Read my article about therapists love for their clients at the Counselling Directory: is Love a Dirty Word?
Read my new article on the Counselling Directory website, about healing with IFS – a research backed form of therapy: Healing with Internal Family Systems.
Why is there a picture of Inside Out accompanying this link? Because IFS is all about working with the different parts that make us human.
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.
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.
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:
All episodes here: Rainforest Mind
When Satya and I started running a Buddhist temple it felt like we had suddenly progressed to the next level of the game. I can almost see the cut scene, and hear the music: the temple rendered in 8-bit glory the 8-bit beeps and whistles. When we got our puppy a month ago it felt like the same thing. I can think of other moments that were like that as well: getting married, moving into my first Buddhist community and training as a monk, my first time directing theatre…
All of these things have ultimately been rewarding. That’s that thing about the next level — the monsters are harder to beat, and the puzzles are harder to solve, but there is more treasure as well.
And at some point — when you are in the middle of playing — you level up: your character gets stronger, or quicker, or more magical, and the game is easier again.
It can be like that in life too.
Before Aiko the puppy arrived I did lots of reading about how to look after dogs. Some of it helpful, some of it less so. I came away with some useful knowledge, and the amount I read also fed into my anxiety about trying to get things absolutely right (an impossible task, of course).
We had a one to one with a puppy trainer, and we’re going to Dog’s Trust training classes, and for a while none of that seemed to make any difference to my anxiety. And then one morning it was just easier.
I levelled up.
I reached a point where I felt like I more or less knew what I was doing and my inner system changed as well, I had become more relaxed about the whole thing. The first one is easy to explain: all of that reading and training and practicing was paying off. My inner system adjusting was just as important but how that change happened might be less obvious.
I think the most important part of the process of inner change was finding spaces where I could be heard, and where I could be supported to hear myself. Spaces where it’s okay to say – “I’m finding this hard”.
As Carl Rogers said: “We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”
How does this work? Deep acceptance of who we are means that our defensive postures and habits relax, and when they relax — we become more like who we really are.
The difficult times in life — when we progress to the next level — can be great gifts because alongside the difficulty they offer these wonderful opportunities for learning both practical skills, and for letting go of anxieties, compulsions and negative self-belief and we can come out of the situations better than when we went in.
As a gamer might say: sometimes you need to grind to level up.
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.
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.
“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
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:
And all archived episodes