Wishing you well.

Waking up into a thought can be a refreshing experience. Recently my thoughts ran onto members of the  Experiential Group I had facilitated for 22 weeks. My thought was simply this: I wished them all well. I also wanted to thank all of the group members.

I have described in an earlier blog what the function the experiential group had and what my role was. What I have not given is a facilitators perspective on how the groups development was and why I wish the members that attended well.

1st Meeting September 2015

The first meeting of the group was interesting. They came into a room that was ill prepared for any therapeutic endeavour. Chairs and tables were hurriedly arranged in a heap towards the back of the room. I entered the room and found a seat and sat towards the front of the room. Members of the experiential group came in after me and found a chair and placed it in a loose formed elliptical shape and then took to their seats. Other members were already in the room and either stayed in their seats or chose the lesson change over time to stretch their legs and take time to wander into the corridor and chat with other students. They would return in time for the beginning of the next lesson and again take their seats.

Sitting at the ‘front’ of the group became my habit for at least 5 of the first meetings. I would later change my position in the room which caused slight ripples of discomfort amongst the group. Comments included “why has Michael changed where he used to sit?” Not providing an answer and allowing the group to give reason for the slight change presented them with a new reality of me their facilitator.

Changing something small

Being a mischievous person altering my seating position in the room and not sharing as to why I had moved from the front of the class to the side or sometimes the back of the room gave the students an opportunity to appreciate change within the therapeutic space. Initially I moved as I wanted to test the group. Would moving to the left or right of the front of the room change the dynamics of the room?

The change represented difference and I feel that a number of conversations occurred in relation to the subtlety of my movement. The group responded by discussing differences of opinion about the course, each other, perspectives on race, religion, sex, counselling, spirituality, profession, age, family, the why of this career as opposed to any other. Identities for the group became a little more defined, roles the members played changed from week to week: the information bearer, joker, quiet one, challenger, agreer, arguer, dismisser, lecturer enthusiast, social commentator, pessimist, optimist and realist changed from week to week. Which offered the group a chance to simultaneously grow individually and together.

Time and Timings

There were a number of boundaries that were initially presented as trigger points which the group  agreed on or raged against. The clock on the wall in the space we used was roughly 3 minutes faster than real time (my watch). By the 3rd week I had identified that my start and stop times were out of sync with the clock on the wall and members of the group were agitated by this discrepancy.

I chose to raise the timing of the start and end time with the group to gain perspective on whether clock time or watch time would be best to use for the timing of the experiential group hour. On reflection the group decided that they would like to use the clock on the wall to time the beginning and the end of each experiential group.

By the 4th week the timing of the start had slid to coincide with my ‘watch time’ and so I naturally chose to adjust the timing of the experiential group to allow for a later start. Challenge to the timing of the Experiential Group became a frequent issue in the 1st few weeks of the group being run. No sooner had I either raised my hand or indicated that our time together had come to an end, students were making their way to the door. I found it curious. It was like something had gone wrong with the work. Their exit provided them with an abrupt end to a difficult experience. At times this may well have been the case.

Challenge

Describing the purpose of the experiential group was something I had not spent a lot of time reviewing before the group started. In short I said to the 11 members how I perceived the space could be used and said ‘Welcome to your first experiential group. How has your first day been?’ I was promptly informed that the group had started the course a week ago and that this was infact their 2nd week.

Ah, the facilitator gets it wrong! But can he regroup? Internalised thought

I then said something about the idea of safety and that I wanted to provide a safe environment in which all students could share things in the room and be heard. The other idea that was put across to the room was that they needed to be authentic as their professional logs would be marked on reflection of what they had shared in the room.

Challenges came from the group in terms of not fully understanding the purpose of experiential group, or what my role as facilitator was, and questioning if the material that was discussed would disrupt the fragile new alliances that were being formed amongst the group. I took up the gauntlet and attempted to manage the groups development as I had with other groups I had supported previously, which included the Skype group of counsellors that I met with every month and the various basketball teams I had coached.

Experiential Group as a Catalyst

If a person could take a picture of themselves before joining a group experience and then another at a mid-point of a course and then another picture near the end of the course they may well be able to perceive subtle changes about themselves.

Things like their stance whilst sitting or standing, as they talked and expressed ideas to a group of peers. When being challenged by another on a point, they would not try to slink away and hide nor become defensive but seek an empathic understanding of why the question or challenge came when it did.

The picture of themselves in the last experiential group would present them with their growth. By journeying with peers, subtle and significant changes will have occurred. For me as a facilitator all students appeared to have hewn from the granite of the course an identity of who they were and where their counselling journey was to lead them to next.

Good bye and Thanks

I have mentioned in a previous blog that saying goodbye to this first group of counselling students was bittersweet. We were able to develop a closing experience of the group that seemed to resonate with all members that attended.

At one point my voice cracked as I shared that I was going to give up ‘Fear’ and what I was going to take was ‘All 11 of you’. The closing of the group had been mentioned as an idea roughly 9 weeks prior. It was similar to the ending of the Roda when I attended Capoeira with the London School of Capoeira 1999-2001. A completing of a good dance with fellow capoeiristas.

I considered all I had worked with, as a facilitator of this years Experiential Group, ready to move on to the next stage of their journey, capable of fulfilling their roles as mental health practitioners/counsellors/psychotherapists/students.

My thanks are largely due as a result of the group’s patience, resilience, trust and belief that I could facilitate the room and support the group to hold each other and the issues discussed with sensitivity warmth and compassion.

What a ride! I look forward to my next group of students, going again and supporting learning and development.

I wish you well.

Belonging v Fitting In

Confusion 2015-05-25 15.32.10

There are many reasons that I have wanted to write a regular blog. Mostly to share a perspective on things I experience from bewildering and conflicting perspectives. These perspectives include myself as a thinker, a past time of mine since I was a young man.

  • A black male psychotherapist, three words that cause me to pause and reflect on the meanings that are associated with each and how these three words interact with each other and with the social fields I come into contact with on a daily basis. I suspect a blog about being a black male psychotherapist is to be written in time.
  • Being a father of 2 young black boys the responsibility I am presented is to support their development in being able to simply just be. With Janelle Monáe’s Hell you Talmbout I recognise that my involvement with my sons’ lives is of primary importance and one in which I am invited to be an educator, coach, listener, artist, co conspirator, chef, journey planner and Doctor. Ta Nehesi Coates speaks and writes well on this subject in his book Between the World and Me.
  • Some of the other roles I engage with are; as a member of a mental health organisation working alongside probation and with service users, as a husband, as a lover of jazz, a reader, a former interior designer, youth worker, comic book reader, movie goer, longboard rider, podcast listener, basketballer and coach, friend, walker, facilitator and multiple sclerosis sufferer. This list is not exhaustive and there are probably at least 5 or more subjects I could add.

Fitting in, Belonging

For this blog I wanted to discuss an awareness I sensed but hadn’t fully brought into full consciousness until I came across it whilst reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’. One of the concepts she was able to describe was a simple concept of either fitting in or belonging. At the time of reading ‘Daring Greatly’ in Oct – Nov 2015 I was experiencing what it meant to either ‘belong’ or to fit in.

2014 into 2015

Working for a large organisation with a group of people one knows vaguely who each have slightly differing roles and responsibilities to yours, there can be points when you are offered a chance to either fit in, or if lucky to choose to belong. When I joined the organisation I attempted to go with the flow and fit in.

Fitting in often does not cause great offence to others ‘no boats are rocking’. Perhaps in oneself the effect is of losing grip on what is important – oneself and one’s reality. Losing sense of oneself can be unsettling and what could be worse is not realising that your way is lost until you are saying and doing things that you don’t recognise.

In December 2014, I left an experience of belonging to a staff team in a high security prison and joined the organisation I currently work with in January 2015. The mental health team I left consisted of Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Nurses, Counselling Psychologists, counsellors , an EMDR counsellor who was also my line manager and supervisor, Occupational  Therapists, and counsellors on placement.

HMP Belmarsh’s mental health team was a robust co-operative, co-ordinated group of professionals that met every week to discuss mental health referrals. It took me 2 years to get used to the quick fired nature of the referral process and dissemination of potential clients to departments within the mental health team. In the last 2 years of working at Belmarsh I gained a sense of how valuable these differences amongst the mental health team were as Social workers would have a different perspective to Psychiatrists or CPNs another opinion to Occupational Therapists and counsellors to counselling psychologists.

With these differing opinions in relation to treatment options, barriers for individuals seeking treatment were overcome and mostly resolved. The experience I had was of belonging to a staff team who were willing to work together for the greater good of those seeking mental health support. I was able to recognise that differing viewpoints can be supportive rather than only negative, that can appear to slow or block progress.

A reminder

Whilst training as a counsellor 2008-2011 I had experiences that were of not being able to neither fit in nor belong. I was one of a few minority ethnic people on the course and one of only 3 males that completed year 1. Struggling alongside 18 other students on a bewildering counselling MSc course, I would have thought would generate a sense of belonging or camaraderie. My experience was that of being outside of a group of people who were able to exist in a quasi-understanding of fitting in with each other.

I made a choice in October 2015, which was supported by Daring Greatly, that fitting in was not going to be how I operate whilst working with others. Belonging was a better coat to wear. I had been in a number of previous working experiences pre Belmarsh were belonging was a part of the fabric of the organisation.

Currently I find myself reminded of my training to be a counsellor and the discomfort of attempting to fit in amongst a student populace that I was to belong to, but was different from.  The knowledge of being an outsider from a group is not a new one and has the possibility of offering me an internal conflict which can lead to personal growth.

Reality

The reality is that the experience of belonging or fitting in will repeat in whatever work context I find myself involved with. The interesting thing for me is that I will attempt to gain a sense of belonging wherever I work. The cost of attempting to fit in I find too great. It’s the experience of not sharing your perspective on subjects you care about, of fearing that you will be ostracized by people you work with, finding that you stand out and being uncomfortable with this.

Belonging

Being amongst a group of others I would find it important to relate and talk about any number of subjects on a number of different levels and not be judged or ridiculed in my sharing. Depending on a person’s background and family of origin the aim could be to gain a sense of belonging similar to that of a family system. Perhaps without some of the negative aspects of a family group. For me it’s about the feelings that come with the experience of recognising that one belongs. Which feels very different to fitting in.

I would liken belonging to hearing a favourite song by chance whilst out doing something innocuous. The song I would be happy to hear would be Ooh Child by the Five Fairsteps and something like love spreads throughout your system like you’re in a hot bath.

My experiences of belonging are many-fold, for example attending my first BAATN mens group and mentioning that unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I WAS being seen and heard by the group, and that I also belonged. Coaching basketball in a number of settings was the epitome of gaining a sense of containment attachment and belonging for every team I coached and for all that attended. My sense of the Experiential Group even though I was the facilitator, I felt part of the group not apart from it, lastly, when my family get together we express our love in volume but each member receives that warm bath feeling…

Belonging.

Missing Gregory Porter

Skylark – Gregory Porter – Walk and Talk Therapy along the Thames

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I first recognised the talent of Gregory Porter a number of years ago as I listened to Jazz FM’s Dinner Jazz with Helen Mayhew or Sarah Ward. I am unable to remember which presenter it was. The presenter mentioned that Mr Porter was playing at Pizza Express in Central London and tickets could be won if I entered a raffle. I promptly did, but was not amongst the chosen to go and see Gregory Porter. Disappointed I noticed as Mr Porter rose to international acclaim with his 1960 What? Song which was notable for his rousing call to bear witness to the efforts of the civil rights movement in the 60’s. He was nominated and then won a grammy in 2014.

Skylark

Have you anything to say to me

Won’t you tell me where my love can be

Is there a meadow in the mist

Where someone’s waiting to be kissed

My writing is to pay homage to a generous friend who invited me to attend a Gregory Porter concert in London, at which I turned down. CDC’s invite was a call to see and hear a great singer share his magic. Usually I would have jumped at the chance as I have wanted to see Mr Porter for about 5 years. To explain, there were 2 good reasons why I did not attend.

One reason was as a result of having a client, the second reason was for my monthly external supervision, both were on the same evening as the concert.

Skylark

Have you seen a valley green with spring

Where my heart can go a-journeying

Over the shadows and the rain

To a blossom covered lane

Commitment

To cancel a client appointment to go and see a long admired singer was not reason enough for me. I would not begin to count myself as virtuous or saintly. I feel strongly that an investment in time has been made by the client and I wanted to honour that. I also acknowledge the commitment every client I work with has to engage with counselling. In truth I enjoy my work. I am currently involved with a piece of work where I walk and talk along the Thames. I have wanted to take part in Walk and Talk therapy along the Thames since I had the idea 4 years ago. Now that I am walking my dream, an invite to see Gregory Porter could not pull me away.

And in your lonely flight

Haven’t you heard the music in the night

Wonderful music, faint as a will o’ the wisp

Crazy as a loon

Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon

Artistry

The person I am working with is an artist and I enjoy what they share and how they see the world. The walking invites a reflexive quality in engaging with therapy in a natural environment. The client and myself collaboratively address their challenges, successes and acknowledge how new ways of seeing a problem can be worked into their life. Every walk differs, the weather, the natural light, each season, other path users and sights inform/influence the discussions. What can be assessed as useful is adopted in the session. On this evening’s walk we passed 2 paddle boat cruisers, docked yet standing out with their large chimneys. It was like we had miss-stepped the Thames and had been transported to the Mississippi of the 1920’s.

But for a Delay

To have missed a walk and talk therapy session for Gregory Porter could have presented me with an unanswerable dilemma that did not offer either me or the client with comfortable outcomes. To delay gratification was a simple and fair choice. The alternative would have been to have postponed the client and supervision for Gregory Porter. I would then have spent the evening listening yet not connecting with his artistry, as I wondered about both my client and how Supervision would have been.

Gentle Guides

For the 8 years I have had Supervision I have worked with 3 very experienced counselling supervisors. Each one has gently supported my growth as a counsellor, reassuring me when I feel I have made an error with my work, sharing either personal insights or helping me to see things in a number of different ways.

My current external supervisor is no different. He has a way of helping me go beyond regular thinking and into new realms of thought, empathy and compassion. I shared my dilemma of wanting to go and see Gregory Porter or meet with my client and then see him – my supervisor. He smiled and nodded. I told him of the story as written above and he said ‘It is a great song.’

Skylark

I don’t know if you can find these things

But my heart is riding on your wings

So if you see them anywhere

Won’t you lead me there

Peer Supervision

For the past 3 years I also have peer supervision which differs slightly as they, my peer, are on a similar page to me in their counselling journey. The support offered here is similar to a gym training partner. Supervision is a necessary component of my work and I value it’s usefulness and what is shared. I realise that maintaining a component of humility, holding my work forward to be offered as a showing of my craft helps to keep me and those that I work with safe. I recognise that professional boundaries are useful in helping to frame the work.

When I first heard Gregory’s version of Skylark it was an instant Jazz favourite of mine. There is a powerful vulnerability to his phrasing that has me press repeat each time the song ends. As a non-singer I appreciate how hard Gregory has worked to offer his rendition. The last 20 seconds of Skylark melt me each and every time, I know the song is coming to an end I am hoping for a little more in it, something additional that would let me put the song to rest. Gregory pleads with an earnestness that is beguiling keeping me in check. Inviting me to hear the crash of the keys and the fading of the horn as his voice recedes…

Skylark

I don’t know if you can find these things

But my heart is riding on your wings

So if you see them anywhere

Won’t you lead me there

 

Skylark by Gregory Porter

Walk and Talk Therapy

2015-06-30 20.52.37One of the most enjoyable things about working as a therapist in nature are the little things that appear to randomly happen on the walks.

Discovered Messages

In September 2015 walking in a park in South East #London someone had scrawled messages on the path that appeared innocent in their offering of wisdom: ‘Be Kind to Each other’ another stated ‘Life is for living if you see this then you are alive’. As I walked past the meme’s with my client, I was mindful not to fall into the role of walk arranger and interpreter of the hidden meanings of what was witnessed. My walking companion chose to make use of the words and applied them to their life.

Leaf Blown Intervention

On another meeting in a different park I met my client near a large oak tree. Initially our #WalkandTalkTherapy was a Stand and Talk Therapy session. We stood for a few moments and reviewed the past week. A leaf blew from the tree and struck the client on the head and this was all the impetus needed to commence the walk and talk. In the 2 years I have been working in this way I have walked through storms, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, Spring, Summer and #Fall. I have met other therapists, artists and project co-ordinators who have also used the environment to inform and shape their work. Much like serendipitous moments happening in my #WalkandTalkTherapy , meeting others who work in nature fall into the category of helping to shape my work. Mastery is…

Basketball Therapy Anyone

Basketball Therapy

I have been a Basketball coach for 14 years and know first hand the beneficial effects basketball and playing team sports in general can have on people. While most people assume the positive effects have to do with being physically fit, as a therapist, I’m interested in the emotional benefits of playing sports as well as the obvious physical ones.

Working with boys and girls in the 11-18 age range, one of the things I observed over the years was how the sport equipped them with life skills they could apply off of the court. For example through turning up to early morning practice on time, packing a kit bag, working hard during practice and persevering with learning new skills, players acquired a range of skills including commitment, sacrifice, organisation, accountability to one self and the team, responsibility, confidence and ultimately leadership.

Therapy in Play

As well as what happened on the court, there was often a therapeutic effect at play in the period after sessions. Many players would speak to me after sessions about some of the difficulties they were experiencing including homework, relationships, concerns with family and worrying about their future. I was often surprised by what was shared and equally what I was prepared to share about some of the challenges I experienced whilst growing up.

Basketball and Therapy

Both the experience of playing basketball and the informal sharing which took place afterwards enabled some players to address feelings associated with depression and anxiety. In many instances I watched players transform from people with low aspirations to people with ambition and hope about their future. I attribute their transformation in part to both the success they achieved on the court and the informal mentoring they received away from the court.

Some of the reasons I have become a counsellor stem from these conversations which sparked something in me to want to support people who were experiencing some degree of emotional/mental difficulty. Looking back on this now from the vantage point of being a trained counsellor, I’m interested in how sports develops positive relationships between players and coaches which is a fantastic starting point for therapeutic conversations.

Mentoring

As a learning mentor in a boys secondary school in London, Basketball again proved an effective tool to enable young men who were experiencing difficulties to talk. Talking whilst engaged in basketball allowed young men to look at some of their challenging behaviour and seek ways to adapt so as to get the best out of their school experience. Games like P.I.G. and H.O.R.S.E were great, as whilst the young men were focusing on making their shot I would be able to offer some useful insight to help their situation. Working this way helped me to establish a good working alliance with the young men that were on my case-load.

Walking and Talking

Much of what I have learnt about using basketball to support people to talk has influenced my decision to launch a walk and talk therapy service. Whether using basketball or the act of walking, both approaches involve using an activity to enable sharing and reflection. Clients often report that when walking and talking, they are surprised at how naturally the sharing occurs. To date I have observed that being in parks and open spaces invites the client to open up in the environment and begin identifying processes for change.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about wanting to develop an idea I have of incorporating Basketball and Therapy. Given my love for the game, this seems like the obvious next step for me.

But first of all I better dust off my basketball trainers hit those courts and brush up on my skills.

Watch this space….