A Personal View of Brendan Connolly’s Awareness Therapy Training

by Ray Martin

I met Brendan Connolly for the first time in September 1960. We became friends and remained close until he died on the 19 May 2009. I still miss him.

Brendan Connolly’s primary degree was in psychology. Before beginning his training in the Irish School of Awareness Therapy he had many years of experience working for the Department of Education. He will be remembered by many for his interventions at the AGMs of IAHIP; and especially in meetings looking at the regulation of Schools of Therapy.

The aim of this article is to explain how Brendan approached training therapists. It seems timely to me, when more and more regulation threatens our profession, that his more creative and person-centred training be brought to attention. What I don’t want is to take an academic approach to this task. It would quite possibly bore me to the extent that the matter of writing would quickly be abandoned. Bear with me as this exploration and experience of the training is undertaken in a less formal style.

In the late 1990s Brendan announced that he was starting a training school. He named the school The Irish School of Awareness Therapy (ISAT). The first training group was comprised of 10 students. I was very happy to apply for the training, and to be accepted. It is probably worth noting that my background is in mathematical sciences. These I taught in secondary school for forty years. It is also worth noting that when Brendan and I first met it was as clerical students setting out to be priests. In 1960 we began a spiritual year together with 28 others in Kiltegan among the Wicklow Mountains. Eleven students were ordained after seven and a half years. neither of us was numbered in that group. The remaining 19 of us had found our calling elsewhere.

Brendan’s training started before IAHIP had been founded. originally it was to be a two-year course. Much to my annoyance Brendan decided during the second year of the training that a third year was necessary. After the fact, I was very pleased that this year was prescribed. In the case of later training groups, in order to fulfil training requirements set forth by IAHIP, a fourth year was added.

In conversations with Brendan, and during recorded question and answer sessions taped on 29 July 1995, the reasons that encouraged him to begin a training course came to light: “After about eight years working as a psychologist I asked myself…‘Why am I here?’” This was a key question for Brendan. He also stated:

In the middle of a workshop one night I had a personal confrontation with the fact that everything I had done up to that moment had been done to win the approval of others.

An aim of the training for Brendan was to encourage the students to become humanistic therapists, the kind of therapists who are moving towards a place where they are:

witnessing [their] own process as an event in the Universe; and witnessing and aiding others in understanding and contacting their own processes.

Many years after that interview, during the period when Brendan was training what would be his last two groups, I taped a theory session he gave to students on the rationale behind his training. Some of the quotes that follow are from this session and some from the earlier interview.

The first training began with ten participants – seven of us were men and three were women. At that stage it was not clear to me that there were prior educational requirements or any specific life experiences needed (to apply and be accepted):

I am accepting these people [those who apply] because they want to do this [become therapists]…their capacity to make sense or reach any goals within that [endeavour], I debar myself from judgement on that.

He also stated:

If you catch something in an unhelpful way, it can be incredibly difficult to let go of. Whereas if you haven’t any pre-set assumptions you could be possibly much more open to hearing something different, in confrontation to your way of seeing things and understanding.

What was his and Marie’s approach to teaching students?

We attempt to meet you all exactly where you are; we attempt to meet the person who is there; we attempt to stop our own need for you to be different [from] who you are, or be the kind of human being we would like you to be.

There were six residential weekend workshops for each year of the course. Each weekend had a theme of its own. As Brendan explained “there would be a weekend on body; a weekend on eyes; a weekend on thought; a weekend on breath”. Between weekends students were expected to spend time being aware of how they used that particular part of their bodies (e.g., how do I use my eyes?). Brendan was clear on the structure of the training:

I would have six weekends a year. I limit it to that because I believe that the integration of what happens [between weekends] may be actually more important than the work on the weekend.

My personal experience of this approach was that there was quite a delay at times until such awareness became integrated. Sometimes it took a year or more after the theme was introduced before it became fully mine in some way. At that stage I did not need to think about it too much, or force it into the present. Awareness became mine as if it were natural to be this way.

I need to note at this point that I am writing about the training having, in later years, become part of the core training group, with Brendan and Marie Herlihy (now Connolly). At some stage later I left the core group and worked as a contracted trainer in various aspects of the training. So it is quite possible that I might confuse what happened for me as a student during my original training group with my experiences as a trainer. It is also worth noting that while the basis for the training always remained the same, some developments at actual working levels occurred.

You might be wondering what actually happened during these weekends. We would begin on Friday evening with a grounding exercise, followed by an opening round. often during this round Brendan would work therapeutically with one or more people. At times this work would trigger a discussion from Brendan outlining a relevant theory appropriate to the issue(s) being brought by the student(s). Every now and then throughout the weekend a student would arrive at a place where it was appropriate to engage at a deeper level of awareness. Brendan would generally prioritise this need and would facilitate the student in the presence of the rest of the students. Later at some stage he would speak on some related theory triggered by the work. He always checked to see whether a discussion on theory was suitable at that time with the particular student with whom he had been working and offer a choice to take a veto on the talk or take time out from that session.

On Saturday morning the session also began with a grounding exercise. originally this practice was given by either Brendan or Marie, or by whoever the trainer was for that particular weekend. During the five days of skills practice, which was introduced sometime after the third or fourth training group, Brendan would look for a volunteer to do the grounding for each morning and afternoon session. The grounding exercise was, and is, a core activity for those who have trained with the Irish School of Awareness Therapy. It is an opportunity to move from the intellectual mind to the body’s inner sensitivities and it opens the possibility of engaging with inner wisdom rather than intellectual intelligence. The use of breath was normally emphasised in these efforts to get us in touch with our bodies and the earth. Brendan believed that:

Deep breath disorganises the way our bodies hold experience. Reich says our past is held in our bodies…in deep breath that is loosened. It also changes the way our mind works as a general relationship between ourselves and our breath…the more deeply we take breath…it allows you to accept the universe as it is, as distinct to the way we want it to be. I think…when we take a deeper breath we disorganise the way we are holding our bodies. Each feeling has its own breath organisation.

The student of this training was offered the opportunity to develop increasing awareness of his or her individual and unique process by following a series of exercises, some of which I will now describe. I will speak of my own experiences of doing these exercises, although I have come to know that my experience is similar for most people. Most of the time my mind is dealing with issues from the past or the future. If I make time to notice my breath and pay attention to the physical aspects of breathing, for example, my chest rising and falling, and if I attend to the sensation of the air being taken in and the ‘used air’ being let out ‒ also I may note the extent of how far this breathing extends in my body ‒ then I am experiencing my body in that moment. I am present to myself in the here and now. From here I am able to bring other body sensations to my attention, again in this moment. If I stay with these I may be able to note areas where stronger sensations are available to me. I can bring gentle attention, and allowing, to some area not normally attended to. I am able to experience something and be open to taking a journey either towards emotion(s), or to somewhere in my past. I can begin to experience something of how I have interacted with the people in my life, with the world around me. In other words, my own process can begin to unveil itself to my awareness.

As Brendan put it:

By process I mean the inner activity of thought and feeling that we create; a grid understanding within us, from our experience. We have established at some level within us a conceptual understanding of how reality works. Any incoming experience or stimulus is measured against that, and the interaction with that is a feeling. In bringing these feelings to consciousness I’m aware of this interaction between my established pattern and what’s actually happening now. I believe that it is in that moment of awareness that I can dismantle some of that held understanding. If I’m not to create the client in the image of my understanding I believe I have to be aware of those feelings.

These exercises that encourage students towards awareness of emotion(s) offer them a chance to explore their own individual grid. In order to make existence acceptable to myself I create my own model of what reality is about. Actual reality challenges this and the signal that this is happening is a feeling. Brendan sees this as “a natural, normal facet of being human…We have a need to have this framework for our own security”. Staying with the feeling gives the possibility of unveiling the unconscious underpinnings of the grid. Brendan described the concept of the grid in this way:

the grid of understanding…this is my best guess…is that from the [the experience of the] lives we live…how [people] have influenced us, we make sense of ourselves, we make sense of reality. And that sense is built around our need for safety…for order…our need to control, for me to have predictability…this is what ordinary natural human beings do. What is clear, from psychology, is that we are active, not passive…we only let in what suits us; we ignore what does not suit us.

I would now like to give you a sense of what it was like for me to be a student in one of these groups. The main objective was to experience a continual allowing of me to be me just as I was. The notion that someone would be given the chance to explore their own process was given a living expression in the way Brendan, and later Marie, treated each student. I remember after a year or more on the training coming to the insight that ‘maybe I am ok after all’. over the years this, and similar experiences, were spoken of by many of the other students. The gentleness in the way we were treated and the non-judgemental acceptance accumulated until a moment of ‘something happened’ occurred. I, for one, was left with the opportunity to look more openly at myself; to allow for a message like ‘yes, that was me in my humanity at such a moment in my life’. The awareness that in general I was doing the best I could, however crazy that was, at some given time, encouraged me to face up to becoming gentler with myself and less judgemental. Mind you, this process is ongoing in my life and I expect that to be the case for as long as I am alive.

This activity is crucial for me in my work as a therapist and in my life on this earth. If it is possible to be gentle and compassionate with the way I was and am, then surely it is possible to allow the same freedom to someone else without the need to put pressure on them to change. In other words, as I sit with a client (or meet someone socially, or in work) ideally I do not have a plan for the way they ‘should’ be. The plan that is there is to make space for the clients to be in a place where they are able to explore their own selves at their own pace. This awareness grew organically within me during the training. naturally it has broadened and developed as more compassion and gentleness is given to me by me.

The word ‘ideally’ was mentioned above. ‘Therapists who train with The Irish School of Awareness Therapy are human beings’ was an expression heard often! It seems to me that it was enough that we turned towards being gentle with ourselves and allowed others to have their space to use as they will. In my opinion all of these values stem not so much from the exercises, or the unveiling of theory, or the skills practice, but from the experience of being in a space that was created so that each of us could be warmly allowed to be the who that we were and the way that we were. Even now, after experiencing the training from the point of view of a student and a trainer, I am not sure how much of what I write is from Brendan and how much is from me. He really did want us to make our own of what he provided for us. In saying that, Brendan was careful not to consent to things happening in groups that were not acceptable.

A theme on one weekend was the topic of ‘thinking’:

Thinking reveals our relationship with reality; it also reveals our feelings. In letting thoughts be, allowing but not attaching, you can witness how you are…(there is a) dilemma; we have taught ourselves that ‘I should be…I ought to be’. The struggle [is] against that image I have created of myself, the desirable image, the kind of person I want to be, as distinct from the person I actually am. If you choose you can accept and own the knowledge of the now…you can own the reality of the person who is here. You can do that. Each feeling has a mental thinking stage, (if you) begin to track when you are angry, you will notice that your thoughts are all about changing the reality out there, or changing the other person…angry thoughts are about fixing and having the world the way I want it to be rather than how it is. If you own your anger, you can come back and say something differently…like ‘these are the values I like’.

When I come close to this awareness, choices appear where it seems no choice was available before. Messages such as ‘I can’t’ can be replaced with ‘I won’t’ and then the fact that I choose becomes apparent. The ‘I won’t’ can be owned by me and then sometimes it can be replaced with something like ‘let me look at other possibilities here’.

We lived in a sort of community setting during those weekends. of course there were difficulties and issues needed to be dealt with. But Brendan would not tolerate anyone being forced to do or act in some way that was not their own choice. There was no separation between the trainers and the students, for example, in relation to housekeeping, everyone was asked to join in. A trainer could be found washing the ware with a student, or brushing the floor, or setting the table. We all sat together for meals and interesting cross-table conversations often took place.

There was a folder created by trainers for each student. After each session (which could last up to two hours or so) Brendan, or Marie, or whoever was a trainer with them on that weekend, would write a note in the folder. Ideally, no judgement was involved:

It is in a way a record of their journey…I do not try to interpret but [instead] give very clear behavioural feedback on what I see, rather than making judgements.

The students are invited to note any reactions they have themselves, either of their own work, or the work of the trainers in the folder. At the end of the training, they have a record of how they were observed at each stage of their development. They also have a way of reminding themselves of how they might have been during each session. In addition, at the end of each year students were asked to complete a self- evaluation form. These forms were also kept in the folder.

Sitting with a fellow student to practice skills as a therapist was a fundamental part of the training. This practice began at a very early stage of the training and was ongoing throughout the course. A five- day workshop dedicated to skills practice took place at the end of the first year of training. In addition, one weekend was given over wholly to this practice during the second, third and fourth years. The student’s skills work was directly supervised by one of the trainers who would sit in on each session for ten minutes or so. The activity of the therapist’s role is the main focus of each session. The work was interrupted and a discussion took place between the therapist, the client and the supervisor. The supervisor then left the room and made a note in the folder of relevant observations on what had happened. The main focal point was to encourage the student therapist to be aware of his or her bodily reactions, thoughts and emotions. In addition, students were encouraged to stay with the client as they told their story, and using awareness of breath and with ‘now’ reactions, to follow where the process leads. In particular, students were asked not to direct the client in any particular direction, no matter how wonderful an insight may be.

Working together with Brendan and Marie during the five-day workshop at the end of the first year, and with my wife, Esther, for a weekend towards the end of the third year of training was my privilege. In general, I would not have met the group between the first year and undertaking that weekend towards the end of the third year. The transformation in terms of confidence and the skills level of the students was quite remarkable. While this work was energy consuming, the joy of being with Brendan and Marie during those five days was like an elixir to me. Yes, we were tired, but we worked together in an easy and accepting way. Lasting memories for me were the times we spent laughing at our own human foibles.

Brendan presented theory from a previously integrated understanding of human beings. He managed to lead us towards a humanistic understanding of the development of the person. These talks were highly valued by the majority of students. of course the requirement for accreditation had a much greater specification in terms of hours spent on theoretical learnings. Brendan did ask me to see what could be done to bring the time spent on theory to the level required by IAHIP. So between the two of us, with Marie, we decided on an add-on system. Those who had trained in the first three or four groups would get together of a Saturday every so often. I was able to persuade some therapists who had also been on the executive of IAHIP (which I had been on myself) to provide training for a day at a time in Cork. Brendan, Marie and I were very grateful to those who took the trouble to travel down and to be of such help to us. I am fearful of naming names in case anyone is left out; my memory is not quite as good as it was. nevertheless, the following people that came and helped us over the years are worth mentioning: Ger Murphy, Sarah Kay, Frank Dorr, Paddy Logan, Dr. Margo Anglim, Una Maguire, Kathy Cunningham, Dolores McCashin, Derry Mohally, Cathríona Jackson, Ann Ruth, Catherine Murray, Therese O’Dowd, Catherine O’Dea, Mary Mangan, Mary Cunningham, and Noelle Sheehy. Brendan, Marie and I also provided theory sessions. My apologies to anyone whose name I have forgotten to mention. We used this system for some years. Later on, a five-day theory workshop was provided towards the end of the second or third year of the training with groups joining together to make the task financially feasible. We then returned to one-day-at-a-time theory sessions for the last three or four training groups, again putting two groups together. over time more and more theory workshops were delivered by ourselves and by local therapists who were known to have expertise in various areas. Again, without the willing help of these kind people we could not have continued. It would appear that therapists who were trained by Brendan and Marie end up relying more on what they have integrated during process sessions and their understanding of what being human is like (as experienced by themselves) than on any theory provided during those add-on theory sessions.

I would now like to take time to discuss an example of Brendan’s position on one of the topics of a weekend workshop, namely the use of our eyes:

Your looking will reveal how you are relating to your perceived reality…Our assumption is that (you) see reality; you don’t. You have a notion of what reality is; and that you make sense of what your eyes pick up by fitting it into the known understanding you bring. And it’s useful if you can understand that I don’t know what’s happening out there; I know the sense I am making of what’s out there…you are relating to the sense you make of something. Your looking will also reveal how you are feeling about your reality…We are giving you a process of noticing in the training how you relate to your world…The focus in awareness therapy…is on our human capacity to use these tools.

As you can see exercises were designed to allow students to begin to examine and own their distinctive way of seeing things. We were then asked to be open to noticing how we looked at things in the weeks between this workshop and the next.

I hope I have given you some sense of how Brendan approached training therapists. A lengthy book would be needed to follow each of the 24 training weekends, the five-day workshops and the theory sessions over the four years of the training. As I have already said, the quotations used are Brendan talking about the training. This is perhaps very different from the experience of the student during the exercises. Freedom to be yourself, to come to your own sense of you in your own time and pace, was the underlying philosophy. To be given the autonomy to go at your own speed, to come to your own knowing, was central to the method and procedure. At the centre of all this was Brendan, and for later trainings Marie, welcoming the ‘you’ that was present at any given moment. I do not think it is possible for me to emphasise how powerful this experience was for all of us who trained with Brendan.

Ray Martin is a retired secondary school teacher. He has been an accredited member of IAHIP for over 20 years. He has worked with groups, individuals, with couples and in the training. He is also an accredited supervisor with IAHIP.