I have just finished reading Henry Marsh’s Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. It struck me as a very honest, unflinchingly human book, both bleak and reassuring, and it led me to consider, not for the first time, what it is that we are.
Marsh writes that he does not believe in an afterlife because he is a neurosurgeon. For him this is a simple equation, an utterly obvious conclusion. It is hard to argue with him without having his experience. While for me the whole world of the brain is extremely mysterious, he is used to dwelling in it, in that electrochemical world, in which it is obvious that interfering with one small, specific piece of flesh will lead to blindness, or to personality change, or to the putting out of the whole system — what we call death.
In material terms it is, of course, obvious that when this system stops working, life ends. Our personalities are also entirely reliant on the functioning of the brain. We can at least explain them ‘backwards’ — if an area is interfered with or removed, there are effects on the personality or even we could say the unique spirit of the person, as when a calm person for example becomes aggressive. But this does not explain where their original calmness ‘came from’. The electrochemical explanation may well be sufficient; if every snowflake is different, surely we are too. But something in people seems to consistently yearn for, or intuit, a source of creation, which would therefore not necessarily be subject to material death.
While finishing Admissions I was also making a recording of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist teaching which boldly proclaims the non-existence of everything. I have been somewhat immersed in it for a week now. “Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no ignorance and no end to ignorance, no old age and death, no end to old age and death, no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain…” and so on.
The point is not nihilism, but that nothing has an independent solid existence, as a thing apart from other things. This is in a sense reminiscent of Marsh’s reference to life and consciousness as an ‘electrochemical dance’, given that the electrochemical events in the brain are themselves also fleeting constructs of sets of factors and circumstances, or as Buddhists would put it, causes and conditions. There is simply no bottom line to hang onto.
What to do in such a world? Here the brain surgeon and the Buddhist lama are of similar mind. Relieve suffering, as best we can. The brain surgeon does this in an obvious, physical way. The lama, on the other hand, illuminates the fact that we cause our own suffering — on top of the physical pain we all have to face at some point. (And how very grim, in so many of Marsh’s cases, it is, sometimes completely obliterating even the possibility of adding on the extra twist of suffering that the Buddhists refer to. When you are in agony you don’t really care much about holding onto your construct of self: you may actually long for death simply to make the pain stop.) When not in agony, though, we can certainly cause no end of suffering by clinging onto who we think we must be; by trying to mitigate our self-imposed isolation by craving other things, other people; by clinging onto our youth, our bodies, our possessions; all ultimately in order to deal with the fear of death.
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The message of the Heart Sutra — that form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form — does not deny that material forms exist and function in a meaningful way in everyday life, and does not deny either that they are ultimately groundless. We need to pay attention to the forms, of course; we need brain surgeons. We also need practices to keep us in touch with the fact that between the atoms of the electrochemical dance is an emptiness, an emptiness of anything we might be able to define as truly independent and lasting.
Through practices like meditation, and the mantra I am currently chanting, it is possible to feel as at home in the world where emptiness and form interpenetrate as the brain surgeon is in the world of flesh and electrochemistry. This may influence the way in which we experience pain of a physical nature, too, but at the end of the day the most accomplished spiritual practitioners and the most accomplished neurosurgeons, the gods of the worlds of emptiness and form, all die; and we do not know what happens then, only what stops happening.
This can be felt as profoundly anxiety-provoking and depressing, the ultimate lack of control. However, it is a well-documented mystery that the experience of meditation, which entails awareness of both the mind’s attempts to control and their ultimate groundlessness, tends to bring a sense of peace. Let’s stay with that.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on January 14, 2018.
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Why is it so hard to do what you know full well you need to do, exactly when you need to do it? I have the tendency to postpone what I need right now until some point in the future when I have done all the things that need doing — and my counselling practice fully supports my conviction that I’m not alone!
I am presently designing a series of Creative Regeneration workshops (starting in Glasgow, Scotland on Feb 4th). In this I am following the good old principle that if you want to learn something properly, teach it. Preparing to teach something is the best way there is of breaking down a subject into its component parts, or if that sounds too mechanical to you (as it does to me) of discerning the main points, the areas of real significance and power, within the whole. For someone who tends to get a sense of ‘everything at once’, it can be very valuable to hold a given subject down in time and space.
So, I am breaking down the main areas of what works for me in my own creative regeneration, in order to share the benefits, and with the intention of catalysing it for others. This makes me extremely aware of how little time I devote to properly practising what I preach. By ‘properly’ I mean not in snatches of time when it’s convenient or when I am particularly in the mood, but deliberately setting time aside. And this time seems to have more power to it, if it is purposefully taken before starting on all the things that ‘should’ be done, and/or before switching on any kind of screen. This doesn’t necessarily mean always in the morning, but it may mean in breaks before the next chunk of activity, rather than when I’m exhausted after it, as an afterthought.
So what actually are the practices that work for me? It always starts with meditation. For me, basic meditation means being my own attention, inhabiting it fully, dwelling in it, feeling it out. An easy way into this is paying attention to the breath, because it has to be there constantly, because in a sense it is life itself. When attention edges, or races away, or becomes absorbed in something else, be it an external stimulus or a thought or feeling or physical sensation or pain, bringing it back to awareness of the breath is like exercising a muscle — the meditation muscle. This skill of coming back, out of thoughts, out of feelings, is I would say among the number one life skills. Having that muscle honed in actual meditation practice makes everyday life so much less overwhelming.
Once settled in my attention, another aspect of regeneration I might use is focusing, becoming aware of the various senses that arise — not exactly thoughts, emotions or sensations, but a kind of composite gut-sense of my life right now, or some aspect of it which wants attention. Being with this felt sense, allowing it to develop, and to respond, can move situations along in ways I could simply never have thought of with my rational faculties.
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Focusing is a creative process. It also involves finding words for what doesn’t really fit the normal everyday vocabulary — if it did, it wouldn’t be a felt sense, and we’d know exactly how to state it. Finding words which the body responds to, saying ‘yes — that’s it!’ starts a process well known to artists of all kinds. How else do you know the next line in a poem, the next brushstroke, or note? Writing these words down, letting them form in strings that have not been said before, this isn’t just a question of producing an end result but of extending, dwelling in, the process of living itself. Every moment spent there is regenerative.
Finally, there is art. Painting or drawing from this sense, asking what needs to be expressed, not worrying about it fitting or representing something or measuring up in any way, is fantastically interesting and also healing. The whole process is one of checking with what it is in us that responds — call it intuition, or the gut, or the felt sense, or spirit. We might not pay explicit attention to it as such, but that is ultimately how we decide what to do when making art.
Bathing in my own attention, my breath, as the foundation, refusing to be distracted for long, coming back to the breath, to the bathing, and from there moving into making words, making art, doing ‘on purpose’ what is in fact always happening in the process of living, underneath the distractions — this is what I call creative regeneration. I don’t do it ‘on purpose’ enough, but I have done enough of it to know how powerfully, concretely, and magically it works.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on January 7, 2018.
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All the pressure of New Year comes about, at the end of the day, because of an arbitrary number on the calendar. Of course we can consciously try to let up on the pressure to have a perfect night, and not make any New Year’s resolutions, thus saving us the bother of breaking them and being disappointed in ourselves. But in a sense, this is to ignore the energy of what everyone else is doing around us. Maybe we could surf the wave instead?
Another way of handling the time is to use it as a moment for introspection and reflection on what has happened in the past year. Journaling or just making a list of the main events, and what you consider were the high and low points, things you did well and mistakes you made, can be a helpful way of plugging into a sense of your life as a whole. You can see the narrative patterns, trace cause and effect, gain perspective and distance on events, and a sense of control, albeit in retrospect. Looking at life this way, from the outside and in a chunk, as it were, can be both manageable and meaningful. This chunk of life, containing the four seasons, can then be compared with other chunks if we feel so inclined, and we can draw lessons from it about how to plan and proceed in the next year. We can also spot themes, or missing elements — what it seems to be time to concentrate on now. Some people choose a word as a focus point for what they would like to cultivate, or use as a touchstone, in the coming year.
This all sounds very constructive, and I know it works for many people, but I tend to use the turn of the new year in a more intuitive way, not so much chopping the year into bits and evaluating it, but just taking advantage of the opportunity to make a break in the normal circuit of things — whether that means using the holiday time to forbid myself to look at the diary or go shopping, and instead drop down inside myself to see what is going on, or whether it is partying like crazy and using the spaced-out feeling and/or hangover the next day as a kind of reboot. What I find interesting, and potentially useful, is that so many people are going through some kind of experience of looking at their lives, putting themselves under some pressure, and thinking about newness, at the same time.
I am writing this from terrealuma, the eco-retreat centre and healing refuge I am helping to set up. There are plenty of dreams and plans for next year, and they are wandering through my mind at the pace of the snowflakes meandering down through the air outside the window — as if someone had shaken a snow globe very slowly over the blank sky and bare branches. I am seeing the burst of crowdfunding we need to do in the new year in order to get an access road built. I see the road being built. I see the planting season and the harvest, and the start of building work. I’m sitting by the stove with the cats who arrived in the attic one day as our first volunteers. I wonder what they plan to bring to the table.
The fire seems to be mumbling to itself, and the snowflakes are thickening and falling at an ever slower pace. Whatever day is written on the calendar, nature doesn’t know about it. The seasons go around, you could stop or start anywhere. There’s always the next thing to be done.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 30, 2017.
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It can feel as if everything is speeding up, particularly at this time of year as a certain date in December approaches. Obvious advice to those who feel they are going too fast seems to be to slow down, but that tends to ramp up the tension still further, as it fights against the tide. Any attempt to pretend that a situation is the opposite of what it is, will be pretty much doomed to failure. All the visualisations in the world are unlikely to convince you that you are in a slow-moving pastoral idyll if you find yourself in fact in the middle of a hectic, over-heated shopping mall, hermetically sealed from fresh air.
Another approach is to feel the speed and enjoy it. As physiologically speaking anxiety and excitement are very similar, if not indistinguishable, it’s the way we interpret the rush of things in our minds and around us that makes the difference. This is a useful piece of information not only for performers, but also for Christmas shoppers. When there’s a lot to do and little time to do it in, thoughts tend to move faster and shoot in all directions at once to try and cover it all. The sensations that go with those movements of thought often get called ‘stress’. The very word ‘stress’ probably then ups the level of discomfort. We respond to it with muscular tension and fast, shallow breathing that send further signals throughout the nervous system, reinforcing the sense that there’s something wrong, there’s some imminent danger, and swift action is required — except that we can’t act, because we don’t know exactly what danger to react to.
Stress is not always about speed, the feeling of going too fast and not being in control, or of things around us moving too fast to be dealt with properly. It is sometimes more spatial, about going too far out, trying to do things which we can’t do because they aren’t under our control, or because they are in the future, or in the past. Everything gets spread out and everything seems equally important. In this case, what is needed is to bring the focus in to see what the next thing to be done actually is. To bring the focus in, we usually do need to reduce the inner speed. This is where taking a deep, low breath and focusing attention on it can really help. The next breath — however complex the situation may be — is definitely the next thing that needs to be done.
So far I’ve been considering situations you might call stressful, such as Christmas or other ‘occasions’ when external expectations and deadlines force us to add extra things on to our daily routines, and to get them ‘right’. But everyone has their own internal pace in everyday life, and that also tends to be changeable. All other things being equal, people do tend to cycle a bit between slower, more reflective and relaxed periods and faster-paced ones. In my counselling practice I notice people putting pressure on themselves to change their pace, say, to be slower and more mindful, because that is supposed to be good for their mental health, or to be faster and more externally focused and productive because that is what they need to keep up at work.
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Of course being able to adjust the pace to different conditions is a necessary skill. Working against the tide is rarely the way to get there, though, and forcing the pace exacts a cost, even when it involves slowing down. The trick is, as with most things, accepting the pace you are at, at which point it can adjust itself naturally to the task in hand. While not guaranteed, at least the opportunity is there, whereas forcing matters guarantees you feel the kind of pressure that obstructs things, that comes along with the message ‘there’s something wrong with you’. We could all do without that, and while it may sound more of an inconvenience than a big deal, to my mind, changing this message to ‘you’re fine, go at your own pace’ brings immeasurable benefits, and frees up bandwidth for adjusting to the changing circumstances in hand.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 19, 2017.
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Most of us lead our lives on a sort of autopilot. We let what we perceive to be the requirements of the day dictate our every move. We do what we think we’re supposed to do and ask few questions about it. We go about our daily routines. Of course, we have to be physically awake to do any of this. But in a much more profound sense, while we’re doing it, we’re actually asleep. By that I mean we’re not in conscious contact with the myriad repressed feelings and unattended to desires that lie deeper within us. To be truly awake, we have to be more fully conscious. That’s what all the sages and great mystics have always tried to tell us.
There have been some truly remarkable souls among us who lived their lives with greater than typical awareness. And these spiritual and cultural giants left us with some profound messages about what it takes to live a fully conscious and purpose-driven life. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply aware of how at risk his physical existence was in the days before his assassination. He had a deep intuition about all the possible dangers he faced. And he knew he might well die at any moment. But he was also profoundly aware of a much bigger reality. He knew that both he and the movement he had helped spawn and had fully committed himself to were part of something that simply couldn’t be quashed by snuffing out a single human life. And, he somehow sensed the purpose of his life. As he so eloquently put it, he felt both graced and strengthened because he had “seen the promised land” and sensed what the inevitable result of his and his movement’s role in human history would be. Jesus, we’re told, was also deeply aware of his likely fate. And he reportedly sweat drops of blood in the hours before his death because of that awareness. But despite sensing his own inevitable end, he not only committed himself to his mission and all that it would entail but also urged his followers to “stay awake” themselves, knowing the trials they would eventually face. He saw the bigger picture. And he was fully aware. The mission was bigger than all of them, so he wanted them to be aware as well.
Generally, we come to deeper levels of awareness in two ways: through the experience of great love or intense suffering. But those moments of enhanced consciousness are typically fleeting. It’s really difficult to “stay awake.” To do it we generally have to engage in some kind of contemplative practice. All the world’s great religions and spiritual traditions seem to have known this and offer some mechanisms to accomplish it. But true mindfulness need not be born of any particular type of spiritual exercise. What’s really essential is to dedicate time for awareness itself to take center stage in your life. It’s taking the time to simply be, and in so doing, becoming more aware of being aware. True contemplation is more like having an intimate encounter with oneself. What inevitably flows from that is an increased awareness of how interconnected we are with everyone and everything else that exists. When we’re fully awake, we’re truly aware. We’re truly present. And we’re more fully alive.
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Because it’s so easy to revert to a life on autopilot, here are some tips for staying awake and connected:
Make space in your life for some sort of contemplative practice. Set aside a time of day and/or day of the week for quiet reflection. The exact amount of time you spend is not nearly as important as the degree of focus you maintain. Clearing your mind of all the typical things that distract is key. Most contemplative disciplines offer some methods to help you do that.
Alleviating physical stress
Begin your reflective time with some tension-relieving exercises. Remove physical stress through progressive relaxation exercises or imagery.
Focus your attention on awareness itself. As so many sages of the past have advocated, strive to “be aware of being aware.”
In addition to a routine of focused contemplative exercise, do your best to be as “present” and alert and awake in all your activities. Slowing down in general helps with this. Take the time to savour as many of life’s precious moments as possible, even the seemingly mundane ones. Notice the sunrises and sunsets. Ponder for a moment the wind rustling the leaves on a tree. Take the time to really marvel at a painting. Stop racing through the book you’re reading to ponder the deeper meaning in a particular paragraph. And while you’re at it, remember to bring your whole self to any encounter.
All too many times, we’re only half-listening or half-awake when we do things. That’s the essence of life on autopilot. An awakened life is a very different life. We notice things we missed before. We see things in different lights. A more vast, rich, and instructive world is always before us. But we have to fully show up to take it all in.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 11, 2017.
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I have injured my rotator cuff — not something I was aware I had until I injured it, or rather until I went to a shiatsu practitioner to fix it. I am now more aware than I was of the sets of potential movements the different muscles and tendons in my arms enable, and I am also now aware of a principle for healing my physical injury that has a lot of resonance for my counselling work.
The idea is not to keep the arm still — in a splint, say — as Western medicine might suggest. This would promote rigidity and tension in the muscles all around the injured part, which is protected by an external apparatus, at the end of the day creating more pain and more problems. This is a question of pushing the tension and pain outwards a little further and hoping it dissipates a little on its way out.
Instead, I was advised to keep the arm moving as much as possible, in order to keep the majority of healthy muscles relaxed and pain-free, but not to do anything which provokes the actual painful spot. This means learning a bit about which muscles are responsible for which motions, then paying close ‘in the moment’ attention to the range of movement I have available, and stopping just before the pain.
This seems to me to be analogous to a gentle, non-invasive and effective way of dealing with non-physical problems. In fact, it brought explicitly into my awareness for the first time a way in which I sometimes intuitively work. I say sometimes because it is not always what is needed, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a ‘method’, but the analogy with my sore arm has provoked me into giving it some thought.
So, trying to make it explicit for the first time, it looks something like this.
The client has an area of extreme emotional pain, or a particularly painful thought pattern — an obsession, an addiction, or an addictive kind of problem such as self-harm or an eating disorder. Tackling this problem ‘head on’ can provoke resistance. This could be in the form of anger, emotional shut down (either in general or with the counsellor in particular), or a flare up of the problem itself, making it impossible to do anything but survive the symptoms. The resistance itself causes more pain, more problems which usually spiral out into other parts of life, and a delay in the healing of the original problem.
We might think of this as just ‘the process’ and it may continue, with the resistance being calmed, another attempt to ‘get at’ the problem being followed by another flare-up or shutdown, followed by calming, etc. I can’t help thinking, though, that this whole ‘process’ may sometimes, even often, be unnecessary.
What if we just avoid the problem? This sounds counter-intuitive: after all, we can easily avoid our problems without going to therapy, and by the time we arrive we’ve usually spent our lives doing just that. But I don’t mean pretending the problem doesn’t exist; quite the contrary.
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As with the muscular problem, you can become extremely aware of exactly what the problem relates to in your life, what exactly it is that you are typically trying to do, when you get stopped by the pain or the problem. Often, you discover you can just not go there, and once we know exactly what the problem is, there’s no need to dive right into the pain and work out its meaning from the epicentre, or to remain fixated on what caused the original injury.
You can also pay as much attention as possible to all the ways in which you are living how you want to live. Even if it doesn’t seem as if there are too many of them, there’s always something, if only the fact that you’re still breathing — and paying proper attention to what is working in your life, moods, feelings and thinking patterns, is going to help your whole emotional and mental system work in a more relaxed way, rather than be predominantly on the defence against pain.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 4, 2017.
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Often the ‘voices’ in our internal narratives which sound negative or unkind could be seen to be serving a purpose; in their own twisted way, they are trying to help us. They say “you’re not attractive and you’ll never find a man who loves you” in order to save you from the pain of another failed relationship, or “you’re a loser” in order to stop you even trying to fulfil your potential and thereby risk failure. They are sometimes copies of our parents’ voices and they may well have been trying to protect us form making the mistakes they did. They probably spoke to themselves the same way. Once seen in this perspective, the voices can soften and eventually give up their posts and leave us alone, free to find our own way. This is one way of working with nasty internal criticisms therapeutically, but it is not the only one.
Another way of seeing it is conceptualising the mental ‘voices’ as belonging to an inner abuser, who does not have our good intentions at heart. This often makes instinctive sense. Once we start to wonder about the motivations of the inner abuser, how he can be part of us yet not wish us well, etc., we may get lost in abstraction. I would argue that this is the case with real life separate-person abusers as well: there is no point whatsoever wondering why they got to be that way or how they can act this way when they supposedly love us, or what their own inner conflicts must be in order to make them behave this way. As far as you are concerned, if you have found yourself in an abusive relationship, the only useful person to concentrate on is yourself. Whatever reasons the other person may have, the course of action is the same — to strengthen yourself and escape.
It’s the same with the inner kind. The effects of being constantly told that you are useless, evil, ugly, etc. are the same, and the course of action needs to be a strengthening and creation of a safe base, the gradual undermining of the corrosive narrative you have been feeding yourself. Stopping wondering about ‘where it came from’ can actually free up energy to do so. Once you have ‘escaped’ and are experiencing peace from the internal abuser, then you can more safely look at ‘where it came from’. You can’t look, though, when you are not feeling safe.
The abuse paradigm also seems to make sense of the ‘backlash effect’ that sometimes occurs when we make some kind of progress, feel particularly happy with ourselves, or have a stroke of luck, a good period. Sometimes this is followed by a brutal downward spiral that seems like punishment for having managed to ‘get above’ ourselves. We seem to have been almost lured into feeling good, and then brought firmly back into line. Eating disorders seem to me to be some of the most obvious ‘abusers’ — with no apparent hidden good intentions, they seem intent on seducing the victim with visions of beauty and fulfilment, then ravaging their health. They are also more likely than any other mental health problem to outright kill you.
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As always, the key seems to be refusing to allow, let alone enable, any kind of treatment of ourselves that we would not tolerate happening to someone we love. If this doesn’t come instinctively, it needs to be enforced as a matter of principle. We don’t need to feel compassion for ourselves yet, but we can try to erect a boundary, and set up a safety plan for ourselves. This could be something like strengthening bonds with people who see something good in us, even though we don’t. It could be keeping ourselves busy with activities we know we enjoy more deeply and find more nourishing than, say, having a bulimic episode, although the pull towards the episode may well be stronger and feel much more immediately attractive. It could be many things. The idea would be to enlarge our sphere of being kind, or at the very least being decent, to ourselves.
Only once the nasty inner voices have died down a little and given us a break, then might be the time to dig around a little and find out how we fell prey to the abuser in the first place. For now, the recognition that this is taking place, and some firm steps to counteract it, are more than enough.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on November 27, 2017.
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In psychodynamic counselling theory, the relationship between client and counsellor is seen to a significant extent as a transference relationship — that is, as a kind of re-enactment of an early attachment relationship, that first intimate bond with a parent, as first point of contact with the world, which we can assume, if the client is in therapy, went wrong somewhere. Hence, the desire to suddenly rupture that relationship may be interpreted as a rebellion against the parent. In other counselling models, it might be seen as a desire to escape from difficulties or emotions brought up by the process, or from the sheer hard work involved.
My sense is that very often the desire to ‘escape’ therapy is a sign of health. I think that counselling should essentially be about attuning to the client’s own sense of power and agency, and once it rises to the point where the client wishes to leave, this is a good thing, irrespective of whether the client feels entirely ‘better’ or whether the counsellor feels that the whole process has been completed. If the client feels that their power and agency is in any way held in check by dependency on the counsellor, or that they cannot entirely express it in all its mess and glory with the counsellor, then the impulse to leave is a healthy one. There are also cases when the client just knows that they aren’t ready to go any further. This also needs to be respected rather than over-interpreted.
In general, the interpretation of wishing to leave as resistance to a process, be it therapeutic, or spiritual, seems to me worthy of investigation. If any desire to leave or a disagreement that one person has with another is defined as resistance (and especially if it doesn’t work the other way around), this seems actually to be a pretty good working definition of an abusive relationship. The one with control is also the one who possesses full information about the situation and may use it to back themselves up. Does the client even know exactly what process it is that they are supposedly resisting? Not to mention the fact that the one with control over the information and the interpretation of the situation is usually getting paid. There is undoubtedly a power relation in play.
I’m not suggesting that counsellors attempt to hold clients against their will, but I sense that the idea of leaving as resistance functions in what I am calling the ‘therapy culture’ — a kind of set of default assumptions shared by counsellors/therapists of all different theoretical bases, filtering through each one of those therapeutic orientations in a slightly different way. Of course these assumptions about clients suddenly leaving applies only to long term therapy, which nowadays almost exclusively means private practice. If you are seeing a counsellor on the UK’s National Health Service, for example, six sessions is all you are going to get. Leaving before the end in this case may mean simply that counselling was not actually what was needed, and the client went along to try it because that is what the doctor prescribed.
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In the case where the client is paying and obviously has decided that counselling is what they want, there may also be a mismatch between client and counsellor: they may not feel they are getting what they need and prefer to vote with their feet rather than bring up the issue with the counsellor. This may be not a ‘ducking out’ of a deep and difficult issue which has been triggered, but a wise common sense decision. There are so many factors at play in whether the relationship with a counsellor will be helpful to you, factors which can’t be enumerated or ‘checked for’ in advance. The client may not be explicitly aware of them even at the time. And there are so many factors of time and money and relationships out there in the actual world of the clients’ life, that crystallise in the decision, that the counsellor will not be aware of. There is also the possibility that yes, the client is ducking out. This opens up the possibility that they will come back when they are ready — which often happens, in my experience — people returning for a ‘second round’. The counselling process can’t be rushed or forced, and sometimes this involves leaving it altogether.
It also seems to me that the ‘just knowing’ that this particular counselling relationship, at this particular time, is not what you need, is the very kind of ‘just knowing’, trusting that and acting on it, that is the aim of counselling itself.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on November 20, 2017.
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Article source: https://counsellingresource.com/features/2017/11/20/resistance-or-wisdom/]]>
I am a therapist/counsellor, so I should have no problem urging people to get in touch with their ‘inner child’. Pretty much everyone is currently familiar with terms from what you could call ‘therapy culture’, and the ‘inner child’ is a prime example. The expression, though, actually causes me to cringe slightly and possibly involuntarily roll my eyes.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as I work all the time with people for whom the concept is helpful, and indeed I sometimes introduce it to them myself. When people are overwhelmed by feelings and reactions that seem to happen ‘to them’ out of the blue, feelings that either they don’t fully understand or seem utterly irrational, they are usually experiencing feelings that are familiar from early childhood, and stepping in now as an adult to take care of that child who is somehow still wailing from abandonment or howling in fury thirty years on can be of immense benefit. It really is possible to carry a wound all your life without ever being entirely aware where it came from. In fact, it may never be necessary to find out exactly the moment when it was first felt, but once you’ve made contact with it as belonging to you, but not belonging to you now, or to you as the person you are today, it really is possible to soothe it in real time.
Thinking of the feeling as belonging to you when you did not have the psychological structures or skills to deal with it, leaving it lingering, unresolved, makes it easier to be non-judgemental, even gentle with ourselves. And it’s this attitude that really helps. The fury we vent on ourselves for ‘being stupid’, for imagining things which we know full well aren’t true and driving ourselves into a frenzy about them, for caring furiously about people think, including people who we don’t even like and whose opinion we set no stock by, the merciless way we castigate ourselves for being jealous, for being down, for being ‘unproductive’ or for not being perfect — this is not the way we would want to treat a child. A child seems to always have intrinsic worth and deserve protecting. Seeing ourselves in that light can be a radical step. Treating our ‘stupid’ parts with gentleness, finding a way of taking care of them rather than constantly insulting and rejecting them, is far more likely to result in their giving up their ‘stupid’ activities, because at the end of the day it’s not much fun for them either. They can stop yelling and creating havoc in your life, just because they feel better.
So, tracing the things which we think and do and feel which we don’t like, which cause stress and pain, back to childhood worry, fear, rejection or sadness can be really helpful. Recognising the feelings as originating in early experience, however, does not necessarily entail having an entire person slotted inside us, like a set of Russian dolls. It is not that we are split into several whole people, co-existing; rather, it is more that elements of experience seem to get ‘stranded’ sometimes when, for whatever reason, they aren’t understood or resolved at the time. This is usually a failure of the adults around, in leaving the child alone to try and understand or resolve a difficult feeling in isolation. This pattern can persist, and just the act of turning now, as an adult, to the feeling the child once had, which remains inside, is enough to break the isolation.
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So what’s my problem with inner children?
The difference, I suppose, in using the term ‘inner child’ and actually getting intimate with our ‘old’ feelings is the one between labelling the world to make things seem comprehensible and workable, and experiencing life in all its glory and mess. It’s the difference between a world made of defined parts and roles and a more fluid one. What makes me cringe is the assumption that we can put a big, messy, nuanced, meaningful experience into a container called, say, ‘my inner child’ and perform a particular operation in order to get the desired result. It makes emotional experiences seem ordered, logical, predictable, safe and ultimately simple — which flies in the face of human experience.
At the same time, there is something quite predictable about the results. I find that the process of communicating with myself as a child, when the need arises, and with a gentle tone, is invariably helpful, and I have seen the process happen hundreds of times. So maybe I am unwilling to face how ordered and predictable human experiences really are. A topic for another day…
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on November 13, 2017.
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Article source: https://counsellingresource.com/features/2017/11/13/inner-child-cringe/]]>
As a child, I was always to be found at the bottom of the garden, stirring up some mud soup, climbing the tree and thinking, weaving fences out of sticks. It soothed my soul and shifted me seamlessly out of the different senses of disturbance I often found myself juggling at school, with friends, or at home with my family. Wounds I did not know I had sustained healed themselves when I was concentrating on working with nature, fitting in with it, making things, following trails of ants, meditating (although I didn’t yet know the meaning of the word).
The blissful absence of having to think or to worry seemed to me like my natural state. Being there was a way to recharge before entering the fray again, like the school system with its sometimes bizarre and usually stressful requirements to fit into something that was never exactly spelled out, and to achieve, which meant generally being the best at whatever was put in front of you, and of course being better than others while pretending not to be trying to do that at all.
As a counsellor now, it seems that many people who come to me spend the vast majority of their time thinking, worrying and fitting their feelings and their lives into the bizarre and stressful requirements of various social systems, at work and within the family — not to mention the laws of the financial and political systems. As adults, we are supposed to be in charge of ourselves and our time, to be empowered and able to choose. That’s how it looked to me at school. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. And so many people are depleted, stressed, anxious, depressed, sad, angry — so far from what I used to feel was the natural state — and hoping to catch a bit of it with a mindfulness app slotted into snatched moments of the day.
I try to charge myself, like an electronic appliance, with what I sense to be the natural state, as often as I can. I try to help others to find it. But all the conditions seem to be against us. I started to think a bit wider. Instigating social action is not what I am best at, as an introvert. What if there was a place based around the idea of a natural state and how I used to experience it first in the garden, and then when I ran off to the woods? How about a place where people could run off to and recharge themselves and then go back into those systems and speak up for themselves and for others, because they feel peaceful and powerful inside and no longer as if they have to fit in at any cost?
I joined forces with a friend and we’ve been investigating, in our own lives, what kinds of conditions are necessary for that natural state to arise: living alongside nature, working along with it and not against it, making buildings out of it, growing food, using traditional as well as contemporary knowledge to heal and look after ourselves, meditation practices — as I got older, I discovered the natural state had already been described as such long ago by Buddhists and Taoists! — creativity, both privacy and company. Over the years, we’ve acquired some pristine, wild land, and we are hard at work creating a healing refuge for those whose bodies and souls are just exhausted with the various absurdities and disconnections of life today.
If you’re interested in reading more musings on the natural state and seeing what we’re up to in practice, you can have a peek at terrealuma.com. Hopefully there is some peace in the virtual place already. You are more than welcome…
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on November 5, 2017.
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Article source: https://counsellingresource.com/features/2017/11/06/finding-the-natural-state/]]>