New Zine! Staying with feelings

A topic I’ve written about on here quite a lot is the idea of ‘staying with’ feelings. After the Pixar movie Inside Out I wrote all about how important it is to get in touch with all our emotions. I’ve also written about the value of noticing how we feel with kindness and curiosity, and about how to stay with other people’s feelings.

IMG_2833

In this new zine I discuss both why we get so shut off from our feelings in a wider culture which values some emotions far more highly than others, and how we can go about shifting our patterns of avoiding and fighting some feelings, and craving and grasping for others. It covers both therapeutic and spiritual practices for staying with our emotions.

IMG_2832.JPG

You can download or read the zine here.

 

New vids: Key ideas in therapy

The excellent folks at the Open University have just helped me and a couple of colleagues – Naomi Moller and Andreas Vossler – to put together these three animations of key ideas in therapy.

We all teach on the counselling course at the OU, and we wanted to capture some of the most important things about this topic for people who don’t know much about it. When we’re struggling many of us turn to a counsellor or psychotherapist, but often without knowing much about what they do, or why.

The research that has been done on counselling has found that the most important thing in determining how successful it is is the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter so much what approach the therapist takes, or what training they’ve had, but whether there’s a good rapport between them and the client. That’s why it’s always a good idea to shop around for a counsellor you feel you could develop a good relationship with.

Another thing that research has found is that clients who do well in therapy often pause and check in with themselves before telling the counsellor what’s going on for them. This is a kind of being present with their experience. Approaches such as mindfulness and focusing try to help us to cultivate the capacity to be more present to what is going on with us, and to stay with difficult feelings rather than running away from them, or acting out of them.

Finally, a lot of western psychotherapy has focused on individual people: working with clients one-to-one. One problem with this is that it can give us the impression that any difficulties or mental health issues that we have are completely internal: caused by problems within us that need to be fixed. Systemic therapists have pointed out that many of our struggles are much more about the dynamics between us in our relationships, families, and communities, and about the messages that we receive from wider culture.

I hope you enjoy the videos and find them a useful way in to understanding a bit more about counselling and psychotherapy.

Inside Out: Getting in Touch with Our Emotions

This weekend I saw the new Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’m a big fan of Pixar already, particularly because their previous films have explored huge existential themes like death and the meaning of life, and because they often celebrate friendship and chosen families rather than the romantic relationships and biological families that so much mainstream media focuses on. That’s a big deal in a set of films that are also massively accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike.

When I saw that the main characters in Inside Out were a person’s emotions I knew that I absolutely had to go see it. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact several times I was moved to tears by how familiar the experiences were, and by this hugely important, complex, and rarely-expressed message being communicated so simply and profoundly in a ‘kid’s film’.

If you’d rather not be spoilered for the movie then please do go see it before reading the rest of this post. Also do be aware that it may well tap into lots of different emotions as you’re watching it – if you’re anything like me – not just the joyful ones. As we’ll go on to see that may not be a bad thing!

The rest of this post is divided into three sections:

  • Experiencing all of our emotions
  • Shutting down our emotions
  • How to sit with our emotions: A practical guide

Read more of this post

New Zine! Social suffering and social mindfulness

I’ve made my first attempt at a zine!

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the social side of mental distress. It feels really important to me to recognise how our suffering is embedded within our relationship dynamics; our workplaces, communities and other institutional systems; and our wider society.

I often notice what a relief it is for me – and my friends and clients – when we realise this social element to our suffering: particularly how the self-criticism that we do so constantly is something that everybody else does as well, because we’re all in this self-critical culture. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us. It’s understandable.

This week I’m speaking at a few conferences which touch on themes of inequalities, individualising and intersectionality, and on mental health and mindfulness. So I thought – instead of the usual stand-up presentation – I’d make a zine that captures my experiences of these things, and makes some suggestions about how we might creatively engage with them.

It was also a good opportunity – for me – to get back into making comics: something I’d love to do more of, especially now I’m working on a comic introduction to queer theory with a professional artist. Here’s one of the comics I made for the zine. You can download the whole zine at the end of this post if you’d like to read it more clearly.

Pic2

For my zine, the comics really helped me to understand how intertwined all these social levels are – as are the inequalities that we suffer from, and benefit from, and the ways in which we are individualised and individualise others.

You can download the zine as a pdf by clicking on the link below. I’d suggest printing it out as a booklet to get the full zine experience – or just reading it online. There’s also a whole book on mindful therapy by me here (including more comics!) if you’re interested in reading further on the topic.

SocialMindfulnessZine

Dealing with the tough stuff: The value of noticing

This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.

I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.

I would summarise the process something like this:

Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging

The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.

Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.

glasses

Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.

Read more of this post

A very mindful 2014

Telegraph agony aunt Petra Boynton has put together a great set of suggestions going into 2014, drawing all many of the people who’ve advised her on her excellent column over the year. Here’s the bit I wrote about approaching the new year mindfully, rather than trying to force it:

At this time of year it is easy to embark on quests for self-improvement: planning how to make the next year perfect, and attempting to ensure the success and happiness which may have eluded us in the past. An alternative approach is to think critically about the pressures that we put on ourselves, and are put under, at the turn of the year.

Perhaps, instead, we could aim at a more mindful approach to 2014. We could commit to gently noticing what the year brings and how we respond to it, rather than insisting on only good things and positive feelings. We could recognise the impermanence of everything that happens – triumphs and tragedies – and the ways in which both can spin our lives in unanticipated directions.

We could take a little time alone each day to sit and breathe, appreciating this unique story that is unfolding through our year.

You can read the full article here, and more on new year resolutions from me here.

These are the good old days: Mindful relationships via Carly Simon

When I wrote Rewriting the Rules one thing that I couldn’t include – due to copyright issues – were the songs that formed my soundtrack to the book.

Various lyrics lodged in my head as summing up a key idea or point. For example, when writing the love  chapter, It Ain’t Me Babe by Bob Dylan perfectly captured what it is like when we place too many expectations  on a partner: ‘Babe’ wants Bob to gather flowers constantly, to come each time she calls, to close his eyes and heart for her, and to die for her and more.

So many break-up songs helped me to articulate the rules of separation, particularly the song by Guns n’ Roses where the singer blames his ex for every moment of pain he’s experienced over the last Fourteen Years and uses the song as his way of having the last word.

But the song lyrics that I was most sad not to be able to include were those of Anticipation, by Carly Simon.

 

In the chapter on commitment I wanted to explore the ways in which we tend to spend so much time, in our relationships, living in the past or in the future. Many mindfulness authors have written about the value of being present, but few have applied this idea specifically to relationships and none – to my mind – have captured the tendency to drift away from the present as well as Simon.

Read more of this post

Mindfulness and Mental Health – London, 1st November

Call for presenters/facilitators/attendees
Mindfulness and Mental Health Day – 1st November 2013, London Camden
Dr. Meg Barker will be running a free event on 1st November for practitioners and academics who are interested in mindfulness and mental health, to coincide with the publication of their new book on the subject. Please get in touch with Meg if you are interested in attending or getting involved (megbarker@gmail.com). Confirmed speakers include Steven Stanley, Duncan Moss, Rebecca Barnes, Many Bazzano, and Jyoti Nanda.

Embracing uncertainty: What does it really mean?

An important idea that I’ve come across in various contexts is that of embracing uncertainty. I liked it so much that I ended each chapter of Rewriting the Rules with it, asking myself and the reader what it would look like if – instead of clinging to old rules or developing our own new ones – we embraced the fact that relationships are uncertain and that no one set of rules could ever cover them completely?

I was therefore troubled recently to hear somebody use the idea of embracing uncertainty in a way that was hurtful to their partner. I realised that I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing myself. We hear a frightened partner seeking reassurance and a sense of safety and, feeling limited and trapped by their demands, we point out that life is uncertain and use that as a way out of making any kind of commitment to them. ‘How can we know what’s coming down the road? You need to embrace uncertainty baby.’

Such an exchange can leave us with a comforting feeling that we are by far the more evolved, rational and philosophically sophisticated, person in the argument, as well as absolving us of any sense of responsibility and enabling us to avoid facing up to the pain that somebody we love is feeling. No wonder it is an attractive position.

The last few weeks I’ve been returning to my favourite source on uncertainty, Pema Chödrön, as well as thinking a lot about how it applies to my own life. I want to share some of my ideas about what embracing uncertainty means beyond this kind of basic understanding of life being uncertain (which, of course, it is).

If we subscribe to this more nuanced understanding of embracing uncertainty then we could see it as coming from a place of deep commitment rather than from an attempt to escape commitment. Also, instead of being about a liberation from pain and difficulty, embracing uncertainty becomes about facing up to these things in a way which is both hard and courageous. This is why Chödrön calls it a warrior path.

Read more of this post

Oliver Burkeman and the future of self-help

Last week I gave a talk on self-help books to literature students at UEA and, thanks to the marvellous B. J. Epstein, I had the thrill of having my own self-help book read and discussed by a class full of students. You can view the presentation I gave here.

Selfhelp

As you can see, the session gave me an excuse to delve a little deeper into the history of self-help books, to understand more why they came to be the way they are and what is so problematic about that. I also managed to chart one potential future trajectory of self-help, building on this criticism. For this I particularly considered the writing of Oliver Burkeman: one of my favourite discoveries over the last couple of months thanks to his entertaining and radically different approach. I’ll outline some of his ideas here so that you can see what an alternative to conventional self-help might look like.

Read more of this post