Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Does God play dice?

One of the questions that my resent heart problems raised for me was “Why?” I protested that I had kept all the rules regarding my health my health and still ended up 24 hours from death. This struck me as unfair and I quoted the aphorism “If this is how you treat your friends, God, small wonder you have so few.” Now there are several difficulties with this proposition not the least the assumption that there is a God who is in control of Everything all the time. I struggle to keep in touch with all the elements of my life. (I suppose God might also set up Divine Direct Debits to ensure that some things happen automatically.Thus leaving Him time to think about Everything Else.) So, we opt for a God who actively manages the Universe. Presumably He has some kind of guiding principle. X number of Males. Y number of Females. A number of Births to B number of Deaths. F number of hurricanes to G number of droughts. I suppose it could work. But how would He make these decisions? And what about the personal impact of these actions? If my heart problems were part of a Grand Design, then what purpose do they serve? I was already healthy. I can only be so healthy. Why was I allowed to survive when each day at Papworth, lots of other people were dying. Does God favour Quakers? Or dislike Muslims? Am I living on borrowed time? God has privately decided to give me five more years then kill me offcompletley? (Mmmm. Not a comfortable thought!)


Yet the idea persists that we live in a moral universe governed by a Divine Super Ego. We innately object to things that seem unfair. The cry of the disgruntled child is “It’s not fair!” And they are right. Life is fundamentally unfair. So what? But like the smile of the Cheshire cat, the ideas persists that the Universe should be fair.9172115

Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Adding insult to injury

A friend called round recently and we were talking about my experience of life in hospital- which was not enjoyable. It was not enjoyable in ways that had nothing to do with the reasons for my admission. (I’ve touched on these in my last two blogs.) My friend commented on the insult of surgery / admission / trauma. I was intrigued. I would  have expected to hear about an “assault”. Not an insult. But It’s a great description. I discover that I’m furious that this has happened to me. I paid my dues. Kept fit. Went to the gym. Managed my cholesterol levels. Kept (more or les) to recommend alcohol limits. I’ve never smoked. I’ve nearly killed myself cycling. I take two energetic spaniels for an hour a day walk. I work as  a psychotherapist. Have been in my own therapy and analysis.I attend a Quaker meeting most weeks and spend a meditative hour there. I am happily married with a great group of friends. What more am I supposed to do to keep the Universe happy? And how does said Universe repay me? It nearly kills me by giving me a major heart valve that is quietly leaking and will erupt imminently resulting in my sudden and inevitable death age 62. Where’s the justice in that? What kind of universe treats people like this? (For “Universe” add  whatever word  that fits your belief system.) I want to say to the Universe “You’re having a fucking laugh. What kind of fool do you take me for if you expect me to have any confidence in you in the future?” (Or as someone else tartly observed to God “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”)

That’s my sticking point. Do I choose to believe in the Christian God of my youth? Do I say with Job “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Do I retreat to a cynical nihilism? I have no idea.  The most helpful comment I heard on this was from a Chaplain at Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital. When asked “Why has this happened?” he would reply. “I don’t know. Perhaps the only reason is that there is no reason.” That works for me. There is no overarching meaning to my heart problems. I’m lucky. I survived and, all being well, shall continue to thrive and enjoy my life. I’d like to think that I shall become a slightly better therapist. Be able to be a liltle more empathic at times. Beyond that modest aim,I have no master plan. Except to avoid hospitals like the plague.Add-Insult-To-injury-

Reflective Practice, The Inner World, The unconscious

Home Comforts

I’ve taught Harlow’s monkey experiment numerous times. Explained the theory and its links to Bowlby’s work on Attachment. But it s until this recent stay in hospital that I realised how profoundly I had not understood it. I think whoever made the hospital bed deserves a design award. It is a marvel. It goes up, down and can be altered to an almost infinite number of gradations. It is the most uncomfortable piece of equipment I have ever slept on. No matter at what angle one puts it, sleep is impossible. Add to this several hospital pillows and the experience is complete. For whatever areas of discomfort the mattresses misses, the pillows find out.

This is more that just about discomfort. I imagine it is hard to design a mattress and pillows that suit all tastes- although good hotels manage it pretty well. What the hospital bed serves to do is to remind you that you, the patient, make no impression on the system. In no way do we leave our mark. I slept badly every night of my stay, being awake from one in the morning onwards. I spent many hours in a twilight zone in my chair, propped against one of the sides of my armchair. I’d eventually doze off at about five, full of pain killers only to be woken by a nurse “asking” if she could weigh me. Or take my bloods. Or checking if I’d opened my bowels yet. Or had I peed enough during the night. (No wonder sleep deprivation is such an efficient method of torture!)

Usually I slept on my back. There wasn’t an alternative position. But one night I tried to sleep my side, curled up in a foetal position. I failed. I couldn’t find a way to do it. That was my moment of Revelation about Comfort. We need to be able to be comfortable, It tells us that we matter. That it is important at so many levels that we feel comforted. Sadly the NHS has yet to take on this message.

Home Comforts

Reflective Practice, The Inner World, Ways of Being

High and low

I’ve just come out of hospital, following emergency heart surgery to prevent my aorta from rupturing. Had it done so, I would not be sitting writing a blog. My life would have ended about a fortnight ago. and many things would be different. Thankfully, however, everything is well and I’m having to slow down a bit-which is never something I do well.(It was only the awareness of how at risk I had become that kept me in hospital as long as the ten days of my stay. My last surgical encounter saw me taking my own discharge after four days. This time I tried hard to be sensible and patient.

Given an event like this one the big questions come. Why me? (Why not me?) What would have happened if X,Y, or Z had been different? Do I now have a responsibility to change my life? To try to be a different person? (Notions of Redemption and second chances.) Big events do prompt big questions. I have no idea, yet, what impact this crisis will have on me. At the moment I feel a little fraudulent. I had a narrow escape. Fine. But so what? How long do I go around singing Hallelujah’s in my head? I have things to do.

Alongside al the fanfare of emergency surgery etc another small drama gets played out .It is my bowels. Everyday, several times a day, I am asked if I have opened my bowels. After a week of constipation I was given a couple of suppositories which meant I got a star for achievement. (All the nurses have what look like phones on which they record their patient’s data. It was disconcerting to be shown thumb nail images of faeces and asked to point to the picture that most clearly resembled my recent achievement.)

It was this juxtaposition of High and Low; shit and stars that summed up my experience and put me in my place.Yes, i have lots of big thoughts about Meaning and Purpose. But also a reminder that the shitty stuff is as important.
lower than the angels

Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Forbidden fruit

One of my former students emailed recently telling me that his young son had asked “Daddy. What would have happened if Adam hadn’t eaten the apple?” I’m still waiting to hear what my student said but it has been nagging at me all day. The classic story is Garden of Eden; Forbidden Fruit; Fall; Exile; Christmas; Easter; Second Coming. That’s the standard Nine Lessons and Carols version.Several things intrigue me here. What was the tree’s purpose? Presumably God didn’t need it-being all-knowing etc. Adam and Eve didn’t need it because they had no idea of Good and Evil-yet. And the Genesis  version speaks of two trees. The tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So in this version Life is not directly connected with Knowledge. How, then, were Adam and Eve supposed to live? Can one live without knowledge? What would an unknowing person look like? And of what value might their choices be? If I never hate, what value does my love have? If I can only do “Right” how do I know the Right from the wrong? Or, more importantly, how I know my Right from my Wrong? I think it is wrong to behead someone. I think Rape is wrong. I think these things because I have a particular moral code drawn from all manner of sources, not the least of which is my awareness of my shadow side.

I wonder what God was thinking all this time? (If He knew? Jung’s book on Job has an interesting take on this question. He suggests that Satan represented all the bits of God that He couldn’t manage. So his banishment was inevitable. God had to do something with His own Shadow. The book is “Answer to Job”. It makes fascinating reading.) Was God being a good parent and protecting Adam and Eve from too much pressure in the same way that we worry about what children might be accessing on the Web? Or was He being very controlling, choosing to keep all knowledge to himself for fear that He be dethroned? (Rather like any despot throughout history who has to keep knowledge and power in their own hands?)

As a counsellor I am aware of the fantasy that I have all Knowledge. That I have a magic wand which, if I used it, would instantly heal my patient. I have no such wand-thankfully. I have to walk the path with my patient trying to shed some light en route. What Knowledge I have I share-although I do it judiciously. As Eliot observed “Humankind cannot bear over much reality.” Which is not to say that humankind cannot bear any reality…



Counselling, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Who’s God?

This blog came out of a conversation on Linked-In (as many of my conversations seem to these days.It is a fascinating place to hang out with like-minded people.) I mentioned that I found many parallels between psychotherapy and religion. I was invited to take this further. This blog is a partial answer to that invitation.The precise roots of the word “Religion” are contested-which sets the tone for all subsequent matters dealing with religion! One sense is that religion is concerned with the respect for what is sacred. Another element is that religion binds fast. I don’t see too much there that puts it at odds with psychotherapy whose roots are in the healing of the soul or mind.

Religion and psychotherapy both reverence the sacred-although religion wants to copyright this experience. (So, mind you, can psychotherapy!) But at best both disciplines value the sacred. I certainly know the experience of standing on Holy ground whether I am sitting with a patient who is exploring something delicate and precious to them.Or if I am standing in a cathedral or simply walking in the woods.There is that sense of awe that leaves me wanting to hold my breath.

Equally both religion and psychotherapy can bind fast in a destructive way. Our insurance policies still have a clause that calls something an act of God. Usually something destructive that nobody foresaw or understood. Change” an act of God” for “the unconscious” and I doubt the insurance companies would quibble. We can attribute all manner of ills to the unconscious and leave our patents with nowhere to go because, like God, we impute the presence of unconscious processes from what we see and hear from our patients. (I would be hard put to point to the location of the unconscious.. But no more could I point to the location of God. Both are acts of faith And both are ways of talking about processes we don’t fully understand but which we feel need some kind of explanation. Both concepts can be binding in a punitive way. We  can bind with ideas of Sin. We bind with ideas of the unconscious Both can be used to control others.

Equally, both can be used to bind in a healing fashion . We speak of binding a wound to stop infection and promote healing. Religion and therapy can also work this way.

I have encountered therapists who seems bent of punishing their patients and colleagues for unknown unconscious issues that are inhibiting their growth. I have met priests and pastors who castigate their congregation for their sins-known and unknown. (It is fascinating to see how often the difficulties both therapist and priest impute to their flocks resemble their own difficulties!)

So, to link to the book cover. I think Blazer has a  fair point. Psychiatry-and its children-can lose their souls. And religion all too often loses its mind.51JVVTQFA3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Reflective Practice, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Who’s burning?

I was listening to a programme on the radio recently. A fireman was describing the management of a major fire that took a week to bring under control .He commented that there was nothing one could do immediately except to keep on working towards the centre of the blaze. When they got this far, they could “solve” the source of the problem which in this case was thought to be arson .Someone had set a blaze around a large number of  gas cylinders. The individual responsible was never found.

I began to think if this was a good analogy for some  our political fires. China, Iran ,Iraq, Korea, Syria, Libya, Sudan to name a few. Then add ISIS, Al Qaida, Boko Haram the Muslim Brotherhood and any other terrorist / freedom fighters groups throughout history. All have lit fires that have caused havoc. Used up resources. Put innocent people at risk.  Killed the firefighters. Any fire can be managed in some way. It is either extinguished or contained until it burns itself out. Either needs a good deal of skill,patience and the right equipment. Sometimes the cause is known. Sometimes, in the case of arson, the perpetrator is never known. All that remains is the evidence of their work.

There are links between childhood sexual abuse and arson. (Although to state the obvious, not all arsonists have been sexually abused and not all those who have been abused become arsonists.) But there is a connection. The raging fire outside reflecting the blazing anger inside.In clinical work it can take a long time to get to the blazing  fire at the heart of some patients. One spends a lot of time and energy damping down the peripheral rage in order to get to the core blaze. (Which is where places  like Broadmoor do such brilliant work .They take the time to get to the core of the conflagration. An average stay is six years during which time a great deal of firefighting goes on until the central fire is extinguished.)

Groups like Al Qaida, the IRA, Islamic State and all the similar groups around the world seem to be on fire. They demand to be  heard. They demand attention. Regardless of what damage they cause to gat this attention. Governments, individuals, communities spend a great deal of time, money, energy and resources trying to either extinguish the blaze or contain it in some way. Sometimes, like arson, the perpetrator is known. Sometimes not.

Whenever I hear of the latest bombing, explosion beheading etc I wonder at the rage being expressed .Why are these people so angry? What has happened to leave them feeling so disenfranchised? Psychohistorians suggest that Hitler hated his father but could never allow himself to know this. His mother was his true love. Here, it is suggested, was the genesis of his pathology. His love of the motherland was both a projection of his love for his mother and of his hatred of his father. To exalt the mother was to simultaneously denigrate the father.

It would make a fascinating piece of work to do a similar analysis of some of our contemporary Hitlers .What unconscious conflicts are being acted out? And,who lit the fuse that caused the explosion? ( The Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” deals with how it might work if one could foresee a crime before it is committed. If we had foreseen what hitler would set in motion, what might we have done? How many fires might have been stopped if we could genetically screen potential arsonists-both on a local scale and a global one?)

Or as Henry V cries “Oh God, that one might read the book of fate. And see the revolution of the times…”