Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Mindfullness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Winnie the Pooh

This is a piece about Winnie the Pooh who lived in the 100 Acre Wood where he had lots of friends.: Christopher Robin, Owl, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore. Kanga and Rabbit. (Have I forgotten anybody?) When they got in a muddle he helped them out and when he got in a muddle, they helped him out. And he needed his friends just as much as they needed him. Which is how all good friendships work.

I want to spend some time getting to know this group of friends and see what we can make of them. Starting with where they live would be a good idea. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott observed that “home is where we start from.” So, home for this group is the 100 acre wood. Woods are important places. They represent stability and protection. We all love walking through woods.

But there is also a darker side to woods. Things are killed in woods. Owls, foxes and badgers kill other creatures in order to survive. Along with “All things bright and beautiful” nature is also “red in tooth and claw.” The 100 acre wood will have been no different. And whilst nobody physically dies in Winnie the Pooh, the emotions are there. A depressive Eeyore has to live with the manic Tigger. The young and feckless Roo has to live alongside the elder statesman Owl. As with any family, conflict was unavoidable, and necessary. Much as Tigger would have exasperated Eeyore, the former’s optimism would have offered Eeyore the possibility of Hope. Reciprocally we might think that Tigger could learn that quietness need not always be feared. So the home of 100 Acre Wood was a containing place that could hold both light and shadow. Which is probably as good a definition of “home” as we will come across.

Having looked at the context for the story, it might be interesting to look at some of the characters. My own favourite is the lugubrious Eeyore. He isn’t going to be fooled into thinking that everything is automatically and necessarily going to work out well. This way he can’t be hurt when people let him down. In one of the stories, his house is blown away. He always knew this would happen. Didn’t it always? Yet despite himself, his friends always help him out. Most infuriating. It is as if someone had offered Diogenes a proper home.

Then comes Tigger, ostensibly Eeyore’s polar opposite. Tigger always seems to land on his feet- all four at once. And just as often treads on someone else’s feet in the process. At first sight, he has nothing in common with Eeyore. On a close look, however, he uses bouncing in the same way that Eeyore uses melancholia. Tigger just uses a manic defence to keep at bay his existential anxieties. They are much more alike than either of them might want to admit!

At this point it is worth considering the 100 Acre Wood so that it tells us something about ourselves. “To make conscious the unconscious” as Freud put it. We all have our Tigger moments and our Eeyore moments. We also have our Piglet moments and so on. Depending on many factors we will all have a dominant personality trait. We may be more prone to an Eeyorish depression; a Tiggerish mania or a Rooish dependency. The process of emotional growth is the work of integrating these parts of ourselves in the same way that families have to accommodate children with their differences but who are still part of one family – hard though that is to comprehend at times!

To finish I want to suggest that all these characters reflect Christopher Robin’s inner world. And these in turn all reflect A. A. Milne’s inner world, and ours. In psychoanalytic language they are internal objects and part objects. Or “bits of ourselves” to put it more colloquially. So, when we read Winnie the Pooh we are reading both backwards and forwards. We are reading “forwards” in that we can look at the inner worlds of the characters in the stories. how they relate to each other, their world, themselves. Then we can look “backwards” to Christopher Robin and his world. Then we can look at the world of A. A. Milne and his hopes and dreams. Which begins to make a complex picture seemingly a long way from the simplicity of the 100 Acre Wood. Yet as counsellors and therapists we do this work all the time. Our patients bring themselves to therapy. But they also bring their partners, children, work, friends etc., as well as their relationship with us and all that represents. It is a sort of 3D chess game. It is this dynamic that makes the work so rich and rewarding. Mostly! (Occasionally also deeply frustrating and confusing.)

Let me leave the last word to Winnie the Pooh who would have made a very good therapist. He observed “I am not lost for I know where I am. But, however, where I am may be lost”.

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Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Mindfullness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Whomper asks the best questions

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” ‘They’re all so unlike me’ he thought, ‘They have feelings and they see colours and hear sounds and whirl around, but what they feel and see and hear, and why they whirl around doesn’t concern them in the least’.” (Whomper)

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” (Thomas Pynchon)

As a counsellor I find myself interested by Pynchon’s observation, because there really are no wrong questions in therapy. Certainly not from the point of view of the patient-  or of the therapist listening to the patient. Within the confines of the 50 minute session, all questions are interesting and important because they are all a form of communication which can lead into other issues. So the simple question about holiday dates has one reply. “I’m away throughout August.” The question could rest there. But the work lies in hearing the unasked thought. Perhaps  “I envy you. A whole month off. Lucky you.”  Or  “But you can’t leave me for a whole month. I need you.”  This can then take us to a conversation about envy, anger, hatred jealousy, abandonment and so on. (As well as a genuine wish that the therapist has an enjoyable holiday!)

Whomper and the other Moomintrolls find themselves affected by a nearby volcano exploding and disrupting their normal lives. (Volcanos are good at that!) The rest of the family seem quite sanguine about events. Not so Whomper who wants to ask all sorts of difficult questions about things and cannot understand why nobody else is as bothered as he is by these events. It is interesting that Jansson gives him the task of worrying because his name, Whomper, carries a sense of  someone who rushes about carelessly, just muddling through. Yet he ask the most interesting questions “What”and”Why”.  when I was lecturing it was common for a shy or diffident student to ask the most interesting question. “But… why do we do this?” Sometimes they almost apologised for asking a “Silly” question. Whomper seems to be doing this. “Why do people do this? What do they feel about things?”

I spent a few years in a very fundamentalist Christian group. I was one of those who always asked the “wrong” questions. I remember saying something one day and being looked at with blank bewilderment. If had spoken in Hebrew or Swahili, I could not have been more marginalised. It wasn’t that I had asked a “wrong” question, it was that I had asked a non-question. The thought processes that lead me to ask my question were inconceivable to the mind of the person to whom I was speaking. (I fairly quickly chose what questions I asked where and when. And  of whom!) For Whomper seems to be encountering something like this. (Perhaps that’s why he’s always in a hurry. So many questions to ask and so many possible answers .And so little time taken to hear the unasked question.)unknown

 

So unlike Pynchon, I’m not sure there are wrong questions. But that’s the luxury of being a therapist. One is always trying to understand the meaning of the question. To try and understand why “they” have feelings and see colours and hear sounds.

 

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

Advent

advent7All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Extract from “Journey of the Magi”

T.S.Eliot

 

The extract above is from T.S.Eliot’s poem  “Journey of the Magi”. I first heard it when I was at college and it has stayed with me. He captures the struggle of the Magi to  make their journey. These are  not triumphant warriors coming home. These are  men  who are tired. For whom the journey is uncertain. “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” That is a question that arises so often in therapy. “What am I doing here? I thought counselling was supposed to make me feel better.  I feel like shit.”

The Magi responded to a sign which they saw as significant. They were unsure what it signified, but they understood it to be important. The same is often true of my patients. They see a sign. A difficult marriage or relationship. Tensions  at work.  Perhaps feelings of depression and anxiety. These are read as signs. Signs that need to be attended to and understood. We only know that the Magi came from the East following a star. Bethlehem was an unknown destination. The  parallels to clinical work are obvious. We start from a different place. Frequently the place of our beginnings. Our place of birth. Those earliest moments of conception, pregnancy and birth which seem so far from our current places. Yet each time I see a patient we end up back at their beginning. The men whose fathers leave months after  their birth. The men whose mothers abandon them. The women who feel overwhelmed by their father’s expectations  of them. This is where the journey has begun. This is what has shaped their life to date. The woman who has had  six children with six different men. And each of her children taken into “care”. The successful business man who always has a lover whom visits regularly.  Whose wife pretends not to know and not to mind. These journeys are more like death than birth.

The biblical account of the Wise Men is only found in Matthew’s gospel. He places this visit at the end of his genealogies “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matt. 1:1) Matthew is telling his readers their history. As counsellors we don’t share your histories but  nonetheless draw on them in our work. (Unlike Athena who emerged fully armed from the skull of Zeus we have learned our histories the hard way with journeys that seem to have made the Magi’s travels look easy!) We share our patient’s journeys in many ways.We, to, have slept badly at times and have wondered where our journey will take us. To birth or to death?

My aim is to write more about Journeyings. Meanwhile I shall end with some Advent music. Enjoy, as they say!

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Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychotherapy, The Inner World, The unconscious, Uncategorized, Ways of Being

10 Miles to go

A friend and I completed a 100 mile cycle ride yesterday. It was hard work! But enjoyable-if you like that sort of  thing! We managed to achieve Gold medal standard in our age group by finishing in seven hours. We had not set out with any expectations of  doing anything more than completing the ride before sunset! The medals were a huge boost to tired legs and sore backsides. We climbed a total of 3,000 feet in those seven hours. And alternately cursed, smiled, wept depending on where we were at any given point in the ride.

The hardest part came after 90 miles. There was a sign proclaiming “10 miles to go.” We whooped with excitement. A mere 10 miles. No problem! A few minutes later my friend turned to me and said “You know what that means, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said. “It means we’ve still got another 40 minutes riding to do.” For a short time our euphoria vanished in the face of how much work was still left. We carried on pedalling and, eventually passed over Marlow bridge and in to the finishing area, got our times and medals and gave each other a High Five, grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats.

As a mental health nurse I was always taught that the most dangerous point in the recovery of someone who is depressed, is not the acute phase. Mostly they are too depressed to act out in any way at all. The crisis comes when they are getting better. I’d always taken this as axiomatic. A useful piece of clinical data when managing somebody who is depressed. That remains true.  Until yesterday, however, I had never really experienced that maxim first hand. We’d ridden 90 miles. We’d got up at six in the morning, loaded the bikes, parked the car, signed in and set off on the ride. We griped, complained smiled etc. Then we  got to the “almost there” mark and nearly threw our bikes away and called a taxi .I’m pleased we didn’t. (And  “Thank You”to all my friends who sent “Bravo” messages.They are much appreciated.

Whilst being ill is horrible, one knows where one is in a strange way. Hair falling out? Blame the chemo. Depressed. Blame the divorce. Dropping things? Blame the arthritis. One gains much justified support and sympathy an acute phase. The problems begin with recovery. One’s life is no longer in immediate danger. The expectation is that one can resume normal duties-albeit in a graded way. It is this stage that is the most demanding. Having come so far, that final 10 miles seems so near yet so far. Small wonder that this is the danger phase in so many illnesses. As it was on our ride. Hope had been kindled followed by the almost overwhelming realisation of how much effort was still required of us.

Once more I’ve had practice teach me the real meaning of theory. But on reflection, I’m still pleased they told us we only had another 10 miles left. If only because it made the 5 mile marker all the sweeter.

 

10 miles to go

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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.

 

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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

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

True Names

I read this piece recently and it stayed with me.

“Elodin reached in to his pocket and pulled out a river stone, smooth and dark. ‘Describe the precise shape of this. Tell me of the weight and pressure that forged it from sand and sediment. Tell me how the light reflects from it. Tell me how the world pulls at the mass of it, how the wind cups it as it moves through the air. Tell me how the traces of its iron will feel the calling of a loden-stone. All of these things and a hundred thousand more make up the name of this stone.’ He held it out to us at arm’s length. ‘This single, simple stone.'” (The Wise Man’s Fear  by Patrick Rothfuss)

It seems to me that Rothfuss has captured the essence of good counselling here. At one level there is a patient with a particular difficulty sitting in front of me. That difficulty might be called Anxiety or Depression or Anger. That represents the stone. My job as a counsellor is to get beyond the obvious label and think with my patient about all the influences that have gone to create this problem. A divorce; an alcoholic parent; a psychotic parent; a violent father; an unsatisfactory marriage. The list is endless. As are the ways in which each element has shaped my patient. And the choices they have made as a consequence of these influences. (All of which makes the argument that therapy should be a long-term process. Not time limited  to 10 sessions with a CD as back up.)

This attention to detail is one of the many things that I enjoy as a practitioner. I have the luxury of 50 minutes each week to invite my patient to stop for a minute and consider what they’ve just said. To go back to a mood  or a way of sitting or a feeling in the room.I long ago worked out that I couldn’t save the world. I don’t know what to do about ISIS. I don’t know how to stop global warming continuing. I can’t eradicate poverty. (The list of “I can’ts grows longer each year-or so  it seems to me!) But I can be the best counsellor I know how to be for the person sitting in front of me. I am interested in the weight and pressure that forged them. About how the world pulls at them. At how the light reflects from them. This I can do. True Names

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