From Aeon: “When I was studying philosophy years ago, I had what felt like a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t able to think clearly or articulate my thoughts, and sometimes stuttered. I thought something had gone wrong in my brain. I went for brain scans but found no answers. I ended up with a psychologist who turned out to be a ‘relational psychoanalyst’. That term didn’t mean too much to me at the time, but it was life-defining. Through my therapy, I came to realise that there was, in fact, nothing wrong with my brain. It was in my relationships, especially early ones, where the issue lay. As my mind gradually came back to me, I trained to be a relational psychotherapist myself, and became fascinated by the ideas and theories behind it. What I found was nothing short of revolutionary.
I’d already been deeply interested in the limitations of Western models of mind, especially in terms of the enduring influence of René Descartes’s dualism between mind and body, mind and world, which set the West into modernity in the 17th century. But this had been a very academic and abstract pursuit. In relational theory, however, I found not only the answers to the problems that our dualistic heritage bestowed upon us, but also to my own suffering, and the roots of much psychological and emotional distress in general.
Prior to Descartes’s time, mind and world had been understood as entangled, interpenetrating, open to each other. But in the inexorable march of the physical sciences and the mechanistic explanation of the world during the scientific revolution, mind (and soul) were mortally threatened. This led Descartes to split the mind off from the world (and the body that was unarguably part of the world) in order to save it from reduction to physical mechanism. All experience, meaning and purpose – once of mind and world both – were withdrawn from the world and put solely into Descartes’s new ‘mind-substance’, something that had not existed before.
When the new scientific discipline of psychology separated off from philosophy in the mid- to late 19th century, it adopted an essentially naturalised version of Descartes’s dualism, which persists to the present day, certainly in mainstream psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. Instead of seeing mind as a separate substance, this neo-Cartesian perspective assumes that the mind is somehow identifiable with the brain, brain states and brain functioning. Much like Descartes, however, it maintains the very same vision of ‘mind’ as an experientially private interior, categorically cut off from the world and others outside.
For Descartes and for modern neo-Cartesian models alike, our experience of the world and others occurs ‘on the inside’ – in our individual minds or brains. For modern psychology, this meant that mental life could be studied and measured in isolation, lending itself to empirical and quantitative science. Prior to my training, I’d understood the limitations of this in a purely philosophical way only. I hadn’t made the link between it and the practical day-to-day reality of our failed mental health system – nor had I traced it to my own distress.
All of this came together for me only later, in the years I was in therapy and training to be a therapist. As opposed to the Cartesian view, it was the relational view – where mind and healing are understood inter-subjectively – that made proper sense of my distress. Instead of locating the problem ‘in’ the person, relational therapists see distress as arising in the relationship between the individual and the rest of the world.”
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