New Year, New You? How to Make Real Change

Photo by Mat Brown from Pexels

It’s that time of year again. We’re just in to the second week of January and many of us will have broken our New Year’s resolutions already. What’s going on, and how can we really change?

The New Year is often a time for reflection and contemplation. We look at the past year, celebrate some things and feel regret about others. We imagine some ideal self that we would like to be, and aim ourselves towards it, making promises and resolutions.

I’ll go the gym more, I’ll eat a better diet, I’ll phone my mum more often, I’ll be kinder to myself and so on and so forth.

I have a rule of thumb for myself: If it takes a small push — go for it; if it takes a big push — think again.

Why are some changes easier than others?

We are made up of a whole mix of different habit patterns and impulses. Some parts of us see the downside of old behaviours and are desperate to change. At the same time those old patterns of behaviour think they have very good reasons to keep doing what they are doing.

Internal Family Systems teaches us that whilst some parts of us might produce harmful and unhelpful effects in the short and/or long term; those parts are convinced that they have our best interests at heart.

For example, part of us wants to do more exercise in the New Year. Another part baulks at the idea and instead of going to the gym we find ourselves pulling into a fast food drive through, or into the car park of our favourite shop, or simply not leaving the house.

We’re convinced that more exercise would be good for us and yet over and over again we find we just can’t do it.

Those slightly hidden parts that are keeping us away from the gym are sure they are doing the right thing? What’s going on?

Perhaps somewhere hidden deep inside there is a part of us holding a wound around exercise. Maybe some shaming in P.E. at school, for example. Our young system learnt that the way to avoid that experience was to stay away, and those stay away parts have been busy keeping us safe ever since.

Of course the ‘stay away’ parts don’t want us to go to the gym, whilst we’re there, they think, we might get shamed again. And then the New Year comes along and we say that we are going to push past all of that so called resistance and just do it! To those parts protecting us from being shamed this feels like a great threat, so of course they push back even harder, and we find ourselves back at square one.

So what can we do?

The way forward is to respect all the different parts of our system: to respect both the impulse to change, and the protective parts that want to avoid change.

Sometimes simply noticing the protective parts is enough for them to begin to relax. We can remind them that we’re not at school any more, for example, and that we have different choices about how to respond if things do go wrong.

Sometimes we need to work with these parts a little more before they are willing to relax. This is when it’s helpful to get support from a therapist.

With your therapist alongside us we can get curious about these parts. Why are they doing what they are doing? How old do they think we are? What wounds are they protecting?

Sometimes there are just a few parts involved, and the process doesn’t take long. Sometimes there are more parts involved, or more powerful parts and we need to hang out with them for a while before they begin revealing themselves to us.

This is true for lifestyle changes like going to the gym, and it is true for addressing anxiety, depression and the effects of trauma.

When things aren’t changing as we would like it’s a sign that there are different parts involved, and the way forward is not to push through but to work with all of the parts. When all the parts involved are ready for change, then change will appear.

Grief and Climate Change

In our Buddhist community, at the invitation of our local XR group, we dedicate one practice session each month to the living earth. In our most recent session I talked about and made a space for grief, and I’ll share some of those same thoughts here.

Image by rsteve254 from Pixabay


I remember a childhood holiday to Cornwall. We drove down from the West Midlands in our blue-grey Lada and at the end of the journey, after we had set up camp, my dad washed the car windscreen. We had hit so many bugs on the way down, and their splattered bodies were spread across the glass. Last year I drove to Scotland and the windscreen was almost clear.

People older than me might remember having to pull over to wash the windscreen on long journeys, or the moth ‘snowstorm’ that appeared in the headlights of cars driving at night.

You will have your own experiences of the loss: how you used to be woken up the dawn chorus as a child, but now the early mornings are much quieter; a favourite wild place that has been built over; or the loss of people and places to extreme weather events.

I am moved as I write about and name these events. I can feel tears and grief in my stomach wanting to rise up and find expression.

We often shy away from feeling such powerful emotions out of fear that they will overwhelm us. Not wanting to feel this pain is completely understandable, and this denial can prevent us from taking action to support of the living planet.

Understanding our own reluctance to feel grief can allow us to understand why others don’t want to feel this grief and why they don’t take the action we might like them to take.

 A Second Kind of Grief

I am a child of the 80s and 90s. We were promised endless material wealth, if only we would work hard. We were fed endless material dreams:

  • “Get this, buy this, things will make you happy!”
  • “When you grow up you can choose to spend your money however you want.”
  • “Travel the world!”

I recently looked into my heart and found a place that grieves for not getting what it wants. A small boy who still wants those promises to be fulfilled, “But you told me I could!” he cries. When I first discovered this about myself I was ashamed. These are not the feelings of a conscientious person. And yet, the feelings we have are the feelings we have. I have found a way to be kind to that part of me, and to allow its grief to find expression.

Again, understanding these places in our own hearts allows us to more deeply understand those others.

Expressing Grief

It’s important to find places to express grief; to find ways of allowing the pain to exist which aren’t overwhelming. When we can acknowledge our deep feelings — anger, blame, hurt and sadness —we allow them to move and shift and change. They become a source of strength rather than a source of fear.

What is it that allows us to process and experience our own grief? It is love.

For me, much of that love comes from my Buddhist faith. Knowing that I am loved and supported by the cosmic Buddhas returns me to a feeling of safety, where I can name and feel powerful feelings without being consumed, overwhelmed or traumatised.

Some of you will have religious higher powers that you can take refuge in like this: God, the Tao, Krishna and so on.

Some of you will have loving communities and relationships where you find this same kind of love. A love that accepts you just as you are.

Some of you will intuit something loving in the natural world: watching a sunset, being in wilderness, looking up at the night sky.

Some of you will find a place inside yourselves that unconditionally loves and accepts yourself and others.

Some of you might find it in professional therapeutic relationships.

Some of you might still be searching for this.

As we find safe spaces to grieve we come to know ourselves more deeply.  We discover our pain, and our resistance to pain. We come to know the human condition more deeply.

This knowing is essential for our work in relationship to others. As we process our own deep feelings it is easier to come into relationship to the deep feelings of others, and to find ways of standing together.

And as we find ways of letting grief in, we come into a more intimate relationship with the natural world and are more able to celebrate and champion the diversity and life that still flourishes.

I encourage you to find spaces to grieve in, and to support the grieving process of others. That can only be good for us, and for the living planet.

Podcast episodes on this theme:

We have to go slow to go fast

Image by Michelle Yorke

We come to therapy when we want to change. Sometimes we are desperate to change, and that urgency makes complete sense; we feel awful and we want to feel better, or we can see the downsides of our moods and habits and are worried about getting into more trouble.

If our whole system was ready to change, we would have already changed and we wouldn’t need to be in therapy. We are a mixture of feelings and habits – we all have many different aspects. We come into therapy and some parts of us want us to change, and some parts of us are afraid of change.

Read the full article on the Counselling Directory Website: We Have to go Slow to go Fast

Why therapists should be clients

Not my therapist’s office, or mine, but a photo from Pixabay

I’ve just returned to personal therapy. I’m confident this is a good thing for my clients, as well as for me personally.

Being a client reminds me how it is for my own clients to be in therapy. How strange it is to come to a first session, and the nerves that come with imagining sharing the deepest parts of ourselves. How vulnerable we become.

Being a client supports me to have more empathy and understanding towards the various parts of myself, on more and more subtle levels, and this self-empathy increases my capacity to empathise and be with my clients and what they are bringing.

Being a client reminds me that we are all in the same boat. I know how it is to be wounded and to have fears and triggers. As a therapist I’m not working from a place of, “I’m all sorted” but from, “I know how it is to be human, and to support other humans like me”.

Being a client means that I am getting support for my own fears and triggers, and when my own wounded parts feel taken care of it’s much easier for me to take care of my clients, and what they are bringing to sessions.

What is Wild Mind?

I’m half-way through my training in Wild Therapy. You may have seen me writing about the power of working outside before (here and here). We work outside a lot on the Wild Therapy training, but it isn’t the whole story. As well as appreciating and coming into relationship with the wild out there, Wild Therapy is also about coming to appreciate the wild inside: Wild Mind.

Let’s start with a definition of wildness.

I like that one of the Chinese characters for nature means something like ‘self-leading’: left alone the natural world takes care of its needs.

A rainforest is a good example of a wild eco-system. There are many different elements that exist in relationship to one another, birds, animals, insects and trees. Some of these live off one another, but the whole system is in balance. Populations find ways of existing alongside one another without one element taking control of the whole forest.

There is no manager at the centre of the forest directing activity, and yet when all of these different elements come into good relationships with one another, something beautiful is produced.

I’m not using wildness to mean crazy, but complex, self-led and diverse. This is wildness as ecologists understand it.

How does that relate to inner wildness?

Our mind/body systems are made up of different parts. There is the sympathetic and para- sympathetic nervous system, other biological systems, and the mind itself which has many different aspects. Some aspects of the mind we are conscious of, and some we are less conscious of. These different aspects motivate actions, and create different thoughts and feelings.

When all of these different parts are in good relationship to each other, we probably don’t notice them at all, and generally feel relaxed and at ease. When one part comes to dominate, or different parts develop oppositions to each other – we might start to notice the downsides.

An inner-critic might be predominate, for example, or the desire for quick change might be fighting with a part that wants things to stay just as they are.

One way of understanding why these parts take over so forcefully is that they have lost trust in the whole system – in the rainforest mind, so to speak.

So wild therapy is about restoring trust and it is about appreciating that there is a place for all of these different parts – that therapy is not about getting rid of anything but of bringing the whole system into balance.

Nothing gets thrown away, and each part finds its way into better relationships with the other parts, and them the whole system operates like a rainforest, like that Chinese word for nature ‘self-led’.

When we have a complete eco-system, a completely wild-mind, we don’t have to manage it, we don’t have to push ourselves or control ourselves, because naturally we engage in the world in a healthy, easy way.

Want to learn more? Listen to these episodes of my podcast, Rainforest Mind:

Rainforest Mind: Wild Therapy with Stephen Tame

Rainforest Mind: Embodied eco-spirituality with Allison Priestman

Going to Wild Places

One thing you can do to improve your mental health

This is a piece about songlines, and about maps, and about one thing you can do to improve your mental health.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking through a valley on the edge of the Forest of Bowland. I crossed over the river Roeburn at the bottom of the valley, and the woodland opened out into a meadow. There were a few fruit trees here, and some wildflowers scattered through the grasses. Later in the woodland I was struck by the elm flowers on young elm trees, by the bluebells and by the ferns. Birdsong filled my ears, along with the buzzing sounds of bees, wasps and hoverflies.

I was following a human trail. It was crisscrossed with the trails of other animals — deer, I guess and maybe foxes and badgers.

Humans see in one range of colours, birds and animals in another, insects in another. My view of the forest is from nearly six feet above the ground, a badger’s view is just a few inches from the ground, and the smells are much more significant. All of our experiences of the forest are very different.

A badger’s map of the forest is very different to mine. I want to know where the fences and gates are, and which way the paths go. A badger’s map is about food, and sniffing out the territory of other animals.

Naturalist Charles Foster experimented with a badger’s map of the woods. He slept on the ground, wore a blindfold and learnt to recognise the different smells on the forest floor. Even then his map of the woods would have been subtly different, I’m sure.

And what of a tree’s map of the woods? What does a tree notice? They respond to the seasons, to chemicals that other trees emit, to stress…

Songlines are the songs handed down through Australian aboriginal communities that mark the journeys of the creator gods. The songs are maps, very different to our own, and vast tracts of Australia can be navigated using them. We all have different ways of seeing the world.

What has this got to do with mental health?

The more able we are able to appreciate that others have different experiences, and ways of seeing the world to our own, the more likely we are to have good mental health.

The more we can see that we are not at the centre of the world, the more likely we are to have good mental health.

Good mental health is about landing in reality, and reality is complex. The more we can appreciate that there are many (human and other than human) ways of experiencing the world, the more likely we are to have good mental health, and the more likely we are to behave in ways which are better for the whole plant. And behaving in ways which are good for the whole planet tends to support good mental health.

So that one thing you can do? Begin to appreciate the many different ways of seeing the world.

The magic ingredient of therapy

There are lots of wonderful techniques that we learnt in therapy training: different ways of reflecting what you have said, different ways of asking you questions and teasing out the issues that you bring to therapy, using feelings in the body, or using the natural world as a resource.

These are all great. And there is one special ingredient that makes a big difference as to whether these work or not. In fact if all you have is this special ingredient therapy can still be a powerful healing experience. What is this magic ingredient? It is the being-ness of the therapist. The aliveness.

Of course, I am a therapist, and I’m writing this on my own therapy site, and in some ways it seems audacious to talk about my own quality of beingness or aliveness. In this culture we are much better at being self-deprecating than we are at celebrating our good qualities. However, it’s such an important part of what heals and transforms that it would be remiss not to talk about it.

What is aliveness? It can manifest as relaxed spaciousness, or as vibrancy and energy. It is being alive to ourselves — noting the currents of our own moods and feelings; it is aliveness to the other — being able to make space for another person in a way that is free from judgment and responsive to their needs; and it is being alive to the world — taking part in events and meeting moments in a fearless way.

Ultimately it is what we come to therapy to receive.

We often come to therapy thinking about what we want to get rid of, rather than thinking about what we want to get from the experience in positive terms. We might want to move through grief, or find a way of getting out of depression, or reduce our anxiety. As we work on these issues in therapy our aliveness increases.

This has become even clearer to me as I spend time in groups with other therapists as part of my training. Looking back to my time in groups when I first trained, I can see that I often relied on my cleverness and on working things out. These are great qualities and the amount of calculating and working out that I was doing was restricting my relationships with others in the groups. Why? Because that calculating and working out was being used in the service of protecting me from my hidden fears about being in groups.

I’m grateful for that part of me, because it allowed me to be in those groups and learn things. And one of the things that I learnt was that it was enough to be myself. In fact it was more than enough: the more training I do and the more groups I take part in I keep learning that that the more I can be myself the more helpful to the group that is. When I am less fearful and more alive, the aliveness of the whole group increases.

The same is true in one to one therapy. The healing relationship comes from my depth of being myself, my lack of fear of my own feelings and my faith in the process —all of the more subtle qualities that I have receive from years of training, and from years of Buddhist practice.

When people come to me for therapy, I set an intention to be the most alive I can be, and I feel alive.

Come and see me for therapy and you will receive some of my fearlessness about being human, some of my faith in the value of us being ourselves, and some of my aliveness.

Book an initial session now.

Rainforest Mind: Lessons from my puppy

Rainforest Mind with Kaspa Thompson
Rainforest Mind: Lessons from my puppy
Aiko and me

A few weeks ago we got a puppy! Wow – what a whirlwind the last month has been. Moments of sheer joy, and moments of fraught overwhelm. As one book Satya was reading put it, there is the honeymoon period, the WTF have I done period, and the I couldn’t live without her period….

Today I’m talking about what Aiko puppy has taught me, about living with a puppy and about living with myself.

Aiko is part of the reason there haven’t been many episodes recently. But she’s growing and easier to live with now, and so Rainforest Mind is back 🙂

Other episodes you might like:

Buddhism and Christianity

Buddhist Psychology, Climate Change and Spiritual Encounters

A Nomadic life – in conversation with Jayne Johnson

All episodes here: Rainforest Mind