The following article is written in the form of a letter to my father. I have used it to convey some reflections on my personal experiences of being in transpersonal psychotherapy. I have written it in an associative way with minimal structuring, as one would write a personal letter, to convey some of the issues I have and continue to confront. I hope the letter conveys a slightly different perspective from the one you may be used to in “Inside Out” both because of its client perspective and personal nature.
I have been in psychotherapy of one kind or another for a long time, and have been asked to write about men’s issues in therapy. I thought of you and wished we had spoken of them. I am determined to write from my experience as a client rather than as a practitioner since the personal challenge is more rewarding. Like you, I find allowing others to know me intimately is not something which comes easily.
The self-imposed challenge immediately conjures up fear of self exposure or perhaps I’m a psychological “flasher”. One is supposed to keep this kind of thing in the privacy of the therapy chamber, or perhaps the confessional, but despite years of study I am always disappointed that I can find little of what goes on in men’s hearts in learned journals. I knew little about what went on in your heart until it burst the day you died. I was a long way from you then, but I cried despite the distance. Perhaps our hearts might have enjoyed each other’s company more than our minds had we confided our experience; you outside the confessional, me outside the therapy room. For shame, we both hid our private parts.
The words of the confessional immediately spring to mind: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, I confess to almighty Clod…”. As I listen to them now, the words ring out like the powerful male blessing they were no doubt meant to be. Regrettably I frightened myself with them, and forced myself to be honest even if it was always about my sins, to a priest I did not know, and who did not want to know me. So telling what went on in the depths of my being soon became associated with something I would rather hide. Did you, too, learn to keep your inner riches and conflicts rapt in the silence of shame and far from your nearest and dearest? Or perhaps you in your confessional, like me in my therapy room, shed some of the shame and allowed yourself to be just you – warts and all. Perhaps divine forgiveness was for you what unconditional acceptance by different therapists has been for me. I wish you had passed some of it on to me, or did I fail to recognise it when given?
I think you would have liked being in therapy though you might have belittled it as paid friendship, or not felt you deserved to spend your money on such self indulgence. Now I sometimes wonder what has it all been about and whether I have been wasting my time in therapy. Mostly I feel great after sessions and leave with an extra bounce to my step. So it certainly has something to recommend it. Being listened to at a deep level has a healing effect on one’s longing to be understood, and allows those forgotten or unexplored dimensions of one’s underworld to be encountered as if for the first time. I have learned to travel, if somewhat haltingly, in the inner worlds of soul and childhood, as the call of career and worldly commitments fades. I feel refreshed as I bucket the inner wells of my imaginal being. But I still can’t help feeling at times that I am little better off, that little has changed despite my therapists’ assurance that I have indeed changed and grown.
That is what I got into all of this for, you know. I didn’t have a breakdown or get ill or anything like that. I just wanted to develop myself into a better person. I wanted to be happy with myself and to enjoy life more. But I’m not sure I’m any happier now with myself than when I wasn’t happy with myself, if you know what I mean. I suppose the dissatisfaction with myself, and the world, doesn’t seem to bother me so much nowadays – that’s a change. Have I capitulated on my youthful idealism, or grown in wisdom and self acceptance? It does not seem to matter and the mental questioning and conflict is too wearing to make it worth while.
How can I be sure I have grown? What are the bench marks against which to make the judgements? You would probably have looked for the externals: a good relationship, happy kids, financial security, respect in your community, living a moral life. I suppose I would pass on most of those, even by your standards, but there is still self doubt and discontent. My bench marks are probably more inward and less obvious, but perhaps yours were also: a well-kept secret between you and your God. I, too, struggle to find god and meaning in therapy, struggle to recover the joy and vitality of the life force from which I have become separated, struggle with the conflicting desires which threaten to dismember my world and that of my loved ones, or slowly drown me in a sea of inaction and indecision. Am I too hard on myself or have I just not grown up?
What I can be sure of is that the issues I struggle with have changed. I no longer smash your image in raging blame for the wrongs you have done me, or what I did not get from you or mother. I am no longer preoccupied by my shortcomings as an absent father, nor by my shortcomings in relating to a mate. I’m less troubled by the demands of the world of work or driven by the need for position and recognition. I’m more accepting and tolerant of the world the way it is, and spend less time worrying or taking on undue responsibility for its ills. Perhaps that is progress of a kind. Maslow would probably be pleased with my progress, as he would be about my successful struggle against my busy syndrome, and the space for solitude and relaxation I have created in my life. But I still don’t feel happy and contented, though some would say I appear so: the issues are just different.
I was described once as the eternal student by a fellow teacher. Education was important to you and I have worked in it all my life. Perhaps my continual commitment to developing myself and others is my problem, even if it is also my gift and strength. I often feel driven to do something socially worthwhile in life, otherwise it would not be meaningful or worth living. I often wish I could be content with earning loads of money and enjoying life in a less responsible way than I currently do. Perhaps I am afraid of doing it, or does it mean that I am unconsciously driven by your catholic ambiguity towards wealth and riches and enjoyment?
My therapist invariably recommends the golden mean. But I often long for the dramatic, for quick noticeable change, for magic-like solutions to my longings and dilemmas. Change feels so slow most of the time that I hardly notice it and it makes me wonder whether it has occurred at all. Perhaps I just long for a bit of adventure and excitement. Anything to take my attention away from this boring preoccupation with myself. You would probably agree with a more anti-introspective approach. Perhaps I need to try out more living and less reflection?
It’s ironic, you know, that the more I try to develop this inner dimension the greater is the struggle to find satisfaction in many of the things that have been important to me. Have I been on the wrong track, or is this the dark night of the soul? The externals feel like they are falling apart, or I partake like an automaton. The centre, my inner life, is not yet established. I am faced with a chimera, a poverty of inner life which often consists of mental whirring, playing of old tapes, out of touch with the rejuvenating figures of my imaginal and dream world. It is a self-deprecating poverty that thinly masks self-hate and questioning as to why all this soul searching has not delivered happiness and contentment.
Heron poses the possibility that we live in two worlds at once. One face outward into the social, material and temporal world and one face inward into the imaginal, metaphoric and timeless archetypal world. He says it is as if we live at the boundary straddling the divide. As one used to accepting only the external reality, living on the edge is earth shattering. Do I accept the autonomous reality of the imaginal and archetypal, or do I dismiss it as the phantasms of a tortured soul? Accepting it as an existential reality seems the only way forward. It is a reality, even if no more than the creation of my own soul. I become a sort of pioneer exploring new frontiers in the west of my existence. I struggle for survival, I struggle to understand what I encounter. I fear to trust what I experience, I seek comfort and rest from the strangeness of this new world.
Whose world is this anyway? It is a world I do not control. Is it part of me or am I part of it? It discloses itself in a silent language of images and symbols which I often have to be content with experiencing though not understanding. I bring my thirst for understanding with me to this world, but to little avail and sometimes seemingly inevitable frustration. When I stop trying to understand and just travel and explore this world things seem to flow more easily. Perhaps the search for meaning is pointless. The imaginal figures and terrain, though, do have a healing and challenging energy of their own which works even without conscious understanding. I often find it hard to articulate the results, and the suspension of old dismissive beliefs is difficult.
Did I really jump from that bridge with my paraplegic friend? Did I really dance naked in the brightness and heat of the sunshine? Did I really find a door under that rock into early christian Ireland? Or was it all mere fantasy? I do not know, though I did not choose or intentionally create the images nor the folk who peopled them. The experience is tangible but who can tell what is reality and what is not? Perhaps faith such as you had in your divine is the only answer, but this does not come easy for one used to trusting empirical reality. I like a good thud when I encounter something even if it is from the noumenal world. Hearing the laughter of god in my dream was like that: it reminded me to be more respectful of the realm.
Some images from the guided imaging and active imagination work seem to have extra ordinary staying power despite my erratic memory. Ascending a spiral staircase with my young daughter in a burned out mansion still fills me with awe and expectation. In the same dream you showed me the cornerstone of the burned out building so I could build again. That was shortly after you died. I could feel its importance but still ponder its meaning.
The battle between wish and will still flourishes. “If you want to grow follow your dick”, my analyst advised many years ago. The escapades of my illustrious trouser snake have long since mellowed into a desire for beauty and the quest for relatedness. The desire and longing is momentarily sated by images, both internal and external, but never it seems for long. It seems that like Snow White it enthrals my dwarf-like instincts and still awaits the prince of her full awakening and eventual union.
Recovery of my instinctual vibrancy and spontaneity now seems a core challenge. Sharing life with young children and a vivacious dog, letting go to one’s wish life, refusing to live the provisional life, risking being true to yourself and responding to those awakening images when they appear has become part of my transpersonal way. There is no point in pretending any more. Disappointment and discontent leaks out and is contagious. Reaching out to the talisman pearl or trust stone, my threads to the higher self and the divine, makes facing the challenges of reconnection more bearable. Finding room for “Iron John” in the heart of domesticity is, indeed, a challenge but one that I cannot shirk without risking serious loss and alienation.
Surrender seems to be the key. I like to be in conscious control, but controlling and directing the images in visualization seem more difficult for me. Assagioli would probably say that I lacked strength of will or determination. It may be that I am not yet able to harness or direct the life energies with which I endeavour to connect. I feel handicapped by this and am envious of the imaging powers of some of my fellow travellers. I often meditate on a higher being or cosmic power. I want to reconnect with this energy and get to know it (I daren’t call it God). Sometimes I feel bathed in warm healing light but often nothing happens and I just feel silly or disheartened. Perhaps it’s God or at least the remnants of my struggle with your God that blocks me from surrendering.
I rejected your God, your oppressive Catholic god who seemed more anti-life and limiting as he appeared through the organ of the church and her priests. I guess I knew little of him really, just empty rituals and prayers which allowed me to feel that I belonged though I really didn’t. I threw out the baby with the bath water and lived without a god. I’m not sure if I have one now or not. You always said that I acted as if was God. Well, perhaps I am, a little bit anyway. I would like to be more or at least get to know “God” more. It is as if I have been cutting myself off from an important source of energy or level of my being that therapy is helping me to reconnect with. Working in a transpersonal way sometimes makes me feel like I’m coming home to where I’m loved and accepted at the deepest level. Tears fill my eyes then, like when you see someone in a film achieving something after great struggle which you know is of great value to them. I’m not sure, though, that I will experience god in quite the same way as you, but perhaps I will. You would probably be pleased with that!
Heron, J. (1987) Confessions of a Janus Brain, London: Endymion Press.
Maslow, A. (1973) The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Harper and Row.
Assagioli, R. (1975) Psychosynthesis, Turnstone Press.
Bly, R. (1990) Iron John, Element Books.
Bettelheim, B. The Uses of Enchantment. Brown, I.G. (1975)
Manual of Guided Imaging and Fantasy Techniques, (unpublished, Centre for Transpersonal Psychology London).
John Mulligan has used a transpersonal approach to his own development for several years and has trained in transpersonal counselling at the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, London. He was formerly Director of the Human Potential Resource Group at the University of Surrey for many years. He continues to work there where he runs various personal development and training short courses, as well as offering masters and doctoral programmes on personal, group and organisational change.