One Analyst’s View of Dreams–The Container and the Contained: An Abstraction of the Basic Situation…
The mother contains the child in her body and in her mind. .
This is the beginning of Wilfred Bion’s, abstraction of our universal situation. Bion, a psychoanalyst sometimes called “the emotional mathematician” (Grotstein), went to great lengths to give us an idea that was so pure and fundamental that we would not be able to put it in the places of our mind where things get tucked away. He wrote the forest for us to see, insisting that the trees, for his purposes, were a distraction.
Bion named the baby’s raw experiences, “beta elements.” He does not explain why. You have to accept what he says for a while until the majesty of his vision fills you with a permanent understanding
The mother, Bion says, has “alpha function.” Again, there is no explanation. It is a new language Bion is teaching his readers. When we learn a language we are washed over by the words and the context of the words. The child cannot really be told how to speak Only an interest and an exposure will magically lead to a comprehension which started out as impossible. Language is an axiom and Bion strives to show us an axiom of the human situation.
The name of this axiom is “container/contained.” The mother contains the baby first in her body. When the baby is born the mother surrounds the baby with her body and the mind of the mother holds the baby, as well. The baby is the subject. The baby needs to be surrounded and the mother needs to surround. The baby is “the contained;” the mother is “the container.”
With “alpha function” the mother is able to take the baby’s raw experience and, through her “reverie,” digest that experience and return that same experience to the baby, now modified by her understanding.
Where does she get this “alpha function”? Bion doesn’t say but we may understand “alpha function” as the mother’s humanness, passed down to her through the evolution of our social connectedness, through her own mother’s “alpha function”. It is the human context that surrounds the mother and the baby and allows the mother to do her job, the job of surrounding her baby and containing its body and its unmodified, non-human experience. Without the mother the reality of life would overwhelm and destroy the baby for with our species the baby cannot be alone and survive. Without the mother’s “alpha function,” the reality of life would terrify the baby and fragment the baby’s mind.
The baby needs “alpha function” but doesn’t have it at birth. Bion says that the mother eventually “installs,” in the psyche of the infant, the container/contained “apparatus.” In other words the baby’s psyche or mind evolves into an idea of a mother and baby, of containment, as a part of its own makeup.
Bion believed that “beta elements,” that is, experiences not modified by “alpha function,” are “not suitable for dreaming” and must therefore be ejected through a process known as “projective identification” which means that the baby desires to put its undigested feelings into the mother. Some people say that the baby projects its feelings into its image of the mother and then the real mother responds to the cues the baby gives in order that she, the mother, may accommodate the baby’s image (Grotstein), an image of transformation. Later, too,when we need some help with uncomfortable feelings we want to eject, we eject and then project those feelings into our image of another in order to get that person to bring about some transformation in us. But the point is that what cannot be processed has no other possibility than to be ejected, as our body ejects foreign intruders.
Bion says that without “alpha function” we cannot think and we cannot dream. What does Bion mean by “dream” here? I think he means that “beta elements” (raw, undigested feelings) cannot find their way to the unconscious because they are going the other way, outward, away from the unconscious. Once something becomes a part of the unconscious, (and perhaps the unconscious can be understood as the “installed” container/ contained apparatus, itself), it can be processed with the much larger store of information, experience and psychical magic that the unconscious encompasses but which our conscious mind cannot know. If we have reverie for ourselves, can think of ourselves with a sense of someone else there also (Winnicott), we are touching, perhaps, just the outside of the vast unknowable unconscious and so we are dreaming whether awake or asleep. If an experience is humanized by virtue of being contained by the mother, the self, the world, it is, as Bion says, “suitable for dreaming.” Such an experience can now move inward, towards the unconscious where it can benefit from the vast store of life that is there. Bion calls this vast store of life that is beyond our conscious mind to encompass, “O” or “the unknown” or “reverence and awe.”
Now we can understand why certain indigenous tribes consider dreams to be so important, why they recreate them in waking life, why they cull rituals for their survival from the dreams of members of the tribe. Because the dream comes from the unconscious where there is much more knowledge stored than in our waking consciousness.
We can say that with Bion’s understanding the entire psychoanalytic session is a dream and certainly that is what it feels like. Or we can say that an entire analysis is a dream, or we can say that at least that is what we are reaching for, a dream within waking reality.