Magia, sciamani e guaritori

The Guru as Mediator of Healing

di Luca Caldironi

"Healing means daring to step outside ones fence"

We must ask the question of whether or not it’s legitimate and licit to try and bridge the gap between Western and Indian culture and, more importantly, whether in doing so we should make use of the tools offered by psychoanalysis.

I’m convinced it is. Comparison doesn’t mean assimilation. Building bridges is not synonymous with attempting to force ones disciplines on others or colonize areas of knowledge. It’s rather an attempt to break down, or melt cognitive limits using whatever tools help to encourage thinking and thinking together.

The aim of this work is to offer different levels of interpretation to anthropological semantics -- not self-contained, exclusive models, but taking an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, warning against “certainty”, working as far as possible toward metanoia.

The need for integration always stems from personal experience, especially regarding “internal” aspects of knowledge, and this is true in my case as well: a background in psychiatry combined with a passion for Indian culture.

Viewing landscapes that are so different they are disorienting helps see things from different perspectives and achieve what Bion calls “binocular” vision. In particular I use Indian culture as a dialectic counterpart not so much in order to “borrow” solutions from it as much as to encourage moments where debate is suspended in order to expand our “apparatus for thinking thoughts”.

It’s not a question of syncretizing hermeneutical beliefs. It is an effort to make us more aware of the kind of ambivalence we feel when faced with anything “other”. Kakar reminds us that what we can learn from Indian culture is not how to solve problems so much as how to “suspend” out point-of-view.

The six schools for priests in India that, each in its own way, teach disassociation from knowledge and its origins are called darshana [(points of view), from the root sscr. drsh- to see].

I believe that the psychoanalytic approach can help us carry out an in-depth investigation, limiting the risks of Western-centrism, in order to discover the deepest internal forces that determine who we are, not losing track of the complexity of human emotions.

In light of what Freud referred to as discontents of civilization, we ethnic-anthropologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts must be willing to look beyond our particular areas of knowledge and study each other’s disciplines if we wish to come up with hypotheses that takes into account the immense complexity of this phenomenon. This entails opening ourselves to “other” symbolic constellations besides those of Greek-Judeo-Christian culture.

Indian culture lends itself easily to psychoanalytic investigation. What is needed is a careful study of the underlying motivations of individuals and the cultures in which they live. We need to know how alienation is experienced and expressed – being very careful not to apply rigid psychopatholigical models or preconceived notions to what we see. Freud himself has paved the way for us, filling the gap between normality and abnormality by introducing the “quantitative” aspect of the workings of the “psychic apparatus”.

Aside from the fact that Indian and Western cultures respond very differently to man’s basic physiological needs, it is a well-known fact that Indian culture still maintains traces of man’s most ancient traditions, such as myths and rites, and that this latent content is manifested in their daily lives. Primary process still prevails in their thinking (oniric thought, myths and dreams).

Because of the steady process of “world demystification” in Western society, public and private have been radically separated, relegating fantasy to the private, so that it can rarely be shared in public. (G.Obeyesekere, 1990)

It is very important that we avoid reductive psychological interpretations and envision, alongside an impulsive, individual psychic reality, a collective unconscious, as forming a continuum of deeply-rooted osmotic phenomena.

One of our first tasks is to differentiate between the figure of the guru as imagined in today’s society and the more ancient image of the guru as initiator of knowledge. An etymological study of the word guru gives the idea of a spiritual teacher (master) -- in particular one who initiates (diksha) disciples and carries weight (guru, sscr. adjective indicating heavy) in their lives. (Heimann)

Daniélou offers another interesting etymological interpretation starting from Advaya Taraka Up.: Gu (darkness); Ru (disperser); “he who disperses darkness”.

These are not the only definitions of a guru. Initially this figure seems to have functioned more as an instructor whose job it was to teach disciples how to perform rites correctly.

He gained power, subsequently, and went from one who shows the way to a model for disciples to follow. This does not take place through divine process, but happens when the guru incorporates those characteristics that are still considered to be the attributes of a knowledgeable man: balya or childlike mind (in the positive sense), purity, non-expansion, we could say “an un-saturated mind”; panditya or “wisdom”, referring to the function of teacher inasmuch as qualified to impart education (upadesha) in knowledge; mauna or perfect silence, of mind, word and action. (Sanscrit Glossary, 1988); silence that enables supreme union (at-one-ment ‡“O”)

It is at this level that the teacher-disciple relationship, although not symbiotic, becomes extremely intimate and empathetic. The teacher no longer bases himself solely on doctrine but throws everything up for question, including himself. He encourages the disciple to experiment, through him, with getting to know himself and putting himself to the test.

It is interesting to observe, with Kakar, that as the guru progresses from human to god, the disciple regresses from adult to child.

Without dwelling any further on this, I simply want to point out the progressive divinization of the guru, who after participating in devotional movements such as Bhakti, and Tantra, becomes a true divinity.

A study of this figure necessarily leads to the difficult question of the different concepts of time between East and West. The West is where the sun dies …time is more clearly defined! In modern Hindi there is only one word for “yesterday” and “tomorrow”: kal, the meaning depending on context and verb.

What we are interested in here is not the historical background of the guru as teacher and keeper of traditional spiritual and philosophical doctrine, but his development to the status of “mediator of healing”: he who brings about evolutive and cognitive change.

The importance of the guru is growing and he, and similar figures in other cultures, is being called upon more and more to intervene in psychic and somatic suffering.

In Western society in the patient-therapist relationship we have made the mistake of labeling regression as “pathological”, excessive submission as “denial of hostility” and dependency as “unresolved ties with the mother figure”. Well aware of this kind of risk, we still believe that it can give patients the chance to experience a relationship that is “good enough” to enable them to incorporate formative experiences.

The guru is seen from an approach that links health with safeness, sanus et salvus, in which health is thought of in global terms -- “global” referring to the whole human being in his “suffering”, “alienation” and “affliction” which constitute a “total” experience, an experience, then, that is at once psychosomatic, moral and spiritual. (V.Lanternari)

It is important, therefore, not to try and apply rigid definitions to these figures but to look for similarities in their roles.

For this reason I purposely use the terms guru, master and psychoanalyst (therapist), interchangably, inas much as they are mediators of healing, and will be looking for common characteristics.

The guru’s first function is to guide the disciple through the initiation process and then through the process of self-awareness and introspection. He becomes a figure onto which the disciple, the patient, can “project”, transfer, emotional needs and states of mind that have somehow marked his life. The mere presence of the guru may be enough to reawaken psychic states that prove to be highly therapeutical, encouraging endogenous mechanisms of self-healing.

His benevolent, silent presence, sometimes experienced as a mirror in which the patient can reflect himself, warm and comfortable, close, can trigger communication with deep levels of the psyche -- pre-verbal emotional states. Guru-disciple interaction goes deeper, touching levels of the psyche usually only reached in rare and precious moments during psychoanalysis. The devotee comes into contact with the buried core of his depression, at the basis of his sense of self and life, beyond words or interpretations. (S.Kakar)

Human beings need attention and recognition. If they don’t receive it they are often left with a deep sense of emptiness and psychic pain that can alienate them from their very existence. The results of childhood neglect create situations – especially in Western society – create the paradoxical situation in which we find extreme forms of self-sufficiency hand-in-hand with overwhelming feelings of inner emptiness, panic and chronic spiritual hunger.

On the one hand we must agree with Freud when he maintains that healing comes about through “awareness”, “reclaiming” the area of the Es by expanding the Ego, but on the other, we cannot underestimate how crucial the non-verbal master-disciple, therapist-patient relationship is to this process.

Winnicott stresses this, considering the relationship between analyst and patient to be much more important than any interpretations that may result.

W. Bion, moreover, points out the enormous difference between a form of rational understanding in “K” and the kind of existential development that takes place when “memory, desire, even the desire to understand and get better” are set aside, and the patient begins to experience what is actually going on in the relationship, enabling him to get in touch with the deepest recesses of himself and the other (at-one-ment), ‡ to be in “O” (Ultimate reality, the Thing in Itself).

This experience produces a highly emotional atmosphere -- “a pre-verbal mind-set” – an intimate, pre-verbal world enriched by everything the guru brings to it in terms of background, expectations, approach and experience. The disciple’s expectations play a fundamental part in this as well. We can say that people choose gurus based on deep-seated, unconscious needs. Something similar takes place in Western therapy when people decide on the kind of therapy they want to undergo. In big Western cities, where all kinds of therapy are available, this kind of “pre-transference” is even more evident. Some people choose marabouts, some prefer exorcists, some opt for psychotropic drugs; and others feel destined for psychoanalysis. (T.Nathan)

Let’s take a step backward and say that the very symtoms a patient presents are an attempt at mediation, at resolving conflict. Freud considered symtoms a way of compromising between two conflicting desires. We could then go so far as to say that both the guru-therapist and the symtom represent an attempt at mediating spontaneous recovery, the difference being that the guru-therapist, in taking on the symtoms, offers, by way of the deeply emotional impact of the relationship on the disciple, a chance to change and grow emotionally.

The guru-disciple relationship becomes an important extension of the parent-child relationship for the disciple, offering him a second chance at experiencing the kind of nurturing needed for cohesion, integration and self-strength. (S.Kakar)

This can only take place through genuine involvement. There can be no artifice if we are to be successful.

This leads back to the question of whether it is plausible to hypothesize a complementary approach to healing between Eastern and Western traditions.

What are all those Westerners seeking when they go searching for gurus in faraway lands?

Without casting any blame, it’s common knowledge that Freud himself dismissed anything Indian culture in general and mystical phenomena in particular might offer in this area as the ghosts of regressive functions encapsuled in what he referred to as “the oceanic feeling”, (regression to ancient symbiosis -- regressus ad uterum).

The correspondence between Freud and R. Rolland on the subject is still famous. I will limit myself to citing a well-known passage from a letter Freud wrote to Rolland, who had been urging him to take more interest in the religious aspects of Indian culture: “…and now, under your guidance, I shall try to penetrate the Indian jungle from which a certain mixture of Hellenic love of proportion, Jewish sobriety and Philistine timidity have until now kept me at a distance. I really should have confronted it sooner, as I am no stranger to the vegetation of that land, having dug deeply into it looking for its roots. But it isn’t easy to exceed the limits of one’s very nature.” (Letter to Romain Rolland, 19 January, 1930)

I am firmly convinced that the non-verbal in psychoanalysis enables us to reach new levels of incognoscibility, the deepest recesses of the psyche, previously unfathomable areas of the sub-conscious, and that meditation, total inner concentration, listening to oneself, produces a state of mind that puts people in touch with their emotions, even the most unpleasant and disturbing ones, without their identifying with them and being afraid of them, but embracing them as valuable tools for understanding.

This, and perhaps much more, can be learned from Indian culture. It’s not a question of quenching our thirst for knowledge or finding answers to our questions, but of learning how to suspend doubt, anxiety and fear in a “container” of constantly developing senses.

This is in agreement with the those who consider the ability to disassociate oneself from the specific content of ones mind as basic to psychoanalysis. It is one of the tenets of Eastern meditation -- the capacity to become an observer of oneself, to view one’s own mind from the outside.

I see in this an area in which Easterners and Westerners could work together in a sort of “spiritual exercize” in which we look for analogies between the phenomenological and the mystical.

This is what W. Bion is referring to (perhaps it’s no accident that he was a psychiatrist born in India!), when he states that analysts “must focus their attention on “O”, the unknown, the unknowable”—in fact they must become it, they themselves must “become infinite by suspending memory, desire and understanding”.

At a 1998 seminar in Rome on dreams Parthenope asserted that “Bion entertained the idea of an unconscious flow, not in the sense of being unconscious, but in the sense of being unaware.…We could say that we are always dreaming, but are not always aware of our dreams.…Bion theorized on a concept borrowed from the French idea of “rêverie”.…Bion took this idea (maternal rêverie) and applied it to psychoanalysis in the sense of working ‘without memory or desire’". This (without memory or desire), is for Parthenope: "… something to do, I believe, with Bion’s childhood in India and his contact with a culture having very different rhythms from our own, and in any case very different from English culture of the time (…) Bion’s family was not strictly English, in fact hardly English at all,.… it was a kind of a Euro-Asiatic hybrid which turned out to be very influential in the development of a person who was a child at the time; in that he certainly absorbed a great deal of Indian culture. We believe that when Bion speaks of thought that needs no one to think it, this in itself expresses that aspect of Indian culture that seeks perfect concentration and “ in–centering” of attention (sam&Mac226;dhi).

M. Epstein argues that when Freud spoke of the oceanic feeling as the apotheosis of mystical sentiment, and when Fromm praised the sense of well-being resulting from Buddhist meditation, they were overlooking a simple but very basic point: meditation is not simply limited to creating states of well-being, but also has to do with destroying ones belief in being gifted with intrinsic existence.

One cannot un-identify oneself from oneself, however, without first becoming oneself.

The guru facilitates this process by becoming a substitute ego for the disciple’s distressed ego, developing metaphors that deeply touch the disciple’s affect and reawakening traumatized areas of the disciple’s psyche. This gives the disciple room to think and thought is eros, and it is through eros that human beings establish ties.

The master does not intervene in the area of having, but in the area of being, reactivating the ability to symbolize and expanding emotional life.

I can only briefly touch here on the benefits derived from sharing this process in a group situation. Groups, communities and ashrams enhance emotional states in that ones sense of identity is forced to meld and there is a progressive loss of control over impulses and critical sense, leaving room for catharsis and change.

The guru, moreover, just as the Western therapist, has to use to advantage, or in any case sustain, attacks (negative transference) and/or idealistic projection, on the part of the disciple if he is to continue mediating healing. Accepting and understanding projection and idealization for what they are, without identifying with them, is a complicated task that the guru learns during the long, difficult initiation process.

I hope that we, too, are mediators (of what? of “knowledge”?) are also mediators of healing!

The guru acts as a true and proper “catalyst”, enabling the healing process. The disciple, the patient, is not considered sick, but as a person engaged in a difficult existential struggle. So it is not a question of changing him but of understanding and accompanying him, since the “process itself is the goal” and life is a creative process.


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