Monday, October 1, 2012

Learning with Bion

This Saturday, Oct 6, 2012, Walton Ehrhardt, EdD will present to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, Inc “Learning with Bion,” a timely presentation both because Bion has influenced contemporary intersubjective theorists, and because some find the writings of Bion inaccessible. As many others find his work inspiring and illuminating, it behooves us to better understand what we can learn from Bion. Wilfred Bion spent his early years in India and his experiences as a tank commander in World War I profoundly shaped his approach to psychoanalysis. It is suggested that his way of going on living after an experience with death in war speaks profoundly to clinicians practicing in our contemporary world of trauma and dissociation.

Long fascinated with Bion’s admonition to approach the analytic hour without “memory or desire” I mused on what might be meant by such an exhortation. This phrase may intimate technique but it seems to me to be more likely to do with something greatly emphasized at the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc., that is, an analytic attitude. Bion exhorts a particular quality of mind. An “ ‘act of faith’ ” [not the K system, but the O system], an open receptivity to the unknown, which both facilitates becoming instead of knowing [O preceding K], and respects the unique personality of the analyst. [Bion says of O: “the void, the formless infinite…the perfect blank” and “the ultimate reality… the thing-in-itself.” Gerhardt refers to Bion's "O is the unknowable and ineffable which is felt as emotional truth and which we can only ever approximate. In treatment, O is turned into K and partially grasped to the extent it can represent connection between the self and the other; it is a knowing; it is not knowledge. K does not lead to O because experience precedes thought. -K is the experience that impedes or reverses the experience of understanding as it unfolds in the intersubjective expereintial field or as it unfolds in the intrapsychic dialogue."] The felt emotional truth of who we are seeks recognition in experience, not merely cognitive understanding and words, yet we also approach, in part, O in the clinical situation to the extent it is transformed into K. Unlike Freud, who wrote that, like archeologists, we can carefully dig up through reconstruction (based on theory) the repressed event or memory as an existing entity of the past, Bion recognized that uncertainty permeates the analytic process as it unfolds unpredictably from the unique combination of analyst and patient experience. There is no existing truth to be revealed but rather a moving toward an as yet unrealized truth co-created in a moment between two intimately entwined psyches.

Bion is probably best known for his ideas about containment and reverie. We cannot discuss containment without discussing “alpha function,” the function of the primary caretaker to receive projected unwanted or overwhelming infant affects and process/modify these otherwise overwhelming experiences and return them to the infant in a palatable form. It develops the infant’s capacity for self regulation; is a part of mutual regulation; and ‘gives’ meaning to experience. [Bion did not necessarily describe how the ‘container’ function takes into account the subjectivity of the mother/therapist. More contemporary analysts might take umbrage with the idea that one person can be merely an object to receive projections, and remind us that the subjectivity of the receiver likewise influences what is received as well as what was projected, adding that projective identification tends to over emphasize the idea of therapist as container.]   In being a 'container,' the therapist takes in thoughts or feelings untenable to the patient, and then represents them in a modified fashion so as to make them more usable (acceptable; less omnipotently destructive, easier to identify with; etc). This is done, in part, by holding the patient in one’s mind, as mother does with infant, via memory and reverie.

Thomas Ogden expounds on the dream-like process Bion has called reverie by discussing its absence:
"… the pressure on an infant to behave in a manner congruent with the mother's pathology, and the ever-present threat that if the infant fails to comply, he would cease to exist for the mother. This threat is the muscle behind the demand for compliance: "If you are not what I need you to be, you don't exist for me." Or in other language, "I can see in you only what I put there. If I don't see that, I see nothing"

Reverie, then, is the state of mind of the mother (or the analyst) which allows her to serve as a container to her infant, allows her to imagine herself in the infant’s ‘shoes’ and discern his needs. The feeding, holding, and soothing of her infant are her ‘interpretations’ of his experience and need. The Object Relations' idea of projective identifciation along with Bion's containment may come into play with our ability to 'wear the attributions' [ala Lichtenberg] a patient deems for us. To do this requires of us a capacity to feel our way into our patients' shoes and discern their hunger (longing), disappointment in and fear of us, and their demands for recognition and mutuality. Reverie aids our ability to feel our way into the other. It informs the analytic attitude, and eventually and hopefully, engenders, through experience, these shared capacities in our patients.

Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning form Experience. Oxford, UK: Jason Aronson
Bion, W.R. (1970) Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock. In Seven Servants (1977) New York: Jason Aronson.
Gerson, S. (2004) The Relational Unconscious: A Core Element of Intersubjectivity, Thirdness, and Clinical Process. Psychoanal Q., 73:63-98.
Ogden, T.( 1992) The dialectically constituted/decentred subject of psychoanalysis. I: The Freudian subject. Int. J. Psychoanal., 73:517-526.

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