Monthly Archives: September 2016

Reflections on Gestalt Psychotherapy and Hindu Astrology

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by Raksha Sidhu

Hindu spirituality in India is steeped in worshipping idols, images and symbols often of a cosmic nature with rituals and prayers. I am now learning that these images and symbols are metaphors for states of consciousness and life processes and rituals are methods of altering these states. One branch of the Hindu system of understanding life processes is Jyotisha or astrology, the study of planetary positions and the forces and constraints and the effects on one’s life.

I have been living in India for the past 3 months. I previously lived in the UK for 15 years, and experienced the vagaries of life there including training and qualifying as a gestalt psychotherapist. Recently my aunty told me she had found relief and acceptance of where she was in her life upon consulting an astrologer. I was sceptical of her claim and also curious what my reading my be if I consulted. As per the pathway of referral in India, my aunty suggested I meet a priest who knew someone she knew, whose son said he knew someone who can give me a reading.

As a Gestalt psychotherapist and having studied existential philosophies, I felt sneakily excited to allow a stranger with no prior knowledge of me to narrate my life processes to me, bequeathing responsibility for my life course, to the extent he would predict. I was also preparing to dismiss anything he said. In this I noticed transference of the authority my parents held in creating a narrative for me when I was a child, one which often did not fit my experience. The astrologer was a man, a patriarch figure, who would use the authority of an ancient Hindu tradition in explaining my circumstances to me.

As requested, I gave the astrologer details of my date, time and place of birth. He set to work, drawing a chart, calculating silently, while I chatted nervously to my mother and the priest’s son who had accompanied us into this consultation. I must mention that my need for and experience of privacy is different in India than it is in the UK, due to the different meanings the concept holds for me in these different contexts. The priest’s son had introduced me to the astrologer as his cousin. While this was not true, and I nearly did what I normally do, which is to jump in with a denial of this seeming lie, I am glad I held back because I then noticed he had said it with a great degree of warmth and care, as a cousin of mine in my fantasy might do. When he thus considered me an intimate other, it seemed most natural to welcome him to join me in this consultation. As for my mother being present, well, that is just good old confluence.

What the astrologer said was disarmingly accurate. It was not a bog standard reading I have heard before such as ‘you will have sons, you will enjoy a long married life etc’, essentially what an Indian woman wants to, or ought to want to hear. He described the good, bad and the ugly to me. It was eerie, hearing him speak of processes I had been struggling with in therapy for nearly a decade, and commenting on force fields outside of me creating obstacles in my social and personal life. What I had explored in London in therapy and Gestalt training, my fear of intimacy, neediness and use of anger, racism and/or misogyny in the UK, the frequently isolative structure of society in UK, and so on and so forth all contributed to my awareness of the challenge of feeling a part of British society. And when the astrologer said what he said, simply that I had wandered and not put down roots for the past decade, I felt a burden lifting off of me, and a sense of, yes, the forces and constraints are big, bigger than the gap between UK and India, bigger than this planet, as huge as this solar system and beyond, resonating with how impenetrable and un-chewable some quandaries had felt to me.

Among other things, he bluntly and dispassionately said, ‘yours is not a superior/auspicious (hard to translate precisely) birth’. As I stepped out of the consultation, again I felt a burden lift off of me, the burden of striving for some state of perfection or an elusive sense of achievement in society, most likely arising from my heritage of being Brahmin and middle class. I no longer need to try so damn hard. But this is not new. I have heard this before in London, in therapy, in groups. But hearing this from a Brahmin astrologer felt different and helped me take off some of the burden and entitlement of being from the Brahmin caste in this society. I remember my most respected Gestalt tutor Jane Puddy say over 5 years ago in a Gestalt group, ‘……to be extraordinarily ordinary’. These words rang true now as it did then. As Carl Hodges said in workshops, I am an event, in these circumstances and under these conditions of forces and constraints. In a Gestalt group, members comment on processes in relation to each other, over time growing an awareness of the dynamic interplay of ever changing forces and constraints. The astrologer was commenting on my process in relation to the interplay of inter-planetary forces and constraints.

A counter argument to my interpretation above, and one I have used myself in the past is that in these consultations, the person receiving the reading will most likely apply their intellect to interpret anything uttered and make meaning of it. I might have done the same. After all, it is not hard for an astrologer to make observations and enunciate universal challenges, such as the need for love, intimacy, emotional fulfilment, support and getting these needs met. If this was the case, then perhaps I simply continue the work I started in the UK, around gender, identity, race, caste and so on.

The priest’s son was alarmed by some of the content of the reading and so he quoted from memory a Sanskrit sloka (verse), which he translated as meaning that particular planetary positions create conditions for us, and if one uses one’s wisdom and discrimination or Viveka, then one might not succumb to these conditions. He gave an example to illustrate. In the room we were in, there might be a 100 Rupee note on the side desk, belonging to the astrologer. A person is alone in that room. She is tempted to pocket the money as there is no witness. She might pocket this money or she can use her discretion to leave it as belonging to the astrologer. The conditions here are of the cash, being alone, and the resultant temptation. Similarly my birth planetary positions and current planetary positions have created certain conditions for me that I might behave in certain ways. However, he continued to explain, I can choose to use my discretion to act based on wisdom, and not succumb to these forces. And so in this manner, we are back to the existential question of, what do I choose to do and who do I choose to be in this particular time, place and situation?

A social scientist might comment on the process of racism in a nation and why a youth of a certain skin shade might be stopped on the street by the police x times more than a youth of another skin shade, and that this process is bigger than the boundaries of the therapy dyad/ group. Similarly, among other world traditions, the Hindu system of explaining processes based on planetary positions might be shining a light on something bigger than the boundaries of interpersonal, societal and inter-national processes. So all I ask of myself and my readers is to not dismiss outright any such system not explained in psychotherapy books as a lot of hocus pocus, just as I might ask of Indians here not to dismiss psychotherapy as a lot of hocus pocus.


Raksha Sidhu is a UKCP Registered Gestalt Psychotherapist.

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The Drama of Being an Adolescent….

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By Jon Blend

Approximately 10 percent of children and young people aged 5-16 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder; around 1in 13 deliberately self-harm. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression. The number of 15-16 year olds with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s. (Source: Statistics: Young Minds website).

This bleak picture will be familiar to those UKAGP therapists who work in CAMHS, in colleges and schools , also to some working in private practice: we have a problem on our hands. A number of conversion courses have come into being in recent years, enabling psychotherapists qualified to work with adults to gain the knowledge and skills needed to work competently and safely with a younger clientele. UKCP ‘s newly introduced child and adolescent proficiency marker provides an interim assessment measure for another raft of therapists wishing to ‘up skill’ and have their particular experience recognised in this area. It requires a demonstration of relevant knowledge and expertise acquired through specialist cpd and supervision.

How did adolescence as a Western phenomenon come about? One theory links this to changes resulting from the ending of 19th century child labour practices in UK and US. There was a consequent rise in number of years spent in school. During this time the growing influence of newer forms of transport- the bicycle automobile, and motorbike contributed to changes in courtship behaviour from the 1920s. As independent transport became increasingly affordable this broadened scope for dating without chaperone, beyond the watchful eye of parents. In the late 1950’s on both sides of the Atlantic mass manufacture of wireless ‘transistor ‘radios coincided with the new rock and roll era. Coffee houses and milk bars with jukeboxes became popular places for UK youth to frequent together with the Wimpy bar- forerunner of burger joints to come. Around this time in the US ‘drive in’ movies were growing in popularity offering the possibility of sexual experimenting in the back seat. All the while teenagers, like young colts, appeared to oscillate between extending themselves towards maturity and retreating to younger ways of being. Growth is far from linear.

During this period paediatrician and analyst Donald Winnicott was reflecting on ways of supporting adolescent mental health, channelling aggression and discouraging delinquency. Sixty years on author and psychiatrist Dan Siegel speaks in similar vein of the need for young persons to be Seen, Soothed, Safe and Secure, thereby developing resilience and secure attachment.

A number of therapists from the Gestalt canon have contributed to our understanding of adolescence, including Marlene Blumenthal, Duey Freeman, Ruth Lampert, Robert Lee, Mark McConville, Violet Oaklander, Peter Mortola, Bruce Robertson, Alan Singer and Gordon Wheeler. Closer to home I have written about adolescent anger, Bronagh Starrs has written about adolescence in Ireland, Neil Harris has written on Attachment and Claire Asherson Bartram has written about Stepfamilies.

For the purpose of this piece I want to focus on an aspect of McConville’ seminal (1995) book Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self. In it he describes the unfolding process of adolescence and introduces us to his particular developmental model. McConville also distinguishes between types of ‘polarity dynamics’ that govern the ways teenagers deal with emergent tensions, for example in their relations with power and authority.

Mc Conville describes three phases in the process of separating from the family of origin: disembedding, interiority and integration. The first phase is concerned with reworking the family field. During this period adolescents spend less time with their families and seek to distance themselves from parents.

During this emergent disembedding phase the adolescent’s peer group assumes greater importance, displacing that of the family of origin. By focusing more on her peer relationships Anghara creates a new boundary between herself and her parents. This increases her personal autonomy and deepens her evolving experience. Anghara’s new life becomes something of an emotional rollercoaster- fascinating, frightening, exhilarating confusing, and painful by turns as she revises her existing social structures. The turbulence that Anghara and those around her experience during this period is by no means unique; when adolescents challenge the system this shakes up and reorders the herd. It is a necessary survival element in many animal species –not just humans.

Mc Conville refers to disembedding not just as a phase but also as a way of describing the overarching process of maturing and separating. Not all cultures experience this process in the same way however. In Denmark for example many young adults leave home early, around age 21, whereas in Croatia the transition takes place nearer to age 30. In the Caucasian region of Georgia it is common for four generations to live under one roof.

That said, the biological imperative to experiment with living our lives differently from that of our parents enables us to venture into new territory and meet new people –extending the ‘Lifespace’ in Lewinian terms, broadening and strengthening the gene pool. Teen fashions in music, hairstyles, clothing, piercing and tattooing, use of slang and social media accentuate the demarcation between generations . This helps the young person develop her awareness of being a separate and potentially autonomous being. In contrast to her former unreflective life as a child the young adolescent analyses and questions everything, developing new ways of viewing and interpreting the world.

At this early stage reality often becomes conveniently distorted to serve the fragile, emergent self. By projecting internal conflicts onto the field – friends, family- anyone other than me- projection helps protect the self and maintain self-esteem. This keeps troublesome intrapsychic polarities including feelings of guilt or shame (which cannot yet be owned) safely at a distance. Rock band the Who tapped into this when they sang ‘People try to put us down’ – (My Generation) saying accusatively to an established older generation: ‘ its you/ your fault- doing ‘this’ to me! ’

Accordingly when Maria feels vulnerable, she goes on the offensive, provoking a fight with her parents. This helps her feel solid and stable rather than risk the shame of losing self. It reinforces, if only temporarily, her sense of being right and internally coherent. When Maria orchestrates such battles in front of her peers she signifies to them – ‘I’m OK, I can handle this conflict and survive’. Nonetheless in separating her self from the family field she may also feel alienated and lonely.

As Maria enters the mid phase of adolescence, which McConville refers to as interiority, distinguishing between subjective and objective reality assumes greater importance. This prompts questions such as:

  • What do people do with their lives?
  • Is Jordan real or phony?
  • What does Nina think about me?
  • Does anyone know the real me?

Abstract searches or quests take on fresh significance at this time as Maria strives to work out her relationship with issues of identity, autonomy, morality and intimacy. And so on ….


The Drama of Being An Adolescent: London CPD course 2-5 November 2016

If you have read this far you may be interested in knowing something of the cpd course on adolescence I am facilitating, entitled The Drama of Being An Adolescent. This takes place at the Gestalt Centre, London NW1 and is offered in conjunction with Playback South Theatre Company.

On this course the group will consider a range of topics. These include: common presenting problems, parenting styles and the family field, brain changes and risk- taking, gender and identity matters. Our themed work with Playback Theatre Company aims to enhance our understanding of adolescent concerns whilst honing our ability to make relational contact via our senses, active listening, playfulness and flexible response.

Experienced families counsellor Crissy Duff will facilitate an interactive session on social media with an emphasis on cyber- safety. What else? Through skills practice and discussion we will explore some challenges and benefits of engaging an adolescent together with their family in a first session. Through role-play participants will experience assessing teenagers in context, forming a working alliances and co-creating a treatment plan. The group will also consider ways of surviving, and repairing ruptures in therapy with adolescents that help deepen dialogue. We will review ways of supporting young persons and their families in finding safe, effective ways of expressing and containing anger that suit the prevailing field conditions. Another popular exercise involves participants practicing pitching to commissioners of services, refining their ability to describe their work with teenagers.

If I’ve whetted your appetite in exploring this work further through training here are the relevant online details for this and my Working with Children Easter Intensive:

See also www.gacp.co.uk (click events link for details of my other courses including July 2017 Oxfordshire residential).

Good wishes,

Jon

Jon Blend MA Dip Psych, Dip Child (UKCP reg.) CQSW

Guest tutor with Violet Oaklander Foundation & European Interdisciplinary Association for Therapeutic Services for Children & Young People.

NB THEATRE NIGHT!!  There are additional places available for individuals, teens, families and school groups at Playback South Theatre Company’s   2nd Nov. evening public performance in N London: ‘ The Drama of Adolescence-‘ see Playback South Theatre Facebook page or contact me, Jon, direct for details.

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