Otto Rank and Birth Trauma
Some people claim to remember their birth. I have unsuccessfully tried a few times to go deep into my archived memories and establish contact with the long-ago experience of my birth. I am curious to know if it was a relatively smooth transition or a stressful, bumpy ride like that of an airborne passenger flying through turbulence.
In 1924, in his work, The Trauma Of Birth, psychoanalyst Otto Rank, an early disciple of Sigmund Freud, presented his hypothesis that the anxiety experienced during birth was the template for all successive anxiety experienced during the course of a person’s life.
Rank postulated that a child’s separation from the mother at birth, and subsequently once again via weaning, is the platform upon which neuroses of all kinds are constructed and furthermore, that the male sex drive represents a fundamental desire to return to the womb.
As Rank’s understanding of the human psyche evolved, he became convinced of the reality, and profound influence, of birth trauma and so proceeded to develop a form of psychoanalysis (which involved an individual’s re-experiencing of the trauma of his or her birth) that focused directly on the ramifications of the birth experience.
For Rank the very “nucleus of the unconscious mind” was the birth experience, during which an infant passes from a state of contented union with the mother to a violent dissolution of that union.
The fact that this separation from the mother, who has housed, protected and nourished the child since the inception of his or her physical existence, also commonly features an oppressive sensation of asphyxiation as well as buffeting, constriction and confinement within the vaginal canal exacerbates the trauma of separation and deepens its impression upon the psyche.
Accordingly, a person’s struggles to compensate for this traumatic, anxiety-filled, experience of birth, and avoid similar experiences, contributes mightily to the character of one’s post-natal inventory of fears, anxiety and other neuroses.
Freud, who found the idea of the impact of birth trauma incompatible with his beliefs about the immaturity of the brain at birth, rejected Rank’s approach. This rejection effectively exiled the Rankian method from the mainstream of psychotherapy. The Freudians actually floated the idea that Rank as mentally ill, and expelled him from the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Like many psychological theorists, including Freud of course, Rank sought to demonstrate that the focal point of his particular theory could account for all processes of psychological and social development. His dogmatic insistence that these could all be completely explained solely via the mechanism of the trauma of birth is clearly unreasonable.
Nevertheless, Rank’s insistence upon the importance of the trauma of birth in the elaboration of an individual’s survival personality and emotional disharmonies seems to me to be inarguable. Indeed, Rank’s highlighting of such concepts as separation anxiety, the importance of very early relations with the mother, free will and creativity as well as themes such as falling, constriction within a narrow space and being lost in limitless space are uniquely insightful and illuminating.
Many psychotherapists dismiss the importance of birth trauma, arguing that at birth the immature brain cannot register it. That notion can only be viewed as obtuse to anyone, including me, who believes in the eternal and infinite nature of the soul as well as the awareness imbued within the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The contention that the immaturity of the infant’s brain precludes the possibility of emotion, sensation and cognition could only be cultured in an utter spiritual void. Spirit is not limited to the brain but is incarnated into every cell of the body and infuses the entire organism with consciousness.
Psychologist David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D. writes in his article, Birth Trauma is Real! (published on the website of The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology & Health):
“Rumblings among psychotherapists early in the 20th Century pointed to the distinct possibility that birth was for most people a traumatic event which left marks–psychological marks. Physical marks could hardly be denied: marks from forceps delivery could plainly be seen and were sometimes carried as scars for years. Heads emerged from a difficult birth cone-shaped, reflecting a reaction to powerful forces impinging on the skull.
But this was not supposed to matter. Some babies emerged blue and stiff with suffocation, and had to be brought back from the dead, but it was merely an incident. With an unfinished brain, babies were incapable of human sensations, emotions, or thoughts–only mechanical reflexes.”
“Although controversy can still be generated, especially among persons who are not acquainted with contemporary findings, we should not proceed arrogantly with the routine traumatization of our infants at birth! Fortunately, an increasing number of therapists are being privately trained to recognize and work to resolve prenatal/perinatal trauma, but there could never be enough of them to do the work that is piling up.”
This unfortunate dogma that serves to dismiss the validity of Rank’s idea has been an obstacle to progress in understanding the inner life of baby’s and the critical impact of early trauma, throughout the course of an individual’s life, upon mind, body and soul.
One of the most important concepts that I take away from Rank’s ideas is that the trauma of that initial separation from the mother sets up a deep-seated fear, ingrained into both psycho-spiritual and physical memory regarding the urgent need to avoid future experiences of separation such as leaving from the birth family, divorce, etc.. Thus, the theme of separation is a crucial one to note when analyzing a case study.
The Kabbalah and the Theme of Separation
Rank was also a philosopher and, like many of the early psychotherapists, a German Jew, so it is possible that he was influenced by one of the central tenets of the Kabbalah: the theme of separation being the root of evil.
In one kabbalsitic theory (elaborated by the great 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria) regarding the logistics of Creation proposes that God’s withdrawal from the central point of the completely unified pre-Creation Infinite Light (in which all the elements of which the natural world and physical existence are composed existed harmoniously as potentialities) which resulted in a Vacated Space in which the finite, material could unfold.
This divine withdrawal, intended to allow for the possibility of finite existence (otherwise it would be like trying to build a colony on the sun) and the exertion of free will (as opposed to mandatory submission to divine will) also facilitated the existence of evil. From the perspective of the Kabbalah, in some cases, evil is something good that has become separated from its proper place.
This withdrawal of God’s Essence into itself set in motion the primordial exile that, while facilitating Creation, is the template for all the forms of separation and exile that underlie the existence of harsh judgment, evil and many of the other exigencies of mortal life.
Accordingly, the ultimate purpose of a person’s life is, through the leading of an exemplary spiritual existence, to help restore unity and harmony to all of Creation and furthermore to overcome the exile of the created universe from its Creator.
The Garden Of Eden and the Theme of Separation
The theme of separation is also inherent in the kabbalistic interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth. Adam and Eve’s sin precipitated a “cutting of the shoots” which represented the severing of the unity between the Creator and His Creation. In effect, Adam and Eve caused the plane of the material world, to lose its absolute divinity and thus become isolated from the higher world.
This isolation is referred to as the “exile of the Shekhinah” (the female essence of God which constitutes the presence of God within the fabric of the material world). Accordingly, the full repair of the world through the offices of human spirituality will be facilitated, in part, by the reascension of material world and its subsequent unification with the higher world.
There are many focal points and intricacies in the practice of Spiritual PhytoEssencing but ultimately its intent can be boiled down to enabling, via the use of customized essential oil blends, to help an individual’s soul overcome the various degrees of separation, the kernels of unhappiness and disorientation, embedded in human existence.
Separation takes the form of estrangement between rational, everyday consciousness and higher consciousness, between a person and God, between an individual and his or her own true self, between a person and the natural world, between a person and his or her beloved, children and other loved ones.
Part II of this article will focus upon the role that essential oils (with a special focus upon cinnamon oil) can play in helping to assuage the open wounds and scars left upon the soul by the trauma of birth and other forms of separation.