Monthly Archives: September 2016

Dealing with fear

D. W. Winnicott the psychoanalyst and paediatrician wrote brilliantly about the fear of breakdown. He points out that the fear is linked to past experiences when trauma inflicted shock and left wounds because what happened was, at the time, impossible to assimilate. In other words something dreadful happened but could not be experienced. The breakdown in the sense of self has already occurred.
Usually people defend against this fear of breakdown so it only emerges during periods of stress or in psychotherapy often after some progress has been made. Winnicott writes about it as fear of the organisation of the ego breaking down: ‘I can’t cope’, ‘I can’t go on’, and ‘I’m falling apart’.
As such it is a reversal of what he calls the maturational process which works as long as there is what he calls a facilitating environment. In other words as we develop through infancy the environment adapts to help us do so. He describes the facilitating environment as holding and containing and this then allows integration to take place and from this the capacity to relate to others. When we are very small then we are in a state of absolute dependence on the facilitating environment – totally dependent on those taking care of us, usually mothers and fathers who act as the infant’s ego by making decisions in the best interests of the baby. But, sometimes, they, for all sorts of reasons, are not able to do this and then the infant can be exposed to what Winnicott so wonderfully calls primitive agonies but which are essentially survival anxieties. His list of these include a return to an unintegrated state so the defence against this is disintegration; falling for ever with the defence as self-holding; loss of what he calls psychosomatic collusion and failure of indwelling with the associated defence as depersonalisation; loss of the sense of real with the defence as exploitation of primary narcissism, and the last one he lists (though he says there are others) is the loss of the capacity to relate to others especially the primary care-givers and the defence for this is autistic states and relating only to self.
The central theme that he explains is that all the primitive agonies that lead to a fear of breakdown have already happened – the breakdown has already taken place and our psyche is primed to prevent another such assault as ever happening again – hence the fear of breakdown as shown in panic attacks and free floating anxiety or anxiety states. But the past cannot stay in the past because the ego first needs to gather it into its own present time experience and gain some control over it; it has to be experienced – in psychotherapy this would be in the transference especially when the traumatised person feels that the therapist has let them down in some way. Gradually what was too much is restored to its rightful place and size through understanding and acceptance of what happened.
Both psychologically and spiritually healing can begin when we recognise what has taken place; this can happen in therapy or spiritual direction or when we recognise our experience through a book, in a poem, in a painting or through listening to music or a sermon. The Bible offers many stories of trauma and restoration. In the section of Jeremiah (chapters 30-33.26) called the Little Book of Consolation the state of exile is described and the pain is first acknowledged:
‘For thus says the Lord: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you.’
Yet out of this despair restoration is promised.

Creativity and playing

This is an edited version of an article that appears in the current issue of Manna – the journal for the Diocese of Bath and Wells, it draws on some of the thinking found in my latest book, The Only Mind Worth Having.

Creativity can be a way of connecting with God, and breaking through to something that is higher or more than our self and so can become a movement of self-transcendence. To be creative requires us to be imaginative and sometimes as adults our imagination becomes restricted and obscured.

As children we knew all about imaginative play and took it seriously, for play is about being alive and inventive and it not only transcends culture, it is much older than culture and indeed than humanity – as all animals play, especially when young. It is part of our relational consciousness and our connection with other created beings. Play involves creativity and imagination, and it can complement the realities or compensate for the deficiencies of everyday existence. ‘Let’s pretend!’ Sadly such childlike intensity of imagination tends to be lost in adulthood alongside the capacity to wonder and exclaim. Playing is often seen as something that we grow out of and ‘should’ grow out of; yet the philosopher Plato wrote that: ‘Man is made as God’s plaything and this is the best part of him. And, therefore, he should be of another mind than what he is at present and live life accordingly. Life should be lived as play.’

So why is it that our ability to play, to be imaginative and creative, so often becomes stifled? The poet William Wordsworth understood why when he wrote:
‘Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.’

It’s not only about the toll that formal education takes – the heads down and pass this test model – but as adults we are under pressure all the time to be rational, acceptable and not too emotional, we need to remain sharp, to be ‘in the know’ – all of which contribute to insecurities and leave us full of care/ careful and in some ways missing the point – the real thing about life because only half of us is alive. This, the monk and writer, Thomas Merton thought is self-defeating and our obsessional worries and rituals make the world opaque.
He writes:
‘We are devoured by care – care about our job, care about our life of prayer, care about how we are getting on, care about what other people are doing, care about this, care about that … And then the thoughts, fears, reflections, regrets, and anxieties, this constant business.’
Such care consumes, restricts and smothers us. Our imagination becomes dulled and in the outside world we appear often consumed by our capacity for destruction whilst creativity is hived off as a hobby or entertainment. And yet … and yet … underneath all the disguises that we adopt as adults there still remains the imaginative spirit of the child for nothing is completely lost.

Early sense impressions can lay dormant only to surface years later. We can be reminded of some aesthetic creative moment, if not in detail but through a feeling. This is well described by the theologian C.S. Lewis who writes of the beauty of a toy garden, some moss and twigs, made by his brother on the lid of a biscuit tin, ‘it made me aware of nature … as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant.’ The impression of that imaginative creation from early childhood later became important in memory. ‘As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.’ He writes that it later evoked in memory a sense of longing, a longing for a longing that took him out of the commonplace.

The imaginative experiences of childhood give a foundation for later creativity, and sometimes there can be direct connections. For example, Lewis’s own imaginative creativity when he was aged six, seven, or eight has some links to The Chronicles of Narnia. He acknowledges that: ‘at this time … I was living almost entirely in my imagination’ as he mapped and chronicled Animal-Land, an island with ‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights in armour.’ Lewis writes that whilst this prepared him for his later career as a novelist, the only thing that Animal-Land had in common with Narnia was ‘the anthropomorphic beasts’ as Animal-Land was ‘astonishingly prosaic’ whilst Narnia contained wonder.

For creativity can be understood as participation with the power and activity of God. Many artists and writers describe how their work almost seemed to be fuelled by a creative power that worked through them, and that their usual self-consciousness had been absent and the inner critic silenced. It has been said that every Christian, each one of us, has their own creative work to do, their own part in the mystery of the ‘new creation’, their own opportunity to touch ‘the eternal’. The secret is to stop being so busy, to re-awaken our imagination and to open our mind and spirit to hear what is being whispered in the deepest parts of our soul – an invitation to join in the joy of divine play.

Concerning the Inner Life 3

One of the fruits of both psychotherapy and contemplation is a realisation of something – a life and a spirit – within us that exceeds our own conscious reality. For those of us who are religious this is God, for those who would be uncomfortable with that word but have experienced good depth psychotherapy or analytical psychology then the realisation of the power of the collective unconscious and the archetypes potentially offers the same experience. Both experiences of being in touch with something more than ourselves imply a sense of being alive and alive in this sense means to be growing and changing with an ability to endure and to go on enduring strains, conflicts and difficulties incident to development.
Evelyn Underhill quotes her spiritual director Baron von Hugel when he writes, “the soul is a force or an energy: and holiness is the growth of that energy in love, in full being, in creative, spiritual personality.” We are invited to change, and to grow in a full and generous response to our environment and to God. Sometimes everything seems so terribly predictable, and part of what is predictable is a sense of the disaster and chaos in the world and the feeling that things don’t get better despite all the promises from the politicians and the adverts. In fact we can be left with a sense of pessimism and cynicism. We are faced with that in our own lives as options seem to restrict and we get older. Yet what we are offered through God and our deepening and growing awareness of the inner life and the secret life of prayer is a sense always of great unreached possibilities which await the fully-expanded human soul. In other words the unconscious and the more than ourselves are words that we use for the tremendous powers that can absolutely transform both individually and collectively. It is about having some contact with the eternal realities which in turn leads to transforming outward expressions and supports.
Underhill writes about the beauty from within and the degree in which we can either exhibit or apprehend that beauty depends on our own inward state. She ends her first presentation with a story from one of the apocryphal gospels about the infancy of the child Jesus who picking up the clay sparrows with which the other children were playing, threw them into the air, where they became living birds. She says that as a legend we can see this as an absurdity but as a spiritual parable it is profoundly true. With Christ nothing is impossible and all can be changed.
I very much like this extract from St Augustine’s Confessions where he describes how despite his longing for God at first he could not see that there was something to see: “I found myself far from you in the land of false images”. The way he found through to “enjoy” God was through being called by “the Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ” and then he so beautifully writes: “Late did I love you, Beauty ever ancient and ever new, late did I love you! You were within me and I was outside. I sought you there, and in my ugliness rushed about among the beautiful things you had made. You were with me but I was not with you… You called and shouted and broke through my deafness.”

Concerning the Inner Life 2

In the same way as moving beneath the surface in therapeutic work gives us insights into who we really are and why we are the way we are, and such knowledge helps to transform our sense of self, so too does going below the surface into the depths of our relationship with God. The easiest route is through prayer. This is not prayer as outward liturgy, though it can help, nor by what someone called ‘the intercessionary burden’ by which I think they meant a long list of people who had to be prayed for, but this is rather more about the route that takes us to a secret life of prayer. This in essence is about a re-orientation away from self and towards God and a deepening and increasing love towards God and a belief that each of us is really loved by God.
Perhaps deepening our relationship with God involves us knowing that we are loved. Henri de Tourville writes so beautifully about this:
‘Think of this and say to yourself “I am loved by God more than I can either conceive or understand.” Let this fill all your soul and all your prayer and never leave you… Accustom yourself to the wonderful thought that God loves you with the tenderness, generosity, and an intimacy which surpasses all your dreams. Give yourself up with joy to a loving confidence in God and have courage to believe firmly that God’s action towards you is a masterpiece of partiality and love.’
If we can rest in such a belief and experience that in some way our lives are held within a divine frame then we can surrender into such love and begin to make our personal discoveries about God.
Evelyn Underhill thought that such a state of mind can be fostered by a sense of wonder and mystery. She sees acceptance of God’s love as a grace, but also thinks that our reception of such grace depends very largely on our will and our desire, and on our mental and emotional openness, and what she calls “plasticity” (long before the neuro-scientists coined the phrase). I think this means the ability to change in response to experience. She is of course an advocate of contemplative prayer which she sees as a state of mind that aims at God in and for himself, and not for anything that we might get from him. This hidden and private prayer  leads to being rooted and grounded in God’s love.
I still believe that depth psychotherapy can help reach this place – this hidden world if only because a good analytical psychologist or psychoanalyst can help to illuminate all the baggage and clutter that takes up space that could be filled by divinity… by the fullness of God. Paradoxically our spiritual strength and energy comes direct from the hidden – unconscious – source. In terms of religious life St Bernard call tapping into this source  as the “business of all businesses” because it controls all the rest and gives meaning to all the rest – it perpetually renews our contact with reality. And of course this is true anyway in life that the unconscious frames our conscious responses and makes us who we are. The more we can discover about our hidden inner world, which after all is limitless, the more we can transform our conscious self.

Concerning the Inner Life

In 1926 Evelyn Underhill wrote a little book called Concerning the Inner Life. It consists of three addresses that she delivered to clergy. She has as her epigraph a quote by a Dutch mystic called Gerlac Petersen who died in November 18th 1411:

‘In Whom we know and see all things, and by Whom we learn ever to simplify and unify our multiplicities and occupations, and our outward actions; by looking beyond and through all our works, however great and divine they may appear.’

Here from the 15th century is the awareness of what we might call now the danger of taking life just as what appears on the surface. Here Petersen sees that knowledge of the inner life has a way of casting aside what appears great and divine and how with the help of the grace of God we may then simplify and become more coherent about what we do and who we are.

When Evelyn Underhill talks of the inner life it is a way of leading her retreatants away from the external view of life towards what she calls ‘the relation of the individual soul with God’ and ‘the deepening and expansion of the spiritual sense’ for her this is ‘the heart of personal religion’. Underhill sees that the problems of the personal spiritual life are of the most transcendence importance. There needs to be nourishment and what she calls fostering and feeding of the inner life. As an aside, in the diocese where I currently worship (and I think nationally in the C of E) the focus is once again on evangelisation and mission – this is about numbers rather than nourishment of souls, about the outer rather than the inner. All the stress is on service and not on the search for the numinous. Yet with constant activity there can be no renewal of spiritual resources. This is about fostering the Mary part and letting Martha stew for a bit in the kitchen…

Clearly something similar was happening in 1926 because Underhill appreciates how the clergy can lose sight of the art of the founder of the Society of Friends George Fox of ‘seeing all things in the Universal Light’ because of the demands made upon them. But all of us involved in religion need to enrich our sense of God. I’ve been told that Rowan Williams recently said that when the church looks at itself nothing much happens instead the church needs to look to God.
Evelyn Underhill goes further by saying that there is a need to develop the spiritual sense so that the inner supernatural environment is more real and solid than the natural environment. She seems to be talking about a deep and serious attachment to God where one can feel guided not by one’s own will in prayer and work but by a deeper force – what she calls the Creative Spirit. The spiritual life can only gain in richness and intensity by deep connection and of course once again this involves moving beyond the conscious surface level down to the hidden and unconscious. It’s only really there that there can be any authentic meeting with God or as she puts it ‘that unchanging Real…that changeless God.’

She writes: There you are moving through life; immersed in the world of succession and change, constantly claimed by the little serial duties and interests of your career, and yet ringed round by the solemn horizon of eternity, informed by its invisible powers.’