The Blind Sea – A Short Film About Sea Swimming, Psychoanalysis and Ambivalence


This essay by psychoanalytic psychotherapist David Smith is adapted from a longer piece that appeared in Vestigia, Volume 3, Issue I in December 2021, reviewing the book Healing, Rebirth and the Work of Michael Eigen: Collected Essays by a Pioneer in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2021). David was my therapist for two years, during the pandemic. I found the writing of this piece not only to be poetic and cinematic, but to capture and clarify a foundational dynamic in psychoanalysis that is so often lost in therapy culture and ‘critical’ theories that reify identity, difference and closure. One afternoon, when things were beginning to return to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, some friends and I went out to film the activities of the local sea swimming community in Bangor, County Down, inspired by David’s words.

During the pandemic, many people in Ireland – and elsewhere – took to wild swimming. 

Struggling to cope with the virus and its overwhelming waves, so many people seem to have found themselves instinctively, symptomatically, taking to what Yeats describes as the ‘waters and the wild’, as refuge from a world that is ‘full of troubles/…..anxious in its sleep’, and ‘more full of weeping than you can understand’. 

The psychoanalyst Michael Eigen spoke of the whole world crying a collective ‘cry of bafflement and bewilderment at the pain of life’. This phenomenon can be thought about in many different ways, on both conscious and unconscious levels, including in terms of the straightforward physical and mental health benefits. But one is left wondering about what might be going on at a deeper level there, and whether this might involve an instinctive return to the waters of the womb, and an attempt at some sort of cleansing, healing, and rebirth – collectively as well as individually. 

At a time of loss and separation, in the face of awful anxiety, deep fears, and ongoing uncertainty as to when and whether the tide would turn, it seemed that many intuited the importance of making contact with the depths, in a way that resonates with Eigen’s thinking. 

There was a powerful pull towards what T.S. Eliot describes as, ‘The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters/Of the petrel and the porpoise’, perhaps reflecting a certain faith in Heaney’s encouragement to all humanity to ‘hope for a great sea-change’, and to ‘believe that a further shore is reachable’. 

Heaney’s description of ‘The utter, self-revealing/Double-take of feeling’ captures the sharply enlivening impact of the perennially cold waters of the Irish Sea, which often induces cries and screams from those who enter it, calling to mind Heaney’s sense that, somewhere, ‘someone is hearing/The outcry and the birth-cry/Of new life at its term’. 

He says that we ‘swim in everything-nothingness. We swim in seas of pain.’ He recounts a dream in which he found himself trying to teach an underwater patient how to swim, and asserts the importance of finding ‘a way to swim in the emptiness’. 

Swimming is a metaphor which Eigen returns to again and again in his writing. Psychologist Sean Harrell describes how, looking for ‘a safe ship amidst a sea of psychosis…..looking for a ship safely above the waves’, he found, instead, in Eigen, ‘someone signalling me to dip into the water…’. And, on a bodily level, Eigen describes the shifting of focus from the surface, via a ‘dip into deep, interoceptive, quasi-sensory streams’, as a way of affecting our sense of aliveness – of feeling the materiality of our world. 

Eigen encourages us to take a deep dive into life and the unknown, suggesting that better than attempting to transcend the painful place in which we inevitably find ourselves at different points in life, it is better to ‘dive into it, be with it, work with it’. 

Psychoanalyst Neetu Sarin notes that one way in which therapy, for Eigen, can be helpful is in providing a space in which it is possible to take ‘a dip into the original madness in manageable doses’. And though we have to live, in therapy as in life, with the inevitable limits to what we can ever express, know, understand, or bear of human experience, it is a swimming analogy which Eigen uses to underscore the importance, in making contact with what is real inside of us, of exploring aspects of that experience: ‘It is like swimming in the ocean. We can never take in the whole ocean all at once. But we do swim in part of it and the water we swim in, while not the whole ocean, is real water’. Our part of the ocean – our unconscious mind – is our own, but it is also the real external world in which others are swimming too.

The impulse to swim, to escape through swimming, might be a symptom of our anxieties in a world ‘full of troubles’ – a desire to avoid them – but it also reminds us of our world and its materiality. An instinctive return to the waters may be a universal impulse to engage with and perhaps eventually adapt the material conditions that surround our bodies – temporarily in swimming but elsewhere – to reach ‘a further shore’.

From the waters of the womb, through the first voyage through the birth canal, life is characterised by the ebb and flow of psychic energy, feelings, thoughts, and memories. Psychoanalysis is irredeemably and wonderfully pluralistic; it has to be, as psychoanalysis is about opening up, extending and adding to the mystery, complexity, and challenge of universal human experience, rather than any reductionistic narrowing down of meaning and perspective – a celebration of the drunkenness of things being various. 

Words – David Smith (edited by Alfie Bown and Helen Rollins)

Narration – Peter Rollins

Cinematography – Aidan Gault

Focus – Michael Boyle

Editing – Will Murray Brown

Colour Grade – Mal Campbell

Sound Design – Adam Rensch

Music – Minco Eggersman

Titles – Polytechnic

Direction / Production – Helen Rollins

Special Thanks – Melanie Clark Pullen.