The unknown: the deep link between mindfulness and psychoanalysis

Many people will see mindfulness and psychoanalytic therapy as different and distant. The encounter between these two worlds can be represented as a meeting between hooded monks eating simple foods from bowls and formally dressed Europeans conversing in cafes.

As in any situation where there is an intimate misunderstanding – “from within” – of the different worlds, perceptions from one world to another could be generalized in a caricatural way: sometimes idealizing, but often making the difference inferior and even ridiculous.

    The relationship between mindfulness and psychoanalysis

    In extreme cases (which are not uncommon), “mindfulness people” may see psychoanalysis as a kind of intellectualization, and “psychoanalysts” may see the practice of mindfulness as a spiritual simplification that avoids complexities of the psyche and of life.

    But in practice, the two modes (Mindfulness and psychoanalysis) they try to hone attention spans in order to reduce human suffering; skills that both practices strive to bring to the highest and most professional level, what a work of art. In reality, the heart of the therapeutic act, like the heart of the practice of mindfulness, is associated with an attentive presence in an emergent space, the contours of which are unknown and uncontrollable.

    It is a presence that strives to remain in permissive contact with the emerging space and allows it to naturally evolve and take on new forms, at its own pace, again and again.

    This kind of attentive presence depends on the ability to be in contact with the “unknown”. If we cannot contain it (the unknown), we immediately categorize everything we find, into preconceived categories. Instead of designing what is happening now, we interpret it based on our expectations, opinions, and prior knowledge. In this case we cannot be in contact with the true present moment (without mediation) nor with the reality of the person with whom we are confronted. The new and unique of the present moment is enveloped in our preconceptions.

      The nature of the unknown

      Only if we can find the unknown can we confront the freshness of the new moment and the otherness of the other. In fact, our curiosity, our learning, our ability to adapt to new circumstances, and our ability to really get to know the other… everything depends on this stripped attention and this ability to be in contact with an element that does not is not yet known.

      Wilfred Bion, one of the most innovative developers of Freud and Klein, a psychoanalyst and multidisciplinary genius, introduced this type of stripped-down attention to psychoanalysis. He emphasized that finding the present moment without preconceptions is a central feature of the practice of psychotherapy. He also distinguished the different degrees of personality transformations and said that Therapists who can support “the unknown” can facilitate deeper transformations.

      Bion devotes numerous publications to this subject and develops original concepts to communicate his intention. He insisted that psychoanalysis has been flooded with theories and insights that may hamper the therapist’s ability to see the patient as he is. The informed therapist, says Bion, could be so saturated with existing ideas lose the uniqueness of the real patient in the present moment.

        Another way to understand therapy

        According to Bion, each therapy session should be treated as a new, unknown and emergent unit. In one of his most cited articles, he writes: “Each session evolves. from darkness and formlessness, something evolves” [Wilfred Bion, Notas sobre la memoria y el deseo]. In that same article, he suggests that therapists be attentive to the patient “without memory or desire” and that they maintain direct contact with the singular impact of the present moment. Bion elaborated on this subject:

        “Psychoanalytic ‘observation’ does not deal with what has happened or is going to happen, but with what is happening… For the analyst, each of the sessions must lack history and future… The only thing important in any session is what is unknown and nothing should prevent you from intuiting it.” Wilfred Bion, Notes on Memory and Desire.

        Bion introduced, so to speak, the art of ignorance into the world of psychotherapy. In other words, we can refer to Bion as the champion of the unknown in the discipline of psychotherapy. Among so much psychoanalytic knowledge, he tried to generate a language that points to and inherently includes the unknown. The capacity to be unsaturated and in contact with elements still unknown is a central key, according to Bion, to facilitating profound transformations in the patient’s personality.

        In short: keeping the “unknown” alive and present is an art form that is at the heart of any therapeutic process and any moment of mindfulness. It reflects the ability to be in direct contact with present reality and with the uniqueness of other human beings. Despite our natural tendency to categorize everything we find according to preconceived categories and existing knowledge, this art form allows us to absorb the freshness of the present moment and the otherness of the other. Therefore, this form of art is at the heart of the processes of attention, learning and creativity; represents the deep connection between mindfulness and psychoanalysis.

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