Fragility (and strength), like vulnerability, is relative, as the soft sponge will be like a mountain for the ant, and it could be annihilated by the softest touch.Oded Reitten
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite psychotherapists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their therapeutic practice.
This week I talk to Oded Reitten, an existential psychotherapist from Tel-Aviv, Israel.
Having worked in various psychiatric environments, you were “inspired to search for a wider understanding of life and the human mind, one that transcends scientific method and theoretical knowledge”.
Are there any experiences you can share from that time which particularly inspired you to move towards psychotherapy?
I came into these environments already inspired to become a therapist. I was studying psychology at the time and worked at a mental-health day centre in an underground shelter in the centre of Tel-Aviv. That was my first encounter with psychiatric patients; the first thing I noticed was a theme of disconnection. They were disconnected from the rest of society, their families, themselves, from being a full human being, from responsibility.
Paradoxically, they were also slightly disconnected from each other, yet connected together in their disconnection. Many of the stories were somewhat similar; breakdown at late adolescence, sectioning, treatment with heavy medications, further trauma within the psychiatric wards etc. left them estranged from society and increasingly depended on mental-health services. These were largely successful in the ‘containment’ or reduction of their madness but weren’t actually helping them reconnect to living.
The conversation at the centre corresponded with the conversation and ideas at the psychology department; words like illness, diagnosis, relapse and chemical imbalance. It was rarely about human connection. These powerful ‘medical’ words gave people the idea they knew what they were talking about. The act of giving words to these experiences evolved into reducing them into words, which made it harder and less likely for people to ask, wonder and connect through the gaps in understanding. The trend to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ turned even the most basic human experiences like fear, depression, anxiety and confusion to be treated like problems to be solved. I saw the growing human disconnection in all that, and closeness as a kind of cure.
Relationship is essentially something we cannot fully understand; the absence of its mystery within many mental-health fields has always been somewhat balanced by philosophers and artists. I became less drawn to theories and specialist systems of knowledge within the field, as for me, explanations seemed more likely to distance people than bring them together. These seemed extremely seductive to many therapists and clients and often taken as gospel. I became enticed to see and hold the unexplained, uncertain and unknown as these seemed to me to be making more space for people’s meanings to be recreated. Being certain about anything, and particularly the way people work, seemed un-therapeutic to say the least.
Are they the same influences which keep you in the field today? How have they evolved?
Today, I am drawn less by the challenges presented by the system and more by the ones that come up in the therapeutic relationship; clients’ lack of engagement with certain aspects of themselves, resistance to closeness and my sometimes failed attempts at having a real human-to-human conversation.
Feeling stuck, lost and without meaning are experiences we all face as human beings. Why do you think that is?
Sounds familiar. I’m not entirely sure; maybe meaning for us is like any other resource, we need to work at it or wait for it, consume until it’s gone and then have to find it again?
These are probably like the Yin side of the Yin-Yang, the bitter of the bitter-sweet etc.
Nevertheless, we really don’t like to feel this way and often see it as a fault, either in ourselves or in the world… Why is that? Perhaps our Western idea of having to endlessly progress? Everything that slows this down may seem like a problem. Human ‘solutions’ to finite resources always seem to create new problems on the planet as they tend to interfere with the complex web of reciprocal relationships things have with each other. As we are forgetful beings, we forget that lost-found, meaning-meaninglessness are two sides of the same thing, mutually dependent on each other as one system.
Once when I was really sad I wrote this poem, it’s somewhat relevant:
The good and the bad are matched (and in conflict) so much like brothers, so much in common yet nothing at all, they know each other the best the worst and not at all.
Wanting one and rejecting the other is of the same mother and father.
The chest sinks endlessly a rock off a cliff no sound. The eyes weep lost images wrong choices feelings fantasies A time that was non (and not really gone)
Regret; and if I’d done it differently am I free of burning loss Pain goes missing without a face
And if I had and have am I happy do I stay, what else do u want will I ever get it. No.
Nothing like the best the worst the ugliest the kindest has no limits the pain does eventually
I leave and stay again I remain ready open prepared to be unprepared again and maybe drop better maybe not
Make your brother a friend and a friend your brother
How might you approach those feelings in your work?
I allow them to be, and treat them the same as I do with more enjoyable feelings; something that I sometimes find challenging to do with myself (by myself), yet other people in my life help me with that too. These feelings are never pleasant, yet perhaps the ‘problem’ starts when I see them as a fault, like not supposed to happen, or when I forget of the cycle and get lost in one side of it; often paradoxically, by the gravity that is created of wanting to change them.
So, in therapy I try to talk about them less as oppositions that are fighting each other, like the good and the bad in Lord Of The Rings, and more like the polarities of the same thing, like day and night, leaves growing and wilting etc. I remind them (and myself) that every meaning that we get or make is unstable, uncertain and temporary, in its time will also evaporate, and make space for more and other things. I use a lot of ‘of-course’ in my speech, ‘of course it changed’, ‘of-course we forgot’ and so on.. to remind them of the unstable nature of things, and try to get myself and them more familiar with it and somewhat even anticipate the flips.
As a therapist, what does vulnerability mean to you?
It’s a good way to describe pretty much everything in this world, isn’t it? Vulnerable, moving, changing and largely uncertain. As humans, we are particularly vulnerable because we are fragile both physically and emotionally. Fragility (and strength), like vulnerability, is relative, as the soft sponge will be like a mountain for the ant, and it could be annihilated by the softest touch.
Many humans associate vulnerability only with weakness, which makes them hide it as much as they can, which inevitably distances them from others, and others from them, as the vulnerable/sensitive parts are like the entrances to our body and our hearts. It’s strange that the dictionary defines the word weakness as ‘a fault’ which again, forgets the weak-strong polarity.
It would be wiser to associate vulnerability with weakness and with receptivity, and also with strength as its brother. As what is sensitive in its reception, like the camera lens, the eyes, the genitals, our metaphorical hearts etc, is also vulnerable. If we block that sensitivity due to attachment to a fantasy idea of strength that doesn’t break or a person that isn’t sensitive, we risk blindness or a disability to feel things.
What are the most important lessons you have learned as a psychotherapist?
To not immediately say everything I think. To always find a way to say how I feel, as it would touch the other, and when they are touched, I am touched, and then we are somewhat closer and the world is somewhat better.
Read more about Oded Reitten and his practice: http://psycho-therapeia.co.uk/