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, 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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Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Cinderella continues

I wanted to take my musings on the Cinderella a bit further and look at the story in terms  of Freud’s paper “Mourning and Melancholia”. (These days we talk about depression, not melancholia. It is the same thing.) I started by thinking that Cinderella was depressed. The story well describes the feelings attached to depression. A sense of impoverishment (sitting in dirty clothes in the ashes).  A feeling of being persecuted ( her step family hate her). Feelings that any task is impossible,( the tasks set her by her step family).  An idea that everyone else is much better off than oneself ( her step sisters can go to the Ball but she cannot).  Then I began to think a bit more deeply. Cinderella is Mourning .Her mother has died and her father has, effectively, abandoned her. But despite all this, she can still have Hope. She can dream that she could, somehow, go to the Ball. She can believe that she  is worthy.This self belief is more than justified when the Prince falls in love with her. It is also her self belief that allows to try on the glass slipper. These are not the actions of a woman who is depressed. The depressive would have decided that nothing was ever going to be good again. That the ashes in which she sat were all she deserved and all she could expect. She would not have gone to the ball and certainly would not have tried on the slipper. What was the point? She was ugly inside and outside.

This, of course, is one of the difficulties with depression. And the difference between Mourning and Melancholia. Freud puts it like this “In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty. In melancholia it is the ego itself.” Cinderella’s mourning for her dead mother eventually allows her to begin to hope. (Or this is so in the Perrault version.) From a place of mourning she can begin to heal. Things are transformed. A pumpkin becomes a Carriage. Mice become Horses. A rat morphs into a Coachman and a lizard becomes a Footman. The things around her that are ordinary and commonplace become a source of pleasure and optimism. Not only for Cinderella but also for the Prince. And, by implication, for a new dynasty since Princes and Princesses always continue a Royal line and hopefully, rule well and wisely.

The picture at the top of this blog is Durer’s “Melancholia”. In it the central figure is surrounded by all the riches of the world but is unable to take any comfort from them. Durer obviously had a keen understanding of Depression! It is one  of the challenges of working with someone who is depressed. Along with the sadness, there is frequently a profound rage. (An extreme example of this rage being acted out is in suicide, which, amongst other things, is an attack on those around. Born out of a fury.)

Cinderella was sad. Understandably. But she had enough good things inside her to allow her to grow. To hold on to Hope. She could accept her sadness and mourn the things she had lost. But she did not need to destroy herself in the process.

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

Emotional etymology

I realise how often I will look up a word’s etymology when writing a blog. It seems a way in which I can ground my thoughts and my writing. A literary “ground of my Being”. It gives me a sense of starting from somewhere honest, which is the original sense of the word “etymology”. It has to do with true meanings. But words don’t remain static. Thankfully. They “slip, slide, won’t stay still” to quote Eliot. ( A friend wrote a brave and fascinating piece on the word “cunt” I’m not sure I would have been as brave!) My thoughts then wondered off to my clinical work and the idea of clinical etymology i.e. what are the origins of this symptom, idea, fantasy etc.  (Freud’s essay on The Rat Man is a classic example of the beginning of a symptom and the ways in which these symptoms changed over time. It is also an exploration of the creative uses to which we put our symptoms. It is also quite opaque at times with Freud making extraordinary jumps of understanding and interpretation. But why should this be a surprise? If language is full of hidden histories, how much more so our unconscious lives?)

To take this idea a little further, we can follow Lacan in suggesting that the unconscious  is  structured as a language. Which might give us access to wondering about what part of speech any given symptom m might equate to. Thus a symptom may serve several functions. It might work as a noun, having a naming function which also serves as a limiter i.e. it is this thing, not that thing. It is depression, not anger. A symptom may also  be a verb. a doing word i.e. I”do” psychosis. It is an active process that needs a subject and an object to fully make sense. (Which is why whenever we take a clinical history, we try to put a symptom into a context. When did this symptom first begin? How do you use it? There is really no such thing as an isolated symptom .Somewhere in the unconscious we will find the rest of its family.

And like any good piece of writing, I’m now struggling to find a satisfying way of ending my blog. I think M.Scott Peck sums it up beautifully when he writes, in The Road Less Travelled “The fact of the matter is that our unconscious is wiser than we are about everything.”

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Counselling, Hope, Psychoanalysis, Religion, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Aleppo

aleppoI have nothing new to say about the battle for Aleppo. Many better writers than me have written reams about it. Psychoanalysis knows all about war, murder, envy and hatred. Both within and without. It also knows about love, care, compassion and kindness. Within and without. Aleppo has seen both of these worlds-the internal and the external. I want to use Aleppo as a metaphor for the inner journey.(I know something of this battle zone. I know nothing of a physical war zone. Thankfully)

I was watching the news last night. A Syrian man was interviewed walking among the ruins of the city. He was surrounded by rubble which he was looking at despairingly.(I was reminded of Hercules and the Augean stables.) He commented that if only the rubble could be cleared, others would return to the city. This seemed a powerful image for  the work of therapy. We all have our own rubble. Sometimes it’s a relatively small pile-or seemingly small. I don’t think any rubble is truly small, representing, as it does, the ruins of some kind of demolition. That pile was once something else. A building. A planned project. Something left behind by a previous owner.

The Syrian man was faced with a painful task. He had no clear idea who or what he might he find underneath the rubble. His family. His home. His life. In some ways it might have been easier to go somewhere else and leave the past buried where it was. Except that he has a right to see what might be buried there. To see what he can salvage that might help him begin again.

His comment about others coming back if the rubble is cleared struck me. I’ve seen so many people  over the years who have lost their friends and family because they can’t get through the rubble. That’s why I think counselling can be so helpful. It provides a space for someone to begin the rubble clearing process. We can’t move al the rubble as counsellors. But we can help the individual find the courage to begin some of the work. Week on week we can think about what might be involved. Where to begin. When to stop. We can offer a space to talk about what has been found in the rubble. What to do with that memory? How to find a way to  the past without being irrevocably dominated by it. It’s slow and often painful work for both the therapist and the patient. Frustration is present. Along with fear and loss. (Also joy and hope.) As a therapist one has to hold all these feelings until the patient can carry them home. Or leave them behind. Move the rubble and others can come along and help.

Freud characterised this struggle as the conflict between id, ego and super ego. Rubble clearance is another way of thinking about this.

 

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Aylesbury, Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

The Black Dog goes Home

black-dog

I feel as though I should preface this piece with a “New readers start here” summary. I shan’t. This dog has had its’ day and it’s time for it to go back into its’ kennel. We are  left with my patient’s friend whom I suggested was suffering from conversion hysteria. I suspect that in some way he identified himself with the dog. My patient had already said that his friend could be violent at times .”He would never back down from a fight. It didn’t matter if he knew he was going to get a beating, he couldn’t back down. As if he was hard-wired for aggression and violence.”  I asked about  his friends attitude to women.

“He was an odd mixture. He both loved and hated women. He’d been in arrested several times for domestic violence but none of the women would ever press charges. He go home  and for a bit it was all flowers and chocolates.Then something would happen and the violence would erupt. We often saw his girlfriends walking about wearing dark glasses. After a bit we stopped asking  ‘why?'”

With this in mind I contacted the friend’s psychiatrist and wondered if abreaction might be worth a try.

Here is a very brief definition of abreaction:

“Abreaction is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud in 1893 to denote the fact that pent-up emotions associated with a trauma can be discharged by talking about it. The release of affect occurred by bringing “a particular moment or problem into focus”… and as such formed the cornerstone of Freud’s early cathartic method of treating hysterical conversion symptoms.”

In simple terms, if one can help the patient talk about an event, it brings it into consciousness where it can be thought about and discussed, in the hope of resolving the conflict.

We used this with the friend. We asked him about the black dog. At first he just laid there and shook his head. Which was a kind of progress! Then he said “That black dog was my life. It was me. I loved it. I hated it. I needed it and I loathed it I always knew that one day one of us would kill the other.It had to be that way. I always hoped it would kill me. But that’s not the way it was meant to be,” With this he relapsed back into his “coma”. And has never since moved or spoken. My patient came for  about a year longer then left, happy in himself and settled his marriage.

 

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

The Black Dog

black-dog

This is the last part of the story of the Black Dog of Aylesbury as told me by one of my patients.. It’s a frightening story and easy to dismiss as the product of too much alcohol or other dubious substance. But my patient made it very clear that he was absolutely sober.  I believe him. So, what to make of this story? Jung would view the Black dog as an archetypal figure raising from a shared unconscious. Not being a Jungian, I chose to interpret this story as a kind of waking dream. Dreams being  seen as the Royal Road to the unconscious by Freud. In the earlier blogs  I’ve spoken about one view of what this event might have meant for my patient. I now want to look at how we might understand what happened to his friend. (Although like all therapy sessions, this might take longer than initially planned.)

In the story my patient and his friend both go out to challenge the dog. The friend beats it up and it vanishes. But the consequence of this is that he goes in to a kind of coma and is hospitalised. At the time I was seeing my patient his friend had been like this for several months.

“What do you think happened, Terry?” my patient asked.

This was not a question I knew how to answer in simple terms. In fact the whole saga stretched me to my emotional and intellectual limits. I found, and still find, the whole event disturbing. Here is a summary of what i suggested to my patient.

What did he know about trench blindness, for example? Or of soldiers who developed paralysis in their hands when it came to shooting a rifle. He said he’d vaguely heard of this idea.

“Weren’t they seen as skivers or cowards and either shot or court marshalled? Or both?” he asked.

“Yes, that was often what happened. Psychological thinking wasn’t very sophisticated in the forces in those days.”

“So”, asked my patient, “what does this have to do with the dog? It was real. We both saw the damned thing.”

I took a deep breath and started.

“I think something like this happened. Both of you wanted to visit this woman at the end of the lane. Both of you wanted to have sex with her. Both of you were stopped by this dog. This dog represented the bit of you that felt guilty about this. You wanted this woman but also knew that you had a family at home whom you loved. The dog ‘worked’. It kept you faithful-which you wanted it to.”

I paused.

“I sort of get that.” said my patient. “You’re saying I invented this dog to stop me from doing something dangerous like having sex with this woman.”

“That’s close enough .I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘invented’ but that’s pretty much what I’m suggesting.”

I went on to suggest that the dog had served its purpose. (We rarely ‘state’ or ‘tell’ as therapists. We ‘suggest’. We ‘muse’.  There are all sorts of reasons for this…) It had given him a  chance to think about what he was doing. To decide that he wanted to keep his marriage, home, family etc. In a sense the dog was no longer needed by him.

“OK. I see that and it’s true. Mostly.I did want to keep my marriage more than I wanted to have sex with this woman. But, it would have  been fun finding out …”

“Agreed. It might have been. We don’t know what else you might have found out.

We left this thought hanging and returned to his friend. And since that is the end of our time for today, the story of the friend will have to wait for another session.

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