Over the years of working with my therapy clients, I have observed the importance of a sense of place in the universe, of the meaning of life, for a good therapeutic outcome.
Since the late 1980s I have provided spiritual guidance in a variety of contexts, with clients drawn from the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu religions, as well as unaffiliated forms of spirituality.
I believe it is time to shift the focus of my work – to foreground the spiritual dimension – for in creating a sense of meaning, we forge the foundations of healing and wholeness. This enables us to understand our processes with greater clarity and gain deeper insights into the source of our suffering, while offering a path towards greater peace.
I have released a podcast which is the first in a series relating to management of depression and anxiety, and in which I discuss the role of diet and its importance for mental health.
It features recipes available for download (click on “Recipes for Mental Health” on menu above) and my music ‘Ashi No Ko‘ *
You can download the podcast here
* Ashinoko is a beautiful lake situated in Hakone, Japan. I was inspired to compose this song after visiting the region and standing beneath the red torii gate in the photograph.
How do we re-establish a sense of balance and overcome the effects of disaster saturation on our nervous systems in these days of the 24 hour news cycle?
We are bombarded with bad news. Fires, flood, famine, terrorism, racism, mass murders, horrific violence, poverty, homelessness, violence against women and minorities, political corruption and injustice, dire warnings about the global economy, and so much more. There is always something to claim our attention and increase our feelings of helplessness in the face of overwhelming suffering and danger. Depression is now at unprecedented levels, and many report feelings of compassion fatigue and overwhelm.
People tell me they are now living in a state of constant anxiety, and this is not only those who spend all day watching the news cycle or combing social media for information. Anyone who is sensitive to the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – will feel the tension in the air, sometimes subliminally because they sense the anxiety in the affect of those around them, sometimes because everyone’s conversation seems more negative than usual.
The physical effects are manifold. Increased stress hormone production results in mood swings, indigestion, sleep difficulty, reduced or hyper immune function, blood pressure issues, and a host of other symptoms.
So how do we overcome this trend in our daily lives and press the reset button to re-establish calm and a sense of wellbeing?
The answers seem obvious. Talk about something else! Turn off the TV, phone, computer! Limit your exposure to violent entertainment: movies, TV programs, gaming. These feed the angst. Just as we are what we eat, we are what we choose to take into our minds. Overindulgence in unhealthy physical or mental ‘food’ will have negative consequences.
But this advice isn’t enough. Many of us have a technology addiction and will find ourselves reverting to old habits. Furthermore, many of the people with whom we interact on a daily basis will be caught in this cycle of negativity.
One of the fundamental precepts I apply to my work as a therapist is this maxim: if we take something away, we need to replace it with something better. And that ‘something better’, in this case, consists of several physical and mental activities designed to lower anxiety and combat negative thoughts.
- Meditation, especially walking meditation, helps to bring us back into the present moment. When practised regularly, it provides a baseline of calm to which we can readily return.
- Hobbies which absorb our attention offer our minds a welcome respite. Painting, pottery, weaving, spinning, collage, textile art, woodwork, photography! Make your own list! I have a client who took up knitting and likens it to meditation.
- Exercise, A brisk walk or a run or a work-out builds mental and physical resilience.
- Join a choir or dance group. In many cultures around the world, depression and anxiety are linked to lack of music or contact with the earth.
- Potter about in the garden or tend your pot plants if you have any, or even join a local community garden.
- As Joseph Campbell said, “follow your bliss”. You know what brings you joy and, if you’ve somehow forgotten, try to remember what you loved doing when you were a child, before the world intruded on your dreams.
In other words, find an activity which absorbs you, is enjoyable, and reduces your exposure to the cares of the world. This is not to say you shouldn’t be involved and aware of what is happening, but it’s about balance and sound mental hygiene.
The world is changing and we are changing with it. How we respond will determine our ability to cope.
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From time-to-time, someone will ask me, “what is the most important factor in achieving a successful therapeutic outcome?” and I will always reply, “the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client.”
There are many different therapeutic methods, many of which achieve good results. But regardless of the type of therapy you choose, it is the relationship – the feeling of connection between therapist and client – that will make the greatest difference.
Therapy takes you through many different stages as you work through your issues. Vulnerability, anxiety, fear, shame, embarrassment: these are all emotions we might feel when baring our soul to a stranger. Will this person judge me? Will she think less of me if I tell her my deepest secrets? Will she provide a safe container for my story so that I can gain a greater understanding of myself and change the things I need to change?
While you need your therapist to be honest with you and help you to identify the obstacles in your way, you need to feel safe. You need to feel that you are accepted without judgement, that your well-being is important, and that you are genuinely cared about. There must be a feeling of connection, an understanding that you are truly being heard and understood, in order for there to be trust. In order for there to be change.
This is, in all senses, the heart of therapy – the quality of the relationship, the knowledge that you are valued, and that your therapist is committed to helping you achieve the best outcome.
“Oh, you’re going on a retreat! How relaxing!”
How often do we hear this comment when we tell others where we are going?
A retreat can be many things – illuminating, boring, restful, confronting – and all of these rolled into the one day – but it can seldom be described as relaxing. Time spent alone permits the inner turmoil to swim into view; dropping into the silence, with no escape from the issues that have stubbornly hidden themselves beneath the activity of everyday life.
It is challenging, painful and exhilarating. The way forward seems so much clearer, and yet there is the lurking fear that once life has returned to its normal round, all that appeared to be self-evident may be swept away by the routines of the everyday.
For everyone who undergoes this process of quiet reflection, of withdrawing from the world to contemplate, to listen and to wait, the experience will be different. It would serve no purpose to tell you of the toils of my sojourn and what they revealed in my own life; but what I would like to share is a simple exercise which arose spontaneously one sunny afternoon
A labyrinth is set out in a grove of trees, its pathway delineated by large, white pebbles. At intervals, someone has dropped faux stones like tiny gems in pale, celadon green.
This time, as I pace the outermost reaches of the path, I notice that some of the stones have fallen completely outside the boundaries.
I pick up one of the escapees and walk on. Some minutes later, I find another, directly in the centre of the path. Not wishing it to be trodden into the soil, I pick it up. Finally, I approach the centre of the labyrinth. One of the stones I had placed there on my previous walking meditation has fallen to the ground. I pick it up.
Holding the three stones, I make my way slowly back to the entrance, ruminating, as I retrace my steps, on the significance of what I have found.
Each stone, although the shapes are irregular, is essentially identical to the others in substance and texture. Each is bound in relation to the whole, to the labyrinth, the only variable being its location.
It seems to me that they are metaphors for our inner humanity – our spiritual sense. Some are drawn to the centre, some languish on the path, awaiting a force that will impel them forward, others put themselves outside the journey that draws us to the heart of Being. But we are all somewhere in relation to one another and the journey – and we are all a part of the Whole.
I feel tempted to take them with me, as a reminder of what the labyrinth has taught me, to keep them in my room until I leave the monastery – but I throw them back. I realise that we cannot cling to moments like these. They manifest unasked, much as a spring wells up from a subterranean river through a fissure in the rock . We cannot hold onto the droplets that gather rainbows in the sunshine – we need only watch them play.