We live in a world of unpredictable change. It is a breeding ground for insecurity and anxiety. Recently, after a period of stability and safety in my personal life, I faced a number of uncertainties. I wasn’t sure what to expect in some of my life experiences, yet I was certain that some of the things I did not want to experience would happen. I found myself in the domain of calculating, worrying, and ruminating that describe the debilitating feelings of anxiety. Overthinking was my attempt to gain a result I knew I had no control over and buying into a mindset that I could change the ending. To make the overthinking more tangible I fiercely journaled and mind mapped all the possibilities and consequences for more informed decision making. I sought refuge with my own counsellor.
My worrying was an illogical process that concentrated on a pointless longing for a defined outcome.
Yuval Noah Harari invites us to consider what would happen if we developed a computer programme that forecasted with 100% accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? He tells us that the price would immediately react to the forecast and that the forecasted price would consequently fail to materialise. If the current price of oil was $90 a barrel and the programme predicted tomorrow it would be $100 there would be a rush to buy the oil today so that a profit could be gained (Sapiens 2011:268). Such systems like these are chaotic with many forces at work and their interactions so complex it becomes difficult to be deterministic to predict an outcome that had any real truth.
It is difficult to be deterministic because behind these systems there is always human behaviour, and the nature of being human is to be chaotic and complex. Human reaction is uncertain rather than certain. This is true even when we think we are being certain about something.
The outcome of the latest lifting of Covid restrictions is to be determined by the consequences of how people will react. Personal responsibility is the terminology used to describe a hopeful system. It remains uncertain who and how many of us will take personal responsibility, and to what degree. Therefore, the certainty of our freedom from ongoing restrictions cannot be predicted. Should the hopeful consequences not materialise, we will hold the system, rather than personal responsibility accountable. It is with some certainty that I say most human beings want to get back to pre-pandemic normality. Yet it is also certain that what was normal has become uncertain in most of our lives. Uncertainty is here to stay. Rather normality has always been uncertain, and is a truth to be accepted.
Everything you have is uncertain. Your job, relationships, money, health. You may think that if you have these things in your life, that they are certain. We have come to learn that anything and everything can change in an instant. To a very large degree the interplay between certainty and uncertainty are out of our control, and the angst of rumination is futile. Even if the only thing we can be sure with any real certainty is that one day we will die; there is no degree of certainty as to when that will happen. What if we developed a computer programme much like the one we would like to develop to predict oil prices? This one would predict with certainty the age or date of each of our death? We would react to that forecast and either get uber-healthy or have a last-ditch hurrah. Either way the forecast would fail to materialise as death has the potential to be postponed or hastened on, depending upon your reaction, and the choices you make.
People come to counselling because something in their lives feel uncertain, they have lost some control over an aspect of their living. They seek stability, reassurance, and clarity. They talk of behaviours and decisions that were an attempt to control an outcome and has left them increasingly confused and disorientated. For some people uncertainty and doubt lead to choices that result in illness and dis-ease, loss of relationships and livelihood.
Conversely, it can be true that uncertainty offers opportunity for growth and learning but this guidance is not to embrace uncertainty with a passion that dismisses the debilitating effects of anxiety. I rarely advocate spinning a positive out of a situation that is causing doubt. My role as a counsellor is not to give certainty nor is it to change the feeling of uncertainty. I do, however, advocate an acceptance of the truth, the reality of a situation as it is in the present moment. I am reminded by what Eckhart Tolle believed. The worry that something might happen, rather than what is happening now, is the cause of much anxiety. We are unable to cope with a mind projection and the ideas that we create of our future. Therefore all we have is the present – the here a now (Tolle; 2005). This is where we can be free. In the now, the present moment, problems do not exist, and we are complete and perfect.
Think about that which has troubled you recently – what turned out to be well founded causes for concern and what became unjustified?
Create two lists of those things that you believe to be certain in your life and those that, to you, feel uncertain.
Now consider this:
What if what was certain became uncertain?
What if what was uncertain became certain?
Consider this present moment – the here and now – do you feel safe in this moment? What do you need right now?
Not a very appealing title. I wanted to catch your attention. Reader now that I have it I must tell you that the above is quoted to be William Morris (1834 – 1896). Morris was a designer, poet, novelist, and social activist. He moved with the pre-Raphaelite group of Rossetti and Burne-Jones from which emerged the Victorian arts and crafts movement. The movement emerged from a reaction against a decline in standards, a criticism of the overly ornate, artificial, and ignorant, and a reconnection between design and creation. Thinking ahead of his time, Morris’ quote was guidance against the consumer trend of finding satisfaction in the things we need to have regardless of use, longevity, or beauty.
Have you heard the tune by Arcade Fire called Everything Now? You know it? I am surprised and what great taste you have. It’s a catchy tune, yet somewhat innocuous. A tune that washes over you without much attention paid to it. Except your body will move to it, or you find yourself tapping your fingers on the steering wheel not really paying much attention. At the very least you sung along to the la la la’s towards the end of the tune?
Don’t disappoint me, of course you did!
The tune is not the important bit, but oh those lyrics – they read like poetry to me!
And every room in my house Is filled with shit I couldn’t live without (Everything now!) I need it (Everything now!) I can’t live without (Everything now!) I can’t live (Everything now!) Every inch of space in my heart Is filled with something I’ll never start.
The ashes of everything now And then you’re black again Can’t make it back again From everything now
This is a song about striving to have everything, yet ending up with nothing, and not finding satisfaction in the things you need to have. The song reminds me that knowing what you want to have results in abandoning some more important relationships and innate values. Whilst all the while pretending that you are having a good life because you have “things.” When you focus on the external, you by consequence, neglect yourself.
We all own a lot of stuff. Belongings, artefacts, memorabilia, memories, collections, things, decorations, ornaments, adornments, embellishments, things to admire, to use, to make life easier, to make life more pleasurable. Things to have to show, and things to show off. Things to make us feel and look good regardless of how we feel inside. When you accumulate, your self-worth starts to be measured by what you have.
At the extreme is a hoarding disorder, that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) as a distinct mental health problem. Hoarding carries with it a stigma and misconception that help to tidy up is all that is needed. Hoarding results in having strong positive feelings whenever there are more items, anxiety at throwing things away and a struggle to make decisions about what to keep or to get rid of. Having things taken away, or giving them away can increase feelings of anxiety, shame and loneliness and can be counterproductive. Hoarding is hugely misunderstood and judged and needs to be approached empathically and expertly. In such extremes, the hoard is what is keeping the person emotionally safe.
The work by Bowlby and Ainsworth on infant attachment explains that the experience we had as children was powerful in establishing the way we approached the world, in particular other people and relationships. Attachment styles can also be considered in relation to belongings, food, and circumstances. Attachment styles relate to whether or not we feel safe and secure in the world and our surroundings. If you did not experience a “secure base” (Bowlby, 2007) as a child, then the world can feel unsafe in many ways. Have you ever said to yourself “I might need that later” and put the item back into the cupboard alongside everything else that “might come in handy?” This kind of self-narrative boils down to not feeling safe about your capacity to provide what you need when a need comes in the future.
Training to be a counsellor has been an extremely stern discipline. It was not for the faint hearted and gratefully I had had the resilience and reliance to complete it. During my training I likened the exposure of all my shadows, fears, and insecurities as a violent act of scraping my insides and, if that wasn’t enough, cleaning my bones so they too were left unspoiled. I have a strong visual image of this sternly disciplined process, that I liken to my own Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein horror.
I am now a robust counsellor who has the capacity to hold experiences in a confident and safe way.
I am in no way suggesting you should go through the same rigour. The surprising outcome of the horror story, and getting back to the purpose of this essay, was that the unsafe world, began to feel more secure. At the same time of reassembling my cleansed inside, I noticed the tendency that my outside world dismantled. There was a corresponding process to feeling safe and the loss of my attachment to things and materialism. Essentially I started to clear out my external life, and cyclically at this time of year I feel compelled to push out the things that no longer have a use. Now safe to not have what everyone else had or wanted. Safe to not have a busy existence, cluttered by things to do or places to be. Safe to not be surrounded by acquaintances to make me feel liked and loved. Safe to rely upon those few who I know to be as conscious as I.
Come back to your Self as being all that you need. Invest in yourself and your emotional wellbeing first and foremost to give yourself longevity, usefulness, and beauty. The guidance is not to remove the things you love, but to remove those things that distract you from loving the most important thing. Yourself as your only valuable asset.
Consider why you have the things you have, what is their purpose and how do you really feel about having them?
Have you ever noticed how your feelings change from desiring something, to buying it and then to owning it? Where was the most compelling feeling?
By projecting your wants, desires and needs on the external, what might you innately be avoiding?
If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed have you ever considered how your surroundings may or may not be impacting on those feelings? Could acquiring more things be a way of quelling the overwhelm and thus is counterproductive?
What could be the benefits to you if you were to own less and be more?
Coming in 2022 attachment and eating, an update on my training with Julia Buckroyd.
This essay came about following a weekend game of ‘Game of Life’ with my two grandsons. If you have never played it, the Game of Life is a road map of an imaginary life where choices and decisions are rewarded financially by scarily high value toy money. “What career do you want Nan?” the boys shouted noisily across the table. “Which one would be the most satisfying?” I pondered, to their increasing frustration. “It is all about the money, Nan!” they exclaimed. Which house? The penthouse is worth more, but I chose the pretty cottage. “It is all about the money, Nan!” I was clearly not getting this game. In my attempt to demonstrate values and the importance of a meaningful life, I lost the game to my two flourishing mini billionaires.
In the same weekend I completed a course on Abundance, using Tarot as a tool to focus on my hopes, and blocks to getting what I want from life. The Tarot has a hard reputation for being too witchy, esoteric, and weird. Yet all over the world we are exposed to the language of symbolism that replicates the Tarot. The images merely help to identify patterns, aspirations and hidden motivations that are archetypical in our lives. To understand the Tarot is to enquire about the mystery contained within our unique blueprint. Carl Jung called this ‘the theory of synchronicity’ – meaningful coincidences that point towards a familiar consciousness that generate synchronous occurrences. This can be summed up in what Jung said:
The Tarot becomes a vessel in which to project the here and now, the present and your presence arising from unconscious thought.
In the course on Abundance, I could not reach the place I was being guided towards. The cards were not helping, and I felt confused and disengaged. Then in that moment of synchronicity, I realised the course was ‘all about the money, Nan!’ I was being guided by the course leader to consider my relationship with money, to wanting more, the freedom money would provide and what blocks were in place to prevent generating more money.
My relationship with money is an uneasy one. I have experienced financial anxiety that is a very real and frightening thing. Anything relating to money triggered an internal physical reaction similar to panic – spending, paying for something, being asked for money, the relationship with the bank and the bank account, even being paid money. It was not about having no money. Having money would provoke the same fight or flight response. I have worked through this awkward relationship and the propensity for money to provoke angst. In that journey to my deeper unconscious self through counselling, I was able make the link to being overwhelmed in my responsibility to make money balance. A prevailing feeling that having or not having money was disempowering. That those making demands on my money or giving me money even when I had earned and deserved it, had more power than I did. My unconscious contribution to the Game of Life was to push wealth away as a trap, to the boys’ annoyance.
In today’s society there does seem to be an inextricable link between the desire to live abundantly in the presence of money. Psychoanalyst Adam Philips dedicated a lengthy chapter in his book ‘Missing Out’ (2012), on “not getting it.” Not getting the joke, not getting the point, and not getting the rewards. He was pretty much describing naivety alongside scarcity. Philips was not the only famous psychotherapist to tell us that accurate recognition of ourselves is good for us and that being able to recognise our needs helps us to figure out whether we have the capacity to meet them. Consumer capitalism has educated us on the virtue of the easy pleasure of knowing and fulfilling ourselves. The prevailing approach to this is being translated into knowing what we want through knowing what we want to have (Philips, 2012:36). Knowing what we want to have requires money.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy, the physiological needs for food, clothing and shelter require money to achieve and to motivate a person off first base. From this lens, motivation is ego driven, striving to get what we want that is external to us, and that which we want to portray to the world. Money creates stereotypes – how differently would you view me if I lived in the penthouse rather than the cottage by the sea? Self-actualisation, in Maslow’s terms, is goal driven towards the idealistic place in life to get to. If you have no money to buy food or shelter then that is a very disempowering position and a spiral downwards, but to where? For some this is a very real position to be in.
In Carl Roger’s work the actualising tendency is something different. He uses words such as a trend, an urge, an expression that awaits the right conditions to be released. And once released ‘man can become all of his potentialities’ (Rogers, 1951:351). Rogers believed in something deeply within, an innate tendency, that propels each of us to figure out our individual needs and then to find the capacity to meet them creatively, organically, with or without money. His thinking forms the foundations of the humanistic approach to counselling.
Life seriously cannot get any better than feeling safe whilst facing, embracing, and loving that demon that showed up for me in the form of money. I have learned that living abundantly does not mean having more money. Abundance in this way is not the same as lavish, expensive, copious and plenty. These are ego attachments and, whilst enjoyable, oftentimes lack nourishment. For me, they were disempowering.
My life is abundant when I am safe, happy, social, healthy, creative, inspired, loved and laughing. I choose to live small rather than with too much. I see life rather like the luscious, luxurious, and nourishing sweet nut that is contained within a tight and secure shell.
And I would rather live there, in abundancy, than in wealth in the penthouse.
Have you ever explored your relationship to money? What is the underlying theme around money for you?
What does that theme drive you to do, or not to do? Either way, are those decisions nourishing you?
How has the current limitations to life and freedom affected the way you earn and spend money? How have your priorities changed in the last two years?
How are you living abundantly where money is not concerned?
What is your view of the Tarot?
Next time, more on living minimally and without ego attachment (Autumn becomes a time to de-clutter and live in a nut for the Winter).
Despite the deeply impacting issues of Covid, the pandemic offered beneficial opportunities. The silence, stillness, the avoidance of close contact and communication offered calm, allowing me to go to deeper levels of introspection. I discovered a burgeoning creativity that surfaced organically from my stillness. I began to express myself through paint and in writing unconventional poetry. Some of the eccentricity within my work arose from an internal permission to not follow traditions and existing patterns in art and literature and to become radical, provocative and to shock. Through the introspection a deep part of me had been liberated, seizing the opportunity from within the time, space, and stillness. Juxtaposed with the beauty of non-judgement and interference of people around me. I was able to observe my emotions, physical sensations, and behavioural responses to become aware of things that were not in my conscious. I translated whatever came up into colour, landscapes, shapes, whimsical designs, and human form.
All art is plagiarised Paul Gauguin tells us and so gives permission for us to be inspired to have a go at what we see and that which resonates inside of us. Artists learn from artists.
Allain de Botton in his fabulous book Art as Therapy (2013) questions the whole purpose of art and argues that its purpose is weakened by the way it is taught, sold, and presented by the art establishments. Art is out of reach for many, and with a diluted purpose it is not admired or desired and therefore becomes ever more unreachable and unwanted. De Botton reinforces what counsellors believe: art could be seen as a therapeutic medium to help guide and console the viewer with psychological frailties such as memories, hopefulness, sorrow, and self-understanding. Art is judged upon being good or bad depending on its ability to visually console, resonate, inspire, provoke, or pull us in. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
I am offering this as an explanation of my next point, the more important one for this essay – and that is one of creativity. If we see art as something belonging to the elite, the clever; the weird, the bohemian; or quite frankly those criticised for being off their head such as Emin’s confessional art The Unmade Bed – we are never going to see art as belonging to us. And so, art and creativity become irrelevant to our lives.
Sidenote: if you consider Emin’s work as a merely visual piece you have every right to question it. If you look deeper and towards the artist behind it, their state of mind, their process, the choice of material and the message, art really does become a thought-provoking resource.
It is a lovely compliment to have one’s art admired and praised, but this is not the purpose for doing it. To say “you are so creative, I love your art” is a wonderful thing. As wonderful as saying you breathe so beautifully. Believe it or not creativity is innate in all of us, just as breathing is. It is not outside of us just as breathing is not. The courage to try however seems to be something that can be externalised and pushed away. Creativity is innate and is expressed in the way you live. Everyone is figuring out in creative ways how to make life more pleasurable and for some I know, they have a creative strategy for surviving and staying alive.
Living is a creative process. In these unprecedented and chaotic times, you may have started to notice that life is not static or linear and predictable. Life is a process of constant change and growth, or retreat and decline. When you recognise this, and accept it as a truth, you gain power of your canvas, your landscape, the medium and the resources you need. You are able to create your own reality. Through honest exploration and self-understanding, with or without a counsellor, you can connect with your own creative energy and allow permission for that to manifest in any way that is possible for you.
Pay attention to your vitality through the lens of being creative and resourceful and your life does become a piece of art. Embrace uncertainty as a certainty. Life ebbs and flows, spirals and meanders about. It is the lack of trust in this that causes fear and stifles creative living. Review the patterns of your life and acknowledge that when you needed to, you pulled upon a creative strategy to overcome. Creativity requires you to engage in each of your experiences fully – to explore your process, your choice of colour and medium and your whole process that allows you to arrive at your finished piece. Your own piece of art is unique to you, and unlike any piece of art, it cannot be plagiarised.
What inspires you?
Where are you being creative in your life? Can you look at your life from a creative lens?
Who are you when you are being you?
The Artists Way by Julia Cameron and Creative Awakenings by Sheri Gaynor do not intend to teach you how to paint. Both are useful roadmaps for manifesting your dreams and to live life creatively.
What is art and creativity? What is the purpose of it for you?
Things were coming to an end. The excitement of a motivational momentum to get to this point, I expended plenty of energy. With each deep inhalation I became ready to consider what to do next. As I learned more about myself and understood the world from a new and deeper perspective, I started to move away from aspects of my past. Sometimes I could not move quick enough to be caught between my old life and the new one I imagined.
In recent years I have experienced a complete unravelling. I recognised that my earlier leaps of faith have been those driven by conflict and anger, a rush to escape the uncomfortable.
Paths were never designed as straight lines. Paths meander back and forth. The crisis experienced, the down days lingering in bed afraid to step out the front door, those setbacks that make us question the totality of life. This familiar path continuously and routinely calls us back to those experiences we thought we had come to understand. Returning to these painful and repetitive encounters create an opportunity to see past hurt from a different and deeper perspective. Continual reflection and journaling revealed to me that it was not what remained unhealed in me that was being highlighted in my moments of distress. Rather, how much healing had occurred. It was only when I stopped denying my shadow, my ungroundedness, the fog that had descended, and agreed to work with it, did it offer the opportunity to be released from it. I had begun to learn to live out old stories in new, safer and wiser ways.
In other words, I got in touch with the feeling of vulnerability. The catharsis was to welcome the darker side as a valuable and inclusive part of being. The existential approach teaches us that we are in a constant state of becoming (Deurzen-Smith, 1996:169); meandering about. Existentially, phenomenology consisted of all components that included those that were conditioned to be unacceptable sitting alongside those that were palatable. By accepting this truth, we may start to consider how life might be different.
My child-self was representative of a more free and playful state; creative, innocent, and open. Somewhere along my spiralling path I had lost these qualities to shape and mould myself to become more acceptable to the world. I had given my power to others to lead me to the edge and to take a leap of faith. My emergent creativity during this pandemic was a signal from my inner child. Through embracing the silence and uncertainty of a changing world, within the safety of my own space, I was reborn into the loving parent of myself. With the unconditional love I deserved I could start again and nurture myself into a more vivacious and vibrant future.
And this new world was full of risks, setbacks, and upsets. The path ahead would continue to meander, spiral and be messy. With a firmer idea of my identity, and my own in-built safety cord, I was equipped to deal with the difficult emotions that might emerge from stepping forward. I acknowledged those aspects of my life that kept me safe and grounded; the external things to which I had immense gratitude for, alongside the inner authority I possessed to allow myself to live creatively and securely. I was safe to experiment, play and explore. I was drawn to this imaginary place with excitement and motivation. It was a fertile learning ground, for experimentation and growth. I had found that elusive inner authority I had searched for my whole life. With its learning I was able to create a comfortable place inside and outside of me, with the wisdom and courage to face a new way of being no matter how difficult that might feel.
This time I felt a different hand on my back. Not the one that pushed and shoved violently; this one was soft and gentle and lovingly whispered in my ear “it is time.”
I stepped forward into the leap and came to recognise that the hand on my back was mine all along.
Counselling does not push clients towards actualisation; to bring forth enlightenment nor create a brighter future. My role as counsellor is to hold the client in their light and their dark, along their meandering and spiralling path, and in the here and now. To give space to fully integrate all phenomenological experiences within a safe and reparative relationship (Clarkson, 2000:11). Through the therapeutic work, the client becomes enlightened until that moment they find their own hand resting gently upon their back.
I am reminded by the existentialist Kierkegaard’s quote: anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. Through accepting your own light and dark, where can you start to feel excited?
During a counselling session, my client and I had the unfortunate experience of a pigeon dropping down my chimney. The noise was sufficient for us to assume it was mischief of rats. As we sat opposite each other in our disbelief and horror, we also found the humour in our shared experience.
I coaxed the pigeon out. I cleared the exit, talked to it, left a trail of biscuit crumbs, and finally cut the escape hole bigger for it to find its own flight to freedom. Over many, too many days, pigeon and I built up a relationship. I talked gently to it, encouraging it to find its way to the hole and take flight. It was important to achieve a good outcome for both pigeon and I.
This story is relevant to share as through its arrival, I identified the metaphor in this visit. Pigeons are symbolic of flight, fertility, and freedom. In my own life I had already began to feel the need to move and grow some more. I received words of encouragement and coaxing yet was unable to respond with sufficient resourcefulness to find “flight.” The “hole” created for my own freedom had grown organically and was sufficient for me to pass gracefully through it. For a time, I remained happy maintaining the status quo; resting for a while whilst I figured out my best move.
I am reminded by the poem by Christopher Logue:
A poem about taking a leap and having faith that the landing will be a safe one. A leap of faith is far from a spontaneous reaction. Dithering and hesitation. Fear and edging forward, peering over the precipice, and retreating back. Backwards and forwards, forwards and back. The dark murky waters of uncertainty. A pool full of our own pressure to arrive at a decision and a need to push forward into flight. Even a considered leap has some regret later. Or to reject the entire flight and stay stuck in the status quo, again with much remorse.
Pay attention to this reflexive process. Reflexivity is achieved through a systematic method of heuristics (Moustakas, 2001:309). Heuristics involved a search of self, flowing out of inner awareness. The primary task is to recognise and become aware of whatever exists in the consciousness and unconscious until an essential insight is achieved. What is this leap all about?
The immersion gives energy to this question, to explore every possibility and scenario until all ideas surface. The leap occupies the mind; to consciously and unconsciously prepare oneself to undertake the task. It takes time and is not the spontaneous “he pushed, and they flew” scenario. Overwhelm will settle to allow growth to take place from this inner unspoken dimension (Moustakas, 1990:28), until one becomes open and receptive to any unspoken knowledge that surfaces. Incubation and immersion break through to conscious awareness (Moustakas, 1990:29) with new insights. And this illumination is the moment where clarity and enlightenment are attained and themes, qualities and components emerge into the conscious.
Explication required an effort to understand what had awakened. This was achieved through focussing and indwelling with concentrated attention to discover the texture of the phenomenon (Moustakas, 1990:31). Once one becomes familiar with this data, creative synthesis made sense of it as a whole to be able to provide a decision forward, a solution. Creative synthesis required the tacit dimension of self-searching and intuition, arising from a period of solitude, focussing or meditation (Moustakas, 1990:32).
Maintain your status quo, there is no need to push forward.
What would be a leap for you? What process do you work through?
Do you make rash, quick decisions that you may regret?
Do you take time to decide and regret the missed opportunity?
What symbols arrive in your life that if attention were given to them, could be therapeutic? To explore symbols, look at Jung, or delve into the amazing Book of Symbols (Taschen).
And for those of you who like fortune cards, choose two of wands, the magician, and the tower.
Counselling is a similar process to Moustakas’ heuristics; a way of reaching the deep through a dialogic and safe relationship; resurfacing and looking at the texture of the phenomena without judgement.
Next time, shall we look at the moment when the hand is on your back and you are ready, or not ready to leap? What does that really feel like?
I witnessed first-hand Rogers’ theory of the absolute power of the helping relationship. This learning provided an important lesson with those clients who came to counselling with an idea of what they needed to explicate, and who part way through therapy, surprisingly self-direct themselves onto a different path of discovery. The offer of a safe relationship supported this process combined with having the opportunity to express the phenomenological experiences that transcended the unconscious mind. Counselling had the capacity to bring to the surface all those experiences that were buried deep and previously rejected as no longer relevant.