“My purpose today is to reach out across disciplines and invite design thinking into this big conversation. That is, to bring intention and creativity to the experience of dying. We have a monumental opportunity in front of us, before one of the few universal issues as individuals as well as a civil society: to rethink and redesign how it is we die.”
I have been thinking of focusing my therapy research lately. While depression and anxiety support have long been interests of mine, I have found myself considering offering more specific grief and bereavement counselling services.
Why? My own depression and anxiety were the result of a sudden loss. Within minutes, I went from a stable world, to dealing with the most traumatic experience of my life. I suffering loss of a sort I had never known and found myself fluctuating between intense grief and rage. As I moved back and forth between these very highly emotionally charged states, the exhaustion and suffering were almost beyond what I could bear. After about a decade, I began to recover.
So, why grief and bereavement? My depression was inspired by loss. I didn’t have negative self-talk or extensive automatic thoughts which drove my suffering. Quite simply, I had lost my wife. The rage, anguish and other traumatic feelings were a result of this event. I was grieving, but didn’t know to identify it as such. While grief and bereavement seems to focus primarily on loss due to death, I would like to research – at least initially – loss of another sort, that is loss of a life partner who is still alive.
Just getting a few ideas down tonight for further consideration.
Kia kaha from the Land of the Long White Cloud!
I have had #Tolstoy on my list to read for years – not the early stuff, as have read most of that. I want the later life searching. "A Confession" is my newest companion. #books pic.twitter.com/6fDnCFwccB
— Gerald Lee Jordan Ⓥ (@geraldleejordan) March 26, 2019
Sometimes you are aiming for the best person you can be. You spend months in meditation, in living by principles of kindness. You then find yourself in an environment that is not conducive for kindness and tranquility. I have been lucky in my life, as while there have been periods of hostility, I have mostly been surrounded by decent people. There are, however, hostile environments where bullies are able deflect from their incompetence by attacking others. They are, of course, cowards. Bullies always are. They are afraid they will be discovered for the frauds that they are, so they engage in tactics which – if reached the light of day – would bring them scorn, contempt and pity. This is made worse when bullies have power.
How does this relate to Tolstoy and his “A Confession”? Tolstoy was part of the “in” crowd. He was a famous writer who rubbed shoulders with the highest levels of society. He was also, by his own admission, a person who brought suffering to others for his own pleasure. He later felt great shame to look back on these actions. I am reading his “A Confession” and I am not yet to the point where Tolstoy reforms – but I already know that he does. He goes from a life of selfish actions, to giving away his goods to the needy and living by the highest standards.
When I deal with petty, insecure, narcissistic and sadistic people, I try to imagine that they could be better. I pity them, but also realise that there were times when I did things of which I am now ashamed. I ate the flesh of other beings. I was part of enslaving females for what their bodies produced for their children.
Pity the bully, but know they could be better.
I have been thinking a great deal about authenticity lately. My mind is always full of ideas and over the holidays, I found my meditation fruitful, but with what seemed like “random” considerations of authenticity.
Of course, authenticity has a place in our everyday lives, but I was thinking of authenticity as a therapist, both in and out of therapy sessions. Great therapists – perhaps most notably Carl Rogers – have emphasised the importance of authenticity within the therapeutic relationship. For Rogers there were three things required for therapeutic change:
- Congruence (authenticity and genuineness)
- Accurate empathy
- Unconditional positive regard
While I meditated, these first two requirements kept pushing themselves into my thoughts. Why? My personal congruence and empathy have improved dramatically since I became a vegan in early December of last year. I found myself wondering what effects this increased congruence and empathy could have on providing therapeutic assistance to others.
I became a vegetarian almost five years ago. I made this shift because I didn’t want to be responsible for the suffering of other beings. Months into this journey, I began to realise that some of the greatest suffering takes place for the beings which are not killed immediately, but who are forcibly impregnated (raped), have their offspring stolen from them, are tied to milking machines and then – when they are no longer productive – are made into meat for consumption. I began to ask questions like, “How could I consider myself a feminist, if I didn’t equally care for the suffering of these females?” While these questions formed in my mind, I decided to put off my transition to vegan until my son went off to university in 2022.
In late November of last year, I watched a video on Twitter of cows being allowed out of a dairy for the first time. One only had three usable legs and others were barely able to keep themselves off the ground, as they were forced to cross a road. This scene broke my heart and I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I decided over the next 24 hours that I would become a vegan straight away.
Something interesting happened. I didn’t want dairy anymore. I found a level of peace that I hadn’t imagine possible. Suddenly, the inner conflict was gone. I had immediately become authentic. There was integrity (consistency in my actions and mind). The empathy that I already felt for animals was allowed to grow, too. It was as if another me – a better me – had been waiting and was now released. As Carl Rogers would have noted, the distinction between my ideal self and my real self disappeared. This incongruity was gone, as my “I should” disappeared, leaving only the “I am”.
As I experienced these changes, I began to ask myself what effects these changes might have on me as a therapist and what positive changes might be possible in therapy clients from these insights?
I imagine that the application of these insights to the therapeutic relationship could take up many pages/posts, but on a surface level, it is easy to imagine that my greater congruency throughout my life would help to ensure that I am more congruent within the therapeutic relationship. Also, living my life with greater empathy for all beings would have to help me develop empathy for my clients. Congruency and empathy are not something we turn on and off. Arguably, congruence requires consistency.
The question is, “Does my shift to a vegan lifestyle help me to be a better therapist?” If so, is this something specific to me, or are there possible wider applications? I seem to remember that later in his life Carl Rogers began to think that his therapeutic approach had wider life application than just within the formal counselling session. Perhaps the characteristics of the therapist are more about a lifestyle than a role that is assumed for an hour.
Wishing you the best of mental health!
Four weeks ago, I decided to go vegan.
When I became single four and a half years ago, I stopped eating meat. I had wanted to do this for many years – since I was eight years old and watched a beautiful, frightened pig being murdered. Once I decided to make this compassionate change, transition to being a vegetarian was quite fast, except for fish, which was the last thing to go. Going vegan is an entirely different scenario, as it takes added effort to figure out what things we purchase have animals in them.
When people ask me why I went vegetarian (and now vegan), I am often hesitant to respond. In reality, many people don’t want to know, but want to use this question as a springboard to defend their own fallacious position. When I do respond, I either keep it very short and say, “compassion” or – if the person seems genuinely interested – I mention three reasons (animals, the environment and personal health). I then say that while my choice was based on compassion for other beings, it is also nice to know that I am helping to save the planet and improving my own health. Excellent collateral benefits!
Regarding my health – while I noticed myself being less sluggish when I stopped eating meat, the effects were not nearly as dramatic as I have noticed since going vegan four weeks ago. For one, the weight is just dropping off me. I would guess I have lost 8 – 10 kilos in four weeks. Pants I couldn’t get a single leg in four weeks ago, I can now wear.
— Gerald Lee Jordan (@geraldleejordan) 15 December 2018
What else? My cognitive dissonance about trying to be compassionate for animals, while still consuming them in butter, milk, cheese, etc. is gone. It is difficult to hold contrary ideas in one’s head. When we try to do so, we tend to want to ignore one view, pushing our focus onto the contrary view that we prefer. This is cognitively a lot of work. We are not then able to sit with ideas or ourselves, but are constantly defending the wall to the castle of our protected views. We find it difficult to be honest with ourselves about other things, because we know that we are protecting views that – if allowed to be truly examined – would not stand under scrutiny.
So, in addition to my health benefits, what else has changed? I have greater peace of mind. My meditation practice is further improved. I am taking comfort in being true to myself and in knowing that I am not causing the suffering of countless living beings.
We tend to use the word “integrity” to mean “moral”, but there is another meaning. Think about the use of this word in engineering – structural integrity. This relates to wholeness, consistency (e.g. it is desirable for a ship to be consistently strong – one weak section and the ship sinks). To say that a person has integrity could mean that they are moral, but at an arguably deeper level, it can be mean that they are consistent. Their views and actions are in harmony. I personally prefer this use of the word. When I stopped eating other beings, I realised greater integrity within myself.
When I look at the top choices of my life, the decision to go vegan is in the top four. It is also nice watching my weight returning to what it was when I was 18.
Wishing you the best of mental health!
When things come together . . .
I was meditating a few nights ago and my son was listening to an online course in game development. I generally try to meditate after he has gone to bed, but it was quiet and I thought I would give it a go a bit early. As I meditated, I could hear the training video from his room. I am so proud of my son and his willingness to learn! Anyway, my first reaction was that I would have to stop meditating. Then, I decided to see if I could meditate through it. I remembered Jack Kornfield mentioning that he had learned to meditate in a place next to a busy road and how thankful he was for the noise. At the time, this seemed strange to me. Now, I understand.
As I focused on my breath, I noticed the video sound disappeared. It then re-appeared. It seemed to come and go in the same way that my thoughts did – that is, as I focused on my breath, my thoughts and the video receded. As my concentration lapsed, thoughts and the video returned. It was quite insightful. I knew that focusing on my breath could still my thoughts, I hadn’t considered the same for external stimuli. I began contemplating how our minds might be more powerful at excluding than I had formerly considered. I then sat down to continue reading a book by Fritz Perls on Gestalt Therapy.
Fritz was discussing the “object” (foreground) and the background – how our focus moves between the two and how they are rarely integrated. When they are integrated, we are whole (there is a Gestalt). To the extent that the two are not integrated, there is neurosis. I began to consider my meditation insights. I imagined that I might actually be excluding things from the background – if I was doing such effectively, I wouldn’t even consciously know. We exclude things that are painful, induce fear, are overwhelming and for other reasons which might protect our psyche. While our initial efforts might be adaptive, what about when the original negative emotions are gone? Do we re-integrate (open ourselves) to the stimuli, or do we continue to block it? I would suggest that once we learn to ignore something, it doesn’t normally make its way to the foreground short of a traumatic experience.
So, what is next? I am going to explore integration of the background. There are a number of techniques in Gestalt and Mindfulness practice to re-integrate things happening in the here-and-now. I will be exploring these, but the first step is to open oneself to the present moment. This is meditation.
Fritz Perls is interesting to watch while he workshops his therapeutic approach and it is highly recommended to watch his “Empty Chair” technique (various videos available on YouTube). In this technique, the client and therapist are seated and there is also an empty chair, generally facing the client. This allows the client to look at the empty chair while s/he talks, with the therapist observing the client and the empty chair.
The empty chair becomes a focus for the client, as s/he is directed to speak to the chair, as if speaking to another person (or a personified problem). If the subject of the discussion is the client’s fears or insecurities, those fears or insecurities can “take form” in the empty chair and be addressed by the client. If the issue is the client’s relationship with a parent, that parent can be “placed” in the empty chair and the client addresses their parent directly. Sometimes, this involves the client talking to the empty chair and sometimes it has the client jumping from chair to chair to take on the persona (and provide responses for) the other party to the conversation.
How is this helpful?
- This technique can allow the client to verbalise issues, helping to clarify problems and suggest solutions.
- The client can also begin to understand the perspective of the person in the other chair, by trying to take his or her perspective.
- The client can “externalise” problems (this is a powerful technique also applied in other modalities, such as Narrative Therapy). Once problems are externalised, the client can began to examine them from a distance and realise that the problem is not him or her (that is, the client is more than just the problem).
- The client can be helped to move from verbalising feelings to expressing them (both in the chair as themselves and in the empty chair as the “other”).
When might the Empty Chair technique be used?
- When the client insists on making the therapy session about others (the problem is not his or hers, but rests with someone else).
- When the client cannot distance him/herself from problems.
- When the client seems to lack empathy for others.
- When the client lacks affect.
We all practice things we are going to say to others. Perhaps we are practicing how we might respond in a stressful situation. Perhaps we are visualising how we are going to respond in an interpersonal encounter. The Empty Chair makes this technique more overt and allows us to remove ourselves from the problem, to look at new ways to address it. Talking to an empty chair might help empower us to improve our relationships, so we don’t find ourselves sitting across from empty chairs outside of therapy.
Here’s to good mental health!
Most of us spend significant parts of our lives either dwelling on the past or planning (or dreading) the future. The exception might be when we are young and are living in that moment – remember savouring an ice cream on a hot summer day, wanting nothing else and to be nowhere else?
As we get older, this changes. We propel ourselves into an imagined future, as we live our lives mentally in what we want to exist. My first experience with this was when I started university and – as I worked so hard with my studies and jobs – I imagined myself finishing university. These visions kept me going when little else would. Sadly, what started as a strategy to accomplish a goal (many of our dysfunctional actions start off to address real situations in our lives, but outlive their usefulness) became an unhealthy pattern of living in the future.
Why is this a problem? Other than losing out on your experiences now – such as the attention of your child – living in the future is not terribly productive (how much of what we imagine actually happens?) Also, such projections can lead to significant anxiety, when the future we imagine is not a positive one.
What about the opposite – living in the past? Nostalgia can be comforting, for a moment, but can quickly morph into regret, bitterness and sorrow. Living in the past offers little assistance in making it through the rest of your life.
People present to therapy who cannot stay in the moment. They are depressed about the past or anxious about the future. How can the therapist help?
There are quicker ways to come into the present:
- Grounding in the body. This involves exercises within the therapy session where the client is taken through attempts to focus on what is happening in their body at the moment.
- Changing speaking patterns. This involves encouraging clients to speak in the present, not the past or the future (e.g. only present tense verbs). This can be difficult and cause frustration for clients accustomed to doing otherwise.
- Initial attempts at facilitating a meditative state, perhaps utilising something like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
There is a long-term (or perhaps better worded, a more persistent) way to come into the present:
- Developing a mindfulness practice. Once a client is able to spend 20 – 60 minutes a day meditating, he or she will find that this state will start to work into other parts of life. This is the point. Mindfulness is not about a few minutes of focus, but focus that becomes normalised for the practitioner.
Do you live in the moment? Is the here-and-now your normal mode of existence?
- Spend significant time reviewing the past?
- Do you often find yourself feeling sorrowful about what has happened or what might have been?
- Do you dread the future?
- Do you find that normal things happen without you seeming to notice them (e.g. eating, spending time with family)?
Anxiety has a hard time taking hold when you focus on NOW. Depression loses it power when you find wonder around you.
This moment is all we really have. Make it your focus.
To good mental health!
Recommended for those wanting an intro to #Gestalt #Therapy. This book is a collection of transcripts of workshops Uncle Fritz led in California in the late 1960s. "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim" by Frederick (Fritz) Perls #counselling #counseling #psychotherapy pic.twitter.com/Bf8hKgK9JR
— Gerald Lee Jordan (@geraldleejordan) December 8, 2018
When I wanted an introduction to Gestalt Therapy, this book was one of my first acquisitions. When I was a counselling student, I had seen the 1960s videos of Perls, Rogers and Ellis counselling Gloria (these videos are a rite of passage for counselling students). Like most, my first instinct was to support the idea that Rogers was most effective – with Perls insulting and condescending to Gloria (and Ellis – to use a modern expression – “mansplaining”). Although Perls seemed a bit harsh and rude, I sensed there was something more to what he was achieving. So, I began to research Gestalt Therapy (and I have come around to believing that Perls was the most effective therapist with Gloria – a topic for another post).
Other texts are more theoretical. This one is Uncle Fritz sitting in a chair and talking to his students (followers). You might want to read a bit of theory first, so that you can jump into this in a similar mindset to those in the room with Fritz.