Getting It Right-New Associations, BPC journal, March 2014

Getting it ‘right’ –afterthoughts on completing a psychoanalytic training

Indian Classical Music 101 With Ravi Shankar : NPRWith a comparison between Indian classical music training and a psychoanalytic one  

This article appeared in ‘New Associations’, a BPC (British Psychoanalytic Council) journal in its 2014 summer edition.

“During my psychodynamic training at Rewley House, Oxford, a visiting lecturer exclaimed in the middle of her presentation about transference and countertransference ‘ your training is only two or three or five years old, you have lived much longer than that and brought all that with you !’

A classical training is long and arduous, like the psychoanalytic one,  and seems to renegotiate ‘all that you have brought with you’. Any training can be long and arduous but the psychoanalytic one becomes more so maybe because it does not have the assured ‘pot of gold’ at the end, an assured job or income, and tests one’s limits of mental endurance like few other trainings can.

It reminds me of the other classical trainings where one has to spend more time to just set the first note right with no assurance of income, knowing well that you may perform to a small, critical and select audience while the rest go off and listen to something short and popular, a bit like the shorter approaches to therapy which lead to immediate gratification, what we call ‘flight into health’.

In Indian classical music, students undergo a tremendous amount of training to set the first note ‘sa’. This takes precedence over everything because if the first note is not right, the rest of the rendition will fall apart. It is a bit like the first position in Tai chi where you spend time trying to hold a space between your hands but cannot get the tension right. And like the psychoanalytic session, where if you don’t hold the tension and think before saying something, the session may fall apart.

Indian classical music has its origins traced to 1500–1000 BCE, in the sacred Hindu scripts called ‘Vedas’. The student lives at his chosen guru’s home and performs household duties, like cleaning and cooking, to learn the art form. To reach its highest accolade, which is to be considered a Pundit (for Hindus) or Ustad (for Muslims) in India, you must have practised for many years and shown what we call ‘lagan’ or devotion to your art form.  The performer will prove how he has learned the classics –the ‘raagas’, which manifests in a 45 to 60 minute performance,  and possibly made his/her own improvisation as well as how or what he/she did to spread the art form in the world. Indian classical music or dance is not an assured form of income and it is understood that its continuity depends on individual achievement and marketing which will inspire others to follow and therefore keep it alive.

These days, in an Indian post modern world, students continue with normal school while they live at the guru’shouse. Recently, a famous Indian vocal performer who happened to be my guest  before her performance in London, told me how she scolded her students when they got caught up in schoolwork and did not practice, with ‘do you forget to breathe? No? Then don’t forget to sing!’ how else can an art form which does not bring income like other lucrative professions, survive without a bit of attitude from the guru?  It is probably this kind of ‘native conditioning’ which has seen me through the various ‘attitudes’ of supervisors and therapists during my psychoanalytic training.

During a public performance, the Indian classical performer does not rush into his performance. The audience is treated to a pre performance act where the artistes, while sitting infront of their audience, tune their instruments quietly or engage with each other sporadically, creating a mood, a concentration and tension which forms the preamble to the performance.  These are just a few of the details of Indian classical art life.

Before coming to the UK, this is what I knew to be a good and ancient training. Being one of the few Indians born and brought up in India, training to be psychoanalytic here, I had my moments of complete disorientation and the dreaded feeling that I was ‘losing my culture’. This coincided with the fact that I had actually lost my physical environment completely and  at such times, trips to Southall help only marginally.  In India, you can have the option of walking down a street where culture can waft out of windows and pervade your consciousness. You may be fortunate enough to live next to classical performers or have one in your family. I have been fortunate.

To reassure myself in my training years, I thought of drawing parallels from similar Indian traditions like Indian classical music.  I compared increased frequency of sessions in therapy and supervision to living in a psychoanalytic ‘home’ made up of therapist, supervisors, training institute and training patients so that I could try to ‘internalise’ a tradition without too much resistance- breathe it, digest it, internalise it, till it was as natural as breathing itself- like the Indian singer expected her students to do.

It is only when the Indian performer has got his note right, will he/she perform and then there will be a thunderous applause and personal satisfaction. The waiting and tuning creates the tension needed to sink into something deeper, more unconscious and infinitely more satisfying.  As a trainee, one loses one’s ‘notes’, including one’s beliefs, flails helplessly on the surface and cannot sink into a deeper connection. At such times, in my anxiety to perform, I have said things which were not personally satisfying and received a thunderous criticism from my supervisor, greeted in various ‘notes’ –from silence to censure and sarcasm, and then the rare compliment when I got it right again.  How much more welcome it is then!

Now that my training is behind me, I find myself more  quiet, less pressurised and less concerned with my client’s immediate demands. Like the audience at a performance who come into the auditorium from various settings with things on their mind, clients come in from the outside world under tremendous pressure at times but it is I, their therapist, who must tune into a psychoanalytic environment, sink into the inner world and set the mood ‘right’, either with my silence or my words.

Going back to the length and time it takes to establish the first note and the atmosphere for rendering it, I value this first moment and the setting up of the session more than anything that follows afterwards. Only in psychoanalytic therapy have I experienced that special moment when one anticipates one’s session and the therapist ushers you into this empty live space which is different from the outside world because it makes no social demands – you can be quiet if you want, not say ‘good morning’… whatever…It welcomes you to shut out the outside world and develop an inner meditative stillness, a little like the Indian performer who tunes himself infront of his audience and silently invites them to slow down and wait or like Tai chi, where you learn to hold an imaginary space between your hands. It is a very special space and it takes a long training to hold it and get it right.  And I think it would not be the same if there was an assured ‘pot of gold’ at the end.”














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I am a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice.

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