Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Void States

article by Paul W. Ashton

I have used the term "void states" to describe a very varied set of mental conditions that have a subjective commonality. By this I mean that individuals with very different psychopathology (and even individuals who are simply going through one of life's precarious stages) may describe themselves as "being in a void." Having a way of thinking about and differentiating these states, one from another, is of significance because these states are so different from each other and their management is varied. The condition of "being in a void" may be the result of some trauma or life-event or it may be part of the structure of an individual. That is, it might be a sort of developmental stage in, say, the creative cycle of synthesis, thesis and antithesis, or due to an actual arrest in development, one that leads to a condition of stuck blackness and sense of meaninglessness. Or it may even be an indication of profound spiritual development.

While some void states are "pure hell" and like hell they are full of pain but lead nowhere, others may be filled with meaningful "psychic suffering" that enables the sufferer to move through the purgatorial fires and thus attain paradise. As the mystics from any of the various religious groups have attested, the experience of God is one of non-differentiation, an immersion in Oneness, in the "Cloud of Unknowing" as the English Mystic called it. I have come to think of the hell-type void as the black void, because that is the colour that sufferers use to depict it, and I contrast that with the white-void which seems to be the state in which boundaries are lost as spiritual "perfection" is approached. Clearly the management of these two conditions will be very different although they may both be described in similar terms, e.g. "I do not know who I am", "I do not know who God is", "I feel lost or abandoned" etc.

In my monograph From the Brink: Experiences of the Void from a Depth Psychology Perspective, I have attempted to delineate different examples of void states in an initial section entitled The Territory. The chapters in this section comprise "On the territory of the void," "A walk on the wild side: connecting the void with people," "Primary or secondary?" and "Psychotherapy and spirituality." A section on The Origins of the Void Experience comprises five chapters: "Empty of oneself," "The void in psychogenic autism," "Another 'black hole,'" "Memory within the borderline condition" and "Trauma as a void experience." In this section, as can be guessed from the chapter titles, the focus is on the origin of various "pathological" void states. They have as their origins

The third section is Amplifications, and this section gives examples, from mythology, literature and religion, that amplify the concept of the void. Chapters here are "Myths and legends of the Creation," "Dimitri's void," "The King's sacrifice" (from a play by a South African playwright), "The 'Birthday Present'" and "The dark night of the soul." This more poetic understanding of the void gives way to a section on Treatment that contains chapters on "Aspects of treatment of void states," "Connections, walls and windows" (about musical explications as well as ideas of containment and linking), and "On active imagination." This latter is because I consider Active Imagination to be an important adjunct to treatment. There is a final section on Individual Experiences that has two chapters describing how gender effects an individual's experience of the void.

The overall purpose of the book was to increase therapists' awareness of the void, to help them categorise individual's experience of it, and finally to offer some constructive ideas about managing "void dwellers."

While From the Brink was in the process of being written I embarked on another project that was aimed at showing that the void was not just an arbitrary concept that I had invented. To this end I invited a variety of individuals to write essays about the void from the point of view of their particular professions or passions. The result was Evocations of Absence: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Void States. This book was published by Spring Journal Books in 2007.

What makes Evocations of Absence so special is that its authors, who were only guided in the sense of being asked to write from their present interest, all had their own take on the void. The authors were: a poet and professor of Creative Writing, four Jungian analysts (one of whom was a theologian too), a political philosopher, a music therapist, an Authentic Movement practitioner and an artist. Some of the chapters described very personal encounters with the void whereas other authors wrote describing aspects of the void (and the different types of void) from the point of view of music, art, poetry, movement or religion. One of the analysts wrote a profound essay on the neurobiology of void states. Interestingly there was a common sense that through allowing a conscious encounter with the void, instead of avoiding it, some transformation could happen. So, despite its title, this turned out to be a profoundly optimistic book.

These two books can be seen as companion books. One explores in depth and the other expands in breadth, this difficult and painful but ultimately rewarding encounter with an intrapsychic experience that has received scant attention in the psychoanalytic literature.

Paul Ashton is a psychiatrist and Jungian analyst in private practice in Cape Town. In addition to his many books, he has published various reviews and articles and lectures about music, art, literature, and the Void. He is a member of the South African Association of Jungian Analysts and is the editor of Mantis, the journal of the Southern African Association of Jungian Analysts.

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