I am full of words that leave me hungry

I haven’t got a story, only a way of talking. This could be the start of a good story. But I’m fed up with stories.

It seems human beings have been story-tellers since the beginning of art and language. The telling and hearing of stories is all we do, all the time, in all kinds of ways. Stories are how we make sense of ourselves, how we relate to others, how we create and share meaning, over and over again. We are chronically, helplessly pathological story-tellers. Don’t we ever shut up?

Tell me something I don’t know but please don’t tell me another bloody story.

The universe hasn’t got a story, only a way of existing.

How many stories do you want? In journalism news items are called stories. Holy books are nothing but stories. Science is a story about what seems to be the case for now. A lie is a story about what’s not the case. A novel is a very long story, a joke a very short one. A blues song always tells a story. Telling you how my day went is a mundane story. My dream last night was a fantastical anti-story. Talking with a client in therapy is a story about therapeutic stories.

I wonder how it would be to drop all these stories and live without them. Could we live well in truth, beauty and goodness, and yet be utterly unstoried?

How we fill the dreadful void of our terrifying incomprehensibility with an infinite number of stories is the only story.

Because stories are everywhere and can take me anywhere, I could end up nowhere.

A trashy story, like junk food, delivers real pleasure – for a while. Another story can seem nutritious and turn out to be bad in some way, like a very healthy meal that fails to satiate. The type of story I most desire might not be doing me much good. People talk of being ‘addicted’ to crime dramas and ‘bingeing’ on box sets. Perhaps it’s possible to overdose on stories, fatally.

We’re freakishly clever apes with heads crammed with stories. We don’t know why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do with all this. How then can we not continuously storify our absurdly plotless existence? Who would we be if our lives were still and quiet and constantly untold?

An insect hasn’t got a story, only a way of … insecting?

Perhaps other animals are the answer because for them there are no questions. For other species there is no story and not even an absence of story – as far as we know.

Talking animals appear frequently in myths and legends. Do we yearn for them to tell us a story of who we are, a tale of what it means to be human, as if the stories we’ve been telling ourselves are not enough, as if it’s unbearable to be the only story-making creature?

A therapeutic thought experiment: imagine being someone who takes no story from the world and offers no story back to the world – and imagine that person as great company. What would be their character? What would animate their spirit? I imagine them as someone who had transmuted storylessness into a fullness of being that was unassailable. To have no need of stories would be a profound kind of freedom. To know stories and be unattached to any of them would be liberating. Therapy is a bit like this: it invites you to tell your story and undo it, to set yourself free from it.

Writing these notes I realise I would be hopelessly lost without any form of story at all – even the story of no-story-at-all gives me some direction, something to move towards or away from.

Stories invent us. When we’re not talking about our direct experience, we tell each other something about what we can’t see and don’t feel and don’t know, and we call it a story. Out of all that is happening or has ever happened or could happen in the world, we know almost nothing. The rest of it is imagined at every turn.

Everywhere you look, the world disappears from view.

What’s your story? There are millions of human beings just around the corner, living lives we can only wonder about. The story goes that you and I now are very precisely two of those other unknown millions. Our ordinary nosiness might evoke our compassionate curiosity about everyone else, but we will never know who they are. We stare blankly, chewing on the knowledge that human reality is inedible.

I am full of words that leave me hungry.

Therapy is storyland. All kinds of stories and fictions and dreams and fables are deposited there. Therapists, we might say, act as librarians for this phenomenal archive. As a therapist I can’t help but hear and tell loads of stories every day – I barely know what I forget and what I recall and what I make up. I could tell a story about all these hundreds of stories, and that might tell you something about therapy. But I’m not an obvious choice for the position of archivist.

Jim recommends …

Story-fasting: to spend a day without hearing or telling a story.

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Judgment to be made?

The thought is in my head: I’m a cheat, a liar. No, worse than that, I’m a phoney and a fraud 

The thoughts come fast because, in the moment, I know the conflict between my human self and my professional role is in play. I’m also in trouble because I’m quite sure congruence has deserted me.

Although the thoughts are challenging ones to be throwing at myself, if you knew what I was thinking about the person sat looking at me through the screen you might agree with my self-assessment. The difficulty is not just that I’m suffering a lack of congruence but that I’m deeply caught in negative countertransference and so my empathic response has taken absence without leave. 

Without being able to reach for empathy, the therapist’s chair feels a lonely and dangerous place.

It’s difficult to hear things from him that make me consider him in a new, negative light. My inner human self is ranting at him: What did you expect to happen? Could you not see your own stupidity, your own selfishness?

My supervisee isn’t giving me time to gather my professional thoughts; a set of words about how responsible he feels has just collided with his own self-loathing about the choices he made. But his split doesn’t mirror my own internal human/professional dust-up.

The space that the two of us have relied on in all our years of working together feels closed off. I’m still wrestling with these thoughts as he starts to emote deeply. He looks disorientated and his face has become red and mottled as if he were an alcoholic sitting on a park bench, complete with bottle of Bucky wrapped in a brown paper bag. As I hear his intake of breath and moan of grief, the tears and snot that were hanging off the end of his nose drip out of the lense’s gaze.

Unlike many of my colleagues who, perhaps erroneously, only think of in-room work as ‘face to face’, the 371 miles between Alastair and myself has never seemed a vast distance. Indeed, how much more face to face can you be than the 40 centimetres between face and screen on each side. I can see the threads of blood in the whites of his eyes.

Over the years we’ve worked collaboratively, I’ve watched him deal with some dire moments as a therapist and a human being. When his sister was killed in a road traffic collision we worked so carefully and trustingly together on his departure from, and return to, his case load. The loss of a long-term patient to motor-neurone disease was another moment when my admiration for his care and thoughtful practice grew. His attention to that patient seemed to make so much difference to the end of her life. He felt pain and I shared some of it with him in the supervision space.

I’m working really hard for the supervisory couple. I’m fighting for us. I feel the need to converse with my own therapist. He may have died years ago but he’s often with me in the room as an internal supervisor. We talk in the shadow, considering how, in the collective unconscious, there are some serious waves of communication going on between Alistair and me. And then my old clinical supervisor is sitting on my shoulder, asking me – no, interrogating me – about my lack of tolerance in the room.

I’m monitoring my breathing pattern. My body is just engaging with the kinesthetic memory of deep relaxation. And I’m back. I’m in my professional-self.

This is better. Feel the space! The walls have moved far away. Some of my other consultants over the years flow to the space – from therapeutic and supervision engagements. It’s quite a team to have on my side.

Spaces in the therapeutic profession are very considered and complex things. There are the outer ones, the room, the being together in a space and then there are myriad ever-changing inner ones. I know what I have to say, with congruence reintegrated; I know it will feel risky but we have always worked with honesty and I will have to let him judge me as I might still be judging him.

I begin to talk, my professional risking forward what I hope will be considered a balanced tone – something my inner human had temporarily been without. ‘I’m hearing in all this that you feel, somehow, it was definitively you who brought Covid into the family. That you contracted the coronavirus from your in-room work and that made you responsible. Now, you’re heartbroken. It’s not only the loss in your family – it’s also because you aren’t in a place where you can support your patients with the trouble they’re experiencing in life while you are stuck in your own guilt and grief. Perhaps, given that you know I’m only working online during the pandemic, you’re also wondering if I’m looking down on you from a point of judgment?’

There is a pause.

He breathes deeply …

Duncan cogitates …

The above raises what can be a deeply uncomfortable reality: the binary split between human-self and professional-self in an encounter. 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

All character-based realisations contained in this post are either of a fictional nature or have been derived from heavily disguised, consensually given information. 

The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

Duncan acknowledges …

… with thanks, a recent session where he saw the growth of another and was reminded through this the roots of his own continuing development.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

BACP and the ethics of self-deception

‘I remember my training supervisor asking me if I’d read Melanie Klein. I said I hadn’t …

‘… And she said, “Really, seriously? You’ve never read Klein!” I felt ashamed,’ Paola explains as her eyes inspect the rug.

‘Why didn’t you lie?’ I ask.

‘I couldn’t do that!’ Paola exclaims incredulously.

‘Why not? You could’ve said, “I’ve read Klein and wasn’t impressed”.’

Paola blurts out a laugh, ‘No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, therapists don’t lie … it’s unethical, it’s incongruent.’

‘Anything else?’ I ask.

As though scanning the rug for an answer Paola adds, ‘I might’ve got caught.’ We simultaneously let out a laugh.

‘Ah, so you don’t think you’re a good enough liar?’ I query as impishly as I can.

‘No, it actually didn’t occur to me to lie; as I said, “Therapists don’t lie”.’

‘But that’s not true,’ I object.

‘How so?’

‘Well, part of our training – of having extensive therapy – involves looking at the beliefs we’re brought up with. Some are lies we’re told that we’ve come to believe, and some are lies we’ve told ourselves in order to believe. A large part of becoming a psychotherapist is recognising self-deception and then seeing if we can bear to live with it and without it.

‘Parents teach their children to lie – they tell them they shouldn’t, but even that’s a lie. Children have to learn to recognise their parents’ lies; they discover their parents’ hypocrisy and in time appreciate it for what it is. It’s the child’s task to decode “You shouldn’t lie” as “Be a good liar, and don’t get caught”.’

‘Hm, that’s true. But surely lying’s unethical,’ Paola insists.

‘What does your Ethical Framework say about lying?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure, but it does talk about honesty.’

‘I don’t know either – I’m not with BACP, although I don’t recall any code of ethics I’ve ever read saying anything about lying. Honesty is a bit more tricky.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, you were honest when you gave your reasons for not lying – it didn’t mean you weren’t lying. You’ve made your reasons, your beliefs fit the narrative of how you think therapists should be.’

‘Okay so I was worried about getting caught, but lying’s not congruent.’

‘As well as feeling shame, did you feel anything else?’

‘Well yes – I was really angry.’

‘So what else could you have done with your anger?’

‘I couldn’t’ve challenged her, she had power over me: she was writing my Supervisor’s Report.’

‘Hm, yeah you were in a vulnerable position.’

‘It would’ve felt good though – challenging her directly I mean,’ Paola licks her lips as though she could taste it.

‘Well, giving yourself permission to lie is empowering. The more permission you give yourself, the more likely you’d feel able to challenge her directly,’ I suggest.

‘I can see that, but I’m just not comfortable: therapists should be moral.’

‘Even when morality is born out of fear and lies?’

‘Hm, you’re not letting me off the hook,’ Paola smiles.

‘It’s your hook.’

Her smile disappears.

‘I’m advocating the rarest of lies – the lie you didn’t tell: the intentional one. Intentional lies take awareness, calculation and skill. The lie you told is very common: the one where you lie to yourself and then present it as truth or honesty. This type of lying has little or no awareness.’

‘Okay, I acknowledge I was deceiving myself. I should do better, but surely that’s the point; I mean, as therapists aren’t we meant to do better?’

‘Are we? Going back to BACP, did you know they accredit therapists who’ve had no personal therapy at all?’

‘Yes I did, and of course it’s absurd, but does that make them unethical or immoral?’

‘Maybe. But I agree, BACP justify an absurd position; it’d be like learning to dive with someone who’s never dived before.’

‘Sure I get that: I’m a diver.’

‘So you know it’d be crazy to go into the depths with someone who’s not spent a large amount of time there. You’d want a Dive Master; you wouldn’t trust someone who says, “I’ve read a lot of books on diving, but I’ve never actually done it”, or “I’ve been a number of times, I’m a confident swimmer, and, oh yeah, I’m quite good at holding my breath under water”.’

Paola beams with recognition, ‘Wow, I’d never thought about it like that. Yes to get the most from therapy you want a therapist who’s experienced full immersion in a therapeutic relationship, someone who knows how to explore relational depth and be able to get you both back safely to the surface. Being able to float on the surface is not good enough.’

‘Exactly. BACP say they promote ethics and professional standards but actually they’ve devalued them. I hope they’re lying to themselves because if not, well, then they’ve got serious problems.’

‘Hm,’ Paola murmurs.

‘What?’

‘They are the hypocritical parent,’ she replies.

‘Yes … “The eye cannot see itself”,’ I add.

Glenn quotes:

‘Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The virgin executive

DESHeadshotBS-1I know I’ve left it late in the session – but I’ve got to start working on this dream with you …

Patient:      … it’s definitely part of the sequence.

Therapist:  We can always make a start. It’s important to capture the energy while it’s fresher; we can come back to it then.

[The therapist’s eyes close to listen.]

P:               I walk into this huge organic building. It’s like it’s made of pushed-up earth but it towers above me – not like a skyscraper – although it’s tall. I get this strange essence that it is alive. It has a heavy ring towards the top – like some form of viewing platform or an escape route. Before I enter the building I’m in a clearing. I don’t know if it’s some sort of jungle that I’ve walked through? Tall, overpowering grasses sway in the perfect temperature.

T:               Perfect temperature?

P:               Yeah, sunny but not hot; cool, not cold. Like those wonderful spring days when the world hints at what summer will bring. That first day when you slip off your winter clothes. You feel the world on your skin after all that insulation.

T:               Le Sacre du printemps?

P:               Sacred spring?

T:               Yes.

P:               There’s an air of real danger outside. I can hear an old woman’s voice that carries across the clearing. She is singing a song I know. I can’t sing it though; I know that I mustn’t sing the words.

T:               What might happen if you did?

P:               I don’t know … but, as always, there’s something very dangerous about stepping into the building. I can see the vestibule is open. It’s not very big. I’m a bit concerned I could get stuck if I start to walk in. It’s like that claustrophobic feeling I had when I went caving as a teenager. Then I realise something bad will only happen if I step in knowing the words. I try not to hear the song; I cover my ears. I try not to sing the words in my head. I know the song foretells the future and the future that waits in the building could change my life in big ways. My heart’s beating really heavily; I feel drenched in sweat. I’m just about to turn back as a group of young women flock around me and push me through the entranceway. The instant I’m inside the building, the women fall to the floor.

[There is a long silence. The therapist doesn’t move. The sound of water being gulped and swallowed invades the space.]

T:               Are the women dressed or naked this time?

P:               Bound in cheesecloth. Full-length dresses. Like they’re in some sort of shroud. I run my hand over one of them expecting warmth, a subtle smoothness beneath the material, but I realise she’s made of sand or perhaps salt. I can’t swallow.

[A glass chinks just before the gulping sound enters the room again.]

P:               I look round the white inner space. All the people have divided into two separate groups.

T:               Are they doing anything? Saying anything?

P:               They form up a procession that leads out of the space. They pass some sort of holy metal object or relic along the line and I’m forced to follow it right out of the building.

T:               Atmosphere?

P:               It’s incredibly powerful … spiritual. I’m laid to the ground by the procession. I feel very free. When I look up there is a sage woman looking at me. She rests her hands on my head and then, with an opening of hands, I’m thrown high into the air, floating on a passage of energy.

T:               Any other signs or symbols from the dream series?

P:               Just those obvious recurring ones …

[The patient pauses.]

P:               When I look down the young women have begun to draw circles on the ground. I can see one particular fire-haired woman. She gets lost in the action and is suddenly abandoned in the main circle.

T:               Do you know what’s about to happen at that point when you’re in the dream?

P:               I do. I know exactly what’s going to happen next. But I wake up before she starts to dance.

T:               You want to see it?

P:               No, I don’t want to see her die this time.

T:               Not even for the elements – the soil, the flame, the drops of water or the breeze?

P:               No, not to appease the gods. It’s changing. For once, in the dream, I realise I want my life. I don’t want to be reborn a young woman, no renaissance life. I want to be anima rising. To use my life.

[Her eyes move towards the clock. He smiles at her warmly.]

T:               Well, the outline’s told. I think we can pick up on it next session. Perhaps we can reflect on the sand/salt women and the change to the sacrificial dance?

Duncan suggests …

Reading Man and His Symbols by C G Jung, since knowing when things are a sign and when they are a symbol of something else is one of the most important things we can learn.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

 

Neuroclimaterialising

Jimblog1The other night I dreamed I was some kind of warrior-poet, wandering up and down a mountain range like a madman, singing my head off without knowing the words …

Exciting at the time, and liberating to lose my head – though all the while telling myself there must be proper lyrics to go with this. The mountains would speak to me, they would reveal their ancient and magnificent secret, if only I could get the words right. Suddenly I knew my life depended on it. Things got intense. But the louder and more fiercely I sang, the less my language mattered. Before long I started screaming wildly – and woke up.

I recall it now as a dream about climate breakdown (more precisely: about my struggle to write something here about climate breakdown). Or about my potential for having a psychological microclimate crisis. I imagine millions of people are having dreams like this. Let’s call them visions. And let’s also consider them as stories flowing from a mysterious and distant region of time and space. To be clear, I’m saying this as a dream agnostic. Therapeutically, I don’t work a lot with dreams – it’s more a case of dreams working a lot with me. Our psyches come out to play constantly, and if you take life itself to be a dream, if you take yourself to be the dreamer of your reality, to be one of the exemplary dreamers of our collective dream, then I’m up for that as a psychotic possibility.

We radicalise our subjectivities, not by our thoughts but by our not quite having had them.

The evident urgency of climate breakdown can bring up and break down deeply rooted substrates in our seemingly separated psyches. There are things we like to get hold of together – objects, mostly, and facts, sometimes – and there are thought-droughts and thought-fires and thought-waters, which hold us. There are fleeting universes, which transfix us. We know the mountain range that holds our Earth-time attention now so magnificently is in cosmological time a flickering wave – making it even more magnificent, therefore, and utterly unholdable.

Because we are disrupted by what we hold onto, we become held by disruption. There is a form of ‘being held’ (a phrase therapists use a lot, mostly in a metaphysical sense), which is more like being considered, remembered, pondered. Climate anomalies hold our attention like a series of bad dreams. Your gripping nightmare is an extreme psychic weather event, almost unattended.

In this neurocloud, you and me, conversationalists of a type right now,

regarding each other’s immaterial presence respectfully enough.

Aroused by the frequency of looking around, even when we’re sitting still,

settling into the sensational silence of all that passes for thought.

We’re unsolid, anti-dense, semi-detached, forever under reconstruction,

sending elemental signals of therapeutically unscrewed awe.

The silent signal is ordinary, momentous breathing. Inspire, expire – simply attend and repeat. You’re breathed by this act of attending. Now, where to direct your inspired attention? If I could know everything there is to know about climate change, including all the latest scientific analyses and all the forecasting models and every wonky public argument and scholarly debate about the entire massive problem – the hyper-object, some say, of nightmarish proportions – how would I be acting differently? To have perfect and complete knowledge of everything would be to have no opinion at all. Your breath is not a matter of opinion. Keep breathing then, one by one, sigh by sigh, let’s be sure to keep breathing well – that’s good science and good mysticism right there.

Concentrate! Don’t concentrate! Your knowledge is no use until you’re free of it. The oldest philosophies say we already know profoundly what’s what but we scream and moan and forget about it all – even foregoing our own precious identities – at the orgasmic moment of ultimate truth. Climate justice, migrant justice, water justice, every kind of humane justice you can conceive of is brutally compromised by nature’s supreme amorality. We are not the keepers of the keys to the riddle of the cosmos, only agonised bodies in a puzzle of our own screwy design.

The crunch of science, like concussion or awful bloody facts,

grinding its way through our busy shopping brains so unpoetically.

Everything seems too much for us and never quite enough for us,

climbing down at last from the fat neurotic mountains of our minds.

Hard-wired like-mindedly, we generate this almighty hard-edged world,

forging its language within our worried skin and warrior bones.

Good therapy embodies us soulfully while scientific mysticism dematerialises us. There are no things, there is only thinging. This is the feeling of what happens, whether I’m awake or dreaming – and I act as if I know there’s a difference. The truly climactic part of sleeping is the waking up. What’s it like, that transitional momentary world when the waking mind simultaneously recalls and dissolves the dreaming mind’s visions? Sometimes I sense the beginning of a wild argument between the waker and the dreamer. A brilliant fight could break out for the rest of the day.

Jim recommends …

Handbook of Climate Psychology (available free): http://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/handbook

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.