Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Kind words

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

I came across this poem just when I needed it.  The poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye has an uncanny way of showing up at exactly the right moment and begs its reader to drop below the superficial. The child of a Palestinian father and an American mother, her poems speak a language deeper than culture, history or religion. Through the portal of the everyday - be it a grocery store, an olive press, the headlines - she prompts consideration of the most profound questions and revelations of the soul.  For me, poems like this are pure soul food. 

"I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. 
I love staring, pondering, mulling, pottering.  I love the times when someone or something is late - there's that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime... 
Poetry calls us to pause.  There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own."

Naomi Shihab Nye



Saturday, 27 October 2012

Lost for words

Humility is a word that today carries a whole lot of meaning for me.  I used it and meant it towards the end of a workshop I was delivering this weekend.  I felt it, and powerfully.  I feel humbled sitting in the presence of families who have someone missing.  Their extraordinary and awful experiences throw into a different light so many of mine, both past and present, and I was conscious of the collective experience spoken to by a group of relative strangers, brought together by a horrific and harrowing reality none of them imagined, let alone expected. 
The workshop represents the completion of a series we have as a team delivered up and down the land.  Yet it stands for so much more.  As I found myself fumbling for words, which carried anything like the meaning I was searching for, I surrendered and allowed my heart to find its voice.  Sometimes words fall so far short, it is better to give up the battle altogether.  Why should I, who has thankfully never directly encountered missing, have the words?  How could I? 
I don't.  I have thought long and hard about the missing experience.  I have waded through the territory of missing, from an intellectual perspective and I have attempted to walk some few steps alongside those who live and breathe the experience.  Perhaps there are some experiences so dreadful we cannot ever fully appreciate what it is like that those who suffer them face.  I have learnt plenty, and felt even more.  I am not sure what now to do with all of this.  I am not convinced there is anything to be done.  Coming towards, and approaching difficulty head-on carries with it certain risks.  Especially when the scale of the difficulty defies comprehension. 
Somehow in the midst of yet another revelation of my own powerlessness, I feel anything but hopeless.  Today was a potent reminder that where groups are concerned, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.  Today a community was brought together.  People from across the vast spectrum of backgrounds came together, united by something more important to them - someone they love is missing from their lives.  

Makin' my way downtown
Walking fast
Faces pass and I'm homebound

Staring blankly ahead
Just makin' my way
Just makin' a way
Through the crowd

And I need you
And I miss you
And now I wonder

If I could fall into the sky
Do you think time would pass me by
Cause you know I'd walk a thousand miles
If I could just see you tonight

It's always times like these
When I think of you
And wonder if you ever think of me

Cause everything's so wrong
And I don't belong
Livin' in your precious memory

Cause I need you
And I miss you
And now I wonder

If I could fall into the sky
Do you think time would pass me by
Cause you know I'd walk a thousand miles
If I could just see you tonight

I, I don't want to let you know
I, I drown in your memory
I, I don't want to let this go
I, I don't

Makin' my way downtown
Walking fast
Faces pass and I'm homebound

Staring blankly ahead
Just makin' my way
Just makin' a way
Through the crowd

And I need you
And I miss you
And now I wonder

If I could fall into the sky
Do you think time would pass us by
Cause you know I'd walk a thousand miles
If I could just see you

If I could fall into the sky
Do you think time would pass me by
Cause you know I'd walk a thousand miles
If I could just see you
If I could just hold you tonight

Various artists, 'A thousand miles' 
You are always on my mind
All I do is count the days
Where are you now?

I know I never let you down
I will never go away

I really wish that you'd stay but what can we do
All the days that you've been gone I dreamed about you
And I anticipate the day that you will come home, home, home

No matter how far you are
No matter how long it takes him
Through distance and time
I'll be waiting

And if you have to walk a million miles
I'll wait a million days to see you smile
Distance and time, I'll be waiting

Distance and time, I'll be waiting
Will you take a train, to meet me where I am
Are you on your way?
I will never do anything to hurt you
I'll never live without you

I really wish that you would stay but what can we do
All the days that you've been gone I dreamed about you
And I anticipate the day that you will come home, home, home

No matter how far you are
No matter how long it takes him
Distance and time,I'll be waiting
And if you have to walk a million miles
I'll wait a million days to see you smile
Distance and time
I'll be waiting

No matter how far you are
No matter how long it takes him
Distance and time, I'll be waiting
And you can walk a million miles
I'll wait a million days to see you smile
Through distance and time, I'll be waiting

Oh oh oh
Oh oh oh
Oh oh oh

I'll be waiting
I'll be waiting
Through distance and time
I'll be waiting

You are always on my mind
All I do is count the days
Where are you now?
Alicia Keys, 'Distance and Time'

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

You say it best...

...When you say nothing at all?
Disclosure in the therapy room is a contentious subject, but perhaps one that is not explored as readily as it could be.  I am under no illusion as to the existence of a peculiar power dynamic in the therapy room, and do not seek to deny it, either inside or outside of the room.  Revelations I make about myself, my experiences, and my opinions can have a significant bearing on the individual relationships I have with my clients.  But the impact of my silence should not, I feel, be overlooked or underestimated. 
It would be all too easy, perhaps, to remain an empty vessel, or a blank canvas.  To make 'therapist style' noises, at appropriate moments, and engage the full range of active listening skills.  It wouldn't necessarily make me very useful.  I'm not convinced this would establish terribly productive therapeutic relationships, capable of catalysing meaningful change. 
As someone with a bit of experience under my belt, I can recognise changes within myself and therefore within my practice.  I take risks today I could not have dreamt of in my early days.  I have a certain confidence born of experience.  I am able to gauge where a relationship is at, and respond accordingly.  Naturally enough, I don't always get it right. 
But I do feel passionately that I am anything but an empty vessel, sitting there listening.  I seek to engage with each and every one of my clients.  I care about them.  And about what they tell me.  I am invested in the relationships we together build, as these are the vehicles of real change.  It is my understanding and belief, that the work can only happen when we truly encounter one another. 
I am a therapist.  I am also a human being.  Complete with cognitions, and emotions.  Unable and unwilling to separate my humanity, or leave parts of myself outside the therapy room, in order to remain authentic, coherent and whole, it is my responsibility to speak frankly, both in my work and beyond. 
"Self-revelation is not an option; it is inevitability."
Aron, L. (1991), The patient's experience of the analyst's subjectivity. Psychoanal. Dialogues, 1:29-51.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck.  Isn't there always?  There is cutting to the chase, and there is simply cutting, and hurting.  I seek to cut to the chase, without being abrasive.  It is possible to be direct, without being callous.  There are many circumstances in which it is my duty to become more directive than I could have thought possible when I was first introduced to the theory underlying basic counselling skills. 
I am willing to share my experience in and out of the therapy room.  I am a straight talking shrink who doesn't shrink away from the awkward or the challenging.  It's not so much about being cruel to be kind, I simply believe my clients are worthy and deserving of honesty.  Therapy is about so much more than peeling the layers of an onion.  It's a precious forum in which things need not be dressed up, or skirted around.  Things aren't always pretty and therapy isn't always neat, or tidy.  Who would I be kidding if I were to try and deny this?  And in whose service would that ever be? 
"Through my self-disclosure, I let the other know my soul. They can know it, really know it, only as I make it known.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that I can't even know my own soul except as I disclose it.  I suspect that I will know myself 'for real' at the exact moment that I have succeeded in making it known through my disclosure to another person."
from The Many Me's of the Self-Monitor, by Sidney Jourard.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Railway days

I have grown used to the sound of trains as they pass by at the bottom of my garden.  The sound was alien when I first arrived, and I felt convinced I would never overcome the regular disturbance, day and night.  Today, it is there, and I live alongside it, rather than battling against it.  At night, I barely notice the trains, and during the day, I find them somehow comforting, reminders that time is passing by, confirmation of that eternal truth that nothing stands still. 
Travelling by train is something of a rare pleasure these days.  In recent months, I have, it feels, travelled the length and breadth of the country.  I do not have any such adventures on the horizon, but recall feeling aware of a definite sense of calm whilst in transit on the railways recently.  Train journeys are now, spaces to simply be.  In terms of getting from A to B, there is nothing much for me, as a passenger, to do, and nowhere for me to go.  As such, it is time spent sitting still.  And going with...
Physically, and energetically, my recent journeys by train have been rejuvenating.  Time and space, to sit and be.  Resigning to the journey, surrendering and letting go.  I have enjoyed what they represent as a complete contrast to driving.   
"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel's sake.  The great affair is to move."
Robert Louis Stevenson
"That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet."
Extract taken from The Whitsun Weddings
by Philip Larkin

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Zooming in on our lives

It made a lot of sense as she said it - it can be scary to zoom out.  Keeping things in the day, and focusing on the here and now is a skill that once learnt, can become something of a protective cloak when the bigger picture is perhaps less orderly, and even overwhelming.
A great many of us move through our lives one chapter at a time, turning the pages as we go, and retaining a sense of 'all is well, all will be well', by taking things line by line, with the ability to take things even more steadily, word by word.  We set ourselves objectives, and make plans, but we live looking only just ahead of where we find ourselves. 
There are lots of reinforcers for this approach.  Education for one.  Modules, rather than finals.  Public examinations annually, or even more frequently.  Progressing in a linear fashion.  It all keeps things ticking over nicely. 
Until they don't.  I have come to realise that, for those of us who experience a set-back of a magnitude that throws our worlds out of sync, no matter how temporarily, the aftershock can be radical and profound.  For when we are thrown out of the bubbles we tend to occupy, and forced to acknowledge the bigger picture, we may well be knocked over by the sheer enormousness of that which we are confronted by.  Those big and scary questions make an appearance and with them the potentially terrifying existential dilemmas... 
'Why am I here?'  'What am I doing?'  'What is the point, anyway...?'
It is as though we were gazing at a rug.  Made up of tiny, individual threads.  Together, their differences are indiscernible, we have an experience of the whole as integrated.  Life, when we need to, is to be broken down into the individual strands, as they are more manageable - we can digest these, and make sense of what they represent.  As we zoom out, and take into account the floor covering as a whole, it's easy to get lost. 
Perspective makes a difference.  Sometimes it's important to adapt our viewpoint, to avoid becoming consumed by the landscape of our lives.  As the greatest task we will ever face, why not break it down into bite size pieces.  Just for today.   

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Out and about - Up and down

As the days get colder, and the nights longer, I have upped my scheduled entertainments.  Twice in a month I have been to the 02.  For two very different evenings.  Jesus Christ Superstar was written to be performed in an arena setting.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, who appeared on stage at the end of the show, told us he'd waited 42 years to get to the 02. 
Not to everyone's tastes, perhaps.  I thought it was spectacular.  The show has been revamped and boasted cutting-edge modernisation used last summer's London riots and the Occupy movement to create a contemporary backdrop for the rise of a new political leader who threatens the status quo of capitalism and state authority.
And it was loud!  Swinging effortlessly between heavy rock and ballad, the emotional connections in the triangle between the tortured but disaffected Judas, the weary Jesus and the yearning Mary Magdalene, are only further intensified Tim Rice's absolutely brilliant lyrics. 
I enjoyed each of the main characters performances played by a superb cast, as well as Chris Moyles' appearance, as Herod, a game show host sporting red crushed velvet demanding the audience vote whether this Jesus is a fraud or a lord!  Tim Minchin and co., certainly prove Superstar is a work of conceptual genius.
The superstars themselves (from left): 
Tim Minchin (Judas), Ben Forster (Jesus), Melanie Chisholm (Mary Magdalene) and Chris Moyles (King Herod)
The production offers a brilliantly simple new answer to the age-old question of what would Jesus Christ be doing if he came among us today...  In Laurence Connor's directorial vision - brought to vigorous, violent life - Jesus would be out with the St. Paul's protesters, mixing among dreadlocked anarchists, frightening the life out of grey-suited Roman bankers and spreading the Gospel via Twitter.  It is a persuasive vision, expressed with some magnificent back-projections of urban poverty and corporate comfort. 
On my return this weekend, to see Cirque du Soleil's most recent London offering, 'Michael Jackson:  The Immortal Tour' provided a very different ensemble.  Here, I would tend to agree with the lacklustre reviews that the show has received.  It left me cold. 
Whilst Michael Jackson never did play the O2 his music will certainly live on forever.  Hence the show, an appetite-whetting combination of one of pop’s great catalogues and the all-tumbling, all-trapezing troupe Cirque du Soleil.  It seemed a match made in heaven when I eagerly booked tickets as soon as they were released. 
In theory, it couldn’t fail; in practice it fell a bit flat.  It was as though something had stymied Cirque's usual innovation and creativity.  The most baffling disappointment was the near-absence of the troupe's trademark and spectacular acrobatics in favour of a series of Covent Garden-standard mimes, predictably lost in the vast arena.

Tellingly, after two hours of the most danceable music imaginable, none of the crowd were out of their seats.  Even more disappointing was the impersonation of Bubbles the chimp.  There were certainly world-class performers in front of us, but their skills were dismally underused.  As one critic said, it began to look and sound less like a celebration of Jackson's talent than a spectacular parody of it.  You win some, you lose some.  The mixed bag won't deter me from sampling more of what London has to offer as the winter weather draws in. 



Sunday, 14 October 2012

We DO recover

"...Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed the path that the program suggests..."  So says Chapter 5 of the Big Book, the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous.  "Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."
How it works might be summarised as Honesty, Open mindedness and Willingness.  No two meetings are ever the same.  They may be broadly similar, as they tend to follow a similar format, but a meeting is as individual as the people that make it. 
Meetings are the backbones of a great many individuals' recovery journeys.  In them, those who have decided to abstain from substances, or behaviours, access the support of those with a common purpose, and this is the not-so-secret key to 12 Step Fellowships.  By sharing their experience, strength and hope, members hope to help themselves, and others, giving back to the fellowship what they have received.       
At the heart of many meetings are several key readings, taken from approved literature, that has been translated worldwide, and which preserves the integrity of the program as it has been passed down through communities for nearly a century. 
In between readings, a member may share with the group their experiences, both before and in recovery, providing something with which others attending the meeting might be able to identify with, or might hope to emulate in their own lives.  The idea is that someone might bring to life the message of the program, and in so doing be of service to the group. 
"Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now..."  Hearing someone's first ever chair is a very great privilege.  Seeing someone arrive in the rooms, and work a program of recovery with the help of a sponsor (usually someone who has been around a-while, and who voluntarily agrees to guide someone else through the program), is as real reminder as you can get that we do recover.  Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and often we cannot notice the changes in ourselves as clearly as we see them in other people.  That's why we get better, together.   

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The road gets steeper, and the vista widens

Surrender has been a prominent theme in recent weeks.  On so many levels.  For me, there are few lessons learnt as effectively as lessons lived.  My own experience is a wonderful laboratory for many an unanticipated (and sometimes less than welcome) hypothesis.  I feel as though I have gleaned a great amount of late.
I can now see how very different surrender and resignation are.  I can only see this having felt it.  Giving up is not an option.  Surrender is not only an option, it is sometimes absolutely the right thing to do.  Which is not to say that it's easy. 
It's not been easy.  Watching someone you love losing their life to a chronic and debilitating illness isn't something I'd wish on anybody.  Watching the life being steadily squeezed out of a family member, powerless in the face of a ruthless and progressive condition, is challenging on every level.
She's fading away.  We've not lost her, but we've lost lots of her.  She is not the person she was.  Our relationships have been dramatically altered.  Circumstances are forcing us to have conversations, and make decisions that feel unjustly premature.
Resources are limited.  Energy is at an all time low.  Time feels short.  But panic we must not.  There is much that we can do.  Adjustments need to be made.  In every sphere. 
Each breath is precious.  I know this to be true.  Words are useful, but are not always of great value.  There is action to be taken.  We are recruiting a carer.  No one can be in two places at once.  But we can build our team.  Whilst we can't make time longer, my hope would be to make it richer.    
"Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late."
William Shakespeare

Monday, 8 October 2012

Powerful transformation

I had to look at it for a second time.  As I emerged from the Underground, a chalk message on a blackboard read:  "The best way to find something you've lost is to buy another".  It shouted at me.  I was making my way home after a long day, having travelled to and from Yorkshire, and there was this message - simple.  Far too simple, in fact.
It didn't of course refer to someone you may have lost.  But the intimation spoke to me.  We don't anticipate losing those we love.  We get by on the assumption that people we hold close to us in our lives will not suddenly vanish.  But that's exactly what happened to the twenty individuals I met in Leeds.  One day their relative was there, going about their ordinary everyday business.  Then they were gone. 
Their experiences ranged in length, but the devastation was broadly similar.  Wives looking for their husbands, mothers missing their sons.  Siblings torn between their own acute sense of loss, and that of their parents.  Whether sixteen months, or nearly ten years, those left behind are left desperately searching, wondering, hoping, fearing, and longing. 

On the train journey home my colleagues and I attempted to digest some of what we'd experienced during the day.  Humbled and exhausted, our conversation moved towards symbols we find meaningful.  Frogs and butterflies dominated our thoughts, representing the enormous potential for transformation nature boasts in abundance. 
The magnificent butterfly, emerging from the chrysalis that catalysed the transformation from its earlier manifestation as a caterpillar.  The elegant and athletic frog, once spawn and then a tadpole.  Radically different from their prior forms, almost unrecognisable.  Those we met on Saturday represent only a tiny minority of the thousands of families living with not knowing.  They are not the people they were before their loved one went missing.  And yet they also are.  I find myself in awe of human resilience in the face of unforeseen adversity.  Incomprehensible yet undeniable.   


Friday, 5 October 2012

Empathy: Pulsating alongside

Less than a week ago, I was in Birmingham.  Tomorrow I'll be in Leeds.  My work has rarely before involved travel to such glamorous locations.  This weekend represents the penultimate workshop in a series I have delivered with colleagues on behalf of the national charity Missing People.  As police continue to investigate the disappearance of little April Jones, my work for the organisation feels as poignant as ever.  It will be a privilege to return to Yorkshire, where I presented an introduction to mindfulness over 3 weekends for families of missing persons earlier in the year.  I am looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, and to meeting new ones.   
This aspect of my work, which has grown considerably over the last 18 months, has been both a challenge and a delight.  Having thankfully never found myself in the situation where someone I love has disappeared without trace, I am stretched to truly empathise with the family members I encounter. 
There is a big difference between sympathy and empathy, and bridging the sometimes enormous gap is crucial in the work.  I have learnt more than I could ever have imagined or foreseen, and still view this as something of an 'edge' for me, both personally and professionally.  I am constantly in awe of the resilience I bear witness to, every time I meet someone who has been left behind. 
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 
Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross
The capacity for hope, and its preservation is something that keeps me alive to and in my work.  Working with the families and friends of missing persons is a very real reminder of why I trained to become a therapist - to meet people, where they are, and to remain with them in that space, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable.  My training taught me lots.  My work teaches me more each day.   

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The importance of moisturising

Therapy is psychological exfoliation.  I've heard the cliche of peeling the layers of the proverbial onion too many times for it not to hold some water.  It makes sense.  Therapy, done well, is about going beyond and below the superficial.  When safe, the space is a sacred one, the potential for which may be limitless.  At times however, this is hard work.  I know this first hand, having sat on both sides of the room.

Stripping back, to uncover and reveal is necessarily exposing.  Safety is paramount, and so too is aftercare.  A comprehensive skincare routine entails exfoliation, cleansing, toning and moisturising.  Abrasion requires balm and serum.  I often find myself talking to clients about the importance of honouring the work done inside the therapy room after they leave, treating themselves gently - physically and psychically.  'Going there' requires enormous courage.  'Getting there', if indeed there is any fixed destination, deserves kindness. 


Monday, 1 October 2012

Hippity Hop

Some Like it Hip Hop by ZooNation was an awesome midweek treat!  The innovative fusion of hip hop dance moves and soulfully sung song made for a thrilling foot tapping, and later hand clapping evening of entertainment.  Unexpectedly discovering our seats to be in the front row brought with it an additional dimension, as we were immersed in the storyline and into the powerful characterisation, and thus transported into the blindingly creative storyline and artistic genius of the relentlessly brilliant choreography.
Some Like It Hip Hop is a story of love, mistaken identity and revolution, in a city where books are banned, and where women are kept subservient to men.  The story revolves around two central female characters, Jo-Jo and Kerri.  When they are discovered breaking the rules of the city, they are thrown out.  They decide they have only one option – to return to the city dressed as men.  It doesn’t take long for the two women to prove their worth, and it also doesn’t take long for Jo-Jo to fall in love with adorably geeky Simeon, the only educated man in the city.
It takes all their efforts to maintain their disguise, find love, and change the world.  An amazing hybrid of influences have brought about this unforgettable show with ingredients derived from the classic movie Some Like It Hot, the hit US TV series Mad Men, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Some Like it Hip Hop is a complicated comical tale of love, mistaken identity, cross-dressing, gender stereo-types and revolution are played out in ZooNation's trademark style of Hip Hop, comedy and physical theatre.
For me, it was an evening about real diversity and spoke to the persistence involved in pursuing and living one's dream, breaking down barriers and overcoming obstacles, to follow one's heart and achieve freedom from one's past through mourning the losses inevitably encountered.  Powerful yet indisputably fun stuff!