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April 2018

March 2018

Why losing control can be a good thing

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I’ve always enjoyed horse riding. When I was younger I particularly enjoyed pony trekking when we would ride all day. In the summer there would often be forty or more of us saddling up and heading into the Berwyn Mountains.

One day, when I was a teenager, there was a shortage of guides. The owner of the farm asked me if I would lead that day’s trek.

“But I won’t be able to remember the way,” I replied, worried about leading all the other riders astray. Although I had ridden it many times before, I had not memorised the route and was afraid of going the wrong way.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said, “The horse knows the way. There will be two points where he will hesitate and when he does, the first time guide him to the left, the second time guide him to the right.”

Sure enough, the horse hesitated at two intersections and I simply guided him the right way.

I often think back to that day and think how easily we can create problems that aren’t there and make life far more complicated than it needs to be.

The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson once shared a story about a horse that wandered into his family’s yard when he was a young man.

The horse had no identifying marks. Erickson offered to return the horse to its owners. In order to accomplish this, he simply mounted the horse, led it to the road, and let the horse decide which way it wanted to go. He intervened only when the horse left the road to graze or wander into a field. When the horse finally arrived at the yard of a neighbour, several miles down the road, the neighbour asked Erickson, “How did you know that horse came from here and was our horse?”

Erickson said, “I didn’t know- but the horse knew. All I did was keep him on the road.”          From: My Voice Will Go with You: Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson

Erickson became a famous psychotherapist and he liked to tell this story to his students, telling them that therapy was a lot like riding that horse. In beginning a course of therapy it is often helpful to go back to the beginning of the real road. Whatever ideas you have about the best path for your client to take, you stand more chance of success if you tap into the wisdom of the unconscious mind – both the client’s and your own. “You can trust the unconscious,” he used to say. He would encourage his students to let go of their preconceptions – about therapy, about clients, about human nature – and to trust their unconscious mind to come up with creative solutions to their problems.

I’m not saying there isn’t any value in making plans and applying what you know. You have to start somewhere.

But whenever you set out to do something extraordinary, there comes a point where, like Erickson on the horse, you have to choose between trying to control everything – or letting go and getting carried away by something bigger and more powerful than yourself.

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The river of life

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.

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“By the time it came to the edge of the forest, the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly for it now knew where it was going, and it said to itself, “There is no hurry. We shall get there someday”. But all the little streams higher up in the forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.” AA Milne. 

At the edge of Big Wood, I stood on the riverbank, gazing down into the water of the Clywedog. Recent rainfall had made it deeper and faster than usual.

A flowing river speaks to me about the journey of life. At its origin, the river is small and insignificant compared to what it is to become. Who would believe looking at the Clywedog now, or the Dee which the Clywedog flows into further on, that their source is a tiny trickle that you could step over?

From its humble origins, the river begins a journey of challenge and excitement. Each drop of water that bubbles forth at its source knows not what lies ahead. But from the moment it emerges, it becomes part of an inevitable, uncontrollable flow that leads it forward. Its whole life lies before it, and it begins a journey that will take it through various stages and directions of its life.

 An individual drop of water cannot flow by itself. For it to flourish and survive it needs other drops of water to join it on its journey. It needs to be fed by rain that falls from the sky. Encounters with other streams allow it to be nourished and grow. Every chance meeting contributes to its growth and maturity as a river. Just as it cannot reach its destiny without receiving from others, it gives as well as takes. It enriches the land and crops; it gives life to fish, amphibians, birds and humans.

Despite its power, kindness and generosity, its flow is not without difficulties. No river ever flows straight to the sea. It meets obstacles, diversions, challenges. Heavy rain might cause it to rush and roar ahead along a narrow channel, a long hot summer might rob it of its resources and take it back to a trickle.

 Its mood alters with its circumstances. There are times for rushing ahead and times for peacefully trickling along just trying to survive.

It meets obstacles – the fallen tree it has to negotiate, or the rockfall that means a change in course.

In its infancy, the river is joyful and dancing, in its adolescence more purposeful. In maturity, it broadens and shares its experience and wisdom.

Its pace slows as it continues its journey to the sea. On meeting, they become one, not just with each other but with all the other rivers and waters on the planet. The warmth of the sun evaporates the water. It gathers in the clouds, is deposited back in the hills, and so the journey of another river begins.

The river gives us a sense of permanence, a feeling of eternity that would outlive our mere fleeting existence. But in its permanence, there is also something temporary. The river is constantly changing, adapting, the molecules of water constantly changing.

The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception.

We are no different.

It is the rivers constant, ever-changing nature that makes it a classic metaphor for all of life’s journeys.  

‘Go with the Flow’ is the foundation of River Philosophy.

You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it. Paulo Coelho.

 In the water, the current determines what is needed from us at any given time.  When approaching a rapid, the river demands our attention, forces us to plan our route, to prepare for change and have the physical strength to keep our course.  When the water is still, we are allowed to rest and enjoy the scenery or prepare for the next rapid.  No amount of wishing, fighting, crying or demanding will change the river’s current. We must accept it for what it is, choose our course and do our best.

The river is constantly turning and bending and you never know where it's going to go and where you'll wind up. Following the bend in the river and staying on your own path means that you are on the right track. Don't let anyone deter you from that. Eartha Kitt.

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Have faith in yourself

After about three hours climbing Snowdon along the Pyg Track, the coffee and rest at the top were greatly appreciated. I decided to head back down the Miners’ Track but felt that the challenging walk was made even more difficult by the burden of my heavy backpack. Like many things in our lives, it weighed heavily on my shoulders. More than once I wished I’d left it at home as I clambered down the rocks and steep path.

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Yet, as there are two sides to every coin, there were aspects of my burden that I needed. It carried my camera, water for me and the dogs, snacks, and extra clothing. I thought about the amazing photographs I had taken, how much I needed that warm fleece in the bitter cold on the top. No, I would not choose to be without them.

As I plodded down the mountain, the two dogs on their leads in case they ran over a steep edge, I could feel the effects of a tough day on my body and limbs, and it restricted my joints and my gait.

My backpack weighed heavily and my knees and ankles were suffering from the concussive impact of each deliberately placed footstep. My mind turned inwards, focusing on my burdens and pain. Briefly, I would be distracted by the sun catching a distant mountaintop or a small hardy plant and I would get my camera out, but it wouldn’t be long before I was back in the thoughts of my own misery and wishing I wasn’t so far from the car.

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Then, my attention was captured by a noise from behind. There was a sound of laughter and merriment from a group of walkers behind me. Though we were walking the same path there was a vast difference in our mood and manner.

They carried loads which were much heavier than mine and with much greater ease: big backpacks with camping gear and supplies.

Ahead of them ran two dogs agilely jumping down the rocks. As the walkers passed me they talked and laughed as they traversed the trail like mountain goats, leaping from stone to stone. I watched their light, fast movements. They were walkers who were familiar with the path and obviously with carrying heavy loads, so surely there's was an example to follow. I adopted them as my model, let the dogs off their leads and started to replicate their gait. ‘Spring rather than plod. Move lightly’ became my mantra. And the results were rapid. The pains in my knees and ankles began to ease.

Then I let fear resume its grip. What if I went over on my ankle? What if I stepped on a loose rock and fell? What if… In fear, I again slowed my pace, deliberately watching each footfall. As I did so, I felt the full weight of my burden, and the concussion of each firmly planted step brought the pain back into my joints. My dogs, meanwhile, agilely traversed the path like the dogs ahead now that they were free.

The laughter of the walkers ahead drifted up from below. “Surely”, I thought, “My eyes are capable of seeing the path ahead. My legs have supported me well through life so far and know how to move. I just need to feel confident in the abilities I already have. Somehow, reminding myself at a conscious level what I already knew at a deeper level freed my body to move comfortably and lightly. Permitting myself to be in touch with long-held capabilities allowed my feet to travel easier. As I traversed the stumbling blocks of my mind, I moved over the ground with great ease, and the weight of my bag wasn’t so heavy and burdensome. Every now and then I stopped, a little worried again. If I started to worry about falling, I felt myself become tense, and I wasn’t able to move freely. When I reminded myself that what I wanted was well within my capabilities, I felt the worry fall away and my gait became freer.

All I needed was to trust my inner mind to do what it was already capable of doing.

When the burden of life becomes heavier, when it starts crushing our shoulders with all its might, it is time to be stronger! Mehmet Murat Ildan.

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Sometimes a change is all you need

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. Warren Buffett.

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If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got.

Julie reminded me of the truth of that statement. 

Julie was feeling depressed. She worked in admin in the local hospital and every workday she set her alarm for 7 am. She’d make a pot of tea and would drink two cups every morning followed by a bowl of cornflakes. While she had breakfast her husband would have a shower and then she would shower while he had breakfast. She would leave the house at 8.10 am to drive her Ford Fiesta to work, arriving half an hour early so as to set a good example.

She told me that she had worked in the same hospital in the same department for nearly twenty-five years. She didn’t enjoy her job and was looking forward to her retirement even though it was nine years away. Every lunchtime at 1 pm she would go to the staffroom and eat the cheese sandwiches that she’d brought from home, along with a cup of coffee. She’d leave work at 4 pm and arrive home an hour before her husband. She would cook dinner and he would do the washing up before they settled down to watch television for the rest of the evening.

I asked her about her weekend routine. Julie said that her husband always set the alarm for 7.30 am on Saturdays so that they could have a lie in. After the regulatory pot of tea, and showering, they would go out shopping, always to the same town. In the afternoon they would potter around the house and garden cleaning and catching up with the washing and ironing.

“What about Sundays?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh, we always go out on a Sunday,” she replied. I thought, at last, there might be something interesting that they do.

“Where do you go?” I asked.

“To my husband’s favourite café” she answered. “We have fish and chips and a cup of coffee. It very good value and my husband always says that it saves me cooking.”

I was hardly surprised that Julie felt depressed. She clearly illustrated the principle that if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.

We began to explore how she could change her routine and change how she was feeling. Julie felt hesitant, fearful even, which was perfectly natural, for what she had been doing was not only familiar but it also kept her life balanced and stable. Her lifestyle limited the risk of the unexpected but it also limited the possibility of enjoyment.

We started to talk about what small steps she could take to facilitate this change. To start with it was small things like taking a different route home from work, sitting at a different table in the café, or eating different food. Ideas such as trying a different café or town were rejected at first. I later found out that Julie’s husband had been resistant to any change at all and he would become angry at even the smallest change in their routine so at first, it was things that only affected Julie that were changed.

Julie began to look at whether she was really enjoying what she was doing and, if not, how she could do things differently. As she introduced more change into her life so she began to experience more positive emotions. Soon she was meeting friends to try out new coffee shops and go for walks. She stopped watching so much television and had signed up for an evening class plus joined a local wildlife group.

Her husband refused to change his routine at all and he disliked his wife having new ideas and interests. Soon Julie realised that they needed to separate and they did.

Sometimes change can seem difficult and frightening, but Julie learned that making gradual changes at your own pace soon opens up opportunities for new experiences and new possibilities.

She has remarried now and she and her husband have opened an art gallery and café. They regularly travel abroad to unusual places and Julie’s depression is a thing of the past.

Julie adapted the quote at the beginning and printed it to put on her wall. It reads:

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, and you’ll always feel what you always felt.

Feb16

My stories about clients and patients are just that – stories. Clients inspire me, but they are not included in my posts.