Louise: A Choreography of Nuances

Excerpts from the book Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness: Sensitivity, Fear, and the Drive Towards Truth

Holding a gentle baby

“For the parent of a gentle baby, generating a holding and well-attuned environment is not likely to be a simple job. All babies are sensitive to facial expression, tone of voice, and other gestures of people in their surroundings, especially their parents. All babies are sensitive to how they are being held and handled, to heat and cold, to pain and hunger, to motion and position, to the air outside and the ambience indoors, to sadness and joy, indifference and love. When we grow up, still, we continue reacting automatically and unconsciously to the nonverbal communication of the people surrounding us and to the conditions of our environment, as they make contact with our subjective constitution and trigger sensations. In this sense, we are all sensitive. Yet there are some for whom this process takes a different place, more frontal, and with a somewhat different resolution.

Gentleness is associated with subtlety, and the gentle person registers subtleties and reacts to them. The merest change in external conditions affects her. The smallest shift in internal circumstances affects her. What may be good enough for one infant may not do at all for the gentle infant. The task of adjustment and responding to needs is more complex in this sense for parents of such children: at times they ask for degrees of attention and accuracy that are not equally developed in all of us. On the other side of the interaction, that of the baby, incompatibility is likely to be experienced as a harsh jarring, and often she cannot pass this unnoticed. And so, her feedback to the parent’s inability (momentary or ongoing) to attune and respond will be loud and clear. If there are not enough other opportunities in which their interactions result in calmness, restfulness, quiet, attentive activity, and content, the parent may eventually take the baby’s expressions as blame: “Failure! Failure! Failure!” In such a case, the parent’s confidence is likely to suffer, and along with it his naturalness, his clarity, and his ability to hold and contain. These, in turn, will have their effect on the shaping of the baby’s mental life and parent– infant relations.

Other than manifestations of anxiety, restlessness (both mental and physical) and loneliness, another possible product of this dynamic is confusion. When a woman experiences reality at a higher resolution than the people around her – including those who are responsible for her care – her clarity regarding her perception of external and internal reality may well become troubled. One could say that she sees and perceives what the others don’t see and perceive. A subtle transmission that lands on grosser receptors (wholly normal, often, but in this case relatively blunt) is not fully – or perhaps fully not – absorbed. Here, the ones whose receptors they are cannot receive the transmission and come up with an appropriate response. If this happens regularly, the transmission starts to become distorted. Each and every one of us experiences reality in a specific and unique way, and a certain discrepancy between what we transmit and what others receive is only to be expected. But when this discrepancy is more extensive – as often is the case with gentle or very sensitive people – the experience is more deeply engraved.”

Louise: a choreography of nuances

“Of the several narratives that come to my mind in this context, Louise’s is one that touched me especially. I have known her for a number of years. She is a pleasant-looking woman of around fifty, a physiotherapist and dancer who started as a student of mine and then became a supervisee. Early on in our acquaintance it was obvious that she was a person who looked deeply into things, who weighed up matters inquiringly, not letting nuances go unnoticed. Another thing that stood out was a troubled tone, a kind of restlessness: not of the fidgety type, but in a way, rather heavyhearted, and a lean on the assistants for this purpose. The instructor – me, in this case – attends the event and offers the therapist advice in real time.

Let’s return to Louise. On this occasion she was in the role of the person who studied herself (the patient), and she immediately reported discomfort and restlessness, physical and mental. She tried to find a way to relax a little. She tried to sit in one way and then in another. To lean or not lean. To lie down. She lay on her back and then turned on her side. She bent her knees and held them together. Rolled over to the other side. She tried to find the right place to put her head, her arms, her legs, her neck. As she was looking inward, aware of what was happening there, we tried to support her with a pillow, a headrest, a wall, or a hand. We tried to hold the tense, cramped areas on her face, her skull, shoulders, knees, back – without any attempt to suppress the discomfort, to resolve or fi x it; we tried to stay with her sensitively and with sympathetic curiosity, responding as best we could. Every attempt Louise made led to a sense of impreciseness. Each and every position, however right it seemed to begin with, would rapidly turn inappropriate, impelling her to shift. Each time she just started to relax a little, another bout of restlessness arose, which then would be equally unappeasable. We found ourselves following her ever more closely, changing along with her from moment to moment, shifting with her in what gradually became a dance of adjustments, a choreography of nuances.

She spoke about a feeling that accompanied her in the various relationships she had had, a feeling that she was hard to be with. That she was not understood, that she was too complicated, a difficult person, a difficult patient. She was concerned for us, didn’t want us to feel obliged to cope with her – wasn’t that impossible anyway? She felt homeless, without a place in the world, detached. She knew yet didn’t know what would be right for her, felt the irritation of incongruity yet couldn’t manage to see beyond it – what might feel good, what might fit.

Clarity and confusion came and went, taking turns, blending together, clashing. In time Louise grew more curious about what was happening, as it gradually took on shape and meaning with us looking on. An association came up, perhaps an image, or perhaps a memory, of herself as a baby in the arms of her mother, who doesn’t know where to put her or what to do with her. This image was forceful and clear, and it was attended by an experience she knew all too well: a feeling of deep and persistent discontent, a kind of mental and physical squirming that doesn’t allow surrender to the here and now, that doesn’t make it possible simply to be. She was a fifty-year-old woman with the wisdom of someone her age and more, but this infantile layer was alive in her, running her from within. She moved this way and that, not finding peace; she couldn’t quite position herself, yearning for something that would settle her but that never properly arrived.

Like a parent to a baby who is hard to soothe, in this type of situation the therapist too may be drawn into a constellation marked by a sense of failure, frustration, anger, and guilt; she may well find herself caught up in anxiety and insecurity, or disconnecting and emotionally abandoning the patient. Like a parent – but also unlike her – she may feel tempted to try and repair, to quickly erase the discontent and replace it with a good feeling: like a parent because both can harbor a reparative impulse based on anxiety and difficulty tolerating unpleasantness, but unlike a parent because the balance between the space devoted to allowing discontent and staying with it and the space devoted to relief is different for a more competent, adult patient than for a baby – provided the aim is healthy processing. However that may be, realizing that it is the actual work of attention and adjustment that is the central process here is likely to contribute to the ability to not be carried away on a vortex of anger and guilt, by the anxious effort to repair or by detachment. The work of attention and adjustment is not expected to lead to absolute compatibility, to the perfect fi t of glove to hand. It is, rather, the work of endeavor: lending a curious and sympathetic ear to the other, addressing one’s will and gaze to the subterranean streams that are asking for just this. For the person studying himself, too, realizing that this is the crux of the matter gives meaning to the process. His view of unpleasantness and difficulty changes, turning them from something loathsome that he must be rid of into objects of investigation, interesting and precious in themselves.

In the case of Louise, the work of attention and adjustment was the central process because, for her, the experience most deeply engraved as missing was that of an observant maternal mind that perceived subtleties, acknowledged them and their right to exist, and was capable of responding to them – not at every single moment and not fully, but often enough and close enough to being full. The work of attention and adjustment was central in the sense that experiencing it in the therapeutic-learning space created the possibility for Louise to investigate the means she had developed in order to cope with the early lack, as well as the opportunity to experience – for brief moments that were gradually absorbed and expanded – what until then had been unthinkable. Now her subtle transmission met with subtle receptors that were able to properly perceive her and respond to her. And because this happened repeatedly and systematically over the course of a number of years, the earlier distortion began to disentangle. Once Louise was offered the opportunity to attend, again and again, to the nuances of the flow of her experience – the need, the discontent, the natural spring, the rhythm that sought expression – in a setting that was attuned to them, allowed them to pass through its reverie and held them with confidence and love, the confused state of mind lost its grounding and began to dissipate. In this space she found a home. Her discernment and accuracy no longer clashed with what had screened them, and slowly on they found more expression, softly glowing against the background of relative ease that started to emerge in both her body and her mind.”

More excerpts from the book