Stress as the gateway to freedom

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At 8.15am the new puppy had just gone to sleep. She’d been up since 6:30am, and from 8.00am she was biting and chewing and chasing everything in sight: her toys, my toes, my wife’s shoes, the cat…

Sometimes when she’s tired she gets like that. We put her to bed and she very quickly flopped over and closed her eyes. Sometimes she dreams, moving her feet whilst she’s asleep, and making little noises.

This is our first dog, she’s been at home with us for three weeks, and what a learning curve! She is gorgeous, delightful and she’s just slept through the night for the first time.

As well as learning how to look after a dog, and how a puppy changes from day to day, I’ve also learnt a lot about myself. New situations offer that opportunity. Sometimes that learning has felt like a gentle curiosity, and sometimes that learning has come out of an experience of being almost full of powerful emotions.

In stressful situations our habitual ways of staying safe in the world can come out even more forcefully than usual. For some people it’s micro-managing. For some people it’s finding ways of distracting themselves, or getting distance from the stressor. All of these habits are usually ways of preventing ourselves from feeling some powerful emotion that we (subconsciously) worry might overwhelm us: anxiety, grief, anger, guilt and so on.

Where do these powerful emotions come from that suddenly well up and invite us to jump into our self-protective strategies? They come from the past.

The current stressful situation has some echoes of a time when we couldn’t manage or didn’t know what to do. We were too little or we weren’t resourced enough to cope. And if we haven’t fully processed what happened in the past – if we haven’t felt what we needed to feel, let go of what needed to be let go, and healed those wounds — those feelings come up again and again. Why? They are inviting healing.

That’s why these current stressful situations are such a great opportunity—there is an invitation to heal old wounds. And when those old wounds are healed, we no longer need to dive into micro-managing, or distracting, or whatever, and as well as coping with the present, we can actually begin to enjoy ourselves.

It can really help to have another person alongside for this healing journey. A counsellor can provide a safe space to talk, they can help you feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them, and they can support the letting go and healing that is needed.

In this way stressful situations can be the door to more freedom. If we approach ourselves with curiosity and get the support we need, we can come out of them better than we were before.

Goal-less therapy ~ goal-less life

Aiko – our new puppy

We’ve just adopted new puppy. She’s been home for nine days and when she first arrived she spent her time either being completely awake and very lively, or completely conked out. She’s desperately cute, and we’re sleep deprived.

As anyone who has a new puppy knows, when they come home what used to be ordinary life goes out of the window.

This disruption of our ordinary schedules made me think about my attachment to plans and outcomes.

There are times when I want to be quiet and she wants to play. There I times when I want to work and she wants to play. There are times when I’m ready to play, or go out and show her the world and she is flopped over on one side and fast asleep.

We’re slowly getting to know each other’s needs and routines, and I’m learning how completely her needs cut across my plan for the day. How used to following my own agenda I’d become!

In my life I have plenty of aims and objectives: things like some writing in the morning, lunch at lunchtime, a nap in the afternoon, and a few clients each day.

In my work with clients I aim to be completely agenda-less.

When I investigate that intention more deeply I find that it isn’t completely true. My agenda is to keep my clients best interests at heart without really knowing what that looks like.

I have a general sense that healing trauma is a good thing to do. So that’s an agenda. I also know that what healing looks like is different for each person, and that healing needs to happen in the clients’ time — not in my time.

So there is an aim, and there is aimlessness. Aimlessness is often considered a negative thing in today’s world. But the aimlessness that I’m talking about includes paying attention, keeping curious and staying warm towards the client.

It’s easier to do this with clients than in my own life. With clients I have an agreed plan of when and where to meet, and for how long, and for that time my own aims and agendas can be put down. Most of the time, anyway. When my needs do make themselves known in a session I can ask them to wait until later when I can attend to them…

…and that can become useful information in the therapy process. Maybe I’ll write another article about working relationally that dives a little deeper into that another time.

My life isn’t bounded in the way a therapy session is, and sometimes I really want to do things my way. However most of the time it’s probably good for me to bring this kind of aimlessness into my own life as well — can I have the best of intentions for myself and the puppy, and everyone else —and let go of knowing what that looks like?

This letting go of knowing requires a little faith. It requires trust in something beyond my own selfish needs.

Buddhism calls this the unconditioned. Other faiths and philosophies have different names. Julien of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

So what is the goal of goal-less therapy? To enter into trusting that all shall be well, without knowing what that looks like, and to trust that coming into closer more compassionate relationship with ourselves is healing, without knowing where that healing may lead.

And the goal of a goal-less life? The same.

The power of working outside

“When I see how the strawberry plants have grown and spread themselves all across the veg. patch, I am reminded that the Chinese character for nature means something like ‘self-managing’. The natural world manages just fine without us. Our minds are often like this too – when we relax, the healing process begins to unfold of its own accord.”

Read more in my Counselling Directory article: The Power of Working Outside

Rainforest Mind: Boundlessness with James Ford Roshi

Rainforest Mind: Boundlessness with James Ford Roshi

00:00 / 51:07
James Ford Roshi

What a great conversation. James and I spoke about
the Unitarian Universalist movement, form and emptiness in Zen, boundlessness, spiritual fluidity and more.

James is a Zen Buddhist teacher and part of the Empty Moon Network, he leads a group in Southern California.

James’ most recent book is called Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons, search for it at your local bookstore.

Other episodes you might like:

Rainforest Mind: Zen and Christianity: An Interview with Rev Ian Spencer

Rainforest Mind: Buddhism and Christianity

Rainforest Mind: Needs, Gratitude and Grace

And all archived episodes

Buddhist Psychology, Climate Change and Spiritual Encounters

Buddhist Psychology, Climate Change and Spiritual Encounters

00:00 / 54:28
Dharmavidya David Brazier

I’m talking to my Buddhist teacher Dharmavidya David Brazier. We talk about Buddhist Psychology: what does it mean, and how does Buddhist therapy work? We talk about how encountering ‘awakened’ people can be transformative, and about enduring great suffering. We talk about what supports grounding yourself in the big picture, and how faith helps us respond to climate change.

Dharmavidya’s book on Dogen is released in March by Windhorse and is called The Dark Side of the Mirror. Remember he writes under his given name of David Brazier, so search for that if you are looking for his other books, including Zen Therapy, which he mentions in the podcast.

I mention the Mary Oliver book Upstream.

Dharmavidya’s personal website is at, and the website of the Buddhist movement he leads is

Other episodes you might like

Zen and Christianity: An Interview with Rev Ian Spencer

Embodied eco-spirituality with Allison Priestman

Searching for God, or something like it

Or view all episodes here: Rainforest Mind

Going to Wild Places

Going to Wild Places

00:00 / 23:28
The nature reserve at Ogden Water

How can we support healing in people, and in the planet?

To help answer that question I’m talking about the importance of going outside, and what different kind of outside spaces can teach us.

I talk about what wildness means and I talk about the practice of finding a spot to sit in, and sitting there regularly. I talk about two different experiences of outside spaces, and what I learnt from each.

I mention George Monbiot’s Feral, and this Guardian article: The shutdown is over, can Joshua Tree recover?

If you’ve listened, drop me a comment below, I always love to hear from people.

Other episodes you might like:

Rainforest Mind: Embodied eco-spirituality with Allison Priestman

Rainforest Mind: Wild Therapy with Stephen Tame

Rainforest Mind: Wildness

Asking for help

Change for the better rarely comes from within. Left to our own devices we tend to go around in circles, thinking the same old thoughts, repeating the same old actions. We may be so stuck in these loops that we just think, “This is who I am.”

Thankfully we don’t exist in isolation, otherwise we’d be stuck.

When I think of the times when I have changed for the better in my own life, there has always been something from the outside that has made the difference.

Sometimes it was that I was deeply listened to and felt understood, and in that understanding I was able to put down a burden.

Sometimes it was that the consequences of my own foolish actions shouted so loudly I was jolted out of my usual habit patterns and into something different – into asking myself what have I done, and what could I have done differently.

When I look back across my life it is often the most difficult times that have been the greatest teachers.

Sometimes change came from taking myself to another place. When we are surrounded by the same people, the same things, and the same views, it is harder to get out of our stuck patterns.

Once I was struggling with something a friend had done and I couldn’t shake my frustration. I took this frustration walking in the hills. It was the beginning of summer and a butterfly landed on the path in front of me. At first I didn’t notice it. As my loud footsteps got nearer it flew away, just for a moment, before coming to land on the path again. This time I noticed. My friend was as fragile as this butterfly I realised, and my heart softened.

Sometimes changing our community can support healthy growth. My friends in recovery usually have to keep their distance from friends still in active addiction, for example. This kind of move on its own is not always enough and usually has to be alongside some personal reflection if it has any chance of lasting.

Asking for help from another person is one of the most powerful conditions for change, particularly if you can find someone who is not invested in any particular outcome for you, and can listen, understand and be a mirror for you.

What stops us from asking for help?

The first step is admitting that there is something we need help with. Perhaps we get a clue from how we, or from seeing the consequences of our actions but not knowing how to change them, or perhaps from other people letting us know.

We usually get stuck in the same old patterns because there is some underlying fear about what might happen if we were to do something differently. Finding someone you trust can support you to change even though change can be scary.

We may believe that it’s weak to ask for help. If we notice ourselves thinking this, or something like this, we can ask if it’s really true, or remind ourselves of where not asking for help has got us.

Places to go for help:

  • Ask a friend or family member
  • Reach out to the Samaritans hotline: 116 123
  • Talk to your GP
  • Join a supportive community
  • Book an appointment a therapist

If we can overcome our resistance to asking for help we are doing one of things that is most supportive of change, growth and wellbeing.

This article first appeared in All About Malvern

To sit in a place

Silhouettes 1 by Randi Hauksen. Shared under a Creative Commons License

In preparation for the Wild Therapy training I am taking this year, we have been invited to find an outside place, and to sit in it for ten to fifteen minutes every day.

Our temple – my home – sits halfway up the Malvern Hills. Our garden is tiered. On the top tier is our veg patch. The next tier is down a sloping grass path, alongside the high stone wall that holds the first one in place.

In this stone wall is an archway. Some kind of old storage place, perhaps? It goes a few feet back into the earth, a man-made cave. This is my sitting place.

This morning I noticed the cold edge of the cast iron chair against my leg. I spied a hazel catkin shaking in the wind. I noticed how quickly the clouds above me were moving, and how still the grey sky above the horizon seemed.

A pair of bullfinches was singing high up in the bare branches of a tree that I don’t know the name of. Every now and again I would see the bright flash of the males red chest.

Three dark crows joined them in the same tree. Off to one side, hidden in the holly, a blackbird was singing.

In the distance, two small birds danced in flight, shadows against the sky. Swifts, I thought at first and then later I saw two long tailed tits and wondered if that’s who I’d seeing diving and leaping earlier.

I could see our three stands of bamboo, gold, black and something else, waving without pattern in the growing wind.

Sitting like this is not a new practice for me, although going to the same place every day is. A week or so in to the practice and each day has been different. A few days ago it was snowing. Yesterday morning the pond was frozen. This morning the pond had thawed and I could see into its depths.

In the past I might have taken a notebook with me, to record what I was seeing, either in the world or in my inner processes. It has been nice to leave the book behind and just sit.

The world goes on under its power each day. All of that life goes on doing its thing whether I am sitting in the cold chair watching it or not. And my own life goes on as well of course, whether the birds are noticing me or busy with their own lives.

There are patterns, and nothing is predictable. The seasons come and go and each day’s weather is unique.

I find a great solace in watching it all unfold. For me, there is a great healing in connecting with the natural world. We are animals, of course, and creatures of the wild, even though we have created a world of order around us.  I have a great trust in the power of returning to our place as one small voice in the always playing, never repeating, song of life.