What’s In a Name?


Remember the story of the Garden of Eden?

"We're in ur garden, eatin ur apples."

Adam and Eve pretty much had it made, wouldn’t you say? They got to chill in a tropical garden all the time, cuddling with lions and high-fiving God whenever they felt like it. In fact, other than that little rule about not eating from a certain tree, Adam only had to take care of one thing – naming all the animals.

What is it about the act of naming that’s so powerful?

In many magical and mythological systems, things have a common (public) name and a True Name – sometimes called a secret name. To know a thing’s True Name is to have power over it, because a True Name is more than just a word – it represents the thing’s deepest nature. A True Name objectifies the thing it refers to – not in any demeaning sense, necessarily, but in a defining sense. A name is what assembles a collection of molecules and movements into a certain thing, or type of thing.

Throughout history, many gods and demons were said to have a True Name that was taught only to the innermost initiates of certain magical systems, because it could force even a powerful spiritual being into submission. So, in the act of naming each animal, Adam became that animal’s master, and knew its true nature.

Believe it or not, this idea has some fascinating parallels in cutting-edge psychology.

A recent New Yorker article, titled Hollywood Shadows, describes a form of therapy that’s gaining an increasing amount of attention, especially among the entertainment industry elite. While traditional “talk therapy” aims to disarm emotional baggage by peeling it apart layer-by-layer, month after month, the new therapy is focused on creating immediate (and lasting) behavioral changes.

This is achieved, on the whole, by isolating the mental tendencies that lead to problems, recognizing and naming them, and then “tricking” them into doing useful work on the patient’s behalf. This form of Jungian connectome hacking goes by many names; Barry Michels, the therapist whose work is described in the article, simply calls it “The Tools.”

To break down how these tools work on a psychological level, let’s take a look at an analogy. You probably remember the last time your computer crashed and showed you a weird-looking error message – “Error #1672: no memory at line 6,” or something along those lines.

That’s not just random gibberish, of course. At some point during that software’s design, a programmer realized a certain error was repeatedly occurring, and decided to write a handler for it. A handler is a set of instructions for the program to follow when it encounters that particular error, instead of just crashing, or repeating the same error endlessly. Some of the handler’s instructions might tell the program to shut down as cleanly as possible, and others tell it to alert the user – you, in this case – that an error called “Error #1672″ has occurred.

Aside from preventing collateral system damage, an error handler (also called an exception handler) is designed to help the software’s programmers recognize a recurring problem – in other words, it objectifies a specific kind of crash. Just by giving the error a name, the programmers begin to gain control over it.

What I want to propose here is a new way of thinking about your own limitations. Let’s say you’re shy. You’ve been shy all your life. It’s been impossible for you to overcome. You’ve come to consider shyness an essential part of your nature.

I want you to try something new. Whenever you have an experience that reminds you how shy you are, and you think,  “I’m too shy to talk to strangers,” substitute this script: “When I try to talk to strangers, I seem to get an Error #14.”

If your Shadow turns out to be a skeleton, this should be treated as scientific proof that you are awesome.

This is a major difference: shyness is not a quality that’s essential to your selfhood – it’s a bug in the software you’re running. You’ve objectified it. You, your essential self, don’t have a shyness problem (or a lack-of-coolness problem, or an eating problem, or whatever) – you just need to learn a few new skills, so you can get around the error(s) more effectively.

Objectifying your errors will cause profound changes in the way you perceive yourself, your traits, and your place in the world. I know I tend to say this a lot, but I can promise you this works because it’s worked for me.

Beyond just objectifying errors, it’s possible to objectify entire thought patterns and personality aspects. In the article above, Michels describes an archetype called the Shadow:

[The Shadow is] the occult [i.e., hidden] aspect of the personality that Jung defined as “the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious.

Now, adjectives like “unpleasant” are obviously too subjective to qualify as scientific terms. Still, I think Jung is getting at an important idea here: when we mentally assemble our “hidden” tendencies and desires into a single character – the Shadow – we’re no longer at its mercy. We can hold dialogues with it, and even assign tasks to it.

Michels describes one patient’s process of “meeting” her Shadow here:

[I told the patient to] “Go back to the parents’ meeting where you froze up; re-create all those shaky feelings you had.” She nodded. “Now, push the feelings out in front of you and give them a face and body. This figure is the embodiment of everything you feel insecure about.”

I paused. “When you’re ready, tell me what you see.”

There was a long silence. Jennifer flinched suddenly, then blinked her eyes open. “Ugh,” she said grimacing. “I saw this 13 or 14 years old girl, overweight, unwashed. Her face was pasty and covered with zits . . . a complete loser.”

Jennifer had just seen her shadow.

If you read my post on dopaminergic hacking, you’ll recognize this Shadow visualization technique as being very similar to the preferred states inventory.

Once you’ve seen (i.e., objectified) your Shadow, it becomes much easier to recognize its voice. Rather than thinking of it as an essential part of you, you’ll recognize it for what it is whenever it speaks up. You can talk back to it.

The article even describes a technique Michels taught one patient for putting his Shadow to work:

Michels told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

A few weeks later, the writer was startled from his sleep by a voice: it sounded like a woman talking at a dinner party. He went to his computer, which was on a folding table in a corner of the room, and began to write a scene. Six weeks later, he had a hundred-and-sixty-five-page script.

Reading that description, I think you can get a pretty good idea of why prayer works, at least in this instance. All you need is a) an aspect of yourself to objectify, b) a task to assign it, and c) the willingness to suspend disbelief (or rather, consciously direct your own belief) and make a request. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, this is a powerful tool for hacking the hidden programs in your connectome.

So, next time you’re feeling writer’s block, shyness, or just plain confusion about your identity, objectify the problem. Think about the skills you’ll need to overcome it. Give it a name. Talk to it. Tell it what you want.

And be careful, because you may just get what you wish for.

  1. June 7th, 2011
  2. March 6th, 2012

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