Psychotherapy: Cultivating a poetics of life

A cherished companion in my musings about art and therapy is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne.* They were written to Rilke’s wife while the poet was in Paris in summer and fall of 1907 for the memorial exhibition of paintings by Cézanne, who had died the previous year. This quote is from a section I return to often:

“Works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. … So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against … that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic” (pp. 4-5).

Although Rilke is speaking of what is necessary for an artist to give birth to a work of art, the subject could just as well be a person seeking therapy. After all, chances are that what brings him or her to that point is an inner sense of being in danger. Literal, physical danger is relatively rare, I suspect; the threat being registered is actually to the inner being, to the psyche or soul-life, and this threat manifests as an unconscious, existential fear. In our techno-industrial and materialist culture, soul-life – even the idea of it – is under considerable pressure and more or less unavoidably compromised, for this way of thinking is suspicious of invisible psyche and distracts us from experiencing it for ourselves. The soul’s refreshing but tender ecosystem, with its singular rhythms and uncommon desires, is easily outshone by the external world’s messages about success and what to value, which it opposes. It is in an agony of longing for its own true tones, with their strange star-dust rills and untamed utterances, and to rest, centred, in this beauty. It is the soul, that persistent traveller, who finds the narrow lane, shows up at the gate and pulls the bell cord for therapy.

Techno-industrialist culture, while immersing us in a steady stream of “prescriptive” technologies, which Ursula Franklin* tells us are “designs for compliance,” works hard to suppress our personal madness, and to make it seem as if everything, if it is of this world, is inherently understandable. That is the logic of the machine and of things out of relationship. Desolation, anxiety, anger, grief … these become, in the contemporary lexicon of mental health, ‘disorders’ attributed to ‘chemical imbalances,’ despite the sketchy evidence for such a view.

In reality, there is little chance of transformation unless each day we strive to meet our danger and pain as far as we can, unless we receive our madness like a guest and discern its unexpected, ecosystemic rightness – a distinctive and necessary thread in the living work that is our own consciousness, our own becoming. For the task is to become what one is. When we labour to eradicate our difference, to prune the non-compliant tangles, the part in us that chagrins and we cannot stand, then we are at odds with the singularity of our inner being. Therapy worth the name must dare to approach what Rilke referred to as the inborn design that longs to be made visible, experienced and embodied. The therapeutic way is to meet inner conflicts on their own terms. Any pruning and untangling that then occur will seem almost effortless. In time, something like a new substance, a quality of being, emerges quietly from our inner ecosystem, the way everything new in nature appears: whole, resilient, often surprising. Conflict and madness mature into a capacity to be with ourselves, to weave our singularity into the fabric of the world.

As long as humans have existed, our tribe have given shape to soul’s journey. It is not accidental that today’s surge in serious mental disturbances is correlated with the Industrial Revolution (see Iain McGilchrist*): the more the techno-industrial mindset gains on us, the more radical becomes our separation from nature, and simultaneously the more acute the need to attack the singularity of a genuine soul-life. What we get is a kind of collective numbing: the song & dance we know as efficiency, sanctioned normalcy. The age-old expressive arts, such as painting, music and stories, can still initiate into a soul-life. Traditionally, therapy as healing ceremony never strayed far from them. Art and ceremony reveal what perceptive scientists learn too, that we dwell within a great mystery, which is not reducible to bits and bytes nor quite knowable.

Sooner or later a person in therapy may be astonished to find that, as the original goals – for example, a relationship that works, confidence or liking oneself – come into tantalizing reach, there appears to be more to them than the hoped-for improvement in quality of life. It can seem then that our distress was an instigator and a guide, as if it was motivated by a goal of its own: to situate us once again in the wider web of life, beyond the personal. The odd sense of becoming linked into a greater reality can be frightening: the ego protests, it is not accustomed to the possibility of such an inner presence. It seems this is our true terra incognita, the unknown terrain of the soul, hinting at the totality of being which Jungians call the Self. It usually takes repeated experience of it before its truth can anchor us sufficiently to bring about that sense of belonging that leads to peace and healing. In women’s dreams, the interior presence may show itself as a beautiful, loving stranger. He represents the Self’s inexhaustible mystery and demonstrates how to participate in the treasure rather than try to possess it.

To lose one’s soul-life is to lose everything. As therapists we stand up for that life, if we mean that it should have depth and resonance. What is birthed will not be art in Rilke’s sense, but a work all the same. Critics frequently mock the idea of becoming oneself, yet the profound changes in self-understanding and conscious relatedness that ideally result from therapy can readily be described with that phrase. Becoming oneself announces a strange mix of new and old, something that, as Rilke said of the artistic process, cannot be grasped. Explanation might kill it. What a person in therapy creates is an instrument for a poetics of life, a rich exchange between inner and outer worlds at the threshold of paradox.

* Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

* Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

* Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Here is my suggested reading list:

Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jerry Mander (1991). In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Joanna Moncrieff (2009). The myth of the chemical cure: A critique of psychiatric drug treatment. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Russell A. Lockhart (1983). Words as eggs: Psyche in language and clinic. Dallas: Spring.

Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

Gary Geddes (Editor) (1975). Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Anthony Lawlor (1994). The temple in the house: Finding the sacred in everyday architecture. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

David Suzuki (2010). The legacy: An elder’s vision for our sustainable future. Vancouver: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation.

May Sarton (1983). Plant dreaming deep. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sally Dingo (1998). Dingo: The story of our mob. Sydney: Random House Australia.

James Fitzgerald (2010). What disturbs our blood: A son’s quest to redeem the past. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Tomas Tranströmer. Poems (various collections).

Ce qu’il faut pour vivre/The necessities of life (2008). Benoît Pilon, Director. Telefilm Canada.

Johanna Beyers is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit