The analyst Mike Eigen wonders if psychotherapy might be seen as a form of prayer. On first reading I was sceptical. Prayer seems to involve a lot of wishes and hopes and a certain amount of intellectual sleight of hand. Or the prayer tradition in which I grew up was like this. Prayer was a divine slot machine. One put one’s money in the machine and back came an answer. It may not have been the answer one wanted, but the get out clause read “The answer may sometimes be ‘No'” Thus most options were covered. How, I wondered, could psychotherapy be a form of prayer? (My patients might have their own answers to that question!) Then I remembered that there are other prayer traditions that pre-date the Evangelical slot machine version. The Orthodox church has long had a tradition of contemplative prayer which may be seen as clearing one’s mind of external concerns so that one can better hear God. A kind of centring down into one’s emotional, psychic depths. that then make thought and understanding possible.
It is at this junction that one can see links between therapy and prayer, particularly given that one root of the word “therapy” has ideas of healing and curing. (Psychotherapy being known as the talking cure.) Prayer makes room for the Other, which philosophically is defined as “the counterpart who defines the self” (Wikipedia) Defining one’s self is a central part of the work of therapy. I could put all my patents under one broad heading. Their headlines might be depression, anger, marital problems. But at root they all ask “Who am I?” My task as a therapist is to be the Other whom they can use in whatever way they wish. The classic Freudian analyst presents a blank screen onto which the patient can project whatever material they choose. Thus one becomes a lover, a hero, a bastard, a thug, a father, a mother. The list goes on. What links these projections is that they are Other than the patient and can be explored in the transference relationship.
Prayer seems to serve a similar purpose. God can become Judge, Jury, Benevolent father, tyrannical manager. And a lifetime more than these. With skill and practice one can begin to understand why God might be seen as this or that. As Tyrant or Lover. (And this might be where classical theology and classical psychoanalysis meet. In both cases the Object- God or the analyst- does not change. Their task is to hold and contain, thus allowing healing to take place.)
This quote sums up both prayer and therapy for me.
“Before you can live a part of you has to die. You have to let go of what could have been, how you should have acted and what you wish you would have said differently. You have to accept that you can’t change the past experiences, opinions of others at that moment in time or outcomes from their choices or yours. When you finally recognize that truth then you will understand the true meaning of forgiveness of yourself and others. From this point you will finally be free.”
― Shannon L. Alder