I often encounter people who express a painful sense that something vital is missing from their lives. Sometimes, it is a partner, sometimes children, fulfillment in their career or the fulfillment of a sexual fantasy. Their regrets, sadness, frustration and pains are very real and there is no question that the absences they lament have taken a very real toll on their lives. But in these particular individuals there feels like there is an added factor beyond the pain of their specific lack. Their inner emptiness is not after all a partner or child shaped hole in their psyche that the addition of the longed-for object would neatly fill. Yet, their subjective experience is resolutely, often obsessively focused on some external object they are convinced would either heal their inner emptiness or whose absence has irreparably left them damaged or depleted. What will in fact ever fill them up? It is, I believe, a particular counter-transferential trap to imagine that the analyst or teacher's empathy, presence or goodness will substitute for the missing element. In the grip of that particular curative fantasy analysts will either engage in endless heroic attempts at restitution or themselves fall into a depleted, resentful state when all their "good milk" fails to soothe or nourish the patient who is failing to thrive despite all their care. Zen teachers are more prone to be certain of their own rightness or goodness and simply attribute the failure of the student to change to the severity of their egoistic attachment.
What then can turn these cases around? What is the therapeutic function of the analyst or teacher if not to provide the missing link?
I believe that both the analytic and teaching relationship can potentially provide a holding container in which the experience of something missing, of inner emptiness is not relieved, but fully felt as an experience in its own right. We help the person's gaze to turn back inward to the feeling itself, away from the obsessive preoccupation with the outer missing object. The sense of damage or deficit can then begin to be processed as an affect state, a body state, restored to being a feeling with its own texture, intensity, duration and rhythms.
Gradually, one can perceive, for instance, that loss or loneliness or illness are not anomalies that have intruded into or contaminated our life, they are our life. They are not signs that our life is damaged, but one of the many signs that we are in fact alive.
It is not the goal of either analysis or Zen that problems disappear from our lives, but into our lives.