The Therapy Womb, by Michael Eigen

Psychoanalytic Beauty and the Unborn Self

I remember the first one-on-one session I had with a patient when I began training. I felt I could breathe in an emotional atmosphere I had been looking for without knowing it. A new kind of atmosphere to live in, mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul, psyche to psyche, with all the quagmires, blocks, furies, longings and beauty therapy gives birth to.  Therapy wombs filled with therapy births and persistent conflict whether to be born or not, in what ways, with what price.  It can be confusing to be in and out of womb at the same time, but to be so, I feel, is a basic structure of our existence.

There are ways every birth involves a partial death. In experiential life births and deaths are partial and interweave in myriad ways. Therapy hopes to support a balance for the better, on the side of gestation, expression, and what Winnicott depicts as basic creativeness in the sense of being alive.

William Blake writes of a moment in each day that Satan can not find, which, if rightly placed renovates every moment of the day. Special moments, creative moments which he likens to pulsations. I would not go so far as to say we find such moments in therapy, but we do find something like them, creative moments, creative sessions, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is the creativity in therapy, special forms of creativity, that cements the deal for many of us. To be a therapist almost guarantees a creative life.

As time goes on, for many, therapy creativity becomes both womb and birth in which all manner of creatures grow.  A lot like a psychoanalytic institute, in which all kinds of things happen,  hurtful, uplifting, enlivening, deadening.  Very like a family, or neighborhood, or nation, therapy wars go on within and between kingdoms, along with inklings of the possible impossible and the impossible possible.

Lacan likens therapist and patient to lover and beloved who switch roles and affect.  One could also experience therapist and patient as warriors, unsure if murder or cooperation is best. Sometimes on reading Freud I wonder if he is fantasizing gladiators, the unconscious as lion, thumbs up or down, mutual mutilation or partnership. The idea of partnering ourselves, each other, and our capacities seems almost a newcomer in evolution next to the model of control and dominance.

All kinds of things go on in psychoanalytic wombs. Tendencies, states, inclinations, sensibilities, capacities compete, fight, interweave, nourish. I think of Yeats’s famous words,  ‘what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.’  I think, too, of experiences as a child lifting up rocks in the woods. Who knew what one would find, strange looking critters, crawly, wiggling things, menacing, enticing, scary, mesmerizing.  Therapy narcissism or as Sir Edward Dyer wrote in the 1500’s,  “My mind to me a kingdom is.”  Entranced with the psyche, one’s inner being – what discoveries are on hand for psyche and us? What surprises?

When Bion spoke in New York City in 1977, the only analyst on these shores he referenced was Theodore Reik, his writing on surprise. I fear Bion modified it somewhat saying, “Life is filled with surprises. Most of them bad.” One reason the good feels so good.  Like Reik, Bion emphasized the unknown as an essential part of experience, making for humility of approach and a call for compassion.

Given the complexity of what we face, I sometimes like to substitute “Love thyself” for “Know thyself,” although the two can nourish each other.  What a momentous job we have, to help support growth of capacity for psychic contact with an attitude of compassion rather than cruelty. Psychic cruelty – where does it lead us? We see its work so many ways, in and outside us, an evolutionary challenge.

Personally, I’ve learned from every psychoanalytic “school” I’ve ever come in contact with. Not just because of intellectual curiosity but inner need for discoveries each makes or emphasizes. Each adds to my sense of psychic reality and adds to what may be useful in a session.  By an accident of life, more than sixty years ago I studied Jung before Freud and my relationship with each are still growing.

When Diane Sperber was in an NPAP seminar with me, I discovered gestalt psychology was part of her background and felt delighted to hear that. I did some work with Fritz Perls in the 1960’s and found ways that depth and gestalt psychologies nourish each other.  So many groups that have so much to give fight each other. I would like to declare the therapy wars over. Is that unrealistic? We need strife to grow? Even so, some modicum of transcendence may be possible, making room to nourish what we can offer one another.


Traditions of Receiving and Acceptance: Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis

In my sessions with Bion, I was taken aback when, seemingly out of the blue, he said, “I use the Kabbalah as a framework for psychoanalysis.”  It opened and reinforced a sense that psychoanalysis needs something more than psychoanalysis in order for it to be psychoanalysis. It needs, of course, Life, but also a sense of many approaches to living humans have explored.  Perhaps someone may have a musical sense of psychoanalysis or an aesthetic sense that exceeds yet embraces psychoanalytic possibilities. Many models are part of Bion’s writings, but with me he made sure to bring out the spiritual.

When I was young I would sometimes think that the human race was made up of different species with little means of communicating with one another.  Why do we have so many kinds of psychoanalytic schools and other therapies, so many kinds of spiritual disciplines? We might as well ask why do we have so many different kinds of poets or musicians or artists or languages?

We seem to inhabit a variety of psychic territories with a variety of sensibilities.  William James classifying people as tough or tender-minded had some vogue and is a verbal image still current today.  Ancient Greece suggested four main temperaments. Jung, very like Kaballah, notes individual emphasis on sensation, feeling, intellect and intuition.  One could suggest other schemas but it has not escaped notice that people have varied traits which play roles in how they get along or don’t get along. If you fail to find a school or group that reflects your particular sensibility and makeup, you might start your own. In a way, fighting for causes is akin to fighting for the kind of person you are or imagine you are or perhaps would like to be.

“Groddeck had a cosmic-like sense of the It”

We have a large cafeteria of psychic possibilities to work with, to partner with.  Fighting at times is useful but can be overdone and be-come a barrier to larger perspectives that allow for differences, expected or unexpected, known or unknown. Differences even in oneself.  Rimbaud, we know, said “I am an other.” Groddeck had a cosmic-like sense of the It.  There is no end to the fathomless within. Both depth and surface are inexhaustible.  When we look at another school we might say, “Thank you for mining that part of personality that way.” It is a kind of spontaneous division of labor. One group, one school one individual, can’t do it all.  All is not something that is ever done.

It was quite a struggle for art, dance, music, or poetry therapy to become part of psychoanalysis.  But today they are or can be, depending on the practitioner and those s/he works with.  Today many forms of body work and psychoanalysis interweave. Marion Milner was  one of the early spokespersons for body and art in psychoanalysis. Winnicott, we know, used drawing as part of his work. Lines between child and adult therapy became more permeable.

Today, I would like to say, many venues can be part of  psychoanalytic work.  Cognitive, behavior,  focusing, imaging, sensory are some of the modalities that can be incorporated. Psychoanalysis is spontaneously evolving in open ways. So much can be put to use that dogmatic  closing off of  possibilities is out of place.  Neurological research and thought has always been part of the background of our work and continues so today.  We are all in this together, up against tough issues of the day. Mutual appreciation of contributions that can help will, hopefully, grow more widespread.


Growing Psychoanalysis

“psychoanalysis is embryonic”

As I mentioned in the NPAP graduation talk I gave in 2010, Bion felt that psychoanalysis is embryonic.  He also speaks of it as a baby  with possibilities of development as yet unknown. He didn’t hesitate to speak about politics, music, poetry, science, philosophy. He noted that psychoanalysis grew from experiential vision through literature (e.g., Freud’s reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus), the importance of which Freud never denied.

Can I be silly? Picture Freud as Don Quixote.  Remember, he learned Spanish so he could read Cervantes in the original. Picture psychoanalysis as a dream of Cervantes.  In Bion’s last, extended written work, a semi-psychic autobiography, A Memoir of the Future, he writes of psychoanalysis as a dream and the dream of psychoanalysis.  There is no contradiction between such deep non-sense,  sense of humor,  and the spirit that psychoanalysis touches with its fairy wands.

Have you found, as I have, that many analysts consider their work sacred? One size does not fit all and I do not want to fit one person into another’s sensibility. The other day on leaving for work I off-handedly said to my wife, “I’m heading for shul.” My temple. My prayer, a special place of faith and challenge, psychoanalytic faith and challenge. To work within a state of prayer – have you ever done that? You don’t have to, of course. No need to be any kind of analyst other than the one you are and will grow into.  I’m just saying a little of how it feels to me, at least sometimes.

It is a relief to leave one’s ordinary life and enter this special altered space without LSD. Just the living psyche. Hide and seek, living and dead.  The invisible phone rings, you pick it up and what does it say? “Hello, psyche speaking.” And you dip in. And yes, it’s true, when the swim ends and the whale spits you up, it feels good to leave and go home to ordinary living.  Unless you discover, as many do, that ordinary living is extraordinary living. Sacral spaces grow. I think of Jacob running away from Esau, making an unexpected discovery on a hillside when he thought he was alone:   “You were here and I didn’t know.”  This special You that may be Everywhere.

And what about the sacred space of psychoanalytic writing, the writing cure?  Would psychoanalysis have been born without the support and impetus of writing?  Free association practiced first with writing then spreading to the spoken word, speaking and writing egging each other on?  I used to teach the Freud-Fliess letters as part of a course on creativity. What a treasure, still pregnant.

Bion felt that psychoanalytic writing should try to evoke the experience that gave rise to it, part of the emotional reality of the session. To touch another from the place that touches one –  to touch and be touched.

Do you know people who write only to and for themselves? I know many. Such an important form of self-contact, what Balint called an area of one, an area of creativity, part of self-creation or discovery, a valuable part of  what may be a widespread autistic dimension of being. Psychoanalysis as an autistic as well as dyadic or triadic activity – all important contributors. And yet autistic contact with oneself is truly relational, a relationship to the feel of one’s own being, and through oneself being itself. A contact that grows in depth and breadth all life long.

What is therapy all about?  It can be about all kinds of things. One of them involves fanning a vital spark, an image used by both Winnicott and Bion.  Kabbalah says there are sparks buried everywhere and our job is to bring them forth, let them work.  No matter where we find ourselves, there are sparks to be found. Perhaps sparks within are created by the finding itself.   Finding is part of creation.

Here is a little quote from Bion’s Paris Seminar in 1978, the year before he died, the year after he was in New York:

“I come across a lot of what is thought to be scientific psychoanalysis, but it doesn’t remind me of anything except boredom. The situation in the consulting room, the relationship between these two people, could be like the ashes of a fire. Is there any spark which could be blown into a flame?”

He then wonders if a better word for the “consulting room” might be atelier, the artist’s workroom, and asks the analysts present, “What sort of artist are you? Are you a potter? A painter? A musician? A writer? In my experience a great many analysis don’t really know what sort of artists they are.”

“a better word for the ‘consulting room’ might be atelier, the artist’s workroom”


Truth Beauty

I would like to end here with a note on psychoanalytic beauty. But I cannot end without talking about some aspects of the world today. In 2006 I wrote an online book called Age of Psychopathy, largely in response to decisions made by the Bush administration.  I felt one strong dynamic of the time was psychopathic manipulation of psychotic anxieties. I spoke some about this at the graduation talk I gave in 2010, but it seems even more germane and portentous now, heightened, among other things, by the recent presidential election.

Psychopathic manipulation of psychotic anxieties.  For example manipulation of  annihilation threats to gain an upper hand, or get what one wants or thinks one wants, particularly in the realm of power.

A few quips by teachers  when I was younger stayed with me. One was by O. Hobart Mowrer.  Mowrer suffered recurrent breakdowns and while in hospital started “truth groups” modeled after medieval small village meetings in which everyone confessed their sins, public confession. He and others found these groups helpful, although his depressive tendency remained. He committed suicide at the age of 75, a couple of years after his wife died, but accomplished a lot of good in his life,  partly through his work as President of the American Psychological Association. People afflicted with serious mental problems can do a lot of good, although we tend to hear more about those who inflict their pain on others.

In one talk that I heard, Dr. Mowrer was asked to say something about psychopathy and responded, “Some people don’t have the common decency to go crazy.”

“Some people don’t have the common decency to go crazy”: the psychopathic manipulation of psychotic anxieties

In an Abnormal Psychology class with Professor Howard Hunt I asked if he could say something about the difference between schizophrenia and psychopathy. We had been reading Cleckley’s book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, which is now online free.  Professor Hunt responded, “One is an open wound, the other scar tissue.”

I’m reminded of a sign a CEO had on his desk, “Show No Pity.” And a well known politician who was asked how he felt when he lost an election replied, “I cut my nerve endings long ago or I couldn’t do what I do.”

“Can you imagine people with cut nerve endings running countries?”

Can you imagine people with cut nerve endings running countries? Or perhaps the cut is only partial, muting, downplaying or eliminating guilt, shame, and some kinds of fear.

It was taken for granted that psychoanalysis could not treat psychopaths.  Earlier, it had been assumed by many that psychosis was also a lost cause.  Yet today many of us successfully work with psychosis and a later offshoot,  “borderlines.”  Care and capacity have stretched and continues to grow.  Are we, can we also make inroads with psychopathy?

When I was younger, I heard over and over, you have to have a certain capacity for truth for psychoanalysis to work.  Psychoanalysis was about truth. Psychopathic tendencies in Freud and Jung did not escape my attention, yet both made amazing contributions which continue to help this moment.

Psychopathic tendencies in the mental health field today are part of everyday life, including therapists and analysts. You can’t psychoanalyze a liar seemed like an odd conclusion since a liar was doing the psychoanalyzing. As I grew, I realized the double and triple edge work of lying. Things aren’t so simple.  Psychopathy of everyday life is very real.

By the time I reached Bion I was ready for his declaration that “lying is ubiquitous.”  If you can’t psychoanalyze a liar, you can’t psychoanalyze anyone.  Of course, there is quality and degree, different kinds of personality organizations. But I think we have already begun to take a bite out of this particular apple and are working in more complex ways in face of human destructiveness. One never recovers from being human and how to be and work with ourselves is a work in progress.

Now I feel a little freer to speak about one of my deepest feelings of all: the beauty of this work.  Those who have  a vocation to save the world through social and political reform have  potential to help humanity in large ways. I learned about myself a long time ago, my calling was to try to help individuals one on one.  Little changes can make a big difference in someone’s life. Freud talked about small changes in quantity having a big effect on quality, a shift in the big battalions of life and death for the better.    One helps, I feel, in a large way indeed, by adding to, lifting one person’s sense of existence.

Throughout our lives we are pregnant with our lives

I’ve spoken a lot about birth in this talk, particularly therapy births.  Throughout our lives we are pregnant with our lives, pregnant with unborn selves and psychic babies, including thoughts, feelings, attitudes, modes of experiencing. A pregnancy that never stops, no matter how many births. Gestation does not end. The real question is can it begin, to what extent, with what quality?

There are so many birth murders in the world, in our lives. Think of all the violence in pockets of the world we are aware of, and all that we are not.  So many murders sound like an odd form of self-affirmation, self-assertion. So many have a suicidal component. I remember the day when the saying, “I’ll feed you full of lead,” was current. Think about a murderous feed.  The idea of committing suicide in the act of murder seems more total. There are different kinds of feeds and fusions of  assertion-surrender.  And now, what seems like a newish addition, taking a “selfie” and broadcasting it on the internet as one murders others and kills oneself. Perhaps murder and suicide have always been “selfies” in some ways.

There are so many currents of our being, all with contributions to make if a good enough affective attitude acts as a larger frame.  A modicum of self-transcendence in ways that enable multiple currents breathing room, without turning things into a “stomping ground for wild asses.”

For as much of my life as I can remember, I have been struck by Beauty. Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In the most awful circumstances, a moment of beauty has saved me. In A Memoir of the Future, there is a scene of a man running from the enemy. Bullets are flying, escape seems unlikely, and he happens to hear a bird singing and looks up and for a moment is lifted beyond his plight. Later, in relative safety, although not out of danger, he recounts it as one of his most beautiful moments, a heightened reminder of the good of existence he almost lost.

Beauty is the center of the Kabbalah Tree of Life, radiating in all directions, surfacing even in hell on earth. It reminds me of a Zen saying, “There are good days even in hell.” And Congressman Rangell repeatedly telling people, “Everyday is a good day.”

In my book Faith, the chapter entitled “Can Goodness Survive Life,” I write, “Beauty, I believe, is one source of ethics. To see something beautiful can arouse a sense of goodness. Not only a sense of feeling good but also a sense of wanting to do right by, wanting to do justice to a world which can be so beautiful, which can so touch one to the depths.”

I’ll close with words of Bion, a moment of permission, again from one of his last seminars: “It is very important to be aware that you may never be satisfied with your analytic career if you feel that you are restricted to what is narrowly called a ‘scientific’ approach. You will have to be able to have a chance of feeling that the interpretation you give is a beautiful one, or that you get a beautiful response from the patient. This aesthetic element of beauty makes a very difficult situation tolerable. It is so important to dare to think or feel whatever you do think or feel, never mind how un-scientific it is.”

Michael Eigen is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and the 2015 recipient of the NAAP Lifetime Achievement Award. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University, 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.

The above article is an edited version of a talk given for the NPAP Graduation Ceremony, Sept. 16, 2016, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

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