“Yunus Emre:” A Review of a Turkish Television Series

“Lovers yearn for You, but Your love slays them”  —line of poetry by Yunus Emre

Yunus Emre was a Turkish Sufi saint and poet of the 13th-14th century, and “Yunus Emre” is a Turkish television drama series, in 45 episodes over two seasons, based on his life (on Netflix, in Turkish with English subtitles).  I’ve been binge-watching it, because it seems to me to reach for, and often to succeed in capturing, romantic and dramatic themes of the spiritual life in a way that I haven’t seen portrayed.  It’s been a time travel portal into medieval Turkey that’s both entertaining television tourism and a welcome respite from contemporary American politics.  And the music is wonderful; reed flute, oud, and drums, enhanced with strings and voices, and well aligned with the action.

We meet Yunus Emre as he graduates as a Cadi, a judge of the Sharia law, at the preeminent Madrassa in Konya, Turkey, in the year 1268 (CE), and takes up his position in the city of Nalihan.  The new judge, dedicated to restoring and establishing justice, makes the wrong call in case after case, confusing his decisions with justice.  In the process he meets the Sheikh, the spiritual teacher of the local dervish lodge—while raiding it, self-righteously, in search of a dervish whom he mistakenly believes to be a murderer—and discovers that the Sheikh is the illiterate and visually impaired old timer and storyteller who had been his traveling companion on the road between Konya and Nalihan.  The Sheikh challenges Yunus’ judgement in sentencing an innocent dervish to death, which outrages Yunus but eventually prompts him to begin to review his judicial decisions.  Eventually, Yunus corrects his mistaken judgments, case by case, and resigns his high-status judicial position to become a lowly student of the Sheikh.

Aspects of Yunus’ personality emerge in his relationship with the Sheikh; his greed for respect admixed with his desire for justice, and different qualities of ambition, personal and spiritual.  Even as he is angry at the Sheikh for challenging his “justice” as Cadi, Yunus begins to listen.  The old man’s manner in talking with Yunus, personally open but firm on the issue, creates the opportunity for Yunus to enter into the spiritual friendship that has already begun to transform him.

The series seems to me to divide into three parts.  Part 1, episodes 1-6, involves Yunus’ coming to Nalihan, becoming the Cadi, making and repairing his judicial mistakes, and deciding to relinquish his official position to become a dervish.  Part 2, lasting the rest of season one and well into season two, involves his initial and transitional studies under the Sheikh, in which he struggles with himself to establish a psychological foundation for spiritual experience, through such assignments as cleaning the dervish cells and the toilets in the dervish lodge, while attending the Sheikh’s assemblies.  Part 3 involves Yunus’ spiritual unfolding as he becomes a Sufi saint and poet.  I thought the first two parts were more completely realized than the third, but that’s no criticism; spiritual experience can’t really be shown, and the portrayal of Yunus’ transition from scholar-jurist to dervish to God-inspired poet is credible.  As a psychologist interested in spirituality, I found the portrayal of the psychological issues involved in Yunus’ arriving at the decision to embark on a spiritual path, then struggling with himself at various stages along it, presents the process of achievement, renunciation, new achievement, consolidation, repeated again at each next stage, in a way that I haven’t seen in any other drama.

As Yunus’ personality transforms, so do his attitudes.   As the series begins, in his graduation examination at the Madrasa, Yunus is scornful and dismissive of poets and poetry; “They lie!”, yet by the end he has become a divinely inspired poet.  Early in the first season, he is contemptuous of dervishes as uneducated and misguided slackers, yet he becomes one as a spiritual student of the Sheikh.  All along, the Sheikh both recognizes Yunus’ potential and thwarts his superficial understanding and ambitions, setting him tasks that provide contexts to struggle with himself again and again.

The pace, I should say, is glacial, especially in the first season, which I welcomed as a respite from the the frenetic political environment of the new American presidency; one can only take so much of that intense emotional roller-coaster without losing one’s balance, and the long view of looking back from here to 13th century Turkey reminds us that “this too will pass.”  The second season seemed to have been written with more made-for-tv drama than the first; it moved faster and had somewhat more violence and sex, though very little by American standards.  The English subtitles were often just indications of what was really being said—a Turkish friend says the translation is “atrocious”—but that pulled this viewer in to guess what they were really saying.  I found it amusing when the translation differed between a scene happening in one episode and then its being featured in the extensive recap at the beginning of the next episode.  It suggested that the budget was spent on the production and there wasn’t much left over for English subtitles, or maybe they were an afterthought.  I couldn’t have watched it without them, so, thanks.

The acting is very good.  The cast established the characters believably; so much so that when one cast member—the Sheikh’s daughter—changed from season 1 to season 2, the change in how the part was played—not better or worse, but different—remained jarring well into the second season.  The mayor, in season two, is worthy of Lear, and Molla Kasim, the dervish who can never get beyond the rules of conduct to the meaning of conduct, is a perfect contrast to Yunus.  Yunus and the Sheikh, whose relationship is at the core of the series, kept me wondering what was going to happen next.  And the Sheikh, responding to each situation with stories and unexpected instructions and actions, portrays a spiritual teacher in the world—the world of that time—in a way that feels valid and true.  Of course, this implies that the screenplay is well written, and the directing also true to its intent; otherwise it could not have been accomplished.  Even the seeming miracles, such as the Sheikh’s occasionally knowing what others are thinking or what is happening at a distance, are integrated into the action so seamlessly that one could miss them.

The devotional context of Yunus’ studies in the dervish lodge is impossible to replicate today; there is no sense trying to train ourselves to live in medieval Turkey.  Yet “Yunus Emre” highlights issues that are part of the spiritual life wherever we live it, and in a most entertaining way.  And, at a time in American political history when the question of what is true often seems to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to, “Yunus Emre” refreshingly reminds us that truth exists as such.  When Yunus is adjudicating crimes, somebody committed them and somebody didn’t.  And spiritual truth exists beyond the rules and formats which are there to help us approach it.

Tahir Shah’s Talk at Boing, February, 2017

Tahir Shah is an author, traveler, and storyteller who gave the keynote talk at a recent gathering of leaders at Boing, in Seattle.  Here he talks about stories and how they support different ways of looking at life, including what he calls “zig-zag thinking,” which can help us to see deeper below the surface appearance of things, recognize opportunities, solve problems, and live more deeply.


Personality Disorder: Borderline

Personality disorders are diagnoses made from clusters of behaviors, so it’s a different sort of diagnostic category compared to, for example, affective disorders like depression or anxiety.  People with personality disorders can be depressed and anxious, but those states tend to come and go pretty quickly, and the overall behavior becomes more salient than the moods.

Personality disorders can be seen as exaggerations or crystallizations of tendencies which can be quite useful in moderation.  For example, a little obsessiveness makes us careful and thorough; too much and we have to wash our hands 50 times because there might be a germ we missed.  A little suspiciousness helps to protect us from being taken advantage of; too much makes us paranoid.  A little narcissism gives us self-confidence; too much and we are all about self-importance.  A little flexibility and reactivity can support spontaneity, adaptiveness and creativity; too much and we can have borderline personality disorder.

Here’s the list of characteristics of borderline personality disorder from the DSM-V:

“A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

•Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

•A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

•Identity disturbance:  markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

•Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

•Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

•Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria [distress, unease], irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).

•Chronic feelings of emptiness.

•Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.

•Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.”

Personality disorders, like most mental disorders, occur along a spectrum of intensity and severity.   Some people have a “borderline style,” are borderline-ish or have borderline tendencies, while others may have the full-blown disorder; and of course stress can push a tendency or style into a disorder.

People with borderline personality styles or disorder often improve from the late 20s through the 30s and into their 40s, which is when the prefrontal cortex undergoes adult maturation.  That tends to be the time when therapy can be most useful, probably because the person is more able to do self-observation, and exercise inhibition of impulsivity, two executive functions associated with the prefrontal cortex.  It seems likely that there’s some relationship between an immature prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain involved in borderline personality; although we can only speculate, for the time being, about what that might be.

Just because people have the same diagnosis doesn’t mean that they are the same kinds of people.  There can be variations in how likable and personable, generous or mean-spirited, humorous or dour, and even wise, people with borderline personality disorder can be.  This is true of any mental illness; for example, everyone with depression isn’t alike.

Because of the tendency to see others in a black-and-white, caring/helpful or hating/destructive way, people with more extreme borderline personality disorder tend to split people in organizations into supporters and opponents.  Inpatient or residential mental health programs typically will inform staff if a borderline patient is admitted so that staff will use extra care to check on all communications that might have the effect of pitting one staff member against another.  The ability, on the part of the person with borderline personality style or disorder, to see other people in their human complexity rather than in black-and-white, good-and-bad terms, is a sign that the person is healing or maturing.

On Real Maple Syrup, and My Interest in the Sufi Writing of Idries Shah

Someone asked me about how I became interested in the Sufi writing of Idries Shah, back in the 1970s.  Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t have a comprehensive, or even coherent, narrative about my interest in Sufism (as presented by Idries Shah), but here are some parts.

First, a metaphor from life.  I grew up in a home in New Haven in which the “maple syrup” on the table for pancakes was actually mostly corn syrup with a small percentage of maple syrup or flavoring, sometimes with butter flavoring.  When I went to Vermont for college, I had real maple syrup.  It was then that I realized what real maple syrup was, and that what I had been introduced to as “maple syrup” was an imitation; and also how to tell, by taste, the difference between the imitation and the real thing.  Thus with Shah’s Sufi writings and activities, and what I had formerly been introduced to as “religion” and “spirituality.”

Second, as I read Shah’s books, along with books by other authors in various traditions, the situations and behavior described in Shah’s writings made more sense to me.  They described human behavior as I experienced it better than other sources.  The foibles and mistakes that they described in people seeking knowledge or claiming to represent knowledge traditions and authority seemed to describe the academic and professional psychologists and mental health specialists I was reading and studying among better than their own materials.  Stupid psychologist and “expert” behavior was well described in the Sufi materials, albeit in the religious/spiritual context, rather than in the psychological materials I was reading, but the application was often obvious.  And the characteristics of people who attained some access to deeper/higher perception/perspective were also better described in the Sufi materials than in psychological ones.

Third, the teaching stories provided access to insight like no other tool or method I experienced.  Sometimes I would find a person or situation exactly described in a story.  At other times, meanings in stories would unfold, sometimes at considerable length after reading them, when prompted by experience, and I began to see my own behavior in them, as well as that of others.  Reading and listening to teaching stories with the attitude that I would find what I could in them now, and more later, was a method that worked for me, and tended to confirm the validity of the materials.

I saw Shah only once, I think in 1975, when he came to New York for a conference, where Bob Ornstein, Peter Brent, and  Rene Dubos also presented.  Shah made sense; was informative, ironic, occasionally wryly funny, not trying to recruit; challenging, not for its own sake but to point out our culture’s foibles when it came to seeking and trying to understand spirituality, and inviting us to be more knowledgable in our approach; and every presenter was informative and impressive, each in his own way.  Reading the materials, listening to Shah at the time and then to the lectures on cassette, there was a sense of widening of horizons of information about human nature, pitfalls on the path of life, ways to avoid them by being aware of them, attitudes from which we could reach higher; and, just as importantly, not fall lower.

Over the years, the materials have continued to be a kind of touchstone and lifeline, a collection of windows and doorways (to mix metaphors!) into wider perceptions, which have helped to support and sustain my aspirations; and also provided some needed balance and ballast in life.  Among the perceptions which the stories support is the recognition that society is much more primitive than we are taught to believe as we come up in it, and recognizing that disillusionment is a necessary part of the learning.

And the fact that, notwithstanding that Sufi materials hold the most discerning mirror up to human shortcomings, they come from, represent, and call something in us toward a higher level of being, from which such perceptions emanate; so they are both a hopeful message and part of the path toward that perception.  I have had occasion to remind myself that it was Bahaudin Naqshband, no less, who said that someday everyone would have the perceptive capacities of Sufis.  That has been something to hold onto, at times.

Shah advised people who were interested in Sufi materials to learn about conditioning, indoctrination and brainwashing, in order not to approach Sufi learning as if it were a cult.  And I savored the economy, precision and fluidity of language in Shah’s writings, the way he expresses complex ideas simply, and the humor, the bite, and the insistence that humor and bite are necessary in this learning process.

Seeking Agency in The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew B. Crawford, in “The World Beyond Your Head,” writes:

“As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive.  The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.”

In this passage, Matthew Crawford identifies a fundamental issue underlying much mental disorientation and emotional turbulence in our lives.  You won’t find it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) or the ICD-10, the main sources of mental diagnosis in the Western world, but the lack of individual agency is a huge source of what becomes mental illness and emotional disorder, and also of susceptibility to the messages of cults and terrorist organizations.  We all need feel that we matter, to ourselves and others, that our decisions and actions can make a difference.

In psychotherapy, clients often feel helpless to be agents in their lives; in their personal and family lives, in their careers, and in the economic and political currents that sweep through communities and nations.  For psychotherapists, the experience of agency in helping others, one by one, is often part of what motivates our choice of profession.

For clients, the lack of the experience of agency can contribute to depression, anxiety, and passivity, on the more withdrawn side of the spectrum of temperament, or to impulsivity, intoxication, addiction, and seeking intense experiences as ends in themselves, on the more active side.  For psychotherapists, mistaking prompting clients into emotional experiences, provoking changes in how they think or feel with various techniques, or getting them to agree with how we think they should see themselves, can likewise be mistaken responses to the need to feel that we matter.

For psychotherapists, helping clients to find their own ways of mattering, of becoming agents in their own lives, is a longer, slower, less exciting, but ultimately truer and more rewarding, way to really matter.  But we are swimming against the current of modern life in this endeavor.  Most of us, including clients and therapists, live in a world that increasingly undermines and neutralizes our natural motivation to be agents in our lives, to matter in the lives of others.



David and Goliath, and “The David”


Michelangelo’s statue of David was on the cover of the August 21 New York Times Magazine, whose feature story was “David’s Ankles,” by Sam Anderson.  Subtitled, “My obsession with the world’s most famous sculpture—its imperfections, its infinite reproductions, and its potential collapse,” it was the kind of story we turn to the NYT for:  long form, in depth journalism; in this case informed by the writer’s particular interest in this statue.

Anderson’s story emphasizes the popularity of “the David,” how people flock to see it, all the knockoffs of it, it’s “most famous sculpture” status.  Yet it seems to me that the teaching of the story of David and Goliath has been lost sight of in the preoccupation with Michelangelo’s statue.

Michelangelo’s David is beautiful, strong, eye-catching for sure, a riveting hero, but this is not the David of the biblical story; whose meaning is all about David’s apparent insignificance until he defeated Goliath.  So one level of the teaching is that appearances, and expectations and judgements based on them, can be deceptive.  From this point of view, Michelangelo’s sculpture should have been of an ordinary kind of person we wouldn’t look twice at if we passed him in the street.  David’s own brothers, camped among the soldiers of Israel, dismissed him, even derided him as not belonging among warriors and shirking his work as a shepherd.  Only David knew his own capacity.

This recalls a proverb, given in Idries Shah’s “The Dermis Probe:”  “None meets harm who knows his capacity” (p22).  One of the levels of this saying is that we have depths of capacity that we have not yet discovered, and by discovering and engaging our hidden capacity we can become considerably more competent than we look, to those without perception.

David’s strength and skill in battle came partly from his experience protecting the flock against lions and bears.  But he was also inspired by, connected with, divine purpose.  How do we discover and align ourselves with divine purpose?  How can the skills that we have learned in our livelihoods–“protecting the flock against lions and bears”–apply to other, greater challenges and purposes?

The story of David and Goliath highlights another dynamic:  David wins, in part, because he brings a wider perspective to the situation, pointing a way forward through superior technology and strategy.  Goliath’s armor and weaponry, his strength and his mastery of combat with the tools he knows, deters all challengers except David, with his slingshot.

A Psychological Metaphor for the 2016 Presidential Election

This is adapted from a post that was shared with psychoanalytic colleagues who were distressed about, and trying to come to psychological grips with, the alarming presidential campaign:

Here is a psychological metaphor on the election:  What if we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, characterized by self-undermining, if not self-destructive, behavior?  And if, among the dynamics energizing that crisis, we privilege psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money among individuals and groups, in the context of an emerging planetary culture?

If we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, instantiated in our politics, particularly during this presidential election, we would view conflicting parts of the polity as dissociated but dynamically interrelated parts of a whole.  We would see the dissociated parts as struggling for control, each experiencing the brunt of disavowed aspects of the other, and each having its own trauma history, supported by narratives incorporating fantasy and reality.

If we were working with a trauma patient, even if the patient had become unrealistic, delusional, or self-harming, we would still validate the experience of trauma as we tried to support an extension of awareness leading to healthier integration.  We would see self-undermining and self-destructive behavior as attempts at adaptation.  And we would try to understand, together with the patient, where the trauma actually came from; although we may not be able to get to all of it.

If we viewed the nation from that perspective, how would that help us contribute to the national discourse?  To begin with, we might help to start one.  In treating dissociation we invite the patient to join with us in co-creating a therapeutic conversation and relationship in which we allow credibility for all aspects of the self; and especially for the underlying feelings, and the experiences that gave rise to those feelings.

Of course, if we were treating a dissociated patient, the person would have come to us in the first place, needing help, and we don’t have that here.  Yet the fact that there is so much anger, fear, sense of disenfranchisement, and lack of a sense of direction and hope for actually facing and getting on the better side of the complex problems that face the nation, indicates that something real is going on, even if we may find the attributions and imagined remedies for those problems, to a lessor or greater extent, unrealistic and even delusional.

What if we viewed the dissociative conflict as primarily driven by psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money, and with others through money?  Money, having no intrinsic value, is itself a metaphor; a form of stored social energy whose value is whatever society agrees it is.  In the psychoeconomic dimensions of life, there are winners and losers, and among the losers are those who have lost, or are threatened with the loss, of their identities, including their visions and expectations of their futures.  Even the meaning of the past is at risk when, for example, the pension and healthcare benefits earned over a career can vanish in a company or civic bankruptcy, or a professional can no longer find viable work.

We can observe trends that contribute to widespread economic and psychosocial disenfranchisement, dislocation and disorientation, even as they also contribute to widespread opportunities and potential for liberation, going back to the founding of psychoanalysis.  It was in pre-WW I Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at a time when the great empires of Europe, the middle east, and to a lesser extent central Asia, were increasingly impinging on one another, and science and technology were overturning systems of belief, social hierarchy, and how people made their livings and related economically with one another, that psychotherapy took the form of two people meeting together to talk about the problems of one of them, for an hour at a time, over a series of meetings.  The intensively reflective space of psychoanalysis, with its privileging of unconscious and non-rational processes affecting thought, perception, and behavior, was criticized as irrational by authorities of the same cultures that, believing themselves rational, stumbled blindly into the worst war ever up to that point, resulting in the ending of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, redrawing the political map of the planet, and leading to repercussions which are still playing out today; including in the current election.

If we viewed the nation, metaphorically, as a dissociating patient within the context of a planetary culture emerging in fits and starts and with much conflict, would that help to shed light on the current situation, and indicate ways of thinking and talking about it that might be useful?


Psychological Reflection on the 2016 Presidential Campaign

As President of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, I send occasional e-letters to the membership.  Here is May’s:


At its best, psychodynamic therapy supports high stakes metacognition—reflection on how we are thinking, feeling, and responding, when making sense of what’s happening matters a lot.  The national presidential campaign makes me wish that there was a similar process on a national scale.


The rules under which APA operates prohibit partisan politics on APA listserves, but we are not prohibited from applying psychological concepts and insights to current events, including presidential campaigns.  “Ethical intelligence,” the term Kenneth Pope and Melba Vasquez use in their “Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling, 5th Edition,” applies here.  It is one thing to advocate for or against a candidate, another to reflect on the psychological implications of campaign tactics, media coverage, and public response.


Psychologist Hadley Cantril, in his “Psychology of Social Movements,” found common dynamics in the rise of Nazism in Germany after World War I, and the lynchings of African Americans in the South after the Civil War.  In both cases, substantial parts of large disenfranchised middle classes, in societies devastated by lost wars, turned toward authoritarian leadership and terrorized scapegoat groups in order to vent their rage and restore or protect their socioeconomic position.  The U.S.A. is not so devastated, but the insecurity of the middle class is widely observed, deeply felt, and increasing.  All three presidential candidates still standing have made protecting and restoring the middle class a major theme of their campaigns, although they have different narratives about why the middle class is threatened and how to restore its viability.


The Trump campaign has employed the tactics of scapegoating immigrants, recruiting belief in the candidate, and validating the feeling of wanting to express anger in violence.  Trump also uses gossip as a weapon:  “I didn’t say it, but I heard…,” the structure of statements with which he attacks opponents, uses gossip as a tactic while disavowing it.  Last Saturday, I co-presented in the CAPP Conversation on “Gossip:  Telling Lies, Telling Truth, Telling the Difference,” and my co-presenters, psychologist, analyst, and former CAPP President Christine Kieffer, and Indiana University sociologist Timothy Hallett, spoke about how gossip can take on an insidious life of its own in a social group or organization—sociologists call it a “gossip cascade”—unless it is effectively challenged early on.


When news media report gossip without fact-checking it, they become vehicles for candidates’ tactical gossip, which supports gossip cascades.  Gossip cascades, in turn, support what Peter Fonagy and colleagues call “psychic equivalence:”  “I think, feel, and/or believe it, so it must be true.” Fact-checking is available, for example, from sources such as PolitiFact.com, with it’s “truth meter,” but the voter has to be motivated enough to look for it.  Even then, the work of being an informed citizen is not done; we have to think about what the candidates’ tactical statements, how they are covered in the media, and how the electorate responds to them, might mean.


We learn metacognition in therapy from necessity; as patients we come to therapy with a painful impasse in our lives, as therapists we strive to facilitate a co-created reflective space for our patients.  I wonder what might prompt a national awareness of the need for metacognition about how we learn about candidates for leadership?

At the 2016 Spring Psychoanalytic Psychology Conference, Part 1

I attended the annual spring conference of Division 39 (Psychoanalytic Psychology) of the American Psychological Association.  The conference, entitled “Hot and Bothered,” included presentations on sexual and erotic issues, although there were a wide range of other presentations.  There were a lot of programs and I could only attend some, so here are notes from “my” conference.

Relational Dream Work:  The Bridge Between I and Thou

Kendle Hassinger, LPC

This preconference workshop was one of the most enjoyable and personally useful programs in “my” confefence.  Hassinger’s approach to dreamwork was as a relational process in therapy.  That is, it’s not a matter of the therapist being some sort of dream expert and pronouncing interpretations, but a process of therapist and client moving together into a deeper understanding of the client’s dream.  Hassinger sees the relational process itself as mutative, regardless of theoretical orientation.  (“Mutative,” in psychoanalytic context, means it facilitates a beneficial change the state or self-organization of the client or analysand.)  She sees the therapeutic relationship as involving two I-Thou relationships: one between the analyst and analysand, and the other between, as it were, the client and herself; between the client’s conscious self and her inner process, objects, and private experience.  By definition, the process of striving toward health in these I-Thou relationships is never complete, and the therapist’s job is to facilitate them.

Hassinger asked what we thought dreams were for, and I commented about the relationship between dreams and learning in mammals.  This sparked a discussion among the participants, during which a Mexican graduate student said that mammals dream “because they have mothers.”  I’m still reflecting on that!

Hassinger encouraged us to participate in discussion, and we talked about research into dreams (REM sleep increases during periods of intense learning) and different analytic perspectives.  Freud saw dreams as concealing meanings whereas Jung saw dreams as revealing the unconscious rather than disguising it.  Her perspective integrated a number of analytic and non-analytic elements, but was more Jungian than Freudian overall.  This was one of several presentations that had an inclusive attitude toward methods and concepts in different approaches to psychoanalysis, contrary to the history of divisive conflict between schools that characterizes so much of psychoanalytic culture, both then and now.

For example, Hassinger mentioned Jung’s comment that “The ego is a complex among other complexes,” and described therapeutic exploration as finding and exploring “feeling-toned complexes” (another Jungian term), which is a different way of looking at the inner life than the more dichotomous “I-it” (ego-id) of Freud; yet her discussion integrated both and flowed easily from one to the other as it suited the context.

Jung saw exploring the “feeling-tone” as the way into exploring the dream, and focused on the details of the dream image.  For example, if a barn, in a dream, is full of healthy animals and fodder, or neglected and dirty, it will have a different set of meanings associated with it.

We paired off to do brief explorations of one another’s dreams, and I was paired with a graduate student from Mexico.  Interestingly, both of our dreams involved animals—hers were birds, and mine a dog—and both yielded deeper meanings upon exploration.

An Evening With Nancy McWilliams

Nancy McWilliams is a distinguished and prominent teacher, leader and writer in psychoanalysis.  This pre-conference gathering was mainly an appreciation of her, and a Q. and A. session.  Some selections from my notes:

Q:  “You don’t belong to any camp, though you speak to every camp.”  NM:  “I used to walk the halls to find someone to have lunch with.  I’m an integrator temperamentally.  I approach anyone from (the perspective of, “What can I learn from this guy,” not “I’m better than this guy.”  Different patients make different therapists look good, and and different theories evolve to (explain different kinds of patients).”

Responding to a question about the difference between psychoanalytic diagnosis (which she’d written a book on) and the usual DSM-type psychiatric diagnosis:  “Psychoanalytic diagnosis is basically about individual differences,” which, she added, helps explain why it is so popular in Eastern Europe and other more collectivist cultures.  She recalled a question she’d received when teaching in China:  “What do we do about our depressed grannies?”

I had submitted a question (questions were submitted in writing) on the similarities and differences between the terms “psychoanalytic” and “psychodynamic.”  She replied:  “That difference has never been salient to me.  I think it’s a very artificial difference made up by psychologists who are not familiar with psychoanalytic ideas, who tend to define psychoanalysis as a technique, passé, on the couch, three days a week, etc.  If you define it as a treatment, then you have to have another word for all the rest of psychoanalytic knowledge that applies to everything else we do that’s not on the couch.  I’m an integrator, what Darwin would call a lumper rather than a splitter.  I prefer Freud’s definition, he had a lot of definitions, but I prefer the definition as any activity in which you are attending to transference and resistance.  It’s psychoanalytic to work with psychotic people, borderline people, and so forth.  I see what the distinction is but I think it’s created more heat than light to try to make that distinction.”  (I appreciate Dr. McWilliams’ inclusive perspective, which was characteristic of the attitude toward psychoanalysis in this conference, but I respectfully disagree.  The conflicts about what is really psychoanalytic and what isn’t goes all the way back to Freud and Jung, is a distinguishing feature of the history of psychoanalytic culture, and has been particularly virulent in the USA.  As Dr. McWilliams said, Freud had a lot of definitions, but she didn’t mention his requirement that his associates agree with whatever his definition of the moment was.  I prefer the term “psychodynamic,” because it includes all the perspectives from within the various schools of psychoanalysis, bypassing their conflicts and turf wars, and also has room for perspectives of neuroscientifically and spiritually informed views of mind from outside of psychoanalysis per se.  Still, I appreciated her personal warmth and professional inclusiveness within the culture of psychoanalysis.)

In response to a question about eating disorders, Dr. McWilliams said that she thinks extreme eating disorders should be considered psychotic, “when someone weighs 80 pounds and believes she’s fat and is starving herself to death.  We’ve been criminal in our treatment of psychotic and other persons, we just medicate them, as if they don’t have souls, as if they don’t have lives.”

Asked about the difference between psychoanalysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy, Dr. McWilliams said, “The important differentiation isn’t between psychoanalysis and CBT, they run into the same issues we do, they develop their own language to describe it.  The biggest abyss we have is between clinicians and researchers who have increasingly become alienated from what clinical work is really like.  It’s not their fault, it’s conditions in academia (where) it’s so hard to get grants (that) it would be professional suicide to have a small practice on the side.  (So) researchers have no idea what it’s like to be a clinician, they think it’s like what they do in the lab.  I think we should be allying with cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, family therapists, anyone who is in the trenches.”  (This is the direction that we have been moving in with CAPP, the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology.)

Q:  “How do you understand resilience, beyond ego strength?  Do you have a dynamic formulation around resilience?”  NM:  “No, but I’ll hazard a guess.  It all has to do with whether you have somebody who can bear your pain.  If you have somebody who can be there with you, you can go through pretty bad pain, you go through a mourning process, mourning is the process by which we adapt to the painful aspects of life.  If you have the same traumatic experience and you have nobody who can go with you through it and bear your pain and bear witness to what you’re going through, I think you’re much more likely to be dissociated, because it is unbearable to go through crisis without someone who can bear witness.  That’s a time-honored goal of psychoanalytic therapy.”  (Note:  I see dissociation as a normal aspect of brain function and self-formation, and find support for this view in the “neural networks” model of neuroscience and the “multiple selves” model of spiritual psychology.  Psychoanalysis has described traumatic dissociation, and specialized in treating it.)

Q:  “You’ve talked about a number of different camps.  There’s an ideological process of all this, perhaps a tribal component, who’s on the inside, who’s on the outside.  In the history of psychoanalysis, and in many respects of CBT, the ideological component has been so important, to define themselves against (other schools), how do we begin to look at these tribes that we form and bridge those divides?”  NM:  “In this field, where ideas matter so much, I don’t think it’s been so bad, as long as we can come together in the fight against torture, against accreditation that’s depersonalizing” (here she’s referring to issues within the American Psychological Association).  “The danger in psychoanalysis is that we get so distracted by these internal differences between us that we’re fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Readings For A Patient Who Can’t Identify Emotions

A consultee asked for recommendations of readings for a patient who often can’t connect with or name emotions.  Here’s my reply:


It’s a challenge to work with a client who can’t connect with or name emotions.  A couple of books that come to mind are “Emotional Intelligence,” by Daniel Goleman, which is a popularization about the importance of being aware of others’ feelings and our own, and, for a deeper dive into the scientific study of emotion, “The Archeology of Mind,” by Panksepp and Biven, focusing on Panksepp’s lifetime of work on the emotion networks in the subcortical brain of mammals, and Biven’s comments on what that might mean for people (she’s an analyst).


You probably know that there are lists of feelings, you can find them online, and I have sometimes printed them out and handed them to my patient at a time when he, or she, was unable to identify feelings in a situation we were discussing.
Another way to explore this is to make space in the therapy to stop the conversation about situations and events and focus on feelings.  Its can be uncomfortable to do this because the patient is uncomfortable and the therapist feels that discomfort and wants to fix it for the patient, and the patient may explicitly want the therapist to do something to relieve the discomfort.  Of course there’s an optimal level of discomfort, too much isn’t useful, and so we have to gauge that in the moment.
Sometimes its useful to ask patients who can’t identify their feelings to begin with a somatic focus; what are they aware of in their bodies.  Often they may find that their breathing is shallow, jaw tight, etc., and sometimes they can go from there to identifying a feeling.
It can also be useful to ask patients to keep a journal, writing at the end of the day about what happened during the day, what events and interactions they had with people, and how they felt as they went through them.  It often starts out as a difficult assignment for them, but can get easier with practice, and of course it is helping them to grow new networks in their brains between networks for emotions and networks for consciousness.
Good luck!