by Ian Stevenson
This year's TAP Conference, which takes place on 18th March, is headlined Cutting Edge Connections between Spirituality and Psychotherapy and features top speakers Melody Cranborne Rosser and Larry Culliford. (Find out more and book HERE) But what do we mean by 'cutting edge'? Here long-time TAP Council member Ian Stevenson puts forward his thoughts....
What is 'cutting edge spirituality'? It’s a good question. Just before the last OFSTED inspection I had to endure, the Head shared a worry. “In the last inspection, the lay assessor said he saw little spirituality in the school. What did he mean and how can we improve on it?’
There were various answers: ‘a sense of awe’ said the Head of Science, who was a churchgoer; a sense of community; having prayers in Assembly (we didn’t do that very often) and encouraging moral behaviour. Personally, I think we have other words for these things. To me, spirituality implies something meta-physical, something beyond the material world. (As it turned out, it was not commented on in the inspection.)
Is Spirituality just a nice idea or do we have reasons for thinking it is more than that?
In my youth, 1960s, spirituality more or less equaled religion. When, as a new teacher, we took information on pupils for registers there was a box marked religion. Many children said, ‘I’ll have to ask.’ I was told, if uncertain, ‘Church of England’ would do!
Religion was something you believed in or not. There were a few who looked for a more empirical approach. The Society for Psychic Research, which goes back to 1882, investigated supernatural, or in more modern terms, para-normal phenomena. Despite a vast amount of data, few educated people gave it much credence. The end of the sixties did see what was dubbed “the New Age’, which was a bottom up exploration of new ideas in psychology and science blended with old teachings from around the world such as Buddhism. It ranged from the ridiculous to high philosophy. Carl Jung, who died in 1961, was the most quoted psychologist but there were others such as Maslow or Grof. However, the ‘New Age’ thinking was largely ignored by the educational and religious establishments even though ‘New Age’ books sold well. It was also ignored by the scientific world although meditation and yoga became popular albeit usually justified by its therapeutic properties.
New ideas often infiltrate themselves into public acceptance as the older generation passes on and a new generation looks for different answers to perennial questions. There were more university educated people looking for meaning and now they could glean information from a wide range of available resources thanks to modern communications. New leaders began to emerge.
For the last thirty years the Dalai Lama (who has endorsed one of our speakers’ -Larry Culliford-books) has held a conference at Dharamsala or elsewhere with Western scientists and they discuss their understandings of such subjects as meditation and neuroscience; the role of emotions, and the interface between modern physics and ancient wisdom. When they started, the Dalai Lama said if they showed something that Buddhism believed to be scientifically wrong, then Buddhism wold have to change. In fact they didn’t find anything.
In 1973 Dr Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences. On the way back from the Moon, he had an experience of being part of ‘Universe of Consciousness’. Noetic means using intuitive knowledge. Together with the scientific (left brain?) approach, the Institute addresses the questions raised by the experience. He felt it could bring about a deeper understanding of who we really are and would help to bring people together.
In that same year, 1973, In Britain, George Blaker and several others founded the Scientific and Medical Network. They thought that neither orthodox religion nor conventional science could give adequate answers to ‘the mysteries of he Cosmos’. The materialist explanation of the brain didn’t seem to explain a lot of things. The SMN has numbered such people as -Dr. Mary Midgeley , Sir John Polkinghorn, Sir Crispin Tickell, Sir Roger Penrose and …me (to dilute it a bit )!
In 1999 Dr.Antony Powell at the Royal College of Psychiatrists formed a special interest group on Spirituality. Other groups include working with the elderly or in criminality. Today it is the largest special interest group and one can read their newsletter on the web. Our speaker, Larry Culliford was part of this.
I would also include Dr.Gary Schwatrz’s research in the US. We have probably seen on TV , Darren Browne who describes himself as a ‘mentalist’. He says he can replicate the results achieved by mediums and clairvoyants by using techniques such as cold reading. Schwartz put the mediums and the ‘sitters’ in different rooms where they could see or hear each other, and the mediums continued to get results. I have given a talk on this in Bristol. The work is criticised by some but I thought the criticisms were generalities and did not address the points raised.
So what has emerged to engage these very distinguished people? I could suggest several things but there are two main ones: the ability to investigate the brain in greater depth e.g. with fMRI, and the implications of that such as the near death experiences ; 2) the greater understanding of quantum physics and how that relates to consciousness.
Some quantum physicists see consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe and not something produced by the brain, but rather mediated by it as a radio is not the origin of a program but the medium by which we hear it. This would imply we do indeed swim like fish in an ocean of consciousness.
These are raise exciting and fundamental questions as to who we really are but one may ask; what has this to do with counselling and psychotherapy? We do things like finding out what is of meaning to our clients and helping them to have a better relationship with themselves and live more resourcefully. But what could a study of spirituality add?
This was a question when we first had brain scanning equipment. How would knowing which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when we experience certain emotions, actually influence therapy. But I think many would answer it has been , for many, a useful contribution. We gain a better understanding of who we are.
I suggest there are several areas it could influence.
We can look at evidence for a metaphysical ( beyond or above ) dimension and not just take it on faith. Of course, there are persuasive people who argue the opposite, like Daniel Dennett, but we have evidence we can assess, rather than believe it or not.
Our sense of connection with the wider universe. This is the traditional area of religion and philosophy, where the field of universal consciousness, or whatever you wish to call it, might influence us giving meaning and purpose to our lives. The study could enable one to see the different religions as tributaries flowing into a common stream. Surely of use in the modern world?
Spirituality suggests we are not separate collections of neutrons but individuals as having a part in the universe, and relationships with others and the natural world.
To end on a personal note, when I look at the neurological information and the ethics of spirituality in their several forms, I am reminded of Paul Gilbert’s Compassion Focused Therapy which we heard so ably presented by Dr. Christopher Irons in the 2013 conference . Those concepts have enhanced my practice.
One doesn’t need to accept all the concepts I’ve outlined here in order to derive some benefit from the study. My hope is that the conference won’t just be the delivery of information on the day but an encouragement to find out more.
We would love to know what you think - please do post comment below.
On 19 Feb a substantial audience braved a cold and damp evening to welcome back Matthew Appleton to TAP for a third time. His talk entitled `The lifelong consequences of obstetric interventions` centred on babies’ awareness both in the womb and after their birth together with the Obstetric Interventions they might experience and the long term effects of these.
Matthew emphasised that he was not anti intervention but suggested that we don’t realise how our lives are shaped by them. Surprising the meeting at the outset with the knowledge that our accepted basic position for childbirth is not the best for baby, Matthew stressed that babies are more aware and sensitive than we believe. The audience was unsettled to hear that until the 1980’s it was common practice for some medical procedures to be done without anaesthetic because it was believed very young babies didn’t feel pain.
A widely held belief that we are unable to remember our own birth is not shared by Matthew, who spoke of implicit memory and the imprint on our nervous system and stress patterns in the soft tissues of our bodies of a traumatic birth.
The effects of drugs on the baby to induce birth were explored and also the use of anaesthetics, forceps, ventouse vacuum assisted delivery and caesarean section which can be extremely traumatic. With the aid of a model pelvis and baby, Mathew demonstrated the effects of birth on a baby, described the pain and trauma it goes through and the uncertainty it feels that it will survive the process.
All this was all in sharp contrast to a film of a pygmy woman who gave birth in a forest, in a more natural position of letting gravity help, which resulted in a smoother, gentler transition.
See Matthew's talk slides HERE
The next talk will be by Terry Davey on 15 April 2016 entitled `Transformational Change Through Memory Reconsolidation` and will be held at the new venue of the Friends Meeting House, 13 Bath Place, Taunton, TA1 4EP.
Despite being a wet and blustery evening on 20 November, a sizeable audience greeted Anne Stokes for her much anticipated talk about online counselling. Encouraging interaction and questions from the audience as she spoke, Anne explained that only as far back as the year 2000 she considered herself to be a `Luddite` in the world of computing. With online counselling still in its infancy, Anne ventured into this new world as a client, in the real hope that it would fail and prove right her own belief that it was unworkable, however she found it was `brilliant` and so was completely hooked.
It was explained that modern on-line counselling encompasses almost any form of Internet technology, including text, voice and video and a brief history of this was offered to the audience. It could be said that non-face to face counselling started with Sigmund Freud who often counselled by letter, but it was in the 1960’s that real development occurred with Eliza, a computer program which simulated a therapist. The USA, Australia and Israel moved forward with this work and in the early 1990’s some UK Universities produced hit and miss results in this field. In later years the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Universities and the NHS all gave respectability to this area of work.
Practical advantages attached to online counselling include the ability to work with people abroad, those who may have irregular working hours and people with transport problems or caring roles. Pitfalls might be seen as possible breaches in online security, which might compromise confidentiality and the need by the therapist to convey his or her understanding to the client through words alone. Anne stressed that she was not advocating the phasing out of face to face counselling or claiming online counselling is better or in fact worse but just that it is different.
Anne’s interesting and informative talk ended with a lively question and answer session, culminating in a warm round of applause following the vote of thanks given by TAP council member David Trott.
The next meeting of TAP is in the New Year, on Friday January 22nd, when Ian Stevenson will give a Talk entitled “Ticking the boxes – the context of 21st Century Management”. Venue : Taunton United Reformed Church, Paul Street, Taunton TA1 3PF @ 7.45 pm.
On 19th June Alison Chown gave TAP members an informative talk about Play Therapy in the Outdoors to accompany her book on the subject. Alison works with children aged 3-16 who have complex behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. She spoke about her path to taking the children outdoors for play therapy, the ethical struggles in the early days and the benefits to the children when they use the outdoor spaces.
Outdoor Play Therapy and the Forest School principals are very closely aligned. Sue Jennings devised the development 'Embodiment - Projection - Role' or EPR Paradigm: Embodiment – which is is the physical sensory aspect for the child, where they develop their 'body-self'; Projection – which is where the child responds to things outside of their body and make them have a personal meaning; and Role play. These are all used in outdoor play therapy where development may have been interrupted or damaged by the child’s early experiences.
Working outdoors draws on the Reggio Emilia Approach when the outdoor space becomes the third teacher, with the adult as mentor/guide and the children using their different languages to make sense of the world. Children have a huge capacity for physicality; to keep them confined within four walls is not always conducive to effective therapy. The therapist needs to hold symbolic walls in the outdoor space. The child needs to learn about risk without anxious adult interference.
Alison left us with a quote:
'There are two gifts we should give our children, one is roots, the other is wings'.
TAP’s next talk is on 18th September when Maria Byrne speaks about The Journey of the Prisoner. The talk will start at 7.45pm at Taunton United Reform Church, Paul Street. All welcome.
On 14th November TAP members and a wider audience welcomed their own administrator Suzie Grogan who talked about her new book entitled Shell Shock Britain, The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health. Suzie’s own family history sparked her interest in the subject; during her extensive research she uncovered how shell shock affected those on the front line and at home.
Shell shock was identified 2000 years ago and in every war since. During the industrial revolution accidents were often triggered by people suffering with PTSD, however they were minimised for fear of compensation claims.
Charles Myers published a paper in The Lancet in 1915 highlighting shell shock, and approximately 80,000 men were officially diagnosed with shell shock by the end of the Great War, but the true figure was nearer 400,000 - 500,000 as people broke down in the post war years and others struggled on, unable to cope with normal living and finding it impossible to speak about their experiences..
During the war soldiers were often treated near the front line and sent back to fight. If they broke down again they would probably be sent home, where treatment for shell shock was divided by class with the ranks being more likely to receive horrific ECT. Talking therapies were introduced in some hospitals. Suzie read from letters and newspapers of the time showing how the raids affected the home front. Women and children were deeply traumatised by the war, but this was unacknowledged by the establishment. The Spanish influenza outbreak, towards the end of the war, killed 200,000 people, often leaving depression in those that survived. Suzie brought the subject alive and was well received by a large audience.
Find out more at www.suziegrogan.co.uk. Shell Shocked Britain was published by Pen & Sword Books in October 2014 and is available here.
The next meeting is on 23rd January 2015 when Matthew Appleton will talk about how relationships begin in the womb. The talk will start at 7.45pm at Taunton United Reform Church, Paul Street. All welcome
On Friday 17th October, the members of the Taunton Association for Psychotherapy (TAP) welcomed Dr Damian McCann, an analytical Psychotherapist from St Albans, to speak about the complex subject of responding to the needs of lesbians, gay men, bisexual (LGB), trans-sexual, and inter-sex clients in the counselling room.
Dr McCann began with a brief history of how anyone who was not heterosexual was considered in need of a ‘cure’ until relatively recently. Surgery was also used from time to time “to remove the offending part of the brain”. Aversion therapy was thought to be the way forward to “put someone right”. We were shocked to discover that even as recently as 2009 a number of UK therapists would have referred someone for “reparative” therapy.
The talk was a sensitive consideration of how to listen to such a client who might be struggling with their sexual identity. The attitudes, knowledge, and practice of a counsellor or psychotherapist were shown to be more important than their own sexual orientation. Clients from this group may already be coming to us out of a hostile environment. By simply listening, we can provide an environment of safety within which someone might explore whatever issue they have brought. Many LGB clients often don’t talk to a therapist about their sexual orientation because of the fear of misunderstanding. What Dr McCann described as ‘heterosexual privilege’ has limited, shaped, and invalidated the experience of LGB and transgender people.
Gender identity brings with it a set of 3 complicated issues: Chromosomal – where the sex of an individual is been determined by physiology; Gender Identity – relating to how the individual Feels; and Gender Role – determined by how a gender is played out in life. A counsellor must look closely at their own thoughts and questions about the client in the room and determine how much we judge someone according to preconceived stereotypical notions.
Intersex – where an individual is born with a unique set of chromosomes producing a diversity of sexual development- is a condition can challenge all of our assumptions, producing an anatomy that is not standard male or female.
It was clear by the end of the talk that there is an enormous amount to be learned from thinking about this group of individuals when working with them in the counselling room. BACP’s Ethical Framework describes the following: BACP believes that socially inclusive, non-judgemental attitudes to people who identify across the diverse range of human sexualities will have positive consequences for those individuals, as well as for the wider society in which they live. There is no scientific, rational or ethical reason to treat people who identify within a range of human sexualities any differently from those who identify solely as heterosexual. That sounds like a fundamental human right.
The next meeting is on Friday 14th November, when Suzie Grogan will talk about Shell Shocked Britain, the Great War`s legacy for Britain`s mental health. The Talk starts at 7.45 pm in Taunton United Reformed Church, Paul Street. All welcome.