Medard Boss

(October 4, 1903 – December 21, 1990)

Boss was born, grew up and lived in Zurich while it was still a centre for psychological training and activity. In 1928 he received his medical degree from the University of Zurich. But he had also studied in Paris and Vienna, and underwent analysis with Sigmund Freud.

He was much influenced by Eugene Bleuler who he worked with as an assistant at the Burgholzli hospital. He then went on to study in Berlin and London, his teachers including individuals who were part of Freud’s inner circle. However he began to widen his views by also being involved with Karen Horney and Kurt Goldstein.

In 1938, he began an association with Carl Jung, who helped Boss to see that psychoanalysis need not be bound up in Freudian interpretations.

Later Boss discovered the works of Ludwig Binswanger and Martin Heidegger. It was his eventual friendship with Heidegger, starting in 1946, that helped define his direction into existential psychology. His work and thought in this area was so profound he is seen as the co-founder of existential therapy along with Ludwig Binswanger.

As he deepened his work Boss saw dreams as arising from the person’s life as a whole, and not from a separate ‘dream state’ or from things such as an archetype that acts as an “autonomous entity possessing its own creative and mo­tive powers.” Neither did he see the ‘unconscious’ as a realm of denied impulses and neurosis as Freud sometimes presented it. He described the dreamer as holding in their total self all that they met in their dream life.

He aimed to avoid all theories and concepts of dreams and look at the dream and the dreamer to arrive at understanding. In this way he helped the dreamer to connect the events and experiences of the dream directly with their waking life.

For instance, one of his male clients, during the first six months of his therapy dreamt only of machines and mechanical things. Boss saw this as an expression of the man’s complete sexual impotence and depression. They reflected the man’s inner sterility; his lack of anything living within his feelings and inner life. As the man gradually recognised and dealt with this condition his dream imagery changed to include living plants, then animals, and eventually human beings. When this stage was reached the man fully recovered his sexual and emotional potency.

As can be seen, Boss was seeing the dreams of his client as a direct expression of the functioning of the dreamer’s internal and external processes of mind, emotions and body. See the third example under lucidity as an illustration of this.

Boss approached the dream, and especially a series of dreams, as a clear statement of the person’s dominant overall life stance or condition. The graphic depiction a dream gives defines the person’s present condition as a whole, and not so much about how they are involved in external activity. But of course, the man mentioned above, described by his dreams as almost wholly mechanical and intellectual, lacking any feeling and empathetic relationship with others and his life opportunities, was obviously incapacitated in his external activities by his personal condition.

Boss used the word ‘Dasein’ in his work a great deal. It can be thought of as meaning ‘to be’, or being. It expressed his idea that we each have a fundamental existence that is not brought into being by our analysis or attempts to understand who or what we are. Perhaps it can be seen as that which exists without a prior cause. But unlike the mystical definitions of such a first cause, Heidegger saw Dasein as always having the meaning of ‘being in the world’. In another view it could be thought of as ones core self. The Core Self is, in a real sense a union with the Life within you, not simply the processes of Life.

Using light as an analogy of his approach to therapy, Boss said that work on oneself was to enable you “to shine forth,” “to come out of the darkness.” And so Boss viewed Dasein as an existing luminance that brings things “to light” or allows insight. The importance of this to Boss was that it influenced his style of working with a client. From this he likened personal defences and depression as choosing to live in the darkness.

Darkness arises from an absence or blocking of light. Darkness is not a force in itself, simply an absence. Therefore we can say that Boss’s work was to help the client remove or deal with the lumps of experience, fear, attitudes and beliefs that are like objects blocking the natural light arising from Dasein – the Core. So therapy he saw as a reversing the constriction of our basic openness, and it was described as “enlightenment!”

Perhaps out of this view of letting the natural core light shine, Boss stressed to his clients the importance of “letting things go” (Gelassenheit). Mostly people feel they have to keep a tight control over themselves and their environment. This probably arises from our view many of us have of the world having no central meaning; or that we ourselves have no core that sustains us. We lack the sense of what Boss has used the term Dasein to describe – a fundamental core that can illumine us and therefore bring healing and wellbeing. Lacking this concept or awareness of our own core – or lacking any trust in what is, after all, our own life process, we do not trust Life to deal well with us if we let go and allow things to happen from within and in the world. See letting things happen; Life’s Little Secrets.

Boss developed a philosophy or view of life out of what he observed in people and their dreams. “We are not individuals locked up inside our bodies,” he said. “We live in a shared world, and we illuminate each other. Human existence is shared existence.” What we experience and block, or what we shine out from our Dasein – Core, flows out into other people’s life experience. We are always illuminating or shining out into other people’s life and the world in one way or another. He was certain that this also determines what flows back into our own experience, and what we confront in events and people. If our condition is one of inner deadness, anger or maliciousness, then we will meet those things at every turn. If you are shining out good will, creativity and wellbeing, then those are the things you will find. In either case, those are the ways you will see the world, convinced of the truth of the world’s awful or wonderful condition.

Through his years of observation of his clients dreams, Boss also recognised that some dreams can be predictive or telepathic. In his book Analysis of Dreams, Boss devoted a chapter to these types of dreams. He gives the example of a trainee who fell ill one night with pneumonia and dreamt that he was asking his mother, who was beside him, to put her cool hands on his head. His mother, who lived over 500 miles away, phoned him the next day, something it was difficult for her to do as it was costly. She had dreamt her son was ill in bed and was entreating her to cool him. The dream worried her so much she had made the call to find out if his illness was serious.

Three years later he had an accident and broke one of his legs. Despite sending no news to his mother she phoned the next day because she had seen him in a hospital bed in a dream. Those were the only two calls she made to him because she could not afford the cost except in emergencies.

From these and other experiences Boss arrived at the conclusion that not everything must enter the dreamer from outside. Many things arise within that have never in any way been met externally. See: Answer to Criticisms.

See: Introduction to Dream Watching; Individuation.

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