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The Spirit of Sanity

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A rare and unusual consideration of the spiritual dimensions of sanity from a psychoanalytic perspective, this transcription of a series of seven lectures delivered at the Tavistock Clinic capture the spontaneity and immediacy of the interplay between one of the world's most eminent psychoanalysts and an audience of his peers. The author of the established psychoanalytic classics Emotion and Spirit, Narcissism: A New Theory; and The Analytic Experience here brings his characteristic insight and innovation to the question of how the traditional Freudian view of religious belief as neurotic or illusory can be reconciled with a way of taking up psychoanalytic work without abandoning the spiritual dimension to life.

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MEDITATION ONE. An ontology for sanity

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The first thing that I would like to do is to thank Isca, who was the one who hatched this conference. She hatched it in dialogue with Cesare Sacerdoti; they had some conversations together, and so they have been like good parents giving birth to a child. I would also like to thank them for another reason—or, perhaps, thank the Tavistock for another reason: they have put huge faith in me when they don’t know what is going to come forth. I do think—and I refer to this in some of the talks—that a capacity to take an act of faith is one of the things that strengthens the personality. Another aspect of this that pleased me enormously was that they asked me for no abstract or summary of my talks in advance. I have been to many conferences over the years, and nearly always, about three or six months earlier, I have been asked for either the paper or an abstract, and this is a method of killing a conference. What I say today won’t be quite the same as I would have said three months ago. We develop all the time, and this has been true for me now. In the last few days I have been staying near to the National Gallery and have gone and looked at some paintings, and I got quite an understanding from looking at one of the paintings, which will come up in one of the lectures. If I had had to produce all the material for the conference six months ago, then this new insight would not have been present.

 

MEDITATION TWO. Freedom and survival

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It’s always a bit complicated to know where to start. There are points on the circumference of a circle and so it’s a dilemma to know where to start. This is entitled “Freedom and Survival”. Now, of course, in the inanimate world there is no freedom. I’m not going into the area of microphysics, but in the ordinary inanimate world there’s no freedom. A stone rolls down a hill because it was pushed by something. The defining element in living things is that there is a source of action from within, and quite how that can be is again mysterious, but it is so. There is a source of action from within, more so in what I’ll refer to as motile organisms like animals and so on than in what biologists refer to as sessile organisms like trees and plant life.

It’s a basic conflict that human beings do desire freedom, and I think everyone who comes to a consulting-room desires freedom, but there is also a strong fear of it—this is what one might call “the spiritual” in the individual. Bion said in many different ways that the psychotic part of the personality was much more active in the culture than is generally realized. My understanding of that is that what one might call the spiritual element was something that is hated. I reformulated Bion’s classic paper about the psychotic side of the personality that attacks the sane side as the psychotic side attacking the spiritual. It seems to me that the spiritual is inextricably linked to the capacity to make decisions; by decisions I don’t mean choosing this path rather than another, I mean decision in that type of rather deep realization type of sense.

 

MEDITATION THREE. A pattern of madness

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If our task is to make contact with the infinite through an act of understanding, I must emphasize that this act of understanding is not just an intellectual act. Bion said this, although I have a suspicion that people haven’t quite realized that he said it; he said that in order to have an act of understanding there has to be: (1) the intellectual grasp, an illumination; but he says also that there has to be (2) what he referred to as a move from PS to D. PS to D sounds a scientific type of business, but what he meant was from a paranoid way of looking at things—which basically means that you look at things as something that is outside and something that is hated outside or feared outside—to depressive, where you realize something inside. That is the basic religious position. He was saying that the scientific and the religious have to intersect; that the scientific act of understanding will only come if it’s connected to what he referred to as a depressive state—that is, a state of concern—and this is not concern for the other but concern for the ultimate, or the infinite. Neither science on its own nor religion on its own will do the trick.

 

MEDITATION FOUR. Emotional action and strengthening of the ego

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It is not possible to discuss this whole matter without talking about emotions, because the central thing—our central material, as it were—are the emotions, and I think it is rather important to try to get some grasp of them. To start with, emotions are not the same as feelings. I think a lot of confusion arises because people talk about feelings and emotions synonymously. Emotions are unseen activities. Love, for instance, or hate—both or either of these are unseen. You may see all sorts of signs of them, but they are activities; but you will feel them if you walk into a room and someone who is exceedingly hateful and hostile is there—you will feel that, most likely. When you try to describe it—say, someone says, “Why do you dislike that person so much?” and you say, “Oh, well, you know, when I arrived he didn’t open the door and he turned the other way, or he scowled when I was talking to him.” These are all attempts, but they are not actually quite the reason. It is because the emotion itself is like an unseen action that can be registered in the feelings.

 

MEDITATION FIVE. God and the worm

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In my paper called “The True and the False God” (Appendix A), I try to differentiate between God in the way I have been speaking about the absolute, the infinite, and the popular idea of God as a figure who directs us and tells us what to do (visual aid: Intensifi-ers—see frontispiece). The seers who gave rise to the Upanishads understood what I call the true God is the way. The Chandogya Upanishad is one of the oldest. There is also a type of power of God that is quite different from that. There is a story that most people, certainly of a Christian education, will find familiar:

He got into the boat followed by his disciples. Without warning a storm broke out over the lake, so violent that the waves were breaking right over the boat but he was asleep. So they went to him and woke him saying, “Save us, Lord, we are going down!” He said to them, “Why are you so frightened, you men of little faith?” And with that he stood up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and all was calm again. The men were astounded and said, “Whatever kind of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey him.”

 

MEDITATION SIX. Trauma and attachment

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There we are: “glue” (see Intensifiers—frontispiece). We are all quite used to talking about separation and the effect of separation and the effect of loss. However, in this constellation one of the elements that is always, always present is what I call a “glue-like attachment”. It is the only way I can describe it. I think it is similar to what Mrs Bick used to call “adhesive identification”. Now, I want to explain something. I put paranoia at the opposite end of it. You see, when there is that glue-like attachment—and I’ll try to describe a bit more what I mean by the glue-like attachment in a moment—I think it is very important to go back to this central point that what human beings seek is freedom. If I am attached in a glue-like way to somebody, to my mother or father or whatever, I’m entrapped, and there is a hatred of being in that entrapped state, but it is not the way I experience it. The way I experience it is that I hate the figure. So let’s say I am attached to my mother in a glue-like way, I hate her, you see, and someone might say “Well, why do you hate her?”—”Oh, well, she is so possessive and she is so arrogant and she’s exploitative and she doesn’t take any interest in me” or whatever, and all those things may be true—probably are. I haven’t yet come across a mother without deficits. However, what is actually hated is the glue-like attachment to either an individual or an individual merged in the group. So that is how you get the paranoia, and the paranoia is always associated with that gluelike attachment. I defy you to produce an example of someone who is paranoid who doesn’t have a glue-like attachment to an institution, a school of thinking, a group, or something. It is part and parcel of the same type of system. This is the thing that is difficult to grasp, but it is also part of the system of “God and the Worm” as well. I am just, as it were, bringing the lens round to look at this side of it.

 

MEDITATION SEVEN. How our technique is affected by this outlook

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I want to try to see how this approach alters the way one treats patients. The first thing to realize is that when you are speaking with a patient, the words are vehicles that carry an emotional message. Therefore, the actual mentality—mental state of the analyst or therapist—is the crucial factor. The healing factor is what one might call the benign meeting between two minds that come together. It is not essentially the words—it is the communication that’s occurring between the emotional states of the two people. It has happened to me very often when supervising someone that they say, “I had such and such a thought, but, of course, I didn’t say anything about it”, and then it is quite clear from what follows that the patient has tuned into the therapist’s thought. Maybe this is quite a good place to start—that if you have a thought and the thought has been generated from within the situation, you always need a good reason not to impart it. In other words, your medicine chest is made up of the thoughts that you have in the session. So if you ever find yourself saying, “Well, I had this thought, but I didn’t say it or didn’t act upon it”, there may be reasons why you say to yourself “Well, I won’t”, but the burden is on you to explain why not. In other words, it is a bit like a doctor who has a medicine in his cupboard, and someone comes in with flu, and he’s got the right medicine to hand out, but doesn’t do so. He may have a reason for not doing so—that it might give the person pneumonia or something if he does—but the usual thing is that you have to ask why. I emphasize this because therapists often have a thought that they don’t impart. If you link this with what I’ve said about creative communication, and then, your thoughts are not purely yours—they have arisen through the interaction between the two of you. You and a friend bake a cake together, and you eat the whole of it—not very generous. It is the meeting of healthy creative minds that is the curative factor.

 

MEDITATION EIGHT. The spirit of sanity: discussion of central issues

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Floor: I was very interested in what you said about the patient who said something about how she was always obstinate, and you said “You’ve often told me about that, your obstinacy.” I was relieved to hear you saying that because sometimes if I make that sort of comment about something they have told me in the past, I find myself thinking about Bion’s edict about going to a session without memory and desire. I wondered if you could comment on that.

W

henever you go for supervision, the same principle applies as in analysis: that if you have some understanding as a result of the supervision that will help you, then good, but I tell supervisees to say to themselves when they leave, “Fuck Neville Symington!” Push him out of your mind and get on with it, and you must do the same with Bion, I am afraid. He is trying to convey something, and what he meant was that you mustn’t go into a session thinking “I must remember what the patient said.” Say, the patient is speaking about something, and you remember what they’ve told you. If you’ve got an active memory and it is stimulated, you remember naturally—it isn’t generated from some anxious state. Bion said, in fact, that if you are sort of in a state anxious to forget, that is not right either. He’s trying to get across that it needs to come spontaneously. So if the patient is speaking and perhaps in a rebellious type mode, then you remember that “Of course, he told me that he’s very obstinate”, and you can say, “Look, you’ve told me this”—but it’s not because you’ve written it on a pad, and said “I must remember this as I go into the session.” But I still take that first point too, that you mustn’t have edicts around if you can help it.

 

APPENDIX A. The true god and the false god

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A patient was late one day because snow on the road had delayed her, and she was angry. I mentioned this to Wilfred Bion in supervision, and he said to me: “You must say to her that god has sent down that snow to get between you and her.” There is a god that gets in the way of two people coming to know each other. There is a god who interferes with my thinking; there is a god who demands that I follow his instructions; there is a god who punishes me if I think for myself; there is a god who sanctions my sadism, a god who encourages my masochism, a god who fosters my greed, who fosters my envy, who fosters my jealousy, a god who possesses me but despises me, a god who solves problems by obliterating them.

You may recognize, in this portrait of god, traits with which you are familiar from the reading of the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. Embodied in these ancient texts are aspects of this god that I have been trying to describe. There are also other aspects, to which I shall come later. This cultural expression is manifest in the psychology of the individual. I can find in myself and in my patients traces of this god. This god is a narcissistic object seen from one particular angle. The narcissistic object is many-faceted, and it is a part of the self that has been expelled and embodied in a figure, or figures, outside. The outer figure is then enveloped by this part of the self, in the way that Wilfred Bion describes:

 

APPENDIX B. An exegesis of conscience in the works of Freud

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The first mention of “conscience” is in Freud’s 71st letter to Fliess, written on 15 October 1897 (Freud, 1950 [1897]), where he quotes the celebrated line from Hamlet:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. [Act III, Scene 1]

Freud goes on to ponder why it is that Hamlet does not avenge his father by killing his uncle even though he kills Laertes and his courtiers without scruple. Freud suggests that Hamlet had himself meditated the same deed against his father (out of passion for his mother). And then he says:

His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt. [Freud, 1950 (1897), p. 266]

So Freud here equates conscience with guilt for a deed that has been done, but when the guilt is unconscious, the form of it is in actions—that is, the killing of Laertes and his courtiers as displacement from the uncle because of guilt: if he killed the uncle, it would bring him too close to the intent to kill his father, awareness of which would be too shameful.

In the Studies on Hysteria, Breuer refers to conscience as something that strikes the person subsequent to the event:

 

APPENDIX C. Envy: a psychological analysis

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Since the advent of Envy and Gratitude in 1957, the word “envy” has flooded the clinical literature within psychoanalysis. It has been particularly profuse within the Kleinian School, but this has overflowed into the clinical descriptions both of the Independent School and that of the Classical Freudians. What I attempt here is a psychological analysis of envy, because we assume that we all know what we mean by it. I think the meaning that we attribute to it is something like the following:

Envy is hatred of another for having a treasure I do not possess. 1

The focus of this definition is upon the other. This, I believe, derives from folk religion and throws no light upon why this entity is damaging to the author of the envy. If a psychoanalyst is asked

“Why should I not envy another?”

I believe the questioner will be answered with a moralistic answer:

“It is harmful to another person to hate him for a treasure that he possesses. Therefore it is bad.”

Someone who is satisfied with contract theory might elaborate this further and point out that something that is bad for another is harmful for society and therefore ultimately to the person himself and so should be shunned. However, this is dubious and very far from psychoanalysis, which is concerned with the immediate effects of an individual’s emotional activities. Let us therefore try to build up a picture of envy as revealed by psychoanalytical investigation.

 

APPENDIX D. “I feel a fraud”

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He was a solicitor, head of his firm. He was a competent lawyer. Yet he said: “I feel a fraud.”

Why? I will tell you a story about myself.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I concentrated most of my attention on social psychology, personality theory, motivation, cognition, and perception. However, I had to do courses on classical learning theory as well, and what is more I had to do exams in it. I knew that in particular what the examiners wanted was evidence that students were familiar with the experiments that proved that partial reinforcement was a stronger stimulus to learning than constant reinforcement. Those who have studied this type of psychology will know that one experiment proves one thing, but then a team of researchers do another experiment, which proves a different point of view. These papers were nearly always written by at least four authors, and, so it seemed to me, with long hyphenated names. However, I believed that if I learned a good number of these experiments and each with the names of the authors, it would stand me in good stead with the examiners. So … forty-eight hours before the dreaded exam, I set about learning the experiments and tagged each one with the names of the correct researchers. In those days I could commit a series of such names and details to memory quite well. So my head was full of rats, pigeons, mazes, dates, and names. I went into the exam, and did my worst. When the examiner read my paper, he saw that this student had a good grasp of classical learning theory with a striking knowledge of the up-to-date experimental literature. However, what he did not know was that a week later all trace of this knowledge had disappeared utterly from that student’s mind. Now I felt a fraud. But why? What had I not done? What would I have needed to have done in order not to feel a fraud?

 

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