The advent of truth

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion distinguished between what was sham and what was truth, in that truth commanded our respect while the sham does not. The sham or the lie needed a self-glorifying individual who needs an audience to prop themselves up.

Bion thought that what emerged eventually in psychoanalysis was that which had true value as distinct from deceptive appearance and ‘O’ was the term that Bion designated for the truth which he saw as ultimate in nature as it was not contingent on anything else…so ultimate reality.

Some therapists turned away from what they saw as his quasi mystical thinking and certainly those with a scientific attitude disapproved. Clearly Bion’s emphasis on finding the ‘truth’ has not much to do with current therapeutic methods where there is a focus on cost effectiveness and shortness of treatment, but … I think there is something very similar here to what can happen in meditation and contemplative prayer when the aim is to awaken to reality – to what actually is – the truth of the present moment.

Very like Thomas Merton and other meditators and mystics Bion was committed to the view that there is an absolute truth which can never be known directly. He says: ‘The religious mystics have probably approximated most closely to expressions of experience of it.’ Again ‘it’ here is ‘ultimate reality’.

It sounds a bit similar to the unnamed author of The Cloud of Unknowing who urges the reader to set aside clear ideas and definite wishes in order to attend in perfect mindfulness to the God who is not seen and not known.  It is such experiences that are called mystical where there is close, even if not direct contact with ultimate reality – a contact that is psychic and not sensual. In other words it is experienced in the psyche/mind/soul and not usually in the body.

Interestingly Bion focussed attention on those defences which we put up against entering such an experience – a defence which we have individually and certainly collectively in most churches and institutions (including psychotherapy trainings) and also culturally. Like those who practice contemplative prayer the encouragement is to be open to what might happen.

For the contemplative the experience is possible in silent relationship with God, though meditation can often be really powerful in a group that is silently meditating together. For the person in analysis the pathway is in relationship with another – the analyst. Psychoanalysis attempts to open both participants to the mystical experience and as Joan and Neville Symington conclude: ‘Bion’s thinking is geared to facilitating mystical experience’.

It doesn’t matter how the truth is uttered or experienced, or who utters or experiences it, it’s almost as if it – the truth – ultimate reality is there waiting to be discovered:

‘Bion’s attitude to truth was similar to that of the Buddha, who said on his deathbed that his teachings should not be believed because he taught them but should instead be tested against experience. The individual’s role is to be the vehicle of truth.’