Monthly Archives: September 2017

‘I’ as a disturbing stranger!

As many of us know there is a strong sense of the fragility of the developing sense of ‘I’ which it is suggested then lies at the heart of our sense of self. Our ego strength can be tested in all sorts of ways and situations and under psychological attack one can only too easily feel a sense of ‘falling apart’.

Jacques Lacan the French psychoanalyst thought our sense of self is at heart unreal – not authentic, rather more spurious, so that at a deep level we know about and live with this sense of the fragility of the ‘I’– the idea of ‘me’ is built for all of us on the flimsiest of foundations and, fundamentally, although we need an ego to function, it is after all an illusion.

However no matter how flimsy it is in actuality we need the ego to be strong enough in order to avoid breaking into pieces. Lacan thought the ego is therefore always an inauthentic agency, functioning to conceal a disturbing lack of unity.

The sense of ‘I’ is thus in part a cover up but it also means that the self by definition ‘is what which is forever unfinished’, and so both contemplative prayer and psychoanalysis rather than strengthening the ego by ‘knowing who you are, turning yourself into a quasi-fictional character with so-called insight’ is instead more about ‘discovering and learning to tolerate that you don’t know who you are, and that in fact you have no way of knowing’.

As Thomas Merton discovered this has similarities with the spiritual journey where rather than fixing on a spiritual or religious identity and so closing down the searching – what some Buddhists refer to as the reification and absolutization of the self – instead the way is to open out into a place and space of not-knowing. In other words this is about being able to stay in the liminal place of uncertainty. In Zen it is the Great Doubt that leads to a Great Awakening. For Merton the search is discovering the true self.

When we are quiet, not just for a few minutes, but for an hour or several hours, we may become uneasily aware of the presence within us of a disturbing stranger, the self that is both “I” and someone else. The self that is not entirely welcome in his own house because he is so different from the everyday character that we have constructed out of our dealings with others – and our infidelities in ourselves.

For Merton the essence of the spiritual journey is to begin to make space for what he calls the silent self ‘whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent’.

It is in the silence of contemplative prayer or in staring at the ceiling from the analyst’s couch that it becomes clear that the ‘I’ that we imagine we are, is, thankfully, not all that we are. It is apparent that there is more to life than surface and image and what lies underneath is all important.


‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’ part 2

Although it is a relatively new discipline, psychoanalysis shares with the older Western spiritual traditions the affirmation of the existence of a self; that there is something in the ‘I’ that we imagine ourselves to be.

By implication to describe a self is also to describe a world and a culture in which we are embedded, so there are layers and complexities to what the self might mean. For Merton the two relevant terms are the false self which is both an obstruction and delusion to the finding of our personal identity in what he called the true self. In an early work Merton wrote ‘the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self’.

For both Freud and Jung the analytic process consisted of uncovering and discovering the self, the real person underneath the exterior presentation which was sometimes referred to as ‘ego’.

Later developments in psychoanalysis tended to emphasise good-enough environmental provision as the key to allowing the infant to build a personal ego, to manage the instincts and to cope with life. The self still then remained as something intrinsic to the individual person, the ‘something’ that could makes sense of living and might not always be so conscious. D.W. Winnicott memorably wrote: ‘A word like “self” naturally knows more than we do; it uses us, and can command us”.

Jung saw the ‘I’ as partly made up of a false self, he used the term ‘persona’, like a mask adopted as the psyche learns to become ‘civilised’. It was through this process of ‘civilisation’ that the primitive parts become assimilated and managed or split off and denied.

The persona is also a disguise because it fails to acknowledge the repressed and denied parts which may not fit with the image we want to, or are asked to, present to one another and in the world. All these aspects of our selves contribute to the personal shadow. However for Jung the shadow could also include societal and collective aspects passed down over generations that remained discarded, unrecognised and unwanted. Jung called these archetypal contents and was at pains to emphasise that it could be good or bad.

Somewhere in the heart of every person is what Jung called the self which is the personal part of what he saw as the universal God image (sometimes given a capital ‘S’ and sometimes not) and what Merton called the true self, a part of the inner life that is potentially spontaneous, alive and able to wonder at life.

For Jung the truth, if it could be found, was a chorus and integration of voices and the different parts of ourselves rather than something separate and removed from all our experience. This I think is what he called individuation – which he saw as something that our psyche longed and aimed for throughout life.


‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’

One of the threads that run through all of Thomas Merton’s Journals and much of his other writing is that of the self, and his belief that sanctity consists in finding our true identity. The heart of all spiritual searching is the search for our true or real self.

Merton struggled in his writing with the idea of what the self is, what the spiritual self might be, and how what he calls the false self with all its seductive illusion could be stripped away to uncover the true self. A characteristic of this is the revelation to Merton, and through his writing to the reader, that the self as it is known is usually inconsistent, frequently strange and often deceptive. Merton acknowledges the duplicity of the self that is presented to the world and so a duplicity that we too can recognise within us.

In the first chapter of his posthumously published book The Inner Experience, Merton issues ‘a preliminary warning’ to the self that sets out to be a contemplative, for this he thought is an alienated self and a compartmentalized being. He asks the penetrating essential question, ‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’

Merton sees that the exterior ‘I’ with all the temporal projects, associated demands, successes and failures is alien from the interior ‘I’ who has no projects and aims for no achievements. This interior ‘I’ looks only to be and to move, as this is a dynamic part ‘according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires’.

A contemporary psychoanalyst quotes the both ironic and serious observation of the French psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis: ‘Dream, poetry, analysis: exact sciences’. Psychoanalysis, dream and poetry are exact sciences precisely because they deliberately avoid the definitive answers demanded by so-called hard science to questions of who and why we are who we are, showing us instead the experience of being a self.

The strangeness is not simply about the presence of the unconscious, but to do with the singularity the difference and peculiarity of the human person – of each human person. It was Freud who used the German term ‘das Unheimlich’ which literally translates as ‘the unhomely’. He was referring to the paradoxical meeting of the familiar and the strange within each person.

Merton too uses the phrase ‘the disturbing stranger, the self that is both “I” and someone else’ that we can find within, and any exploration of the self, whether through psychoanalysis or in contemplative prayer takes the person into areas of discomfort and disarray.

Merton’s psycho-spiritual thinking on the self and subjectivity suggests that increasing awareness of the false self and both the ache of such self-knowledge and the associated relief that this is not all that we are, can liberate us to becoming truly human.


The desire for certainty

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion frequently used a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: ‘La réponse est le malheur de la question’ – ‘the answer is the misfortune or disease of curiosity – it kills it’. He was pointing to the tendency which he called ‘filling the empty space’ – filling it, that is, with answers or with knowing. In his view, it is in the ‘empty space’ of the present moment that a new thought, experience or discovery can take place. As the Zen saying goes: ‘if you don’t know why do you ask?’

Similarly Jacques Lacan the French analyst wrote about the need for ignorance and honesty and as scepticism as ‘holding the subjective position that one can know nothing.’

As religious fundamentalism demonstrates so well it is anxiety that tends to drive us all towards a desire for certainty – the need to have an answer, or if possible the answer.

On the spiritual direction course that I did there were a number of evangelical Christians who had become disillusioned with ‘certainty’ and felt let down; what had seemed so sure and upfront in their youth now seemed disappointingly naïve. The certainties that had been promised had not upheld them in times of trouble. They were searching for something different, something more nuanced and subtle with an element of not knowing; something that offered space for exploration and experience. When they had left their evangelical churches they had encountered a closing of ranks and hostility from those who held entrenched positions… they were seen as ‘lost sheep’ or worse.

The capacity to remain open to God, who is by definition unknowable, demands letting go of any sense of hubris – an insistence on being right, or owning the truth. It needs self-awareness and self-development, a monitoring of awareness and openness to the truth and the authentic part of oneself. This is being present in the moment, empty of predetermined thoughts and beliefs – hopefully open to what might or might not happen.

How hard it is, and for all of us, whether it is in spiritual practice or in therapeutic work, to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity in the present moment. After all who doesn’t like to remain in control? Practising waiting, patience, passivity, observing, imagination, detachment, disinterest, trust, and humility are not seen as behaviours to be encouraged in contemporary life where the aim is for speedy results and positive outcomes. Both contemplation and analytic psychotherapy are then by definition and in practice deeply and disturbingly counter cultural.






Negative capability and the capacity to think in the present moment

In contemplative prayer we are trying to create a space which is not full of thoughts; in contrast being able to think is central in analytic work. For the patient or client it is about experiencing or recognising primitive emotions which once processed become feelings – in therapy the unprocessed emotion can be converted into a processed or acknowledged feeling through understanding. For the therapist it is about not imposing their prior knowledge or thoughts but allowing for new aspects of the relationship to emerge.

When the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion urged colleagues to discard their memory and desires, the reason, he suggested, was ‘to leave space for a new idea.’ He described it as though there are ‘thoughts’ circulating in the system – ‘thoughts’ which are, as he put it ‘in search of a thinker’. Such ‘thoughts’ can only find expression in a clearing, in an empty space. He wrote, ‘A thought, an idea unclaimed, may be floating around the room searching for a home. Amongst these may be one of your own which seems to turn up from your insides, or one from outside yourself, namely, from the patient.’

Sometimes in times of contemplative prayer ideas come to mind which are, as far as we know, original – creative thoughts rather than distractions. It is as if in clearing the mind space emerges for something new, perhaps even something divine, or o/Other.

In both contemplation and analytic work to clear the space involves letting go of the security of the known, in order to engage with the truth in the moment. Bion used the simple word ‘patience’ to capture the essence of this capacity. This state of mind – for which he also borrowed from the poet John Keats the term ‘negative capability’ is based on listening and on waiting, on being. It involves a certain capacity to tolerate anxiety and to stay in a place of uncertainty.

Really each potential encounter with God is about being in the moment in a place of uncertainty. But perhaps as in analytic work this is difficult and the desire to leap in with a familiar certainty or prior knowledge or turn to a piece of liturgy is very strong.

In both analytic work and contemplation the purpose of concentrating the mind on the present is to allow space for the experience of the transformative power of ‘truth-in-the-moment’. Bion designated this ‘truth’ as ‘O’, signifying the imminent reality of anything whatever in context so locating this reality very clearly in the experience of the present moment.

He insisted too that whilst the pursuit of such truth is essential, truth itself is also radically out of reach: not only unknown but, ultimately, unknowable. This is why he chose to represent this ‘truth’ with the enigmatic symbol ‘O’.