Under the Totem: In Search of a Path, by Michael Eigen

The further we go, the more there is to go

Totem conveys spirit, a sense of the sacred. Freud attempted to get under the totem and explore psychic forces and pressures below the surface. Jung opened further depths in exploration of the sacred. Engagement with a sense of mystery that permeates existence lives in many quarters, including art, music, religion and depth psychologies.

Alan Watts spoke of “the taboo against knowing who you are.” One likes to think of such a taboo as cultural but I suspect it is part and parcel of our nature, who we are. Culture reflects psychic life and vice versa. Kabbalah has a saying, “As above, so below; as below, so above.” It seems also possible to say: as without, so within, as within, so without.

As Below, So Above

This book is an extended reverie, reflection, confession and encounter with psychic reality, an intertwining of multiple dimensions of existence. Psychotherapy spans all dimensions of life, often drawing on capacities we did not know we had. Anything may enter a session and help or harm at a given moment. Under the totem psyche is speaking. Can we hear and transmit it? To what extent, with what quality? It seems the further we go, the more there is to go, no end to depths opening.

We have built amazing physical and mental structures and continue building. Nothing we do exhausts the mystery of it all. Our jaw drops and heart dances upon contacting streams of life within. Words both obscure and create experience and we keep digging, letting go, sensing, starting over.

No human being ever lived without pain.  Since pre-antiquity I imagine some quota of pain has been associated with spirits. The holes in brains of cavemen might attempt to let the bad thing out, a predecessor of brain intervention to alleviate mental distress. The rat chewing an injured limb makes me think how we eat our insides, causing more pain trying to end it.  We eat our insides eating us.

Letting the light in? Trepanated skull, Neolithic. The perimeter of the hole in the skull is rounded off by ingrowth of new bony tissue, indicating that the patient survived the operation


The Path of Pain

One may wonder if for us there is such a thing as a purely physical pain and what that may mean. We are psychical beings, feeling beings. Pain we have is felt by someone, a being who relates to it with imaginings, knowing, worry. There are many ways to experience hurt, to undergo the pain, to follow the path of the pain, go under it. In some sense, one practices existence like a musician practices an instrument. What form does your practice take? What lights your spark, your Daemon? It may take a lifetime to find out and as the end draws near you are still practicing, finding out.

Find your path

Under the totem are endless paths. In the Arthurian legends each knight entered the forest in a different place. We do this, too, with amazing labyrinths under the surface, mixtures of form and formlessness, finite beings breathing infinity. We hear a phone ring and when we pick it up a voice says, “Hello, psyche calling.” “I’m listening,” we say. A book can be a kind of phone ringing hoping to be picked up, heard, worked with. Something unknown filtered through many voices.

The method of this book is fragmentary. Different facets of experience emerge, recede, reappear, while others enter. The emphasis is on feeling and imaginative reflection. A good deal draws on therapy sessions and ongoing dialogues with workers who have touched the author, including Bion, Winnicott, Freud, Jung, Klein, Buber, Suzuki, Milner, Wittgenstein, and Wertheimer.  Many personal contacts are included, growth moments, quandaries, hopes, possibilities. The writing grows from love of the psyche, its difficulties and gifts, what we sense as well as the vastness beyond sensing, a love affair ongoing for nearly sixty years of work and acts of shared faith.

Michael Eigen is a psychologist and psychoanalyst. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University (adjunct), and a Senior Member of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. He is the author of a number of books, including Toxic NourishmentThe Psychoanalytic MysticFeeling Matters and Flames from the Unconscious.

     His latest book, Under the Totem: In Search of a Path, has just been published by Karnac.


Reviews and Endorsements

‘What a great pleasure it is spending timeless time with Michael Eigen as he weaves his internal world and external world into a rich and thought-provoking meditation. This book is filled with mystery, wonder, imagination, keen observation, and profound respect for the way each of us goes about making a path of our own.’
– Thomas H. Ogden, MD, author most recently of Reclaiming Unlived Life: Experiences in Psychoanalysis and The Hands of Gravity and Chance: A Novel

‘If, as Michael Eigen claims, writing is indeed a form of singing, this book is a paean to psychoanalysis. Drawing on a lifetime of work in the field, Eigen has little interest in the bromides and platitudes that have come to dominate supposedly evidence-based practices in psychotherapy. Instead, we are offered a wisdom of practice accumulated from deeply human and deeply humble existential encounters with fellow humans, as well as from Eigen’s dazzlingly erudite mind. What Eigen practices is a psychoanalysis of unfathomable depths and an embrace of the beauty and pain of human existence. He situates this beautifully in a practice of faith, spirituality, and radical openness that he suggests is fundamental to true human contact. Perhaps one of the greatest beauties of psychoanalysis is the privilege placed on wisdom of elders, and Eigen’s book is a gift of just such wisdom. It is an inspiration to all of us to stay the course, however insufficient our efforts at human healing may feel.’
– Michael O’Loughlin, Adelphi University and Co-chair of Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society

‘Michael Eigen offers us further invitation into the mystery at the heart of the human experience that is, at its core, also at the heart of the psychoanalytic journey. The aesthetic of Eigen’s writing is such that that if one allows oneself, one might be deeply touched and transformed through that process.’
– Marilyn Charles, Austen Riggs Center, author of Psychoanalysis and Literature: The Stories We Live

“Hello, psyche calling”