The universe is always speaking, they say – we just have to be open to hearing it. “The experience often is characterized by […] guests who come calling, but who swiftly retreat unless they are recognized and greeted” (Coppin & Nelson, 2017). Even in silence, it is speaking. Psyche is the Greek word for “soul”, and it has twin roots - the mysterious “butterfly” and the verb “to breathe” (Hollis, 1996). We breathe it in, that “…breath of life [which] connects us to [the] world, each time we breathe in or out, [enabling] us to be speaking beings” (Downing, 2000).
As Edward Whitmont put it: "one cannot encounter the Self through introversion only. Human fullness requires the actual meeting with a Thou” (Coppin & Nelson, 2017). In the “meeting with a Thou” – in the work of speaking, sharing, relating - of being with – the Self may be experienced, through feeling, and importantly, through all feeling, whether those feelings are desirable, tolerable, or not.
The problem has always been that “to know oneself profoundly can be extremely upsetting” (Bettelheim, 1982) – because it means feeling into “the shadow part of the psyche” (Le Grice, 2016), which can mean feeling painful feelings. In this case our task is simply “…to live through them, not repress them or hurtfully project them onto others” (Hollis, 1996). It is here that talk therapy can provide us critical assistance in doing so.
To “…experience some healing within ourselves, and to contribute healing to the world, we are summoned to wade through the muck from time to time” (Hollis, 1996), because only “…after the full acknowledgement of the loss […] does there really arise the possibility of turning to other as other” (Downing, 2000). As Rilke said, only one “…who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being” (Coppin & Nelson, 2017).
Therapy can facilitate self-understanding, allowing us to connect to our deeper values, aspirations, and beliefs; it can also bring us closer to the experience of the numinosity of which we are both apart from, and a part of, and which holds us in protection wherever we go - the ocean of which our consciousness is but a drop - though, as Coppin & Nelson (2017) note, even that metaphor is inadequate since, unlike an ocean, it “…is fundamentally immeasurable and therefore impossible to quantify or fully define […it is] a wilderness that cannot be tamed.”
As Camus (1965) said, “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?” One answer might be: nothing, if that condition is restricted to the cognitive. It seems to me that true inquiry cannot “be unyoked from the complex emotional life of the body” (Coppin & Nelson, 2017); for me, the felt sense is the ‘why’ and the ‘what for’ of inquiry itself – my connection to and experience of that which lies beyond my individuality. Psyche, Self, spirit, soul: these are all interchangeable terms to me; their number indicates that what they point at is beyond intellectual comprehension - but not experience. The mind looks for explanations, but the body knows better; it simply receives what is given, and what is given to me - is feeling.
It is not one but all feelings that bring such communion. As Nietzsche said, “All feeling suffers in me and is in prison: but my willing always comes to me as my liberator and bringer of joy.” This I understand as meaning: the will to feel - the will to attend to the entirety of the felt sense, no matter how painful. Suffering “is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (Frankl, 1984).
It seems to me that the felt sense is the live wire through which the current of life travels, that feeling is the immanent experience of the one in all, and that thought is but a shadow cast upon the wall by that singular flame. It follows then that when the mind is not put at service of the heart, but instead learns to dominate it, that many of the difficulties that lead us to seek therapy result.
Bettelheim, B. (1982). Freud and Man’s Soul. Vintage Books, Random House, NY.
Camus, A. (1965). The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. H. Hamilton, London.
Coppin, J. & Nelson, E. (2017). The Art of Inquiry: A Depth-Psychological Perspective. Spring Publications; Thompson, CT.
Downing, C. (2000). Sigmund Freud’s Mythology of Soul; the Body as Dwelling Place of Soul. In: Slattery, D. P. & Corbet, L. (2004). Depth Psychology: Meditations in the Field. Daimon Verlag, Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Simon & Schuster, NY.
Hollis, J. (1995). Tracking the Gods: the Place of Myth in Modern Life. Inner City Books, Toronto, ON.
Hollis, J. (1996). Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places. Inner City Books, Toronto, ON.
Le Grice, K. (2016). Archetypal Reflections: Insights and Ideas from Jungian Psychology. Muswell Hill Press; London/NY.
Nietzsche, F. W. (Translation by Hollingdale, R J., 1977). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England.
Religion is weaponized and used to commit very real harm time and time again, in the name of spirituality. Intersectional issues such as racism, misogyny, sexual and gender expression are all entwined with the subject.
Therapy continues to be contextualized within the dominant patriarchal culture that upholds narratives situating white cis able-bodied men as superior to trans and cis women, trans men, nonbinary persons, racialized folks, neurodivergent folks, disabled folks, and any others deemed outside that narrow, normative circle. This context can result in the spirituality and religiosity of these folks automatically being delegitimized too. And yet it’s possible to argue that psychopathology is, in fact, a result of some degree of absence of spiritual connection to the life and universe around you – as well as, in some instances, even a result of an overwhelming experience of that connection, an experience that takes an individual beyond what their materialist culture provides any kind of framework for, leaving them totally overwhelmed by something they therefore cannot explain or contain.
Spirituality and religiosity can be core components of what a person brings to the therapy experience. A lack of understanding of another’s worldview in this sense – a failure, for example, to look beyond mainstream media portrayals of Islam – can be serious barriers to effective therapy. This is where any ignorance on behalf of the practitioner of any of the ways in which a client experiences oppression can lead to all manner of harmful values being imposed upon them.
My own experience and journey has highlighted love as the ground from which all other feelings arise. It appears to me that we feel angry because someone has transgressed our boundaries, for example, or that we feel grief because we have lost something or someone, and that none of this would arise if we did not in fact love ourselves and deem ourselves worthy of love, respect, happiness and safety. The thing that appeals to me about psychodynamic therapy is that it arguably centres feeling as the primary unit of experience. Now, this framing may well be rooted in my own bias, but for me the place where psychodynamic therapy and my own eastern spiritual heritage appear to connect is in the understanding that the thing that animates us, the thing that does all things, does them all through feeling.
For me, psychodynamic therapy is the sharpest tool in the therapist's toolbox for cutting through all of the defences we develop to keep ourselves separated from our experience of feeling and therefore our experience of that thing which animates us - ultimately, from our experience of the feeling of love, the feeling of the benevolent universe itself.
What does it mean to ‘work with the unconscious’? For me, working with the unconscious in therapy means noticing what is not being attended to but is still manifest, in the room, in the relationship, in the client’s behaviour, in their body - in my own behaviour, and in my own body too. A starting point for doing so is will, or perhaps, openness - to that which is greater than myself and the client, that which holds us both and silently guides us in our work together.
The biggest difference between Freud’s psychoanalytic approach and the modern one can perhaps be generalized as the difference between good science and bad. In bad science the scientist observes the object but never actually accounts for themselves as a variable in the equation. Good science, though, does, and modern psychodynamic therapies do this by pivoting from Freud’s one-directional method of practice - with the therapist as an all-knowing observer, and the client as object of observation - to an awareness of the importance of the therapeutic alliance, where the presence of both people is an equally meaningful part of the process, and the mechanism of change is ultimately found in the relationship between the two.
Freud’s one-directional approach to practice can perhaps be said to reflect the hierarchical, patriarchal model of thought that continues to dominate today - the one-up and one-down - whereas we can but hope that the focus on the therapeutic relationship is indicative of a differently structured future. That’s the direction psychoanalysis seems to me to have taken – a strong therapeutic alliance is widely accepted as being a critical mechanism of action in the psychotherapy, and so much can be learned from our unconscious reactions to being an active participant in one.
In therapy there sometimes comes what is called a moment of rupture - a moment in the therapeutic relationship where the connection is threatened, or even damaged. Such challenging moments are quite possibly inevitable, given that out in the world of daily life they occur, relationally, all the time. Our job as a therapist and client dyad, working together, is to be as open and attentive to these moments as we can, because they provide significant opportunities for growth. Such moments can leave us both with no choice but to fall back again on our own resources, and (hopefully) from there to return to one another - having been reconfigured by our individual understanding of what happened, and what it meant, and from this emergent way of being and understanding - rather than backing out - to continue inching forward, toward each other, and ultimately, toward our own selves.
Something good can come from difficult moments; it can almost seem at times as if the unconscious of both therapist and client have colluded to create such an opportunity. If consciousness is a stream, and behaviour and conscious awareness of its determinants are what we see at the surface of the water, well, then - the deep flows just as incessantly.
Many clients come to therapists wanting guidance, and tools – ultimately wanting someone to tell them what to do, and how to do it. While I can fully sympathise with this wish, I also can’t help but think this stance arises out of painful experience – that it is a learned response, a reaction in which people shut down their own valid emotional reactions, have an external locus of value and of judgement, lose all sense of their own agency and ultimately lose the knowledge that everything they need is already inside them.
The issue of “wanting tools” is often a barrier to the work a client is there to do. “Wanting tools” often means wanting a shortcut, a way of bypassing the unconscious obstacles between a person and the life they want to live – such as unconscious anxiety, or unconscious, attachment-related behaviours. As a practitioner dealing with this wish requires stepping out of the shoes of an omnipotent, all-knowing expert, and focusing instead on the collaborative effort, the shared effort where the client and I put all our skills together, put our hearts and minds together to try to achieve something good for them. It requires being honest and transparent about the limits of my powers – that I cannot know for sure what the client needs, that I may have some ideas about what might be good for them, but that ultimately only they can know. This means accepting their reactions in response to this, encouraging them to fully embody the feelings that then arise in response to me, and ultimately leaving the space of knowing what they need free for them to step into and claim once again.
Transference is perhaps not a widely known term. It can be thought of as when a pattern of interacting with an early attachment figure becomes a blueprint for later relationships. Nat Kuhn, in "Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy: A Reference" (2014), describes transference as the tendency to "bring aspects of problematic relationships with early attachment figures into therapy". For example, a client with a highly critical mother may tend to feel that the practitioner is being critical towards them and become hostile in response. Working in the transference, which is a key mechanism of change in psychodynamic work, involves focusing on these feelings towards the practitioner, perhaps in the hope of clarifying their origin and thus allowing the client to work through this unresolved emotional content in the context of a secure attachment. It can be differentiated from projection in that it isn't necessarily something you are disowning from within yourself and then projecting onto another, but more the echo of a learned pattern of interacting. There is overlap between the two - there can perhaps be projection in transference, for example. But what is important here is the willingness and the ability to discern between old feelings about past, painful experiences, and new feelings about present experiences. Without this discernment our reactions in the present will never be just our reactions to the present, but instead be forever clouded by echoes from the past.
Thoughts on Therapy and Mental Health