This can be a comforting thought, in the midst of maelstrom and muddle. Queens, kings, tyrants and saints come and go. Plagues sweep the earth, the poor struggle, the rich accumulate.
Ancient iconographers knew this. Buddhism has its terrifying Bhavachakra, the medieval period its Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae).
The ancient triskell symbol, at least 5,000 years old, seems to be in perpetual motion, patterns repeating endlessly.
Our ancestors gathered resources, worried about how to divide them, had progeny then worried how to support them. Worried about how folk would manage when they were dead. Who would bring in the crops, who would sort out everything they left behind? And yet somehow life rolls on, millennia after century after decade after year.
I wonder what those ancestors would say to us, if they were observing us caught in the intricacies and struggles of daily life? I wonder what wisdom they would impart, after the blessing of centuries passing? If strong family values get contextualised around impermanence? Would they translate “You must work hard” into “Work hard at loving, helping, growing.” If “Be good, fit in” becomes “Be good to yourself and your neighbours, question what seems injust.”
Or would they be encouraging us to do more, get more, keep racing on? I like to think not, I like to think that time gives perspective. A magnified version of the research that Bronnie Ware conducted that concluded that the top 5 regrets of the dying were:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
I wonder if taking more of a bird’s eye view of the passing of time can help us contextualise our worries, see the universality of our patterns, and maybe allow us some space to look at what, ultimately, really matters for us, our loved ones, and our planet.
I get asked this a lot and thought it might be useful to write a little something on it.
“I don’t know how to be, what should I be like?”
There’s sometimes a desperation in the question, a desire for the therapist to give a definitive answer. Any answer.
It is not for us as therapists to decide how someone should be. If we were to, we would be drawing on our opinions, which in turn are shaped by the society we live in, with all the historical, political, psychological shaping that has gone on over millenia. It wouldn’t even endly be our opinion.
But we’re social creatures and it can be so important to know we are “fitting in” “doing it right”, especially if we are prone to feeling judged or shamed, by parts of ourselves or by others in the present or past.
Maybe our use as therapist is in refining the question.
How much do I want to fit in? What morals should I adopt and should those be mine or society’s? How introvert / extrovert should I be? What should I wear? How pious, individual, amusing, self centred, selfish, weird, noisy, colourful, quirky, compliant, caring, militant should I be? Where is my comfort, and where can I push a little to explore other ways of being?
As a therapist, my job is to walk along side you as you begin to work this out for yourself and to provide a safe space for you to try on being different and reflect on how this is for you.
Therapy is tough. You give yourself a space to work with yourself, sit with difficult feelings, memories, character traits, coping mechanisms. And sometimes the last thing you want to do is work on yourself precisely because it can hurt and be deeply uncomfortable. Some days it just feels like too much. What do you do on those days? You’ve paid. You’ve committed to your therapist you’ll be there. You could just write the session off. Make an excuse. Not show. And of course, that’s fine.
But what if, instead, you turn up for your session and explain how you feel? That can be an amazing moment, to realise you have the courage, the committment, the respect for the therapeutic relationship, and trust that your difficult feelings will be acknowledged, respected, and held. And, quite often, it is in these sessions that the biggest shifts occur. You’re challenging previous patterns of avoidance, or feeling you will be overwhelmed by your own pain. And in expressing this a therapist can really help you tune in to what you need from that session, what is tolerable or healing for you. You have showed up for yourself and hopefully will experience getting what you need through that.
What would it be like to show up for yourself more often?
Anyone who knows me may be shocked seeing that title, because, it is a truth universally acknowledged (by me) that everything Bowie did or said can be construed as gospel. Yes, even the Laughing Gnome. Except for this conditional, time limited lyric. It made me cross today as I heard it with new ears and a challenge in my heart.
Our notion of heroes come from oral traditions, literature and film. The Mabinogion, Odessy, Gilgamesh, biblical epics, Lord of the Rings, Matrix… Heroes’ journeys aplenty.
These works hold a mirror to our own inner explorations and we are gripped by the hero’s development, willing a good outcome in terms of monsters slayed, swords presented, happy ever afters.
But aren’t we heroic, too, day to day?
I was thinking. About my clients, my friends, my family. And what they deal with every day. The intricacies of negotiating relationships. Committment to employers, spouses, parents, teachers. Looking after the material stuff we accrue: houses, cars, pets, socks. Not to mention dealing with the internal roiling mess of thoughts and emotions that churn around breaking the surface like a Beowulfian (scary) monster. And global pandemics, environmental crises, political buffonery, injustices everywhichway you turn. The sheer bloody hard work of being a human.
And I was thinking about the attitudes and responses of the people I know. Stoicism, getting up in the morning and keeping on keeping on. Meeting challenges with creativity and good grace; finding humour in the darkest of situations.
And the support I see people offer each other, allowing space for grumbles, tears, outright outbursts. Gentle check ins. Offers of help. Even when things are incredibly difficult people manage kindness and courtesy to others. It is quite beautiful to witness.
We may not be slaying giant spiders or blinding Cyclops on a Tuesday afternoon. We may not be “heroic” public service workers or in line for a Nobel Peace prize. But we are alive and attempting to engage in being here, now. And sometimes that can feel like a gargantuan act. Brushing your teeth in the morning, answering that email, feeding the cat, saving that worm, letting someone out at a junction. All acts of being alive, all epic in their own way.
Don’t be taken in by Bowie’s anthemised platitude. We are heroes every day, in the epic scope of our individual and collective lives.
Echoing around our world, everywhere we look, every wellbeing site, every trip to the doctor one hears about, every bookshop, every conversation with friends, I encounter the words “self care”. And with them an array of suggestions, and reactions. Sometimes I think that if I hear or say those words One More Time I will explode into a million pieces that all the yoga and sour dough in the world wouldn’t be able to put back together again.
How is it even possible that we have got to a point in our development as a society that we have to be told or reminded by others to do things that we enjoy as an antidote to the stresses of life?
Why do we have to be told by a doctor to go out and run? Or take up yoga? Why as therapists are we having to advocate for pauses, breathing, reconnecting with nature? Why are we having to be reminded by our friends that we enjoy knitting and maybe it would be a good idea to start a new project?
What has happened that we need other people to tell us to do the things we enjoy and from which we derive pleasure? Things that people have been doing since time immemorial, naturally. The normal, wonderful hobbies and activities that should be so ingrained in our lives that they barely need commenting on.
What is going on that people are now feeling pressured and burdened by “self care”…that they are doing it wrong, or not enough! Oh the irony…
I am not sure I have got any answers to these questions. But here goes, and of course I am open to further debate on this matter.
As a society, as individuals, maybe we have lost the ability to self regulate. Work has become all consuming, and you either stay on the train which runs on constant reviews and late night urgent emails, or you burn out and face the economic, health, and social consequences.
How hard it is to ignore that message from your friend when you are also cooking tea and trying to get your Easyjet refund? And almost impossible to avoid the hypervigilant drama of the world’s trauma, piped into our very hands 24/7. Brexit, BLM, environmental disaster, Sudan, Yemen, and, the cherry on the icing on the top, our good friend Covid-19.
Is it even possible to maintain an equilibrium, a healthy relationship between ourselves and the world, when our body, minds and souls are hyperware and primed for the next threat?
So maybe that is why we need others to tell us to look after ourselves. Because others see our needs more clearly than we can. Because we are primed to react to others. It is easier to see the drama, trauma, needs of others as they play our before our eyes than to witness our own drama. Hence the burnout doctors, the compassion fatigued therapists, the stressed executives. All helping others and suffering for it.
Maybe we need to relearn to pause, look inwards, and ask ourselves, “What do I need now? What is right and natural and nurturing for me to do in this moment to invite balance into my life?”
Maybe we need to care less about every news story. Contentious. Of course, I do not mean not to care. But we cannot save every refugee personally, we cannot take on governments individually.
We do need to take personal responsibility. Sign petitions, reduce our comsumption, check deeply our beliefs and explore and educate where we fall short – both our selves and others.
We might want to try to contribute to society (as much as we personally can manage) through our work (of whatever nature) and relationships with others.
We might want to try to maintain compassion for the world’s problems, and try to carry a hope that we can make things better.
But this needs to happen at the same time as keeping ourselves well. I love the Buddhist way of thinking. When you feed your cat, send a wish that all cats will be fed. When you feel content, send a thought for all beings to be content. When you appreciate your democracy, send a prayer for all beings to live in relative freedom. Compassion for all beings, and an appreciation of your own fortune.
This in itself is an (ahem) self care practice. It also, I think, sets up an internal motivation to be useful, where possible, within the bounds of our ability to respond.
If we are feeling strong and well, maybe we will have more time to fundraise for refugee charities, or aim for a promotion to use our skills and experience for our satisfaction and the good of others.
What do you reckon? Is it time to take more personal responsiblity for self regulation? Is it possible? What would need to happen for us all to get to a place where we know how to balance our own lives? Can we get to a place where we understand the boundaries between us and the world and know our ability to respond without needing the doctor to tell us to go for a run?
Tomorrow is Halloween. Tomorrow evening I will be counselling, in a room on a street where trick or treaters roam, oblivious to social norms, hungry for sugar. I am anxious.Not because of the costumes and commercialised terror. But what will happen if they approach and do not heed the note on my door? “Do not Disturb” my sign reads. It usually works. Sometimes an over enthusiastic Amazon delivery person ignores it in their mission to deliver at all costs. I am not sure it will be enough to deter a herd of drooling zombies or cute witches.
I have already primed my clients and offered alternative time slots. For those who choose to run the gamut, what might happen if the knock at the door comes? Well, I guess we’ll bring it into the room as always. I won’t be moving from my chair! Maybe it will bring up issues of interruption, not getting full attention, not being first priority. It might bring up fears, nightmares, hidden shadows of the soul. Or memories of Halloweens past. Discussion of belief systems. Commercialism. What happens after death.
And for me? It is making me consider the space I provide for clients. Can I keep it safe and boundaried? How do I manage unexpected events? What does Halloween bring up for me? Am I open to all eventualities and primed to go with client experience?
Halloween was always about the space between worlds, and it seems tomorrow it will be, for me, more intensely than usual, about the therapeutic space between the external and the internal.
When I was younger I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read stuff, volunteered on digs in all weathers, in the middle of nowhere… Then someone told me being an archaeologist was a labour of love and most time was spent in an office…so I became a counsellor instead.
But I still drag those around me off, frequently, to wonderful places (or “another pile of rocks in a field”) and love to muse on the significance of these resilient structures.
At Cerrig y Gof in Pembrokeshire recently we met a team making sense of Wales’ megaliths through writing, drawing and filming. And they fired up in me that feeling I had so strongly as a teenager: that I should have pursued archaeology.
It didn’t want to subside, that feeling, but sitting with it I noticed it change and unfurl like the Welsh bracken, and finally unfolded the pleasant realisation that I am sort of, a little bit, like an archaeologist.
I sit in my office surrounded by papers and theories, clues and hints. And I make forays into connecting with complex structures, clearing a way gently to reveal the shape, orientation, wondering “what lies beneath”. Wondering about connections to similar types, wondering what belief systems shaped them, how they fit in the local and universal landscape. Wondering even whether now is the time to clear a path to them or whether actually, the feeling is to let alone for a while and peruse from afar, make tentative connections. Sometimes brambles and nettles are a necessary protection.
Some clients I am with for months and years, and the relationship becomes rich and deep, constantly evolving, throwing up surprising finds.
Sometimes the engagement is more fleeting – we get a general sense of shape, an outline, some features better understood, but no necessity for deeper exploration.
Sometimes I make mistakes, don’t see the way clearly, encounter a new feature and fail to understand it.
But every encounter helps me better understand the territory of human experience, just like an archaeologist, and shapes me.
I love this place. It’s “just” a little bay, somewhere in Wales. Going there expands me. Thinking about it expands me, relaxes me, releases dopamine. But I don’t go there very often. So how come it is so important to me? When we visit places, we internalise them. A potent mixture received by the senses imprints itself as a memory. Good or bad. In this case, the smell of beach fires, the sound of tiny waves, the feel of slate on my feet, the taste of salty water and the sight of – well, just look at that image.
I offer you to think about your favourite place. Go there in your mind now. Gently consider how it stimulates your senses. Enjoy any feelings of peace or release or awe or safety. Sit in those feelings until you are full up.
You can recall this place whenever you need to, and counteract negative feelings knowing you can generate positive, supporting ones.
I’d love to hear about your special places if you’d like to share!
I like sign-posts. Strange but true. I like the implication of choice, journey, mystery. And sometimes comfort. In a fit of creativity my children and I made a sign post yesterday. Unlike some of our craft projects, it turned out well and we were all very satisifed. It was a democratic project – we all got to choose mythical places that meant something to us. We all helped.
And we all recognised that although our choices were different, they were all valid and meaningful to the chooser.
Here’s another signpost I found, mossy and mysterious, in a piece of ancient woodland in Wales.
I like the ambiguity. It is not giving much away about destination. These tracks are definitely about the journey and not the goal.
I wonder what your personal signpost would look like? What would it say about you? Would you be happy about your initial ideas or want to change it?