How do I explain to my wife that when I look out the window I’m working?

That’s how said Joseph Conrad, telling a truth that belongs not just to writers– like himself –, but also to psychologists. 

Window on the seaThe clinical practice of psychology remains more of an art than a science. It is the art of rewriting life. If writers observe life and write stories of lives, psychologists observe life and re-write stories of life. Therapy happens within defined physical and relational boundaries, which are essential because they make it possible for the whole thing to feel like a safe space. Yet, the essence of therapy inevitably expands far beyond those borders, flowing in and out of the lives of patient and therapist. Therapy goes way OltreConfini – beyond borders – because life, the object of its art, has no borders, not in space and not in time. Where one life ends, another begins. A yogi would say that each Atman (Individual Breath) converges into Brahman (Universal Breath).

So, if psychology is the art of rewriting life, what is its contribution to society? How can psychologists concretely help people? How can you help another re-write their story? Well, one way is to take a deep breath with your patient, hold their hand, put on your goggles, and with them dive deep under, looking into life from left to right and from right to left, from below to above and from above to below. As together you swim underwater, your job is to point to whatever big and small things seem interesting along the way. Then you go back up to take another breath and together you talk of the journey, you map the road. Together you try to make sense of it and accept that you won’t understand some of it after all. Then you take another deep breath and go back under for another pass. You do it over and over again. You don’t let go of your patient’s hand until going down is no longer so scary for them.  Then you stick around a while longer, you let them go down alone, and once they come back up, you listen as they tell you about their voyages.

It’s no joke that psychoanalysis is the “Impossible Profession” (J. Malcolm, 1982).  How do you dive deep into one, ten, one hundred lives, time and time again?   How can one become an expert on life to the point of being an editor of it? First you accept that you are indeed not an expert about it at all and that you never will be one. Just like with diving, some ocean floors will not be accessible, some mysteries won’t be solved. Then there is only one thing left to do: you live. You live as deeply and as intensely as you can, all the time. You let yourself be happy, sad, bored, angry. You keep your eyes and your senses wide open, always. You learn not to be afraid of life, first of your own, and then that of others.

Like everything else, this awareness has a cost. As a psychologist, you can never turn off that sixth sense of yours, you cannot take off that pair of goggles that likely you always had and that brought you to psychology as the art of your choice. Psychology training gives you the tools to adjust those goggles and put them to use. With time you even learn to turn down their sharpness at times, but you can never take them off. They become a part of you. They are the very tool that as a psychologist you use to dive and explore the unknown that is in each and every heart. Like writers, psychologists, to do what they do, must live and observe life, taking in each moment of it to its fullest. For this, they must always look in wonder through that window that Conrad talks about, mesmerized and attentive to what they see. This Blog is a place to put into words fragments of what a psychologist sees from the window as she looks out and takes dives into her own and other’s lives.

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