Therapy outdoors: Playing with Winnicott

I’m training with Beth Collier to practice psychotherapy and counselling outdoors. I’ve completed an MSc dissertation on the subject but that’s just theory – this is practical and I’ve got a lot from these sessions. Learning the nuts and bolts of working outdoors has been really useful, but the most interesting element has been the opportunity to practice therapy in the park. Typically we’ll pair up with another trainee and be either therapist or client in a real session. Although we don’t get into anything too heavy, we all share real life issues so the process actually is outdoor therapy.

Although the core principles are the same, outdoor therapy is very different from indoor sessions. The first thing that struck me was how much more fluid working outdoors is. Whatever action feels right for the client is open to them: They are free to stand, walk, stop, sit down or even lie on the ground. If a space feels too open, we can go somewhere more enclosed. If where we are feels claustrophobic, there’s the option to move. Of course wondering why a space feels uncomfortable gives us something to explore, but we have the option of how and where we work with that. Working outdoors can be much more playful than indoor practice, and I’m reminded of Winnicott’s belief that psychotherapy is ultimately about two people playing together (1971).

Patterns of light through green leaves

Playing with patterns

Saying that outdoor therapy is more playful and fluid suggests it might be less intense, but in fact the natural environment has a way of highlighting issues and pulling away our familiar masks. It’s a much more embodied way of doing therapy and that in itself tends to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Nature has a knack of holding up a mirror to us. What we think of as internal psychic processes somehow get symbolised in the space around us. Ecotherapist’s often refer to this kind of synchronicity: Somehow inner reality and external life get blurred.

I find myself back with Winnicott again. He thought of the consulting room as a transitional space that emerged between the therapist and the client. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). I can’t help fantasizing that Winnicott would have very much enjoyed doing outdoor therapy!

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Pinakarri: Aboriginal deep listening

‘White Fella Dreaming’ recently posted a blog about Pinakarri, a practice from the Aboriginal Mandjilidjara Mardu people of Western Australia. Pinakarri literally means “ears standing up” and is usually translated as ‘deep listening’, a listening with the whole bodymind. It struck me because of the similarities with practices I’m familiar with from ecopsychology, spirituality and therapy.

This is a slightly edited version of the guide to Pinakarri from White Fella Dreaming:

  1. Sit quietly and sense where your body connects with whatever is supporting you right now; the ground, chair or cushion.
  2. Feel the weight of your body and notice how the earth supports it. No matter what you are sitting in, it is made of earth in one way or the other. The gravity that holds you there was created with the beginning of the Universe.
  3. Become aware of your breath. Listen to the difference between the in breath and the out breath. This is how the Universe sounds when it sings through your body.
  4. Become aware of the slight difference in temperature between the in and out breaths. This difference is what you give to the act of breathing. The heat involved in that change comes from the Sun. It is warming up life through your body and you are a channel for this process. You embody the energy of the Sun. You are completely unique and absolutely universal at the same time.
  5. Now listen to the beat of your heart. This began in the womb and stays with you until death. It beats out a particular rhythm and sound.
  6. Find the first point of tension you become aware of. Breathe into that spot and consciously relax it with the power of the Sun and the universal energy you are now aware of. Breathe out the tension.
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You embody the energy of the Sun

While much of that sounds like Buddhist breathing meditation, several elements recall a Western Pagan earthing ritual (Starhawk, 2004) and other aspects echo the practice of ‘grounding into being here’ from Whole Body Focusing. All of it sits beautifully within certain strands of ecopsychology (e.g. Bill Plotkin and David Abram). Have these approaches appropriated Aboriginal practice? I very much doubt it. Although there has been a lot of influence on Western Paganism and ecopsychology from indigenous wisdom, I think it’s likely that people across the planet have learnt this kind of deep listening simply by virtue of being embodied and aware.

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Why meditate?

Last night BBC Radio 4 explored the question of mindfulness. Is it a panacea or just a fad? Although the presenter was occasionally somewhat tongue in cheek about the whole topic, her cynicism was tempered by the fact that for a lot of people, mindfulness works.

But the programme got me thinking, and in my meditation this morning I began to wonder: what is the point of meditation? For a long time I was mediating because I enjoyed it for its own sake. I find it relaxing and occasionally blissful. While that’s all great, I was missing the real point of meditation, which is to cultivate mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Meditation is deliberately taking some time to practice being mindful. Whether focusing on the breath, music or the taste of a chocolate truffle, meditation is the conscious practice of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Through meditation we become more used to being mindful, and I know from personal experience that regular practice leads to moments of being mindful at other times.

The potential benefits of mindfulness are myriad. While there is sound evidence that mindfulness alleviates anxiety and makes chronic pain much more bearable, it has far wider applications. My own experience bears out Eric McCollum’s belief that mindfulness makes us better therapists (2014) and long term practice can have profound spiritual implications. There is a lovely interview with psychotherapist Miles Neale that points out that the Buddha was a revolutionary who was “trying to empower people to have a radical transformation” that would enable them to “collectively change the fabric of society”. That leads a bigger question about mindfulness and morality that I’ll to return to later, but for now, if you don’t meditate, maybe you’d like to give it a go.

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2014: Who read what?

Bodymind Place was viewed about 4,000 times in 2014. That’s more than double 2013 figures, so thanks for checking in. While the most popular new post this year was Embodied peacemaking, where I wrote about Paul Linden’s work, my introduction to Eugene Gendlin from October 2011 was even more widely read. Not so surprising as Gendlin is a huge influence on me, and I often link back to that post, especially when writing about Focusing. The post on Focusing in Nature from 2013 also proved popular and was still getting comments in January 2014.

Nature connection: Core routines and The threshold brook, both from 2011, were still popular in 2014. I haven’t linked back to either this year, so I guess there’s something especially appealing about those posts. Nature connection: Core routines introduces the work of Jon Young and the Wilderness Awareness School and can be seen as a form of ecotherapy, which is a key theme of this blog. The threshold brook brings together several strands, including Focusing and ecotherapy, to conclude that “one place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world”.

These statistics don’t reflect what goes on on other sites, where several posts provoked lively discussions. My final post of 2014 was about The Endorphin Effect and it led to more Facebook comments than anything I’ve ever posted! Likewise Where is wilderness? didn’t get much attention on Bodymind Place, but did on Facebook. Not suprising really, as it was not much more than a link to a guest post I wrote for the Thinking Wilderness project. But that guest post was well read and attracted some interesting comments.

Jay and I had a facinating discussion about Becoming Animal. Jay is a blogger too, and naturebum is well worth following. Other blogs you might check out in 2015 include Phil Hine’s thoughts on Tantra in Enfolding, and the bloggers at Humanistic Paganism.

Wishing you a wonderfully embodied 2015!

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The Endorphin Effect

I’ve recently facilitated a series of workshops on mindfulness and spirituality at a drug and alcohol rehab clinic. The most popular workshop by far was the one where I taught people how to use William Bloom’s Endorphin Effect. Endorphins, which are the hormones of pleasure, improve your mood, promote physical health and help to reduce stress. When you exercise or experience something pleasurable, endorphins are released. Endorphins are the body’s natural opiates – our ‘endogenous morphine’. The runners high, the bliss of sex and the pleasure of drinking alcohol are all due to endorphins.

But you don’t have to run a marathon, have sex or booze to get your endorphins flowing, because your body will react in a very similar way to a powerful visualization as it will to reality. Let’s suppose – for the sake of argument – that lying in a warm bath eating chocolate truffles feels really good to you. That actual experience will feel great and result in the production of endorphins, but so will vividly imagining the experience. Visualization techniques are well established in sports science, where they are used to improve performance. You can use visualization to stimulate the flow of endorphins at will. No wonder that workshop was popular!


I usually teach the Endorphin Effect as a stress management tool, but there are many more applications. Professor Karl Schmidt, a Consultant Psychiatrist, believes that the Endorphin Effect “is so self-empowering that … it should be an essential strategy in any addiction treatment unit” (Schmidt, 2010). The Endorphin Effect works well with other approaches. I’ve been using Focusing and NLP strategies to enhance the Endorphin Effect for a while and I’m now exploring how it might be tied in with more traditional meditations like Metta Bhavana (‘loving kindness’); another synergy between modern science and ancient practice.

The last word should go to Candace Pert, who pioneered the research into endorphins:
“You’re a very active participant in how good you feel, it’s a scientific fact. Our physiology is perfectly designed for bliss and this perfection is dynamic, so taking responsibility for your own health is important” (Your Physiology is Designed to Experience Bliss).

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Where is wilderness?

I’m currently featured as a ‘wilderness thinker’ for a project on ‘Thinking Wilderness’. I took a sideways look at the question of what ‘wilderness’ means and came up with more questions than answers. I explore the question ‘Where is wilderness?’ Readers of this blog won’t be surprised at the direction my journey took. From a bodymind place perspective, wilderness is not simply somewhere ‘out there’ because simple notions of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer make sense. Read the full post on the Thinking Wilderness Project site.

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Wholebody Focusing – Grounding into being here

I’ve only done an introductory week-end of Wholebody Focusing (WBF), so these initial thoughts are somewhat tentative, but I want to touch on the role of grounding in WBF.

Gene Gendlin, the philosopher/psychotherapist who developed Focusing, states that the body extends beyond the skin so that the body “lives immediately in its environment, both physically and socially” (Gendlin, 1994). Wholebody Focusing takes that idea forward more explicitly than traditional Focusing and I find that very exciting.

The first crucial stage of WBF – which is absent from traditional Focusing – is grounding. I’m familiar with grounding from both my spiritual experience and my embodiment training, so at first assumed I knew what this involved. But I realised that WBF grounding was something subtly different. My usual grounding process is to sense the weight of my body on the ground, feeling my weight as if I were a rock on the earth or visualizing myself as a tree with roots deep in the soil. WBF involves a similar sensing of our physical selves, but also opens out to relationship with everything else. Astrid Schillings calls it ‘grounding into being here (Dasein)’ (2014) to emphasizes how it requires both being in the world and being with others. Through grounding into being here we become aware of the body as “an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). We thus become grounded in “all the ongoing interactions that we are” (Schillings, 2014).


There are many crossovers with other ideas I’ve explored here. I’m especially struck by how WBF seems to relate to ecopsychology, notably my experiences with Focusing in nature which now seems more like Wholebody Focusing in nature. WBF might also offer a new way of understanding my experience of sensing the pulse of the seasons at Imbolc last year. It’s a powerful approach and I’m already finding that WBF is enhancing my spiritual practice and my therapeutic work. My sense is that WBF could be a space where many themes of the body mind place meet.

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Becoming another: connected selves

My previous post critiqued the notion of humans becoming animal. I argued that humans are animals, so we can’t become animals. But there’s actually a much more interesting angle to all this. Ignoring for a moment species boundaries, what does becoming another being mean?

Anne Game is an academic – a sociologist – and a keen horse rider. One morning her horse, KP, became inexplicably paralysed and she had to relearn how to move. As part of her healing process KP wanted the relationship with Anne that came from being ridden. At first the horse found it hard; Anne was fearful of hurting the horse – or herself – and progress was slow. But a dramatic shift happened when Anne let her body move as if she and KP were cantering: “To help her to remember canter, my body had to take up this movement. The between horse and human movement canter had to be generated for KP to entrain with it, to get in the flow” (Game, 2001).

We might say KP learnt to canter again though Anne’s movement. But that’s not quite it: the horse/human, the centaur that is KP/Anne learnt to canter again. As Anne puts it, “I propose that we are always already part horse, and horses, part human: there is no such thing as pure horse or purely human. The human body is not simply human”.

From this perspective it became clear to Anne that her own fear had been holding back KP’s initial efforts. “The protectiveness I felt was more likely to have been self-protection, a consequence of identification. And identification is clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, for it involves being too close, too attached to be able to be with the other and feel what they need. When I identify with you, your situation becomes mine: closed off in separateness, I thus lose the capacity for the other to be called up in my self”.

horse

Becoming horse is not about identification. It requires something more subtle. Anne proposes a “a forgetting of human self in a between-human-and-horse way of being” that however retains a “a fearless capacity for otherness and difference”. Anne suggests that this models how effective therapy needs to offer a “non-attached holding of self and other”. Anne doesn’t say much more about that, but it’s a profound insight that I hope to unpack myself in future posts.

If we take ourselves to be self-contained, autonomous beings in an world of others, then much of what happens in therapy is mysterious. If, however, we understand subjectivity as a phenomenon that emerges from a complex flux where bodies are not discrete, then our therapeutic work – and many other, otherwise inexplicable phenomena – become clearer.

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Becoming Animal

I’m preparing for a forthcoming debate on the role of “becoming-animal in promoting ecological activity”. It’s at the University of Brighton on Saturday and I’ve been circling the question for a the last week or so. The debate is framed around traditional stories of humans shapeshifting into animals, stories which blur the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And there’s the rub, for if humans are animals then what would it mean to become animal? Perhaps it would mean becoming more fully human, more alive, more aware of our fleshy embodiment.

I’ve long been entertained by the futile struggle to maintain the boundary between ‘human’ and ‘animal’. When I was a kid there was a whole list of supposed differences; humans use tools, use language and have self-consciousness – animal don’t. As the years pass, these ‘boundaries’ are falling away. The question of whether other animals have language is debatable and rather depends on what we mean by language. But other animals use tools and demonstrate what certainly looks like self awareness.

So why are we hairless apes in denial about our animality? And does that denial tie in with our apparent inability to live sustainably? Maybe. David Abram’s recent book Becoming Animal has some clues. Abram suggests that we “fear our carnal embodiment” because it reminds us of our mortality. We cannot allow that we “must die in order for others to flourish”, so escape into “dreams of machine-mediated immortality”. This is not only futile, but costly, because it leads us to dull the sensory richness that is our birthright. Our technologically mediated and scientifically framed world distances us from the immediacy of engaged experience. As Abram poetically puts it, “modern humanity is crippled by a fear of its own animality”.

The sociologist Max Weber proposed that modernity has disenchanted the world (1971). That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s clear that the process is incomplete. Something more fundamental than either science or culture resists disenchantment: our embodiment. So I return to where I began. Becoming animal means re-joining the dance of life with the community of the other-than-human. We must rediscover the fecund mystery of sensory engagement, accept our animal mortality and come to feel at home in our own skin again. Paradoxically, becoming-animal is to become fully human.

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Embodied peacemaking

This is the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered the First World War. Over 16 million people died. This was not to be the ‘war to end all wars’: conflict continues around the world, and many millions more have died since Armistice day in 1918.

Have we learnt anything about building a lasting peace? I’ve just come back from a four day training retreat focusing on embodiment. I was presenting a session on nature connection and was honoured to be sharing the programme with Paul Linden. Paul, who has been practicing Aikido for 41 years and is something of a genius in bodymind awareness, has developed an approach he describes as ‘embodied peace building’.

Amongst other things, Paul is a philosopher, and he presents his peacemaking approach with great precision. He begins with a definition of peace as “the condition in which conflicts are dealt with and resolved in respectful, life-affirming ways” (2007). Conflict resolution typically emphasizes thinking, listening and talking, but this can only succeed if those involved are “in a state of inner and outer peacefulness” (2007). Paul’s techniques teach us how to embody peace and calm. From that foundation, we can begin to explore ways of resolving conflict. Without the sense of safety and empowered love enabled by Paul’s method, conflict all too easily flares up as soon as negotiations get difficult.

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Words alone aren’t enough. Morality is not some abstract set of principles or a divine injunction: it is “built into the very structure of the body”. Ethical behaviour emerges with profound inevitability “from an integrated body state of power and love” (2007).

I’ve long been convinced that our embodiment holds the key to positive change, whether that’s in the context of environmental awareness, mental health or spirituality. Paul’s work confirms my belief. More importantly, it saves lives.

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