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©.