Kabbalah and Psychotherapy
A Dialog With
Do you work with your client’s dreams?
Yes. I encourage clients to bring dreams into therapy. I do not, however, believe that dreams have a single significance that can be “discovered” in therapy, as though such significance was one of the artifacts buried in Pompei. Rather, I see dreams as important stimuli to the associative, creative process, and as prompting reflection upon one’s desires, emotions, attitudes and conflicts. While dreams occasionally reveal old buried meanings they are just as likely to generate new ones. Dreams are among the best examples we have of the psyche’s potential for infinite creation, dialog and interpretation; for anything can happen in a dream, a dream can stimulate virtually any feeling or idea, and each individual’s dreams can be understood from a manifold of personal, interpersonal, archetypal, spiritual, and existential perspectives. Dreams yield an indefinite series of layered and inter-related meanings that are limited only by the individual’s associative and imaginative capacities.
The Zohar holds that some dreams are a portal to higher worlds, and I believe that it is the surprising, unpredictable, and multi-layered character of dreams that brings us close to the infinite possibilities within our own psyches, and thereby closer to Ein-sof. I regard dreams as an impetus to self-awareness and to creative therapeutic, spiritual and even philosophical work and I regard the possibility of multiple interpretations and the impossibility of ascertaining a single, archived “latent” meaning as a strength rather than a weakness in dream theory. Dreams can be understood as a gift of the infinite (or unconscious) even by those who regard the unconscious as that which has yet to be formed, experienced and articulated as opposed to that which one existed and has since been repressed. Dreams shatter our routine modes of thinking and feeling and are often an impetus to what the Kabbalists referred to as “the breaking of the vessels,” which is a condition for personal change and growth. At times, dreams can also be understood as (1) a means through which an individual endeavors to work out difficulties and conflicts that cannot be resolved or even articulated in wakeful life, (2) as a means of communicating an idea, thought or affect to oneself or others, (3) as a vehicle for deepening one’s emotional and spiritual life, (4) as a way of balancing or compensating for a one-sided attitude in one’s waking life, (5) as a means of enabling or resisting the therapeutic relationship etc. Dreams can assert, question, exclaim, express bewilderment, awe, love, hate, etc; like all other mental and linguistic productions they do not have a single grammar.
Your criticism of the “Pompei” analogy suggests that you would discard Freudian dream theory. What is your overall attitude toward Freud?
With regard to Freudian dream interpretation, my main criticism is that such interpretations often claim to unlock the meaning of a dream. As one perspective amongst others on a dream I have no quarrel with Freud’s model.
As for Freud in general, as I have described in several of my books and essays, I believe that the Lurianic Kabbalah anticipated psychoanalysis in a number of ways, and that the Lurianic Kabbalah can in many ways be understood as an extension of psychoanalysis to both the world and God. For example, the Freudian notion of libidinal energy that is constricted and then transformed into psychological symptoms is clearly anticipated in the Lurianic notion of divine erotic energy that is constricted and transformed into various forms of evil in the “husks” or Kellipot. In each system, life energy must, as it were, be brought out of exile in order to serve the aims of a liberated subject, in psychoanalysis the individual, in Kabbalah, the individual, world and God. Whereas Freud saw repressed energy only in the individual psyche, the Kabbalists see it in the collective psyche and in each object, situation and event in the world. For the Kabbalists, the task of liberating this energy extends beyond the individual mind to the cosmos as a whole and even to Ein-sof itself. In practical terms, this means, as I have discussed earlier, that the psychotherapeutic attitude must be extended beyond the consultation room to include all of one’s relationships.
This sounds Jungian, No?
I have a great respect for much in Jung’s work and I believe that there should be more dialog between Freudian and Jungian therapists. One of the ideas in Jung that I find intriguing from both a psychotherapeutic and a Kabbalistic point of view, is the archetype of the “shadow,” which corresponds generally to the symbol of the sitra achra, the “other side” in the Kabbalah. For both Jung and the Kabbalists the shadow/other side manifests as the as the “dark” aspect of one’s personality, those traits, emotions, attitudes and behaviors which one attempts to deny in oneself or suppress. The Zohar, however, is clear that those who attempt to ignore or suppress the “other side” will in the end be controlled by it, and further that the energy contained within it is the ultimate source of creative and even altruistic activity, if only it can be freed and redirected for these purposes. Jung, of course, made nearly the very same claims with respect to the archetype of the “shadows.” The parallels between the Kabbalah and Jung on this and other points are understandable given Jung’s own interest in the Kabbalah and his even greater interest in the spiritual dimension of alchemy which was in large measure derived from Kabbalistic sources. In psychotherapy, the problem of the “other side” arises not from the fact that client’s have libidinous, aggressive and even thanatic impulses, but rather because these impulses are suppressed and often go unrecognized. The suppression and repression of these impulses results in a constriction in and rigidity of the personality and dogmatism in thought. Further, there is typically an aggressive effort to suppress those individuals or aspects of the environment that threaten to undermine the suppression of one’s impulses. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich referred to this as the “emotional plague.” Kabbalistically, such suppression results in and strengthens the Kellipot which bind the individual’s soul. In psychotherapy, the client is encouraged to articulate all of his/her thoughts feelings and impulses. In adhering to the principles of free association, infinite dialog and infinite interpretation, psychotherapy loosens the rigidity and overcomes dogmatism that had inhibited the client’s creativity and self-actualization. The therapist makes it clear that he/she is interested in listening to the client’s darkest thoughts and dreams, not in order to judge the client, but in order to aid the client in assimilating the fullness of his or her own being.
By being non-judgmental, aren’t you giving license to the client’s unethical and even evil impulses?
This is a standard criticism of psychotherapy, and particularly psychoanalysis, from a traditional religious point of view. First, there is a vast difference between thoughts, dreams and feelings on the one hand and behavior or even contemplated behavior on the other. It is the latter, not the former, that should be the focus of our ethical concerns. Second, it is the very judgmental suppression of the “other side,” of one’s presumably negative thoughts, feelings and impulses that leads to the emotional rigidity, dogmatism, and repressive aggression that results in much of the damage that human’s do to others, themselves and the planet. My own view is that an “open economy” of thought and feeling is the fundamental basis for an ethical life, but here were are moving into axiology or value theory. The main point is that the therapist’s non-judgmental stance is not initiated in order to abrogate ethics, but in order to make a genuine ethics possible.
How is it possible to base such an “open economy” on a particular religious vision?
Several core Kabbalistic principles lead to the idea that no single perspective or point of view has the corner on truth. These principles include: (1) that scripture, and by extension all texts, are subject to an indefinite if not infinite number of valid interpretations, (2) that each thing in the world can be understood from a variety of perspectives or behinnot (3) that fundamental beliefs and ideas imply the truth of their opposites or contradictories, (4) that God, and also the human soul, is infinite in nature, and (5) that the “vessels” of thought, emotion, spirituality etc. through which we attempt to contain and circumscribe the light of the infinite continuously overflow, are displaced, and or shattered, requiring new vessels to take their place. Those interested in these Kabbalistic ideas are referred to my books Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors and the various articles that address these ideas on the New Kabbalah website. However, in spite of clear trends within the Kabbalah that deconstruct any efforts to close off dialog and interpretation. The Kabbalah is often presented as yet one more closed system or discipline that promises a unique and exclusive access to spiritual enlightenment or truth, and there are indeed numerous elements within Kabbalistic writings which suggest that this is indeed the case. The “advance” of what I refer to as the “New Kabbalah” has been to emphasize those aspects of the traditional Kabbalah that affirmed infinite dialog and interpretation and the deconstruction of all so-called absolute “truths.” The New Kabbalah further applies traditional “deconstructive” Kabbalistic ideas to those aspects of traditional Kabbalah that tend towards dogmatism and closure. It is for this reason why I have referred to “deconstruction” as the “Gateway” to the New Kabbalah. However, while such deconstruction is fundamental to the New Kabbalah, it is only half the story; the Kabbalistic symbol of Tikkun (repair, restoration) assures that the Kabbalah will be reconstructive as well, and that there is indeed value to developing a coherent religious (or seculkar) philosophy and world-view. I believe that such a world-view, if read through an open, multi-valent lens is actually present in the Lurianic theology, which, on my view, is both a “system” and a “non-system” of thought.
Now the process of psychotherapy and the role of the psychotherapist is to gently, but continually apply a deconstructive form of inquiry to those aspects of the client’s discourse and behavior that suggest rigidity, dogmatism and closure, while at the same time permitting and even encouraging the client to develop a sense of identity, valuable relationships and a flexible but meaningful world and life-view. However, the therapist must be mindful that the desire to achieve a world-view as a bulwark against all anxiety, even the anxiety of loss and death, can lead one to adopt a religious vision or philosophy that leads to a rigidification of the personality and, paradoxically, closes one off from the full source of meaning in the infinite, Ein-sof. Therapy cannot and should not be a cure for all anxiety and uncertainty, and –on my view—those religions that pretend to be one—can be inimical to the therapeutic process.
How, then, do you regard the mystical states of unity that are supposed to lead to detachment from the worries and anxieties of this world?
Clearly, individuals from a wide variety of religious traditions do have powerful mystical experiences which they spontaneously report as suggesting or even confirming the unity of all things and/or the union of the self with God or the universe. Such experiences not only produce a sense of great peace, but also enable the individual to identify with something far greater than the self and thus reduce or eliminate many of the anxieties associated with the personal ego. Typically, these experiences further result in a great love for all persons, living and non-living things, events, moments and details of the world, as each of these are now understood to be an expression of a divine, unified whole. Such unitive experiences are, on my view, perfectly compatible with the “open economy” that I have been describing. This is because a great love for all things (what the Jewish tradition refers to as ahavah rabbah) leaves no room for dogmatism, close-mindedness, and prejudice. The implication of such a love is that all things, all ideas, indeed all moments in the cosmos, be allowed to develop and realize their own essences, free of the limitations and constraints of the personal ego. This is the basis for what the Kabbalists’ Tikkun ha-Olam (the restoration of the world). I also believe that such mystical/unitive experiences are compatible with, and ultimately the fulfillment of, the psychotherapeutic attitude as I understand it.
Are you opposed to all specificity in religion; for example, being Jewish, Christian or Buddhist?
Not at all. I think that one can be either an open Jew, Christiian or Buddhist or a closed and dogmatic one. However the term “specificity” is an interesting one that I would like to comment upon. Those of us who live in western cultures are used to thinking that ‘truth” and “knowledge’ must be precise and specific. While there are certain advantages to this way of thinking, the costs to the psyche of thinking too specifically, and especially of thinking specifically too soon, can be very great. We assume that a specific, immediate solution to a problem is the best solution, when in matters of the psyche the best course of action may be to swim in the ambiguous depths of a problem for awhile until a deeply felt and considered solution to our problem emerges. The open economy of psychotherapy should also be a deep, wide and patient economy, one which recognizes that major life issues often require deep exploration and periods of quiescence and even confusion which alternate with active solution-focused work. No one could be expected, for example, to solve a major scientific puzzle, compose a symphony, write a novel, or produce a philosophical treatise on demand, and no one should demand a creative resolution to a major life crisis or assume that a solution to such a crisis can emerge overnight. Though an initial inspiration often arrives in a flash, such inspiration frequently requires considerable time and work to achieve its fulfillment and completion. I think there are certain problems (amongst them the collective problems of the human race: love, war, theology, meaning, etc.) which one will not resolve even over the course of a lifetime, but which nevertheless demand our immediate and sustained consideration. Some of these problems may even be “essentially contestible” and defy specific solutions. Such lack of “specificity” is not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing, for example, that runs more contrary to a mystical conception of the Infinite or Absolute than the idea that God must be a specific, precise, definable thing; yet religions, particularly in the West, continue to propagate the notion that such a specific knowledge of ‘God’ and ‘truth’ is available to their adherents. Similarly, there may be no reason to believe that life has a specific meaning, yet the failure to find one should not result in the conviction that life is meaningless. Something can be intensely meaningful without having a precise or specifiable meaning. Ceratinly, if a single dream, proposition, or even word can have an indefinite, if nit infinite number of meanings we should not expect life, or the universe as a whole to have a single, determinate one. At times (though not always) those who feel that they have found a specific meaning in their lives lead lives that are overly constricted and controlled. I think that the notion of “open-beingness” gets at what I am saying here; by being open to a manifold of meanings and experiences, and not demanding ‘specificity’ to soon, one is more likely to achieve more satisfying and lasting to solutions to life’s crises and conflicts.
You seem to move back and forth between psychology, philosophy and mysticism. Aren’t these really separate disciplines?
Psychology, philosophy, mysticism and theology flow seamlessly together in my understanding of the Kabblah, much as they do in Buddhism and other eastern traditions. As the fundamental principle here is a radical open-mindedness and “open-beingness” it becomes difficult if not impossible to draw clear boundaries between disciplines and subject-matters. As I understand and practice it, psychotherapy provides an arena within which one can explore one’s emotional, sexual, aesthetic, intellective and spiritual self, and that means crossing the boundaries of psychology, philosophy, mysticism, and theology.
Your conception of psychotherapy sounds as though it applies to basically healthy individuals who suffer from problems in living as opposed to serious mental illness. Do you also work with individuals who suffer from severe depression and/or psychosis?
As a psychologist at
How important is the therapeutic relationship in working with such individuals?
It has often been said and studies have shown, that the therapeutic relationship is the most important factor in successful psychotherapy. Indeed, the major aim of therapy is to establish a relationship with the client within which he/she feels listened to and has the space to fully express his/her thoughts, feelings and desires. As I pointed out earlier, in order to achieve this the therapist enters into an act of Tzimtzum, a state in which he/she is both withdrawn and fully present to the client, and in which the therapist ultimately forms an image of the client as more creative and actualized according to their own desires, rather than others’ demands. This is no less true for psychotic and other severely disturbed clients, with the caveat that often such clients often require far more direction and structure in the therapeutic process than other, less disturbed, individuals. Severely disturbed clients are often overwhelmed by their own psychic productions and the therapist must assist them to achieve a better tolerance and control over these productions, before the client can profitably explore their significance. My goal, however, does not end with simply shoring up the client’s defenses, but extends, as with all clients, to increasing their sense of personal autonomy and creative self-actualization.
You have spoken about the process of shedding malevolent identifications. How is this important in psychotherapy?
Human development inevitably involves a series of identifications through which the individual’s gender, cultural, and personal identity is formed. An unfortunate byproduct of this process, however, is that the child inevitably identifies with certain attitudes, prejudices, emotions, moods, character traits and beliefs that other have about himself, which interfere with his/her creative self-actualization. While these identifications seem automatic, many are actually imposed upon the child through subtle or not so subtle demands made by parents and other relatives or caretakers. Such constricting identifications alienate the individual from his/her own desire and in Kabbalistic terms serve as the major source of the Kellipot that constrict the individual’s psyche and interfere with his relationships as he matures. While it would neither be possible nor desirable to “deconstruct” and eliminate each of a client’s identifications (after all, many of them are essentially positive), one of the aims of psychotherapy is to engage the client in a dialog about these identifications and his/her resultant “self-image” in order that they can be chosen and affirmed or, if need be, disengaged from. The Kabbalists, of course, held that that the human soul is created in an infinite divine image, not in the images of those (parents, teachers, society) who would recreate the person according to their own limited point of view. The process of psychotherapy not only assists the individual in overcoming malevolent identifications but also in examining the attitudes and prejudices that inevitably accompany them.
Returning again to Freud, is your concept of psychic energy wider than Freud’s concept of libido?
Yes, but we should remember that for the Kabbalists the basic energy of the cosmos is erotic and procreative. When the universe is lacking in harmony this is said to be because the masculine and female Partzufim (visages or aspects of divinity) have turned their backs upon one another and are no longer engaging in procreation. Also, for the Kabbalists, the highest Sefirah, Keter (Crown), which is even higher than Chochmah and Binah (Wisdom and Understanding) and is virtually identical with Ein-sof itself, is spoken of as Ratzon (desire) and Tinug (delight). These observations suggest that, for the Kabbalists, an erotically informed “desire” is at the core of the divine and, by extension, at the core of the human individual who is created in the divine image. While desire may initially be erotic it extends throughout the personality and is manifest in a wide variety of interpersonal, creative, aesthetic, spiritual and other quests. From a psychotherapeutic point of view, becoming aware of, and if possible, congruent with one’s desires is an extremely important goal. Because one’s upbringing and identifications have contributed to, obscured, distorted and perverted the client’s desires, he or she must rediscover them through indirect psychological means. Amongst the clues to desire are one’s dreams, the transference relationship with the therapists, sexual fantasies, and the thoughts and wishes that emerge in midst of in the aftermath of a life crisis. Of course, discovering one’s desires does not necessarily mean that one will always act upon them. The problem for most clients, however, is that after being forbidden to act upon their desires they have lost all understanding of them, and think they want something else. Their forgotten desires take on a life of their own and contribute to anxiety, depression and other symptoms, as well as to repetitive patterns of behavior through which they seek satisfaction through indirect, and of self-defeating, means.
Is it ever possible, though, to arrive at what one truly wants behind the accumulation of one’s “distorting and perverting” life history? After all, aren’t our so-called true desires also shaped by our environment?
To answer the first question, no, one will never arrive at a rock-bottom truth regarding one’s original, true desire, but I have observed that client’s in psychotherapy almost always arrive at the point where they experience desires that accord better with their deeply felt emotions, potentially provide them with a greater degree of personal satisfaction and better serve their creative self-actualization than those they were acting upon prior to beginning therapy. So while there may be no absolute “truth” in these matters, it does make sense, for example, to distinguish between what Winnicott spoke of as one’s “true” and “false” self, and what the existentialists spoke about as authentic and inauthentic ways of being.
With regard to the question of what shapes our desires; certainly environment plays an enormous role. It is even possible that one’s deepest desires are shaped by accidental or even malevolent forces in our childhood. However, regardless of their origins, I believe it is important for one to have a full experience of one’s desires and to deeply consider how pursuing (or in some cases not pursuing) them can contribute to one’s self-actualization.
The Kabbalist Isaac Luria held that “anger” was one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual development. Do you agree? Isn’t one of the goals of psychotherapy to “get in touch with one’s anger?”
While I do think it is very important for client’s to be aware of and even experience their angry feelings, I agree that the direct expression of anger is often detrimental to one’s psychological and spiritual well-being. Anger signals a problem in one’s relationships; however, most often when one experiences intense anger the problem is with a relationship from the distant past.
In this regard, one might say that there are basically two types of anger; anger that one wants to express and shouldn’t, and anger that one doesn’t want to express but which one should. As a general rule, anger that comes upon one spontaneously and which one wants to express should not be expressed immediately and directly, as in the majority of cases it is rooted in the past rather than the present and reflects a self-focused “untherapeutic” attitude towards the other. Further, in those instances where such anger is fully warranted, a direct, hostile expression of rage will generally be self-defeating. On the other hand, anger that one only gradually discovers within oneself and which one is generally averse to expressing (because of feelings of inadequacy or fears of retaliation) probably needs to be expressed, albeit in an assertive (not aggressive) manner. This is because such “slow to recognize” anger typically reflects the individual’s realization that he/she has been chronically disrespected or taken advantage of by another. In general. I believe that when you find yourself angry, you should reflect upon the causes of your own feelings (e.g. in your own personal tendencies and limitations) and upon the situation as it is likely to be understood by the one who is presumably causing your anger. If after doing so, you still believe that your rights have been violated, you should assert yourself with the other, but in a manner that leaves room for his or her response. I believe that if you practice this procedure and learn to assert yourself when appropriate you will find that you can bypass the experience of anger and move directly into more productive interpersonal exchanges.
Those who chronically experience anger have often suffered a lifetime of abuse, neglect, disrespect, etc. Their anger towards past figures greatly interferes with their current emotional life and relationships. Their work in psychotherapy will center upon working through feelings connected with the past and ultimately permitting themselves to experience emotions other than rage.
To be continued…
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
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