Spring has been attending and presenting at the Climate Change and Consciousness conference in Findhorn, Scotland. I’ll be meeting her in Edinburgh to spend a few days revisiting the starting point for my journey of discovery. We’ll head from there to visit other colleagues in Europe, and I’ll return mid-May. During this time I’ve decided to push pause on my articles here. I want to remain completely open to whatever comes through, and I’ll hold off on serious writing until I return.
For today, though, I would like to share something I wrote for The Feeling Path describing the impact of my time in Edinburgh. This also touches on things mentioned in the Vicious Enforcer series around the significance of my father’s influence.
The first important milestone on the way to Feelingwork was my junior year in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1979-80. I had earned significant scholarship assistance to The University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering, and quickly established a track record of success while taking on maximum course hours. I finished my pre-med requirements in two years while also goofing off and tutoring my friends, and had established a good connection with a neuroscience lab on campus, through which I anticipated gaining entrance to the Penn med school as a dual degree (MD/PhD) candidate.
With that all handled, I decided to take a year away, and won a full scholarship to Edinburgh University. The summer before I left, I lived with my grandparents and learned some of my parents’ history which they had never disclosed. Plus, I read all of Dostoyevsky that summer, and found myself swept up in his complex moral universe. Dostoyevsky and my grandparents raised some important questions for me about my past, my future and the world in which I lived, and I left for Edinburgh with a mind hungry for answers.
When I arrived, my clear path to neuroscience research began to unravel. I was not permitted by the crabby department head to enter the third year psychology program, for no good reason I could discern. I had no interest in the other courses available to me as a visiting student. So I decided to ditch the courses and do my own thing. I read a ton, much about consciousness, philosophy and the brain. Teilhard de Chardin, Ouspensky, early Ken Wilber, Bertrand Russell, and many more. I explored photography as well, and experimented with my own states of consciousness. For a time I slept only every other night to cultivate the dream-like journeys I could take on the nights without sleep. I took a series of photographs of the deserted city in those early morning hours.
It was in Edinburgh that I had my first manic periods. On many late night walks to the top of Arthur’s Seat and elsewhere in the city, I experienced intense, noetic highs that rendered ordinary life tawdry and flat. Some friends spoke of trips with drugs, and although I was invited on occasion I declined, finding it impossible to imagine anything more sublime than what I already had access to, and not wanting to risk losing that access by mucking around with my brain chemistry.
Over the months in Edinburgh, I found myself growing more and more out of sync with the ordinary world. I tasted regularly of something more beautiful and powerful, and in comparison an ordinary life became intolerable. I became more and more isolated, eventually becoming estranged from nearly all my friends.
This was especially true when I returned to Penn. I could no longer stomach the drive to standard measures of success. Pursuing career, status, and wealth seemed shallow, false and wrong, and I abandoned my plans. I took classes purely out of interest, and postponed my engineering studies, never completing the requirements for my degree. Creative writing, psychophysiology, and other topics interested me for short periods, then not at all. Looking back, it was clear that my first year back at Penn was my first major depression, a long and difficult one. The bipolar cycle had begun.
Throughout this time and continuing for years, I held within myself the shocks of deep insight I had attained during my peripatetic nights in Edinburgh. My problem was, I found it impossible to articulate my knowing, impossible to share with others what I had seen and come to feel as possible and real. The phrase I held on to from my scribbled notes one night after a long walk was “coagulation of consciousness.” That phrase and the idea behind it held for me a kind of siren call that kept me moving forward. It referred to a profound, felt-sense insight that the evolution of the universe is driven by a force responsible for consciousness, toward ever greater awareness, connection and wholeness. It expanded Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere to a universal scale. My inner mission was to understand what I had seen and felt, and to find a way to squeeze the sublime insights into the mundane materiality of everyday life so I could share it with others. This quest drove me for a long time, keeping me moving forward through some very dark periods.
I didn’t realize until much later, but something even bigger was driving me through this period. Again, it has to do with my father. (It’s amazing the influence one person can have on a person.) Throughout my time with him and after, no matter what I did, no matter how excellent or superlative whether on the farm or in school, I never once received any word of acknowledgment or praise. Completely outside my awareness, I craved that acknowledgment as I craved nothing else.
My unconscious response to that craving was to continually ratchet up my ambition, notch by notch. When I first arrived at Penn I had set my sights on being a bioengineer and having some ordinary success, raising a family, etc. As soon as I started knocking down the A’s in my classes, I realized there was no question I could achieve this ambition.
Well, here’s the insidious bit. Deep within me I held the unquestioned assumption that if I could actually accomplish something, then it wasn’t good enough to earn the approval I craved. So as soon as I ascertained that a goal was within reach, I was forced (from within) to escalate the goal. The progression went like this: bioengineer, doctor, neurosurgeon, pioneer researcher of the brain. Somewhere along the line it went to pioneer discoverer of the essential missing secrets of life. And eventually, through that, it became very simply savior of the world. I’m not exaggerating. This was the grandiosity of my particular bipolar disorder. At times I felt convinced I was Christ, coming back to fix what he had screwed up the first time. But in my heart, I knew without question that if I succeeded in saving the world, even that wouldn’t be good enough. I’d still never hear from my father the words, “Good job, Joe.”
As I said, I was completely unaware of this inner dynamic until many years later, unpacking it all through the tools of Feelingwork.