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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Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Feeling good

feeling-good-lstqigvmWriting a regular blog is a curious affair. I try to write mine on a Sunday afternoon or evening. There is no particular reason for this, except that by this time I’m fairly relaxed and I can think better when I’m in this mood. Having a regular slot also works as a boundary. I know that I have a space set aside just for writing my blog. It allows me all week to think about things, mull over my week, consider the highs and lows. And to be alert for something that catches my attention.So at some level I am in a state of free-floating attention, waiting to be interested. The word for this in clinical practice is reverie-with its connection to dreaming and wandering. I tell my students that I don’t teach in straight lines. I warn them that we are going for a walk together and that I’ll comment on what catches my eye. So, those students who want a guide-book narrative that moves them from point A through B, on  to C and so on find me difficult.  Those students who are able to take a risk and trust me, usually find they see things that were previously hidden. My clinical practice is conducted in much the same way. Unlike CBT which has a very defined pathway, my work allows me to focus on the moment by moment processes occurring in the session. All of which is a preamble to this blog which, from the poster, is around Nina Simone once more.

I was lucky to be around in the 1960’s when Simone was being played. So songs like Feeling Good; Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood; Ain’t got no (I Got Life) and others were part of my way of thinking about myself and my world. I loved her melancholy passion. I loved the integrity I heard in her singing. Then she got lost to me as other songs came and went. Then I started my singing lessons-of which I have already written. I wanted some music that wasn’t the hymns that I also grew up with. (I think my favourite hymns have the same value as Simone and others. I hear Truth in them.) Nina Simone was my choice of singer. So, I now hear myself singing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “Feeling Good”and other classics. Feeling Good is my current song. So many elements grab me. I love the tune. I love the words. I love the way Nina Simone puts them together and leaves me thinking that hers is the only possible voice that can marry these elements so well.The chorus is banal when simply written down.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. Feeling good.

But when the music is added the whole thing comes to life. Banal words seem to fly and soar. Much in the same way that the birds do in another line. Along with dragonflies out in the sun and fish in the sea-all of whom know how she feels.Singing the chorus is an act of faith, for me. I have to risk hitting notes I prefer to avoid. Opening my throat, my mouth, my stomach, my soul. To mumble these words is to lie. My tutor tells me to have faith-in myself and my ability. To open my mouth and let the words come out. She sings the chorus-and I hate her! She sings like Simone with a depth and passion and confidence that I envy. (But she tells me that she could sing before she could talk. I am slightly less in awe of her ability.)

I  continue to be amazed at the similarities between singing and therapy. I know when I am not being honest with a song. I glide over notes that look tricky. My tutor gently brings me back to these notes and invites me to try them again. I do and she is generous with her praise. But still points out what I should be singing and encourages me to try it again. I do and I seem to get closer to the original. We sing it once more and I get more certain and risk more letting go. The result sounds alive and triumphant. The connection to therapy is pretty clear. As a counsellor I try to hear all the notes from my patient. I try to hear the slid over ones-and wonder what is difficult here. I invite my patient to revisit these notes. Slowly they are told with more trust and confidence. We think about how they fit into the whole song of their life. Together we make sense of the seemingly random notes that somebody else has written. Eventually we come to a version of the song that is “true”. It is a slow process. But very satisfying. And here is the Lady herself.

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Questions, Questions,Questions

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I like this image! It captures how I feel at the moment. I’ve been a psychiatric nurse for a long time and then trained as a counsellor. I’ve always believed that what matters in clinical work is not a diagnostic label- Schizophrenia, Depression, Bi-polar etc. but the search for meaning. What does a particular experience mean to my patient. How do I help them in that search? The theoretical framework I chose to help me with this work was psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on unconscious meanings and processes.  I believe that we come to an understanding of meaning through the counselling relationship where we can share our hopes, dreams, fears with another person. This is a daunting task for both parties. For the patient it means facing  oneself with honesty. For the counsellor it means being able to bear this honesty and hold it safe. For the counsellor or therapist an important part of their training is personal therapy.Here is the opportunity- not to say necessity- to learn about oneself as well as to learn about the model of counselling one has chosen. And to know the experience of being a patient- which in itself is salutory. It is not always a comfortable process.

Carl Jung wrote “I consider it downright immoral to shut one’s eyes to the truth about oneself.” This self knowing is, as I have said already, the core of counselling. But lately I find myself wanting to know more about the truth of counselling. A patient talked about a dream in which he dropped an important letter in a puddle. The result was that all the words disappeared and he would never know what the letter said.  Now there are numerous possible responses to this dream. We could wonder about his anxiety about not knowing something important. Or about an unconscious hostility towards the writer 0f the letter. Or a memeory of dropping something precious as a child. How was I to choose between different possible meanings? This question of interpretation is exercisng me a great deal at the moment-so much so that I am doing a Ph.D. in an attempt to answer my questions.

And my question is  “On what basis do I comment on my pateints stories? What authority do I have to sit in my chair and say ‘ I think you are telling me …’?” Empirical facts are reasonably straightforward to prove. If I put my hand in a fire it will get burnt. If I go out in the rain,I will get wet. I can repeat this exercise as many times as I like and the end result will be the same. But how do I “prove” the truth of my interpretation of my pateint’s dream? The short answer is “I can’t”! It is impossible to “prove” a dream in the same way that one proves Pythagorus’ theorem. What I can do is to hear his dream in the context of his story. Of what is going on in his life at the time of the dream. Of what I understand of him as a person. And of his response to my interpretation .Does it “fit”? Does it help him to understand himself better?

Francois Rouday psychostang, a psychoanalyst, wrote “… I would like to say that the day psychoanalysis will not be afraid to doubt its own knowledge will be the day it comes closest to attaining the status of a science.”  ( On the Epistemology of Psychoanalysis 1984) There are problems with this wish to make psychoanalysis equivalent to a science-but that belongs to another blog. What Rouday is asking for is some sort of certainty about the work we do. Which is probably not possible. But the question is important in itself. And this is the point of the cartoon. If I begin to ask “What is it that I do week by week with my pateints?”am I cutting off the branch I’m sitting on?  And will I end up on the “wrong” side without a ladder?It feels rather like a priest confessing to “having doubts” when their task is to hold certainty. Yet I ask my patients to risk exploring their inner lives with its ambivalence, its love and its hate, its loves and rages. I invite them to hear my interpretations  of these expereinces. Sometimes this exploration leads to unexpected places, which would never  have been known about but for their work in counselling. So for me, asking about the way I work and the things I say will take me to new places. I just hope I like them!

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