No, I’m not about to belt out The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper”: but there is an opportunity for reminiscing, and it might even make mention of “lonely hearts’ – we’ll see where my writing takes me. Twenty years ago this August, I completed my PhD; and in attending the Graduation ceremony for the students of our psychotherapeutic counselling and psychotherapy courses, much of that experience came flooding back. The very same venue (The Brighton Centre), the very same gown (complete with Beefeater floppy hat!), and a very different Helen. I’ve been on quite a journey since August 1998, much of which is documented here on this website: certainly the professional and career steps, but also some of the personal shifts that have been integral and parallel. Sitting in the auditorium, watching our students walk across the stage was a moving experience. I know their journey – or at least, I have experienced how they have changed and I can imagine (from my own version of that experience) what they must have been through. Each student has shared to lesser or greater extents how much they have had to open to the processes of unfolding, deconstructing and re-identifying themselves: so necessary as we take up the mantel of being a therapist. How else can we expect our clients to do so?
I was expecting such emotion to arise – pride and a quality of (what is the third of four “immeasurables” in Buddhism) sympathetic joy: the happiness in seeing the happiness of others. But I wasn’t quite ready for the emotional response to the presentation of the PhD awards. I didn’t know any of the Doctoral ‘graduands’, but I got that kind of feeling I often get when watching award presentations in sport as the newly crowned champion and runners-up step on to the podium. No personal connection, but a resonance all the same. It caught me by surprise – and then the anniversary of my own PhD came to mind. In my mind racing back to 20 years ago, I recognised that I didn’t have any kind of emotional response to my PhD graduation; I can’t say I had much reaction to hearing in the viva that I had successfully defended my thesis either. I do remember waking up the morning after in a haze of “what now?”: a void rather than any fulfilment or happiness. Perhaps underlying my tears last week was a sadness – a moment when I realised I didn’t feel able to connect to any kind of joy in obtaining my PhD.
There was a lot of joy last week, for one, sharing it with supportive teaching colleagues with whom I am also developing strong friendships.When I sent a photo of me pictured with my colleague Dwight to my wife, she commented on how visible that joy was in both of our faces. She contrasted it with how she remembered the photo from my graduation. At first I responded “Of course I am different, its 20 years ago!” with (I confess) a little recoil at having someone point out I am older and showing it! But no, she didn’t mean that “No, you look alive in this photo with Dwight”. In the graduation photo of 20 years ago she saw in my expression, in my eyes a lack of joy, an emptiness.
Last week, I started to explore with you the ideas from Gareth Hill’s text “Masculine and Feminine”, particularly those around the figure of 8 looping: the unity of the static feminine, the separation of the dynamic masculine, the integration of the static masculine, to the individuation of the dynamic feminine. In order to escape the patterning in my family, I recruited my intellect and took the academic path toward separation: this was my hero’s journey – going it alone and facing many trials. It was not a happy time in my life, and I felt the first seismic tremors of the wound that drove the need to separate. Using a physical analogy, the boil began to show at the surface of the skin, and I had NO idea there was an infection. I felt so lonely. Here I was, studying in a town that had previously been inhabited by friends on my degree course. I never considered that it was me that had chosen to stay – I felt in their leaving that they had deserted me.
The day after my viva, the emptiness – a natural movement towards a need to integrate. I got offered a post-doctorate position. It was quite the “fiery trial” that Hill describes, but it was not easy staying in Eastbourne: I was pleased to land a research position, but less keen on staying in the town where I had been experiencing the pain of loneliness. I threw myself in to the structure of academia: that structure held me, contained me – a life typifying the static masculine. No coincidence that I was surrounded by males: no surprise in an ego world of sport and science. I overcame my loneliness by becoming “one of the lads”.
It is interesting for me to be sitting here writing these words and reflecting on the 20 years. Hill’s model is helping me shape that journey. It is helping me understand how the past 20 years (well, perhaps 15 years as I wobbled out of the static masculine polarity via a career shift to semi-professional sport both as an athlete and then coach) have had me move toward the dynamic feminine. I’m in that territory now, mid-life. A client said to me this morning “I’m realising that I needn’t be anxious in all of this uncertainty, I could get excited instead” – goodness, that jolted me! Yes, it COULD be. The anxiety that often comes up in moments of experiencing space, not-knowing – it is also a world of potential.
At the weekend, I attended a teaching in Brighton with Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche – a much respected teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist Njingma lineage. He has been coming to Brighton annually to present the text “The Way of the Bodhisattva”, and this year’s focus was on Chapter 9 (out of 10), the paramita of “Wisdom”. These are the teachings on the View in Buddhism – to gain insight and glimpse the experience that no-thing has inherent existence. “Non-self” or the teachings on emptiness get a bad press – rather than pointing to “we don’t exist”, the View is actually pointing to “we don’t exist in the way we think we do” i.e. we are not separate and solid entities, but rather interconnected and fluid. Taking this in alongside “20 years and change”, I remembered another photo of me – again, another 20 years or so back. Still “Helen” but not the same. I have often felt sadness when I have looked at this photo of me – the innocence in concert with my presently held knowledge of what this little girl would have to go through in order to become an adult: to separate, integrate and now individuate. However, I look at this picture today and I understand there can be no other way: what other purpose in life but to unravel what it is to be human?
Writing blog posts such as this come from my Bodhisattva intention – in sharing my experience of unfolding, I hope that others might be encouraged to do something similar – to risk change, the fiery trials, the dark nights of the soul. I know my spiritual and psychotherapeutic paths have been invaluable in this; as have those mentors and friends who have accompanied me…and those who will in the future unfolding. Because this journey is not done!