Kathleen Speeth: The Psychodynamics of Liberation
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "The Psychodynamics of Liberation." We're going to explore how it is that we get locked into particular limited views of ourselves, and how we can hope to ever transcend, to move beyond those small perspectives that we develop. With me today is Dr. Kathleen Speeth. Dr. Speeth is a member of the faculty of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Menlo Park, California. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice and author of several books, many articles on human development, and co-editor of a book called The Essential Psychotherapies, which she worked on with Dr. Daniel Goleman. Welcome, Kathy.
KATHLEEN SPEETH, Ph.D.:I'm glad to be here.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here again. We get stuck, we get limited. Every form of psychotherapy has its own diagnosis of what is the problem -- how do we become neurotic, how do we become stuck, how is it that we see ourselves in our smallness and can't get beyond it? And then they all offer a way to get around it. What I'd like to begin to explore with you are some of the commonalities, some of the larger things that we can say about the whole issue of liberation. Maybe a good way to lead into that is just to ask you, what is your definition of liberation?
SPEETH: Well, I don't know if we can hope to find complete liberation from whatever traps we're in in this lifetime, but I'd say we could move toward liberation, if we find ourselves freer rather than less free, by whatever we understand about ourselves, or whatever techniques we use from psychotherapy or from any other religious tradition, any other technological helps we can find in the culture -- political even.
MISHLOVE: It seems as if in a sense we're caught in so many veils of illusion, that as soon as we break through one -- say, racism -- then we run into another, sexism. Or we run into another, religious prejudice. Or we run into another, age prejudice. There's no end to the ways in which our perspectives are limited by our particular situations. And I suppose at some level maybe that's healthy. Maybe it would not be good for a human being to be fully liberated. How would one function?
SPEETH: Well, I suppose the most liberated person from your point of view, what you just described, is a neonate -- a tiny baby, just born, who experiences the world as a booming, buzzing confusion, doesn't have any concepts to clot the world into observable things and repeatable experiences. But perhaps a free human being, a free and developed human being, isn't like that. Perhaps they can be free without giving up conceptualization.
MISHLOVE: Well, we certainly have ideal models of what this might be, especially from the Oriental traditions when they really do talk about spiritual liberation, spiritual enlightenment, completely unfettered by the bonds of karma or samsara or illusions of various sorts. And yet every time a so-called enlightened, liberated guru comes over to the West, it's like the emperor wearing no clothes. It's easy to see their foibles.
SPEETH: So you're disappointed. You feel betrayed.
MISHLOVE: I wonder, personally, if there is such a thing as enlightenment, really, or if it's one of these --you know, "Hitch your wagon to the stars." It's a goal we all ought to strive for, but which is not really attainable. There's something about the human condition itself which is fundamental. You know, existential reality -- we're born alone; we have to deal with death and alienataion, and no matter how much we practice yoga or meditation or build communities or begin to see through our foibles, we'll always be in these bodies, at least while we're alive.
SPEETH: Well, that's undoubtedly true. There's a Sufi story about that. Basically, the story is about Bahaudin Naqshband, who is the great Naqshbandi --
MISHLOVE: The founder of one of the major Sufi orders.
SPEETH: Right. And he materialized an apple, I don't know why, as some demonstration of competence. And the apple had a worm in it. And they said, "Well, Bahaudin, you're so powerful that you can materialize an apple. How is it that you can't materialize a perfect apple?" He said, "In this context, nothing can be perfect." But it isn't just the Eastern meditative traditions that give us some help with liberation. I think that Western psychotherapeutic approaches are even more appropriate for us, although I certainly have participated in both rather a lot.
MISHLOVE: My sense is that the Western approach is to say, well, look, the world isn't perfect; we've got to live with it, with its problems. And psychotherapy is often oriented towards adjusting, coping, dealing with how bad life really is.
SPEETH: Well, that's one form of psychotherapy. But you practice psychotherapy, as I do too.
MISHLOVE: I do too, and I have another view.
SPEETH: You have another view. What's your other view?
MISHLOVE: Well, I tend to think that underlying the basic alienation, the separateness, the otherness, the fundamental ground of reality is one of connection -- that we're connected with everything. And for me, liberation is really becoming more and more in touch with that dimension of being part of everything, interconnected with everything. That way, as we move towards that, we get closer, I suppose, to what we might think of as our divine reality, and ultimately the highest model of liberation must be divinity itself.
SPEETH: It must be. So the way you're talking now, you sound like Freud talking about eros, as opposed to thanatos -- the idea of a life instinct, something that moves toward life, and away from dying, away from entropy. Something that makes form out of chaos. And you feel that is development, and of course so do I. So then, what keeps us from that? What holds us back? What do we need to be liberated from, so that we could make connections instead of break connections, and get hot rather than cool?
MISHLOVE: I would say it's our attachments.
SPEETH: Uh huh. And what attachments?
MISHLOVE: It could be an attachment to a habit pattern that we have, or to a belief system. My sense is that the unattached mind just gravitates naturally to that state. And when I'm with a group of people, I can watch, some of them go right there, and you have a sense they're connected and they're with it. And then somebody else, their mind just won't let them float to that level, and they've got to talk about -- it could be anything; it could be their clothing, it could be art work. We have a million excuses that we use for not always resonating, I guess is a word I might use, at that level of connectedness.
SPEETH: Or living enthusiastically. And what do you think holds people back from that? You know, Wilhelm Reich would call it an anti-pleasure bias in a character. Where does it come from?
MISHLOVE: That is a good question.
SPEETH: I mean, we're talking about being liberated from some kind of a net we throw around ourselves.
MISHLOVE: Well, in many people it's clear to me it's trauma. They've been traumatized in one way or another, and they're kind of stuck. They haven't worked through their trauma.
SPEETH: And how does that trauma stick people? What really happens? I mean, let's talk about it as deeply as we can. What do we need to be liberated from?
MISHLOVE: Probably -- I'm glad you're asking me all these questions. It's a delight to be interviewed, on my own show. To me, I would say the basic thing is self hatred. It's places where we feel that we can't love ourselves. If we've been traumatized, we incorporate that, and we think, "I deserved that. The universe is telling me I'm that kind of person, who should be punished."
SPEETH: You're saying two things; in this way I believe we've got a lot of wisdom in the Western psychotherapeutic tradition. One thing you're saying -- and I of course agree with you -- is that it's something about going away from entropy and toward life. And the second thing you're saying is that it has something to do with having been hurt, right? We have to somehow work through some nonmetabolized experiences. We need to liberate ourselves from something that has gripped us and grabbed us and is holding us back -- something that happened very early. And the wish we have to dissolve and to die hangs on.
MISHLOVE: And the irony is, that "something" is us. It's something we're doing to ourselves.
SPEETH: It's something we're doing to ourselves. So one extraordinary thing about liberation, it seems to me, is that the very things that hold us back are the things that hold us in our families, in the family structure.
SPEETH: So, for example, Mother doesn't want you to sit and play in your own way. She wants to have interaction with you, so she can feel like a good mother. That's one example. I just worked with someone today in a therapy session for whom that was true. He didn't dare, when he was with his girlfriend, be quiet and just look at the fire. He felt he had to keep entertaining his girlfriend. And so he was ready to clear the decks of all girlfriends, because he didn't allow himself to be himself while in the company of a person who reminded him of his mother. So he is not a free man.
MISHLOVE: Right, right. Because of some conditioning he had had with her.
SPEETH: Right. Or another example, somebody I worked with whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was a happy woman, this patient of mine -- a happy woman, and well adjusted, with four or five brothers and sisters who weren't, and a mother who was a widow and a Holocaust survivor. And she couldn't give up her guilt, because, it turned out, her guilt was the only link she had with her mother.
MISHLOVE: Uh huh. That's where they could communicate, they could resonate. Her mother felt guilty because she was a survivor, I imagine, and therefore in order to kind of enter into resonance with her mother, she had to be guilty too. Then they could be guilty together and have a good time.
SPEETH: Exactly. And they could be connected. Even if they had a rotten time, they would be together.
MISHLOVE: The irony to me is, from my perspective guilt is totally unnecessary. It serves no function whatsoever.
SPEETH: Except the function of connecting one with a guilty subculture. So in order to be free, we have to be willing to be solitary, emotionally solitary.
MISHLOVE: Solitary. What does solitary mean?
SPEETH: It means that we have to dare to be objective, and not to share, in order to become a "we" with other people, not to share their beliefs.
MISHLOVE: To be able to sort of remove ourselves from the herd instincts.
SPEETH: Yes. Perhaps to be really free, one can't be a healthy animal in a happy herd. Or perhaps one can; but one has to take the chance to find out. And that's a courageous step.
MISHLOVE: You know, one of the things that you've delved into quite extensively and written about is the Gurdjieff work. I recall a point that you made about Gurdjieff, is that he claimed, as opposed to Western psychotherapies, that all of the negative emotions -- anger, hatred, and so on -- were unnecessary. That it was possible to live a healthy, harmonious, happy life without any of those. And yet in our culture, we have so much reinforcement that says you should be getting angry, you should be feeling guilty, you should be negative a certain amount of the day. Otherwise you're not owning your emotions.
SPEETH: Right. And of course that's what I think of as one of the mistakes that many therapists make. They render their patients unhappy. That is, people come out of therapy feeling entitled to a lot of negative emotions. The fact is that they have to come to consciousness, and to be worked through, and to be put aside. Because they're really not necessary.
MISHLOVE: That's interesting. So for you, part of the definition of liberation would be to be liberated from negative emotions.
SPEETH: One could still have them, but probaby the perverse sustaining of them would be gone. I mean, as we sit here, there are probably bombers going overhead with nuclear warheads on them, and so forth. We live in a very dangerous world, an explosive world. It would be difficult to simply accept that without a certain amount of what you might call negativity -- but not to dwell on that.
MISHLOVE: When one looks at warfare in the world, and certain people, such as the Middle East, where they're just at each other, at each other, at each other, and they have been for thousands of years, one would think the only hope for peace in these situations is to somehow be able to communicate to these people to let go, to calm down, not to be so negative about it.
SPEETH: And of course psychotherapy deals with an individual person, rather than a whole political scene. And within an individual that same thing is true. There are many I's and many subpersonalities.
MISHLOVE: We're often at war with ourselves.
SPEETH: And that war has to be ended.
MISHLOVE: You know, the Muslims have a term, the holy war. And it often does refer to an internal war between the personality and the spirit, or various parts of ourselves. It's treated as something that we have to engage in; we can't avoid these things. The psychologies say the same thing -- you can't just ignore your anger.
SPEETH: It's certainly not an invitation to repression or suppression at all, to think that it might be possible to live in a very deeply content way without that.
MISHLOVE: What you're saying is that if one were to see the light at the end of the tunnel, work through the anger, then there would be a time in one's life, when one had achieved a state you could call liberated or enlightened, where it would be possible to let go of that.
SPEETH: And negative emotions are a little analogous to other substances that are misused, like cocaine, marijuana, alcohol. It's an addiction to feel negative. And the holy war inside, one meaning of it might be to feel no need to have the rush that a negative emotion produces. The rush -- I'm entitled, the feeling of being vindicated, etcetera. So that would be one movement toward liberation.
MISHLOVE: My sense is that part of the dynamics here occurs when we become polarized to such an extent that we think that good and evil are at odds with each other inside of us, and that one must totally vanquish the other.
MISHLOVE: There is no vanquishing of that kind. They really have to come together. And one discovers usually that evil isn't really evil.
SPEETH: So there's that feeling of wanting to be a whole person, a dappled person, a 3-D person -- not a person split into black and white. That's part of moving toward liberation -- to be free of the sense of being split inside, into a part of me that I love, and a part of me that I despise. So that's another aspect of what's necessary to do. And another thing you were saying that seems to me very important, is that we need to be free of the necessity to take and defend one position. Why should I see everything from a narcissistic point of view? Why couldn't I be objective and see myself as the same as other people? That would be a big liberation -- if I didn't polarize myself and aggrandize this little one that I am.
MISHLOVE: You know, I recall a modern writer has a very popular book out right now -- The Closing of the American Mind. His point is that we aren't teaching people more about good and evil. We're forgetting what he calls traditional, basic values. People are becoming too relativistic; we should be attacking evil more. You seem to be saying -- and I would agree -- that no, it's just the opposite; we should be transcending this good-and-evil polarity.
SPEETH: And of course that is goodness, that is freedom. The Sufis have a nice way of saying it. They say, "Let go of your preconceptions, and accept your destiny." What is the reason to be liberated? What are we being liberated from? We're being liberated, basically, from conditioning that we received in early childhood, and also from anti-life aspects of probably our biology. I suppose that's in the DNA, I don't know. For what reason? It seems to me, so that we can live out some kind of personal destiny. And how will we ever know about that if we're going through the motions in order to continue some family tradition, or some cultural tradition?
MISHLOVE: You mentioned earlier that Freud had described these two forces -- eros, the force of life, and thanatos, the force of death. And we both agreed we were very sympathetic to the eros force. But what about thanatos? How does liberation become a factor in our lives as we face death?
SPEETH: It must be a very important question for many people now, because at this time in history the gay community is being terribly, terribly ravaged by AIDS. I have a friend who's gay and he's a therapist, and he said he knows forty people -- patients and friends -- who have died in the last year. He had to face death with them, and it's a very good teacher. So it certainly does help a person get their priorities straight. What could be more cleansing of stupidity, than to face one's death? But as you and I sit here, how different are we from those people who have been given a diagnosis of AIDS? I mean, right now, we're also finite.
MISHLOVE: Right. We also have to die.
SPEETH: We do. I mean, we are Ivan Ilyich.
MISHLOVE: But I'm not looking forward to my death just yet.
SPEETH: Well, why look forward to it at all? The question is to use it to give definition to your values right now. Does it help you at all to think that you're mortal?
MISHLOVE: It does. In my own work I pay a lot of attention to issues of life and death. Often in hypnosis I take people beyond the realm of death -- to explore, to get in touch with some sense of eternity, which I think is with us all the time. You know, it seems to me that it's possible that when people live from a place within them that echoes of eternity, death isn't so much of an issue, really.
SPEETH: So a free man or woman would be impeccable, would be courageous, would be able to face his own finitude or his own eternity.
MISHLOVE: You know, it reminds me of a Zen story of a time when there was much warfare in Japan. The monastery was ransacked. A general came in and he saw the Zen monk praying, and he came up to him with his sword, and he said, "Don't you know I'm a man who can run you through with this sword without blinking an eye?" The monk looked up at him and said, "Don't you know I'm a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?" The general put his sword down.
SPEETH: Right. That is a free man. So when we talk about liberation, we're talking about liberation from the perspective of ego, my own personal ego, so that I can see from all points of view. And that is divinity. What is divinity?
MISHLOVE: So it's the ego that separates us from that.
SPEETH: It's a kind of paranoid clot of attention inside, a trembling, paranoid clot inside. Trungpa Rinpoche called it the basic contraction of ego.
MISHLOVE: The basic contraction of ego. I like it. And I suppose that's also what's responsible for selfishness and greed and clinging of every sort.
SPEETH: Uh huh, right. And of course to the degree that one is getting free of that, then it's possible to have empathy with others. If I'm not in a fortress protecting myself, maybe I can have a sense of how you're living, what your situation is.
MISHLOVE: I should think there must be a difference, though, between this kind of egotistical, or egoistic, clinging, and a sense of when a person is on a real mission -- when they're following their destiny, when they're attached to something, but it's something greater than themselves -- a life purpose, a creative work of some sort.
SPEETH: Right. A heroic life. A life like Theseus, who was able to go through the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur. Or a life like the life of Einstein, who was able to lock himself in a room for two weeks and come out with
E = mc2 and so forth. That's a heroic life.
MISHLOVE: Now, how does this relate to the dynamics of liberation? How do we free ourselves from the petty clinging, and enter into the heroic life?
SPEETH: How do we work through enough so that our actions come not from deficiency, and not from fear, and not from conditioning, but from what Longhenpa called lucid awareness and consummate perspicacity?
MISHLOVE: That's a mouthful. Consummate perspicacity.
SPEETH: The sense of doing just the right thing at the right time. How do we get there? I think as Westerners we get there on the psychotherapeutic path. There's a person named Jack Engel, who's a psychiatrist in Boston. He did a study in Burma -- I don't know if he did the study, or who took the data, but the results were that Westerners and Burmese sat with a teacher, a Theravadin Buddhist teacher, and after six weeks the Burmese had the first level of enlightenment, and the Westerners had developed a transference neurosis on the teacher. So for us, we're different from the people for whom those meditative traditions were developed.
MISHLOVE: A transference neurosis, for the benefit of our viewers, is where they're projecting their own emotions, about their parents probably, onto the teacher, and they're working that out.
SPEETH: Right. And they're acting toward the teacher as if he were a loved, feared, or whatever, parent. So for us, we could do the two-person meditation called psychoanalysis, in which the therapist sits with evenly hovering awareness, and the patient sits or lies with free association of thought. What could be more likely to produce self awareness than that kind of working through?
MISHLOVE: I love to do therapeutic work with people myself, but I haven't necessarily heard of great geniuses, real heroes, coming out that way. Did Einstein need a therapist?
SPEETH: No. And I have to say that Rilke refused psychoanalysis. He was afraid that it would interfere with his gift.
MISHLOVE: This is not to demean therapy.
SPEETH: No, but I hear what you're saying, and I can only say that in my experience, the people that I know, and also my own self, have profited by understanding their minds in the therapeutic manner. And that just means to conduct your own analysis of your life, with the companionship of a therapist.
MISHLOVE: My sense is that maybe therapy does get one through certain stages, but there are certainly stages on the heroic journey that go beyond what Western psychology is equipped to deal with.
SPEETH: Right. And in fact a hero wants to face his destiny without a cane. So at some point he'll have to stand alone and make it, and meet whatever is coming toward him.
MISHLOVE: And I guess ultimately that's everybody's destiny.
SPEETH: I guess it is.
MISHLOVE: Well, Kathleen Speeth, it's been a pleasure sharing this half hour with you. I think this is for me personally, I'd like to say, one of the most exciting interviews I've ever done.
SPEETH: I'm very glad to be here.
MISHLOVE: And I hope to have you back again, as well. Thank you so much for being with me.
SPEETH: Thank you, Jeff.