There’s a lovely line in one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus which in one of the translations goes like this:
‘Alas, where are we? Freer and freer,
Like coloured kites torn loose from their strings,
We toss half-high up…’
There’s something very attractive about setting oneself free from all that binds and constrains us. In Psalm 118, the psalmist prays from a weighed down place of despair and desolation for release and the prayer is answered:
‘I called to the Lord in my distress;
The Lord answered by setting me free.’
The freedom that draws us and for which we yearn is not the freedom of young adulthood which is to do whatever we want – finally. On a walk the other day I heard a child say to their father: ‘It’s all right being a child but I can’t wait to be grown up.’ The father asked why. The child replied, ‘because then I’ll be free to do and be what I want.’ This is when the restraints and the rules seem as obstacles to the chance to be free and fulfil potential.
Rather the yearning of the psalmist is about a pull towards authentic freedom. When Thomas Merton first entered the Abbey of Gethsemani he saw that commitment as a freedom to do what he was told and so be obedient. William Shannon in his analysis of this says this stage of freedom could lead to moral rigidity and become a very stuck place. But as Merton deepened his spiritual searching he found a third stage where freedom becomes an inner reality guided from within rather than from without. He felt that freedom lay in contemplation where in the encounter with God our deepest freedom is discovered.
To be free and to experience our deepest self in God is about loosening the illusions and fictions of the false self. This is similar in part to the process of depth psychotherapy where bit by bit and hour by hour aspects of ourselves are revealed and the falsity behind which we hide is stripped away. Quite recently I was confronted through a dream by a less than attractive part of my own shadow which I had never looked at before. I was able to understand where it came from and how I had adopted this attitude, although previously I had pretended that this was not how I was or felt. Through the unexpected insight I felt I gained some chance to first of all acknowledge it in the light – out of the shadow – and then own it. Once I took it on board I could then let it go and hopefully be a bit freer. This is painstaking and unpleasant as once again the story I tell about myself is dismantled and deconstructed. But the process is also a form of freedom because it is then no longer necessary to have that false part of the self weighing me down.
This is about taking responsibility for our lives and standing on one’s own two feet and confronting one’s projections. Merton found this much harder than simply living by the rules as a monk or as a late adolescent doing what the crowd is doing. So similarly it is for each of us as we check out what is really the truth and not merely an illusory belief or disguise about oneself. It is about maturity and about accepting our humanity – we can be good and bad, happy and sad and so on.
The freedom of knowing oneself then means that one is less preoccupied with self-consciousness and self-concern. There is a lightness that allows us, like the kites torn loose from their string to fly up into the clear sky.
In 1964 the child psycho-analyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote a review of Carl Jung’s extraordinary autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections. Winnicott focuses particularly on the first three chapters of the book which he describes as self-revealing statements as they document Jung’s own healing from what Winnicott describes as infantile psychosis. Winnicott emphasises that by saying that Jung was mad as a child and recovered, he is doing nothing worse than what Winnicott would say about himself that he was sane as a child and that through analysis and self-analysis he achieved some measure of insanity in adulthood! To know about the mad parts of ourselves is a richness and a strength. As he puts it: ‘We are poor indeed if we are only sane.’
For Winnicott and Jung both positive and negative, sanity and insanity are anyway always present though they may be labelled differently for example as persona and shadow and might change over time. Jung knew through his experiences about the ego disintegration in his childhood (partly due to his mother’s instability) but needed to establish a robust self with which to know and understand what had been going on. Similarly Winnicott had experience of his compliant false self which appeared sane, but as an adult needed to unravel that to locate the true self and understand what such compliance had cost him.
What both therapists knew was that life was more than surface and that underneath the apparent ‘civilised’ self much complexity lay. What matters is the awareness and understanding of the interplay between the various parts of ourselves and I think this is also a spiritual experience. For when Winnicott writes about Jung’s recovery he is talking about a form of resurrection and the cycle of suffering and awakening.
Therefore it is this emotional literacy that is also part of understanding our spiritual development and insights. I like Harry Williams’ claims following his serious breakdown that he decided he would then no longer preach about any aspect of Christian belief unless it had become part of what he called his ‘life-blood’. Instead he would only speak about and write about those things which he felt he had proved true in his own experience through living them and therefore knowing about them at first hand.
It is no coincidence then that Williams’ most famous books that still resonate through the authenticity of what he writes about are True Wilderness and True Resurrection. Through his analysis and own self-analysis he understood that suffering is always destructive but again appearances can be deceptive. Some people cannot open to it and so as he puts it they ‘shrivel up and atrophy’ but for others whilst the devastation of whatever ordeal they have gone through leaves deep and permanent traces, there is also present an awareness that they are in touch with a new dimension of reality. He writes: ‘They have somehow penetrated to the centre of the universe. They are greater people. They are more deeply alive. That is resurrection.’
It is also resurrection when one can rise above irritating or confining circumstances and Williams sees all of this as a mystery and a miracle and that it is ultimately the creative act of the Eternal Word. This takes place in all the ordinariness of everyday life so we sometimes do not recognise resurrection when it comes to us…he likens it to the guests at Cana in Galilee who enjoyed the good wine but did not know where it came from.
The previous post looked at the sense of being empty of oneself from the psychoanalytic view with the understanding that before we open ourselves and surrender to God there needs to be a robust sense of self in the first place. This then can be put to one side during times of contemplative prayer. We need our ego to function in the world and to help us set aside time for prayer as well. We need our ego to help us trust the experience of meditation. My suggestion is that also in order to trust what we are doing in contemplative prayer or meditation we need a sense of living an experience together with God – there needs to be a sense of a ‘more than ourselves’ or Presence or what has been called ‘divine assistance’.
In the patient seen by Enid Balint all those years ago the young woman felt she had not been seen or recognised. One of the things that can happen when we are alone with God is that we can feel known and recognised; in other words it is a personal relationship. This is clearly different from other non-Christian forms of meditation. We are told that Christ is in us and with us and around us and so as we set aside concerns and try to clear our minds faith encourages us to trust that in the emptiness and that in the void there is both meaning and companionship. We are ‘alone with the Alone’.
Generally we need to feel integrated enough to believe that this is in our best interests and for the good, however for some people healing of deep loss and trauma can take place through spiritual practice either alongside psychotherapy or after a period of therapy. And of course deep healing can take place through grace and there are a number of accounts of this type of breakthrough including the now famous account by Eckhart Tolle.
Integration does also happen through regular meditation; the sense of self that is developing is not the one linked to the persona or the person that we present to the world, but it is a strengthening of our essence and inner core, what Merton called the true self. He questioned ‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’ and saw it inevitable that as we meditate we come to see our alienated external self. The paradox is that as we shut down from the external world our inner world comes alive and this experience can then feed us as we go back out into the world. Merton thought that contemplation changed our relationship with our sense of self and also helped us with our relations with others and with nature through a growing sense of the interconnectedness of things. This is not the same as a blurring of boundaries and weak ego but comes from a recognition of our relationship with the Creator of all.
A poem by Emily Dickinson on a day that feels bereft of hope, but where the only thing is to carry on, as best as one can, living and loving true to one’s own true self…
Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
Looking again at an interesting paper published in 1963 in The International Journal of Psycho Analysis by Enid Balint called ‘On Being Empty of Oneself’ helped me understand how before we try to ‘empty ourselves’ in contemplative prayer we need to have had a full enough experience of ourselves. Thomas Merton commented on this when he was novice master saying that for many of the new monks the problem was that they lacked a resilient enough ego in the first place before trying to let go of it enough to be open to God’s transforming grace.
The young woman called Sarah that Enid Balint sees for six years of intensive psycho-analysis – presumably five times a week at least – never felt she was living in her own body nor that she would be recognisable as the same person from day to day – her state of mind was the very opposite of the expression ‘he is full of himself’. If there were things within her she felt that they were rubbish, or lifeless, or without value. Balint comments that this feeling of being empty is a state found more commonly in women than in men, though that insight was of course made in the early 1960s and may have shifted a bit.
Sarah came from a well-to-do professional family and was the third child with two older brothers. Her father was described as ‘disappointed’ when she was born and had a violent uncontrollable temper whilst her mother was perhaps inevitably depressed with low self-esteem. Sarah was seen as highly successful, doing well at school and at games and extremely glamorous until her severe breakdown at 17. However in the course of the analysis it emerged she had been frightened from an early age worrying about an object crashing down on her and Balint believed that she had been abused by the younger of her brothers for a number of years until the age of 12. Sarah felt that she was not seen – was not recognisable. The account of the analysis includes her fear of being overwhelmed or undermined and her dread of the void. Everything was stressful and highly anxiety making, she was confused and withdrawn and later aggressive.
The way the treatment developed was through drawing, initially dots and little lines and then body parts. The analyst collected the sketches and kept them all together and understood that Sarah was eventually making both connections with parts of herself and communicating about her sense of disintegration. The void was caused by the presence of the analyst when Sarah did not feel understood because at that moment although she was seen in terms of the external shape of her body what really mattered was the unique sense of self which she felt was not recognised.
Balint links this back to a lack of reliable understanding between Sarah as a baby and her mother who tended to respond with her own preconceived ideas than to what the baby was actually feeling. There was no acceptance that Sarah was not identical to her mother or that bad things and feelings existed for her. This would surely have been compounded by the abuse. To use Winnicott’s term the mother and child could not ‘live an experience together’. In other words that the child finds an echo in the parent and the parent accepts the child’s as yet unorganised feelings and enables the child by appropriate reactions to them to organise the feelings and emotions into a self. This is the start of a sense of integration. Without it, as with the person described, there is a void outside in relationships and emptiness within: a world of ‘thinking without feeling and feeling without thinking’. There’s communication but no feedback.
Next post will look at being empty of oneself from the spiritual perspective.