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, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Uncategorized, Ways of Being

Revolutionary thoughts

7-_the_beatles_illustrated_lyrics_revolution_1968_by_alan_aldridge__iconic_images_alan_aldridgeI went to look at the “Revolution” exhibition at the V&A museum yesterday. “A rousing and pertinent excavation of the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s”
I did think that the 60’s revolution seemed to meet fewer barriers than my journey to get to see it. First book my ticket on-line. This took at least three attempts since each time I typed in my card details they mysteriously morphed into something completely different on the screen. Eventually my computer and I agreed on a number. Stage one complete. Than go to the station, guessing at the time of the next London train. I guessed fairly well giving myself enough time for a cup of coffee. On to Marylebone where I spent another five minutes checking and double checking my route. Then 20 minutes on the tube, anxiously counting off each stop in case I was West not East or vice versa. (Which is quite ban apt metaphor for the whole 60’s scene.)

Eventually I got to the V&A where there was a statutory bag search. This completed I could go to the exhibition via the sculpture hall. Rodin and a host of other sculptors were on show. What fascinated me was how much they gave a sense of perspective and history. Rodin’s work (which always moves me) did not come out of nowhere. It stands in the context of thinking about how people are. What do our bodies say about us and the way in which society views us. This set the scene for me for the Revolution exhibition which was about change, development, values and perceptions. As well as great music, wonderful fashion and nostalgia! But most fascinating was seeing students in their 20’s making copious notes about the exhibits. What was so interesting about seeing Mary Quant’s dresses? Or reading about the posters about Vietnam war protests. This was my youth.That’s all. I was lucky enough to have been a teenager in the 60’s. My wife grew up in a later decade with different values which shaped her. But neither of us see our era as historically important to anyone except ourselves.

When I interview a new patient I always take a history going back to grandparents if they are remembered. Patterns emerge and when I comment on them my patients often looked surprised. “I hadn’t thought of it like that” is a frequent response. It’s also often the small details that can tell a lot. So one patient remarked almost in passing, that they had asthma as a child. I commented on this and wondered it might be a clue about their early experience of family life. They looked at me as if I had asked if they had been to Mars. But in the context of their history, this was a hint about some feelings of being unable to breathe sometimes. As George Santayana observed
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So with this patient there were times when they felt being at home to be a suffocating experience. A pattern that repeated itself in their adult life.

So in taking a history I’m not merely asking out of curiosity. I’m asking to help me find a bridge between their past and their present. In the same way that “Revolution” was reached by history so much of my patients material is hinted at-indeed formed by-their early experience. So, I enjoyed the exhibition and found it odd to be an observer of my own history.But that is a good image for the work of counselling. It gives us a space to step outside ourselves and think about our history. As Eliot put it, “In my end is my beginning.” or that both time past and time present are, perhaps present in time future.”

Finally,a note on the link below. It is mainly an excuse to promote one of my favourite songs from my youth. But it also has something to say about revolutions which are as much an internal process as an external one.

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

Whose Story?

Reading the birth narratives of the four gospel writers is fascinating. Each writer gives their own account of the Christ event. Matthew wants to assure us of Jesus’ legitimacy.He traces his lineage all the way back to Abraham, (how much more kosher can a man be?) Mark is all action. Within nine verses  of chapter one, Jesus has arrived .like a sports star making their first appearance for their new team. Luke also puts Jesus into a contact. One of supernatural events all round. Miracles galore. John is all philosophy. Jesus is the divine logos. The Word before all words. These introductions tell us as much about the Four as they do about Jesus. What they also tell us is a lot about their Christ. Their version of salvation etc.

It is hard to find the “real” Jesus here just as much as it might be today .The central character is swamped by a lot of other people’s needs. The need to legitimise him. The need to show his intellectual pedigree. The necessity of showing him as a man of action who gets his sleeves rolled up from the start. So it is in the counselling relationship. My patients bring me their stories neatly edited for  public consumption (which , of course, is also for their private consumption.) A large part of my work is to find the hidden story. No picture has any depth without the interplay of Light and Shade. Spaces and Activity. In the same way that the narratives of the gospels took time to form, so do our narratives. Unlike Athena coming fully formed from Zeus’ head, our narratives take time. And in exactly the same way that our narratives fit a particular version of ourselves, so do the gospel stories. They also tell us a lot about the needs of the writers. Each one crafts a Jesus whom they need to fit  their versions of themselves. So when Uncle Fred  tells his war story for the thousandth time this Christmas, try to see what he is wanting to tell you about himself rather than worry too much about the historical accuracy of the story.(This is , of course, one of the major problems with having a sacred text. How should we read it? How should we understand it?)

The Birth of Jesus represents a turning point. It also  stands as the story of Everyman. Mary is having a baby and babies represent new starts, new hopes, new anxieties. Nothing will be the same again. This infant will call for his parents to grow and change as he does. How they manage this challenge will shape how the baby manages his challenges as he grows up. A similar process takes place in the counsellor’s room. As therapist and patient meet, get to know one another and risk intimacy, so a new life can be born. This life needs nurturing as do the parents.(The question of who cares for the therapist belongs in another piece!) And as with the biblical narratives our work as therapists is to try to understand what lies behind the stories .What am I being told about  my patient when they tell me about  their marriage? Or their work? Or how they feel about seeing me?

I like the picture in this blog. It conveys a sense of hope without diminishing the struggle. It also conveys a sense of hope – without which nothing is ever achieved. T.S.Eliot in his poem Journey of the Magi,  has the Magi asking the question “… were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” It is a question that is often asked in counselling as patients struggle with new understandings of their stories. It is also a question that Christmas in particular raises, with the impossible weight of expectation placed on it-and us. “Is this a Birth or a Death?” The answer may be that it is both.


Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Forbidden fruit

One of my former students emailed recently telling me that his young son had asked “Daddy. What would have happened if Adam hadn’t eaten the apple?” I’m still waiting to hear what my student said but it has been nagging at me all day. The classic story is Garden of Eden; Forbidden Fruit; Fall; Exile; Christmas; Easter; Second Coming. That’s the standard Nine Lessons and Carols version.Several things intrigue me here. What was the tree’s purpose? Presumably God didn’t need it-being all-knowing etc. Adam and Eve didn’t need it because they had no idea of Good and Evil-yet. And the Genesis  version speaks of two trees. The tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So in this version Life is not directly connected with Knowledge. How, then, were Adam and Eve supposed to live? Can one live without knowledge? What would an unknowing person look like? And of what value might their choices be? If I never hate, what value does my love have? If I can only do “Right” how do I know the Right from the wrong? Or, more importantly, how I know my Right from my Wrong? I think it is wrong to behead someone. I think Rape is wrong. I think these things because I have a particular moral code drawn from all manner of sources, not the least of which is my awareness of my shadow side.

I wonder what God was thinking all this time? (If He knew? Jung’s book on Job has an interesting take on this question. He suggests that Satan represented all the bits of God that He couldn’t manage. So his banishment was inevitable. God had to do something with His own Shadow. The book is “Answer to Job”. It makes fascinating reading.) Was God being a good parent and protecting Adam and Eve from too much pressure in the same way that we worry about what children might be accessing on the Web? Or was He being very controlling, choosing to keep all knowledge to himself for fear that He be dethroned? (Rather like any despot throughout history who has to keep knowledge and power in their own hands?)

As a counsellor I am aware of the fantasy that I have all Knowledge. That I have a magic wand which, if I used it, would instantly heal my patient. I have no such wand-thankfully. I have to walk the path with my patient trying to shed some light en route. What Knowledge I have I share-although I do it judiciously. As Eliot observed “Humankind cannot bear over much reality.” Which is not to say that humankind cannot bear any reality…



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

Instant everything

I have been thinking about boredom. I thought I might need to engage with my readers in a more dynamic way, lest sitting reading a blog be too boring. So, here is a clip from a piece by Stop Motion Orchestra which I hope will grab your attention. (It is called “Instant Everything”) Continue reading

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

He is risen?

RisenChristI am writing this piece on Easter Sunday. The day when Christ rose from the dead, according to Christian tradition. The implications of this vary widely, depending on one’s emotional and theological make up. For some it means that our sind have been forgiven. That Eternal life is now available to us if we accept the gift that Christ’s death make available to us. We give our hearts to him and he makes sharers in his Risen life. (Not accepting this gift means that we spend all this life and the next separated from God-and all that might follow from that state.) Another version is that Christ’s death shows us that God is not sitting in Heaven remote and untouched by humanity’s struggles. The death of Christ shows us that God knows about suffering and walks the road with us. These are two of the many shades of meaning attached to the Easter story. Which version one chooses is, I think, shaped as much by personality as by reason.

I have no idea what happened on the original Easter Sunday. Nor do I know what implications follow from that. I spent too many years following the traditional evangelical line that I was a sinner who was bound for hell unless I accepted Christ as my personal saviour. I worked very hard at believing that doctrine. I was successful at it.I’ve preached on street corners; witnessed; given out tracts; cast out demons; spoken in tongues,prayed and prophesied. And kept quiet about those “But…” questions. Then I went into therapy and had a chance to ask all those questions. And find my own answers. Which meant that I left all those evangelical certainties and have never come back to them. So, I too have my own empty tomb and am left wondering what happened to the body I buried there.

In 1892 Martin Kahler coined the phrase “The Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith”. As with any phrase, Kahler’s original meaning has been changed over the years. I want to add my own interpretation here. I offer a psychological interpretation.  To think about our own “historical Jesus”. The parts of us that are not divine. The ordinary everyday us who was born, lives, goes about mundane daily life. We can date when we were born.Where and to whom. We know about our growing up, going to university, marrying, having children etc. All the usual activities of daily living. We have good days and bad days. Times when we are sad. Times when we are happy. Ordinary everyday lives. The Christ of Faith belongs to those parts of us that dream dreams. See visions. Choose to Hope. When I worked in a Therapeutic Community we always had a good-bye tea when someone left after their year. We made much of it because it was a new beginning as well as an ending. Good Friday and Easter Day. In standard psychiatric units this ending is not marked. A decision is made and the patient is discharged. There is no ceremony to mark the event.There is no discovery of something different or new. Nor any chance to mourn what has been left behind.

If our ordinary lives might represent the Jesus of history, where does the Christ of faith fit? For me, the Christ event is found in moments of change. The moment in therapy when one feels understood. Or when as a therapist something makes sense about a patient. From this understanding, new work can start. A Christ event occurs.A different future can begin. Equally Christ events occur when all we see is Good Friday with its suffering. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is an act of faith to believe that there is an end to pain. To dare to hope that a resurrection is possible. Holding this hope is also the task of the therapist. I remember working for a long time with one patient whose childhood had been grim but who refused to mourn what he had lost. “I’m not going to be a fucking victim” was his catch phrase. He defended against this by presenting an air of contempt for everyone. The Christ event occurred when he allowed himself to acknowledge the hurt and vulnerable aspects of himself. This cost him many tears. From this point new life was possible. But I had to keep the hope. To believe that change was possible, even though it frequently seemed a forlorn hope.

These are my Easter thoughts. They are a long way from my early fundamentalism. But the pleasure of my current thinking is that it fits. It belongs to me. I can live with a Jesus of history and a Christ of Faith. I have to since I know too well the cost of trying to be someone else. Words from Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” come to mind.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I will leave to the last words to the choir of King’s college, Cambridge singing one of my favourite Easter hymns.



Counselling, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Bits of myself part 2

penny farthingThis follows my earlier thoughts and takes the idea of identity a bit further. I wrote earlier how much getting back to cycling has allowed me to regain a part of  myself that I thought I had had to give up. If I saw  cyclist out on a ride I felt guilty, sad and annoyed. Why wasn’t I out there? (I even tried a session of hypnosis to overcome my anxiety. I don’t think it worked-unless it was a particularly slow release style, taking a year to achieve something.) One serious test will come tomorrow when I do a 75 mile charity ride around the Chilterns. (Hence blogging today!)

I have had several conversations with my patients about identity. How parents who divorce can mean important stories get lost. Similarly when parents die, all sorts of bits of us die with them. They are no longer here to be able to ask “What happened when…?” One patient put it that it was like having a jigsaw puzzle that would forever remain incomplete. But unlike a game, this puzzle was their life story which was incomplete. So the work of mourning the death of parents is a doubled piece of work. Part of my past is gone. As is part of my future. Both feel lost.”In my beginning is my end… in my end is my beginning” wrote Eliot.

Another patient comes into my room but feels permanently absent. I find myself puzzled about where their real life is lived. (I don’t think they know the answer.) Much of our work together seems to be about “real making”. Yeats spoke of seeing “…in all poor foolish things that only live a day, Eternal beauty wandering on her way.” My patient reminds  me of this line. So  much of what is presented in the room consists of “poor foolish things that only live a day”. Or that is how my patient regards themselves and their material. The work is, I think, to allow them to find Eternal beauty. Something robust, valued and sure.

I have spoken before of my roots in Evangelical Christianity. I remember many texts, lines and thoughts from the bible. Some helpful, some less so. A conversation with one my patients recently reminded of a comment made by Saint Paul. He is writing to the church in Collosse and tells them ” For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Coll.3:3) For more years than I want to remember this was held up as a statement of True spirituality. Paul makes a similar statement in Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (Gal.2:20) As a good believer I tried to think myself into this position. “Not I, but Christ.” It was hard work. I kept on getting in the way! Following a session with one of my patients I found myself re-visiting these thoughts from Saint Paul. I discovered that I was annoyed with the apostle. “He’s hiding” I realised. “He doesn’t much like or know the person he is. His life is at least three times removed. There is Paul. Whose life is hidden in Christ. Who in turn is hidden in the Trinity. The most floridly psychotic schizophrenic could not be much more cut off from himself. Therapeutic with Paul around his self image and self value would be fascinating. Very hard work. Infuriating. Exasperating. But fascinating. I think the work would take a long time…

I stil have more to write and am aware that 500 words makes for comfortable reading. Much more and patience begins to wane. So, I’ll write part 3 in a little while. If anyone is still reading!