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.

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.