September 3, 2011

Maryhelen Snyder


O you and me at last, and us two only!
—Walt Whitman

There are only the two of us. The poet and the page. The therapist and the client. These are the central creative activities of my life. And each is an intimate experience that I and others have compared to that of being a midwife. Because the fact is that the primary satisfaction lies in waiting. And then, as a poem or a person emerges, in being receptive, and sometimes astounded.

Neuroscience is daily revealing more about the not-yet-formulated, not-yet-materialized energy of the brain in repose, an energy virtually infinite and vastly more intense than the motor activity of putting language on paper or applying language to therapy. Formulated energy springs from the chaos of possibility. I wait and I trust: trust the muse to tell me what she is wanting to sing, and the client to tell me what is alive in her in this moment.

* * *

Sometimes a client has failed to notice that I am present—or I have failed to notice it myself! We slip into something that is simply a repetition of already thought thoughts, already assumed problems, already stale ways of seeing each other (or, rather, of not seeing). If I notice that I am bored or restless, anxious or discouraged, my task is to be attentive to my mind, to stop with my pen in mid-air so to speak, or stop a therapy session in midsentence. If my client is boring me, then I am boring myself. I might say: Wait, let’s take a moment to notice I’m here, you are there. Two human beings. We matter to each other.

Something shifts. Perhaps we are quiet together, perhaps we take time to breathe, perhaps my client takes time, with my guidance, to experience this moment in his body, in the sights and sounds around us, in his current feelings and thoughts, in our relationship, to discover what wants to be said now. This is a parallel process to the one Lucille Clifton often described as discovering “what the poem wants to say.” What is emergent from the latent energy of the embodied and relational mind, from what neurobiologist and Mindsight author Daniel Siegel describes as the “open ended plane of possibility.”

What is the mysterious “energy” that allows every aspect of the mind to come into play? As though the two hemispheres and the frontal cortex stretching back in evolution to its origins, and all the stuff of existence that makes each self a self-in-world, and the deep “light” within that no-one can name, suddenly got switched to on? Whatever it is, apparently the capacity to surrender to the creative intelligence available to consciousness exists in all of us. Sometimes “we” intend it, sometimes it takes us by surprise without conscious intention.

I watched a documentary on the life of Whitman in which the narrator points to a manuscript revealing the very beginnings of the writing of Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s handwriting suddenly changes. He is become new. Magical and musical language and the truth of experience is available to him as though from a bottomless well.

As therapist and poet, I have done my homework. For some 60 years of my thus-far life, I have been studying my two primary crafts. I have the degrees, the certificates, the licenses, the publications—and I do believe that much of this training and this almost daily practice, have made some difference. But the biggest difference resides in my openness to the shift to a new beginning.

* * *

The word poem comes from the Greek poien, to make or construct. Although my poem can be created within a wide range of structures, I remain conscious, as poet, of each part within the whole, as well as of the whole.

Sometimes I choose my container before embarking. Certainly, in the case of therapy, I have chosen that the session will last a certain amount of time and take place in a certain location. Beyond this, I let the form emerge almost entirely from the co-created meanings that emerge in the therapeutic dialogue. Sometimes I choose to work within a particular structure, as a poet might choose the sonnet form before beginning, or part way through the poem. In my own case, I attempt to never be more committed to the container than to the ever-emergent meaning and “music.” The moment is always guiding me; at least, this is what I strive for.

One structure that has come to define my work as a therapist is that of “becoming the other.” This is a form of empathic listening in which I quite literally enter the “lifeworld” of a client by speaking as if I am that client. We don’t understand the neurology of what makes this possible, but Martin Buber found the best language I have discovered to date. He writes of the “bold step” involved in taking the consciousness within another human being into our own. He says that this step requires “the deepest stirring of our own being.” He expressed to Carl Rogers, in a recorded dialogue, his belief that empathy is not an accurate enough word to describe this possibility, that a preferred word is inclusion.

I have a rather strict structure for using this method, a structure I can teach to couples and other therapists in the same way I can teach the form of the villanelle to students of poetry, step by step with examples and practice. But with therapy, as with the poem, following the form will not be

In one of my favorite sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote of “Chaos” trapped in a poem:

I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

These lines have precise parallels to the therapeutic relationship and to the client’s struggle with internal chaos. Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach had a rigorous, consistent, and open-ended form to which I can re-call myself when I wander away (and permit the client to wander away) from the flow of creative intelligence that is available when we are listening for it.

What has been called “aesthetic knowing” or “poetic intelligence” is different in nature from reasoned knowing. It informs both poetry and therapy, this in the activity of “becoming the other.” Sometimes I do this silently—in my own mind—as I listen. I attune to the body language and to the implicit meanings. I exercise the miracle of intuition. Einstein tells us that he did not arrive at the theory of relativity with his rational mind. Something else, something inexpressible and inexplicable, happened.

In a play, entitled Explain This Moment, that is likely no longer in print, Harry Willson created this opening scene: A grandfather is dying in the next room (off-stage). His daughter and young grandson are front stage. The boy asks his mother to explain death. She tells him that some things can’t be explained. He looks at her disbelieving, and insists that she can make sense out of death, that everything can be explained. She kneels down in front of him, takes his shoulders between her hands, and looks intently into his face. “All right, then,” she says, “Explain this moment.” I remember a stillness in the audience as we all felt the impossibility of that.

When I consciously choose to enter the space of my poetic intelligence about the other, I say what I did not know I knew about their lived experience. The client often responds with words like these: “How did you know that! I feel exactly what you expressed—but I didn’t know I felt it until you said it. It’s as though two of us existed in my one mind.”

And the truth is that I don’t know how I knew it (as we often don’t know where the clear insight and language of a poem comes from). Nor did I consciously know I knew it until I said it. And I’m not always right, so I quickly self-correct if what I say doesn’t resonate as true for the client. I have no concept of “resistance” in the vocabulary of my work as a therapist. My attunement either fits or it doesn’t.

* * *

There comes a moment (often many moments) in virtually every therapy session and certainly in the creation of any poem when I realize that I don’t know what I am doing or where I am going.

Perhaps relevantly, my mind’s heart just went to the battlefields on which American soldiers currently risk and lose their lives and the lives of our so-called enemy. So I will give space to this flight of my mind away from the apparent subject of this essay. It is perhaps most on the battlefield that we don’t know what we’re doing, where we need to be forgiven because we know not what we do. But it is also on the battlefield that we are taught to act quickly and forge ahead. It is not a moment when we can stand in the stillness of not knowing, not knowing why I am dropping this bomb, killing this man who is likely as young and brave and terrified as myself, destroying this home and family and child, murdering people I would likely love if I knew them. We must act, and act irreversibly. In this respect, the therapist’s role seems more dangerous than the poet’s. In the irreversible present moment, she has the power to allow herself to be seen as an expert, to pathologize, diagnose, medicate or at least recommend medication, hospitalize, intensify self-doubt, hatred and despair. And likewise, she has the expert’s power to encourage, to keep families at least temporarily intact, to heal internalized trauma. She is asked, even begged, to know.

In the therapy session, however, as in the poem, we can and must stand at least for awhile in not knowing. We cannot allow urgency, necessity, or habit to guide us. We must be capable, as Keats’ often quoted letter to his brother reminds us, of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without
any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

This concept of opening space wide for not knowing allows something to happen that is contrary to all our pedagogy and up-bringing and to cultural discourses worldwide. It is no wonder that the oracle at Delphi was amazed by Socrates. How did he achieve this wisdom of knowing that he did not know? My favorite therapists and philosophers and poets have stood in this space. Quakers have no creeds or beliefs. They perceive the “inward light” as either an actual lived experience, or not. They perceive Jesus as one who experienced the “Father” (not a gendered word in Aramaic) in himself and in us. Faith, then, becomes a commitment to such experience, a willingness to trust it. This awareness is at the heart of all so-called religious experience, but often gets lost in the rigidities of institutions and rituals and cultural discourse.

Again, we can’t explain this with our rational minds. What does it mean for a poem or a human being to embrace nothingness, emptiness, and notknowing? The poet Rumi wrote, “Way out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” These words are widely quoted because we know what they mean experientially without being able to explain them any more clearly than in poetic language. The didactic poem and the didactic therapist may be momentarily reassuring—but we require the mystery. We do not want these lines from famous poems to be explained or turned into the prose of interpretation; they can’t be.

* * *

The poet makes of experience a metaphor, from the Greek metapherein, “to carry beyond.” This metaphorical experience of carrying, or being carried, beyond the event itself, to its hidden and potential meaning is the impetus and the result of the creative acts of poetry and therapy.

A powerful “mystical” experience in my own life occurred several weeks after my older son almost died of a grand mal seizure that left him not breathing, and then unconscious for close to an hour. I was terrified. One day, with a friend, I was exploring my fear, entering it as fully as I knew how, when these words “came” to me fully formulated and not rationally believable: We live in an absolutely perfect universe, and the whole thrust of existence is to participate in that already existing perfection. I could not accept this with my rational mind—but the words seemed to literally push against my locked voice and cry themselves out. And when I said them, over and over and over, they felt right to me—and I cried with the release of fear
and grief.

The etymology of the word perfect reveals that it means made thorough, through and through. It is not a static end point; it is a context, an ever-repeated origin for the infinite nature of creation. The poet and the therapist, alive in the movement-in-relation that is our actual experience, allow our love affair with the world to step forward, not in spite of the mundane or the tragic, not in spite of failure and betrayal and loss, but with all of it in the embrace of radiant consciousness.

* * *

A final word about the nature of this creative energy. I drove down a street in my neighborhood many years ago listening to an audio tape of a talk given by Krishnamurti. He was describing the difference between effort and energy, how energy comes to us most often when we give up all effort. A man had come to Krishnamurti because he was suffering with the knowledge that he had not really loved his now deceased wife. Krishnamurti simply invited him (them) to sit quietly with the fact of that. At a certain moment in this practice of stillness and waiting, the man felt an “enormous energy” arising out of the darkness of his experience, and “that,” said Krishnamurti, “was love.”


Maryhelen Snyder is a psychotherapist and writer living in northern Virginia. Her poems and essays have appeared or will appear in numerous literary journals, including, most recently, The Gettysburg Review, Sojourners, and Passager. She has published two books of poetry and a memoir, No Hole in the Flame (Wildflower Press, 2008). Her essay on the work of Emily Dickinson, “Guarding Master’s Head,” appeared in last winter’s issue of Poet Lore.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010