Tag: experiment

Statue of Arjuna

The Golden Arrow: how to live a more or less fulfilling life

The Golden Arrow is a heuristic tool I’ve been thinking about for a while now to help frame my understanding of what is happening in therapy at a given time. Really, it’s an app running off the gestalt cycle api; the theoretical cycle of gestalt formation and destruction chunters away in the background, and gets expressed through the Golden Arrow.

I originally intended this to be a single blog post running through each element of the arrow, but the content exploded. I figure that means the process of writing this out is helping me integrate a bunch of stuff (what David Tennant’s Doctor (the best Doctor) might term gestalt-walty stuff), so I’ll let this emerge in its own time, then thread everything together once it’s complete.

The overall idea is simple. The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction describes how a gestalt comes into and out of being by breaking the process down into seven stages. This aids therapy by providing a diagnostic tool geared towards the mechanics of how we construct our experiences. But it can sometimes become too abstract.

So for me, keeping that theory close to practice is about asking what’s happening now within the active gestalt; what is the overall kind of action to which this current situation is geared?

That’s led me to describe four modes of gestalt functioning with a natural direction of travel:

Needing > Wanting > Choosing > Doing

The arrow metaphor is by no means original, and comes from the concept of karma being explained through the metaphor of archery. A blog post for another day perhaps, but I think karma has huge potential as a solid clinical concept in therapy. I think what we essentially work with in therapy is a person’s karma (a word whose meaning is to do with certain kinds of action).

For The Golden Arrow, I’m using the metaphor to describe the way an arrow points and flies from one point to another. This is to emphasise how needing leads to wanting which leads to choosing which leads to doing. This movement from one mode to another is the natural progression of a given gestalt. Left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment, we can mostly relax control and allow our arising needs to progress into actions.

But therapy exists because we aren’t left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment. We live in complicated environments, often subject to extreme frustrations and dangers, and usually subject to some degree of external imposition that opposes our own needs of the moment.

Many, maybe most, of these needs can just be dropped. But chronically frustrated needs and significant unmet needs create the classic unfinished business of gestalt therapy. And given severe frustration, and/or the need to survive environments characterised by intolerable and contradictory psychological pressures, entire modes of being can become problematic.

It’s possible to adapt ourselves to hostile environments to such an extent that we are unable to identify our own needs; be aware of what we need but feel no desire for it; be unable to decide things for ourselves; or consistently fail to follow through on our own decisions. Or all of the above in various combinations at various different times as we try to navigate our own personal hellscape.

For the purposes of doing therapy, The Golden Arrow is an attempt to frame therapeutic dialogue. It also provides a usable model for developing a background sense of feeling more or less fulfilled (whilst acknowledging that fulfilment in life can’t be reduced to a four step exercise!). Roughly speaking, the formula is this:

If you want what you need, choose what you want, do what you choose, and need what you do, then you will live a more or less fulfilling life.

But all those elements must be there, and the foundational work is being able to connect with a mostly accurate sense of what you need. Which involves developing an ability to return to the ultimate basics of gestalt therapy: what am I aware of now?

The main advantages of focusing on these four ideas are accessibility and action-orientation.

Needing, wanting, choosing, and doing are accessible themes for conversation because they are themes people struggle with. And those struggles are scalable, meaning you can do an experiment about needing easily in the therapy room, and it will be directly applicable to major needs outside of the therapy room. As above, so below.

Action-orientation relates to the words being verbs rather than nouns, and so already being rooted in directly experienced action. It’s tempting to talk about needs as if they are neatly packaged things we can pick up and examine. But our lived experience isn’t of picking up and putting down needs, it’s of need*ing*.

With both needing and wanting, there is a visceral experience of the absence of something. With choosing there is an often tortuous process of weighing up options and being pulled in different directions before having to actively commit to something over something else. And with doing there is a dazzling array of different actions and combinations of actions that go into fulfilling our intentions. For me at least, this helps with grounding theory in both practice and every day experience.

I’ll link here to each additional part as I get further posts written.

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Photo credit:Arjuna” by tbSMITH, shared under Creative Commons.

Recursive spiral clocks.

Timing is everything. I repeat, timing is everything!

the bristol therapist facebook page digest – january 2018

Quite a while back, I got excited and over-committed myself to an in-depth process of chewing over everything I read online that would culminate in a weekly digest. The two main outcomes of that experiment were an inability to get beyond week two, and a consequent reduction in how much online content I read.

The original point was to reduce the risk of introjecting ideas and values by ensuring that what I was reading was subjected to at least some degree of critical thought. As I couldn’t keep up with what I was reading, I was forced to question the behaviour as it started to seem compulsive. The end result was of becoming more discerning about what and how much online content I read; the unforeseen and welcome side effect of a gestalt experiment.

I still like the core idea though, so am resurrecting it in amended form for this therapy blog. I’ll aim to make it monthly rather than weekly, and focus on the articles I share through my facebook page. This also opens more possibility for dialogue, as I’m open to being sent links to interesting articles in a broadly therapy/psychology/being-human kind of vibe.

January was a quiet month for me on the facebook page, so I can overview everything here instead of choosing a top few articles. I imagine that in months where I post more, I’ll likely stick to a top five to stop this spiralling out of control.

I’m also going to err on the side of sloppy as this is meant to be about initial responses and chewing things over, so feel free to have at me in the comments.

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If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly.

This blog post is a reflection on Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which seems to be all about practices for focusing on in-depth pieces of work and not getting distracted. (I’ll let you know if I ever manage to read it!)

Reflecting on the inspiration he felt whilst reading the book, and how even by the end of the book that feeling was disippating, Ben says:

“The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo.”

This resonates greatly for me in my work as a therapist (and reflecting on my own time in therapy as a client). The problem with breakthrough moments in therapy, the insights and the ah-ha of realisation, is that these moments by themselves aren’t usually enough to shift actual behaviour.

As therapists, we kind of rely on a naive assumption that, following such a breakthrough experience in the therapy session, the client will then automatically go out and change things in their everyday lives. But even a brief reflection on my own process reveals that I’m more likely to lose the “heat of inspiration” than turn it into tangible action.

This is in part why gestalt therapists assimilated the behavioural therapy practice of setting homework tasks to be carried out between sessions. This practice also lives on in modern day Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Then again, what we alos find in therapy is that the insights that are most important and driven by organismic need tend to recur. So at least part of the point of being in therapy long-term is to allow the repetition of gaining the same insight several times to take place in order to reinforce the necessary changes.

So when Ben talks about re-reading books:

“If you’ve ever read a book a second time, you may have noticed that it’s an entirely different experience from the first time. It doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive. Instead, it feels like gaps are being filled in. Different details strike you as important. The points you do remember now have the benefit of context, and much of it seems entirely new.”

He’s also summarising why the same insights need to be discovered and talked over in therapy. The analagy is with chewing food. Most mouthfuls of food need to be chewed several times before they are ready for swallowing. The same is true of insights in therapy; talking them over, then rediscovering them later and talking them over again allows us to assimilate the lessons and the changes more effectively.

TL;DR: “If it’s worth learning, it’s worth learning repeatedly.”

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Antidepressants: Please, PLEASE, do not just abandon your meds!

This article is part of a continuing backlash against erstwhile journalist Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions.

In short, Johann’s book seems to rely heavily on a simplistic medication = bad formulation that gives the impression people should abandon anti-depressants in pursuit of real “cures” for depression. This particularly article is a simple plea that people wanting to come off any kind of medication for depression, anxiety etc don’t just stop their meds, and at least go talk to their GP about it.

As for the wider issues with Johann’s book, well I’ve not read it so can’t comment directly on the text. However, one of the reasons I haven’t read it, and am wary of reading it, is that the very title contains two huge red flags. One is “real causes of depression”, and the other is “solutions”. The very idea that depression can be reduced to something that has identifiable causes and solutions is facile, and flies in the face of what most people discover about depression for themselves, both in and out of therapy.

I don’t mean that reasons for being depressed can’t be found, or that ways out of being depressed can’t be found. Just that, for the most part, you can’t say to someone, “your depression is caused by x, and if you do y, you will be cured”. Depression isn’t a disease to be cured.

Johann also doesn’t seem to be aware that there is a decades long tradition in psychotherapy of challenging the reductive idea of depression as a problem of brain chemistry. And performs a classic throwing out of the baby with the bathwater by seeming to conclude that medication can simply be jettisoned. Many people need to work on their depression through both medication and therapy.

So in part I shared this article to siugnal that I’m not in the “medication is inherently bad” camp. I’m still skeptical about the extent to which medication like antidepressants are prescribed, and think that a society that took depression seriously would be able to support most cases of depression without medication. But then, almost by definition, such a society would most likely experience very low levels of depression in the first place, such is the problem with any “in an ideal world” formulation!

In our current society, very little room is made for people to work through depression in the ways they need and in their own time. I get the sense that Johann Hari is arguing more or less the same thing, but presents it as a unique idea that has only just been stumbled on, and gives the impression that it’s possible to simply throw away the meds and kickstart that world right now.

TL;DR: It’s ok if you need meds. If you want to stop your meds, always work out a plan with your prescriber first.

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This Is The Best Time To Do Anything: 4 Powerful Secrets From Research.

I’m a sucker for “secrets from research” type posts, even though the secrets have clearly been published in books and journals, so aren’t that much of a secret.

In the context of gestalt therapy, stuff like this plays to the idea that you’re better off tuning in to your own experience and working out what you need (organismic self-regulation) than adapting yourself to externally imposed ideas about what you should need (introjective or shouldistic self-regulation).

Which of course immediately throws up the objection that following our own needs is largely impossible given the consistent demands of school timetables and the workplace. But therapy doesn’t end at individual behavioural changes. To me, one of the signs of effective therapy, is getting people to the point at which they are able to challenge their own society and take political action.

Yes, school timetables are often rigid and tend to prioritise the needs of the school over the needs of the children and parents. So find parents who agree and channel that frustration into political pressure. Yes, the workplace grinds people into dust. So join a union, organise politically, negotiate explicit demands with other workers, and be prepared to engage in long-term political action.

Practically every course of therapy hits the boundary between individual need and social demands. These conflicts can’t be solved in one to one therapy. But they can be brought into awareness, explored, and a subsequent movement into political action can be supported.

TL;DR: Highlights from Dan Pink’s book When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing, especially for larks, night owls, and third birds.

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Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression.

I really enjoy the British Psychological Society’s research digest. It’s a really good example of using blogging to make academic research accessible to a wider audience.

This post is based on a meta-analysis looking at the link between creativity and mental illness, prinipally mood disorders as this seems to be where the most research focuses. It suggests that a fruitful focus for further research would be into how creativity links to mood disorder.

Interestingly, in considering possible explanatons, Alex suggests creative lifestyle and the possibility that creativity simply expresses in a way that is more likely to match the symptomology of mood disorders eg:

“many aspects of the “flow state” – extended bursts of activity, disregarding the need for sleep or food, absorption or attentional wandering, rapidly flowing thoughts – are also treated as markers of bipolar disorder”

Working regularly with creative people in therapy, I’d suggest that highly creative people tend to also be more sensitive and emotionally oriented, and this opens them up to being more easily hurt by a society that tends not to value creatvity. The arts tend to be undervalued in education for example, and many of the creative clients I’ve worked with have reported feeling like they were a square peg being hammered into a round hole.

So yes, the lifestyles of creative industries likely contribute to the development of mood disorders, but the way creative people experience their world might be more casutive. Especially if you’re going to reference “the profligate substance misuse” as a given aspect of the creative lifestyle without asking from where the need for substance misuse arises.

TL;DR: Creative people are more likely than average to have a mood disorder, but people with mood disorders are not more likely than average to be creative.

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Want to take your psychotherapy to the next level? Ask for what you want.

As will become clear as I unfold The Golden Arrow, wanting offers a major in-road into understanding what we need. What I like about this post is that it encourages clients to ask for what they want from their therapist.

I’d extend that to most relationships. It’s useful to ask yourself every now and then, “what do I want from this relationship?”. This is often hard for people because it feels like a very selfish or transactional thing to ask of a relationship. But ultimately, healthy relationships develop out of some kind of mutual need, and it’s ok to ask if the relationship is still mutually needful.

Asking for what you want is a way into that, not necessarily an end in itself. And in therapy at least, it can make for really interesting sessions that can redefine where the therapy is going.

TL;DR: It’s ok, and actively good, to tell your therapist what you want.

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Photo credit: “…Time…” by Darren Tunnicliff, shared under Creative Commons.

Chewing digital food in my pocket

An enduring metaphor in gestalt therapy is to imagine experiences as food. Whilst this was a concern of the founders back in the 1950s, social media has given emphasis to its appropriateness. We regularly refer to what’s appearing in our feeds, mostly without pursuing the hint that the information delivered by our feeds is a form of sustenance.

One of the ideas this leads to in gestalt therapy, is a concern with the process of chewing food. This relates to the critical examination of what we are experiencing / have experienced in order to aid the process of digestion (ie, to assimilate our experiences as fully as possible), and to be more choiceful about what we take in (swallow) and reject (spit out).

Most appropriate to our information rich age of social media, is the observation that if we take in too much information, too quickly, we don’t have time to critically evaluate that information, and are more prone to simply absorb other peoples’ views/biases/prejudices (introjection in gestalt therapy). This is by no means an observation unique to gestaltists; it’s a staple warning of anyone who values critical thinking and independent thought.

A while back, I decided I wanted to keep track of what I read online and started using pocket. You sign up for an account, then download the plug-in for any browsers you’re using, and the app for your smartphone. It’s then possible to save any link in pocket, and assign tags to make the links searchable by keyword. As the pocket account is in the cloud, links saved can be accessed from any machine that has the plug-in / app installed.

Since November, I’ve kept track of my online reading using a weekly tag (wc for week-commencing, then the date that week started) in addition to relevant keywords. This has already made it easier for me to track down articles I vaguely remember having read. I’ll either remember the main keyword and scroll the articles under that tag, or remember roughly how long ago I read it and scroll back to that week.

I’ve also become more discerning about which articles I read; the minor hassle of tagging something in pocket is enough to make me do an initial assessment of whether reading the article is going to be worth the hassle of tagging it afterwards. My eyes are no longer bigger than my stomach!

More recently, I’ve decided to experiment with more of a chewing process. Each week, I keep a pocket scratchpad in my email drafts. My aim is to record the thoughts that come up in relation to what I’m reading. At the very least, this consists of a TL;DR of a couple of sentences, usually with some notes on basic responses (thoughts, feelings, images, associations etc).

I’m finding that with some links, a commentary emerges, which might only be a more detailed reaction than just notes, or may turn into a blog post in its own right. Where a blog post emerges, I’ll be publishing it as a separate post, and keeping just the TL;DR and a link to the blog post in the scratchpad.

Which is all an elaborate way of describing the production of a weekly digest, but the fact we call it a digest in the first place helps reinforce the point. I’m using Medium to publish the digests. It feels kind of like Livejournal: The Next Generation.

To extend the food metaphor, the weekly digest itself could be the equivalent of chewing and swallowing. What happens to that blog post in the wilds of the internet is maybe more akin to food’s journey through the intestinal tract. Maybe other people read the post and leave comments that help me consider what I’ve taken in from new perspectives, like gut bacteria breaking food down into useful nutrients.

It’s also a good way of putting into practice this article’s advice on using systems not goals. I tend to want to write more blog posts than I get round to writing, and can go a long time between ruminating on something and actually getting it out there.

By doing little bits of writing on a regular basis, without worrying much about quality or putting together commentary (some of my responses simply involve typing “welp”), I’m at least chewing stuff over and making a discipline of a really basic blogging skill: picking out figures of interest from articles and responding to them.

Follow me on Medium if you want to see how it pans out. And if you use a system of your own for keeping track of and processing your online reading, tell me all about it in the comments!

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Photo credit: Chewing the cud by robdownunder

Resentments and regrets: working with unfinished business.

Any incomplete gestalt is unfinished business demanding resolution. Usually this takes the form of unresolved and incompletely expressed feelings. Patients are encouraged to experiment with finishing business which heretofore was unfinished… Gestalt therapists have found that resentments are the most frequent and meaningful unexpressed feeling, and often deal with this with a game in which communication is limited to statements beginning with the words “I resent…” Gary Yontef – Awareness, Dialogue & Process (1993; p79)

When the environment fails in some emotionally significant way, disappointment is a natural organismic response. When that disappointment is not acknowledged, is not expressed, or is held onto, it grows bitter and transmutes into resentment.

Maybe I come to resent someone for not living up to my expectations, or for not doing something I wanted them to do, or for doing something I didn’t want them to do. Maybe I come to resent some aspect of my self for not being the way I want it to be. This part of my self then becomes other to me; I resent my body for not fitting a social ideal, or I resent my intellect for not being sharp enough, etc.

On the other hand, when it is I who fails in some emotionally significant way, that disappointment transmutes into regret. These regrets become particularly poignant and important towards the end of life; important enough that a palliative nurse wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Just as with environmental failures, regrets can arise both from what I have or haven’t done. The main difference seems to be that regret focuses on actions I have or have not taken, whereas resentment arises from something being other than I want it to be.

Yontef’s experiment above is designed to focus awareness in order to create a clear series of figures. This is an exploration of figure/ground formation by taking a feeling as figure (resentment), then fixing it in place as a stable background, from which a series of other figures are invited to emerge (“I resent x; I resent y”).

This is particularly useful for people who defend against a specific feeling with deflection; changing topic, becoming tangential, or otherwise trying to prevent me from retaining a focus on the difficult feeling. Consequently, I have used variations on this experiment that include, “I am angry…”, “I am afraid…”, “I am sad…”. It effectively prevents avoidance by fixing the avoided feeling in place, in awareness. Though it’s important that the person I’m working with retains the power to end this experiment to prevent it being something I do to them.

My aims here include: developing self-support for the feeling under exploration by assimilating the realisation that episodes of experiencing that feeling are tolerable; developing the capacity to choicefully move towards and away from the feeling under exploration; general awareness raising (this is always in fact the primary objective of a gestalt therapy experiment, and a necessary condition for an experiment qualifying as “gestalt”).

Resentment and regret seem to be two important skeleton keys with the potential to unlock doors into a wide variety of unfinished business. Resentments will bring environmental failures into view; a landscape of disappointment. Regrets will bring organismic failures into view; the disappointed self. In both cases, the therapeutic task is discovering that which is necessary for completion.

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Photo credit: Regrets by Magali M.

boredom

The psychopathology of boredom

Psychopathology is a great word. It has three parts: ‘psyche’ (the soul), ‘pathos’ (suffering), and the suffix ‘ology’ (the study of). If you’re ever writing about something in the context of its impact on human suffering, you can’t go far wrong by dropping in psychopathology (incidentally, given those meanings, that makes the meaning of ‘psychopath’ something like ‘suffering soul’). I digress.

As is perhaps becoming clear, I enjoy contemplating etymology; the origin and historical development of words. Not just their current meaning, but their historical origin and development over time. In the gestalt approach to therapy, we work with the present situation, and appropriate aspects of the person’s historical field come into awareness in relation to the material under consideration.

The reason I’m fascinated by etymology is because language creatively adjusts over time, and I think the history of a word has some bearing on its present meaning. In gestalt terms, I’d say that the present dictionary definition is in awareness, whereas the etymology is out of awareness (roughly correlating to the more analytic ideas of conscious and unconscious).

Consider the majority of the words you use every day: how did you learn those words? We don’t learn language from the dictionary, we learn language from people. The dictionary may fix an agreed definition for a given word, based on research into its current usage, but that makes the dictionary more like a camera taking linguistic snapshots than the actual source of a word’s meaning. I’m fascinated by etymology because it is the lived, relational story of the life and times of language. I suspect that etymology gives us a better idea of a word’s full meaning than the dictionary.

So, boredom.

Unfortunately, Cambridge Dictionaries Online define boredom as ‘when you are bored’ committing the cardinal sin of dictionaries by defining a word through reference to the word being defined. This vexes me. Fortunately, it defines bored slightly better: feeling tired and unhappy because something is not interesting or because you have nothing to do.

Now, ironically, my interest perks. How often have you been in or witnessed the situation in which one person (let’s call him Agamemnon) complains about being bored, and another person (say, Trixi) comes up with ideas for things Agamemnon could do, only for him to reject all of these ideas. There is never, incidentally, nothing to do; at the very least you can daydream.

From a gestalt perspective, a person is a process not a thing, so when I contemplate boredom, I look for the process. What is happening to bring about the feeling of boredom. The etymology of boredom gives us the process; boredom is the state (-dom) of being drilled into (bore). The word boring is a verb that has become used as an adjective; so the original sense is that if something is boring, then that something is actively doing something, it is boring into something.

The reason our dear Agamemnon ends up frustrating Trixi with his lack of interest in any of the available options is that it’s those very options that are boring into him. It isn’t simply that he lacks interest in his situation; it’s that his situation has become incredibly fixed and is starting to bore/drill/perforate into him, slowly and relentlessly.

So what is the psychopathology of boredom?

Agamemnon’s situation is one in which a number of the possible figures of interest have become fixed. Usually, when we lose interest in one figure, it recedes into the background and something else comes into the foreground. The shifting process of figure/ground is one ever-flowing dance of things moving from background to foreground to background according to the shifting needs of the person. Agamemnon is suffering because this process has stalled; whatever his needs are in this moment, he is unable to re-configure his immediate field around that need. If Trixi asked him in this moment ‘what do you need right now?’, it’s quite possible he’d only be able to answer ‘I don’t know’. Boredom is the state of being impaled on one’s current situation, and a (temporary) loss of the ability to create a new one.

So what’s to be done about this?

Trixi makes the critical error of suggesting possibilities to Agamemnon. Either the options Trixi offers are ones that he is already aware of (in which case, they are the very spikes on which he is already impaled), or they are possibilities he hasn’t been aware of, in which case he is largely unable to reach them on account of being impaled on his current situation. The trouble with being offered a new situation when one is impaled on the existing situation is that unimpaling onself is more painful than remaining impaled.

Remember: it isn’t possible to exhaust the possibilities of any given situation because the possibilities are infinite; it is only what one is aware of at any given time that is finite. Boredom is a state that we create for ourselves, without being aware of what we are doing or how (the clue here being the feeling that it is our situation that is doing something to us, which immediately points to a projection of some disowned aspect of ourselves). Consequently, there is the high likelihood that if Trixi succeeds in getting Agamemnon engaged in a possibility he is unaware of, he will most likely simply become impaled on the new situation once its novelty has worn off.

Ironically, the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored.

There is a saying in gestalt, ‘work with the resistance’. Resistance is when I make a suggestion as a therapist and my client pushes back against it in some way. A classic example would be me asking ‘what are you feeling right now?’ (directing awareness towards emotion) and my client answering ‘oh I’m just thinking about…’ (deflecting awareness from feeling onto thinking). My client in this example is resistant to being aware of feelings. Working with the resistance means observing this process and becoming interested in it because that is where my client’s energy and interest is focused; in resisting the awareness of feelings. I’m not interested in overcoming resistance; I’m interested in directing awareness towards resistance because that is the fast-track to how my client has creatively adjusted. If someone deflects from feeling to thinking, they have good reason; my job is to support those reasons in becoming explicit rather than implicit.

Agamemnon isn’t simply impaled on his situation. Agamemnon is impaling himself on his situation. He is also frustrating Trixi’s attempts at creating a new situation. Boredom, then, can be seen as a resistance to two important things: first, the creation of a new/unfamiliar situation; second, the destruction (in the sense of de-structuring) of the old/familiar situation. Human experience is a constant process of structuring, destructuring, and restructuring.

I said the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored, which I realise implies that I think boredom needs to be cured; I don’t. I think boredom expresses an important struggle between remaining in a familiar situation and entering an unfamiliar situation. In gestalt terms, this is an impasse, a deadlocked situation in which there is both potential for transition and resistance to that transition. Honouring this struggle means staying with the impasse and all the uncomfortable feelings that entails.

To that end, I suggest the following experiment for the next time you find yourself suffering from boredom:

Exaggerate your boredom and become as bored as you can be. What about your situation is boring? Make a list: x is boring, y is boring, z is boring. Tell each of those things in turn that they are boring you: ‘x, you are boring me; y, you are boring me; z, you are boring me’. You might find you want to say more to them: ‘x, you are boring me, and while I think about it, I also want to say…..’. If you find it difficult to say ‘x, you are boring me’ then what about saying that is difficult? Wherever you find yourself resisting, become interested in exploring how you resist, what you resist, why you resist.

Resistance is one of humanity’s most creative and beautiful processes. Even under the most crushing of tyrannies, still human beings are able to find ways of resisting apparently overwhelming force. Considering that the possibilities in any given moment of life are infinite, the sheer creativity involved in holding oneself in a state of boredom is astounding.

In fact, when I consider what it would be like to be cast adrift on that sea of infinite possibilities, what Milan Kundera would call the unbearable lightness of being, boredom suddenly seems fundamental to survival.

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Photo credit: “boredom” by jean olahus. This post first appeared on my old blog, le chat d’argent.

eu referendum

EU Referendum: 3 gestalt therapy exercises for undecided voters

Tomorrow (Thursday 23rd June 2016), millions of us will go to a polling station, and decide the fate of our nation by putting a cross in one of two boxes in the much anticipated EU Referendum. Polling puts the result on a knife-edge, which means that the votes of undecided voters will decide the result.

I’ve had enough involvement in electoral politics now to know that a large proportion of undecided voters don’t make up their minds until they’re in the polling booth. So it could well be that the referendum result is ultimately decided in the quiet and dusty musk of the act of voting itself.

Which could be anything from terrifying to exhilarating depending on your disposition. Either way, I’ve made up my mind already so unfortunately, as an undecided voter, it’s your problem not mine!

Now, you will find any number of arguments for Leave and Remain, so if you’re still undecided at this point then the chances are that those arguments haven’t been helpful. I would like to offer a couple of exercises that might help you decide which way to go, and another for if you wake up tomorrow and still have no idea.

These are exercises I use in my therapy practice, and they mostly help people, so give them a try.

Exercise 1: get your Leave and Remain sides to talk to each other.

Sometimes, the best way to solve a dilemma is to intensify the discomfort of the dilemma until it resolves itself spontaneously. To use the popular gestalt therapy analogy of chewing, a dilemma is a particularly chewy mouthful of food that can simply need an epic amount of chewing before it’s broken down enough to be swallowed.

Take two chairs and position them. One will be the Remain chair, one will be the Leave chair. Keep a notebook to hand, and write down any thoughts/feelings/memories/fantasies that come up as you’re speaking (as therapist, I would normally interject at various points to ask “what are you aware of now?”, so think of the notebook as a therapist stand-in). The basic process is:

Opening up 

1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. Adopt a posture and voice that feels most appropriate to the side you’re embodying.

3. Take about 90 seconds to make an opening statement that overviews the case for your side.

4. Move into the other chair, and repeat steps 2 and 3.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made, or just to mull over the exercise so far (do this in a new, 3rd position, not either of the Leave/Remain chairs). Start to get a sense of what each side means to you at this point. Then, when you’re ready:

Dialogue

1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. As Leave/Remain, what do you want to say to the other side? Take up to 60 seconds, focusing your awareness especially on what you feel as you speak.

3. Move into the other chair, and take up to 60 seconds to respond. Keep focusing your awareness on what you feel as you speak.

4. Keep repeating step 3 until you feel like there is nothing more to say.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made / mull over this part of the exercise. Consider again what each side means to you now. Then, when you’re ready:

Closing

1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. Take about 60 seconds to make a closing statement that overviews the case for your side, incorporating any changes that might have arisen as a result of the dialogue.

3. Move into the other chair and repeat step 2.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made / mull over this part of the exercise. Consider again what each side means to you now. Then, when you’re ready:

Adjudication

1. Now adopt a 3rd position where you are entirely you again.

2. Thank both Leave and Remain for their contributions and for an interesting discussion.

3. Now weigh up both the cases you’ve just made, and ask yourself the important question: which side did you find most convincing? That’s the way you need to vote.

Quite often, the drawn out process of this exercise will exhaust the energy you’ve invested in one side of the argument, revealing that the dilemma is relatively surface level. It can be hard to resolve this kind of dilemma by listening to other people, because other people will have a lot of energy invested in their favoured side, and that energy will invigorate that side of your dilemma.

You can also discover that both sides of the dilemma have equal energy but gain an insight into where the energy for each side comes from. You may well discover that one side comes from what you believe and are excited by, and another comes from an internalisation of someone important to you. Or that each side of the dilemma comes from very different motivations within you. The process of figuring this out often leads naturally to a conclusion that favours one side over the other.

Or not! In which case…

Exercise 2: sleep on it.

One of the many useful findings of sleep and dream research is the observation that dreams are heavily influenced by our preoccupations from the day. It’s even possible to train yourself to lucid dream (wake up within your dream and know that you’re dreaming) to the point of deciding when to lucid dream and what to lucid dream about (see Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming).

One function of dreaming appears to be resolving incomplete situations from the very recent past (ie, the past couple of days). It’s possible to play with this function to help solve personal conundrums and dilemmas. Try this:

1. Write down a clear question on a small piece of paper, eg “how should I vote in the referendum?”.

2. Carry it around with you for the rest of the day, taking it out to look at it frequently.

3. Think about your dilemma as much as you can. Run through all the arguments for each side, over and over again.

4. When it’s time for bed, read something that summarises the dilemma well. If you’ve tried Exercise 1 and not reached a conclusion, then read through everything you’ve written down.

5. Put the piece of paper with your question on it under your pillow (seriously).

6. Go to sleep.

7. When you wake up in the morning, take the piece of paper out from the pillow and answer the question.

Your dreaming tonight is highly likely to be influenced by your referendum dilemma simply by virtue of it being an emotionally charged preoccupation. By directing this energy into a specific focus, and prompting yourself to contemplate it regularly, you’re seting up a temporary habit that stands a decent chance of repeating otself in your dreams.

Best case scenario, you wake with a resolution on how to vote. Possibly, you might wake up remembering a dream that is either obviously relevant (you dream about the referendum) or just feels relevant. Fortunately, I have already blogged about doing your own dreamwork, so for a bonus exercise, see: dream a little dream of me.

Alternatively, you may well work through both excercises, and find yourself still at an impasse on Thursday morning. In which case…

Exercise 3: trust the process.

You don’t have to know which way to vote until you’re in the polling booth, and even then you could just draw a massive penis on your voting paper or write Votey McVoteface in block capitals across the top instead. It’s a secret ballot, no one will know how or if you voted, and it’s the height of bad manners to demand to know how someone voted. If you’re ok with letting everyone else decide for you, then actually you don’t have a problem at all.

Maybe you’re stuck because, actually, you don’t want to vote. Did you ask for an EU Referendum? Did you want it? Probably not if you’re undecided at this point. It’s entirely possible that you’re caught in Sartre’s existential trap whereby the one choice you don’t have is not choosing. You didn’t ask to be born but you must decide what to do with your life now you have it. As with life, so with this referendum.

Maybe you’re stuck because you don’t think it makes much of a difference either way. And then people like me who favour one side over the other come along to tell you that absolutely everything depends on how you vote, and you start to doubt yourself. Well on the one hand, that’s democracy, so tough. On the other hand, forget us, we have no idea what’s going to happen either, not in the long run.

Ultimately, we’re making this decision because David Cameron decided an EU Referendum was the best way to answer the threat of UKIP and keep his backbenchers onside. It’s the worst possible reason to hold a referendum about anything, so if it all goes horribly wrong, it’s his responsibility, not yours.

Whatever’s going on for you, just roll with it. Don’t worry about being undecided, become curious about it instead. How often will the future of a continent rest on your shoulders? Surely that’s an experience worth savouring? Notice what you feel in your body. Notice what this decision means to you. Be as in these moments as you can be because right now is all there is and ever will be, and this particular right now will never be again.

And if after all of the above you’re still stuck, pencil in hand, and you don’t want to spoil your ballot paper? Toss a coin and enjoy the looks on everyone’s faces when you tell them that’s what you did.

Happy voting!

~ ~ ~

Image credit: photography by Istock, snaffled from www.gq-magazine.co.uk How you should vote in the EU Referendum.
dream a little dream of me

Dream a little dream of me

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front of late. This is because I’ve been directing most of my spare time and energy into a research project exploring the gestalt approach to working with dreams. Not only am I fascinated with the subject matter but I’ve also become somewhat entranced by the research process itself. Lots of material for future blog posts I’m sure!

In the meantime, I’d like to give an introduction to the gestalt approach to dreams, as it strikes me as an approach that warrants more attention and exploration.

Essentially, the gestalt approach to dreams is to become and experience as much of the dream content as possible. This is in contrast to an analytic approach in which the dream’s meaning is interpreted; either as your way of symbolically coding what you know to be true but want to avoid knowing (Freudian tradition), or as your way of manifesting collective archetypal forces (Jungian tradition).

Classic gestalt dreamwork involves telling your dream in the first person, present tense as if you’re back in the dream and it’s happening right now. That re-activates much of the energy tied up in the dream. The rough methodology of dreamwork involves choosing parts of the dream that attract your attention and ‘becoming’ them.

If I’m sat at a desk in my dream, then I can speak as me, or I can speak as the desk. I can become aware of other characters and objects in the dream and speak as them. As I do this, I notice what I become aware of and feel as I speak from the desk part of myself. Spontaneously, I might make new connections, reach new insights, or connect with feelings that I usually stop myself from connecting with.

By focusing on the here and now of dream exploration, gestalt shifts the focus from finding some meaning for the dream, to making contact with whatever is tied up in the dream. We don’t need to answer the question ‘What does this dream mean?’. One dream can answer a dozen different questions at a dozen different times, the only real relevance test being does the dream seem in some way relevant to you now?

And like anything in gestalt, you can self-verify this through experimentation:

Phase 1 Recall your dream. If you can, speak it out loud; if not, think it through or write it down. Stay in the first person, present tense (eg ‘I am walking down the road and notice a squirrel up ahead’). Notice what you become aware of as you recall your dream.

Phase 2 When you’ve finished recalling, choose something from the dream that you’d like to play the part of for a while. To start with, it helps if you switch seats to become this dream aspect. Now, speak from that dream aspect and explore your perspective in the dream (eg ‘I am a squirrel and I’m standing here in the road and…’). Explore what you’re thinking, how you feel, what you’re aware of (eg ‘I am a squirrel and I’m thinking….’, ‘I am a squirrel and I’m feeling….’, ‘I am a squirrel and I’m aware of…..’).

Phase 3 Create a dialogue between you as you, and you as the dream aspect. Keep one seat for you, one seat for the dream aspect, and change seats to speak as each part. Having spoken as the dream aspect, what would you like to say to it? Is there anything you’d like to ask it? So, I ask the squirrel ‘what are you doing in the road?’. When I change positions and become the squirrel, I answer ‘I’m giving you an amusing example to use in your blog’. The idea is to suspend your expectations and go with whatever comes up until you feel you’ve reached a natural conclusion. You can then repeat phases 2 and 3 for as many other parts of the dream as you want.

What’s key in the three phases above is that the exploration takes place in the immediacy of felt experience, and allows meaning to arise spontaneously out of creative exploration. Everything in your dream is taken to be some aspect of yourself, and so you’re invited to re-absorb some of those energies and perspectives.

This is the approach that came to characterise gestalt dreamwork, and is heavily influenced by the charismatic example of Fritz Perls. What’s especially interesting for me is the theory that sits behind this way of working. Essentially, the methodology above rests on the idea that dreams are projections of the dreamer. That is, everything in the dream is some aspect of self that has been dis-owned and which the self is attempting to get rid of.

Projection is pretty much like trying to throw a part of yourself away. You can’t throw parts of your selfaway though, so they instead become experienced as something external to yourself. Working with projection is a matter of re-owning projected aspects of self. This is why Perls described dreams as ‘the royal road to integration’; by re-owning aspects of the dream, I am re-owning aspects of my self and so moving towards greater self-integration.

Of course, this way of working with dreams doesn’t fly with everyone; not everyone is entirely comfortable about dialoguing with their inner squirrel. And that’s fine; the above is just one way of working with dreams in gestalt, and I generally adapt my method according to what’s appropriate for the given situation. My research interest is in what happens if gestalt therapists work with dreams in a deliberately different way that emphasises different gestalt concepts.

That’s proving to be a very interesting voyage of discovery for me. And if I give my voyage a voice and ask myself where I’m taking me? I just laugh and tell myself to wait and see!

~ ~ ~

Image credit: www.theodysseyonline.com: On the Importance of Dreams.

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