Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Day/Week Three of the Exercises - The Reluctant Analyst Continues on Retreat -

The first week of the exercises (practiced in this retreat in a day) involves reconnecting with a feeling of being deeply and powerfully loved. The second involves translating that love into a calling - observing how Jesus healed, taught and preached, and how he challenged authority - and determining how we translate the feeling of being loved into generatively engaging with others in our own lives. So far, all sweetness and light. The third week/day is more challenging. In it, we immerse ourselves in the passion of Christ - his experience of knowing that he is going to die a violent death and choosing to retain his integrity in the face of that - to continue to love others despite being betrayed by them, to love others despite intense feelings of anxiety, to love others despite feeling deeply isolated and cut off. How do we, then, face our own adversity with integrity?

The orienting talk today was given by my spiritual director. It was both didactic and deeply personal and revealing. She talked about Christ's journey through the passion - something that is the expected part of this point in the exercises. But she also talked about how she used the passion as a model for her own engagement with cancer. And this was not in the past tense, but very much in the present. She decided, four years into cancer treatment, this past Easter, to forego continuing to take a highly destructive but prophylactic medicine - choosing quality of life - perhaps at the cost of quantity of life. She did this in consultation with her husband and teenage daughter - all of them knowing the risks of discontinuing the medication, but also the costs to her and them of staying on it.

In psychoanalysis this is called self disclosure. It is disclosure of the deepest and most personal sort. There is considerable controversy about this as a technique in analysis. Freud's initial position was that self disclosure is to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, sitting behind the couch is a means, among other things, of limiting even microscopic self disclosures. As we have practiced - and as analyses have lengthened and deepened in intensity - it has become apparent that the avoidance of self disclosure, even with such precautions as the use of the couch - is impossible. Further, it may be counterproductive to try to overly limit self disclosure. The issue is - as it is in the exercises - How can we the analyst/spiritual director best get out of the way of the relationship between the analysand/retreatant and the unconscious/God? Analysts have written about rather dramatic moments of self disclosure - for instance the analyst's pregnancy and the analyst's diagnosis with a terminal illness. In the latter case, the potential for the profound negative impact of not telling is quickly apparent.

The immediate impact of my director's self disclosure on me was a series of thoughts about the ways in which I have, in much less dramatic fashion, been hurt by rejection on a chronic and continuing basis across the course of my life - and it was a further revelation that I have not acted with integrity in the face of that, but have chosen to retreat into more and more "safe" ways of interacting with others - unlike she, who has struggled to and frequently remained open in the face of being betrayed by her body. I have not done that in my love life, and I have not done that with my students and others who have rejected what I have to offer - I have said, "OK, then, I will take my ball and go home." I was concerned about my director, I was impacted by her experience and compared my experience to hers, but I was not derailed from the process of staying focused on my own retreat experience.

Had I been in analysis with her, I would have been more powerfully and viscerally impacted. I would have been relying on her for a long term, intimate relationship - a relationship that bears important parallels to parenting. Her survival - her integrity - would have been essential to my analytic functioning - and so a threat to it would have derailed it. I would, necessarily, have become concerned about her - not primarily as I was today - as a person who is in my world about whom I feel concern - but as a person in my world on whom I depend.

Now, while my processing appeared to me to remain in tact, I think that analysts would be concerned about another aspect of the revelation: that offering a way to deal with the situations that my director faced presented a powerful kind of suggestion - in effect saying, this is the right way to do it. And this could have a powerful impact - it could lead to covering up my own experience or to my emulating her without addressing the underlying conflicts that I have about remaining open and vulnerable in the face of rejection. But it is interesting that I characterize it as rejection. She is facing death. She has faced the feeling of being failed by her body - by herself - something much more visceral, immediate, and vital than the rejection that I associate to. By that I mean, in this instance, I think that her self disclosure continues, from this perspective as well, to enhance my experience rather than to occlude it.

Further, when I met with her later in the morning and we talked about this experience, she continued to be present to me and to my concerns - aware of herself and aware of her presentation - but able to process it with me, to wonder with me what its impact had been on me almost as if it had been delivered by someone else - perhaps even in a room that she was not in - as if I were reporting something novel that she had not even witnessed, much less presented - while she was also very much herself and very much the person who is sitting - right here and now - with the ticking dilemma of having chosen to be more alive during the time that she has - even if that may (or may not) cause that time to be shortened.

In other words, I think it is less about the revelation itself, and more about the skill of the person to be a matador - to allow the revelation to become the red cape and then the red thread - the needed message - for the retreatant: to let the retreatant, and the retreatant's use of the material, to remain the focal point for both director and retreatant, despite the material coming from the director. All while not interfering with the retreatant's very real concern and increased connection with the director as a result of the disclosure. In the afternoon's presentation this might be characterized not as a moment when power meets power, which would be called conflict, nor as a moment when power meets vulnerability, which would be called oppression, but as a moment when vulnerability meets vulnerability, which would be called intimacy.

Such intimacy is possible in this setting perhaps in part because of the structure of it. The directors are all past retreatants (as all analysts are past analysands), but there is also a shared assumption of faith. Further there are shared texts - the Bible being chief among them. Though I share a familiarity with the texts, I do not share the belief that Jesus is the son of God (though I am open to the possibility that he - as we all are - is a son of God) and am thus struggling to find my own language, to find the shared basis for this experience.

My director said this morning that I am a good hearted person. I agreed. I do not know the source of that. Like Dora Maria Tellez, the woman who left medical school to fight for the Sandinistas, I was raised by concerned and available parents. I think that people raised in other faith traditions - Jewish for certain, but I think Hindu, Buddhist, and perhaps Muslim as well, would resonate with the basic principles of this retreat, as would people who were raised in no faith tradition.

One of the presenters offered the position that this retreat is about lowering ourselves to the incarnated presence of God - to the humanness of Jesus: she put human together with humus to indicate the earthiness, the clay based elements of our existence. Reading the passion - the last days of Christ's life - as the story of a person - a person who knows that he will die, and is afraid of that - a person who is treated with many grave indignities and yet continues to act with integrity - is a very different way for me to read this story. I have always read it as a story about the resurrection. From this perspective, it is not about eternal life - Oh, I bet that's coming tomorrow - but it is, at least for today, at least for this week, about the dilemma of living here on earth; of surviving and functioning with dignity and integrity.

I think that my director's revelation struck home for me in part because it resonates so closely with my lived experience. I did not have a child until relatively late in life because I did not want to bring someone into a world that I saw as filled with suffering - suffering that would be exacerbated as pollution and depletion of resources killed off the species. When I did have a child, my immediate and powerful attachment took me by complete surprise. How could I feel such intense love for an a barely animate being? And along with that came an immense sense of responsibility. As someone he would rely on, I had to keep myself as safe and available as I reasonably could.

How can God create a world and people it with creatures that he loves knowing that they will necessarily suffer and die? How can the peasants of Nicaragua refer so firmly and unquestioningly - casually really - to God - certain in their knowledge that he exists and should be thanked for whatever small blessing has come their way? This God must be a God of affection. One who can appreciate, love, empathize with the challenges of this world - one who expects great things, but who can also abide terrible things.

I don't think I was prepared, when I did not push to become a father, to be a God of affection. I think I was operating from a position of being a God of disaffection. I still operate from that position more than I would hope. I think that my director, and this retreat in general, is encouraging me to become more of a God of affection (or they would say: to appreciate that God is one of affection). The position of having a particular outcome in mind is, at least on the surface, not an analytic one. It is not being open to whatever it is that God might be for the person, but it is encouraging him or her to connect with the God that I (the spiritual director/directors) know to be out there.

That said, the goals of these exercises are different - again at least on the surface - from the analytic goals. The exercises are intended to help bring someone into a faith community. They are intended to engage someone as a Jesuit - or at least from a Jesuit perspective. I think the analytic goals might be stated as bringing someone into the human community - a community that is based on a rich, multilayered subjective experience that is complex, in constant motion, and filled with tension and conflict. Analysts, then, support the experience of the analysand as he or she wrestles with their own complexity, while also acknowledging that there are universal aspects to that very unique and particular complexity. Spiritual Directors also recognize the variety of experiences of God. I have felt very supported in my questioning position this week. And there is also a fundamental position in the faith of the existence of God, and perhaps of a particular kind of God, that complicates the facilitation of the direct experience of that God for the retreatant. The relational psychoanalysts wrestle with this dilemma in analysis - that each analytic pair is unique. There is no such thing as the perfect or ideal analysis of this analysand because it must always be done by a particular analyst. Perhaps it would be useful to recognize that as a necessary component of the exercises as well.

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