Hesitation And Slowness: Gateway To Psyche’s Depth

Stanton Marlan
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts

He who hesitates is lost, says an old adage, and such conventional wisdom speaks a truth. There are moments when spontaneous action and quick directness win the day. A moment’s hesitation and all is lost. But there are other moments when quickness betrays psyche, when its straight-arrow directness bypasses opportunity – and it is in this absence that psyche resides. Hesitation follows a circuitous, non-Euclidean path; it follows the curve of psyche into empty spaces, into a nothingness where the alterity of the unconscious shows itself and contours are revealed that the direct path ignores or covers over. For the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida, this “consciousness of nothing, upon which all consciousness of something enriches itself, takes on meaning and shape. And upon whose basis all speech can be brought forth.”1

This recognition is as true for analysis as it is for philosophy. In the context of this reflection, I imagine hesitation as being a fecund opening, a gateway to the unconscious and to the nothingness of which Derrida speaks. It is a nothingness that enriches both the dialectical process of analysis and our theoretical speculation. In this context, hesitation is also a deepening of interiority and psychological space – which, for James Hillman, increases through slowness. For Hillman, “This increased interiority means that each new … inspiration, each hot idea … will first be drawn through the labyrinthine ways of the soul, which wind it and slow it and nourish it from many sides. …”2 In accord with the alchemists, Hillman refers to “patience as a first quality of soul.”3

The longer I reflect upon and practice analysis, the more it impresses me that hesitation and slowness are a way to psyche’s depth. The word hesitation generally means to be slow to speak, decide, or act; to hold back, pause, or waver; to vacillate because of doubt or uncertainty about what to do or say. Over the years my uncertainty has continued to deepen, and with it my sense of curiosity and wonder about analysis. Hesitation can, of course, have many negative meanings; it can refer to in-action such as a fear of beginnings or an obsessional inhibition. As a complex indicator, it points to dynamic conflict and at times to a variety of pathological states. But, at its best, it can show itself in a more conscious/organic reserve of judgment. This places conscious intention in suspension and opens a space for deliberation, repetition, and slow circumambulation. Both Freud and Jung spoke of this reserve. Freud wrote about an “evenly-suspended attention.”4 His advice to his colleagues was to “withhold all conscious influences … [to] simply listen.”5 In short, Freud’s hesitancy led to an abstinence designed to free the analyst and patient, to respect the other’s autonomy, and to create an empty space, a nothingness into which his analysands’ projections could unfold.

Likewise, Jung advised holding in check all “authority and desire to influence”6 in the name of not doing violence to his patients. While Jung ultimately developed his own dialectical approach, he, like Freud, valued a conscious reserve in his engagement with his analysands. In the work of analysis, I too feel the importance of these gestures of hesitancy and the need to slow down the psychological process, to hear images again and again, and to return to beginnings.

It is strange to be describing these reflections to colleagues since, in one form or another, I believe we all know and practice in this spirit of hesitation. We have learned it from the very beginning of analytic training, and we teach it to our candidates. Yet I am hesitant to take it for granted. It is a way of being that develops and becomes personalized and assimilated over long years of analytic practice, encounters with psychic reality, and the gravitas of sitting with patients and/or with ideas. For myself, I know I am often still in danger of using shorthand concepts to replace the slow struggle with new understanding. And in working with training candidates in supervision and control analysis, I have often found the need to slow things down, to help them to sit with material, to support its unfolding, and to resist the pressure for quick answers, whether motivated by transference demands or by inner compulsions. In Alchemical Studies Jung states that:

deeper insight into the problems of psychic development soon teaches us how much better it is to reserve judgment instead of prematurely announcing to all and sundry what’s what. Of course we all have an understandable desire for crystal clarity, but we are apt to forget that in psychic matters we are dealing with a process of experience, that is, with transformations which should never be given hard and fast names if their living movement is not to petrify into something static.7

This reserve of judgment is in part a response to an encounter with an Other, both inner and outer. When this Other is respectfully encountered, it gives us pause. It interrupts our own narrative demand for meaning and solutions, sets us back and opens the participants for an engagement with psyche – and it requires a relativization of the ego. This sets the stage for a complex dialectical process difficult to describe, and which varies from patient to patient, analyst to analyst.

The living movement Jung speaks about requires psychic slowness, particularly in the midst of the considerable pressure of a culture that thrives on speed and productivity. Perhaps it is already a cliché to note how medical and psychological treatment has become infected by the rapid growth of technology, producing in its wake an industrialization of psychic reality. Outside the sacred precincts of the analytic consulting room, the press for quicker treatment, drug therapies, and managed care are marks of our time. As analysts, many of us differentiate our practices from these trends. But I believe that the collective demands of our culture have unconsciously slipped into our consulting rooms, and the psyche of both patients and analysts have been infected by what Carl Honoré has called the “cult of speed.”8 Honoré quotes British psychologist Guy Claxton who states: “We have developed an inner psychology of speed, of saving time and maximizing efficiency. …”9 In his book, In Praise of Slowness, Honoré describes his own life as having “turned into an exercise in hurry” and notes that American physician Larry Dossey “coined the term ‘time-sickness’ to describe the obsessive belief that ‘time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must peddle faster and faster to keep up.’”10

Many years ago, a young Italian man entering analysis complained about his “backward” immigrant parents. They were an old-world Italian family who had a vineyard and grew grapes in their backyard in a contemporary middle class neighborhood. They embarrassed my patient and he wanted to distance himself, to fit in and adapt to the modern world. He had a dream about driving a super-vehicle at over 200 miles per hour. It was three feet off the ground and everything around him was a blur. The vehicle was called “The Spirit of America.” Driven by anxiety and his wish to distance from his family and from their old-world values and attitudes, which he saw as out of step with the times, he experienced life as flying by. There was never enough time to accomplish what he wanted to do, and he had little gratification in his accomplishments. One might imagine his dream as mirroring the quality of his ungrounded drive and his inability to focus and see things clearly.

The particular quality of manic flight exhibited by this patient can be understood through his personal psychological history, but it also reflects a continuing movement in the cultural and archetypal psyche. Such a patient cannot be helped by any analysis that is itself infected by hurry. Jung was already aware of this trend in the 1960’s. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he writes about “our uprootedness, which has given rise to the ‘discontents’ of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future … than in the present. …”11 The price paid for “new methods or gadgets … are deceptive sweetenings of existence … ,”12 which “by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.”13 He gives the example of “speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time then ever before. Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est – all haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say.”14

Likewise, the alchemical text The Ordinal of Alchemy notes: “The Devil will do his utmost to frustrate your search by one or the other of three stumbling blocks, namely, haste, despair, or deception …”15 It goes on: “For he who is in a hurry will complete his work neither in a month, nor yet in a year; in this Art it will always be true that the man who is in a hurry will never be without matter of complaint.”16 If all haste is of the devil, then it is surely the case in analysis, which begins with hesitation and pauses, silences that slow, and a holding back which allows psyche’s rhythms to come to the fore.

I believe that analysis requires the capacity to endure what Goethe called “infinite nature” or what the painter Ad Reinhardt referred to as “infinite duration.” In the arts and philosophy, as in analysis, hesitation and slowness play a prominent role. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, for instance, asked that his thought – and in principle, all thought – be spared the “disaster of an immediate presentation,”17 and the projective poet Charles Olsen was once described as “one man who would never be rushed.”18 Hesitation and slowness would seem to require what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “a humiliation or wounding of knowledge belonging to immediate consciousness.” 19 For Ricoeur, as for Jung, this dispossession of the ego requires a shift in “the origin of meaning to another center which is no longer the immediate subject of reflection.”20 One might imagine in Jungian terms that the origin of meaning is ultimately shifted to a transpersonal center, an Other-than-the-ego. The philosopher Immanuel Levinas amplified this sense of Otherness by noting that the “other is not given as a matter for thought or reflection. …”21 The other is “not a phenomenon but an enigma, something ultimately refractory to intentionality and opaque to the understanding.”22 Levinas’ work provides perhaps the most radical ethical expression of the concern shared by Freud and Jung not to violate the other person. It is an important reminder for analysts, since it is so easy to become unconscious of the enigma of otherness with our patients as we fall into fast and stereotypical understandings and the flattening down of a primary encounter, and as we begin to think about them in the hackneyed language of analytic shorthand. Hesitation and slowness – and analytic experience – put us at the threshold of a remedy for this kind of unconsciousness. As analysts, hesitation teaches us that we must learn to wait for psyche, to appreciate the slowness of old man Saturn the Senex, the eternal play of the child, the anima’s mooded ness, the slowness of gestation and digestion, the organic temporality of the body, the kairos of the moment, and the geological time of the Self. Up against these clinical realities, the ego’s narratives are interrupted and set back. We are forced to wait, to find the indirect way, to resist the temptation of easy technique or quick response. I have always imagined analysis as a bulwark against the black tide of technology, but it is also true that such bulwarks set the stage for an enantiodromia. Technology should not be simply disregarded and with it the desire for quickness of insight, to-the-point commentary, and, at times, those spontaneous intuitions that turn out to be more rooted in the objective psyche than in unreflected countertransferences.

hesitationandslowness_1 Ultimately, the quality of analysis cannot be identified by its literal pauses and temporal hiatus but in a certain richness of engagement. Alongside of omnus festinatio ex parte diaboli est (all haste is of the Devil), it is fitting to recognize the value in the Renaissance maxim taken over by the alchemists, Festina Lente, often translated as “make haste slowly.” This adds complexity to the notion of hesitation, which cannot be identified properly in the simple dichotomy of fast and slow. It rather has to do with the kairos, the right time, and with moderatio, the right degree. The saying Festina Lente has been discussed by Erasmus, who explains the importance of “the right timing and the right degree, governed alike by vigilance and patience, so that nothing regrettable is done through haste, and nothing left undone through sloth. …”23 (Fig. 1) At times the adage has been given visual representation, for example, on a coin issued by Titus Vespasianus.”24 On the back side of this coin was an anchor, the central shaft of which had a dolphin coiled around it. Erasmus noted that:

the coin itself is a circle and stands for eternity, [which] (has neither beginning nor end), the anchor (holds back and ties down a ship) [and] stands for slowness, and the dolphin expresses speed (as the fastest and in its motions the most agile of living creatures).”25

The image is a complexio oppositorum and “belongs to a class of proverbs characterized by enantiosis, or the contrast of opposites.”26 Many images amplify this coincidence of opposites and alchemy is filled with expressions of this subtle attitude. The image of the crab and the butterfly is an example (Fig. 2). hesitationandslowness_2 I am particularly fond of another expression of this attitude: the well-known image of the Arabian alchemist Avicenna (980-1037 AD) pointing toward a chain that links an eagle to a toad while exclaiming: “The eagle flying through air and the toad crawling on the ground are the magistery.” 27 Fabricius suggests this image reflects “the central idea of Hermetic procedure: the conjunction of the opposites expressed in the alchemists’ arduous attempt to unite the eagle and the toad, spiritus and corpus, intellect and instinct, mind and matter.”28

hesitationandslowness_3 If this is so, for me it also reflects the spirit of Festina Lente (Fig. 3). I believe that it is in this spirit that we should understand hesitation – not as a one-sided opposition to quickness, but as a sign to express the irrepresentable quality of actions relegated by Matura, the wisdom that knows “when things are done neither prematurely nor too late, we call them ripe.”29 This spirit is a grace that beats at the heart of the archetype before it is torn asunder and that is available in a moment’s hesitation, intuition, or gesture of integrity. The poet Rumi describes such a moment in a line of a poem: “… who comes to the Spring thirsty and finds the moon reflected in it …”30 Here the demand of the “instinct” gives way to something more and newly discovered in the pool of psyche. While I’m not exactly sure what Rumi had in mind here, for me the beauty of the image captures a moment of grace and integrity at the heart of an undivided archetype. It is a moment at the crossroads of time, between heaven and earth, instinct and soul, another example of enantiosis, a subtle gesture between the so-called opposites.

This gesture of integrity was also well understood by the practical mind of the Chinese sages in the realm of action and is expressed in the concept wei wu wei. It is a saying often translated as doing-nondoing, and it too is a paradox of contrasting ideas and images. For the Chinese, it is a saying having to do with seamless action and is concerned with the unceasing flow of change. It points to a moment when effort and effortlessness are impossible to describe in any terms seen totally independent of one another. The idea is motivated by “a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment.”31 It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is an action that is spontaneous and effortless but “at the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity.”32

Chung Tzu refers to this way of being as “purposeless Wandering,” and I propose that we consider this notion alongside Freud’s “evenly suspended attention” and Jung’s “holding in check all desire to influence.” While the Taoist point of view might be imagined as a romantic enantiodromia to our highly technological culture, it may better be seen as another adage signifying a complex notion of hesitation, not unlike Festina Lente. Make haste slowly can now be linked to action- non-action, and in so doing we may be able to see the moon in Rumi’s spring, even in the face of instinctual demand. So here I will make haste toward my conclusion.

As we set out to examine our contemporary directions for theory and practice, I am hopeful that we can bring our analytic sensibilities to the work of reflection and that hesitation and slow deliberation can play a role in our considerations. Professional interests are often the site of our most passionate engagements and are subject to the same psychological complexities as all other human endeavors. As we strive to make our contributions, our efforts are embedded in our unconscious “instincts” and our desires – in our needs for recognition, power, self-expression, identity, and relationship to others, both inner and outer.

In addition to the complexes of our personal psychology, archetypal contents can press us toward speedy and premature clarity and ontological closure. Our theories often resemble the Gods and Goddesses in whose thrall we labor to work out our visions, and in whose service we become warriors for their truths. We become purveyors of particular points of view – classical, developmental, archetypal, modern, and postmodern. Our truths lie rooted in psyche or biology, in philosophy, physics, or poetry, or even in the deconstruction of any point of view. We cannot escape the Gods; they are necessary. They offer us sanctuary, not only in our inner but also in our outer worlds – our professional organizations, universities, consulting rooms and private studies.

Still, as analysts, we strive to free ourselves from the grip of such personal or archetypal daemons. When in their grip, our feeling function remains primitive. But hesitation may allow us to reserve judgment and to resist one-sided formulations. It may allow us to stand firm against the pressure for clear and distinct ideas that devitalize our work and foreclose an openness to psyche on the threshold of meaning and of that nothingness upon which psyche enriches itself. When that open space collapses, we fall into unconsciousness, our theories became stultified, and we lose something essentially human.

I’d like to end with a passage from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In his Letters to a Young Poet, he writes:

Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!33

To reclaim the art of analysis, analysts would do well to re-member our complexes, to re-call and to re-lease our gods and, in my mind, it doesn’t hurt to consider Rilke.


  • 1 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass), Chicago University Press, 1978, 8.
  • 2 James Hillman, “Peaks and Vales” in Puer Papers, Dallas, Spring Publications, 1979, 68.
  • 3 James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, New York, Harper and Row, 1975, 94.
  • 4 Sigmund Freud, “Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis,” The Collected Works, Vol XII. London, The Hogarth Press, 1958, 111.
  • 5 Sigmund Freud, “Recommendations to Physicians,” The Collected Works, Vol. XII, 112.
  • 6 C.G. Jung, “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, §2.
  • 7 C.G. Jung, “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon,” CW 13, §199.
  • 8 Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness, San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, 11.
  • 9 Honoré, In Praise of Slowness, 4.
  • 10 Honoré, In Praise of Slowness, 3.
  • 11 C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (ed. Aniela Jaffé), New York, Pantheon Books, 1961/73, 236.
  • 12 Jung, Memories, 236.
  • 13 Jung, Memories, 236.
  • 14 Jung, Memories, 236.
  • 15 Thomas Norton, “The Ordinal of Alchemy,” In: The Hermetic Museum, Vol. 2, London, John M. Watkins, 1678/1953, 22.
  • 16 Norton, “The Ordinal of Alchemy,” 23.
  • 17 Jacques Derrida, “Comment Donner Raison: How to Concede with Reasons,” A Review of Contemporary Criticism, Heidegger: Art of Politics, 1989, 19:3-4.
  • 18 Charles Boer, Charles Olsen in Connecticut, Chicago, The Swallow Press Inc., 1975, 11.
  • 19 Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (trans. Denis Savage), New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970, 377.
  • 20 Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 54.
  • 21 Simon Critchley, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 8.
  • 22 Critchley, “Introduction,” 8.
  • 23 Erasmus, The Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 33 (trans. Margaret Manon), Toronto: Phillips W.R.A.B Mynors, 1991, 3, Adage II i 1 (1001). I would like to acknowledge my colleague Maurice Krasnow for calling my attention to the MIA database, and for this internet reference from “Mnemosyne/The adage of Festina Lente” at www. mnemosyne.org/research/festina_lente/festina3
  • 24 Erasmus, Collected Works, Vol. 33, 10-14.
  • 25 Erasmus, Collected Works, Vol. 33, 10-14.
  • 26 Erasmus, Collected Works, Vol. 33, 10-14.
  • 27 Johannes Fabricius, Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, London: Diamond Books, 1976/1989, 55.
  • 28 Fabricius, Alchemy, 55.
  • 29 “Mnemosyne/The adage of Festina Lente” at www.mnemosyne.org/research/fes tina_lente/festina3
  • 30The Illuminated Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks), New York, Broadway Books, 1997, 10.
  • 31 Ted Hardash, “Taoism-The Wu-Wei Principle, Part 4,” at www.Jadedragon.com/ archis/june98/tao.html.
  • 32 Hardash, “Taoism,” at http://www.Jadedragon.com/archives/june98/tao.html.
  • 33 Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (trans. S. Mitchell), New York, Modern Library, 1984, 23-24 (Letter No. 3).


  • Figure 1. Emblem 174, Gabriele Simeoni, Imprese heroiche et morali, in: Paolo Giovio, Dialogi dell’imprese militari et amorose, Guillaume Rouville, Lyon, 1574.
  • Figure 2. Emblem 175, Gabriele Simeoni, Imprese heroiche et morali, in: Paolo Giovio, Dialogi dell’imprese militari et amorose, Guillaume Rouville, Lyon, 1574.
  • Figure 3. Avicenna. In: Michael Maier, Symbola aureae mensae, 1617, No. 82.