By Daniel Miller, Ph.D.
1. A Drive to Function
Using the only givens possible in his life, man must repress his terror of dying, pain, fear and anguish in order to maintain a status quo and be effective in daily life, says Becker. However, the rules of society do not provide satisfactions of deeper unmet needs and the attempt is made to fictionalize life through a set of imagined heroic actions which are expressed in terms of literature, folk heroes who express the universal need, and through heroes of gallantry and warfare.
Psychotherapy, he believes, is only a carrot leading the donkey without the possibility of solutions or gratification because it too does not deal with the roots of the myth. It is necessary to see life for what it is. Stripping away the myth-making, he concludes that "Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world." We cannot change the essentials of nature, so we may as well commit ourselves to suffering them bravely.
What can one do with this outlook of Becker's, and where does it come from?
Actually, the existential nihilism of Becker is very popular because there are many people who are not able to rise out of the morass in which they find their lives. And it is indeed true that psychotherapy has important limitations but it also has real capacities to alleviate existential suffering that Becker did not himself achieve.
I would like to suggest that nihilism such as Becker's arises from unconscious emotional springs which feed intellectual perceptions. It is possible to hypothesize but not to prove the source of such springs as Becker's, and such springs will be indicated in the course of this paper.
His book does show how the attempt to deny the facts of death leads man into a denial of life as well. Nevertheless, Becker doesn't seem to find the acceptance of death to be a road that leads to the enhancement of life. His perceptions lead him to think that accepting death leads to an awareness of helplessness to which there is no solution.
However, my experience with patients in Organic Process Therapy who evoke and live through the fear and even a simulation of death as part of the total need to come to grips with the terrifying aspects of their birth primals have access to a freeing and regeneration of the will to live and the capacity to have pleasure. It is as if there is an imbalance in their energy so that more of their total energy source, or Organic Energy, had been allocated for some reason to defending themselves against the experience of dying leaving too little for self-assertive, enjoyable patterns of behavior.
Only lately has our society become more aware and accepting of the need to examine and discuss death as a real part of human life experiences, and it is still not able to give a consensual or scientific opinion regarding the event of death. Ideas about whether it is the total end, whether a spirit life continues, whether other events like rebirth occur, are all part of the hypothetical banter of our era.
Some regard death as the glorious spiritual beginning of something new as witness the religions which promote the idea of heaven and Nirvana with a descent into purgatory the special domain of the Christian believers. Actually, Hell is very close to what Becker seems to think is the normal state of human existencel Other religious beliefs consider physical death as something of a rest period, something in-between involvements in two different sequences of physical bodies appearing at different points of evolutionary time in rebirth.
Commonly understood, death signifies the end of our capacity to experience our bodies and our minds, as well as those of other people, in the way that we are used to doing. We end our relationship with the world as we have come to understand it, no longer perceive and act in it in accord with habit in a particular time and place on the evolutionary continuum. Some say that it all ends here.
If these three were given to me as choices, that is, Nirvana, Terminus or Rebirth, I think I'd choose the last for I find the problems of the real world are exciting, challenging, frequently disturbing and frustrating, perhaps insoluble, but never dull, boring, or infinitely painful, or without questions on which to take mental and emotional journeys.
What I find most exciting in conducting psychotherapy sessions is the time when people have to go through the most terrifying kinds of experiences such as occurs when the experiences of death and birth are at stake.
Prior to undertaking primally oriented therapy myself I had never assumed that it was possible to retain the details in memory of such a terrifying, early experience as the birth trauma. However, strange and entirely new physiological and emotional experiences happened to me which I could understand in no other way.
To my surprise, even without the support and guidance of psychotherapy it appears possible for conscious memory to retain some minimal awareness of the experiences of birth, having had recent testimony to this from the seven-year-old son of an acquaintance whom I saw recently.
It occurred when I visited a family that I hadn't seen for many years, who therefore didn't know anything about Organic Process Therapy. The woman's questions led me to describe the birth primal of one of my patients. She said that her seven-year-old son recalled his birth and she called him in to describe what he remembered. He said very simply and matter of factly that it was all black at first and then there were two white things that reminded him of hands that took him by the head, and then it seemed as if a screen were in front of him and he could not recall anything else.
She probed and suggested other things but that was all, and he denied everything else. She said later he had been a Caesarian baby. The association and recall of hands then were completely understandable.
When a birth primal starts, it often begins with a sense of total darkness even if there is illumination in the room, legs begin making pushing movements, there may be a cry of "let me out" a feeling of blocked movement, choking and anxiety due to a lack of oxygen, extreme sensations of cold or of heat though there have been no weather changes in the room, all of which changes to massive terror and fear of death if the primal continues.
Following this initial general pattern, individualized birth-specific feelings and sensitivities develop out of the particular relationship provided in the context or matrix of the mother's emotional and medical situation during birth:
Given these possible varieties of assault on the biological life support system the preborn infant is thrust into a situation where inability to respond could terminate its life. There are forces within itself pushing it to exit from the womb in addition to the powerful labor pains of the mother demanding movement. If in fact the mother is too inactive the panic of the preborn rises considerably and independent activity is, more pronounced. It's as if there is an energy component in the child and the mother which is rooted to a timing device that has said "Nowl" and each is responsible to it.
The consequence of not accepting or not fulfilling the demands of the timing device of the biological clock is death, as witness stillborn children from this as well as other causes. We will call the energy supplying this internal time clock that makes demands on the human being-or for that matter on the seed, the tadpole, anything with a growth process - Organic Energy.
It is a powerful force in its own right but it is subject to events and processes that it encounters within the person and in the environment, is therefore not inviolable or indestructible. It is not the same thing as "Life Force" or "Elan Vital" because it is a participant in a process in a living organism at a certain time and place. Its source is biological, but it also has channels through which it affects and is affected by more psychological events.
Organic Energy operates through and is a part of all the cells, bloodstream components, everything in the organism itself. Its forceful driving quality makes a demand for life supporting activities, however, the activities themselves are subjected to the effects of socialization and developmental events.
When it can break through to a fuller expression of its vitality we experience joy, intense sexuality and love. When it is fully blocked we experience depression and death by various means such as illness, suicide, through "accident" and other forms of self-destruction.
During the birth process, threats to the functioning capacity of Organic Energy are reacted to with counter-measures, some of which have been described above. If there is a lack of oxygen there are frantic maneuvers to get more air, if movement forward is blocked there is increased activity to find and open a clear space, if there is too much space and lack of direction it compels a search for direction. It's as if there is an innate drive to facilitate or at least maintain functional capacities on which the life of the organism depends, and in this respect there is innate in Organic Energy a "Drive to Function."
When this drive is totally ineffective the result is the death of the organism. The Drive to Function may become ineffective either as the result of blocking which prevents suitable action in its own behalf, or it may have spun itself out during the person's lifespan and has run out of Organic Energy to back it up, and dies.
Of course, none of this is usually threatened during the early intrauterine period. Functioning can hardly be called a drive yet, the preborn just exists dependent for its supplies on the mother with little or no problems. The first threat to the Organic Energy occurs at the beginning of labor (this is variable individually since threats often occur prior to labor as well) resulting in the mobilization of the Drive to Function and with this may arise the first bits of awareness of self and environment as separate entities.
During the period of extreme threat there is a recognizable awareness of a biological life process on the part of the preborn and a life support system which has to function in order to keep it alive. Later in the developmental process this will give rise to the Organic Self and the still later reality-oriented structure called the Ego. The Ego ultimately takes on socialized forms of behavior and utilizes the Drive to Function to maintain supplies needed physiologically by the Organic Energy.
It is the work of the Ego to remain in touch with Organic Energy as well as to keep realistic contact with the events in the world around it. Therefore, to an adult undergoing the experience of his birth again, the identification of the systems and events what will support or nullify the life support system may appear a wild idea, but it's not actually difficult.
The verbal usage and semantic devices learned by the Ego to deal with the environment are applied to the experiences of the organism (Pierce). Misapplied, it curtails the organic process because it may be used as a means of controlling and resisting to defend against unknown dangers, but correctly used it can give security and direction to a process which is experientially intense and unfamiliar to the Ego on a conscious level.
For the preborn, birth appears to be a biological shock of a most extreme kind. One may question whether the terror the adult experiences in going through a birth primal is experienced at all by the preborn infant, and there is no simple answer. Nevertheless it appears safe to say from innumerable experiences with persons of all ages that the biological patterns that are established by the withdrawal or threat to the life support system remain very intact and are recoverable in fairly much pristine form as much as fifty and sixty years later. Obviously, a word like "terror" is an adult form of identification which is applied later to birth's biologically patterned experience.
The word "death" is likewise an adult way of identifying a response to a physiological event, the two together giving "terror of death" a not uncommon ego signification. The preborn of course does not have the words, it only has the biological patternings which eventually give rise to the words (Pierce).