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

Moominland and the Ineffable

“The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition.”

As a therapist, I am always working at the edges of language. I have come to see this as characterised by one  of the Moomintroll characters, the Ancestor.  He is rarely seen but adds his own distinct contribution to life in Moominland. He is usually seen out of the corner of the eye as he scuttles about the place, doing and Being on his own terms.  He is beyond language. He is experienced as a presence. A Something… Trying to define him is almost impossible but therein lies the conundrum. How does one name the unnameable? This, I think, is what we mean when we talk about the Numinous. The Wholly Other. The Ineffable. The philosopher Heschel wrote of the ineffable that “The search for reason ends at the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding.”f6270db845fb789354a75144ddcb781a

As a counsellor I seem to spend much of my time on Heschel’s vast expanse. I am constantly trying to shape and understand my patients’ material. I usually say that  I listen for the “unsaid said”. This is  experienced at a visceral level beyond language. I will have a sense of something being communicated beyond the words used. The struggle then is to find words for their experience.  It is an inexact science! As a mother learns to hear and interpret her baby’s sounds, so a therapist engages in something similar. And as a mother teaches a child to be able to put words to its feelings, so do we as therapists. Eventually the baby learns to understand that this particular feeling means it is angry. Or anxious. Or hungry. Thus it learns to understand something of what is going on inside itself. And, thereby, to take an appropriate action. To get some food. Or to have a sleep. Or to avoid the source of its anxiety.

The problem is with words which as T.S.Eliot observed “Slip. Slide. Will not stand still”.  So it is with feelings and the reality they express. Naming them can be tricky. I often use a host of different words to try and cref6270db845fb789354a75144ddcb781aate a description of what I think my patent is expressing (rather like an Impressionist painting). At the end of a session my hope is that I have pointed out the ancestor’s existence. How he and my patient get on is another part of the work. Possibly the topic of another blog.

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

Don’t let me be misunderstood

misunderstood One of the songs I have been practicing in my singing lessons is “Don’t let be misunderstood” as sung by Nina Simone amongst others. I like her version along with those of Joe Cocker and  Eric Burdon and The Animals. All deeply anguished and soulful. (I don’t think Leonard Cohen covered it!) As a teenager I loved the depth of feeling these singers put into the song. To hear any of them pouring out themselves into the lyrics still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was always deeply envious of the confidence that allowed those singers to open their mouths so wide, confident that they would be heard. And because I know the chorus so well, I risked opening my mouth wide in my recent singing lesson. I was bemused to hear my voice pleading “Oh Lord. Please don’t let me be misunderstood. (Whether that  was a plea to the Lord, myself or my singing tutor, I’m unsure. Possibly all three!) So I opened my mouth and risked being misunderstood.

My singing tutor also played it and sang it a couple of times. She put a different emphasis on the words which left me off balance. I’m used to the emphasis falling on the last word- “misunderstood”. She placed the emphasis on the “Please”. Suddenly a new world opened up for me. Were Simone and company asking to be understood? Or was there a more profound plea? Less a plea to be understood. More a plea to Be.

There is a “proverb” that asks “If a tree falls to the ground and nobody sees it, has it happened?” Many organisations send staff to war zones simply to See. To witness that people are being killed. Or tortured. Or persecuted. The word “witness” comes from the Greek word for martyr. Thus one who bears witness is a martyr .Or, bearing witness will have a cost. Something I repeatedly tell my students.That bearing witness to the suffering of our patients has a price for us as well. Or should do. (See my blog  “Lost” where I have also explored this idea.)

So, listening to my singing teacher singing a song I knew gave me a fresh understanding of something familiar. Feeling misunderstood is a common theme for my patients. Less being misunderstood by others. More feeling misunderstood by themselves. “Why did I say that. Do that. Feel that.” It really is as if they were taken over by an alien being who made them act completely out of character. “But I’m not like that really.” is a common observation. Part of the work is to enable my patients to acknowledge that, “Yes. I am like that!”. This is the most dangerous aspect of counselling. Telling somebody something that they do not want to hear about themselves. It provokes more rage than any other intervention or comment. Particularly in men with issues about their anger. I am frequently presented with the same reaction that wives and partners must encounter when they say or do something “wrong”. It is always about feeling misunderstood.And reacting according to principles set out from a very young age.

One of my tasks as their counsellor is to sing “their” song with a different emphasis. “Listen to how your wife might sing this song. Hear how your children might sing it.”

So, back to Nina and company who sang their song on their terms. And whom I heard on my terms. And thanks also to all those who sing “my” songs with a different emphasis which means I have to listen anew. And, of course, here is the Lady herself.