A few things have been coming together in the past week that have moved my book project back to the foreground of my awareness: the reading of a new text on Buddhist psychology and the gestalt therapy approach, and a few conversations with supervisees and students to name but two. It feels timely that I have a writing retreat in my beloved Normandy planned for just before Easter. I can feel a buzz of excitement, this happens within me when the pursuit of meaning and experience align.
I’ve been reflecting on the common ground of my psychotherapeutic view (that of Gestalt) and the view that holds my world and very being (that of Buddhism). There is much common ground and convergence, but what I am holding figural is the key quality of awareness. In both systems of thought, suffering can be alleviated by becoming more aware of experience – to separate out the stories from ‘what is’ in the moment. In Buddhism, that quality of awareness can be honed through various methods of meditation; in psychotherapy it is the relationship being offered to develop awareness in the client. And in Gestalt psychotherapy, we have a particular method – that of the ‘experiment’.
Most of us when hearing this word will conjure up images of scientists in white coats or memories of chemistry classes at school – I can assure you, there are no test tubes or Bunsen burners in my therapy room! But when I invite a client to “try an experiment”, it can be greeted with a certain look. And, as I often share with students, the way a client responds to this invitation already tells us a lot about client process: those that want to please me and say “yes” (before even knowing what I am going to propose); or those that are already in touch with an emotion and the mere thought of contacting it more deeply is enough to elicit strong awareness (and we don’t need to go further). The key with a gestalt experiment is attitude – both client and therapist need to engage a “let’s just see” curiosity as to what might unfold. Unlike the scientist, the therapist does not hold a hypothesis; the only motivation is to move from talking about to experiencing of.
Did you know this week is sleep awareness week? It's the Sleep Foundation’s annual initiative aiming to highlight the importance of good sleep health for “individuals to best achieve their personal, family, and professional goals”. This year’s theme is “Begin with Sleep”, and I cannot help but see the irony (or synchronicity perhaps) that I write having not slept well last night. And I am not alone. A UK survey recently revealed some thought provoking stats: Two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter (23%) manage no more than five hours a night; and half (48%) of UK adults admit they don't get the right amount of sleep, with women more likely to agree (54%) than men (41%).*
I have a long term relationship with insomnia, some 11 or 12 years. So I know the “day after the night before” feeling well. And, with this long term relationship comes understanding in what the sleeplessness tells me, and a confidence that I can cope with the following day. In other words, not sleeping doesn’t disturb me like it used to when my capacity to find sleep first started disappearing down the plughole. Given this is a media driven awareness week, my intention is not to harp on about the importance of sleep, nor go through (the needless to say very important) checklist of “sleep hygiene” measures one can look at**. What I really want to emphasise is how significant a difference can come from befriending our sleeplessness - not because we WANT to be lying in bed staring at the ceiling at 2am, 3am, 4am (repeat), but because getting anxious about losing sleep will only heighten the block; AND (I would say this as a therapist wouldn’t I?) there is often something this “symptom” is telling us - it points to a deeper, more meaningful, part of our process.
I’m currently studying an online course with the Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray - the course is “the somatic practice of pure awareness”. Over the 10 weeks, we (there are some 200 participants) are being offered meditation practices, teachings and reading that deepen the awareness of the body as the prime gateway for “awakening”. I am four weeks in now, and already I am experiencing my body in a very different way. I have written recently about finding ground in the groundlessness as an example - in noticing where I hold in my body, I am able to let go. This is pervading my life and my work - and it’s all very exciting.
Exciting AND anxiety provoking: not the crippling form of anxiety that I have once known, but one that I can and want to have a relationship. My anxiety no longer blocks me from life, but rather draws me deeper in to it; the kind of anxiety that feels an invitation to open up, to go deeper, to be more vulnerable, to stretch myself. It is almost like the more anxiety I feel, the more it is good news - feedback I am moving in the right direction.
An example of this came in the teaching unit of the course we have just completed. Reggie invites us to consider how we spend our time - specifically, how we might orientate our life to offer up more ‘unstructured time’. He views this as critical to all - not just meditators who already “just sit” for 30 minutes a day for their meditation practice. He explains how today’s world bombards us more than ever with information and experiences - we can easily become overloaded. AND, as a whole we make less time to simply be - and “being” is is essential to absorb, digest, assimilate what life brings our way. So alongside having a meditation practice, how else in our life can we have more time where time and space just unfolds; no plans, no outcomes, no expectations?
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