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The Psychoanalytic MysticReview - The Psychoanalytic Mystic
by Michael Eigen
ESF Publishers, 1998
Review by Dan L. Rose, Psy.D.
Feb 15th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 7)

After a relatively tough time in the eighties, it could be argued that psychoanalytic theory is experiencing a present day renaissance. More sophisticated instrumentation and detailed outcome studies are allowing for greater scrutiny and proof of the efficacy of psychoanalytic technique as both a theory of mind and an agent of change. There has been increasing convergence within apparently disparate fields regarding some core concepts of psychoanalysis. Infant research, cognitive science and neuroscience are helping to support and redefine psychoanalytic theory. One could also argue that, after a distinct period of insecurity and then resurgence, the field of psychoanalysis has recovered its self-esteem and is now free to explore and embrace subjects once shunned. Such subjects include spirituality and mysticism, an area of the human experience once greatly disparaged by Freud and followers, but now the subject of Mike Eigen's book The Psychoanalytic Mystic.

It is no understatement that psychoanalytic theory has been vehemently anti-religious as a whole. A discipline that privileges insight and an alignment with "reality" could not be expected to readily embrace the irrational or boundless acoustic associated with mystical experience. However, a combination of those rapidly diminishing insecurities and a post modern turn that pulls into question any sort of true reality, marks a time ripe for a text such as Eigen's. The book begins by addressing these issues and those clinicians and other readers who balk at the idea that mysticism is "healthy" or, as Eigen argues, necessary. Eigen hesitates at defining mysticism, inferring that it's better experienced than defined. However, he does spend a large part of the text moving through different psychoanalytic theorists and proposes how theorists as diverse as Freud, Winnicott, Bion and Lacan might explain it. Distilling these influences and the collected chapters of the book, one could pin Eigen to the definition of mysticism as simply oneness. Oneness here refers to the ability of surrendering to the unknown and allowing some inner core of the individual to be touched by the effects of living. In effect, Eigen sees pathology as an inability to surrender, to open oneself to experiencing.

Though favoring a very postmodern image of God, an image universal enough to transcend most faiths and encompass the whole of religious experience, Eigen's descriptions can easily appeal to non-believers as well. Eigen' mysticism is a natural part of everyone's life. Tragedy and ecstasy are seen as two sides of the same experience. To Eigen, the moments that engender tragedy or epiphany are moments when the individual comes into contact with "truth" or something ineffable and real. At that moment, all the obfuscation and defenses are dissolved as this contact is made. These are everyday conversion experiences, moments in which all of us are "born again." The individual with the proper resources can make use of this, transform or be transformed by it into an experience of growth. Others are left broken or damaged. In effect, life is a matter of experiencing and growing from theses collisions, according to Eigen. He illustrates these points evocatively with the stories of Flannery O'Connor.

Eigen further illustrates his concept of mysticism through personal and clinical example. He gives specific examples from his own practice of individuals who both struggle to be reborn and those who seem addicted to this process of rebirth. Eigen gives value to both stasis and change, showing how a good bit of his clinical work is concerned with allowing individuals to become familiar with and accepting of these fluctuations. The book concludes with an interview given by Anthony Molino in which Eigen reveals aspects of his struggle to unite theory to explore his own processes of birth and rebirth.

There is much to recommend in this text, but first the negatives. This book is a collection of previously published articles and, like most books complied from various sources, there are some irritating repetitions. The quality of each chapter varies and, in some instances, thoughts that appear to be germinating are never completely followed through and connections to other ideas are not made. One is left wondering what a book from the author would look like if written from scratch. I imagine a more seamless enterprise that might steadily rise to crescendo, as opposed to the troughs and peaks displayed in this work.

However, and a big however indeed, Eigen is a wonderfully evocative writer. He has a way of free-associating on paper that creates the experiences he wishes to convey. Ever fearful of betraying the interplay and flux he sees as helpful, Eigen is often willfully contradictory. This would be an annoying trait in most writers, but in his skillful hand it is a most endearing characteristic. From a clinical stand point, his evocations, combined with a solid grasp of theory and it's most subtle implications, Eigen is able to create a work that is both personally moving and useful. I found myself musing about former and current patients during my readings, often arriving at insights and understandings that before were but muddles.

Yet, Eigen's strongest points go beyond theory or direct clinical appeal. Eigen has the courage to discuss his failures. He speaks openly of moments and cases that did not go well. He does not offer a panacea. I suspect that some of the bleakness or harshness of his clinical pictures might discourage some. However, I found that such honesty made the day-to-day defeats and minor victories of a full clinical practice bearable. There is something about the entire body all of Eigen's work that engenders endurance and acceptance, feelings necessary for the psychotherapist and, I suspect, the rest of the human race. In that sense, this book adds to the evolving psychoanalytic theory previously alluded to and general interest.

Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist involved in direct clinical work and training at Columbus State University and in private practice. His interests include psychoanalysis, neuroscience, religion and literature.

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