Prometheus’ Bane : Music – the food of life

I haven’t been able to write much in the last few weeks. Life has moved at a hectic pace,  and in an effort to slow it down, I have had to give up some of my favorite things, one of them being writing. And for the next few weeks the pace is not going to slow down either, for I am presenting at the Hate Conference in Spokane in the first week of April, and then at the CAMFT conference in San Francisco in early May. In between there is life that needs to be dealt with. But lately, I have turned to music in a big way, probably in an effort to find other ways of discharging emotions that must remain unexpressed in writing due to lack of time. In some ways, all these arts are to the same end – to discharge undesirable affect in aesthetic and creative ways.  And so, I have been contemplating (more than I usually do) on the role of music, poetry and literature in our lives.

I am posting here an old paper that I wrote in grad school. It is dedicated with gratitude to two very special people, Farhat Shahzad and Mehdi Hassan, whose soul searching lyrics and music have brought music and poetry back into my life – in a big way….


“Music is spiritual and is a doorway into that world. Its power comes from the fact that it plugs directly into the soul, unlike a lot of visual art or text information that has to go through the more filtering processes of the brain.” —Peter Gabriel

Human brain functions in the continuum between polarities posited by opposites, between eros and logos with abstract and spatial abilities, with a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in right and left hemispheres leading to conservative tendencies guided by instinctual self preservation and a striving for expansion of consciousness that propels us towards the unknown, the unknowable and the dangers associated with the quest. Creativity falls within the realm of the last, and demands the courage to risk, for man’s need and his will to create transcends all other needs (May, 1976; Malchiodi, 2002). Infants as young as 4 months of age have known to react to music affectively (Zentner & Kaan, 1996, 1998).  This paper discusses creativity in general and musical creativity in particular and its place in psychotherapy.

The following explores the metaphorical and the biological relationship between creativity, music and psyche. The terms creativity, musical creativity and musical receptivity are used interchangeably in this document. The paper is divided into four sections. The first section explores the philosophy and psychology of creativity. The second part details the mythological dimensions of creativity. The third section explores the musical receptivity, its association and interaction with psychic states. The concluding section discusses psychotherapy and its relationship with music.

Section I

Philosophy of Musical Creativity

In his thesis The Psychology of Imagination, Sartre (1991) describes “feeling” as being a process of becoming conscious of organic changes. For Sartre, feeling, is a living state, a flux of subjectivity with inexpressible qualities, and a string of such affective states is associated with representations of objects in the external world. He believes that mental images simply represent surrounding objects and physical sensations attenuate rather than enhance this representation. Consciousness  “takes in” a sign or a symbol as a hybrid – half meaningful, half imaginative. If we were to restate this in a constructivist language, we could say that perception hastens to fill the gaps that our observation leaves unfilled, but perception itself leaves gaps, or distorts reality, and imagination is then used to refine an understanding of this reality.

            Sartre (1991) believed that the illusion of immanence arose from transferring externality to the transcendent psychic content which did not possess, but merely represents those qualities in its own way. This mental content is then used to envision a real thing that exists in the world of perception. However, all external objects including the mental content are objects for consciousness (hence our awareness of an awareness). He called this necessity of content to be represented as an object as transcendence of representation.  The waning of Sartre’s imaginative consciousness still leaves behind a sensible, describable residue.

Sartre’s (1991) deductions are important because they provide a philosophical validation that in permitting art to act upon us, the analogue can be reconstructed from the sensible residue without totally forming the imaginative consciousness again. His work can be used to explain how any forms of art – music included – by evoking imagination that reconstructs from the psychic residue may bring forth an experience of immanence. Sartre also appears to validate the notion that all art provides us with a way, a means of reconstructing our psychical content not the way it is in reality, but in the way that we experienced and perceived it.

            He further states that when the imaginative consciousness is destroyed, its  transcendent function is destroyed; no describable residue remains and we’re confronted by another form of consciousness which he called a synthetic consciousness. This consciousness has nothing in common with the first. We cannot get to this content through introspection. Freud would say that such “consciousness” may have a component in the unconscious repression. It seems quite likely that the musical sound waves, traveling through space, break through the physical cellular as well as the psychological barriers to “reach” (and stir) the repressed imagination and the transcendent function locked up in the unconscious. Satre further holds that in the mental image there is a psychic factor that functions as analog, but any effort on our part to ascertain more clearly the nature and constituents of this factor is only reduced to conjectures. This may help explain the fleeting feelings evoked by images, and music, a feeling that cannot be fully captured or quantified. Sartre’s theory of imagination thus provides a philosophical grounding that attempts to explain the surreal experience of music. 

Psychology of Musical Creativity

Creativity occurs in an act of encounter and is to be understood with this encounter as its center. . .[It] is the encounter of an intensely conscious human being with his or her world.                                        – Rollo May

All aesthetics and creative endeavors, especially music because it can be experienced in the absence of all other senses, appear to be psychic efforts at stimulating the imaginative functions to help the mind engage in a harmonic communication between the external and the internal world.  In describing the creative process as an encounter between the subjective and objective poles, Rollo May states that whereas the subjective pole is easy to comprehend, the objective pole, or the external world and its reality, are difficult to define. However, if this space enabled by creative acts overcomes the polarity between the subjective and the objective, new symbols that reveal new meaning are born along with an emotion of ecstasy (May, 1997). McLeish (1930) quotes a Chinese poet (“We poets struggle with non-being to force it into being. We must knock upon silences for an answering music”) to say that music struggles with the meaninglessness of silences in an effort to create meaning that creates a being out of a non being. This constitutes May’s subjective projection inherent in any creative act (May 1975). However, May is careful to point out his differences with psychoanalytic projection which Freud posited to be essentially a regression in the service of the ego, and Adler’s (1956) compensatory theory of creativity which May finds too simplistic and reductive. In fact May associates courage, and intensity with creative acts and echo’s Jung’s belief regarding the existence of bipolarity between the conscious and the unconscious experience. It appears as if “the unconscious takes delight in breaking through – and breaking up – exactly what we wish to cling to most rigidly in our conscious thinking” (p. 59). The close link between  the genius and the psychosis creativity is fostered by an inexplicable guilt that causes many artists to commit suicide at the very height of their achievement. May holds that whereas on one hand the narcissistic artistic psyche strives towards a pole of creative joy arising of gratification inherent in creative endeavors, it suffers from the creative anxiety and guilt that arises from destruction of the conscious, the known, the established, and the conformed. The insights through music, according to May, create a new vividness and clarity, a “state of heightened consciousness” (p. 61) specifically in the area that we are most consciously committed to; it “complete(s) a Gestalt” (p. 61) with which one is struggling in conscious awareness. May further elaborates on the nature of technical and technological creativity, contending that the latter is incumbent on the courage and the intensity of artistic creativity for its source and nourishment. When artistic creativity is bound and limited by rationalized logic, then spatial, quantitative and/or technical creativity becomes too mechanistic and all internal and external progress stagnates – the individual, and the world, degenerates because new ways of meeting social and personal challenges are arrested.

Conscious problem solving involves processing information in a linear, logical fashion. In contrast the artistic creativity allows permission for chaotic unconscious intuitions that are non-linear, abstract and multidimensional. Creative ways of problem solving thus build on artistic creativity for their success. Artistic creativity impacts everyday life since it combines the spatial with the non-spatial ways of problem solving (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996),[1]  appearing as the fuel, the nourishment that propels the individual, and the world, psyche towards non-linear progress. The fuel fans courage, such courage being not only the absence of despair but an ontological necessity (Tillich, 2004) that embraces the courage to live, to love, to trust, to give of oneself in illogical, uncertain and chaotic world. Musical creativity embodies the experiences of the collective unconscious, the buried dimensions of our being, the psychic DNA that gives us a distant early warning of our cultural future (May, 1965) and the shape of things to come. These creative endeavors thus take us beyond our own death; these symbols and forms create and shape our conscience and the ethical structure of the society and the individual. Creativity enables Masterson’s (1988) Real Self to come alive, and through this experimentation we find new, and constructive ways to negotiate our everyday life and the courage to move beyond trauma and loss. Masterson (1988) implicates the loss of creativity in disorders of the self. Andre Green(1999), an Object Relationist,  recognizes all creative endeavors as sacrificial offerings, an outcome of a mourning process that seeks revival and reunion with the dead mother.

Section II

Mythological Dimensions of Musical Creativity

            May (1975) explores the myth of Prometheus that provides us with a metaphor for the interrelationship between creative process, death and regeneration. Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and gave it to the mortals in a creative act of civilization. In the process he incurred the wrath of Zeus. Prometheus was condemned to be bound in chains, and to Mount Caucasu where the vultures tore his liver out every morning. Our lived experiences of the suffering inherent in everyday journey through life mirrors Prometheus’ tale, especially for the sensitive-souled artists. In them, the metaphorical liver grows back every morning as they get back in the smithy of their souls, enabling them to resume their Calcinatio in a hope for alchemical opus. May holds that Adam and Eve’s tale is another metaphor for development of moral consciousness. Every child, born as a pure Adam or Eve is forced to trade the innocence of the womb for developmental achievement. Something beautiful is lost in a struggle for survival; it cannot be recovered and must be endured. This loss is experienced by all, but becomes painful present for the artistically inclined – the defensive membrane that protects the inner from the outer, and keeps trauma at bay is sheerest for the creative types. Like Prometheus, creative artists pass through their days fighting with the gods of society – the conformist gods, gods of apathy, of materialism, of exploitation, injustice and hate (to name a few), suffering the wounds inflicted on the Self and expressing the trauma of existence through their creative endeavors. In the myth, Prometheus is promised freedom from eternal torture provided an immortal sacrifice his immortality in exchange. May concludes that the sorrow and torture of everyday wounds, and the creativity required for negotiating existence, is intractably linked to the problems of sacrifice, selflessness and our mortality. That Chiron, the Wounded Healer, would be the one to sacrifice his immortality for Prometheus, is significant in psychotherapeutic context. In the myth, Chiron is a metaphor for the alchemical opus. Psychotherapy being an artistic endeavor, the vocation arises of the necessity to heal the soul that is repeatedly wounded in its everyday journey through life. We, the artist psychotherapists, are entrusted with two souls desiring transformation through an encounter with innate creativity. Like Chiron, we are destined to a role that demands sacrifice – of our immortality, power and arrogance, of certainty and academic knowledge – and embrace uncertainty, anxiety, humility and nothingness, hoping for salvation, for us and for our patient.

Section III

 Musical Receptivity

Creating music presupposes listening to music as it is being created/played. However, this section addresses the impact of music on those of us that are unable to create. I believe that an auditory relationship with music is almost as fulfilling and follows the same philosophical and psychological rules as creation of music entails.

In listening to music, the limits imposed by the form, and the mathematical structure of musical composition provide a rigid container, much like the therapeutic container proposed by Winnicot. This container serves a similar psychical function, the spatial character of external rhythms harmonizing with the cellular circadian rhythms, resonating in synchrony, begetting unconscious memories of mother’s heartbeat and the safety, dependability and trust embodied in the womb, bringing order to chaos, containing anxieties and heightening individual awareness of lack – lack that posits nothingness, as well as lack of physical and musical freedom that resonates with and stirs the inherent repressions and other defenses that contribute to individual intrapsychic structure – like the contained and restrictive existence in the womb. New empirical evidence suggests that music and other rhythmic stimuli can alter mental states in predictable ways and heal damaged brains. As this lack of freedom becomes apparent, in music and in therapy, the conscious mind appears to constellate its opposite in order to center the self (Jung, 1974) causing unconscious frustrations that must contribute to ego-strength – in the twilight where the sound of musical rhythm beats against the infinite boundaries of silence, there are no obligations, no responsibilities, no deadlines, no necessity for movement, and the psyche can remain still, linger, lounge, and indulge unhurriedly. Romanyshyn (2007) would say that such musical interludes appear perfect opportunities to cohere, to re-member the dis-embodied, dis-owned, dis-membered parts of our lived experiences, the resulting insights and the psychic constellation being experienced as freeing and uplifting – freedom from deterministic bonds causing libidinal energy to become freely available for embracing and living life more fully.

Music therapy strives to achieve the goals of traditional talk therapy using music as a form of communication and a tool for regression. According to Bruscia (1987), the therapist conveys empathy, mirroring, understanding, grounding, conversation, and symbiotic oneness much the same way as traditional talk therapy does, by utilizing musical instruments and music for intrapsychic and interpsychic communication with the patient. Improvisation – a technique similar to the unstructured talk therapy – involves imitating, reflecting, rhythmic grounding, dialoguing and accompanying the patient’s melody. These aspects of music, much like traditional therapy, may enable rapport building and psychical regression to a point of the developmental arrest, Balint’s basic fault. Music thus appears to provide a neural pathway that short circuits cognition, moving emotional memories from the unconscious to the conscious, from repression to feeling and  sensations, often bypassing the thinking/cognitive process. A similar containing function appears to be performed during meditation. Most forms of meditation enables traumatic experiences stored in the unconscious to bypass cognition and manifest themselves directly as sensations processed and expressed through sensate bodily experience (Sameer, 2007), the expression of these freeing up the psychic energy utilized in repressions. Though images/visions/hallucinations may be encountered during the process of meditation, the meditators are taught to discard the emotional and the imaginal experiences, remaining focused on the sensory experiences. Theoretically speaking, if one were to ignore the imaginal and the emotional components of the musical experience, these experiences may be redirected to the sensory realm, replicating results similar to those achieved through meditation. Only, music evokes outcomes at many more levels than does meditation and thus may be experienced as an alternate and a more intense form of meditation, an intense spiritual activity. Attesting to the power of rhythmic music, ritual drumming and rhythmic prayer are found in cultures throughout the world and are used in religious ceremonies to induce trance states (Sarmaan, 2006). Peter Gabriel, a musician and a songwriter, validates this assertion in his comment cited in the introduction of this document (reproduced below):

Music is spiritual and is a doorway into that world. Its power comes from the fact that it plugs directly into the soul, unlike a lot of visual art or text information that has to go through the more filtering processes of the brain. (Peter Gabriel, n.d.)

Since most worship and religious ceremonies are meditative in nature, the therapeutic effects of music, including the feeling of oneness with the world that leads to unitive consciousness, appear to be similar to those experienced during religious or spiritual activity. In essence, it is my unsubstantiated assertion that intense concentration in music must neurologically process experiential information in the same way experiential information involving a close personal relationship – love, intimacy, worship, and or sacrifice – is processed; and the act of creating or listening to music essentially parallels intimacy, even sex, and/or union with the divine, with all its intensity, dedication and other relational aspects, with similar exchange of projects and introjects, including the daimonic nature of Eros (discussed in the following paragraph) that gets invoked in any of these process.

Creativity and Mental Health

Although creativity is often associated with psychological problems, May(1975)  insists that it isn’t necessarily a by-product of neurosis and that any such reductive conclusion would interpret all acts of creation as having pseudo value where talent would be a disease and creative endeavors a neurosis. He holds that all creative acts are, instead, a sign of highest emotional health that enable self actualization; a thought also echoed by Abraham Maslow who attributed human creative endeavor to the highest transcendental function that emerges only when the lower needs are satisfied, the soul’s drive to heal itself continues to remain active in the most adverse human conditions. However, the epigenetic character of Maslow’s stages is questionable as the transcendental striving is observable at every level of human existence; all animate objects, including plants, appear to be responsive to the music.

May(1969) further states that the daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. It is an archetypal function of human experience that may usurp the total personality – psychosis being the contemporary name for such daimonic possession. Psychosis has repeatedly made its presence felt in the acts of creativity. The power to open ourselves to Eros lies in the diamonic realm, linked to the shadow element of our being. When the shadow remains unclaimed and collective, man gives up his vitality, the energizing aspect of Self in exchange for civilization and conformity (Zweig & Wolf, 1999). When robbed of his vitality, the castrated man becomes like sheep and displaces/projects the shadow and related aggression onto the internal objects, resulting in abject depression, or onto external objects, resulting in psychosis and psychotic aggression and mania. Or he may forever be condemned to toggle between these two poles. In any case, as Zweig and Wolf point out, the daimonic remains impersonal, and man forfeits his claim to individuality and uniqueness thus choosing to remain anonymous, unknown – leading to loneliness, isolation and alienation. The daimonic is simultaneously creative and destructive at the same time, and often assails the creative minds. Musical creations and experiences offer to individualize the collective, and represent a mode through which man is empowered to courageously own his projections and externalizations.

Section IV

Music therapy has received recognition and validity through The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) founded in 1998. It is used clinically – to address  psychiatric disorders, medical problems, physical handicaps, sensory impairments, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, communication disorders, interpersonal problems, and aging. It is also used to improve learning, build self-esteem, reduce stress, support physical exercise, and facilitate a host of other health-related activities. (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Contemporary Research

The following excerpt from a research paper by Boso et al (2006) provides further insight into physiological and neurological correlates to music:

Musical stimuli have been shown to activate specific pathways in several brain areas associated with emotional behaviors, such as the insular and cingulate cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. In addition, neurochemical studies have suggested that several biochemical mediators, such as endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine and nitric oxide, may play a role in the musical experience. A growing body of evidence also indicates that music therapy could be useful in the clinical management of numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders. Indeed, music therapy could be effective in patients with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease, as well as in psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders.

Since music affects portions of the brain, and therapy is used to manage emotions and hence social interactions of individuals, music therapy has been empirically associated with a decrease in depression, improved mood, and a reduction in state anxiety (Nayak, et al., 2000), improvement in quality of life, involvement with the environment, awareness and responsiveness, positive associations, and socialization (Magee & Davidson, 2000), improvement in autism (Wigram, 2000; Magee & Davidson, 2000; Whipple, 2004; Hugh, 2008,), a positive effect on social and behavioral outcomes and encouraging trends with respect to mood (Nayak et al., 2000),  increased social interactions (Jeong & Kim, 2007) motivation and positive emotions (Nayak et al, 2000; Magee & Davidson, 2002; Wheeler, 2003),  recovery of motor skills, walking,  (Schauer & Mauritz, 2003; Schneider, Schönle, Altenmüller, & Münte, 2007), pain reduction (Kim, 2005) and increased success rates in treatment of stroke victims (Kim, 2005; Schauer & Mauritz, 2003;   Wilson, Parsons, & Reutens, 2006; Schneider, Schönle, Altenmüller, & Münte,  2007; Jeong & Kim, 2007). It is used in speech production in victims of Broca’s aphasia (Wilson, Parsons, & Reutens, 2006), and enhanced mental state functioning for people diagnosed with schizophrenia (Gold et. al., 2006). In experiments conducted at Stanford University (2006), rhythmic light and sound therapy helped students achieve a significant improvement in their grades, and many seniors improved performance on an array of cognitive tests (Sarmaan, 2006). Listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication, in many circumstances (Sarmaan, 2006). However, despite the variety of physiological and psychological changes that occur when listening to music, broad conclusions cannot yet be made concerning the relationship and the direction of the relationship between music and emotion as various facilitating and mediating factors and placebo effects have been found to counfound results (Vink, 2001; Boso et al., 2006).

Although it evokes several of the same emotions as other stimuli in life, music has been shown to have a characteristic frequency distribution that is skewed towards positive emotions. These emotions vary from simple to complex, from mere brain stem responses to cognitive appraisals in relation to goals in life. (Juslin et. al, 2008; Juslin & Vastfjall, in press). Juslin (2008) regard emotions as “brief but intense responses to change in the environment featuring a number of subcomponents. In addition to emotional response, there are self reported feelings (Gabrielsson, 2001) physiological response (Gomez & Danuser, 2007), activation of cortical as well as subcortical brain areas previously associated with emotions (Blood & Zatorre, 2001), expression of emotion (Witvliet & rana, 2007), action tendency (Fried & Berkowitz, 1979), and regulation (Becker, 2004). They maintain that individuals listen to music for a variety of reasons – to alleviate boredom, to relax, to get energized, to influence feelings. Yet in their research, the listeners who had no choice but to listen to music were affected as well. However, listeners’ intent was related to experienced states – thus calmness and contentment is associated with an intention to relax, and sadness and melancholy is related to intention to influence one’s feelings. Hence the reasons for listening to music will often reveal the effect that a particular piece of music has on an individual.

            Justin et al(2008) also found prevalence of musical emotions and Big Five personality factors. In their study, “pleasure-enjoyment was positively correlated with neuroticism”  –  musicians tend to be more neurotic than general population (Kemp, 1996) – and negatively correlated with openness, whereas fear-anxiety was related to conscientiousness. They also found that emotions of happiness-elation and nostalgia-longing were more prevalent with musical emotional episodes, while anger-irritation, boredom-indifference and anxiety fear were more common during non musical episodes. According to Zentner, Grandjean & Scherer (2008):

music is an effective means of mood induction in the laboratory (Vastfjall, 2002; Westermann, Spies, Stahl, & Hesse, 1996), a means of  mood manipulator to alter consumer behavior (Alpert & Alpert, 1990; Bruner, 1990), tool or treatment of emotional disorders (Gold, Voracek, & Wigram, 2004). It is used for mood and emotional regulation (Laukka, 2007, Saarikallio & Erkkila, 2007; Sloboda & O’Neal, 2001).

            Empirical research has found that although there exists a physiological aspect to emotional response elicited by music (Chapados & Levitin, 2008), music rarely elicits negative emotions (Juslin & Laukka,  2004; Laukka, 2007; Zenter, Granjean & Schere, 2008) although they may be “perceived as an expressive quality of music.”(Zenter, Grandjean & Schere, 2008).

Although more research is needed to understand how auditory stimuli is received, stored and disseminated  by the brain, given all the above, music, much like meditation, appears to be poised to become a cost effective and easily available and admissible adjunct to psychotherapeutic interventions. Musical interventions may be effectively used to recreate developmental trauma in the here and now, that can then be processed in therapeutic sessions, or for stress reduction, mood  disorders, psychiatric issues and in other ways discussed above.



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Crawford, M. J.; Talwar, N. (2006). Music therapy for in-patients with schizophrenia: Exploratory randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 189: 405–409.   —

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Gold, C., Heldal, T.O., Dahle, T., Wigram, T., (2006). Music therapy for schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like illnesses. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.

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[1] Czikszentmihalyi’s creative process folds over 5 distinct stages: 1) Preparation/immersion  2) Incubation when ideas churn below threshold of consciousness  3) Insight – the aha moment  4)  Evaluation – whether insight is worth pursuing  5) Elaboration – translating the intuited ideas into work of music/art/innovation (Czikszentmihali, 1996, p.79-80)

6 responses to “Prometheus’ Bane : Music – the food of life”

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    Probably this blog’s best post online!!

  2. […] Prometheus’ Bane : Music – the food of life ( […]

  3. .A published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that music can help autistic children interact with peers. If you are searching for an effective autism therapy that encourages creativity music therapy may be the answer for your child.

    1. Yes, it does that, and helps in many many different disorders.


  4. loving Madhu
    It was really nice to go through, poeople are lonely because instead of bridges they tend to make big walls around them and do not want to come out of these self proclaimed walls, this I am telling you from my own personal experience, life is really wonderfull and worth living, let music be the food of life, no doubt its healing and soothing.
    Your blog was well written!
    God bless you in all your endeavours and you achieve all that you dream in life.
    love you now and for ever.

    1. Najmi,

      Thank you very much for your kind words. I agree whole heartedly with your comments about life being beautiful. However, sometimes walls are not self proclaimed, or self perpetuated. They are build by the psyche to ensure survival of the core existence, against a toxic environment. They’re almost like an underground bomb shelter – meant to protect us from the spurious elements in the environment. For this reasons they’re called “defenses” in the language of psychology. A person may become trapped/locked in this shelter, which is like a shell, even against his or her will, even when the external environment is toxic no more. The protective aspect of these defences is commendable, for it seeks to preserve the sanctity of the endangered soul. This exile needs to be explored, the psyche assured of its continued safety, before it allows for these walls to be demolished. This – among other things – is precisely the goal of therapy.

      Love you too.


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