The Fundamental Koan and the Value of Uncertainty in Psychology

Polly Young-Eisendrath

FAS Society Journal 1997, pp.124-128

People often seek psychotherapy (at least in my experience in the States) because they are facing an impasse in their lives, often one in which they are imposing early-life patterns of interpersonal and emotional meaning on new experiences. In reacting through old emotional habits, they make themselves and others suffer unnecessarily.

I am a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist who works with people in once to three times per week meetings (of fifty minutes) to focus attention on the ways in which our old habits may interfere with a direct, fresh response to life. The goal of an effective long-term psychotherapy is, in my view, the freedom to see and know emotional meanings without necessarily acting upon them. The patient and I come to know her or his history -- the "psychological complexes" (or afflictions of the mind)-- as an aspect of a fundamentally human life. We learn to accept and tolerate a range of emotion and image in our relationship together (called the "transferential field" in modern terminology).

This capacity to reflect metaphorically on the whole personality within a safe framework is what Carl Jung termed the "transcendent function." One's attitude transcends the tension of opposites and the impulse to foreclose prematurely on meaning. The movement from painful enactments of psychological complexes, which often include attacks on others or oneself, to this reflective attitude is a development of psychological wholeness -- a self-awareness in which one takes responsibility for one's multiple subjective motives and centers and is no longer simply driven by them or alternately cut off from them. One becomes a "psychological individual" when one no longer simply projects one's negative complexes onto others or identifies them as oneself. One has become accountable for the suffering one creates through attitudes and actions. Developing this capacity for complex self-reflection in a clear dialogical space (the therapeutic environment) will open the door to empathy and compassion for others and oneself, and finally to the experience of interdependence.

Another way to look at the goal of long-term therapy is that therapist and patient together develop new meanings from old stories. All of us, of course, are loath to give up old meanings, especially the ones that undergird our ordinary sense of self (this is the "kind of person I am"). As a psychotherapist I must often provoke some uncertainty about the value of old meanings; we must do more than talk about "what went wrong" in childhood, in the family of origin or in the current life situation. My patient must see and experience the negative effect of imposing old meanings on new situations.

New interpretations do not simply undo old ones; instead, the patient must have some "Aha!" moments in which feeling and perception come together to shock the old meaning structure. Part of this "shock" comes from the paradoxical nature of analytical psychotherapy: it is personally impersonal, empathetically non-gratifying, erotically non-sexual, provocatively non-aggressive, and welcoming of spontaneous communication within a strongly bound time-fee-space limit. A person coming for help, already in distress, will want to create an order--an old order-- in such a paradoxical space. An effective psychoanalysis relationship is like a Zen koan, inviting yet defying old interpretations.

The Fundamental Koan and the Use of Uncertainty

When I first encountered the Fundamental Koan, not even a year ago through communication with Jeff Shore, I was startled by its immediacy. In my own practice of zazen (during 26 years of varying degrees of involvement with the American Zen teacher Philip Kapleau), I had declined a number of times to engage in koan practice, and had instead stayed with the "just sitting" known as shikan-taza, which I had started with. I was wary of koan practice. I feared koan would make my practice achievement-oriented. I found also that standard Zen koan too often had no bite, but tended to be either frequently-used metaphors or foreign transplants. The sound of one hand clapping had, already in the mid-1970s, become a widely used metaphor in the States. On the other hand,Mu seemed to me distant and foreign, requiring a whole cultural context in order to be a pointed question or problem. Although I read about koan and mondô I could not find an enthusiasm for the practice. And then I encountered this lively, seemingly "modern" koan, that expresses the way many of us feel about our lives now -- When it is impossible to do anything, what will you do?

My practice of Zen has always been the background music for my practice of psychotherapy, but I have rarely talked directly about Zen in psychotherapy. Generally, it's best not to "talk about" any kind of practice, but simply do it. And yet I found the Fundamental Koan emerging out of the fabric of therapy itself.

In my work, I am the "protector" of the therapeutic process, responsible for maintaining an ethical, grounded openness to uncertainty even while needing to convey a certainty about what I do. In the midst of great emotional turmoil and pressure in a psychotherapy session, I could feel within me the Fundamental Koan! The dialectic of development in psychotherapy is facilitated by the paradoxical nature of the therapeutic relationshipand by the therapist's ability to contain and hold tensions, but it is also facilitated by the patient's belief in the therapist's expertise and capacity to help. Although both patient and therapist may get stuck in habitual unconscious meanings, only the therapist has the paradoxical responsibility of maintaining an appearance of knowing while remaining open to not-knowing.

An English psychoanalyst, Donald W. Winnicott, called this kind of openness the ability to create and sustain a "play space" or "potential space" in which new meanings are discovered, fostered by a playful attitude and a refusal to deal with only one meaning. Providing and sustaining such a metaphorical space is what I take to be my central task as a psychoanalyst. The Fundamental Koan has aided me in maintaining this space. This kind of play space requires a grounded, one-pointed awareness of the patient's suffering without knowing or doing something too quickly, automatically, reactively.

All of us are masters of collapsing the play space and taking a concept, image, or impression to be the experience of the direct truth of a moment rather than remaining open to dialectical process, a middle way. For instance, your spouse leaves dirty dishes in the sink and you assume that he or she has humiliated you by not doing the dishes, by "refusing" to do them. You attack out of that meaning. Or you feel deeply uncomfortable with a respected authority figure in your work and you assume your discomfort comes from the person disliking you. In both cases, the assumption of meaning creates suffering and only an openness, a question, an uncertainty can keep you in the play space and allow the transcendent function to operate.

Recently I was in a session with a woman whom I have seen in therapy for six years now, someone who has made striking changes in her life and who grew up in a highly abusive, hate-mongering family. She is a single mother of an adolescent son and she was speaking fearfully about not having enough money to pay his school tuition, about the constraints of her current work in a "managed care" psychological practice that does not meet even the basic therapeutic needs of patients, about the fact that her ex-husband will not be responsible for his part of the child support. All of these issues were described realistically and persuasively. She was right and accurate about impossible situations. The Fundamental Koan came to mind and I said directly, "This sounds like a modern koan, one taught in contemporary Zen: When it is impossible to do anything, what will you do?" She laughed in relief and so did I. There was no other "answer" to her fears. We both became very reflective about fear itself and how it hampers our abilities to hope and love and engage in life.

In another session with a woman sixty-four years old, she was talking about how much she was enjoying her life and work and how she has come to this enjoyment so late in life. Through her engagement with psychotherapy, she had decided to finish her undergraduate college degree at sixty, and then go on to graduate school. Now she has finished her Masters Degree, is carrying out her profession, and feels for the first time that she has arrived at her purpose. How late this purpose has come, she bemoaned, and I said, "When it's impossible to do anything about a situation, what will you do?" She was intrigued.

In both of these instances I had resisted playing out with my patients certain scenarios that others have played -- offering advice, supporting, reassuring, minimizing or trivializing difficulty. We all have a tendency to evoke unintentionally from others a replication either of what was done to us by our parents and/or how we felt in those circumstances of being a powerless child. This kind of drama has the technical name of "projective identification." In the case of the first woman, I might have identified her feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and then offered some empty reassurance ("Life is hard; we all find it hard.") that her mother would have offered. The patient was conveying a hopelessness about the actual constraints of her life. Because I too am human, I will identify with some emotions or patterns that any patient projects into me. In this case, the patient was "projecting" into me the caretaker, the authority, the knowledgeable one who should be able to help with her real travails. If I said nothing in response, I would be replicating her distant, sadistic stepfather. Those dramatic roles are in my psychological complexes as well as hers. If the therapist, either through silence or words, acts aggressively towards the patient, this will confirm to the patient yet another trusted human being is a rejecting caregiver.

As psychoanalyst Irwin Hoffman says, "Within the transference itself, there is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and with it, a kind of fatalism.... The transference includes not just a sense of what has happened or is happening but also a prediction, a conviction even, about what will happen."

So it is my task to keep open the dialectical space around my patient's suffering at a moment when I am invited to identify with a particular role from the past and play out a version of the same destructive scenario -- the same negative karmic pattern -- that was enacted with the parents.

The Fundamental Koan has aided me greatly in maintaining a helpful, therapeutic distance in a situation when my patients are speaking realistically about the terrible and difficult constraints of their lives. At these moments especially, I had previously conveyed a kind of "hmm" response (which can be almost a caricature of what a textbook therapist says) or had given in to saying something that commiserated about how difficult life is.

Concluding Remarks

Where the Fundamental Koan has increased my therapeutic capacity to sustain uncertainty is especially in regard to the actual pain and difficulty of people's lives. When I face with another person the fundamental limitations of being human, I find the Fundamental Koan standing there. This koan insists that we pause and look at this issue of "impossibility" and not simply react to it. The koan keeps me alert to a degree of uncertainty in all that I do as a therapist. I cannot know if my interpretations, ability to hold the play space or my empathy will be useful in advance of living out the moment with a particular person. Practicing the kind of psychoanalysis I do -- sometimes known as the "impossible profession" -- requires an underlying tolerance of uncertainty and with it a radical, yet critical kind of openness conveyed by my willingness to be wrong in an atmosphere where my expertise is counted on in a way that feels like life or death.

For all of us there is a strong conservative tendency to recreate the emotional meanings that we first discovered in our families of origin, no matter how much they may cause suffering and loss. This is negative karma that can teach a great deal if we allow it. People who come to psychotherapy have suffered from the worlds they have created, as much as they have suffered at the hands of those caregivers who initially imposed emotional meanings on them. My major task as a psychotherapist, a task enhanced by the Fundamental Koan, is to stay open when it is impossible to do anything and yet to do something.

[Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Jungian psychoanalyst, and
Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry at University of Vermont College of Medicine.]

Last updated: 7 March 1998