Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Day/Week Two of the Exercises - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Continues on Retreat -

Ignatius Loyola's spiritual exercises are supposed to be a four week endeavor, give or take. Because we live in the modern world, and because faculty and administrators being trained as Ignatian colleagues are engaged in Jesuit lite, we are doing the exercises in one week, give or take, and condensing or compressing each week into a day, give or take. Yesterday and into today we were to have worked on the first task - the work of being drawn into and appreciating God's love.

The task of the second week, as outlined in the spiritual exercises, is to contemplate the life of Jesus up to the week when he was crucified. In a talk this morning, the director of the retreat suggested that the purpose of this exercise is to work on helping three things emerge: The various ways that God calls us; The ways we perceive the call; and the way we live out the call. Discernment is used to help distinguish these three - especially the first two. That is, some things that feel like a calling can actually be a siren call - a seduction or a call based not on what we need (that is, what God has in mind for us), but what others would have us do - for whatever purpose that is not ours (and God's).

Now, I have to take a detour at this moment and acknowledge a deep and abiding skepticism about an activist God who is invested in each and every one of us in our own particular ways. I believe that may be a fiction. I also believe that, if it is a fiction, it is potentially a very useful one. Paul Coutinho, the author of How Big is your God, the book recommended by my spiritual director, maintains that he would die for the fiction - even if it were revealed to be a fiction. I would not go that far, but I do believe that believing our lives to have a divine plan can lead us to treat our own lives and the lives of those around us with a reverence that is productive regardless of the truth of the myth. Of course, great crimes have been committed in the name of this myth as well. Discernment really is an important tool.

To return, then, to the second week, the task - concretely stated in the exercises as a review of Christ's life - is a task to determine - to discern - the path that one should take at a given moment in time. The paths that I have set before myself to examine are those of continuing in the academic life versus transitioning into life based on full time clinical practice. I have been living with a foot in each of these worlds for twenty years, and maintaining that divide has been demanding. The third path, it occurs to me as I write, would be to continue in both worlds but to better describe - better circumscribe - those worlds so that I am not so consistently burdened by demands that I have imposed on myself that are beyond what I can reasonably accomplish.

So the task for the day that my director and I have set is to flesh out these two paths. To imagine myself into them and to experience them, as Ignatius - and perhaps God - would have me do. To engage in imagining the form that each of these lives would take - to see how they fit. I have fifteen years or so of professional functioning left, give or take. I can imagine the arc of those years, both from within them, but also looking back on them. What does it feel like to have retired from a full time analytic practice? What does it feel like to retire from an academic career after certain predictable successes and challenges have been navigated? Which feels more genuinely to be consistent with who it is that I am?

Well, the best laid plans of mice and men... I tried to engage in the exercise that we had set for me, but it just wasn't working. The exercises involve deeply imagining - visually, auditorially, even using the senses of touch and smell - the life of Christ. I just had a hard time doing this with my own life. Maybe because it is so familiar? So I backed up and went with a more tried and true psychological method. I broke the two worlds down into functions - teaching, research, therapy/analysis, administration - and looked at my strengths and weaknesses in each area. As I did that, my mind wandered to the two hours that I had spent with my spiritual director. How had I experienced her as therapist/teacher/director? What were her strengths and weaknesses across this very short interaction?

On reflection, I found her interactions with me to have been very helpful, especially as she had gotten to know me better. It was very useful that she had gone the other way, working first in private practice and then coming into the academic sphere. She was able to help me articulate some questions that I needed more information about - not so much because I didn't know they were questions, but because she could state them matter-of-factly and acknowledge their importance. At the same time, her interaction had not been perfect. There were moments when I was put off, especially early on, by a comment or two. And yet, on balance, our brief interaction had been very helpful.

This reflection led to me to think about what it is that I want to accomplish on a more global level. What do I want to help move along during the time that I have? I recalled that my father, a traveling salesman who sold temperature and pressure measuring devices, had, at least according to my mother, seen his role as an important one in helping our country move towards more efficient manufacturing processes. What is the big picture that I want to contribute to? What is my passionate concern?

I would like to engender and facilitate in people an attitude of curiosity and playfulness towards themselves and others. To help them recognize the productive tension between times of being playfully - at times childishly - engaged and times of being engaged in a more focused and directed manner. The intention of this is to help people more confidently and joyfully engage in loving, playing, and working. I remembered the single most powerful transition in my personal functioning that I attributed to my own analysis, the shift from feeling that I have to do something to feeling that I get to do it (a shift that comes and goes, but that is much more accessible than it used to be). I would like to help others make that kind of transition.

Articulating my goal as being to help others realize greater internal freedom helped me to realize that I can do this in either arena. This is not a choice between two competing or diverging paths - I do not have to discern my calling so much as to discern which will provide a more useful/solid base for engaging in this practice. To do this will involve gathering some information - and thinking about the alternatives - OK, eventually I will have to imagine myself in each of the situations and determine which feels like a better fit. And a series of questions will emerge. For instance, is it better to open the eyes of Freshmen to the possibility of an unconscious mind that might contain both scary, but also tremendously helpful elements that can propel them forward into lives of integrity - but to know that for most of them the message will not get through and, for those to whom the message does get through, I will not likely be a direct facilitator of that process nor will I see the fruits of the suggestions that I have made?

OK, dear reader, you may be disappointed. Perhaps I promised a moment of clarity; a watershed moment where an analyst, a person steeped in the tradition of "don't just do something, sit there," might actually come to a conclusion. I think that moment is further down the road, but I think this moment of clarity creates some freedom for that moment. I feel less unbalanced - less like I am comparing apples and oranges - and more like I am determining an optimal direction - which feels more free. I did not accomplish what I set out to, but perhaps accomplished something more useful. It also freed me up to read about the life of Jesus before the crucifixion. And it is now time to move on to day/week three.

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