This is part of a continuing series of posts from conversations with Lisa Maechling Debbeler, JD, MA, LPCC about the nature of being a therapist/analyst in a time of quarantine. We began talking on Saturday March 21, 2020 at the beginning of the shut down and are continuing to talk weekly. We were both continuing to work and trying to see as many of our clients/analysands as possible through Zoom or other virtual methods. We were both finding this both unexpectedly and expectedly difficult and wanted to share our experiences with colleagues and friends that we respect.
Lisa sent me a link to some long-term qualitative research being done by analysts who have been doing Teletherapy prior to the Covid 19 crisis. One of the issues they raised was whether Teletherapy brought an experience of banality into a sacred experience.
What makes our work sacred?
For me it is the times when I and my client or analysand experience the flow of healing that is beyond one ego talking to another ego. It seems that the connection or the field between the two of us opens a channel to something larger than either of us could have brought into the room. We experience the presence of the numinous. In Kabbalah or Jewish mystical tradition, this flow is called Shefa which can be translated as divine emanation or flow. Perhaps a analogous term more familiar in mainstream culture might be Grace.
In general, therapists and even analysts don’t talk a lot about this experience perhaps because it is so beyond our control but also because it is beyond language. By definition it is hard to talk about. At the same time, I would argue that without the presence of the numinous/Shefa/Grace there is no deep healing. With it there is sometimes change that seems miraculous or inexplicable.
Someone (I think it was Michael Eigen in Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis) said that the reason that mystics have more mystical experiences than non-mystics is the same reason that good outfielders catch more balls then bad outfielders. Mystics are – as my son’s baseball coach used to say over and over again – “down and ready”. They are engaging in the kind of consistent practice that allows for awareness of the flow of grace. They are holding open the possibility of a glimpse into the unknowable.
There are things we do as analysts create this kind of space. Most importantly we try to hold a certain attitude toward ourselves, our analysands and the work. We communicate this attitude in a variety of ways including the look and feel of our offices, the way we greet analysands, firm boundaries around time and space, the tone of voice and body language we use. These consciously made choices hopefully create a temenos – a safe and sacred space to allow us to experience the numinous.
These choices are also particularly vulnerable to erasure by the banality of human interaction conducted through a computer monitor. As the therapists participating in the study on stillpointspaces.com pointed out, we generally use our computers for the most banal of activities – email, shopping, Facebook scrolling, bill paying etc. When we work with analysands online it is easy for us and them to go from these activities directly into a therapy session without any of the cues that help psyche transition to the openness required for awareness of the sacred.
Successful (whatever that means) analysis is, as often as possible, an “I-Thou” relationship. We are in an ongoing struggle with our analysands to see each other as fully human and to understand more about that mutual humanity. It is easier to objectify a small two dimensional image on a screen then a living human who is sitting in front of you.
On the other hand, there are important things that do not necessarily change when we work virtually. These include the kinds of questions we ask and the types of experiences we find permissible to discuss. Even through a screen we can ask questions that open up a space for exploring the doorways between the fully known and the unknown. We can convey that this analytic conversation, either in person or on the screen, is a place where it is allowable to talk about the numinous experiences in our lives – both the joyful/beautiful and the hideous. This past weekend, at a meeting of the Chicago Society of Jungian Analysts, Dr Joseph Cambray talked about how the archetypal realm penetrates even the glitches in electronic communication. He has noticed that glitches in picture or sound often come synchronistically at times or intense, unbearable emotion. These glitches open up a space that can be used analytically. Either to notice that the analyst has been pushing too hard or to open up the conversation about how unbearable the emotion was and to explore the very unbearableness of it – thus making it ever so slightly more bearable.
I imagine it goes without saying, that we spend a lot of time in our analytic outfield down and ready but no flyballs come our way. Many sessions are about the mundane or even banal experiences of life, but as one of my teachers (Dr. Kenneth James) said “What makes it analysis is the analyst holding space for something more than one ego talking to another ego.”
I love wondering about the larger issues you describe, how to make a space even in a virtual experience for those moments in therapy in which whatever is happening is not fully under the ego control of either patient or analyst. That is a rich boundary space, full of potential. It is characterized by certain qualities of emotion and impact. Letting ourselves be subject to that kind of experience is very linking, connecting, between patient and analyst. It points toward mutuality, as both patient and analyst are “equal before the Self.” (That is another Ken James quote.) Maybe what we’re talking about now is how as analysts we can trust that such moments are possible in this medium. If we have some level of trust about that possibility, we can we train our senses – “down and ready,” as you say – to attune to such moments even in these new formats. Our trust becomes part of how we hold the analytic space in an online paradigm.
Adina Davidson, PhD is a Jungian Analyst in Cleveland, Ohio, and member of the Chicago Society of Jungian Analysts.