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Contact with the Depths

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This book explores ways we make contact with the depths in ourselves and each other. We are deeply moved by contact we make with life, yet also puzzled by a need to break or lose contact, and often suffer wounds by failure of contact to be born. Our sense of contact is tenacious and fragile, subject to deformations, plagued with a sense of jeopardy. Chapters focus on ways we make-and-break contact in the wounded aloneness of addiction, the wounded beauty of psychosis, the importance of not knowing and wordlessness, ways we transmit emotions, the need to start over, and harm we cause by trying to get rid of and misuse tendencies that are part of our makeup. Our contact with life, ourselves, each other is challenged. And through it all, we have need for deep contact, contact with the depths, fulfilling and suspenseful. Contact we never stop growing into, part of the mystery, care and love of everyday life. Our mixed capacities can stymie us, cause confusion, a kind of centipede not knowing how to use its legs. But they also are a source of plasticity, ability to survive and survive well - if only we keep learning how to use our evolving makeup, don't give up on it, or it on us.

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8 Chapters

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CHAPTER ONE: Distinction–union structure

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Over twenty years ago (1986, Chapter Four; see also 1992, 1993, 1995) I posited a distinction–union structure as a kind of DNA–RNA of experience. Every micro-moment or “cell” of experience is made of distinction–union tendencies. More, that distinction–union tendencies are parts of one structure or event, always mixed and working, although either may be more dominant or obvious at any moment.

It might help living one’s way into this by supposing distinction–union tendencies as branches of a single trunk, or roots in a complex root system. At some unobservable level, my hunch is that they are one, indistinguishable, but our representational cognitive language discriminates coincidence as two or more, often as binaries, opposites or complements.

What would it mean to posit them as indistinguishable and unobservable? Would this mean they are beyond knowing? I suspect there are vast “domains” we do not, and possibly cannot, know, yet they work and influence us, even structure us. Bion’s (1965, 1970; Eigen, 1998) nameless, wordless Transformations in O point to this, as do countless wordless Buddha-lands beyond conscious categories pointed to in many sutras (e.g., Goddard, 1932, p. 46).

 

CHAPTER TWO: Spirituality and addiction

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Aconnection between spirituality and addiction has been noted since ancient times. Closer to today, in the 1960s we heard a lot about drugs and transcendence. People took drugs and alcohol not only to escape, but to find themselves. Heroin, marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and alcohol opened the self, blew past the self, deepened the self, taking one to places one could not reach otherwise. Casualties were great, including psychotic episodes, hospitalizations, suicide, and compromised functioning. Yet, some gained from it, tasted great horizons, nourished creativity.

An issue was how to channel or control usage to optimize benefits and minimize harm. I have no idea how many solved this satisfactorily or how. Over forty years later, I have people in my practice with strong addictive tendencies and usage who function well enough, and even prosper, as creative beings. But I am also aware of wreckage, those destroyed by usage, and those who would have been destroyed without help. In this chapter, I am mostly concerned about this last group.

 

CHAPTER THREE: I don’t know

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My purpose in writing this chapter is to dignify and celebrate the phrase, I don’t know. It has a long, rich cultural heritage. Yet, in political practice and everyday life, it often is denigrated, as if those who seek or hold power, whether in family, work, or politics, are phobic about not knowing. They fear that appearing not to know would compromise their position and precipitate a slide down the ladder of esteem.

We are urged, from school on, not to be ashamed of not knowing. We are told that not knowing makes learning possible, part of the process of getting to know. Yet, few of us escape childhood without being shamed for not knowing. I doubt many go through school without many kinds of humiliation, not least involving damage to fear of not knowing.

We learn early to cover up deficits. An illiterate delinquent may hide his incapacity with increased bravado and destructive acts. It is a funny kind of learning, making believe we know more or are better, stronger or more able than we know we are. I remember volunteering to tie someone’s shoelace in kindergarten, although I did not know how. The teacher treated me rather well, but the event stuck like glue in my mind. I wondered over many years why I had the need to do that. I knew I could not tie the shoe. Yet, I needed to seem as if I did, even though the result must be failure. I was caught between fantasy and reality, hung by my own mind.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Wordlessness

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“There are Buddha-lands where there are no words. In some Buddha-lands ideas are indicated by looking steadily, in others by gestures, in still others by a frown, by a movement of the eyes, by laughing, by yawning, by the clearing of the throat, or by trembling”

(The Lankavatara Sutra, quoted in Goddard, 1932)

Wordless reality

These beautiful words touch the possibility of the wordless. Wordless reality. Is there such a thing? For ants, lions, and snakes there is. They get along very well without words, as does most of physical and biological reality. Yet, a case can be made for non-verbal language, chemical signals, bird songs, buzzing of bees, varying “roars” of the lion. Are these, properly speaking, words? Words can make up meanings that refer to things that are not there or do not exist. The Lankavatara Sutra gives as examples, “hare’s horns” or “a barren woman’s child”, words without objects. Animal signals seem to be confined (we think) to what is there or could be there, concerns with pain, pleasure, territory, mating, grief, nutriment, danger, perhaps even songs and gasps expressing awesome surges of beauty.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Ring–hang up, start–stop, on–off

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Acolleague tells me her patient rings the phone and hangs up over and over. Ring–hang up, ring–hang up. This happens at unexpected times, often at night, not too late as to break into sleep, but almost.

My colleague (C) is, needless to say, exasperated. She has almost lost her sense of wonder. She has no idea what this is about or has many ideas, but they are only ideas, so amount to no idea at all. From a point of frustration, she imagines the patient is hostile or is being prurient, interrupting late night activity (how many little children would like to join their parents in late night play?).

It did not occur to her that the ring–hang rhythm was a rhythm, a kind of start–stop, towards–away rhythm, perhaps part of a deeper rhythm that characterized her patient’s life. Frustration saturates imagination.

The word hang (as in hanging up) is a bit ominous and teasing: to leave one hanging, swinging on a rope or hanging by a thread (threat?). What is it P wanted C to get the hang of or what did P want to get the hang of? I think of people who from an early age had their feelings aroused and dropped. One scenario is a parent who needs to get the baby or child into an excited state, only to turn off. A pattern of heightened arousal is followed by dropping off a cliff. Emotionally, one is not even left hanging. Cold water is poured on hot emotion and the flame is put out. Start–stop, on–off. It is a scenario that occurs in therapy, too. A therapist may cultivate a patient’s dependency, then emotionally disappear. Therapy often reconstitutes family trauma, hopefully with the ability to go through it with some gain.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Tears of pain and beauty: mixed voices

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Kurt was ambivalent about coming into my office. His hesitancy showed up in his difficulty making an appointment. For several months he called and hung up, then left messages I could not quite understand and phone numbers that did not work. Finally, by some act of grace or a happy click of a psychic slot machine, we made contact.

Ten minutes past our appointment time, I found him standing outside my door when I went to check the mail. He could not bring himself to walk in or ring. He knew from our phone contact that I leave the outer door unlocked and that he could come in to the waiting room. He could not say why he was standing there, whether he was paralysed, wanting to be there and not wanting to, tempted to run away, dash out of the building and on to the street, where he felt safe. For him, walking the streets meant freedom.

When he came in he looked at me sternly and repeated over and over: “The simplest kind of proposition, an elementary proposition, asserts the existence of a state of affairs.”

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Arm falling off

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In a passage in Cogitations (1994, p. 231), Bion reports a patient’s dream in which the dreamer’s arm falls off when he tries to signal the train he is on to stop. He fears the train is heading for danger and puts his arm out the window to give the stop signal one might give in a car. His arm falls off.

Bion tells us that “the patient was not responsible for driving the train; he wanted to be helpful and warn the traffic against a possible accident due to ignorance of the train’s movements” (ibid.). So, it may not be the train personnel he was trying to warn, but pedestrian or car traffic. Or perhaps another train? Whatever disaster the patient warns against, his medium of warning seems likely to fall short.

This is a typical Bion vignette with its particular variations. A “helpful” state of mind results in something bad happening. The “bad” thing is sudden and unpredictable. In this case, one disaster substitutes for another. An arm falling off is better than a tragic train accident. He tries to avert danger at surprising loss to himself.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Music and psychoanalysis

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STEPHEN BLOCH (SB): Your writing seems so intrinsically musical. As others have commented, you write in a powerfully evocative manner, often from within a musical psyche rather than about it. Aner Govrin, for example, has reflected on the musi-cality of your writing (2007). Can you give us some thoughts on how you respond and feel yourself musically in the analytic encounter?

In Toxic Nourishment you wrote tellingly about disturbed patients reaching for something musical in the therapist. I have carried this quote in me for a long time. Perhaps you can take further what this musical core is. Where are you in the room musically? Does this refer to specific works, themes, or auditory images, or to a broad musical sensibility?

MICHAEL EIGEN (ME): I don’t think I especially think of music or think I’m tuning in to something musical in sessions. Although sometimes I hum a tune or sounds come by themselves or I sing a bit of a lyric. Occasionally someone asks me to sing a lullaby, like a mother might her child, and I may do that, quietly, not knowing what will come out, a mixture of sound, word, hum. At such moments, I feel my chest quivering, resonating heart to heart, and bordering on tears. It is often a Jewish melody I make up, and the person I sing to weeps deeply, as if long waiting to be touched this way, scarcely believing that it’s happening.

 

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