Consider the following brief moment in time:
Mother sets child to rest and turns her attention away.
Child reaches to reestablish touch but mother misses the cue.
Child whimpers softly and redirects gaze elsewhere.
Some children process a mother’s natural lapsing attention span with ease. Others may experience temporary internal disruption before reestablishing connection with some new curiosity. And a few experience a mother’s absence as unrecoverable, catastrophic emptiness.
We live in a world of love and suffering. Who can say what manner of correction might ease the suffering of babes who feel damaged by a core sense of disconnection? What rule book could possibly guide a mother to provide satisfactory responses to every call?
When we look at the accumulated impact of countless experiences of deep relational connection and disconnection, we are faced with a dizzying perspective on personal development. On one hand, small acts of parent/child attunement can help children process and dispel the influence of past disruptions. On the other hand, ongoing temperamental imbalances create just as many opportunities for abandonment as they do for smothering enmeshment. The imprint of each positive or negative interaction scores deep within the unconscious mind and sets the stage for a lifetime of relationships.
We Live in a World of Love and Suffering
What we don’t process as children, we tend to repeat as adults. As a couples therapist, I’m afforded an inside look at the way children grow up to choose partners to reenact those brief, but lasting, childhood sequences of love and/or suffering. As a therapist for individuals, I find myself participating in these unconscious patterns as they reoccur for them during our treatment sessions. My role in both scenarios is to help facilitate a healing moment.
Past suffering that is shared with a caring other can be recontextualized to the present moment and, thus, lose its unconscious hold on us. The rationale for such healing is founded on solid research in neuroscience, infant development studies, and psychology. It’s also founded in less clinical testimonies of spiritual healing that take place regularly in churches, mosques, meditation sanctuaries, and synagogues. As pithy as it sounds, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
For those curious about the nature of this healing process, there is no better starting point than the tender and mystic writings of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. His “philosophy of dialogue,” developed 100 years ago, takes a thorough look at what he calls the “I-Thou” experience. He describes elegantly the healing qualities available between people as they give genuine exploration to the sphere between them. Today this sphere is addressed in psychoanalytic literature as the study of “intersubjectivity.” But whether looked at clinically or spiritually, it offers us opportunity to understand more precisely how love between mankind brings an end to suffering.
To say that the patterns of love and suffering within us are unconscious forces is an understatement. Not only do these patterns precede our conscious minds, but they also precede any verbal cognition and thus elude any attempts to give language to the memories that put those patterns there in the first place. You and I might have all sorts of insightful observations about the explicit events that happened in your childhood (“I believe my mom never really wanted me,” or, “I feel she was always there for me”) but still not come anywhere close to the nonverbal implicit understandings that form the basis of your relational experience.
Long before an infant develops the awareness of itself as a separate human being, it develops what is called procedural knowledge — knowing how to joke around, get attention, or share affection. This knowledge is not accessible through your individual awareness of self. It is, in fact, a self-organizing principle of life that actually transcends the human dimension.
Observe any open biological system and you will see that it is self organized so as to integrate increasing amounts of information into more complex and more coherent states. In dyadic systems, such as occurs between parents and children, this mutually regulated new state occurs automatically at a deeply biological (dialogical) level. To see this in action, I recommend viewing a short video demonstrating what scientists refer to as the “still face experiment”: youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0
During times of mutual regulation, the coherence happening between parent and child create a symphony of implicit relational knowing. This symphony of well-regulated moments from early childhood (as well as the cacophony of poorly regulated moments) form the backdrop of our waking and sleeping consciousness yet remain unretrievable to us. They occurred before our minds had assembled a sense of self from which to have memories. How then can we even contact such states in therapy, much less transform them?
The Process of Repairing Suffering
Martin Buber recognized the many forms of healing dynamics that occur during psychotherapy, but took special care to point out a unique occurrence, called a “moment of meeting,” where the I-Thou state is crystallized. Beyond empathy or intuitive perceptions, the moment of meeting appears as “a bold swinging into the other.” This implies that the therapist and client have entered into the implicit context of the “Unthought Known.” They share temporarily the preconditioning experienced by the client as an infant.
In that moment, there comes an opportunity for a unique nonverbal relational repair. As bold and exciting as these unique moments are, their very genuineness make them difficult to describe. They take place on a level that is beyond classification and may even feel to exist beyond time.
Daniel Stern (1998) defined three other equally important interactions that occur in therapy (as well as between mothers and infants) that contain and give meaning to the “moment of meeting” pointed to by Buber.
- Moving Along. During this procedural format, therapist and client are involved with familiar routines together where there is a growing sense of theme and variation. The two are engaged within an envelope of time that has a dramatic line of tension toward a goal. There is a sense that the two are purposefully working to regulate their conversation into a single dance of some sort.
- The Now Moment. Something unexpected occurs that shifts the focus of each off the usual track. Each is caught off guard, pulling their interaction entirely into the present and challenging the stability of their expectations of the other. This moment requires something new and unpredictable from both in order to reorganize the relationship. The normal flow of time has been interrupted. Time seems to expand for one long moment as the two can choose to back away or go forward into an unknown experience together.
- Moment of Meeting. The fragile Now Moment is somehow negotiated, requiring an authentic and unique response from both.
- Open Space. Immediately afterwards, each goes inward to assimilate what just occurred. This may take place all at once, or intermittently over the next day or so. Each makes sense of the meeting by making it something of his/her own. “I have that effect on people sometimes,” or “that was weird, reminds me of something that used to happen,” or “wow that never happened to me before.” Each finds a way to repack the event in their thinking and return to moving along with life as usual.
The procedure outlined above occurs regularly in well-regulated relationships, usually outside of our conscious awareness. If it is true that what we don’t process as children we tend to repeat in our adult relationships, then it’s important to add that we also continue to look for ways to complete that unfinished business whenever possible.
As relationally oriented creatures, we all seek to limit each other’s suffering and expand our own capacity for love. It happens in therapy, but not only there. Look carefully and see how we do this naturally in our interactions with partners, family, co-workers, and even with our rivals or in the casual niceties exchanged with store clerks. We live within the comfort of our own preset relational patterns, and simultaneously seek new pathways to expand beyond them.
- Stern, D. N. (1998). The process of therapeutic change involving implicit knowledge: Some implications of developmental observations for adult psychotherapy. Infant Mental Health Journal,19, 300–309.
- Buber, Martin. (2004). Between Man and Man, Routledge Classics, Taylor & Francis Publishing, NY.
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