Thursday, April 29, 2004

A Watershed 

I’ve been struggling with this post for the last week. Partly trying to get the feelings down on paper, but mostly just figuring out how best to present it in a blog. You see, there’s rather a lot of it. I’m making up for lost time, perhaps – summarising nearly three months of experience in counselling - but it seems to be expecting a lot of anyone to sit down and read all of this in one go. But although I’ve tried breaking it up into shorter chapters, it didn’t seem to work. Anyway, I wrote this primarily for myself; I figure if anyone else is interested enough to get beyond the first screenful they’ll probably stick it to the bitter end. You may want to go and get a cup of coffee first…

Oh, I suppose I should also say why I would want to post such a personal account. Well, it just seemed like a good idea to try and demystify the counselling process. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't...

It's often been said that people are like onions. Layer upon layer of complexity, most of the time presenting a coherent, rational outer layer to the world; some of the time even believing that this outer shell is all there is, one "me", a single integrated self-consistent whole, responding to the world with behaviour that is both understandable and understood, even if not always entirely rational. Or perhaps accepting the idea of layers, we still cling to the idea that the "me" of consciousness is aware of all of those layers. Surely I know myself, or if not, then surely it's just a question of applying rationality to "explain" the interactions of these different layers of the onion? Isn't it?

Actually, no. Last week I discovered something really rather astonishing, something which I’m still slowly integrating with this notion of “me”; discovered that there can be deep unheard layers, almost a person-within-a-person, struggling to be heard, if only the top-level know-it-all consciousness would shut up for a moment and LISTEN.

I've been in counselling for twelve weeks now. I never expected it to go on this long, but I've moved way beyond the original work-related issues that brought me there, to confront deeper aspects of self, peeling back the layers of the onion, finding unresolved issues tracing back sometimes to childhood. There have been some unexpected highs and lows along the way as I've become more open to awareness of my own experience, more connected with feeling, more connected with self. I don't know whether it's significant, but there seems to be a pattern to these highs and lows, with sessions always ending on a high, yet a couple of days afterwards something would happen that sent me spiralling downwards again, but with a recovery that saw me back on the upwards path by the next session. A classic roller-coaster ride, but that way the sessions were always open and positive – I’ve known all along that to benefit I need to be totally, even ruthlessly, honest with myself - and that way too there was always a lot of fresh "material" available. So the learning has been rapid; we've come a long way in these twelve weeks, my counsellor M. and I.

Somewhere about the fifth or sixth session I began to realise that we were dealing with much more than any one particular "problem", external to self. The only issue that mattered was being authentic; finding and being the "real me", open to all my feelings, all my experiences; trusting in self, having faith in self; loving, respecting and caring for self - since only then can these qualities be extended to another. And that has turned out to be quite a tall order.

During the weeks that followed we uncovered a lot of "stuff" - self limiting beliefs, external sources of judgement and control (parental, societal, cultural, religious), mostly originating in childhood, that had become internalised. Some of those put up a powerful fight before being let go – a mechanism that has for decades served successfully to maintain a sense of one’s identity is not readily dismissed, even though the need for it is either unreal or has long since past. On the last such occasion a couple of weeks ago I really didn't know which way was up - for a couple of days it was all I could do to carry on breathing and maintain an external shell of normality whilst inside the structures that had for so long held up my concept of self were crumbling and seemed to be falling apart, as old internal power-bases fought one last battle before their strength finally gave way.

They say that the night is darkest before the dawn. That last low seemed to purge something, pulling out the plug and letting drain away the remaining “oughts” and “ought nots” of self-judgement and the internalised rules and standards of others. It was this that resulted in my temporary withdrawal from blogging last week. A paralysing judgmentalism had been strangling thoughts and words, even as they coalesced into ideas and sentences; this break was necessary to release that judgement and watch it gurgle down the plughole.


The timing of that release, applying to so much more than just writing, couldn't have been better. I talked once before here about the career counselling I've begun doing at work. I had my first "practice" session with a real client last week - I was very nervous beforehand but spent some time preparing myself, examining my fears, getting clear in my mind who I had to be for the session to be a success for the client. And by that I don’t putting on some false persona; I mean reaching in and finding those deep aspects of self which, if I can trust them sufficiently, will be all that the client and I will need. Previously in situations like this I've been so wrapped up in trying to do my best - driven by this constant internal judge - that it's been the judge I'm serving, not the client.

It may not have been a perfect session; I know there were many ways it could have been better, yet I was amazed at how easily it seemed to flow, how confident I felt - able to be aware both of the client and of self - part of me sitting on my shoulder watching, monitoring, giving helpful tips, sounding little warnings now and again - speak a little slower... maybe it would have been better if you'd said that differently... Instead of the fearsome critic that once sat there, this was a friendly helper. I went home knowing that this was without doubt the best, most fulfilling, most satisfying, most authentic day I'd had at work for many long years.

A couple of days after that, we had the follow-up training day where we reviewed these practice sessions. I was pretty quiet most of the time, in spite of the very lively, high energy atmosphere that you get with a dozen enthusiastic people all committed to the ideals of personal growth, all supportive of each other, crammed into a small meeting room, with a very free-form agenda to the day. I was quiet because, listening to the others and to the trainers, it was slowly dawning on me that my instinctive responses in these counselling situations were sound - obviously I have a long way to go; things to learn, practice to do, experience to develop, yet I'm gaining confidence that I'll be building on a secure foundation.


So it was that, by the time I came to last Thursday's counselling session, I was feeling quite relaxed, very positive - buoyant even - and therefore totally unprepared for what happened.

To begin with, we talked about self-judgement; at last I understood how I'd managed finally to move the judgement from inside of me to something sitting separate, outside of me; something I can listen to, or not, as I choose. That may sound a very abstract idea, but the consequences of internalising judgement are utterly real, so much so there are physiological side effects. The judge sitting internally is all-powerful; self becomes a prisoner in the dock, bound in chains, able only to respond within proscribed limits. Place the judge outside though and those chains are broken. The judge becomes the judged.

Do please bear with me a little longer; I need to explain one last little bit of history to set the scene.

Life changing experiences tend to stick in the mind. Ten years ago I was working for a major telecomms company, one of the new breed in the newly-liberalised UK marketplace. Although I’d become quite cynical about the world of work, some small spark of innocent enthusiasm remained – enough to become inspired by a huge culture-change programme, and eventually training in business coaching and facilitation techniques. The final stage of the training involved an assessment, using a role-play of one-to-one coaching; the pass/fail nature of the assessment, with its judgemental overtones, was anathema to those running the programme, but demanded by the company. Sitting there waiting my turn, I experienced one of those revelatory moments of life – the stress of being assessed dissolved and I felt a sublime sense of well-being and self-knowledge both powerful and peaceful, knowing with an instinctive certainty that what mattered wasn’t whether or not I “passed” the assessment, or even whether or not I was any good at this coaching; what mattered was that I’d stumbled on something I truly wanted to do, something worth getting out of bed for, discovered now after so many years of wandering aimlessly from job to job, with no sense of purpose or of value, the only aim being to survive each day and collect the pay cheque at the end of each month.

I described this to M. Up to this point the session might have looked like an entirely ordinary conversation. Unlike some of the earlier sessions, this one could have been taking place anywhere; a straightforward recounting of events and feelings. Open, but calm and controlled and with only gently positive emotions attached; enthusiasm for the therapeutic process but little pain or passion. So what happened next took me completely by surprise.

There have been enough occasions sitting in that chair over these last few weeks when I’ve felt a powerful emotional response to some new insight; a learning that finds it’s source experientially, going beyond a merely intellectual appreciation to touch something close to the core of being. These occasions almost invariably bring a visceral response; tears well in the eyes, the voice cracks a little, something is felt in the pit of the stomach. I’ve learned not to fear these moments but to sit with them and let the new insight be. It’s a little like an earth tremor; hidden tension builds over a period as some new understanding starts to form deep below the surface, upsetting equilibrium until the tension is released as it breaks through into consciousness and the pieces readjust into a new pattern. Up until now, these occasions of readjustment have been associated with the pain of letting go of old beliefs, old ways of being which although may at one time have served their purpose as means of survival were now a straightjacket limiting self awareness and limiting growth. This time though was different. This wasn’t letting go of anything; this was rediscovering something vital with which I had lost contact.

For a moment, I relived the certainty of that earlier revelation. M. was watching me closely; understanding was in her eyes.

"Andy, you know what you want to do with your life…
when are you going to start listening…?

I sat, unsure…

You do know, don’t you…?
How does that knowledge feel…?"

Without warning, tears welled in my eyes, together with an extraordinary feeling that must almost be like feeling a baby kicking in the womb. It was as though some deep part of me leaped up to make itself known at that acknowledgment from M.; something that refused to stay hidden any longer; something jumping up at the sound of it’s own name being called, saying “Yes! I’m here!” I – conscious me – just sat there with unexpected tears in my eyes as this hidden part of me was at last able to reach up through all those layers of the onion and communicate, wordlessly, with the conscious intellect. It was a truly extraordinary experience, to realise that there is more to me than I knew…

Seeing M.’s words alone and out of context, without the gentle inflection of her voice, they look too direct and challenging, but in context they were simply empathically reflecting something I had in effect been saying, even though I didn't know I was saying it. M.’s words spoke to something deep within me; something way below consciousness, something at a level where knowledge exists without need for words; without even the ability to use words. I’m no expert, and maybe Denny with his knowledge of the workings of the human brain has something to say here, but given that language is localised in the brain, it seemed to me that what I felt came from a part of me that has no need or use for language; a part that understands and communicates feeling.

Without doubt it was those words "when are you going to start listening" that caused than inner part of me to jump up and say to the rest of me "yes, when ARE you going to listen?"

I only have words and intellect with which to try and recount this. Already the immediacy is past and I’m left with a memory of what I experienced. I know the insight I felt, but the insight itself has come, made itself known, and passed on. I knew that I had to record this before the memory faded too far; I was utterly convinced this was a watershed moment and I knew that at some future time, when memory fades and doubts creep in, I would need to look back and remind myself of the certainty of that conviction. Through this counselling process, a window momentarily opened between the “me” of consciousness and the “me” that exists invisible, unheard, below the surface. That inner self speaks without words and its messages are all too easily missed.

Nothing has changed, and everything has changed. I’m learning to listen.


"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

André Gide via Seb

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