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

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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.

Overcoming trauma – a transpersonal roadmap

Here are four easy principles for working with complex trauma – your own and your clients’ traumas. If you follow these principles you will not go far wrong. This is based on the work of Bessel van de Kolk, and David Emerson. The reason I have posted this is to begin to address the growing sense of anxiety and diminishment of confidence about working with trauma. An integrative therapist can and should be working with trauma – this is how.

A word of clarification – complex trauma is the term given to an accumulation of difficult experiences over time, which disrupt the person’s capacity to experience normal cycles of arousal and rest. Where the ‘trauma’ is much more of a single event there are other interventions which can be of great benefit and which work on that specific event. This post is about complex trauma.

  • Encourage present moment awareness. Bring the therapy in to the here and now, work with breath, presence, and conscious in-the-room-nowness. In trauma we are whisked out of ourselves and our present moment – tackling trauma involves rebuilding faith in the present moment.
  • Encourage choice. Do not made decisions for your client. In trauma choice seems to be removed, we feel we lack choice about what happens to us. So in tacking trauma we need to restore the truth that we have choices.
  • Get in to action. In trauma we ‘freeze’. Tackle this by taking an action. You feel hot? take of your jumper. You have a tickle in your throat? Cough. These basic actions (and look how basic they are!) are about taking ACTION to change your circumstances. Working like this with trauma means we are addressing the freeze.
  • Foster rhythm. Humans are rhythmic beings and trauma bounces us out of rhythm. Get back to rhythm. Think heart rhythm. Think breath. Think routine. Keep stable weekly appointments. Boundaries, rhythms, and this will correct the crazy.

 

And that is how you work with trauma. Be generous and loving. Be kind. Remember that it is scary. But take these four principles to the heart of your work with trauma and people will recover. Really they will. What you don’t want to do is just operate a flimsy talking therapy which ignores these basic principles. Present moment, choice, action, rhythm.

How is this a transpersonal roadmap? I use the expression because there is a lot of confusion about how transpersonal work only works with energies which can often seem to be quite disembodied. Disembodied work will NOT work with trauma, either specific trauma or complex trauma. The only way to make any kind of effective and safe intervention with trauma work is to restore a sense of whole-being embodied presence in the moment. Restoring a sense of being an embodied being. That is what this road map seeks to do. So this is transpersonal work par excellence.

Present moment, choice, action, rhythm. Be calm. Be reassuring. You can do this.

 

Emerson, D., & Hopper, E. (2011). Overcoming trauma through yoga: Reclaiming your body. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Van, . K. B. A., Pratt, S., Gildan Media Corporation., & Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma (this ref is for an audio version of this classic).

Rigidity and fracture – be a willow tree…

When structures harden, and crash in to other hard structures, they fracture, fragment, and break. Rocks,  tectonic-plated continents, religious systems, political ideas, and of course, hearts. The hardening of our ideological positions holds the danger of rendering us brittle, subject to cracking up down the fault line of our weakness. What might once have been a powerful, beautiful, coherent whole runs the risk of shattering in to meaningless parts. Being too hard, too intolerant of ambivalence and otherness, makes us vulnerable. It does not make us stronger.

There is always doubt in faith (whether that is spiritual and religious faith, or faith in a more secular ideal). Doubt is what makes faith real, it is that which removes it from the realm of fantasy in to the realm of choice. By knowing doubt, and where you stand in relation to it (willing to have it behind you), you can have an honest, flexible, vulnerable and surrendered faith. The fault line of our faith is our gold.ecotherapy ecopsychology transpersonal psychotherapy katy baldock

Fanaticism is a failure of flexibility. It is a denial of otherness, a pathological incapacity to know the world may look different through the eyes of the other. The incapacity is in all likelihood born of fear, a fear of what the other may do if they are not controlled. It operates within the psyche as well – in oppression of inconvenient longings, fears, thoughts – in the denial of our doubt.

Opinions, including very strongly held opinions, are a life-giving pillar of our inner and outer life. We orientate ourselves around our opinions and values, create systems for living out of them. But when we become hardened, rigid, monolithic, then we risk crashing in to the opinions of others and breaking up. In an earthquake zone, architects take care to build flexibility in to their structures, so that when the earth shakes the building can move with it. A willow tree bends with the breeze, flexibility allows it to stay strong and standing when met with great force. The heart – and our faith –  needs to be the same – strong, stable, but not hard. Clear, but not fanatical. Open, not closed.

 

 

 

 

The Bright Field. A poem for late summer.

In August there can be more time to stop the rush and tumble of our lives, and to bathe in the richness of what is here. Every second taken away from awareness of the eternal present is a second lost. Most of us lose most of our seconds, most of the time. Screwed up in to tight little balls of anxiety, regret, striving, good intention and well laid plans we miss our life as it flows on by – the river of being always on its inexorable way, same river, always different. Finding the discipline to be present changes everything. Or actually it changes nothing, but it opens a window on to the eternal treasure waiting for us to stop by and say hello.

Here is RS Thomas’ poem, ‘The Bright Field’ which says all this with such beauty.

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was

the pearl of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after an

imagined past. It is the turning aside

like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to the brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

RS Thomas.

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.

A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)

Non-attachment, sacrifice, surrender, presence. These concepts are at the heart of spiritual development, at least in its more sophisticated forms. What could be more simple? And yet what can possibly be harder? Eventually you have to give your self over to something bigger than yourself. No-one escapes it. We come in to the world naked and with nothing, and we leave through the same door. But taking on this ‘condition of complete simplicity’ while alive – there is the challenge of a deep spiritual life. The condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.

Psychotherapy and IMG_6746personal development work helps people to grow and to become present and full in their lives. Psychotherapists help ‘self-building’, delineating the ‘me’ from the ‘not-me’, facilitating clarity about boundaries, powerfulness about desires, resourcefulness around creativity, and delight
around embodiment. We strive to be completely here, to find ourselves as bold, passionate, effective beings. This is vital, soul-building work which takes years of demon-battling. The objective is to ‘touch down’ in life, get our feet on to the earth and become people of substance.

 

But then there is another stage. As Eliot says in the section from ‘Little Gidding’ quoted below ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’ In other words, there can come a point when we awaken, in the middle of our life, to an entirely different way of seeing things, a more spiritual viewpoint. And this is where the energy of non-attachment starts to reveal itself as the path. This is a great mystery, and I really like the way that Eliot expresses it in Little Gidding (a re-read of the Four Quartets from which this is taken, is a therapy in itself). Eventually we have to give up everything. This might be through our death. It might be before. It is not easy. How do we discern when this is a moment to step in to life and fight, and when it is a moment to step back from life and let-be? And when and how do we balance those two? It is in the balance that the magic really happens.IMG_4778

 

 

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where were started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always – 

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one. 

 

TS Eliot (from Little Gidding)

Storming out of the darkness

When transformation comes, it is sometimes at the pace of a glimmer, a hint, the tiniest and merest minute sign that something is different. But sometimes that spark catches, like an early May day, and the whole of a person’s life can be transfigured. Boom! Just like that. Did you go to the countryside this weekend? Bluebells, birds, cowparsley, hawthorn blossom….it has all stormed out of the darkness, as Mary Oliver puts it in the poem below. In alchemy, this can relate to what is known as mulitplicatio, a state of heart opening through which creation can flourish, and in which the blessings pile up in a person’s life, running the cup over with goodness. Think the parable of the loaves and the fishes here, the beautiful abundance of enoughness.

 

May.

May, and among the miles of leafing,

blossoms storm out of the darkness – 

wind flowers and moccasin flowers. The bees

dive in to them and I too, to gather

their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs

is the deepest certainty that this existence too – 

this sense of wellbeing, the flourishing

of the physical body – rides

near the hub of the miracle that everything

is a part of, is as good

as a poem or a prayer, can also make

luminous any dark place on earth.

Mary Oliver.

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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