A Healing Conversation: How Healing Happens

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How is it that someone can be healed of mental illness through talking with another person? This is what Neville Symington examines in this book. He believes that a person in their innermost being registers the essential character of the other person. The senses detect the outer contours of the personality but a deeper form of knowledge connects directly to the other person's inner being. Healing comes about if the inner world of the one is guided by principles that transcend the particular and this fosters a giving-ness in the one and the other. The egoism in each is then subsumed into a higher unity which results in a new subjective understanding. Personal understanding is a sign that a new ordering of the inner ingredients of the personality has taken place; that the form of being in the one has the capacity to generate in the other this new way of being.The author explores this fundamental reality that underlies human communication and teases out how this brings about healing. He believes that this has existed wherever there has been true friendship within civilization, and that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis attempts to distil this essence and apply it in a clinical setting.

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1. The question: an intellectual solution

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“I remind myself of the old advice that the doctrines which best repay critical examination are those which for the longest period have remained unquestioned.”

Alfred North Whitehead [1942, p. 207]

This is the question that I want to try to resolve here. It is a question that is so basic that we all take it for granted. Yet I believe that if we attempt to seek an answer to this very basic question, the very attempt can open up great avenues of new thinking and surprising perspectives. I do not know the answer to this question. I am out in the bush at night. I have a torch in my hand, and I point the beam out into the dark. I am stumbling. I cannot see my way very easily; I am surrounded by blackness. I need some support, or else I might fall.

Now I need to explain something about my style of presentation. I put forward various propositions on which I base other statements that I make. These propositions are what I think, and I usually put what I have to say with certainty. I tend not to keep putting in phrases like “I might be wrong, of course” or “Maybe” or “This is what I think at the moment” and so on. Such phrases detract from the object that one is attempting to observe and understand. A constant breast-beating is tiresome and takes attention away from the object of scrutiny. So the situation is that I feel that the propositions I put forward are right but I know that this cannot be so. If I am alive in ten years’ time I am certain that I shall judge that some perspectives are either wrong or inadequate. So I feel what I am going to say is right, but at the same time I know that cannot be so. However, you have full licence to be angry when you hear me assert a proposition with certainty. I do not want to diminish your freedom when that angry feeling wells up in you, but I would be very pleased if you converted that raw feeling into a potent criticism. If you do this, then we shall all learn. There is one other thing I want to mention: that I have given more quotes here than I usually do. My reason is that these are always quotes that have stimulated new thoughts and perspectives in me and may do the same for others too, and some of you may want to follow up on these quotes and read the original works from which they are taken. So let us get going.

 

2. The meaning of emotion

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“as always happens in the world, what was at first a happy accident or means of survival, is promptly transformed and used as an instrument of progress...”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin [1960, p. 104]

We have formulated that at the heart of someone’s dilemma is the fact that she does not know the reason for her suffering and that this is the prime motive that decides her to communicate with a fellow human being. We further determined that we only truly know something if it is in relation to elements that are consonant with it through a common denominator—a higher-order emotional principle that links them all into a meaningful whole. We concluded that the unknown could become known through being thus connected to other constituents of a unified pattern: that which was alien and therefore senseless had now achieved “brotherhood” and become meaningful. The dispelling of ignorance has been quite central to Eastern philosophy, and I think has been a key goal in Buddhism and Hinduism and also of the Scholastic Philosophers of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. It follows from what we said earlier that what is senseless is in part a function of its being isolated from other elements that we know—that if something is alien in the personality, it will not be grasped; also if it is a stranger to the norms of the culture, it will not be comprehended. This was understood in a very profound way by the author of the Zohar. The Zohar is a Jewish Kabbalist text thought to have been written by Moses de León in fourteenth-century Spain. He says moral evil is “always either something which becomes separated and isolated, or something which enters into a relation for which it is not made” (Scholem, 1995, p. 236). This for me is a very profound understanding and one that is in harmony with psychoanalytic thinking about those parts of the self that are “split off”, but it adds another dimension. It is that the injurious element in the personality is so because it is alienated—in other words, it is not evil or, in our more familiar language, destructive inherently, but because it remains distanced from other parts of the personality. This would mean that when we talk about a greedy part or an envious part, we are at the same time saying that the underpinning of these vicious aspects is that they are alienated elements, and therefore the prime task is not to banish them but, rather, to embrace them, and that the very act of linking them together changes their character—so, for instance, greed would become courage and envy would become respect. Those familiar with Bion will realize that this is very much in line with what he says about attacks on linking. One has to ask why someone would want to keep something alienated to make what Bion says harmonize with what the author of the Zohar has said.

 

3. Emotional development

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“INFANT SORROW

My mother groan’d! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud: Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands, Striving against my swaddling bands, Bound and weary I thought best To sulk upon my mother’s breast.”

William Blake [1972, p. 217]

The place where we have now reached is this: In chapter 1 we posited a solution to the problem that is, I believe, correct as far as it goes. It stressed the way in which a problem is solved if it is highlighted and placed within a pattern governed by a common denominator, and it stressed the way in which a theory can blind the clinician to a knowledge that he possesses inside himself, but it was biased in that the personal element in our question was bypassed. We ended by recognizing this and realizing that we needed to probe further into the nature of the emotions, so in chapter 2 we made our first probe. The conclusion we came up with was that emotions are the elements inside us that are the units of communication. We further said that this communication, as many other activities, was there as an instinctual endowment for the sake of survival, but the advent of civilization marked a momentous change whereby elements that had been a means to an end, a means for survival—such as food and sex—became ends in themselves, but communication itself was the most important of these. We instanced friendship as the supreme instance of communication for its own sake.

 

4. Communication and emotion

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“Toda a bençâo que nâo é aceite, transforma-se numa mald-içâo.” [Every blessing that is not accepted becomes a curse.]

Paulo Coelho [1966, p. 66]

We have put to ourselves this question. In chapter 1 we put forward the idea that the solution to a problem lies in the ability to place it within a theoretical schema into which it fits, plus the realization that if the explanatory model being used is wrong, it is counterproductive because it stops us getting in touch with what we know inside ourselves. We ended by saying that this is not enough in itself because it is too impersonal. In chapter 2 we tried to understand emotions, and we came to the conclusion that they are the basic units of communication. In chapter 3 we tried to understand what we might call the developmental history of the emotions and the agents through which they are fostered in us and the conditions that make their development possible. Now I want to look in detail at the way the emotions are fostered through conversation.

 

5. Communication and representation

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“ … our operations, our very intentions, will be moulded in some way on the object they tend toward in order to receive their form there.”

Maurice Blondel [1984, p. 207]

We reached an important point in chapter 4. There is a gap between the sensuous imagery that we form out of the sensations that come into us and the mental concept through which this abundant imagery is captured and unified into a single unbodily relational reality. I say “relational” to pick up the point made in chapter 2, where I quoted the Canadian philosopher, Peter March, as defining mind as the relation between two objects, which harmonized with Charles Birch’s notion of mind-stuff existing in the relation between subatomic particles. It is real, though not material—it is in the space-between. So what we came to was that somehow someone jumps across that gap from the sensuous to the unbodily representation. The classic example of this is Archimedes, who had been given the task of discovering whether or not King Hieron’s crown was of pure gold, but the same applies when a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist is listening to a mass of detailed description from a patient and suddenly an act of comprehension unifies all this detail into an unbodily element. But it is precisely this unifying act of comprehension that “solves a problem”. This is linked to what I said in chapter 1: that it is the placing of an alienated element in relation to others through the agency of a common denominator that loosens the problem, and light flows in where there had been darkness before. But we are still left with the question of how one gets from one to the other. What is it that pushes me over that gap? And here I have to make a diversion because the very word “push” is rooted in the instinct theory that most of us in this field have been reared upon. It is a very good example of the way in which a theory, a background theory, can blind us to something that is in front of our eyes.

 

6. The case of pseudo-maturity

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The question: How is it that someone who has a problem is able to resolve it through conversation with another?

“The pinnacle of human development is attained when the inwardness of the individual guides and shapes his perceptions and controls his actions at every moment.”

Wilhelm Dilthey [1989, pp. 287–288]

We have, I believe, tied up everything very neatly. Through conversation with another, the one who is suffering and creates suffering for others is able to form images through which she is able actively to embrace the hated elements within. When these have been embraced, they change their nature. Through communication with another, these elements pass through the transforming dynamo within. This is, as it were, given a charge, enabling it to do its job. So there we have it. I am full of distress, and in that state I go to visit my psychotherapist. Through intimate communication, my power of generating transforming images is renewed and enhanced. So I leave my psychotherapist and now all is well—or is it?

 

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