SHARING SPACE III: The Mental Matrix of Birth
Publication Date:December 1998
While the baby and the fetus are subjects which interest researchers in France, the psycho-emotional consequences of birth have not been prominently addressed by its medical or university research teams. The issue is usually ignored. This stand is likely attributable to the fact that French Psychoanalysis maintains a strong attachment to Freud's positions (Freud, 1909, 1926) on Otto Rank's theories on \"The trauma of birth\" (Rank, 1976). As to the neuro-physiologist (Hepper, 1997), they even contest the existence of a long-term memory for the fetus which renders any debate nonsensical! During a multidisciplinary conference in Paris on \"The differences at birth\" which I attended in June 1998, the psycho-emotional impact of the birth experience was not even once addressed. The schools of thought which support the possibility of \"reliving\" one's birth and that this even plays a significant role in one's psyche are considered marginal and work independently of the public health institutions. These schools are built upon theories and practices which come from abroad, such as those inspired by Leonard Orr and Rebirthing (Panafieu, 1989), by Stanislav Grof and Holotropic Breathing and Transpersonal Psychology (Grof, 1996), and by Arthur Janov and Primal Therapy (Janov, 1976, 1977). The Dutch founder of Haptonomy (Veldmann, 1998), Frans Veldmann, is now established in France where he trains therapists. Some Jungian psychoanalysts also accept the possibility for the adult to relive his birth.
In my case, the interest in prenatal psychology was born not from the famous American therapists but from a Frenchman, Arnaud Desjardins (Desjardins, 1978), who was himself trained by a Hindu master, S. Prajnanpad (Prakash, 1986; Roumanoff, 1989, 1996). Even before the Second World War, the latter had discovered the possibility of reaching the very first layers of our memory and thus to recall the fetal and birth experiences through the method called The Lying.
As the APPPAH members may be familiar with the theories of S. Grof and A. Janov, it seemed preferable to make a contribution to the journal which more specifically characterizes my work by: briefly introducing the Lying method, defining what I call the Mental Matrix of Birth (Massin, 1997) by illustrating these concepts through a clinical example.
The goal of The Lying is to free oneself from the past conditioning which prevents an individual from serenely living in the present and which unconsciously leads a person to repeat negative scenarios. The method aims for deep reconciliation with oneself, which includes the most painful aspects of the past.
Sessions with clients are individual. They last one hour and they are held either daily, such as during a weekly residential retreat, or on a weekly basis in my office.
The Method is a non-directive approach which calls on neither suggestion nor hypnosis. The person is lying down on a mattress on the floor and turns his attention to whatever he/she feels at the momentwell-being or unease, relaxation or tension, images or thoughts flowing into his mind, dreams evoked, or bodily sensations. Most often memories, more or less recent, will surface along with emotions. Sometimes the person is overcome by increasingly strong sensations that he does not understand. I then invite the client to breathe through the mouth, to let his/her respiration evolve without intervention, and eventually to express feelings not through words but through sounds. Usually the process intensifies, and the person undergoes a powerful experience which I later ask him to describe. I encourage him to face this experience fully, with his whole heart and body, even if he is frightened. During this period, the person remains entirely conscious, and I do not interpret what he/she is experiencing. The individual will be the one to say, \"I was in my mother's womb, I was reliving my birth,\" etc. Together, face to face, we then analyze the memories which resurfaced, whether they be of childhood, birth or whatever else. We try to discern how these past experiences determine the clients current reactions and behaviors, and how different situations in the past are symbolically linked and repeated.
THE MENTAL MATRIX OF BIRTH
Having frequently witnessed in my work the reliving of birth experiences, I came to realize the central importance of this primitive experience in the structure of our ego and psyche. It occurred to me that, for these people, this experience laid the foundations for a psycho-corporal matrix, what I call the mental matrix of birth. Birth left a lifelong imprint which formed the basic framework and latent reference points for future experiences and, in part, even determined them. I define this matrix across three axes and five dimensions of experience. The different stages of birth are experienced very personally and on multiple dimensions, even though some recurring themes are widely shared.
The physical dimension: Birth marks the body, especially the thoracic cage (the way a person breathes), the backbone (tension or deformation), and the head (an osteopath can further clarify this).
The energy dimension: The fetus invests all of its energy to get out. Sometimes it exhausts itself, it feels incapable, it does not want to try further and gives up on itself or, on the contrary, it is filled with a wild energy and feels able to overcome all obstacles.
The emotional dimension: The birth process propels the fetus through incredibly powerful emotions, often experienced for the first time. Fear, panic, bottomless desperation, destructive rage, joy and relief at the freedom so dearly won, confusion at first meeting (or losing) the mother.
The mental dimension: The awareness of the existence as an independent being, one separated from the mother, and the first draft of an ego accompanies birth. The baby experiences enjoyable and unpleasant states and thus can compare a \"before\" and \"after\". He is introduced to time and space. These multiple elements transition him from a world without differentiation to one that is and where comparisons are a characteristic of thought.
The spiritual dimension: Many people associate the fetal conscious level with spiritual qualities: peace, beatitude, and a unitive consciousness. During birth, many also feel their proximity to death, an infinite solitude, and some even feel God's presence at the heart of this distress. When all falls apart, only the essential remains.
At the same time, and according to the personal experience of birth, each person builds fundamental convictions along the following three axes. These will act as the foundations for the ego.
1. Personal Convictions, such as \"I can make it, I need to work this out by myself, I am incapable and will never make it, I am (not) worthy of interest.\"
2. Convictions about other humans, firstly with the mother: \"Was the individual helped by his/her mother? Was he/she well received or badly treated, left alone? Depending upon this, others are viewed in the light of being enemies or friends, people of whom one should be wary, who will hurt or abandon ateh person.\"
3. Convictions about life-human life on earth: \"Is life good or bad? Is there a place for the person? Was life not better before? Is it worthwhile to take on a body? Can one trust in life, in God?\"
These convictions will be determinant in the persons general way of being and attitudes as well as in his/her reactions each time he/she meets a challenge which unconsciously reminds the clietn of his/her birth. An example is the man who was hung upside down and slapped on his back at birth (to make him cry) and who is always frightened to expose himself to others and scared to put himself forward, to speak in public, to express his feelings for fear of aggression. This phenomena is particularly clear in cases of depression or phobia where the negative convictions seem to relate directly to the moment of birth. A patient's actual story illustrates and assists in understanding these different aspects.
Her Experience of Birth
Before being born, I floated in water; it was very calm; either nothing happened or there were moments of play and movement. Then, quite suddenly, my head hurts more and more and feels congested. Pain overwhelms me, and breathing is difficult. I do not understand what is happening to me and panic. I feel myself carried by a force far greater than myself and am completely incapable of backtracking. I cannot think, and my body is suffering from spasms. I do not feel the presence of my mother during birth. It is as if I were ejected. I had been close to my mother's heart and was torn from it against my will. I resist and block myself with all my strength. What comes out of my mother's womb (me) is like dead. I do not want to breathe; it hurts. My home was destroyed and only the umbilical cord, which is dead, is left. As I am far away from my mother's heart, I feel that she does not love me any more. I feel abandoned even when she takes me in her arms. At the same time, I have a tremendous need to he consoled, comforted; I am in despair.
Hélénas Mental Matrix of Birth
Physically Helene was often congested and suffered from migraines when she was vexed and when she was confused. Her thoracic cage is tight, and she does not breathe deeply. Her face is frequently closed and constricted. She often felt exhausted, lacking in energy, incapable of movement or she reacted impulsively, completely loosing control of what she did and said as if she were someone else. On the emotional level, fear is the dominant feeling from her birth. She feels as if she has always lived in fear. She carries with her a deep sadness, a discouragement about life.
Mentally, she often has the feeling that she is overwhelmed and understands nothing. Life has no meaning. She is lost and she can no longer think. Spiritually she feels shipwrecked. Before birth, there was something inside her which resembled a star and was very fragile, sensitive, and pure. She has lost touch with it, having closed herself off after birth.
In terms of the basic convictions stemming from her birth, she has a fundamental denial of life because for her it has no meaning. She can only suffer and puts up with life with reluctance. She feels incapable and worthless and does not think she could be happy. She very easily feels rejected and does not believe that others love her. She interprets the least lack of attention as the certainty of not being wanted. All the difficulties she experienced with her parents during childhood reinforced her certainty. In the meantime these same attitudes reinforced the negative responses from her parents.
Her mental matrix of birth was so strongly negative that she was deeply depressed. Her intellectual capacities were seriously inhibited and she had had to stop work. She led a very withdrawn and solitary existence and had no emotional life. She was convinced anybody worth could not love her. Each time her conviction quickly provoked the break-up. Naturally her depression cannot be solely attributed to the circumstances of her birth. She experienced other childhood difficulties which aggravated her situation. Much patience and time were needed before she could question some of her fundamental convictions and begin to love herself, life, and reach out to others.
I was enthusiastic upon discovering Stan Grof s work on Perinatal Matrices as I believed each of our approaches could complete and enrich the other. The Perinatal Matrices describe the phases of birth along with their corresponding emotions and impressions. Grof relates them to different types of psychopathologies. This provides extremely valuable general guidelines which enable one to quickly identify the type of difficulty suffered and its probable source. At the same time, in the practice of psychotherapy, it seems indispensable not to classify someone in one or another birth matrix too quickly and thus to interpret all that he expresses accordingly. We risk having an approach which is too quick and superficial, to take off in a wrong direction, and to limit the free expression of the unconscious. For a person to truly free himself from his conditioned behavioral patterns, he or she needs to explore without any prejudice the birth experience and to discover, with the support of a therapist, the convictions which make up the individual mental matrix of birth. These can only be altered if one consciously experiences them with all of one's being, body, heart and mind. Intellectual understanding is not sufficient. Neither is a simple emotional discharge. In the daily life, the individual will have to be aware of the reactions stemming from this matrix and go through a lengthly and patient process of disidentification.
Desjardins, Arnaud. (1978). Le Vedanta et l'inconscient. La Table Ronde.
Freud, Sigmund. (1926). Freud first recognized birth as the prototype of anxiety (1909); later on, he criticized Rank's theories in \"Inhibition, symptôme et angoisse.\"
Grof, Stanislav. (1996). Psychologie transpersonnelle. Editions du Rocher.
Hepper, Peter G. (1997). Memory in utero. Developmental medicine and child neurology. 39, 343-346.
Janov, Arthur. (1976, 1977). Le cri primal. L'amour et l'enfant. Flammarion.
Massin, Christophe. (1997). Le bébé et l'amour. Aubier
Panafieu de, Jacques. (1989). La rebirth-thérapie. Retz
Prakash, Sumongal. (1986). L'expérience de l'unité. L'Originel.
Rank, Otto. (1976). Le traumatisme de la naissance. Payot.
Roumanoff, Daniel. (1989). Svami Prajnanpad. La Table Ronde.
Roumanoff, Daniel. (1996). Psychanalyse et sagesse indienne. La Table Ronde
Veldmann, Frans. (1998). L'haptonomie. Presses universitaires de France.
Christophe Massin, M.D.
Christophe Massin, M.D. practices psychiatry and psychotherapy at Les Hôpitaux Psychiatriques de Paris at 3, Rue Jules Ferry, 92100 Boulogne, France. Phone and Fax: (I) 46 20 15 82 Phone (00) 33 14 620 1582.