This Meaning Making Business

This Meaning Making Business

Anja is currently reading Les Lancaster’s Approaches to Consciousness[1] and she told me that, according to Les, we have all been “Jewish-ified” 🙂[2]. This idea is based on a claim that in bringing psychoanalysis to the world, Freud was really re-imagining the Jewish tradition of the spoken Torah. As I understand it, the Rabbi’s business was (is) not only the transmission of teaching contained in the Torah, but also an ongoing exposition of his dialectical relationship with the Torah. This exposition would be in the form of commentaries written about the interpretation of the Torah, and is known as the oral or spoken tradition of the Torah. This is how the Rabbi would bring the lofty ideas contained in the Torah into the real world, into his life, and his ongoing struggle to make sense of his life through the lens of his lived religion.

Now is that not the perfect metaphor for the psychoanalytic process?

Lying on the psychoanalyst’s chaise lounge I grapple with the stuff that is my life[3]. Prompted every so often by the disembodied voice of the psychoanalyst to go deeper, search further, to see beyond the veil. In this process I become the Rabbi and my life the bridge between spirit (the ideal) and matter (the lived). In the reflective and dialectical process of analysis I heroically try to reconcile the cultural, social, political, moral and instinctive imperatives in the fabric of my own existence. This process becomes my real religion, to bind together these disparate elements and to do so in such a way that my life makes sense; my own version of the spoken tradition of the Torah.

Going beyond the confines of depth psychology, the reflective process, this meaning making business, is a lens on our lives. It is no longer sufficient merely to live[4], we want our lives to mean something. And it is in the movement from the savage (the lived) to the symbolic (the reflective process) that meaning emerges. At least the meaning, the type of meaning, we are concerned with here. I act in the world or I am the recipient of an act by the world; be that act constructive or deconstructive, generative or non-generative. In itself it means nothing, it is merely another in an infinite series of natural, causal and unconscious acts. It is only when this act lives in me, in my soul as it were, when I make the act conscious through the act of reflection can it be said to mean something.

At least this is the subjective perspective. We can ask if “it” whatever it may be, means something in and of itself. Is it possible to consider whether it[5] is meaningful or meaningless in itself, or is it beyond the characterisation of meaning? Can we meaningfully refer to objective meaning? This question, I imagine, will remain forever mysterious. What we can and do know is that subjectively, phenomenologicaly, meaning is very important for us. We really, really (one may almost say desperately) want our lives to mean something.

We demand meaning.

The roads to meaning are varied, too varied to attempt an exhaustive list. I will focus on only a few elements common to the process.

Meaning through inherited narratives. This is, I think, the most common and ubiquitous route to meaning. We are usually told from a young age what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a man or a woman. And of course all of these narratives are heavily laden with pre-conceived ideas of what it should mean. That is to say that the meaning we are taught has a strong ideological bias. This is the layer of meaning which we are born into and usually, as such, constitutes our default narrative. It is how we are taught to view ourselves and our lives; and accordingly constitutes our first layer of, usually unconscious, meaning.

Meaning through object relations. The relationship between the subject and the objects that populate their world, including other people viewed as objects. Objects capture and contain our instinctive and unconscious drives; objects of desire, of repulsion, objects which are aspired to, held in esteem or attacked. This is possibly the most natural layer of meaning, it is meaning at the level of the given, it is simply there, it is not meaning which has to be wrestled from the stone, so to speak.

Both of the above are essentially unreflective and unconscious. These are states of meaning which we can compare, mythologically, to the meaning available in the Garden of Eden. They are given, no work is required, they exist, at least for the subject, a priori, they are a gift of grace. This is the state of meaning prior to assuming the position on the psychoanalysts couch :-), be it an actual or metaphorical couch.

At the reflective stage one is obliged to create meaning, often from nothing, where previously meaning was given. At this stage the previous narratives have broken down. They no longer effectively symbolise the savage. A new narrative has to be birthed from the creative and erotic encounter between you as subject and the world as object. This requires first and foremost a deeply felt desire for meaning, one sufficient to drive you beyond the inevitable disappointments along the road; and then, a talent for creative imagination and inspiration, which, if functional, builds a bridge to a new myth, a new narrative, that becomes the vessel of meaning going forward.

This is not to suggest that this process is easy or success guaranteed.

I was chatting to my brother, Michael, whilst working on this post, and he reminded me of something he had mentioned some time ago; a passage from James Hollis, of whom he is a great fan.  Hollis, at a cynical moment, but no less true for that, gives the low down on the psychoanalytic prognosis.

Were therapists required by “truth in advertising” legislation to tell their reality, then virtually no one would enter therapy. The therapist would be obliged to say at least three things in return to the suffering supplicant:

First, you will have to deal with this core issue the rest of your life, and at best you will manage to win a few skirmishes in your long uncivil war with yourself. Decades from now you will be fighting on these familiar fronts, though the terrain may have shifted so much that you may have difficulty recognizing the same old, same old.

Second, you will be obliged to disassemble the many forces you have gathered to defend against your wound. At this late date it is your defences, not your wound, that cause the problem and arrest your journey. But removing these defences will oblige you to feel all the pain of that wound again.

And third, you will not be spared pain, vouchsafed wisdom or granted exemption from future suffering. In fact, genuine disclosure would require a therapist to reveal the shabby sham of managed care as a fraud, and make a much more modest claim for long-term depth therapy or analysis.

Yet, however modest that claim, it is, I believe, true. Therapy will not heal you, make your problems go away or make your life work out. It will, quite simply, make your life more interesting. You will come to more and more complex riddles wrapped within yourself and your relationships. This claim seems small potatoes to the anxious consumer world, but it is an immense gift, a stupendous contribution. Think of it: your own life might become more interesting[6] to you!

Consciousness is the gift, and that is the best it gets.[7]


This is reminiscent of the apocryphal story about a journalist who asks Sergei Pankejeff if 60 years of psychoanalysis (!) cured him. To which Pankejeff replied, no it hadn’t. Pressed by the journalist as to why he persisted with no cure forthcoming, Pankejeff is claimed to have said, it made his life bearable.

There is a description of the Jungian notion of the Self I came across that speaks to this idea:

In a sense, the relation to the self is the [S]elf.

This idea really resonates, a circumambulation of an essentially empty centre, through which meaning and purpose are born. The creative, individuating, force is unlocked through the relatedness of the self to itself. Relatedness becomes the key, rather than the discovery of, or servitude to, an imagined entity named Self. In any case it is, I think, an excellent description of the dynamic through which we become conscious of ourselves and enter our own mythology.

Until we speak again,



[1] Quite possibly the best overarching investigation into consciousness I have ever come across.

[2] I.e. inculcated into Jewish psychology; Anja’s phrasing not Les Lancesters.

[3] I rely here on the classical image given to us by Freud and the early psychoanalytic movement. Not the contemporary face to face encounter in a far more sterile environment that psychoanalysis has become. I had the good fortune to visit Freud’s consulting room at the Freud Museum in London. The room is magical, filled with thousands of antique figurines that Freud was an avid collector of.  Like so much else, psychoanalysis has lost its original romance.

[4] Assuming it ever was, which is a questionable assumption.

[5] It : i.e. the lived, life in and of itself.

[6] And to this may equally be added: more meaningful.

[7] James Hollis, Creating a Life, pp. 17 -18

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Comments (2)

  • Bruce Finlay Reply

    I don’t understand a word but I feel much better. You are the Guru.

    November 27, 2012 at 6:07 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Good, as long as the medicine is working I’m happy :-).

      November 27, 2012 at 9:32 am

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