experience being itself.
That the self advances and confirms the myriad
things is called delusion.
That the myriad things advance and confirm the
self is enlightenment.
Correspondence regarding this article should be
directed to the author at
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