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

Whomper asks the best questions


” ‘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.


Counselling, Dragons, Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

A head full of Nothing

iPhoto Library

My wife and I were out walking recently and we came across a large piece of rock coming out of the landscape. We looked at it. I wondered at how old it might be. Well, said my wife, some bits of granite are at least 30 million years old. She went on to give a short overview of how granite forms. I had already left the room, I have to confess. My question wasn’t actually the one I asked. My mind was already telling an imaginary audience the “real” history of this rock. How dwarves had sheltered under it when being persecuted by the goblin clans. How, on some nights when the moon was full, unicorns used to meet here to mate. How before men arrived, dragons used this stone for their gatherings. I began to construct the history of these creatures and their interactions with each other. My wife looked at me and smiled. “That’s the wrong answer isn’t it?”  “No. Just not the answer I meant.” I replied. We carried on our walk smiling since we both know about these kinds of conversations. My wife is an engineer and, therefore, of a practical mind. For her a piece of rock is a piece of rock. It can be carbon dated. It can be weighed. Measured. Tested in many ways. It has nothing to do with dwarves, goblins or dragons.

In schizophrenia there is a phenomenon known as Knights Move thinking. This is a way of describing psychotic thinking. For example “The next day when I’d be going out, you know, I took control, like uh, I put bleach on my hair in California.” (Wikipedia article on Derailment- thought disorder.) The idea is that the response to a question bears no obvious connection to the question itself. another way of describing this is a loosening of associations.There is a connection in the mind of the person answering .It is not the answer the questioner was asking for. but that doesn’t make it a wrong answer. I remember as a teenager finding maths, physics etc incomprehensible .What possible value did Ohms law have? Why does it matter what Pythagorus thought about triangles? My father came home one evening after a parents night at my school. He relayed the information that my Headmaster thought that my head was “full of nothing”. (It was not given as a compliment!) I’ve often thought about that comment. What he meant was that my mind was not full of Boyle’s law .Or someone’s clever theorem about Pi.My head was full of the story of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespearian tragedy .It was entranced by the story of Animal Farm and corruption. Not “nothing” in any way. Simply a different set of associations. Brian Patten wrote A Prose Poem in Definition of Itself .In it he has these lovely lines “On sighting mathematicians poetry should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra…” Or we  should loosen our familiar associations and see where that takes us.

I wish you all a 2015 of new, loosened associations. (Now where did I put that algebra text-book…)





Questions, Questions,Questions


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!