A primary tool for seeing into one’s inner world in psychoanalysis is the conscious use of transference between the patient and their analyst. The analyst is trained to remain a “blank slate” onto which the client projects and eventually learns to examine and own, a host of fantasies, stories, ideas, meanings and motives. (Obviously, this is a simplified overview of the rich terrain of the psychoanalytic therapeutic relationship, provided largely for back story and context.)
My friend and I were talking about her training over dinner recently. I was telling her about some of the ways my life and work were shifting and evolving. Both of us are recovering bulimics and we stumbled into the territory of perfectionism and high expectations of self and others.
I told her how I had an experience at a training recently that was incredibly transformational. One of the most instructive aspects of the program happened for me around perfectionism. I noticed that every time one of the facilitators explained a concept with which I was familiar, I thought to myself, “You know, if they gave this explanation before that one, I think it would be better” or “You know, that wasn’t very organized, etc.” (Yes, let’s be clear, I was NOT hired as a consultant but that didn’t stop my little analyzing mind from having an ongoing commentary about how the program could be improved. Oy vey.)
Anyway, at some point on the second day of the program, I realized I was having an incredibly powerful experience and getting everything I wanted out of the program even though the lectures weren’t perfect or precise and even though I thought certain concepts could be better explained or better organized. It hit me like a ton of bricks that the field of transformation from which I was clearly benefiting was not dependent on perfection as I defined it. Turns out, one can’t heal perfectionism by having everything meet one’s high expectations for perfection.
Kinda like you can’t learn patience quickly. That sort of thing.
My friend told me that in her training that week they discussed a concept called dissonance that is key in the psychoanalytic relationship. When the therapeutic relationship between the analyst and patient is new, rapport and trust is not yet established and so an analyst might spend a long time agreeing with their patient with the aim of reflecting positive regard. In theory, the client learns to trust and to validate their own experience through the positive reflection they are receiving from their analyst. (Again, this is a very simplified explanation and I am sure my psychologically astute readers may find it a bit lacking.)
However, and here is the exciting part, I think— my friend told me her mentor said that if, after a few years the client is always saying , “Yes, that’s it exactly! I feel so understood!” and there is no conflict or dissonance arising, then in terms of transformational possibility, you are in trouble. Turns out that when a therapist says, “So you are saying that it makes you angry….” and the cleint says, “Well, its not exactly like that for me. It is more that I am sad, lonely and frustrated…” the transformational process is engaged. The dissonance, the lack of perfection calls the client into transformation because it asks the client to reach, to dig deep and to mine their inner terrain with greater clarity and precision.
The theory goes that when we are called to clarify our own thoughts, when we are called to reach in some way to articulate our experience and claim it as our own, we are actually laying down new neural pathways. (Much of Freud’s work is now backed up with neuro-science, which is another fascinating line of discussion for another time. ) So, as wonderful and important as positive reflections are for our development, growth and change occur at a deeper level when we find our own words for our authentic vantage point. This part of the process works, in large part, due to imperfection.
And because I am me, I got to thinking about how these concept relate to being a yoga student and a teacher.
If I go to class wanting the class, my teacher and/or my fellow students to meet all of my expectations, then I am likely to be thrown off center by the things I think are not happening perfectly. If I go to yoga class looking for insight into my inner world and as a way to learn about myself through the things I like and do not like, the mistakes, imperfections and dissonances have transformational potential. (Obviously this assumes the class is basically coherent, the teacher is basically competent and so on. Big disctinctions can and should be made between competence and perfectionism, but that is a different post for a different day.)
As a teacher, if I am constantly worried about doing it all perfectly and saying all the right things, I am neuroticly self-obsessed and therefore less present to teach the people or the subject. In my misunderstanding of how the transformational process works and I may even interfere with the important work of self-inquiry that students who want to grow must do for themselves by attempting to please, placate and sanitize the classroom experience.
What a relief to remember that the field of transformation does not depend on perfection and on always liking and agreeing with what is offered.
To be clear, I am not saying that it is easy when dissonance occurs between teachers and students, no matter which role I am playing in the dynamic. And yoga teachers are not trained or contracted to work with the transference like a psychoanalyst does nor do I assume the average yoga student is coming to class ready for a big dose of inner work after a long day at their job. I think teachers should work to refine their skills and I think students should expect well-trained, competent and sane teachers when they walk into a studio. And I know teachers feel a tremendous pressure to please, placate and sanitize the classroom experience.
However, I am also interested in the accountability that comes when dissonance is engaged creatively and consciously because greater accountability generally means greater choice and living with choice rather than conditioned, unconscious reactions is one of the primary boons of practice.
And it seems to me that, in the same way I described outer moments of dissonance- between teacher and student or analyst and patient, these moments of being called to reach inside for greater clarity, to refine my own understanding of my viewpoint and to grow into a more authentic personal expression is happening internally also. The me-who-has-been-me-up-until-now is often saying to the me-in-the-process-of-becoming-more-truly-me, “So it’s like this for you….” and the Me-in-the-process is saying something like, “Well, for a long time, it was like that, but now, well, I am not sure if that is so true… maybe it is more like this now….”
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."