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

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

This from James Broughton quoted by Chris Corrigan brought such a smile to my face this morning:

"Crazy old men are essential to society.
Otherwise young men have no suitable models."

Okay, I'm not really old yet, I'm not really crazy (yet), but that kind of gives me permission to be both, and to laugh at the same time. Thanks, Chris.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

A place marker... 

Following Friday's post, and at the suggestion of andrew and ntexas, I tried to write down some more about the experience of last Thursday's counselling session. Trouble is, to be meaningful, it needed to be set in context. That context is currently running at 6 sides of hand written A4 (in small closely-spaced writing) and has a way to go yet...

So before it appears here - which it will - I need either to edit the piece quite drastically or to serialise it. Probably the latter. So quietness here doesn't mean I've gone away again, only that the words are having trouble getting organised. I'm rather pleased though to find that I'm enjoying organising them again...

Friday, April 23, 2004


Maybe there are times when something old has to die before something new can come to life.

I’ve been struggling with this blog for weeks, or to be more precise, struggling with writing anything. Ever since rather hesitantly declaring myself to be, in some way, a writer. Maybe that kind of self-acknowledgement works for some people, but it became a lead weight hung around my neck. Whereas before I could happily play with words and ideas for their own sake, safe in the belief that the gulf between what I was writing and what Writers write was so huge that any comparison was laughable, now all of a sudden I’d deliberately walked into the spotlight (albeit a very dim one) and Quality mattered.

Yes, I know, stupid way to think…

In fairness to myself though, that wasn’t the only issue inhibiting my writing. For the last three months I’ve been in counselling, initially driven by the conflict I felt between having to be one person in order to do my job, but wanting to be another person – who felt much more like the “real me” – in order to write. Counselling is a remarkable process; originally I had wanted to include what transpired there in this blog, but before long a whole host of other issues came to the surface. If I were anonymous here I might have posted more about my experiences in this process, but in the circumstances that hasn’t really been an option. The posts would have had to be so bland they would have altogether lost the hard edge of insights often painfully won. Thus the things uppermost in my mind during recent weeks haven’t been things I felt I could blog about; conversely, I had no passion for and little interest in any of the “safe” topics that occurred to me. Blogging became less and less frequent, and I became more and more detached from the whole process. And by my “standards”, the few things I was posting looked pretty dire, which drove the spiral ever downwards.

So it was that earlier this week I decided to call it a day. Maybe not to end this blog completely, but to step back and let it lie dormant for a while so that I could gain control of it again, rather than it controlling me. At the time, I couldn’t distinguish the judgemental attitude which was strangling this blog from the writing itself, so it meant pulling the plug on both. Yet Monday’s decision to let go seemed to free up something. The lead weight was gone.

I was letting go too of self-judgement in other areas, and that led to a quite remarkable and enormously encouraging experience in yesterday’s counselling session. And writing this I can’t believe it was only yesterday. It feels as though in the future I may look back on yesterday – one particular moment at about twenty to six in the evening - as one of those defining moments of life; a watershed that becomes a reference point; the beginning of a new path. And I’m afraid at the moment I’m rather hesitant about saying anything more specific than that, simply because I don’t want to fall into the same trap of creating a straightjacket for myself of impossible standards or pre-defined outcomes. But I’ll try and put some words around it at some point soon and see what comes out.

Anyway, I couldn't stay away too long any more than I could stop breathing. Having stopped writing, I started reading more blogs and realised just how much I've come to love and feel a part of this community. Thanks y'all.

Monday, April 19, 2004


I started a post this morning announcing my semi-retirement from blogging.

Over recent weeks, blogging has unfortunately become just another source of stress and I have too many of those already. I need to get rid of some of them, and like a balloonist throwing out ballast to stay aloft, I can only get rid of sources under my control. So, reluctantly, I decided blogging had to go – at least for the time being. This way of thinking has nothing to do with whether or not I want to write; whether or not I believe I’m any good at it; very little to do with whether I have anything much to say (which at the moment I don’t). Just simple dynamics that my balloon is sinking earthwards and I need to do something about it. I’ve got into the mind-set that I “ought” to be posting something regularly yet I’ve been failing miserably to do so. Self-imposed stress.

Maybe I’ll be away from here for a week, a month, a year - I don’t know. Or maybe by publicly removing the obligation to post, I remove the stress, and so can post again. In which case I may be back tomorrow, wearing a rather sheepish grin.

Like I said, I started the post but then thought better of it. Hang on a bit longer. But catching myself tonight getting crotchety with my friend Euan, maybe I was right. I need a break.

The real source of stress of course isn’t blogging. Much of it is related to work. But that is also my balloon. Throw that out and I WILL plummet to earth in no uncertain terms. So one thing at a time. Sort the job first. Maybe even up sticks and relocate; go and do something completely different. All things are possible.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

I resent… 

…weekends filled with chores
…not having time for rest and recuperation
…being Mr Nice Guy the whole time
…spending all day at work in front of a computer…
…so that my eyesight is deteriorating rapidly…
…and I have no enthusiasm left for anything involving computers in my own time…
…such as finishing my photo website

…anything that prevents me spending more time in the hills. 3 or 4 days a year is not enough
…that the only weekday time I have to myself, I’m too tired to make much use of it
…living in suburbia
…being tied to a salary
…an upbringing that taught me to put self last…
…and where showing strong emotions of any sort (or even weak ones) was just not done
…believing that satisfying the wishes of others is more important than recognising the wishes of self
…not being encouraged to have dreams and to follow them

…being sidelined
…having qualities that go unnoticed
…having my schedule planned for me
…being told what to do
…spending 12-13 hours a day doing nothing more worthwhile than travelling to a place of work and earning money
…having to sleep
…not having time to read enough books

…my boss’s attitude
…becoming a cynic
…having no professional identity
…doing work that doesn’t make a difference
…doing work where people don’t matter
…always giving in
…having so much sub-surface resentment

Yeah, okay, I could do something about most of them, I know. But they bug me. I just wanted to get that lot out of my system.

And it’s a rather horrifying thought that I could easily write an essay about every one of them – a whole book full of resentment…


Sunday, April 11, 2004

Idle thoughts of an idle fellow... 

Two days holiday at Easter provides an excellent excuse for sitting down and doing not very much. After weeks of tension and anxiety, it’s time to sit in a comfy chair, gaze out of the window, and let the mind wander where it will, loose from the shackles of daily living, free from the pressure of other people’s schedules.

It was a damp, grey day yesterday, but just the right combination of inky black clouds, clear air and fresh wetness to bring all the green colours of the garden to vibrant life; forest green, grass green, yellow-green, all alive and luminous. I was feeling out of sorts; one of those days when every thought that enters my mind seems to be tied back to a problem, so that every pathway in my mind leads somewhere I don’t want to be.

But looking at the wet grass outside brought a parallel image to mind; wet and very green grass on a hillside in the English Lake District, encountered a couple of years ago on a scramble up Pinnacle Ridge on St. Sunday Crag. The weather was much the same – heavy grey rain-laden skies, and the grass just as green and bright, and soft and springy underfoot as this was a seldom trodden way up the hillside.

I could recall close-up detailed images of that day with astonishing clarity, and as I sat there remembering, the mountains once more worked their magic on me, and the out-of-sorts feeling was replaced with one of wholeness. Mountains feel like home; I always feel more complete, more at ease when tackling their slopes. It feels so right.

Yet in spite of loving mountains so much, I spend very little time there; no more than a handful of days –maybe five or six - each year. Life’s paths have led elsewhere. Sitting there musing and thinking back, I fell to wondering what if I had chosen different paths? Nearly 30 years ago I was at a point where the paths forked, facing a choice of studying physics or geology. Geology was much more interesting to me, but physics seemed a safer bet in the job market. So I went for safety, and veered off past the fork in the road, leaving geology behind.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d taken the other fork. Now I know being a geologist doesn’t necessarily mean spending a life up mountains, or even outdoors. But at least you’re dealing with the outdoors, and fieldwork is an essential element. If I’d taken that fork it’s just possible I might have found a job I actually enjoy doing.

Having regrets isn’t fashionable; responsible people are supposed always to make the best of everything, supposed to believe that the path they’re on is the only path they could be on. Most of the time I believe that too; many things about where I am are very, very good and I wouldn’t want to change any of them. But then I look at all that time and energy wasted in jobs where I didn’t fit, muddling along from day to day with little purpose except to survive until the next day. Suppose I’d taken that other fork in the road…

20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when achieved with the aid of rose-tinted spectacles. Looking back it’s easy to see these key decision points, easy to pick out where the paths diverge. But at the time the view was very different. All paths then were indistinct, all futures equally uncertain.

As indeed they are now.

It’s one thing to look back and see apparently obvious choices fluffed; it’s quite another to sit here in the present and try and figure out where the paths lead now and whether there are any forks in the road coming up.

To begin with, life’s choices are like roads radiating out in all directions across a flat plain; it’s possible to choose any of them, and whilst they remain close together, close to the centre where they start, it’s possible to cut across country and change from one to another. But as we get older, the sides start to close in and we find ourselves in a steep-sided ravine. The other roads are further away now and crossing over to them involves effort, hardship and danger. Crossing to another road may be possible, but there’s a high price to pay.

But then again, is this road so great?

Thursday, April 08, 2004


This is a diary update more than anything; I don't like leaving yesterday's post hanging there as my most recent message to the world, now that I've moved a little way on.

That post was a minor turning point. It was an expression of anger, and relatively mild though it may have been, the anger was expressed nonetheless - and in that expression released, and it's power vanquished, allowing me to move out of that dark place. I wouldn't have believed such a simple step could have such power - having learned over a lifetime, rightly or wrongly, that anger is something to be suppressed, I have little first-hand experience of it's expression. But now I've learned it does have a place after all.

And changing the subject completely, I had another synchronistic occurrence today. It turns out that before my counsellor was a therapist, she was a journalist. I wonder how many ex-writer counsellor's there are in London? As many as one? And by chance we made contact...

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


Okay. Let me explain something. I’m 49, I’ve been a little way up the career ladder and I’m on my way back down again. I’ve had positions where I’ve been in charge of 20+ people, managed significant operational and capital budgets – not that those things matter to me especially, but they set a context.

I now work for a dinosaur, in a position with no responsibility, at the same level as a raw graduate, carrying out irrelevant tasks, serving no useful purpose but to keep him happy. Sanity requires a lobotomy or its virtual equivalent. I’ve gone for the virtual equivalent; it’s marginally less painful, and just may be reversible, although I’m not counting on it.

The decisions that have led me here have been entirely my own, and the circumstances that require me to stay here are entirely of my own choosing.

So I have a new motto. Fuck it.

A Bridge Too Far? 

Every change model I’ve ever come across has, as a key element of its process, the creation of a vision of how you want things to be. NLP talks about well-formed outcomes (also here); many counselling and change processes use Gerard Egan’s 3-step model; one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits is “Begin with the end in mind”; in “The Path of Least Resistance”, Robert Fritz says “The best place to begin the creative process is at the end”.

The idea, like all the best ideas, is very simple. Create a sufficiently compelling vision and you will almost inevitably be drawn towards it. Create a clear knowledge of the gap between what you have and what you desire, and you will naturally make decisions and choices that tend to close that gap. The evidence for the validity of this type of model is all around; successful people have focus and drive; they know where they’re going and they move towards their goal with every step they take. With such a powerful drive it is impossible for them to do anything else – introduce any possibility for choice and the magnetic pull of their vision draws them onwards. And this holds regardless of the measure of success, whether the gain is financial, positional, developmental, spiritual; the process is not tied to any particular value system; it takes no notice of the worth of the goal.

Creating a vision, a goal, has two-fold power, be that a static goal or a process-oriented developmental goal. By it’s attractiveness, it draws you towards itself; and at the same time the contrast between the vision and the present state creates another force, pushing from behind, a motivation to move away from the limitations and discomfort of the present state. The contrast between what is and what could be causes tension, which is only resolved by closing the gap. And if the gap is large; if the attractiveness of the vision is such that it magnifies the gap by throwing a spotlight on the stark inadequacies of the current state, then the result is pain. Human beings are instinctively motivated to lessen pain, so by creating a vision of the desired state, by becoming aware of the pain attached to staying put, we tap into a basic human motivation – that of avoiding pain.

And there, as Hamlet would say, is the rub. The premise behind the creative approach to success is that the vision remains firm and the gap is closed by moving the present state towards the vision. But suppose the present is also firmly fixed, and movement seems impossible? You can increase the power of the vision, enhancing the perception of the gap between reality and desire, and so increasing the pain associated with living with that gap, in the belief that with a powerful enough drive, movement will occur. But what happens when it doesn’t? When the bonds of the present hold you fast, the goal is as far away as ever, and without movement to close the gap the pain feels too much to bear?

Humans act instinctively to avoid pain. If the gap can’t be closed by movement, it will be closed by other means. And there’s a dark irony in the way the human mind works to achieve this; left to itself it cannot help but find a creative solution. If the creativity of the conscious mind cannot find a way to close that gap, then the unconscious creative processes kick in and find another way to solve the pain problem; one that takes no notice of the conscious goal, only of the instinctive need to close that gap any way possible.

The mind’s creative solution to this conundrum? Render the vision invisible. Shut it off as though it had never been. If we can no longer see the attractiveness of the view, it’s power to cause pain has gone. And the mind’s unconscious defence mechanisms are remarkably effective in this; almost frighteningly so. This protection mechanism is entirely involuntary – there is no conscious decision to abandon the goal – and it is so powerful it is possible to wake up one morning and discover that yesterday’s drive and vision that was so intense has now evaporated and is barely even a memory. The shutters have come down.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

I live in hope... 

...that one day I'll return and write something here...