Small – Big Life Matters

A little life ba-little-lifey Hanya Yanagihara

Revisiting my brief overview of ‘A Little Life’ the 2015’s Man Booker Prize nominee a year later was a passing idea. What could be gained from this experience was noting if my opinion had changed about the book a year later.

A Challenge

I was introduced to this book by my sister CF. She stated in a resigned fashion that this book was a depiction of a persons struggle. No matter what they could good experiences were presented to them they could not heal from the pain of their past.

As a practicing counsellor with over 7 years of experience I was intrigued and appalled by the idea of a wound so great that no recovery could be experienced. Naively I approached the book like an investigator seeking to uncover what experiences a fictional character could not heal from.

Within 80 pages Ms Yanagihara (author) had me so involved within a complex story of loss, betrayal and pain that to stop reading was the furthest thought from my mind. As I turned the pages and further engrossed myself with this Little Life, I began to recognise why my sister had stated in as clear a way as possible why she proclaimed that there are scars that some individuals never recover.

Symbolism

The central character is called Jude. Jude has a number of difficulties that he is able to successfully negotiate his life with including low self esteem, self harm and a mysterious physical disability. There is a scene that springs to mind as a metaphor for the book. After a significant self-disclosure to a close friend, Jude is thrown from a roof to a window ledge in a scheme to rescue his friends. The rescue involves him undoing a lock that he alone knows how to remove.

event-horizonEvent Horizon

If a reader makes it to the impromptu rescue part of the book, unfortunately they have been pulled over the edge into the event horizon. There is little chance of escape until the book ends and even then a reader will be further embroiled with ‘But if’ scenarios and disappointed views about the characters lives in the book for months after completing A Little Life.

Support Group for a Book?

I have spoken with others and read tweets about how readers have experienced the story #aLilLife with calls for support groups and warm blankets to help the reader survive the tumult of impassionesupport-groupd story telling. A
ll talk about the effect the book has on the reader are accurate. The twists and turns of the story, the feelings the book and writing evoke and how, as a reader, they wish they could have friends and family that Jude has.

I read the book morning noon and night. At one point stating on twitter ‘It is the first thing I reach for when I awake and the last thing I touch before I fall asleep.’ At times I stay up for an hour or 2 past the witching hour to complete a paragraph or a chapter. A Little Life is a tour de force.

Willingness to let go

The aspect of the book that stays with me, is the roof incident and the reminder his social worker offers him; ‘You have to let others in and talk about this thing, or it will get the better of you.’ I am mindful that this coupled with the scene of him rescuing his friendsjesse-w
and undoing a lock that only he knows how to unpick are 2 moments of evidence. Jude has the tools for his own rescue if he were willing and able to open the locks. Anna provided Jude with a choice, as all good therapists are able to offer their clients.

Self-Agency

The experience of ‘Life’ can be taken for granted. A character like Jude’s helps to explore a reckoning with humanity and all that the human experience can present: Mystery, Adversity, Humour, Friendship, Challenge.

As a therapist, Jude’s story provided me with a reminder of what professional boundaries are – To walk beside a person being supported and remaining both caring and mindful of the individual’s journey towards self-discovery – hoping that they get there.

Jude’s story is tragic, many of the people I work with have disastrous life experiences too. I hold on to the idea that a character like Jude’s in ‘A Little Life’ and service users I support can take steps to change their life path if they can find value in being…

For Jude the chance to take a leap of faith appeared too great, however in my experience it is often as thin as a sheet of paper.

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.

An Open Letter to Dr Powell

WT 6I was positively affected by a lecture in 2015 given on the subject of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy. So much so that I decided to write to the person who presented a thoroughly engaging talk about the links between Spirituality and Psychotherapy. *((additional comments not in the original letters))

30 April 2015

Dear Dr. Powell,

I attended the summer conference on the subject of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy at University of Greenwich. The conference space was held by yourself and attendees discovered that you have practiced as a Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist and now as a transpersonal  therapist (Clarkson). You described that your aim is to treat the whole being of the person you work with, including spirit.

Before I attended the conference I read the 3 short articles that were sent ((to gain understanding of your work)). Each of the readings gave me the chance to gain an understanding of your experience of working in a spiritual way with clients.

I enjoyed the accounts of helping bereaved clients using drama therapy to begin grieving. What I gained from your work also was that you appeared to accept clients ((where they were in themselves)) and the process they may have become stuck in.

During the conference which was well attended, I noted the expression of cultures that had accessed spiritual healing as a way of supporting people around the globe. I was keen to hear of traditions of spirituality that ranged from Aboriginal peoples in Australasia, South America, Central America and Africa.

I can remember a key moment working with a counsellor a few years ago ((2009-2010)) where I mentioned my fathers country of origin and stated as if out of nowhere that if “I had grown up in my fathers village I would have become a healer”. The statement both shocked and brought to me an awareness of my origins and that of my attraction to counselling. Working as a therapist has been a way for me to practice supporting people in a westernised way without readily acknowledging my history, culture or county of origin. ((Ghana))

The conference invited me to observe the content of what was expressed and how the lecture was not able to embrace all of the spiritual traditions from around the globe. I feel intrinsically that the African continent and the various traditions that began from there including art, science, and spirituality are not often acknowledged. My point is that members of the African Diaspora as well as other Spiritual traditions including Australian Aboriginal and Maori traditions have also contributed to the landscape of spirituality and could also be acknowledged for their contributions to this fascinating field of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy.

I thank you for a great day of learning and for sharing your fascinating path of how your journey with spiritual infused psychotherapy continues. I am expectant of a tipping point for science to acknowledge that the tools used to measure the ever expanding universe are as nought compared to the instruments that we all possess within ourselves.

Yours sincerely

M

((Dr Powell’s response))

15 May 2015

Dear Michael,

I’m glad you found the day at Greenwich useful.

I very much agree with you that in the West we have neglected the rich healing traditions that have existed for so long in other cultures and which could profoundly enrich our own culture were we less insular (and less wedded to scientific materialism).

I have learned much from indigenous sources (in my case especially from South America, and from China (Daoism)).

Thinking of Africa, I am reminded of the powerful impact that Malidome Some’s book ‘Of Water and Spirit‘ made on me when it was published 20 years ago.

The problem of social attitudes is not easily overcome. I wrote in the paper ‘Furthering the spiritual dimension of psychiatry in the UK’:

‘Current mental health science is largely dismissive of pre-scientific reality as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’. For instance, the shamanic view of ‘spirit’, which has informed cultures as far apart as Northern Asia, Mongolia, the Inuit, North American Indians, the tribes of the Amazon Basin, the aboriginal culture and in Europe, the Celts, is these days of interest only to medical anthropologists (to mental health science). Yet contemporary psychiatry shows the same indifference towards the major faith traditions of today. This becomes more intelligible in the light of Gallup surveys which show that while 80 – 90% of the general population believe in God, or a higher presence, only some 30% psychiatrists and psychologists do so!

There were many avenues that we could have explored at Greenwich and I would have welcomed you voicing the transcultural aspects in the open forum. But perhaps these occasions simply serve to encourage each person on their own unique journey. I hope so. Thankfully, material realism is not able to suppress the intuitive human spirit that knows there is more to life than science alone can ever reveal.

Thank you for your kind remarks.

Best wishes,

Andrew

((My reply to Dr Powell))

May 2nd 2016

Hello Dr Powell,

A year has sped past and I am yet to reply to your generous email.

Can I first apologise for the late reply to the email. The reasons for the tardiness are two-fold.

1, I was surprised by your content and the open nature in which you addressed my points. I had expected a different – more defended response and was taken aback with how you viewed the psychological profession and cultures that were outside of Western systems of thought and being.

2, I had hoped to make use of your reply for my blog. What you have offered is richer contextually than I could have anticipated. I would like to use our dialogue in my blog. Would you give permission for me to do so? My reasons for wanting to use your response would be to support dialogue in the otherness of counselling and psychotherapy that I am growing in my awareness and feel is important to share with others.

To explain a little more about me and my background. My Mother was Guyanese, My Father was Ghanian both now deceased. I ((can recognise)) am from the new and old worlds simultaneously. I once reflected with a counsellor I worked with a number of years ago, if I had grown up in my father’s village in Ghana, I could see myself having become a healer/shaman/doctor/medecine man . At that moment a sense of otherness became known where once it had lain dormant.

I came into the world of therapy by taking a circuitous route. My first degree was in Interior Design. After completing the degree I spent a number of years lost figuring out how to overcome my mothers death, she died in my 2nd year of my University degree. ((I was to work out)) beginning a life in London, trying to make a career out of a number of different roles including as a coffee barista, pizza delivery ((driver)) and youth worker.

Finding an element of myself in the young people I supported, I invested time and energy in being an effective youth worker and youth project manager. Later I trained to become a Basketball Coach which led to me becoming a learning mentor and then a counsellor. Looking back on this journey I think of it appearing straightforward. The truth was all of the occurrences happened as a result of chance encounters, or chance conversations.

My point is that it feels that there has been a gentle pull to walking this path as opposed to a few others. I think of Mr Some’s journey and his teachings/conversations with his grandfather who shared with him at the age of 4 how difficult his future was going to be. I felt I could relate with Mr Some’s grandfather identifying that Malidoma is to bring to the new world elements of the old world, and to the old world – the magic of the new.

Hearing you talk and working with my current supervisor has helped me to trust in the process of counselling and the wonderment that arises in those quiet still moments. Scot M. Peck’s book A Road Less Travelled which I read over 15 years ago, helped me to recognise that life can be a rewarding challenge – at times one is just aware of the challenge.

Since our last correspondence, I have attended a number of interesting seminars including 2 workshops on dreams at Greenwich University. The event in February I found enriching and supportive, both trainers had an engaging open perspective to their work and interactions with the delegates that had attended were interesting and filled with energy.

The latest training I have attended was in relation to a CBT approach in working with PTSD and Trauma affected clients hosted by the British Psychology Society, which furthered my understanding and interest in working with those who have experienced a number of significant life events. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book which I read in January 2016 ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ has really helped me to fully appreciate that an integrative approach to working with those affected by trauma can recover with skilled intuitive support.

I appreciate your reply of last year and apologise ((once again)) for my very late response.

Be well

M

Dr Powell responded a day later and a dialogue with him and my supervisor is continuing to grow my felt sense of otherness, Spirit, within my counselling practice.

Baking: Failure – Success

The Journey into Counselling 2014-06-01 10.39.03

In May 2015 I presented my counselling journey to 3rd year students who were coming to the end of their MSc in Therapeutic Counselling at University of Greenwich. I was invited to speak with the students by the then course director Victoria Alexander.

Since completing the course in 2012 I had wondered if I would ever receive the esteemed call to present my counselling journey to students. Speaking as an Alumni, I imagined would be a mark of success. It was – but not in a monetary sense. I had, at last, arrived as a mental health professional and that was worth acknowledging in the least for myself. From completing the course, it had taken 3 years to get to a point where I felt I had ARRIVED.

When I was a 3rd year student I looked forward to meeting alumni who had completed the course before me and listening to their stories. In 2011 I was expectant of listening to personal stories that would inspire me to have incredible success as a counsellor.

Pinpoint moments

During my time on the Greenwich course there were a number of moments that stand-out. My Interview with John Lees, the first day of the MSc course, attending art therapy/drama therapy experiences, realising that I had adapted from one approach of counselling – person centred, to being an integrative counsellor. This event happened during my second year of the MSc and I will write about Laos (not the clients name) in a later Blog.

Other memorable moments include; my first counselling client that attended their appointment. I practiced in a GP surgery in SE London. My 2nd counselling placement at a Prison and my first client once there. Failing a submission piece during the second year of the course and having to repeat a piece of work and resubmit, oh the shame! Entering the 3rd year of the course, engaging in a difficult conversation with a lecturer – John Nuttall on a delicate issue, completing year 3 and looking towards the top of Canary Wharf Tower on an evening in June from where I live in Lee, and whispering to myself we’ve done it, acknowledging the support of my wife throughout the three years.

The presentation

With the group of students met in 2015, I shared the beginning of my journey as a youth worker – basketball coach, which lead to me becoming a learning mentor and then to the world of counselling.

I spoke as though there appeared to be a plan, but that would be me being presumptuous. The path to become a counsellor opened up the further I travelled along its over grown route. With each move there appeared to be a logical next step which developed, honed and remodelled my sense of enquiry. The book by Scott M. Peck A Road Less Travelled highlights the difficulties and treasures of working in the field of psychology. I happened to read the book at least 10 years before I began my training.

Creative practice

At the end of my presentation a number of questions were asked in relation to what life is like now as a counsellor/mental health practitioner. I was able to share that for me as a professional the experience is of being creative. I shared that I had attempted to bake and bring to the presentation a sourdough bread. The bread was to be used as a symbol. Sharing the growth and development of the journey I had undertaken. I was asked by a student ‘what the lack of being able to produce a bread represented?’ My response was for them ‘to think about my lack of bread and get back to me.’ In truth I did not have a good enough answer and used wit to escape the students question.

Bread = therapy

I have been working on my sourdough culture for a little over three years. It began when I received a book for Christmas by Dan Lepard the ‘Hand Baked Loaf’ in December 2011. I bought a few Kilner jars and started as Dan had suggested. I found it difficult to throw out much of the leaven on the 6th-7th day as he suggests, but overcame my reluctance to discard hard won yeast for the greater good of the bread. The yeast culture has been successful in helping me to produce a range of breads, pizza bases, focaccia and pain aux chocolate in the 3 years I have been baking in this way. I have also had a number of failures where the leaven has not produced bread that has not risen or has not had the aeration (big air holes) that a good sourdough should have.

Getting it wrong

A better response to the student’s question of my failure to produce a bread for the group, could have been to discuss the reality of failure or of not being successful when making interventions or assessments with clients. Whilst failure is an uncomfortable experience the effect of not reaching a particular point with a client can also be useful in providing information.

Getting things wrong can be of use for a therapist. I learn the strength of the alliance between me and the client, and the resilience of the therapeutic engagement. In most cases there is a point for reflection. “Was that interpretation useful now, for them?” “Would a senseate reflection be of use here, how did that story go, could it be of use, now?” I also get to refocus, so as to aim interpretations close to the person’s growing sense of awareness most of the time.

The other outcome is the person being supported finds a way forward which informs them of their resilience and that their counsellor doesn’t have all the answers!

Sharing concepts of not getting it right in therapeutic encounters with clients, with the student in question, could have helped to deliver the analogy of not producing my bread. ‘My bread is similar to working with clients, I don’t always get it right. With time, patience, be willing to accept the failure (lack of understanding, miscomprehension, miss timed interpretation) as a reason for the therapeutic work at times missing the mark, and continuing to offer support for successful outcomes.’ This is what I would liked to have said.

The future

Continuing after a mis-step in the counselling contract can result in a better result in therapy. For me and sourdough breads the aim is to create great artisan breads like those at Gails Blackheath, Brickhouse Bakery, and E5 Bake House. Alchemy occurs in therapy and can be achieved with bread.

I am glad that I have pursued the effort of crafting a good leaven that will produce great bread. Without the many failures I could not have appreciated the inevitable successes.

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.

Endings and New Beginnings

2015-07-05 14.47.16In September 2015 I began facilitating a group of year 1 MSc Therapeutic Counselling Students at University of Greenwich. My role was to sit with 11 students in something called Experiential Group.

Group Aims

Perhaps explaining what the group is to do and the aim of the Experiential Group would help to frame what I have enjoyed about the experience and why I am sad to see the group come to a close. The Experiential Group is essentially the last component of 4 or 5 sections of training to be a counsellor. Other training providers and universities may have a range of different modules for training counsellors. At the University of Greenwich the course is comprised of; Theory, Skills, Case Discussion and Experiential Group and this was the running order of the day when I attended 2008-2011.

In Experiential Group, members discuss topics that have arisen in the course of the week and share these with the group. The space is infused with dynamism, ideas, emotions and rememberings . My role is to sit amongst the group, and notice what is happening in the room and offer insights and reflections for reflection and application to the conversation. It is a role that I feel is as challenging as that of an orchestral conductor without a pre-designed, pre-aranged outcome or destination.

Facilitate?

At the first meeting in September 2015, the group asked what my role was, ‘Like what do you do?’ I smiled in response and did not offer much as an explanation. The 11 members of the group as one, looked perplexed, as if I were holding back some valuable information. I eventually offered that I facilitate the space.

Different yet the same

I can reflect on joining my experiential group in 2008 with 15 unknown people in the room and feeling at odds with 2 conflicting ideas. The first was that my previous counselling skills course at Morley College had offered a similar collective learning experience but was termed either a check in or a check out. The ‘Check ins’ were at the beginning of the course and the ‘Check outs’ came at the end. I had some knowledge of what the experiential group was about. But did I? Really?

Framing

I can remember in 2008 that I wanted to suggest we check-in and check-out. This would have given me a frame to work within for every group meeting. It may have provided others with a ‘have to’ which could have been prescriptive and not as comforting. Great for me, perhaps not necessary for everyone else. After attempting to make check-ins a part of our experiential group meetings the idea was phased out after 2 meetings. At the time I was not happy about this phasing out but looking back I can see the reason that check-ins were moved past.

The second thought at the time was, there are other people here and they may know more about counselling than me so I should listen and follow their lead as I don’t want to make myself look inept and out of my depth.

Growing Awareness

Looking back on my need for structure then, I can witness a need to control and pace things in a measured way. What happened with this year’s year one students, was apart from time boundaries there were little imposed rules for the group to hold on to. They managed well with little to guide discussion or rules for the group.

The purpose of the experiential group as identified in an article in Therapy Today (Peer supervision and collaborative power) , which is not in the course hand book but a suspicion on my part, is to grow the counselling experience and the counsellors awareness of self and other in the 28 x 1 hour appointments. I have found this group process remarkable, confusing, frustrating, hilarious, as a way of engaging student counsellors works to hone inherent skill development.

Differences

It works because of what each member brings to each meeting. There are differences of opinion, differences in thought, seeing aspects of counselling and psychotherapy in a wide number of perspectives, a collaboration of suspicions, they share successes and failures, difficulties are offered as talking points for the group to reflect. The aspect that makes me wryly smile is that the energy of the room sways and motivates discussion in surprising ways. Pop culture and Pop psychology is often used to hang uncomfortable and indigestible components of counselling and psychotherapy on. Humour was often used to smooth away the cracks that appeared in a discussion that encountered difficulty or a differing opinion.

Appreciation

The group then use the experiential group and components of the course as well as their placements to write 2 professional logs. The professional logs are informed by personal notes taken throughout the year. These notes observe how each participant has used/observed themselves and material from the course in describing themes relevant to them, their progression on the course and relating this to skills, placement (counselling skills application), case discussion and the experiential group. With each professional log, students grew their awareness and their roles as counsellors in each particular setting they practiced their skills in. It was a privilege to sit amongst the group and witness these nano changes, that were in fact gargantuan.

My excitement wanes as I acknowledge that I won’t have this 1st again. These 11 students go on to year 2 or elsewhere to continue their journey in a way that is outside of my knowledge, experience and guidance.

With this said, I am invited to look at what lies at the horizon and begin my walk toward this…

Bon chance.

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…