In his poem ‘Clearances’, Seamus Heaney describes the death of his mother. The family is gathered around the bed.

‘…………….Then she was dead.

The searching for a pulse beat was abandoned.

And we all knew one thing by being there.

The space we stood around had been emptied

Into us to keep, it penetrated

Clearances that suddenly stood open.

High cries were felled and a pure change happened.’

What the poet is describing is the transformation of an emotional experience into something close to what Bion calls ‘O’ or ultimate reality or truth. O is not an easy concept to understand. It’s not something that can be known and so words can only approximate to it. The importance of O is that for mental growth to occur there have to be experiences of being at one with O. O, the unknowable ultimate reality resides in any and every object, material or immaterial.(A & I p87) Everything goes beyond what we can actually see or hear or experience with our senses. There is an underlying reality which will be there even when we are not. We don’t create it. It is independent of us. We cannot know reality. We can’t know the underlying thing –in –itself but we can have experiences of being at one with it.

This idea that we cannot know reality goes back as far as Plato who said that what we conceive of as, for example, beautiful or good, is so because it reminds us of the ultimate Form of beauty or goodness. He also said that what we are aware of in this world is so limited that it is as though we are in a cave only seeing the mere shadows of things. O ‘is something which stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real yet waiting to be realized;…..something that gives meaning to all that passes, yet eludes apprehension.’ (Whitehead A.N. Science and the Modern World p167)

In the consulting room, listening to the analysand’s material, one can suddenly become aware of an opening up, of seeing the subject differently, of realizing the significance of the experience, like an opening up to an infinite world. It is a dramatic moment. What has been expressed previously in the session in words or actions has been transformed into something different. Through this transformation both the analyst and the patient may have not only understood something but they have become different. Becoming it is different from understanding something. They may actually have become something other and see the world in a new perspective. This is an experience of becoming O. It sheds new light on the analysis and can move it on for many months. These dramatic moments of illumination do not happen very often, maybe one every one or two years yet they are all that is necessary. On the other hand, as Henri Rey used to say, analysis consists of a series of mini experiences, of mini changes. It is possible to be in the

experience, to become O, for a moment. It can’t be held onto or remembered in its essence.

It is an experience of becoming and can happen in circumstances other than in analysis. Other life experiences can be transformative in this way; for example, loving. Loving is something which is become, as opposed to being understood. There are other moments too, for example when we are filled with awe.

Aldous Huxley (Christmas Humphreys ‘A Western Approach to Zen p141) in a distinction between knowledge and intuitive understanding in ‘Adonis and the Alphabet’ says ‘Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experience. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and so make possible a direct unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence’.

O has many names; ultimate reality or truth, the infinite, mystics call it Godhead, mathematicians might refer to it as infinity, psychoanalysts call it the psychoanalytic object (or group) which has within itself the potentiality of all distinctions as yet undeveloped (T p150). Bion’s model of the mind is of a world which has the potential for infinite meaning. As I’ve indicated in the example, experiences of at one-ment with O are transformative.

How do these experiences of becoming O happen? Although ultimate reality, O, can’t be known, it does evolve and its evolving characteristics or manifestations can be known. These are phenomena which are experienced through the senses. These are our ordinary experiences, our world of objects, ideas and feelings. They impinge on the individual or he, through his receptive state becomes increasingly aware of some manifestation. This evolving aspect of O may at first be unconscious or conscious. It evolves to a point where the individual can recognize some state of mind and describe it, put a name to it and start to get to know it. This is why Bion talks about negative capability. One has to allow the process to take place. To quote Bion: ‘The practising analyst must wait for the analytic session to evolve. He must wait not for the analysand to talk or to be silent or to gesture, or for any other occurrence that is an actual event, but for an evolution to take place so that O becomes manifest (in K) through the emergence of actual events’(A & I p28) which can be known. But we can’t know beforehand what is going to emerge. That is why our minds need to be open to any possibility.

Ogden gives a very striking analogy for this unforeseeable evolution of O into events which can be known, that is, events in K like feeling, remembering, understanding. He likens it to the totally unforeseeable emergence of consciousness from what we know of the electrical and chemical workings of the brain. (Intro to the Reading of Bion p291) (continued)

What emerges from the evolution of O is totally unpredictable.

When he is discussing the elements of psychoanalysis, such as container and contained, Bion says that they cannot be observed, as they refer to a ‘abstraction unknown because unknowable’ (Elements of Psychoanalysis p7) yet they can be represented in an impure form by words. He likens this to Kant’s – noumenon or thing-in-itself of which we can only know phenomena or derivatives, not the real thing. Language can only describe the manifestations of O. Similarly with poetry, music and art – they approach O through its derivatives.

Bion said, ‘I do not believe that real life has any divisions such as religion, aesthetics, or science, any more than there is a line dividing the northern hemisphere from the southern. That line tells you something about the human mind. These categories tell you something about the way in which sophisticated human beings think, but it is doubtful that they tell you anything about the things themselves. If there is a thing-in-itself, a thing which Kant would call the noumenon, all that we can know is about phenomena. When the noumena, the things themselves, push forward so far that they meet an object which we call a human mind, there then comes into being the domain of phenomena. We can guess, therefore, that corresponding to these phenomena, which is something that we know about because they are us, is the thing itself, the noumenon. The religious man would say, “There is, in reality, God.” What Freud and psychoanalysts have investigated is phenomena. The human mind is an unimportant element; it is also an obstacle.


For example: I would not be able to see a stream which was flowing smoothly without any obstacle to disturb it because it would be so transparent. But if I create a disturbance by putting in a stick then I can see it. Similarly the human mind may set up a turbulence. (as in Leonardo’s drawings)…We may not easily ‘see’ this turbulence in the world that we call the mind. If we can, then it becomes possible to believe that there is such a thing as a human personality in the world of reality, and such a thing as an underlying group in the universe of which we know nothing, only phenomena.’ (Braz. Lectures p23) Just as you can only see a clear stream if you put a stick into it, Bion is saying that turbulence suggests the mind’s awareness of ultimate reality.

Psychoanalysis is about becoming a real person. It is not about learning all sorts of psychoanalytic theories that you then fit on to the analysand as though fitting a suit onto a dummy. Nor is it about crime detection and finding fault. ‘We are trying to find the patient, whoever and whatever he is.’ (Clinical Seminars and Four Papers p15) It is about knowing turning into becoming, becoming into being. It’s about growth of the mind.

Bion asked himself how the process of getting to know the self turned into the process of becoming a real person. This is what O is about.

We have to wait patiently for this opening up to a different space or meaning to occur. It can’t be forced. We have to be in a particular state of mind, open to all possibilities, observant and with the mind uncluttered by memories, hypotheses or therapeutic zeal. The analyst has to wait until the situation impinges on him in such a way that he sees it differently.

The meaning of our lives depends on our relations with other people and things, both animate and inanimate. These relations are all emotional experiences but we don’t usually grasp the meaning of these experiences unless they have been processed in some way so that we can start to think about them. A considerable part of our lives can be lived without thinking about it. A poet transforms an emotional experience into a poem, an artist transforms it into a work of art, a musician into music. Psychoanalysis involves emotional experience and the transformations it undergoes in our minds. The analyst’s interpretation is a verbal transformation of his emotional experience of the session. The analysand’s experience of being in the session is transformed into his representation of it which he may express in words or action. The analyst and analysand share an experience and each sees it differently. These are transformations. They can then compare notes and a further transformation occurs.


But something remains unchanged through the transformation. Take as an example of a transformation the reflection of trees in a lake, the reflection being the transformation of the vision of the trees. If the water is still, the trees would be easily recognizable in the reflection. If the water is turbulent then something of the trees would still be seen but they would look very different. Nevertheless something remains unchanged in the transformation from stillness to turbulence. Something remains invariant in that we still recognize something of trees reflected in a lake. ‘The interpretation is the analyst’s transformation of the pattern he has discerned in the material. The invariant is what is common to the material and the interpretation. Something remains unchanged through all the transformations.’ (Second Thoughts p131) Otherwise the analysis would be completely wild.

Similarly when a patient is bombarded by turbulence, for example during what is called a breakdown, the pre-breakdown clinical picture can look very different from that following the break-down but closer inspection reveals something invariant. Bion describes the pre-breakdown stage of a particular borderline psychotic patient. The patient is unemotional, with marked hypochondriacal symptoms. Although he talks about violence his behaviour is outwardly amenable. When the breakdown occurs however, relatives and friends are alarmed. The patient is deluded, possibly hallucinated, hostile in analytic sessions but the hypochondriacal symptoms are much less. Bion says that the analyst must see and demonstrate that certain apparently external emotional events, like anxious relatives, impending certification, mental hospitals are in fact the same events as those which appeared in the pre-breakdown stage, called by the patient, pains in the knee, legs, abdomen, ears, etc., and what the analyst called internal objects. (T p9) In other words the anxious relatives, impending certification and so on now presenting to analyst and patient are really hypochondriacal pains and other internal objects under the guise of their new status as external objects. These are the invariants.

In the Heaney poem, the grief, the memories of his mother throughout his life that he has been going over in his mind in the earlier parts of the poem, the relief of death finally coming after her illness, all these experiences are transformed into the experience of the clearances, but something of all those experiences and memories is still represented in the transformation. Something remains invariant so it is apparent that the original experience and the transformation have something in common.

Pissarro had asked the painter Corot what he thought about his paintings. Corot said that he could see that Pissarro was striving for personal expression so he said to him, (continued)

‘Since you are an artist you don’t need advice. Except for this: above all one must study values. We don’t see in the same way; you see green and I see grey and ‘blond’. But this is no reason for you not to work at values, for that is the basis of everything, and in whatever way one may feel and express oneself, one cannot do good painting without it’. (Pissarro p15) When he talks about values he means what is invariant.

You can be listening to the patient bring many different associations but as you go on listening, at some point you will realize that they have the same pattern. Something is invariant. You then have to wait until you can identify the pattern and later still to make an interpretation.

O to K

Bion describes the analytic process in a number of ways to round out the picture of something that is difficult to understand until one has personally experienced it. In the analytic session there is a particular emotional relationship between analyst and patient. The reality of this encounter is experienced in one way by the analyst and in another way by the patient. The analyst keeps his or her mind as empty as possible of expectations in order to be free to absorb what the patient brings. As the session proceeds the analyst has an intuition that sheds light on what is happening. She sees something differently and tries to express something of this dawning understanding. She tries to put it into words. This is the analyst’s transformation. The analysand too has his experience and understands it in a particular way. This is his transformation. You could say that analyst and patient share an experience which is transformed by both.

O is the shared experience in the consulting room. It cannot be known. It has to evolve so that its manifestations can be apprehended. It is only these evolutions of O or actual events that can be known. Actual events can be apprehended through the sense organs. Psychic qualities cannot. The shared O in the consulting room is transformed differently by analyst and analysand. Their respective transformations can be compared with each other. In this way learning can take place. Bion says that ‘the more ‘real’ the analyst is the more he can be at one with the reality of the patient. Conversely, the more he depends on actual events the more he relies on thinking that depends on a background of sense impressions.’ (Attention p28)

Q Psychic events can be intuited and thus known. They are different from O. They are manifestations of O. O is not an event, it is a state of being.

Types of transformations

Bion thought it might be useful to classify the sorts of transformations that occur in psychoanalysis.

He has emphasized that projective identification is the way we first learn to communicate our unprocessed emotions. They are projected into the caring person, accepted by her and eventually, through her reverie, fed back in a digested manageable form. In this way the projector feels understood and starts the process of thinking for himself.

If the projections are not accepted they become dispersed in endless mental space. Thus the personality is dispersed, not gathered together and it begins to associate getting rid of something with survival, that is, to survive you have to act not think. You have to get rid of difficult feelings or frustration or pain by projecting them out, not hold onto them and think about them.

When there has been the experience of being listened to and understood, the sort of transformation that occurs in the psychoanalytic session is straightforward. The patient’s material has a direct reference to the transference. For example, the patient says that he hates the old woman who serves lunch in the office cafeteria. Through this and other references the analyst can see that this material is a reference to herself and what the patient feels about what she is dishing up to him; thus the cafeteria woman reminds the patient of the disliked aspect of the analyst and what she says. We can say that through his spontaneous dislike of the cafeteria woman he has been enabled to get in touch with his unconscious feelings about the analytic work. Bion calls this a rigid motion transformation and this occurs in the more neurotic less psychotic parts of the self. Of course this particular way of understanding the material is often misused when whatever the patient says of his outside life is immediately translated by the analyst as a reference to herself. This sort of automatic translation results in the formation of a carapace in the patient’s mind. It’s a form of brainwashing.

In contrast with this straightforward rigid motion transformation is what happens when the patient as infant has not been listened to and has learned to project in order to rid himself of painful feelings as though the mind were a muscle throwing away its contents. As there is no concept of a container into which the projection could take place, an explosive ejection into infinite mental space occurs. Because of intolerance to pain, there is no capacity to think and therefore no way of mapping this infinite space to provide a containing framework. In this case bits of the patient’s personality are scattered over a vast area and over a prolonged period of time so it may take a very long time to gather together and understand what is happening. Events which have taken place far from the analyst are regarded by the patient as aspects of the analyst’s personality. (continued)

The patient might say, ‘How dare you serve me with that food’. Thus the patient believes that I am the woman serving in the cafeteria. He does not make any distinction between us. This is not a rigid motion transformation. The patient is not using the cafeteria woman as a symbol, as someone standing for me. We are dealing with things not thoughts. This is a psychotic form of transference.

Bion calls these projective transformations. There is a massive projection into multi-dimensional space. The task is to try to identify the projections and to pick up the bits scattered over space and time. The analyst may not have any idea where the patient is coming from and therefore understanding his transformation is correspondingly difficult.

The point of distinguishing between different classes of transformations is that the ordinary use of projective identification in the transference can be distinguished from this massive projection of unprocessed stuff into multidimensional space, and not the ordinary three-dimensional space. This might enable the analyst to recognize that in such a case, ordinary transference interpretations won’t do. In practice it can be helpful to classify the statements representing the transformations in grid terms. For example, a statement about the woman in the cafeteria that is related to the transference in a rigid motion transformation might be classified as a pre-conception whereas in the projective transformation it is classified as a discharge of beta elements (A6 as opposed to C or D1-6) (Beta element or no-thing is already saturated and cannot act as a preconception)

A third transformation observed in analysis is the transformation in hallucinosis. (continued)

The patient has a problem that he is trying to solve by using an object that cannot stand being used in this way. The patient tries more and more forcefully to project into the object which more and more violently rejects him. The patient now has two problems, that which he was originally trying to solve and the problem of an object that won’t help. The patient resorts to hallucination, an imaginary and omnipotent solution. This brings its own problems into the analysis because the patient believes his solution of his problem, namely hallucinosis is superior to the analyst’s solution which is to use psychoanalysis. So there is in the patient’s mind a situation of rivalry between them. Whatever the analyst says or does is seen by the patient as an attempt by the analyst to prove his superiority. This is a difficult situation and requires exposure of the supposedly rival methods of solving the problem.

Emotional links

Returning now to transformations in general. Transformation depends on the mental attitude of analyst and patient. This attitude is expressed in one of the emotional links L, H and K. The links are the transference. Attitude towards the other or towards life is either positive or negative. Positive attitudes can be grouped under three headings; love, hate and the attitude of wanting to get to know someone or something, thus L, H and K. You may think it strange to include hatred as a positive link but it will become clearer when we look at the negative links, which are the opposite of these three. Hatred is a positive link towards someone. There may be a desire to hurt, attack, smash, split or destroy the other but it is positive in the sense of being actively directed at someone. In contrast, the negative links are minus L, minus H, minus K. These express an aversion to coming to know or understand or experience the analysis in any way. They merge into one another and include cynicism, various types of lies, hypocrisy and so on.

All these links whether positive or negative are expressions of the transference, the link between analyst and analysand. They are also attitudes to life in general. We shall focus mainly on the K link as this is the link or attitude the analyst must have. The K link is not about getting to know facts but is rather an open-minded attitude to the present evolving situation, and wanting to experience more, even if it involves pain. In contrast to the analyst, the analysand can be manifesting any link, positive or negative and it is helpful for the analyst to try to determine what is the dominant link currently operating.

Transformations in K mean that matters are being understood in the analysis. The work is proceeding and the emotional situation is gradually being understood. The process of getting to know the self is occurring. But there is still the gap between O and the personality. We can only know phenomena, not reality. O can only be become. You can’t know it but you can be at one with it. This involves a transformation from K to O, that is from understanding something to becoming it. Some aspect of the self has been intellectually understood but can the analysand allow himself to become that? There is a resistance to becoming O. Indeed Bion says that resistance in psychoanalysis is just that, resistance to becoming O. He points out that there is never resistance to a lie but only to the truth. (T 147) Transformation in O is resisted because it causes psychic turbulence which is painful. It is felt that the price for becoming it is too high in terms of mental pain. Becoming means taking responsibility and it means growth and maturation. There is a fear of opening up an infinite world of the unknown, a fear of ignorance. Resistance is expressed in turning the experience into knowing about something rather than becoming.

I can put this in another way. We come to psychoanalysis because our own explanations of our lives are not adequate to allow growth to occur. We are stuck somewhere with our misconceptions about life. We come to analysis hoping to be freed from our misconceptions and therefore freed to develop with an open mind. If our analyst observes us from a firm basis in theory, he will tend to see in the material and impose on us, theoretical solutions that may or may not be correct. The result may be a strengthening of the personality based on a strong exoskeleton which is composed of an intellectual understanding of the self and others. Analysis of this sort gives rise to the ‘I know’ type of person who may then become that type of analyst. But an exoskeleton is not the same as an endoskeleton, a real backbone inside on which one can rely in difficult circumstances, because it is based on the experience of mental growth.

How does real growth take place as opposed to the development of a strong exoskeleton based on intellectual understanding? The answer lies in moving from knowing about the self to becoming the self through transformations in O.

What is so frightening about becoming O? Bion thinks it likely that even while we are in the womb we get rid of unpleasant experiences and sensations so that when we are born, those things are already unconscious. They have never been conscious. Innately we fear these experiences and sensations. By becoming O we leave ourselves open to getting in touch with some of this, our real selves.

(Some analysts state that you have to have a basis in theory from which to make your psychoanalytic observations. In other words you have to have a mindset in order to understand what you are observing and into which your observations have to fit. You might say that it is not possible to avoid this even when you don’t consciously decide to base your observations on a theory. One of the reasons for doing infant observation as a preliminary to psychoanalytic or psychotherapy training is to learn to observe without coming to premature conclusions as to the possible meaning of the observations. But sooner or later a theory pops into the mind, ready to assert knowledge and thus push away the possibility of a new understanding. What happens is that the preconceptions arising in the observation are instantly saturated and therefore not open to a new happening.)

Analyst’s state of mind for evolution of O

Bion said that the more real the analyst is the more he can be at one with the reality of the patient. . Conversely the more he depends on actual events the more he relies on thinking that depends on a background of sense impressions. (A & I p28) How do we become more ‘real’ and therefore less dependent on a background of sense impressions? Bion’s answer is that we must get into a particular state of mind where we artificially blind ourselves in order to be able to feel out the structure emerging from the darkness. It’s a bit like this description of a man fishing in still water with a float.

He says ‘I have spent thousands and thousands of hours staring at a float – a dot of red or yellow the size of a lentil, ten yards away….All the little nagging impulses, that are normally distracting your mind, dissolve. They have to dissolve if you are to go on fishing….once they have dissolved, you enter one of the orders of bliss….Your whole being rests lightly on the float, but not drowsily; very alert, so that the least twitch of the float arrives like an electric shock. And you are not only watching the float. You are aware, in a horizonless and slightly mesmerized way, like listening to the double bass in orchestral music, of the fish below there in the dark. At every moment your imagination is alarming itself with the size of the thing slowly leaving the weeds and approaching your bait. Or with the world of beauties down there, suspended in total ignorance of you. And the whole purpose of this concentrated excitement, in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing, like living metal, from a world where nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.’ (Ted Hughes – Winter Pollen p19)

You will note that Ted Hughes uses phrases like ‘this arena of apprehension’, ‘your imagination is alarming itself’ indicating that this is an adventure which may be frightening. When contact with the real is impending, then resistance comes into play.

The psychoanalyst has to wait patiently for the manifestations of O to evolve in the session. Psychic reality , the evolved characteristics of O , is different from external reality. Psychoanalysis deals with elements that can’t be perceived with the sense organs. Things like anxiety, guilt, envy don’t have a sensuous basis.

Bion says that the more real the analyst is the better able he is to get in touch with evolutions of O. It is necessary to blind oneself artificially, says Freud, to be more able to discern the object when it is particularly obscure. Bion’s way of artificially blinding himself in the session is to get rid of memory and desire. These are both based on elements perceptible to the senses. Memory and desire obtrude where there is a lack of immediate sensuous satisfaction. Instant satisfaction can be obtained from the storehouse of memory or the daydreams of desire. If the space of the mind is filled with sensuous elements, it won’t be able to detect elements that can’t be sensed.

In the process of the session, the patient is trying either to communicate or to miscommunicate, while the analyst is keeping an open mind by purposely giving up memory and desire so as to be free to observe and to register what is evolving, what transformation is taking place

But the practice of giving up memory and desire including the desire to understand sharpens one’s perceptions at times to an almost unbearable degree. One may become aware of deficiencies in one’s ability to cope. This increases the pressure to make a reassuring column 2 interpretation, that is, interpretations that are not true but reassure both analyst and patient, the reassurance coming from rescue from the state of mind of not knowing what is going on.

We may, for example, desire to understand the patient. You might think that is perfectly reasonable, indeed desirable in an analyst. But we find that when we desire to understand we lose our mental space. We start to search for a theory that might fit the patient’s material. We stop actually listening and experiencing. We may desire the end of the session perhaps looking forward to a cup of tea. We may start remembering our holiday. All these activities are sensuously based and preoccupy our faculties so they are no longer receptively empty.

To conclude

Bion mentions the mystics – St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart because of their experience as described in their writings, of participation in God, that is, ultimate reality. He thought that trying to understand their experience might help us to understand something of how O is become. For example, St John of the Cross writes about the need to free the memory, intellect, and will so they can be filled with infinite God. If any trifle remains within memory, intellect or will, it can keep the person so cumbered and fascinated that they are not conscious of their loss. This is obviously the same as Bion’s recommendation to give up memory and desire.