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.


brewast feeding mother
Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Uncategorized

Seeing and Being Seen

In my last blog I wrote about the experience of seeing and being seen in the counselling room. I want to take this idea further today. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, wrote about the Gaze and linked it to what he called the Mirror phase. In this phase the young child looks in a mirror and sees himself. But sees a true reflection of himself. Lacan argues that this is the beginning of the awareness of oneself as an object .That we can be seen as well as see. This suggests that I may not be able to control how others see me. A profoundly disconcerting thought! The infant in the picture has very little sense of itself as a separate being. (Although the question of when an infant does become aware of its separateness could fill many pages. Fortunately that issue is outside the scope of this blog|!)

The Mirror phase is unsettling because with it comes the possibility that others will not like what they see.  So my own self view is of the 20 year old me. A 32″ waist, boundless energy, perfect hearing and vision etc. My real self these days is somewhat different. I have to take a risk each time I meet someone that they will accept the current version of me.

I’m always amused when I see a couple kissing and watch one of them take a selfie of the moment. As if to freeze this moment in time. To be able to look at the picture and reassure oneself that we were adored -albeit fleetingly. (It is as though there is a fear that the moment will be lost if it is not able to be posted on Facebook or similar. Or, more worryingly, that the ‘I’ of the photo will cease to exist.) The selfie takes the place of the Other’s gaze and risks becoming an exercise in Narcissism. “See how handsome / pretty / sexy/ desirable I was once.”

I now want to make a large jump and consider the Gaze from some other angles. One is theological. If God continuously gazes on us and sees us as we are- (as we are taught by most of the major world religions)- is there a reciprocal exchange? That we see God as an object -regardless of  how He goes about presenting himself. That we scrutinise God and make judgements about who or what we see?

Or to take a less metaphysical example, how do groups like ISIS see the West? What does their gaze on us show them? And what shapes that gaze? The reciprocal question also needs to be asked. What do we see when we look at ISIS? And how do these mutual gazes shape each other. (Can I ever gaze “objectively” ?)

I suspect that Lacan’s gaze might also inform the ways we think about sexism,racism, homophobia and the like .(And how the objects of our gaze return that gaze.)


I recently began a drawing class. I’d often wondered if I had any latent ability to draw. J still don’t know the answer to this question since my artistic career was short lived. I stayed for one session and decided that this was not for me. Or, that this way of leaning did not work for me. We spent 15 minutes playing with pencils. Learning the difference between H and B leads. Soft and hard. Then we were given a landscape to fill in, using different techniques. Cross hatching; herringbone; vertical over horizontal. All of which were present in a Van Gogh sketch we were shown. “I can see all those  techniques in Van Gogh’s picture.” our tutor quipped brightly. (I am not, i discovered, any Van Gogh.)

I struggled for about 10 minutes trying to fill in my landscape with these styles. At the end of it  I looked at it and thought  that all I had done was to take something I had admired and spoilt it. My scribblings added nothing the landscape we had been given. I talked about this experience with somebody recently. “If you truly want to draw something, sit down and look at it until you understand it.” I haven’t used this advice because I’m not sure how much I want to learn to draw. But it rang true in my experience as a counsellor. If I want to understand somebody, I have to spend the time just seeing them. Observing them. Looking at them. It’s an intimate experience. And a scary one. For both me and my patient.

Scary for my patient because I am made into God who sees all and understands all. Scary for me because there is a danger of believing this fantasy. Scary, too, because as much I see my patients-or try to- so I am also seen. Much as I try to become the classic Freudian blank screen, “I” inevitably intrude.

There is a tension in this being seen. For some people it is comforting to have me make an observation about them that has truth in it. To comment that they seem lonely today. Or that I am puzzled about where they are right now.  Others find it intrusive and persecutory. For some counselling becomes a game of Hide and Seek. I am and am not expected of find my patient. If I fail to find them, there is a pyrrhic victory. They have successfully avoided being found. But the rage and fury that follow can be overwhelming. Trying to comment on this process is itself fraught with the same  difficulties.

The other aspect of  being seen is that it is a reminder of our separateness. The lover who gazes into her beloved’s eyes and melts. The baby who looks up at his mother. These are bitter sweet experiences because they simultaneously remind us of our joinedness and our separateness.

My next blog will explore this tension further.

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

I see you

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

Whose dream?

I was talking with someone recently.We were talking about Christmas. They commented that it was downhill now until Easter. They meant, I think, in term of the Churches’ calendar. I nodded and we carried on our conversation. But something nagged at me about this view. Then I remembered the story of the Massacre of  the Infants by Herod which is recorded only by Matthew. The story is that the Magi call on Herod first asking where they can find the new king. Herod knows nothing of this but asks them to come back to him when they have found him :”that I may come and worship him also.” They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod who when he realises this orders the slaughter of all children under the age of two. We next read that Joseph also has a dream telling him to flee into Egypt to protect his family from Herod. This he duly does and we hear nothing more of them until Joseph is told in yet another a dream not to go back to Judea.Following this dream the family go back to Galilee and we hear no more of them until Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist which marks the official launch of his mission.

It’s an interesting story. Angels, visions, dreams, Magi, refugees and so on.  Many things worry me about it but it is the dreams that most intrigue me. If I were still a “bible believing Christian” I might be happy to accept that God spoke to people in dreams. As a psychodynamic counsellor I understand dreams rather differently to Matthew. I see them as our unconscious nudging us to attend to something important. We give ourselves our dreams. (Always an uncomfortable thought!) Freud wrote “By exposing the hidden dream-thoughts, we have confirmed in general that the dream does continue the motivation and interests of waking life, for dream-thoughts are engaged only with what seems to be important and of great interest to us.” (The Interpretation of Dreams :1900)

If we could allow Joseph to free associate about his dreams, it would be fascinating to see what came out. I imagine most potential parents dream about their new baby. Dreams about its safe delivery and concerns about its future. Thoughts about its impact on the couple and the family.We might wonder about some ambivalence on Joseph’s part. This new baby has caused him more than the usual amount of trouble. A Virgin conception, visits from Royalty, the envy of the Governor, time in exile, mass murder as a consequence of this baby. And all before its first birthday. That’s quite a lot to take on. So perhaps Herod isn’t the only man who feels murderous towards this infant. Joseph’s dream tells us as much about his inner world as the story does about Herod’s. We might wonder if Joseph’s “flight dream” is also about his own wish to run away  to a place where nothing is known about him. He can remain anonymous and live his life quietly.

All this is pure speculation on my part. I have no idea about Joseph’s dream-thoughts. We have no record of them. But the alternative is that God is a mass murderer. Or at least chooses to do nothing about the actions of Herod. We don’t have a record of how many babies were killed by Herod’s soldiers. We don’t know how many families were devastated by the murder of their children. But God appears unbothered by this. His interest is solely in the preservation of His own- making him no different from Herod. Perhaps my next blog will explore what we might understand of God’s unconscious.



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

Whose Story?

Reading the birth narratives of the four gospel writers is fascinating. Each writer gives their own account of the Christ event. Matthew wants to assure us of Jesus’ legitimacy.He traces his lineage all the way back to Abraham, (how much more kosher can a man be?) Mark is all action. Within nine verses  of chapter one, Jesus has arrived .like a sports star making their first appearance for their new team. Luke also puts Jesus into a contact. One of supernatural events all round. Miracles galore. John is all philosophy. Jesus is the divine logos. The Word before all words. These introductions tell us as much about the Four as they do about Jesus. What they also tell us is a lot about their Christ. Their version of salvation etc.

It is hard to find the “real” Jesus here just as much as it might be today .The central character is swamped by a lot of other people’s needs. The need to legitimise him. The need to show his intellectual pedigree. The necessity of showing him as a man of action who gets his sleeves rolled up from the start. So it is in the counselling relationship. My patients bring me their stories neatly edited for  public consumption (which , of course, is also for their private consumption.) A large part of my work is to find the hidden story. No picture has any depth without the interplay of Light and Shade. Spaces and Activity. In the same way that the narratives of the gospels took time to form, so do our narratives. Unlike Athena coming fully formed from Zeus’ head, our narratives take time. And in exactly the same way that our narratives fit a particular version of ourselves, so do the gospel stories. They also tell us a lot about the needs of the writers. Each one crafts a Jesus whom they need to fit  their versions of themselves. So when Uncle Fred  tells his war story for the thousandth time this Christmas, try to see what he is wanting to tell you about himself rather than worry too much about the historical accuracy of the story.(This is , of course, one of the major problems with having a sacred text. How should we read it? How should we understand it?)

The Birth of Jesus represents a turning point. It also  stands as the story of Everyman. Mary is having a baby and babies represent new starts, new hopes, new anxieties. Nothing will be the same again. This infant will call for his parents to grow and change as he does. How they manage this challenge will shape how the baby manages his challenges as he grows up. A similar process takes place in the counsellor’s room. As therapist and patient meet, get to know one another and risk intimacy, so a new life can be born. This life needs nurturing as do the parents.(The question of who cares for the therapist belongs in another piece!) And as with the biblical narratives our work as therapists is to try to understand what lies behind the stories .What am I being told about  my patient when they tell me about  their marriage? Or their work? Or how they feel about seeing me?

I like the picture in this blog. It conveys a sense of hope without diminishing the struggle. It also conveys a sense of hope – without which nothing is ever achieved. T.S.Eliot in his poem Journey of the Magi,  has the Magi asking the question “… were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” It is a question that is often asked in counselling as patients struggle with new understandings of their stories. It is also a question that Christmas in particular raises, with the impossible weight of expectation placed on it-and us. “Is this a Birth or a Death?” The answer may be that it is both.