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


We went for a walk yesterday along the Thames path. l thoroughly enjoyed myself-to my surprise. It was hard work but good to have time to talk-albeit about nothing very profound. My wife has already done most of the seriously pretty bits of the walk and I’ve always said “No” to going with her. My choice would  have been a 50 mile cycle ride. This year, however, is not going to be the year of 50 mile rides. (I haven’t done a 20 miler yet.) So I said “Yes” this time when she asked me. And it was lovely.

I was thinking about these two parts of me. The part that has always in the past been able to do long, fast cycle rides with confidence-if not ease. I knew what my body was capable of and expected it to get on with it. Which it did. Then came  February and major heart surgery with all the attendant baggage that brings. Suddenly my body was not under my control. Every day seemed to bring a new set of worrying aches, pains, creaks and moans. The earth beneath my feet was definitely not as solid as I had once assumed. Now in September I have just celebrated my birthday- one I so nearly didn’t see. Doing a longish walk seemed like a good way to celebrate being alive.

I was thinking about vulnerability. About loss. And Recovery. About Hope. About acceptance. In my career as a nurse and as  a counsellor I’ve seen so many people in distress. And so many people who are at war with their wounded parts. The war is conducted with sex or drugs or alcohol. With depression or anxiety or psychosis. Sometimes in combination-which makes life very difficult.(Steiner talks about psychic retreats in the sense of people retreating behind anger or misery etc as one way of avoiding psychic pain. Sadly it doesn’t work. One simply remains trapped and mostly unreachable.)

One of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s great understandings was that we are healthy when we know both our love and our hate. We cease pretending to be nice.kind, good al the time and allow ourselves to kIMG_1338now the shadow of these feelings. Our hate, envy, rage etc .When both these aspects of ourselves are acknowledged, says Klein,we are healthy emotionally. It seems to me that this integration covers other parts of our selves. Knowing that our limitations are as much a part of ourselves as our achievements. That the times when we are depressed also go to make us who we are as well as our times of triumph. That doing an eight mile walk is as much part of me as doing a hundred mile bike ride.

Welcome to walking as well as riding.





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

Naming Ceremony

There is a piece in Lord of the Rings about a conversation between one of the Ents (who guard and protect the forests) and two of the Hobbits, Merry and Pippin. It is a conversation about names. Treebeard, the Ent, won’t tell the Hobbits his name. He tells them “For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language…” This seems to me to be akin to the idea that we all have two names. A “given”, public one and a hidden “real” name which we should treasure and not give away lightly. Padraig O Tuama  in his book  “In the Shelter” comments that “To be named is to be summoned into being, and to name is to participate in this project of living.”

Hearing names and learning their meaning is part of my work as  a counsellor. Often my patients will come and say “I’m not really sure why I’m here but…” Between us we try to fill in the missing words. We discover, in this process of naming, that some things are easier to name than others. It is not too difficult to name Love or Joy or Care. Words  like Hate, Envy, Despair take more effort because they are hidden. We are uncomfortable with the idea that we can Hate someone or something. We want to use softer words and phrases. “I don’t like that person”. Or “I find that difficult.” These are ways of hiding ourselves from ourselves- with sometimes disastrous consequences. The writer of one of the Psalms says”You desire truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) This seems to accord with Freud’s maxim that one aspect of psychoanalysis was “to make conscious the unconscious”. Both writers seem to be calling for an inner integrity that allows us to correctly name the various parts of ourselves.

One of the advantages of naming something is that it then has an identity. It can be scary to know something’s identity but, it seems to me, it is even more frightening not to know something’s identity. A patient spoke of her nightmares as a child. Her dreams were full of unnamed things that were set on hurting her. These things were never named and the nameless dread has transferred itself to her adult life. Some of our work together will be to name the things and to try to understand where they come from. And by naming them to give her back some control. Naming things seems to me to be something empowering and life affirming-even if the name is Cancer or similar. If I know something’s name I can manage it.

So to use a phrase Padraig O Ent Tuama might use “Hello to naming the unnamed.”

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

Ego states

I went to the V&A museum the other day. Specifically I went to see the two Rodin sculptures that are here -the Prodigal son and John the Baptist . I know them of old and never cease to be moved by them. The third one I came across by chance. She is called the Frog Princess by Gilbert Bayes and is up in an alcove above the visitor’s heads. I was disappointed by the presentation of the Rodin bronzes. Previously they had their own room which made their impact all the greater. Seeing them amongst a host of other statues took away some of their power. The consolation was finding the Frog Princess who seems to me to epitomise exuberance and joy- in contrast to the Rodin work which seems more serious. Taken together this trio seem to comment on what is often called the human condition. We know of the gravitas that the Baptist represents. One cannot imagine him dancing with the Frog Princess nor being as vulnerable as the Prodigal. John the Baptist stands for strength and certainty. He will remain standing no matter what storms rage around him.

i went to see Rodin. I came away having discovered Bayes’ princess-despite her being less obvious than Rodin. I see this in my therapy room.My patients come in with gravitas, vulnerability, anxiety and so on. The danger is that they forget to look for joy in the more hidden places.  (It is an inherent danger of psychoanalytic work that we over emphasise the not-working parts and miss the hidden places of fun, dancing, pleasure and the like. There can be something punitive in psychoanalysis. Or perhaps it suits a certain personality type. I suspect Rodin’s pieces would be drawn to these elements. I can’t quite see the Princess going this way.)

And that is my point here. As therapists we can too easily get caught up in the “serious stuff” of our patients lives. Which is as it should be. But we do ourselves a disservice if we never take time to find the hidden delights such as the Frog Princess.IMG_0453Version 2IMG_0450

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


PerhapsI am currently learning how to do wood carving. I find myself struggling. I have no “natural” feel for tools, having never been taught how to use them. My memories of tools is always of being cautioned not to damage them. A useful lesson but on its own it only served to sap my confidence around tools. Added to this is a high fear of getting it wrong. My tutor says, nonchalantly, “Don’t worry. It’s only a bit of wood.” He may well hold that view but for me my whole world rests on that bit of wood. All my critical voices come out, accusing me of incompetence, stupidity, clumsiness and a host of other criticisms. I have to work very hard to hear anything that reminds me that I am a novice. (I have been doing this for a total of four weeks. But my super ego is relentless.)

I see the same conflict in many of my patients. They have grown up feeling a failure-a message conveyed intentionally or otherwise by their parents. A not uncommon story from my patients  is “I was a sort of afterthought for my parents. Or an accident. I grew up as if I was an only child whose job it was to look after his parents. I never really played with them. And my siblings were already a lot older than me.” A severe depressive episode as an adult was one consequence for this patient. Another was a desperate need to be liked by everyone. Conflict had to be avoided at all costs.

Other patients have had parents who were actively abusive – verbally and physically. What followed was a depth of rage and anger that again lead to depression. Many marriages have foundered on this history in one partner or the other. Sitting in the relative comfort of my therapist’s chair, it is easy to see the fault lines that lead from present difficulties back to childhood. Less easy is the healing of these lines. All too often the act of naming them re-creates the original trauma – or at least triggers a reaction akin to the original one.

A friend suggested a book to me “The Insistence of God. A theology of Perhaps” by John D.Caputo. He writes about the word “perhaps”

“‘Perhaps is the abdication of faith, decision, ethics, judgement and knowledge, of philosophy and theology, a retreat to the safety of the indecisive and uncommitted.”

As a therapist I take up a “perhaps” stance. I constantly hear myself saying “I wonder if …” Or “You seem to be saying …” Or something similar. Always tentative. Gently probing. Or trying to be gentle! (One of the aspects of psychiatry that I disliked was the emphasis on diagnosis. “This person has schizophrenia. This one is Bi-Polar. Here we have a schizo-affective disorder”. There was a fantasy of  certainty. These symptoms equal that illness for which these are the correct drugs. All too often there was no room for “perhapsness” I think Caputo is describing what is also called Play of which the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes

“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.”

I think we play a game of “perhaps”.

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


I’ve been thinking about bridges recently. How many there are and how different they are .Some look “rustic” and wobbly. Others look as though they could last a thousand years. But they all serve the same purpose. To overcome an obstacle of some kind. To allow us to continue our journey. They cross a variety of obstacles. A river or stream. A chasm. A road. Some are free. Some charge. Some are designed for cars etc whilst others are strictly only for people. Mostly they serve as the only way across an obstacle. Some are major feats of Engineering whilst others are no more than a couple of planks thrown across a stream. They also allow us to go out and come back again.

I like the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff with its Troll living under the bridge. That troll seems to represent an important aspect of bridges. That they are potentially dangerous. (Not mechanically. A well made bridge will stand for a very long time. Any Engineer whose bridge is not fit for purpose soon learns the error of their sums!) To cross a bridge is to go from one realm to another. Sometimes simply from one side of a stream to the opposite bank-a journey of a few yards whilst the Jiahozhu Bay bridge in China runs to 26.4 miles.One makes a crossing to another place-be that a short step or a marathon distance. It represents a step into our future. We come back-if we choose-changed. But we have a choice of sorts. We can try to find another crossing. We can go back the way we’ve come. Or we can cross and risk our troll Bridge 2wanting to devour us as we cross. (The troll also raises the interesting question of what happens below the bridge. Who owns the space under the crossing? And what relationship is there between the life going across the bridge and life underneath the bridge?)

Mehmet Murat ildan observed “The fate of bridges is to be lonely; because bridges are to cross not to stay.” That is the risk we take on crossing a bridge. They are not meant to be our home .(Even the troll lived under the bridge.) In the work of therapy bridges come up a good deal. A person enters therapy from one side of the bank. They will spend a long time exploring that bank. Describing its history. Its wildlife. Its pleasures and dangers. But at some point there will arise the question of a bridge-if they are to move on. “Can I come back if I want to?” is a familiar question in therapy-no matter how it is phrased. It is the question we ask in every transition. “What if I don’t like it there?” Which is where bridges come into their own. They provide a return route if we want it. Children bring their own “bridge” with them when they have a comforter. It provides a link between what is known and what is new.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote a paper on “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”. In it he writes “… there is a third part of the life of a human being…it shall exist as a resting- place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human  task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related.” I think that describes a bridge.Bridge 1



Counselling, Mindfullness, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

The formless void

Recently I’ve found myself thinking about words, language, speech etc. I like words. I like the feel of them. As  a nurse, counsellor and lecturer, words have been my stock in trade. Certainly as a counsellor I use words to try and shape what it is my patients bring to the session. I will often use words to try and interpret the feelings in a session. “I think you’re trying to say ….” Or “I wonder if what you’re grappling with is …”  If done well, an interpretation can give  a name to something that was only previously experienced as a feeling. An emotion. Something “without form and void.” waiting for a word (Logos?) to give shape and meaning. This is not always a pleasant process. To discover something that one has kept hidden can be discomforting. The only justification for naming something is that this moves it from the unconscious and unknown to the conscious and known. (This was Freud’s view of psychoanalysis .To make conscious the unconscious.) If something is consciously known, it can be thought about and, hopefully, understood.

We reach places, sometimes, where words aren’t enough. Our bodies tell us their thoughts .We are sad and need a hug. We are tired and need rest. I have spent my professional career |believing” in words and their power. s a therapist I work with my feelings but give them back to my patients in words. I have spent many long years in personal therapy. Again all to do with words.

Various friends are involved in the “alternative” therapy scene Reiki, Alexander technique, Sacro-Cranial work etc. I’ve always quietly humoured these friends and “allowed” them their quirky views about body and spirit-particularly body. So it is with some amusement I find myself seeking out a body therapist. So far I’m pleased and surprised at how much information he gleans from my body about my soul. (I wasn’t really aware of those links. I still think it’s more to do with magic than “real” therapy!)

I began by talking about the value of words. i still hold to that view. But I’m learning that my body also wants to have its say and play its part in shaping the  sometimes formless void of my experience.


.formless void

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


The image is of the Narcissus, who, legend tells us, fell in love with his own reflection. What has this to do with this blog? I set up this blog to write psychoanalytically about things that interested me. Over time I have covered quite a range from Jimmy Saville to ISIS. Then in February this year I needed major heart surgery and my gaze shifted inwards. I wrote a few pieces about my struggle to make any sense of my illness but have not written much since. I enjoy writing and am left with left with a problem. Since my focus is still predominantly inwards, do I cease  writing? Or can I say something about the experience of illness and recovery from a psychoanalytic perspective-without becoming narcissistic? I don’t have an answer yet but I’m going to write about me and see where that takes me.

One of the problems with an illness that comes out of nowhere is that there is no preparation time. One minute one is living one’s life quite happily. Suddenly one learns that all is not as it seems. That minor ache turns out to be a symptom of something very serious that has the potential to kill you. Suddenly the clock has struck thirteen and all that went before is questioned. not to mention all that might happen tomorrow. If thirteen can be struck once, then all the rules change. To use my favourite mis-quote from Gatsby “The rock of the world rests firmly on a butterfly’s wing.”

This, of course, is not unique to illness.On a personal level Rape, assault, burglary all challenge our sense of an inviolate self. On a national level, war must do much the same. Our boundaries are nowhere near as reliable as we had thought. The challenge is to find a way to live with the consequences of this boundary violation without losing all sense of self. (I remember when I left hospital commenting that I felt as though I had spent 10 days behind enemy lines, living undercover. By which I think that I meant I had to work very hard to keep my identity secure in a place where there were very few familiar landmarks.)

Freud suggested the idea of Signal anxiety and Primary anxiety. .The function the former being “… an alerting mechanism which forewarns the ego of an impending threat to its equilibrium. Primary anxiety being the emotion which accompanies the dissolution of the ego.” The writer goes on to observe that Primary anxiety may be seen as an inwardly directed form of vigilance. (A Critical dictionary of Psychoanalysis 1968)

Which seems to take us back to mine-and others- experience of anxiety being helpful at some level. Albeit wearing and exhausting at times…