posthumanist therapy : what it is

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Last night I was chatting with someone when I found myself undergoing what was initially quite a stern examination of what I mean when I say ‘posthumanist therapy’.

I’m glad I did the work in Kraków, not just because of the invaluable experience of working under the ‘posthumanist therapist’ moniker with all those people there but because the questioner wants to know what work I have done here, i.e. in Europe - Australia being such a long, long way away. 1

I did some good thinking recently about the nexus of secular pastoral work and posthumanist therapy and I draw on that, although it would be good to be able to access one or two sentences that go boom pats bang - this is it! But I am still working on those sentences :)

The remarkable thing was, right there and then, we suddenly enter what I would call the therapeutic space 2 as I become aware of the vulnerability of the human sitting opposite me.

She wants to know how I begin a session.
Well, I say, you can ask me a question, if you have one…
She looks expectant.
Or I can ask you a question.
- For example?
I turn my chair around to face her and, with the voice I use in sessions - direct, serious, but the exact opposite of confrontative, with all the compassion that it’s possible for one human being to have for another, I ask the question - it’s a simple three word question, yet it has an extraordinary power.

What are you?

For a moment, it was as if she could have gone, wanted to go, into that space with me, into the space that the question creates - and we would have been in a session. It would have taken off. It’s an unusual moment. It is as if time stands still. It is as if everything else ceases to exist and there is only this. Two humans. This moment in time. This room. This small part of this room. This question. The most fundamental question of human existence. If you have ever considered it, you know its power, you know the unique space it creates. And if you ask it in the presence of another human being who has also considered it, something happens. This is what some people experience in a religious context, but here it is completely (and doggedly) secular. This is a conversation (and the conversation may or may not have a therapeutic effect) but it is what it is, no more no less, a dialogue between two human beings. I ask a question, and consider it together. You can ask me a question, if you like, if it helps. This is an ethical space, it is a place of mutual respect, and it is a compassionate space. It is not a space of combat, or argument, or even of logic - but it is a rational space.

It is unique because this is the most fundamental human question that it is possible to ask. It is also like looking at the stars. Yet there is not one atom, not one electron, not one photon, not one neutrino amongst all the one hundred trillion neutrinos that are passing through each of our bodies in this space at this time which is ‘spiritual’ or supernatural. There is no omnipotent supernatural being in this space. There is only us: you and me - in our finitude. But what a thing it is that we have made here, right here and now at this moment. It is beyond love. It is, in a sense, transcendent but it is also and at the same time, no more and no less than what we are already, what we have been all along.

Because of the hype around the supermoon I was reminded of that lovely word, syzygy. Would that be a good word for it? It is a kind of alignment, a conjunction (but not an opposition) that produces an extraordinary effect - except here it’s got nothing to do with heavenly bodies, it’s about humans. Although of course syzygy is equally possible (and perhaps actually more likely) between a human and a non-human being or, for that matter, a rock.

And this is perhaps the most important thing I learned doing pastoral work in a cancer hospital: how to be able to do this when it is necessary, what I have to do to create the conditions for it to become possible. I write about these moments in my book - and I touch on how to do it, but there is more that could, and perhaps should, be said about it.

And then we are back. We are in an ordinary room. There are drinks. There are nibbles. It is a social situation. We are just chatting. 

  1. I am beginning to realise, now that I’m living here again, that you could have discovered, say, a cure for cancer in Australia but until it has cured someone here no one is really interested. I sometimes think people don’t actually believe that Australia exists. They are agnostic about its existence. It’s not that they think that Australia does not exist. (They are rational people and that would clearly be absurd.) This is purely in terms of what they believe (and thinking and believing, although by no means a binary, are very different. You believe something if it has an effect, if it produces affect. And Australia has no effect on them. They see no evidence of its existence except here and there they might see or meet an Australian (or someone who purports to be from Australia. Someone who has visited there is not quite the same. Maybe it’s an elaborate theme park. But as for a real Australian, they might as well be from the moon. And maybe it’s appropriate for them to believe that. I know this will be unpalatable for many Australians but until you have done something here, it is meaningless for most of the people that don’t live there, except as a kind of entertainment, like Steve Irwin. I remember years ago one of my aunts, she’s dead now god rest her soul, asking earnestly, so in Australia do people live in houses? No, I said, they live in tents. ↩︎
  2. or a ‘holding environment’, if you’re a Winnicottian. ↩︎