This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in The Common Boundary, Volume 5, #2.
Most therapists are surprised to learn that Freud, himself, recommended a style of listening to patients that greatly resembles the style of Buddhist meditation, known as “bare attention.”
Early in his career, Freud was fascinated by the powerful effect of focused or restricted attention during hypnotic trances. Eventually this interest led him to use free association, a technique in which patients attend to each moment of their consciousness and report it verbatim to the analyst without censoring any thought or feeling no matter how irrational it may sound. Freud believed that restricting attention to the stream of consciousness would force to the surface fragments of the repressed unconscious.
Free associating was, of course, the patients task, but Freud also believed that the analyst had a similar job. In order for the analyst to be open and not censor the sometimes disturbingly irrational and unsettling associations of the patient, Freud recommended a form of listening that was a counterpart to the patient’s free association. By listening in a way that he described as “evenly suspended attention,” he hoped the analyst would be prepared to catch or intuit the drift of the patient’s unconscious. He believed that this uncensored listening would open the analyst’s unconscious just as the patient was opening him/herself to the analyst through uncensored speaking.
The reason that the majority of clinicians are unaware that Freud held these views is that after his death many of his followers deviated from his original recommendation in regard to how they should listen. Perhaps one reason for this detour is the fact that Freud, himself, never fully revealed the method he used to accomplish his listening state. Unfortunately, no one else developed a method for cultivating and maintaining this rigorous, demanding focus of attention. Furthermore, increased professional interest in the more rational and cognitive analysis of the ego defenses made Freud’s recommendation seem not sufficiently scientific. For example, in 1948 Theodore Reik published the well-known Listening with the Third Ear. In this book he rejected Freud’s “evenly suspended attention,” which he described as an oscillation of the analyst’s attention between receptive listening (intuition) and focused cognitive processing (rational understanding). This was done for the purpose of permitting the analyst to make interpretations. This crucial alteration ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end of Freud’s recommendation.