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COEX Systems

The implication of these last propositions is that skills tend to grow in clusters and conversely, that un-skills (sets of stereotyped avoidance patterns) also tend to grow in clusters. Stanislav Grof has introduced the principle of 'COEX' systems - systems of COndensed EXperience. A COEX system can be defined as 'a specific constellation of memories (and related fantasies) from different life periods of the individual. The memories belonging to a particular COEX system have a similar basic theme or contain similar elements and are associated with a strong emotional charge of the same quality'. COEXs may be positive or negative depending on whether or not the emotional experiences were pleasant.

So the COEX is a category of memory and behavioral patterns that is held together by a common context: experience in the past of a certain situation and repeated times through to the present when that same situation - or one that is similar - occurs.

Although there will be certain interconnections and interdependencies between COEX systems, each one nevertheless functions in a relatively autonomous way and influences the individual's perception of himself and of his environment, his feelings and attitudes, his ideas and behavior, and even his somatic processes.

For example, one COEX may be how the person relates to being in a group (as opposed to being on his own, or with a friend or family). It may cause past memories to be stimulated in which he was perhaps made to look a bit stupid, or he interpreted it that way, and maybe he decided to minimize these situations as much as possible. This is reinforced by a genetic disposition to fear of exposure, including to the gaze and discrimination of others. This is particularly strongly aroused in this person, whereas others may be much less sensitive to it. It was a cycle of negative learning, reinforced by the emotional charge of fear and further supported by beliefs about himself and others, and justifications for the continued behavior pattern through into the present.

The structure of an individual's personality usually contains a large number of COEX systems, and the character, number, extent and emotional intensity of these will vary from one individual to another. They are addressed through the sequential handling of traumatic incidents and associated themes as discussed earlier, and in the handling of sequences of upsets and bad actions and resulting fixed solutions. The core identities of an individual (aligned with his core goals), which lie behind the conscious apparent ones, need to be exposed and their conflicts with other such identities resolved. Usually these conflicts are suppressed and are now unconscious, because the pressures of cultural conditioning make the exposure and furtherance of the true underlying goals, or the questioning of currently enacted ones, impractical.

The growth and perseverance of neurotic behavior patterns occurs due to the above positive-feedback cycle. A basically adaptive (logically appropriate) mechanism - the acquisition of avoidance-responses - serves as the basis for the acquisition of maladaptive behaviors, when an accumulation of similar avoidance responses occurs.

The most common such pattern is to make oneself right, and to justify one's actions, by twisting rational logic so as to believe another is in the wrong or deserving of one's actions against them. Another very common one is to live within safe boundaries, so that one's fears are not tested by the environment and one can feel comfortable, even if one's goals and the possibilities of fulfillment are severely limited.

Thus, rather than becoming habituated, the conditioned response (avoidance) can become stronger than the original unconditioned response (to participate). So in many cases of neurotic or irrational thinking and behavior, there may not have been a traumatic (overwhelmingly intense) initial experience, but rather some sort of insidious onset, of repetitive or continuous conditioning. Imprinting of skills or un-skills, then, occurs due to intensity, frequency or duration of contingent stimuli.

It is common for psychoanalysts to assume there is an intense or traumatic experience at the base of any aberrant behavior, whereas in my view and experience the effect of smaller stimuli can be equally powerful if they continue repeatedly over a long enough period of time. This is the drip-drop-drip effect, which can drive a person mad, as their powerlessness becomes apparent and the frustration becomes overwhelming. Constant nagging or continual submission to authority against one's wishes can work similarly.

Whether an arousing stimulus will enter into a negative COEX system with clusters of stereotyped avoidance reflexes, rather than being 'digested' properly and integrated in a positive COEX with clusters of high-level skills, depends on the skills already present (innate, learned or facilitated by the environment), and on the prevailing telic/paratelic motivational balance in the individual concerned.

How one person interprets the circumstances may be very different to how another handles the situation. One may learn positively from the experience and is empowered whereas the other learns negatively and forms a neurotic barrier or defense.

The way the COEX systems come into existence and grow makes behavioral idiosyncrasies very likely. After all, these utterly flexible learning systems provide the maximum potential for adaptation - each person adapts to his own environment in his own particular way and continues to so adapt throughout life, accompanying the drive for self-actualization i.e. fulfillment of individual potential.

Everyone has a unique combination of positive and negative learning COEXs.

By seeking high arousal (excitement) whenever surplus energy is available, experience is likely to be gathered involuntarily in threatening or disturbing situations that would have seemed undesirable and therefore avoided if foreseen. As a consequence the individual widens his field of experience in a way that would not be possible were he to function exclusively in the telic state.

If one restricts oneself to remain solely within safe boundaries, further learning is nearly impossible. One needs to take on new responsibilities and challenges, and to test one's knowledge and abilities, even if there is a risk of failure. Indeed, from relative failures and mistakes come the learning resources for greater achievement, provided the learning experience can be absorbed in a positive manner..

“The process of learning and of psychological growth can be seen to have dynamic characteristics, ideally involving a proper balance and rhythm of telic/paratelic motivational reversals.”
For the individual to be able to determine whether or not this results in positive COEX skills or negative COEX un-skills, rather than this being an involuntary conditioning process, depends largely on the degree of control he has over his own mental states, to be able to reach and withdraw, to be able to resource pleasurable low and high arousal states, to be appropriately telic or paratelic at will. These skills may be learnt through biofeedback information from meters during self-therapy, since as described earlier, the process of therapy within Transformational Psychology is largely a matter of controlled stimulation of material at low arousal in the telic state, to reverse this to moderate arousal in the paratelic, to become more and more involved and aroused and 'in session' as the material is confronted (with withdrawal if necessary to re-cycle back from a safe telic point) towards final insight at high paratelic arousal.

When fixated response patterns have been found and released, the individual can, at will, be in an aroused state of 'playful' (right-brain) paratelic excitement, high self tone and intuitive insight. This doesn't revert to telic anxiety because the left-brain retains good communication and arousal is balanced. He can then, at will, reverse from this state to a pleasant, relaxed, secure, telic low arousal in order to recover energy, plan and learn from his experiences. Moving into a state of medium arousal he can smoothly switch back and forth from involvement to therapy and now, if he wants, achieve a high state of telic arousal, of 'serious' contemplation, which is not unpleasant or anxious because both sides of the brain remain in synchronised communication and traumatic material is no longer reactivated.

The process of learning and of psychological growth can be seen to have dynamic characteristics, ideally involving a proper balance and rhythm of telic/paratelic motivational reversals. In counseling, one frequent way in which this breaks down is in the relative inability of the individual to feel secure and reassured enough for the paratelic state to be induced. It is exactly this reassurance that is provided by the empathic counsellor who, in this respect, can help to re-start the alternation of telic and paratelic states that is of such crucial importance for the development and maintenance of a full and healthy mental life. In the case of self-therapy, experience in counseling others successfully and complete familiarity and understanding of the procedures, will help to give the required sense of confidence, to take up repressed material and run it to the full endpoint.

This is a similar process to that carried out in Zen meditation. The process seems to work by reaching a satiation level or breaking point in the telic phase of trying to answer a riddle logically. One's desire is exhausted, one's rationality is thoroughly confounded and one's ego is broken, whereupon a sudden, highly pleasurable reversal takes place. One's left-brain ignorance, intensified by the inability to grasp the meaning of the koan, is replaced by a flood of right-brain non-verbal (paratelic) insight, a sense of liberation from (telic) ego, goals and thinking. What is called a satori then, is an abrupt shift from the telic to the paratelic, felt as a noticeable relief and accompanied by joy and peace. Once having experienced this small foretaste of nirvana, one begins to live increasingly with ready access to this paratelic state of mind.

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