“BEING ALONE IN THE PRESENCE OF ANOTHER” Some reflections on aloneness, togetherness and conflict in spiritual groups

Peter Wilberg, April 9, 2016
Note: The following reflections draw from and apply important insights contained in the essay entitled ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
To be truly with another person or persons is dependent on the capacity to be fully with oneself i.e. to be comfortably ‘alone’ in a mature way - which is not at all the same as feeling lonely or isolated. That is why Winnicott begins his essay by writing:
“It is probably true to say that in psycho-analytical literature more has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone ... It would seem to me that a discussion on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone is overdue.”
“I wish to make an examination of the capacity of the individual to be alone, acting on the assumption that this capacity is one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development.”
But the most important point of Winnicott’s essay is to say that this mature capacity to be alone is itself dependent on the experience in infancy, of what he calls ‘being alone in the presence of another’,  like an infant or small child who is playing ‘alone’ and undisturbed - but also in the proximity of the the mother - or any parent figure or caregiver.
“Although many types of experience go to the establishment of the capacity to be alone, there is one that is basic, and without a sufficiency of it the capacity to be alone does not come about; this experience is that of being alone, as an infant and small child in the presence of mother. Thus the basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox: it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present.”
The reason Winnicott gives is that:
“It is only when alone (that is to say, in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his own personal life. The pathological alternative is a false life built on reactions to external stimuli. When alone in the sense that I am using the term [in the presence of another] and only when alone [in this sense], the infant is able to do the equivalent of what in an adult would be called relaxing. The infant is able to become unintegrated, to flounder, to be in a state in which there is no orientation, to be able to exist for a time without being either a reactor to an external impingement or an active person with a direction of interest or movement … In the course of time there [then] arrives a sensation or an impulse. In this setting the sensation or impulse will feel real and be truly a personal experience.”
My hypothesis: without the type of early infant or childhood experience that Winnicott is talking about, some individuals can be drawn to spiritual groups and communities in which they seek to experience, for example, through what is called ‘meditation’,  the sort of “relaxing” and unintegration (equivalent to the unfocussed awareness I write of) that Winnicott describes. This is made possible by a group leader or guru taking the place of the mother or parent figure in offering an experience of “being alone in the presence of another”. And yet it is important also to note Winnicott’s further words on the precondition for this experience, which I have highlighted in bold:  
“It will now be seen why it is important that there is someone available, someone present, although present without making demands ... It is only under these conditions that the infant can have an experience which feels real. A large number of such experiences form the basis for a life that has reality in it instead of futility. The individual who has developed the capacity to be alone is constantly able to rediscover the personal impulse, and the personal impulse is not wasted because the state of being alone is something which (though paradoxically) always implies that someone else is there. In the course of time the individual becomes able to forgo the actual presence of a mother or mother-figure.
Transferring these words to the context of a spiritual or meditation group, they imply that:
The group leader, as parent figure, should make no demands or place no expectations on the individual.
The personal impulses arising from the state of “relaxing” or ‘meditating’ be left to freely unfold and express themselves.
That, in the course of time, the group member will be able for ‘forgo’ the group leader guru - no longer needing any ‘guru’ as mother or parent figure.  
Important questions arise from this:
What if the guru does make spoken or unspoken demands?
What if the individual feels they need to suppress real and spontaneous personal impulses arising from relaxing - relaxing into a state of what Winnicott calls “unintegration”?
What if the reason given for meditation is not to cultivate a mature capacity for being alone - and, in this way also, the potential for truly being with another or with others?
What if, instead of being helped to be ‘alone’ - to be fully and independently with themselves, people are taught to seek an ultimate ‘spiritual’ experience of being ‘all-one’ with others?
What if this goes along with ideological demands to let go of their free personal individuality and impulses - which the guru calls their limited self or ‘ego’?
Then both the mature capacity to be alone - meaning to fully be with oneself and to be fully be with oneself - will not be cultivated but actively restricted or suppressed.
Then the capacity for fully and truly being with others - meaning to fully be with them and to fully be with them - will also not be cultivated but actively restricted or suppressed. In other words, the individual will not develop a mature capacity to be either alone with others in silence of fully with them in that silence - but instead feel lonely, separate and apart from others - or ‘above’ or ‘below’ them, ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than them  -  being also unable to reach some ‘ideal’ spiritual state of feeling ‘all-one’ or ‘at one’ with themselves, others or God.
These particular dangers arise, not from meditation or relaxation as such, but from the nature of group meditation.. For this, in itself, is an implicit demand to immediately exercise a double capacity: both the capacity to be fully ‘alone’ and with oneself - the ‘self’ - and to be fully ‘together’ or ‘all-one’ with others in the group.  
That is why one observes two types or modes of operation of spiritual or meditation groups: one in which the emphasis is on ‘being all-one’ together (for example by chanting mantra or singing hymns), the other in which people are each separately and introspectively seeking to fully be with their ‘self’ - but seem in no way able to truly be with each other or even the guru - the very person they wished to give them the primary experience of “being alone in the presence of another”. This is partly because for any guru or group leader to help cultivate this experience, he or she needs a highly mature capacity to be both fully alone and with themselves - and also to be fully with each and every member of the group.
The fact that spiritual or meditation groups often meet in special rooms or halls - for example seminar rooms or church halls is also significant in this context. For these spaces can replace the role of the group leader in offering what Winnicott called a ‘holding space’ - one in which each individual feels safely ‘held’ within the spacious awareness of a parent figure. More serious problems that can be observed in spiritual or meditation groups are that:
the more tightly integrated or ‘all-one’ they try to be - or are told to be by their leader(s) - the greater the danger that they become cults - cults in which people seeking the state of relaxed unintegration that Winnicott writes of end up in a state of extreme psychic disintegration instead - even to the point of committing suicide.
Those who express or embody spontaneous impulses arising from their unique individuality of soul are judged to be dominated by their ‘ego’ - or, if they rebel, are seen as dangerous ‘enemies’ of the group, particularly by authoritarian gurus and group leaders.
The more integrated or leader-dominated a group is, the more it needs such enemies to prevent itself from disintegrating. The result is a constant state of more or less open or hidden division and conflict between members - which come to expression in persecutory attacks on particular members, ex-members or members or ‘rebel’ leaders with ‘heretical’ views.    
These dangers apply, of course, to many more types of group or community than ‘spiritual’ or religious ones - for example political, ethnic or national groups, communities or movements. For in these also, both the capacity to be alone and to find relational fulfilment through intimate ‘I and Thou’ relationships - can easily be displaced by identification with a collective ‘We’ or its leader. Through this ’We’ a ‘we are all-one’ experience is sought in place of the experience of “being alone in the presence of another”. And through identification with group leaders of any sort, no real element of living relationship with another is involved. Instead the inner self or ‘I’ of the individual is both identified with the ‘We’ – and/or projected into its leader.
This brings us to the work of Melanie Klein (Winnicott’s own analyst) and in particular the set of basic infantile ‘defence mechanisms’ she identified, all of which work to prevent the full maturation of the individual. Many types of  group - including spiritual groups - can be said to be defined by these defence mechanisms, just a few of which I summarise below:
‘Splitting’. The infant and later the adult splits the other, to begin with the mother or breast, into a “good object” - the one that is present, loved, and experienced as loving nourishing and gratifying, and its absence - which is felt as a ‘bad’ and hateful object. The desire to attack the bad or hated object then becomes a source of persecutory anxiety, because of fear of retaliation. The splitting of the other/mother goes together with a splitting of the self into a ‘good self’ and a ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or ‘sinful’ self - that self which is often associated with what is called ‘‘the ego’ in neo-Eastern spiritual groups.
‘Projective Identification’. In order to get rid of feelings of persecutory anxiety the internal bad object is identified with or projected ‘into’ an external object or person - which is experienced both as a source and as object of persecutory attacks and counter-attacks.   
‘Idealisation’. Just as splitting goes together with the projective identification of ‘bad objects’ into others, so does it also go together with the idealisation of another person as a purely ‘good object’. Any suggestion that this idealised object - for example in the form of a group or its guru or leader figure (but also in the form of an entire racial or gender group, religion or social system) may have questionable or negative sides is therefore seen as threatening - and also becomes a source of paranoid fears and anxieties, and of persecutory attacks and counter-attacks.  
‘Attacks on Linking’. According to Wilfred Bion, part of the mechanism of splitting is that the external absence of a loving parent figure- the “good object” - even for a short time - is felt as intolerably frustrating, and is experienced as the internal presence of a ‘bad object’. The bad object may find expression in what appears to be ‘bad’ behaviour (‘bad behaviour’) and/or is projected into others. The problem is that the incapacity to tolerate frustration by the good object as well as the mechanism of projective identification both replace or substitute for the individual’s capacity for independent and  
creative thinking. This is because thinking depends on the capacity for linking different sides or aspects of the same person, thing or situation - and in this way coming understand it as a ‘whole object’ rather than as a good or bad object.
Attacks on linking also go together with denial - the incapacity not only for any type of questioning, critical, creative, associative, imaginative or metaphorical and symbolic thinking but also a resistance to make even the simplest connection - in either personal memory or in thought - between particular facts or ideas which are felt as threatening to ego-identity. And if a spiritual group believes that some tradition or teaching already contains ‘the whole truth’, then there is, of course, no need for new or creative thinking at all. Instead the only leadership ‘skill’ needed is use or abuse the aura of ‘authority’ associated with this teaching or tradition  - and/or that of some supposed ‘lineage’ of gurus associated with it  - to borrow or copy from, repeat and recycle all its concepts, terms and sacred texts - and to just mimic its practices.  .
The combination and interrelation of the infantile defence mechanisms summarised above, which persist into adulthood, together constitute what Melanie Klein called ‘the paranoid-schizoid position’. In contrast, she spoke of what she called ‘the depressive position’ as a more mature state in which individuals become capable of perceiving and relating to themselves and others as ‘whole objects’, i.e as whole persons and whole bodies. And yet it is very easy to see in all sorts of groups, communities and organisations, even whole races and nations the expressions of the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’. From a Kleinian perspective the defence mechanism associated with it are also the source of all concepts of ‘good and evil’ - and their consequences in the form of paranoia and war.   
In the context of spiritual groups in particular, most of which are based on notions of good and evil, the role of idealisation - for example of a god, guru, religious belief system or personage - is too obvious to even need stating. Less obvious are the other infantile defence mechanisms which protect such processes of idealisation - and yet lead inevitably to personal or sectarian divisions and conflicts - for example splitting, projective identification and also attacks on linking. All of these defences find expression in the incapacity of both group members or their leaders for independent thinking, which is replaced by attachment to and mere preaching of ideologies or worldviews - whether old or new.   It is only through the disintegration of such groups that members come face to face with both  the challenge and opportunity of developing ‘the capacity to be alone’ in the way Winnicott writes about it in his essay:
“...the paradox that the capacity to be alone is based on the experience of being alone in the presence of someone, and that without a sufficiency of this experience the capacity to be alone cannot develop.”
Winnicott also looks at this subject in a different way by interpreting the words ‘I am alone’:  
“First there is the word ‘I’ ... The individual is established as a unit.
Next come the words ‘I am’... By these words the individual not only has shape but also life. In the beginnings of ‘I am’ the individual is (so to speak) raw, is undefended, vulnerable, potentially paranoid. The individual can only achieve the ‘I am’ stage because there exists an environment which is protective... the mother preoccupied with her own infant [and] through her identification with her infant. There is no need to postulate an awareness of the mother on the part of the infant at this stage of ‘I am’.

Next I come to the words ‘I am alone’. According to the theory that I am putting forward this further stage does indeed involve an appreciation on the part of the infant of the mother’s continued existence .. I consider, however, that ‘I am alone’ is a development from ‘I am’, dependent on the infant’s awareness of the continued existence of a reliable mother whose reliability makes it possible for the infant to be alone and to enjoy being alone, for a limited period.”
This ability to “be alone and to enjoy being alone” is not fully developed in many adults whose sense of self is dependent on constantly being with others, whether for social or ‘spiritual’
reasons. Instead we find the principal expression of this ability in successful, long-term, one-to-one relationships.
That is why, as a practicing psychoanalyst, Winnicott also introduces his essay with the following statement:
“In almost all our psychoanalytic treatments there come times when the ability to be alone is important to the patient. Clinically, this may be represented by a silent phase or a silent session, and this silence, far from being evidence of resistance, turns out to be an achievement on the part of the patient. Perhaps it is here that the patient has been able to be alone for the first time.
What I have tried to say in this essay is that the type of ‘aloneness’ and ‘silence’ Winnicott is writing of here - which come from his experience of being fully with his patients in silence - is very different from any routined or formalised  ‘spiritual’ practices in which people sit together silently in groups - and not simply “alone in the presence of another”. This is a difference which also has to do with the basic question of what exactly it is that is going on in the silent aloneness of ‘meditation’ - and not just what is spiritually expected or believed to be going on. In this way, I have tried to show the significance of some aspects of psychoanalytic theory for the therapeutic practice of both ‘The New Yoga’ and what I call ‘Life Medicine’.
Copyright, Peter Wilberg 2016
Bion, Wilfred R. Experiences in Groups
Buber, Martin I and Thou
Winnicott, Donald The Maturational Process, chapter 2
Recommended Reading
Hinschelwood, R.D. A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought

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