Archives for September, 2010
What are you like with appointments? Do you tend to run late or just scrape it in on time? Or are you the type who’d rather be early than late – do you worry about your arrival? Are you so busy that you get distracted and forget some appointments? Do you keep them or cancel them? (Do you make more than you can keep?) So much of our lives in the western world are guided by appointments, meetings, deadlines and time lines. And therapy clearly fits into this framework, too. Many therapists hold that how we keep or break our appointments is all meaningful information(especially how we keep or break our appointments with them). Psychoanalytic psychotherapists, particularly, can consider lateness or cancellation a sign of so-called “resistance” to therapy. (Other psychotherapists have wondered whether this “resistance” might actually belong to therapists themselves at times – resisting important feedback about their work and the therapeutic relationship). Sometimes our various meetings and appointments clash or compete and we have to choose among them. But maybe there’s one appointment that supersedes all others: your appointment with life. (And how are you at keeping that one?)
This looked like a very uninspiring sticker from a distance. A small black line on a blank white wall. But looks can be deceiving like that: “This inspires you,” it read. It sparked a whole lot of queries (not least of which was, what is a sticker like this doing here and what is it actually on about? Mysterious…) So what inspires you? Just take a moment and see where this question leads you… And how do you actually know that? That sounds like a slightly mad thing to ask, but how do you recognize inspiration when it comes? What are the signs of it when they happen for you? Is there a sudden flood of imagination? A racing mind? A feeling or an energy inside?
Therapy’s a bit of an enigma. It seems to work – but how? How can sitting in a room with someone and talking about things have such a deep impact? Many psychotherapists think the answer lies in the relationship. That the therapeutic space between client and therapist can act as a kind of safe vessel to travel through the emotional turbulence that’s explored. That the therapeutic relationship is a chance to experiment with new behaviours in a safe framework. And that really being heard – really being seen – matters profoundly. But that’s sometimes sounded a bit weak in the face of cold, hard science. And so, the more technique-based therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and even some online therapies have often seemed like the more ‘solid’ options simply because they’ve seemed easier to measure somehow. Until now.
Binaries are compelling things. Life seems so clear if we split it into on/off, good/bad, masculine/feminine, healthy/sick, love/hate, body/mind, thought/emotion, head/heart. Even therapy, itself, can fall into a binary trap like this. One of the most well-known therapies, CBT (or cognitive behaviour therapy), has sometimes drawn criticism for just that kind of simple formulaic approach. CBT’s underlying premise is that your thoughts impact your emotions; perhaps even control them. And that, in turn, your beliefs impact your thoughts. Very simply put, CBT suggests that so-called “negative beliefs” and “distorted thinking” lead to painful emotions – and that by changing your thinking, your emotional life will naturally fall into line, too. But what if it’s not quite so simple? What if it’s not so easy to separate thought from feeling; reason from emotion? And what’s in that blurry space where these supposed ‘opposites’ meet?
I was wandering through a cemetery by the sea the other day. A strange thing to do on a weekend, perhaps, but I was searching for inspiration for a guest post on The Daily Undertaker’s blog. (It’s tempting to say that I found it in spades, but that sounds a little too gruesome). What I did find was a certain curiosity which seems to hover above all the graveyards I’ve ever visited – a cloud of questions that you may recognize, too: What does it mean to die? What actually happens then? And so, in light of that, what does it mean to live? Where might spirituality factor into this (or not)? How are these things connected (or not)? And how can we learn from all of this, somehow, and enrich our days, while we have them yet? Sometimes these things almost seem too big to fit into a paradigm like therapy. Yet these are exactly the kinds of questions which existential therapy asks of us. In the hope of uncovering a richer, more meaningful life, it wants us to peer into our death as an ‘existential given’ – a thing we can’t escape. Something that, like gravity, just seems to be a part of the deal. So what might it feel like for you to peer into that space?
This wall of mirrors in the photo is in a local café. Each mirror hangs at a slightly different angle, and so captures a slightly different view of things – a different detail or a vignette of life unfolding around it. It got me thinking about the nature of reflection, and what kind of mirror we might each be holding up to our lives in order to understand ourselves. Reflection is a mainstay of many therapeutic modalities. Championed by Carl Rogers and the humanistic therapies, a reflective technique is thought to be able to reveal things to us – and about us – that we may not have been able to recognize so clearly alone.
When was the last time you picked up some coloured pencils? Or crayons? Or filled a page with random scribbles? It’s curious how we encourage this kind of spontaneous creative expression in children, but often forget to indulge in it ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t feel ‘serious’ enough for an adult to engage with. Or ‘weighty’ enough to mix it with the depths of adult problems. But creativity can unleash serious business indeed. For while words and ‘talking therapies’ can often help us define and cope with the problems in our lives, they’re not the only way. Just as there are supposedly three kinds of knowledge, maybe there are also several ways of knowing the self… One of these is experiential knowledge of self, which can sometimes leave words – both spoken and written – far, far behind. And perhaps experiences and thoughts can't always be easily translated into words in the first place. Perhaps, as the poet Kahlil Gibran noted, “thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly”. So how might you help your thoughts escape the world of words – in your mind, your mouth or your journal – and let them fly wherever they’re drawn to?
If you’re into gardening at all, you’ll probably know that although plants like to grow alongside one another and create a supportive ‘microclimate’ together, they still need their own space. Even at the time of seed planting, if you want to give them an optimum chance to flourish, you’ll need to include a certain distance between them. Planted too close, and they can start to rob each other’s nourishment (like the trees in these photos; one almost enveloping the other). So can the same be said of human relationships? And if so, how close is too close? Murray Bowen, the ‘father of family systems theory’, noted this tension between the desire to be close and the desire to stand apart in order to give our individuality – our sense of self – a chance to breathe. He saw both these drives as vital “life forces.” And he envisioned the struggle between them as an evolutionary paradox that we all must wrestle with. To know that there’s a certain safety in togetherness, but that it often comes at a cost of self… So how do you balance those opposing needs in your life?
Where are you right now? Not metaphorically, as in ‘where is your life right now?’ Or ‘where is your head right now?’ Or even ‘where are your thoughts?' But physically. Phenomenologically. Really. Take a look around you. Where do you find yourself in this very second? (Where is your life unfolding this very second?) And then zoom in even closer, from the external to the internal. To the very body you occupy inside this moment. How does it feel to be here? To be you in this moment. Welcome to mindfulness…
As the seasons roll around again, here in Australia, spring is coming out of hibernation. Even though there was no snow in these parts, a sense of thawing is in the air. And perhaps in the self… There’s something about sunlight that can penetrate right into the psyche sometimes. And it seems the chronic absence of sunlight might predispose us to things like the very aptly named “S.A.D” or Seasonal Affective Disorder – a recurring depressive illness which follows the darker months. So, with spring, the gradual lifting of the gloom (perhaps both outside and in). The slow stretching of daylight hours. A lot of gradual, incremental shifts and changes. Yet there’s also sudden zing here, too. Bursting. Blooming. Springing forth. Have you noticed how the blossoms bloom straight out of the sticks? So that what looked like barren wood – a place that life had abandoned – is suddenly verdant again. The seemingly dead only dormant after all. And the branches are laden with hope… (perhaps both outside and in). So how do you grow? (Internally, relationally, emotionally). How do your inner seasonal changes impact you?