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Keywords:

  • analytic setting;
  • transference;
  • co-transference;
  • creative psyche;
  • Developmental School;
  • faith;
  • individuation;
  • meditation

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

Abstract:  Jungians who are trained in the so-called ‘Developmental School’ straddle the two worlds of psychoanalysis and classical Jungian thinking. This is not always an easy position in which to be, but if the tensions can be held it is potentially a rich and creative way of working. In this paper I attempt to explore this position using the poem, ‘To Paint the Portrait of a Bird’ by Jacques Prévert as a metaphor for the analytic endeavour. From this perspective I hope to illustrate the importance of being able on the one hand to hold and maintain a clear frame for the careful and detailed exploration of the transference within which the more malign aspects of the psyche might be expressed, and, on the other, to allow the alchemical process of mutual transformation that lies outside the conscious understanding of the analytic couple.

Translations of Abstract

Les jungiens qui sont formés dans les soi-disant «écoles développementales » se trouvent à cheval sur les deux univers de la psychanalyse et de la pensée jungienne classique. Ce n’est pas une position facile où demeurer, mais si l’on peut tenir les tensions, c’est potentiellement une façon riche et créative de travailler. Dans cet article, j’essaie d’explorer cette position en m’appuyant sur le poème « Peindre le Portrait d’un Oiseau », de Jacques Prévert, comme métaphore du labeur analytique. De ce point de vue, j’espère illustrer l’importance de la capacitéà, d’une part, tenir et maintenir un cadre sûr pour permettre une exploration soigneuse et détaillée du transfert au sein duquel les aspects les plus négatifs de la psyché peuvent être exprimés, et, d’autre part, laisser advenir le processus alchimique de transformation mutuelle qui se situe en dehors de la compréhension consciente du couple analytique.

Jungianer, die ihre Ausbildung in der sogenannten ‘Developmental School’ erfahren haben, verbinden die beiden Welten der Psychoanalyse und des klassischen jungianischen Denkens. Man befindet sich so nicht immer in einer leichten Position, aber wenn die Spannungen ausgehalten werden können ist es möglicherweise eine reiche und kreative Art zu arbeiten. In diesem Beitrag versuche ich, diese Position anhand des Gedichtes ‘Wie man einen Vogel malt’ von Jaques Prévert als Metapher für das analytische Bestreben auszuloten. Aus dieser Perspektive hoffe ich illustrieren zu können, wie wichtig es ist in der Lage zu sein, einerseits einen klaren Rahmen für die vorsichtige und genaue Untersuchung der Übertragung innerhalb der mehr malignen Aspekte des seelischen Ausdrucks zu setzen und aufrechtzuerhalten und andererseits den alchimischen Prozeß der gegenseitigen Transformation zuzulassen, der außerhalb des bewußten Verstehens des analytischen Paares liegt.

Gli junghiani che si formano alla cosiddetta ‘Scuola Evolutiva’ si trovano fra i due mondi della psicoanalisi e del pensiero classico junghiano. Questa non è sempre una posizione facile nella quale stare, ma se le tensioni possono essere sostenute potenzialmente è una modalità di lavorare ricca e creativa. In questo scritto cerco di analizzare tale posizione utilizzando la poesia di JAcques Prevert ‘Dipingere il ritratto di un uccello’ come metafora della fatica analitica. Da tale prospettiva spero di illustrare l’importanza di essere capaci, da un lato di tenere presente e mantenere una struttura chiara per una attenta e dettagliata analisi del transfert all’interno del quale potrebbero esprimersi gli aspetti più maligni della psiche, e, dall’altro lato favorire il processo alchemico della reciproca trasformazione che giace fuori dalla comprensione conscia della coppia analitica.

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El Jungiano entrenado en la llamada Escuela Desarrollista cabalga los dos mundos, el psicoanálisis y el pensamiento Jungiano clásico. Esto no siempre es una posición fácil en donde estar, pero si las tensiones pueden ser contenidas es potencialmente una forma rica y creativa de trabajar. En este trabajo procuro explorar esta posición usando el poema, ‘Pintar el Retrato de un Pájaro’ por Jaques Prevert como metáfora para el esfuerzo analítico. En esta perspectiva espero poder ilustrar la importancia de ser capaz de tener y mantener en un marco claro para la exploración cuidadosa y detallada de la transferencia dentro de él para, por una parte la exploración de los aspectos más malignos de la psique y, en la otra, para permitir el proceso alquímico de transformación mutua que se encuentra fuera la comprensión consciente de la pareja analítica.

To Paint the Portrait of a Bird

First paint a cage

with an open door

then paint

something pretty

something simple

something beautiful

something useful

for the bird

then place the canvas against a tree

in a garden

in a wood

or in a forest

hide behind the tree

without speaking

without moving …

Sometimes the bird comes quickly

but he can just as well spend long years

before deciding

Don't get discouraged

wait

wait years if necessary

the swiftness or slowness of the coming

of the bird having no rapport

with the success of the picture

When the bird comes

if he comes

observe the most profound silence

wait till the bird enters the cage

and when he has entered

gently close the door with a brush

then

paint out all the bars one by one

taking care not to touch any of the feathers of the bird

Then paint the portrait of the tree

choosing the most beautiful of its branches

for the bird

paint also the green foliage and the wind's freshness

the dust of the sun

and the noise of insects in the summer heat

and then wait for the bird to decide to sing

If the bird doesn't sing

it's a bad sign

a sign that the painting is bad

but if he sings it's a good sign

a sign that you can sign

so then so very gently you pull out

one of the feathers of the bird

and you write your name in a corner of the picture.

Jacques Prévert (Paroles. 1949 City Light Books. San Francisco; Translation copyright 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted by permission of City Light Books)

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

The Bird

I was first introduced to this poem by the Zen Master Reb Anderson who used it as a metaphor for meditation. In this paper I intend to use the poem as a framework on which I might hang some thoughts about how I see the analytic endeavour from the perspective of one trained in what Samuels described as the ‘Developmental School’ of Jungian analysis (Samuels 1985, p.15).

Whilst the poem's title promises instructions on how to paint the portrait of a bird, it makes no reference to doing so throughout. We must paint a cage, and later the tree, the wind's freshness, and so on, but this bird we’re setting out to portray, the bird we hope will sing, is not to be fixed with brushstroke, with definition or interpretation. The bird images the essential liberty required for that which is above and beyond—or beneath and greater than—the individual ego. This is the human characteristic which drives towards wholeness and realization searching for meaning and purpose in life, what it is that makes life worth living. It entails the development of the imagination and the symbolic attitude of a rich inner life. Consequently the objective of self-realization is more than clinical, but also implies questions of creativity and spirituality.

The motivation for most people entering analysis is the fact of suffering and of our personal pathology which keeps us trapped in repetitive destructive behaviour towards ourselves and others. These aspects need careful, close attention within the containment of a developing analytic relationship in order that the pain and the horror, the destructive as well as the loving feelings can be faced, accepted and, to some degree, understood. However, alongside the imperative to resolve our sorrows and our shadows the process of individuation includes the urge towards the discovery of meaning and a creative way of being, the lifelong process through which our conscious and unconscious potentials unfold, leading to a greater wholeness and differentiation of the personality. Although it involves a separation from the crowd rather than compliance or conformity, it is very different from individualism, as it demands and leans on personal integrity, freedom and authenticity whatever the cost.

Paradox runs through this apparently simple poem. And paradox and poetry seem apt forms in which to speak of this strange business of analysis, this odd attention to the deadly and the ill in the service of life and health. In our trainings, in the books and papers we read, there is much concern with psychopathology, the varieties of psychic illness and defences that we might come across in our consulting rooms. This focus on ill-health can leave the impression that it is pathology which is complex and elaborate whereas health is simple. I am with Christopher Bollas in wanting to turn this view on its head. For the deadliness of pathology, of the defensive structures within which we become imprisoned, is in the rigid simplicity they impose on us. We become bound and held in arid restraint when we are driven by phobias, neuroses, obsessions, depression, defences, addictions. They drain us of the subtleties of joyful aliveness, and hold us captive in dull repetition. As Bollas (1993, p. 48) puts it:

psychological disturbance seems to organize the individual's self expression in such a way as to foreclose contact with the baffling complexity of mental life.

For mental life is baffling. It's multi-faceted, nuanced, enigmatic and defies being pinned down. Whereas the dark robs the landscape of its features, sunrise reveals a rich and varied panorama with infinite potential for inquiry. Psychic health means that libidinal energy flows freely. It buzzes with complexity allowing as it does an almost limitless internal space of imagination and creativity.

Now if optimum psychic health is the goal of therapy, and this includes questions of creativity and spirituality, we have a conundrum. For we are clinicians and not art teachers or theologians. The poem tells us that the success of the painting is to be judged as to whether the bird sings or not. And yet our role is not to teach the art of whistling. Our job, it seems, is to establish a habitat within which the bird will feel sufficiently free to abandon itself to self-expression. Apparently it is our own artistry to which we must attend.

The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

The urge towards individuation, the idea of the archetypal processes that move the psyche towards health and wholeness is central to the Jungian approach and it arises from a different way of perceiving the unconscious from the Freudian view. In her helpful book on The Therapeutic Relationship, Jan Wiener outlines the difference between Freud's focus on the repressed unconscious ‘visualized as a form of horizontal splitting’ (Wiener 2009, p. 30; ital. added) and Jung's interest in the unrepressed, collective unconscious and the tendency towards dissociated, vertical splits taking the form of sub-personalities or complexes. She quotes Williams: ‘Jung ceded the personal unconscious to Freud, and the collective unconscious and the archetypes became his province’ (Williams 1963, p. 45; ital. added).

Like Wiener, it seems to me that the either/or nature of this dispute is unhelpful. I do not see the unconscious aspects of myself and of my patients as only pathological and the result of the process of repression, and I very much believe in the urge towards individuation. However, I am also convinced of the reality of pathological, malignant structures that exist within the psyche, that the death instinct as well as the life instinct operates in us all, and that we hate as well as love, destroy as well as create.

For me, the value of a developmental Jungian training is that it struggles to hold these two aspects together. It is a struggle at times—both theoretically and clinically—and it demands a degree of fluency in at least two languages. If we become too reductive and focused on interpretation of transference dynamics, we lose touch with, and maybe even hinder, the individuation process by failing to recognize when archetypal rather than personal forces are at work. However, there is also a danger in too great a faith in the benign intentions of the Self, which can result in a failure to attend to those damaged and damaging aspects of the personal unconscious as they appear in the transference.

This difficulty of maintaining a bilingual position I have described elsewhere:

Living in two worlds is not always easy. At worst we can feel confused, muddled and unsure of our identity. The danger is that we end up with a mish-mash, a sort of Franglais which no-one but ourselves can understand. Or we opt for one world, one language to dominate the other, to adopt the vernacular of the streets, and then speak our native tongue only when the relatives come to stay. By staying bi-lingual, however, there is the possibility of finding and playing in the spaces between thoughts and images held within a vivid and living repertoire of theoretical concepts.

(Morgan 2010, p. 37)

All Jungian Schools of thought, of course, also include the invaluable concept of the Shadow. As Warren Colman points out in his paper ‘The analyst in action’:

Although, in theory, the psyche is a self-regulating system, in practice it is subject to chaos, disorder and conflict just as the body is subject to disease. When the self is unable to contain the internal tension and the opposites come apart, the primitive energies of the self can be monumentally destructive and disintegrative.

(Colman 2010, p. 290)

These ‘monumentally destructive and disintegrative forces’ will emerge in the report of interactions with figures in the patient's daily life, but it is when they appear in the relationship between the analytic pair that they are most powerfully experienced and available in a bare, unfiltered, untranslated form for exploration and transformation. I do not espouse an attitude that considers that only the here-and-now transference interpretation is of value, and write elsewhere of the limitations of this approach (Morgan 2010. pp. 33–49), but I do believe we fail our patients if we are not forever keeping at least one eye out for where the more shameful aspects of the psyche peep out into the conscious interaction between these two consenting adults, the analyst and the analysand.

As I have suggested, optimum psychic health entails a free flow, a fluidity along the vertical axis of the individual psyche where semi-permeable membranes differentiate between the levels of conscious ego, personal unconscious and collective unconscious. I have a trust that the archetypal aspects of the Self continue to work to bring about an internal transformation and we must be careful not to block or corrupt such forces through an over rigid and over reductive approach. However, the various forms of defences and psychopathology serve to dam the current and deaden the aliveness of the potentially creative psyche. Much of the analytic work requiring the attention of the analyst's conscious ego concerns the details of the rigid dark places that imprison the individual, holding them captive in tedious repetition and mournful echo.

Recognizing the impact such blockages have on the present relationship with and to the analyst sheds light on them, making possible a freer movement of energy and a sense of new-found aliveness. ‘Freedom from’ the darker pathological aspects of ourselves takes us out into the daylight, in order that we might have ‘freedom to’ express and articulate the Self.

Jan Wiener describes the importance of the ‘both, and’ perspective as follows:

patients need the kind of relationship with their analysts that provides constant attention to process, including the transference, so that the archetypal energy necessary for development can be harnessed in the relationship. It is within the framework of an authentic relationship with the analyst's ‘unspeakably tender hand’[quoting Rilke] that new images are likely to surface when the unconscious eventually facilitates an internal capacity to make meaning.

(Wiener 2009, p. 103)

The Cage

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

If the objective is freedom, it does seem odd that the very first instruction the poem sets us is to paint a cage. According to the Zen teacher, this is exactly what we need to do each time we sit to meditate. Each time we turn up at our cushion, we should be ready to enter the cage and pull the door shut behind us. And then we can relax. This willing commitment decides the debate about whether to be there or not and we can get on with the difficult business of just breathing.

In painting, the final objective might be an uninhibited expression of the self, requiring a freedom of soul, spirit and gesture, but first you have to keep your brushes clean. The discipline of preparation, of cleanliness and clarity are essential, as is repeated, patient practice. Otherwise, however artistic the marks made may be, the work will soon degenerate into brown, shitty sludge.

As therapists we offer the frame as the boundaries of the cage. We commit to turning up at certain points in the week for a set period of time with agreed procedures about fees, cancellations, breaks etc. In the settling of the original contract we have an external representation of something much more subtle that allows us each to enter the consulting room whilst the bird decides whether or not to join us.

Over the years I have become increasingly convinced of the need for clarity and consistency in the parameters that are established to form the frame to the work. There is nothing magical about any particular parameters, but I do believe they need to have a logical consistency that allows me to have the confidence to keep working with the analysand's responses to the boundaries I set, without having to be distracted by an internal argument about their validity. It's my way of keeping my brushes clean.

Compared to some, I am fairly strict about matters of time, payment, my neutrality etc. From my own experience as an analyst and as a supervisor, one of the most difficult aspects of this work is making ourselves available to receive and to stay with the more malign aspects of the psyche as expressed in rage and hatred. If the ‘rules of engagement’ I have set out make sense to me and I am comfortable with them, I am more likely to hold steady if and when the analysand reacts to them at some point with attack. I am more likely to be clear that accusations of sadism, indifference, exploitation and cruelty are keys to a dynamic within the analysand's psyche and past history, and stay working with that, rather than flinching from a natural dislike of being so hated. The need to manage my own resentment and hatred is also imperative, and Winnicott's paper on ‘Hate and the Countertransference’ is, I believe, a critical chapter in any analyst's bible (Winnicott 1978, pp. 194–203).

I have noticed from time to time how supervisees can get into quite a muddle when, appearing to be doing a kindly act, they deviate from the original contract at a patient's request. It looks kind, but I think it can often be a way of avoiding the destructive potential in the work, and the analysand is actually failed by the analyst in endorsing an unconscious fear that their own hateful feelings are not tolerable. It can be a form of passivity which is mistaken for gentleness but is actually a pulling back from something festering that needs to be tended.

It is not that the boundaries can never be changed – it is just that there needs to be a lot of thought before they are. For me it is about following the mantra: ‘Management first, therapy second’ that was prevalent at the Therapeutic Community for very disturbed and damaged adolescent boys where I used to work. Clear boundaries provide a safe setting in which both analyst and analysand can relax. This is why I avoid those more modern means of communication which are so very casual and so have the potential for confusion and a false informality. I don't give my mobile number so don't have to deal with texts. Nor do patients have my email address. Communication outside of the session is by phone or letter. It gives me space and time to think about the interaction and how best to respond. It allows me to stay sitting in my analyst's chair.

Faith and trust

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

The frame may be set, the cage painted quite skilfully, but the internal entry into the engagement is not necessarily instant. Sometimes, the poem tells us, the bird comes quickly but it can also take long years before deciding. Something enticing may be glimpsed inside the cage and all the boundaries of the frame may have been agreed and accepted, yet somehow neither therapist nor patient have quite closed the door. It seems to have nothing to do with how initially compliant or rebellious the patient is, or whether each likes the other or not, but apparently there has to come a point when the bird arrives, where each accepts commitment to the other, for the real analytic work to take place. This is an unconscious decision which takes place outside of the conscious volition of either party and whose timing is unpredictable. Until that unconscious, mutual commitment we have to wait assured that the swiftness or slowness of the coming of the bird will have no bearing on the success of the painting.

I think that what holds us together in this time of waiting is less a matter of trust than of faith. Whereas trust might be thought of as located in a specific individual and develops over time, faith is more generalized, implying a certain confidence in the process of analysis rather than in the analyst him / or herself. This may be no more than a vague, felt sense existing from the start, but needs to be sufficient to bring the patient to the session despite uncertainty about what the process is to be and despite wariness and suspicion.

I often notice that, with a patient I have been working with for some time, small thoughts may come into my mind before the session, at the door, on the way up the stairs. These may relate to the patient directly or may seem entirely unconnected to that particular individual. It is fascinating how often something emerges in the material of the session which links back to the thought. It may not be that the thought is particularly helpful in developing my understanding of the interaction, but it does show a sort of attunement at an unconscious level between us. Such thoughts don't occur before that mutual commitment is made.

It's not that once this unconscious commitment is made all resistances and defences are dropped and henceforth all is cohesion and mutuality – far from it! If anything, this may be when the deeper defences begin to reveal themselves within the transference. It's just that something changes in the atmosphere in the room and there is a sense that we are both here now, we have both arrived, we are committed to each other for better or for worse. We have each entered the cage and have closed the door gently with a brush.

This hoped for voluntary entering the cage also happens on a daily basis and in each session. With a busy full-time practice I can open and close the door of my consulting room many times a day. Each time I face little daily resistances to being fully available for the other where I’m not quite in the room. Instead, my mind is wandering to a conversation with a friend, to the last session, to the email I must reply to, to the paper I’m working on …  Some have used the phrase to settle the self on the self as a way of starting a meditation session, and I think that captures something of the flavour, the smell of what happens when I do manage to close myself in to being whole-heartedly with the person with whom I will spend the next 50 minutes as I physically shut the door of the consulting room behind us.

Edith

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

Edith was the only child of Evangelical missionaries. She was of mixed heritage, born abroad, and her father disappeared from the home when she was very young. When she was eight her mother brought her to England and placed her in a boarding school and with guardians whom she stayed with during the school holidays. These god-fearing people were strangers to her and, like her mother, very strict church-goers. The God she was brought up to fear and worship was a terrifying authority, a harsh superego figure ready to damn her for her sinfulness, as well as the potentially rescuing, loving father who could provide succour and comfort.

When I first met Edith she was an elegant, successful professional woman in her mid 50s. From an outer perspective, she was doing well for herself. After several failed relationships, she was now married to a man who was stable, and loyal. They were financially well-off, content with each other and, apparently, living the good life. What brought her to analysis was that her back seized up causing her excruciating pain. Her osteopath said he thought that there was a lot of emotion ossified in the lower back and suggested she saw a therapist.

Some years earlier she had done some interesting and helpful work on archetypal images, dream symbols, active imagination etc. with a Classical Jungian analyst. However, it seemed that little attention had been paid to the transference. The boundaries of the setting, whilst not unethical in any way, seemed to move about a fair amount. The analyst revealed quite a bit about herself to the analysand, sessions changed and stretched at times, the analyst would recommend reading, and so on.

I was surprised how readily Edith settled into a structure with me that was far more fixed and regular than she had been used to. She soon started coming three times a week and used the couch. I think she was responding to a sense of containment, although there was also a degree of compliance and a wish to please which I began to interpret in a fairly reductive manner. Once held within this structure, the rage that I believe had been locked inside since very early childhood erupted into the relationship between us. She began to fluctuate between sessions when she would explode with anger at me, followed by terrible remorse and anxiety that I would throw her out. For a very long time she clung to her basic position about herself—that she was a sinner and that only redemption—by Christ or by me—could save her. This was long, difficult work that exhausted us both at times, involving as it did a constant replay of infantile trauma within a powerful and often primitive transference of extremes of love and hate, extremes which needed to be enacted and endured until they became gradually thinkable and it was possible to talk about them.

We both had to survive a long time of this reeling between her attempts to destroy me, the relationship and herself. We did get through it, we did survive, but there wasn't much that seemed benign and life-seeking in the process. At times it felt more like a raw, primitive wrestling match and one I had to not lose for both our sakes.

About a year into our work together Edith brought the following dream:

There is a sealed room with no doors or windows. In it is a row of 3 toilets along one wall with no cubicles separating them off from each other. The toilets are old, filthy, and encrusted with dried up shit which had clearly been there for years. In one of the toilets there's a dead, once white, but now filthy bird.

This bird is in a very different state indeed from the one in the poem. It is about as far as a bird can get from flying free and singing—apart from decomposing and disappearing entirely. If taken as a profile of the patient's internal world at that moment in time, we might say that the dream presented two problems: one required reductive, interpretative work based on the day to day lived experience of the transference; the other called for a more teleological approach involving amplification and exploration of dream symbols.

The former approach is a response to the blocked toilets full of dried up excrement which captured something of the dreamer's attitude to her own ‘shitty’ feelings which had become numbed and petrified. This also applies to the failed plumbing, representing the rigid stuck internal defences which could not allow a natural ease of movement within her internal world. In terms of these matters my task was to don my analytic rubber gloves and attend to the dried up excrement and the faulty plumbing. That work involved attention to, and interpretation of, the here and now transference as it emerged.

But whilst that work was absolutely essential and at times totally preoccupying, it addresses only part of the dream. For while clean toilets and effective plumbing are certainly good, they are not, I suggest, the be-all and end-all of the analytic endeavour.

So to return to the dream we need to ask, what about the bird? What are we to do with it? It's too big to flush away, and because the room is sealed, it can't be disposed of by the Local Authority bin men. This stubborn problem of disposal forces us to attend to the fact of the pitiful creature dead and decaying in the midst of all this old excrement.

Whereas Edith's associations to all the other aspects of the dream had personal connections, feeling responses and memories, there were no particularly personal associations to the bird. The images that came to her mind were not unusual for an educated individual brought up in Western Judeo-Christian culture, and any brainstorming group of analysts might come up with much the same: Leda and the swans, the Albatross, flying geese, the Goose girl, Noah's dove, the Holy Spirit …  The fact that none of these had specific personal meaning suggested that this dead, dirty white bird was more of an archetypal image of the Self.

What if the room is sealed not only through a historical chain of events, but precisely because this might be the only way for the bird to be given the attention it needed rather than just being got rid of? This might lead us to think of the sealed room not so much as a problem, but as a necessary condition in the endeavour of individuation. And whilst we might be able to clean up the shit, the room would need to stay sealed until the bird could be ministered to and brought back to life. The question was how we were to do this in a way that didn't deaden the bird further with heavy interpretations, but might breathe air and life into its plumage?

I felt, therefore, that, rather than struggle to interpret the bird, we needed to stay with the image itself, as it was in the dream and as it developed in Edith's mind, in my mind and in our joint mind. Alongside all the transference work, the rages and the remorse, Edith would occasionally return to the bird, speculating how it had got into the toilet and died, wondering what it needed. She developed her associations to the bird following up some of the classical and cultural references which interested her. I saw my role in this work as providing a receptive container within which her conscious ego could receive, attend to and play with those aspects which had been denied and forbidden for most of her life. My understanding of this aspect of the work was that what was taking place was a sort of transformation driven by a creative aspect of the psyche which was struggling to live, and which was beyond the conscious reach of either Edith or me.

Inside the cage

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

There are points of activity, of painting, in the poem but these are interspersed with times of great stillness—we are asked not to speak, not to move. Wait, it says and observe the most profound silence. When one is required to act it is to do so with tremendous care and attention to detail. We must paint ‘the green foliage of the trees, the wind's freshness, the dust of the sun and the noise of the insects in the summer heat’. One can hear a call to deep attention to the aesthetic and the wires hum with an intensity of reverie, of concentration and mindfulness.

Here the analyst picks up a familiar sense, a sort of ‘knowing’ based on experience of the patient. It is as if we need to squint with our ears to get a feel of the shape that lies behind the details of what the patient is saying. Stepping back from specific content and allowing the overarching themes to emerge can sometimes allow us to see the outline of that which lies beneath what the patient is consciously telling us.

Lewis, Amini and Lannon put it thus:

A capable therapist shares much with a good reader: he must willingly suspend his belief in the rules he knows and approach a personal universe whose workings should be unimaginable to the uninitiated. If he is able to attain a state of sufficient receptivity, a therapist can allow the other mind to burst onto the scene like great art does –‘as a more or less shocking surprise’.

(Lewis, Amini, Lannon 2001, p. 183)

They go on to say:

The therapist who cannot engage in this open adventure of exploration will fail to grasp the other's essence. His every preconception about how a person should feel risks misleading him as to how that person does feel. When he stops sensing with his limbic brain, a therapist is fatally apt to substitute inference for resonance.

(ibid.; ital. in original)

Psychoanalytic literature, when considering transference dynamics, refers to the therapist as object. This has a certain value but its danger is in that it can draw us away from remembering that there is also the therapist as subject to consider with his or her own intrapsychic life. This reminds us not only of how essential the training analysis is, but also of an ongoing requirement to attend to our own psychic health and development throughout our lives as clinicians. It also indicates the need for the safety of a good supervision space to provide us with a container for our work. These aspects help us to keep our own internal vertical axis as open as possible to serve as a conduit through the psyche.

The analytical couple who have made an unconscious commitment to each other are connected unconscious to unconscious. Here the involvement of the therapist is not just responsive and reactive, but also participatory, and, by definition this engagement takes place in the dark. It is a participation mystique, a connection of unconscious activity in which both take part. The mechanisms are similar to those of projective identification, except that this is a two-way street with a greater mutuality of communication and affect between couch and chair. The term ‘co-transference’ is perhaps more apt here than countertransference. This is the realm which, when we can manage to truly allow, humbles our conscious egos by reminding us that we are not masters in our own consulting rooms. For this is the realm beyond our conscious control. Here an archetypal couple, or mix of couples, will impact on and transform the analytic pair struggling in the conscious arena to form and connect. It is the place where the transcendent function, when present, is at its most vivid and most profound. The irony is that any real transformation probably occurs at this level, a level in which the conscious analyst has no direct say.

What we can do is to stay as attuned as we can to whatever might be being communicated, attend to our own attitude towards it, and work on whatever may be blocking our internal psychic free flow. As Bollas points out, such an attitude can be found in Freud's work. He emphasizes Freud's recommendation that the analyst needs to:

surrender himself to his own unconscious mental activity, in a state of evenly suspended attention … .and by these means to catch the drift of the patient's unconscious with his own unconscious.

(Freud 1923, p. 239; ital. added)

Bollas (1993) also reminds us that Freud proposed that the analyst:

turn his own unconscious like a receptive organ towards the ‘transmitting unconscious’.

(Freud 1912, p. 115)

This is where I think we need to attend to the minutiae of what goes on in our own minds and bodies when in the room with a patient; the smallest thought, however apparently irrelevant, if amplified and explored playfully in the analyst's mind, may well prove an essential key allowing entry into a whole area of understanding.

Being upright

Reb Anderson, the Zen master I spoke of at the beginning of this paper, has a book entitled Being Upright (Anderson 2001) which he suggests is the central task of meditation and also of being. Anyone who has meditated will be familiar with the swaying and the slumping away from the vertical. We start off well, straight and still in the present moment and, after a little while—and perhaps not so little a while—we find ourselves leaning ever so slightly forward or ever so slightly back from our initial posture. This is both an experienced reality on the cushion and a metaphor for living and, I would add, for analysis and, in particular, the stance of the analyst.

We can think of the leaning in terms of that which we may go towards, out of our own attraction, desire, longing and greed. Or we may lean backwards out of repulsion, or aversion. However slight and mild these pulls, they each serve to unbalance us from the vertical and we wobble about our axis. Actually psychoanalytic psychotherapists are, I think, fairly well-equipped to address this sort of leaning in relation to the patient. The concept of countertransference gives us a very helpful and important frame for noting and thinking about our own responses towards the individual before us in the consulting room. We know something about the observation of our positive feelings, which might be tender, intrigued, erotic …  Or the negative ones where we are bored, irritated, revengeful …  We hopefully find a position of equanimity where we are able to think about these emotions as they arise as ways of deepening our understanding of what is going on. It is this process which will keep us upright with our feelings rather than being caught up in their enactment.

But there is also the axis of time which can catch us into either a leaning forwards into the future or back into the past. In meditation we come to know how our minds are constantly drifting around between the two. Our thoughts turn to lunch, or a rather difficult task we have before us. Or we might have had some disagreement with a partner or colleague or someone on the train this morning and it's still rankling. These sorts of thoughts form the backdrop, the wallpaper to the activities of our minds, and in meditation the endeavour is not to be rid of them but to let them drift across the mind like clouds passing in the sky. Rather than grasping onto the thought and losing ourselves in its magnetism, we let it go and return to the breath.

Michael Eigen (1993) has suggested that meditation changes our usual focus on appetite, with its endless demands for satisfaction, to a focus on breath. Taking up this idea, Epstein says of a developing meditation practice:

the emphasis shifts to an appreciation of just how difficult, and yet possible, it is to surrender to the flow of experience. Gradually expanding the foundations of mindfulness to include feelings, thoughts, emotions and mind, the successful practitioner keeps coming up against her own desires to somehow halt the flow, to convert the breath-based experience of fluidity and change to an appetite-based one of gratification and satisfaction.

(Epstein 2001, p. 146)

Here he could well be describing how hard it is to find and stay in this place of at-one-ment in the analytic work. This idea of appetite that relates to the work itself is how I understand Bion's edict to eschew both memory and desire when with the patient.

It interferes with analytic work to permit desires for the patient's cure or well-being, or future to enter the mind. Such desires erode the analyst's power to analyse and lead to progressive deterioration of his intuition.

(Bion 1984, p. 56)

This sense of appetite shows itself in the work as a desire in the analyst for the patient to ‘progress’—which can be partly for the patient's sake but may also be for the analyst's gratification. For this waiting, this observation of the most profound silence demands much of us. To hold steady, to stay seated in the analytic chair to simply not know what is going on requires faith of the analyst as much as the patient. At least the patient isn't supposed to know. Not knowing, yet maintaining faith in the psyche and in the relationship whilst keeping on working at what does appear in the room, takes a bit of nerve at times. In leaning forward, there is an appetite to know, to be certain and to feel the sweet, gratifying sensation of getting it right.

Instead, the poem tells us, we need to wait, upright, attending to the backdrop, maintaining great silence and working out how best to paint the noise of the insects in the summer heat, always ready to hear when the bird sings.

As a way of trying to illustrate this I shall return to the work with Edith and a series of sessions which took place after a number of years of intensive work. Much had changed. A few years previously she had left the church altogether, but now was wondering about her spiritual side and was very tentatively starting to approach the matter again but in a far more thoughtful, less terrified manner. She had dropped the number of sessions to twice a week and we were beginning to consider the idea of ending

She arrived after a two week break to tell me that it had been a disastrous period. She was angry with me, had acted it out in an almighty row with her partner on the last weekend, and was furious and disappointed with herself that she was still feeling this way about the breaks. She was bad, a failure (and, by implication, of course, so was I). Edith in her fear and her anger had returned to her early Evangelical upbringing, her wrathful God, and the notion of original sin that meant she was guilty from birth. This was an inherited badness from which she could only recover by an external act of redemption. These solid, fixed, metallic-hard certainties had dominated her life and the first years of analysis.

I found myself feeling irritated. It wasn't her anger that annoyed me, but the reappearance of old familiar ways of dealing with it, including her insistence on a rigid, harshly critical image of herself. I was anything but free from memory at this moment. The past sessions of rage and despair came thundering into the room and it seemed as if we were right back at the beginning again, as if my perception of the work we had done and the transformations that had taken place were mere self-deception.

I began to notice that, in my irritation, there was also a holding on to a desire for ‘progress’—for her sake but also for my own gratification. And, whilst not acting out the irritation as such, my interventions were coming from a place that was motivated by wanting her to ‘get back on track’. This was appetite driven. When at last I managed to ‘settle the self on the self’, something inside me relaxed into that breath-based fluidity without any loss of concentration. It's hard to say how my interventions changed, but when I was able to let go of the drive for so-called ‘progress’, paradoxically things began to move.

Soon after this Edith brought another dream. Again it was a room with 3 toilets. However, this time the toilets were clean and functioning and in separate cubicles. But the thing that delighted her most about the dream was that there was an open door, through which she could see stairs leading to a garden. The bird was out and free—perhaps it was even singing … . . 

Signing the painting

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References

The very last part of the poem tells us that, if the bird does sing, you can very gently pull out one of the feathers of the bird and write your name in the corner of the painting. One of the hardest, most poignant aspects of this job is that one can work very intensively over a long period of time with someone within a kind of intimacy that doesn't occur in any other setting. It is moving to witness the growth and expansion that can occur as a result of this work, to the point where the individual is ready to go. It is hard to say goodbye and know very little, if anything, from that point on of what happens to them. I think the image of the signature describes how one's name is written in a little corner of the person's being. I know my own analyst, whom I may not think of consciously for years, has his name written somewhere inside of me.

But it is also interesting that the name is written using one of the bird's own feathers, reminding us of what we also receive from our analysands. When the patient has gone, it is these imaginary quills that we use to think and write about our work.

Whilst I was in the process of writing this paper and was thinking about this business of ending, I was on a platform in the London underground waiting for a train. I looked across the tracks and, on the opposite platform I saw a patient I had worked with four times a week for many years who had finished her analysis a number of years ago. She didn't see me as she was engaged in an animated discussion with a friend, but it was a poignant moment for me. We had been through a lot together and I guess I knew her in a way no one else ever had or ever would. She had sent a couple of Christmas cards letting me know what she was doing but these had stopped in the last few years—quite rightly—and I imagined I was rarely thought about these days. Yet I knew my name existed somewhere inside of her and I hope it continued to be helpful. She looked well.

Her train pulled into the station, she got on and went on her journey to wherever it was she was going. And I went home to finish a paper about painting birds.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. T A
  3. Introduction
  4. The benign and the malign aspects of the unconscious
  5. The Cage
  6. Faith and trust
  7. Edith
  8. Inside the cage
  9. Signing the painting
  10. References
  • Anderson, A. (2001). Being Upright. Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts. California : Rodmell Press.
  • Bion, W.R. (1984). Attention and Interpretation. London : Karnac Books.
  • Bollas, C. (1993). Being a Character. Psychoanalysis and Self Experience. London : Routledge.
  • Colman, W. (2010). ‘The analyst in action: An individual account of what Jungians do and why they do it’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 91, 287303.
  • Eigen, M. (1993). ‘Breathing and identity’. In The Electrified Tightrope, ed. A. Phillips. Northvale , NJ : Jason Aronson.
  • Epstein, M. (2001). Thoughts without a Thinker. London : Duckworth.
  • Freud, S. (1912). ‘Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis’. SE 12.
  • Freud, S. (1923). ‘Two encyclopaedia articles’. SE 18.
  • Lewis, T., Amini, F., Lannon, R. (2001). A General Theory of Love. New York : Random House.
  • Morgan, H. (2010). ‘Frozen harmonies: petrified places in the analytic field’. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 26, 1.
  • Prévert, J. (1949). ‘To paint the portrait of a bird’. In Paroles. Trans. L. Ferlinghetti. San Francisco : City Light Books, 1958.
  • Samuels, A. (1985). Jung and the Post-Jungians. London , Boston & Henley : Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Wiener, J. (2009). The Therapeutic Relationship: Transference, Countertransference and the Making of Meaning. College Station , TX : Texas A&M University Press.
  • Williams, M. (1963). The indivisibility of the personal and the collective unconscious’. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 8, 1, 4551.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1978). ‘Hate in the countertransference’. Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. London : Hogarth Press.