A Psychoanalytic Guide to Kabbalah

Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis
by Michael Eigen
Karnac Books, 2012

Drawing on a profound knowledge of psychoanalysis and Jewish mysticism, Michael Eigen has written a meaningful and lively introduction to Kabbalah, particularly Lurianic Kabbalah, as it illuminates the psychoanalytic process.

In his introduction, Eigen tells us that his interest in Kabbalah was heightened and focused when, in his early forties, he first met with the noted psychoanalyst Wilfred R. Bion, who talked about using the Kabbalah as a framework for psychoanalysis.

Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis embraces the eternal invitation to walk the path of knowing, but not really knowing Kabbalah. Through it, Eigen­—a prolific author and respected psychoanalyst and educator­—plays a role akin to Maimonides, offering a twenty-first century Guide for the Perplexed. Based on several seminars in Kabbalah and psychoanalysis that Eigen offered under the auspices of the New York University Contemplative Studies Project, the book draws deeply on Eigen’s intensive scholarship, deep soul-searching and God-seeking, and eagerness to share his journey in order to assist others who also are on the path.

The seminars that form the core of the book were designed to address people with a basic knowledge of psychoanalytic process, but Eigen keeps his language down to earth. He does not burden his reader with jargon. He endeavors to speak of both Kabbalah and psychoanalysis with clarity, yet he is acutely aware that no matter how much a gifted writer and thinker can “simplify,” nothing is “simple” because both Kabbalah and psychoanalysis are in essence intuitive processes. Like the Tao Te Ching, which begins, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name,” the essence of Kabbalah and the essence of psychoanalysis cannot be told. Nevertheless, like the Tao Te Ching, Eigen’s Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis seeks to serve as a path to that which cannot be told or named by helping readers to access their own intuitive power.

Eigen’s approach takes seriously the well-known Buddhist teaching, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Toward the end of the book, in Appendix 6 of Eigen’s book, we found this quotation from Wilfred R. Bion: “Psycho-analysis itself is just the stripe on the coat of the tiger. Ultimately it may meet the Tiger – the Thing itself – O” (for Bion, “O” is a symbol for the unknowable, for ultimate reality).

The whole of Eigen’s work is a finger pointing at the moon, an acknowledgment that there is a ground of being, an essence, and a way to know both God and the human psyche and soul, without pinning the essence of either down like a butterfly pinned to a mat.

Anselm Kiefer's "Breaking of the Vessels," in the St. Louis Art Museum. Credit: Creative Commons/clio1789.

Brokenness as a Starting Point for Psychoanalysis

The book is composed of an introduction, two chapters, and eight appendices. Chapter One introduces basic concepts drawn from Kabbalah and psychoanalysis through the prism of Eigen’s own encounters—both as a child and as an adult—with Jewish ethos and thought. He begins with something essential to Judaism, the precept from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You will love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” It is the fact of love that Eigen uses as an invitation to seek and find God, and the mystery underlying all creation and human experience. He unspools a train of thought that addresses the mystery of the Name of God, and the more arcane Names of God, the plural Elohim, and the individual unsayable name Yahweh. He understands Elohim as subsumed in the One of the Sh’ma, “Sh’ma, Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echod,” the “Echod” of Oneness.

From establishing Oneness, Eigen moves us to the mystery of what is broken—the breaking of the vessels, the image of God shattering, in Isaac Luria’s story of God’s act of Creation, and then to what is broken in human beings. It is in this breaking that Eigen interweaves Kabbalah and psychoanalysis. In Lurianic kabbalistic thought, because God is the All, He has to contract in order to make room for His Creation—for us. When we consider this kabbalistic thought, we realize that if we are made in the image of God, we too contract and break.

A favorite line of poetry of mine is from “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop,” by W. B. Yeats: “For nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” We learn from Eigen, as we learn from Yeats, that the basic condition of being is brokenness.

From the brokenness that results from the first Act of Creation, Eigen concludes, “That creation and the creative process could not bear its own intensity, teaches us, as psychotherapists, to go slow, dose it out.” The lesson for psychotherapists to be gained from Lurianic Kabbalah is the lesson Eigen says is offered by Bion, who “sees catastrophic processes at the beginning of psychic life and writes of a sense of catastrophe as a link that cements personality together.” For Bion, Eigen writes, “the psychoanalytic attitude is Faith.”

Etz haChayim, or The Tree of Life, depicts the ten attributes, or Sephirot, through which God reveals himself. Credit: Creative Commons/rodrigotebani.

Eigen, in his unfolding of Bion’s work, addresses two concepts that Bion represents with letters: K (knowledge) and O (“ultimate reality,” which cannot be directly known). Just as God cannot be fully known but is intuited and therefore “loved with all our hearts and all our minds and all our might,” the entire psyche of a human being—with all its unconscious processes, its rationality, irrationality, longings, wishes, dreams, and taboos—cannot be fully known.

Eigen reports that, at their very first meeting, Bion asked him, “Do you know the Kabbalah, the Zohar?” Eigen replied, “Well, I know it, but don’t really know it,” to which Bion responded, “I don’t, either, really know it.”

Just as Eigen and Bion know Kabbalah, but do not really know Kabbalah, the ultimate reality of a human being cannot be really known. But the experience of the human being can be sought and respected. What Bion and Eigen both describe as “the emotional storm between two personalities” that takes place in the psychoanalytic encounter is an opportunity for tikkun (repair).

Mysticism and Emotional Intensity

In the second (final) chapter, Eigen focuses on the Zohar of Moses de León and its impact on the writings of Rabbi Nachman. He also uses the mysticism of Rabbi Nachman to further illuminate the psychoanalytic concepts of Bion. “Nachman, in one of his passages, depicted the world as a kind of dreidel, a spinning dreidel,” Eigen writes. “We will see if we can reap some insight from spinning minds, spinning spirits, spinning souls.” In the intensity of Nachman’s search for God and the intensity of emotional storms is the potential for transformation.

Here, Eigen introduces the idea of destruction, the impulsivity of destructiveness that Freud called Thanatos, the death drive, seeking entropy. He asks, how do we reconcile destructiveness with compassion? His question leads us to another fundamental question: do we despair, or do we have faith in the unknown ultimate reality? And so I wonder, in the hope generated by faith, can we find a better way to live, a way to live with our brokenness and work toward tikkun?

In this chapter, Eigen leads us to Rabbi Nachman’s struggle over the idea that sexuality is an aspect of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and, like the impulse toward destructiveness, the death drive, cannot but lead to guilt. In examining Rabbi Nachman’s struggle, Eigen intimates that perhaps Rabbi Nachman suffered from a bipolar disorder.

Rabbi Nachman envisioned the world as a spinning driedel. What insights can we reap from this analysis? Credit: Todd Jordan.

How then, in Rabbi Nachman’s oscillating between depression at God’s absence and ecstasy in the knowledge of God, is repair possible? Here the message of social reform is embedded: the internal conflicts addressed by psychoanalysis are like the conflicts between people and between nations that Rabbi Nachman says have one cause—human nature itself. And, perhaps, the equating of sexual desire with evil inclination, when addressed through psychoanalysis, can diminish the anxiety people have about sexuality. People with neurotic anxiety about sexuality tend to project their sexual impulses onto others, so that their own sexuality is hated in the other. When the other is hated, the other is attacked. Psychoanalysis offers the opportunity for transformation—the opportunity to reconcile oneself to one’s own sexuality and, indeed, to accept it. The dynamic of self-hatred and projection, and its social consequences, was discussed in detail in Sartre’s 1946 essay, Antisemite and Jew, which served as a guide to understanding the horrors of the Holocaust.

In the journey Eigen leads us along in his book, the transformation of consciousness we gain from psychoanalysis, from spiritual awareness, and from spiritual experience is always subject to the ups and downs of emotional intensities. And if the journey leads us to a heightened tolerance of emotional intensity, perhaps the reconciliations involved are another step in a journey toward repair.


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