A few weeks ago, one of my readers posted a comment about my “Words to Live By” series. My question is how much of analysis is on this level? That is, after all the exploration of the unconscious is completed, are analyst and client left with such elementary take-aways as "Just Try" and "Live One Day At A Time" that seem like fodder for cross-stitching on a pillow? Anonymous’ comment got me thinking. And my response is: Yep. Pretty much. But let me explain.
By now, you’ve gotten the picture that psychoanalysis involves a commitment of heart and soul, mind and body, time and money. It is an investment that both analyst and patient make into the complex, deep, mysterious, and precious life of a single person. It takes years—many more years now than what it took in Freud’s day. It is not something that can easily be understood from the outside. One of the reasons for my blog is to share a glimpse of what it is like.
Glimpses can be misleading, though. In my efforts to convey the gist of psychoanalysis simply, you could take away the idea that it is simplistic. The stuff of refrigerator magnets and cross-stitch pillows.
Psychoanalyst Ken Corbett responded to this kind of misunderstanding in his 2012 commencement speech at the NYU post-doctoral program in psychoanalysis. Referring to Jonathan Alpert’s recent Op Ed attack on psychoanalysis in the New York Times, Corbett said to the newly graduated psychoanalysts: He does not know what it takes to sit where you sit. He does not know how our fingers bleed as we tailor tiny stitches. He does not know what it means to hold a life as it comes undone, to work toward reformulating a life, toward reintegration and repair. He does not know your courage, and because he does not know your courage, he does not know your fear. He thinks that his brash braying, his goals, his action will undo the grief that comes with the territory human.
Corbett’s words got me to thinking that, in a way, my reader is right—but perhaps not in the way he or she intended. A psychoanalyst is a tailor, a seamstress. A patient offers his life to us for mending. He becomes even more undone over the course of his treatment. Anxieties are expressed and relieved. Defenses are examined and shed. Illusions are revealed and understood. The pattern emerges. Mending begins. Memories, experiences, talents, capacities, and dreams are stitched together. The patient begins to feel more like himself. More integrated. More alive. He becomes more undone. He goes through the pattern again, comes out more whole. Gradually, he senses inner harmony. He begins to wonder if the work of psychoanalysis proper might soon be done. He understands that the work of being human lasts a lifetime.
Just like life, the guiding principles of psychoanalysis are basic. Mastery of almost anything worth mastering relies on working the fundamentals. As we stitch, we cover the same ground, over and over again. “Just try.” “One day at a time.” “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” “Remember, wherever you go, there you are.” “It is what it is.” These are daily disciplines in the practice of an emotionally healthy and fulfilling life. These are the jazz musician’s scales. They are the chef’s ratios. They are the monk’s daily office. They are the artist’s line, shape, color, and texture. They are the athlete’s rhythm, pace, and form. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays could not have been homerun hitters unless they kept the eye on the ball.
So I choose not to be offended by the idea that the end result of an effective and meaningful psychoanalysis can be summed up in a cross-stitch saying on a pillow. If one can practice the basics without the need to be complicated and fancy, one has discovered the secret method to living a good life. It is a secret that has always been out in the open, lying right there on your grandmother’s couch. When it is stitched in your heart, then you’ve really got it.
It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s simple yet profound words: We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. I would think that an analysis is worth the time and investment if, at the end, we feel that we have finally come home, sweet home.
Copyright 2012 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.
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