By Gregory Mitchell
Otto Rank is now widely acknowledged as the most important precursor of humanistic and existential psychotherapy--influencing such well-known writers as Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and Ernest Becker. The topics he covered include separation and individuation, projection and identification, love and will, relationship therapy, and neurosis as a failure in creativity. Reading his books today reveals that Rank, who came to be much maligned by the orthodox psychoanalysts of his era, invented the modern approach to psychotherapy in the 1920s.
Once the favored follower of Sigmund Freud, Rank eventually became one of his mentor's sharpest critics. Rank was Freud's closest disciple and colleague from 1906-1926, the formative years of the psychoanalytic movement. He worked as Secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and became a leader in the psychological revolution that changed our understanding of human personality and consciousness.
However, Otto Rank broke away from orthodox psychoanalysis at age 40, about the time he first visited America. Returning from New York in 1924, Rank faced criticism from the Freudians for his less authoritarian approach to psychotherapy, focused on the here-and-now, real relationships, and conscious determinism - rather than the client's past history, the transference relationship, and the affects of the unconscious mind.
Rank discusses the ultimates - psychological concepts which go beyond the individual's makeup - such as fear of death, desire for immortality, sexuality, and the need for love. He speaks often of Man's fears and irrationalities, but he does not try to exorcise or explain them away; rather he accepts them both as integral parts of the fabric of the human condition. In his last years, Otto Rank turned his lifetime of thought and learning toward two of the most difficult topics in human history: religion and the soul. He proposed that the urge to immortality was man's deepest drive. Unlike many other intellectuals of the twentieth century, Rank maintains a place for the soul rather than dismissing it as a fantasy. The soul and the beliefs about it, he argues, set forth the foundation for psychology, with its complex analyzes of consciousness, self-consciousness, and personality.
In his Psychology and the Soul, recognized the desire for immortality through self expression of lasting impact, whether through the creativity of the artist or the reforming efforts of the hero.
The basic orientation of Otto Rank can be stated very explicitly. Rank rejected the key concept of the Oedipal situation as the source of psycho-pathology and adopted the birth experience as the origin of the essential trauma. He conceptualized that during the intrauterine experience the child experienced total union, which forever continued as the key motivation in a person's search for total fulfillment. He continues to long for this state, even as he experiences partial union in each relationship, and it is also anticipated in the hoped-for ultimate union after death. The birth experience terminated the original state of bliss and thus became such a traumatic experience that it became the origin of all anxiety, due to the fear of separation.
A second distinguishing feature of Rank's approach is the emphasis that he placed on educating the will. He called the will, "A positive guiding organization and integration of the self, which utilizes creativity as well as inhibits and controls the instinctual drives." By this he meant that man was not a victim of his instinctual impulses, but rather he was capable of directing these forces, either negatively for his own destruction or else he could organize them positively for creative self-expression and growth.
According to Rank, all emotional life is grounded in the present. In Will Therapy, published in German in 1929-31, Rank uses the term "here and now" for the first time in the psychotherapeutic literature: "Freud made the repression historical, that is, misplaced it into the childhood of the individual and then wanted to release it from there, while as a matter of fact the same tendency is working here and now" (page 39). This has become one of the cornerstones of Mind Development practice and courses, even - and in fact especially - in our advanced spiritual intelligence training, The Insight Project. Beliefs were created in the past but they are held onto and recreated to provide solutions in the present environment. This connection to the past can be released when such outdated beliefs are recognized and revised in the here and now, with considerable relief and insight.
Instead of the term repression, which laid stress on the burying of past painful experiences within the unconscious, Rank preferred to use the term denial, a neurotic clinging to the past, in order to protect the person from truly experiencing the present. In France and later in America, Rank lectured on relational, experiential and "here-and-now" psychotherapy, art, the creative will, and "neurosis as a failure in creativity."
This leads to Rank's concept of creativity. For him the essential struggle of Man was not to achieve health or normalcy but rather to express himself creatively, so as to discover and express his own uniqueness and distinctiveness. Personal growth therefore becomes the process of taking responsibility for one's own life and to express one's will creatively in life situations. To achieve this an individual needs to face his own guilt and fear, which has resulted in a negative pattern of behavior, and break loose from this pattern and risk the courage to create.
At this moment the individual returns to the initial birth trauma, since every act of creativity is a rebirth process. He must relive the separation experience in every creative act. But now, instead of wishing for safety and union, he realizes that he must believe in himself as a self-reliant individual, different and differentiated from others, even at the possible price of being rejected by others.
There is evidence to suggest that Otto Rank was influenced by Adler and Jung. One of the most outstanding proclamations of Otto Rank was his absolute belief in the uniqueness of every human being. The most quoted statement of his (from "Beyond Psychology," page 267) says it precisely: "Will people ever learn... that there is no other equality possible than the equal right of every individual to become and be himself, which actually means to accept his own difference and have it accepted by others."
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