Behind Shades

Sunglasses have a way of showing up in odd places, in songs or interpersonal encounters or photos of public figures. “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top. The image of Ray Charles. A friend whose eyes are hidden behind dark lenses. Other characters who live mysteriously behind shades.

Recently I lost my regular prescription eyeglasses and had to rely solely on my prescription sunglasses to see clearly. In my therapy office, I went without glasses. I enjoy hanging out behind dark lenses in some circumstances, but while doing therapy isn’t one of them. Whether eyes meet or not or at what moments they do … all these variations are significant and interesting during a session. I explained to clients that without glasses I could see, but joked that everything is in “soft focus.”

In the days of film photography, which still continue for some of us, you could buy a soft focus filter to lend a pleasing blur to an image. My digital photo editing software can create the same visual effect. To be more accurate, my vision problem without glasses is not exactly a soft focus issue. It is closer to the blur in a portrait photo, in which the subject is in sharp focus, and whatever is going on in the background fades into a blur that suggests a dreamlike reality. Sometimes I think of this as the dreamlike background of existence–the fluid realm out of which individuation emerges and which becomes activated during developmental events in a person’s life.

One might also think of impressionistic movements in art as attempts to squint, or blur vision, in order to see reality differently. Seeing clearly has its downsides. Used destructively, it kills the imaginative faculty. As I coped with the embarrassment, frustration, and self-attack involved in losing my glasses, this blurring of vision afforded a new view of things. As focus softened, I softened, and my attitudes softened and became more fluid and capable of experiencing what was there.

Maybe not being able to see so clearly forced me to rest my eyes, half-closed, and thus experience a relaxing of my mental muscle–the muscle that tries to know and master what I encounter. In the words of Captain Beefheart, “Somebody’s had too much to think!” Relaxing the need to know and master is in fact beneficial to psychotherapy in various ways. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion associated each therapy session with a kind of dreaming while awake. Therapy makes a space for reverie and free association–less knowing and mastery, in other words–and thus engages the capacity to dream one’s experience into existence. This capacity undergirds psychological development and therefore therapeutic efforts by making it possible to metabolize experience.