This blog reflects my deep interest in the different ways the various cultures and subcultures in this world conceive of the world and our lives within it. I was born in Asia, hold a UK passport, lived for most of my adult life in France, and now live in the US as a resident alien, working as a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. Issues of cultural identity and displacement are very close to 'home' for me, and for many of my clients.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Hikikomori: the Japanese Hermits Who Stay in their Room for Years

By Guest Blogger Mitsue Karaman

Hikikomori or “social withdrawal” now impacts an estimated 700,000 to 1.5 million youths across Japan, who stay isolated in their rooms, and disengage from social activities such as school or work for months, years or even decades.

Typically the hikikomori is a young male, often the oldest son in an upper-middle class, nuclear family. Men are four times more likely to become hikikomori, and the onset of symptoms often occur in childhood as a form of school refusal which gradually leads to full withdrawal in adolescence. Hikikomori frequently present a profound sense of apathy: disillusioned by society at-large, these young men lack the motivation to engage with life and have difficulty developing their own identity.

While clinical cause is still unclear, studies from the past decade have begun to identify a correlation between hikikomori and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Hikikomori individuals have a developmental history of early childhood language delay, a severe shyness and preference to play alone, and a focused interest on numbers versus imaginative play. They have difficulty fitting in and often experience bullying, which may lead to truancy and trigger social withdrawal. Like people with high-functioning ASD, many individuals do well academically and develop compensation strategies to cope with social challenges in childhood; therefore, the earlier symptoms may go unnoticed and onset of hikikomori may sometimes occur in the individual's late 20s.

The theories on the etiology of hikikomori--which began to be noticed in the 1970's--are many, ranging from the depressed economy, a strict education system, to a culture where parents place immense pressure on their eldest son. While these factors may contribute to the increase of hikikomori in recent decades, I believe they are merely triggers for the onset of the condition and the true etiology is buried deeper in history. By withdrawing and isolating themselves from the world, I believe individuals with hikikomori are restoring their inner spirit – tamashii (Japanese for spirit/soul) – to reemerge stronger and better adjusted to the world around them.

Japan has a long history of isolationism, seen in its mythology and early Shinto and Confucian religious beliefs. Solitude and introspection is inherent in the Japanese spirit. However, the rapid modernization of post-war Japan dramatically changed the nation from its core. Rituals and tradition were lost as nuclear families became the norm, artisans and craftsmen disappeared with industrialization, and spiritual practice declined with less than 40% of the population now saying they practice a religion. I believe this created a generation of youths with little access to spirituality, who–triggered by the imbalances in modern society–are now experiencing a spiritual crisis. They are searching for spiritual richness in their lives instead of the material success society presents as self-actualization. They withdraw and isolate themselves into solitude that, for the first time, offers them space to explore their consciousness and purpose in life.

The rising popularity of mindfulness in young adults illustrates a culture in need of stillness, introspection, and a foundation to rebuild the Japanese spirit. This perspective also allows us to understand why hikikomori is now emerging in other countries around the globe. The loss of culture, tradition and spirituality is an impact of globalization that many nations face, and in this way, spiritual crisis is an issue affecting all modernized countries.

For a longer, in depth investigation of hikikomori, click here.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Uppgivenhetssyndrom: Refugee Children Facing Deportation Fall into Comas

Refugee children in Sweden are falling into a state that looks like a coma, when their family's applications for asylum are denied. The so-called "resignation syndrome", or uppgivenhetssyndrom, has so far been diagnosed in over 400 children. It seems unique to Sweden, and is found mainly in children from former Soviet states, many of whom are Roma.

A New Yorker article on the phenomenon has a detailed account of the syndrome and its manifestations.

The children, who have stayed in these comas for months at a time, are not faking, though their brains are not damaged. They are described as "“totally passive, immobile, lack[ing] tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.”

One of the children describes feeling as though "he were in a glass box with fragile walls, deep in the ocean. If he spoke or moved, he thought, it would create a vibration, which would cause the glass to shatter. “The water would pour in and kill me,” he said.” The boy has now recovered, after his parents were granted residence permits for the family. This appears to be the only cure for the syndrome. Other children, whose families have been deported, are still in comas in their home country.

The director of a child psychiatry center in Stockholm has proposed that the phenomenon is a kind of "willed dying", and likens it to a syndrome found in some prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who “stopped eating, sat mute and motionless in corners, and expired.”

The phenomenon could perhaps be explained as an extensive vagal shutdown, or freeze response, in which the nervous system shuts down as a response to overwhelming and inescapable stress. Why it's unique to Sweden, nobody knows, except that we do know that different cultures develop their own culturally-specific ways of expressing emotional distress.

It appears that the refugee children in Sweden have developed a new meme for expressing the fear and despair experienced by refugees facing deportation.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Algonquin Concept of Wetiko

I've just found out about a concept I sorely needed, in order to account for the state of our planet, where 8 men own half the wealth, and the very ecosystem is in peril due to human greed. It's the Algonquin concept of wetiko (also called wendigo or windigo).

"Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit or thought-form driven by greed, excess and selfish consumption. It deludes its host into believing that consuming the life force of others for self-aggrandizement or profit is a logical and morally upright way to live."

The wetiko, or windigo, is like the hungry ghost in Chinese tradition: always starving, never sated. It's continually looking for new victims. Whenever a windigo devours another person, it grows in proportion to the meal it has just consumed, so it can never be sated. What a metaphor for capitalism, with its insane imperative for continual growth in a context of finite and almost exhausted resources.

Some native traditions believe that humans who become overpowered by greed can turn into wendigos, and that environmental destruction and insatiable greed are caused by wendigos:

"Every time someone is seen justifying the destruction of life for profit—it is wetiko.
Every time compassion is vitally missing during a time of suffering—it is wetiko.
Every time a privileged person uses another as a “throw away” toy—it is wetiko.
Every time, in every way a community or country is impoverished so that others can be rich – it is wetiko."

Externalizing a mindset by personifying it in this way helps draw our attention to our own behaviour. That's if you think this is a metaphor. Maybe it's literally true, and wetikos are out there, taking over peoples' minds and causing them to indulge in mad destruction. Personally, I don't have a better explanation for what's happening.

You can read a searing account of the mindset of colonization as wetiko, in Columbus and Other Cannibals, by Native American author Jack Forbes.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Whistled Languages

I'm posting a link here to an article about whistled languages, just because they're fascinating.
Whistled languages generally use whistles to imitate the tones of the spoken language, in ways that carry much further across distances.
Here's a Wikipedia explanation.
Whistled languages are found around the world.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sexual and Relationship Habits in Japan, the Netherlands and the US

I'm posting links to two recent articles on relationships and sex in Japan, the Netherlands and the US. The articles show how cultural attitudes to gender, work, family, and sex drive the behaviour of young people in surprisingly far-reaching ways that are experienced as internal motivation.

Japan: no sex for us thanks
The article about Japan, which appeared in the Guardian, claims that young people are choosing to remain single and not get into sexual or romantic relationships at all.
"A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way."
Wow, that's a lot of people choosing celibacy over coupling. The article suggests that major economic changes which have destroyed men's career security, as well as the recent earthquake and tsunami, have ruined peoples' sense of certainty. But it also blames ultra-conservative attitudes toward women, which make motherhood or career a strictly binary choice, and which project virginal chastity and lack of desire onto women.
"Both men and women say to me they don't see the point of love. They don't believe it can lead anywhere," says Aoyama. "Relationships have become too hard. Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist."
This article has been critiqued in Slate magazine for bias. Americans too, says the author, are in a relationship crisis. Though his figures seem less drastic than the ones quoted in the Guardian article, I agree. So let's take a look at the Netherlands, which reveals a much healthier, and happier, picture.

The Dutch: sex and love and family togetherness
In the article on the Dutch vs the Americans, based on a new book by Amy Schalet, an almost opposite picture emerges--at least in the Netherlands. The article starts with some solid statistics: "Teen birth rates are eight times higher in the U.S. than in Holland. Abortion rates are twice as high. The American AIDS rate is three times greater than that of the Dutch."

Why this shocking disparity?

For a start, Dutch parents have a relaxed, open attitude about sex, so that boyfriends and girlfriends stay over, and hang out in the family, so that teen sexual experience is embedded in relationship, and safety. In the culture, sex has not been decoupled from love and relationship. Hookups are not the norm; love is!

Birth control is readily available (free of religious overtones) for teens in the Netherlands, and sex education teaches about sex in the context of love--rather than stressing, as we do here, the dangers of dating, and the importance of abstinance. Holland is free of American cultural myths (which all too quickly become adopted as being reality) that men "do love to get sex" and that women "do sex to get love". (Remember that one? People have even quoted it as truth in my human development class!) As the article says,
"For boys, our [US] culture devalues their impulse to love. But research shows that in the U.S., boys are quite romantic. Other research finds that for girls, recognition of sexual desire and wishes is taboo, so they have fewer tools to assess what’s right for them. That makes things very difficult.
In the US, Christian dominance has constructed a view that morality has to go with strict religious belief. If you slip from virginal chastity, you're in the realm of sin. So we have constructed a view of sex that gives only two options: "either a very sensationalized unrealistic scoring type of mentality or no sex until marriage." And it's also one that condemns victims of sexual assault, or LGB teens, to an agony of shame.

But the secular Dutch view is that people are naturally cooperative and decent. They have a concept called gezelligheid, which means something like ‘cozy togetherness’ or ‘conviviality.’ This important concept means that across generations people spend time together, enjoying each other's company. The Dutch social policies help maintain that, with part-time work and child care made easy. The result is less alienation, and more relating.

Where would you rather be discovering your sexuality?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Hidden Trauma of the Wars in Europe

The generation of my parents were children during World War II. It's that recent. And it's horrific. The Blitz, in UK, included 58 days of continuous bombing. Fifty eight days. And the nights. Continuous. Likewise, Dresden, in Germany, was almost completely destroyed in the carpet-bombing campaign by the Allies.
And yet.....NOBODY TALKS ABOUT THE TRAUMA. And this happened to people who are still alive today.*

And it's not only the Second World War. My grandfather was gassed and shell-shocked somewhere on the front line in France in the First World War, and was never the same again. But we don't talk about that either. Even though almost every village in the UK has a monument to the men who died, usually with over a dozen names--they put the men of one village into a platoon together, so when the platoon was wiped out, so were all the men of an entire community. Eleven million men died across Europe, and an entire generation of women grew up and died spinsters because of it.

The French, as a nation, talk endlessly about the Holocaust, trying to make sense of what happened, and what they did to contribute. In UK, the War (meaning the second one) is referred to as 'Britain's finest hour'. In Germany, the discourse is one of national shame. But there is no discourse that I know of about the post-traumatic effect of the wars on the general population throughout Europe.
No discourse about the PTSD. Nothing about the effect on our cultural and familial psyche of two hideous wars in 40 years. (It's alluded to when people write about the drive behind the European Union, but that's it.)

Is this because the thing is too big and extensive? Is it shame, that the flower of our culture led to this? Was it swept under the rug in the urgency of reconstruction? Was the Holocaust so hideous that no-one else's trauma seemed valid beside it?

And yet I see it in our familial and personal psyches all the time. When the first Gulf War started, women my age fought physically over storable food in the aisles of French supermarkets, which were emptied every day of flour, sugar, pasta and oil--that was the memory of near famine. When the Falklands war errupted, my mother switched into another personality, and the country was swept away by jingoism--that was the memory of the patriotism that kept them going through the war. When I hear sirens, my entire body floods with terror--that's the family memory of the Blitz, in which my father and his family were buried in rubble when a church collapsed on them in Coventry.

John Cleese made great hay out of "don't mention the war". But it's about time we began to mention the war.

It's why Angela Merkel, who keeps bailing out Europe, is loathed in the very countries she has saved, and pictured with a swastika. It's why Israel is caught in a terrible re-enactment of unfathomable trauma with the Palestinians. It's why I save jars, string, paper bags and left-overs--because my grannies, who lived through both wars, never threw a thing away. It's why when my dear German friend Bettina, her mother, and I talked about the war at her mother's house in Berlin last year, the air seemed to thicken around us.

There's a positive side to it too. As Tony Judt points out in his book 'Postwar', Europeans do not share the unlimited US optimism and belief in progress, because we know what collective shadow looks like. We don't trust our governments. We are less keen to go to war. The Germans have a an unparalleled anti-nuclear movement, I believe, because they have recently experienced utter devastation. The French have a law against 'non-assistance of persons in danger', and don't allow 'my boss told me to do it' as a defense under the law, because of the camps. When their government does something they don't like, they strike and take to the streets. Those Greek riots we keep seeing--that's Europeans, remembering the war.

*Since I wrote this blog post, I've become aware of an excellent book called 'Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II', by Keith Lowe. If you're interested in the effects of the war on the general population of Europe, this book is a great place to start.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cultural Casebook: How To Hear the Voice of God

T M Luhrman is a psychological anthropologist, which means she likes to investigate our lives from the inside, and see how we create our worlds through the workings of our minds. In this book, she reports on the process by which evangelical Christians learn to hear the voice of God.

Luhrman is agnostic about whether or not these people are 'really' tuning into the voice of the Almighty. She makes no pronouncements about whether or not she believes in God herself. And this neutrality makes the book possible. It's not a polemic; it's an impartial investigation. In order to research the book she joined a congregation, attended church, went to bible study meetings and other classes, learned to pray and interviewed the church members about their own experience. The result is fascinating. I couldn't put it down.

What Luhrman found is that evangelicals learn to tune in to the different qualities of thoughts within their own mind, in order to distinguish the impulses of ego from the 'other' messages that come to them, potentially from God. (They qualify the 'other' voices carefully, to ensure that they really are divine, using criteria such as whether the message is asking you to hurt yourself or someone else, in which case, it is classified as not the voice of God.) As a Jungian, I would identify these 'other' messages as coming from non-ego parts of the psyche. Instead of messages from God, I would call them messages from the Self--that part of the psyche which participates in the universal ground of being, and which one might call the soul. For Jungians, a dialogue between the ego and the Self is essential to health and individuation, or evolution.

Luhrman also distinguishes several types of prayer, and reports that evangelicals train their minds to enter into the stories of the bible, visualising the scenes in sensory detail, in ways that are similar to the visualisation prayers used by Tibetan Buddhists. This training results in sharper mental imagery, more intense emotional experience of God, and better ability to hear 'his' voice.

A key element of the evangelical experience is the gradually acquired certainty that God loves you exactly the way you are. God becomes a self-object, in psychological terminology, which has an enormous healing potential. And in a stunning paradox, not having prayers answered seems to increase the faith of an evangelical Christian, who learns to lean into God for comfort and love.

This book is fascinating in itself, a 'must' if you're interested in the psychology of religion, and a great source of insight if you work or live with Christians. As a non-Christian, I found myself drawn to trying some of this, as indeed did Luhrman. Anyone in Jungian analysis learns to heed the voice of the Self, so the idea made sense to me. In Jungian therapy we use art and active imagination to engage in dialogue with the Self, and we attend to the synchroncities that happen in life, and which seem to provide us with guidance. It's not so far removed from the phenomena Luhrman describes, and I found the book creating an unexpected bridge for me to the world of evangelical Christianity.