Kabbalah and Psychotherapy
A Dialog With
How has Kabbalah influenced your practice as a psychotherapist?
There have been many influences on my practice as a
psychotherapist, including Freud and Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Maslow, Lacan,
How can a particular religious or mystical perspective, Kabbalah, be brought to bear on the psychotherapeutic process, without constricting the therapeutic dialog?
I do not agree that Kabbalah, at least as I understand it, is a “particular religious perspective.” The Kabbalistic symbol of Ein-sof, literally “without end,” which some equate with an infinite “God”, appears within the psychotherapeutic process simply as the potential for infinite dialog, interpretation and understanding. While in ordinary life the infinite potential of speech and dialog is radically constrained by considerations of topicality, propriety, social and cultural convention, etc. the psychotherapeutic process is one in which the potential to say anything is maintained much longer and, when the process is working well, remains always in view. Ein-sof then becomes the “infinite container” within which the psychotherapeutic dialog has room to grow creatively and well beyond the routinized pathways of ordinary speech and discourse. The therapist is a part of this dialog, but generally remains non-directive; listening, tracking, clarifying, and at times, complementing and expanding upon the client’s productions, always in a manner aimed towards enhancing the dialog and the client’s experience of him or herself, and his/her relations to others and the world. The therapist, in his or her speech or silence, should always seek to expand the possibilities of dialog, thought, feeling and experience, rather than constrict, sum-up, or close them off. In psychotherapy there is never a “last word.”
Does this mean that psychotherapy never comes to an end?
So understood, psychotherapy does not come to an end, any more than thinking comes to an end. Particular psychotherapeutic relationships do and should conclude, but the psychotherapeutic process, which is one of dialog to enhance the creative possibilities of the self and its relations to others, is infinite. At various points in an individual’s life, usually at points of crisis (and therefore at points of opportunity for creative change) an individual can enter into a formal therapeutic relationship. Such relationships come to an end, just as other relationships, and creative ventures and dialogs come to an end. At times therapy ends because the individual has reached a point of closure in a particular creative or dialogical process; at other times therapy ends because of inhibitions resulting from a failure to maintain the potential for infinite dialog—in which case therapy becomes one more routinized discourse. This does not mean that the individual has reached a permanent end in the therapeutic/creative process. I do not believe that there is a “final analysis” any more than I believe that there is a final or ultimate philosophy. The creative process, as expressed in the symbol of Ein-sof, is infinite. That being said, the course of any individual psychotherapeutic relationship can vary from a single session to many years.
How, then, does a client know if and when to terminate a psychotherapeutic relationship?
This is a complex matter but one that should be determined completely from the client’s end. Clients should enter therapy knowing that they can terminate at any time, without expecting to have go through a drawn out process in which the therapist “analyzes” their motives for leaving. Such an analysis of the client’s motives for termination is possible and even beneficial but should be done only at the client’s, not at the therapist’s, initiative. This is important because client’s should not be deterred from entering treatment by a fear that they will not be able to “get out,” and they should never remain in therapy simply because they fear their therapist’s disapproval or resistance to their terminating. Unlike other human relationships, formal psychotherapy is at the will of the client only. When clients announce that they are leaving therapy they should be asked if they wish to explore their reasons for doing so. Therapy and analysis ends the moment the client no longer wishes to engage (or does not feel capable of engaging) in the therapeutic process. It can always resume at a later time. To my mind there are very few exceptions to this rule (imminently suicidal clients are one). As I have said, the therapeutic process, like thought itself, never comes to an end, but this does not mean a particular therapeutic relationship should go on forever. It may last a single session or go on for years, and each, in its own way, can be beneficial.
Must one believe in God, or as you put it Ein-sof, in order to benefit from the kind of psychotherapy you provide?
Absolutely not, though in the case of Ein-sof it is a bit unclear what believing in or not believing in it entails. Indeed, the Kabbalists mindful that Ein-sof is inclusive of all things, ideas, attitudes, emotions and beliefs, held that Ein-sof includes “unbelief” within itself and moreover that Ein-sof is the place where faith and unbelief meet. I have worked with those who presumably “believe in God” and those who presumably don’t; the Kabbalah as I understand places a far greater emphasis on asking and being open to the great questions than on anyone’s particular answers to them. As the Kabbalist Shimon Labis wrote in his book, Ketem Paz, “Concerning everything that cannot be grasped its question is its answer.”
Do you ever use specific therapeutic techniques or recommend to your clients that they consult with a psychiatrist in order to obtain medication for their psychological symptoms?
There are certainly a number of, e.g. meditative, relaxation, and cognitive techniques that can be of enormous benefit in helping to relieve the client’s suffering and which can also enhance the psychotherapeutic process. There is, for example, no doubt that the negative ideas that clients habitually repeat to themselves foster and sustain depressive feelings. To take another example, I have found that with certain clients the physical posture they assume in the therapist’s office can have implications for the manner in which they experience and process emotions during therapy. In addition, there are times that I, like nearly all therapists, must depart from an open psychotherapeutic dialog and provide my clients with specific support, direction, techniques for anxiety reduction, etc. At times I will also suggest a referral to a psychiatrist for a medication consultation. While such techniques and departures are often necessary and very helpful, I always try to introduce them in a manner that results in the least degree of interference with the psychotherapeutic dialog.
Let me expand somewhat on this theme, as it goes to the heart of my conception of myself as a psychologist and psychotherapist.
There are two fundamental attitudes that a psychologist can take towards his or her clients. In one attitude the psychologist treats his client as an autonomous, rational human subject, and seeks to foster conditions, particularly in the therapeutic relationship, in which the subject’s autonomy, reason and creativity are respected and enhanced. In the second attitude the psychologist treats his client as a living organism whose adaptation to the environment and sense of well being are to be maximized. The value or goal implicit in the first attitude is autonomy, creativity, self-actualization and respectful relatedness, while that of the second attitude is adaptation, symptom reduction, happiness and behavioral change. The first attitude leads to listening, curiosity by an ‘unknowing’ therapist; while the second attitude leads to the use of techniques for symptom reduction and cognitive-behavioral change by a psychological expert. Using Martin Buber’s terminology we might call the first attitude one of “I and Thou” and the second that of “I and it.” As a psychologist I have functioned and must function within each of these attitudes, often finding myself on the margins between them. As a psychotherapist I attempt to maintain myself within the first (I-thou) attitude as much as possible, though I recognize that without the second (scientific, technical, ‘I-it’) attitude the first would, in many cases, be impossible. There are, for example times, when the administration of psychotropic medications or the use of techniques that foster immediate symptom-reduction and cognitive-behavioral change are a necessary adjuncts or even pre-conditions for treating the client as an autonomous subject. Further, such “techniques” as meditation, cognitive therapy, and deep-muscle relaxation actually enhance an individual’s freedom rather than detract from it. I have found it useful in my work to formulate the following guideline: When treating one’s client from a technical or medical point of view, always do so with the maximum respect for his/her reason and autonomy that is practical under the circumstances, and always with the goal in mind of restoring the patient to full reason and autonomy.
Does this mean that you regard self-autonomy or self-actualization as the ultimate goal of therapy?
Not really. Ideally, the psychotherapeutic situation enhances the subject’s autonomy, awareness, flexibility and self-creativity to a point that exceeds the degree to which this can be achieved under ordinary circumstances. However, at this point a paradoxical effect can occur; the client, having shed the constricting self-conceptions and identifications that led him into therapy begin with, now takes on a new identification: with the infinite dialog and respect for the ‘other’ which is the hallmark of the therapeutic process itself. In doing so he or she actually transcends his particular ego and identifies with something beyond him or herself: the autonomy, right to be, and “actualization” of each person, event, or thing he/she encounters in the world. So one might say that the goal of psychotherapy is the psychotherapeutic attitude itself. I say this of course, knowing that some will regard this as utterly self-serving, when it is actually meant to be the opposite; for the psychotherapeutic attitude is precisely that which listens to, attempts to understand, respects the autonomy, and promotes the actualization of, the other! So the goal of psychotherapy is neither adjustment to the environment, or self-actualization, but nothing other than the furtherance of the therapeutic attitude itself.
How is this connected with the Kabbalah?
In Kabbalistic terms the therapeutic attitude, is the attitude necessary to bring about Tikkun ha-Olam, the restoration and emendation of the world. In the Lurianic myth, after creation there was a displacement and shattering of the archetypal values that originally comprised the worlds. As such, sparks of divine light were entrapped by the shards or “husks” of the “vessels” which were originally meant to contain and structure the value archetypes. Each individual, and indeed each person, thing, and event that one encounters in one’s life journey contains imprisoned sparks of divine light that can be liberated in one’s encounter with them. Indeed, the Hasidim hold that one’s life path is set forth precisely in order for one to encounter those persons, things and events that one is uniquely suited to liberate and restore. Traditionally, performance of the mitzvoth (Torah commandments, ethical behavior) were understood to be the vehicles of such liberation. I would add that the liberation of the divine sparks or energy within one’s own soul and within that of the people and objects one encounters involves treating both oneself and others in a manner that fosters their creative self-realization, thereby allowing their sparks to emerge and develop. This is precisely what I have been describing as the therapeutic attitude. It is an attitude that one can take towards oneself, towards others, and towards one’s environment. When one learns to take it towards oneself, and liberates the spark within one’s own soul, one is also learning to take the therapeutic attitude towards others and liberate their sparks as well.
Are you saying that participation in psychotherapy always leads one into becoming a psychotherapist oneself?
In a sense I am, although I believe there is much more (on the technical side) to learning the profession of psychotherapy than attaining a therapeutic attitude, such an attitude is the most important ingredient. When one is in therapy, and it does what it’s supposed to do, one cannot help but learn and incorporate this attitude within oneself. It is for this reason that so many individuals who have a successful psychotherapeutic experience become such good therapists themselves. Such individuals identify with their therapists, but more importantly they identify with the open dialog of the psychotherapeutic process. Even those who do not formally enter the field of psychotherapy can learn to extend the therapeutic attitude to their relationships in whatever their field of endeavor.
Is there then a psychotherapeutic ethic?
Broadly speaking, yes. The ethic of psychotherapy is quite simply that of free dialog, multiple perspectives and manifold interpretations; in short, to foster an open economy of thought, feeling and imagination. Indeed, if psychotherapy did not exist, something like it most certainly could be derived on ethical grounds alone. We might say that the core of this ethic involves an openness to and dialog with the other, an honest examination of the self, a disavowal of dogmatism, and a faith in the self-creative powers of the human psyche.
How does this ethic comport with the ideas of the Kabbalah?
I believe that there are certain Kabbalistic principles and ideas that lead almost inevitably to the practice of psychotherapy as I am describing it. Amongst these are the ideas of (1) the importance of self-contraction as a condition for creativity in self and others, (2) the supremacy of questions over answers, (3) the infinite number of meanings present in every text and event, (4) the multiplicity of perspectives is necessary for a complete description of the world, (5) the interdependence of presumably opposing ideas (coincidentia oppositorum), and (6) the need for a compassionate reconciliation of judgment with kindness. While the Kabbalists themselves did not quite develop the form of psychotherapy that follows from their own principles, later Jewish mystics, the Hasidim, came quite close to doing so.
Does psychotherapy promote individual human happiness?
Yes, absolutely. We must remember that in Judaism, sameach, “joy” or “happiness” is actually a divine commandment! The Torah (Deutoronomy 26:11) commands” You shall rejoice with all the good that the Almighty has given you.” While the Kabbalist of Safed engaged in many ascetic practices they were clear that a life of joy was a prerequisite for both mystical experience and world-redemption. Chayyim Vital held that nothing impedes mystical inspiration …as much as the quality of sadness.” The founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel Baal Shem Tov, the “Besht” held that “One should always be in a state of joy,” and indeed the entire Chasidic movement can be characterized by its unremitting effort to re-inject joy into a religious life that had become routine, obsessive and over-intellectualized. The Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav went so far as to hold that the raising of the sparks and the overcoming of evil and darkness in both the lower and upper worlds results primarily from humankind’s joyful state of mind.
Just as God is said to “rejoice in His works” (Psalms 104:31) humanity, by participating in the creation and perfection of the world (Tikkun ha-Olam) experiences a joy that mirrors that of divinity. Psychotherapy, as I understand it, is primarily directed to promoting the individual’s expression of his/her unique creativity, and joy and happiness is an inevitable byproduct of such creativity and self-actualization. Nevertheless, one must also consciously work on cultivating personal happiness, and the Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about how this can be achieved. Our sages prescription for happiness actually traverses several of our contemporary schools or paradigms in psychology, including the cognitive, behavioral and the humanistic-existential.
At the risk of gross over-simplification I will try to very briefly hint at some of what the Jewish, particularly the Jewish mystical, tradition offers as a “prescription” for human happiness.
(1) On a purely behavioral level the tradition enjoins us to endeavor to always maintain a pleasant countenance and deportment in each of our interactions with others. (2) From a more “cognitive” point of view, we are told not to allow our happiness to become dependent upon any factor over which we have limited or no control (e.g. wealth, possessions)—this is implied in the Kabbalist Elijah de Vidas’ axiom that a person should derive more pleasure from serving God and performing mitzvoth than from obtaining all the money on earth. Indeed a person should (3) seek out and attempt to enhance the possibilities of creativity, joy and tikkun in each situation, event and person he/she encounters on life’s path. (4) A corollary to this is the Jewish maxim that a person’s pleasure should derive from what one can creatively give to others and do to improve the world rather than from what one can obtain for oneself. (5) A person should strive to always take pleasure in the gift of life itself and the myriad details of the world’s existence. (6) The Kabbalists held that great joy can be derived from developing those character traits that are implied by each of the Sefirot, e.g. knowledge, wisdom, kindness, compassion, etc. and in particular by cultivating humility, avoiding honor, and limiting anger, hatred and resentment. Finally, one should (7) practice Tzimtzum, (and refrain from loshon hora—malicious gossip) by limiting. measuring and controlling one’s malicious speech, as so much that is said thoughtlessly leads to unhappiness both for others and oneself.
However, an individual should never attempt to force these conditions upon him or herself, particularly in the absence of efforts to understand his/her own desires and enhance his psychological openness and creativity; rather these traits and behaviors should grow organically in the context of what I have been describing as the psychotherapeutic attitude: the open economy of thought and feeling that leads to both self-actualization and self-transcendence. As I said just a few moments ago, the infinite dialog and respect for the ‘other’ in which psychotherapy consists leads beyond the “personal ego” and also beyond the acquisitive conception of happiness that dictates most people’s lives. It is in this context that the “prescription” for happiness that I have just described can take permanent root and effect.
The therapy that you describe as Kabbalistic differs radically from the “healing of souls” conducted by the Kabbalists themselves, specifically the techniques of Rabbi Isaac Luria, which involved, amongst other things reading letters on his disciples foreheads and prescribing acts of penance for purported sins that appeared to him via this procedure. How do you explain this difference?
As I have explained in various writings, the Lurianic symbols of Shevirat ha-Kelim, the “breaking of the vessels” and Tikkun (emendation, restoration) suggests that all vessels, all containers, all world-views and ideas, including the Lurianic Kabbalah itself, are continually subject to deconstruction and emendation. The Kabbalah originally developed a form of therapy for the soul that was conditioned by a complete immersion in myth (the ‘imaginary’ order) that can no longer serve us in the modern and post-modern age. The old Kabbalah has, on my view, itself undergone a “breaking of the vessels,” resulting from its incapacity to contain the light of reason, relativism, multiculturalism, individual psychology and other modern deconstructive forces. As such, those interested in the relevance of the Kabbalah to contemporary life, have been forced to reconstruct it in a manner that accommodates the modern world-view and which, while continuing to respect the mythical, symbolic and imaginary order, is no longer fully immersed within it. The emergent “New Kabbalah” draws upon symbols and ideas that were clearly present in the original Kabbalah, but utilizes them to foster a dialectic between myth and reason. While many of Luria’s methods of healing can no longer serve us (unless we are willing to sink back into a complete immersion in the imaginary order) the Lurianic theosophy, when understood in the context of contemporary psychology and philosophy, provides us with new methods that are far more appropriate for healing the modern soul. These methods, which involve an open dialogical encounter between “patient” and “therapist”, were generally recognized and practiced by the heirs to the Lurianic tradition, the Hasidim, who in the 18th and 19th century had already modified or abandoned Luria’s techniques in favor of the more psychotherapeutic approach of the rebbe-hasid encounter.
Can you provide an example of the Kabbalistic method that you apply in psychotherapy?
One important example of this is derived from the Lurianic principle of Tzimtzum (contraction and concealment), which holds that in order for the world to be created the divine author had to first perform an act of contraction, concealment and self-limitation. While the therapist’s job is to be fully present for the client, this can, paradoxically, only be accomplished if the therapist contracts his ego, and in effect, gets out of the client’s way. If the therapist fails to perform this act of self-limitation he/she becomes just one more force limiting the client’s thinking, behavior, and creative expression. The therapist must continually ask him/herself what, if anything, can be said here that will encourage the client to continue the associative, dialogical, self-creative process, and if not he/she says nothing. We must remember that much that is said in ordinary conversation serves to cut off the creative process rather than further it. While the therapist’s interventions will typically take the form of questions, we must remember that even questions can at times limit the client’s associative process. Even outside of formal therapy, silent but intent listening is often the best that we can offer an other in need. While patient’s typically prefer their therapists to be active and directive, and in some instances as I have pointed out, active intervention is warranted, the ultimate goal of psychotherapy is to enhance the client’s capacity for self-creation, and this can ultimately only be accomplished by getting out of the patient’s way. The Hasidim, in their wisdom, recognized, that while one must give active guidance to a child, there comes a point in a child’s life where one must perform an act of tzimtzum, and allow the child to develop on its own.
Does this mean that you favor the ideal of the silent, opaque analyst?
I have no interest in the therapist’s silence or opacity for its own sake, and indeed there are times when I do engage in an active dialog with and make concrete suggestions to my clients. In addition, there are times when I am also self-disclosing. My only criteria is whether such active dialog, concrete suggestions and self-disclosure ultimately furthers the therapeutic process and the client’s self-creation. The important point here is that the attitude of the therapist must be one of complete openness, intent listening and unconstrained, “free-floating” observation. Such an attitude is very similar to what Buber described in his book, I and Thou. It involves a form of relating to the other which permits and encourages the other to develop his thoughts, feelings, experience and words according to his or her own nisus or direction without demand, expectation or constraint. The therapist refrains from diagnosing, formulizing and categorizing the client. In fact he/she practices a suspension of “knowledge” and an intentional “unknowing”, so that the client can emerge in his/her own uniqueness, outside the bounds of any prior categories. Wilfred Bion puts it nicely when he says that the psychotherapist is without desire, expectation, memory or (analytic) understanding, precisely in order that he/she remain fully open to the presence of his/her client. The therapists main job is not to diagnose, make incisive interpretations, or to “figure the client out,” but rather to provide an environment within which the client can be and become him/herself. Sometimes the therapist’s words are necessary to maintain this environment. Sometimes the therapist’s questions, clarifications, interpretations and disclosures clearly enhance the client’s self-creative process. In such instances they certainly should be spoken.
Do you believe in the "unconscious"?
Yes, but let me try to clarify what I mean with this term. First, I believe that it is largely within the context of the therapeutic relationship that the unconscious can emerge. This is because the unconscious consists of feelings, thoughts, desires, projects and creative acts that have not (yet) emerged in an individual, because of inhibitions, repressions, constricting identifications and failures of self-assertion and self-actualization. The unconscious does not primarily consist of that which was once conscious and which has subsequently been forgotten and repressed, but rather that which has, for the reasons just described, yet to be fully realized, formed, actualized or even created. In Kabbalistic terms, just as a very substantial (and the perhaps the most important) portion of the world was left uncreated by God, a portion of the self remains uncreated in each individual. It is this yet-to-be-actualized self that is the major focus of the rebbe-hasid relationship and which, to my mind, should be the major focus in psychotherapy. While at times psychotherapy will focus upon repressed memories, affects, and ideas, or the de-automatization of malevolent childhood identifications, this is always done with the aim of providing the client with an inter- and intra-psychic space within which he/she can produce creative solutions to his/her own life problems and further his/her own creative potential. The most important sense of the unconscious is not that part of one's past that has been stored away in an archive, but rather that part of one's potential which has never been realized or, perhaps, even recognized. To take an example from my own life; for years I admired the capacity of others to draw what they see, to provide a subjectively colored rendering with pencil, paints, charcoals or pens of their world. I had never dreamed that I had the ability or capacity to do this myself, and indeed every time I had put a pencil to paper with the intent of drawing instead of writing my attempts failed miserably in my own eyes. At age 50, however, the desire to express myself through images rather than language welled up to the point that I felt I must take this task up in a serious way, and, in a matter of weeks, after much practice and reading several practical books on drawing and painting I was producing drawings that amazed me, not only for their (relative) quality, but for their capacity to provide me with a sense of creative fulfillment that I had hitherto been unable to acquire by any other means. To my way of thinking, the artist within me had been repressed and unconscious since childhood, a yet-to-be-created aspect of myself that had been inhibited and repressed by my self-image as a non-artist. Kabbalistically, when I began drawing and painting, a spark was liberated within my own soul.
You mention the rebbe-hasid relationship. How does that impact upon your conception of psychotherapy?
One role that the Hasidic rebbe assumes is that of attentive listener and adviser to his hasidim or followers. Such listening is said to enable the rebbe to advise the hasid on a particular vocation course of action that will bring the hasid in contact with those divine sparks which it is his unique destiny to raise and redeem. The assumption here is that the rebbe is able to grasp the hasid's creative possibilities before the hasid comprehends them himself. While the psychotherapist will generally refrain from providing his or her client with such specific advice and direction, it is sometimes the case that in the process of active listening a distinct sense of the client's feelings, attitudes, identifications, desires, and creative potential becomes manifest to the therapist before these are recognized and comprehended by the client him/herself. At such times a therapist who is quite sure that his impressions are not a function of his own projections may reflect these feelings, attitudes, desires and potentials back to the client by means of a query, question, or simple "punctuation" of the client's speech. In this way the therapist's insight can be conveyed to the client in a manner that mobilizes the client's unconscious creativity and process of self-actualization. This kind of relationship is not limited to the client-therapist dyad. In fact, those who genuinely love us do not do so by projecting their own needs and desires onto us, but rather by seeing and fostering our creative unconscious before we even recognize it in ourselves. Such individuals often silently but steadily convey a faith in our creative potential that can help ignite a similar faith in our own souls. This, I would say, is the impact of the rebbe-hasid relationship on my conception of psychotherapy: a listening for and experiencing of the client's as yet unconscious and unrealized potential for creativity, maturity, wisdom, self-actualization, growth, beneficence, etc. In short, the therapist must come to know and understand not only what the client is and how he got there, but more, importantly, must come to realistically envision what the client can be if he/she were to fully realize his/her human potential. This is what I call therapeutic vision.
Aren’t there dangers that even with the best of care and intention that such “therapeutic vision” will stem from a projection on the part of the therapist?
Yes. This is why it is always important for therapists to make interpretations by means of a query rather than by way of an assertion. While the therapist punctuates the client’s speech it is never with a final period that brings all discussion to an end. This having been said, I must say that a certain projection is present in all relationships; without it we would be unable to sympathize and empathize with others. The important point to remember is that such projection/empathy is presented in a manner that respects the client’s autonomy, and which is designed to potentiate the client’s desire and creativity. The problem that virtually all client’s bring to therapy is that their psyche’s are constricted by projections and identifications that have been forced upon them by parents and others who saw the child as an extension of their own egos and therefore failed to respect the child’s own desires and creative autonomy. Much work in therapy is spent in disentangling these inhibiting identifications. Therapists do their clients the greatest disservice when they too attempt to mold their clients in their own image. Still, I think we can all distinguish between a question, for example, that is woven out of the desire of the questioner and one that is asked as a means of reflecting and enhancing the desire of the one who is queried.
Earlier, you described how the Kabbalistic symbol of Shevirat ha-Kelim, the “breaking of the vessels” implies that all “containers,” for example ideas and world-views, shatter and are continually subject to deconstruction and emendation. Is the symbol of the Breaking of the Vessels reflected in the therapeutic process?
It most certainly is. With the emergence of unconscious material leading to a renewed sense of self-creativity it is inevitable that the psychic structures, e.g. attitudes, beliefs, moods and relationships, which in the past held the client in a certain psychological place will be challenged, stretched, displaced and, in many cases, ruptured. Often such a displacement or rupture will have already taken place, or at least begun, just prior to the client’s entry into “treatment.” This process corresponds to the moment of creation referred to as the Breaking of the Vessels in the Lurianic Kabbalah. The client will experience this rupture as a crisis, and indeed it is one, but it is also a moment of creative opportunity. It is for this reason that the Kabbalists held that shevirah (rupture) is a necessary precondition for tikkun, the restoration, emendation and repair that completes both world and self.
The very process of open dialog that is inherent to psychotherapy will in the majority of cases lead to a crisis in one or more of the client’s identifications, self-conceptions or life roles. This provides a unique opportunity for the client to initiate a change that accords better with his higher or more actualized self. However, during such crises, the therapist may feel pressed, both by his client’s and his own anxiety, to offer a solution, advice or definite direction that will bring an end to the crisis and result in symptomatic relief. The therapist may, for example, be inclined to counsel the client to end (or return to) a difficult relationship, leave (or adapt to) a limiting job or career, etc. While such advice is well-intended and often “correct” it can result in a premature restoration of the rupture brought on by the client’s crisis. Except in certain potentially destructive circumstances (suicide, paralyzing depression and impending psychosis) there is great value to the client and therapist to ride out the storm to see what solutions spontaneously emerge from the client’s side. Such creative solutions are far more likely to be meaningful in the long-run than those adopted as an expedient to ameliorate one’s mental pain.
With regard to Tikkun, is the purpose of psychotherapy simply to repair and emend the client’s soul, or does psychotherapy lead to Tikkun ha-Olam, the restoration of the world as well?
The psychotherapeutic process not only promotes the emendation (Tikkun) of the client’s soul through the realization of his/her personal potential, but also, as I have mentioned, to an emendation of the client’s relationships to others and the environment. Having had one’s “difference” respected, one’s desires permitted and one’s feelings affirmed in psychotherapy, one becomes more inclined to take such an attitude towards others in one’s life path. It is this attitude, exemplified by, but not exclusive to, the psychotherapeutic relationship, which—when it is applied to the people, objects and events one encounters in one’s world—raises the sparks and furthers the restoration of the world. We should not become too grandiose about the power of psychotherapy, though perhaps we are entitled to a certain hope with regard to the world-restoring power of what I have referred to as its underlying ethic.
You mentioned the Kabbalistic notion of the coincidence of the opposites. How does this relate to the psychotherapeutic process?
The Kabbalists held that Ein-sof is the union of all contradictions, and in creating a therapeutic environment the therapist endeavors to provide a “sea” that is large enough to contain all the apparent contradictions in his/her client’s psyche: the clients love and hate for the major figures in his life, his affirmation of life and wish for death, his faith and doubt in himself, his affirmation of, and resistance to, the therapeutic process; to name but a few of the common ambivalences that client’s typically bring to the therapeutic encounter. Carl Jung, with his notion of “compensation,” suggested that every particular attitude, feeling or idea that emerges in therapy is likely to represent not only itself but to also serve as a “screen” for its opposite, that these opposites are dependent upon one another, and that together they form a complete picture of the client’s experience. According to Jung, it is the process of making a space for coincidence of opposites that gives rise to an individuated or actualized “self.”
We should remember that the coincidence of opposites not only applies to the client’s psychic productions but to the therapist’s as well, and to the various apparently opposing perspectives that the therapist can bring to bear on the client’s verbalizations and behavior. The coincidence of opposites is really a corollary to the basic therapeutic attitude of infinite dialog, because it helps assure that all aspects of the individual’s psyche, including those that seem to contradict one another, will be considered and heard.
You mention Jung, and you have written a great deal about the connection between Jung and the Kabbalah. Do you consider yourself a Jungian?
No. Like Jung I am interested in recovering the
psychological basis and wisdom of such seemingly non-psychological
disciplines as alchemy and Kabbalah, and I have attempted to show how Jung
himself was influenced (largely through alchemy) by the Kabbalah. However, my
practice is influenced equally by Freud, Lacan, Sartre, Derrida and others. A
very important work that helped consolidate the existential aspects of my
thinking was Irwin Yalom’s Existential
Psychotherapy, which I first read over 20 years ago and which continues
to help shape my work in a very practical way. I have also been influenced by
the writings of my friend Michael Eigen, who is a practicing psychoanalyst
Do you accept Jung’s notion of the archetypes of the collective unconscious?
Not in a very literal way. Some Jungians seem to believe that the archetypes, as Jung described them and as they appear in world mythology, are somehow hard-wired into our psyches and that as such they are spontaneously manifest in our dreams and other imaginative productions. These therapists place considerable emphasis on discovering and interpreting these archetypes and then analyzing their client’s conflicts in terms of these archetypal ideas, and in some cases calling forth archetypal figures within their client’s personalities and engaging them in dialog. Some of these therapists believe that the act of intuiting the archetypes is not only psychologically but spiritually significant. While I do not doubt that a therapeutic effect can be achieved in this manner, this is not how I work. For me, the archetypes (e.g. Jung’s archetypes of Mother, Father, trickster, Wise Old Man, Shadow, or Freud’s Oedipus Complex) result from the routes that our minds naturally take because of our existential situation in the world. Indeed, as Jung himself once pointed out, there is an archetype for every emotionally salient image or idea. I am therefore careful not to limit my listening and understanding to those archetypes that are delineated by Jung or those which are expressed in a manner that seems to accord with the symbolism of the Kabbalah or other religious/mythological traditions.
On the other hand, I do believe that certain archetypes are fundamental to the process of psychotherapy, and that several of the most important of these are articulated by the Kabbalists in their doctrine of the ten Sefirot, which on their view are the fundamental archetypes of creation.
Are any of the sefirot of particular importance in psychotherapy?
They all are. In my article The Sefirot: Kabbalistic
Archetypes of Mind and Creation, I tried to show how each
Sefirah embodies a specific psychotherapeutic principle. For example, the Sefirah Tiferet (Beauty) or Rachamim
(Compassion) is a characteristic that must be cultivated by psychotherapists
and serves an analogous function but is not equivalent to what Carl Rogers
spoke of as “unconditinal positive regard.” A psychotherapist must cultivate,
if he/she does not already have it, an unending compassion for the plight and
suffering of the human soul. However, rachamim,
represents a reconciliation of two other sefirot
which represent powerful human forces: chesed
(love) and din (judgment). As such,
rachamim is not blind to judgment,
but rather tempers its expression with love. It is in this sense that rachamim differs from
What of the sefirah chesed (kindness) prior to its reconciliation with judgment? Isn’t there room for pure, unconditional, love?
Interestingly, the Kabbalists held that God first endeavored to create a world of pure love, but neither it nor a world comprised of pure judgment could be sustained, and they, in effect, self-destructed. There is a place, however, in psychotherapy for pure love, and this goes back to the aspect of the rebbe-chasid relationship we discussed earlier. Harold Searles, a well known psychoanalyst on the west coast, one who was often given to dramatic and even shocking declarations once said that he never achieved a thoroughgoing psychoanalytic cure with a patient who he had not thoroughly fallen in love with. We need not take Searles in the usual literal sense of his words to realize that he was onto something very profound. The therapist, in freely attending to his/her client, as Bion puts it, without desire, expectation, memory or (analytic) understanding (i.e. maintaining a posture of tzimtzum), an image will often begin to form of what or who the client can potentially be were he/she to be far more actualized than he/she currently appears to be.
This is an image specific to the particular client in which the client’s emotions and desires are experienced, his/her creative potential realized, and his/her capacity for both giving and receiving love is fulfilled. It has nothing to do with the therapist attempting to mold the patient in his own image, but has everything to do with the therapist’s identification with the client’s desire and recognition of who the client can become on his/her own terms. Such an image often comes to the therapist long before the client can imagine it for him or herself. Sometimes I think of this image as a picture of who the client would have become had he/she not been ignored, abused, and otherwise damaged along the road to adult life. At any rate it is a very approximate image of who the client can become if he/she is assisted in overcoming the constricting self-conceptions and identifications that arise from his/her past. I believe it is important for therapists to allow an image like this to form in the course of their work. Without communicating this image directly the therapist begins to treat the client as a more fully actualized being, and in the process helps bring about this actualization. Interestingly, the therapist often feels a great sense of appreciation and even love for the individual once this image is experienced and this love (chesed) itself as an enormous therapeutic effect. Such an image often changes in the course of therapy as the therapist comes to know and recognize other of his client’s potentials, and the fully actualized client that emerges from a successful course of psychotherapy may resemble the original image in only an approximate way. Still, such images serve a very important function in the therapeutic work as they posit an experiential, if somewhat vague of changeable, destination for the therapeutic process.
By the way, this way of looking at things gives new meaning to the biblical phrase that “God created man in his own image;” not in an image that somehow duplicates God, but rather in God’s image of what man could become were he to be fully himself!
Could you say a bit more about the actualized self?
Kabbalistically, the actualized self is symbolized in the figure of Adam Kadmon, the primordial human, who is the first figure to emerge in the vacuum created by the contraction and concealment of Ein-sof. The principle here is that the actualized self emerges only when those around it withdraw and give it the space within which it can create itself. The self represented by Adam Kadmon represents a deepening of the personality in each of the areas embodied by the Sefirot: will, wisdom, understanding, love, judgment, compassion, etc. Each of these personal characteristics are actualized from within the individual rather than being imposed upon him or her from without.
How does one distinguish those characteristics that arise from within the individual, as opposed to those that have been imposed upon him/her?
The Kabbalistic image of the inner spark is helpful here. Let’s take “knowledge” as an example. When knowledge is forced upon a person his/her own natural thirst for knowledge is often inhibited and his/her inner spark is encumbered and dimmed. But if his/her thirst for knowledge is awakened, say by a teacher who imparts her own enthusiasm for the subject matter, the individual’s spark is disencumbered, burns brightly, and contributes to the actualization of this aspect of his self. Just as teachers can distinguish between students who have a love for learning from those who learn because they are forced to, therapists can distinguish when clients are acting out an imposition in their lives and when they are acting with creativity and joy in life. The same distinction applies to each of the sefirotic traits: a person can be ethical, for example, out of a fearful sense of obligation, or out of a true love and respect for ethical laws.
Having said this, we cannot say that the goal of an actualized self is ever fully achieved. The self is in constant transformation, and until the point of death is always potentially more than whatever it has been. As such, it always remains at least partly unknown.
What precisely is the role of the “unknown” in psychotherapy?
As a therapist I must to a great degree engage in the practice of unknowing. A psychotherapist, in contrast to a psychologist who is asked to conduct an evaluation, must, when he/she is engaging in the therapeutic process, refrain from diagnosing. Formulating or categorizing the client. The therapist practices a suspension of knowledge, a discipline “unknowing”, in order that the client can continue to emerge in his/her own uniqueness. The danger of diagnoses and “dynamic formulations” is that they constrict the therapist’s openness to the client’s possibilities of creative transformation and ultimately constrict the client him or herself. Just as the Kabbalists regarded the infinite depths of Ein-sof to be inexhaustible and essentially unknowable we must regard the depths of our client’s self to be unexhausted and unknown.
The practice of “unknowing” is one aspect of how the Kabbalistic principle of “Ayin” (Nothingness) can enter and shed-light upon the psychotherapeutic process. The Kabbalists held that the original character of the infinite, Ein-sof, is that of nothingness, the absolute void, and that Ein-sof in effect has woven itself out of its own nothingness. Similarly, the human personality must be created out of its own nothingness. The Kabbalist Azriel was clear that an individual does not make spiritual progress until he or she recognizes the nought at the core of his/her own being. Psychotherapy provides a “container” within which one can recognize this nought; the finitude, mortality, and death, as well as the experiences of meaninglessness, unrootedness and unknowability that occasionally fracture the veneer of our “normal” self-understanding. It is this nought, this Ayin, however, which is the motivating force for both cosmic and personal change and creativity. In his book, Existential Psychotherapy, Irwin Yalom observed that the experience of one’s finitude and mortality often potentiates creativity as well as a connection with others and a commitment to a universal principle or cause, and that these are the very acts which enable one to transcend the “nothingness” and “meaninglessness” which the experience of mortality engenders.
Do you believe in the afterlife?
I believe that on questions such as these a therapist can take no definite position without violating the principles of therapy (and Kabbalah) itself: the principle of infinite dialog and infinite interpretation. On the other hand, the therapist cannot ignore this and other “big” questions simply because they are not amenable to a definitive or final answer. Indeed, the very principle of open dialog would assure that these questions are an appropriate subject matter for reflection in the psychotherapeutic arena. Again, according to Shimon Labis, “Concerning everything that cannot be grasped its question is its answer.” This suggests that the very process of asking, meditating and dialoging on such questions as the “afterlife,” the “existence of God,” the “meaning of life” etc. is at least part of the answer to these questions. As a therapist I am open to a deep exploration and dialog upon philosophical and theological questions, but I remain committed to connecting such dialog to the individual’s own psyche, i.e. his/her personal existential situation, conflicts, relationships, etc. I do not, as do some therapists, dismiss philosophical inquiry in therapy as “resistance” and “intellectualization,” though I recognize that at times it can be those things. Ultimately, I am interested in exploring how such reflection and dialog impacts upon the client’s self-concept, creativity, relationships and other commitments. I am also deeply interested in the question of how my client’s deny, accept, and transcend their experience of finitude and mortality, and I believe that these existential attitudes are as important, if not more important than any formal views they hold about the afterlife.
Does the same really hold true for belief in God?
Yes. My understanding of the Kabbalah is that it is a theosophical system that (paradoxically) includes within itself the possibility and indeed the necessity of atheism. Psychotherapy, as I practice, is certainly compatible with the belief in (non-dogmatic conceptions) of a higher being, but does not require it. Rather “God”, like all other matters becomes the subject of open dialog. Some may regard such open, infinite, dialog itself as a window into the divine or “Absolute”, while others may understand such dialog in agnostic, non-theistic or even atheistic terms. For me, the important point is that God is a legitimate issue to be explored in therapy and is not to be pre-judge from either a traditional religious or “enlightened,” “scientific” point of view. This is an area where I believe the notion of “philosophical therapy,” which has come on the horizon in recent years, has made a valuable contribution. Philosophical and theological issues are legitimate concerns, both psychologically and in their own right, and should not be barred from the psychotherapy consulting room. Again, an important question for me as a therapist is how my clients relate to the spiritual and existential issues in their lives, regardless of their philosophical and religious beliefs.
Is there a Kabbalistic equivalent to the clinical concepts of pathology and neurosis?
I think that the closest approximation is the notion of the Kellipah (pl. Kellipot). A Kellipah is a cosmic or psychic complex, symptom, attitude, belief or emotion that constricts the individual and prevents him/her from achieving creative self-realization. On the cosmic level, the Kellipot are the shards of the broken Sefirot which serve to bind sparks of divine light, and prevent them from realizing their spiritual potential. On the psychological level, the Kellipot include what psychoanalysts refer to as dynamically repressed emotions and ideas, but also include any belief, relationship, attitude or behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously maintained, that inhibit and constrain the individual’s psychological growth. Kellipot cannot only bind individuals but can also constrict relationships between individuals, between individuals and their environment, and even the environment itself (e.g. a constricting work environment). In Jewish mysticism, the goal of human life is to untie the Kellipot, extract (birur) the kernel of divine light, and raise the once entrapped sparks (netzotzim) back up to the heavens.
The Kellipot, metaphorically speaking, bind sparks of divine infinite energy and prevent them from joining the creative energy of the individual and the world as a whole. According to Hasidic thought, the individual is enjoined not only to raise the sparks within his or her own soul, but also to raise those sparks that are entrapped within the souls of other people and in the environment as well. Indeed, the individual is enjoined to raise sparks in each of the objects and situations he/she encounters in life. Generally, psychotherapy focuses only upon those sparks within the client’s own psyche. However, as I said before, as a therapist I encourage my clients to also focus upon the Kellipot that bind others and the environment. It is my conviction that the psychotherapeutic attitude, when it is applied outward as well as inward. helps to raise the sparks that one encounters in others and in the objects of one’s world. Psychotherapy involves learning to truly listen to and observe both oneself and others, and to ultimately bring that same sort of open (I-thou) listening and seeing to each of one’s life encounters.
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Sanford L. Drob holds doctorates in Philosophy and Clinical
Psychology. He is the author of Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and
Psychological Perspectives, and Kabbalistic Metaphors: Jewish Mystical Themes
in Ancient and Modern Thought (both published by Jason Aronson, 1999). He is
currently completing a book on Carl Jung, Jewish Mysticism, and
Anti-Semitism, working on studies on Kabbalah and Psychotherapy and the
Kabbalah and Postmodern thought, and developing a Kabbalistic "Tree of
Life," "axiology" or "firmament of values" (progress
on which appears periodically on this website). Dr. Drob served as head
psychologist on the Bellevue Forensic Psychiatry Service from 1984-2003 and
was for many years the Director of Psychological Testing at
Dr. Drob is available for
psychotherapy consultations in
Click here for Dr. Drob's CV in clinical and forensic psychology.
Click here for a description of Brownstone Brooklyn Psychological Services, for which Dr. Drob and his wife, Dr. Liliana Rusansky Drob are co-directors.
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The Lurianic Kabbalah