Projective identification and conditioned arising: psychoanalytic and Buddhist observations on the ecology of mental action

Author’s self-reflections on her book Carved by Experience (Originally published in Karnacology, March 2017)

Strange though it may sound, I clearly remember coming across the notion of projective identification for the first time. I was in my early twenties, coping as best I could with the stream of life, thinking and feeling a lot, understanding little, mainly blind; and the notion that my mental reality wasn’t mine alone, that it didn’t simply consist of just me, that materials passed through which were not “I” – was both eye-opening and therapeutic.  For a thin-skinned person like me, so exposed to her surroundings, it was a good thing to start finding out how these exchanges between inside and outside worked – when they caused suffering and when they brought growth.

Though, as I soon learned, most functions of the mind operate in a projective manner, not all that is exchanged between the apparently internal and the apparently external, should be called “projective identification”. There is a wide variety of interactions. But if we look at what does resort under this notion and at the related processes discussed in the wealth of literature, a wide domain for deep-probing investigation opens up.  Such study involves the intellect, but in the first place it relies on introspection. Because the mind can study itself only with reference to experience. 

This investigative space stimulates the mind and prompts it to ask:

How do we take in reality? How do we ingest and digest it? How do we absorb its nutrients and grow, and how do we dissolve its poisons and dispose of them? Why does it happen so very often that we reject what could nourish us while we take in what poisons us? Why do we build, of all things, on these poisons, struggling against them and getting suffocated by them as we embrace them?

And then, naturally, these questions also follow:

What is it that makes something sustaining, and what causes it to be poisonous? How do the processes that distinguish between nutrient, poison, and neutral occur? What mechanism is in charge of the exchanges between inside and outside, or, in other words, how do their boundaries operate and what is their nature, if they exist at all?

These are some of the questions that preoccupied me then and still do, though very differently, now. Looking for answers, I move in two fields: dynamic psychology and Buddhism. I feel my way around, I plough furrow after furrow. I learn about myself as I face them, and I learn about them facing myself. I check theory against practice, experience against theory. Rather than finite answers, I look for infinite ones – alive answers that ride the stream of life. Sometimes they push against that stream, stir it; sometimes they relax a little, floating along with it, quietly enjoying.

For nearly seventeen years now I've been self-investigating through Vipassana, with S.N. Goenka and those who learned from him as my teachers. For more or less the same period of time (depending on where I start to count) I've been dwelling in the realm of psychotherapy: as a client, as a student, as a therapist, as a teacher, as a trainer, and as a researcher, gradually approaching the vast landscape of psychoanalytic thought. For my own restless, relentlessly inquisitive mind, these two perspectives have been immense treasures. Worlds apart in terms of theory and practice, their fascinating interplay composes a unique prism, most fruitful and useful for sincere inward-outward observation.

Closely following the actions of my mind I learn how it interrelates with other minds, with the rest of the world. My mind's reactions, as it encounters the world, teach me about the nature of my mind. Through my subjective perspective I study my subjective perspective. I study it, and reach out beyond it. 

Over time I have realized that what I considered as mine, as coming from within me, as myself, isn’t quite as I thought it to be. It does not essentially differ from what I believed to be not mine, not myself, coming from the outside. That much like there is no such thing as an infant apart of her mother (Winnicott, 1960), and that there is no such thing as a therapist without her relations with a patient, or conversely, a patient without his link to the therapist (Ogden, 1994) – similarly, there are no single brains (Cozolino, 2006) and no single minds. At the same time, however, they are not “one” either: The illusion of fusion misleads as well, by denying the specific, constantly changing, features of phenomena. What then can we say nevertheless? That our interdependency is a fundamental fact of our existence (Cozolino, 2006). That we are distinct, conditioned phenomena, arising and perishing incessantly, entertaining complex relations with our surroundings.

These insights, naturally, give rise to further questions:

Where exactly does my responsibility begin and end (if it ends at all) for my emergent reactions to contact with the world?  Where does my responsibility begin and end for the mental materials that arise in me and which I myself disperse around me? What causes my particular suffering and suffering in general? To what extent is this suffering inevitable and from what can one be set free? It seems to me that these questions cannot but occur to those of us who study the depths of the mind and its relations with other minds. They cannot but trouble those of us who wish to be truly ethical. From a Buddhist point of view, true ethics is the ethics of mental action. This is why it must be investigated. 

Carved by Experience is a reflection of my own version of such investigation. Featuring the concepts of "projection", "projective identification", and "conditioned arising" as central players, and with further contemplations inspired by interviews with long-time Vipassana students and teachers, it looks deep into the nature of mental action and the manner in which it carves our internal and interpersonal lives.

In this book I share what my mind has so far produced in regard of the above issues. I try to cast some light on the mental layers, always present, invisible, residing in the dusty corners of the mind – or sometimes right in front of us - as they activate and constitute us.  Observing these layers, we can see how the mind’s tendency to cling to the pleasant and to repel the unpleasant relates to a fixed sense of self, and how these two are linked to a subjective, inherently distorted, perception of reality. We can see the relationship between the above and the mind’s tendency to split and project, and how this leads us to reproduce our suffering and distribute it outward. We can see how our reactive mental layers lead us to meet reality in a way that further complicates them, piling up our accumulations of misery and blindness; as well as how these accumulations express themselves in the present, in body and mind, thus inviting us to touch and explore them. We can see how, using the appropriate mental equipment, we may expose them to change – and, as Buddhism suggests, even entirely dissolve them, using our personal samsaric prison as the one field that enables liberation.

Barnea-Astrog, Michal (2017). Carved by Experience: Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself. Karnac Books, pp. 155-157.

More excerpts from the book