depth as we live it, part 1

As a psychoanalyst, I often think of my clinical work in terms of depth. How do the moments in a session gain momentum, and go deeper? How does the work shift from the pleasantries of greeting and recounting the events of the day or week to concerns that touch something more central to a person’s life? “Going deeper” is often taken to mean going to the essence, the cause or to the most foundational sources of our concerns. We look for what’s hidden; for something more profound that can’t be seen; for meanings and intentions that underlie what we profess to be true. We try to discern the latent in the manifest, employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” to quote Paul Ricoeur. But such a focus can lead us away from what’s maybe right in front of us in the moment. Rather than finding depth in a ‘vertical’ descent of layers, I think we can feel deeply into experience as we live it without looking for what’s hidden. What follows is a series of depth musings that come from the lifeworld rather than from psychoanalytic theory. I hope that these musings will stimulate different ways of seeing that might open up experience. My personal interest is in developing a way of working and imagining the practice of psychoanalysis that takes into account the nature of our experiencing. But I also hope that these musings might stand on their own as invitations to explore…

At times, an encounter with depth can feel like a mysterious process. As a young guy, both curious and bold, I felt this mystery in hypnosis. Having read a book on the subject, I had the audacity to profess to friends and acquaintances that I was indeed a hypnotist. “No. You’re kidding,” was often the response. “Wanna try?” Invariably a number of people jumped at the chance, a circle would gather, and I’d go through a standard “induction” technique. “You’re feeling sleepy and your eyelids are getting heavy. You are asleep and descending an escalator. It goes down deeper and deeper. The more deeply asleep, the more clear you will hear my voice…” It felt improbable, but my “subjects” did indeed enter a hypnotic trance, would make stump speeches, dance the watusi, and once awakened, would remember nothing until I uttered a post-hypnotic phrase. At the time, I thought the process required a lengthy induction, that the key was to speak in a relaxing sleep-inducing voice (the same voice I ‘used’ as a novice therapist trying to sooth my patients rather than work with them), slowly easing them into a different state. I later learned that lengthy inductions weren’t necessary. With many people, once my hypnotic ‘credentials’ were established (by reputation or by seeing my handicraft), I could induce a trance by telling them that their eyes were closing as I gently tapped them several times on the forehead. What was going on here? Hypnotic depth wasn’t something so very far away, it was right there on the surface all along, something ready and available when the conditions were right. Is depth ‘in’ the trance state, or is it something about the ‘between’ of one state and another? And whose state is this anyway? Although we most readily think of the hypnotic subject as the one in a trance state or in a state of wakefulness, perhaps the trance and wakefulness is something shared, a state of being, where shifts are between states shared by the participants involved…

I love visual illusions, and I came to think about my experiences with hypnosis in relation to visual phenomena that I came across as I studied Gestalt Psychology. Take a typical unstable illusion like the Necker Cube and it’s variations:

Necker Cube variations

By simply looking at the cube, it’s dimensionality is immediately apparent. Rather than seeing the two dimensional organization of lines, we see a transparent cube with six surfaces, one side standing out with another receding in the background. But if we keep looking, the figure suddenly reverses! The side in the background pops forward, the side that was previously forward instantaneously slides back. How does this happen? Another cube variation repeated several times above the main cube looks like a pinwheel. Rather than seen initially as an unstable figure, this one is quite stable. But if you look at it with a cube-induced attitude or stance (trance?), the pinwheel organization of lines suddenly shifts into a cube, where one corner of the cube (formed by the intersection of lines) suddenly bursts toward you from its connected sides. And the instability takes hold! It flips back and forth, much like the other cube figures. These shifts in perception reminded me of the shift from trance to wakefulness. Seeing differently, experiencing differently, didn’t involve delving under everyday experience toward some unknown core. It seemed to involve a transformation that relied on change of context or field. A pinwheel design of three intersecting lines, suddenly explodes into dimensionality in the cube-induced context of the Necker diagram above. Trance states, whether hypnotic, spiritual, sports-induced, or (a favorite) getting lost in a book, shift in and out in relation to the situation/context/field engaged…

The nature of perception (think of perceiving as not simply visual, but as a the combination of all the senses, the totality of our embodied awareness) entails experiencing things from a certain point of view. The shifts that we experience when looking at these cubes are shifts of perspective, shifts of stance that take place in a “between.” I intend to elaborate on what this between might mean. This is something discussed in phenomenological philosophy, in particular in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writing, as écart. So, how does this relate to depth? Hang on for the ride. In future posts, I’ll look at the basic and most immediate ways we experience depth, something that will flesh out these initial musings…

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