The Big Picture (3) : objects of desire

The word ‘object’ has many meanings; but none more mysterious and potentially wonderful as the meeting of spirituality with the findings of psychology’s Object Relations Theory…

(1400 words; a ten minute read)


Everything in our daily world comes from them; they are the highs and lows, the anguish and the triumphs, the misery and the joy… and above all else, the overwhelming violence of the world, permeated, occasionally, by the heroic kindness of someone selfless, someone who only wants to add a little love to the sad garden.

But it may not be entirely so…

Our world reflects our thoughts. Our thoughts are mainly habitual reactions to conditions, some are pleasurable but many induce a sense of anxiety, if not actual fear.

If we are fortunate, our inner relations are within a harmonic family – though this is by no means guaranteed. When we are older, we look back on our lives and sigh at what might have been, but also take some pride in what was.

Yet, through all of this, a sense of ‘I was there’ prevails. We can see the key decisions we made; can wince at the costly mistakes, and bask in the sometime triumph over adversity that we – often in concert with others – made happen.

We feel a pride in that accomplishment. The aspect of us that feels this pride is the self.

When the world of psychology came into existence in the early years of the last century, it caused quite a stir with its promise to accurately explore what it meant to be a self.

A ‘self’ is a permanent place of accumulated beliefs, views and and reactions that crystallised into a sense of ‘me-ness’ around the age of seven. One view, developed by Sigmund Freud and still used as a basis for much of modern psychology, is that our sense of self is threefold and divided into an energetic under layer – the id; an overbearing ‘should do’ layer – the superego; and a core of ‘conscious me’ stuck in the middle and attempting to mitigate between the wild, energetic and sexual creature and the overbearing tut-tutter that society might expect.

Anyone who tries to understand the world sees that our societies are also a response to the collective presence our psychologies – our selves. The individual adds their own psychological presence to the society in which they live. The pressures, norms, expectations and authoritarian tendencies of our societies can be a heavy burden throughout our lives.

We can retreat from the world, or we can face it with an intelligent and loving intent to react differently to it… or not react at all. By reducing our direct reactions to the world, we generate more power of self, and often find the world has changed, accordingly… which can be surprising, to say the least.

To live a life within a new ‘chamber of calmness’ is not to cut ourselves off. Rather, it requires the will to introduce a ‘catching gap’ between experience and reaction. In creating this, we begin to notice how powerful certain aspects of our lives are, and how difficult it is to control the reactions to them.

Sometimes, it is all we can do to watch this taking place. Any idea of control needs to be a secondary stage. Often, in watching deeply and not needing to react, the present reveals itself in a different way, perhaps not requiring our active participation at all… There is always a third force at work; the power of the ‘present’ helps us to recognise this, as we develop this side of our minds and hearts.

What we react to, and the way we react, became the subject of a new branch of psychology, beginning in the 1930s and extending to the present day. It is called Object Relations Theory. It developed from and extended Freud’s psychoanalytic theory into a more detailed view of how we visualise what affects us.

It also provides a shared space of understanding in which mysticism and psychology may meet and harmonise.

In 1975, physician turned psychiatrist Margaret Mahler wrote a radical and seminal work: ‘The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation’. The title surprised people – as it was meant to, implying that the physical birth of the body is not the same, nor synchronous, with the birth of the child in the sense of what will become the personality.

The personality develops from the mixture of experience and reaction. But the idea that the infant is simply a junior ‘us’, issuing automatically from the body, is wrong.

The psychological infant has to develop in parallel with the healthy body, but its development is of an entirely different order to the biology of cells. The essence of this – ultimately the goal of present day psychology – is the development of a strong and stable self. The goal of spirituality is to investigate the deeper mysteries of actually having a self.

Mahler showed that the infant exists, pre-birth, in a state of parallel life with the mother, knowing nothing else. This is bliss to the unborn soul. When birth occurs, the infant slowly discovers the sadness and dissatisfaction of separation, which is essential for its growth towards what Mahler called individuation.

It is important to grasp this; the unborn infant does not exist in a state of oneness with mother. It exists simply in a state of oneness… There is no knowledge, and no presence of anything but this.

In terms of the world’s myths and religions, we might reflect that, at this stage, the infant knows nothing of the father, though his contribution was the seed that found its place within the ‘ground’ of the mother, triggering the process of new life and contributing half its DNA.

Mother and child move from oneness to a separation in which the child must increasingly come to know the world as an ‘other’ from itself, in order to fulfil its needs. The oneness becomes, first, two tightly-coupled entities, then two separate beings. How well and harmoniously this is achieved shapes the rest of our lives. The physical side of this is obvious to us, but not the stages of the psychological progress. Mahler revealed this in detail, and analysed the criticality of each aspect of healthy physical, mental and emotional development.

Within Object Relations, the word ‘object’ is used to describe an ‘other’ – typically a person, and this is not meant derogatorily, it is simply a notation. Our world comes to be populated with ‘others’ as we develop an inner vocabulary of ‘types of other’. Within the mind, such objects are always seen as pictures, as images. These images can be rich, with all manner of sensory information attached.

Mother is the first ‘other’, and definitive. Each subsequent stage bears the imprint of the mother experience. Mystically, we can also equate Nature with mother, a model that implies that the life-force may come from somewhere else…

The child comes to recognise another object called Father. Though there is no consciousness of shared origin in the same sense as that of mother. Father becomes important, ideally, as role model for individuation – making our own way in the world.

So far, you may rightly ask what this has to do with mystical development of the self. The key is that the early infant, although not individuated, is in touch with the states of inner beauty and completeness that are also the goals of all spiritual quests. What the child cannot do is function in the world. This must be learned, and as it is achieved, the beautiful early states of essence are gradually lost in the stuff of outer life, though, as Wordsworth wrote, we come into this life ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

As a mature person, of whatever age, we have a strong sense of self. We know, to some degree, how to work the world. The early lessons of survival are long behind us, and their wisdom is embedded in our matrix of stored reactions. At a certain age, we may feel that the early vividness of the world is gone; that life and duty are making us dull.

When faced with this, we are at what we call in the Silent Eye, the ‘turning point’. We now have the chance to take all our worldly competence, our balanced ego, and embark on a search for those ‘clouds of glory’ that still inhabit our innermost spiritual rooms.

Next week, we will look at how we begin such a quest – among the ‘objects’ our life has gathered. We will examine the nature of the new world we encounter as this unravelling begins. We are not talking about becoming an infant, again. We are looking for adult experiences of the active imagination that will act as triggers for a vast and excitingly new state of Self. The ‘objects’ we already carry with us will provide the fuel…

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

12 thoughts on “The Big Picture (3) : objects of desire

  1. This is a very interesting look at oneness and human separation, Steve. Some people separate very completely from their families, to such an extent that they never see them after leaving home. Others remain close to parents and siblings their entire lives. I wonder why that is?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Robbie. We are such complex creatures, yet driven and motivated by the same basic things. Who can map the ‘decision tree’ of a lifetime? And yet we all have the same need to belong to something more fundamental, more ‘real’.

      Liked by 1 person

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