The Map Versus the Territory, Part II: Trial by Fever

(If you haven’t read the first part of this blog, you can do so here. It will help you to understand what I mean by “The Map versus the Territory”.)

As I learn more and more about working with the body and how it intersects with psychoanalytic work, it becomes more and more obvious that unless I “practice what I preach”, it won’t mean very much. It would be like having a conference on meditation with no experiential components. And, because this is actually more challenging than it might seem, I would like to share with you one of my own experiences of learning the difference between the Map and the Territory.

As Reginald (“Reggie”) Ray talks about, our culture has grown fearful of and thus discourages us from trusting our own bodies. The minute something goes “wrong” – we get a headache, heartburn, or whatever else – there is a myriad options available to “fix” it. We are not encouraged to listen to our bodies, let alone follow their cues. For example, a headache might signal fatigue or hunger, but rather than rest or eat, we might pop 2 Advil and keep on going. Heartburn might signal sensitivity to a particular food, but as long as we have antacids, that doesn’t matter. Furthermore, we give over the responsibility for our own bodies and lives to the “authorities” – doctors, pharmacists, spiritual leaders, and so on. You get the picture. There is a great deal more to be said about this, but I’ll stop here to share my own experience.

I had come down with the flu, for the first time in probably over 15 years. For nearly 3 days, I had a raging fever, and a bunch of other, fairly familiar symptoms I don’t need to list. My own background in bodywork (my acupuncture and Chinese Medicine training) has taught me that all of these symptoms are actually a natural manifestation of the body fighting a pathogen, and that, for the most part, all I needed to do was let it do that. Yes, there are the zinc lozenges, essential oil diffusions, and baking soda gargles to aid the process, but for the most part, I knew to drink fluids and rest.

Despite my extensive training in alternative medicine, my trust in the body’s processes lasted for about a day and a half. After a night and a full day with a fever of 101, I began to worry that it would never go down, that it was a sign of something worse, and on and on and on. (At some point, I was sure it must be a sign of cancer.) Anxiously, I bought Cold & Flu medicine with 1-day shipping, and Googled “how to reduce a fever” on my phone. And I checked my temperature incessantly to see if it had gone down.

At some point, it finally dawned on me to think about my training with Reggie Ray’s materials, and to ask myself what this experience is here to teach me. The answer was immediately obvious: this was a lesson in trusting my body and how difficult it is to actually practice. My panicked search for a “fix” is what happened when being in the territory of my body – which was quite uncomfortable and unfamiliar – became too challenging. I escaped into the “map” – into my thoughts about the symptoms, into my beliefs about the body and so on. The map was also uncomfortable (who here would voluntarily choose to be panicked?), but it gave me a sense of control and thus a hope for safety. There was a goal to be accomplished, to get myself back to a state I recognize. My fever was nowhere near any danger zones that I’m well aware of, and yet I felt very uneasy with the experience of letting things run their course.

I didn’t count on this experience to be so illuminating, but it was. I know I’m not alone in this, even though each person’s individual manifestations of not trusting their bodies are different from mine. It also feels like a very basic kind of experience, kind of like a “trust fall”, but encompasses in itself an enormously important lesson with very deep implications.

Given my personal work, my psychoanalytic training, and my study of this area of somatic awareness, I’ve discovered that most of us are disembodied and afraid to trust the cues and experiences of our bodies. For example, wherever you are right now, can you conscioulsy, and without moving your feet, feel your middle toe? It’s harder than it seems! And this is only one example of the many small disembodiments that we all live with, most of the time. As I noted above, a big part of it is cultural. Aboriginal and native people have and had a very different approach to life, paying close attention to the earth, the nature kingdom, and their own bodies. With the advent of our modern culture, we have disconnected from these truly vital sources of information and nourishment, and have grown to prefer the map (our intellectual understanding or image of how things are) to the territory, the raw experience. Our bodies have become slaves to our minds.

Let me move from this dark state to say that it is indeed very possible to reconnect to our bodies and to these other more subtle but vastly more powerful sources of energy and nourishment than our limited, cramped minds could ever be. To me, the work of analysis coupled with meditation, both of which bring in bodily awareness, helps one to recognize all the ways you might have dissociated from your body and why. This is the very process of making the unconscious conscious, which must necessarily include the work of learning to trust your body to deeper and deeper degrees. In other words, this is how you can begin to truly own your body and discover the deepest truth of who you are.

The Map versus the Territory


I’d like to share with you an idea that has helped me gain a greater understanding of both life and the therapy process — the analogy of the Map versus the Territory. I learned about it from the author and Buddhist teacher Reginald (Reggie) Ray. After I describe the idea, I will share with you a personal experience that will hopefully illustrate it in an authentic way.

The territory is our direct experience of something, experience that includes the body. You are in a concert hall and are swept up in the flow of music, your heart beating to the rhythm of the music, your soul singing along, time disappearing altogether. Or, you are with someone who is spewing forth a great deal of anger, and you feel your body contract and your breath becomes shallow, perhaps you become triggered and regress, or you feel your muscles tense and get ready to act. You may or may not notice all these details, because noticing them may mean you’ve stepped out of the experience and are naming and labeling its various component parts. The territory is the totality of embodied experience, before words or ideas come in. We may call it presence, assuming that you are indeed there to experience it.

On the other hand, the map is a set of concepts and labels that describe something, whether it be an experience or a person/place/thing or anything else in existence. The map can be immensely important. For example, laying out the map of one’s childhood and learning its ins and outs helps one become increasingly comfortable with the details of what happened. However, I have discovered that most of us (myself included) tend to cling to the map and avoid the territory. The realm of ideas and logical processing can feel a lot safer, especially when one grows up in an atmosphere where exploring one’s authenticity was unwelcome or even actively prohibited. The head can be a safe place to escape to, and to still have the sense of sanity and even productivity. In analytic/therapy terms, we call this dissociation. That in itself is not necessarily something that does damage — dissociation is a necessary defense we all have. If we did not dissociate the certainty of death, for example, we might not be able to function on a daily basis. What I am pointing to is more subtle, and to areas where we might dissociate even though the actual present situation does not warrant it — and in that case, dissociation is damaging in that it keeps us from living fully. For example, one might sit through that same glorious concert and stare at her phone or be completely preoccupied with her To Do List and thus dissociate the awareness of the music altogether.

In an analysis/psychotherapy, we work to discover and fill out the map of one’s life leading up to the present. Every detail that one recalls and pieces together throughout the work — that is, the map — becomes more complete and the person begins to own that narrative more and more fully. However, this is only part of the work. In a therapy that explores the map alone, the person will likely come to feel stuck and largely unchanged. (This was the challenge of psychoanalysis when it was first born – people came to learn all about their defenses and neuroses but did not actually change their patterns and ways of being.) The other, more difficult part, is exploring the territory of that map, fleshing it out. To me, this is the very kernel of psychoanalytic work. Exploring the territory is terrifying if you have never been encouraged to feel, to express yourself, and to explore your depths. If you grew up being shamed for your body, for your expressions, and indeed for who you are, you have necessarily grown to dissociate from yourself. Facing the territory of that experience is the only way to process it in a way where you can own and integrate it rather than fear it.

Facing that territory can literally feel like walking into a dark wilderness filled with snakes, spiders, and dangerous animals. This is where you need a guide and a witness to your process, someone to hold your experience without withdrawing from it, and someone to help make the forays into that wilderness feel safe and manageable. This is why it is nearly impossible to change at a deep level when doing the work on your own (and I’ve tried!!). On your own, you might be able to put together a pretty decent map, although you may avoid parts of it anyway. But when it comes to facing the territory, you are that much more likely to simply dissociate what really needs your attention, indeed may be clamoring for it.

As Reginald Ray says, you need an “other”. We need to find ourselves reflected in another person, emotionally held. This begins at birth and remains true for the rest of our lives. The ascetics who retreat to the forests or the mountains find themselves reflected in nature, or in their own bodies. But we are always in relation. Recently, I became aware of the truth of this experientially (i.e. in the territory) while meditating at home by myself. I reached a place of stagnation, and began to cry. I noticed that I suddenly felt alone and wanted my analyst to know I was crying. Even though on a conscious level I might say that I wouldn’t want to be seen while crying, I felt a deeper, more primal part of myself. I was like the infant left alone for a while, who cried and wanted – needed even – to have my cries heard and responded to. Of course, I am also an adult and could obviously survive not having anyone there to witness my crying in that moment. But this experience led me to touch – this time in a much safer way – the territory I’d dissociated from previously. Also, I was able to go to this place within myself while alone only because at this point I have deeply internalized my analyst.

It feels vulnerable to share my experience above. In fact, this whole post feels more vulnerable than I expected it to. Many voices are clamoring that it is somehow unprofessional or inappropriate, that it will be misunderstood or judged. This is where I tend to constrict, where the territory becomes challenging to be in/with — sharing something deep and delicate about my personal experience. And I can easily delete the preceding paragraph, but I want to share with you not only the experience but the difficulty of being with it. That is the difference between the map and the territory.

Links to Reginald Ray’s work:

His book, Touching Enlightenment

His YouTube channel, Dharma Ocean Teachings

If you got this post via email, please click here to view the post on the web and leave comments (at the bottom of the page).

Fear of Joy

We’re all pleasure-seekers, aren’t we? There’s sugar, alcohol, sex, shopping, TV, and so many others that we all use, to have that brief burst of pleasure to soothe our stress, pain, boredom, or any number of things. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all seek that kind of instant gratification, a lot of the time. Any of these can reach addiction levels, but for the most part, they’re simply everyday ways to take care of ourselves as a way to keep going through the day (and week, month, or year, too).

But this is not the sort of joy that I’m going to attempt to talk about here. We certainly don’t fear those convenient (and useful) daily soothers/pleasures. What I mean when I use the word “joy” is a kind of deep fulfillment, a sense of having a full, expansive experience of allowing some real part of ourselves live fully. (I notice having used the word “full” several times here – I believe this is in contrast to the emptier, more inhibited or closed-off ways one might spend a lot of time living in.) However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that as much as we all want that kind of expansive fulfillment, we fear it just as much or even more.

I am not the first one to put forth the idea that we actually fear joy. I recall coming across books such as Alexander Lowen’s Fear of Life, and Stella Reznick’s The Pleasure Zone: Why We Resist Good Feeling. I’ll admit that I didn’t finish either of them, but even many years ago when I found them, I was intrigued by this seemingly paradoxical idea. And now this topic feels so vast to me, that I’m not sure I’ll be able to articulate it all, but would like to try to at least put forth some of my thoughts about it.

At a very deep level, I believe that it’s part of human nature to seek out this kind of expansive pleasure (not only the instant gratification type). At our core, I feel we are powerful, creative beings, each of us with a very unique blend of ideas, perspectives, and talents to offer to the world. However, for reasons I will attempt to describe below, I believe that we also deeply fear this kind of way of being. Having sat with this particular question for a very long time, I have discovered a few reasons for this fear.

First, my experience has been that experiencing true joy is vulnerable. If you just let yourself revel in something wonderful, you may be unprepared for something painful that may happen later, and that much more shocked. Or, someone could take advantage of your openness somehow (because you are too busy doing a happy dance, for instance!) There must be some evolutionary advantage to being vigilant for bad, scary things that can happen at any time – to our recent human relatives it was literally a matter of life and death, both to those living and foraging in the jungle, and those living in times of war.

Another reason I’ve discovered has to do with the fact that humans are social beings and long to connect with others. If one day you took some big, important risk and then felt a sense of profound joy, the most natural response would be to want to share it with someone. But whom could you express it to? Would you have the words? And would anyone even get it? My sense is that most of us dampen our positive feelings to either protect others from being aware of their own sense of joylessness, or perhaps to avoid jealousy for our joy. Finding someone to simply revel in it with us is harder than it would seem. Just as it would be vulnerable to be alone with something painful, it is also vulnerable to feel immense joy that you may not be able to share with someone who can simply be in it with you. So it gets muted before it even happens.

There is also the fact that most of us have learned to dampen our feelings and avoid being with them, whether they’re positive or not. It takes us a long time to become comfortable with simply having a feeling. When it’s emotional pain, we seek relief, we want to shake it off, numb it out, get rid of it as soon as possible. And what I’ve discovered – at least for myself – is that the same goes for joy. I have had these full, expansive moments, and they seem effortless and incredible when they happen. My soul fills up, and I feel indescribable gratitude and love. Usually I have tears of joy, too. But time and again, this is surprisingly, immensely challenging to just be with, as challenging as the deepest pain – for all of the above reasons. How do you stay with something you can’t articulate, can’t share, and feel too vulnerable with?

I believe this can be expanded further beyond having an isolated experience of elation to think about a greater life experience – living life as an expression of one’s deepest passions and truths. Again, as much as we all agree that this would be phenomenal, most people inhibit themselves from creating this kind of life for themselves, or even from being aware of the possibility that that kind of life is possible. All of the above reasons – and I’m sure many others (please share them!) – blend in with our personal histories of being told to be quiet, that we should stop laughing, that we are no good, and all the other ways we are told to dampen our innate joy. We start to believe that life is suffering. If something positive happens, we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. To add to the books I mentioned, much of this has also been written in books on Buddhist thought.

Here, I feel like I am supposed to make some kind of encouraging statement about allowing yourself to feel and discovering your joy, but I know that it’s much harder than it sounds. As I often feel with my blog posts, this topic could easily fill a book or a conference, and certainly can be a lifetime’s worth of reflection. So instead, I will simply say that I hope some of what I wrote has resonated with you, and I would very much enjoy hearing/reading about it if you are inclined to share.

A License to be Human

It is truly incredible to think that it has been nearly 5 years since I started my training to be a psychoanalyst. Now I am cleared to take my State licensing exams, and I am in a deeply reflective place that I would like to share.

Not surprisingly, I am numbed by the process of studying, my first exam being in a little over a week. Going before the State to prove that I am a psychoanalyst worthy of a license brings up any number of issues… Growing up, individuation, responsibility – not that these weren’t brought up over and over again my entire adult life. And it also brings excitement and potential – What will my office look like? How will I describe myself on my website in a way that conveys the essence of my unique self and encourages the reader to take the risk and contact me? How will my career move forward from here?

But in the meantime, I am exhausted and somewhat bereft. My formal training may be nearly complete, and I’m witnessing my clients growing through our work, but it seems that every day I still wonder what psychoanalysis really is. I keep coming up against internal walls and places that are numb, against resistance to being authentic, against confusion about how to be with clients in a way that’s open and available. I keep having to find and re-find balance in my life, and to learn how to shift between the different “modes” of being without losing my authenticity. How do I shift between being a student and being an analyst over the course of a single day? How do I go between being a tunnel-vision New Yorker bombarded by millions of tourists and various kids with clipboards trying to sign me up for some immensely important cause, and a present, attuned listener? How do I put my issues aside sufficiently to be able to hear my clients and offer them something useful? How do I stay open to the fact that every session counts, and that it counts for a lot?

I am told by senior analysts that my issues are a gift, they have provided me with a way inward and a way to be empathic – but for now I seem to have more questions than answers, and this is actually quite painful. As I prepare to shed the cocoon – or the swaddle, if you will – of my institute, I am discovering a new awareness of the intense vulnerability that is part and parcel of this profession. In fact, it is a vulnerability felt by all people everywhere, whether they’re therapists or clients – or both, like me. Most of us don’t want to feel it too much, it feels too dangerous. But if I am to offer my clients something useful, this vulnerability has to be welcomed, explored, and even befriended. Oy. But that’s what makes me human.

The real work of psychoanalysis is in allowing oneself to be as fully human as possible. This is the work of both the analyst and the client. The more human one of them is, the more human the other one can be – and it does not always flow in one direction. I have had many sessions where it is the humanness, authenticity, and vulnerability of the client that allowed me to become more open and available. And hopefully, I’ve offered enough humanness to my clients to feel a little safer in their own, as well.

Sometimes all this seems like an impossible, terrifying, and even unbearable task. But the licensing exams don’t assign any points to how familiar you are with your vulnerability, to how authentic you can be with clients, or how scary it can be to confront your raw, unedited humanness. No wonder I am numbed by the process of studying, as I prepare to regurgitate an immense amount of information in a limited amount of time, to be read by someone who doesn’t know me and doesn’t care about anything other than whether I’ve written everything that the exam requires. But in the end, I know that I will have my license, and can spend the rest of my life in a meaningful encounter with the beautiful, frightening, unrelenting, exciting, unbearable, and incredible humanness that connects me and everyone who will happen to come through my office in the next (hopefully) 35-40 years.

Talking Heals (Go figure!)

It’s ironic that as a therapist at the tail end of formal training I still forget the fact that just talking is healing. I recently had the opportunity to present at an event at my institute, and my preparation for this presentation had really illuminated this point. I had a lot to say and a limited amount of time, so after I wrote out what I wanted to say, I rehearsed the presentation by myself at home. I was all alone and talked into the air, while imagining that I was addressing an audience. Suddenly, I felt very vulnerable, even though there was no one to actually hear me and judge me. (Hello, transference!) Over and over, I stumbled over my words, stopped talking altogether in a total freeze, and laughed anxiously and apologetically to the walls in my apartment who were clearly not happy with my performance.

I realized even then, that talking through my presentation ahead of time was helpful in making sure that what I had written sounded right, that it was relatable rather than dry and mechanical, and that it actually hung together well. This was the first time I’d prepared for a presentation in this way, and it felt vulnerable but also very helpful in being able to look at the audience and not keep my nose glued to the written material on the page. And once I was actually up there at the podium, with all the eyes on me, I felt that much more confident having already imagined and practiced that moment several times at home. Don’t get me wrong – I was still nervous, and even worried that the audience could see my hands trembling a little as I gripped my printed outline. But having projected onto and apologized to the walls at home, I’d already felt and processed the feelings involved and was not so gripped by them when the moment of presenting actually came.

But here is something I didn’t realize until after I’ve presented. I got a lot of feedback from those who attended that not only did I look confident, but that I seemed to know my material really well. I hadn’t thought of the fact that my talking through the presentation also helped me to get really comfortable with what I was sharing. This is what surprised me, that this was a kind of “by-product” of talking through my presentation. Writing it out (no matter how plainly and conversationally) and talking it through were completely different experiences. Talking it through somehow helped me own the material that much more solidly, it helped me know it on another level than I did when I only wrote about it.

And this is why I began this entry the way I did – it’s ironic that after seeing clients for now several years, I’m surprised by the simple truth that talking heals. What I was always solidly connected to was that it’s healing to share your story (in words, and also art, music, dance, and whatever other nonverbal means that still intend to communicate meaning) to another person, because you can be heard and validated in your experience. But what I’d somehow forgotten (and I have to wonder why I had) is that just articulating your story, just speaking it out loud, has deeply transformative effects. This is why someone who has been through trauma might struggle to talk about it – it becomes more real, more embodied that way. But once they do access the courage to find the words and talk through their experiences, they own them in a way they could not previously.

Much has been said about the symbolization of experience – and words are symbols – so I won’t go into it here. I simply wanted to share with you this realization. I am amazed that one could study so much theory and technique, process the work on so many deep levels, and yet return to these very simple (and of course, at the same time, extremely complex) truths about why psychotherapy really does work.

Vulnerable on Purpose

I am standing in the hallway outside a large conference room, my heart rate quickened and my thoughts a bit rushed, despite the fact that a mere 20 minutes ago, I was meditating together with my colleagues. But these are good nerves – they tell me that I am about to do something important, exciting even – that I am about to do something that matters. We will have only 10 minutes to set up. Is that enough time? Will we have a chance to really settle in to convey the essence of our presentation to the attendees? Will there be enough time? Or, worse, will there be too much time? Will there be enough safety and space to express what needs to be expressed? Will people participate? Will they walk away with a sense of enrichment or will they be disappointed? Will we leave feeling satisfied? Much of this is so rushed that it barely touches my mind before the next thought races through. When will the previous presentation end, so we can get in there and set up??

I am getting ready to more or less consciously feel vulnerable in front of an audience… and to gain something from the experience, and hope that they do as well. My colleagues and I are about to present at a conference held by the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education (IFPE) (November 5-7, 2015). The conference theme is “Vulnerability and Its Discontents”, (riffing on Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”) – an entire conference devoted to the enormous, and utterly insurmountable topic of vulnerability. There are panels and papers on the vulnerability of being intimate, the vulnerability of publishing one’s thoughts in writing, the vulnerability of being part of a certain population, and many other angles.

Our panel, titled “The Sound and Color of Vulnerability: An Expressive, Analytic Response” is focusing on expressing one’s vulnerable experience using music and art. The expressive modalities are both tools for expression and at the same time ways of containing the unbearable anxiety and pain of being vulnerable. We are going to offer these tools to the audience of mostly therapists, to use for their own supervision (self, peer, etc) and perhaps even with their clients – creative modalities potentially serving as a bridge to expressing what words fail to capture. But that’s secondary – I think that what’s more important is that we are offering them an opportunity to have an experience with us in the moment – right here at this conference, in this room – rather than only talking about it from an intellectual distance. We are hoping that people will be able to gain something from this on the spot. Standing outside the conference room, we all feel that there is a lot riding on this. Good nerves indeed!

It is vulnerable just being human, interacting with others, living with the unknown of life and death in any given moment. Presenting at a conferences creates a specific kind of vulnerability of having to convey an important message or idea in a limited amount of time to an audience of unknown size and disposition. I wonder whether there will be space to be myself. Unconsciously, I fear there won’t be. My familiar ways of being are more likely to kick in under this stressful situation, where my inner “good girl” might dominate and prevent me from being vulnerable because it might not feel safe. There is a safety in being an audience member and a risk involved in being a presenter. This is true even when you are reading a paper you have written ahead of time. And we are attempting to go even further than that, to try to express the vulnerability of spontaneous expression – verbal, musical, and artistic.

We begin with a meditation focused on the breath, led by Marianne, which both helps relax the body and mind, and also helps establish a sense of safety in the room. Lesson Number One is that in order for one to feel safe sharing her or his vulnerable self, it must feel genuinely safe. One is vulnerable no matter what, but to share it at all (let alone with an audience) takes a special kind of space, and this is what the meditation creates. Since I am the one that has to speak immediately afterward, I find it hard to relax, but I do try… I return to my breath as often as I am able to realize that my thoughts are racing. It helps, a little.

Then I turn to Sunyoung, a music therapist who brought a full piano keyboard to the conference, and begin to speak. I share with her – and with the audience – some feelings I have about my work with a client. I had decided that morning which client I would talk about, but I hadn’t told Sunyoung (or Marianne) about it beforehand… nor do I even know what I’m going to say about her. I’m attempting the impossible and yet desperately needed spontaneous free-association. I hear my voice through the microphone and feel kind of small and nervous. I sound calmer than I feel, but to my own surprise, the sound of my own voice helps me feel a little more grounded.

I share very little about the client herself (being extra careful to also preserve confidentiality and anonymity). Mostly, I speak about my own experience and how I have been processing and understanding our relationship and our work. A few minutes later, I decide that I’ve shared enough, and Sunyoung closes her eyes. Her face shows a struggle and I can tell that she is feeling my words deeply. Well, she is feeling something deeply – and we’re off! She begins to play jarring, loud, and dissonant, but deeply coherent and powerful music. Part of me resists it – I’m already kind of tense internally, and the tense music brings up the not-quite realized wish for comfort and avoidance of facing the jarring, dissonant parts of my work with the client. Whew, how much more vulnerable can this thing get? At the same time, part of me knows that the music reflects the core feelings about my relationship with the client, and in some ways, this is a great relief. Now that she is expressing the feelings on the piano, even though they are mixed with her own feelings, I am no longer alone with mine. I feel held.

Following the music, everyone makes art, with Marianne’s gentle guidance. The audience is palpably excited to participate and starts chatting about tissue papers, glue sticks, and Model Magic (a kind of clay). I, on the other hand, feel anxious and fear I am too disconnected to really be making any kind of links about my work. In my mind’s eye, I see a kind of mushroom cloud following an explosion, and find myself anxiously ripping up a navy piece of paper, hoping that I can make something of it. Is the “explosion” a reflection of just my having shared what I’ve shared, or does it relate to my client? Can the two even be separated? Can I make something that would represent the music and my feelings about the client, or am I just engulfed in my own stuff in this moment? I feel like there is a wrong way to do this, that maybe I am just going through the motions while hiding my anxiety in order to appear like a competent presenter. This feels really vulnerable. Well – mission accomplished! But now the other part of the equation – how to use this creatively and productively? How does one embrace this uncomfortable experience and use it, rather than avoid it? It turns out, while you are actually feeling vulnerable, it’s quite challenging.

Lesson Number Two is that there is only so much vulnerability one can take, even when it’s safe to go to our deeper, more difficult places. Our psyche has a built-in self-protection system, and it can take years to be able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable for even a few seconds before we shut down again. In this presentation, after a while of talking, making art, and hearing the audience’s responses, I felt myself shutting down. The responses were all rich and varied, but there were so many of them, that I couldn’t take them all in.

What I hadn’t realized in my preparing to be vulnerable with an audience, was that we were asking them to be vulnerable, too. They would hear another person’s experience and respond using the expressive and safe tools of art – and then we were asking them to be vulnerable by sharing their experience with the rest of the room (if they chose to). So Lesson Number Three (the lessons are beginning to snowball) is about competing needs… we are all vulnerable in one way or another at any given moment. We all need support. We all need to be held and cared about, to have a chance to express ourselves to an Other to whom we matter. And, at any one given point, one person may have a greater need than another. During this experience, for me there was the dichotomy of the audience’s needs versus my own. Their courageous responses were beautiful to witness – a psychoanalytic audience, readily and gratefully involved in art materials and sharing some wonderful associations and images of their own. In the back of my mind, I felt relief – the presentation was going so well! I didn’t want to upset this deep process.

Still, I felt myself shutting down in order to allow things to continue. But this meant being unable to reflect deeper on what I’d shared, to make connections for myself, and I soon found myself craving for a break, for some holding and support. If at first, I felt some frustration at being unable to reflect on what’s been shared, 15 minutes later I no longer cared and just wanted a break. I found myself feeling too alone with my feelings. I was no longer able to really experience what people were sharing, to make meaning of it at all. I was dissociating, going through the motions. The voice coming through the microphone, as I thanked each participant, began to sound like it was someone else’s.

So I took what in that moment felt like a risk – and something I haven’t felt the need to do in any of the times that the three of us had prepared for this presentation. I shared with the audience that I was feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed by all of the responses. Furthermore, I turned to Sunyoung and asked if she wouldn’t mind helping me with it by playing some more music. I needed to be held and I needed a break from all the information coming at me from the participants. Lesson Number Four is that asking for help feels vulnerable the more urgent it is. I felt the urgency myself, and it felt like a risk to ask for help. But not doing so, would have meant ignoring my feelings and my needs at the expense of other people’s. It would have been unfair to myself, and it would have been inauthentic to continue acting as if nothing has changed.

To my deep relief, Sunyoung began to play before I even finished my thought – and the softness of the music soothed me instantly. From the first chord she played, I felt my very soul relax, like quenching a pained thirst and removing a heavy backpack from my shoulders. Tears came to my eyes almost immediately, no doubt also because of the risk I’d just taken.

In retrospect, I believe that it was taking this risk – asking for help and having my needs met in that moment – was what allowed me to actually integrate what happened during this presentation. Without it, I would have continued to dissociate in order to remain in the role of presenter. Making my needs a priority in that moment felt like a challenge for me and yet more important than I realized at the time. And being able to take in the healing music that followed is what led me to be able to meaningfully use the whole experience. I wonder now if perhaps my client herself felt overwhelmed and dissociated the way I did during this presentation. I wonder whether she has a hard time asking for a break when she feels flooded. I wonder if making her needs a priority is a major challenge for her. (I won’t go into all the relational possibilities here, but I’ll say that the choice of client to present – whether in a supervision group or a conference – as well as the responses and feelings that ensue, are all significant to that therapeutic relationship.)

The “discontents” and the lessons of vulnerability are much more numerous than I can express here. The main lesson for me has been that being vulnerable can be deeply healing, and that it can also be traumatic if it is not carefully balanced with emotional support. No matter how much we prepared for the presentation, we could not prepare for being in the moment, as the presentation unfolded. That’s what’s so vulnerable about it. So I’ll round out my list of lessons with Number Five, although I’ve already mentioned it above: We are always vulnerable in any given moment, sometimes more so and sometimes less so. Sometimes we can prepare for it and sometimes we can’t, and we have to rely on our ego strengths and much-needed defenses to protect ourselves from overwhelm. As human beings, and especially as therapists, we have to deeply recognize our inherent vulnerability of simply being alive.

It was a rich, and important experience for all three of us. I’ve left a great deal out of this paper about the material presented and people’s responses in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the attendees. I have shared my own experience, and both Marianne and Sunyoung will have their own perspective on this hour and a half of shared purpose. Ultimately, I feel that we were able to offer people the experience of – and making meaningful use of – being vulnerable on purpose.

The Magic Carpet

I’m looking at a medium-gray carpet in a kind of “heathered” style with shades of gray, black, and white speckled all over. I’m not staring at it intently, but my eyes are downcast and this is what I see. My legs are crossed in meditation and I’m surrounded by about 15 other people in the same pose, everyone with their eyes downcast, a deep stillness enveloping the room. It’s both deeply gratifying and kind of unsettling. I can hear the deep hum of the building, the kind you can only hear when there is total silence. This is all very new to me, and on some other level, deeply familiar.

My meditation cushion

My meditation cushion (and yes, the “Magic Carpet” underneath!)

I’m not used to sitting zazen, and the cross-legged pose I’m in is certainly a new one for me to spend such extended periods of time in, but I’m already feeling differently within myself. I’m aware of my mind’s endless chatter, and that I am working way too hard. “Zen it’s good for nothing”, our teacher said, and I chuckle internally at the gentle humor. I’m trying to practice “nonthinking”, but struggling, as is everyone else in the room, I suspect, maybe even including the teacher. We all look still and relaxed, but how relaxed are the 15 minds that are in the room right now? Luckily, my own mind’s chatter is only heard by me for now. Good grief, I’m not thinking out loud, am I?

And then I see an elephant.

I am as surprised as you probably are. Wow, right there, in the carpet, the darker dots make up a clear image of an elephant’s head with an eye and a tusk. I am incredulous, and wonder about symbolism. (Actually, first I have the impulse to grab a camera!) I immediately know that I’ve projected the image onto the carpet, but what does it mean? Even though the image is projected, it’s still got some meaning for me. It’s not a symbol I often see, so I wish I could go look up “elephants” in my Book of Symbols right now.

For a while, I am deeply engrossed in this immensely interesting idea, and sooner or later, I catch myself at it. Boy, the mind has clever tricks to avoid nonthinking! I take a few moments to “just be”, which is apparently utterly impossible. The elephant image is so interesting, that for a while, I “forgot” about “nonthinking”. It’s true, humans are symbol-seeking beings, and this is in part what makes us able to grow and live rich, interesting lives. But now my intent is to sit zazen and these 30 minutes are devoted to nonthinking.

Over the course of the weekend’s retreat, over many, many zazen sittings, the carpet magically reflected all kinds of symbols to me – besides the elephant, I saw a multitude of faces, including a clown’s, and a particularly persistent dog that would at times morph into the face of a woman. The faces were sometimes neutral, sometimes smiling, and sometimes menacing and grim. Overtime, it got somewhat exhausting – this visual version of the mind’s chatter, where even when I tried to “just be”, I was flooded with images. The anxiety of just being human and setting down my thoughts for a few minutes manifested in these projections. I could see the contents of my inner struggles by just watching this seemingly magic carpet. At times, it menaced me, and at times, offered friends to keep me company, to occupy my attention, and to help me feel less alone.

As I caught onto all this by the end of the weekend, I began to realize that, this tendency to look for symbols and things to hold onto can be a kind of clever defensive maneuver. Symbols can be profoundly useful and enlightening (and as a psychoanalyst-in-training, I am fascinated by their meanings), but I got to see how hard it is to simply sit with nothing to do. Aside from my aching knees and hips, it was profound to realize how difficult and even scary it is to just sit with “nothing to do”.

This wasn’t a major epiphany, and yet, as soon as I saw “through” this maneuver, the images completely disappeared. Even Arnie was gone – oh, that’s the cute little doggy (yes, I named him!), whom I came to count on being able to find with my eyes whenever I needed him (unlike many of the other images). Isn’t that just like a loyal companion? It was like having to look at a TV screen that’s been turned off, and in a little while, my need to look for “fillers” (no matter how cute) lessened. I realized that the question is, Can I take a break from even the most meaningful images and ideas for a while? Can I tolerate and even relax (and maybe even enjoy the freedom from working so hard) – for just a little while – in a world where it’s just a plain, ordinary carpet? This is the education of a psychoanalyst (and oh, yes, a human being)!

P.S. The retreat was offered by Paul Cooper and Karen Morris. Paul’s book can be found here. Karen’s, here.