Touching the Beauty of Life

Life is difficult…

So declared the opening sentence from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s seminal 1978 pop-psychology book “The Road Less Travelled”. Within it he set out his understanding of how to live a fulfilled life. It starts, in his mind, by acknowledging that life is filled with contradictions and that part of the challenge of being human is to reconcile the multiple, complex and often conflicting factors that living entails. Through holding the tension of these opposing forces within ourselves we grow. The more we grow the more we are able to appreciate the enormity of, and fulfil the potential of, this gift of life.

As a counsellor I see evidence of the many challenges we encounter every single day. Be they difficult decisions in the present, painful memories from the past, self-defeating habits undermining our hopes, or troubling existential questions that demand our attention. I also witness the joys, the infectious kindling of courage, moments of quiet contentment and share the sense of achievement in problems overcome.

Happily, pain is not the only motivator for growth. Many philosophers and psychologists hold that the impulse to become ourselves is more powerful than the desire to avoid pain, although the latter often proves a helpful ally in confronting our fears of change. The impulse to ever evolve is well encapsulated by Abraham Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of Needs, in which he defines four levels of need – Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem – that form the building blocks that enable us to reach “self-actualisation” – becoming all we can become. Variations on this general idea have been central to many cultures – indeed Maslow drew much inspiration from the indigenous Blackfoot culture of North America, though that was not widely credited.

Historically the notion of humanity’s drive towards wholeness encountered a major stumbling block in the concept of “original sin”. As a western nation, one of whose ideological bedrocks is Christianity, innate goodness lost favour a long time ago. But in the age of scientific rationalism it received the final nail in the coffin when Darwin’s theory of evolution was unfairly reduced to the “Survival of the Fittest” concept.

Originally psychology made the same mistake, studying only mental illness, categorising symptoms and looking at the problem rather than the whole human being. Perhaps this contributed to the shame associated with needing the help of a “shrink” – the assumption that you’ve got to be severely mentally ill to seek therapy. But Maslow was part of the “humanistic” movement which has endeavoured to study the solution rather than the problem. That which helps you to feel good and how to increase your capacity to do so. Thus Positive Psychology has emerged. This in turn has been supported by more recent revisions of Darwin’s theory suggesting that it is not the “fittest” but the most adaptable that truly thrives. What better to assist adaptability than human collaboration?

So how do we do it? How do we change and grow into who we can be? This is a central question for all the spiritual traditions that have developed over the years, cultures and continents to assist humanity in living well. All have developed their methodologies and I often think of counselling and psychotherapy as a modern day, secular form of non-dogmatic ministry, based on acceptance and empowerment of the individual.

First we have to identify what is stopping us being fulfilled. This is easier to do in the safety of a confidential, non-judgemental, therapeutic relationship. Through talking about our difficulties, joys, hopes, confusion and innermost fears we get to loosen the stifling grip of self-doubt, peer beyond the obfuscating fog of confusion and move towards clarity on what we want. Through discussion and reflection on patterns of thinking and behaving, feeling and relating we develop self-awareness. With more self-awareness we cultivate the capacity to exercise more choice, instead of snapping back into default reactions. The therapist can draw on their training and experience to support the development of this capacity to think psychologically, thereby enabling clients to gain more clarity and response-ability. For example, we might find ourselves standing back from situations that used to trigger us into anger or collapse, instead finding the ability to observe the thoughts and feelings that are triggered, internally attend to the accompanying emotions effectively, and then chose to respond in new more empowering ways towards the world at large.

Therapy sadly doesn’t provide any magic bullets. The therapist tends to avoid the trap of offering explicit advice – how often do we ask for advice but either reject it, feel diminished by it or simply feel unable to follow it? So although therapists will offer their expertise in addressing particular problems, they are primarily looking to support people in changing their patterns of interpreting and responding to the world. It’s a case of “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day…”. The therapist’s role is to provide the conditions to help clients find their own discernment, courage and confidence to become themselves as fully as they wish.

People have expressed many concerns about entering therapy to me over the years. These range from getting bogged down in the past, to fostering dependency on the counsellor, to being “selfish”. A recurring worry is that it will encourage a blaming attitude towards parents or early care-givers, as often much power is attributed to the early developmental experiences we have in childhood in forming our attitudes and behaviours in the present. These fears cannot be unduly dismissed. I am familiar with instances in which all these damaging outcomes have occurred. Happily, they are usually a temporary, natural part of the process of self-examination and signal only the growing pains of therapy. Skilled therapists will notice the pitfalls of a blaming mentality or an inappropriate dependency on themselves and use those insights to help clients explore those disempowering patterns and assume ultimate responsibility for their current experience, whilst acknowledging the impact of the past, social, political and environmental factors beyond the individual’s control. Though it may take some time, with this newfound response-ability clients find the capacity to communicate more effectively, feel more empathy for others and support others more fully.

I am grateful every day to have, or be earning, the trust of my clients. I am conscious of what a privilege it is to hold the hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears and foibles of others. My training featured many hours of personal group and individual therapy, as well as hundreds of hours in placements learning how to work safely and skilfully with clients before receiving accreditation. It is vital to check the credentials of therapists before working with them and often a personal recommendation is a helpful way to find someone you can trust.

So, how do we choose to live this “one wild and precious life”, as the recently departed poet and champion of compassion Mary Oliver put it? The more we can find the capacity to open the more we can move beyond the difficulty and honestly declare: Life is beautiful.

What is Addiction, really?

This brief article appears in Devonshire Magazine as part of their Road to Recovery focus in the latest issue to be found here. I hope you enjoy it.

“What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” Alice Miller.

Addiction is more than a lack of will power – it is a profound deregulation of the brain and the psychological faculties designed to help us navigate life. It can come in many forms from crack to slot machines, rigid control to relationship obsessions and more recently social media.

But this deregulation – if we’re willing to look at it, to explore it and learn from it – holds within it an extraordinary gift. It is a communication from deep within us that something is not ok and, crucially, that something within us wants to change. For who is born with a desire to transgress their values, damage their health, diminish their potential and hurt the people they love?

Through a process of psychoeducation people can learn the attitudes, skills and behaviours that help them change. Through the acceptance of others people can learn to accept themselves again (or perhaps for the first time). Through self-examination people can learn to heal the unresolved issues or feelings that often reveal themselves once they are ‘clean’. And through re-connection to others and themselves people can find purpose, passion and peace once again.

It is hard work, but there is help. Despite austerity there are rehabilitation centres, group programmes, self-help programmes, spiritual programmes, evidence-based interventions, inspirational literature, yoga programmes, mindfulness techniques, trauma treatments, podcasts and TED talks available for those interested. Our understanding is expanding all the time.

If you are wrestling with addictive patterns or you’re a concerned friend or family member, the single most important thing to do is ask for help from someone or a group experienced in aiding addiction recovery. You do not have to do it alone.

Addiction & Ecopsychology

W&W uprightI recently held a workshop at Wild & Well Festival in Bristol. In keeping with the festival’s focus on physical, mental and emotional health and the outdoors the workshop was an exploration of the potential role of Nature in addiction recovery. I am enormously excited to bring this perspective to the recovery community. For although there is a tradition of alternative nature-based therapeutic modalities being used in addiction treatment programmes these are usually fringe elements of the treatment process: some bushcraft skills here; a little equine-assisted therapy there. In practice Nature’s provision sadly remains a vast and largely untapped resource when it comes to counselling and psychotherapy.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are operating in a culture that does not meaningfully value the natural world. Commonly, we see it as a material resource, often failing to recognize its vast contribution to our psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. We have evolved within the crucible of the natural world so our psychological makeup is indivisible from the natural and archetypal forces that have shaped us. Remove our connection to it and what happens? concerning still is the march of economic and technological “progress” that fails to recognise our interdependence with the environment within which we exist, and upon which our physical survival depends. We are perilously close to irreversibly depleting the very ecosystems that sustain human life.

This, to me, seems like an astonishing and not-unrelated societal parallel to the individual who is caught up in an unhealthy and unsustainable way of living, who ignores the warning bells tolling around him, who rationalizes short-termism despite the consequences, who ignores his actions’ violations of his values driven by his own blind need for more, who denies his own humanity in order to avoid his discomfort. In short, it seems like excellent modelling of addiction by society to the individual. Is it any surprise we have widespread expressions of addictive states across society with our institutions and cultural systems giving this example?

i283163839597023725._szw480h1280_.jpgOne of the wonderful things about living in these precipitous times is that there is an explosion of awareness about these concerns. We see the shift in public consciousness regarding plastics that has taken place over the last year or so and the resulting votes on eradicating the use of single plastics. Within the humanitarian sphere there are growing branches of therapeutic disciplines and psychological enquiry that come under various titles depending on the focus: nature-based therapy, eco-therapy, wilderness therapy, ecopsychology and so on. This movement has various roots stemming from outdoor enthusiasts to activism but it began to formally cohere in the 1980’s when Edward O Wilson came up with the Biophilia hypothesis in which he theorised that humans have an inbuilt connection to nature.

This hypothesis is in line with many people’s reported experience in recovery. Many of us cite nature as a nurturing, restorative factor in our recovery process. But what is it that we’re experiencing when we feel restored by nature? What does this balming effect have to do with our addictive processes? Are our increasingly urban and technologically-oriented lives affecting our capacity to feel our place in the evolutionary order of things, and how might this impact our choices and patterns as individuals and societies?

I am devising a nature-based retreat programme for addicts in recovery to explore these questions and deepen a relationship with the natural world. It will include eco-therapy practices, solo time in nature, group harvesting and reflections to help each participant to come into connection with themselves and their environments – their essential nature. They will be held in the beautiful, verdant lands of Devon near Totnes and come closer to finding their own path through the nature-connected wilderness of our times.

If these issues and deepening your own recovery process are of interest to you then please check back here soon for announcements on the first retreat in 2018, or get in touch and I’ll be sure to let you know when dates have been set.


Igniting the Hearth: my new counselling room in Totnes, Devon

Two weeks ago I put the finishing touches to my counselling practice room in Totnes. It is the former kitchen in a handsome 18th century townhouse – what more suitable place to conduct therapy than in the former hearth of the house? The window looks out onto a pretty courtyard. Clients have a prime view of the Japanese maple in the foreground, with a backdrop of honeysuckle and beyond that a verdant wall covered with, currently, blazing Virginia creeper.

Situated on South Street it is the former cottage to Birdwood House on Totnes High Street. It’s a stone’s throw from the principal parking lot in the town. Although the courtyard backs on Totnes’ Market Square, with its accompanying market day bustle, the room holds a tranquil atmosphere. You’d barely know the market was there.

Decorating it was an interesting process. Initially I wanted to reflect the warmth of the hearth and chose some bolder red fabric. It was too intense so I focused on calming, natural tones. The furniture is comfortable and functional with elements of simple beauty. The desk for example is a rustic pine with some simple carved embellishments. The rug is an ethical marvel constructed exclusively from recycled plastic, which nonetheless feels soft and warm.  Then there are the personal touches such as the curtains, handmade by my sister; the wreath of intention from my recent eco-psychology course.

I had trouble deciding what to put on the walls. There is a local printmaker named Linda Hill whose art strikingly explores feminine archetypes. Her images capture some of the struggle to reclaim ourselves, negotiate pain and achieve balance that deep personal enquiry and therapy often entail. Influenced by Jungian perspectives her symbology and depth seemed to me the perfect accompaniment for the therapeutic journey. Once, however, I got the pieces up on the wall I had to admit to myself (with some encouragement from others!) that some of the images might be too explicit or confronting for some clients. Despite the fact that some people would draw deep inspiration from them I relented and have chosen more universally appealing pictures that offer a quality of gentle harmony to clients and personal meaning to sustain me as a practitioner. I’ve kept the tamer archetypal prints and peppered the rest throughout the house.

Having my own books and counselling materials to hand feels luxurious after hiring practice rooms up until this moment. I have really enjoyed the experience of working at The Nautilus Rooms, near the bottom of Totnes High Street and enjoyed the community aspect of interacting with other therapists. And I still see clients in Exeter at the dependable Practice Rooms. But This feels different. I can really settle into the room, my own natural rhythm and bring more of myself to the experience as a result.

This will, I hope, be a hearth and a haven to many people in the coming years. I feel very grateful to have such a place from which to offer my care, attention and skill as an Integrative counsellor specialising in addiction therapy, eating disorder treatment and emotional wellbeing.

Gambling Addiction Discussion on BBC Radio Devon

For those of you who have been following the discussion around gambling laws in the UK here is a brief interview I gave for BBC Radio Devon. Please see the link below to listen to my thoughts on gambling addiction (from 1hr 15mins into the programme).

The government are currently reviewing the gambling industry’s use of Fixed Odds Betting Machines. These machines have been described as the “crack-cocaine” of gambling and indeed are designed to trigger maximum engagement from those who are drawn to use them. Both the high risk (up to £100 per spin) and the rapid draw (new bets can be placed in as little as 20 seconds) make it particularly difficult for problem gamblers to employ their rational decision-making abilities in the heat of the game.

There is a powerful testimony of what it is like to be in the grips of gambling addiction by a recovering addict from 1:13hrs.

Following that I discuss with Pippa and Matt on drive time radio the impact of FOTB’s and the responsibility of those with the power to change policy to explore whether the economic argument to keep them stands up given the devastating effects gambling has not only on individuals but also their families, jobs, communities and ultimately the nation’s services.

I hope it provides an informative glimpse into the debate. I offer gambling addiction counselling in Devon – Exeter and Totnes. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to have a conversation about how I could help.

Now Offering Online Counselling

It has been an interesting and unexpected process for me to shift from exclusively embodied therapy into the ‘virtual’ medium. I was skeptical of online counseling. As someone who places huge importance on the quality of the therapeutic relationship as a predictor of successful outcomes in therapy, and the necessity of shared physical presence to read and track the subtle energetic interplay between therapist and client I underestimated the potential of online therapy. So it was not a planned work strategy. It began by chance.

Some previous clients got back in touch when they needed extra support. As I’m no longer in Bristol or, indeed, London and they didn’t want to go through the process of finding and establishing rapport with a new therapist I cautiously offered them cyber sessions over video link. To my surprise the majority seemed to significantly benefit from the experience. They gave positive feedback and chose to continue working in this format. Clinically they appeared to be receiving similar benefits to those they had displayed in conventional therapy.

Initially I was astonished to find that really meaningful work could still be achieved online with previous clients with whom I already had a working relationship. But could this stretch to people with whom there was no previous connection? Would it be possible, having never sat across the room from someone, never shaken them by the hand, never had the reference of their physical presence, to form a tenable bond that could tether us effectively enough to withstand the challenges of therapy?

I am finding that there are inevitable drawbacks. Sometimes I miss the palpable immediacy of being in the same room together. Visual cues from seeing the whole human body in front of you are lost. Sometimes I want to give a client some particular handouts or together look over therapeutic assignments they’ve done.

But I’m finding that the lost benefits of face to face work can be balanced with added benefits from new elements. The saving of time, resources and energy that are spent in travelling both for the client and therapist allow for those resources to be channeled elsewhere. For the client being in one’s own home – not having to battle one’s way home when feeling raw and emotional – can be a huge attraction. For those who struggle to reveal aspects of themselves face to face the perceived anonymity of meeting via screen can help ease the fear of self-disclosure.

I take care to explain the pros and cons of working in this medium to potential clients and refer them to therapists in their location if it’s decided that they would benefit more from the tangible connection. In assessment the nature of their issues also determines whether it would feel appropriate to do online work versus the more grounded option. If on reflection and discussion there are no significant perceived drawbacks we give it a try. Thus far it’s been a mutually rewarding experience and I’ll continue to offer online therapy moving forwards.

Counselling In Devon

My counselling practice has now moved from Bristol to Devon. I am seeing clients for sessions at The Nautilus Rooms, Totnes and The Practice Rooms, Exeter. I am also conducting online therapy sessions via video platform.

When I initially moved down to Devon, knowing it would take a fair while to build up a practice in a new area, I decided to team up with The Kusnacht Practice and Brevin Healthcare. They offer individualized high end care for people who want a rounded package of support covering their psychiatric, psychotherapeutic and medical care. It took me to Zurich, Dubai, Kuwait and London where I was delivering intensive bouts of counselling for those with whom I worked. I feel very privileged to have had that opportunity to learn new ways of working that have strengthened my capacity to be flexible in the face of unusual circumstances and needs, as well as the benefits of solid therapeutic boundaries.

Having now settled in the South Hams and put my roots firmly down in the ochre soil of southern Devon I’ve found rooms to practice in both Totnes and Exeter. I am relishing the return to the gentle, steady power of weekly sessions with clients and the space this gives me to deepen connections with family, friends, the myriad progressive projects in the local community and, of course, the landscape itself.

I have established connections with two esteemed local organizations that I feel proud to support. Last season I ran a weekly therapeutic group for the “Becoming Indigenous’ course participants, providing reflective space for people to integrate their experiences and process dynamics within the group. I have stepped up to be a trustee of Write to Freedom – an innovative and transformational charity devoted to supporting addicts and young offenders to reclaim their potential through nature therapy, myth and creative writing. Last year I co-facilitated a monthly ‘grief circle’- a voluntary offering for any in the community seeking a place to touch, express and share their grief.

At The Nautilus Rooms in Totnes where I practice I am happy to be surrounded by a range of therapists, with a broad and suitably colourful array of therapeutic styles being offered. If you would like an assessment for Counselling in South Devon please contact me.

Mindfulness Therapy in Bristol

What is Mindfulness? We hear it spoken of more and more regularly. Indeed it has become something of a “buzzword” in recent years. But what does it actually mean and what are the real benefits, if any, that it can bring?

A sense of awareness of the present moment lies at the heart of what it means to cultivate mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the prime exponent of mindfulness in Western medical and psychological settings, defines it as follows: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.” In other words it is about getting a handle on your “thinking mind”.


If we can bring some more perspicacity to each moment we can begin to see the processes that occur within us at any given time. We can see the subtle sensations, thoughts and feelings that lie behind our actions and motivate our behaviour. We can begin to choose how we react to the stimuli around us, and even influence our habitual moods and emotional states. At the very least we can begin to develop an attitude of kindness towards ourselves, and others, in our moment-to-moment experience.

How do we actually do it? Mindfulness is generally thought to originate in Eastern spiritual traditions but also has flowered in various Western contexts. However, it has only become widespread in the West in the latter part of the 20th Century. With all this history behind it there are many techniques available but to begin with it’s about bringing the mind under control. Not by forcing anything or shutting anything out, but by developing the ability to maintain attention on the object of meditation. Commonly the breath is used as a focus, or “anchor” to the present moment, because it is always available and brings us into contact with our bodily sensory field. By simply paying attention to the sensations we experience with each breath – in and out – we are able to shift attention away from our thoughts and develop stability of awareness.

Following this simple practice can reveal quite how powerful and insistent the mind’s thinking processes are! When I sit down and meditate I find a tendency for my thoughts to focus again and again on different ideas and plans for the future – from anything as banal as the shopping list to an exciting creative project. It has been very helpful to discover that, with practice, I can relinquish the planning and settle into the present moment. For although the planning is helpful and necessary in moderation, it often undermines my actual enjoyment of what’s going on right now as I’m too busy planning the next thing!

In this small way Mindfulness can help with the majority of psychological difficulties we face. Habitual emotional states that are causing distress, such as anxiety, anger or depression, can be altered through creating this space around the emotional experience and gaining the ability to intervene in negative cycles of thought. With the awareness of what’s happening inside we get to identify what we’re feeling and respond appropriately instead of acting unconsciously and doing what we’ve always done. In this way it can be very helpful with compulsive behaviours such as addictions and eating disorders.

It can be argued that a great deal of psychological suffering is exacerbated by the avoidance of uncomfortable emotion. Perhaps more importantly than any other benefit, Mindfulness enables us to “be” with our experience and develop the equanimity to move through and beyond turbulent waters.

New Year, New Cycle – Manifestation

Happy New Year! It does seem a somewhat arbitrary marker – this particular calendar day and it seems to me that the solstice would provide a more grounded, natural moment to reflect on the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next – but some time to take stock is better than no time. In the busy-ness of everyday life finding the time to think about what we have recently experienced and what we want to experience in the coming months can be challenging. So having a nationally recognized marker for the end of the old and the start of the new can give us the prompting and the opportunity we may need to reflect.

For many years I spent my New Year in quiet contemplation with a friend undergoing a process we ambitiously named “The Reckoning”. We would go somewhere peaceful and loosely write a number of columns to help us reflect on the year. There would be things I was proud of having done, things I regretted not doing (or doing!), relationships (in three columns – those I found really rewarding, those I found unrewarding and those in the middle), things that I felt the desire to experience in the coming year, and anything else that seemed appropriate at the time. It was comforting to chart the waters about myself at that moment in time and to set some kind of direction for the coming year.

I find that taking the emphasis away from the predominant “resolutions list” changes the quality of reflection away from things I “should” or “must” change to things I want to let go of or move towards. Rather than being propelled by the desire to NOT do something, which I have to forevermore battle against, I am drawn to what I actually want. This way an organic motivation is awakened, so I no longer need to set my own unsteady willpower against the task at hand.

The specific goals are often less important than the experience I’m looking to have in achieving the goal. If we take weight as an example, what might I be looking for if my goal was to lose ten pounds? Underneath the specific weight loss lies a qualitative experience that I imagine I will feel if I lose ten pounds. What I’m really looking for is the experience of feeling more comfortable with my body. Using this approach I might then look at ways in which I could achieve more comfort within my body: taking better care of myself; eating nourishingly (instead of restrictively, which then sets up the inevitable fall from grace, which in turn makes me eat even less healthily); doing activities that bring me into contact with my body (like swimming, massages, walks, or if feeling adventurous, dancing); keeping blood sugar levels balanced (to help avoid cravings to eat unhelpfully calorific snacks). The amazing thing is that this approach has the effect of producing an unforced desire to look after my body instead of pummeling it into shape.

So my advice to you this new year, if you are looking to change anything in your life, is to cultivate the vision of what you want and then to process the blocks that arise to you experiencing this vision. Just as the earth is heavy, static, still at this time, so it is healthy for us to allow ourselves to envision and dream. Allow the seeds of what you desire to gain a foothold in the soil of your psyche. Soon enough it will be time to awaken and take action!

Brian Thorne on the legacy of Carl Rogers

Last week Focus Counselling hosted Brian Thorne’s “last public speaking event on the circuit” at St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street, Bath.

I was excited. I had “discovered” Brian Thorne, the much-admired torch-holder of the Person-centred tradition in the UK, two years ago when my new supervisor pointed me towards his work. The clarity, courage and heart in his writing spoke to me of an approach to counselling that I had hitherto been unable to find, yet felt called to employ. I was grappling with the division between my experience of working in fairly directive environments (addiction rehabilitation centres) and my yearning to bring a softer, more permissive, yet more authentic aspect to the therapeutic encounter. Here, it seemed, was a man who was willing to throw caution – and perhaps the security of specific techniques or targets – to the wind: to uncompromisingly meet his clients’ relational needs. Using Carl Rogers’ triumvirate of core conditions as his watchword he shone light upon a legitimate way forwards in my ideological impasse! I admired, too, his willingness to fly in the face of convention, take risks and challenge a discipline in which it is easy to allow caution to overwhelm creative clinical integrity.

Thorne began with the impact Rogers has had on psychotherapy. He spoke with conviction about the Rogerian approach in which “what mattered was the kind of relationship he offered his clients – nothing less, nothing more.”  He touched on the actualizing tendency – the underpinning assumption of his approach -, which espouses that, if met with the right conditions, people will grow, develop and realize their full potential. He praised Rogers’ refusal to assert power within the therapeutic relationship, and noted that this commitment followed through into his work as an international peacemaker towards the end of his life.

He spoke of Rogers as “The Quiet Revolutionary”. In many ways Rogers’ impact on western society is so great that it is invisible: his ideas about the value of listening, of the transformative power of self-expression in safe conditions has become almost ubiquitous. Our society’s narcissism has, of course, taken this individualizing impulse to an extreme in which many foster a self-centredness, expressed by the need to share intimate details to all and sundry in the form of reality television, social media etc. (The irony of my posting this critique on a blog is not lost on me!). However, the cultural shift from a position of excessive emotional containment to one of increasingly widespread emotional tolerance remains a sign of progress towards a more balanced way of being.

Thorne touched on the core conditions of Unconditional Positive Regard (acceptance), Empathy (understanding) and Congruence (authenticity), which have been so influential in the development of counselling. I would have loved to hear more of his thinking around these admittedly widely discussed attitudes. But Thorne was on polemic form and seemed more interested to address some of the more contentious and portentous issues on his mind!

Thorne chose to focus on Rogers’ final book A Way of Being (1980), which came to acknowledge the transcendent, the mysterious, and the spiritual in the therapeutic encounter. In the world of psychology this unquantifiable language, let alone concept, was not welcome. Indeed, Thorne was saying that many within the person-centred tradition had actively avoided and ignored the implications of Rogers’ later writings, preferring to focus on the more accessible aspects of his early philosophy. Thorne seemed to be admirably supporting a more transparent acknowledgement of these elements within psychotherapy, and was at pains to communicate the failure of contemporary psychotherapy and society to integrate spirituality into its value systems. He did not address the issue of how this might be embodied on a practical level within counselling, or how to prevent therapists imposing, however subtly, their own belief systems on clients.

Thorne spoke as if a lone voice in the wilderness. But is he really so unusual in championing the transparency of the spiritual in therapy? Did not Jung turn to alchemy, mystery schools and eastern esoterica in his penetrating search for meaning? What about Transpersonal Psychotherapy – a whole psychological tradition that acknowledges the presence and importance of the soul life? More recently, with the fruitful incorporation of mindfulness and eastern awareness traditions into mainstream psychology, there seems to be increasing tolerance for the dogma-free techniques and tools of contemplative religion in therapeutic systems. Moreover, there are numerous openly Buddhist psychotherapists in practice and broadly held esteem. To my mind the position that Thorne was taking was aimed more at policy-makers than practicing therapists.

It was Thorne’s contention that the current climate of service provision, with its focus on outcomes and interventions, rather than the quality of human relationship, sanitizes and stultifies therapy. The current system encourages us to become “psychological technicians that tinker around with the psychological mechanisms of the human mind”. He felt that this represents more than the simple mistake of overemphasizing form over substance. For him it is evidence of the field of psychotherapy becoming infected by the shadow aspects of our society – namely an obsession with achievement over experience, productivity over provision, and consumption over everything. The increasingly litigious environment, he feels, is contributing to the crushing of therapeutic creativity – and thus we therapists are losing the ability to model a creative, spirited self to our clients for fear of judgement and condemnation. His concern was communicated with an oppressive solemnity and extended out from the therapeutic world to the challenges facing humanity in general, from continued human atrocities to global warming.

Many of his concerns I emphatically share. I’d consider myself a poor therapist indeed if my observations of societal ills did not extend into the restrictions and challenges of the context in which our clients are living. I was somewhat baffled, then, by his focus on these woes because my very being a therapist is born from a keen awareness of these massive challenges, and the instinctive desire to therefore facilitate meaningful individual and collective change. I admire his willingness to take on denial and break our seeming indifference towards the challenges we face. But in this case he was preaching to the converted, and rather than offering constructive insight, dwelt on hopelessness, whereas I see progress in many areas of human development.

He did observe that, while support for the traditional faiths of the world is dwindling in this country, the contemplative orders are flourishing and that an authentic individual search for spiritual connection is flowering. He also noted that the quality of relationship, although not yet at the centre of psychological policy in the UK, is becoming increasingly recognized. But he didn’t seem to join the dots of these significant shifts towards a brighter future. To me the growth in partisan spirituality is evidence of a cultural development that seems to embody the person-centred ethos of allowing organic, rather than imposed, evolution to take hold.

During question and answer time at the end he softened. Having sounded the clarion call of doom he was perhaps ready to acknowledge hope! Interesting questions were raised which prompted the observation that in order for things to change a crisis often needs to be reached – a scenario I’m sure many of us are familiar with in our personal and professional lives.

Near the beginning of the talk Thorne threw down the person-centred gauntlet: “I am challenged to trust my client as a person designed for wholeness and possessed of the inner resources to achieve wholeness.” I am endeavouring to extend this trust to humanity as a whole, as well as my clients. My challenge to Brian Thorne is to do the same.

As I observe clients grow I see the changes they make radiate out across the constellations of their relationships, like ripples in a pond. So, as each of us progresses along our own growth towards our potential I believe we make a microscopic, yet meaningful, contribution to the evolution of the systems to which we belong. For anyone who feels discouraged by the task ahead, be it in response to a personal or the global situation, I offer you these illuminatingly paradoxical words from Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”