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



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.

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

The Black Dog goes Home


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.


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

Black dog


I wanted to finish off this story with a brief exploration of the other person in this story. Namely the friend. This is really a clinical note to myself rather than an explanation given to my patient. I include it in case it is of interest or value to anyone else. The explanation that seems best suited to this event is conversion hysteria. Defined as

“The diagnostic criteria for functional neurological symptom disorder, as set out in DSM-V, are:

The patient has ≥1 symptoms of altered voluntary motor or sensory function.
Clinical findings provide evidence of incompatibility between the symptom and recognised neurological or medical conditions.
The symptom or deficit is not better explained by another medical or mental disorder.
The symptom or deficit causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or warrants medical evaluation.”

In layman’s terms there is a mismatch between the event and the symptoms. Why should killing the black dog be so problematic for my patient’s friend? One would have expected a feeling of relief .A problem had been solved. There might have been some feelings of loss. A rare and strange creature is no longer present. A challenge has been met and won. But to end up completely paralysed? This makes no sense. During the World Wars it was nor  uncommon for some soldiers to be sent home because they had become blind .Or because they had lost the use of their shooting arm. Other expressions of this disorder are:

“In practice, the term is limited to findings on neurological examination that imitate neurological disease, but do not conform to anatomical or physiological patterns. It includes paralysis, somatic and special sensory disturbances, involuntary movements, pseudo seizures, speech, gait, and memory disorders…”

The body acts on behalf of the mind to provide a way out of an impossible solution. If a soldier can no longer tolerate the fighting, what is  he to do? He can’t simply go home. He can’t desert. Nor can he stay where he is. One answer is for him to develop a physical condition that allows him a way out. Albeit a physical problem with no organic cause. That way he can leave the fighting and stay alive at the same time.

To return to my patient’s friend. We know from my patient that he and his friend desired the young woman at the end of the lane. For my patient he decided that he had too much to lose by visiting her. His black dog was, ultimately, helpful. It made him evaluate his  behaviour in a new way. It seems that his friend reacted differently Which suggests that the black dog had a different meaning for him.

And, as I say to my patients, that is the end of this session. You might want to continue with this material in our next meeting…

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

Who’s God?

This blog came out of a conversation on Linked-In (as many of my conversations seem to these days.It is a fascinating place to hang out with like-minded people.) I mentioned that I found many parallels between psychotherapy and religion. I was invited to take this further. This blog is a partial answer to that invitation.The precise roots of the word “Religion” are contested-which sets the tone for all subsequent matters dealing with religion! One sense is that religion is concerned with the respect for what is sacred. Another element is that religion binds fast. I don’t see too much there that puts it at odds with psychotherapy whose roots are in the healing of the soul or mind.

Religion and psychotherapy both reverence the sacred-although religion wants to copyright this experience. (So, mind you, can psychotherapy!) But at best both disciplines value the sacred. I certainly know the experience of standing on Holy ground whether I am sitting with a patient who is exploring something delicate and precious to them.Or if I am standing in a cathedral or simply walking in the woods.There is that sense of awe that leaves me wanting to hold my breath.

Equally both religion and psychotherapy can bind fast in a destructive way. Our insurance policies still have a clause that calls something an act of God. Usually something destructive that nobody foresaw or understood. Change” an act of God” for “the unconscious” and I doubt the insurance companies would quibble. We can attribute all manner of ills to the unconscious and leave our patents with nowhere to go because, like God, we impute the presence of unconscious processes from what we see and hear from our patients. (I would be hard put to point to the location of the unconscious.. But no more could I point to the location of God. Both are acts of faith And both are ways of talking about processes we don’t fully understand but which we feel need some kind of explanation. Both concepts can be binding in a punitive way. We  can bind with ideas of Sin. We bind with ideas of the unconscious Both can be used to control others.

Equally, both can be used to bind in a healing fashion . We speak of binding a wound to stop infection and promote healing. Religion and therapy can also work this way.

I have encountered therapists who seems bent of punishing their patients and colleagues for unknown unconscious issues that are inhibiting their growth. I have met priests and pastors who castigate their congregation for their sins-known and unknown. (It is fascinating to see how often the difficulties both therapist and priest impute to their flocks resemble their own difficulties!)

So, to link to the book cover. I think Blazer has a  fair point. Psychiatry-and its children-can lose their souls. And religion all too often loses its mind.51JVVTQFA3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Holding space 1

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe recently visited the two Liverpool Cathedrals, the Anglican and the Roman Catholic . I have seen both before and enjoy being there. In the past I have always favoured the Catholic cathedral, finding the Anglican one too intimidating. I dislike places-or people- where I feel ” put in my place”. (This usually means that I  feel small and unimportant- “a worm and no man”, as the Psalmist puts it.It is usually done by people who themselves feel unimportant or overlooked. I do wonder about the mentality behind the increasingly tall buildings going up around the world. What statement is being made?)

What I usually enjoy about the Catholic cathedral is its relative intimacy. Along with the art work and the fact that it is in the round, thus diminishing some of the traditional hierarchical structures that often prevail. In religious language it is the difference between the Immanence of God and the Transcendence. The maternal and paternal aspects of God.This element being mediated by our own experience of our parents.

This time, however, my experience was reversed. We visited the Anglican cathedral first and went up to the top of the tower, looking out over Liverpool.My wife and our friends spent much longer at this than me. I gave up after one walk round and came back to the main cathedral. I stood in the transept and found myself feeling unusually “held” in this space. Whether that was in contrast to the huge city scape I had just been seeing or a response to the space itself, I am unsure. Simply that I was  in no hurry to leave it.

Later in the day we went to the Catholic cathedral, which I was looking forward to visiting. We went up the steps and went in. I quickly found that it felt emptier than I had remembered it being. I was quite unprepared for this reaction- and a little disappointed. I spent a quarter of an hour walking round, trying to find the “magic” that was usually thee for me. But no magic appeared and we left.

I wondered about this experience of absence-and presence. And its reversal. Finding what I had not expected. And not finding what I had expected.  The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott offers the idea of potential space. He suggest that that the place where the baby and the breast meet is a shared space that is not the property of either mother or baby. Rather it is a shared space. “From birth, ” he writes, “… the human being is concerned with the problem of the relationship between what is objectively perceived and what is objectively conceived of, and in the solution of this problem there is no health for the individual who has not been started off well enough by the mother.” (Playing and Reality 1971)

I will write more about this in my next blog and link together some these ideas so that they make a single piece rather than a scattering of thoughts.
Cathedral 1