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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Into the Labyrinth: Unknowing & Experimentation in Psychotherapy

He enters a labyrinth, he multiplies by a thousand the dangers already inherent in the very act of living, not the least of which is the fact that no one with eyes will see how and where he gets lost and lonely and is torn limb from limb by some cave-Minotaur of conscience.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil"

My first session with an adult male client follows a certain pattern. The man sits down on my couch and looks at me with a nervous stare. After a few awkward moments of shifting in his seat, he breaks the silence, "So, I've never done this before. Where should we start?" I thank him for coming and explain the first session is an opportunity for me to get to know him and vice versa. After 15-20 minutes of describing what he does for a living and how he spends his free time, he jumps into why he's really there in my office. Most men report they started therapy as a last ditch effort to save their failing marriage. Others mention their anxiety or depression has morphed into a problem they can no longer cope with on their own.

Near the end of the first session, almost without exception, the client looks me directly in the eyes and asks,"So what should I do about my problem? Tell me what I need to do to fix this!"

This last statement is always so frustrating for me. On the one hand, it's understandable. These men have paid a lot of money for their session and they are looking for results. Many of my adult male clients are highly successful attorneys, software engineers and executives accustomed to practical solutions to pressing problems. On the other hand, their insistence on a quick fix misses the complex nature of psychological issues. These men want me to share a magic formula that just does not exist.

My response to their request for an easy solution is frustrating to them. Instead of providing the "5 steps" that will end their suffering, I educate them on my philosophy and approach to psychotherapy. I explain to them that while I have experience and expertise in the process of therapeutic change, I am not in the business of telling people what to do. I believe my clients are the experts of their own life.

More importantly, I help them understand that my approach to therapy is a journey of getting lost together, shedding old identities and unfolding into a version of themselves that is radically open to the beauty and fragility of life. Most men do not come back for the second session or at least don't commit to the process for very long. The few that do walk into the labyrinth with fear and trembling.

Getting Lost Together

James Hillman once wrote that he started every first session with a new client with a profound sense of not knowing what the hell he was doing. This was not due to a lack of knowledge or experience. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Hillman understood that each new client was a profound mystery with a knotted bundle of drives and forces animating their psyche. His initial confrontation with unknowing was a sober response to the radical openness that is each person's life.

Manu Bazzano reflects on the metaphor of the labyrinth in his wonderful book Nietzsche and Psychotherapy. This is a metaphor I invite my clients to ponder as I explain what I mean by getting lost together in therapy. Rather than a symbol of confinement, I follow Bazzano in focusing on the labyrinth as a locus of infinite possibility. Many clients hesitate plunging into lostness. This is understandable, especially if there is a history of childhood and relational trauma. Losing a sense of control and direction can be terrifying for many.

It is at this point that I encourage my clients to trust the process. While I cannot go on the labyrinthine journey for them, I can go with them. I am clear to emphasize that I am not certain about anything. I don't know what we'll find or where we will end up. What I can promise is that I will stick with them and that many have traversed with me into the labyrinth and come out more fully alive.

The only way to experience meaning and aliveness is to risk the plunge into the unknown. As Erich Fromm has written, "the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel humanity to unfold its powers."

Shedding Old Identities

According to James Hillman, "individuating begins with noticing, paying attention to the specifics of what is actually there so that it can become fully what it is." The journey into the labyrinth encourages the shedding of identities and the exploration of drives and forces in the psyche.

My own labyrinthine journey started when I was in my early 30s. This was a very difficult time in my life. I had just been fired from a church, moved back to Houston, my marriage was falling apart, my father was dying of cancer and I was trying to figure out how to pay the bills.

My therapist quoted Dante's The Divine Comedy in our first session. The metaphor of the windy path into the dark wood resonated deeply with my lived experience:

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!

My therapist was a Jungian who emphasized the importance of looking at my dreams. Slowly, week by week, my dreams started bringing up material that was initially repulsive to me. My sexual fantasies disturbed me as a conservative Christian. My growing desires to leave institutional religion and my marriage were becoming harder to suppress.

According to Manu Bazzano,

before being a symbol of the psyche, the labyrinth emerges in Nietzsche as a immediate representation of the darkness of the body, understood not as a hidden foundation that can one day be illuminated through painstaking investigation but as the 'philological enigma of plurality' (Blondel, 1991, p. 210).

What you discover when you plumb the depths of the psyche is that there is no bottom, no firm foundation. Heraclitus was right:

“You will not discover the limits of the soul by traveling, even if you wander over every conceivable path, so deep is its story.”

My labyrinthine journey confronted me with a multiplicity of drives, forces and sub personalities populating my psyche. This is often the experience of my clients when they commit to the journey. I had to shed the identities I clung to for stability and security: pastor, husband, son. My clients shed their identities as successful businessmen, religious adherents and invulnerable males. This is a profound loss and entails a deep unknowing.

However, the loss of these foundational identities opens us up to a psychic multiplicity that expands us and unfolds our powers.

Openness To The Beauty and Fragility of Life

I recently spoke to Dr. Donovan Miyasaki about his understanding of Nietzsche's concept of will to power. A common misunderstanding of will to power is that Nietzsche was encouraging a quantitative, power over others. In this reading, the goal is to exercise as much power as possible. This is the conquest model of will to power.

This interpretation of will to power is a real temptation for a lot of men. Hegemonic masculinity encourages the dominance of heterosexual men, at the expense of women, homosexual men and others who do not fit the strictures of "macho" masculinity. This version of masculinity encourages the suppression of negative emotions and the display of dominance through anger and even violence.

Miyasaki offers an alternative to this understanding of will to power. According to him, Nietzsche's will to power is about a qualitative, increase in the feeling of power through engagement with proportionate resistance. This is the contest model of will to power. In this model, humans aim to increase their feeling of power by exposing themselves to experiences that provide an opportunity to grow through resistance.

This happens when we play a game of tennis with a friend who is close to our level of skill. Hitting the ball back and forth is a type of resistance (i.e., contest) that increases our feeling of power. If we play with someone who is way below our level, we will likely dominate them and there will be little to no challenge. If our opponent is much better than we are, this will be frustrating, and we will leave deflated rather than empowered.

Manu Bazzano has an understanding of Nietzsche's will to power that is very close to Miyasaki's reading. For Bazzano, will to power means that we risk being fully alive, opening ourselves up to the beauty and fragility of existence on this planet. This interpretation stresses the task of aligning oneself with active versus reactive forces.

Reactive forces are all the things that close us off from the wild and unpredictable contours of life. For men, reactive forces show up as patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that seek to control and dominate. Intense feelings of sadness, joy or fear are difficult to tolerate so men hide their pain and express themselves in ways that are hurtful to themselves and others. When a man is governed by reactive forces, he is pursuing the quantitative, conquest model of will to power.

Active forces are all the things that open us up to the beauty and fragility of life. Men that can relate to themselves and their environment with capacious vulnerability are in the words of Victor Frankl saying "Yes!" to life. When a man is inspired by active forces, he is pursuing the qualitative, contest model of will to power. He does not backdown from pain, grief or awe, but rather exposes himself to the existential elements as a way of expanding himself and experiencing meaning.

Reanimation Through Experimentation

Learning to make allowance for that dimension of unknowing, tolerating it, even honoring and appreciating it, enables us to be enlarged and reanimated by it

- Richard Boothby, "Blown Away: Refinding Life After My Son's Suicide"

Men start therapy thinking that having the right answers or coping skills will be what they need to assuage their psychological ills. If they can trust the process and journey into the labyrinth, what they discover is the lack of answers, foundations and knowledge. This is terrifying at first. Their is no secure truth to ground their life or purpose. This discovery can be a type of nihilism that leads to greater anxiety and despair.

There is another way to frame the loss of certainty. Nietzsche's version of nihilism encourages us to discard the old certainties for a new exploration of values. In my therapy, this is the discarding of reactive forces in favor of active ones.

I encourage men to stop pursuing the "right" answers or the strategies that insulate them from pain and loss. Instead of avoiding discomfort or exerting control, I encourage them to experiment.

Experimentation involves unknowing, curiosity and a spirit of adventure. If a man is struggling in his marriage, he can experiment with gender roles and his communication style. I've had clients struggling with their faith experiment with different religious practices and beliefs. Experimentation involves trying something new, reflecting on how things go, and being ready to change. Nothing is fixed. No foundations. Things will change.

Experimentation is not simply about a person's actions, but their very identity as a subject. According to Bazzano, Nietzsche deemphasized the notion of a substantive human subject, and instead focused on a person as organism. This is not a biological reductionism but an admission that people are a polyphony of drives, desires, and forces caught up in an irreducible web of becoming.

While I do not know the telos of my clients' journey, my hope for them is that they risk the venture into the labyrinth where they can experiment with who they are and what they do, coming out of the process more capacious and animated than ever before.

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