Loosening the knot

Loosening the knot

Coaching tends to have a reputation for pushing; pushing an athlete to exceed their personal best, for example, or pushing someone to focus on and fulfil an aspiration. This reputation is well-deserved. When relationships are skilfully task-focussed, a great deal can be achieved for one or more participants.

This reputation can put us off, though, and we may be right. It is not so much that we don’t want or need to develop, but that we sense that our development will be better served on this occasion by our staying roughly where we are for a while. Development is not always a relentless pull in one direction.

At times we need to look around; tease apart the obvious and tough issues and peer through at what hides in the spaces between.

I sometimes think of “loosening the knot”. No change is possible until the tension is off. Loosen the knot so you can better understand it; see where the strands wind around each other, where they come from and where they go, and what may be glimpsed between them. You can put more effort in once you are confident that it won’t just retighten the knot as it was before. Or you could back-track more, revise relationships, add, subtract, retie, or undo the knot entirely and start afresh.

If you understand your circumstances, your resources, and your values, you are in a better position to make decisions and put your energies where, unequivocally, you need them to be.

So, be clear. Coaching can help you clarify and revise your goals. You don’t always need clear goals at the outset, to benefit from coaching.

This is posted for DevelopmentalConversations

A first version of this piece was posted on Linkedin in 26/7/21

Autumn and Parting

Autumn and Parting

@occidens pointed out to me a while ago whilst walking through a wood that if a branch of a tree breaks during the summer when the leaves are fully out and green, the leaves do not fall but wither on the branch and stay there. When it comes to autumn and all the other deciduous leaves change colour and fall, these dried up dead leaves stay on the dead branch.

What this says to me is that when trees lose their leaves in the autumn it is an active process, not a passive one. It is part of living, and the letting go of the leaves is a living act. The tree clearly has to take steps to prepare – and release the leaves.

It is worth remembering this. when it comes to loss.

It recalls the film Truly Madly Deeply in which the bereaved protagonist has to actively let her husband go – almost drive him away – in order to be freed from the ghost of his presence lingering on like those dried up leaves.

Autumn reminds us that loss can be a beautiful thing. It is part of life and it enables new growth.

Reaching Across The Divide

Here is a sort of précis / romp through this piece I wrote a year ago for Thresholds – a BACP quarterly that addresses spiritual issues in counselling and psychotherapy. The article sprang from our efforts, early in the Coronavirus pandemic, to manage therapeutic contact across video-conferencing platforms. I was struck by my and others’ experience of finding the process particularly effortful and was led to reflect on the difference between this medium and the “real life” analogue situation, and to explore how it might shed light on what goes on in the latter (hitherto much commoner) setting.

I contend that the digital medium favours content over process whilst psychotherapy relies on content in the process which may therefore be lost, or at least harder to apprehend. The issue of timing, in particular, is important in communication; minute hesitations can say so much in the real world, but may be put down to latency when on-line. The platform algorithm, selecting which video of moving mouth parts to patch onto which bit of compressed speech, and often arbitrarily promoting one speaker over another, I liken to an enthusiastic and naïve co-worker in the therapy room.

This technological solution to the problem of being together during a pandemic brings obstacles to communication which I liken to the concrete obstacles that had to be overcome by adherents of non-conformist churches meeting together in Britain in the 17th century. This comparison, in turn, leads me to reflect on the common ground between psychotherapy and religion; a conviction of reality and benefit on the inside, struggling with an external demand for sufficient “evidence” to satisfy a sceptical audience.

I conclude (via yet another analogy drawn this time from marine biology) that when humans communicate, factual content has to be accompanied by some animating essence that I decide to call animus.

Bit of a stretch? Nah! But sorry; if this has whetted your appetite, you will have to get through the paywall.

Return to AFW in print

Keeping Intelligence in the Clinical Encounter

Keeping Intelligence in the Clinical Encounter

You may wonder why it has taken me this long to get around to reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter. I blame the conditions at the coal-face. It is brilliant stuff. On page 26 of the 20th Anniversary edition by Penguin (2000), after an introduction to strange loops in music, art, and mathematics, the author turns to intelligence and the abilities that are essential for it to pertain. I précis the section slightly:

Essential for intelligence are the ability to:

  • respond to situations very flexibly
  • take advantage of fortuitous circumstances
  • make sense of ambiguous or contradictory messages
  • recognize the relative importance of different elements of a situation
  • find similarities between situations despite differences which may separate them
  • draw distinctions between situations despite similarities which may link them
  • synthesize new concepts by taking old ones and putting them together in new ways
  • come up with ideas which are novel

Of interest to me here are not the limits of artificial intelligence, but how much these abilities are utterly intrinsic to the job of a therapist. Hardly surprising, one might say, since therapists are human.

But let’s look again, and reflect on the extent to which mental health work is being encouraged to follow practices that blunt or neglect these abilities.

Above is a list of things that questionnaires, categories, proformas, and protocols are bad at.

Therapeutic Attitude, therefore, is the attitude that insists on retaining intelligence in the clinical encounter.

Home page: https://afwest.com/

Vortex Management

Vortex Management

I have often thought about the vortex. It has been a vivid metaphor for that mood state that exerts a powerful pull and encompasses fatal peril, nameless dread, the unspoken, and unimaginable hopelessness.

The capital V provides the graphic.

Much of my life I have been blessed with a grandiosity and/or ignorance that has meant that skating across the edge of the vortex seemed more of a thrill than a danger. It has been possible for me to look in as I skirt the lip, my own velocity enough to ensure safety. I could even lend my confidence to others and act as a guide on those treacherous slopes.

But that energy wanes. Experience chips away at the assumption of safety. My sense of balance admits a hint of wobble…

So my awareness of vortex management has come to include more conscientious thinking and practice.

We differ in our relationship with the vortex, no doubt depending on our temperaments, experience, and circumstances:

  1. Some look the other way. This often works. Perhaps, by not seeing the possibility, the risk of vertigo is reduced. Unconscious awareness and a subtle lure my nevertheless remain. Whether one stumbles backwards into an abyss of which one had no knowledge, or one flings oneself backwards into something that has been kept in suppressed consciousness; either way, it comes as a total shock to the conscious mind.
  2. Others are all too aware and spend much of their time and energy marching or scrambling away from it – for the most part successfully, but sometimes not, and perhaps always only partially so.
  3. My approach for many years was, as I put it above, to skate across the lip. This brings to mind the “slingshot” used by spacecraft. If I have understood this correctly, the gravitational pull of a celestial body may be exploited to develop acceleration and turn directional into angular momentum. The vortex can actually be used as a means of changing direction. This requires considerable confidence and panache. Surely, there must remain a risk of miscalculation and a plummet into the core.
  4. Finally (though do, please, add to this list) there is the skill of staying still.

I have been developing this skill. The current pandemic, with its erasing of the horizon and its repeated and protracted limbo states of lockdown can be held largely responsible, but my recent emergence from the institutionalisation of public sector employment must also figure. I suppose that, as I slow down, I can no longer rely on my ability to maintain an escape velocity. So I have learned some new tricks. I have learned not to lean away from the abyss, thereby keeping my centre of gravity over my feet with closer attention to the friction between feet and funnel.

(You can tell when a metaphor is getting desperate, because it starts to thrash around.)

I acknowledge the existence of the vortex and its pull, but I weigh against it my own resources, and most importantly this includes an ability to separate what is happening from what I fear might happen.

At that point I pause and reflect. If I can separate the actual from the feared, surely I can notice that this is not a vortex at all. That was a vivid metaphor, and useful up to a point, but the truth of the matter is that I am not falling; I am afraid.

Not falling; simply afraid. This helps because I have been afraid before, and I have learned that, if I can prevent myself from running away, the fear passes.

I have retained the term, though: vortex management. It seems a suitable label for what is going on at those times, and it reminds me that there is something I can do about it.

Home Page: Therapeutic Attitude

The Pain of the Wronged World

The Pain of the Wronged World

Here are two fragments of text. Each is there to comfort you if you are put off by the language of the other.

Elio Vittorini

Elio Vittorini was an Italian Communist, born in Sicily in 1908. The translator Alane Salierno Mason points to Vittorini’s conception of the novel as an art form akin to music – specifically opera. Music is a medium capable of taking us past words and into a non-partisan realm. In his posthumously published novel Conversations in Sicily his protagonist starts,

“…in the grip of abstract furies….not heroic, not living…furies for all doomed humanity.

On the spur of the moment he sets out for his home village to see his mother, whose birthday it is. This proves to be something of an Odyssey during which he is welcomed by a group of men who bemoan the fact that,

“The world is big and it is beautiful, but it has been badly wronged. Everyone suffers each for himself, but not for the world that has been wronged and so it continues to be wronged.”

These men applaud our protagonist’s suffering with a phrase that becomes a sort of chorus:

He suffers the pain of the wronged world.”

Lighting a cigarette as he leaves his mother’s house, he remembers, and starts to weep. He walks through the village weeping and, gradually, the villagers follow him:

‘Why are you crying?’ They asked. But I had no response to give them. I wasn’t crying for any reason. Deep down I wasn’t even crying; I was remembering.  


L. Violet Holdsworth

L. Violet Holdsworth, née Hodgkin, (1869-1954) was an English Quaker. Amongst her many writings is the following passage from Seas of the Moon (1940) quoted in the 1960 “Blue” version of Quaker Faith and Practice (©1969 London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends):

Perhaps [in ageing] our other powers are being taken away from us to teach us to trust more to our prayer-wings, and to pray, pray for the needs of the whole world with an urgency unknown in earlier days, when our longings were more circumscribed by our immediate horizon. We can pray now, or rather we can try to let prayer stream through us, knowing that our prayer is not ours alone…”


In Being With and Saying Goodbye I describe myself as a “moderately aggressive agnostic”. I am not someone who uses the word “prayer” – one has to somehow avoid alienating either side of the religious coin – but I am taken by the ground shared by these texts, and by the hope of a redemptive power in collective grief, compassion, expression, and the virtue of being open to the pain of the wronged world.

Here I am, then, with youthful powers gradually reducing, hoping that in some way I can contribute to a healing so much vaster than myself. I wonder if this is what Therapeutic Attitude might look like, applied beyond the individual, to a collective suffering.

In the middle of your life

In the middle of your life

The future can easily look bleak and, when it does, motivation to move forwards can be noticeably lacking. There is no end of self-help stuff around and I am not about to rehearse or list self-help strategies now. Here I am interested in attitude, rather than strategy or instruction. And one aspect of attitude is perspective. When feeling a bit stuck, it can help to consider my position and my present perspective.

One perspective caught my ear in a short spoken piece on sitting meditation and has stayed with me since. Ed Brown is a Zen priest whose delivery is simple and clear. On the CD that accompanies a small introduction to meditation Quiet Mind he describes a sitting posture for Zen meditation. I can’t lay my hands on the CD at the moment, so what follows is from my recollection.

When he has concluded his description of posture he says, “This is a really good position in which to sit, right in the middle of your life”.

This is the bit that caught me. I have listened to it many times since and thought about it many times more.

Up until then the metaphor for my life had me stationed at the prow of ship as it cleaved the waves. This is fine when everything is going well, but when the ship has shrunk to a coracle and is not forging ahead, it is not such an inspiring image.

Perhaps we are at a disadvantage with our eyes at the front of our heads. I wonder if raptors get anxious or depressed when they are not on the chase. Alternatively, perhaps it is to do with the dominance of vision in our lives. With my eyes shut I realise that space is equally distributed around me. Sound, smell, and general sense of being are all around, not only in front.

And when I come to think of it, my life is all around me. There are cultures, I believe, where the dominant idea is that people travel through time facing backwards, as it were, watching their increasingly rich and diverse past fanning out behind. I can’t say that I would particularly want to swap my cultural perspective for that one, but when I am inclined to an idea of the future as a sharply focussed cone in front of my face, what do I do when it is poorly focussed or empty?

So here I am, right in the middle of my life. Not nearing the end. Not with a past forever buried or dwindling to an invisible and unreachable speck. Not in a dinghy drifting to a standstill with a fading wake the only thing to show for my progress. There is change, but no linearity. Am I growing like an onion from the inside, adding layers? Or am I a benign black hole, drawing experience into me from all directions, so that I gather in density at my core?

And I need not develop the image at all, but it repeatedly feels to me that this shift of perspective offers the attitudinal change I need.

Back to Home

Therapeutic Chess… or… When the engineering analogy breaks down

Therapeutic Chess… or… When the engineering analogy breaks down

This Christmas a three-player chess-set was given as a present and we had a game. It was a fascinating experience. I am not a great chess-player. As someone said to me recently, I always have the sense that my opponent has some far-reaching grand scheme that I unequivocally lack. This hexagonal chess board reduced the three of us to very similar levels of ineptitude as we reminded and re-reminded ourselves and each other which squares the pawn could take, how many bent diagonals were currently open to the queen, and the oddly straight knight’s move.

But that was not all. We found how hard it was to build any strategy when the person you took to be your opponent for the last two moves turns out to be an ally. The rules (one version, at least) spell out that, if you fail to take available steps to prevent a checkmate, you lose. And yet no checkmate that we encountered in two days of playing was achieved without the effective, if inadvertent, collusion of the other player.

We have been raised with a firm understanding that the triangle is the most stable structure. And yet, with this game, we found ourselves unseated from a stable, albeit viciously confrontational, dyadic structure into a disorienting dream world in which familiar shapes abounded but relationships flickered constantly and with bewildering rapidity. Chess had changed.

It seems that however important the triangle may be in the creation of stability and rigidity in the physical world in the world of interpersonal dynamics they represent a massive step into instability.

Our first relationships are with one Other (even if based on a misunderstanding about the identity and composition of that other) and I suggest that we would happily have it stay that way provided the Other remains committed and continues to come up with what we need. We often use a metaphorical third party to stabilize the dyad (you and me against the world) but the truth of the matter is that the world inexorably introduces genuine third parties with agency and their own urges to combine forces. What is more, the Other we have got used to fails, from time to time, to come up with the goods, we develop our own roving eye and the world, for evermore, is a place of unstable triads.

Or, if you prefer, the world is for evermore a stable-ish scenario of constant flickering transitions as triads configure and reconfigure. This is the world we found ourselves in with three-sided chess. It was initially disconcerting but, once the unfamiliarity was overcome, a new relief settled in. We found that the bitter paranoia of being in the lonely position was always momentary and was replaced by a higher-level sense of everyone being equally and temporarily both in a dyad, and in relationship with a dyad. Rigidity had actually been the problem; This idea that I am rubbish at chess, for example, or the constant search for a chess partner exactly like me.

This set could be sold as Therapeutic Chess …. and triangles rock.

Reaching Across and Introducing Animus

Reaching Across and Introducing Animus

The last nine Covid months have been weird. They have felt relatively unproductive, and yet I think something intangible or indefinite has happened. I think a great deal has been processing in the background. In the foreground, so to speak, one of the things I did was to write a piece for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy in which I try, rather ambitiously, to set out what remote working has taught me about therapeutic process – or “being with”.

I attach a link to the pdf below and invite you to read it whilst respecting copyright. Here, though, are two essential points:

  1. I talk about content and process and assert that video conferencing platforms favour content at the expense of process. I give examples of how timing is messed with and non verbal material is sacrificed so that verbal content can be transmitted as intact as possible. But I acknowledge that the distinction between the two is not absolute or clear. “Which is the content and which the process, for example, when a mother and a baby look at one another?” The therapist looks for the content in the process. I believe this is one important reason for the increased effort needed to carry out certain categories of conversation when the participants are “remote”: How to be with someone when you can’t actually be with them.
  2. I invite the reader to an exploratory use of the idea of animus. I use this word, not in the gendered sense that Jung used it, nor in the sense of aggressive urge, but to denote that which gives life to or animates our utterance. If what I have to say to you is to reach you, and if you are to appreciate it in a holistic sense – ie not simply the overt content but also the content embedded in process – then it must reach you with its animus intact. Human contact is a living process. This, I believe, is something that the video conferencing platform with its binary coding, simplistic algorithms, and bias in favour of verbal content, cannot yet achieve.
The article provided here in pdf form appears in the October 2020 issue of Thresholds, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/thresholds/ BACP 2020©.

Two Stories About Jade

Two Stories About Jade

I was told these stories as a child. Looking back now I think they nearly summarise my approach to teaching.

The first tale was given to a group of us at junior school by the Bishop of Hereford.
A man wanted to become a connoisseur and collector of jade. One particular teacher came very highly recommended by his friend, so the man went to see him. He was welcomed, shown to a room and sat in front of a small piece of jade. The teacher left him there, returning an hour later to collect the piece of jade and his fee, and to bid our protagonist goodbye. This happened the next day and the next. Several weeks later the man bumped into his friend who asked how the lessons were going. “Appalling!” he replied, “He just leaves me alone in the room in front of a piece of jade for an hour. Doesn’t even say a word. And to add insult to injury, this morning it wasn’t even good quality jade!”

The other story my father liked to re-tell from the diaries of the diplomat Harold Nicholson. Nicholson was sat next to a Chinese official at a meal and was told, “In my country we have a proverb – Better a tile, intact, than a broken piece of jade.” “That is an excellent proverb” said Nicholson, writing it in his notebook. When he had done so he found his interlocutor frowning, “Or, maybe I have the proverb wrong. I think perhaps it is – Better a broken piece of jade than a tile intact.” “That, too, is an excellent proverb.” said the diplomat, “I shall write that down as well”.

I thought I should follow the example of the Bishop who, I can see now, was practising and preaching the same thing – at least on that occasion, but ending the blog at that point would no doubt results in a bemused reader, so here is my translation:

The Bishop’s point is that teaching is more effective if it is implicit. The man became an expert – he became something he had not been before. Had he been instructed by an explicit, content-based approach, he would have remained the same as before, just with some extra information. I did think I might do the same, and leave these stories suspended, but the required repetition and exposure (and in psychoanalytic terms the frustration tension) would have been missing; You would have had to sit with my blog for a few weeks.

The second story is, for me, about the nature of knowledge. Certainty is attractive but illusory, but the fact that the certainty is illusory does not make the information any less useful. In fact it makes it more useful by virtue of being more flexible. Secondly, apparently mutually exclusive opposites, far from being a problem, are what makes the world go around. The story is explicitly about whether it is substance or form that determines quality. That would be the explicit, content-based message – the substance, but it is the process, or form, that interests me more. Either that, or the flickering ambiguity that oscillates my attention between the two and leaves me suspended in a sort of pleasurable trance of unknowing.

Home Page: Therapeutic Attitude