Love, Rage, and everything in between
Some of us feel frightened by the vulnerability that love requires of us - can we dare to be hurt, or rejected, when we reach out to another human being? Some of us are frightened of our anger - let alone our rage! We've learned/been taught that anger is bad, dangerous, wrong... and rage, well - completely off limits!
But - could we learn to look at our emotions as giving us really useful data - about who we are, what we need?
In so many ways, we try to live an edited version of ourselves, not daring to inhabit the big, scary fulness of our individual humanity. We struggle with ourselves, to keep this edited version going. If it's too far from our real selves, we get alienated, depressed, addicted, lost...
It doesn't have to be like this. We can be ourselves, with skill, kindness, and without violence to ourselves or others.
What that takes is a bit of honesty, self-awareness, courage, and effort.
It's a journey. Let me help you on the way.
Sleep, love, and imagination
Nearly all of us will experience sleep problems at points in our lives. For some of us, these will be so persistent they'll drive us to despair. The peculiar thing is that we can't control going to sleep - we can't make ourselves do it. We can only let it happen, surrender to sleep. If we're at all anxious about sleeping, the anxiety will stop us releasing to that surrender. We can get caught in a tense, sleepless spiral.
It's interesting to note that studies on sleep find that people get more of it than they think they do: we can be asleep at night even if we report 'not having slept a wink'.
Now, park that line of thought for a moment. Ask yourself, what's the most important thing/value/emotion in all the world? One word answer - ? Yes, it's in the title of this blog. Keeping it simple, can we say that the thing we value most in the world is love? Let's stay simple and not define what we mean - love is whatever you know it to be from your experience, plus your hopes for it.
OK - let's see if we can bring these two big deals, sleeplessness and love, together.
Suppose you could increase your pool of love, through use of your imagination. Suppose that gave you something useful to do when you weren't able to sleep? Would you be prepared to give it a go?
Well, try this:
Lying in bed, before going to sleep, put your left hand on your chest, round about where your heart is. Put your right hand on top of your left. Feel a bit of pressure on your chest from the weight of your hands.
Now, as you breathe in, say the word 'love' in your mind. Imagine drawing love into your chest and heart, as you breathe in. Just from anywhere - from the warmth of the bed, from people who come to mind, from the universe... You're being playful here, imagining...
And, as you breathe out, let love pour out with your breath, into the bed, into people that come to mind, into the universe... And imagine that what you're doing increases the fund of love in your chest/heart area...
Keep gently doing this... Just keep going... If sleep comes, you can let go to it... If other thoughts come, let them go again and go back to the breathing 'love'... If you wake in the night, put your hands back in place, do the 'love' mindfulness practice... Consider that you're making very good use of wakefulness, so it's absolutely ok to 'make love' in this way... Until sleep comes... or dawn...
There may of course be specific things keeping you awake. You may want to consult me, or a sleep expert, or your GP. This practice here does not replace full professional investigation. But it might just be worth a try. It might be worth practicing.
Virtual Connection - Bodily Hugs?!
Especially during the pandemic, many of us are short on hugs. This leaves us with a dearth of the 'happy hormones' which kind human touch releases. Oxytocin is one of those, which is released when we connect physically with another person (or indeed with an animal, like a pet we can stroke). Touching and touched by someone with a sense of security and feeling wanted, loved and happy, our wellbeing is enhanced.
The amazing thing is that our nervous system responds in the same way to an imagined stimulus as it does to the real thing! (That's why we respond to the thrills and spills in movies as though we were in the action - until we remind ourselves that "it's just a movie"!)
This means that we can trigger our oxytocin by acts of imagination.
So - try this -
Find a safe place and moment where you can close your eyes.
Standing or sitting up straight, take your left hand round across your chest, down the right hand side of your back, and place that left hand on the kidney area. Feel the warmth.
Then, likewise take your right hand across the front of your body and bring it onto your back on the left; again, feel that hand's warmth, now on your left kidney.
Wriggle your fingers a little nearer to each other on your back.
Bring someone to mind with whom you'd like to exchange a hug. Imagine you're hugging them, rather than yourself; imagine that it's their hands you can feel warming your back. Allow yourself to really inhabit this imagined reality.
Stay with it as long as you want to.
When you stop, allow yourself to notice any changes to your state (see in Blogstore below about 'state').
(With thanks to @11, for the inspiration for this piece.)
Feelings: "Positive" - "Negative" - "Natural"?
The inclination most of us have in our culture is to think about our feelings in terms of whether we like them or not. If we don't like what we're feeling - eg. pain, anger - we try to get rid: by denying, avoiding, getting addicted, blaming others... We try to do this with what we come to think of as all "negative" emotions.
"Positive" emotions on the other hand we try to hang on to or get more of - joy, happiness, thrill, calm...
How well does this "management" of feelings work - for you, for any of us?
It's a struggle, right?
Basically, we're trying to edit our experience. Our experience of being human, on this planet, with all the ups, downs, thrills and spills of this world.
Suppose we were to take a different attitude to what we're experiencing? Instead of fighting ourselves to change how we feel, suppose we learned to be with it, see it as passing through us as we stand in a bigger view? Learn to be bigger than these passing feelings, living by our values, able to watch ourselves, and move along the way through our lives?
I can help you with this...
Me... and my tantruming toddler
We're living in interesting times, right? What someone has called "frenetic standstill" - frantic activity in the world out there, but nothing's changing (except maybe the climate, and not in a good way...)... And all that anger. Again, someone's come up with the perception that as our attention is monetised - whatever we click on earns someone, somewhere, money - we're drawn to what's most compelling - which is often that which makes us most angry.
There are lots of issues embedded in this. The one I can particularly help you with is what we all share at some level of our psychology - the internal toddler, in a world of giants (hardly functioning well themselves!) - screaming - "It's not fair! It's not supposed to be like this! This is not how I want it!" How do we help that helpless tot grow up, take responsibility for what's theirs, and let go what's not? With time, and kind, non-judgemental attention. Get in touch if you want help with this.
The State You're in! ( - and what you can do about it!)
Just - right now - close your eyes for a moment. Take a deep breath. Spend a few moments scanning yourself from the inside - from the ends of your toes to the crown of your head, be aware of yourself. Notice your breath coming and going; notice any tension anywhere, any discomfort in your posture... Notice any feeling(s) you're experiencing...
Let's call this experience you've just checked in to your state in this moment.
Now - without getting too analytical, would you say this was a good, pleasant state, or not?
The common experience is that if we're not alert to it, we default into negativity of one sort or another - brooding on what's happened, going over an old conversation, moaning internally about someone, or an aspect of our lives, worrying about something in the future or somewhere else... Sound familiar? Hey, it's just human! But it doesn't have to be like this!
Once we get adept at noticing our state, we can get increasingly skilful at changing it. How?
(1) by coming up with an action plan. This may be a quick fix (take a break, have a chat, go for a walk, etc) or a long term goal (book a holiday, volunteer in the library, take up the cello, etc.) Or both.
(2) by deciding to change our state of mind in the moment. This might require bit of mindfulness, or some self-coaching, or other ways of getting hold of your internal state and shifting it.
Interested? Contact me for help.
"We humans are the only creatures for whom our own existence is the problem" (I Yalom, 2008)
Yes?... We're troubled by ourselves, aren't we? We're conscious of the world around us, and of our place in it. And with that comes anxiety - am I good enough? Will I be liked? Why am I here? I'm afraid of living/dying.... I'm afraid of what's going on in the world - climate change, political change...
The toughest aspect of this common human experience of existential anxiety is that we face much of it alone... We imagine there's no one we can share it with - even though we all have those feelings (unless we're very good at denying them).
"The antidote to much anguish is sheer connectedness." (Yalom, 2008) A good relationship allows us to get close to someone and to share our fears. In connecting, we realise we're not so alone. It's less painful.
The therapy space is built for that kind of safe, connecting encounter.
Get in touch if you feel you need this.
Love and Power in the Couple Relationship
Are love and power opposites in a relationship? Does love drive out power? Does power drive out love?... We don't often think about a dyadic relationship being imbued with power, especially if the partners are "in love" with each other. And yet... "who's boss?" - either in particular contexts (the kitchen, the bedroom, the social life...), or overall - well, ask the question, and it sets up some interesting thoughts, doesn't it?
Though not much discussed, it seems to me that power issues arise in all relationships. It's then a matter of how important these are to each of the individuals concerned. And then it's about how conflicts are negotiated.
What's clear when clients talk to me about their relationships is that what holds them together is the double glue of fondness and admiration.
It's also clear that any negotiation of difficult issues requires calm, ie low arousal. If you're too het up, you won't hear the other, and if you get them het up - by triggering them to be defensive or aggressive - they won't hear you. And if you work each other up, you'll have a row, which might or might not be fun for one or both, but probably won't sort the issue.
A quick fix for high arousal is 7-11 breathing: take a moment out to breathe in for a count of 7, out for a count of 11. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat twice more with eyes closed. (Try it now: feel calmer? Practice some more before you really need it!)
There's more - lots! Of course! Contact me for help with this stuff!
... And then there's Christmas...
Honestly, most people I speak to - at least in the dominant UK culture - find Christmas...er... challenging. Some don't: I think they manage to slip through the whole episode sort of unconsciously, just going with it without thought. If you're reading this, I reckon you're not like that!
So why do we have such a struggle with the "festive period"?
Much is surely to do with the overconsumption we're exhorted to, and maybe fall into, despite ourselves. There's something nauseating about it, only exacerbated by the reminders of how different, and awful it is for so many less fortunate than ourselves, the homeless, etc. (Good John Bird article on this in the current Big Issue.)
I think Christmas also throws up a lot of powerful unconscious processes and fantasies. Some infantile realm inside us gets triggered to come up with idealisations of how it ought to be - glorious, happy, conflict-free, etc. The reality is disappointing by comparison, sometimes crashingly so, eg when old relationship wounds bleed anew. I think sometimes the painful stuff gets triggered at Christmas exactly because we want a day in the year when it can all go away!
I wonder also whether there's something deep under all this about being at the low point in the year - mid-winter, solstice. A feast is surely a good thing to help us through. Both western pre-Christian cultures, and Christianity itself of course, celebrate the coming of the Light (sun or Son) at this time. Symbolically, (and thinking in Jungian terms), that's a huge deal. Maybe part of the catharsis of the feast includes an exegesis of the negative..?
How to manage Christmas? Maybe a bit of kindness, empathy for self and others, goes a long way - an understanding of the complex feelings stirred by this time in so many of us. A bit of containing the difficult stuff, knowing that "This too will pass". And a reaching out, kindly and empathically, to those around us, who may be feeling it worse than we are - or who may surprise us with kindness and joy coming right back, and reminding us we're in it together, and not so different from each other, nor as alone as we imagined!
Need more? @08 for an appointment.
Trump - Brexit - Climate Change - and Psychotherapy..?
We live in strange times. For many of us, these are very disturbing times. Many of us are finding it difficult to navigate the world as it changes around us at an alarming rate, challenging our values, our purpose, even our sense of who we are... We can be facing feelings that are hard to articulate to ourselves, let alone to share with others. Some of these feelings can challenge us at the deepest, existential levels - what is true out there? What is life all about, when the ecosystem is in meltdown? How do I live well in these unprecedented circumstances? What is right action in these times?
Do you need conversation at this existential level? To be met and understood where you happen to be, right now? Contact me!
The Brain as a "Don't Get Killed!" Device
So why is it that negative thoughts can be so troublesome and hard to get rid of? Why do we look at the news and get despairing/anxious? Why is it that we can be so anxious about how we are with other people, how we fit in, whether we're accepted, whether we're good enough? Well - take a look at it this way:
From an evolutionary perspective, what matters most? Survival, right? And in that imperative to stay alive, our strongest suit is our brain. Think hunter-gathering on the savannahs, surviving against sabre-toothed tigers etc. Can't out-run 'em - might outwit 'em. So the mind - the bit of our brain activity we have some awareness of - is a radar, constantly the lookout for danger. Back then - and now. At that level of functioning, not much has changed in hundreds and thousands of years.
And part of our survival is to stay in the group. We're social creatures - we're not built to go it alone. So fitting in, being liked/accepted, being somewhere in the pecking order, is part of survival.
This perspective helps us to see that our anxieties have a useful function - or did have. So when we want to live freer of them and the way they can impede our happiness, we need to start by accepting them (and that part of ourselves). Being kind and loving of those parts of ourselves, understanding where we're coming from, gives us a firmer base from which to move to better states. We won't change ourselves to being calmer, happier etc by bullying ourselves out of our anxieties. Therapy offers a gentle, holistic way forward.
Radical Acceptance 2
Thanks to M - who read my first piece on Radical Acceptance and put me onto Tara Brach's (2003) book of the same name. Well, it seemed unlikely that I'd hit on a completely original idea! And it's great that our thinking is part of our shared life on this planet. And Brach, as a Buddhist practitioner, makes a wonderful use of mindfulness in enabling us to extend a radical acceptance to those tricky parts of ourselves we'd rather do without. She builds a firm base in the practice, using the breath as an anchor for awareness, for the mind to come home to. From that place, one can then locate unpleasant thoughts, images etc, in the body - ie where in the body do I feel most dis-ease when facing this thought? Breathing into that place - heart, chest, forehead, wherever - allowing that discomfort or pain to be held gently and kindly in the breath. Not to change it, but to accept it. The acceptance in gentle awareness may bring ease, or other shifts, but if the aim is to get rid of the dis-ease, we'll fail eventually. This is about accepting our human experience, and holding each part of it in the wider flow of life's energy. A healing, therapeutic prospect.
OK - so... I have a long relationship with depression. I've learned a lot about it, what gets me into it and what gets me out of it. It's the part of me above all others that's what Jung called "The Wounded Healer." I think all therapists have their version of this, however much we might want to sweep it under the carpet. I know that for me, it's what gives me empathy for others' distress.
My acceptance of this part of me has until recently been, well, a bit grudging. I'd rather not have this bit of me, but hey, here it is again, and what can you do?
Looks like I've turned quite a corner on this lately. The notion came to me in my meditation of radical acceptance. Not the reluctant "hey, what can you do?" stuff, but "Well, so I AM really personally down right now about the state of the planet, the poisoning of the atmosphere, the poisoning of public discourse by Trump et al. I feel ill with it... And why wouldn't I? I embrace this response in myself right now. I allow these feelings full access. No apologies. No feeling that "I ought not to feel this way". This is it - this is me - full on, unedited, right now. And (in the words of EFT) I'm OK anyway."
There's something bracing about this embracing of how I happen to be right now. I can be more comfortable in exploring this state... (Often I'm surprised how relieved friends are when I share my downs - like they get permission to articulate their own down states.) And then the state shifts... Something else comes up... There's a flow of experience again, because I'm not blocking anything...
"Work Sex Money - real life on the path of mindfulness" by Chogyam Trungpa (Shambhala, Boston & London 2011) has been really helpful on this bit of the journey.
Tutu, Tibet, and Neuroscience
I've just read 'The Book of Joy' (2015) by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu - a five day dialogue between the two Nobel Peace Prize Winners on how to be happy. One of the best aspects of this great, easy read is how much their interlocutor, Douglas Abrams, links what they say about being happy to contemporary neuroscientific evidence. And quotes from psychologists, eg Lyubomirsky:
"The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our experience more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous."
The Psychology of Sustainability
The Anthropocene Geological Period and Psychotherapy
My friend Andrew Mitchell has just had a great paper accepted for publication. 'Uncertainty and Hope: Therapeutics for the Anthropocene' looks at the ways change-making conversations, as finessed in psychotherapy, can be part of the solution to sustainable living. The move as he says is from controlling nature to living with and within the natural world. The Anthropocene period - the new geological period we've (arguably) entered as humanity for the first time in our history impacts the planet's geology - is 'not only an ecological crisis; it is also a crisis of cognition.'
I'm just re-reading 'The Mindful Way Through Depression' by Mark Williams et al. (2007). Some marvellous reminders of what mindfulness is all about and very down-to-earth ways of being in touch with experience - 'implicit, intuitive, nonconceptual, direct knowing...' (ibid, p62)
Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way
- on purpose
- in the present moment
to the unfolding experience moment by moment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003)
Outcomes of practicing mindfulness? Calm; focus; presence.
Let me teach you how to use mindfulness in your own life!
For several years now, my morning routine of yoga, Alexander Technique, whatever happens to be included, also has a Gratitude piece. As I'm lying on the floor I come up with at least 5 things for which I'm grateful. I don't let myself think too much about it, looking for flow, and 5 is minimum - after that I stop counting.
This came to me through my first encounter with an EFT practitioner, and it's common practice in many therapies. It was hard at first, but I enjoy the habit - and the outcomes. I've been amazed at the difference it's made, cumulatively. It makes it so much easier to be grateful, accepting, of all sorts of things during the day, even when I'm not consciously doing the practice. Just lately I've taken to writing the thanks down - bit more of a hassle, but a bit stronger as a practice too.
The most surprising development has been going on spontaneously to giving thanks for stuff that's difficult - feeling low, facing conflict, not wanting to do something... 'Thank you for my feeling crap today...' And I might really get into it, describing just how crap, and where in particular in my body... And as I do, I feel myself relaxing; the body eases in (sometimes out of) the state as the mind gives thanks. That's a challenging piece of learning. The power of acceptance.
17 Feb 16
Working, resting, balancing, being
I've had it really tough lately. I can get very absorbed in thoughts - like climate change issues. That stuff can really get me down. In common with a lot of people, I can find the whole area massively overwhelming and depressing. Some reading has helped enormously, like Sally Weintrobe's 'Engaging With Climate Change' (London 2013). Psycho-analytic thinking at its best. 'Active Hope' by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012) I found good too - in an extremely challenging way.
The biggest issue for me is how much wellbeing work I need to do to deal with this material. That's where I wobble sometimes. Building up the life-affirming side - needs more time and care just now! The company of good people, understanding, openness, laughter, exercise - love and beauty - in abundance! And coming back into the present, always - in the end, here and now is all we've really got. So what helps me get back there?
Learnings - from everywhere -
So life's a journey. And it's just about learning. Discovering over and over that the more you learn, the more there is to learn.
I've spent the last year suffering from sciatica. Boy was there a lot to learn about managing ongoing pain! I'm over it now, largely. No more pain killers. Working back into my yoga, pushing against the pain there - cautiously!
One of the interesting learnings on this bit of the journey has been Alexander Technique. Had about 6 sessions so far. Relaxing lying on the floor on my back with knees to the ceiling for 15 mins twice a day. Progressively releasing muscles just by thinking about them - not physically letting go - very efficacious. This seems to work as a complete reaching a place of stillness - a meditative moment, with all the benefits of stopping, letting go, clarity...
The other really helpful bit is learning the self-instructions for stopping old habits and starting new ones. My teacher, Dr Miriam Wohl, sums these up -
- say 'no' to the automatic reaction (whatever it is in the moment - negative thought, rounding shoulders...)
- release the eyes, mouth and neck so the head goes forward and up
- let the back and front lengthen (by releasing)
- let the trunk widen (by releasing)
- buttocks and thighs release
- then before movement, release ankles, knees, hips, 'top-joint' (neck)
This is essentially on the physical plane, but there's something here that's useful psychologically too. I'm exploring AT in relation to states of being/feeling. And it's no surprise how our physical stance affects our mood. Feeling low is especially linked with rounding the shoulders, drawing the body downwards...