Empathy – fuelling the alchemist’s fire.

Here is a paradox. Alchemy is a solitary pursuit, and yet for it to be successful it needs to be utterly shared, utterly given back, utterly given away. An attempt at alchemical transformation without this generosity, without love, is doomed to fail. You simply can not work the alchemical opus for your own, small, personal ends. Technically, this is obvious as the alchemical path opens up – it is a path of oneness, and of Oneing (to adopt the CAC’s satisfying phrase)

This imperative of generosity and love is one of the reasons why the alchemical model of psychotherapy is so compelling. As therapists our empathy is fundamental to our capacity to work – therapists with good capacity for empathy are significantly more likely to achieve good therapeutic outcomes for their clients (there is a large body of research on this – showing that it is less what the therapist DOES that makes a difference to the client, and more how the therapist IS). Empathy is in large part about being able to connect with the other, to feel along side them, to open the heart.

The archetype of the wounded healer is also relevant here. This archetype can be said to be fundamental to the development of Self, the capacity to examine and understand one’s own brokenness at a deep level, not to compare it to the other, but to act as a doorway to understand the other.

So why are we linking empathy with fire rather than with the water which you might expect? Alchemy is not simple. Love drives the work and empathy is linked to love. Love is not just soft and flowing water but is also the clear, intense bright light of truth and passion. Love can drive. Empathy can create (or at least operate as a necessary condition for) great and profound change.

So finding the part of yourself that knows pain will allow you to connect compassionately with others. The gold which the alchemists seek is the gold of connection, transformation, Oneness. Empathy will fuel the fire to drive this transformation.

This poem speaks to the comfort of earth and beauty for the wounded healer – the connection with the body of the earth which can sustain us through dark and difficult times.


I too have known loneliness.

I too have known what it is to feel


        rejected, and suddenly

not at all beautiful.

Oh, mother earth,

        your comfort is great, your ams never withhold.

It has saved my life to know this.

Your rivers flowing, your roses opening in the morning.

Oh, motions of tenderness!

Mary Oliver from Blue Horses, 2014

Mindfulness, dreams and nightmares: integration of the psyche, and trauma.


the name of catastrophe, it is never

the opposite of love.’ (Mary Oliver)


The effect of engaging with dreams and nightmares can be to bring together parts of the psyche which have hitherto been unbalanced, fragmented and misunderstood. From the beginning of psychotherapy dreams have been considered, in Freud’s phrase, the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious – in other words the easiest way to increase our knowing about ourselves and about life. We all know that dreams come in strange shapes and that the messages are often hard to decipher, but the assistance of a skilled therapist can be of great assistance.IMG_8979

Nightmares are simply dreams that you do not like, dreams which elicit frightening or threatening content. They do not generally need to be treated any differently from more ordinary dreams. When we are having nightmares it is because we are turning towards something difficult, buried, disturbing to our equilibrium. Although we have to approach such ‘turning towards’ with a certain amount of caution, change comes when we can make that change, look in to that darkness, work with the nightmare. So nightmares are a type of dream to which we might want to pay particular careful attention. However, when trauma is being held in the body there may be other, prior or parallel work to do before or alongside the dream. Often a trauma will throw out nightmares until we have been able to readjust our system to integrate it – such nightmares have a slightly different ‘feel’ to them, Jung spoke of trauma experiences as those which can ‘no longer be psychified’ – they are experiences which require a slightly different approach.

Mindfulness practice is also about turning towards that which is present, and not just that which we like. In meditation we sit with what is present, without flinching away or giving it more – or importantly, LESS – emphasis than it deserves. A mindful approach to life encourages present time, present centred awareness. Dreamwork encourages you to extend that awareness in to your inner world, in to the landscape of your psyche, claiming your imagination and receiving the wisdom of its mirror.

As we know, many people are a little disappointed when they find out that mindfulness practice and meditation do not deliver a free pass to check out of life’s difficulties. Neither does psychotherapy. Neither does a good spiritual path. Life’s difficulties are the stuff of life itself – to be present with that which we don’t like offers us the chance for expansion, freedom, and open hearted love. I am suggesting that exploring your dreams (yes, and nightmares) can be a way for you to expand your spiritual practice to do this work of ‘turning towards’ more effectively, more thoroughly, and potentially in a more embodied way.

The way to accomplish this is to bring together the work with the imagination – extending mindful awareness to the inner world through the dreams – with present centred embodied awareness. In other words, what do you experience IN YOUR BODY as you focus on the images in your dreams. This simple technique contains the material which is trying to become known. It allows you to be present in the moment. It allows you to observe in a mindful way the whole of your being, inner and outer, body and soul.

With difficult dreams, and certainly in the wake of significant trauma, this might be best approached with some good psychotherapy assistance – dreams are powerful and the energies contained in them are not to be taken lightly. Chose a therapist who is interested in working with dreams and confirm that they use an embodied and imaginative approach, and that they understand the principles of balancing the psyche as well as the principles of working with trauma, and of mindfulness.

Psychotherapy has changed over the last few decades, work with embodiment, trauma and mindful engagement has become mainstream and has come to stand along side the imaginal work which those who watch their dreams have been doing for millennia (the bible is a particularly rich source of dream images for any one who is studying this field!). Do not settle for less.

I will be running a mindfulness and dreamwork seminar series in Buckinghamshire this summer – there are a few places left so please do get in touch if you are interested in participating.



Vast Silence….

A poem today from the state of meditation. Cultivating presence through meditation practice is one of the most valuable things which any person who walks a path of service can do. This poem captures the experience of the meditative state well – although the practice of meditation is not really the point –  the effect is the point. The effects of meditation include increased capacity to self regulate, to direct and sustain attention where you chose, and expanded capacity for undistracted openness to life as it presents itself to you. And it deepens your encounter with the sacred in the ordinary. The blog will return to the subject of meditation, presence and  mindfulness next year. For now, here is the poem by Antonio Machado. It is called ‘Vast Silence’.


Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives of my dreams
stopped working, the waterwheel
of the mind run dry,
scoops turning empty,
only shadow inside?

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming—
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of vast silence.

Antonio Machado

Withdrawing projections, ripping the veils, the gift of broken trust.


The experience of withdrawing projections and rebalancing in the truth can be an immensely painful one. It is essential to the project of becoming more whole that we accomplish this task however, that we allow ourselves to see what is really the truth in our life in all its disappointment and with all its disillusionment. This difficult encounter opens up the world to us as it really is, the face of the true other.

The image here from the alchemical emblem set ‘Splendor Solis’ speaks to this truth. The Splendor Solis is a series of images from the sixteenth century, designed to depict the stages and operations of the alchemical process. They are a fabulous series of allegorical plates, each one yields rich contemplative possibility. Here is a link to the wikipedia page about them in case you are interested. The image on this post  is the last image of the series, it shows the sun, sad and full of compassion, rising over an ordinary and rather limited world.  I used to be disheartened by this image – after all the labours of the alchemical opus one would hope for….well…..gold! Gold is what is promised surely, lead in to gold. But the Splendor Solis shows us this image instead. When you see the truth, what do you you really see? Rabia, the sufi saint also names this when she says ‘I carry a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. With these I will set fire to heaven and put out the flames of hell, so that the voyagers to god will rip the veils and see the real goal’. Melanie Klein, the twentieth century psychologist called it the depressive position.

This blessing by John O’Donohue speaks to this experience. He reminds us that the savage feeling of being torn by the shock of the betrayal can be the opening in to which the seed of new knowledge can be planted.


Broken Trust


Sometimes there in an invisible raven

that will fly low to pierce the shell of trust

When it has been brought near to ground.


When he strikes, he breaks the faith of years

That had built quietly through the seasons

In the rhythm of tried and tested experience.


With one strike the shelter is down,

And the black yolk of truth turned false

Would poison the garden of memory.


Now the heart’s dream turns to requiem,

Offering itself a poultice of tears.

To cleanse from loss what can not be lost.


Through all the raw and awkward days

Dignity will hold the heart to grace

Lest it squander its dream on a ghost.


Often torn ground is ideal for seed

That can root disappointment deep enough

To yield a harvest that can not wither:


A deeper light to anoint the eyes,

Passion that opens wings in the heart,

A subtle radiance of countenance,

The soul ready for its true other.


John O’Donohue.





Relationships that kill…how to survive

Finding the balance between self sufficiency and inter-dependence is one of the major tasks of competent adulthood. Sophisticated living requires that we know when we need to depend on others, when we need to draw ourselves in to community, and to allow the strengths of others to carry us through in the areas that we are not so good in. When people fail to understand this they become narcissistic, bitter, angry and above all, they become envious.IMG_0582

Envy is the state of observing a quality in another that you some how doubt that you can have for yourself. You might be right. More often, you are probably wrong – you can get some of this quality, and you can benefit from the quality by associating yourself with the person who has it (without trying to steal it). Thus, we don’t all need to be strong – we can encourage strong people and promote them to roles in which strength is needed. We don’t all need to be generous, but lets delight in those who are and allow them to deploy their generosity without exploitation and in ways which gives them joy.

Over reliance on others however, becomes parasitical. When we tip over from accepting that there are specialised skills which we do not have, in to a form of weakness and demand that others provide for us – then we start to get in to trouble. In couples therapy (and in our own couple relationships) we observe this over and again – what began as delight in difference begins to ossify in to dependency, demands, and a suffocating degradation of the creativity of the other party.

One simple move forward with this problem is to practice gratitude. Observing where someone contributes to your life can become an opportunity for a quiet prayer of appreciation to that person, accompanied by an appreciation of something which YOU bring to the world. Always balance it. This  simple practice speaks to the heart. Constant attention to the heart builds its strength, builds its depth. This builds life. I wish you joy of this practice, it can be life changing.



Being imperfect….being enough….

Today’s post is offered as a salve for those who suffer the agonies of not being perfect. We long so much to get it right and most of the time we are imperfect. Actually imperfect is all we ever have to be, and adopting a kind and self-compassionate approach to our ordinariness is the only way of living a sane and balanced life. We live in strange times, shot through by corrosive narcissism. So here is an oasis of sanity, in the shape of one of my favourite poems, by the incomparable Alice Walker. The poem is called ‘My Daughter is Coming!’ It reminds me of all the times I longed for more, and encourages me to settle for enough.




My daughter is coming!

I have bought her a bed

and a chair,

a mirror, a lamp

and a desk.

Her room is all ready

except that the curtains

are torn.

Do I have time to buy sojhi panels

for the window? I do not.



See the doctor about my tonsils

which are dying ahead of schedule.

see the barber, and do a wash

cross the country.

Cross Brooklyn and Manhattan.



Liberate my daughter from her father and Washington DC

Recross the country

and present her to her room.


My daughter is coming!

Will she like her bed, her chair,

her mirror, desk and lamp?

Or will she see only

the torn curtains?



Alice Walker. From Her Blue Body, Everyting We Know.





How therapists help clients change…new pathways….

When you take an action, a neural pathway is created which allows that action to be taken more easily next time. This is the ‘learning to ride a bike’ thing. You can’t ride a bike, then suddenly you can, and you don’t forget again. My father learned to swim at the age of 70. Throughout my childhood I knew ‘Dad can’t swim’. Then one day out of the blue my mother telephoned, and announced that he could swim. He had learned – he created a neural pathway and now (he is in his nineties) he is a swimmer. So the neuroscience is clear, if you create a pathway for something it becomes a possibility. This is a form of neural plasticity – the brain can change.

How can this be harnessed for therapeutic change? This is simple. Understand that when you get in to action, you create some sort of a pathway. So for example, if you forgive someone who has wronged you, something shifts inside of you. A pathway is created within you. Probably you will feel this in the chest/heart area. As you let the hurt go, and re-open to goodwill for that person, you are DOING something in your body, there will be a sensation (an actual sensation) in your heart area. This is the creation of a pathway. Next time you take the same path (forgive that person, forgive another person) it will be a bit easier.

In trauma, one of the things that happens is that we have a moment of sensing that there is nothing that we can DO. We freeze. We might be right about this – it


may be that in the trauma moment there is no action open to us. So in working with people who are struggling with trauma, one of the most simple interventions which you can make is to help them to take an action. Notice where a person might be experiencing something non-optimal (particularly to do with their freedom, their body) and notice where they are not taking ACTION to alleviate the symptom. When your client walks in to the room, are they clear where they want to sit or are they waiting for you to indicate? Instead of indicating, experiment with offering the person the chance to make the choice, and to take an action. Then to change the action if they want (choose) to. Do this countless times. Make it conscious (in other words, begin a dialogue with the client about actions and freezing).

Therapists know that it is often the smallest of interventions which make the difference in the transformation work with someone. Paying attention to bodily action is a way of addressing embodiment which is unthreatening, effective, and holistic.