Marina: To Lend an Ear to the Feeble, To Look at the Hidden Through a Veil

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

“The path refines. It takes apart what seemed of one piece and dissolves the solid; it heightens sensuous and perceptual resolution and sharpens the ability to discern. The gentle infant needs fine-tuned maternal attention to be held, attention that is internalized in due time to transform into a holding internal environment. He needs a maternal or paternal container that is open and ready to take in his contents down to their finest points, a container which, one day, will be internalized to turn into a healthy mental digestive system of its own. One who walks on the path explained by the Buddha needs others who experience reality at a resolution at least as high as his or her own, and a social-cultural-conceptual context that elucidates and acknowledges it, as well as a sensitive and balanced internal space in which the subject matter of reality can arise and subside without turning into new accumulations of suffering. In both cases, the combination between a well-developed internal space and a fitting external space yields a living environment that supports the possibility of being safely gentle.

Attention is this space or environment. What happens when an experience receives attention does not happen, or happens differently when it does not receive attention. What happens when the attention turned to experience is judgmental is unlike when it is non-judgmental. What happens or may happen when attention is blunt or invasive is unlike what happens or may happen when it is sharp or spacious. Attention’s presence, absence and degree, as well as its qualities, make up the features of the mental setting in which certain processes may or may not happen, in a variety of ways, invited into the domain of emotional processing or pushed away from it.

To illustrate a subtle level of interpersonal work with an attentional environment I would like to present some of the major motifs of Marina’s process. Marina is a developmental psychologist in her mid-forties. A gentle woman, without a doubt, and her gentleness is mature and strong. She is experienced in exploring her mind, highly conscious of the flow of her experience and maintaining close and frequent touch with it. Against this background of familiarity with mental life, the feebleness of her emotional sphere (which is of course one component of the flow of experience) stands out. When an emotion, especially a disturbing one, arises in her, she has to make an effort – to invest in a conscious, deliberate act – in order to connect with that emotion and to allow it expression so as to become a living presence.

What happens to her systematically and habitually, is the following: The emotion appears as a slight impression and then immediately passes. If for some reason the dynamic between inside and outside causes it to grow stronger, self-regulation mechanisms rapidly come into action to attenuate and weaken it. The emotion’s volume is so low that it’s never clear whether there is even a point to look at it. It presents itself as a mental component that requires no attention. What remains, for Marina, is a sense that everything is all right; that whatever comes up, whether faint or slightly more present, will anyway shortly fade.

The sense of calm derived from the realization that anything that arises is destined to pass is anchored in the wisdom of impermanence. So we are really dealing with subtleties here: A keen eye is therefore necessary, an eye that distinguishes between this wisdom, which is true and realistic – and the mental adhesions joining it like stowaways, using it in order to pass unnoticed below the radar of awareness. This is always a danger, I find, in the case of those who turn to various psychological and spiritual theories, ideas and practices – however positive: The mind tends to attach its bad habits to innocent structures and contents, to as it were give the former a stamp of approval, justify them, cleanse them of their dark origins. The harshest cases I can think of right now are associated with the impure products of some forms of religious or ideological devotion. Other examples are the hallowing of anguish and mental agitation mistakenly perceived as indispensable to a life of creativity and contemplation; or treating family life and livelihood as the ultimate value, to cover up an avoidance of mental reality and existential questions. These adhesions are a lot more subtle for people who consistently investigate their mind (by means of various types of Buddhist meditation. by means of in-depth psychotherapy. by other realistic and moral means) – but here too they must be identified.

Of course our ability to pick up on these stowaways, when disguised as wisdom and balance they infiltrate the domain identified as pure, is limited. Ignorance is ignorance, and it lies in its nature to camouflage itself and the way it operates. All-embracing ignorance blocks out reality in an all-embracing manner. Local ignorance, pockets of it – hides patches of reality. Condensed layers of crude ignorance cover whatever they cover with an impermeable, or nearly impermeable overlay (though this doesn’t mean it will be so forever).Thin, perforated layers of ignorance have the effect of a scarf or veil: they reveal a bit and conceal a bit more; they allow elements and processes to glimmer through, next to immediately make them disappear, elusive, hazy-hints-flashes in the corner of the eye, on the tip of the tongue, I thought I saw a shadow, I turned my head and it was gone, I must have dreamt.

Such was Marina’s habit. Her mental life, apparently, at the very beginning must have demanded a system that would guard against her emotions intensifying, the guiding reason being that as long as they did not overfill and cross a certain threshold – a particularly low one – they would not be accompanied by any need. In this way, understood Marina’s mind, arranging itself accordingly, the need to take care of those feelings, and of herself as she was experiencing them, wouldn’t arise. The need for someone to take care of her or those feelings would not arise. Look – there’s a feeling, now, perhaps pain, a yearning, a hint of distress – but it’s so feeble it already passes, it takes care of itself. So really, there’s nothing for me to work on. I actually have no real need at all. I had to acknowledge Marina’s mental climate and accept it for what it was. To embrace warmly the possibility that “this is probably all there is. That there simply isn’t anything else, nothing more profound, somewhere deep down, nothing really significant and important that must be revealed.” Any other approach would, understandably, have been felt as imposing, an expression of violence.

Marina’s self-regulatory capabilities served her well. We both assumed they helped her survive and develop at the beginning of life, continuing as a great resource in her adulthood. When there was no other choice, they enabled her to hold herself. They turned her into one who needs less and is therefore less exposed. And so it was only logical that when an interpersonal dynamic stretched or deepened a little beyond what felt safe, in other words, if it threatened to raise her emotions to beyond where they were easy to deal with, she would draw back from the interaction. Finding herself in a group situation she would almost automatically put on a thoughtful expression and retreat into her interior realms. In an eye-to-eye situation she could be extremely attentive, present and engaged, but here too, unless she was in the therapist’s chair, chances were she would grow absent every now and then. Still, because her mind was blessed with other abilities and also due to having had earlier successful experiences of mental processing and growth, this dissociation and absence, too, she was aware of.

The place to which Marina withdrew was a no-place. Awaiting her were no imaginary delights, no affliction and soul wrenching doubt. It was more empty than full, more nothing than something. And the escapades there were done to regulate mental intensities but were also the expression of a companion-desire (or a mother-desire or a sister-desire) that went deeper: this was the wish to cease, to move no more, a wish for non-existence.

This nothingness offered her important solace, and her psyche wished for me and significant others to acknowledge and to cherish it, to allow for it and love her in the way it formed her. As with the feebleness of emotion, here too, my accepting attitude to her choice for absence was a crucial component of the process. Crucial –  but certainly not sufficient. Acknowledging the survival mechanisms and supporting them is the first stage; but the process must continue and touch the harsh experiences that entailed these survival mechanisms, as well as the absent nourishing experiences – those which, had they been available, would in all probability have taken her to other forms of organizing. In the present context it seems that one of Marina’s missing experiences was that of a maternal mind adequate to emotion’s full force, that would permit it to arise and increase without the inhibitory presence of a forceful self-regulating system. A mind, attentive and flexible, open enough to fear, sadness, and hatred because its own reverie was good-enough, able to properly digest them and restore them to the daughter in a reasonable state, sufficiently attenuated –  so that she would not have to learn prematurely how to moderate her feelings; so that later in life she would not have to moderate her feelings prematurely, as they present themselves.

The way Marina acquired for conducting herself in the world of emotions and relationships faced us with a danger: the danger that we would restrict ourselves to legitimating her withdrawals and her general way of coping, that we would be tempted to forget that even though “everything was all right”, and even though she was quite capable of holding and regulating herself, there was something yet she was longing for, something long since forgotten and dropped out of her world. Exactly because it was almost invisible, this danger was real. Even now, as I write these words and Marina’s image is in my mind, it’s hard to believe them. “Danger” and “longing” and “need” – they are too intense for her mental field. Waves of self-regulation immediately wash over them, obscuring and attenuating them, and they blur. At those moments I have to remind myself the many signs of danger, longing and need that emerged and presented themselves and which we, in spite of everything, transformed into objects of investigation.

“We deal with the unknown, which does not make things easier for us by adjusting itself to our mind’s weak perceptual ability. The things we deal with are so delicate and implicit that they are hardly perceptible, and yet they are very real, capable of destroying us almost unawares” (Aharoni and Bergstein 2012, 44-45, note 32) 1. The longing Marina displayed was first and foremost for not-being. But there was something else that peeped from behind it, something that did want to capture what-was-just-at-the-tip-of-the-tongue, what-was-slipping-from-the-corner-of-the-eye. Something seeking contact with emotion, reaching out to sense and hold it, something that didn’t want to slacken and withdraw knowing that, like all others before it, this emotion too would fade and pass even before having unfolded, grown strong and exceeded the limit of what could be easily handled alone.

For this concealed part I am available, to this I lend an attentive ear. I ride the subterranean streams of the process, ready to encounter it at its faintest showing, no matter what form it takes. I am an attentional environment for it, trying to be good enough for just that – for it and the other parts, the other layers, the other subterranean and surfacing streams. An environment that doesn’t urge but in its own way signals: Here it is safe. Here it is possible. To be gentle with the present and the absent, with the faint and the increasing, the stormy and the mellow.”

Barnea-Astrog, Michal (in press). Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness: Sensitivity, Fear, and the Drive Towards Truth. London: Routledge.


1 The authors mention this is based on: Bion, Wilfred R. 1976. “Four discussions.” In Clinical Seminars and Other Works, 241-292. London: Karnac, 1994.

More excerpts from the book