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Throughout my 40 years as a psychoanalyst, many of my patients have expressed interest in wanting to enter the territory of spirituality and authentic soul searching. They are surprised when I present the possibility of using their psychoanalytic therapy as a portal with which to explore this interest. When we understand the roots of what has come to be called “the talking cure,” we can see how deeply spiritual the psychoanalytic process is meant to be.
When Freud began his study of the human psyche more than 100 years ago, he was expanding on a long history of words as healers. In pre-modern cultures, the verb “to name” and “to be” are the same. Naming a thing with a word gives it existence. The Greeks, too, recognized the immense healing power of words. Revered even more than the physician, who could heal the body, was the person who could bring “cheering speech” to the soul. The Judeo-Christian culture tells us that first there was light, but after that the whole rest of the world was created through God’s speech. “In the beginning was the word.” Words are divine; words give birth to life. Freud was also drawing on the ancient tradition of storytelling. People had been singing, telling and acting out stories for thousands of years. Before the 1800s, the vast majority of people couldn’t read. Folk tales and ballads were a primary means of addressing the fears, frustrations and horrors of life. Perhaps we could even say that the minstrels were the first “psychotherapists.”
Freud was interested in the unspoken word even before he discovered the unconscious and psychoanalysis. His first interest was in aphasia, a breakdown in the accessibility of words because of a lesion in the brain. When he later utilized the method of free association, he discovered another kind of unspoken word. He found that if we silence the normal operations of our everyday conversational speech, when we temporarily cast aside reason and logic and our almost instinctual inclination to judge our thoughts and feelings, another language presents itself to us. This is the language of the unconscious. The unconscious is our inner speech. The unconscious connects us to our soul.
Freud had deep respect not only for storytelling, but also for the spiritual notion of “soul,” as well. Freud made no secret of his disdain for religion and religious doctrine, interpreting them as unnecessary and immature crutches that men sometimes need, and comparing religion to neurosis (the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity”), psychosis and infantilism. There is ample evidence, though, that Freud did maintain a deep sense of spirituality related to the precepts of Jewish mysticism, and that his spirituality led him to conceptualize psychoanalysis as a treatment for the soul. In outlining his vision for the future of psychoanalysis, he said: “I want to entrust [psychoanalysis] to a profession that doesn’t yet exist, a profession of secular ministers of souls … ” Later, he said: “Psychoanalysis is a part of psychology which is dedicated to the science of the soul,” and he continued by stating that his life’s work had been devoted to understanding as fully as possible “the world of man’s soul.”
Freud’s conceptualization of his discipline as soul-work is evidenced by his choice of the very term of the endeavor: “psychoanalysis.” When he decided on this rather complicated German word to describe his new technique, he thought carefully about the meaning of the term, the hidden meanings as well as the overt ones, for his science was a study of hidden meanings. Freud had a dichotomy in mind when he combined the two Greek root words psyche and analysis. He knew that the words contrasted strongly to one another. Analysis connotes reason and logic. It suggests a kind of mindfulness, a scientific taking-apart in order to see and understand component parts. The etymological definition of the word psyche, on the other hand, is “soul.” It suggests just the opposite: It refers to a kind of etherealness, a softer essence with the connotations of beauty, fragility and insubstantiality that connect with the soul. There is the suggestion inherent in the word psyche that great respect, care and consideration should be rendered in this technique.
Psychoanalysis, then, is a fusion: It is a study and an experience. It is both eminently rational/scientific and completely irrational/spiritual. It is heavy, weighty and grounded, as well as light, airy and spacious.
Too, Freud would have known that there was an earlier meaning to the root word psyche, and this earlier meaning gave his new science added depth. As well as meaning “soul,” psyche also meant “butterfly.” The soul is a liberated being. It flies. It is not bound by earthly restraints, not by the weight of the body or by gravity. Psychoanalysis, the understanding of the soul, leads us to the freedom of flight.
Yet butterflies, every school-age child knows, begin as ugly, wormy larvae. One would never predict that a thing of such beauty could emerge from a thing of such ugliness. When Freud chose the term “psychoanalysis,” he was sensitive not only to the meanings of the root word psyche as “soul” and as “butterfly,” but he must have had in mind, as well, the transformative connotation of the word. Beyond infancy, after the point at which we can begin to disconnect from our selves, soul flight is still possible. But in order to be released from our own weightiness, in order to be free as a butterfly, to see the world from an overview, we must first make the journey inward, to our own underground. We must pupate.
Most of us today are not aware that psychoanalysis was a treatment that was originally designed to return people to their souls. When Freud’s work was imported into this country and taken hold of by the medical profession, the translation of his words changed his meaning. Wherever Freud used the word psyche, referring to soul, it was translated into “mind.” (The German word for mind is “geistig” and bears no relation to the word “psyche” that Freud chose.) The translations, then, rather than instilling a deep feeling for what is most human in all of us, attempt to lure the reader into developing a strictly scientific attitude toward men and his actions. What Freud had intended as a spiritual quest became, instead, a medical methodology, and psychoanalysis lost its connection to its original concept of searching for one’s soul.
One of my first psychoanalytic teachers confessed that the main change in her since her (she claims) successful analysis was that she took up knitting. If you have a theory that addresses the “mind,” then becoming able to take up knitting doesn’t sound very impressive. But if the theory posits that it is the soul, too, that is touched in this process, then freeing your fingers to knit, or to play Chopsticks at a party because the spirit moves you to be silly (as one of my patients, a concert pianist who had spent his life being serious, reported that he had done recently), or freeing your voice to begin singing lessons after a lifetime of believing that you were incapable of carrying a tune (as I did at the age of 45) — these are all sea changes. These are mind-changes, but they are brain-changes as well.
We now have documented evidence from research conducted by Jeffrey Schwartz, wherein he took PET scans of brains of individuals both before and after psychotherapy, that the “talking cure” changes and normalizes brain activity. When you make these changes on the levels of the mind, the psyche and the brain, you have created a different world that the soul is able to inhabit. The soul longs for that kind of freedom. The soul can thrive only in that kind of freedom.
It is easy to understand how the early 20th century physicians made the mistake of inserting “mind” instead of “soul” as the object of study in psychoanalysis. In our modern world, most of us have been raised to value mind, to diminish the importance of feelings and to doubt altogether the concept of a soul that is organic and living within us. As a result of these dismissive views of the various aspects of self, mind and body are split off from soul, and the self becomes divided within itself. The soul becomes separated from the rest of the self.
When I observe in my work that my patients’ souls are out of sync, or are separated from the rest of who they are, I think of a visual metaphor, a series of concentric circles of ever-increasing sizes, each lying on top of the others, each representing a different aspect of self-being. These various selves normally develop with conflicts and contradictions, yet with an essential integration, into the complex personalities that give definition to a whole self. However, when my patients experience a kind of psychic disequilibrium, the concentric circles of their various selves no longer lie on top of one another. Rather, they have become askew. The innermost concentric circle, representing the innermost self, or the soul, no longer supports all the rest of the various selves that should have developed outward from that center. There is no convergence of meaning between the center and the rest.