Balaam and the Ass: A Metaphor for Psychotherapy

by James Leffert Thursday, December 16, 2010

James Leffert

James Leffert is a Licensed Psychologist with offices in Framingham and Cambridge Massachusetts. View his HelpPro profile here.

People looking for a psychotherapist often ask me about my philosophy or theoretical orientation. Typically, a few buzzwords roll off my tongue: "cognitive-behavioral", "developmental", "systems orientation". However, these words don’t convey what really happens when I collaborate with a client.

Let me share a story with you. Sometimes, metaphors speak more loudly than technical terms or psychological concepts.

The Story of Balaam and the Ass

The story of Balaam and the Ass is an ancient story from the Biblical book of Numbers. The main character is a wizard named Balaam who was known far and wide for his expertise. The king of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam knows he’s not supposed to curse the Israelites but because the king promises to pay him well and perhaps also because Balaam likes playing an important role in world affairs, he agrees to do this. He saddles up his ass and sets out to the place where he can look down upon the Israelites and curse them.

Balaam is riding along the road when all of a sudden the ass swerves off the road into a field. Balaam takes up his whip and starts to beat her to get her back on the road. They continue on as the road travels along a narrow space between two high walls, and the ass swerves again, this time over to the wall so that Balaam’s foot is squeezed against the wall. Again, Balaam beats her. Finally, where the area between the two walls is so narrow that there is no room to swerve, the ass goes no further, but simply comes to a complete stop and lies down on the ground. 

At this point, Balaam is furious and beats the ass with a stick. Suddenly, however, a miracle occurs—the ass is given the gift of speech. As if there is nothing at all unusual about it, the ass opens her mouth and says to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?...Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And Balaam answers, “No.” At this point, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees that an angel is standing in the way, blocking their path, with a drawn sword in his hand.

Making Sense of the Metaphor

What does this story have to do with psychotherapy? The way I see it, we all pursue various objectives in life. Often, we try to move in a certain direction but like Balaam, we keep running into obstacles. We try different approaches, sometimes on our own, other times at the urging of others, but we don’t make progress. Often, this is what prompts people to seek help from a psychotherapist. At this point, we experience distress and pain. Others may be getting mad at us and we may get fed up with ourselves, and we (along with others) start beating up on ourselves, getting frustrated and self-critical because of our inability to make improvements. This is like Balaam flogging the ass, which represents that part of himself that is trying to propel him forward to where he wants to go.

The psychotherapist’s job is to help the client (and others around him or her) to stop the flogging and open their eyes and discern the angel standing in front of the person, blocking his or her path.

The angel represents whatever hidden reasons are blocking the way.

Each of us has our own unique obstacle that the angel with the sword symbolizes. The point is that when we stop flogging ourselves (and, at times, stop letting others flog us) and look at our situation in a new way to discern what is actually standing in the way, we can then figure out a way forward. Sometimes it involves a change in ourselves, sometimes it involves locating a detour that enables us to take an end run around the obstacle, and sometimes it involves reassessing and modifying our objective.

This story helps me convey, through metaphor, my view of psychotherapy as a paradigm-shifting experience that helps us identify, make sense of, and eventually overcome obstacles in our lives. 

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