Author Archives: Fiona Gardner

Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path: ‘good-enough’

This concept of ‘good-enough’ originates in the writings of D. W. Winnicott where he applied it to the part played by the mother in infancy. He describes in his paper on True and False Self (1960) a comparison between two extremes: at one extreme the mother is a ‘good-enough mother’ and by the other the mother ‘is not a good-enough mother’. Another way of thinking of this is to turn it around so the ‘good-enough mother’ (or mothering person) is able to meet the needs and the omnipotence of the infant through responding with ‘enough good’. This has to happen repeatedly so that the infant begins to gain a sense of his or her own agency, and in Winnicott’s terms the True Self begins to have life.

‘In the first case the mother’s adaptation is good enough and in consequence the infant begins to believe in external reality which appears and behaves as if by magic … ‘the True Self has a spontaneity … The infant can now begin to enjoy the illusion of omnipotent creating and controlling, and then can gradually recognize the illusory element, the fact of playing and imagining.’

The mother who is not able to respond with enough good fails to meet the infant’s gestures and needs, instead she puts her own needs and gestures before those of the baby so the baby has to become compliant – here’s the early stages of the False Self where the baby’s needs and omnipotence becomes subsumed by the mother and so not met.

Where the mother’s adaptation to the infant’s needs and gestures and spontaneous impulses is not good enough – where the mothering person has insufficient capacity and not enough good to properly respond, then the infant remains isolated – the infant lives but lives as Winnicott writes falsely. ‘The infant gets seduced into a compliance, and a compliant False Self reacts to environmental demands and the infant seems to accept them.’ The False Self can hide and protect the True Self – there is little if any spontaneity and often the infant and child learns to imitate ‘even attains a show of being real, so that the child may grow up to be just like mother …or whoever at the time dominates the scene.’

As well as helping me understand early infancy and childhood it’s also a useful concept in terms of relationships and spiritual life … it’s easy to transfer early experiences into collective contexts including for example church and religious groups – either that I’m not good enough for a particular church group or the other way round – it doesn’t feel as if there is enough good there for me.

 

Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path: repetition compulsion 2

So why do we/I keep repeating distressing experiences? In The Language of Psychoanalysis Laplanche and Pontalis (1988) describe the central concepts put forward by Freud and how they were developed later by Klein and others. They see the compulsion to repeat as an almost ungovernable impulse as it originates in the unconscious. It is where one deliberately places oneself in distressing situations time and again repeating an old destructive experience. Like in verse 2 of the poem from last week:

Chapter 2
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

When this happens, we have the strong impression that it’s just happened because of current circumstances – in other words we don’t see the habitual nature nor part that we play in it.

It’s particularly in chapter 3 that it’s easy to get stuck and that can be for years – the habit takes hold:

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

It maybe that in our unconscious we believe it is possible to repeat the experience, but change the outcome or ending – however, usually, the circumstances are too similar to allow for enough room for change. As Freud wrote, ‘a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken.’ It is about realising what and why we are doing this that causes us so much distress – all over again.

Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path: repetition compulsion

Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path: repetition compulsion

Repetition compulsion is best understood through this poem written by the American singer-songwriter, Portia Nelson, who attending a writers’ workshop was asked to compose her autobiography in five short chapters. This is what she wrote – you may already know it:

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down another street.

Writing about getting free – Sara Trevelyan

In a deeply personal account, the therapist and spiritual seeker Sara Trevelyan describes falling in love and marrying Jimmy Boyle and their life together for nearly twenty years. However, their paths gradually diverged, and, in her book, Freedom Found Sara explores this journey and what freedom means for her.

‘What is freedom? I see freedom as a choice. It is what we experience deep inside, independent of our circumstances. Jimmy used to talk about setting himself free in prison by being able to choose his own thoughts. He developed a rich imagination, which opened up inner landscapes which helped him to deal with the drabness of his outer surroundings.

In the outside world we can allow ourselves to be driven by our habitual feelings and responses, or we can make a choice to turn within and see things differently – to see the best, understand the lessons, and welcome life as a gift – an ongoing opportunity to grow and develop. The doorway to finding freedom lies within. Everything that I have experienced shows me that I can choose to live freely, joyfully and abundantly, trusting that the deepest healing happens in it sown time and way, through forgiveness, surrender and letting go.’

Trevelyan sees this as requiring patience and learning to trust the slow passage of time to help transform us ‘in accordance with deeper cycles of life embedded in our own nature’. She contrasts this slow change in the soul with the impatience of the ego that thinks it knows best and tries to manipulate the desired outcome.

We are healed over time and although shaped by the past we don’t need to be defined by it.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing from captivity: Jimmy Boyle

Jimmy Boyle wrote 2 extraordinary books ‘A Sense of Freedom’ about his violent past in Glasgow and imprisonments in different Scottish prisons – including in the infamous ‘cages’ in Inverness prison; and ‘The Pain of Confinement’ based on his time in the Special Unit set up at Barlinnie (an experimental regime that despite – or becasue of its success was inevitably closed by the prison deprtament) where he began to understand his past more and the way he had responded to the abuse and neglect that he had experienced. After his 15 year sentence he left – a sculptor and a writer.

He now lives in the South of France and Morocco. Photos are of the young JB and a more recent image.

These extracts are from the second book – his reflections on freedom, creativity and feelings.

‘What about my yearning to be free? I visualize walking in the country, seeing green fields, birds singing, the horizons far in the distance – as far as the eye can see. Oh to walk the streets full of people … These are the dreams of the incarcerated. I want so much to taste freedom because for the first time in my life I will be able to appreciate it. I desire the world beyond the walls.

And what about the expressions of my soul? The hammer and chisel that sculpts the stone from the tenement buildings of my past into a new form for the future. A transformation that is comparative to my own. The ingrained pollution that covers the stone is shorn. I take it in this filth covered condition, devote the time to it and give it another life. When it is complete I leave it with a bright future. The part that I envy in this unfeeling, inanimate object is that its transformation is widely accepted and not questioned.

And the writing. I need it as a testament to my experience. To reflect, in some small measure what I feel. To help me see, like the sculpture, the natural development of me – the human being. Threads of life brought to the surface. Painful though it is there has to be an understanding of what we are doing … What do the days ahead hold for me? Can I pick myself up from the floor, scooping up the millions of scattered pieces and face the nothingness of tomorrow? …

Feelings. Those parts that we all try to hide from each other. The shame, the jealousy, the guilt and insecurity. Our inferiority. Who can put up the most convincing mask to hide the inner turmoil? It’s all about chasing illusions that don’t really exist. It’s like hating some bastard yet when he dies we realize he wasn’t so bad after all.’

Jimmy Boyle The Pain of Confinement, Prison Diaries.

Writing in captivity Ingrid Betancourt 2

Two extracts from Ingrid Betancourt’s ‘Even Silence Has an End’

In the first it is still early days in her captivity – which lasted over six years and included much sadism and deprivation from the FARC guerrillas.

At one point she asked for and was eventually given an encyclopaedic dictionary which she studied:

‘My solitude became a sort of liberation… I could order my life according to the needs of my heart.’ She read the dictionary in the morning and tried to follow physical exercises in the afternoon – in the evening she tried to meditate:

‘[the] meditation had nothing religious about it but invariably led to an awareness of the presence of God. He was there, everywhere, too big, too strong. I did not know what he could expect of me and even less what I was allowed to ask of him. I thought of begging him to get me out of my prison, but I immediately found that my prayer was too trivial, too petty, too focused on my little self, as if thinking of my own well-being or requesting his kindness was a bad thing …’ She reads Romans in the Bible and only wants the Holy Spirit to give her freedom, from captivity then comes to see how at that point ‘I was missing the essential point, that there was probably something else, greater than freedom … something that for the time being I did not know how to appreciate.’ Full of questions but no answers she finds that through the circular thinking that went on every day she began to shift from action to introspection: ‘I wanted to build a stronger, more solid self … I needed another form of intelligence, another sort of courage and greater endurance. But I did not know how to go about building those. It had taken over a year of captivity for me to just begin to question my own self’.

Three years later Ingrid Betancourt following an attempted escape is kept with a chain around her neck and tethered to a tree. She was isolated from other hostages and spends time ‘huddled in my hammock, clinging to a silence with no end’ She hears on a radio a preacher analysing ‘And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness … for when I am weak, then am I strong.’ She writes that this should be read as a poem, without any preconceived ideas. ‘I thought it was universal and could be used by anyone seeking for a meaning in suffering.’

Writing from captivity 3: Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt was a Columbian presidential candidate when she was captured by guerrillas and held in the jungle for over six years. ‘Even Silence has an End’ is her extraordinary account of this captivity.

In a TED talk given three years ago Betancourt movingly talks about the relationship between fear and religious faith.

She says:

‘Faith isn’t rational or emotional it is an exercise of the will – the discipline of the will. It’s what allows us to transform everything that we are, our weaknesses, our frailties into strength and power. It’s really a transformation. It’s what gives us the strength to stand up in the face of fear and to look beyond it. We all need to connect with that strength we have inside of us – for the time when there’s a storm raging around our boat.’

‘Fear is part of the human condition as well as being necessary for survival. But above all it is the guide by which each of us builds our identity, our personality. It was my decision what to do with that fear … you can survive crawling along fearful but you can also rise above the fear, rise up spread your wings and soar, fly high, high, high, high until you reach the stars where all of us want to go.’

She describes when the Columbian army rescued her and fourteen other hostages:

‘The shriek that came out of all of us when we regained our freedom continues to vibrate in me to this day’.

https://www.ted.com/talks/ingrid_betancourt_what_six_years_in_captivity_taught_me_about_fear_and_faith?language=en

 

Also of interest is Ingrid Betancourt in 2020 on how to survive lockdown!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kgDTFhkWWM

 

 

Writing in captivity 2

Brian Keenan speaking to prisoners at Magilligan prison in December 2019:

He said he lost all sense of who he was during the long periods of isolation.

“It was the worst of all possible prisons,” he said.

“You didn’t get any visitors, you didn’t get any letters, you didn’t get any TV and you didn’t get any radio. You got out to the toilet once for 10 minutes, and you came back to the cell blindfolded and the lights turned out.”

He added: “What I want these guys [the prisoners in Magilligan] to take away is that you know there is a fire inside that will warm the soul and which will boil the imagination and will set you free. Prison bars do not a prison make… there are prisons we make for ourselves and we have got to get out of those … and there are ways e can do that.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKtYzjhWgks&feature=emb_title

Writing from captivity 1

There’s something about the current situation which draws me to writing from places of captivity, so the next few posts will be on that theme …

The first is from Brian Keenan who was held as a hostage for 4 and half years in Beirut:

‘I look at this food I know to be the same as it has always been. But wait. My eyes are almost burned by what I see. There’s a bowl in front of me that wasn’t there before. A brown button bowl and in it some apricots, some small oranges, some nuts, cherries, a banana. The fruits, the colours, mesmerize me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head. I am entranced by colour. I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour. I feel the colour in a quiet somnambulant rage. Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such an insignificant fruit.

I cannot, I will not eat this fruit. I sit in quiet joy, so complete, beyond the meaning of joy. My soul finds its own completeness in that bowl of colour … Everything meeting in a moment of colour and of form, my rapture no longer an abstract euphoria. It is there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that broken bowl. I feel the smell of each fruit leaping into me and lifting me and carrying me away. I am drunk with something that I understand but cannot explain. I am filled with a sense of love. I am filled and satiated by it. What I have waited and longed for has without my knowing come to me, and taken all of me.’

 

Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling

The incarnation – second time around

 

But he will come again, it’s said, though not

Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,

Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,

And all mankind from end to end of the earth

Will call him with one voice. In our own time,

Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.

The he will come, Christ the uncrucified,

Christ the discrucified, his death undone,

His agony unmade, his cross dismantled –

Glad to be so – and the tormented wood

Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree

In a green springing corner of young Eden,

And Judas damned take his long journey backward

From darkness into light and be a child

Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal

Be quite undone and never more be done.

 

The last verse of The Transfiguration by Edwin Muir   – it seems to offer the hope of redemption