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The Psychoanalyst and the Neurobiologist:
A Conversation About Healing the Soul and Telling Stories of the Mind, Brain, Self, and Culture

Elio Frattaroli and Paul Grobstein

(see latest: 5 January 2006
and on-line forum)

The following in an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 1 of Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain: Becoming Conscious in an Unconscious World by Elio Frattaroli (Viking, 2001). It is provided here, with permission of the author, as an extension of one of Frattaroli's contributions to "The Psychoanalyst and the Neurobiologist: A Conversation About healing the Soul and Telling Stories of the Mind, Brain, Self, and Culture".

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. .... Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Being There

The first game of the 1993 National League playoffs between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves was about to begin. My son Gregory and I were sitting high up in the center field grandstands of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium - two specks of foam in an ocean of restlessly excited fans, swelling against the shores of the AstroTurf playing field. Rooting for the Phillies, we naturally expected to lose, especially against the notorious Atlanta pitching staff, one of the greatest ever assembled.

I don't remember whether we were standing for every pitch as Curt Schilling, the ace pitcher of our own team, struck out the first Atlanta batter. However, I do remember sitting down afterward and calling out loudly, "Okay, Curt, let's get twenty six more of those!"

"Daaad!" moaned an embarrassed Greg, as seven or eight of the fans who were seated just below us turned around, chuckling. Perhaps they were wondering whether it was the voice of optimism or cynicism they were hearing. I wasn't sure myself.

The first two pitches to the second batter were strikes, each punctuated by a thunderous cheer, that subsided and then rose again like a huge wave cresting. When the batter swung and missed for strike three, the wave crashed and exploded into a roar that seemed to lift the stadium with it. "Okay, Curt, just twenty five more!" I yelled, sitting down once again on the edge of my seat as batter number three walked up to the plate. This time Greg almost smiled, and I caught the amused eyes of a middle-aged couple seated down the aisle a few seats to our right. I felt an immediate bond with them and, by extension, with everyone in the stadium.

With each pitch to the third batter the level of excitement rose even higher, until finally Curt nailed his third straight strikeout and the stadium was transformed. The sea of restlessly excited fans became as one-sixty-three thousand specks of foam vaporizing and coalescing into a single triumphant sound, which seemed to continue unabated through the fourth strikeout, and then the fifth. I know the Phillies had to have batted somewhere in there, but I have no recollection of it.

What I do remember is screaming out, "Hey, Curt! Only twenty two more!" and literally not being able to hear the sound of my own voice. My words were swallowed up even as they left my lips, vanishing into a joyful clamorous tidal wave of sound. But, paradoxically, in that very moment of vanishing I had a sudden, vivid experience of inner presence. I experienced myself as a soundless eddy of consciousness, merging into a roaring unconscious sea. In that moment, I was the very sound of one hand clapping.

The Place Where Experiencing Happens

If I have told this story at all well, then readers who have had the same kind of experience will know the quality of awareness I have just tried to put into words, because they will be able to recognize it from within themselves. But what of readers who have never had such an experience? They may understand what happened as an external event, but can they ever really know what it was like as an inner awareness? To these readers I might say, "Ya hadda be there!" implying that certain experiences cannot be adequately understood unless they are shared. But then, where exactly would a person have to be in order to share my inner experience, to know what it was really like? An interesting question.

Could a person understand my experience, for instance, from having had a similar one at Baltimore's Camden Yards, which holds a mere forty thousand fans? How about at a football or basketball game? Could a person have the same sort of experience while listening to a concert at a symphony hall? How about while doing a circle dance at a wedding, or chanting in unison at a meditation retreat, or walking alone on a deserted beach? Could a person who had never shouted out at a ball game or cried "Bravo!" at a concert understand my experience? Could my son understand it, or the middle-aged couple with whom I felt bonded?

What I am trying to suggest with these questions is that the place you gotta be to understand another person's inner experience is not a particular geographic locale, or cultural institution, or social setting, or even a particular physical body, but rather an indefinable inner place-the place where experiencing happens. This is a metaphorical place, like the Ithaca of Homer's Odyssey, or the Rome that all roads lead to. It is a place we must struggle to get to, only to discover that we have been there all along. Even if you have never had an experience quite like mine, you might get to the place where I had it without ever getting up from your chair, and you might understand the experience much better from reading my account of it than the guy in the Braves cap could, who was sitting just three seats away from me at the game.

From Baseball to Psychiatry

As a psychiatrist dedicated to the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, I often feel like a Phillies fan marooned in Atlanta's old Fulton County Stadium, trying to describe to the Braves fans there just what those five straight strikeouts were like. It seems that the psychotherapy I know and love happens in a completely different ballpark from the one where most of my colleagues hold their season tickets. Try asking a psychiatrist, "What do you call the place where experiencing happens?" and nine times out of ten you will get a quizzical look and an automatic answer: "Why, the brain, of course."

I disagree. I think of the brain as a place much like a stadium, where publicly observable, measurable, material events happen-the shouting of phonemes, the throwing and hitting of baseballs, the running of bases, the electrochemical transmission of nerve impulses. The mind, too, may be likened to a stadium, a kind of virtual "field of dreams" where private, unmeasurable, immaterial events happen-thoughts, feelings, images, sensations. But the experiencing of all these events happens in a place utterly different from any stadium. That's what I noticed at the Phillies game, when I couldn't hear the sound of my own voice screaming "Only twenty two more!" As my words vanished into the din, I found myself listening to something beyond the words, beyond even the thought and the elated emotion-to a soundless voice, an inner movement, springing from the still center where all experiencing happens. In the utter privacy of that boisterous public moment, I recognized that I was listening to the soul.

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