For many years I was more (than now) actively
interested in psychodynamic psychotherapy. In the early 1980s
I did half the analytical psychotherapy training at the Scottish
Institute of Human Relations. At that time I was also Secretary
and Organiser of the twice yearly residential 'Pitlochry Conference', a residential meeting of the Psychotherapy Section of the Scottish Division of
the Royal College of Psychiatrists but open to others. When it
came to the 25th Anniversary in 1995, I suggested 'anniversaries'
as the theme, and offered a contribution given my interest in
rituals in life and therapy. Seeing ritual as a missing element
in the thinking of both psychodynamic and family psychotherapy,
I saw it as an important (very old and) new perspective and one
that bridges those two otherwise rather separated fields. It also
touches, more than most rational psychologies do, on ordinary
human life and experience, spirituality, and our common 'irrational'
psychology. This paper's pair is Possessing the Key, a published
version of a paper and performance at AFT's 21st Anniversary Conference
in Bolton in1998.
THE STORY SO
An important part of this paper is
the story behind it. Starting with a seminal influence: I'm the
son of a preacher man. I thought you ought to know that, in view
of various personal and professional similarities between him
and me around pastoral and ritual work - rituals and psychotherapy
being the subject of this paper today. And also, to prepare you
for my administering an innocuous little ritual here too!
I think there were rather more profound
and conflictual sources for the course of my life than this paternal
identification! But, whatever the reason, the interest in rituals
crystallises for me the strong family resemblances between priests,
helping professions, and psychotherapists, originating as we do
from a common ancestor, the shaman, that priestly healer of primitive
tribes (Ellenberger 1970). And, whatever the reason, I have also
inherited a passion for demystifying and looking for common sense
behind sectional jargon, and about taking responsibility for making
connections with and between any parent bodies in my life, for
finding communality between unnecessarily separate systems of
thought and practice.
At present, the very different post-modern
view is highly influential in family systems thinking, and slightly
influential in psychoanalysis. Post-modernism holds that there
is no ultimate integrity or truth, that all stories are to be
respected. This philosophy has some uses - it fits with analytical
open minded floating attention; and it fits with the prevalent
forms of family therapy practice with their recent return to respect
for each individual's different 'story' or 'social construction'
within their social system. But my view is that post-modernism
is a faulty cop-out in the face of a few difficulties in building
an integrated world picture. I think the drive to integrate and
to integrity is a basic human universal, and certainly a core
of the psychotherapist's character. At its best then - and this
is why I think it is interesting and important for us - ritual
has a special power to integrate individual, family and cultural
complexity, doing this through integrated thought, feeling, action
I have some souvenir handouts with
references available. The sections I will cover are headed: Examples
(including today's anniversary ritual itself!), Defining Rituals,
Psychotherapy and Rituals, and then Psychoanalysis and
Rituals. Meanwhile, back to The Story So Far:
After my Edinburgh medical and psychiatric
training, and as Mrs Thatcher began her reign, I was pleased to
be banished to the challenge of my present job in the peripheries
of excellence. At that time a similar process developed in my
relationship with the Scottish psychotherapy scene. I had ardently
been attending what had become Pitlochry and I began the SIHR
adult analytical psychotherapy training. I completed the easy
selfish half - that is, not the training cases. Five years of
enjoyable and hard work as Secretary (both kinds) to the Psychotherapy
Section, and to the course, led up to a liberating acting out
as I gave up two parent bodies who were securely accepting though
not interested in my broader horizons (at home and at work). While
I played my part in developing Pitlochry as it now is - a kind
of cathedral to mainly analytical psychotherapies - I had (as
Secretary) wanted this 'church' to be the platform for a broader
and more outgoing psychotherapy scene in Scotland. I brought,
as it were, the low church background where the Pitlochry 'Sunday
morning service' should be only slightly different to the rest
of the week, not a glorious high church ritual that frees you
to be fallibly human until next time. In my activities since then
in various fields I continued a minor crusade to constructively
deconstruct and demystify jargon, poor thinking and poor organisation.
Any marks I have made in those fields seem to have been ignorable
adolescent graffiti, easily washed off by the authorities. And
somewhere along this line - at home and work - my interest grew
in rituals in life and therapy.
During the 1980s, family therapy
had various competing schools of thought. Now, in gentler forms,
they are all fairly comfortably co-habiting within the accommodation
of the aforementioned post-modern non-marriage - generating pleasant
ideas and reflections but I think without sex or children. It
is my nature of course to find and keep a foot in all camps. But
one camp which then and now is generally ignored in family therapy
is the psychodynamic one. The originators of family therapy -
analytically trained medics almost to a man - explicitly made
their break from individualistic and analytical psychologies.
They claimed 'the system' as paramount (but only when controlled
by individuals like them, of course!), and they discounted any
need for attention to the individual within the system. They held
this even though, within family systems' own terms, the individual
is a valid subsystem of the family and other human groups, and
even though the best measure of the quality of functioning of
the wider system is the experience of the least individual within
it. And at a recent conference of family therapists, 95% had been
in personal therapy of some kind and almost all of this was (of
course) individual not family or marital therapy. One rule for
ourselves, another for our clients, it seems.
Alongside the post-modern developments
I've mentioned, integrations of other kinds have been tried -
some with Scottish connections too. But there is a general muttering
in family therapy about the irrelevance of psychoanalytical ideas.
Otherwise excellent books actively ignore them. One fine new tome,
Understanding Family Systems (1993), nevertheless gives
no place to psychodynamics, though Broderick argues sophisticatedly
that individuals in human systems have powers that the system
itself does not (such as intentionality); the nearest he gets
is to admit 'unconscious goals' into his scheme. And in the important
book, Rituals in Families and FT, the excellent introductory
chapter's short section on the individual only links in ideas
about 'right and left brain' functioning! So there remains a definite
gap between individual and system, and especially between psychoanalysis
and family therapy. That is the gap that I am trying to bridge
with the help of ritual. On the analytical side, the question
is: 'What are rituals to psychoanalysis?'
My own professional integrations
of family and individual have been first idiosyncratic philosophical
ones, and then pragmatic ones developed within our Motherwell
Child and Family Clinics service with its family-systems and multi-disciplinary
team approach. But I've never found a satisfactory theoretical
back-up to my never quite satisfying practical integration, and
particularly not an integration of the psychodynamic bit. Rituals,
however, intuitively felt like an area that connected and bridged
all kinds of school, and particularly so the psychodynamic bit.
So I was looking for a push to get reading and thinking this intuition
through. The theme of anniversaries seemed to me to require a
contribution on rituals, so I offered and here I am - an un-prodigal
son returning from my wider journeying to this parent body. In
a nicely coincidental way, I acknowledge the help of a recent
landmark, the founding in Lanarkshire of a small analytical interest
group just in time for an earlier draft of this anniversary paper
to be discussed there.
So, a year ago, I thought I would
look around, find literature that covered what I wanted to say
about ritual, add some bits and examples, and (er) Bob would be
your Uncle. Like Douglas, I have found very little that did my
thinking for me. My paper grew towards book size. Among the chapters
I must leave out this morning would be:
· Chapter 2 - Rituals and dynamic psychotherapy in historical
perspective: (or) psychotherapy's ancestral similarities - exorcism,
mesmerism, and hypnotism.
· Chapter 3 - The personal origins of ritual, religion
and the supernatural.
· Chapter 15 - The therapist's intention to influence:
(or) 'telling it slant' doesn't mean you're not trying to control
the client, while disculcating 'memory or desire' doesn't stop
your patient working out what you want.
· Chapter 38 - What kind of philosophy do rituals push
RITUAL To keep things lighter for a Saturday
morning, here are some examples of rituals and a few questions
they raise. Even more than a good clinical example does, a description
of ritual needs no preparatory explanation or theory; a brief
cameo can encapsulate rich meaning in a satisfying, positive and
self-contained way. So here's a question: Is it true that the
usual Pitlochry analytical listening mode is the same one needed
for listening to accounts of rituals? [Pause] What might this
show about the relatedness of analytical work and rituals? [Pause]
Eg One: A Family Bereavement Our much beloved cat died. Human
family members are loved and hated; pets can be purely loved.
We had time to prepare for this and held a full family funeral
for her. She lay in state all day in our front room. By candlelight
that evening, she was buried deep inside a brick and paving slab
pedestal that was already part of our garden design. In her box
she was made comfortable with blanket, food and cream for the
journey away from us. Under the paving slab at our side of the
earth barrier we placed a Tupperware box preserving things that
represented our human attachment to the cat. Maureen recited part
of The Owl and the Pussycat and put in the cat's collar and things;
I read out and put in a wide-ranging description of what the cat
and her death meant to me (I had wept each time I re-drafted this
and again at the grave side); Silas had recorded a tape of tracks
from his favourite rock music that expressed what he felt for
the cat; Jake read out a beautiful poem he had written for her.
Then and since we have felt the integrative and therapeutic effects
of this process and ceremony, though no new cat yet.
Ritual incidentally is the whole
process, not just the ceremony. We are all aware how our patients
and clients can be lastingly traumatised by absent or inadequate
rituals for major life events. With other examples to prove it,
I am always ready to talk about the importance of people reclaiming
control of their own weddings and funerals so that they are not
empty vessels when the event needs to brim over with emotion and
importance. A question: how much less need for psychotherapy might
there be if there were more adequate rituals in the rest of our
lives? [Pause] There are no rituals for some quite common life
Eg Two: The Separation Will Harris described in the Guardian
(13.3.93) the lead up to his wife's leaving him, and his attempts
to prepare for it, where to be, what to say, what gesture to make.
'But none of these took place. There were no valedictory words,
no sign that we had been man and wife for long enough, surely,
to have got right this final, brief, important ceremony. For I
did regard the final leave-taking as a ceremony. It would symbolise
the gravity of the situation, the ending of what for me at least
had been a wonderful relationship. It would betoken some kind
of dignity as we each entered our new lives. Instead, nothing
happened. We exchanged the briefest of goodbyes and the front
door shut. The separation had begun. I still feel something important
is missing. I haven't yet been able to ask my wife whether she
too felt short-changed. Maybe I am too idealistic or unrealistic.
Maybe I should have pumped all my feelings for ceremony and symbolism
into contesting the idea of separation, rather than meekly becoming
an unwilling accomplice. Maybe at this late stage we should have
had our one and only blazing row. But there was nothing beyond
the muttered farewell and I am left strangely cheated. My marriage,
although effectively over, was the high point of my life and it
deserved better at the end than it got.'
In my own family, rituals were absent, empty, or at least confusing.
Returning from boarding schools at the tenderest ages, our parents
had no notion of how to ask how we were since the last holiday
12 weeks before. Yet, we would go through Christmas celebrations
and Birthday parties. I used to hate parties and I was a scrooge
Eg Three: The Office Christmas
Party At work, we had problems organising
our Office Christmas party. Organising was left to those taken-for-granted,
underpaid but absolutely essential office 'mothers', the secretaries.
After some years of thus having even more reason to play Scrooge,
and since rituals like the office party cannot be avoided, I realised
that complex matters like this needed whole-hearted planning.
My parents didn't know what it took, but that didn't mean we didn't
and couldn't. We elected a Father Christmas from the professional
staff (me) with proper authority to sort out and plan the event
(beginning in July!) It's been good fun ever since, and Scrooge
is a ghost of Christmas past.
There is mystery in ritual but not
mystique - it requires the ordinary application of individual
and group thinking and planning to make it work. And here's a
rather over-the-top example of a therapeutic ritual of the kind
I was coming across.
Eg Four: A Reconstituted Family:
(From Imber-Black et
When presented, I read out the full and moving account from the
book about a couple who had split up. The depressed father came
for help and this eventually led to joint sessions with the couple
and a decision to get back together again. But their children
had some reservations about how reliable the 'new' dad was going
to be compared with before. They were all invited to 'plan a surprise'
for each other. The children's contribution was to make a cake
by themselves while rooms were booked in a hotel, big and small
sized bottles of champagne opened, inscribed glasses for each
of them used, and new rings handed via the children at the new
wedding ceremony (with its new anniversary date). The example
illustrated all the functions of rituals, as well as how the family's
difficulties arose in the parents' conflicting experiences of
family rituals and events in their families of origin.
(If you want to know more about the
family-systems theory and construction of rituals, that's the
book to read.) The work described is largely normal therapeutic
work. Yet it links easily with a positive awareness of the complexity
of life transitions and the place of ritual processes in making
and marking them. But the final ritual ceremony itself was the
family's own work - the therapist only asked them to 'plan a surprise'
for each other. You hardly need to have a special interest in
Eg Five: The Stillbirth In discussion about ritual with
me, Jim Gallagher, a Consultant Psychotherapist, recalled a woman
he had seen over some time who was still significantly affected
by the unmarked loss of a baby at birth. A natural question occurred
to him: 'Do you know where the baby's buried?' This question directly
engaged the patient's interest to search and find out. And that
process, a kind of healing ritual, helped or coincided with her
improvement and finishing therapy.
Some more questions: How much of
Jim's foregoing ordinary psychotherapeutic work was necessary
before finding the missing ritual was possible? [Pause] How often
do we anyway incidentally touch on these issues in our work, and
how much more effectively might we touch on them in assessment
and therapy if we were more systematically informed by a framework
of ritual? [Pause] But was the dead baby also a symbol in itself
for the woman in the therapy? [Pause] Was the patient's behaviour
strictly 'acting out' from the analytical point of view? [Pause]
And was Jim's question analytical? [Pause] Even if it wasn't,
was the 'therapy' of the ritual enactment first necessary before
any such more 'analytical' step could be taken with its more analytically
'therapeutic' result? [Pause] So what place might there be for
the therapist to hint or more knowingly guide the patient into
ritual awareness and acts outside or inside the therapy room?
Now for a bit of fun - the following
was read out with due ceremonial pace, emphasis, performance and
ANNIVERSARY RITUAL You should, of course, get much more
warning than this in order for you to prepare and participate.
I promise, however, that it will be done in the best possible
Pitlochry taste, requiring only mental activity on your part.
But as part of the induction of the mildly hypnotised state required
for ritual (if not analysis), I should ask if anyone feels uncomfortable
OK, so if you're comfortable, we've
had 25 years of 'Pitlochry', and in a moment I'm going to ask
you, if you will, to recall and reflect on what coming to Pitlochry
has meant for you in the past, what you've heard about it if you
haven't been coming for long, the informal personal and professional
bits, the formal 200 presentations there have been, good and bad
memories, likes and dislikes, big or little things, private or
public, and so on.
Before we begin, I have here a couple
of lists of attenders at this conference; when I ask you to start
reminiscing, I shall count slowly to 25 and scribble on the printed
side with this silver anniversary felt tip pen, thereby capturing
something of the collective reflections which I would ask you
to project in this direction. OK: Start, 1 etc.
Now the blank side is the future,
the next 25 years. Can you do the same, but this time imagine
while I scribble with this invisible gold pen what the next 25
years might hold for Pitlochry and psychotherapy in Scotland?
Starting now, 1 etc.
Now, I shall cut these up [24 = 1
page = 4 quarters x 6 strips] and (I was going to get an 'old-stager'
and a 'young-stager' to) set these bowls to go round (especially
provided by Mr Penker). But in view of the 'evil eye' the Chairman
and I will play the part of these representatives. You can each
take away an individual marker of the event, to do with what you
like, but perhaps to be used as a book mark for your psychotherapy
reading. There are more than needed here - the extra ones stand
for all those who aren't here today - perhaps you could take one
for someone you know. When you later think about what that marker
means to us all here, I think even the most rationalist of you
would not lightly throw away what is otherwise 'only' a scrap
DEFINING RITUALS So, what is a ritual? There are events
that we would all agree are rituals proper. Rituals all over the
world (Ingpen and Wilkinson 1994) demonstrate the variety and
richness of human culture responding to the ubiquitous events
of life and nature - the seasons, anniversaries, the life cycle
(birth, puberty, marriage, and death), surviving (hunting, harvesting,
eating, drinking, healing and 'acts of God'), socialising (initiation,
gifts, disputes, justice), and spirituality (worship and art).
Our Age of Enlightenment has eliminated the basis for much of
this through the displacement of supernatural beliefs. And the
technological control, comfort and reliability in our lives removes
the hardship that drives people to look for supernatural powers
of influence. So the significance in rituals may nowadays not
refer so much to the spiritual or supernatural. But whenever the
supernatural is still called on, this would signify it as 'ritual'
for us - from coronations and church weddings, to superstitiously
inducing good luck with a 'touch wood' or a 'Bless you!' for sneezing.
But, we would also want to connect
many secular events and everyday things with rituals - birthdays
and other anniversaries, secular Holy-days (or holidays as they
are now called), greetings and leavings, meal-times, souvenirs,
gifts, the goodnight ritual at children's bedtime, and so on.
Lots of other common and everyday repetitive patterns seem more
debatably ritual though they often get called that. The lowest
and the highest rituals have both given ritual a name for being
empty of real significance. But this needs to be looked at more
carefully. For example, though they often seem very routine and
emptily unconscious, rituals like neurotic obsessional rituals,
or greeting and leaving rituals, express and contain heavily significant
hopes, fears and feelings.
Anyway, some of my abbreviated conclusions
about defining ritual are as follows :
· Firstly, the term ritual is not used consistently, or
for a uniform phenomenon; it is not a single category and the
different groups have different characteristics. So, rituals can
be unique one-off events (not just repetitive), the patterns can
be full of significance (even when they seem hollow), and they
can be very much created by the participants (not just socially
· Secondly, not only is ritual not a single category but
there is no distinct boundary anywhere. There is overlap with
many other classes of patterned and other behaviour - for example,
behaviour that is merely functional, habit, etiquette, social
skill, social structure and rules, art, religion, and healing
in all its forms.
· Thirdly, since there is inherently a variable degree
of unconscious meaning in all behaviour and especially ritual
behaviour, each individual instance is indefinite. The question
itself generates meaning where it wasn't. So, more than usual,
the observer can never be objective.
· Fourthly, rather than categorically defining behaviour
as ritual or not, I think it may be more helpful to use a number
of parameters of ritual-ness. The question then becomes 'What
would make something more like a proper ritual (or less like one)?'
Finally, taking proper ritual as the epitome, the common
The behaviour stands out in some way as special from run-of-the-mill
The use of symbolism and metaphor.
Usually there is an enactment, with a characteristic
Quality of attention, which along with the characteristic :
Real or implied social group, gives the quality of
Solemn observance. And finally:
Rituals accompany life's transitions. The transitions are various,
but for our purposes the key is that: Rituals help us make
and mark difficult and complex transitions in life. The difficulty
and complexity occurs when there are too many confusingly ambivalent
and paradoxical factors to be expressed or addressed adequately
Once you leave the supernatural aside,
doesn't a lot of this sound right for psychoanalysis too? But
I'll come back to psychoanalysis via psychotherapy and a very
mundane indirect route - through Newarthill and Carfin, to be
Eg Six: The Old Route For a decade the few miles at
the work end of my daily commuting has taken me along the most
unremarkable, slow, small town road you can imagine through Newarthill
and Carfin in and out of Motherwell. I noticed that something
new was being done to one bit of the road, but (with no contact
with local news) I was entirely surprised when the new by-pass
route to join the M8 was sign-posted and open for immediate use.
Thoroughly pleased with the short cut since then, I have nevertheless
felt I was missing something. I realised this was not just that
I missed the old route, but that I hadn't said goodbye to it properly.
I comfort myself with a plan to go down the old road for a special
goodbye journey. I am aware of a feeling of hurt and abandonment,
that the road through Newarthill also needs a chance to say goodbye
to me. I am aware, of course, that the special goodbye journey
is a minor healing ritual following a minor traumatic event.
So here are a number of basic points
illustrated, entirely free of anything supernatural.
Firstly, repetition on its own, even with the most insignificant
things, breeds attachment or cathexis - familiarity breeds contént
Secondly, this cathectic attachment to a frequent but
otherwise empty routine - my daily drive through Newarthill in
the example - is perhaps what people commonly imply when they
call such a routine a ritual. That is, simple routine through
repetition cultivates silent attachment and thus personal significance.
But I don't think this is symbolic significance per se. So the
routine is not a proper ritual in the way my whole commuting journey
is, for example.
Thirdly, note how animistic the cathexis to inanimate
objects can still be - even the road needed to say goodbye. I'll
return to this later.
Fourthly, in contrast with my sudden change of route,
usually people get enough warning of change to work through their
loss and de-cathexis - and missing this out in minor matters can
be easily ignored anyway. Either way, most often the change would
happen without anything we would notice as a ritual to mark it.
Fifthly, there is a clinical question here about being
directive or not in therapy. Psychotherapists can act in a more
intervening way or in a more reflective way. I have not yet made
my ritual goodbye journey through Newarthill; my insight and capacity
to bear and think about the loss instead could continue to suffice
if I am hard on myself. But why should my journey or my therapy
be hard? Is there anything wrong with the therapeutic ritual journey
if it can do the job in as rich, satisfying, and therapeutic way
as the reflective route? [Pause] Or is it that, in itself, thinking
about the ritual I could carry out (as opposed to thinking about
the loss) is therapeutic enough to allow me not to actually have
to do it? Which leads us into:
AND RITUALS There are many examples in the literature
of sometimes very elaborate therapeutic rituals. I've only tried
one or two fully developed attempts in my own work. But I often
use bits as we all might - considering how appointments are best
set up, wording of letters, careful use of copies of letters or
casenotes, or bringing in photographs or other mementos, suggesting
letters that might not be sent. It seems only a short step from
a standard psychodynamic or family systems framework of maturational
tasks and life cycle processes, to thinking about life's transitional
rituals. When taking a history, for example, we all look at the
quality of grieving after bereavements. And there are many more
ordinary social structures and events that we can learn to respect
and identify when they have been missing. But I think it is easy
to forget to take it further. Becoming more aware of these areas
helps guide our work with people who have usually missed out during
difficult and complex life transitions.
But here's an example (or two) where,
like my still not enacted Newarthill road ritual, the idea of
a ritual seemed to work without having to actually do it:
Eg Seven: The Family Feud Mary was an able single mother
from a complicated and often traumatic Catholic, working
class, housing scheme, background. She had used and benefitted
from a longish (for me) period of not very analytical weekly individual
psychotherapeutic work. Growing away from her loyalty demanding
social class, she trained as a social worker - or 'fucking social
worker' as her family called it. I saw her intermittently and
met her in a further crisis or two. One extended family dispute,
with her mother as the eye of the storm, left her so infuriated
that she felt literally ready to tear into her mother and kill
her unless she avoided meeting her. Somehow psychodynamic interpretations
didn't seem valid. It seemed more like a furious genuine feud
where neither side felt heard and where, without any other arena
for a hearing or justice, each side felt like provocatively taking
the law into their own hands, though nothing really criminal had
yet occurred. It seemed to me that a court-like arena was indicated.
Mary said that her mother saw me as the enemy that had helped
turn her against the family values. So, on my own, I could not
offer to convene a meeting of both sides. Discussing this with
Mary, the priest was my nearest equivalent on the mother's side.
I followed up with a written version of my suggestion, with copies
available for Mary to give to her mother and their priest, carefully
outlining my readiness to liaise with the priest in order to set
up a meeting for the purpose of providing a fair hearing for both
sides. I think Mary did give a copy to her mother. But anyway,
without anything further being done, that feudal crisis dissolved.
In other words, applying the framework of justice and the ritual
structures appropriate to it, allowed a way of thinking and a
proposal to be made that did enough justice in itself for things
to move on.
Eg Eight: The Abuser's Grave Another single mother with another
history of childhood and marital abuse was, in a not very psychologically
minded way, also making use of weekly sessions. The abuse was
still a secret. Keeping her feelings and memories mostly to herself,
she mentioned that, without knowing why, she wanted to find and
visit the grave of her sexually abusive grandfather who had died
while she was still in her early teens. The idea was disturbing
for her and she didn't feel able to go to the graveside alone.
'But you must think it's a stupid idea,' she concluded self-deprecatingly.
Given my usual readiness, I said that I didn't think it was a
stupid idea, and that I would go with her if she liked. This concrete
offer was obviously more moving, meaningful and therapeutic for
her than my usual comments, which she usually cut across in the
pressure of what she wanted to say. But she has moved on in various
ways and now, though she has found out where the grave is and
may visit in due course, she feels able to do so alone.
Perhaps something more than spitting
on the abuser's grave is required. Which reminds me of John Steiner's
point about mourning and forgiveness not being possible until
the person has somehow 'really' killed them off (Steiner 1993).
Has ritual got a place here? [Pause - shades of voodoo!] Which
leads us into:
RITUALS AND PSYCHOANALYSIS
So what are rituals to psychoanalysis? I've mentioned a number
of features rituals and psychoanalysis have in common: life transitions
and maturational stages, difficulty and complexity due to multiply
determined ambivalence and paradox, symbol and metaphor, conscious
and unconscious, a particular mode of attending, historical antecedents,
etc. Psychoanalysis and rituals share their investment in symbol
and metaphor to a degree that tends to forget that symbol and
metaphor is what they are. Both take leave of reality to wonder
'What if such-and-such were really true?' Analytical theory itself
is slowly being allowed to be the metaphor it is, not a concrete
discovery. I feel there is a question in the air about whether
analysis is grimly analytical (in the sense of razing everything
to its ground), or whether it is creative (in the sense Bollas
uses with his reviving of free association). If psychoanalysis
is a creative business, then ritual should be some kind of friend
or ally, not something to be just taken or set apart.
Psychoanalysis may stand apart from
ritual where ritual seems to be sublimation, catharsis, gratification,
projection, or at worst, primitive functioning, crowd psychology,
pathological defence and abuse. Rituals may seem to deny the analytic
emphasis on the uniqueness of individuals, but they shouldn't.
Rituals should give individuals their own space and meaning, as
well as greater access to the more oceanic commonality, the social
and biological destiny, the potential dignity, we all share with
the rest of the human race.
Theoretically, you could look at
rituals through any analytical frame and come up with something
- though I have in no way systematically done so yet.. But, guided
by discussions with my colleague Anne Hood, I suggest that the
most obvious connection with rituals is in symbol formation. Symbolisation
is an early and basic human development, just as ritual would
have been in man's earliest tribal cultures. Ritual proper, then,
is: the mature use and elaboration of the infant's original need
and purpose in developing the tool of symbolic function. Let me
expand on this by tracking the animism back through inanimate
objects to the original animating relationship.
If I take you back to the Newarthill
road, you'll remember this wasn't in itself a specially ritual
attachment. With even the road needing to say goodbye to me, it
illustrated just how animistic cathexis is, precisely because
of that particular object's insignificance and impersonality.
In passing, please note the important link between this psychological
animism with the animism found in all religious thinking and rituals.
Though we can't easily accept it when it goes supernatural, we
readily accept more grounded animism.
Bollas, with his literary background,
captures some of this liveliness and animism in his description
(in Being a Character) of how we 'dream' our lives:
We each live amidst thousands of such objects that enlighten
our world - things that are not hallucinations (they do exist),
but whose essence is not intrinsic to what Lacan calls real. Their
meaning resides in what Winnicott termed 'intermediate space'
or 'the third area': the place where subject meets thing, to confer
significance in the very moment that being is transformed by the
object. The objects of intermediate space are compromise formations
between the subject's state of mind and the thing's character..
Poets and novelists feed on these thousands of minor things which
(like the Newarthill road) we take for granted and pass on by.
Our subsequent appreciation of the poem or novel shows how we
feed on them too. Bollas describes how we 'fall into' some rather
than other objects - works of art are objects specifically designed
to facilitate our 'falling into' them. So are rituals and ritual
Next, speaking of intermediate spaces
and Winnicott, isn't the child's transitional object a fair prototype
of a ritual or ritual object, helping it through transitional
areas in life, and particularly in those first stages of individuation
and separation? Reading Anne's baby observation, I found an almost
constant ritual quality in the spatial behaviour and use of objects,
carrying (more transparently than with adults) the significance
and the child's working through of inner issues. Here is a more
ritualistic than usual scene - though you really need a fuller
picture to value the interpretation. Anne writes:
On one occasion (18 month old) Ruth wanted to put (her Mum's)
perfume on her gran, on herself and on me as if I was to be integrated
into this family, somehow made the same. Perhaps (Ruth) was beginning
to see us as different people, parts of the same object that could
be split into good and bad. However, the use of the perfume felt
to me as if (Ruth) was magically trying to make us (all) the same.
Rituals and transitional objects
help us through the pain and pleasure, the paradox, of separation
and loss while remaining connected. But symbol formation itself
we think of as occuring in the infant's development to deal with
just that problem. For a neat summary, I can't do better than
give Anne's note:
The importance of ritual, as of art, music, literature and
poetry, is that it captures the magic communication of the non-verbal
and pre-verbal. Even more so because it is at the point of symbolisation
that the baby responds to absence and separation by creating a
fantasy or symbol. Winnicott on transitional objects, Segal on
symbolisation, and Bion on thinking, amongst others, highlight
the importance of the first me/not me objects and experiences.
These (transitional processes) moderate the loss of omnipotence,
allowing some control and power as the baby moves to a depressive
position. So the ritual (helps by) encapsulating the experience
of helplessness and loss of control Projecting into the (ritual
or) symbol and then controlling it is a way of accessing (otherwise)
So Anne and I reckon that rituals
work through being that same combination of me/not me, controlled/uncontrolled,
conscious/not conscious. Bion saw the symbolic object or idea
as standing in for the alpha-functioning container that the mother
used to be, receiving, digesting and feeding back the baby's raw
material. The first rituals or (strictly) pre-rituals, are the
alpha-functioning, pre-symbolic, pre-verbal activities of infant
feeding, cleaning, holding, and baby-talking. From this point
of view, when it occurs, symbolisation is in itself the baby's
first ritual event, developed to cope with a very early 'difficult
and complex life transition'.
This also helps understand pathological
use of rituals. These same functions can be a cul-de-sac, rather
than a road forward. Symbols and rituals get used, not to access
the unspeakable, but to shut off thinking and feeling. So 'rites'
are also used 'wrongly' or perversely, as fetish, torture, abuse,
self-abuse, obsessions and so on. The purpose there is not to
name something but to cut off knowledge. The split off beta elements
(as Bion called them) then keep returning to be lived through
compulsion. This is the kind of thing you see in therapy, when
a patient does something spontaneous but then has to destroy the
gesture's meaning. The ritual may serve this compulsive and destructive
Clinically, I think the play of child
analysis comes close to a continuous ritual use of symbolic objects
and enactments. In adult work, because of their express and elaborated
symbolic and psychological functions, I think rituals need to
be given more special thought and place than they get. For some
things, even mature and healthy adults may need more than analytical
processes to work it through. Sometimes the emotion and work in
a ritual genuinely moves us on where therapy does not. And on
the other hand, you can be just as defensively stuck up a cul
de sac with an analyst as you can with a ritual - and just as
usefully got on the road by either!
But I think there are reasons why
it's not the analyst's task to think or promote rituals. We could
see the mind as an arena for privately created mental rituals,
internally expressing and defending and attempting to resolve
difficult or complex troubles across internal boundaries. Psychoanalysis
has the special task of exploring and understanding these inner
rituals. To do this it needs to prevent external rituals from
In addition, some deeply personal
matters are unconscious and complex in a way that makes them just
not identifiable or bearable (or bare-able). For these, there
is no way open to mutative ritual of any kind - even if you tried.
Analysis can be seen as a method of exploring and opening up the
significance of these hidden matters, notably through transference.
Indeed, through transference, the analyst offers him or herself
to be, as it were, the potential ritual object - shades of the
voodoo doll here! - to be fashioned and used by the patient, assisted
by the analyst's unique 'insider's' understanding. Here too, promotion
of other rituals would confound the task. Enactment occurs, but
on a shared mental stage, a private psychodrama or ritual involving
only the analyst and patient - and their very own cast of thousands.
In the clinical examples I've given,
the ritual described tends to follow a substantial period of psychotherapy.
Perhaps ritual celebrates progress, rather than causes it. To
be able to enjoy life's rituals, perhaps you first need a level
of healthy and integrated functioning.
Finally let me bring things together
into a partnership with a return to the Newarthill road. One analytical
reservation about my ritual goodbye journey would be that there
are deeper issues there. For example, I certainly suffered unexpected
and unmarked goodbyes when I was young. And, on reflection, I
do feel those undigested remains are contained in my projection
of concern for poor Newarthill being abandoned just like that!
[Pause] However, that explanation in itself also serves to advance
my other thesis of the importance of rituals - in this case, undone
rituals of parting and meeting. Now, if I do enact my Newarthill
trip, I will be aware of another (analytically derived) level
to that ritual. Maybe ritual and analysis go further in tandem.
My conclusion is . . . the start
of our discussion!
Barker, P. (1985)
Using Metaphors in Psychotherapy. Brunner Mazel: New York Barker, P. (1992) Basic Family Therapy. Norton:New
York (pp176 et seq) Bollas, C. (1992) Being a Character: Psychoanalysis
and Self Experience. Routledge: London Broderick, C. B. (1993) Understanding Family Systems:
Basics of Family Systems Theory. Sage: London Ellenberger, H. F. (1970) The Discovery of the Unconscious:
The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Basic Books:
USA & Fontana: London Freud, S. (1913) Totem and Taboo. In Penguin Freud Library:13.
The Origins of Religion (Ed) Albert Dickson. Penguin: London Hood, A. (1995) Baby Observation, and Personal Communication.
Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J. & Whiting, R. (eds) (1988)
Rituals in Families and Family Therapy W. W. Norton: New
York and London. Ingpen, R. & Wilkinson, P. (1994) A Celebration
of Customs and Rituals of the World. Dragon's World:Limpsfield. Steiner, J. (1993) Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organisations
in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. Routledge:
London van der Hart, O (1983) Rituals in Psychotherapy: Transition
and Continuity. Irvington: New York
FURTHER READINGFriedman, E.H. (1980) Systems and ceremonies: a family
therapy view of rites of passage. In "The Changing Life Cycle"
1st Edition, (eds) Carter and McGoldrick. Gardner: New York Carter & McGoldrick (eds) (1989) The Changing Family
Life Cycle: A Framework for Family Therapy. 2nd Edition. Boston:New
York Gardner: New York McMillan, J. (1995) Article on Scots-English hurt alive
in 'Flower of Scotland' etc. Scotland on Sunday, 12 March
1995 Sutcliffe, P, Lovell, J. & Walters, M. (1985) New directions
for family therapy: rubbish removal as a task of choice. Journal
of Family Therapy, 7, 175-182. Whitehorn, K. (1995) High days that mark our humanity.
Observer, 23 April 95 And other articles in the press. Wolin and Bennett (1984) Family rituals. Family Process.23, 401-420.
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