Dreaming personality theory forward: Creating pedagogical change from the ground up

June 24, 2013 12:00 pm

Matthew Silverstein, Ph.D.
Antioch University, Los Angeles
Core Faculty, Masters of Clinical Psychology Program
Director, Spiritual and Depth Psychology Specialization
© 2013

The education of psychotherapists is moving more and more in the direction of training in evidence based, short-term, manualized protocols. While many novel and important therapeutic strategies have been devised that conform to this trend, strikingly absent is a regard for the utility of the subjectivity of the therapist as well as the non-rational, non-quantifiable, non-linear aspects of a normal psychotherapeutic process. While some significant brief dynamic models of therapy have also been developed, by and large psychodynamic therapy is increasingly deemed excessive and ineffective, despite research to the contrary. It is therefore falling out of favor in clinical training programs and certainly within most community mental health settings. In this light the need is great for those within the depth psychological communities to respond, innovate, and foster educational initiatives that preserve the revolutionary vision of depth psychology and its timely applications in both psychotherapeutic and community settings. This paper discusses one such educational initiative begun at Antioch University, Los Angeles in which a specialization called Spiritual and Depth Psychology housed within a graduate psychology program was recently launched that marries Jungian-informed depth psychology with classical mindfulness studies. The specialization encountered an initial challenge of revising a long standing course introducing psychodynamic personality theories. A desire to teach the psychoanalytic canon was offset by growing frustrations over limitations embedded in the early theories such as unnamed Eurocentric, White, 3 heteronormative, male biases. This dilemma was brought to the Antioch community to literally dream upon. The author and colleague, Dr. George Bermudez, used the process of social dreaming (based on Gordon Lawrence’s (2003) model) to hear what was on the community’s mind vis a vis dream sharing and reflection. The paper discusses the results of this community research and subsequent developments directly informed by the social dreaming. It is the position of this paper that the social dreaming process could serve as a technique to ongoingly advance the teaching of personality theory as well as provide a vector for future applications of psychoanalysis for the betterment of community life.


Given the generational inheritances of feminism, the civil rights movement, LGBT liberation and affirmative psychology, multiculturalism, postmodernism, eco-psychology, the wave of mindfulness informed clinical practices, and other developments in Western collective consciousness we are left with a pressing need for proactive measures to continually advance our understanding of personality theory and its relevance clinically and to our world today. For various reasons psychodynamic theories and therapy have fallen out of favor. Perhaps at one level this is a deserved rebuke to a reactionary trend that has dominated the field of psychoanalysis particularly since World War II, where psychoanalysis has become synonymous with an indulgence for the privileged elite. Furthermore, market driven forces, shaped by the rationing of mental health care through insurance companies, deem psychodynamic therapy as excessive and ineffective, despite promising recent research to the contrary (Shedler, 2010). This view has necessarily contracted the breadth and depth of inquiry into personality as the sine non qua of psychotherapy, and instead highly researched solution focused strategies, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aimed at quickly ameliorating symptoms have become the new norm and gold standard. All this has led to a widely 4 circulated view within the mental health field that psychodynamic theories and practices are arcane, expensive to implement, and unproven. A psychodynamic view is therefore falling out of favor in clinical training programs and certainly within most community mental health settings.1

Some may feel that this is a necessary evolution within the field, and that depth psychology is  coming to its natural end. Others like myself, whose lives have been transformed through receiving  psychodynamic therapy, training in it, and providing it to others, feel passionately otherwise. In fact, as I will discuss, the current social climate may itself be a collective symptom formation and a hidden terror of our own unconscious life societally, which carries with it so much unresolved traumatic material (as the various rounds of social dreaming made clear). In this light the need is great for those within the depth psychological communities to respond, innovate, and foster educational initiatives that preserve the revolutionary vision of depth psychology and its timely applications in both psychotherapeutic and community settings. This paper discusses one such educational initiative begun at Antioch University, Los Angeles in which a specialization within a graduate psychology program was launched that marries Jungian-informed depth psychology with classical mindfulness studies and diversity consciousness–called Spiritual and Depth Psychology (SDP).

The entry level class for SDP is an introduction to psychodynamic personality theories, normally orienting students to the works of Freud, Jung and others. However, the curriculum of the course is in need of revision, as the theories clearly demonstrate limitations such as Eurocentric, White, heteronormative, male biases. Rather than trying to tackle this concern from the top down, as it were, by having the faculty rework the curriculum, we thought instead, as a first step, in the spirit of psychoanalysis that we would bring this dilemma to the community to literally dream upon. The authors used the process of social dreaming (based on Gordon Lawrence’s model (Lawrence, 2003) to hear what was on the community’s mind and to allow unconscious themes to emerge from the ground up vis a vis dream sharing. The paper discusses the results of this community research and subsequent developments directly informed by the social dreaming. It is the position of this paper that the social dreaming process could serve as a technique to ongoingly advance the teaching of personality theory as well as provide a vector for future applications of psychoanalysis for the betterment of community life.

Background: Creating SDP as a refuge for wild psyche in graduate psychology training

Antioch University, Los Angeles’ clinical psychology program was founded in 1972. Its psychology faculty and students have had a long standing interest in transpersonal and depth psychology with a progressive, humanistic, social justice slant. Psychoanalysts from numerous local analytic institutes have served on the faculty and psychodynamic therapy has been generally highly esteemed. However, increasingly as the field of clinical psychology has diversified, and in response to the previously mentioned changing trends in the field, a psychodynamic view and particularly a Jungian approach are often thought of as interesting perhaps but non-essential to the nuts and bolts training of becoming a therapist. In part as a response to this trend in 2010 SDP was launched. Its aim is to provide a venue within graduate training that explicitly emphasizes the value of Jungian based psychodynamic theory and practice as well as the need for an integrative model of psychotherapy utilizing principles of Eastern classical mindfulness and Western depth psychology alongside of solution focused modalities. In other words we are encouraging students to become bilingual with theoretical perspectives, learning a depth oriented model as a native tongue, yet also becoming proficient in other modes, whether it be CBT, narrative therapy, or others. We are parting with the prior attitude of exclusivity that can come with a psychodynamic perspective (or any other) and exploring the development of hybrid models of practice that can be well utilized in the market place today. For example, a student may learn to conceptualize a case psychodynamically, knowing how to work with transference dynamics, yet also can deploy mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral strategies, as needed. This is an integrative model that seems inevitably to be to the future of depth informed clinical practice. Furthermore, SDP intends to ground any depth oriented practice in an underlying value of social justice. Through recognizing the role of the unconscious, particularly processes of projection, in hampering intercultural understanding and perpetuating intergenerational trauma, we can contribute to discourses on the furthering of socio-cultural diversity consciousness.

Jung’s emphasis on the education of the personality (Jung C. , The development of personality, 1954) are particularly timely as a counterpoint to the alarming shifts in the mental health field (as a subset of a wider cultural trend) toward minimizing or erasing the value of internal, intangible, subtle processes of change. Jung (1968) identified the archetype of the Self as the nonegoic spiritual center of the personality. It is through coming into relation with this centralizing principle—the core of oneself—that one’s vocation as a spiritual calling, comes to be known. From a Jungian view the entire educational process ought to serve the student’s growing relation to this center, i.e. the relationship between the ego and Self, which leads to both a greater sense of wholeness for the individual, and yet also puts this individual in touch with her or his purpose and role in community life.

Does this value seem any less relevant today than when it was written? It would seem so since our system of educating psychotherapists is largely and increasingly organized around the extraverted goals of professional skill development, which however useful, do not necessarily engender a better relationship to one’s own inner life. Arguably, a student who is left without proper encouragement to take seriously the matters of their own psychology including one’s spiritual dimension as the center, rather than the outcast periphery, of their educational process, has been utterly failed by the  educational system. And worse yet, what we end up producing potentially are further self-alienated troubled souls who mistake “parrot like book learning and mechanical use of methods” (p. 168) with the practice of psychotherapy. This may work well, if not splendidly, within a managed health care context, where efficiency of delivery and cost reduction are considerably more valued and more expedient than the messiness and sheer unpredictability of personality development with only one real goal, namely striving toward the ideal of becoming psychically whole, abounding in energy (p. 169).

SDP attempts within an educational milieu, then, to become, a wildlife refuge for psyche, like other refuges dotting the map, pitching into our vitally needed wider community conversation about ecological sustainability. As we pave over the last remains of wild earth, fracking out last gulps of oil, destroying untold numbers of species of plant and animal life in the process, so too are we sealing ourselves off further and further from our own true nature and laying the seeds of an inevitable and gargantuan return of the repressed-in-nature. We see premonitions of this cataclysmic process in our newly arisen wrathful deities like Katrina, Sandy, and Fukushima.

How can those of us in the depth psychological community avoid colluding in this collective course toward self-destruction? Is it possible that when we research, remember, and direct awareness to the infinitely diverse aspects of psychic reality arising each moment in each of us that we are also honoring the foolishly forgotten gods of Nature? Is it feasible that we are building a bridge to another future outcome when we direct our attention lovingly to better fathom and know the extraordinary range of symptoms, dreams, and visionary ideas that tumble forward from the unconscious? There is an old Zen expression: do not underestimate the power of a single monk revolving the sutras on a mountainside. Perhaps this is what we do when we help to validate and shed some little insight into the usefulness and even sacred purpose of the often neglected or even demonized spectrum of intelligence that is inwardly and experientially derived.

SDP Curricular Elements

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Briefly the curriculum for the specialization became organized around three main domains:
(1) Jungian based Depth Psychology, (2) Classical Mindfulness based Clinical Skills, and (3) Diversity Consciousness. Each of these domains coalesces around the central organizing principle of integrative (holistic) psychotherapy (the center) and the broader vision of community service (the circumference). In this light Jungian theory is used as a framework for approaching the study of the unconscious within the context of studying one’s own relationship to it (subjectivity) and the relationship of one’s own subjectivity to others (intersubjectivity). From a Jungian (1964) view a reasonable approach toward educating the personality requires first of all facing one’s own shadow side—the hidden, disowned, often problematic (including problematically positive) aspects of oneself at the personal, cultural and transpersonal levels that tend to be projected when not related to consciously. Whereas the class work is not a substitute for psychotherapy the classroom is meant to augment extracurricular psychotherapy and other endeavors of self inquiry and self care with the intention of applying this knowledge toward clinical practice, e.g. in uses of countertransference.

The Classical Mindfulness curriculum is based on Buddhist informed principles of attention and awareness training that are virtually absent in a Western educational paradigm. This includes specifically learning how to identify different forms of attention (e.g. focal and peripheral) and how to sustain attention over time (e.g. by continuously attending to one’s breath). These skills are directly applicable to the process of skilled self observation which can then naturally enhance a range of clinical skills such as active listening, self/other differentiation, distress tolerance, equanimity, analysis of countertransference, and enhancing critical perspective. Furthermore, classical mindfulness is the basis for a range of contemporary mindfulness-based clinical strategies (e.g., Segal, Teasedale, & Williams, M., 2002).

Lastly diversity consciousness is embedded in each aspect of the curriculum. It refers bilaterally to both diverse nature of psyche (referred to above) and the inherent diversity amongst individuals and socio-cultural groups. Psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy offers an understanding of the role of the unconscious in the formation of impressions of otherness, and the projection process that often makes those perceived as other demonic, terrifying, and dangerous.

Additionally, advances in Jungian theory have led to a greater appreciation of cultural symptom formation, or cultural complexes (Singer & Kimbles, 2004), which like personal complexes behave as autonomous factors within the cultural personality allowing a culture to become subsumed with its own unconscious material (e.g. intergenerational traumatic racial memory) which mobilizes many forms of overwhelming collective anxiety and consequent defensiveness which can be understood as root causes of social psychopathology such as racism, homophobia, misogyny, and more generally xenophobia.

Gateway course: Personality Theory 1

As a gateway to SDP, students are required to take and pass a course called Personality Theory 1. This course (or earlier iterations of it) has been a bedrock of Antioch’s graduate psychology program since its inception in Los Angeles in 1972. At that time psychoanalytic theory was still considered by most, at least at Antioch, as the consummate view of the psychotherapeutic process. CBT was developing its own reputation as an alternative to and reaction against psychoanalysis, but the prevailing view was certainly that a skilled psychotherapist needed to understand the basics of psychodynamic theory including drive theory, transference and countertransference, unconscious defenses at a minimum. Jung, a favorite of one of the founders of Antioch LA, was taught as well, though his work was generally considered too fantastic in mainstream psychology. Notably Jung was popular amongst the burgeoning New Age movement, the Hippie Generation, as well as those interested in Eastern mysticism, and the science of non-duality— a subculture that helped Antioch Los Angeles’ very progressive home grown psychology program get its start.

The course description for Personality Theory 1 is as follows:

This course will introduce students to the fundamental principles of depth psychology, which is arguably the basis of current Western theories of personality. The course prepares students to pursue further theoretical understandings of contemporary theories of personality in a variety of modalities…

Focus will be on the following: The Freudian school of psychoanalytic theory and practice; the object relations school including the work of Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott; the Jungian school of analytical psychology; and the school of self psychology begun by Heinz Kohut. Other contemporary psychodynamic perspecives will also be considered such as relational/intersubjective and attachment theories. The course will consider a depth psychological view of trauma, including intergenerational trauma and the potential value of psychoanalytically informed treatment strategies. The course also provides an opportunity to examine the socio-political relevance of a depth psychological perspective, namely as an agency of social transformation through providing a vehicle for addressing unconscious processes in groups, communities, and nations that can lead to the perpetuation of personal and collective oppression. (Silverstein, 2012)

I would point out the last sentence. It highlights a direct connection to the social activist agenda espoused by the founders of psychoanalysis , so frequently diluted or lost in current presentations of psychodynamic theory. Whether psychoanalysis can legitimately carry this mantle or not may bear on its future relevance, so I would like to delve more deeply here.

The spirit of psychoanalysis ushered in by Freud, Jung, and others was meant as much as an activist movement to intervene on societal violence and collective unconsciousness as it was a novel modality of psychotherapy. In the haze of the recent generation’s skepticism of psychoanalysis and frustration with its appeal to the elite few who can afford expensive treatment, we have forgotten Freud and the early psychoanalytic movement’s work establishing a free clinic system throughout Europe. Speaking on behalf of the establishment of the first psychoanalytic free clinic Freud implores:

It is possible to see that the conscience of society will awaken and remind it that the poor man should have just as much assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery… Then institutions and outpatient clinics will be started to which analytically trained physicians will be appointed…Such treatments will be free… (Danto, 1998, p. 287)

Remarkably for a brief while between 1922 and 1936 the free clinic system was established and served anyone seeking assistance.

Even homosexuality, though poorly understood by the founders of psychoanalysis, was attempted to be thought about in a relatively scientific, non-judgmental, non-criminalizing, progressive manner (for the day). Freud testified courageously against the criminalization of homosexuality (Crompton, 2003), and his famous letter to an American mother reflects perhaps his clearest attitude toward homosexuality. Freud writes:

I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis (Freud, 1951, p. 787).

The most prominent platform in the early psychoanalytic progressive agenda rests with the social analysis of the unchecked and poorly understood forces of human aggression that seized Europe during the turn of the twentieth century. Freud helped to shed light on the neurosis inherent in the civilizing process itself, where instinct is seemingly at war with morality, leading to a relatively reasonable compromise formation called ego and culture.

Jung, following faithfully in his own way after Freud, was also consumed with dread at the prospects of a European psyche that seemed to be entirely possessed by a collective psychosis in the various World Wars. Jung felt that the collective refusal to attend to its own hidden problems amounted to an incapacity to tolerate the idea of the unknown. As Jung (1964) states:

There are historical reasons for this resistance to the idea of the unknown part of the
human psyche. Consciousness is a very recent acquisition of nature, and it is still in an “experimental” state. It is frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured…Even in what we call a high level of civilization, human consciousness has not yet achieved a reasonable degree of continuity [integrity] It is still vulnerable and liable to fragmentation (pp. 7-8).

As an answer to this vulnerability and forward development, Jung forcefully petitioned for a collective awareness of the psychic nature of the afflictions embroiling twentieth century Europe arguing loudly for the responsibility each individual and nation has to face the shadow problem with its often disowned forces of destructiveness and power seeking, As Jung (1954) points out (on the eve of World War II):

The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree we are threatened by wars and revolutions which are nothing other than psychic epidemics. (p. 177)

With astounding accuracy this reflection of the modern predicament has become only more apropos since the time it was written. We can surmise that even the natural disasters we are beginning to see more of and that frighten us collectively are intrinsically psychically driven. Nature is running amuck, but it is our violence toward Her (Nature) that is to blame in this instance. In other words from a Jungian perspective, the violence we see in and do to Nature reflects a collective violent attitude toward our own wild and unknowable unconscious mind.

Though Jung’s work and others’ proceeded and provided historic contributions post WWII, in general perhaps in part as a reaction to the enormous psychic shock of the war, the more visible social activist agenda so integral to psychoanalysis largely faded to the background or went underground in the latter half of the twentieth century. This perceived absence of social consciousness may be responsible in part for the cool reception to a psychodynamic perspective both in educational and clinical settings today. Psychodynamic theory is viewed by many as dated, reactionary, irrelevant, and unproven in its effectiveness. And a poll among people of color would probably reflect the tacit understanding that psychodynamic theory has never really been about anyone other than those of white/Euro-American descent. When I asked an African American colleague (with a doctorate in depth psychology) if depth psychology is white, he looked at me with a grin and said “Of course it is!” implying that I was the last one to find this out. I wonder now about this grin. Was it in part a grimace or a grunt of frustration, a momentary parting of the veil that conceals our systematic apartheid and the anguish this causes within our supposedly progressive curriculum and psychoanalytic communities? My colleague has also taken the opportunity to pioneer an understanding of a black archetypal psychology which has become a course taught through SDP—a needed step that hopefully augurs a truly multicultural psychoanalytic future.

Other cultural forces may be at work in the diminished interest in psychodynamic theory as well. Students are increasingly disenchanted by psychodynamic theories because their application within a contemporary clinical context is unclear, and their viability in the market place is uncertain. Given popular trends toward solution focused, CBT oriented, evidence based practices students naturally wonder why they must waste their time learning about theories they will not use (and that could even be seen as a liability in certain strictly solution focused clinical settings). The underlying historical link between psychoanalysis and say CBT has become an academic point, but practicing CBT does not require knowing psychodynamic theory, regardless of how beneficial this might be. To be viable in the workforce psychology students must know how to practice CBT, the dominant modality in community mental health settings, endorsed, if not in some instances mandated along with pharmacological treatment by managed care companies.

Perhaps seen from a depth psychological perspective the movement toward shorter term solution focused and medication based strategies of treatment reflects a growing split in collective consciousness between rationality and soul. Could it be that we are seeing a further process of spiritual self-alienation pointed out by Jung in which a cult of materialism with its prayers to money, behaviorally anchored strategies, operationalizing techniques, quantifiable outcomes, managed (i.e. rationed) care, leave in limbo a soul psychology forsaken with its nightmares, hot wet dreams, queer twists, sexual plurality, sudden deaths, miracles, excruciating initiations, flowering of divinely inspired wisdom, paradoxes, big Other, and the vast unknown? Yet where does all this disowned aspect of inner life go? Surely, 12 weeks of even decent CBT and the right anti-depressant cannot quench the thirst of the great twin deities, Thanatos and Eros, so where do these old brothers reside? 

Jung (1983) famously wrote: “The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious symptoms for the doctor’s consulting room. . . ” (para 54). Perhaps even the psychoanalytic movement has become encumbered by its own materialism, or at the very least has a public relations problem. Undeniably the practice of psychoanalysis has now become synonymous with upscale therapy in boutique private practices for the financially well-off. Furthermore old social dividing lines in early psychoanalysis are alive and well even within contemporary psychoanalytic institute gatherings, where people of color might dot a sea of whiteness and any presence of LGBT folks seems all but assimilated into the heteronormative community veneer. That this fact is rarely named or proactively debated is itself a symptom of a cultural complex, a blindness to the psychoanalytic culture’s shadows of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. And yet paradoxically the hatching of the term, cultural complex (Singer & Kimbles, 2004), represents a quantum leap forward in the meaningful discussion of cultural psychodynamics, not surprisingly produced by an interracial writing team. With this complex identified perhaps its unconscious possession of the analytic mindset can give way to a greater awareness of a vast array of intercultural depth psychologies, technologies of bridging the world of the seen and the unseen forces of psyche, articulated through diverse cultural lenses.

If we are to move toward a global psychoanalysis, then this collective discourse can only serve a forward momentum. It may be that cross pollination of other traditions may need to occur more intentionally, where the psychological medicine traditions from other cultures are held on equal footing (rather than seen as pre-developed, primitive, inferior, superstitious, and so on). This kind of discourse may need to build upon and replace Jung’s earnest attempts to understand non-Western views of psychic reality in his visits to Africa and Indian Country, U.S. However, one cannot help but see that Jung is bringing with him, an inescapable colonial white bias and violent prejudice, cautioning himself not to get “black under the skin” in Africa. (Jung, 1989, p. 245). In retrospect we can analyze this concern as Jung’s defense against his own shadow of racism, which in a sense hides under the skin, outside of the light of consciousness and his own keen analytic eye. This oversight occurs, we can surmise, because the racism does not belong to Jung alone, and no one in Jung’s circle, friends, colleagues, editors, are on record as taking issue with this aspect of his pedagogy at the time. To his credit Jung was willing to some degree to face this aspect of his own national shadow, and what today we would see as a complex that compels the kind of grandiosity, narcissism, greed, and exploitation that has plagued Euro-American consciousness, and is typical of any colonial power. Perhaps unfairly Jung has been targeted as being exceptionally racist (especially anti-Semitic and in cahoots with the Nazis). From what I can tell this attribution entirely misses the thrust of Jung’s work, which was radically anti-fascist. Jung was more transparent about his own shadow, and within the context of a general repression of shadow material, he might appear relatively more racist than others. What I am getting at is that we, in the psychoanalytic community, need to look harder at our own covert racist ideology, because we are all soaking in it! 

Challenges, too, to the embedded sexism in psychoanalytic thinking have in a sense gone better and more clearly revolutionized the way women, the feminine, and gender generally are taken up in contemporary analytic thought (e.g. Berzoff, 1989; Gilligan, 1991; Dimen and Goldner, 2002). Women’s liberation (though also in need of re-energizing) has helped to transform the previously male dominated and sexist psychoanalytic boy’s club, and in fact the analytic community is heavily female, if not feminist, at this point. This advance has helped to generate greater emphasis on community, social justice, attachment (theory), valuing of mothers, sexual diversity, multiculturalism, and intersubjectivity—as facets of feminism (e.g. Jackson and Greene, 2000; Comas-Diaz and Greene, 1994). Thanks to feminist activism the hardship caused by circulating oppressive sexist and other oppressive ideologies within the context of psychoanalysis has become more proactively considered, easier to name, and of greater general interest to the community. 

Along with the rise of feminism are the relatively recent groundbreaking efforts of LGBT activists within psychoanalysis (e.g. , Isay, 2009; Walker, 1991; Friedman and Jennifer Downey, 2002; Jackson and Greene, 2000). At last homosexuality is being discussed from an gay affirming point of view and the funhouse mirror distortions of gayness typical of earlier psychoanalytic writing gives way to depictions of homosexual development that allows one to feel not only that gay is good and normal, but that it is also inherently profoundly meaningful and socially purposeful. Despite these advances homosexuality and the broader spectrum of LGBT identity is still barely visible within the general psychoanalytic canon. Yet in the last ten years clearly collective trends gradually have become more tolerant and favorable toward gender and sexual variance, as noted by the APA’s historic guidelines (American Psychological Association, 2011) which articulate the ethical importance of non-homophobic psychotherapy. Here are the first three (a similar set of guidelines affirming transgender identity is in progress):

Guideline 1. Psychologists strive to understand the effects of stigma (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and violence) and its various contextual manifestations in the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

Guideline 2. Psychologists understand that lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are not mental illnesses.

Guideline 3. Psychologists understand that same-sex attractions, feelings, and behavior are normal variants of human sexuality and that efforts to change sexual orientation have not been shown to be effective or safe.

At one level these guidelines are self-evident and one wonders at the need to petition health care providers not to be idiotically out of touch with current understanding of human sexuality and hardship gay, bisexual, and lesbian people have suffered under the hammer of homophobia. However, in reality just as a psychological apartheid continues to exist regarding race, so too does institutionalized homophobia (and transphobia) endure and help to shape cultural complex out of which we have barely begun to see clearly. Thus these guidelines necessarily name this aspect of the complex (i.e. persistent delusional perceptions of homosexuality as unnatural, sick, etc.), and the relatively primitive state of our collective consciousness in this respect. 

Thankfully these shifts in the field are being felt and written about for academic purposes. Berzoff, Flanagan, & Hertz (2011) have published an academic text which is geared toward introducing psychodynamic theory to social work students with a tremendously refreshing integration of socio-cultural issues throughout the discussion of each theory and related clinical material. Practically unheard of a generation prior, we hear a rallying cry for the importance of gender, culture, and sexual orientation, and socio-economic status as well as empirical validation in the teaching and practice of psychodynamic therapy. The text notably walks the tight rope between paying homage to the foremothers and forefathers of psychoanalysis, while continually framing the foundational ideas in contemporary terms succeeding most in discussions of gender and culture and perhaps least articulated in discussions of LGBT identities. I was delighted to find a text for Personality 1 that could be used without apology. Yet even this text only begins to poke at the edges of the cultural complex that hangs over our field like Los Angeles smog. How nice to feel the sunshine of a relatively more enlightened attitude toward diversity beginning to peek through the haze, but we are left to contend with the intergenerational inheritance of institutionalized inhumanity toward which many of us have grown accustomed. How do we seriously clear the air?

Social Dreaming 

Because the change we are investigating cannot occur from the top-down alone. This past year I had been learning about social dreaming from my colleague Dr. George Bermudez. (For a further discussion of Dr. Bermudez’s work on social dreaming see his paper in this issue). I asked Dr. Bermudez if he thought that applying social dreaming to our concern about developing Personality Theory 1 from the ground up would be constructive. Through our discussions we both became excited about a collaboration. It became increasingly evident to both of us that a significant change in an attitude toward the way we teach and learn personality theory might best come from the unconscious, and specifically from the unconscious of our learning community.

Social dreaming, advanced by Gordon Lawrence (2003) brings together an appreciation of the value of dreams as windows to the unconscious as espoused by Freud combined with a modeling after aboriginal community dream sharing practices. Lawrence took particular interest in Wilfred Bion’s (post-Freudian) view of dreams as “synthesizing fragmented emotional elements into a whole” (p. 610). Furthermore, Lawrence focused on Bion’s broadening of attention beyond the theory of individual wish fulfillment in dreams to include a theory that in dreams we see the development of thinking and knowledge itself. Bion named this vertex or strand of dream theory, the Sphinx, since it was involved with grappling with the eternal riddle between knowing and non-knowing, and the novel truths (solutions to life’s riddles) that emerge in this process (p. 610). Because the dream material in this vertex is understood as existing both in and beyond the individual realm, it is a ripe arena to tend to an intersubjective field within groups that Lawrence calls a matrix, and the space constellated during social dreaming is then a social dreaming matrix or (SDM).

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A brief consideration of social dreaming from a Jungian perspective can also help shed some light on intersections with Gordon’s approach to social dreaming. Particularly, I would like to return to the concern that has emerged here, namely that we identify and come to bette know the cultural complex(es) that bear on the way that we teach and apply personality theory. Considering Figure 3 we can see a Jungian conceptualization of various strata of psyche. Jung hypothesized the each psyche contains levels of psychic material spanning from individual consciousness (A), unique to each person; to the familial level (B), in which some discreet psychic material is shared between members; to tribal (C) in which more members participate in a shared psychic layer; on down to the central energy (H) which is shared by all (Jacobi, 1973). We can surmise that a cultural complex occurs at the shared level of that group, and consequently a cultural complex would be limited only to that culture, just as an individual complex would be limited to the individual. We can also guess that the vacuum of psychic activity between cultures (i.e. the psychic material that is not shared) creates conditions that are ripe for projection. And finally, we can also consider whether resolution of complexes through intercultural dialogue and capacity for mentalization, empathy, and mutual esteem may come from each respective culture’s capacity to access and value the shared (H) levels of consciousness available to them.

For the sake of illustration were we to consider column I and column II as cultural personalities, then a cultural complex between the two may occurs in the following manner. Culture I has a shared cultural personality (a conscious and unconscious aspect), which does not coincide with culture II’s personality (at the cultural level), even though there is shared deeper, collective unconscious material that both cultures may access. What is culture I to do with its own cultural shadow, the part of its cultural self that it does not consciously know and prefers not to know? Now the space between culture I and culture II also presents a problem, because it is unknowable but may be felt by each. Unless culture I has a very effective way of containing its own shadow material (through community ritual, art, spiritual practice, psychological work, and the like), it cannot help but project its shadow into the vacuum. I would suggest that this occurrence, which is a form of cultural projective identification, has culture I unconsciously confusing its shadow with the mere existence of culture II, so much so that all of culture II to culture I is indistinguishable from culture I’s own shadow. The resultant conundrum can be understood as a type of cultural complex, and as we can imagine this projective crossfire can ricochet back and forth between cultures. And if it temporarily stabilizes each culture’s wobbly personality, in the long run forward movement of libido, i.e. cultural progress, is stymied. Culture I in this instance remains fragmented and perhaps even increasingly destabilized by excessive projective identification and inability to relate more comprehensively to its cultural complex.

I think it is safe to say that Lawrence’s SDM constellates by design the cultural levels of the psyche, and therefore it is a natural intervention for cultural level psychopathology. The turning point in the illustration given hinges on Culture I’s ability to contain its anxiety of not knowing what is going on, what all the dangerous feelings its experiencing mean, who’s to blame, and so on (Lawrence (2003) lists among the working hypotheses of social dreaming that “the social dreaming matrix allows participants to have the experience of being in the unknown, to be in doubts, mysteries, an uncertainties” (p. 620). Theoretically, undergoing this procedure would free up vital resources which not only might discontinue a harmful spiral of intercultural psychic fusion, but also allow for an improved cultural access to transcultural levels of psychic life and thus appreciation of a shared humanity, and also provides resources (through more directly accessing the central energy) that can
invigorate the culture and community to advance its own spiritual and creative efforts more fruitfully.

SDM: Dreaming personality theory forward

On two separate occasions Dr. Bermudez and I invited Antioch community participation in day-long social dreaming processes in which approximately thirty people gathered. On the first occasion Dr. Bermudez and I co-led the group with an artist colleague, and on the second occasion Dr. Bermudez and I co-led alone, and the process was incorporated into a workshop on Jungian dream work. For each SDM participants sat in a spiral configuration, which loaned the event a somewhat intriguing quality from the outset. Interestingly, in this seated configuration direct eye contact is somewhat minimized between participants, however, peripheral attention and thus right brain activation was relatively more accentuated. From any position a good number of people could be seen, and one felt immediately a sense of journeying together. The seating communicates that normal, focused, attention on individuals, and linear thinking would give way to a wider, expansive attention on the group and non-linear process. Instructions offered from the beginning clarified that anyone was invited to share a dream, or freely associate to another person’s dream, but no individual analysis of dream material would occur. A few minutes of mindfulness meditation started off each session. The facilitators continually reminded the group to remain grounded, e.g. taking a breath, noticing one’s body, experiencing sensations coming up, etc. SDM’s lasted about an hour and were repeated. Afterward there was an opportunity to reflect on the process and apply the experience to the question put before the community: how do we best advance our approach toward teaching personality theory?

What emerged in each instance was remarkable to me in a number of ways. Firstly, I was so impressed by the quality of participation, the diversity of the group gathered, and a willingness as a community to dive into entirely unfamiliar territory together. This quality may reflect one of Antioch’s community traits, as many who find their way to our school are seekers, renegades, socially ostracized, creative, curious, and willing to be vulnerable. By turning our attention momentarily away from the grind of amassing facts, professional development, and performance evaluations, a different side of our ordinary community life came forward. Also, since the instructors in the rooms were also participant/leaders, the usual hierarchical structure was softened. Yet because of the unusualness of the entire situation, participants also noted palpable anxiety, fear of not knowing what was going on, where the process would lead, and how it would be managed. Yet, here, too, we can hypothesize that the cultural complex(es) of the community were surfacing, and the usual trajectories for projection/projective identification had been slightly altered. People described feelings of panic, and shortly thereafter dreams came forward.

To illustrate the process I will follow one (or many) dream threads: (a) “I’m on a gay and lesbian radio show, can’t find words to speak. I follow my breath.” (b) “I’m running after my nieces. They want to cross the street. I can’t scream. I wake up screaming.” (c) “I dream of a Two Spirit man, who points out a snake with no voice, but is poisonous. The snake asks, ‘where’s the raging dragon?’ I shout at the top of my lungs from a rooftop.” (d) “People on rooftops when a levee broke in New Orleans, water is rising, hope someone comes to help us escape.” (e) “There’s a boy somewhere in the house that needs protection from an older man that is with me. I have to protect the little boy from him, rescue him. I’m paralyzed with fear. I took action when I heard the little boy scream really, really loud.”

If we stop and consider this thread apart from any individual meanings, which are naturally important, as expressions of the community unconscious especially as it is activated around the pedagogy of personality theory, what can be seen? Group discussion reflecting on the dream sharing returned again and again to the anguish of feeling silenced, erased, disempowered, voiceless, invisible, scared, angry, and hurt along with a shared desire for a way out, someone who could genuinely help, and finally also a desire for action and change compelled by necessity both material and spiritual. What also emerges just from this strand alone is a symbolization of the trauma of feeling silenced as a gay person, stranded in dangerous waters as a person of color, endangered as a child, vigilant as a rape survivor, protective as a mother.

If we venture into an interpretation at the community level, we can guess that the endangered child is the community’s sense of its future, which is currently imperiled by a world that does not feel safe, hospitable, and responsive to our basic emotional and spiritual needs. We see the ravages of perhaps generations of oppression by the “older man,” which we could interpret as the dominant culture, the culture in power, our patriarchal father complex, our teachers, and in the psychoanalytic community this could mean the old guard, the old boy network, the canon. Yet there is the potential for community action when “the boy” screams loud enough. We could guess that here the community psyche is suggesting that the old school psychoanalytic doctrine can become transformed if we can mobilize our authentic needs for further progress. This progress appears to be contingent on a reenvisioning of ourselves as a community that includes the voiceless ones, e.g. gays and lesbians, people of color, silenced survivors, fierce women, indigenous perspectives, etc. No longer can these constituents serve as the receptacle for collective anxieties about security, worth, identity, power, health, and authenticity. Through greater tolerance and capacity to directly reflect upon the anxiety associated with the cultural complex bearing on the psychoanalytic community and the tremendous uncertainty and enervation this can engender, we also see a forward movement of creative life (a burst of energy to protect a children, homeopathically healing from the poisonous snake.) Of course many more meanings are possible and it may take time and further social dreaming to see how these themes develop on the ground.


However, out of these SDM events several significant follow up events did occur that bear mentioning.

Advances in Personality Theory

Based on discussions with the community following the SDM’s, next steps included a new course, which we immediately began to develop. This course became called Advances in Personality Theory, and it was described as follows:

Theories of personality, as seen from a Spiritual and Depth (SDP) psychological view, are continually, dynamically evolving. SDP—a field comprised of the intersections between psychoanalysis, Jungian/transpersonal psychology, Eastern classical mindfulness, and diversity consciousness—has as one of its chief concerns, a robust appreciation of the development of personality and its role in healthful individual, community, and intercultural wellness.

…This workshop provides a forum for the critical review and discussion of emerging perspectives and voices in the field of SDP personality theory. It is offered as a venue to openly dream personality theory forward as a learning community. The course will be taught in a “mini-conference” format, allowing for diverse methods of delivery appropriate to presentations. In addition to the lead instructor/facilitator, presenters may include other instructors, advanced graduate students, and other members of the community. (Silverstein, 2012a)

Presenters for this one day workshop included specifically perspectives that were not normally represented in the Personality Theory 1 curriculum. This included the following: (1) Multicultural women of color, (2) LGBT psychosexual stages of development from an LGBT affirmative perspective (3) Discussion of Jungian cultural complex theory (4) Discussion of community psychoanalysis and social dreaming.

Students found this workshop stimulating and quite refreshing, and we hear significantly more discussion around issues of diversity, culture, gender, and sexual orientation as central concerns of a psychodynamic view. However, several African American women attended the workshop and commented on their disappointment that they were not represented on the women of color panel. Their concern mirrored the ongoing tension in the community around the experience of inclusion and validation, which has impacted people of color and particularly African American women within the psychoanalytic community. That the women in the class could come forward and voice a concern was itself a step forward, even though it was also challenging not to become defensive. Learning to tolerate the shame of being in the role of oppressor is one of the growing edges within our community. Rather than assuming that none of us would dare oppress another, more realistically, we are each highly conditioned to perpetuate oppressive conditions, particularly toward marginalized groups (or aspects of self). This needs to be owned.

African American Women’s Circle.

After discussion with the women a new initiative was launched, which has become called, the African American Women’s Circle. This project entailed joining with an African American faculty member and an alumna to organize a meeting to call together any interested African American women and allies in the Antioch community. The women were invited to discuss what was on their mind with the intention of helping to shape our understanding (in SDP) of our own racism and sexism, and ways that we can more proactively empower and engage the African American women, and more generally people of color within our community.

A small group of women, most were African American, and also myself met for a dinner at a faculty person’s home. The discussion that took place that evening was staggering. Several of the women commented that much of what was shared that evening would not have felt safe to share in the context of their work or student experience at Antioch. The cultural complex that routinely silences, shuns, or devalues African American women was exposed, and the relief reported just in
having a space to be both at Antioch yet also relatively unencumbered by this complex was felt by all.

I do not wish to imply that Antioch is in any way unusually racist. As white institutions go, it is among the most progressive in its willingness to look at its own racism and to stand against social racism in general. However, even in this progressive environment, without a way to address the cultural complex possessing the community unconsciously, there are limits to the benefit of a
benignly progressive attitude, policies, and curriculum.

The theme of African American women’s spirituality surfaced through dinner conversation as the glue that has kept the community together through tremendous strife. Current questions within this community rest with changes in the way spirituality is expressed, especially amongst different generations of women. Follow up events are currently being planned: (1)
A community roundtable discussion that explores the rich interconnectedness between African American women and their spiritual and mental wellness. (2)
A new workshop that will serve to inform and educate mental health workers who service the growing population of African American women in need of mental health services on the importance of their spirituality as it relates to their mental wellness.

Faculty Roundtable

The faculty with an interest in developing the Personality Theory 1 course gathered to discuss changes to the curriculum in light of what we have been discovering through community dialogue. We considered what at root the course is meant to be at this point, particularly a need to clarify the relevance and value of psychodynamic therapy, which includes key skill sets such as: (1) how to understand what is hidden in self and other (2) how knowledge arises in a socio-cultural context (3) how to identify and work with transference/countertransference . (4) how to identify and interpret unconscious processes. These skills sets can be applied across the clinical spectrum (not exclusively private practice, long term, etc.)

We also discussed the challenges to changing the curriculum: (1) How do we address the canon: Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott, Kohut? (2) What needs to be added or dropped? (3) Given that depth psychological theory is white, straight, and male-leaning, how do we shift to an intercultural/diversity consciousness? As the meeting progressed it became clear that the process of discussing and evolving this curriculum would take time, there were no obvious fixes. While there is a greater awareness that psychoanalysis is housed in a Euro-centrically biased theoretically framework, for example, where we go from here is less clear. However, the development of the growing awareness of Eurocentrism is in and of itself significant. Change in this sense would need to occur organically. The following working recommendations arose out of our first meeting:

  1. Treat Psychoanalytic Theory/theorists as a family system. Maintain the canon for now (until we figure out how to not throw out the “baby with the bathwater.”
  2. Comprehensive orientation informed by cultural complexes (e.g. whiteness bias), can’t dissolve them, have to work through them
  3. When introducing multicultural issues be transparent about the biases in the material and in oneself
  4. Increase integration of knowledge of theory with procedural knowledge, e.g. role plays, experiential exercise (more practicing of psychodynamic skills as a way of teaching theory, learn by doing)
  5. Present an integrationist stance, i.e. include consideration of the way that psychodynamic theories work with others (e.g. CBT)
  6. People teaching Personality Theory 1 to have a conversation-study group/process group
  7. Focus on using a short term dynamic model (should be directly applicable to short term, community clinic treatment)
  8. Get excited about teaching it (as a way to keep it relevant)
  9. Include more mindfulness training, self observation skill training
  10. Have a community process where reflecting teams are formed, faculty discuss Personality dilemmas, community reflects.


The global psychoanalytic community is at an exciting moment in its development. The spirit of social activism that carried the early founders of psychoanalysis seems to be once again finding its way to the center of psychoanalytic discourse and education. However, this process of change comes slowly and first of all requires a period of community self analysis in which its own tone deafness to fully embracing and showing leadership with respect to understanding socio-cultural diversity can be better appreciated. Grassroots initiatives, such as the Spiritual and Depth Psychology Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles, can help to mobilize needed efforts within a graduate psychology school setting to rejuvenate the vision of psychoanalysis as a vehicle for social transformation open to innovation. The technique of social dreaming advanced by Lawrence (2003) also serves as a process and container for the anxiety encountered as we, as a community, face the unknown together: we do not know how exactly we will leave our Eurocentric biases behind; how we will be more authentically inclusive of marginalized groups such as the LGBT community and people of color; we are not sure how psychoanalysis will need to transform in order to remain viable within the climate of short-term managed mental health care. However, what we do know is that the power of understanding unconscious processes and their role in healing both individuals and communities cannot be denied, and recent empirical studies (such as Shedler, 2010) as well as hopefully more to come help to validate what generations of psychodynamically oriented therapists have experienced over and over again—psychodynamic therapy works. In an industrialized world that is fiercely polarized with its own shadow (of greed, addiction, and consumerism) leading to the threat of ecological consequences that are just beginning to be felt globally, the need for the tools psychoanalysis has to offer facilitating a better and more wholesome relationship to unconscious life is sorely needed. How psychodynamic therapy can be applied more effectively, more affordably, and more universally remains a generational concern.


  • (Eds.) Berzoff, J., Flanagan, L., & Hertz, P. (2011). Inside out & outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary clinical contexts. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • American Psychological Association. (2011). Guidelines for psychological practice with gay, lesbian, and bisexual clients. Retrieved January 6, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/guidelines.aspx
  • Berzoff, J. (1983). From separation to connection: Shifts in understanding women’s development. Affilia: Journal of women and social work, 45-58.
  • Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge: Belnap .
  • Danto, E. A. (1998). The Ambulatorium: Freud’s free clinic in Vienna. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 287-300.
  • Diaz, L. C., & Greene, B. (1994). Women of color: Integrating ethnic and gender identities in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.
  • Dimen, M., & Goldner, V. (2002). Gender in psychoanalysis: Space between clinic and culture. New York: Other press.
  • Freud. (1951). Letter to an American Mother. American Journal of Psychiatry, 107 , p. 787.
  • Friedman, R., & Jennifer Downey. (2002). Sexual orientation and psychnoanalysis. New York: Columbi University.
  • Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge: Harvard.
  • Isay, R. (2009). Being homosexual: Gay men and their development. New York: Vintage. Jackson, L., & Greene, B. (2000). Psychotherapy with African American women. New York: Guilford.
  • Jacobi, J. (1973). The psychology of C.G. Jung. New Haven: Yale University.
  • Jung, C. (1954). The development of personality. (R. Hull, Trans.) Princeton: Princeton Unversity.
  • Jung, C. (1968). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (CW 9). (2 ed.) . Princeton: Princeto University.
  • Jung, C. (1989). Memories, dreams, and reflections. (A. Jaffe, Trans.) New York: Vintage.
  • Jung, C. G. (1964). Man and his symbols. New York City: Dell.
  • Jung, C. G. (1983). Alchemical Studies (CW 13). (R. Hull, Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University.
  • Lawrence, G. (2003). Social dreaming as sustained thinking. Human Relations, 609-624.
  • Levy, R., & Ablon, S. (2010). Talk therapy: Off the couch and into the lab. Scientific America, February 12, 2010, 1-2. Retrieved January 5, 2012, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=talktherapy-off-couch-into-lab
  • Segal, Z., Teasedale, & Williams, M. (2002). Mindfulness based cognitive therapy for depression. New York: Guilford.
  • Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98-109.
  • Silverstein, M. (2012). Personality Theory 1 Syllabus. Antioch University Los Angeles (Unpublished).
  • Silverstein, M. (2012a). Advances in Personality Theory Syllabus. Antioch University, Los Angeles, Master’s of Clinical Psychology Program. Los Angeles: unpublished.
  • Singer, (., & Kimbles. (2004). The culture complex: Contemporary Jungian perspectives on psyche and society.
  • New York: Routledge. Walker. (1991). Jung and Homophobia. Spring: A Journal of archetype and culture(51).

If you would like to contact Matthew Silverstein, Ph.D., his email is msilverstein@antioch.edu

Footnote 1:
For the purposes of this discussion psychoanalysis is defined generally as the international movement founded by Freud this includes formally trained and certified psychoanalysts but also encompasses any practitioner of psychodynamic therapy including Jungian analytic psychology as well as educators within the field of depth psychology. Depth psychology is concerned with the study of psychodynamic theories, its widest reaching clinical and socio-cultural applications.

Social Dreaming Applications in Academic and Community Settings

June 24, 2013 12:30 am

George Bermudez, Ph.D.
Matt Silverstein, Ph.D.

“Thirdness is that quality of human existence that transcends individuality, permits and constricts that which can be known, and wraps all our sensibilities in ways that we experience as simultaneously alien as well as part of ourselves. Thirdness is the medium in which we live and that changes history, moments into time, and fragments into a whole.”

Samuel Gerson (2009) When the third is dead: Memory, mourning, and witnessing in the aftermath of the holocaust. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90, 1341-1357.

“And I hold that it is true that dreams are faithful interpreters of our inclinations; but there is an art required to sorting and understanding them.”

Montaigne, “Of Experience”

Introduction: Psychoanalysis and Dreams: Is there a Role for “Social Dreaming?”

Emphasizing what he perceives as the one hundred plus year “love/hate”  relationship between dreams and psychoanalysis , Lippmann (2000) decries the devalued status of dreams (theoretically and clinically) in contemporary psychoanalysis ,  generated by a fickle relationship that reflects the nearly universal ambivalence towards the unconscious, that unruly dimension of human experience that will not submit to our Western desires for mastery and domination. While we agree with Lippmann’s  overall assessment of our ambivalent attitudes toward dreams and the unconscious, we do not share his pessimism concerning the potential for re-integration with psychoanalysis. In contrast, it is our contention that contemporary psychoanalysis (a pluralistic  conceptual landscape that parallels the complexity and ambiguity of the unconscious) offers renewed possibilities for the re-integration of dreams: for us, dreams remain the quintessential representation of the unconscious, the unformulated, the dissociated, and the repressed. In fact, there is some empirical evidence that supports our optimism: Lempen & Midgley (2006) surveyed and compared articles published in a psychoanalytic journal during two time periods (the early 1950s and the 1990s) in order to assess how theoretical and clinical use of children’s dreams had developed over time. Despite their conclusion that “there has been a decreased focus on dreams in a clinical context,” the data suggest a more complex picture: the proportion of papers referring to dreams increased; the number of papers referring to dreams in the title remained stable; the theoretical use of dreams increased; and although the clinical use of dreams with children declined, their clinical use with adults expanded! Another study (Hill & Knox, 2010) , surveying the clinical use of dreams in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, found that therapists addressed dreams with fifty percent of patients and took up about one half of the time in therapy discussing dreams. Rumors concerning the death of dreams and the divorce between psychoanalysis and dreams seem premature!

Paul Tolpin (1989) quotes Montaigne to support his assumptions concerning dreams and dream mentation—assumptions which we share—that they reveal the breadth and depth of human mentation and motivation, and hence require a complex, nuanced, and paradoxical approach to understanding and applying clinically:

“…dreams have no inherent motivating force, but are, rather, simply windows to the usually unconscious, continual operations of the mental processes that constitute the experiencing self to which REM sleep gives us brief access.

The content of dreams is a vast variety of unconscious feelings and thoughts and the innumerable ways of dealing with those feelings and thoughts that our minds are capable of. Dreams, then, may consist of messages about somatic states, or they may be attempts to reduce internal psychological tensions. They can express conflicts, erotic and aggressive urges, wishes and fears of all kinds. They can express states of the self, moods, defensive tendencies, states of disorganization, states of satisfaction or desire, attempts to solve intellectual problems, visions of creative possibilities, and so on. They combine archaic memories and current experiences….The list is incomplete” (p. 42 ).

Tolpin’s formulation comes very close to Bion’s (1970) ideas concerning dream function: dreaming is what the unconscious mind attempts to do all the time; however, it is not always successful (Ogden, 2004). In addition, Bion proposed a synthetic or integrative function which undergirds the creation of meaning and psychological growth—this seems to bear similarity to the self-psychological proposition (Fosshage,1989) that the dream serves maintenance, restorative, and developmental functions.

For our purposes, we want to propose that Tolpin’s notions (despite  his apparent commitment to an individualistic worldview–note the focus on the self ) provide support for “social dreaming” (Lawrence & Daniel,1982; Lawrence, 2003a, 2003b ) as one of the functions that dreams serve, a function that has been eclipsed by the focus on the isolated, private mind. Indeed we have clearly arrived in psychoanalysis (parallel to the contemporary shift to plurality) to see the value of a “multi-functional” model of dreaming (Fiss,1989). As Fiss has noted, Freud (1905) proposed such an organizing principle in his analysis of Dora, suggesting that dream meaning may be “of as many different sorts as the process of waking thought; in one case it could be a fulfilled wish, in another a realized fear, or again a reflection persisting on into sleep, or an intention, or a piece of creative thought.” (p. 68). However, in practice, he advocated for the primacy of the “wish” as the organizer of dream mentation and motivation.

In a roundtable discussion focused on the challenges of integrating a socio-political perspective into psychoanalysis, Jessica Benjamin (Altman et al, 2006) tells an anecdote concerning a group consultation in Germany which involved analysis of a dream containing an “obvious reference” to the Nazi regime and wartime activities. To her shock the audience engages in a “blanketing denial” of the reference (despite Benjamin’s interpretation) to Nazi murderous actions during World War II. Benjamin goes on to say that her experience in this context suggested a “kind of collective unconscious setup…that we carry an awful lot of things that are not individual, that are what you might call ‘transpersonal’ in our political unconscious” (p. 182). Furthermore, she argues that psychoanalysis has colluded in an institutional blindness (similar to that group of German therapists)—a taboo—a “denial of historical forces…” (p.182).

It seems to me that Benjamin is groping for the ideas (first proposed by Lawrence,) we will present in this paper regarding the value of a “social dreaming” paradigm.   In this regard, it is noteworthy that it’s a dream that is the focus of her consultation and anecdote—a dream that contains reference to a social reality that is being disavowed, denied,  dissociated. Benjamin is describing her emerging awareness that she and other contemporary relational analysts  have been in collusion with a psychoanalytic establishment whose “denial of historical forces is very much embedded in our early history, and the way that we failed to reorganize ourselves around that has had a very powerful influence, even for those of us who departed from Freudian tradition” (p. 182). Benjamin and other contemporary analysts have been adrift in the unconscious sea of the “cultural third” (Gerson, 2004, 2009 ), which is the cultural unconscious we are all implicitly organized by.

Lynne Layton (2006), another relational analyst, on the other hand seems more clearly aware of the power of the “cultural third,” and describes her conflict and struggle to feel “authorized” to analyze the socio-political unconscious as a psychoanalyst. Remarkably, like Benjamin, Layton, during the course of an analysis, confronts the “cultural third” through the medium of an analysand’s dream! The patient’s dream generates a dilemma for her—whether to address what seems an explicit reference in the manifest content to a political stance her patient is grappling with, or to adhere to the narrower confines of the traditional focus on the dreamer’s more intimate interpersonal circumference. In the process, Layton discovers her own unconscious conflict: is she straying from being an “authentic “ analyst if she permits or encourages exploration that leads away from intrapsychic, private dimensions to a “political psyche” (Samuels, 1993, 2004)? Or is she colluding unconsciously with her “own resistance to linking the psychic and the social” (p. 110)? Layton arrives at the view that she has been in collusion with a culture that decontextualizes and de- historicizes—attacks social linking— a powerful unconscious demand to dissociate individuals from their social context:

“Cultural norms erect barriers to what can be thought, felt, and articulated, in speech. Because…they share the same dominant middle-class culture, therapists and their clients often adhere, consciously and unconsciously, to some of the same cultural norms. These norms…created dynamic unconscious conflicts as well…can generate particular kinds of clinical enactments…. Normative unconscious processes result from narcissistic wounding inflicted by sexist, racist, and other power hierarchies whose norms mark one group as inferior to other groups” (p. 107).

These cultural norms, serving as cultural organizing principles that require de-linking the psyche from social context, inform the traditional perspective on the clinical use of dreams, focusing on the private, personal experiences of the dreamer, and retaining the lingering assumptions of the pre-relational and pre- intersubjective paradigm of the “isolated mind.” (Stolorow, 1992). “Social dreaming” (Lawrence & Daniel, 1982; Lawrence, 2003  ) practice and interpretation represent the emergence of a truly relational and intersubjectivist perspective: social dreaming for a social mind. Furthermore, this renewed valuation of dreams in itself represents an engagement with what Lippmann (2000) refers to as psychoanalysis’ “unacknowledged ambivalence” towards dreams , deriving from cultural and systemic factors: he proposes that analysts display analytic arrogance in our struggle with “unknowingness,” uncertainty, and the puzzling nature of dreams and the unconscious by imposing meaning using a preferred theory. The “Social Dreaming” perspective and method may be an antidote to these institutional projections, with a democratic group dialogue that generates multiple interpretive narratives and encourages tolerance for ambiguity.

A Brief History and Description of Social Dreaming

Lawrence (2003a, 2003b), the originator of social dreaming ,  provides a description of the “social dreaming matrix” (SDM): a process involving a group of participants who share dreams and associations to those dreams, relying on the working hypothesis that the dreams shared reflect a collective cultural product, a social unconscious comprised of dissociated social, political, and cultural experience. A major hypothesis is that the initial dream shared is a fractal of all subsequently narrated dreams, that is , the initial dream provides a pattern which is replicated in subsequent dreams. Our experiments with social dreaming appear to confirm this hypothesis, as we will describe in a later section.

There are several other foundational assumptions: the dreams generated in SDM are metaphors for unconscious, disavowed, dissociated cultural and community experience; the dreams in SDM are the shared property of the dreaming community; focus must be on the dream , not the dreamer, which facilitates development of a safe “mental space,” an intersubjective/relational third (Winnicott,1971; Ogden, 1994; Benjamin,2004;   Gerson,2004); ascertaining dream meaning should be approached with the attitude of a working hypothesis; the content and meaning is unpacked through three psychoanalytic methods: associations (Freud), amplification (Jung ), and animation (Bromberg, 2000, 2003; Bosnak, 2004). Jung’s method of image amplification, encouraging cultural and archetypal associations,  attempts to go beyond Freud’s linear and private associations; because relying solely on verbal associations may distance us from the non-verbal , unformulated dimension of the dream and the unconscious ( Blechner, 2001, 2011), Bosnak’s strategy of animation (enactment/embodying of the dream’s imagery and non-verbal narrative) tries to circumvent being trapped  in the “verbal associational network,” (Lippmann, 2000 , by enabling access to a procedurally organized implicit knowing.

In developing the radical paradigm of “social dreaming” and the “social dreaming matrix” (SDM) ,

Gordon Lawrence (2003a, 2003b), was influenced by several perspectives :

  • Wilfred Bion’s (1970) theory of dreaming (Bion conceptualized dreaming as a fundamental and continuous mental process by which we make wholeness, synthesis, and meaning from our fragmented emotional experience.);
  • Charlotte Beradt’s (1968)  Third Reich of Dreams (a book reporting the dreams of ordinary German citizens during the period of 1933-1939—dreams reflecting their intuitive, dissociated, unconscious knowledge and foreknowledge of the Nazi regime’s intentions);
  • and an anthropological narrative (Stewart, 1951) concerning the Senoi, a Malaysian tribe who interpreted their dreams as part of their daily communal lives.

Social Dreaming  and Contemporary Psychoanalysis: Challenges and Linkages

Contemporary psychoanalysis has opened up new vistas for understanding the psyche, the unconscious, and dreams: the emerging paradigm is pluralistic, transcending the polarity of intrapsychic vs. interpersonal, and developing an epistemology that encourages self-reflexivity (Rubin, 1998). However, as Gonzalez (2009) eloquently states there “is a pressing need for contemporary psychoanalysis “ to articulate an “…intersection of the personal and the social…. a place of linkage between the axes of intrapsychic fantasy and social categories…” (p. 57). He argues that psychoanalysis must enlarge its project, moving beyond the dyadic, widening its scope to the social context:

“The psychoanalytic project has been conventionally understood as a conversation behind closed doors, the private contract between suffering patient and soul doctor, but increasingly we are called as analysts to make sense of the broader context in which that conversation takes place…. We can no longer practice in a hermetically sealed chamber and hope to remain relevant” (p. 57).

We agree with this challenge  and propose that the contemporary psychoanalytic concepts regarding “thirdness,” first introduced by Winnicott (1971), with his formulation of an “intermediate area of experience,” and expanded by Ogden (1994), Britton (2004), Benjamin (2004 ), and  Gerson (2004),  have enormous relevance for and applicability to the conceptualization and practice of  a socially-oriented psychoanalysis.  Furthermore, “thirdness” provides a theoretical foundation and scaffolding for the emergent theory and practice of “community psychoanalysis” (Twemlow, 2006), a theory and practice that seeks to expand psychoanalytic thinking and interventions to venues beyond the confines of the traditional dyadic setup: to larger systems, neighborhoods, communities. We view “social dreaming” as an exploratory method and intervention to be added to the repertoire of “community psychoanalysis.”

While Britton (2004)  delineates thirdness as a developmental achievement (involving the evolution of Oedipal consciousness of the exclusionary pair) , Ogden (1994), Benjamin (2004) , and Gerson (2004 ) emphasize  thirdness as emergent intersubjective/relational processes and mental space . However, it is Gerson, carefully distinguishing among three dimensions of thirdness (developmental, relational, and cultural) , who with his notion of cultural thirdness (Gerson, 2004, 2009) provides a contemporary psychoanalytic foundation for social dreaming and community psychoanalysis. He defines the cultural third as a  form of thirdness that “ envelops , intrudes upon, and shapes interactions …as well as the subjectivities…” (p. 70). Gerson provides as examples: the “incest taboo, language, and professional standards “ (p. 70). We would (and we believe Benjamin and Layton would also ) expand the latter to include the “political unconscious” (Samuel, 1993, 2004), the socio-political dimension of human experience (Layton et al, 2006), and the  Jungian “cultural complex.” (Singer & Kimbles, 2004) . The “social dreaming matrix” and the dissociated social dimension of all dreams provide  us access to the unconsciously organized cultural third.

We believe there are several other conceptual developments in contemporary psychoanalysis that have further relevance for “ social dreaming”: Self Psychology (Kohut, 1977, 1984 ) , Intersubjective Systems Theory (IST) (Stolorow,1995; Stolorow & Atwood, 1996 ; Livingston, 2009), and Relational Psychoanalysis (Ullman, 2006; Stern, 2009).  Psychoanalytic Self Psychology has contributed to the psychoanalytic theory of dreams by proposing “self-state dreams” (although foreshadowed in the work of Fairbairn  from an internal Object Relations theoretical perspective) which provide a snapshot/x-ray of the current status of the individual self: we propose that the social dreaming matrix (SDM) generates “social state dreams,” which provide metaphors expressing the authentic, but dissociated, state of the community. Intersubjective Systems Theory (IST) has three principles which can be fruitfully applied to social dreaming: the idea of an intersubjective field emerging from the interaction of multiple subjectivities (analogous to Gerson’s cultural third and Ogden’s  and Benjamin’s intersubjective third) ; the concept of the developmental dimension of transference (“leading edge” or “forward edge”); and the conflict between accessing dissociated affective experience and maintaining vital object ties. All three show promise in enhancing our understanding of SDM phenomena, particularly the “forward edge” process (also outlined in the work of Fosshage (1989), who maintains dreams have the primary function of maintaining and restoring the organization of the self), which focuses our attention on the intuitive, developmental imagination of the group expressed through social dreams. Livingston (2009) refers to this dimension as the emergence of “embryonic  new organizing principles.” The need to maintain vital object ties deepens our understanding of the enthrallment of groups to authority  and powerful institutions : recall in this regard, Benjamin’s allusions to the psychoanalytic community’s taboos regarding socio-political and historical forces. Examples of these (the forward edge process in social dreaming and the collectively shared disavowal because of group-wide attachments to authority) will be provided from our SDM experiments/applications.

Finally, we would like to provide an argument for the inclusion of “witnessing” (another emerging concept in contemporary psychoanalysis) as an essential form of intervention in psychoanalysis, along with traditional interpretation (Freud), holding (Winnicott), and containment (Bion), as proposed by a number of psychoanalytic writers (Poland, 2000; Ullman, 2006; Stern, 2009). Furthermore, as we believe that “social dreaming” is an emancipatory practice, representing a socially engaged community psychoanalysis, its practice is a form  of “moral witnessing” (Margalit, 2002 ; Ullman, 2006; Boulanger, 2012) , urging all dreamers and SDM participants to  provide testimony to collectively and collusively dissociated human suffering and inviting psychoanalysts to an “active commitment to social justice and human rights” (Boulanger, 2012). Following Gerson (2009) , we will provide in a later section a description of some of the defenses (denial, disavowal, intellectualization, projection, etc.)  mobilized  against “moral witnessing” during SDMs.

Jung’s Relevance for Social Dreaming and Contemporary Psychoanalysis

Samuels (1996 ) details Jung’s banishment and emerging re-integration into mainstream and contemporary psychoanalysis, arguing  persuasively that “Many of the central issues and features of contemporary psychoanalysis are reminiscent of positions taken by Jung in earlier years” (p. 471). Among other ideas, Jung had emphasized the transparent meaning of dreams via the manifest content, foreshadowing the contemporary perspective often credited to Erik Erikson; insisted on a creative, non-destructive dimension to the unconscious psyche, analogous to self-psychology’s emphasis on “self-righting” and Kohut’s “leading edge;”  argued for the clinical usefulnesss of the counter-transference , bearing similarities to contemporary intersubjectivity theory’s  notion of mutual influence; anticipated contemporary thinking concerning multiplicity  (Bromberg, 1996) with his conception of complexes, ‘splinter psyches”, and sub-personalities. As is well known , Jungian concepts, display an appreciation of varying levels of unconscious life in a spectrum including the personal, cultural, collective and archetypal/spiritual dimension of psychic experience (Jacobi,1973). Out of this formulation of psychic life dream material may readily be understood as emerging from a socio-cultural unconscious, which provides another theoretical basis for social dreaming that is both inclusive of archetypal phenomena and a study in cultural complexes (Singer and Kimbles, 2004). We make the case that a number of social identities (“non-represented voices”) are marginalized, and their social experience and the impact of this marginalization is collusively dissociated, i.e. in the form of cultural complexes.

Jung held on to the ideal of “educating the personality” , arguing passionately against educational processes that foster automatism, a continued shadow in graduate psychology education, which is moving lock-step with market driven trends toward increased materialism (e.g. in one-sided “evidence based” emphases) while minimizing the value of subjectivity and intangible inner work. As a response Antioch University, Los Angeles (AULA) created a Jungian informed program within its graduate psychology track called the Spiritual and Depth Psychology (SDP) Specialization (a “wild life refuge for psyche” in graduate education). Within SDP we encountered a dilemma around the teaching of introductory psychoanalytic theory which is saturated with Eurocentric, White, hetero-normative bias. We determined that using social dreaming may be an ideal way to see past our own cultural complex that leaves us perpetuating our “straight white (psychoanalytic) family values” even within a multicultural context. Experimentally we used SDM to consult the academic community’s social  unconscious. We posed the dilemma to the community and asked “what is on our minds regarding this issue.” A day long event of dream sharing and discussion followed. Out of this event we began to develop pedagogical strategies to integrate the emergent community themes (e.g., we hosted a conference on non-represented voices in the psychoanalytic canon, a faculty roundtable, an African American Women’s Circle, and forged an ongoing process of SDM and community dialogue to enhance curricular responsiveness to the local, regional, national levels of community as well as the global psyche).

Other experiments and  planned applications of social dreaming ensued:

a)   Exploration of American Xenophobia (SDM held in July, 2011): we will provide some highlights in a later section of this article;

b)   We successfully  introduced the SDM as an experiential exercise in teaching introduction to psychoanalytic theory;

c)    We planned to experimentally apply at Occupy Movement (Los Angeles), relying on the “forward edge” function to facilitate more conscious  formulation,  articulation, and actualization of a future strategic agenda.  We visited both the New York City and Los Angeles Occupy Movement sites.  However, after several collaborative conversations, just as we were going to implement, the Los Angeles site was closed down by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

d)   We hope to organize social dreaming matrices at an International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education (IFPE) Conference and at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis –Los Angeles (ICPLA), with focus on articulation of  potentially generative future lines of organizational development, in addition to assessing the present “social state” of the organizations and their social worlds (or “phenomenological ecology”).

A Social Dreaming Matrix: American Xenophobia:

Our first formal experiment with the SDM was a daylong workshop held at Antioch University in July 2011. The theme was on American xenophobia, with the goal of interrogating the American communal unconscious with  regard  to  xenophobia.  Participants  (about  30)  included  mental  health  professionals;  students  in Antioch’s Masters in Clinical Psychology program; journalists;  artists; two high school seniors, a substantial sub-group self-identifying as gay or lesbian; a Catholic priest and a nun; and a couple of early childhood educators. The schedule included 3 SDM segments and a final dialogue. My personal experience as facilitator was complex: I (GB) was both challenged (puzzled by some participants “resistance”) and awed by the process and the outpouring of unconscious symbolization. For days and weeks afterward I felt emotionally haunted by the evocative dream images and the affect they contained. After several weeks I was able to begin to impose some meaning onto the experience, having received feedback from some participants. Here is my first attempt at a coherent statement of my impressions (an e-mail exchange with a participant, who was recommending a longer SDM experience, more structure, etc.).

Hi Tina,

Thank you for your thoughtful feedback!

I agree re the fleeting impressions: I too have struggled over the last several weeks to bring some personal coherence to my experience. However, it is beginning to gather/cohere as a result of self-reflection, feedback from participants, and extended conversations with colleagues. I and others have had the intuition that it needed to be longer (perhaps two days, with an overnight dreaming opportunity).

I like your idea of the pause (it is a technique that was used by a Jungian analyst who presented at Antioch on children’s dreams). Several other folks had similar reactions to the process: needed more structure and guidance.

I realized almost immediately afterward that I should have repeated even more often than I did what the preferred way of contributing was, which was stated at the beginning and several times during the SDM—and written down on handouts (share your dreams in reaction to other dreams; assume that all dreams are your dreams as well; provide your personal associations—not analysis or interpretation; try to perceive the links and connections—similarities? —between the dreams and associations shared). Although I was initially puzzled by the participants’ difficulty in following the guidelines provided, I realized that I have to respect the power of the unconscious—that what happened is the only thing that could have happened given the ubiquity of unconsciously-motivated perception, values, habits of mind, personal agendas, etc.

There are some obvious themes that emerged:

  • The group’s search for a sense of effective goodness and fear of identifying/reacting with evil when confronted with social evil (images of angel with ineffective wings, associations to the holocaust, invasions from the sky, envy of the Tea Party’s ability to organize, channel, and mobilize anger/rage, with associations to NAZI era);
  • The  culture  war  that  was  evident  in  the  group’s  dynamics  and  associations:  atheism/scientific worldview vs. religion/new age spirituality vs. secular critical theory (academic artists/theorists) vs. psychoanalytic sensibility/perspective;
  • The social/personal disorientation of being confronted with a different paradigm that seems to have its own truth and integrity (exemplified by the dream of the religious icon constructed in reverse from  the traditionally  accepted method):  ENGAGMENT  WITH ANOTHER CULTURE—THINK ISLAM AND WEST!;
  • The condensation of the personal and the social in dreams images (Shaman-like George Bush in the desert; Barbara Walters invading someone’s bedroom);
  • The youngest participants’ associations to social media and technology—completely absent from the dreams and associations of the middle-aged cohort in the workshop.

I’m sure there are many other themes and ways of organizing the dreams and associations, but these seem to have an obvious resonance for me and the overarching theme of xenophobia (fear of otherness or the stranger or foreign).

All best, George

The puzzlement I expressed in that e-mail regarding “‘the participants’ difficulty in following the guidelines provided” was resolved by the realization that this “difficulty” represented what Gerson (2009) has referred to as defenses against moral witnessing and Layton (2006) defines as attacks on social linking—a refusal to connect with the other and his or her suffering and an active defense of de-contextualizing. Examples of these “defenses” abounded: some chose to interpret dream images as representing individual, private  concerns  of  the  dreamer;  others  intellectualized  by  applying  the  jargon  of  academic deconstructionism, emptying images of either personal or social meaning, or affective resonance.

After  much  reflection,  I’ve  come  to  the  view  that  the  core  issue  the  SDM  grappled  with  was witnessing and acknowledging collusion with destructiveness or evil (represented by hope-filled encounters with a shaman-like former President George W. Bush in the desert, who offers the wandering dreamer “tea— actually peyote … human contact … warm feeling” that promises to relieve the loneliness and disconnection evoked by the desert imagery) and struggling to find efficacy and goodness (often represented by images of angels, particularly a striking image of an angel with enormous wings which were useless–“stalled”). In fact, the first dream offered in the SDM was the latter iconic image:

“I’m in Boston, traveling on a train, I had recently bought a T-shirt with angel wings on the back. I fell asleep and dreamt I was an angel with huge wings, but cannot fly. Someone (a she) came down… looked like an angel. She painted an ‘A.’ When I woke up I saw angels marching in a parade.” Just as Lawrence (2003a, 2003b) hypothesized that the dreams shared in the SDM would have a fractal-like pattern, a pattern of “visitation” with ambiguous (sometimes disappointing) outcomes is repeated throughout the SDM.  The second dream shared was by a participant  whose father was a Holocaust survivor (connected to the first dreamer’s train imagery?) also contained visitation by an angel:

“Your dream reminded me of my father dying; he suffered; he could not let go. He was a genocide survivor. I wanted to help but could not. I had a dream with his father—he was full-bodied, put his arm around me and said, ‘I wish my son could see how much I’ve changed.’ My father would not let go. I then felt visited by an entity—an angel. The wings seem to ground me, but trains displace us. There is a panic with the displacement.”

The first dreamer responds:

“The wings give capability to move, but I’m stalled. The angel who comes to me give me a name, ‘A?’ I must find out the meaning. It gives me hope to transcend. I see angel as energy to help me move on. In the midst of travel, the angel comes with security—potential is there.”

This pattern of visitation continues in dream images reported later:

  • A dreamer describes an alien invasion in the desert with plans to colonize our planet—it’s a recurrent dream where “there is no safety. I’m caught between a sense of beauty and destruction. Reminds me of ‘Star Wars Missile Defense’ proposed by Reagan.” This is followed by associations and attempts at interpretation: “…reminds me of current state of America…the desert represents our depression. The wings are grounded, stalled. America has what it takes to move through this transition…we can transcend. Lots of movement: trains, ships, wings—sometimes not moving.”
  • Two dreams are narrated involving encounters with former President George W. Bush, who seems to initially offer hope to dreamers wandering in the desert, and then turns out to be a shaman-like “trickster.”
    • First Bush dream: “I’m wandering in the desert feeling alone. I finally arrive at a hut. George Bush is inside dressed as Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan. He never speaks, hands me tea— actually peyote. I’m walking to east coast to meet my mother. I asked lots of questions of Bush but he never responds.”
    • Second dream: “I have George Bush dreams too…always silent, giving me Kool-Aid to drink.” This is followed by the following association: “Shamans used to dress as your worst nightmare…what in him scares me?…how am I like him?…how sociopathic?…”

Lawrence’s prediction of a fractal-like progression in the dreams of an SDM seems borne out in this sequence: encounters with entities connected to other realities with promise of hope, safety, human contact, but resulting in disappointment. Even the alien invasion is associated with beauty and imagined military defense (“star wars missile defense” system).

A remarkable development occurred during the Dialogue segment of the SDM workshop: as the participants focused on reflection and meaning creation, there was the emergence of an inchoate longing to counter the Tea Party political movement with a progressive counter-movement (recall the foreshadowing of this in the “tea—peyote” image in the first George Bush dream). It seems to me in retrospect that the SDM Dialogue’s inchoate longing foreshadowed in embryonic form the development of the Occupy Wall Street Movement—which emerged two months later! This emergent longing appears to be an example of a “social dreaming forward edge process” that we hypothesized: The SDM process gives birth to innovative future directions for the dreaming community. This assumption, a developmental process active in social dreaming, has guided us in applying SDM to curricular development at Antioch University. Encouraged by our experiments with the SDM method, theory, and perspective; we propose several potential avenues for explorative application:

  • Community-level processing of collective trauma (either man-made or caused by natural disaster). In this regard see the psychoanalytic focus-group-like dialogues concerning environmental sustainability facilitated by Lertzman (2008, 2012).
  • SDM  workshops  at  Psychoanalytic  Institutes  in order  to  avoid the  trap  of  institutionally blinkered perspectives, integrate the collectively disavowed, and create self-reflective space for emergent, previously unformulated insights regarding the institute’s organizational unconscious (Levinson, 1994).  In this regard see also the work of Rubin (1998) who details the authoritarianism and blindness present in the psychoanalytic community throughout its history.
  • Experiential   training   in   the   understanding   and   clinical   application   of   dreams   for psychoanalytic candidates. Blechner (2011), using Ullman’s (1996) approach to group dream interpretation as well as occasional application of Lawrence’s (2003a, 2003b) social dreaming matrix, suggests that in addition to the training benefits,  “group dream interpretation” may facilitate resolution of dyadic impasses and enhance the analysis of dreams in individual dream work.
  • Continue to apply in academic settings to provide a “social state” reading of the academic community and discover innovative paths for future curricular development, responsive to the emergent needs of all stakeholders (students, faculty, the society it serves, etc.).


In this article, we have provided a brief introduction to “social dreaming” and its implications for relational psychoanalysis (especially for the illumination of what some have referred to as the “political unconscious”— a taboo area for traditional psychoanalysis). We have highlighted the usefulness for social dreaming theory and practice of such concepts as “cultural thirdness, “ “social state dreams,”  “forward edge social dreaming,” and “moral witnessing.”   Moreover, we have argued for the renewed relevance of Jung for contemporary psychoanalysis and “social dreaming,” particularly the concept of the “cultural complex.” And finally, we have summarized some of our experimental applications of the “social dreaming matrix” in two contexts, and adumbrated  additional  potential  applications  (community  level  processing  of  collective  trauma; psychoanalytic institutes can benefit from application to organizational development, renewal of training of candidates in dream work, and as a method of group consultation for resolving analytic impasses). Although we agree with Lippmann’s (2000) formulation regarding the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and dreams, we, in contrast, are optimistic about a renewed marriage and potential for enhancing psychoanalytic training and psychoanalytic technique (Blechner, 2001, 2011).


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If you would like to contact the authors:
George Bermudez’s email is  George_Bermudez@antiochla.edu.
Matthew Silverstein, Ph.D.’s email is  msilverstein@antioch.edu.


June 24, 2013 12:30 am

“The force that drives the green fuse drives the flower” –
Dylan Thomas

Merle Molofsky, NCPsyA, LP


The process of becoming a psychoanalyst is a journey toward becoming and being, a journey toward going-on-being, an authentic self. While we learn, we internalize ideas, styles, and conscious/unconscious attitudes of those we learn from: our analyst(s), instructors, classmates, supervisors, people who have written books and papers – and others. We learn to remember and value everything that shaped our evolving awareness, the values and relationships that shaped our lives from childhood, and beyond. After we “officially” earn  the title “psychoanalyst”, we remain  students, continuing  to learn  as we work, supervise, teach, write – and live.  Life is learning, and learning is life.  To learn is to teach, and to teach is to learn.

The art of living and learning involves openness to experience, and, in particular, an openness to experiencing awakenings.  The word epiphany comes from the Koine Greek,  epiphaneia, which translates as “manifestation”, or “striking appearance”.  An epiphany is an “aha!” moment, a moment of seeing something strikingly unusual that leads to a greater understanding of a larger principle, a greater picture. Thus an epiphany is an integrative experience.  Because epiphany is so sudden, so personal, so unique a moment, it is an authentic experience.

Integration and authenticity are the essence of the psychoanalytic enterprise, and epiphany is the key.  We can “sing insight in the key of epiphany”.

Epiphany is a defining moment. The richness of life, and the richness of the psychoanalytic process, is such that there will not be a one and only defining moment.  There are myriad defining moments.

A keynote of defining moments is intensity.

In the mid 1970’s,  when I was in my early 30’s, two friends kept recommending to me that I would benefit from experiencing psychoanalysis.  Not psychotherapy.  Not hypnosis.  Not the various group experiences popular in that time, such as EST.  Psychoanalysis.  And so I began a personal psychoanalysis, which led me to enrolling in a psychoanalytic institute.  By 1980 I was working clinically.  So many moments in my life until then were ones of intensity, epiphany, preparing me for the intensity of psychoanalytic insight – and a host of defining moments.

One intense moment I remember is while in session with my analyst, I realized that all my “troublesome”, “unwelcome” emotions, indeed, every emotion,  were useful in my clinical work – and in life. As feelings became useful to me, I could help others use their own feelings. I would like to explore the meaning, the potential, and ramifications of this moment.

Frequently analysts hear, while working with an analysand, plaintive queries and statements:  “What am I supposed to do with this feeling?”  “What good  is feeling so much? It hurts!”   “How do I make  this feeling go away?”   Actually, we can imagine an infinite regression of echoing feelings, an aural version of an infinite regression of mirrors, a resonating “How can I make  this feeling go away – go away – go away – go away????”  And, if the infinite regression of echoing feelings manifests as a regression in the transference, we hear, “Make this feeling go away – make this feeling go away – make this feeling go away!!!!”  Embedded within the “Make this feeling go away!” is an even  more plaintive, though  tacit, wail, “Mommy, make  it stop, make  it stop, Mommy, make  it stop!”

Most of us have a useful repertoire of responses to these sorts of plaintive questions.  We may respond “educatively”, along the lines of “Your feelings are part of you”.  We may elaborate further, “Your feelings are a useful part of you. Your feelings give you information about  yourself, about  yourself in the world.” We may further elaborate, “We can’t choose which feelings we get to feel.  If we feel at all, we will feel comfortable and uncomfortable feelings.  For instance, in order to be capable of feeling joy we also  may have  to feel sorrow”. Or – we may begin  to explore  further, asking, “What is wrong with feeling angry?”   Or, “Can you tell me what you don’t like about  feeling sad?”

To fully encounter another person’s range of feelings, we need to fully encounter our own.  And thus, in my defining moment in my analyst’s office, when I accepted the full range of my feelings, I discovered my feelings were valuable to me, because they gave me information about myself in the world, and thus served to guide and protect me.  To fully function in the world, we need to be guided by both intellect and emotion. To live authentically, we need to be able to integrate and use intellect and emotion.

Furthermore, in the knowledge that my feelings are useful to me, I discovered that I could dedicate that knowledge to the development and growth of another, to help another in her or his journey toward integration and authenticity.

Something I have learned: my epiphanies so often come from music. I am awakened to insight when I hear music.  I hear an inner music, and in hearing that music, I awaken. I translate experience and meaning into musical sound, and into musical metaphor.


Just as our “heartstrings” reverberate with another’s “heartstrings”, so our “aha” moments, our defining moments, are felt vibrations as well.

Our emotions can function like resonating strings in a musical instrument, such as a koto, sitar, or viola d’amore.   Resonating, or sympathetic, strings are strings that are strung so close to one another that if one is struck, the other sounds, creating harmonic overtones, harmonic resonances. When we are attuned to our own feelings, we feel the feelings of others, we resonate with their feelings.  And, because we accept our own feelings, we are open to accepting the feelings of others, and, because we are open to accepting the feelings of others, others can resonate with our acceptance of their feelings, and thus begin to accept their own feelings.

The experience of resonance with another’s feelings is a bodily experience.  In music, sympathetic resonance involves vibration – a part of a musical instrument will vibrate in resonance with external vibrations. When we experience emotional sympathetic resonance, something within us vibrates. If we are  finely attuned to our bodily responses, we actually may feel the “vibe”, a slight internal tremble. If we focus on where we feel the vibration, we may even be able to associate a particular organ with the emotion involved, and understand even more fully the depth of the feeling. A slight flutter along the front right of the torso, for instance, may indicate that the liver is in sympathetic resonance with the analysand’s anger.

According to Chinese medicine, each vital organ is associated with an emotion. The liver is considered the seat of anger, resentment, bitterness, and irascibility. Since the liver is essential to maintaining autoimmune functions, if the analysand is repressing anger, autoimmune functions may be suppressed, and somatizations may occur.   Thus  the analyst’s resonance, and attunement to one’s own physiological experience, may lead to interventions that may enable the analysand to recognize and  express “forbidden feelings”, and perhaps even avert somatizations.

Just as our “heartstrings” reverberate with another’s “heartstrings”, so our “aha” moments, our defining moments, are felt vibrations as well.  The Hindu concept of “wisdom rising” is an example of a bodily sense manifesting in an epiphany – what is the rising sensation? Epiphany can manifest as a perceived wave moving upward  through  the body.  In a sense, the “wisdom rising” of an “aha” moment can be understood as a moment of oneness, in which the individual resonates with the universe.

The metaphor, and reality, of resonating strings, leads me to the “aha-ness” of musical moments in general.  A talented analytic candidate, about to begin clinical work, came to me for supervision.  She was a songwriter, immersed in the power of song, sensitive to the synergy of music and words.  As she began clinical work, it was clear that she was readily empathic and attuned. Within a few weeks, she talked about her most recent session with a man with whom she felt out of touch.  As she described her feelings about him, and her sense that she was failing to understand him, I had an “aha” moment that led to her own “aha”.  Recognizing that all our talk was going nowhere, and remembering that she was a singer/songwriter, I said, “Is he a song? Can  you sing a song that is who he is?”  And she immediately began singing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home”.

This memory caused me to feel a trembling chill in my lungs, just as I did those many years ago when I heard her sing the song that was the man she discovered she did understand.        According to Chinese medicine, the lungs are the seat of grief, sadness, numbness, and depression.  The words of the song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, readily convey  grief and sorrow, a longing and loneliness that could lead to depression.  The slow, meandering melody underscores those feelings.  She realized that although she encountered a man who was very macho, big, blustery, even slightly scary, the song enabled her to realize that inwardly he was a scared, lonely, abandoned child, a “motherless child”.

In session with an analysand, she said she felt stuck, she knew there was something haunting her, something she needed to express, but she had no idea what it was. Her look of puzzlement segued into distress. We both were stuck – stuck in the “unthought  known” (1987).   Aha.  I knew she was creative, artistic, musical – she loved to sing.  I asked her, “Could you sing what you are feeling?”  She  lit up, and began to sing the Annie Lennox song, “Why”.  As she lifted her voice into the melismatic chorus, “Tell me why”, recognition lit up her face.  She  was haunted by “why”, the “why” of everything that happened to her, and the rest of the chorus, “I think you don’t know what I feel, you don’t know what I feel”.

The “why” of the line “Tell me why” is drawn out in a melismatic wail.  Melisma is the singing of a single syllable of a word in a progression of different notes, “why –i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i”.  The effect is hypnagogic, trance-like,  creating an altered state of consciousness.

In that particular session we explored her sense of never having understood the traumatic events of her life, why what had befallen her had happened, and why she had been so unresponded to throughout her life.  “You don’t know what I feel.”  Her sessions with me became an opportunity  she seized on, an opportunity to feel, to know, that someone else could know what she feels. And, in time, more opportunities opened up, as she explored the manifold “Whys” of her life.

Aha.  Music indeed evokes the unthought known, and invites the potential for knowing.


Thus  sometimes an “aha” moment during an analytic session comes through an associative process that is not immediately perceived as verbal. My experience in session with evenly hovering attention, with reverie, with what Bion recommends as listening without memory or desire or understanding, leads me to “hear” melodies when I am in session. I am familiar with a broad range of music, including Western Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music; American folk music, including blues and Appalachian ballads; flamenco; Japanese music, including taiko, and koto and shakuhachi; music of the British Isles, particularly Irish music.  I seldom just “hear” a melody.   When  I “hear” melodies, I remember lyrics.

I might hear  a fragment of an American  ballad,  “I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble  all my days.”  The man  I am working with might be staying on the surface, recounting office gossip, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, smiling.  When I “hear” a line or two of a song fragment while trying to discover what the surface chatter means, I am alerted me to an underlying emotion that the person is trying to suppress. “Aha.”         If I ask a question or two, a submerged feeling comes to the surface.

Or, a woman  I’m working with is complaining bitterly about  “men”.  How “men” are shallow, unpredictable, untrustworthy.  Have the men she has dated been so shallow, et cetera? No, she replies, she wouldn’t get that close with anyone, all her dates are  variants of “speed dating”, one or two dates and then she cuts bait, she bails.  And then a melody, a song fragment, arises – an American  ballad,  as sung by Joan Baez. “Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother, she’s lying here, right by my side, and,  in her hand, a silver dagger, she says that I can’t be your bride.”  Further  lyrics lead me further along on the “aha” trail.         “All men  are false, says my mother, they’ll tell you wicked, loving lies, the very next evening they’ll court another, leave  you alone  to pine and sigh.  My daddy is a handsome devil, he has a chain five miles long. And on every link a heart  does dangle, of some poor maid he’s loved and wronged.” Aha. I realize I have to ask about her mother, her father, their relationship, her feelings about both of them.

In another instance, I might hear a snippet from a movie, “Night on Earth”, in which Wynona  Rider says, “Men! Can’t live with them,  can’t live without them, can’t shoot them,  men!”  Which itself is a variant  on a theme, as the original quote  is by Erasmus, “Women, can’t live with them,  can’t live without them”. The person I am working with may not have been saying anything in the moment that evokes the despair of the “battle of the sexes”, but if I “hear” that quote as part of my associative process, sure enough, eventually the lament, in one form or another, shortly follows.

In working with a couple, when the wife complained about not receiving enough affection, and the husband grew restive and surly, I associated to an Otis Redding song, “hearing” the melody,  and  then I associated to a John Fogerty song, again, “hearing” the melody.   First came the melodies, then the words. The Otis Redding song was “Try a Little Tenderness”.  The John Fogerty  song was “Bad Bad Boy”.  When I paid attention to the seemingly distracting fragments of melody, I “tuned in” to the words.   Of course, the wife craved affection, and my association led me to the realization that the husband needed to understand that indeed he had  to “try a little tenderness”.  Similarly, the husband felt chastised and criticized, and my association led me to realize that the wife needed to realize that her complaints sounded like parental attacks to the husband, and that while she pleaded for love, he heard “bad bad boy, shame on you”.

The “aha” reverberated further.   The next session, I brought two CDs with me to my office, and played the two songs for the couple. I offered them a language in which they could understand each other, a code they could use that would communicate their emotional experience. She could ask for love by singing a line or two of “Try a Little Tenderness”, and  he could ask for reassurance that she loved and valued  him and  didn’t think he was hopelessly unforgivable by singing a line or two of “Bad Bad Boy”.  The music itself augments the words. Aha, music intensifies emotion! Aha, this is not an epiphanic discovery, we know that! Aha, yes it is, it is ephiphanic every time we use the intensity of word and music combined to communicate more deeply than we might have with words alone.

Alexander Stein (2007) addresses the relationship between music and memory, and emphasizes that the sound environment of early infancy has an important role in the human development. Therefore, music can evoke the sound world of early infancy, and the memory of the affects and experience of relationship forming during that crucial period. Stein makes a point of differentiating music from word, music from lyric, and asks, “What do memories sound like?  What do feelings sound like?”  Perhaps, in the “aha” moment of an analyst’s reverie of music  that leads to words,  the analyst is feeling the unconsciously communicated feeling of the analysand, the primary process, and then the lyrics, the words, are a secondary process elaboration, connecting the analysand’s affective memory  with the analyst’s affective memory.

We all have the capacity to live in an ongoing unfolding series of ephiphanic moments.  Our free associative processes are with us ever and anon, we perceive them,  sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. “Aha!” is the recognition that we reverberate with each other, and with the world. That “resonance’, that “reverberation”, underlies the philosophy embodied in “music of the spheres”,   “Musica Universalis”, that the entire cosmos is proportioned mathematically, that the energies of the universe are mathematical, and have musical properties, are  expressed musically.       “As above, so below”, attributed to Hermes Trigmegistus, is an element in many philosophies. Our mind-bodies are tuning forks, attuned to the universe.  Let’s listen to each other.


Bollas, C.  The Shadow of the Object, Columbia University Press: New York, 1987.

Stein,  A.  “The sound of memory:  Music and  acoustic origins.”  American Imago, 64: 59-85, 2007.

A version of this paper was presented at the IFPE 23rd Annual Interdisciplinary Conference, November 3, 2012.

If you would like to contact Merle Molofsky, her email is mmpsya@mindspring.com

Do I dare to think other/wisely ?

June 24, 2013 12:30 am

Repeating the repetitive, altering the alternative

by João Pedro Dias


To my mind, the merit of this paper is to be credited to the patient referred in the clinical example, with whom I learned much of what I know today, and to my dear professors and esteemed friends António Coimbra de Matos and Farrell Silverberg.

Summary: I will present a case of a patient who had already had a previous experience in analysis with another therapist. Presenting imaginary and real dialogues between the three of us, I will posit that the analyst’s ability to change his previous theoretical beliefs into a new mode of thinking, feeling and being in a relationship with a new patient, is a key for the efficacy and sustainability of psychoanalysis.

“Mudam-se os tempos, mudam-se as vontades,
Muda-se o ser, muda-se a confiança;
Todo o mundo é compost de mudança,
Tomando sempre novas qualidades.”

(Luísde Camões, 1524-1580)

“Times change, our desires change,
What we are, and what we believe, is ever changing,
The world is made of change,
And forever takes on new qualities.”



I will begin by presenting a case of a patient who had already had some previous experience in analysis with another therapist before working with me. The patient, Diana, a 30 year old woman who was also a mental health professional, began by informing me about what she had learned and experienced in her first analysis.

First Session

Diana–“…I feel little bit anxious,I don’t know why… Perhaps I was expecting an older man, you know, with white hair and glasses on the tip of his nose, like Doctor X (her first analyst).

“… My mother always told me that my father rejected me when I was born.When he found out that my mother was pregnant, they had a fight and he left home. Then he returned, but he only accepted me when I was 3 months of age. Their relationship was never the same again and he betrayed her with other women.Nevertheless, I grew up very attached to him: He was my hero and we’ve never talked about this matter since he had always been a good father to me. I remember him arriving home from work and bringing me presents. It was always something special. I guess he overcame that initial rejection…

“In my first analysis I became conscious of my incestuous passion  for him.  I learned that because of his rejection, I developed a compulsion to choose men who reject me initially. I lose interest in a man once he becomes interested in me, without me having to fight for him. I was like that, during my adolescence.

“When I was 21 years old, I got married to George, and now we have a 3 year old daughter. Because my father used to have affairs, I find myself tending to be extremely insecure and  jealous. Some time ago, George and I had a fight because of my insecurity and jealousy, and he almost left me.

“Thanks to my first analyst, I grew to understand much about the true origins of my jealousies. Although I have good memories of my relationship with him, I have this feeling of having relived a long history of suffering while in treatment with him… At the end, I came to understand that because I felt rejected by my father, I projected on Dr. X my expectations of being appreciated by a father figure. He showed me that my expectations towards him were exaggerated, since in fact he was not my father. That’s why I am also so jealous and too demanding with George. I demand too much attention and I become obsessed with George, just as I was obsessed with my father.

“I learned so much about myself, but I haven’t changed the core of what I am, of what I feel. Now, 3 years later, I still have this vague feeling of emptiness, as if something is missing inside me. The bottom line is that I am unhappy.

“Am I still disturbed by my relationship with my father? Is that the reason why I am still so jealous of George’s relationships with his friends and colleagues?I know that my suspicious fantasies come from my unresolved Oedipus complex…You see, sometimes I accept that my jealousies are a kind of delusion, because I imagine sexual scenes of George with other women. I imagine every little detail…It’s horrible. However, most of the time I am deeply convinced that he really does betray me with other women. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it night and day. So I decided to come back to analysis”.


It took me a long time to fully understand what she meant by coming back to analysis. She never spoke again about her first analysis as explicitly as she did in the first session. However, her manner of talking to me made it seem as if we had been working together for a long time. In her rather idiosyncratic way she told me that she repeats and relives in the present what happened in her past.

Just as she had transferred her infantile expectations to her first analyst, who in turn came to represent her father, she also had a strong conviction, although vaguely unconscious, that she would repeat the same relationship pattern with me. Based in what I learned from classic psychoanalytic theory, I had that same conviction.

I.Repeating the repetitive

According to the classic theory, the psychoanalytic treatment is supposed to begin with the establishment of a transference relationship in which the analyst represents the patient’s original developmental object(s). The transference is considered the impetus for the patient’s psychological changes.

Apparently, this describes what was happening in Diana’s analysis with me. She adhered thoroughly to what I thought – and perhaps to what she thought – the treatment was supposed to be: she freely associated her ideas and recounted many dreams which content, at first, I was able to interpret at the light of her infantile history, of her unsatisfactory marriage and of her transference relationship with me. She still suffered from unrealistic jealousies because she demanded too much attention from her husband.

By representing her father – which means being and not being the one I represent –, in the transference relationship, her pathological neediness appeared through feelings of being rejected by me, just as she felt rejected by her father.

So, everything was going according to the plan… Except one thing: Probably due to my inexperience, or at least so I thought, the treatment wasn’t working. Unlike her first analyst, I started to feel unable to show her that her frustrated infantile expectations of being appreciated by her father were now, in the transference situation, anachronistic and unrealistic since I was not, in fact, her father.

From a technical point of view everything made sense, but something felt wrong since we seemed to be going in circles. It was evident to me that something in the treatment had to be altered. Except that by the time I came to this realization, she was becoming more and more depressed.

From time to time, she complained that she felt rejected because her husband was withdrawing from the relationship with her. Furthermore, she had a dreadful fear because she thought that George’s betrayal was now imminent and that he was going to leave her and trade her for another woman. However, since we had already created an unconscious collusion between us, we both accepted that her husband’s withdrawal was caused by her affective neediness and excessive voracity. Therefore, we both tended to deflect her attention from her relationship with her husband, redirecting it towards her own psychodynamics and how those played out in the transference relationship.


Session after session, I was hearing her complaints about how miserably unhappy she was. Month after month, I was sensing that both she and I were becoming bored and frustrated (depressed) with the way things were going in her life and in the analysis itself. Here is an example:

Diana – “(After a long silence). I’m thinking that sooner or later you’ll become sick of me and of my complaints and winnings… I am so boring that you probably just want to forget about me in the end of every session, just as my husband also prefers to spend his weekends with his friends. I know: these feelings are stupid because this is your job. This has nothing to do with you directly, but has more to do with my father’s rejection. But… What does this means? It means that I have a lot of things to resolve with him. But what am I going to resolve directly with him? (Starts to cry). We’ve been through this before. When am I going to resolve this, when? Never! That’s when”.

I was listening her and I was thinking that what she was telling me had something to do with her transferential fantasies. Then, during this session – orperhaps during a session similar to this one – in an Ogden-like “reverie” (Ogden, 1997) that occurred during one of her discussions of the futility of her insights, I imagined that she asked me a rather puzzling question and an entire conversation unfolded:

–    Would you dare to think otherwise?

–    Excuse me?–I replied.

–    Well, through what is commonly known as “transference interpretations”, you have been thinking – and thereby helping me to convince myself –that I feel rejected and frustrated, not because of my husband’s actual rejection, but because I transfer my unrealistic expectations to you.

–    Yes… So?–I asked.

–    So, I am asking you: would you dare to think otherwise?

–    I am not sure if understand what you mean…

–    Well, as you see, I am right about your feelings: You’re actually bored with me. So, if I’m right about you, could I also be right about George? … You don’t need to answer that question. It’s just a rhetorical question…

–    Then she continued– …What I am trying to say to you is that I don’t know if my suffering has to do with my father, or with my mother. Actually, I don’tneed someone who can symbolically represent my mother or my father (or  both). What I need is someone who could give me an alternative perspective of myself and of my life. A complementary view, different from that of my mother and different from that of my father. An unsaturated view of myself and of my own world. A view stripped of preconceptions, that would allow me to remain open to new perspective and to establish new affective connections, thereby enhancing my will to be who I am and my freedom to evolve continuously… Except that I cannot do it alone. In order to achieve this goal, I would need a real partner and not a symbolical, imaginary one.

–    What do you mean?

–     Since you are a slow learner, I’ll give you an example. Can you really learn to play tennis simply by throwing the ball against a wall? No, you need someone who collaborates more actively with you on the pursuit of that  objective. What I mean is that I need someone who could actually recognize me as the idiosyncratic person and woman that I am.

–    Well, I don’t know if that’s possible.

–    Of course you don’t know. First of all, that would be possible only if your responses to me would convey a genuine congruence between what you are as a person, what you think as a therapist and what you feel while you’respeaking and not speaking to me. Second, psychological changes are impossible because, according to my first therapist, I will begin by repeating – by transferring –, and then I will become aware that I am repeating and finally I will give up repeating. As if the awareness of the repetition could contain in itself, and by itself, the potential to develop into a new, alternative mode of thinking, feeling and being…  This  is  unsustainable.  –  She summarized.

–    Would change be possible if, instead of thinking like your first analyst, I would dare to think otherwise?

–    Only you can answer that question… – She replied – … You were my first analyst.

–    What do you mean?!

–    Well, as you see… You’re not really having this conversation with me, but with yourself.

This imaginary dialogue illustrates the way I felt that Diana, with her clear thinking and lucid questioning – when compared to my own obscure theoretical preconceptions –, it also helped me to understand the core issue that was blocking the development of a genuine therapeutic relationship.

II.Altering the alternative

The main problem was that I had been thinking, feeling and being – from the beginning – like an old, ancient analyst, “with white hair and glasses on the tip of my nose.” For Diana to be able to change, first of all it was I who had to be able to change my previous theoretical beliefs into a new mode of thinking, feeling and being in my relationship with her.

Only then I started to understand her anxiety when we met in the first session.If I were an “older/outdated” analyst, more similar to what she expected, then I would try to convince her that her suffering derived mainly from her misplaced fantasies and pathological neediness. Otherwise, I would understand that no one persistently fantasizes about being rejected if they haven’t been actually rejected at a critical time in their life; or, at the very least, if they haven’t been strongly threatened with rejection or abandonment.

A real rejection or threat of rejection had to have happened (and not necessarily on her father’s part). But a real rejection was also actually happening in the present analysis if I refused to entertain the possibility that Diana’s fears were realistic.

Having started to doubt the thesis that her problems came mainly from her“distorted sense of reality”, I also started to really listen to her and, at the same time, I insisted that she would listen to herself. Moreover, I insisted that she would observe the reality that appeared to be in front of her eyes…I was more than a little surprised to realize that she was very reluctant to do so. Actually, by that point, she was the one who more tenaciously refused to believe that her own great and profound conviction could be true… Or even possible.

When I saw what was there for me to see right from the beginning, then I came to realize the way she affirmed – and at the same time denied – her own conviction that her husband didn’t love her and was having an affair. What if her conviction about her husband’s betrayal were true? What if her former analyst was wrong to dissuade her, and misguided to redirect her to assume that it was her own insecurities and repetition instead, and what, most importantly of all, if I were joining in this folly?

The analytic relationship went  along smoothly,  albeit  not necessarily productively, until the day I suggested that she could be right. Then she started to get a little bit angry with me.“You are really getting on my nerves”, she told me in one of those occasions. No doubt, we’re now travelling on uncharted waters. The sympathetic, adequate, depressed and apparently very masochistic woman, gave place to a more vivacious, active and even rebellious person – but only from time to time, since most of the time the internal forces of repression and denial inside herself seemed to prevail.

Surprisingly, from then on she started to avoid talking about her relationship with her husband. She complained vaguely about her feelings of inadequacy and of her shortcomings as a woman, conveying that she was the one to blame for herhusband’s affective withdrawal. A year went by in this mode before something changed. It all began with her reporting a dream, and unlike the reverie I reported earlier in this article, this dream was actually reported by the patient. And, as it turns out, the patient’s dream provided me with an opportunity to apply what I had gleaned from that previous reverie and from the treatment up to this moment.


Diana – “George travelled to Lisbon yesterday. During the Christmas holidays he spent more time with his friends and was called several times for business meetings…). Today I had a dream: I arrived earlier for a session. When I was in the waiting room I started to listen through the wall. A woman was accusing you of betraying her. Then I decided to go back home, but when I was halfway there I felt intensely curious and I decided to come back to see who would come out of your office. Except that the road signs were wrong and I got lost on the way. When I woke up I felt very anxious. I guess this dream represents the fact that my father used to betray my mother and that I’m transferring my fear of being betrayed by George to you,isn’tit?(…)During the holidays, my friend Isabel told me that she is leaving the office where we worked together for a long time… I ended up feeling rejected and very angry… Oh, of course that these feelings had nothing to do with her.They have to do with your absence during the holiday interruption…

JPD – Yes,what you’re saying has something to do with me. But, moreso, I think that you’ve been feeling both physically and emotionally abandoned by your husband. And you seem to have a strong suspicion about him… (Pause). But the transference, since you insist on mentioning it, is that you refuse to share with me your true feelings and intuitions because you are afraid that I will interpret them as the other therapist did. That’s the real transference: you fear that I think of you as delusional, a s silly person…

Diana – (Surprised). Well… Don’t you (think of me as crazy)?… (Silence). I guess you’re right. Actually, there was something weird about the dream that I forgot mentioning. There was a woman in the waiting room, sitting behind a desk. I thought the she could represent your wife and that in this dream I was reliving my mother’s suffering, caused by my father’s betrayals… This is pretty elaborated, isn’t it? (Laughs)… I feel that what you told me is much more true… Yes, I just remembered that when I woke up from the dream… I thought immediately that, unlike you, my former analyst did have a secretary working for him. Now that I think about it, I used to feel that he thought of me as being a silly, crazy girl… But if you don’t see me as silly, how do you see me?

JPD – How do you see yourself?

Diana–As a silly girl, or woman… I don’t know! This is a dead end: I can’t believe in my own intuition because I consider myself crazy.

JPD – I think you prefer to consider yourself crazy so that you don’t have to believe in your intuition. You don’t want to read “road signs,” you prefer to say they’re wrong, so you end up getting lost.

The dream was not just a transference dream as she supposed, but more importantly, was a translation of what she felt was going on in her life. Over the following weeks two changes occurred. The first one was that the therapeutic relationship became therapeutic, in the true sense of the word. It gained the genuine intersubjective dimension that was missing, although perhaps it was not entirely absent from the beginning. I will elaborate on this matter later on.

The development of a richer intersubjective dialogue between us, gave place to a second change: The creation of a more secure psychological environment allowed her not only to accept her own feelings and intuitions, but also to explore them more freely, to grasp more accurately their true origins and to pursue less fearfully their possible consequences. She had already gathered an extensive amount of plausible indications that her husband was, in fact, having an affair. However, she still refused to extract from those signs what seemed to be the more obvious conclusion. The session presented below was very important.


Diana–George traveled to Lisbon. On the weekend I found again in George’s mobile phone some messages to one his female colleagues. The messages reveal too much intimacy between them (Starts to cry). I have a strong suspicion but, then again, it doesn’t allow me to conclude anything… I think I am very attentive to every little detail: I check his phone; I look for perfume odors in his shirts… But I don’t know, I feel lost.

JPD – As I was listening to you, I thought of something that might be of interest. Do you, by any chance, know the Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the “Purloined Letter”? … It happened in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had to do with a search for a stolen letter. This letter, stolen by a Minister, contains compromising information about a Prefect of police. The prefect does a thorough investigation inside the Minister’s office: He checks behind the wallpaper, under the carpets, he even examines the tabletops with microscopes and probes the cushions with needles. He finds nothing. Do you know where the letter was? … It was on the table, “hidden in plain sight.”.

Diana was almost completely silent for the rest of the session. That same night she left her daughter with a friend and she went to Lisbon to do some investigating of her own. She found her husband in a hotel room –at the same hotel where he said he would be – and he was in the hotel room with one of his female colleagues. She returned home and a couple of months later divorced him.


From then on, she started to question much of what she thought she already knew. Particularly, she questioned if her emotional difficulties were actually just imaginings that were derived from the so-called rejection on her father’s part. She discovered that this belief was more a myth, co-constructed but strongly fueled by her mother, a woman with deep narcissistic injuries who unconsciously tried to maintain Diana’s dependency. Diana understood that her mother’s behavior of presenting herself as victim, was due to her own need to be cared for and loved.

Thus, Diana discovered and opened her own narcissistic wound, which had been concealed by a relationship with her supposedly perfect mother. Since Diana’schildhood, her own narcissistic rage and guilt had been masochistically deflected towards herself. During the following years of the analysis, she was able to expel and redirect her own unconscious rage towards her mother.

From the analytic work that continued long after the Edgar Allan Poe session she also developed a more consistent trust in her own experiential knowledge and intuition. This had a major impact in her self-esteem and consequently in all dimensions of her psychological and interpersonal life.

III.The true psychoanalytic encounter

Loewald (1960) introduced the idea of the analyst as a new developmental object. This means that the analyst can be:

–     Not just a transference object with whom the patient can only repeat endlessly the once failed experience with the original developmental object;

–      But also a real and new developmental object.

However, as I understand it, the full potential of this important idea has yet to be fully explored. After all, there is still a prevailing notion in much of the field that the psychoanalytic treatment begins and is built through the establishment of a transference relationship, which can,  during the     course of the treatment, “miraculously”mutate into a new developmental relationship.

Based in my own experience and based on what I understand from authors such as Winnicott (1975) and Fairbairn (1952), and especially in the work of Coimbra de Matos(2002)…I would dare to think otherwise.

The psychoanalytic relationship  begins with and evolves from a true psychological encounter between two real persons –this is very different from what defines and characterizes the transference relationship.

The transference is a byproduct of the failed developmental relationship,which was not just pathological, but also pathogenic since it was internalized and therefore reproduced by the patient –whenever the relational circumstances (or the intersubjective context) favors its reproduction. The analytic relationship is always inter-subjectively co-constructed by the patient – the first subject – and by the analyst – the second subject, who, because of his knowledge, has a greater responsibility in the quality of the analytic relationship. (In my opinion, thepatient’s evolution is more attributable to the patient’s merit; while the patient’s stagnation or his involution is more attributable to the analyst’s limitations).

In other words, the transference is a symbolical repetition, in which almost everything the patient says or does, during the analysis, is interpreted as if it included – supposedly – some“implicit” reference to the analyst. For example, the patient is angry because he got fired, but the analyst tells him that he is angry because the analyst delayed the beginning of that session (or because the analyst didn’t agree in lowering his fees last month). Similar examples – although not so caricatured or grotesque – are not unusual.

Instead, a more meaningful psychoanalytic encounter focuses:

–     On the analysis of the patient’s present relationships;

–     On how the present difficulties on those relationships are related to past interactions;

–     And, last but not the least, on the development of the patient’s psychological potentialities.

At the beginning, the analyst does not symbolically represent – nor does he try to represent during the course of the treatment –the patient’s internal object(s) (i.e., the patient’s original object). Of course that, from the non, developments and manifestations of transference and/or counter-transference are almost always inevitable. Nevertheless, they represent missteps and occasional incidents that may, or may not, be noticed, interpreted and used to collect useful guidelines and probabilistic information about what may have happened in the patient’s infantile interactions.

In other words: the new developmental relationship can, when mismanaged –as in the case presented earlier in this paper – , mutate transitorily or definitely into a transference / counter-transference relationship.

These  different  relational  qualities/tracks  –  i.e.,  the  innovative  (and alternative) development versus the repetitive (and pathological) relationship – are not easily identifiable and discriminable during the therapeutic process. This idea can be figuratively illustrated by the following example. When we breathe, we cannot differentiate between oxygen and carbon dioxide; nevertheless, we feel immediately the difference between inhaling fumes from toxic waste and breathing fresh air.

A true psychoanalytic encounter began to take place between Diana and myself when she started to feel, implicitly (Stern, 2006), that I was able to feel what she was feeling. This simple psychological event gave legitimacy to the existence and to the acceptance of her own true feelings. We can designate this event as the founding moment of intimacy: The moment when we find that our most unspeakable feelings have space and existence inside the mind of the other person, in this case the analyst, with whom we are intimate.

This intimate dimension of our analytic relationship came to life, but only because it was not entirely absent in the beginning of the treatment. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to unfold and transform the transference into a new, non-repetitive form of relationship.

To conclude, my impression is that a true psychoanalytic encounter:

1) Is born and develops outside the realm of the transference/counter-transference.

2) Starts when the patient begins to sense that the analyst’s main “guideline” is the patient’s actual benefit, measured in terms of psychological freedom to think, to feel and to be in the analytic relationship.

3) Arises implicitly, in an almost unnoticeable manner – as in the case I described above – at the moment the true encounter is embraced by the analyst, although its potential was there right from the beginning of the treatment… Or, if never embraced by the analyst, the true encounter remains lost to the patient and to the analyst,no matter how long psychoanalysis lasts.


  • Coimbra de Matos, A. (2002).  Psicanálise e Psicoterapia Psicanalítica. Lisboa: Climepsi Editores
  • Fairbairn, W. R. D.  (1952). Psychoanalytic studies of the personality. London: Routledge.
  • Loewald, H. W.  (1960).      On    the    therapeutic       action     of    psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 41:16-33.
  • Ogden, T.H. (1997). Reverie and Interpretation: Sensing something human. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
  • Stern, D. (2006). The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. New York: Norton Press.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1975). Through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: The Hogarth Press

If you would like to contact João Pedro Dias, his email is joaopedrodias.g@gmail.com.

From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity: A Phenomenological–Contextualist Psychoanalytic Perspective*

June 24, 2013 12:30 am

by Robert D. Stolorow

Intersubjective-systems theory, the term my collaborators and I (Stolorow, Atwood, & Orange, 2002) coined to name our evolving psychoanalytic perspective, is a phenomenological contextualism. It is phenomenological in that it investigates and illuminates organizations or worlds of emotional experience. It is contextual in that it holds that such organizations of emotional experience take form, both developmentally and in the psychoanalytic situation, in constitutive relational or intersubjective contexts.
Developmentally, recurring patterns of intersubjective transaction within the developmental system give rise to principles (thematic patterns, meaning structures) that unconsciously organize subsequent emotional and relational experiences. Such organizing principles are unconscious, not in the sense of being repressed, but in being prereflective; ordinarily they do not enter the domain of reflective self-awareness. These intersubjectively-derived, prereflective organizing principles are the basic building blocks of personality development. They show up in the psychoanalytic situation in the form of transference, which intersubjective-systems theory conceptualizes as unconscious organizing activity. The patient’s transference experience is co-constituted by the patient’s prereflective organizing principles and whatever is coming from the analyst that is lending itself to being organized by them. A parallel statement can be made about the analyst’s transference. The psychological field formed by the interplay of the patient’s transference and the analyst’s transference is an example of what we call an intersubjective system.
*Portions of this article have been incorporated into my forthcoming book, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, May 2011).
ATTACHMENT: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Vol. 5, March 2011: pp. 1–14.
Psychoanalysis is a dialogical method for bringing this pereflective organizing activity into reflective self-awareness.
Freud’s psychoanalysis expanded the Cartesian mind, Descartes’s (1641) ‘thinking thing’, to include a vast unconscious realm. None the less, the Freudian mind remained a Cartesian mind, a self-enclosed worldless subject or mental apparatus containing and working over mental contents and radically separated from its surround. Corresponding to its Cartesianism is traditional psychoanalysis’s objectivist epistemology. One isolated mind, the analyst, is claimed to make objective observations and interpretations of another isolated mind, the patient.
A phenomenological contextualism concerns emotional experience and its organization, not reified mind entities, and it reunites the Cartesian isolated mind with its world, its context. Correspondingly, intersubjective-systems theory embraces a perspectivalist epistemology, insisting that analytic understanding is always from a perspective shaped by the organizing principles of the enquirer. Accordingly, there are no objective or neutral analysts, no immaculate perceptions, no God’s-eye view of anyone or anything.
I hope it is already clear to the reader that our phenomenological emphasis does not in any way entail abandonment of the exploration of unconsciousness. Going back to the father of philosophical phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1900, 1913), phenomenological inquiry has never been restricted to mere description of conscious experiences. Phenomenological investigation has always been centrally concerned with the structures that unconsciously organize conscious experience. Whereas philosophical phenomenologists are concerned with those structures that operate universally, a psychoanalytic phenomenologist seeks to illuminate those principles that unconsciously organize individual worlds of experience and, in particular, those that give meaning to emotional and relational experiences. Such principles include, importantly, those that dictate what emotional experiences must be prevented from coming into full being – that is, those that must be dynamically repressed – because they are prohibited or too dangerous. Intersubjective-systems theory emphasizes that all such forms of unconsciousness are constituted in relational contexts. Indeed, as I will elaborate in what follows, from an intersubjectivesystems perspective, all of the clinical phenomena with which psychoanalysis has been traditionally concerned came to be seen as taking form within systems of interacting, differently organized, mutually influencing emotional worlds. Phenomenology led us inexorably to contextualism.
Historical origins 
The beginnings of our phenomenological–-contextualist perspective hark back to a series of psychobiographical studies, conducted in the early and mid-1970s by George Atwood and myself, of the personal, subjective origins of the  theoretical systems of Freud, Jung, Reich, and Rank, studies that formed the basis of our first book, Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory (Stolorow & Atwood, 1979), which was completed in 1976. From these studies, we concluded that since psychological theories derive to a significant degree from the subjective concerns of their creators, what psychoanalysis and personality psychology needed was a theory of subjectivity itself: a unifying framework capable of accounting not only for the psychological phenomena that other theories address, but also for the theories themselves.
In the last chapter of Faces, we outlined a set of proposals for the creation of such a framework, which we called psychoanalytic phenomenology. Influenced by the writings of George Klein (1976) and Sandler and Rosenblatt (1962), we envisioned this framework as a depth psychology of personal experience, purified of the mechanistic reifications of Freudian metapsychology. Our framework took the experiential world of the individual as its central theoretical construct. We assumed no impersonal psychical agencies or motivational prime movers in order to explain the experiential world. Instead, we assumed that this world evolves organically from the person’s encounter with the critical formative experiences that constitute his or her unique life history. Once established, it becomes discernible in the distinctive, recurrent patterns, themes, and invariant meanings that prereflectively organize the person’s experiences. Psychoanalytic phenomenology entailed a set of interpretative principles for investigating the nature, origins, purposes, and transformations of the configurations of self and other pervading a person’s experiential world.
Importantly, our dedication to illuminating personal phenomenology had led us from mind to world and, thus, from mental contents to relational contexts, from the intrapsychic to the intersubjective.
From mind to world: intersubjectivity 
Although the concept of intersubjectivity was not introduced in the first edition of Faces, it was clearly implicit in the demonstrations of how the personal, subjective world of a personality theorist influences his or her understanding of other persons’ experiences. The first explicit use of the term intersubjective in our work appeared in an article (Stolorow, Atwood, & Ross, 1978), also completed in 1976, which Lewis Aron (1996) credited with having introduced the concept of intersubjectivity into American psychoanalytic discourse. There we conceptualized the interplay between transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic treatment as an intersubjective process reflecting the mutual interaction between the differently organized subjective worlds of patient and analyst, and we examined the impact on the therapeutic process of unrecognized correspondences and disparities – intersubjective conjunctions and disjunctions – between the patient’s and analyst’s respective worlds of experience.1
From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity
Our contextualist perspective significantly deepened and expanded in consequence of Bernard Brandchaft’s and my investigation, in 1980, of so-called borderline phenomena. We found that when a very vulnerable, archaically organized patient is treated according to the theoretical ideas and technical recommendations offered by Otto Kernberg (1975), that patient will quickly display all the characteristics Kernberg ascribed to borderline personality organization, and the pages of Kernberg’s books will come alive right before the clinician’s eyes. On the other hand, when such a patient is treated according to the theory and technical stance proposed by Heinz Kohut (1971), that patient will soon show the features Kohut attributed to narcissistic personality disorder, and Kohut’s books will come alive. In the chapter that resulted from our investigation (Brandchaft & Stolorow, 1984), we contended that borderline states take form in an intersubjective field, co-constituted by the patient’s psychological structures and the way these are understood and responded to by the therapist. Thus began a series of collaborative studies (see Stolorow, Brandchaft, & Atwood, 1987) in which Atwood, Brandchaft, and I extended our intersubjective perspective to a wide array of clinical phenomena, including development and pathogenesis, transference and resistance, emotional conflict formation, dreams, enactments, neurotic symptoms, and psychotic states. (See also Stolorow, Atwood, & Orange, 2002, Chapter Eight, for an explication of the phenomenology of psychotic states.) In each instance, phenomena that had traditionally been the focus of psychoanalytic investigation were understood not as products of isolated intrapsychic mechanisms, but as forming at the interface of interacting experiential worlds. The intersubjective context, we contended, plays a constitutive role in all forms of psychopathology, and clinical phenomena cannot be comprehended psychoanalytically apart from the intersubjective field in which they crystallize. In psychoanalytic treatment, the impact of the observer was grasped as intrinsic to the observed. Traditional Freudian theory is pervaded by the Cartesian ‘myth of the isolated mind’ (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, Chapter One). Descartes’s (1641) philosophy bifurcated the subjective world into inner and outer regions, severed both mind from body and cognition from affect, reified and absolutized the resulting divisions, and pictured the mind as an objective entity that takes its place among other objects, a ‘thinking thing’ that has an inside with contents and that looks out on an external world from which it is essentially estranged. As I said earlier, the Freudian psyche is fundamentally a Cartesian mind in that it is a container of contents (instinctual energies, wishes, etc.), a thinking thing that, precisely because it is a thing, is ontologically decontextualized, fundamentally separated from its world.
Within philosophy, perhaps the most important challenge to Descartes’s metaphysical dualism was mounted by Martin Heidegger (1927), whose analysis of human existence holds great promise in providing philosophical
grounding for our phenomenological contextualism. Descartes’s metaphysics divided the finite world into two distinct basic substances: res cogitans and res extensa, thinking substances (minds) with no extension in space and extended substances (bodies and other material things) that do not think. This metaphysical dualism concretized the idea of a complete separation between mind and world, between subject and object. Descartes’s vision can be characterized as a decontextualization of both mind and world. Mind, the ‘thinking thing’, is isolated from the world in which it dwells, just as the world is purged of all human significance or ‘worldhood’ (Heidegger, 1927). Both mind and world are stripped of all contextuality with respect to one another, as they are beheld in their bare thinghood, as Heidegger would say. The ontological gap between mind and world, between subject and object, is bridged only in a relationship of thinking, in which the ‘worldless subject’ somehow forms ideas that more or less accurately represent or correspond to transcendent (i.e., mind-independent) objects in an ‘unworlded world’. In his existential analytic, Heidegger sought to refind the unity of our being, split asunder in the Cartesian bifurcation. Thus, what he called the ‘destruction’ of traditional metaphysics was a clearing away of the latter’s concealments and disguises, in order to unveil the primordial contextual whole that it had been covering up. Heidegger’s (1927) contextualism is made explicit in his ‘laying bare’ the constitutive structure of our existence as a ‘being-in-the-world’ (p. 65). The hyphens unifying the expression being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) indicate that the traditional ontological gap between our being and our world is to be definitively closed and that, in their indissoluble unity, our being and our world ‘primordially and constantly’ (p. 65) contextualize one another. Heidegger’s existential analytic unveils the basic structure of our being as a rich contextual whole, in which human being is saturated with the world in which we dwell, just as the world we inhabit is drenched in human meanings and purposes. In the light of this fundamental contextualization, Heidegger’s consideration of affectivity is especially noteworthy. Heidegger’s term for the existential ground of affectivity (feelings and moods) is Befindlichkeit, a characteristically cumbersome noun he invented to capture a basic dimension of human existence. Literally, the word might be translated as ‘howonefinds-oneselfness’. As Gendlin (1988) has pointed out, Heidegger’s word for the structure of affectivity denotes both how one feels and the situation within which one is feeling, a felt sense of oneself in a situation, prior to a Cartesian split between inside and outside. Befindlichkeit is disclosive of our always already having been delivered over to the situatedness in which we find ourselves. For Heidegger, Befindlichkeit – disclosive affectivity – is a mode of being-in-the-world, profoundly embedded in constitutive context. Heidegger’s concept underscores the exquisite context dependence and context sensitivity of emotional experience–a context-embeddedness that takes
on enormous importance in view of intersubjective-systems theory’s placing of affectivity at the motivational centre of human psychological life.
From drive to affectivity 
It is a central tenet of intersubjective-systems theory that a shift in psychoanalytic thinking from the motivational primacy of drive to the motivational primacy of affectivity moves psychoanalysis towards a phenomenological contextualism and a central focus on dynamic intersubjective systems. Unlike drives, which originate deep within the interior of a Cartesian isolated mind, affect—that is, subjective emotional experience—is something that from birth onward is regulated, or misregulated, within ongoing relational systems. Therefore, locating affect at its motivational centre automatically entails a radical contextualization of virtually all aspects of human psychological life.
My own systematic focus on affectivity began with an early article written with my late wife, Daphne Socarides Stolorow (Socarides & Stolorow, 1984–1985), attempting to integrate our evolving intersubjective perspective with the framework of Kohutian self psychology. In our proposed expansion and refinement of Kohut’s (1971) selfobject concept, we suggested that ‘selfobject functions pertain fundamentally to the integration of affect’ into the organization of self experience, and that the need for selfobject ties ‘pertains most centrally to the need for [attuned] responsiveness to affect states in all stages of the life cycle’ (p. 105). Kohut’s discussions of the longing for mirroring, for example, were seen as pointing to the role of appreciative attunement in the integration of expansive affect states, whereas his descriptions of the idealizing yearning were seen as indicating the importance of attuned emotional holding and containment in the integration of painful reactive affect states. Emotional experience was grasped in this early article as being inseparable from the intersubjective contexts of attunement and malattunement in which it was felt. Comprehending the motivational primacy of affectivity – Befindlichkeit – enables one to contextualize a wide range of psychological phenomena that have traditionally been central in psychoanalytic theory, including psychic conflict, trauma, transference and resistance, unconsciousness, and the therapeutic action of psychoanalytic interpretation.
In the early article on affects and selfobject functions (Socarides & Stolorow, 1984–1985), we alluded to the nature of the intersubjective contexts in which psychological conflict takes form: ‘An absence of steady, attuned responsiveness to the child’s affect states leads to . . . significant derailments of optimal affect integration and to a propensity to dissociate or disavow affective reactions’ (p. 106). Psychological conflict develops when central affect states of the child cannot be integrated because they evoke massive or consistent malattune
ment from care-givers (Stolorow, Brandchaft, & Atwood, 1987, Chapter Six). Such unintegrated affect states become the source of lifelong emotional conflict and vulnerability to traumatic states, because they are experienced as threats both to the person’s established psychological organization and to the maintenance of vitally needed ties. Defences against affect thus become necessary.
From this perspective, developmental trauma is viewed, not as an instinctual flooding of an ill-equipped Cartesian container, as Freud (1926) would have it, but as an experience of unbearable affect. Furthermore, the intolerability of an affect state cannot be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis of the quantity or intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious event. Traumatic affect states can be grasped only in terms of the relational systems in which they are felt (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, Chapter Four). Developmental trauma originates within a formative intersubjective context whose central feature is malattunement to painful affect – a breakdown of the child–care-giver system of mutual regulation – leading to the child’s loss of affect-integrating capacity and, thereby, to an unbearable, overwhelmed, disorganized state. Painful or frightening affect becomes traumatic when the attunement that the child needs to assist in its tolerance, containment, and integration is profoundly absent.
From the claim that trauma is constituted in an intersubjective context wherein severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held, it follows that injurious childhood experiences in and of themselves need not be traumatic (or at least not lastingly so) or pathogenic, provided that they occur within a responsive milieu. Pain is not pathology. It is the absence of adequate attunement to the child’s painful emotional reactions that renders them unendurable and, thus, a source of traumatic states and psychopathology.
This conceptualization holds both for discrete, dramatic traumatic events and the more subtle ‘cumulative traumas’ (Khan, 1963) that occur continually throughout childhood. Whereas Khan (1963) conceptualized cumulative trauma as the result of recurring ‘breaches in the mother’s role as a protective shield’ (p. 46), we understand such ongoing trauma more in terms of the failure to respond adequately to the child’s painful affect once the ‘protective shield’ has been breached. A parent’s narcissistic use of the child, for example, may preclude the recognition of, acceptance of, and attuned responsiveness to the child’s painful affect states.
One consequence of developmental trauma, relationally conceived, is that affect states take on enduring, crushing meanings. From recurring experiences of malattunement, the child acquires the unconscious conviction that unmet developmental yearnings and reactive painful feeling states are manifestations of a loathsome defect or of an inherent inner badness. A defensive self-ideal is often established, representing a self-image purified of the offending affect states that were perceived to be unwelcome or damaging to care-givers. Living
From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity
up to this affectively purified ideal becomes a central requirement for maintaining harmonious ties to others and for upholding self-esteem. Thereafter, the emergence of prohibited affect is experienced as a failure to embody the required ideal, an exposure of the underlying essential defectiveness or badness, and is accompanied by feelings of isolation, shame, and self-loathing. In the psychoanalytic situation, qualities or activities of the analyst that lend themselves to being interpreted according to such unconscious meanings of affect confirm
the patient’s expectations in the transference that emerging feeling states will be met with disgust, disdain, disinterest, alarm, hostility, withdrawal, exploitation, and the like, or will damage the analyst and destroy the therapeutic bond. Such transference expectations, unwittingly confirmed by the analyst, are a powerful source of resistance to the experience and articulation of affect. Intractable repetitive transferences and resistances can be grasped, from this perspective, as rigidly stable ‘attractor states’ (Thelen & Smith, 1994) of the patient–analyst system, in which the meanings of the analyst’s stance have become tightly coordinated with the patient’s grim expectations and fears, thereby exposing the patient repeatedly to threats of retraumatization. The focus on affect and its meanings contextualizes both transference and resistance.
A second consequence of developmental trauma is a severe constriction and narrowing of the horizons of emotional experiencing (Stolorow, Atwood, & Orange, 2002, Chapter Three), so as to exclude whatever feels unacceptable, intolerable, or too dangerous in particular intersubjective contexts. My collaborators’ and my ideas about the horizons of experiencing have developed over the course of more than two decades from our attempts to delineate the intersubjective origins of differing forms of unconsciousness (see, for example, Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, Chapter Two). Our evolving theory rested on the assumption that the child’s emotional experience becomes progressively articulated through the validating attunement of the early surround. Two closely interrelated but conceptually distinguishable forms of unconsciousness were pictured as developing from situations of massive malattunement. When a child’s emotional experiences are consistently not responded to or are actively rejected, the child perceives that aspects of his or her affective life are intolerable to the care-giver. These regions of the child’s emotional world must then be sacrificed in order to safeguard the needed tie. Repression was grasped here
as a kind of negative organizing principle, always embedded in ongoing intersubjective contexts, determining which configurations of affective experience were not to be allowed to come into full being. In addition, we argued, other features of the child’s emotional experience may remain unconscious, not because they have been repressed, but because, in the absence of a validating intersubjective context, they simply were never able to become articulated. With both forms of unconsciousness, the horizons of experiencing were pictured as taking form in the medium of the differing responsiveness of the
surround to different regions of the child’s affectivity. This conceptualization can be seen to apply to the psychoanalytic situation as well, wherein, as I noted in the preceding paragraph, the patient’s resistance can be shown to fluctuate in concert with perceptions of the analyst’s varying receptivity and attunement to the patient’s emotional experience.
During the preverbal period of infancy, the articulation of the child’s affective experience is achieved through attunements communicated in the sensorimotor dialogue with care-givers. With the maturation of the child’s symbolic capacities, symbols (words, for example) gradually assume a place of importance alongside sensorimotor attunements as vehicles through which the child’s emotional experience is validated within the developmental system. Therefore, we argued, in that realm of experience in which consciousness increasingly becomes articulated in symbols, unconscious becomes coextensive with unsymbolized. When the act of symbolically (linguistically, for example) articulating an affective experience is perceived to threaten an indispensable tie, repression can now be achieved by preventing the continuation of the
process of encoding that experience in symbols. Repression keeps affect nameless. The focus on affect contextualizes the very boundary between conscious and unconscious. Unlike the Freudian repression barrier, viewed as a fixed intrapsychic structure within an isolated Cartesian container, the limiting horizons of emotional experiencing are conceptualized here as emergent properties of ongoing dynamic intersubjective systems. Forming and evolving within a nexus of living systems, the horizons of experiencing are grasped as fluid and
ever-shifting, products both of the person’s unique intersubjective history and of what is or is not allowed to be felt within the intersubjective fields that constitute his or her current living. Befindlichkeit includes both feeling and the contexts in which it is or is not permitted to come into being. Like constricted and narrowed horizons of emotional experiencing, expanding horizons, too, can only be grasped in terms of the intersubjective contexts within which they take form. I close this section with some remarks about the therapeutic action of psychoanalytic interpretation.
There has been a longstanding debate in psychoanalysis over the role of cognitive insight versus affective attachment in the process of therapeutic change. The terms of this debate are directly descended from Descartes’s philosophical dualism, which sectioned human experience into cognitive and affective domains. Such artificial fracturing of human subjectivity is no longer tenable in a post-Cartesian philosophical world. Cognition and affect, thinking and feeling, interpreting and relating – these are separable only in pathology,
as can be seen in the case of Descartes himself, the profoundly isolated man who created a doctrine of the isolated mind (see Gaukroger, 1995), of disembodied, unembedded, decontextualized cogito.
From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity
The dichotomy between insight through interpretation and affective bonding with the analyst is revealed to be a false one, once we recognize that the therapeutic impact of analytic interpretations lies not only in the insights they convey but also in the extent to which they demonstrate the analyst’s attunement to the patient’s affective life. I have long contended that a good (that is, a mutative) interpretation is a relational process, a central constituent of which is the patient’s experience of having his or her feelings understood. Furthermore, it is the specific transference meaning of the experience of being understood that supplies its mutative power, as the patient weaves that experience into the
tapestry of developmental longings mobilized by the analytic engagement. Interpretation does not stand apart from the emotional relationship between patient and analyst; it is an inseparable and, to my mind, crucial dimension of that relationship. In the language of intersubjective-systems theory, interpretative expansion of the patient’s capacity for reflective awareness of old, repetitive organizing principles occurs concomitantly with the affective impact and meanings of ongoing relational experiences with the analyst, and both are
indissoluble components of a unitary therapeutic process that establishes the possibility of alternative principles for organizing experience, whereby the patient’s emotional horizons can become widened, enriched, more flexible, and more complex. For this developmental process to be sustained, the analytic bond must be able to withstand the painful and frightening affect states that can accompany cycles of destabilization and reorganization. Clearly, a clinical focus on affective experience within the intersubjective field of an analysis contextualizes the process of therapeutic change in multiple ways. The following clinical vignette (a fictionalized composite) illustrates many of the ideas developed in this section.
A young woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused by her father when she was a child began an analysis with a female analyst-in-training whom I was supervising. Early in the treatment, whenever the patient began to remember and describe the sexual abuse, or to recount analogously invasive experiences in her current life, she would display emotional reactions that consisted of two distinctive parts, both of which seemed entirely bodily. One was a trembling in her arms and upper torso, which sometimes escalated into violent shaking. The other was an intense flushing of her face. On these occasions, my supervisee was quite alarmed by her patient’s shaking and was concerned to find some way to calm her.
I had a hunch that the shaking was a bodily manifestation of a traumatized state and that the flushing was a somatic form of the patient’s shame about exposing this state to her analyst, and I suggested to my supervisee that she
focus her enquiries on the flushing rather than the shaking. As a result of this shift in focus, the patient began to speak about how she believed her analyst viewed her when she was trembling or shaking: surely her analyst must be regarding her with disdain, seeing her as a damaged mess of a human being. As this belief was repeatedly disconfirmed by her analyst’s responding with attunement and understanding rather than contempt, both the flushing and the shaking diminished in intensity. The traumatized states actually underwent a process of transformation from being exclusively bodily states into ones in which the bodily sensations came to be united with words. Instead of only shaking, the patient began to speak about her terror of annihilating intrusion. The one and only time the patient had attempted to speak to her mother about the sexual abuse, her mother shamed her severely, declaring her to be a wicked little girl for making up such lies about her father. Thereafter, the
patient did not tell any other human being about her trauma until she revealed it to her analyst, and both the flushing of her face and the restriction of her experience of terror to its nameless bodily component were heir to her mother’s shaming. Only with a shift in her perception of her analyst from one in which her analyst was potentially or secretly shaming to one in which she was accepting and understanding could the patient’s emotional experience of her traumatized states shift from an exclusively bodily form to an experience that could be felt and named as terror.
The contextuality and existentiality of emotional trauma In my experience, a consistently phenomenological approach has been especially fruitful in the effort to grasp emotional trauma. Over the course of the nearly two decades during which I have been investigating and writing about trauma (Stolorow, 2007), two interweaving central themes have crystallized. On the one hand, painful emotional experiences become enduringly traumatic – that is, unendurable – in the absence of a relational context or home in which they can be held and integrated. On the other hand, emotional trauma is built into the basic constitution of human existence. In virtue of our finitude and the finitude of all those with whom we are deeply connected, the possibility of emotional trauma constantly impends and is ever present. Having already discussed the first theme, trauma’s context embeddedness, I turn now to the second: its existential significance.
I glimpsed emotional trauma’s existentiality first-hand, as it was exhibited in a traumatized state that I experienced at a conference in 1992 at which I relived an earlier devastating loss: I seemed like a strange and alien being – not of this world. The others seemed so
vitalized, engaged with one another in a lively manner. I, in contrast, felt deadened and broken, a shell of the man I had once been. An unbridgeable gulf
seemed to open up, separating me forever from my friends and colleagues. They could never even begin to fathom my experience, I thought to myself, because we now lived in altogether different worlds. (Stolorow, 2007, pp. 13–14) The key that, for me, unlocked the meaning of emotional trauma was what I came to call the absolutisms of everyday life:
When a person says to a friend, ‘I’ll see you later’ or a parent says to a child at bedtime, ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ these are statements whose validity is not open for discussion. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naïve realism and optimism that allow one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-inthe-world. Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. (ibid., p. 16)
In shattering the tranquilizing absolutisms of everyday life, emotional trauma plunges us into a form of what Heidegger (1927) calls authentic (owned) beingtoward-death, wherein death and loss are apprehended as distinctive possibilities that are constitutive of our very existence, of our intelligibility to ourselves in our futurity and finitude – possibilities that are both certain and indefinite as to their ‘when’ and that therefore always impend as constant threats. Stripped of its sheltering illusions, the everyday world loses its significance, and the
traumatized person, as shown in my traumatized state at the conference, feels anxious and uncanny, no longer safely at home in the everyday world.
Siblings in the same darkness: ethical implications In closing, I return to the theme of emotional trauma’s context embeddedness
and, especially, to the claim that emotional trauma can gradually become integrated when it finds a relational home in which it can be held. What makes the finding of such a relational home possible? I have contended (Stolorow, 2007) that just as finitude and vulnerability to
death and loss are fundamental to our existential constitution, so, too, is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as ‘brothers and sisters in the same dark night’ (Vogel, 1994, p. 97), deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so, too, is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional attunement within which devastating emotional pain can be held, rendered more tolerable, and, one hopes, eventually integrated. Our existential
kinship-in-the-same-darkness is the condition for the possibility both of the profound contextuality of emotional trauma and of the mutative power of human understanding.
Robert D. Stolorow
Grasping our kinship-in-finitude holds, as Vogel (1994) conveys, significant ethical implications in so far as it motivates us, or even obligates us, to attune to and provide a relational home for others’ existential vulnerability and pain. Imagine a society in which the obligation to provide a relational home for the emotional pain that is inherent to the traumatizing impact of our finitude has become a shared ethical principle. In such a society, human beings would be much more capable of living in their existential vulnerability, anxiety, and grief,
rather than having to revert to the defensive, destructive evasions of them that have been so characteristic of human history. In such a societal context, a new form of identity would become possible, based on owning rather than covering up our existential vulnerability. Vulnerability that finds a hospitable relational home could be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom we experience ourselves as being. A new form of human solidarity would also become possible, rooted not in shared destructive ideology, but in shared recognition and
respect for our common human finitude. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light. In writing this paper I have become aware of the trajectory of my work over the past four decades. My commitment to phenomenological enquiry has led me (and my collaborators) to an understanding of the contextuality of emotional experience and of the existential significance of emotional trauma, and, in turn, to an awareness of the ethical implications of this understanding. Travelling along this trajectory, I have circled back to a view of our calling that I have long held: psychoanalysis is neither a branch of medicine nor of
psychology; it is applied philosophy.
1. Our use of the term intersubjective has never presupposed the attainment of symbolic thought, of a concept of oneself as a subject, of intersubjective relatedness in Stern’s (1985) sense, or of mutual recognition as described by Benjamin (1995). Neither have we confined our usage to the realm of unconscious non-verbal affective communication, as Ogden (1994) seems to do. We use intersubjective very
broadly, to refer to any psychological field formed by interacting worlds of experience, at whatever developmental level those worlds may be organized. For us, intersubjective denotes neither a mode of experiencing nor a sharing of experience, but the contextual precondition for having any experience at all. In our vision, intersubjective fields and experiential worlds are equi-primordial, mutually constituting one another in circular fashion.
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June 24, 2013 12:30 am

Tom McGee, L.C.S.W.

I would like to begin this paper by addressing three questions: 1) What is a vision quest and what does it have to do with our conference theme of sustainability? 2) What does a vision quest have to do with intersubjectivity? 3) Why did I decide to do a vision quest at this time in my life?

1) What is a vision quest and what does it have to do with sustainability?

Many people equate the term “vision quest” with the Native American ceremony known by that name.  Anthropologists created this term to describe the initiation rite of some Native American youth who, with the support of their village, spent four days and nights fasting in the wilderness alone. When they returned, they told their story to their people.  Their vision for the shape of their coming life was then acknowledged by the community.

The vision quest, as I have learned it, is comprised of three essential components: wilderness, fasting, and solitude. It includes six months of preparation, followed by four days and nights fasting from food alone in the wilderness.  I have fasted in the mountains and deserts of California during my vision quests.  I have been without food but drank water during the four days and nights of my fast. I have been without immediate human company but supporters were nearby in case of an emergency. The time in the wilderness is followed by a presentation of the experience to a community, which is the beginning of the “incorporation” period. Incorporation involves integrating the experience into one’s everyday world. This is a lifelong task.

The vision quest, sometimes called a vision fast, is conceived as a ritual dying to the life one has been living and rebirth into a new life.

The vision quests in which I have participated were supported by a diverse community of people who share this experience.  Though we are influenced by the Native American practices, we do not pretend to replicate a Native American ritual. We acknowledge that people through the ages have fasted alone in the wilderness to clear their minds and gain a grasp of where their life is going.

I believe that the vision quest connects with sustainability in the following way. If we are to develop sustainable modes of living on this planet, we must shift our center of attention so that it is not solely focused on human concerns. In order to live sustainably, we must take into account the living requirements of redwoods, bears, squirrels, rocks, soil, rivers, and salmon. If we do not connect with these other entities in some meaningful way, how can we truly take them into account? Most people who embark on a vision quest of the type I am discussing experience a profound connection to the occupants of the wilderness in which they have become a temporary resident.  A communication of sorts often occurs in which sensitivity to these other entities is heightened. Awareness of them, of their liveliness and life forces comes to the fore. This type of awareness, I believe, is essential to help us learn to live a sustainable life on Earth.

2) What does a vision quest have to do with intersubjectivity?

In using the term “intersubjectivity,” I am drawing from two sources. One is Robert Stolorow and his colleagues, who use the term “intersubjective,” “to refer to any psychological field formed by interacting worlds of experience, at whatever developmental level these worlds may be organized.”  (Stolorow, et. al., 2002) These writers and others have been moving from a concept of the isolated individual, “toward a system-embedded, context-conscious sense of experiential worlds.”

The other source I draw from is the environmental philosopher David Abram, who, like Stolorow and his colleagues, draws significantly from the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to articulate his sense of intersubjectivity. Abram states, “My life and the world’s life are deeply intertwined . . . “ and, “The world and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn.”  Abram cites Husserl’s “associative ‘empathy’” by which “the subject comes to recognize these other bodies as other centers of experience, other subjects.”

It is the experience of intersubjectivity in nature, during which a person on a vision quest experiences one’s own subjectivity in relation to the other centers of experience in the surrounding wilderness, that is at the center of the vision quest. This experience of intersubjectivity is essential to the ability to connect with the surrounding environment in a meaningful way. It fosters reflection on one’s own life in the context of the living, breathing world s/he occupies. It enables an empathy that is vital to the search for more sustainable modes of living.

Since my first vision quest in 1996, I have embarked on a deepening of the already strong connection I felt toward nature. This deepening has a powerful element of intersubjectivity that I experience when I am alone in a forest or on a mountain, in a desert, beside a lake, or seated on a deserted beach by the ocean. In these places, there is a kind of communication between myself and my surroundings. I sense the pine, the chipmunk, the rough ground of the trail I am on. I also sense their experience of me walking through their neighborhood.  This phenomenal field in which I walk is “no longer the haunt of a solitary ego, but a collective landscape, constituted by other experiencing subjects as well as by oneself.”  (Abram,1996).

Recognition of this intersubjectivity is essential for the vision quester.  It does no good to go to the wilderness and fast alone for four days and four nights if you believe that you are the only carrier of consciousness in the place. If you can’t recognize that there are other selves all around you, and that interaction is constantly occurring, you may “get away from it all” for a few days but you are unlikely to leave with the sense of profound connection that is possible.

3) Why did I decide to do a vision quest at this time in my life?

As I approached my sixtieth birthday, I felt the need for a meaningful event to sufficiently honor and embrace the sense of momentous change I felt in the offing. I didn’t want to resist healthy aging in my older years, try to stay youthful at all costs, and inevitably be disappointed that I grew older anyway. I wanted to embrace this time of potential growth and further development. In fact, I could be characterized as a youngster who’s been waiting to grow old all my life. I’ve always wanted to exist as a repository of experience who could use that experience for the benefit of others. One term for such a person is “elder.”

The concept of “the elder” has largely been lost in our youth-oriented, materialistic society, in which material wealth and good looks are valued over wisdom, relatedness, and compassion. The existence of the elder, one who comforts, nurtures, advises, and reflects, has faded from our cultural scene.

The disappearance of elders in our society has occurred along with a loss of community as our culture has moved increasingly away from sustainable modes of living. As communities have deteriorated, older people are often ignored or left alone. Some voluntarily enter residential developments that exclude younger people. For me, a sense of community includes living amongst people of all ages who share the various aspects of their developmental stages with each other, i.e. teens with young adults, parents with grandparents and children, elders with younger people, etc.  A crucial aspect is the presence of elders in the community, not just people who have grown old. There are some, such as Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who have been working to revive the concept of the elder in our culture and to bring it back as a viable mode of being as well as a worthwhile goal as part of aging. I have had my eye on this goal since my late forties.

I concluded that a vision quest would be a fitting event to mark my transition into elderhood. A vision quest was a likely option for me because it had the right mix of gravity, solemnity, ritual, joy, celebration, and stepping into the unknown.  It would also put me in one of my favorite settings: a wilderness area in the mountains. I have chosen to present certain highlights of my vision quest in order to demonstrate how the vision quest can offer the opportunity to experience intersubjectivity in the environment.


My vision quest occurred in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains in California at about 9,000 feet altitude.  From her previous experience of doing a vision quest there, my friend and guide, Farion Pearce, had dubbed the place “Grandmother Meadow.” The area was composed of rugged hillside dotted with a few small groves of pine. The hillside sloped down to a rushing stream below.  Along the stream, which was to be my water source, willow and other plants flourished, creating a large swath of green that contrasted with the brown of the hillside, which was sparsely covered in sage and wildflowers. Snow-capped peaks towered over everything, creating a sense of majesty and splendor. The sky above these peaks was a brilliant blue with an occasional puffy cloud or two floating by. The weather was sunny, with the temperature in the seventies (Fahrenheit) during the day and in the forties at night.

The sheer beauty of this place invited a relationship from the beginning. Everywhere I looked I saw scenes of nature that filled me with satisfaction and peace. Despite the severity of the mountain landscape, there was a friendliness I sensed in this place and a gentleness that put me at ease and gave me a sense of timelessness and comfort. I am aware that some people might not feel so comfortable in a place like this but I felt gratitude at once for being able to experience such beauty, accompanied by calm and ease.  I attributed these positive feelings to the place itself as well as my reaction to it. The space between us was filled with good will.

During my four days in this environment, I had many encounters in which I experienced myself in relation to the various others who dwelled there.  I would like to describe a few examples.

When I first arrived at my spot in the Sierras, I set down my things and took out a rattle.  I shook the rattle in order to move myself into the sacred, to reach for a sense of the spiritual aspect of this journey. As I was doing so, I caught sight of something moving out of the corner of my eye.  I looked up the hillside and saw three deer ambling along a trail, regarding me with what appeared to be curiosity and suspicion. They walked slowly and carefully on the trail above me, stopping occasionally to stare down at me.  I stared back. I experienced a heightened awareness and a sense of an extraordinary encounter. These deer seemed to take ownership of this place and conveyed a sense that I might be considered an intruder and certainly not a permanent member of this community. They walked with studied caution and perhaps curiosity. They did not hurry away or emit a sense of fear.  Noticing their small antlers, I realized they were young bucks.

After they had passed, the thought came to me: young bucks, that’s what they sometimes call young men.  I’ve mentored a lot of men and it occurred to me: who needs the presence of an elder more than young bucks?  It seemed the deer passing through reflected and validated my purpose of transitioning into elderhood. My subjective experience of the deer was that their appearance was a sign of support.

Their appearance also brought me to the realization that I had been so wrapped up in my personal purpose that I had neglected to acknowledge my surroundings upon my arrival, a fairly typical mistake for humans in our culture. So I then took the opportunity to introduce my self to the space around me, to the trees, the stumps, the local denizens, and the spirits of the place.

During my four days in this place, I spent a lot of time pondering in a spot among the pines. The pines offered comfortable shade and perches for various birds who passed through the grove. I eventually became fond of lying underneath these beautiful, tall trees and gazing up into their branches. I felt warmly hosted by them as I did much of my thinking and musing.

There was a bird who apparently lived in this little pine grove. I don’t know bird species well but when I described the bird to a friend later, she told me I was describing a Clark’s nutcracker. This bird was black, white, and gray, about the size of a crow. It emitted a screeching sound at times and at other times more of a caw, like a crow. It was quite vocal and seemed to be talking to me or about me as it rested on the pine boughs above me.  Over the four days, I developed an affinity for it and came to see it as my friend. It may have been protesting my presence there for all I know but it seemed to be responding to the fact that I was there and I responded to its vocalizations with increasing familiarity and warmth.

These are a few examples of my experience of relatedness to animals and other aspects of the environment I was in. These encounters included a sense of communication occurring between me and these “others” who were permanent residents of this place. The communication was not in the ordinary human sense of words exchanged to transmit specific ideas.  It was more like the communication between two musicians during a duet or between a tree and the sun’s rays. Such communication does not have a clear, specific meaning like our human language does when we speak to each other.  Nevertheless, a type of information is sent and may be received by a receptive listener.

When such communication occurs, relationship develops and so does a field of energy between the entities involved in the communication. This field of energy is an intersubjective field which can exist as long as the parties involved participate. My experience in the mountains is that I am sometimes aware that such communication is occurring. There are other times when I may be focused away from it, yet there can still be energy and communication transmitted by the others around me. When I am focused away from it, there are subtle parts of me, perhaps unconscious parts, that are still receiving and participating in the communication. Therefore, I might be sitting in the shade of a pine tree writing in my journal and focused on my thoughts. Meanwhile, I am still affected by the shade afforded by the tree, the smell of the mountain air, and the buzzing of the fly just above my head. We are still having some form of communication and some form of intersubjective experience.

As I go through my day, probably hundreds of experiences are affecting me in this way. Therefore, it might be helpful to present a sense of the rhythm of my days during this experience.

Rhythm of the Day

I would usually awake sometime between dawn and sunrise.  I got out of my sleeping bag and came out of my tent to greet the pine trees in the grove where I was staying. Soon I would be swinging my bull- roarer and calling out my ancestors’ names, inviting them to join me in this day. Sometime after sunrise, I would go down to the stream near my camp and pump water from the stream through a filter to get my water for the day.  The filter was a precaution against possible giardia or other undesirable organisms that might be in the water.

Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I went to a designated spot on the edge of my fasting area and moved a stone off another stone. My friend and guide, Farion, who was camping with her husband nearby in case I were to need assistance, came in between those times to put it back.  She knew that I was all right as long as I had moved the stone. This was my primary structure during the day.  In addition, I ate a protein bar six times a day to regulate my blood sugar because I have type two diabetes. In my previous fasts, before this diagnosis, I did not eat anything. However, we determined that it was important to keep my blood sugar regulated so we modified the fasting conditions in this way. Eating the protein bars was my other form of structure.

Aside from moving the stone and eating the protein bars, my time was free.  I often took a slow walk through my area in the morning and the afternoon, observing my environment and myself in it. I tried to be as open as possible to being in the moment and being aware of what was occurring around me.  I might pause at one place for some time, just noticing things.

I also lay under the pine trees in my camping spot. This is where I did my pondering, examining the stages of my life, and allowing my mind to be drawn toward the sights and sounds around me.  Sometimes I dozed a little.  Sometimes my mind emptied and I was just “being” in that spot. It was sort of like meditation, except I allowed my attention to be drawn by the surroundings, which could activate thoughts and experiences. Most of the evenings I made a fire after the sun set and went to bed early.

Invisibility/The Ancestors

Most of what I gleaned about myself and my life from this vision quest did not come as a sudden flash of insight or revelation. It was more like a slow realization, over time, during and after the experience. One could say that these realizations came out of the interaction between myself and the environment but were not necessarily an immediate and direct response from a specific event.

During my preparation time I was aware of certain experiences that seemed to pertain to my purpose.  In reading about moving into elderhood, one of the principles that was impressed upon me was the importance of ancestors. As one writer put it, an elder needs to stay rooted in the past, rooted in the ancestors, and devoted to those yet to come.  In this manner, the elder recognizes the transitory nature of our lives and the fact that we are each part of an immense stream of humanity that stretches from the beginning of human life on earth into the future. In facing our deaths, we become accustomed to the idea that one day we will be ancestors to those coming up behind us. The closer we come to the end of our lives, the greater the importance of being connected to the ancestors. I was aware of this on an intellectual level. I had been acquainted with these concepts for years before preparing for this vision quest. Yet in the preparation, it became more real to me and carried more of a sense of urgency.

My first experience in relation to ancestors came at the very beginning of my preparation period. I was invited to a meeting by a group of women who engage with the spirits of the world’s deceased grandmothers.  Four other men and I were there to be acknowledged by these women as men who might join in the recognition of the power of the feminine in the world and the re-balancing of masculine and feminine energy in our culture.  The women sang sweetly to us as they wrapped each of us in a gifted “cloak of comfort,” a sort of shawl, to acknowledge what they saw in us. I was very moved by these women and this experience.  I sensed that this would have something to do with my vision quest so I decided I would take this “cloak of comfort” with me when I went to the mountain.

When I was there, I donned this cloak at special times. I wore it when I called in the ancestors to join me. I wore it as I lay under the pines and pondered the stages of my life.  I came to find it comforting.  It reminded me of the support of the women who had given it to me and I imagined that support arising from the grandmother ancestors with whom they engaged. Though it was a thin shawl, it provided a surprising amount of warmth and I found its softness nurturing.

Another experience during my time of preparation occurred a couple months before my time on the mountain. I was hiking in the mountains near my home when a fox appeared on the trail coming my way. The fox had a dead gopher in its mouth. We both stopped and stared at each other from a distance of about twenty feet. As we stood looking at each other, I experienced a heightened sense of awareness and a feeling that this was no ordinary encounter. I had hiked in this area for years and it was the first time I’d encountered a fox. It seemed like there was a brief sense of relationship between the fox and me. It seemed that the fox, also, was having some kind of unusual experience.  I marveled at the fact that it even stopped and stared at me rather than immediately running from me. Then the spell seemed to break and the fox ran up the embankment next to the trail. It sat behind a bush, regarding me further. Then it ran up the hill and disappeared.

I consulted a source I use to find meaning in animal encounters, Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. It indicated that the fox can represent, “Feminine magic of camouflage, shapeshifting and invisibility.” It suggested that someone with a fox totem can help what is growing or changing in the world.  The fact that the magic was labeled “feminine” fit with my experience with the grandmother group of heightening awareness of the feminine forces in the world. It seemed to me that the idea of helping what is growing or changing in the world could relate to the role of elder to which I was aspiring. I was also captivated with the idea of invisibility. I noticed on a later hike that, as I sat just off the trail to partake in a snack, two mountain bikers passed by me without seeing me. It struck me that I was invisible to them and that this invisibility is what many of the animals who hide just off the trail experience when hikers like me passed by.

On the first day of my fast, a middle-aged man walked below my encampment, apparently unaware that I was there. Was I invisible to him? Perhaps he saw me and decided to be polite and not disturb me by waving or staring.  At any rate, I noted that this might be another experience of invisibility.

That night, I built a considerable fire in the center of my spot and sat wearing the cloak of comfort.  I opened myself to feel what other presences might be inhabiting the spot. I sensed that the spirits of ancestors might be enjoying this fire with me.  I looked up from the fire and noticed that, directly across from me, on the other side of the fire, was a young pine with a bare spot in its bark where there was a large knot. Someone had carved a face in that knot.  The face had sad eyes and a frown. This was disconcerting to me. The face seemed full of woe and grief.  I thought of all the suffering in the world, including that of the plant and animal worlds. I had a vague sense at that time that this face was somehow connected to ancestors but I wasn’t sure how.

On the morning of the third day, I was walking back from the spot near the entrance to the area where I moved the stone. I had left a quote for Farion that I had found in my scrap paper.  I mused on the magic of having accidentally brought a quote that I wanted to share with her on this day.

Then it occurred to me how interesting it was that a little picture I had found in my scrap paper ended up on this mountain with me. The picture was of my only grandparent that I had never met, my father’s father, who died before I was born. I had placed the picture on the center of the altar I had constructed the day before on the trunk of a fallen tree.  I realized that I was finally developing a relationship with this man who had not been part of my life except through his absence.  This thought brought an upsurge of emotion which spilled out in tears and then sobbing as I returned to my camp. I arrived at my spot weeping and sobbing at how much I had missed in not knowing this grandfather of mine.  I knelt before my altar where his picture laid in the center.  I was overwhelmed with grief at the loss of a relationship with my grandfather.

I wept for my grandfather and for myself.  I wept for the disconnection I felt with all my ancestors, recalling that the thin connection I had with my other three grandparents was broken when my family moved from Minnesota to California when I was fourteen. I wept for the disconnection with our ancestors among all of us.  I wept for my daughters and my mother, who had little time together before my mother died.

I turned to the woeful face carved in the small pine tree across from my fire ring. It now appeared to me as the face of an aggrieved ancestor who was feeling this sense of disconnection from the other side. I named it “The Ancestor Tree.” I donned my cloak of comfort and swung my bull-roarer, sobbing, “my grandfather . . . my grandfather,” as I looked at the Ancestor Tree. I recalled that, in my preparation, I learned that an elder needs to stay rooted in the ancestors. I vowed, as an elder, to help younger people connect with their ancestors. I gave thanks for my cloak of comfort, which came from the grandmother ancestors. I realized that a major gift of this whole experience was a new desire and determination to connect with my ancestors.

As I was doing a breath meditation before sunset that evening, connecting thoroughly with my surroundings, I thought I heard a man and woman talking in the canyon below.  I doubted there was actually anyone there.  At any rate, I couldn’t see anyone.  At this time, I realized that ancestors, to most of us, most of the time, are invisible. This is at least one significant aspect of the theme of invisibility that accompanied me on this journey.  I realized that to practice invisibility is to put myself in the shoes of an ancestor, to see what it’s like to not be seen by living beings. I saw that this would help me to ready myself for the next developmental phase after elderhood, when I step out of the wheel of life and become an ancestor myself.

As I write about this now, I realize that the fox who initially drew my attention to this theme of invisibility made me aware of it in a striking way. My encounter with that fox provoked in me an interest in understanding and empathizing with animals who regularly seek invisibility for their safety in the wild. This heightened sensitivity to the theme of invisibility eventually brought me to a commitment to the human beings who preceded me in life on this planet, those ancestors who are now invisible to me.

The Sounds

My experience of hearing human voices in the canyon below me from a source I could not visually detect brings me to another theme and string of experiences that occurred on this vision quest.  I have been asked, upon returning from a vision quest, whether or not I had a vision.  It is my experience that “visions” come in various forms and sometimes the person who is on this type of journey doesn’t recognize the vision until after the four days have been completed and they have returned to their everyday life.   On this particular vision quest, I would say I experienced the most extraordinary phenomena through the auditory channel.

On my first day, as I crossed a small brook that served as a tributary to the rushing stream below, I heard my phone ring.  I thought I had turned my phone off and didn’t think phone service reached this area but my phone was in my day pack so I checked it.  It was off. Yet I had distinctly heard it ring. I knew from prior experience in meditation that in silence, the mind can “hear” sounds that have no identifiable source so I attributed this experience to the action of my mind in the absence of much sound. Later during the walk, I thought I heard human voices singing. I again thought my mind was creating this experience of sound.

On the second day, I lay on a mat and listened to my bird companion squawking from a branch above me. After watching him a while, I lay back down. I heard music in the distance, then a female and male voice apparently talking to each other as on a television show.  I recalled the sounds I had heard the day before and my rational explanation for them. Without rejecting that explanation, I considered another explanation. What if these sounds I was hearing were attempts of ancestors to contact me?  I had no previous experience of ancestors directly contacting me and had very little reference for such a thought.  Yet since I was here to be open to whatever arose, I allowed that thought to sit in my mind.

Later that day, I was reading some poems I had copied into my journal and I heard music. It sounded like an oboe or clarinet coming from the direction of the rushing stream below. Then it began to sound like a female voice.  I knew I could choose to ignore it and go back to my reading but I decided to listen to it, really listen.  The female voice sounded like she was singing words or talking musically in a strange language. I wondered: could she be an ancestor of this place?  Could this be the grandmother of Grandmother Meadow? Perhaps this was already grandmother meadow when the source of this voice was alive. I later heard it again, then two female voices.

On the third day, after sunset, I heard party music coming from the ridge to the south of my spot.  It sounded like there was a D.J., a deep male voice, on a public address system.

For me, hearing these sounds became part of the mystical experience of the vision quest. Sometime during the second day, I chose to stop my rational mind from trying to explain them away. I decided to immerse myself in them. I accepted them as part of my journey, without feeling the need to come to a definite opinion about them.

The Last Day

The fourth and last day of my vision quest was my sixtieth birthday. I awoke at dawn and peeked out of my tent at a pink horizon. The mountain ridge in the distant east still wore the black of night. Streaks of purple were interspersed with the dark pink glowing above the ridge.  Having glimpsed this beauty, I could not simply lay down again and go back to sleep. I was so taken by this display that I sat up and watched it develop into a bright pink.

This beautiful vision of the dawn sky brought me back to the morning of my tenth birthday.  On that day, I awoke at dawn to a thunderstorm outside the cabin where my family vacationed at a lake in Minnesota. I got out of bed after the rain stopped and walked into the stand of trees that overlooked the lake.  As I looked across the lake, I was awestruck by the band of colors on the horizon. The sunrise was bringing pinks and golds into the breaking clouds over the lake.  This was a sweet recollection of what I now identify as the first spiritual experience I can remember, which happened exactly fifty years previously.

Still enjoying this recollection, I now climbed out of my sleeping bag and emerged from my tent, savoring the pink on the horizon. I reached for a card my wife had given me to open on my birthday. The card had a picture of a boy, about ten years old, sitting on a log and fishing the stream below him while his dog looked on. I was astounded that this card, bought and given to me before I left for the mountain, portrayed a boy the same age as me in the recollection I had just experienced. I felt a deep connection with my wife and waves of love coming from her.  This overwhelming experience of being loved brought tears and weeping. That I could be so loved was a miracle to me.  The miracle seemed to have emerged from this place and my place in it as well as from my connection with my wife. As I looked out at the beauty before me, the thought occurred to me: nothing matters more than love.

I swung my bull-roarer to start my day and called in the ancestors. I thought deeply of each ancestor as I called their name. Waves of love and peace washed over me.  From the ridge to the south, I heard what sounded like orchestra music that perfectly matched the peaceful feeling of love that swelled within me.  I felt so blessed and fortunate to be here in this place on my sixtieth birthday having this experience. I felt immense love from all the people who were supporting me in this effort, all the family, friends, and colleagues and I felt tremendous gratitude for this love and support. The music I was hearing served as background and foreground for all of this.

Aware that this was my last day here, I visited a small waterfall which I had frequented during my stay.  As I gazed at three little streams that poured into a small pooI, I experienced joy in response to its simple beauty. I was aware that the joy I felt was related to the connection I now felt with this little waterfall. The space between us was full of substance and meaning based on our previous encounters, during which I sat savoring its mesmerizing movements and melodious sounds. A sadness swept over me about leaving this place in the mountains. It was not only the waterfall I felt connected to, it was this entire area in which I had slept, walked, sat, pondered, cried, and marveled.

On the fourth and last night it is customary to stay awake all night. In the words of one writer, the faster is then “crying for a vision,” or “praying for a vision” for his or her life.  I had not done this on my previous vision quests.  I had always fallen asleep. So I was hoping that I might be able to stay up all night this time.

That evening, after performing a ceremony honoring my ancestors and elders, I wasn’t sure what to do next so I sat and listened. I heard very sweet folk music, the vocals being sung by perhaps two or three females and one or two males.  They sang with beautiful harmony and lots of passion but I couldn’t understand any words. It was very sweet to hear this music. After praising all my ancestors and elders who had affirmed and confirmed me, this lovely music seemed very affirming.

I found the list of commitments I had written for becoming an elder. As I read each one, I solemnly put a stick in the fire. Then I walked the perimeter of the circle chanting.

After a while, I tired and lay down by the fire, tending it, and listening to the folk music again. Finally, I made out some words: “If you wanna get it going, get a stone cold rhythm.”  It was a chorus the male and female voices sang over and over, in harmony. I had no idea what it meant.  That didn’t seem to matter. Eventually, I sang along with them, alternating with the male and the female parts. Then I sat quietly tending my fire.

A bright moon worked its way across the sky. Out of the quiet, I heard a female vocalist sing a serious, forceful song in a minor key. A male vocalist followed the female vocalist, opera style. The singing was more understated than opera yet intense.  A duet with the male and female voice followed. It seemed to me that at that very moment, while hearing this beautiful music and tending my fire, I made the transition from adult to elder.

I thought it would be wonderful if the next transition I make, from elder to ancestor, could be accompanied by such sweet music and such serenity. I savored it as I nursed the fire, trying to conserve my fuel so that it would last through the night. Eventually, I stood and walked the perimeter of my circle, chanting and singing until the first light of dawn showed. I had successfully stayed up all night.

I realize that there are many possible interpretations and explanations for my hearing these sounds during this experience.  I have chosen not to interpret them or explain them to myself. I wish to hold the experience as valid in its own right, without having to have any formal position about it. My preference is to stay with the awe and wonder that it inspired in me.



I believe that this experience has facilitated a major shift in my development.  I felt a sense of completion when it was over.  When I returned to my community, I told the story of my experience to a group of interested supporters. They conveyed their support further by engaging me in a ceremony to acknowledge the rite of passage I had experienced. The ceremony also acknowledged my intention to purposefully enter into the stage of elderhood.

Since that time, I have been open to whatever experiences of elderhood might arise.  I did not have a preconceived idea of how this would happen. Several young adults have approached me for guidance outside the realm of my therapy practice. A couple of them knew of my vision quest and my transition. Others did not.  I have also, at times, envisioned my role as a psychotherapist as including the position of elder, especially when helping people in what I consider a developmental crisis or change.

Intersubjectivity Between Human and Environment

I would like to return to the comment by David Abram that I quoted as I began this paper.  I am referring to Abram citing Husserl’s “associative empathy” by which “the subject comes to recognize these other bodies as other centers of experience, other subjects.” On my vision quest I recognized the pines, the waterfall, the Clark’s nutcracker, the Ancestor Tree, the deer, the mountain itself as other subjects who were frequently influencing my experience. They influenced my understanding of myself and what was happening. They influenced my thoughts profoundly in a way that contributed to my moving through this major transition in my life. I doubt that I could have been so affected by them if I had considered them mere objects, decorations which I observed and noted, then ignored. By recognizing their “subject nature,” I opened myself to the possibility of being transformed by my interaction with them.

There are many writers who are describing and commenting on the connections between human beings and what David Abram calls the “more than human world.” I have listed a small sample of them in my bibliography. Rather than discourse at length about them, I prefer to convey, as concisely as possible, the essence of their writings in a few poems.

The first is a poem by Nancy Wood, who lived on the Pueblo Indian reservation for much of her life:

My help is in the mountain

Where I take myself to heal

The earthly wounds

That people give to me.

I find a rock with sun on it

And a stream where the water runs gentle

And the trees which one by one give me company.

So must I stay for a long time

Until I have grown from the rock

And the stream is running through me

And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.

Then I know that nothing touches me

Nor makes me run away.

My help is in the mountain

That I take away with me.

This poem conveys to me the sense of interaction with elements of the natural world: a rock, a stream, the trees. The interaction leads to relationship. Relationship leads to a sense of connectedness and, ultimately, unity with, these elements.  Finally, even when she leaves the mountain, the “help” is the kind she can, “take away with me.” It is not separate. It has become a part of her.

In a very real sense, my vision quest has helped me to “take away with me” the experience I had on the mountain, to the extent that I can revisit it at any time and also share it with you.

This next poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart, is a very succinct description of the history of western civilization in relationship to nature:

When I was the stream, when I was the

forest, when I was still the field,

when I was every hoof, foot,

fin and wing, when I was the sky itself,

No one ever asked me, did I have a purpose, no one

wondered if there was anything I might need,

for there was nothing

I could not


It was when I left all we once were that

the agony began, the fear, the questions came,

and I wept and wept. Tears

I’d never known


So I returned to the river, I returned to

the mountains, and I asked for their hand in marriage.

I begged, I begged to wed every object

and every creature.

And when they accepted,

God was ever-present in my arms.

And God did not say, “Where have you been?”

For then I knew my soul—and every soul—has always held God.

This poem has three distinct parts. The first part, ending with “for there was nothing I could not love,” depicts an idealized golden age, before there was a distinction between human beings and nature. Indeed, humans and nature were merged: “When  I was the stream,” etc.  It is a stylized way of saying there was a time when humans did not hold up their intellect as supreme and did not perceive themselves as separate from the rest of the world.

The second part, beginning with, “It was when I left all we once were,” describes the Cartesian split, when humans defined themselves as the sole holders of consciousness and, based on the premise that they alone could think, dominated the rest of creation. This belief, which mostly prevails today, has spawned the society that we now live in with all its benefits and tragedies.  It has allowed us, in thinking of ourselves as subjects and everything else (even other humans!) as objects, to isolate ourselves and exploit others. As the poem depicts, such thinking has brought tremendous fear, agony, and grief.

The third part indicates an emerging consciousness, partially represented by this conference.  It presents the possibility of a “return,” not necessarily to an idealized state, but to relationship, to communion, to a recognition of the intersubjective reality in which we actually live and breathe.  It posits the possibility that we might “wed,” or re-connect with the entities around us which we as a culture have regarded as mere objects until now. These entities, long awaiting our return, might gladly accept us as beings with whom they can live in “co-subjectivity” again. Perhaps the “God” that is always there is also that living connection that has never really gone away except in the minds of us humans.

The last poem I would like to share is by David Waggoner, entitled, “Lost.”  It addresses the experience of losing one’s way while walking in a forest.  This poem, I believe, needs no interpretation or explanation. To me, it is simply an exquisite rendering of the living subjectivity of the natural world. I leave you with it.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Waggoner



  • Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books, 1996.
  • Abram, David, Becoming Animal. Pantheon Books, 2010.
  • Andrews, Ted, Animal Speak. Llewellyn Publications, 1993.
  • Brown, Tom Jr., Awakening Spirits: A Native American Path to Inner Peace, Healing, and Spiritual Growth. Berkley Books, 1994.
  • Coleman, Mark, Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery. New World Library, 2006.
  • Foster, Steven and Little, Meredith, The Book of the Vision Quest. Simon and Schuster,   1992
  • Kellert, Stephen R. and Wilson, Edward O., The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, 1993.
  • Lipton, Bruce, The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles. Mountain of Love/Elite Books, 2005.
  • Meister Eckhart, “When I was the stream . . .”Published in  Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. September, 2008, p. 24
  • Narby, Jeremy, Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005.
  • Plotkin, Bill, Nature and the Human Soul. New World Library, 2008.
  • Sewall, Laura, Sight and Sensibility: the Ecopsychology of Perception. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.
  • Shachter-Shalomi, Zalman and Miller, Ronald S., From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. Warner Books, 1995.
  • Stolorow, Robert D., Atwood, George E., and Orange, Donna M. Worlds of Experience. Basic Books, 2002.
  • McCarthy, Cormac,  The Crossing. Vintage Books, 1994.
  • Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind. Ballantine Books, 1991.
  • Waggoner, David, “Lost,” in  Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. University of   Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Wood, Nancy, “My Help is in the Mountain,” in  Earth Prayers. HarperSanFrancisco,      1991.

If you would like to contact Tom McGee, his email is  tom@tommcgee.com

Reflecting, Restoring, Renewing: Illuminating visits with Jules (Renard) and David (Foster Wallace)

June 24, 2013 12:30 am

Richard Raubolt, Ph.D.


“As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to love it more and more.”

-Jules Renard

“There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckaroo, it’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us – they are just the hazards of being free.”

-David Foster Wallace

Jules Renard showed up in my mailbox in plain cardboard affixed with Amazon’s familiar black swoosh on the side panel. He was a surprise, I didn’t know him then. Beneath the plastic bubble wrap I read “Nature Stories”, nature stories, me? Histoires Naturelles, a book on trees, animals, and vegetation was something I ordered? Amazing. Well since I had this simple, cute, little text complete with cute, simple little drawings I thought I’d have a quick read and move on; I was expecting the book “Getting Even” so I could get on with the writing about nonforgiveness I began last year in Lago Mar.

As I am standing here with Jules (and soon David) you know my plans changed. That I am not on a first name basis with dead authors, French or otherwise, also tells you something of the intimate impact these writings had on me. Yet, as so often happens, a book shows up unexpectedly with dead-on timing. My jaggedness of ill temper and worry were rising to full pitch. I knew I needed a balm for the infections gripping my spirit. Renewal comes from many sources but literature written with truth often soothe best, words that help me see and feel more clearly.

Rather than tell you about Jules Renard or his ideas, let me expose his writing as I found him.

Lying in Wait:

“The man with the gun is sitting beside a tree; the barrel is resting on one of its branches. He’s listening as the wood falls asleep; the trees begin to take on human shape. The great peace of nightfall steals into his heart.

He’s smiling at the moon and the moon is smiling back. Soon, he puts down his gun beside him and, drumming with his fingers and gently nodding his head as if beating time to their movements, this friendly hunter has no regrets as he sits watching the rabbits dancing their minuet.”

Hunting for Picture:

“He jumps out of a bed early and sets off only if his mind is clear, his heart pure, and his body as light as a summer shirt. He doesn’t take any food or drink. He’ll be drinking fresh air and sniffing healthy scents. He leaves his weapons at home and will be happy just opening his eyes; they’ll be nets to capture pictures: the pictures will enjoy being captured.”

One more and I’ll stop or we’ll be here quite awhile;

The Swan:

“He glides over the pool like a white sleigh gliding from cloud to cloud. He hungers only for fleecy clouds that he can see forming, drifting, and dying in the water. He wants one of them. He takes aim with his beak and his snowy neck makes a sudden dart.

Then he takes it out, like a woman’s arm coming out of her sleeve.

He’s not caught anything.

He takes a look: the clouds were scared and have vanished.”

I don’t know if you are as taken by these writings as I am. I just kept reading and then ordering other books by Jules. As I did I came to know, count on really, the felt impact of his words on me. He made the ordinary come out of hiding.

I could not read him silently. I would laugh, murmur, comment in agreement or clap my hands in conversational delight with my friend from beyond. He began to make my world fresh again; the common became uncommon, ideas long held were turned on slight angles exposing different textures, a simple phrase contained novelty I had not imagined and to my great surprise my patients became purveyors of metaphors.

I also came to rely on the experience of re-reading Jules Renard as meditations. I’d thumb the turned down papers of his books until I saw a highlighted passage or notation that caught my eye. I would (and still do) pause, read, close my eyes and drift into reverie. I might then find a memory, image, sensation or word but always a quiet space of appreciation in my mind. Many entrees like, zen koans, stretch beyond reason, or at least are more than reason alone, and push into intuitive or felt experiences; I find great pleasure in learning that undermines my logic seeking brain. Jules, for instance writes: “My misshapen head cracks through all clichés.” With humanity lightly touched yet deeply grasped he also offers: “There would seem to a lot of needles between us. We keep getting pricked, it is not painful, but, still, there is blood.”

In his journal, I further discovered why he influenced writers so diverse as Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag. Someset Maugham and Samuel Beckett, to name-drop a few. Again and again he is to make a simple, arresting observation, turn it inside out and present a stylistic truth. His language is poetic and rigorously exact. The engaged reader of Jules has his/her assumptions delicately but powerfully swiveled about in often insightful disorientation. Jules writes, for example, “I desire nothing from the past. I do not count on the future. The present is enough for me, I am happy man, for I have renounced happiness.”

Or more to the point of interest for my psychoanalytic practice: “One should operate by dissociation and not by association, of ideas, as association is almost always common place, dissociation decomposes, and uncovers latent affinities.”

I find these thumbnail musings renew me, pierce my assumptions and render me reflective about my own use of language. I love the turn of a phrase or a compelling insight delivered with grace and originality. My mind, I find, dances with delight at such delicious cleverness and self-effacing truth.

I know too I need such writing as an antidote to the long hours with patients; hours where words, mine and theirs, grind about the room like rusty, bent bicycle chains, slack and worn from over use. Grating familiarity just filling space can drag on from hour to hour. Such exchanges are as thin as tin plating and just as enlivening.

For me these can be dangerous times: times where I can impatiently act out to break the tension or ease the boredom. There are times a quip laced with droll sarcasm comes too easily or alternately where I can roll into myself in silent “fade outs” risking an addict’s nod to parched stories heard so many times before. Twisting, I turn between the urge for excitement or the silence of boredom. Hauntingly I can pursued by Pascal’s stark summation: “ I have discovered that all evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”

After writing the initial draft of this paper, I had my dear friend, Michael Lariviere, read it over to comment. Michael introduced me to what he calls “the analyst’s prayer:” “Please come to me, speak to me and pay me.” But even if the financial issue is a source of anxiety and is therefore of paramount importance, it is still the first part of the prayer that addresses the essential: the analyst is someone who needs stories, who thrives on them.

The analyst’s desire is a desire for stories. These stories enable us as analysts to revisit our own and perhaps read them differently. Adam Phillips reminds us, “we don’t need more abstruse abstractions, new paradigms or radical revisions- we just need more good sentences.” This is true I believe in written words or speech. We need to use our words and stories to mark out new psychic territory, imaginings, if you will, beyond stale renditions emptied by predictability.

In analytic moments when I am struck dumb by familiarity and put myself outside the session I try to gain re-entry by changing the conversation, by changing my language. I may play with a word aloud associating (or dissociating) to alternate meanings or offer perhaps an interpretation intentionally incomplete and left suspended for the patient’s own completion. I seek to initiate a new present through a disruption of the old through introduction of the unanticipated. Most of all, however, I reach for literature that opens what is closed off in me.

Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, who has studied readers of substantive literature suggests: “The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading.” Psychotherapy, as with substantive literature, is perhaps best described as tragic where more questions are raised than answered and where conflict does not result in despair. Jonathon Franzen, while applying the word tragic to literature may also be describing therapy when he uses it “to highlight its distance from the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture.” Franzen’s call is to recognize the need for unpredictability to maintain ethical and intellectual integrity. As a telling example of this juxtaposition Davis Foster Wallace’s deleted subtitle to Infinite Jest was to be “a failed experiment”.

A patient one day, on spotting my copy of the journal by Jules with its turned down corners sitting next to my chair, and being a writer himself asked to look at the book. I handed it over hesitantly and watched as he handled as I do: turning the ear marked pages in no particular order, reading a few paragraphs aloud thumbing through more and reading again. He then looked up and said: “He’s good, how about I swap you a book for a book, temporarily. I must have looked confused (I was) and worried (I was) for he went on to say: “You won’t be disappointed, it’ll be part of my therapy. The book I have in mind saved me from being even more crazy than I am: since he was pretty crazy, as he put it, I was intrigued to receive his selection, it was not lost on me that this was also an unconscious attempt to help me help him.

What I did not know was the book, “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace, would simply and beautifully set in motion considerations both similar and distinct from Jules. Most significantly the book form of a commencement speech (Kenyon 2005) caused me to reflect on choices and the meanings of boredom in my life and in my practice.

Sometimes there is no escape from boredom; sometimes there should be no escape from boredom. This is the perfect counterpoint to my use of Jules. For at times we all need a breather from life as we lead it but this is different than a distraction. It took me sometimes to recognize the difference, some time, and David Foster Wallace’s telling description of a “natural default setting,” he writes: “This is not a matter of virtue-it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” That David was ultimately unsuccessful in his own attempts, as most, maybe all, of you know of his suicide after a 20 some year battle with severe depression or as Wallace referred to it; “the Bad Thing”, does not diminish the sincerity or wisdom of his message.

DFW was a hyperkinetic word merchant who spent extravagantly but with disciplined purpose. In his own words, he wrote “ morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” This is a simple enough definition although anyone who has read or tried to read him would agree there is nothing simple about his writing with long winding footnotes, two hundred or so word sentences and erudite diction intertwined with street slang. Still, and again simply put, David believed: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” And good writing should help people feel less alone inside. A question from a piece of dialogue in Infinite Jest, David’s most acclaimed work, graphically illustrates this quest in the pop prose of the day: “So yo, then man, what’s your story?”

This question tore open the most debilitating aspect of the dullness that ensconced me: loneliness. I had become a long distance listener not a participating teller of stories.

In my restlessness, I had become more bored with myself than my patients. I had put myself in the patient’s chair and listened as my tired words drowned out other voices. In a note left behind for his uncompleted novel, now published as “The Pale King,” David seemed to be addressing my malaise when he wrote: “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain, because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from.” With these words I could now see my boredom was a distraction from the wreckage I was experiencing in my ailing body; crippling symptoms giving rise to mind numbing, heart-slowing designer medications which in turn were giving rise to a dystonic brew of new as well as ancient fears terrifying enough to drive me into my natural default setting of rueful reclusiveness.

As I continued to read David I found Jules echoing a perspective and a sustainable route with and through my strands of emptiness. Rather than avoid, or try to, boredom (Wallace) or laziness (Renard) I would step into it, pay close attention to the experience, let it work into my pores and seep into my spirit.

From these experiences I would now suggest to each of you, that if my words have not put you there already, then to go into what is crushing, recognize it as you or at least a singular part of you. Breathe in discomfort and ride it through until you come out the other side. Once you have had your fill the avoidance is stripped away clean and black and white explodes in color. Color is life in many shades, not all pleasant, but at the very least more vivid. David calls this “bliss.” I’m not sure I can go that far. I am more in tune with Jules when he writes: “Let us always keep, even in the midst of our greatest joys a corner of sadness at the bottom of our soul; to serve as refuge in case of sudden alarm.” Both I think would agree with me that wakefulness is far preferable to the daze of inattentive blindness. Sometimes.

Damn, if only it was so clear. “Sessional blindness,” as I define and experience it, is not intentional. While it can be countertransferentially based I prefer not to pathologize it as such. I have over the years come to see such staleness as inevitable, normal and perhaps even a productive element of long term clinical work. Boredom exists in life, so why wouldn’t it enter the consultation room? After all, as the noted classics professor, Peter Toohey, writes: “Boredom is a normal, useful and incredibly common part of human experience.”

Despite the cheerleaders of positive psychology or gurus of ever expanding redemptive mindfulness, life is sometimes as flat and gray as a Michigan winter’s day. I, as an analyst, continue my search to find ways to rekindle embers of imagination for myself and my patients. Still on some days or weeks I, like perhaps some of you here today, may have to simply survive, sitting wounded in the dark with words nailed to the floor and no light to guide my path. I don’t think Jules or DFW would disagree.


As I read and re-read this paper, I have just presented, I was troubled by an insistent feeling that something was missing – something significant that registered the influence of Jules and David on me.

The whisper was undeniable: “You haven’t said it, not yet, you haven’t said it.” So I went back though writings by Jules and interviews of David only to realize, rather paradoxically, that what I was seeking lay elsewhere.

I found I needed my old friend Joseph (Joubert) once again. He is easy for me to forget because I give him away so often; to friends and colleagues, really anyone who will take him in and care for his delicacy of feeling and thought. Joseph never published although he wrote down his thoughts every day for more than forty years. All that remains of his writing are his notebooks. The one I have is translated by Paul Auster and there in this volume of selections I found my summation, at least for now:

“ Few minds are spacious; few even have an empty place in them or can offer some vacant point. Almost all have narrow capacities and are filled by some knowledge that blocks them up. What a torture to talk to filled heads, that allow nothing from the outside to enter them! A good mind, in order to enjoy itself and allow itself to enjoy others, always keeps itself larger than its own thoughts. And in order to do this, these thoughts must be given a pliant form, must be easily folded and unfolded, so that they are capable, finally, of maintaining a natural flexibility.”

If you would like to contact Richard Raubolt, Ph.D., his email is  r.raubolt@gmail.com

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