Game of Holons: Understanding the Mental Health of the Houses of the Known World Through a Transpersonal Family Systems Lens (essays from graduate school)
“I don’t need saving.” — Arya
In 2014, as fans were becoming even more enamored with their then 3-season-old TV favorite, Game of Thrones (GoT), PsychologyToday.com contributor Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., gave us the headline, “Diagnosis Game of Thrones: What’s Ailing Westeros?” followed by the snarky subhead: “In the Game of Thrones, you win or you find a therapist.” A year later in 2015, Kat Rosenfield suggested that, in fact, “Everyone on ‘Game of Thrones’ Has Serious Issues.” And by 2016 Travis Langley had devoted an entire book to the subject: Game of Thrones Psychology: The Mind Is Dark and Full of Terrors. These popular analyses have remained focused on the innate mental health of individual GoT characters, without a systems theory approach. Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), however, are trained to bring to the therapy a cogent, applicable, and integrated family systems theory, knowing that who we are in relationship with has an important role in our mental health outcomes. As the new season launches this month and fans get ready to offer the Internet another round of CouchPotatoPsychology.com, a fresh look at the different Houses of GoT may help psychology fans to examine this haunting and memorable world in a manner more salient to the real work of psychotherapists, and maybe also for our society’s collective understanding of better therapeutic interventions generally.
down this worn and dusty
Kingsroad. Come along
with me, Colleague, Friend, Reader,
into the mystical world of the seven kingdoms,
a land of magical believing and otherworldly incarnations,
of historical allusion and fairytale realism,
dragons and White Walkers,
and the imaginative dreamspace of author George R. R. Martin,
side by side with the messy truths
of mortal hope, duplicity, loss, grief, passion, and retribution,
against a grisly backdrop of death and survival,
charmed nonetheless by the devotion
that therapists must deal in,
a devotion to curiosity about the motivations of people --
here, may we become, if briefly,
healers in the Game of Thrones.
Here on the brink of Season 6,
we strive not just to diagnose, but also
to broaden our comprehensions
in the arts of repairing rupture and stimulating growth.
May our efforts be a unifying experience,
blessed with a few precious gems at the end of the road,
insights from the Lord of the Light within,
and also from the light between us --
between you, Reader, and I, your humble Writer.
So that it may be,
along the way we ask, Where must we go?
What must we know and not know? What can we hope to see?
And what will we do with our sight?
Perhaps, as attendants in the land of Westeros,
we ought to go armed
with a theoretical approach to match this extraordinary place.
As Above, So Below:
Toward a Transpersonal Holonomic Family Systems Theory
Sometimes we must go somewhere new, unfamiliar, maybe even unknown. On April 24, 2016, fans went into the new season of GoT not knowing what each intertwining scene would reveal in the epic stories of Westeros. But we didn’t go alone; we shared the ride on chat boards and through blog posts, many even gathering around a screen with loved ones nearby. A family of fans, we are unique in how we express our fandom, but we are also bound together in our rallying cry for “more!” GoT is at once a personal folly and a transpersonal problem of modern society — TV junk. But this basic aspect of reality, an acutely known personal anguish perfectly nested within often indiscernible larger social forces, is not something we’re that good at noticing, though there is a pretty good reason why we’re not quick to see the macrocosm.
What we could call, perhaps imperfectly, “the collective field of family systems theories” has itself in part suffered from a lineage (of which many of us are a part) of Western-style individualism, such that many of these person-plus theories still tend to view the goal of all therapy on individualistic terms. As detailed in the work of McGoldrick, Gerson, and Petry, the genogram may help map multi-generational family patterns, but from the start, the genogram was also intended to be a therapeutic tool to explain, diagnose, and treat the presenting problem of a single person. The genogram has since been frequently employed in the context of individual psychotherapy, sometimes with the family present or involved in the individual’s process, but retaining a focus on curing or changing a problem inherent in the client’s self-contained, personal psyche.
Historically, this makes sense since Western psychology has tended to frame therapy as the treatment of an abnormal, ill patient, aimed at brining the individual back to a normal state of health. Freud, after all, wanted the patient to experience the analyst as a tabula rasa — blank slate — in order to allow the patient to use the relational space between herself and the analyst to work out and undo the personal psychological dynamics (read: damage) caused by the patient’s family, without the influence of the analyst or other outside forces getting in the way. In other words, the patient, while dependent on the analyst for the analysis, was also left alone in the task of becoming well again. Though benefit may occur for others in the family while the patient is being treated, focusing on the ego development of one person at a time and as distinct from other interactive egos resonates with our fanatical focus on “getting right” the individual ego states of the characters of GoT. Joffrey the sociopath, Ramsay the sadist, and Cersei the borderline — check, check, check.
But even during Freud’s time, Western and Eastern psychologies were fast coming together to describe an alternative view of human development, invoking a mutuality of experiencing, client and counselor together in the healing process. Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and William James, the last of whom became well known as the first person to use the term “transpersonal” in 1905, all pioneered the scientific study of consciousness, mystical experience, and interpersonal psychological phenomenon, in the context of evolutionary biology. By the 1950s, transpersonal psychology took off as a modality of its own, distinguished from other Western psychologies by the way it infused a systematic, scientific focus, within psychotherapy, of that which exists when flesh is stripped away and the self cannot be defined as a corporeal body — focusing on, in a word, spirituality.
Where symbolic interactionism theory, born of the 1900s industrial revolution, brought the scientific method to the study of social interaction, transpersonal psychology allowed for the integration of spirituality and philosophy within this scientific framework by assuming that psychology is shared among interacting people, not isolated in the body of an individual — a psychological conceptualization that neuroscience has finally begun to corroborate. What Edward Bruce Bynum has called the “family unconscious,” like Jung’s collective unconscious, consisted of a “shared family emotional field . . . a shifting, interconnected field of energy that does not obey the conventional rules of space and time in the waking state” (Psi). Bynum further pointed to sub-atomic physics to explain how energy, experience, and learning (much as Daniel Siegel has shown in his biopsychosocial neuroplasticity research of the brain / mind / relational matrix) form interconnected, mutually-influencing shared space. We truly are connected in space and time, one great sea of connected energy, and it is this fact that transpersonal psychologists believe we must come to know in a deeply personal way.
In this alternative, if somewhat estranged, branch of the family of Western psychology, transpersonal psychologists are asking us to further consider a family systems approach that defies the primacy of the individual psyche, or the singular modality. Irene Lazarus openly hopes, “that we are growing toward” a very special kind of community, a community of healing, in which “dark parts are seen and accepted, intimacy is increased, there is support for appreciation of differences, as well as an increased feeling of being understood and accepted” (p. 13). In order to build this healing community, Lazarus has found “working many levels at once” beneficial (p. 13). In other words, it may be necessary to have a tool flexible enough to work the individual aspects of therapy while simultaneously engaging the interpersonal and transpersonal aspects of Bynum’s family unconscious.
So, as we go into the unknown, shifting our paradigms and our minds, sometimes we must paradoxically also know, to some degree, something about how to proceed in — to have a framework for exploring. Welcome, Jenny Wade. In her book, Changes of mind: A holonomic theory of the evolution of consciousness, Wade gives us such a tool. While transpersonal theory describes how science and spirituality combine to form the basic makeup of the world, Wade fittingly locates the origins of this theory in a medieval mystical text, the Emerald Tablet. Wade notes that alchemists based the writing of the Emerald Tablet on a simple opening concept: “as above, so below” (p. 262). As god is in paradise, so man is on earth, a microcosm of all of god’s creation. Similarly, biological science has now shown the cell to be its own unique microcosm of a uniquely larger system, a tree leaf or a human tissue. Physics has shown the same concept to hold for the atom. In human terms, the holon, as defined in the governance model of holarchy, has been used to demonstrate a similar pattern, that the human, like a cell or atom, is a unique, stand-alone entity, but also part of something larger. A family, a community, a species, contains many holonomic personhoods. This fundamental paradox of all things, things human and inanimate, corporeal and metaphysical, is understood in transpersonal holonomic psychology to be the true nature of all things — all things all the time, each being, at once a uniquely self-sufficient system, while also inexorably part of something larger. Holarchy is simply the way the world is. A key question for people, then, follows: Do we understand and accept this natural order?
Transpersonal psychologists have used holarchy for decades to explain human embededness in the natural world, suggesting a personal psychology that simultaneously extends beyond the personal, personal plus, trans-personal. Wade’s description of holarchy offers a particularly clear explanation of the predicament of the human holon. Like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, people might not be able to conceive of their true holonomic nature, and yet it is still what is. As Wade puts it, “the whole, perfectly realized person is in the partially evolved [S]elf” (p. 262). However, suffering may come about from a lack of awareness of what is. A progression of consciousness development (reprinted from Wade in Table 1) can facilitate evolutions out of suffering and ultimately lead to a path free of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral turmoil with regards to what is. At times, people also stagnate or even regress as well. As Wade notes, “the world does not change; the way in which the world is understood does” (p. 262), and sometimes that change is in the negative direction.
Along with the primary terms and concepts of holonomic family systems theory described in Table 2 (below), Wade’s stages of holonomic consciousness requires a few basic assumptions on the part of the clinician / healer. For continuity of the theory, making explicit the first assumption is paramount. Only under this primary assumption, that the true nature of the whole person is a holon, can the therapist make sense of the rest of the theory. Even as the Self is continuously, partially evolving, the whole person’s true nature is still and always will be also perfectly realized, regardless of which stage of consciousness the Self has yet attained. At the same time, embodiment and Self-awareness — consciousness — of the true nature of the whole person as a holon promotes mental health, which includes the health of the personal and the transpersonal psyche. Although the partially evolved Self is already also the perfectly realized whole person, how unconscious or conscious the Self is of its true holonomic nature can lead to suffering and pain or greater peace and joy. These feeling states may have an impact on the holon’s capacity to enjoy life and succeed with everyday challenges. In other words, how far along the Self is in the stages of consciousness may contribute to better survival and thriving outcomes. Perhaps rather obviously then, denial or lack of awareness of the true nature of the whole person as a holon stifles healthy development of the Self’s holonomic consciousness, creates “mental illness,” and can even lead to the death of the Self. Additionally, holons are living, transforming processes, such that change and impermanence are constant, and perhaps the only constant. This suggests that growth is constantly available, as well as imperative. And finally, holons are fundamentally relational, neither fully merged, nor fully individuated. Rather, holons are perfectly both, merged and individuated, at any given moment, regardless of what appearances may suggest in the temporal narrative of the Self. And as such, holons are perfectly both Self-reliant and dependent — perfectly interdependent.
Uncovering the Biopsychosociospiritual Realm
If we look across Game of Thrones at the different characters, focusing especially on the Season 6 opener, we can begin to place them in Wade’s stages of holonomic consciousness. Jaime, of House Lannister, says sternly, “Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn’t us. We’re the only ones who matter, the only ones in this world. And everything they’ve taken from us we’re going to take back and more. We’re going to take everything there is.” As with the first stage, reactivity, Jaime believes he is the world, and that his needs will be or at least ought to be met as they arise. But even with his daughter dead by his side and the obvious opportunity he has to face the transitional dilemma that perhaps he is not the world, well, he cannot face this fact. Jaime’s awareness will not allow him any other viewpoint, even when Cersei tells him that fate is stronger than they are. Cersei, a level up from Jaime, naïve, speaks of the pureness of her daughter, Myrcella. Cersei likens Mrycella to her moral guide, her conscience personified as her daughter, in hopes of being one with Myrcella: “I thought if I could make something so good, so pure . . . maybe I'm not a monster.” Cersei’s transitional dilemma is in seeing that she and Myrcella are not one, and Cercei’s contemplation of Myrcella’s dead body suggests that Cersei will in fact be able to see that her leader and her Self are not one. This suggests that Cersei might also be able to leave the naïve stage of consciousness and in fact may be working right through the egocentric stage as well, believing that death is inevitable due to prophecy. It will be interesting to see what Cersei does next, and what she would do at the conformist stage, since she has not typically been a character to do good and it is hard to see her believing that the universe is fair.
House Bolton, in the next stage of holonomic consciousness, typifies the belief that if you are tough enough you never die. Roose Bolton seems to think this when he says to his son Ramsay, “I rebelled against the crown to arrange your marriage to Sansa Stark.” He did this to ensure that they would have “the entire North” behind them when their reckoning day comes. He also threatens Ramsay with making his next son heir to the throne, with a veiled message that Ramsay has been weak, playing games with Sansa and Theon, and so may lose out on the chance to live on through a son of his own. Ramsay is in the same stage of consciousness, and responds obediently, “I have a team of men after them with some of my best hounds. They won't get far,” also using force to assure his place. Neither Roose nor Ramsay yet believe that their own lives are in much peril, because of their certainty that they are tough — you get the sense that they’re even kind of assholes to each other, and if need be, would take each other down.
The Night’s Watch, though not representing a House of Westeros, behaves similarly, with members who access the ladder of holonomic consciousness. Davos, invoking Jon, says to the Night’s Watch who would fight for his honor, “I didn't know Lord Commander Snow for long, but I have to believe he wouldn't have wanted his friends to die for nothing.” Because of Jon’s murder, these men, gathered around and allied with Jon’s cause, may all be facing the transitional dilemma that life is not fair, and trying to ascend together to the next level, seeking to try on the belief that they may master their world through their own initiative.
Then there is House Targaryen. Daenerys, being capture by the Dothraki, tries to master her fate by speaking up boldly to the Khal who has captured her. She uses a litany of her collective stations to try to master the situation and sway Khal Moro: “Do not touch me. I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and Rhoyanar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.” This does not work, however, as Khal Moro responds simply, “you are nobody.” Daenerys must face that her words, her Self-action may be futile, as she again faces the transitional dilemma that some forces, like her dragons, may not be mastered. She tries again anyway, naming her Self as widow of Khal Drogo. This time she gets the response she wants, at least at first. Having glimpsed the volatility of the Khal and to secure her position, she tries on the next level of consciousness, appealing to whatever heart Moro might have by offering him a gift: “If you will escort me back to Meereen, I will see that your khalasar is given a thousand horses, as a sign of my gratitude.” But an unforeseen-to-Daenerys Dothraki law of returning widows to Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki Sea, gets in the way, and Daenerys is left yet again contemplating another transitional dilemma, that love cannot redeem every situation.
Finally, in House Stark, Sansa, while trying to escape her captivity at Winterfell, is at first found by the dogs and guards sent by Ramsay, but then almost immediately she is saved by Brienne. Mustering all her strength after nearly being returned to the torturing clutches of Ramsay, Sansa uses her voice for the first time to sound more like her mother in order to properly accept Brienne’s service: “And I vow . . . that you shall always have a place by my hearth and . . . meat and mead at my table. And I pledge to ask no service of you that might bring you dishonor. I swear it by the old gods and the new. Arise.” This is a big step for the once whiny, pitiful Sansa, who much on her own has found her way through many trials to end up here, finding her Self, and standing strongly in her newfound sense of purpose. Sansa does not yet appear to have imagined the next transitional dilemma of needing to give her Self up in order to reach her potential, and we may wonder how she will continue to transform to be ready for this stage. Arya, however, has already given her Self up to the Many Faced God and has already declared her Self “no one.” Yet, while being beaten by the Waiff, Arya’s pleas that she cannot see could suggest that she is stuck in the stage of consciousness that is beholden to the Ground, reliant on the concrete, known world, when what she must become is unknown to her Self. We are left wondering if Arya can meet the next transitional task of continuing to fight back against the seduction of sentience, to fight for her holonomic whole person, regardless of the Ground on which her Self stands.
Overall, the Stark girls appear to find more purpose and meaning in life than the other characters. They are also able to gain position and power in innovative ways, through arranged marriage and joining occult groups. And though some have argued that Arya suffers with PTSD, her thirst for justice, if also vengeful, seems to have a directed, Self-realizing action and lacks the intensely diseased and dysfunctional qualities exhibited in some of the other characters.
On the Couch with Ned
With Ned Stark’s ghost (and Catelyn and Robb’s, too), almost certainly present for the Stark children, his spirit breathing through their beings and his slaughter long hanging like a dark cloak over the rest of Westeros, Sansa and Arya and the rest of the Starks and their people in the north are tied together through the family unconscious, through the superbeing of Ned’s memory, visions, and perhaps even his dispersed soul. As viewers, we may be keenly interested to see the return of Bran and Rickon, how the boys will reconnect to the story, what their stages of holonomic consciousness will be, and if they will be similarly infused with Ned’s lasting life force. Indeed, we even wonder what is next for Jon Snow, who lies unburied and unburnt at Castle Black, and if he, too, in some way may rejoin the field of energy shared by his half-siblings.
As such, we also begin to see how each House acts as a holon, as well, within the larger society, each House with an interpersonal and shared, transpersonal holonomic consciousness, developed in mutuality among and by family members, and subject to the larger holon of Westeros. Arya and Sansa, even without seeing each other for years, echo each other a great deal, energetically. So do other family members of other Houses vibrate similarly with each other within that House, seeming to cluster together, up and down one or two stages. It may even be such that, as defined by the true nature of the whole family as a holon, members, aspects of the family-holon level, would have a biopsychosociospiritual pull to resonate together through the stages of consciousness. If your family or House members, in other words, were mostly stuck around stage three, that might create a strong enough holonomic context for you to mostly remain stuck there as well, or to regress to that stage.
In the end, getting transpersonal with the GoT season 6 opener offers psychology fans at least three worthwhile takeaways: 1) greater understanding that characters mostly lack spiritual, holonomic awareness and ascendance, reinforced by the holon of the House they belong to, lets us as brief healers in the land of Westeros see how family forces are at play in the mental health of the collective family unconscious; 2) greater awareness that unevenly and mostly unevolved holonomic Selves plague the Houses of Westeros, and so greater empathy for how some of the characters seem to act so poorly from a place of suffering in their unconscious stuckness because of the system in which they are perfectly stuck; and 3) greater sense of how to help avoid stigmatizing and that the whole system may need attention for any of the individual holons to experience relief.
Perhaps we cannot depart again
having actually done any healing work
for our agonizing friends in Westeros.
Or perhaps, participating in our own healing,
returning to our own grounded and ungroundedness
has effect — at least on our neighbor
whose hand we may be clutching a bit too tightly as we watch.
Bynum, E. B. (n.d.). Psi, the shared dreamscape and the family unconscious. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Health Services. Retrieved from: http://www.obeliskfoundation.com/articles/artpsi.html
Canes, M. J. (2012). Introduction to family constellations. Toronto, Ontario: Transpersonal Therapy Centre. Retrieved from: http://www.epccanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/transpersonal-therapy-centre.pdf
Jordan, J. V. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Retrieved from: http://www.wellesleycentersforwomen.com/pdf/previews/preview_23sc.pdf
Lazarus, I. S. (n.d.). A transpersonal feminist approach to family systems. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. Retrieved from: http://www.transpersonalstudies.org/ImagesRepository/ijts/Downloads/Lazarus.pdf
McGoldrick, M. Gerson, R., & Petry, S. (2008). Genograms: Assessment and intervention, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Norton.
Smith, S. R., & Hamon, R. R. (2012). Exploring family theories, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Transpersonal Lifestreams. (2011). Holons — the structure of transpersonal relationships in living organisms and social organizations. Hobart, Tasmania. Retrieved from: http://www.transpersonal.com.au/transpersonal-theory/holon.htm
Wade, J. (1996). Changes of mind: A holonomic theory of the evolution of consciousness. State University of New York Press: Albany, New York.