Chimpanzee on the couch

3monkeyGlenn

The chimpanzee shot past me straight upstairs to the kitchen. Thudding and banging she emerges hobbling down the stairs laden with fruit clutched in her hands and feet, and tucked under her chin. I follow her into my consulting room. Perched on the edge of the sofa, only the sound of her slurping and sucking breaks the silence. We sit watching each other as a small pile of fruit skins form a pyramid on the wooden floor. I imagine them going into the bin.

‘You looked surprised; am I the first chimpanzee you’ve had? I bet you’ve never heard a chimpanzee speak before?’

I’m the one unable to speak.

‘I’m guessing you don’t speak in my tongue, so let’s stick with English.’

She’s teasing me? ‘Okay,’ I smile and blink.

‘This is talking therapy right? It’ll be odd if we didn’t talk.’

‘So what do you want to talk about?’ I say as though I’m used to conversing with chimpanzees.

‘The zoo psychologist referred me; she says I’m depressed, but that’s not why I’m here.’ She interrupts herself, ‘This is confidential isn’t it?’ Her look is so intense that I freeze for a moment. I’m trying to imagine describing this session to my supervisor. I want to stay with this image.

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Um, I don’t mind if you write about me in your blog.’

‘You’re concerned about confidentiality and yet you’re happy for me to write about our session.’

‘Well no one will believe you’ve worked with a speaking chimpanzee! They’ll assume it’s a metaphor, a literary device or something. So you can if you want to.’

‘Thank you. So you’re depressed and that’s not why you’re here …’

‘Well of course I’m depressed – I live in a zoo. There’d be something seriously wrong with me if I weren’t, right?’ She pauses; I can’t tell if she wants a reply.

‘I’ve heard that psychotherapy is primarily about listening.’

‘And the psychologist doesn’t listen to you?’

‘No, actually I’ve never spoken to her – well, not in English. I’ve nothing to say to her. I’ve never heard her say anything remotely interesting or insightful.’

Again she pauses as though awaiting a response.

‘In my experience people don’t listen. Have you seen the BBC programme Dynasties with David Attenborough?’

‘No.’

‘They followed a group of chimpanzees around for over two years then edited hundreds of hours of footage down into just one hour. David is this old alpha-male who has somehow held off challengers and remained at the top to keep his exclusive mating rights, though they didn’t show any of that. Actually he didn’t really seem to do very much. It does show him enjoying exclusive rights to narration.

‘Anyway humans love drama; with all their resources and all that film of chimpanzees they managed to shape a human drama and then, with no sense of irony or shame, present it as chimpanzee behaviour – it was genius.’

I’m trying not to imagine David Attenborough asserting his exclusive mating rights.

‘So people come to talk to you, you listen for maybe hundreds of hours, and then you make up stories, create drama? Or is that what you cure them from?’

‘There is no cure.’

‘I’ve seen it on your website: you work with addictions – sex, alcohol, drugs, spiritual addiction – but you don’t mention addiction to drama?’

‘Well people don’t see it as an addiction.’

‘So you help them become better addicts?’ For the first time she looks puzzled.

‘Ha! I suppose so. Once their stories have been listened to they can get beyond them.’

‘And then what?’

‘They become chimpanzees.’

‘Whaoo-ooh!’ her laughter reverberates around the room. ‘You know that’s not all there is to being a chimpanzee …’

Our conversation meanders until ‘our time is up’. As we move towards the front door she asks: ‘Will you dramatise this is your blog?’

‘I get the impression you want me to?’

‘Maybe it’s the only way I can tell if you’ve listened to me.’

‘Oh, so you’re testing me.’

I flash her a sad smile, her face is inscrutable; I’ve not seen this expression before. I imagine she’s reflecting back my smile, though less apologetically and perhaps more pitying.

‘How would you write it?’ I ask.

‘I wouldn’t. I’ve better things to do.’

‘And I’ve nothing better to do?’

‘Maybe you have, but then you are only human.’

‘You do know there’s no such thing as a chimpanzee, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

Standing to her full height she looks intensely into my eyes and says, ‘Thank you for the fruit.’ In the next moment she is across the road, up a tree and swinging over the fence.

Glenn suggests …

… stocking up on fruit if you work with chimpanzees.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

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Mother Ayahuasca

3monkeyGlennA line of candles on sticks light the trail to a clearing deep into the woods. The light is already fading on a warm July evening. At the centre of the clearing is a large newly lit fire. Twenty or more people sit or lay down in a circle around the fire.

A slight build, dark skinned man sits smoking a long pipe. He has a proud feathered headdress peaking perhaps two feet above his head, his face is painted, his clothes are patterned with bright whites and cool and dark blues. Under his necklaces I see images on his top that look familiar. Before I’m able to identify them the shaman starts speaking. A young woman translates his native Portuguese into English: ‘You must stay in the group until morning when the ceremony ends … Do not wander off into the forest away from the circle … If someone needs help, even the person next to you, do not help them – anyone needing help should raise their hand and I will come.’ The shaman then tells us he has been a shaman for more than sixty years, since he was eight. I wonder, is he trying to reassure us? I don’t think so. As I digest these words the images on his top are suddenly clear; two stormtroopers from Star Wars. Wow, really! And yes of course that is Darth Vader standing behind them. Odder still is that I find this somehow reassuring.

The forest has transformed, the fire is a giant coiled anaconda watching me amid the flames, the shaman is an icaro bird singing and dancing, calling to the forest. The sound of retching circles around the group, participants trying to hold down the thick bitter brown liquid; it’s mostly dry retching as they’ve not eaten since noon. The retching becomes a sort of wordless somatic conversation. My body responds with laughter. The conversation moves on; someone retches, I laugh, others laugh, someone moans. This is Mother Ayahuasca at work. I realise my laughter is joy. I’m not laughing at others’ discomfort, their retching noises or the irony of medicine making them sick. Joy was bubbling up as laughter. I realise joy makes no room for, nor has need of, empathy. Ah yes! Joy, not empathy. Ah yes to respond with empathy only reaffirms the dichotomy of the ‘healer’ and the ‘sick’.

My ‘intention’ or question for this ceremony was about how I approach my work. I was seeing how my question is based on the duality of ‘me and my approach’; with this thought, two things happened. I thought ‘I can’t wait to tell my therapist; he’ll love it’; immediately a voice in me blurted out ‘He doesn’t exist!’. More laughter, more joy. ‘I’ve made him up, of course; of course he doesn’t exist.’

As I lay back tucked into my sleeping bag my joy went from laughter to a stream of emotionless tears. ‘He doesn’t exist; neither do I.’ As Glenn slipped away, this whole night as an experience slipped away also. I saw the sky and canopy reaching down towards me, the trees and smoke dissolving into vibrant living patterns tracking back down where I lay. As I closed my eyes I felt ants crawling on my face, there was nothing there, I could see in my mind’s eye tiny creatures knitting together and unpicking my mind, wave after wave of patterns swept over me.

As I opened my eyes I saw my favourite painting hanging from the consulting room wall. Under it, on the sofa, sat Lena where I’d left her, wide eyed looking expectantly at me. ‘You went to sleep.’

‘Was it for long?’ I was still getting my bearings.

‘No maybe two minutes or so, no more.’

‘It felt like ages, really deep but, yeah just a few moments …’

‘So, did you dream?’ she asked with her eyes fixed on mine.

‘Yes.’ I paused, waiting for words to come out of my mouth.

‘So what did you dream?’

‘That’s just it; I don’t think I’ve stopped.’

Glenn says

ayahuasca is classified as a class A drug in the UK and is therefore illegal. In the Amazon it is treated as a potent medicine. It is unclear what the legal status of ayahuasca is if the boundary between dreaming and waking life has dissolved.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.