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

The Rose upon the Rood of Time or The God of Small Things

rose of timeW.B.Yeats wrote a poem “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” which has in it the lines

“Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,

I find under the boughs of love and hate,

In all poor foolish things that live a day,

Eternal beauty wandering on her way.”

What reminded me of this poem were my thoughts about leaving God. In my teens and twenties I was immersed in Charismatic Christianity. One of the many core ideas here was that one’s life was ruled by God. All that happened was either expressly willed by God or could be used by Him to shape one’s Christian life. This idea is epitomised in St.Paul’s teaching as, for example in the verse in Romans “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28) or as another translation puts it :”God works all things together for good for those who love Him.” It’s a comforting doctrine that no matter what may occur in my life, God can and will use it for my benefit. This doctrine neatly “solves” one aspect of the problem of Evil .Whilst God may not have explicitly  have caused an earthquake or a terrorist bomb or a car crash, He nonetheless will take these events and help us find some good in them. (Which is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough. It is an unsatisfactory theodicy.) Take away an all purposing God and what is one left with? For me, one is left with seeing eternal beauty in all poor foolish things that live a day. Or to use Arundhati Roy’s phrase, one is left with the God of Small Things.

I remember once talking to a chaplain at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. He was saying how many parents ask “Why did this happen?” in relation to a child who may have died. He said that he often replied that the meaning is that there is no meaning. I interpret this as a way of saying,”The only meaning in your child’s death is the meaning you are able to give it. That is the last gift you can give your child. To shape some meaning out of the loss.” I think this holds true for all loss. We have the power to give shape, form and meaning to the events and circumstances of our lives. We may choose to see events as being ordained by a deity even if we cannot understand why this should be the case. (“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”was Job’s response to his suffering). Or we find a more mundane way of giving meaning. We set up a charity; we run marathons; we train as counsellors; there are innumerable ways in which we can give meaning to Life. To find eternal beauty wandering on her way. This way of Being is both harder and easier than believing in an omnipotent divine Father. It means grappling with very hard, difficult questions that risk swamping us. These questions are all the harder because we are thrown back on our own resources .We can no longer say, “This is the will of God” and hope that somehow an answer will be forthcoming. We are left to ourselves and to find eternal beauty where we may. Whilst that is hard I still prefer it to an idea that a mystical being is somehow in charge of my destiny.



Breaking up with God- Life post divorce

breaking-up with God

This is the final piece of my blog that I have called “Falling out of love with God”. It’s an attempt to map out where I am now. I value  religious language. I think the “big” words like Life,Death, Salvation, Redemption, Forgiveness etc are hugely important. They express one attempt at giving meaning to our lives. I simply now don’t see them as connected to God. This makes my life both easier and more complicated. In my early days, if someone seemed to need to be “Saved” the answer was simple. “Receive Christ as your personal Saviour”. Simple. Deal done. Another soul in the Kingdom But as time went on, I began to look much more at the small print. Sure, the free gift of God is eternal salvation through Christ. But there where an awful lot of disclaimers. Penalty clauses. Variable interest rates. Conditions under which the contract could be terminated or rendered invalid. Suddenly this free gift became very troublesome. One was in a constant anxiety state. Like winning a few million on the lottery. Initially one’s reaction is “Hooray. All my troubles are now over.” Then come people who want some of my winnings. Do I want to give it to them? Do they deserve it? Then comes the question of what to do with this money. Should i spend it on “the holiday of a lifetime”? Should I invest it? Where? What about my tax code? Not to mention the assumption that I can now afford to buy every round at the pub! In some  ways I might have been happier not winning. But how can I walk away from a few million pounds in the bank?

Eventually my “salvation” left like this mythical lottery win. As an ordinary unsaved sinner, I could live as I wished. If I was feeling grumpy, I could swear at my wife .If I wanted to lie in on a Sunday morning, I could. I wasn’t expected at church. My dark thoughts were my business. If I was annoyed by someone I had no obligation to confess my sins to them. But now, I was under all manner of constraints. Do this! Don’t do that! Think this but not that! My super ego had a field day whilst my id cowered miserably under the blankets, terrified to come out.

These days I translate religious language into psychological terms. Salvation speaks of a wish to be whole .Forgiveness of a wish to forgive and be forgiven. Redemption as a chance to make reparation. I go to my local Quaker meeting on a Sunday morning .Not every Sunday but quite often. I am an Attender, not a Member. I looked at Membership but panicked. I didn’t want to have to be identified as belonging to yet another religious group. I don’t want to be classified as a miserable sinner since, mostly, I’m neither! It might be that Quakerism is the spiritual equivalent of the Cheshire cat’s smile. Eventually even that will fade. I don’t know. For now it suits me.

So, life after God? I look back at the good times of which there were many. Fun, laughter, pleasure and enjoyment. But also bullying, control, dishonesty, fear and anxiety. Eventually the negatives outweighed the positives. We still see each occasionally and will exchange pleasantries. But then we go our separate ways. And that suits me very well.

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

Breaking up with God- post cracks or God of the Gaps

breaking-up with God

“Behold I was shaped in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)

“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)

These two verses spell out my understanding of a biblical view of Man. That I was born a sinner, eternally separated from God and bound for Hell. My only hope was to accept Jesus as my personal saviour and to take “the free gift of God which is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). I never managed to understand myself as a fallen sinner. Nor anyone else. I saw people struggling with their inner demons, using whatever means they had to hand to cope. Sometimes drugs, alcohol, sex, fast cars, psychosis. Sometimes the struggle was worse than the illness and my patients would choose to go back to their old ways of coping. Or life became too much and their inner resources ran out and they became ill again. It was always a sad time when a patient who had managed for months or years to stay well was readmitted. Recovery is not an easy process and each breakdown left them a little more vulnerable next time. But I never conceived of them as sinners in need of a mythical salvation. Nor do I now working as a counsellor. I see people making unhelpful choices or behaving in ways that risk hurting those around them as well as themselves. My work is to try to think with my patients about their lives and those forces that shape them. They are hurt, foolish, misguided, struggling, angry, resentful, envious, loving, caring, giving. But not hell bound sinners in need of salvation.

I was talking with some friends the other evening and we got onto the question of Faith. (They remain committed evangelical Christians.) They reiterated the standard argument about Man being a fallen creature who is estranged from God and is unable to help himself. I was reminded of the story of the Fall. Of God’s answer in the death of himself in Jesus as our saviour and of the promise of Life Eternal. For some reason this annoyed me more than usual and I responded with a rather Anglo-Saxon comment. Afterwards I tried to think what it was about it that so annoyed me this time. It was no more that the ideas I had espoused for more than 30 years. I decided that what so annoys me about this story is that it demeans man. Over the years I have come to believe in Man. I value our struggles and difficulties; our joys and our triumphs. My professional career has been spent supporting Man. Helping my patients to find answers to their problems. (One of the moments I treasure was being invited to the wedding of two of my patients. They were making a huge claim to Life. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend but I wished them well.) To reduce all this to simply the behaviour of some hell bound sinner infuriates me.

I wanted to say that life without God is lonely. That I miss the relationship with Him. That I struggle to find purpose and meaning in my life. But I can’t. Life without God is so much easier in many ways. I can be true to myself. I no longer have to try to square theological circles. I don’t have to pretend that I believe when I don’t. It is a bit like a divorce when the leaving is simply an acknowledgement that the marriage ended years ago. After a while both parties are free to start again. Mourning the loss of what was good but able to start again. I don’t know if God misses me. I don’t know if God had any idea that I existed. But we are now both free to start new relationships. I wish God every success.


Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Breaking up with God- the cracks appear

breaking-up with God


I heard myself today saying out loud to someone “I don’t believe in God”. Nothing particularly odd in that remark. Many, many people say the same every day. But for me it was an important statement. An acknowledgement  of where I am today and have been for quite a long while. (I love the cartoon by the Naked Pastor at the head of this blog. It sums up my experience.)

Let me give some of my religious history. I’ll begin with St.Paul. In his letter to the church in Philippi he sets out his Jewish pedigree. “… if anyone else thinks he has reasons to have confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin,a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:5 NIV)

Let me add my own religious CV. Born and raised an Anglican. Baptised and Confirmed. “Saved” at a Billy Graham Rally. Destined for the Priesthood (C of E) Read Theology and English at college. Taught R.E. Eventually joined a fundamentalist christian community (Or commune. Or cult. Depending on your point of view.) Here we had all things in common and met for prayers twice daily. (Trying to chant metrical psalms at 6:30 in the morning is overrated as an activity!)

I can add to that list that I have preached, prayed,prophesied. Spoken in tongues,fasted and cast out demons. I’ve also struggled to strip down a car engine,  milk cows and plant potatoes. Quite impressive, I think. I can trump many of my christian friends with that list. All they do is go to church on a Sunday and, possibly, once mid-week. Milksop christianity!

For many years I was a true believer. Quiet times, prayer meetings, long Sunday services. Very little conversation with my inner self .This conversation began when I went into therapy and had a space in which to Think. I worked out how much my religious beliefs were a defence against anxiety. It didn’t matter what happened to me, I could trust that it was all in God’s plan for me. Many highly disturbed psychiatric patients prefer being in a locked ward. The boundaries are very firm and very clear. The  patient feels very contained. I look back on my experience of Christian fundamentalism as serving a similar  purpose. It gave me clear and firm boundaries. A sense of containment. (Prayer as an anti-psychotic?)

So, therapy. I began here to articulate my reservations about Christianity. Or the version of it I had encountered. Like so many before me, I struggled with  the reality of suffering. All the standard objections rang true. If God is Benevolent, why does he let some people have utterly miserable lives? If he is omnipotent, why does he not intervene more often? And if none of these attributes are true, what right does he have to call himself God?  There are  limits to how much one can change the established definition of a word. Surely the word “God” has to have some definable limits. (Although three years of theology at college taught me that, like Alice, “words mean what I want them to mean. So God is Wholly Other, Holy Other, Numinous, Ground and source of my Being, Beingfulness, Spirit, Energy, Divine Energy. the list is endless! But for now  I’ll assume that most people’s idea of God is roughly the one they see in the Bible.)

So, I began to ask questions about my own beliefs. The clincher was working in an acute psychiatric admission ward in South London. I met some lovely people (the staff were pretty good as well!) There were alcoholics, drug users, manic-depressives, schizophrenics etc. Standard fare for this kind of place. And I liked them-mostly! I looked at their histories and found nothing in my religious vocabulary that could mean anything to them. If Wendy was manic, she loved me, hated me, feared me, wanted to have sex with me-all within the space of a minute. If John had been drinking he could be violent, abusive, obnoxious. A real pain! But when Wendy was well, she was charming. When John was sober he was witty and fun. Both these two used their illness to defend against loss, sadness, anxiety, depression , fear. They needed a hug. A nurse who liked them and did not judge them. A ward they could come to for sanctuary. Good medication. (All of which we did our best to provide.) Jesus was not the Answer here. But if Jesus was not an answer here, where on earth or anywhere else could he be of use? Thus began the questions.




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

A sense of place


This piece came out of an assignment for  my creative writing class. I thought at the time that I would probably use it as a blog. And so I am using it, albeit in modified form. Our assignment was to choose a familiar route and describe it in such a way that it conveyed a sense of place. As I wrote, the parallels between my short journey to work and the work itself seemed to merge.

My route to work takes about five minutes at most.  I leave my 300-year-old cottage in Aylesbury’s Old Town and cross Castle Street to the Mound. That’s my first bit of history. There is no castle nor ever has been but a version of the name remains. Home represents a past that has been adapted to the present but which still influences how we live today.We have low ceilings and windy stairs both of which set limits on what we do with the house. In my clinical work I constantly meet with the ways in which my patients have adapted their present to their past. Their internal structures set limits on what they have been able to build emotionally and intellectually. From home – which is, as Winnicott points out where were we start from – I go across the road, past the next landmarks to the next stage of my journey.  I cross  what is  known locally as the Mound, an open space enjoyed by many. The drinkers with their cans, the teenagers “just chillin’ “, the couples all but making love in the summer, the drug addicts at the top corner who leave their gear in the bushes for the local wildlife to find. (We have some of the happiest foxes for miles.) It’s sometimes very hard to know where to look – or not!

Without making the story overly allegorical, there is a link here to my work. How do people use their open spaces? Can they relax with a book? Or sit on the grass chatting with friends? Or is there a need to blot out the present with drugs, sex or drink? Anything to numb the pain of Being. These more squalid  aspects are juxtaposed with an attractive border of a variety of flowers and shrubs. This again seems to mirror so much of what I see in my counselling and have seen over the years in my nursing. Something alive and thriving sitting next to something deathly and squalid.
My short walk continues along a cobbled path which if I’m cycling I fondly imagine is the Paris-Roubaix ride, famous for its cobbled sections (known as the Hell of the North and challenging to ride). It doesn’t take long working as a counsellor to find out how quickly smooth tarmac gives way to bumps, lumps and cobbles. As I continue I can see in front of me the nursery that began as a church. Childcare obviously pays better than God. Sometimes I see the children having their playtime, their noses pushed through the railings. (Another useful image for my work which so often moves through time. We begin with the remembered – or forgotten past – and on to childhood memories and recollections. Of parents who were sufficiently or insufficiently present or absent. Of being popular or unpopular at school.)
After the Hell of the North life gets easier. It’s tarmac all the way down to the main road. I turn left at the bottom past another terrace of new houses built, I guess, in the late 1990’s. I see today that one them has just been Let. (I hadn’t realised it was for Let in the first place.) I don’t much like these properties. They are soulless. “Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” I go left up the hill, passing a mixture of old and new Aylesbury. The first new development is a block of “Luxurious New One and Two Bedroom Apartments.” situated in what was an office block. I was amazed when the work began. I couldn’t see how this building could possibly house people. I still don’t. But they will sell quickly enough. As so often, I’m ambivalent about this development. I’m pleased that homes are being made available but wonder about the kind  of  life that they will engender. I doubt there is room for children in these flats. Having family and friends to stay in a one bedroom flat might prove a challenge. As so often the environment shapes much of the life that goes on in it.
I carry on up the hill to work, passing Morrison’s on my right with its very convenient car park. I always tell my patients to leave their cars here. (I hope they at least buy a can of beans.  Just as a token “Thank You”. Maybe I should offer the store a donation. But I doubt they need it.) As I go up, I pass our local OCD lady with her rituals. She takes a certain number of steps then stops. She crosses yellow lines carefully, not treading on them. She often spends time looking for her keys which she has dropped down a drain. Several times a week. (A generous friend once spent 20 minutes trying to retrieve her keys before realising that she had not lost them at all. This was part of her OCD. He didn’t volunteer again.)
I carry on the few hundred yards more, passing offices, one or two grand houses, solicitors, and an engineering company. Then I’m at work. I key in my passcode and go into the Quaker Meeting house where I have my counselling room, where I repeat emotionally the physical journey I’ve just made. What has changed in my patient’s world since we last met? What memories did our last session evoke? What new developments have received planing permission?Monk copying


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


I will begin with a quote from Tolkien’s essay “Tree and Leaf.”  He writes “Faerie contains many things besides elves, and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky: and the earth and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” I like that image of faerie containing just about anything and everything. It made me think of my counselling room and the work that happens there. Almost anything can be held in that room.The most joyous dream, the most frightening fantasy. And it can be thought about and explored with no fear of judgement or censure. which is what my faerie would be!

Then I came to the final words “… and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” I wondered about not including them in the quotation because they  seem to imply that the work of counselling is about enchantment. That my patients are under some kind  of spell when they see me and this spell leads them to say or do things they wouldn’t normally do. (Akin to a stage hypnotist.) There are times when I wish I could cast a spell and enable my patient to get to the core of their issues much more quickly. (Which was where CBT was born.)  Not to hurry them but to allow them to get to the core of their hurt. But an integral part of the work is that it takes time. A patient comes saying “I feel depressed.” I respond with some questions and then listen to their replies and comment on them. And so the process goes on. Sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years. But there is no enchantment.

Then I remembered Winnicott and his work on play.He talks of the space between the infant and the breast as a transitional space (see the picture on the right.) In this space Winnicott places play, dreaming, art, religious feeling and  a host of other transitional phenomena. To add another quotation to this piece I will again use Winnicott. Writing about play he says “Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist.Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.”

So we’re back to enchantment, since play is a kind of enchantment. The therapist’s task is to join in with the patient’s play and to seek a shared understanding of that play. So, I can quote Tolkien. I can keep my belief in Faerie as a repository for all things from dragons and elves to the seas, the sun and the moon. Which is just as well, since all those things inhabit my inner world.

transitional spaceimages

Ohm's law

Eros and Thanatos

I was chatting with a friend recently who is a Programmer. I asked if he  had been good at I.T. at school .”Not particularly, but I enjoyed physics. It helped me understand the world.” I replied that all I could remember of physics at school was my  headmaster explaining how simple  and important were Ohm’s law and Boyle’s law. He spent a good few lessons trying to demonstrate how to remember these laws. It failed to settle in my adolescent mind. I still have no idea what they are about or why they matter. I found Shakespeare’s star cross’d lovers much more interesting .What was to not understand about Romeo and Juliet? Their dilemma seemed far more important than equations about volts, power and resistance.

Our conversation continued and I said much that I have already said, adding that that was probably why I became  nurse and a counsellor. That I could understand -to some measure- how people work. We laughed and carried on chatting.

But the conversation stayed with me. The two laws seem to be an attempt to describe how things work under certain circumstances or conditions. (Presumably they can also describe what might happen under adverse conditions and the consequences that might follow.) The parallels to the work of therapy are not hard to see. At its most basic, therapy can be seen as understanding how emotional energy flows in the psyche. To what does this energy attach itself and why?  How do I understand depression or anxiety when it becomes toxic? We all know the experience of mild depression or anxiety about something. But for many people it becomes overwhelming and crippling.A patient told me that they had been having panic attacks all day before coming to see me. (Fortunately they found the actual experience of seeing me less awful than they had feared!) This is a long way from exam nerves or worry about money.

One way of thinking about my work as a therapist is to see the patterns of energy attachment in my patients.Where does a person’s energy or drive take them? Is it attracted to Eros (Freud’s Life Instinct) or to Thanatos (Freud’s Death Instinct). Why does their energy attach to one direction and not another? What might  happen if the energy directed into Thanatos is able to be channelled into Eros?  This is where we leave the laws of physics and move to the realm of the unconscious. Instead of neat physical laws we work with dreams, with slips of the tongue, with how we encounter our patients and so on.  It is an imprecise science but, as Einstein puts it,”To raise  new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle..” this “… requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

I think Freud and Einstein would  have worked well together.Einstein’s view of science will be echoed my many a counsellor and therapist who would see themselves engaged in the same task.