Confounding Perception – use of collage for transpersonal psychotherapy

Any good definition of transpersonal psychotherapy includes something about how we can consolidate, ground, and embody moments of transpersonal knowing.  Over time, these moments can begin to come together in to a coherent pattern, a change of heart which opens new vistas of awareness and understanding for the person. Transpersonal approaches to psychotherapy seek to give value to these more expanded ways of knowing. One of the problems faced by therapists working with this material is how elusive it is, how hard to give words to.

Adopting creative approaches is of immense value to psychotherapists working in this way. Making a piece of art, whether it is a poem, drawing, sculpture, or collage, can be a way of communicating the ineffable. The glorious history of religious art is testament to this way of knowing. An art piece can hold things beyond the conscious awareness of the maker, which can then be thought about, felt through, known more fully, by the maker themselves and by others with whom they want to communicate.IMG_8979

A feature of collage is that is captures fragments. The fragments are then brought together in to a new image within wIMG_8980hich a new form, a cohesion, can be seen. Things are brought together in a new way. This is particularly helpful in psychotherapeutic work, of any kind, but in transpersonal psychotherapy the value is especially pronounced, as the person grapples with expanded ways of knowing.

Collages have to be viewed with an open and flowing awareness, otherwise they can just seem jumbled, irrational, confusing ragbags of only loosely connected imagery. This is similar to dream work. When we first begin to look at a dream, it can seem non-sensical. It is only through sitting with the imagery, feeling our way in to it, allowing intuition to operate to guide us through it, that gradually the dream yields to awareness.  We begin to make sense of it, and even see the guidance it is offering. Working with collage can have a similar effect.

To work with collage effectively it is important to allow intuitive process to guide the work. Have a theme which is being worked around – perhaps the description of a spiritually meaningful experience or arising knowing, or perhaps a problem or issue which seems to have a greater significance than the personal, egoic struggle. Pick a few magazines at random (2 or 3 is enough), and go through them quickly, tearing out the pages and images which speak to the problem. Spend more time in refining the cutting out process, and placing and sticking on the page, but don’t think too much. Then sit with the result. What is new? What is coming forward in the new synthesis here? I sometimes then take a further step of writing a poem or piece of prose about the collage.

Alchemical imagery is often presented in collage form. In creating collages in transpersonal work, the person is building up their own treasure trove of alchemical emblems, describing stages and aspects of the process of transformation.

Here is a poem written when contemplating the otter collage – a poem which remains part of a process, but takes the understanding one tiny stage further on, in this case in to a prayerful and surrendering place (from an initial starting point of discomfort with the ‘sea-change’ happening in life at that time).

Otter Song

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My heavy bones will bring me to the sea bed

To prey. To pray.

My heavy bones will bring me down

To pray.

And from this place so close to earth, as I press my face to the mineral place in me, I can plant seeds. Enormous acorns.

Deep in my body, deep in my bones, the secret places under the sea.

If I pray with all of me

If I prey with all of me

Stalking surrender…

Sea and land and sky…

If I pray with all my heavy bones.

So I would commend the use of collage as in intervention in any form of psychotherapy, but in particular in transpersonal psychotherapy. It can offer new ways of bringing together hard-to-articulate material, it offers a conduit for intuition, and a container for non-ordinary ways of knowing. By using collage you are joining a long and illustrious line of alchemists (transformation experts par excellence!), and religious art makers (in all traditions) in honouring intuition and creativity.

The uses of water….

This bee is thirsty. She longs for the water, she and her sisters have been covering the fountain today, crowding close to the water, sipping, flying off, coming back for more. Obviously bees need to drink water for their own metabolism, but also they use it to regulate the temperature and humidity of the hive, and in the production of honey. In particular, when honey is too hard and crystalline they use water to make it usable. This bee is probably doing that – there is some hard old honey in her hive and she is, in all likelihood, on honey-dissolution-duty.

The symbolism of this is striking , how we use our water nature (the flowing, reflective, life-giving, soft and connecting aspect of us) to break up what is compacted and unusable, so that our gold can come back in to service. We also, like the bee, use water to regulate our temperature – our fire.  Water is essential to life as we know, but it is also essential to our emotional life. When we get hard and stuck we need to find the refreshing cool beautiful flow.

Make sure there is a bee pond in your garden this summer, if you can. They like to have somewhere to stand so they don’t fall in and drown. But water is important – an upturned dustbin lid will be enough, regularly topped up. And make sure you know where your inner pond is as well, so you can sip from the flow when your heart needs a bit of regulation.

Albedo – alchemist’s purity, alchemist’s peril.

By the light of the silvery moon…..albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy. How do we recognise it, how do we work with it, and what are its dangers? Although we are often mightily relieved to move out from the dreadful clutches of nigredo in to the white, imaginative, open, diaphanous, cleansing rising of albedo, it can be a time of seduction. Sometimes linked with anima, the albedo stage needs an attentive consciousness if we are to proceed with our opus…..

It is important in alchemy not to be seduced by the simplistic. Alchemy is rarely clear or straightforward. Why would it be? It is the science of transformation – of transmutation – at a mysterious and subtle level. Accordingly I am loathe to offer simple formulae or even offer too much of a clear signpost. But here is one which might be useful – nigredo tends to be a time of concrete thinking, and albedo can be observed as a time of more imaginative thinking, more ‘as-if’ thinking. So in albedo we can begin to understand things at a metaphorical level, and so life and experience opens up. Even the gravest and darkest traumas, the most difficult aspects of life begin to be translucent, transparent even, available to be thought about, rather than just endured. This is albedo.IMG_6913

A really simple relational example of this can be seen in the shift of expectations in relationships from ‘you should be more loving, giving, and unconditional towards me and I will be angry and upset if you are not’ (the mother transference), to ‘I feel upset when I don’t experience you as unconditionally loving and giving towards me – that is interesting isn’t it’ (being able to think about it, see the symbol). Less prosaically, the ‘feeling’ of something might move from being overwhelming, swamping, impossible, to being a flow within which we are carried (albeit sometimes faster than we are enjoying….).

Albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy, classically said to come after the nigredo has closed (often with the appearance of the many-coloured, many eyed peacock’s tail wherein perception is multiplied and opened), and before the great yellow opening of the arms of the sun – Sol –  in citrinitas. Albedo is whiteness, silveriness, reflective, the time and location of imagination and receptivity. It is not a worldly part of the transformative cycle, but a diaphanous, moonlit time of seemings. It can be a cold time (if you are cold, freezing cold,  you might wonder if you are going through an albedo).

img_8772For a therapist, the work in albedo may be different from the work in nigredo. In nigredo we are seeking the purification of quite base energies, in other words we are working with relatively real, obvious, surface emotions and reactions and struggles. In albedo we work much more with the meanings of things. The therapy can become reflective, more wondering, less intensely focussed on the struggle of the ‘pain quotidian’ and more inward focussed. James Hillman says ‘the doves cure the tongue of its nigredo talk’ and ‘the doves teach trust in the sudden word’.

What is the shadow of the albedo stage? what are its dangers? To become too cold, too rigid, to forget that there are many colours, many shades inherent in the imagination. The popular insult that someone is an ‘Ice Maiden’ is a useful way of thinking about this. The Ice Maiden can not be penetrated by love. She remains a maiden, a virgin, and in terms of alchemy that means that the sun will not get in. No sun, no gold. The urge of the albedo towards an intense and pure clear whiteness must not harden in to rigidity. The fire of the ice – its intense burning longing towards purity must stay flexible, must remain in the heart, and must be able to yield to the sun. In practical terms? Get over yourself. Your insights, your inner eye, your release from the struggle of the day to day as you rise on the white wings of the albedo – all this is a perspective only, and it does not belong to you. It is lent to you. If you try to hold on to it it will become fixed, loose its capacity to fly, turn to glass (the alchemists call this vitrification and you might see the warning signs of images of glass in dreams….), and shatter in to fragments. Alchemy is a high risk game.img_8952

As always, the way to traverse this dangerous stage of the work is to remember that the ‘gold’ that alchemy offers is not personal wealth or status, but something that is placed profoundly in service. If I may draw on the Christian imagery here – the teaching is that we are chosen, we are blessed, we are incarnated, we are broken, and  we are given as spiritual food for others. So for a successful albedo, stay in the heart, stay open, and as the reflective imagery opens itself to your consciousness surrender yourself to be taken by it, offer yourself over to the transformation.

This is the best poem I know about the traps of albedo, depicting what can go wrong with the process, the vitrification I have written of here. It is by Sylvia Plath, who did indeed, in the end, shatter.

The Moon And the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility

Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply can not see where there is to get to.

 

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,

White as a knuckle and terribly upset.

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet

With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.

Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —

Eight green tongues affirming the Resurrection

At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

 

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.

The eyes lift after it, and find the moon.

The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.

Her garments unloose small bats and owls.

How I would like to believe in tenderness-

The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,

Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

 

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering

Blue and mystical over the face of the stars

Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,

Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,

Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.

The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.

And the message of the yew tree is blackness. Blackness and silence.

 

Sylvia Plath.

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Solutio – the Alchemist’s surrender

Coming apart, dissolving, letting go of structures. The alchemical operation of solutio, the purification by water, is a fundamental and observable feature of the transformation of matter (and of what matters).

The alchemical operations are ways of understanding how something is worked on in the process of transformation. So if we are changing lead to gold we might dissolve it, burn it, break it in to constituent parts, re-combine it, ‘kill’ it, join it up with other things and eventually we would have gold (oh yes we would). Or if we were making perfume we would take our plants, our roses or our jasmine, and we would put the flowers through a series of operations to extract their essence in the fragrance which we seek – perhaps we would pulverise them, heat them, dissolve them in some liquid. Perhaps distill, perhaps combine with something else. Eventually the beautiful plant we began with is present in a new form, still itself, but an essential self, an essential oil, an ephemeral scent (perfume making is one of the crafts upon which alchemists have drawn for their imagery – perfume making, embalming the dead, metallurgy, cloth making and dyeing, and pharmacy. I will return to this in a further post, but if you are interested in this James Hillman writes very well on it in his book Alchemical Psychology).IMG_7358

Solutio is one of the operations. The essence of solutio is that things come apart, resulting in a diffuse consciousness. Separatio is another operation in which things come apart, but you can distinguish it in the work because in separatio there is a coming apart which brings an extraordinary clarity. Solutio dissolves, separatio clarifies.

What does a solutio feel like? This is important in the therapy room – we might be able to spot what operation is going on for our client through their imagery, but sometimes it is through the feeling that is present. Solutio feels a bit misty. It can feel intensely loving, as the heart opens and the will softens. Sometimes it can feel unpleasantly disorientating, with no sense of centre, direction, or containment. The task of the therapist is to be able to recognise when an operation is occurring, and to facilitate that, or to recognise when an operation is trying to occur and to encourage and facilitate that. So to facilitate a solutio we would be allowing, loving, diffuse in our own energy. It can take a lot of faith and courage for the person to stay with the experience of dissolving – in practical terms they might be ceasing to believe what they have believed, they might be losing jobs, lovers, direction, certainties, capacities. This is where the alchemist needs to surrender to the work, surrender to the process.

Some of the images of solutio are obvious, water, tears, gentle rain falling, a flood coming in, burst pipes, baptism, swimming pools, baths.  But also observe more subtle imagery of coming apart – a dream of dismemberment may be a solutio (to first sight it looks more fiery). The skill and craft of the alchemist is to open to the innermost experience of the process, not its outer form. So if you can feel your way in to an image you can discern which operation is coming to the fore, and by giving it space you allow that operation to do its work.

As a therapist you can facilitate the operation with appropriate interventions, so that the person’s own process is ‘calling the shots’ in the therapy and to that extent you are a follower. However, it is intelligent following – you are following what is not necessarily clear to your client. You are feeling the essence of the imagery and being guided by the alchemical process.

One final word about solutio – because it heralds such diffuse consciousness it is often very difficult to be with, and one of the difficulties is that we often feel disorientated. We feel that we do not know which way to turn, where the process is going. Learning to trust this disorientation is part of the alchemist’s skill, the alchemist’s surrender to the process itself.

 

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The Emerald Tablet

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The earth reflects heaven and heaven reflects  earth, and there is no division between these realms.

Everything proceeds from the origin.

This knowing is, and is  engendered by Light and by loving reflection.

It became known through the body and understanding gently emerged there approached with wisdom and love.

It will be constant and it will be transformed:

Mystery will infuse presence and body with mystery itself

And thus shall holiness shine forth in all things, all space and all time.

So the world is created.

That is all.

 

Hermes Trismegistus (reimagined by Katy Baldock 2016)

 

Imagination and Psychotherapy – the neuroscience is friendly

The imaginal function is important to psychotherapists because it connects us directly to what is  not yet know. Psychotherapy is not about what is known. Any therapist who purports to be able to tell you what is ailing you and what you should do about it is one to run a mile from. No, psychotherapy is about the unknown, the mysterious, the unconscious.

Where does imagination come from? Traditional psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches tend to have a reductionist answer to this – the unconscious is viewed as the repository of repressed memory, and imagination (the kind of metaphors and parallels and narratives which are brought in to therapy) is viewed as nothing more than a rehashing of this repressed material. In such psychoanalytically biased therapy dreams are worked with as representations of mere associations of past memories, the transference is explored as a rehashing of early positioning in family relationships, the subtle movements of the felt sense are interpreted as pointers to early repressed material which is being re-enacted.

For sure this is part of the story – we do indeed carry memories which need to be explored. But it is only part of the story. Dreams are not just associations from the past, but pointers towards ways of being which are so much more than we can be at the moment.

In 2014 a team of scientists (Brock Kiwan, Stefania Ashby and Michelle Nash) published a paper in the Journal Cognitive Neuroscience, showing that memory and imagination are not the same thing. Although both memories of what is past, and imaginings of what is future both activate areas of the hippocampus, they activate different parts of it. The function of memory and imagination are different. This is very important for psychotherapy – we can say that our imagination, i.e. our dreams and symbols, our imaginal world, contain ‘unknowns’ which are not governed only by our past – which do not consist just in a rehashing of repressed memory. As psychotherapists, whilst some of our job is to help people untangle the aspects of imagination which ARE to do with repressed memory, we can now be clear that some of the ‘unknowns’ are from elsewhere. From imagination. The link to a report of the paper is here

So how do we understand imagination and its function? Mystics have not needed to wait for the neuroscientists to catch up. Imagination has been understood by Henry Corbin as a distinct realm, the mundus imaginalis, with its own clear role – to transform the person in to the thing imagined. In other words, the transformational process operates through images. The heart perceives forms in the mundus imaginalis – and by receiving those forms in to oneself at an embodied level, those forms can be brought through in to being.

In this way of understanding, spirit reveals itself in images in the world of the creative imagination – the mundus imaginalis. We can then encounter those symbols and be ‘carried back’ by them to their source that is, we can come to know what they mean, but such knowledge is not the discursive knowledge of the mind, but the subtle knowing of the heart. Images reveal themselves to us in secret. This process is called ta’wil. To work with symbols, images, and narratives in this way allows the revelation of what is not known.

Carl Jung’s work was founded on the practice of active imagination. In this practice the imaginer takes themselves in to their imaginative capacity and explores what is present, in the service of becoming more whole – the service of individuation.

Dorit Netzer has developed a way of working with imagination which she calls ‘imaginal resonance’. She draws on the work of Rupert Sheldrake, who has written on the notion of resonance – a resonance is when there is some form of attraction or sympathetic response to an already existing quality. It is an attraction to shared consciousness. Thus consciousness can be shared, from one person to another, or one state to another. Netzer has explored this in relation to the experience of reading mystical poetry. My own research explores this in relation to being present in a garden. Essentially, the imagination is allowed to resonate with the other – the poem, the garden, or it could be with another person, or with a situation, or importantly with inwardly felt sensations and knowings. The expanded consciousness which is possible with this allows the person access to creative possibility beyond the circumstance they were in.


So imagination is more than memory. It is more than the mere gathering of associations from a personal troubled past. It is a way of knowing more than you could ever conceive of alone.

 

 

The beauty of the wound

Have you ever been struck by how the most beautiful part of a tree is the wounded part, where a limb has been torn off? Probably it was a difficult experience for the tree, limited its capacity to function efficiently for some time. But it healed. It survived. And it was left with a unique and interesting, and sometimes staggeringly beautiful scar.

You are like that.

Reassess your wounds. Perhaps they are what has made you so beautiful.

Tolerating the narcissism of teasels…..

My teasels have sprung in to action, taking a huge amount of space in the borders. They are massive, clear, and very present – “Look at meeeee!!” “Here I am!!!!” “Get out of my way, lesser herbaceous cousin-plant…..it is ME!!!! Make room!!!!”  arms aloft, dainty waists, slightly weirdly alienesque eyes. I love them. They have a certain brash coarseness to them. They take up far too much room in the beds (that is their strategy) – narcissistic, spiky, but unquestionably self-celebratory. Part of the community of plants, but you wouldn’t want too many of them…..

And is it self-aggrandisement or is it pure and simple praise? The famous Marianne  Williamson poem springs to mind ‘It is our light not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves – who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?. Actually who are you not to be………’

When we are being ourselves we are reflecting that small part of the cosmos of potential that has our name on it. Teasels, for a brief June season, teach this. No problem there being brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous.  They stand straight, like a gymnast who has just finished a wonderful awe-inspiring mega-vault, and they say ‘Ta-Da!!! And for my next trick I shall grow my own hairbrush out of the top of my head!’. Because that is what teasels do. Lets be more teasel.  Do what we do. Love who we are.  Brilliant. Gorgeous. Talented. Fabulous.

 

 

 

Transpersonal Co-creation

Therapeutic work, especially transpersonal therapeutic work can be usefully thought of as participating in three levels of co-creation:- the inner, the between, and the beyond. More specifically, I propose that we can think of transpersonal therapy as finding ways to help the client (and ourselves) explore life in three broad spheres of engagement.

  1. The inner, the intra-psychic level.  We draw on all facets of being human in the work – the mind, the creative imagination, the body, the emotions. Therapy which excludes one or more of these spheres denies the client the chance to ‘co-create’ their reality and experience in the therapy. This is an inner co-creation, where our different capacities need to be balanced and find ways to work in harmony within our wholeness. We help clients to bring a kind of ‘full capacity’ approach to their difficulties – the Jungians name this in terms of the functions – sensation, feeling, intuition and thinking. Other therapists prefer to explore this in terms of elements, earth, water, fire, and air.
  2. The between, the relationship level. Co-creation of therapy between therapist and client, where we bring an authentic and empathic awareness to the therapy encounter.
  3. The beyond. This is the co-creation with the mystery of life itself, a way of thinking about participation in the evolution of humanity, the cosmos, the divine. From this level the Hadith ‘I was a Hidden Treasure and I so longed to be known that I created the universe’ can be understood. I have written about this here.

 

This conception of transpersonal psychotherapy draws on the recent participatory turn in transpersonal psychology, articulated by Jorge Ferrer and others. Participation encourages transpersonal knowing which is based in relationship, embodiment, challenging narcissism, and action based personal positioning, that is a sense of being embedded in an ecology, being a part of a bigger whole which our spiritual lives are also a part of. Whilst there are many forms of spiritual knowing which are less relational, less embodied, less concerned with the collective and manifest, in therapy it is most often the case that our clients are seeking ways to be in the world, to find ways to make their lives meaningful, rich, loving and productive. The concepts of the three levels of co-creation fit this aim, and remain true to the transpersonal endeavour.

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