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the path of lifeI had a holiday in Cornwall lately, some much needed breathing space during a week under canvas. It was a simple week: reading, cooking on a gas stove or BBQ and walking the rugged cliffs along the north cornwall shore (and ok, I admit some lovely cream teas!)

I love walking, being out in nature. And I always find it exciting to explore new terrain, a new route. As I walked north out of Padstow towards the peninsula the direct parallels between walking a coastal path and our path in life occurred to me. I guess this is a well-worn metaphor...and an equally well worn coastal path! As I left Padstow, I was embarking on a journey I had never done before. Whether it be starting anew in a career, in a relationship, or a project we have an idea about our destination - we have after all selected it for a reason - but really we have no idea what it is really going to be like. And we certainly have NO idea what will occur along the way - how easy will the path be? What terrain will we encounter, the ups, the downs? Will the weather be kind, easy plain sailing or a stormy turbulent time? (as I learnt in Cornwall, even the promise of a bright blue sky can quickly shift in to menacing dark stormy clouds...oh the English weather!). Uncertainty - exciting, overwhelming, daunting all at the same time.

It is perhaps easy to conjure up other parallels. At times my path was on the flat, wide and spacious - it allowed me to lift my gaze, look around me and take in the scenery. At other times the footing became tricky with boulders and slippery slate - I had to look down and pay careful attention to my footing and mindful of each step. I have often encountered periods in my life where I had to slow down, pay careful attention to detail and not look to far ahead. I can find this stressful, and indeed on my walk I noticed how less relaxed I was when the path got rocky.

counseling can help overcome obstacles

Sometimes life throws us a 'curveball', a really unexpected obstacle that needs careful thought and planning; often it can lookunsurmountable. Bringing to mind my walk, I came across several portions of the path where I rounded a bend to see the unexpected - on one occasion I was presented with this novel (to me) type of stile. Like the local architecture, the stile was constructed from local stone and slate - at first glance I thought "how on earth am I going to get over that" (as we age these obstacles can become more daunting...and I am not as nimble as I was 10 years ago!!). However, I made it over (carefully). And the next time I came across a similar stile, I gained confidence in my technique. Similarly, each time we successfully deal with an obstacle in life we can learn from it. In my counselling and coaching work I am often impressed by the resilience and imagination of my clients; I was equally impressed with how resourceful some of the other walkers were in traversing these stiles - people 30 years my senior taking them in their stride. A reminder that appearances can be deceptive.

The Cornwall Coastal path is far from flat. I had planned my arrival time in Harlyn Bay based on my normal average walking pace. But the ups and downs, the slippery terrain (and my need to stop and take photos) slowed me considerably. I noticed the stress I felt when I compared where I wanted to be with my actual progress. I noticed how I put pressure on myself to speed up, to catch up. Whose expectations? My own, no doubt. It had to be a conscious effort to slow down, to remind myself I was holiday - there was no 'being late' to worry about. We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to expectations, to conform to social norms or the demands of a 'part of self' that is struggling to accomplish, to be recognised.

Coastal paths are just that...and in North Cornwall, the run-off from the path can be steep. Again, attention is needed with footing - you don't want to fall off the path - as rocks and sea await! Sometimes in life we flirt with the edges; in fact sometimes we feel we have actually fallen off our path. We can feel lost, literally 'at sea'.

Whilst I encountered many people on my walk that morning, there were periods when I didn't come across anyone for 20 minutes at a time. I am someone very comfortable with solitude - I can be alone but not feel lonely. Yet there was something about wanting to share the experience with 'other' that I noticed as I walked. I was collecting thoughts along the way ready to recount them to my partner when we met for our picnic lunch; I was taking photos as another way to share. I also noticed that when I did come across another group of walkers I was very happy to share a chat. In life we need to balance times of space and solitude with connectedness to other. It is my belief that we need this for personal growth. I also believe that the role of the therapist is to walk alongside their client while they explore their own path. I may not be with the client in their daily life, but our weekly session is a way of helping them feel their life is held, that their load can be shared and lightened.

walking the north cornwall pathAt some point, the parallels between walking a coastal path and the path of life falls short. What came to me as I walked and was reflecting on all the above*, is that ultimately, our path in life is one we make - unlike the Padstow to Harlyn Bay path, there is no pre-ordained route. With each step we form the direction, with each step there are choices in which way to go. We may feel we walked the wrong way: but unlike a constructed pathway, we don't go backwards and take the right path, we need to self-correct and create our own detour - with an attitude of 'I did the wrong thing there', the time can feel wasted; with a more open learning perspective, we can appreciate that the detour (the long way round) was useful: that it reinforces the desire of where we want to be.

(*you have been spared a lot of my musings given the walk was 3 hours long - that would have been a long blog post!)

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I recently attended a workshop at The Gestalt Centre in London looking at how to build a private practice. In the months counsellors dilemma to have a brandleading up to the workshop I had been 'umming and arring' about whether to attend: after all, I had started a business before, what more could they tell me?Counsellors dilemma to have a brand

Yet as I look to build the service offering from Mind Body Dialogue, I am starting to realise just how different working in the therapeutic world is. When I made the transition from cycling coach to coaching in a broader lifestyle sense the basic principles were the same - selling myself, selling my expertise felt comfortable. Whilst coaching, like therapy, is not advice giving there IS an aspect of consultation, of offering options - my background and my training is very present in the room with me and the client. In coaching, it is okay to portray and indeed be 'the expert'. The world of coaching is also very competitive, so there is an expectation to present strengths when entering the marketing arena. It is normal practice to sell not only your services, but your self: to tell the world WHY you are better than any other coach out there.

The therapeutic setting is different. If I take my own counselling and therapy approach - within the Humanistic tradition - there is a foundational principle of no hierarchy. Healing and alleviation of psychological distress comes from the relationship; the co-construction of dialogue is dependent on therapist and client...equally. A therapist (a good one!) does not consider themselves above anyone, there is (what Carl Rogers calls) 'unconditional positive regard' for other. We walk this earth as equals, each view point, each version of reality as valid as one another's.

So, how does a counsellor and psychotherapist reconcile the values and ethics of their profession (and their way of being) with building a private practice?

Shortly before attending the workshop in London, I had read this NY Times article on the brand building of therapists. The article highlights the struggle to attract clients. There have been great advances in reducing the stigma associated with mental health and emotional well-being issues: people are beginning to realise it is okay to ask for help (as this recent article in The Independent explains). There is a great need and demand for counselling (the NHS schemes for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have waiting lists, as do many of the charitable organisations that offer free or low cost talking therapies) - yet there is still a reluctance to pay for it. I find it a shame that people can pay £100 per month on gym fees (and not go!) yet don't consider their mental health with the same regard. I shall resist getting on my soapbox - that is a matter I will leave for another blog post!

So, this is the challenge in building a practice:

  • counselling and therapy is becoming a growth area in so much as a lot of people are attracted to it as a fulfilling career change. There are hundreds of trained people capable of offering benefit to potential clients...
  • ...who would like to have therapy but are reluctant to pay the fees. Maybe there is not enough awareness of time and money that an average counselling trainee has to invest? Rough back of the envelope calculations give a figure of £8000 when you take in to account course fees, personal therapy and clinical supervision over the 2 years of training
  • to sell one's 'self' (the therapist's 'self' being a major instrument in therapeutic change) without making one's self overly important, side-stepping the role of 'expert', and remaining authentic

The workshop pointed out the importance of the internet as a marketing vehicle. With so many counsellors out there trying to attract a relatively small pool of potential clients, coming up with attractive website 'copy' and good seeding of 'keywords' is vital. It is vital if a counsellor wants the search engine 'bots' to crawl the site and give it a high ranking on the search results. With my previous experience in building websites and search engine optimisation, I am fairly confident that I can do this over time - but even then I notice the split: Helen with her marketing hat on, Helen as therapist. Trying to construct a website in dual role has been a challenge...and will continue to be so. Websites need to live and breathe a require constant refining if hoping to conquer Google's mystery algorithms! I consider myself fortunate, as many colleagues at the workshop were looking rather confused (and overwhelmed) by the terminology - Google Adwords, Social media accounts, search engine optimisation, meta tags. Take in to consideration here that many therapists have re-trained as a second career so are less comfortable with these new technologies. There are not many people under the age of 35 who don't use Twitter or Facebook as their main way of connecting with other - so to put social media aside as "irrelevant and too much bother" is a risky marketing strategy!

I was struck by this line in the NY Times article - “Nobody wants to buy therapy anymore...They want to buy a solution to a problem.” The ways that we can re-word 'problems' as 'solutions to be found' I agree can work. However, I still feel on tentative ground. As a counsellor, I would never promise a client that I can 'solve' the presenting issue. Why WOULD people invest their money in a process that has no guarantees? Maybe I should play my trump card, my favourite Einstein quote 'We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them'. THAT is what I can offer in working with clients - the chance to use our relationship to try different ways of being for size; to bring a different perspective to the same, repeating issue.

balancing counsellor and marketeer

Walking the line between counsellor and marketeerA final thought on this complicated topic: one on boundaries. Boundaries are considered important in counselling and therapy. Back in the days of Freud and early psychoanalysis, the therapist was literally a 'blank screen' - the client (or patient as then called) would know nothing about the analyst, leaving them to create all sorts of fantasies and act out 'transference'. This has changed and evolved, and indeed the Humanistic traditions are reliant on the relationship that is created between therapist and client. However, it is still a predominantly one-way relationship in terms of information that the therapist might disclose. Now, throw this in to the marketing dilemma and building of a 'brand'. I am sure when a potential client is surfing the web and searching for a trusted practitioner to work with they want to know as much as they can about the person behind the counsellor. A fine line here: to be known, but not fully exposed and boundaries breached.

I'll keep you posted on how I find this tightrope walking in the coming months!

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As a mindfulness meditation instructor, I often get questions regarding this new 'go to cure' that is mindfulness. Even the government have jumped on the mindfulness wave here in the UK; and there has even been a slow shift in favour toward mindfulness based therapies over the previous NHS treatment of choice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy...a fine victory indeed that would be!

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Sounds straightforward enough yes? Well er, no...as much as we might be committed to living our lives that way (because we've read it in the Sunday newspaper that it is good for our health), mindfulness, like other abilities, needs training.

meditation

How can we cultivate mindfulness? "I want to learn to meditate so that I can stop all this thinking in my head, it drives me nuts".Let me start by busting this popular meditation myth. Cultivating mindfulness is not about 'stopping thinking' - our mind will always think. In fact the Buddhist teachings consider the mind a sense - so just as our eyes see, our ears hear, we better not want to stop thinking! Nor is it practiced with the intention to change things. Instead, meditation helps us learn acceptance in the way that things are - for better or for worse. However, before acceptance, the first step is learning to observe and to be aware of what is happening in our experience. It is not easy to stay 'present-centred' in our everyday lives.

In mindfulness coaching we break the process down in to two types of practice: Meditation on the cushion; and Mindfulness exercises in everyday life

Consider this type of training as if you were preparing for a sporting event. Rather than going to the gym, we are prepping the 'muscle' of the mind. We start with small manageable chunks of time (your cushion is akin to spending time at the gym) and then get more specific by taking your new found skills in to the world at large (like an athlete may use training races). I like to break the development of mindfulness process down in to 3 stages to:

Stage 1: On the cushion meditation is a way to make the mind more stable and clear. Whilst based on Buddhist philosophy no spiritual beliefs are necessary to practise meditation. The word for meditation in Sanskrit is "shamatha", meaning "calm abiding." This is the natural state of the mind - the ability to be present without constantly leaving to follow our past or future orientated thoughts. Whilst there are many different meditation techniques, most require that we rest our attention on 'an object'. In Buddhist meditation the object is commonly the breath. Depending on your prior experience, a typical programme would include: 1) Learning the proper technique (posture and approach to handling your thoughts); 2) Building the duration (and frequency) of your meditation sessions so that you develop a consistent practice; and 3) introducing different meditation 'objects' (mindfulness of the body, the feelings and emotions that arise, visualisations of you in relationship to others in your life).

Stage 2: In the world practice It is a challenge, even to the most experienced and diligent meditators, to become more mindful in everyday life. We may experience a 'good' meditation session, feel we have become calmer, stayed with our breath well...and then we get off the cushion and walk in to a steaming argument! In this stage, it is helpful to have short, controlled practices that challenge the ability to hold attention on 'objects' in everyday life. Exercises can be tailored the to particular needs, but common examples include brushing teeth (noticing the sensations that arise) or preparing food in the kitchen (being mindful of the cutting of vegetables whilst bringing awareness to other actions you need to keep an eye on, like pans boiling on the hob). One of the most fun exercises is mindful eating - believe me, food never tasted so good when you REALLY slow down and experience eating!

Stage 3: In the world with others Most of us don't live in caves: we have to interact with our worlds. So moving on from mindfulness in controlled and individual activities, the practice arena becomes interactional - the ability to stay grounded and mindful in relation to others. Exercises can be designed to consider your relationships to self, to others, and to your livelihood. Common areas I coach people in involve practices in mindful communication and compassionate action, and a very popular yet challenging one: being able to watch your own emotional state during difficult conversations.

Breaking down the development of mindfulness in to these stages pays dividends. In my experience it is the most effective way to claim back the natural ability and clarity of the mind. We, as a society, have learnt to become mindless. We have to be patient to unlearn those habits. Learning on the cushion to come back to the body and the breath; slowing down in everyday activities; practicing in real time in the real world - this approach to practice is the foundation in transforming reactions in to more mindful responses.

If you would like to learn how to meditate, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or give me a call. You can also sign up to my monthly email newsletter.

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