Monthly Archives: November 2017

Transitional experiencing in relating to another

If we have no sense of our boundary as a baby then we are in a strange way limitless. Winnicott sees this as a characteristic of transitional experiencing and calls it a sense of freedom where the limitlessness is a sense of wholeness. Of course he also separately wrote about a sense of falling apart and how feeling contained by the sense of one’s self is of course helpful to functioning in the world.

In his analysis of transitional experiencing Winnicott saw how the realisation of the other person or of an object outside oneself,  what he called the ‘not-me’ can bring with it a sense of aliveness where the other/object is felt as real as well. This he also saw as a sense of freedom, albeit of a different order, with the realisation that if there is another person or something outside of ourselves there is an excitement about how we can relate to this other thing or person.

Winnicott using the analytic jargon called this ‘object usage’ and saw it as a creative action that contributes to a sense of trust and faith. This he thought particularly crucial if the object survived what he called our destructive attacks. In other words if the chewed teddy bear remains intact or the mothering person returns with more food even if the baby has felt anger and rage and so on it all helps to build up trust and faith. Winnicott famously replaced a vase that a patient smashed with an exact replica by the time of the next session so that the patient would know that the object survived her destructive attacks. An action incidentally that has been greatly debated.

So again, it seems possible to play with these analytic ideas in the context of religious belief and a relationship with the Divine. Returning from a state of limitlessness, which can happen in deep meditation, we may have felt at-one with God. But then there are times when God feels completely exterior or irrelevant, in other words we have in a way destroyed or crucified him for our own ends. Perhaps in a tangible way this might happen by ridiculing belief or denigrating others or whatever or just through neglect, obliterating any sense of the Divine in the face of more important things going on.

Yet we are told that these separations can be forgiven and that God has not been destroyed by our actions. Is this one of the symbolic meaning of the cross and resurrection? That the worst that can be done has been done but it is not the end. In this way God becomes the ‘Other’ outside one’s grasp that survives as imperishable.

There is a paradox here and noted in Winnicott’s writings where he saw that profound vulnerability and saving indestructibility bring the paradox of faith to a new level. His most memorable expression of faith is found in this quote:

“The subject says to the object: ‘I destroyed you,’ and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: ‘Hello object!’ ‘I destroyed you.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘ You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.’ ‘While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy.’”

This brings a deeper understanding to thoughts of redemption and forgiveness.

Developing faith and trust

The psychoanalyst and paediatrician D W Winnicott wrote about what he called ‘transitional experiencing’ in early infancy and how in this experience the self and the other (meaning something or someone outside of the baby) are neither one, nor two, but somehow together make up an interpenetrating field. He situates this sort of experience between the early emergence of consciousness and the infant’s growing awareness that there are others or someone else outside of him or herself.

Winnicott understood that there was a paradox in the concept of transitional objects and phenomena which is: ‘The baby creates the object, but the object was there waiting to be created.’ Here, he is, for example, thinking of the breast which nourishes the baby and appears as the baby’s hunger is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

For Winnicott there could never be an answer to the question to the baby: ‘did you create that or did you find it?’ Clearly Winnicott was looking at the earliest establishment of trust and faith and the associated beginnings of a sense of self and sense of another through consistent and kind early feeding and reassuring handling.

He writes about the meaning of the transitional object which he calls a first ‘not-me’ possession and the beginnings of the baby’s blurring distinction between something or someone who is different but sometimes the same…. sometimes is experienced as inside them and sometimes as outside.  He sees also that this experiencing is essentially creative and developing and can lay the basis for later beliefs and faith. The other or as he calls it ‘object’ is meaningful but not yet experienced as wholly other.

Is it too far-fetched to think that perhaps in meditation and contemplation some sort of reverse creative process can sometimes take place. Initially God is right outside – an exterior object and distinguished from the person looking towards God, perhaps as in church services worshipped and revered. Here Jesus Christ is other, up on the cross or someone whose deeds are told and talked about.

However in meditation there is the awakening and attention to the inner world and to finding the inner experience of God. Looking at an icon can sometimes be helpful or as in my case a now rather faded postcard from a ceiling painting of Christ the Pantocrator. As I meditate if I look at the card it is clearly outside of me but if I can let go of too much conceptual thought and indeed lower my gaze or shut my eyes then the image or the experience of the image is internalised… perhaps especially if I am repeating a word or a mantra.

This may still be dualistic, or, as is sometimes suggested both dualistic and non-dualistic…so rather than either/ or it can be both/ and. Perhaps this neither one thing or another is then a bit like the baby’s transitional experiencing.

Indeed there may be a transitional space reached in deep contemplation where the distinction becomes blurred so there is a sense of the ‘me/not me’ which can then settle to interpenetration so there is no distinction left. This is the vertical consciousness where the ego lets go sufficiently to allow an inner space to emerge – being emptied of ‘me’ and filled by Christ. At that moment have I created this experience or have I been found?


Thinking more about faith and trust

Faith and trust are different but also interwoven – so you can say that faith is of the mind and trust comes from the heart. Faith is the willingness to act on a reasonable belief whereas trust uses the heart’s feeling as a guide.

One psychoanalyst speaks of faith as the ability to lie trustfully on the breast…in other words the baby develops from his or her experience the belief that good things can happen…  experiences have been good enough to develop trust in this belief.

It’s easy to see how that can change if the baby is ill-treated or their needs consistently ignored then faith and trust in the good begins to falter. At a recent talk at the Analytic Network the speaker showed a clip from the ‘still face experiment’.It’s quite difficult to watch when the mother presents the unemotional unresponsive face as the baby girl quite quickly is distressed and unsure of what is happening.

As Dr Edward Tronick explains the good can be repaired if the mother then starts to respond again and so the baby recovers, but if this doesn’t happen then the baby’s belief in good becomes increasingly fractured.

So what happens to us in infancy has deep repercussions on the ability to trust others and ultimately God.

One writer suggests that although most ‘pilgrims’ affirm their trust in God generally there is a sort of reservation only a severe testing will disclose. In other words that if events test most of us too hard then a belief kicks in that we will have to rely on ourselves to ‘get out of this mess’. Because complete trust in God implies certainty that whatever happens is in God’s hands, including the issue of life and death. This is difficult for most of us whatever our early experiences, the shadow side of faith is anyway surely doubt. Growing trust is in itself a spiritual achievement but there are past events that hinder this including trauma, teaching to fear God and the power of the ego to surrender.

If our trust can deepen then faith becomes something real built on experience rather than an intellectual assent to things we have read or been told. This sort of faith I guess is the type that can move mountains because it is fed by a deep sense of trust connected with the essence of who one is. This then is a vertical consciousness that is linked to the Source of all creation – not a consciousness or belief that is ‘ours’ in an individual way but rather the connection with all that is and a connection that can lead to a deep sense of trust and life.

One definition of trust is the absence of fear. If we live on the horizontal dimension then fear is inevitable and our companions are anxiety, worry and anger with fear hiding under the anger. If we can somehow live with part of us in touch with the vertical dimension we are in touch with the something that is infinitely greater than our individual selves – connection with the essence of Being. I can only imagine then that such an experience does away with the need for belief or faith.

Faith and trust revisited…

Once again I come back to the question of faith and trust in the context of early childhood trauma. Is it possible to develop the capacity for trust and faith when the initial experiences were insufficient?

Being able to trust is of course the foundation for meaningful relationships with others and a meaningful relationship with God. We need to trust enough to be able to live: in our daily life, with others and in our care of animals and even as we tend plants… we have to trust that the environment, and by trust I mean believe enough, that all that surrounds us is not malign, or a place where we might be persecuted or people will serve us ill.

Of course for the severely damaged that can be a central problem and so a retreat from the world is needed. Others may move in or out of paranoia and lack of trust. Is it easier to trust when things are going well?

Both spirituality and psychotherapy offer a way into rebuilding basic trust and so having faith in the world and our place in it.

I particularly like the definition of psychotherapy according to Harry Guntrip. He writes that it is about:

‘… a reliable and understanding human relationship of a kind that makes contact with the deeply repressed traumatised child that enables one to become steadily more able to live, in the security of a new real relationship, with the traumatic legacy of the earliest formative years, as it seeps through or erupts into consciousness.’

Melanie Klein understood it too:

‘There is no doubt that if the infant was actually exposed to very unfavourable conditions, the retrospective establishment of a good object cannot undo bad early experiences.  However, the introjection of the analyst as a good object, if not based on idealisation, has to some extent the effect of providing an internal good object where it has been largely lacking.’

If early damage can be recognised, acknowledged and to some extent partially healed, it may always be present, but there then can be a platform to develop further other strategies to repair the past and manage the present.

I like the hymn with the chorus that goes:

And I will trust in you alone

And I will trust in you alone,

For your endless mercy follows me,

Your goodness will lead me home

The ‘home’ here may be in part referring to post-death heaven, but we can also understand it as a state of mind where one is at One with God: at peace, no longer restless, connected to the Source of our being – Being itself. Then to put it also in psychological language it is about coming back to the true self or as Carl Jung might put it the Self.

And perhaps the verse contains another helpful insight that it is about ‘endless mercy’. Perhaps God’s mercy can help us trust through grace. In other words no matter what our experiences mercy and grace can cut through that and offer an epiphany in the sense of another perception of ourselves.

The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:

 ‘What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy…’

Thomas Merton The Sign of Jonas