Week/Day Four - Completion and Integration - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Returns from Retreat
At the end of this week, I have come to believe that Ignatian Spirituality and Psychoanalysis intersect in an important spot, the isolation of the individual - and provide divergent explanations for that experience. Because the explanations are different, this leads to different, but I think, surprisingly parallel means of dealing with this fundamental human state. From an Ignatian or Christian perspective, the source of the isolation is original sin - a moment when men and women were separated from God and from each other. The nature of original sin is complex, but certainly includes the assertion of the self, and the resolution of that separation is complex as well, but a reconnection with God through Jesus Christ is the promise of the Spiritual Exercises. From a Psychoanalytic perspective, the realization of our separateness, the experience of aloneness, is perhaps the basic state of human experience that we have to come to grips with; it is simply an existential fact. That we are never experiencing the other directly, but always as a representation - an internal experience - not an external one - is a psychoanalytic realization that pervades such concepts as transference and our awkwardly termed "Object Relations".
The Jesuits', and perhaps Christianity's solution more broadly, is to come to the realization that the source of our experience is God. To offer a somewhat irreverent metaphor, it is a solution perhaps like that of the movie the Matrix, a movie I have never seen, so I will have to explain what I think that movie proposes. In that movie, as I understand it, we are deluded into believing that we are autonomous functioning human beings when in fact we are entities that are connected to a large machine and we are all in a virtual game together - believing that we are smelling, seeing, and feeling, when, in fact, that is based not on actual experience, but on the input from some central computer system organizing and synchronizing everyone's experience. For Christians, this central system is God. And the conduit, the means to access the central system, is Christ. He bridged the gap and explained the connection - one that we can necessarily never see because that would violate the rules of the system.
For the Analysts, the analogous organizing system is our mind. And our unconscious mind is the repository for the connecting programs that integrate our current experiences with our past experiences so that we have a seamless sense of our functioning. As we get more access to this functioning, we are able to decrease the number of distortions we introduce in order to make things hang together and we become more and more able to directly experience reality - and most importantly those around us, in closer to real time and with fewer distortions. We can more deeply appreciate others, and be moved and upset by them, and therefore engage more and more authentically, messily, but also productively. We are more genuinely engaged - though necessarily always at some remove - the more we analyze as a means of cleaning the system. We continue to be alone, but we rely less on delusional relationships - memories of idealized and denigrated childhoods, and distorted visions of those with whom we currently live - to assuage that loneliness, and we use real connection to achieve friendship and love - relating to others in a more and more aligned fashion - never overcoming our separateness, but building bridges across it.
I think that Jesuit spirituality is consistent with the psychoanalytic position because it points towards relationships with others as the means of expressing God's love - the connection that comes through this pipeline from God as central matrix computer connecting us all together. This is in contrast to the spirituality that I overheard this morning at breakfast - our retreat is at a seminary and the seminarian at the next table was asking whether good works are done to help others, but concluded that they were really done to express faith. That is (as I heard it), I help others - not because I love them - but because I love God and God will approve of me for having helped them. The relationship with God becomes primary in a way that I find delusional - or at least not useful. I think that, for the Jesuits, what we have access to - the point of contact with God - is not internal, but through connecting with other human beings. It is by closing that loop that we experience, in this world, what might be experienced more directly in another world - connection with God - but we don't get to do that directly here. Seeing God in all things means that God is not directly observable - he and she are only to be seen in what's around us. We can use that to draw into ourselves - and what I would term an imagined relationship with God - not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that - or we can turn outward into a more and more attuned relationship with people - and the world around us. Though some might argue that the withdrawing into the self is a psychoanalytic approach, I would propose that it would be a psychoanalytic means to ultimately achieve more spontaneous connections with others, and that this is paralleled by the spiritual exercises as inward focused experiences that fuel the solidarity that the Jesuits experience in their engagement with others.
I think that the Roman Catholic Church has been overwhelmed by the level of responsibility that it has borne for 2000 years, and I think that it has taken short cuts - functioned itself as the matrix. It has created a God - for some people - that is an accountant, keeping track of good and bad, and creating a ledger sheet. It has pointed towards that God - or whatever God it has created, as the end rather than as a means towards an end - of appreciating St. Anselm's God - who is bigger than that which can be conceived. Meanwhile, the people in the church, the congregants, have been engaged with each other. When I proposed the dilemma of birth control as an issue of justice to one of the irreverent Jesuits here, he dismissed the concern, taking the position that only in the US do we, because our dominant culture is puritanical, hold the church accountable. In the rest of the world, he maintains, the practicing Catholics largely disregard the teachings of the church and, though they are devout Catholics, they are also engaged and modernly moral individuals who are individually accountable.
I follow this argument - and it is consistent with my experience. In Nicaragua it was common for people, whether a potter or a business person, to casually but therefore emphatically say "Thanks be to God" whenever referring to their good fortune. God is a present, real, and communally agreed to entity in that culture in a way that only football players seem to express here. And, while I admire both the immediacy and the freedom of this experience, I also think there is something to the system of holding our religious institutions, but I think also our governmental ones, accountable. We expect - or maybe more precisely - I expect that institutions, while not immune to corruption - will have mechanisms in place to cleanse that corruption or to work towards functioning with greater integrity.
Ironically, then, individuals from cultures that focus less on the integrity of the institution may be more directly focused on each other and on a more direct experience of God. I know that our students return from service learning trips to third world countries feeling somewhat disoriented by having gone as representatives of the richest country on earth to find that the poor are frequently richer in interpersonal connection and happiness than they themselves are.
The fourth week of the exercises is intended to be a meditation on the gift of immortality that the resurrection affords. While that is a leap of faith that I am not yet able to take, I can report, after a week - or weeks - of living more fully and in a more engaged fashion - less fear of death. I started my trip to Nicaragua by writing a will. I was anxious about many things. As I return from this retreat, I feel more at peace. I feel able to engage in my work and life as something that I get to do, rather than something that I have to do, I feel joy, and I feel like my spiritual life is something that I can explore. I don't know how long these feelings will last, but they feel like gifts and I am grateful for them.
I think the gifts spring from connecting with others. The silent part of this retreat allowed me to be present with and to others in ways that I was surprised by. I was reminded of the experience of being with my son when he was preverbal. I imagined him to be experiencing profound thoughts - for us to be engaged on a profound and deeply meaningful level. I was somewhat disappointed, then, when he began to speak and his words were about prosaic things - wanting food, or needing to go to the bathroom. It was as if I had imagined the process - but this retreat helped me realize that I probably did not - there was a profound process going on - one that our words frequently clutter or mask unless we learn to be very intentional about how we use them. Psychoanalysis and Religion may both be conduits for using both silence and words as bridges that help us achieve a more genuine sense of connection in a world where our basic experience is, indeed, one of isolation.
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