May 5, 2011

It’s Not About Penis Envy

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Here’s a cheap trick: I’ve learned that traffic on my blog shoots up when I have a titillating title.   Now you’re here, you might as well hear what I have to say about Sigmund Freud because his birthday was May 6, 1856.  He no longer has that much to do with the way analysis is practiced today.  It’s just that he started it.  He was a courageous and original thinker.  He named and characterized the unconscious.  He was the first person to analyze anyone and he, himself, was the first person he analyzed.  This is how psycho-therapy, as we know it today, started.

Psycho-analysis is a vexed subject.  The image of a stern Freud smoking his cigar behind a patient who is lying on a couch with dream balloons over her head is an out-dated joke, like Aunt Maud singing “O Promise Me” at a wedding.  If you read Freud’s letters or the stories of people who were analyzed by him, he comes across as a kind, warm man and a loving, attentive father.

But analysis has come a long way since Freud, just like the theory of evolution has traveled since Darwin.

Here’s W.H. Auden: “In Memory of Sigmund Freud:

“.  .  . if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,

to us he is no more a person

now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:

Like weather he can only hinder or help .  .  .”

Freud’s ideas have so permeated Western thinking that no one is free of them.   Not even those who think a joke like the following both sums him up and dismisses him completely: “A Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean your mother.”

Psycho-analysis and psycho-analytic therapy have been declared dead over and over. Studies come out periodically that say it “doesn’t work.”  Within the field itself, there are schools of thought, factions, and in-fighting just like in religion –Freud would love that comparison.  People can get quite fierce about their patches.

An exchange from a Law and Order Criminal Intent episode goes like this:

“You know why battles in academia are so vicious?”

“Because the stakes are so low.”

The analysis that I went through was called “relational.”  There are schools which say that if you use the word relational at all, it’s not analysis.  Winning that debate is a low stake.

The word psycho-analysis makes it sound as though the process is sterile and scientific but it’s quite the opposite.  It’s one of the most intuitive modalities out there.  There is a mysterious exchange of unconscious thought and energies that goes on.  When I was going four times a week, those four days were like inhabiting a long poem; they were a stream I floated in with four conversations at 24 hour intervals.

After years in that stream of images and associations, en-livened by a good fight or two, came the punch-line of the joke, the last lines of a sonnet, the sigh at the end of an aria.  My life had a form like a song that could be sung over and over but was different every time.  That’s what it feels like to be me. That’s what it feels like to be alive.

You know who psycho-analysis “works” for?  The people for whom it works.  And those are the people who get to decide what it means that it “works.”

My style as a teacher was psycho-analytic before I understood what the word meant.  And my teaching has always been about the relationship.  I think our most cherished learning takes place in the context of close relationships with other people.   I think of my students’ minds as maps showing places I haven’t been, with tentative new roads we will attempt to travel together.  I know enough about the general terrain to get us started, but the student unfolds his own map.

So there’s vulnerability on both our parts.  My student is nervous because maybe he’s a little kid and this is a new experience.  Or maybe she’s an adult who wants to sing but is terrified of the feeling of exposure that comes with singing.  Or maybe he is a busy man who hasn’t practiced and suddenly feels ashamed like a kid who hasn’t done his homework.

I feel vulnerable because for all my expertise, I don’t know this particular person beside me who wants me to teach him what he wants to learn.  I am not in his mind.  I don’t know what circuitous route he needs to take to learn piano or to find his voice.   I need him to trust me enough to give me hints so I can help him find his way.

I am often told that as a teacher, I am “too easy.”  I used to be called “wishy-washy” which sounds even worse.  I laugh about it sometimes, mostly with like-minded teachers.  Initially it would be a whole lot easier for my students if I just told them what to do.  But I have too much respect for them.  It’s their life, not mine.

It’s the hardest thing in the world to sift through all the shoulds and oughts, all the cultural messages, and all the thoughtless advice, to find what it is we most want for ourselves.  And then there’s the courage it takes to face the sadness of realizing that it’s too late for some things;  and to assess what is realizable now, given our arthritic joints, our menopausal status, our dead parents, our CRS (Can’t Remember Shit) .

I believe that as long as we are taking in air, we have the capacity to experience our own lives.  We’ve never had less than that and we’ll never have more.


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