“I don’t want to feel this way anymore”
“If I let myself cry, I don’t think I’ll ever stop”
“I want the pain to just go away”
It is common for a person starting counselling to spend the first few sessions recounting the stories that have brought them to see me; why they feel stress, anxious, depressed; who are the key players in their issues; what is causing the obstacles they are encountering. And then, the words dry up. It can often feel like a ‘make or break’ moment in the counselling relationship – it is as if having told me their story they wait in anticipation “so, what next?”. Maybe they want the answers from me, maybe they want me to take the problem away: but what they probably don’t want is the invitation that I offer – to go beneath the stories, under the words and rather connect with the feelings and emotions.
It is important that we have the chance to tell our story. It is important to feel heard. Very often, clients find a lot of relief in just sharing their load. One client of mine recently told me I provided them space to ‘scream and shout’: as no-one else would be able to tolerate it. In my experience though, long-lasting change comes from being able to go beyond the words and touch the feelings underneath – as Fritz Perls used to say, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” For every story we can tell about someone making us angry, underneath there is pain, hurt or rejection.
As the client and I discuss the issue and their attempts to talk and think themselves out of it they come to understand how retreating in to their heads (and ruminating on the story) isn’t moving them anywhere – in fact it can get them more entrenched as they start to believe the stories are actually true (of course, they ARE true to them, but there is a truth for each and every person on the planet and we can’t ALL be right!). Re-telling the story tends to solidify the situation, and in the worst cases we can over identify with it – very often the reason depression sneaks up on people. But even when there is an intellectual realisation that they need to do things differently, there is always* resistance to questions I pose such as “so how does that feel as you tell me that? where can you sense it in your body?” Very often I see the tears well up, the hand may move to the chest – but almost immediately the silence is broken with the words “I think I feel”…commentary re-commences, it is just too painful to stay with the feelings and the intellect comes in to protect like a white knight.
I connect with this struggle on a personal level. For many years I relied on my ability to think my way out of pain – but actually I now see that my thoughts were a layer over the hurt inside. Historically, thinking kept me safe; but it also kept me living on a knife edge. It is stressful trying to stay safe, and it stopped me from living, I mean truly experiencing life. I didn’t want to live a numbed out life anymore. Therapy helped me see that the very strategies that once kept me safe were now out of date and were the shackles that held me back.
“You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
If to feel is to be human, what stops us wanting to feel? Where have we learnt that feeling is inferior to thinking? Plain and simple, feeling is painful – why wouldn’t we want a smooth ride, why wouldn’t we want to pad ourselves with cotton wool and keep the hurt out? When I talk with client’s about their experience of pain, the main resistance to turning toward the feelings is one of fearing it will catapult them in to an abyss. “If I let myself feel that, the emotion will overwhelm me”; “If I let myself cry, I’ll never stop”. Crying will break open the dam, an irreversible experience of pain. There is fear of paralysis; and ultimately a fear of annihilation and oblivion.
Have you ever tested this out? Have you allowed yourself to be touched by something sad and allow it to take you over, to truly sob? Chances are if you have found the courage to turn toward your experience, fully, you will have noticed that the crying, the sobbing doesn’t last forever…and in fact great relief can come.
Now this will sound strange for me to reveal this, as I am a purveyor of mindfulness meditation – but the first reaction I had to starting a meditation practice was falling in to depression. For the first time in my life I connected to my inner world on a deeper level – and it froze me. I lived in a fog. However, this was the first step I needed to go through – my hopelessness turned to sadness**. When I started therapy, I learned to connect to- and understand the hurt. My mediation practice at this time was a great bedfellow to the therapeutic work – as it allowed me to sit with the emotions – to feel the pain and learn that I COULD survive it.
“To be free, to come to terms with our lives, we have to have a direct experience of ourselves as we really are, warts and all.”
― Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
The Buddhist teachings (as with many Western therapeutic models) reveal that true liberation from comes from deep acceptance of ourselves – and I mean the full range of who we are, the dark the light, the happy the sad. Gestalt therapy (which is said to have received input from Zen Buddhism) in fact speaks of the “paradox of change” – clients will come to therapy often wanting change; but relief eventually comes from the acceptance of ‘what is’. When we turn towards our pain, the struggle stops. Pain is not the problem, the struggle is.
Someone who writes a lot about pain – and turning towards rather than away from it – is the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She suggests:
Feel the feelings and drop the storyline. And this is where a meditation practice helps us’compost’ our experience. In an environment of relative safety (away from the reactive situation that caused the pain) we can sit and just let the sensations flow through us
And it is this allowance of ‘flow’ that brings the healing. Ordinarily, we get caught up by the emotion, or ‘hooked’ (Chodron uses the Tibetan word ‘shenpa’). Emotion is simply energy – if we let the energy rise – and trust it won’t last forever – it will subside. We only get ‘hooked’ when that energy becomes solid, when we make it ‘real’. Linking this with what I say above, it is often the words and story that lock the energy down and stop the flow.
Of course, we all experience pain in many different ways. And, I certainly wouldn’t recommend turning on the feeling tap in extreme states such as trauma***. The ‘turning toward’ processes of therapy and meditation need to be approached with caution. With care and a compassionate attitude to ourselves, we can un-learn the ‘speaking over’ our experience. To drop the words and feel what is underneath; to feel the richness of this human life.
*I rarely generalise, but I have yet to work with a client who gets excited about my offer to explore the felt sense!
**Yes, that IS progress. Wrongly, people confuse depression with sadness – the former is listlessness, the latter a much richer emotion
***Trauma is actually a quite sensible strategy the body has adopted – it is the detachment of the event from any feeling. Re-uniting the narrative and feelings to re-enact the event needs to be a carefully monitored process under the supervision of a trained professional.
How mindfulness meditation helps me be a better therapist to my clients
In the coming months I am delivering mindfulness workshops to practitioners within the counselling and psychotherapy profession. It is incredible to witness the growing interest to mindful living generally; I am especially pleased to see my profession placing value in the practice of meditation. There are benefits in teaching our clients how to use mindfulness: certainly there is a lot of research emerging as to how meditation may combine with therapy to produce more effective and long lasting change and / or symptom management. I am sure I will return to this topic in a future blog post. For today however I offer a personal perspective as to how I think my meditation practice (as therapist) benefits my clients.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought towards what (up until now) have been my two paths – those of my meditation and my therapeutic paths. I say ‘up until now’ because I am witnessing a merging: personally and professionally. I remember sharing with my own therapist about 5 months ago that I aspired to “truly being a Buddhist” and to have that cradle everything else in my world. That vision is coming to fruition: I see how my meditation practice underpins my values and way of being in the world; and that provides the support of my work as therapist (as well as other roles such as partner, daughter, friend).
My home retreat a few weeks back gave me the opportunity to reflect on living one, common path. I used the time and space to formulate my intentions, specifically as to how I can help others. What really came through to me is how important the actual practice of meditation is (aside from the ethics and compassion practices that are central to life as a Buddhist).
Stabilising the mind
The essential practice in my meditation ‘diet’ is that of breath-awareness, or ‘shamatha’ (sanskritfor ‘calm-abiding’). Using the breath as my object for my mindfulness, I sit and bring single-pointed attention. The phrase ‘calm-abiding’ doesn’t mean a goal of peace and tranquility (or that would mean I ‘fail’ 8 or 9 times out of 10!). Nor is the measure of the practice how well I hold on to the breath. Rather, I direct my attention to the breath as an anchor to the here and now, and if when I get distracted I label it with ‘thinking’ and I come back to the breath. Some days it is relatively straightforward and my experience is quite peaceful and easeful; on other days my mind is distracted and it feels a struggle – I lose the breath, I bring my mind back to it. The ‘calm-abiding’ is the attitude to the oft the tug-of-war. I practice ‘equanimity’ or non-judgement of my experience. Whether easeful of requiring constant effort ‘to come back’, through sitting (over time) my mind slows, gaps between each successive thought appear and lengthen. A period of mediation is often likened to having a jar full of muddy water which settles as we leave it to rest. Letting my mind settle, having my thoughts slow down allows clarity (the mud rests at the bottom with clear water on top). In this space I find that insights relating to my own process emerge. I start to make links between my state of mind, feelings, emotions and events in my life.
Developing the watcher
Another critical practice for me has been that of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In shamatha, the object is thebreath: in the Four Foundations 1) I begin with the object of the body noticing any physical sensations; 2) I move my attention to the feelings that come up and labelling them simply pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; 3) next my mindfulness is directed to the mind itself, watching the thoughts that arise; 4) finally mindfulness of the contents of the mind asks for a linking of the arising thoughts within aspects of Buddhist teachings. It provides a methodical way to practice applying my mindfulness across different processes that ordinarily I’m not aware of (because they are going on all the time underneath daily concerns). When I teach this practice to others, I describe how its a bit like watching our experience unfold on a screen from a seat in a cinema. It is a beautiful analogy because it implies an ability to stand-back: to be fully contacted with our experience yet not enveloped by it. Developing the movie-goer or ‘watcher’ (without entering the drama being played out on the screen / in the mind) helps build the quality of equanimity (upeksha in sanskrit). This is probably close to what Freud referred to as “evenly suspended attention”.
How often do we really take time out? My 30 minutes each morning is a very personal space, real ‘me-time’. Simplysitting still without an outcome is one thing that helps me keep my batteries charged. OK, each meditation is not all peace, calm and tranquility – it is not an easy practice: yet with time, the effects are become clear. Since I have been meditating (five years now) I sleep better, I understand more what is going on behind my feelings and emotions, and I am less reactive in relationships. Life takes less out of me when I make the time to meditate.
Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.
― Eleanor Brownn
putting-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-firstThese first three aspects are really about ‘me’ – how meditation aids Helen as a person. In a modern day interpretation of the Buddhist teachings is the example of the oxygen mask – we can only help others once we have seen that our own needs are met. This is not some narcissistic statement – we have to be in sound health (physically and emotionally) to serve others. This is especially true in the helping professions. When seeing a number of clients per week and helping them with difficulty emotional struggles, my meditation keeps me grounded and ‘fit to practice’. Counselling and psychotherapy is known to be a profession with a high rate of burnout.
Adding value to the therapeutic relationship
Having stabilised my own mind and taken care of my self, I am ready to enter the room with a client undistracted and ready to be there for them, totally. Much of the therapeutic literature (especially the research of the Humanistic approach) speaks of the importance of ‘presence’. Therapeutic presence involves being fully in the moment with a client on a multitude of levels – physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. It is presence that helps me be fully open to the client’s world yet remain in touch with my own experience. Therapists rely a lot on their congruence – the ability to detect what is going on internally and to then be able to express this in real time to the client. Much feedback about a client’s way of being can be generated if a therapist is able to tune in as to how that client is impacting on them. The key for me is how mindfulness meditation (alongside my personally therapy) helps bring clarity to my own process and enables me to separate out my stuff* from the client’s.
Daniel Siegel writes beautifully on the topic of how mindfulness can enhance the therapeutic process, and I have found what he offers with the acronym of PART speaks to my experience with clients:
- My presence is a way I remain grounded in myself. I am able to locate my own needs and be undistracted with a client
- Settled, I am able to attune with the client’s internal experience and their world
- There is alignment, two people in a room opening to each other brings resonance – we recognise our shared humanity and begin to influence each other’s state of being**
- My client feels fully heard, fully felt – trust between us is nurtured which as Siegel explains is the starting point for true interpersonal integration
Neuroscience is establishing the changes in brain structure and function that come with regular mindfulness training – and this scientific basis is one reason why the health professions (including therapists) are keen to use meditation for themselves and reassured in recommending it to patients and clients. I certainly find it invaluable for my therapeutic counselling work. However, I would urge some caution: I believe we (the practitioner) need a strong personal mindfulness practice before we attempt to use it in our work, or indeed teach our clients to use it. As I mentioned earlier, whilst it is a straightforward practice, it is not an easy one. Having our own experience of the pitfalls and challenges is vital if we can attune to the client’s attempts. I have also found that meditation can bring up ‘stuff’, which while useful material for therapy it is again advisable to have experienced a version of this ‘stirring up’ ourselves so we can truly get alongside our clients.
*Stuff – technical term in the trade meaning baggage, personal history, unresolved issues. For example, if I am sitting opposite a client and notice sensations of anger, I need to be clear whether it is my own anger or that anger is in the room possibly coming from a client’s process.
**Maybe to the degree where the therapist-client experience Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” or what is called “relational depth” in some psychotherapeutic literature
There is no doubt about it, sport is lucrative business. For a country like the UK it also plays a huge part in our Nation’s identity. One only has to look at sporting participation data since the 2012 Olympics, the recent media coverage of the Commonwealth Games, and (much to my own delight) the crowds lining the roads for the 2014 Tour de France when it visited Yorkshire this July.
A lot of investment is made in improving athletic performance – time and money. British Cycling have coined the phrase ‘marginal gains’ to describe a process by which they leave no stone unturned to eek out the final percentages in an athlete’s capability. One example is how British cyclists have the same mattress transported to competition and training camps: the same bed = improved sleep quality. Every little effort made to enhance recovery time. And now these efforts aren’t being limited to the physiological or the nutritional – the two traditional inputs from sport science. Top class sport is turning more and more to an understanding of the mind. Most sporting governing bodies in the UK work with a team of sport psychologists now, and many individual athletes have a ‘head coach’ of some description or another. One of the most famous is Dr Steve Peters, brought in to work with British Cycling athletes over 10 years ago. What was headline grabbing about his appointment at the time was his being (not a sport psychologist but rather) a psychiatrist. Given the success of British Cycling (Vicky Pendleton, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy are but a few who have worked with the man behind ‘managing the inner chimp‘) Maybe it IS ‘good to talk’?
Certainly this has been my own experience – both as an athlete and then as a coach of athletes. During my six year career as a cyclist I worked with a professional who helped me to balance the various demands placed upon me. OK, I was not in the same realm as Pendleton, Wiggins and Hoy, but I would call myself a ‘semi-pro’ (as I moved to part-time work to pursue my cycling for 2 years). Balancing my training whilst still working was one pressure; wanting to be successful on the bike and in my academic career another; maintaining a relationship with a partner, friends and family but also fulfilling a training plan sometimes 25h+ per week – having someone who I could share how hard it got sometimes helped… a lot.
And it was this period that inspired me to take up coaching. Knowing the benefits of receiving help, I wanted to become the helper. Within a few months of shifting in to the role of cycling coach, it began to dawn on me that what really helped my athletes wasn’t the prescriptions of training power output or the calculations of optimal race pace from laboratory testing, rather it was my time, my presence, my listening to them – as Carl Rogers might describe it, it was simply ‘being a person’. I was doing quite naturally what I was to learn later in my therapeutic training – and this forged incredibly trusting 1-2-1 relationships with my athletes.
I’ve worked with a wide range of abilities: from novice ‘weekend warriors’ hoping to complete their first race, to full-time professionals aiming for selection at International level. What these athletes share is an immense motivation to succeed. In my experience, we can categorise this motivation in two camps:
- those that love the sport they compete in and simply want to express their athletic potential;
- those who need to achieve their targets by way of proving themselves (to themselves, to others)
This was reinforced when I watched the recent BBC documentary “How to win gold”. Sir Chris Hoy described his own path to Gold as well as interviewing several other top-step Olympians. I was struck by the extremes between rower Sir Steve Redgrave and cyclist Graham Obree. Redgrave apparently in the ‘want’ camp explained “you have to love what you do, or you won’t have the desire to do everything for the win”; Obree (notably a survivor of two suicide attempts) on the other hand described his motivation as a “fear of regret”. He went on to explain one of his World Championship wins as being down to his “willingness to die for it” – and there was not a sense of drama there, he deeply believed he was pushing his body to the extremes. Obree was describing a phenomenon I have seen many times not only in athletes but also in many high achievers: the need to accomplish to fill a void, to simply to feel they have a right to exist.
There will always be times when even the most passionate athlete gets jaded and the training life can feel like a chore. But for those athletes who are needing success, sporting accomplishment is a way to make up for something they feel they don’t have. Celebrated psychiatrist C.G. Jung would call this part of a shadow-side: certainly there is an inner struggle. Sir Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong – two athletes with estranged paternal relationships) are but two examples of success underpinned by a ‘fight with inner demons’ often cited in the media and sport psychology literature. Athletes with this inner struggle are those that will only be satiated by a win – they are fixated on the outcome. Those athletes with a healthier sense of self tend to be more engaged in the process – they are just as happy with a personal best performance even if that still means defeat.
Happy person but limited athlete?
This became a conundrum for me as a coach. When working with cyclists I was very aware of the inner struggles: and it would make me so sad to witness it. Yet I also knew it was the fuel keeping the desire to excel burning. So the question is – do athletes need an inner demon in order to reach the highest echelons of performance? Is a fight for survival critical? Whilst I would never advocate stirring up someone’s inner battle (the use of pre-race talk along the lines of “come on, prove them wrong”akin to kicking someone in the shins to make them angry) it begs the question as to whether performance is prioritised over psychological health. Or to put it another way, would the ‘fully actualised” human have the need to enter sport and seek every competitive gain?
I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, only one based on my experience. Where I have witnessed the inner demon as fuel, there was also a high incidence of self-sabotage. In other words, yes the need to perform well was a potent driver; but it was very often the cause of performance collapse at just the wrong moment. As if the ‘shadow-side’ was invested in staying intact. Our histories may be ones we fight against, but on some level there is comfort in the familiarity they offer. To give an example, we may have an athlete who keeps getting injured. Whether we consider Wilhelm Reich’s ideas on ‘body armour’, or Merleau-Ponty’s on ‘the lived body’ there is little doubt in Western psychotherapeutic theory that we carry emotional memory in the body. We probably all have some awareness of where we carry stress in our bodies – for me its in the upper back just under my shoulder blades: if I do too much cycling when stressed and anxious, I get referred pain in my lower back. An athlete with chronic psychological ‘blocks’ which are held in the body may well experience recurrent episodes of injury – and they will often appear at periods in the training cycle where physical form is looking good…surprise surprise, JUST when the expectations to succeed are mounting!
Can counselling and psychotherapy help athletes?
I believe yes, it can: if the word ‘help’ is placed in context of more harmonious relationships, decreased stress and depression, overall improved mental well-being resulting in longevity in sport. I have seen how mental issues restrict and constrict the performing athlete. It is wonderful to watch an athlete perform without the heavy burden of psychological ‘chains’.Psychological chains are a heavy burden, and that weight can slow us down – quite literally if “the lived body” makes us rigid (speaking as a physiologist now, we have to consider the oxygen cost that has and how it affects an athlete’s economy of movement?)
I often cite some of my most profound successes as a cycling coach were when I helped an athlete break free of the chains – even if this meant them leaving the sport. I love sport; it has been in my life ALL my life. I have made long-lasting friendships and learned a lot about my self through it. It has many amazing benefits socially and psychologically. However, I don’t believe in the pursuit of excellence we should encourage any kind of emotional imbalance – sport is JUST sport after all.
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