Finding our common ground: Reflections on working in rural Ireland
by Therese O’Driscoll
It was 3pm when I showed the man into the newly-painted, newly-carpeted, newly-furnished room that was then my Sligo town-based office. A moment earlier, I had been met by a huge muscled hand which received my extended hand with firmness and openness. I have learnt to trust these initial contacts when people attend my practice. Often they speak more than the words reveal in the initial storytelling.
The man’s face shone with the newly washed look of someone who has scrubbed up well. His clothes were casual, clean, and hugged a toned and weathered body. He looked awkward as he walked in and sat in the leather upholstered chair. Traffic sounds filtered in from outside, a drill could be heard from the dentist’s office below, the smell of disinfectant drifted up the stairs. The man’s large hands are crossed one over the other as he tries to find a comfortable position in this setting. He is clearly a farmer. His body language speaks of the land. His hands, I imagine, have held fencing posts and pulled barbed wire, delivered calves and lambs, and the sounds from which he has emerged are those of animals, creaking sheds, the earth beneath him, the sky above him. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in this pristine, neat, comfortable setting.
He looks too big for the chair, though he is not. He looks around at the walls and pictures placed there strategically. When he looks out the window, he sees a walled garden and his eyes linger there. Our encounter will be brief – a mere two sessions. He does not return for the third. And somehow in those between moments of his arriving and his leaving he will become for me a teacher. A teacher of the value of the natural world and its place in the therapeutic setting.
I will struggle to meet him across this carpeted room of straight lines and matching colours. He will struggle to tell me where he comes from, what brings him here and to answer my questions designed to assess his suitability and capacity for a therapeutic alliance. Somewhere in the midst of this first meeting I get a strong image of meeting this man at the farmyard gate, he in his working clothes, I in my wellies and warm clothing instead of suited and pressed in professional attire. Instinct tells me this man is already overwhelmed by life’s events and this simple entry into a concrete office in a building exuding a business- like atmosphere is already a step too far. He looks and feels out of place. He cannot find a comfortable position. His knowing of wind and rain, the flight and sound of birds, the feel of the earth beneath his feet, the sentience of trees in his fields is all removed from him here. He finds little room to breathe in this office of verbal assessment and cognitive expression. How can he make sense of his life in a place where the only sense enlivened is the visual? All others, his sense of touch, of his moving body, of smells, of sounds, are all largely removed.
As sure as I sit opposite him, I feel this will not work; not because this man is not capable of doing the work, but because he is displaced, utterly removed from the embodied and embedded intelligence which clearly has been the bedrock of his being to date.
This is over 15 years ago now and I did not have the courage then, as yet, to say: “I will meet you in an open field, let us walk the road together and you can tell me your story”. Instead, in my naivety, I try to find a way to meet him through words alone. But he needs time to settle, a different place to be, and we do not find the common ground that might enable us to build a therapeutic alliance.
Were I to meet him now, I would respond differently. “Come to me in Skreen”, I would say. “Meet me there in a field that has become a garden of sorts, and let us walk and move there, speak there, from a shared space of earth and sky that is y/our natural habitat.” I would ask about his land and animals, his relationship to the world around him, his stone walls and ploughed fields and then his relationship to the significant humans in his life. I would see him in the landscape that we share rather than, as I did then, seeing him in isolation from his living world. This man was truly a part of his land and in setting him apart in this way, asking him to come into such an environment, the therapeutic process was, in my view, exacerbating an already apparent sense of alienation and disconnection from all that he held dear.
On the third session he did not return. I regret very much my inability to meet him. Had I, at that time, worked in the natural world and included that in the narrative, I believe we could have worked together and hopefully
the process would have helped him. His handshake revealed his capacity for that. We might have met in that place that Rumi (1997: 35) describes:
Out beyond ideas of right and wrongdoing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there. . .
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
Doesn’t make any sense.
Therese O’ Driscoll (SIAHIP) is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist and supervisor working with embodiment and the natural world. She practices largely from her garden/cabin studio in Sligo. See www.thereseodriscoll.ie for further details.
Rumi. Trans. Barks, C. (1997). A Great Wagon. Essential Rumi. New York: Harper Collins.