Monthly Archives: February 2019

Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’ (4)

In the last session recorded in the book McCort using once again a dream reflects on the relationship between spirituality and analysis in his life. He understands that two earlier phases in his life one as a Catholic and the second as a Zen practitioner are now experienced as contained within the field of analysis. He says that he still is convinced that Enlightenment is the true purity and Zen one way of finding it but:

What I see through the clear transcendent eye of analysis, is the psychological truth of my earlier identifications with Catholicism and Zen, which is that basically I used one layer of repression, Zen, to ‘whitewash’ the earlier repressive layer of the Church, with its awesome power to alienate us from the body and its instincts.

The analysis revealed these two to be empty attachments – just nothing at all. Clearing away a great deal of the psychological baggage reveals ‘the emptiness of one thing, and in so seeing to realize you’re already free of it, is to see the emptiness of everything’ – there’s no way back to the neurotic prison. Ironically the analysis gave McCort a steady access ‘to the vision of sunyata that Zen had promised, but, in my case at least, couldn’t deliver’.

In his conclusion McCort ruminates that although his analysis ended after 9 years there is no reason for the analytic cast of mind ever to end – why would one return to a state of unconsciousness? ‘Once you board this train, “the self-realization express,” you’ll never get off, nor will you ever want to, even if the formal part is done’. He writes that continuing to deepen consciousness is now the way he chooses to live ‘the good life’. Recognising that there will still be problems and ‘lifelong emotional entanglements with or without “symptoms” might be one reason, but also he sees it as a path for those in mid-life ‘who find themselves asking the question, “Is this all there is?”’ For continuing on “the self-realization express” train and in particular working on archetypal material from his dreams is giving McCort a feet in both worlds. Here he is meaning ‘the extraordinary within the ordinary’ or quoting Friedrich Schleiermacher, ‘the experience of the Infinite within the finite’.

Another way that he explains this ‘two-world’ consciousness is using Carl Jung’s ‘vertical’ distinction between the personal and the collective unconscious where using the Jungian idea of phases gives phases 1 and 2 of a psychoanalysis as confession and interpretation which tend to come under the ‘personal’ and phases 3 and 4 education and transformation under ‘collective’: ‘the latter comprising a mysterious abyss beneath and beyond the limited threshold of individual experience’. This is ‘the realm of the spiritual: bottomless, inexhaustible, it is, in its deepest depths, where what we call “God” is to be found.’

I’m reminded that Thomas Merton wrote that a good psychoanalysis with the right person could (as well as contemplative prayer can do) breakthrough all the layers of the false self to the true self – and beyond the personal unconscious; this is what this book describes.


Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’ (3)

In the account of the analysis Dennis McCort and Dr. P. work on long standing issues around guilt about sex and in one session the idea of transcendence from conflict is explored.

I found the following interpretation by Dr. P. to McCort helpful: ‘Transcendence just means the misery of conflict dissipates since there is no longer any attitude of attachment in you, with which you’re identified to keep it intact.’

Further on in the same session after McCort  remembers feelings evoked at a party with his future wife when he was able to set aside guilt about how he had behaved with an earlier girlfriend – he had feelings of relief at being able to enjoy the experience at the party which were immediately followed by a return of guilt. It is here that again Dr. P. offers a helpful intervention:

‘That’s precisely what analysis is for: gradually to dismantle the wall between these two compartmentalised states of consciousness, the simple, naïve level of the oasis and the mature level of the self – in Blake’s terms the song of innocence and the song of experience. That’s what the transcendence implied by Jung’s ideal of individuation means: what we transcend is the infernal conflict between innocence and experience, or, more narrowly in your case, innocence and guilt. We reach a condition in which even these polar opposites are revealed as inseparable, and, once thus revealed, begin to flow happily into and out of each other. That is freedom.’

Analysis, he summarises at the end of this session is, says Dr. P. the journey to one’s true home, the home of the Self.

The idea of the coincidence of opposites is returned to throughout the analysis including reference to the symbols of the cross and crucifixion as an image of every person’s spiritual charge to bring the warring opposites within one’s own nature together in unity.

I particularly liked McCort’s account of his first encounter with what he calls C.O. (coincidence of opposites) when he was about 10 or 11 and serving as an altar boy and because of unusual circumstances found himself having a few sips of water and totally forgetting about the communion fast which in those days prohibited any intake of food or water until after communion. Realising this on the way home the boy feels  ‘an intoxicating mixture of awe and excitement’ about this brief taste of freedom of breaking a taboo, ‘a whiff of the heavenly perfume of personal autonomy’. This glimpse is shattered by the reaction of his mother who, on being told, ‘went ballistic … On and on she ranted, shrieking rhetorical questions hysterically into the air: “What do we do?! What can we do?! Nothing! The deed is already done! Oh my God!” She even tried to call the rectory to get absolution over the phone.

McCort describes:

‘feeling my little window of autonomy sliding shut as I sat there hunched over my Cheerios listening to her; I guess I couldn’t stand the tension of two contradictory worlds opened up before me at once. One had to go, and I guess it had to be the New World, which hadn’t had time to take root …’

Dr. P. reminds McCort that despite his young age the event would have planted a seed in him – the seed of an understanding or an insight, a direct experiential insight – into the fundamental bipolarity of life, of nature and of the universe itself. A seed that influenced McCourt’s spiritual and psychological quests, and, ironically, shaped much of his academic interests too.

Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’ (2)

I’m continuing to pick out sections from this extraordinary ‘inner autobiography’ which begins with Dennis McCort vociferously deriding psychoanalysis but over a 9 year treatment amending and altering his view until because of his experiences in therapy he is able towards the end of the work to say that:

the analytical mindset trumps all others except the authentically spiritual, that is, except for spiritual Enlightenment, analysis is the most comprehensive standpoint one can take vis-à-vis a given moment of consciousness. It yields the deepest truth about the phenomenal field at hand.

He goes on to explain why he believes this is so:

No matter what point of view one takes toward anything – intellectual, emotional, moral, aesthetic, even philosophical – that point of view is undergirded, informed, by the personal psychology of the one holding it.

There is also alongside this the realization that nothing is irrelevant to the therapy and what appears of no importance may hold the key to some further insight. In this sense there can be no boundary to what is discussed – free association as Freud called it: say whatever comes to your mind, whatever it is that you are feeling – and no boundary between the so-called process of analysis and ‘real life’. Ultimately, life itself and the process were identical.

However, interestingly, for him his confidence in the reality of the spiritual, in the sense of a fundamental consciousness ontologically prior to the individual, as ultimately trumping even the psychological remained intact during the long analytical process, and continues to do so, and as he puts it, ‘this is the final fact that balances the scales for me’.

There was for McCort a deeper awareness, gained from years of Zen practice and a lifelong interest in meditation that authentic spiritual truth could never be eclipsed even by the truth yielded to psychological inquiry. And why?

Because psychology, to the extent it is a systematic discipline, is based on the paradigmatic split between subject and object, between the one observing and the thing observed, whereas spiritual truth is precisely that which is revealed when this tragic split is healed – or, better yet, is shown never to have existed in the first place.

It seems that by holding the tension of on the one hand recognition of the unconscious determinism revealed through psychoanalysis (the reason I respond like this is because of this that has emerged from the unconscious) and on the other hand this deep experience of long spiritual practice led to the awareness of not either spiritual/or psychoanalytic but both/and. With this balance there came an ultimate freedom which was spiritual that remained immune to the analytic truth but somehow ‘co-extensive with it, pure and shining’ as McCort writes ‘a beacon from beyond it’.



Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating and challenging book by Dennis McCort called A Kafkaesque Memoir, Confessions from the Analytic Couch in it he writes about his analysis over nine years, meeting on a weekly basis. He’s a retired University professor with a great interest in German literature, hence the links in the title and indeed throughout the book to the German speaking Czech novelist Franz Kafka. McCort was brought up as a Catholic and spent many years involved with Zen and on the spiritual path; he’s very interested in all psychospiritual work, there’s also some interesting material on the coincidence of opposites – so in this sense the book was for me a bit of a find. The book which McCort calls ‘an inner autobiography’ is divided into accounts of 27 analytic sessions each beginning with a dream and there’s also a conclusion to the work. There are three sections: Confession; Education and Transformation. His eclectic analyst Dr Charles Purper ‘Dr. P.’ draws mainly on Jungian analytical psychotherapy as well as some Freudian theory.

I’ve picked a few aspects that struck me while I was reading and straightaway I have had to remind myself that every therapy is unique because there are two unique people involved – I needed to say this because my admiration for the dreams that McCort brought and the high-powered intellectual discussions that took place amidst the discussion of McCort’s childhood and symptoms (the more ordinary and expected part of any therapy) began to shift into envious irritation especially when the transformational aspects are described with the recognition of the Self and the description of the individuation process. However I firmly believe, as Thomas Merton did, that books one needs to read somehow arrive in one’s hands and so having acknowledging my envious hostility and holding the tension between that and my absorbing interest in the account I realised that there was a great deal to gain from reading about what had taken place.

Initially McCort sought hypnotherapy for problems of panic and claustrophobia when he was driving on what we would call motorways, so he found his way to Dr. P. in 2000 and left 9 years later. The symptom was relieved for a couple of weeks after hypnotherapy but when it returned McCort embarked on psychoanalysis although with much negativity as he already had had ‘three bouts with three different therapists, all three into depth psychology, which netted me absolutely zero in terms of my mental health.’ This confirms something which indeed research has shown that it all depends on the relationship that develops between the two unique people in the consulting room (similarly in spiritual direction) – sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t.

An early comment that really helped me was the succinct way that Dr. P. delineated the different uses of the term ‘ego’ following one discussion: ‘I take it you understand that you are using the term “ego” in the Buddhist sense of self-image, and not in the Freudian sense of a mediating function between inner and outer worlds’. At last, a succinct way to help explain the rather cavalier way that we are urged to cast the ego aside in contemplation, especially if we have taken years building up the ego!