Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Cathedrals

 

I came across this comment by the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill. She is writing about beauty:

“So, too, all who are sensitive to beauty know the almost agonising sense of revelation its sudden impact brings – the abrupt disclosure of the  mountain summit, the wild cherry tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto, witnessing to another beauty beyond sense… when we take it seriously, it suggests that we are essentially spiritual as well as natural creatures.” (The Spiritual Life)

I find myself uncomfortable with this idea. I acknowledge the sense of the numinous that we meet at times and places. I remember being moved to tears the first time I saw Rodin’s sculpture of the Prodigal Son. But what moved me was its humanity. Nothing to do with the Divine. I can listen to a great concerto, see a moving play, look at a landscape and be  moved. And be challenged to think about my life, its purpose and meaning. But I do not necessarily intuit the Divine in this.

Speaking of religion, Freud noted that:

“The psychoanalysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the God of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”

I find Underhill’s view one that demeans humanity and our creativity. I dislike the gothic cathedrals that, in my experience, seek to dominate man and propagate a view that reduces us to nothingness in the face of the grandeur of the Divine. I have no wish to be involved with a God who subjugates humanity. Following Freud, one has to wonder at the forces and influences that shaped the  inner world of the architects of the buildings. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote  “I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.”    For the most part I disagree.  There are cathedrals that inspire. Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral is one. Its light, its space and potential offer me a feeling of celebration and creativity. I always  want to dance when I’m there. Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona has a similar impact.

My point here is not to criticise gothic cathedrals per se. Coleridge saw them as “infinity made imaginable”. Perhaps he was right. For me, I prefer the image of an exalted father to be one of a father who can sing and dance with his children and teach them to celebrate life. I do not want to exalt a father who is remote, distant and intimidating.

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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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Borderline States, Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Narratives, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Spiderman meets Allah

 

I recently watched the latest Spiderman film Homecoming. I was slightly disappointed by it. I enjoyed the Toby McGuire versions. I think because he portrayed more of the conflict he felt about being Spiderman. It seems to me that Tom Holland plays it as a teenager having huge fun as Spiderman but not really having to work overmuch about the implications of this role. But i’m a counsellor versed in psychoanalytic theory, so I may be expecting too much from the film! Although having so said, “Homecoming” does give a good portrayal of Peter Parker’s oedipal conflict .Tony Stark is an excellent father figure whom the young Spiderman has to deal with.

The piece of dialogue that struck me forcibly is this one. Peter wants his Spiderman suit back from Tony Stark who has confiscated it. (Castration anxiety anyone?)

Spiderman “I’m nothing without that suit.”

Tony Stark “If you’re nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it.”

(There is a lovely irony here since Tony Stark invented IronMan as his superhero alter ego. He needs his Ironman suit as much as Peter Parker but is unable or unwilling to recognise this need.)

I watched Homecoming around the time of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. The question of “suits” came to mind. As Spiderman Peter Parker can achieve all sorts of things that he cannot do as an ordinary adolescent. He needs to become Spiderman. (There are important questions here about potency and identity.) Like so many other people I wondered how a person can ram a truck into a group of people enjoying an evening out. (And at the risk of death by parenthesis, there are issues of envy here. How dare you be enjoying yourself when I’m not!) Could plain Mouassa Oukabir have driven his car into a group of people, aiming to kill as many as possible. Perhaps not. But as a disciple of a particular Iman, Abdelbaki Es Satty, Oukabir had a suit to wear. Like Peter Parker, it gave him an identity as a perverse “Superhero.” Presumably his version of Islam gave Es Satty a similar kind of suit.

In the closing scenes of Homecoming Peter is offered a brand new Spiderman suit, which he refuses, much to Tony Stark’s bemusement. “That was a test, right?”asks Peter. “Of course”replies Stark. So Peter Parker goes back to  being your average, friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. It seems he has found a way to resolve some of the issues he has with Tony Stark. And, more importantly, with himself. One wishes that “radical Islam” and all its kind could make a similar resolution.

 

 

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

Certainty

There was  a discussion recently on Facebook about a newly found translation of the KJV bible. The academic involved claimed that this new manuscript showed how much of the text had been edited to support particular political doctrines and ideas. The discussion that followed was, inevitably, about the  nature of biblical authority. Is it a case of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? Or a case of  “The words of God in the words of man”? The discussion lasted a few days  before moving on to something else. Probably a discussion about giant pandas or the Amazon rain forest.  At the same time a Quaker friend wrote a piece about certainty and religious faith.  She had disagreed with somebody who had wanted it to be the case that faith banished doubt. My friend’s point was that this was not the purpose of faith. Its task is to provide a framework to think about life and its vicissitudes, not to provide an answer to every conundrum. It is a familiar and important argument.

In his paper “Mourning and Melancholia” Freud commented that in mourning what was important was not whom someone had lost, but what. This thought has stayed with me. I spent my 20’s and 30’s  defining myself as Christian, albeit in varying ways – but mostly Evangelical. (That wish for certainty was pervasive.) Then I began psychotherapy and allowed myself to look behind some of my locked doors. What did I think about Jesus, the Church, Evangelicalism, things Charismatic etc? I discovered that I thought all sorts of things that I hadn’t allowed myself to think! Now in my 60’s I am happily agnostic as far as religious faith is concerned. I’m probably agnostic about many things. It’s a position I feel very comfortable with. It’s particularly helpful as a counsellor where I spend much of my time simply holding someone in my mind. I choose to suspend judgement about almost everything. One of my patients commented,”This feels so weird. It’s the only place where I don’t have to defend what I say or think. You’re just interested in the fact that I do think such and such.” My experience of therapy from both sides of the couch is that this is the only stance one can take. The only certainty is that there is no certainty, which makes this work so rich and rewarding. On a good day. On a bad day a small part of me longs to be back in my warm fundamentalist womb being effortlessly nourished by a divine umbilical cord. But we are not meant to spend our lives in any kind of womb. We are meant to be outside exploring and discovering. Endlessly asking “Why”

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

Cinderella

For Leslie Ellis who runs the best Creative Writing class in the World.

 

For some time now I’ve been thinking about the Cinderella story, triggered by a comment once again by my Creative Writing tutor who makes numerous fascinating comments about all manner of things. These pieces have been rumbling around in my brain for several weeks and have taken me in to the Oedipus complex and its partner, the Electra complex. Then into both Freud and Jung who might represent the King and the Prince in the Cinderella story. Add Melanie Klein and we recreate the family of the story.

Broadly speaking the child gains a sense of their identity, self-worth and desirability from their relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. The story tells us that Cinderella’s father fails to help her achieve this because he takes a new wife whom he needs to appease. Thus his own daughter is neglected in favour of his step daughters. His own needs for  love and approval outweigh his duty to his own daughter.  A double wound for Cinderella who loses her father twice over. Once to his own rather empty inner world and, secondarily, she  looses him to her step mother and family.From being a much-loved and prized child Cinderella is now reduced to the status of a scullery maid. In theory she might have survived this assault if she had some guarantee of her father’s love for her. Sadly she gets no such message and takes on internally swell as externally the role of ashes. The detritus left over from a fire, whose warmth is denied to Cinderella but enjoyed by the rest of her family. In every possible way she is denied c

omfort and reminded of her low value and status.(As we see, she does find a spark of warmth in side herself.)

Her redemption comes from her ability to dream of something different. She can at least dream of going to the Ball. Over the years I have worked with many patients, often women, who see themselves as Cinderellas. But who have lost even the ability to dream of something better.Let alone to make it to the Ball. For these women, often the victim of violence and abuse, hope is too painful. So they settle for an existence in a twilight zone. Men come and go; often abuse them; get them pregnant and leave. Sometimes she struggles on for the sake of the children-  who all too often end up repeating the same patterns of relationships. Sometimes, however, there has been just enough love and care from somebody to give them space to dream of a different future. A good marriage, an education, a healthy family, a career.  These women find their Prince and he finds  his Princess. But to allow oneself to dream is a risky business.All too often step sisters and their ilk conspire to make sure that Cinders knows her place. It is the work of nurses, therapists and counsellors to become an enabling Fairy Godmother who from the commonplace world of pumpkins and the like enable Cinders to transform into Cinderella. 

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

Relativity

In our creative writing class last week we were asked to write a short piece about Time. for some reason the formula above cam e in to my mind. Im not sure whty. I don’t usually remember formulae. But it prompted me to do some thinking. Then i n the coffee shop recently i heard two people talking. One was talking to his friend about going on holiday.

“If it’s just the three of us, then we get along fine. We all slot into our roles and it works very well. Then my son comes along and everything changes .I’m not sure why. I guess we’ll just have to try and make it work.”

This reminded me of the Speed / Distance /Time  formula. Which them lead me on to musing about our psychic equations. The relationship between the different parts  of ourselves. The Ego / Id / Super Ego  combination of Freud’s work.  Or Melanie Klein’s two positions. Or Jung’s ideas about our shadow side. (All this whilst drinking my latte.) It was almost cold by the time I’d finished my reverie!) That we are  not single entities. We know this to be true in our bodies. They are designed to work as a system, not as separate little kingdoms. The speed / distance /time formula is also bot relationships within a system.

And the problem with systems is that they challenge our omnipotence.  Whilst my eyes know, logically, that they have to rely on my ears to help them, a part of them would love to declare UDI from the rest of the body. (Fortunately this doesn’t often happen!) So in the inner world. My love cannot function without an awareness of my hate. And vice versa.  My patients have to face this tension. My ability to help them comes at a cost to their omnipotence. By seeing me thee is an acknowledgement that they need help.

So, with all this as context, here is the piece that I wrote for my class.

Time is furious. She thinks that she reigns supreme. Controlling all galaxies, empires and lives. She measures our mortal span. Three score years and ten. She defines our galaxies .Defines the star Sirius, for example as being 8.6 light years from Earth. bt she cannot rule alone. If she is to be useful, she has to be  in relationship. In this formula she is defined by Distance and Speed. Much as she resents this fact, it is True. To be useful she must share with Distance and Speed. And they with her – which gives her some satisfaction. Distance needs her along with Time. Speed the same. In a perfect world, Time would be supreme. But this is not  the case. So like a haughty dowager,  treating Distance and Speed as her servants. Ignoring the fact that she is dependent on them. Thus keeping intact her fantasy of self-sufficiency. The doxology comes to mind. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Time is always relative.

In my preparation for this blog I found this quotation. I think it sums things up very well. (I\m only glad i found it  at the end of my work, not at the beginning otherwise I might have felt I had nothing new to say!)

“There is no Jesus without Judas; no Martin Luther king, Jr, without the Klan; no Ali without Joe Frazier; no freedom without tyranny. No wisdom exists that does not include perspective. Relativity is the greatest gift.”  (Chris Crutcher, King of the Mild Frontier.)

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

The road less travelled

Robert Frost’s lines are so well-known that it seems unfair to use them yet again. But they do sum up what I want to write about better than any other lines. So once again these lines will be used to talk about journeying. I was talking with one of my patients and we were going along familiar and comfortable ground, which is not to underrate its importance. One of the core ideas in therapy is that of working through. That process whereby we visit and revisit a theme or topic until there is a sense of resolution and understanding. But occasionally it becomes too easy to follow the familiar twists of known material and to miss something important. If I’m alert to my patient and listening properly to them I become aware of hints about other aspects  of familiar material. My task then is to bring them to my patient’s attention and to invite them to explore this new place.

When my wife and I are on holiday in a new city, we often allow ourselves to get lost. We’ll see a side street and choose to go down it. Just to see where it goes. It’s fun with somebody else. I don’t enjoy doing it by myself. I panic about getting lost forever, although Google maps are surprisingly empowering! It is on these streets that one gets to see the hidden life of a city, the elements that are not on public display but are more private and intimate reflecting a real life rather than a sanitised one. Marrakech was particularly keen that tourists only go along prescribed routes sending us via the souks rather than a different set of streets. Other cities have been more welcoming.

The process of psychotherapy and counselling goes along a similar pattern. I want to take my therapist along known, familiar routes that are prepared for their arrival. I set out my market stalls of attractive goods, all carefully displayed. I do not invite them to look underneath my stall and see the rotting fruit, the rats, and other detritus lurking there. Yet the under stall is as important as the public display. Here is the stuff that is real and messy and has to be managed in some way. It is definitely not for public display! Nor do I expect that it should be. But therapy is different. It is about those less travelled roads. About the stuff under the stall.

A patient asked me about the meaning of a particular psychoanalytic term. Or rather, they couldn’t allow themselves to ask. They gave their understanding of the term and promptly dismissed what they said. “Oh! you probably know all about that, don’t you. You’re the counsellor. I don’t know stuff like that. I’ve probably got it all wrong, as usual.” I was quiet for a little while then commented on the way they had asked – or not asked – the question. This took us into a rich conversation about their envy of me; their reluctance to have to allow themselves to not know something; their difficulty in allowing me to share something with them. These were themes that ran through their life and had shaped much of what they had done. The conversation was rich and enjoyable as we began to reflect on that moment. It would have been easy to give a “correct” answer to the question.  This would have missed so much. I had to risk taking us down a road less travelled. Hopefully we’ll continue to explore this road in future sessions.

The road more travelled is, usually, seen as much safer. Mostly it is better signposted and there is more traffic. The less travelled roads can feel more lonely. Less well signposted. This is why we invite our patients to walk with us. We do not simply give them a map and compass and tell them to meet us at the next trig point. We walk the road with them – and they with us. It is always a shared journey. It requires as much courage from the therapist as from the patient – something our patients don’t always see! Nor, of course, are they necessarily aware of how many of our own roads we have explored. Nor of what we have discovered going along them. (Perhaps it should be a rule when choosing a therapist. Don’t trust them if they haven’t got blistered feet!)

And, to close, a lovely interpretation of Frost’s poem.

 

 

 

 

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