27 February 2012

The Compassionate Mind - you really are worth it





"How to use compassion to develop happiness, self-acceptance and well-being"









I read this book last month, having requested it for a Christmas gift. It came highly recommended to me by a fellow workshop attendee (on a Heart Intelligence workshop run by Gill Wyatt). I had a conversation with this man afterwards and we talked about a stumbling block in intimate relationships - how can we truly love others if we don't love ourselves? He had attended a course in Compassion Focused Therapy developed by Paul Gilbert and suggested I look into it.


It has been a theme for me recently - true acceptance of all facets of myself. This is something that I endeavour to help clients move towards and it is my belief that one cannot help at the fundamental level required in therapy, if one runs away from one's own issues, paticularly if they are pertinent to current client work.


So whilst I thought that I truly accept all facets of myself this was put strictly to the test at the end of last year. Some very old issues were brought abruptly to my awareness and it became apparent that there was still some work to do. What could be viewed as a horrible experience became a gift for me as it allowed me to focus on an area requiring growth and happened at a time that I was equipped to deal with it. Although I knew cognitively that I was essentially a good person worthy of love and compassion (huge growth from how I considered myself in my earlier years), there was some kind of blockage to fully integrating that belief. It is hard to articulate in a way which makes sense and, indeed, each client has their own unique way of describing the feeling of knowing something in one's head and knowing it in one's heart. Sometimes, fortunately very infrequently, my belief in myself was challenged and recognising the past experiences that caused that to be the case was not enough to shift it. Hence, psychoanalysis, in my opinion, is not enough. It is in the relationship where the client experiences compassion that fundamental shifts can occur.


Part of my growth involved reading this book. The blurb on the back of the book states:


"In societies that encourage us to compete with each other, compassion is often seen as a weakness. Striving to get ahead, self-criticism, fear and hostility towards others seem to come more naturally to us. The Compassionate Mind explains the evolutionary and social reasons why our brains react so readily to threats - and reveals how our brains are also hardwired to respond to kindness and compassion.


Research has found that developing kindness and compassion for ourselves and others builds our confidence, helps us create meaningful, caring relationships and promotes physical and mental health. Far from fostering emotional weakness, practical exercises focusing on developing compassion have been found to subdue our anger and increase our courage and resilience to depression and anxiety."


Well, I would say that the book does indeed give a great explanation as to the evolutionary issue with our minds - explaning why we have emotions and describing the glitches in the construction of our emotional selves. I have believed for some time that one of the first tasks in therapy is to take away the shame associated with the unwanted way of being e.g. somebody gets angry frequently, and they feel a deep sense of shame or guilt for doing so. The problem with this is that shame or guilt makes the whole package harder to manage - take away the shame and then we can pick apart what is behind the anger. So reading the science behind our emotions can really help us to be more understanding of our reactions and responses, instead of getting bogged down with shame and guilt.


Gilbert describes our three different affect regulation systems (the incentive/resource focused, the non-wanting/affiliative focused and the threat-focused) and how they compete with one another - that it is not in our physiology to be in all three modes at once. "...many negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, disgust and sadness are a normal part of our emotional repertoire...These emotions evolved to help us detect and cope with threats, but in our society, obsessed as it is with happiness, we sometimes feel that, if we experience them to any degree, there's something wrong with us...our brains did not evolve for happiness but for survival and reproduction, so we need to learn to accept, tolerate and work with difficult emotions or low moods." 


There are exercises designed to help promote self-compassion but I appreciate Gilbert's stance that reading a book is not enough to do this. He talks about talking therapies and the part therapists can play in helping one to develop self-compassion. "Psychotherapies should help people recognise the reality of "alternative constructions" and help them to explore the ones that are more conducive to their health and well-being. Therapists can support people as they embark on this potentially destabilizing process of literally "changing their minds"". I saw my therapist for a few sessions to deal with my recent glitch and it actually helped me to solidify my belief in what I am doing for other people through my work. There is no cure-all fix. Existence is challenging and we sometimes need help to deal with it. Beating ourselves up for not being happy all the time is a sure way of making life even harder. Sometimes we need a helping hand and I, a counsellor, sometimes need a helping hand too.


I love this analogy of anger and hatred: "...both like a flame - it can cast light, give life-sustaining warmth, inspire and create passion but, unchecked and undirected, can also burn, cause intense pain and consume and turn to ash all that it touches. Anger and hatred should be seen as pointers, telling us to look back and find the source of our hurt and to be honest about our fear. In compassion-focused work, this is often the hardest thing to do, to be honest enough to work with the fear and grief that sits underneath anger." For many of us it is easier to project the hurt outwards and blame others, which serves us no favours. "You made me cross" - Gilbert illustrates another way "We can acknowledge openly that we have a brain that has systems for anger and second, notice when those sytems have been triggered. Since these feelings can sweep through us so quickly, it can be difficult to get hold of them; they can take control of us very easily. Now they were designed by evolution to do that, so this is not our fault. Given that it's untrue and unhelpful to tell ourselves that we're bad for feeling anger, when evolution has made it so easy to feel! It's also unhelpful to tell ourselves that we should not be angry when we are. Self-condemning will only make us depressed and/or more irritable". I have heard depression described as anger turned inwards.


There is also a good section on anxiety and, besides trauma and loss, I would say that the majority of my clients come for help with anger or anxiety issues.


I earmarked so much of this book and I was excited by so much of what is being said. I have given just a taster of what is covered. I would recommend this book to anyone, except perhaps my dear friend Robin who I think is already there.

Amanda Williamson Counselling in Exeter




16 February 2012

Martial Arts and Psychotherapy

Dr Joe Dispenza
It all began with the intersection of two events that occurred in April 2010. First of all, I had read Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza. Second, Exeter Martial Arts opened a new Dojo in between where I lived and worked.

Evolve Your Brain is a marvellous book which I was given by a counsellor peer. He thought that I would appreciate this scientific approach to neuroplasticity, i.e. the rewiring of our minds to change how we think and behave. I ended up doing a college presentation based on my findings from this book, along with The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio, Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert and The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild. The book informed my counselling approach by educating me of the how and why counselling works on a neurological and biochemical level. The handout to go with my presentation can be found here.

So, what's this got to do with Martial Arts? Well, I was inspired by Evolve Your Brain to learn new things. Dispenza reckons that our brains fall back on their innate i.e. genetic wiring if we stop learning new things, and this leads to us acting just like our parents, even if we don't want to. He advocates the challenge of continual learning to help our minds be flexible and creative rather than stuck and predictable. So when I walked past the Dojo and saw the list of available classes, and clocked that there were sword classes, I requested a taster session pronto.

Now, this post is biased towards Kenjutsu (the Art of the Sword) rather than other disciplines as it was and still is the only Martial Art I am interested in learning. Jiu Jitsui was not for me - there is a lot of grappling and rolling on the floor involved which did not appeal. However, the Jiu Jitsui classes are by far the most popular, and I believe that I was the only Kenjutsu student who did not also do Jiu Jitsui.

So during my taster session I felt completely inept and had sore arms within minutes. Yet I agreed to go back the following week and ordered my membership, insurance, bokken (wooden sword) and gi (uniform). Two days later I was sat at college and was still unable to lift a cup of tea to my lips using one arm. I hurt. Yet I was hooked.

For 18 months I went along and slowly (painfully so - I felt so impatient about this) I started to learn the sequences of moves from the Kaze Arashi Ryu traditional sword school. There are individual sequences of 10 moves (kata) of various types - stances, defence moves and attacks. Then there's the "waza" - performing the sequences with a partner - one attacking and the other defending.

What I aboslutely LOVE about Kenjutsu is that it is non-competitive. Everybody works cooperatively, regardless of their level. There is something quite humbling about being a beginner which I think is an experience that would do a lot of people good. As long as it doesn't turn to arrogance once they are "better" than the beginners - there is no room for this in Martial Arts. A peer of mine who used to fence, made many references to how an army of fencers could kill an army of Japanese sword warriors, and there is indeed an internet myth doing the rounds of some alleged battle which "proves" this. Frankly I don't think he understood why I was doing it.  Kenjustu is more akin to dancing than to competitive sport (Kendo is the associated sport - as Judo is to Jiu Jitsui), although this dancing does involve carefully placed slices to the neck, head, guts, chest etc. So there is a sinister edge to this "dance"and I admit this compelled me and added to the excitement of it.

So, what is the connection between Martial Arts and psychotherapy? Well, it ocurrred to me that there were other elements of learning in Kenjutsu which I got real value from, other than the learning of a new skill. It was a lesson in patience - patience towards myself when I was a clumsy beginner (very difficult for me to do), and towards others when they were starting out (much easier for me to do). There were frustrations with the fact that although there was a system, it didn't always fall neatly into nice little boxes. Sometimes, the rules were unpredictable and while moves 1-10 of each sequence usually followed the same movements there were exceptions to the rules which would throw us. A bit like life really. The best thing was to embrace the discrepancies rather than get frustrated by them.

One thing that was a bit of a barrier for me at first, was in the defensive moves - known as bobusuru. The basic premise is that you have to walk into the attack in order to execute a defense move that will result in you gaining control. This was hard to do - there is somebody ostensibly attempting to slice my torso diagonally from neck to hip. Okay, maybe not quite but they are mimicking this with a huge piece of white oak. To step towards that person is counterintuitive. To learn to trust the move was difficult. The best way I found of going about this, as it was of almost everything to do with Kenjutsu, was to stop overthinking it. As I'm sure some of you know, think about something too much and you'll talk yourself out of it. The move works. Don't think - do it! I did get over this in time, even after receiving a bit of a black eye one session for a dodgy move. This reminds me of therapy - to really get to where we need to be we often have to walk into the painful place in order to master control over the painful place (and we might get a few bumps and scratches along the way...)

Me pretending to slice into Mat's neck
I had to be quite disciplined  - if I missed a session it was very difficult trying to catch up - way worse than missing maths at school. So I committed to going every week that I could physically make it.

A particularly challenging day was the Kenjustu Grading and Seminar that was held in May 2011. It was 4 hours of swords drills and training followed by a gradings examination - 3 levels in one day for some of us.



Unfortunately, the time of the class is now problematic for me to attend and I stopped about 3 months ago. I'm missing it very much.

**UPDATE March 2013 - The class time changed in my favour and I have been back at Kenjutsu, training weekly since September 2012 and hoping to gain my 5th Kyu grading soon **

Apparently the famous psychotherapist R D Laing endorsed the use of Martial Arts as a therapy and for personal use by therapists. There is a link here about psychotherapy and Martial Arts.

I would really appreciate any feedback or comments from people, particularly those who learn a Martial Art.

7 February 2012

Why I recommend cranial osteopathy


I have recently been taking my daughter to a cranial osteopath for chronic backache. She fell off a climbing frame last year and, although has been given the all clear by the NHS, she occasionally complains of a sore back, particularly after Jiu Jitsui. I decided that, apart from hot baths and pain relief medication, we could try out cranial osteopathy as I have had very positive experiences of it in the past. We go to St David's Osteopathic Clinic in Exeter, where we see Colin Crewdson who treated me approximately 11 years ago. 
After the birth of my first child, whilst resident in Altrincham, Cheshire, I took my baby, still rampant with alleged "colic" at aged 8 months old, to see Alexandra McCann, as a last-ditch attempt to get more than 4 hours sleep a night.  His birth was a protracted, 30 hours+ affair, as he was facing my front, rather than my back, which places undue pressure (other than that already incurred during birth) on baby's skull, as he twisted and turned his way out. Apparently, his fontanelles were still rigid. These are soft spots which allow for easy (pah!) passage of the skull through the birth canal, and which close in the weeks following birth. So Alexandra used cranial osteopathic techniques to help ease his battered skull which, she told me, would prevent the almost certain almighty headache the poor mite was encountering everytime he lay down. It worked. He slept. Can't get him out of bed now...(about to hit his teens).
So, whilst I was there, watching him being treated, I asked about my continually niggly, achey back and ended up forking out for some treatment myself. My sessions were a lot more physical and involved Alexandra pushing my back around which made the popping sounds associated with joint manipulation
She also used ultrasound heat treatment and prescribed abdominal exercises to coax my stretched muscles back into the natural, supportive corset to protect my back. My back felt much better.

After child #2 arrived, after another prolonged labour which involved him actually coming out the wrong way (with larger part of skull descending = more pressure on his skull) I decided to take him along for the treatment. Now in Exeter I settled on St David's Osteopathic Clinic. Again, my back was feeling painful and fragile (apparently posterior births - where the baby lies facing the front rather than the back- cause a lot more pressure on the mother's spine). I decided to have some treatment myself. So I lay down on the couch, wondering where all the equipment was...

As I lay there, staring at the poster pinned to the ceiling, admiring the house plants, the quietness of the clinic and the beautiful view of the wooded area outside, Colin sat on a chair behind me and placed his hands beneath my back...and I waited for the action...but it wasn't happening. Eventually I tuned into the fact that Colin's fingertips were very slowly and gently moving underneath me. My thought was "how is this going to do anything to my back?". So I waited, and he carried on his gentle manipulation and eventually I felt a very curious sensation. It is hard to articulate but the closest thing I can describe it to is that it felt like my spine had become liquid. It had been rigid and now it was melting underneath Colin's fingers. I left the session feeling slightly lightheaded and with less tension in my back.

I went back for more. I was astonished during one session when he asked me if I had had some bad news that week. I had just found out that a close friend was dying of a brain tumour. He felt the tension in my chest.

On the final session I drifted off to sleep - I felt utterly, blissfully relaxed and at peace.

So, I am hoping that my daughter gets a bit of that. We have been for 2 sessions so far and there has been improvement in her back pain. She felt very lightheaded after the first session; not quite so much after the second but she did look like she was drifting off mid-session (lots of heavy blinking going on).

12 years after my first osteopathic treatment I have learned a lot about the mind-body connection (there is no division, but we Westerners like to see it so) and about how emotions are stored by the body. One effect of a body therapy such as osteopathy is that it can help the body to let go of stored emotions.

Last week I asked Colin about cranial osteopathy and emotions and he said that yes, people do sometimes have an emotional response with their treatment, and agreed that chronic back pain and low emotional states are interlinked (something I have noticed with counselling clients).

For those clients that do have ongoing back problems, or other, structural or joint issues, I would highly recommend osteopathic treatement and in particular, the gentle, non-invasive and yet powerful technique of cranial osteopathy.


2 February 2012

Counselling helps you to exist



Originally posted on 02/02/12


Counselling can be extremely difficult for clients. It can be painful, exhausting, excruciatingly uncomfortable and frightening. The time has got to be right.

It is something you can dip into over time, and, when you find a counsellor that you can trust enough to expose and share your vulnerability with then you can venture into the deepest recesses. You can explore together the shadows that have shaped how you respond to existence in the here and now.

Counselling/psychotherapy can help you to understand and accept you in your entirety - fears, vulnerabilities and other less desirable aspects notwithstanding. 

That said, we are still left with the human condition; that we know we will die, that life does not appear to have an obvious "purpose", that we are entombed within our bodily senses and can never truly know what it is to be somebody else. These things, as scary as they can be on the surface, can be worked with and we can move to a place of acceptance. We can balance out the dark with the light. We can rediscover joy by learning that we are, ultimately, wired to love and be loved. 



With thanks to Someone You Know for inspiring this response through her blog:


http://thinking-about-leaving.blogspot.com/2012/01/today-was-tough.html



Poem - A Construct to Make Sense of Existence



What does it mean to Be?
Why can we not Be without Meaning?
There is no Meaning; we construct our own.

We are together.
Our hearts beat, our blood coarses, we share the air,
Our atoms have traversed the universe for infinities.

We are alone.
My blood, my breath, my thoughts,
Entombed within the boundaries of biology.

I am everything.
My senses, my thoughts.
The world, my world, is everything I perceive.
Without this perception the world ceases to exist.

I am nothing.
Do they know me on the other side of the cosmos? Do they know me in China? Do they know me in the house next door?
I am nothing to almost everyone and everything.

So, I create my Meaning thus:

There is a massive, swirling void of blackness. Bigger than Everything.

From out of it we come, for a taste, a glimmer of human Existence.
And soon (in the scheme of things) we will reenter the swirling void,
And this shell, this thing that you see through your senses, your thoughts,
That I see through my senses and my thoughts,
Will be no more, leaving only the essence of who and what we truly are.

There is nothing more real than that.

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