Zooming about with groups

Lately I’ve been sketching in Tallinn, Taipei, Istanbul, Ironbridge, Ulaanbaatar and Greenhithe, as well as locally. Thanks to Google street maps and the enthusiasm and skill of urban sketchers, we have been meeting up nationally and globally to draw together. My local group in Gloucestershire meet regularly, talking with each other or sitting in companionable silence as we sketch; a welcome and sustaining group in the lockdown days.

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We have been interested in the strange distortions of perspective that the online streetmaps display and not at all concerned with any possible distortions in how we relate to each other, in sharp contrast to the other part of my world, the psychotherapy network. Here there has been an understandable outpouring of advice on practicalities – which online platform, security measures, tips for lighting, backgrounds, seating and so forth, alongside a recurring preoccupation with “what happens to the relationship?”

It is a fascinating question, assuming as it does that ‘something’ must ‘happen’. It seems intuitively obvious that relating online, however doesn’t give us the same satisfaction as the ‘real thing’. We might be very appreciative of its value in these times, but it is second best, as all the media accounts of grandparents being unable to hug their grandchildren testify. We are social animals who need physical presence and contact. Our bodies communicate, mutually regulating each other and online relating cannot replicate these complex interchanges.

In my case, this confident statement has no basis in any research or evidence, other than ‘common sense’ – and that can easily lead us up the narrow path to nowhere. What is this ‘real thing’ that is missing? How might we define it? And whatever it is, how does it compare to the relationship between therapist and client, or group members and facilitator? I’m thinking here of process or analytic groups, where the members are used to constraints; they meet probably once a week for a limited time and otherwise have no contact with each other. They sit in a circle and rarely touch; bodily movements are restrained – the point is to try to find words not actions for self expression.

The online group has some particular challenges and opportunities. Like any group, it needs security, firm boundaries within which the members feel able to explore and relax some of their defences, and creating this online needs careful attention. Household members wandering into the room, internet interruptions, members sitting in cars, eating meals, noisy background intrusions – all potentially threaten the security of the group. But if we assume these are resolved, through time and experience and new sets of norms, the question comes back to the central focus – are the relationships that are being created and developed different from those in the physical group room?

We live in and are shaped by a culture that is highly digitalised. We spend hours engrossed in TV, films, downloads, podcasts, video games, with good and bad consequences. We can fall in love with a character in a soap or a box set, just like previous generations fell for film stars and screen idols. Our capacity to attach is triggered by the visual and seems not dependent upon touch or physical presence. We may call these relationships infatuations, because they are never tested in everyday life.

In the therapy group we might call them transference, and they too are never tested in ordinary everyday life. Are relationships in a therapy group ever ‘real’ then? They certainly seem so to the people involved; and they have the chance that their real life rarely offers, to talk openly about their feelings, examine and explore what is going on without moving from their chair/acting out. In these constrained and unique circumstances, people talk about forming relationships that are the most meaningful in their lives.

Is the online version so different after all, I wonder? Or have we become trapped in assumptions again, that ‘normal’ or ‘real’ is some sort of standard that has intrinsic value and must be preserved at all times? That, in sketching terms there is a ‘proper’ perspective that street maps do not display, and are thereby distorted?

This makes me think of David Hockney’s experiments with perspective, filming with multiple cameras whilst driving along a Yorkshire lane. The ways that we look at and represent the world have changed throughout history. Hockney and other artists challenge the idea that where we are now is somehow wiser, more truthful, than where we once were; that the contemporary version of perspective is the ‘real’ one.

Perhaps then, instead of seeing online therapy or streetmap sketching as ‘distortions’ of reality, we could consider the possibility that our idea of the real is itself an inevitable distortion?

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What do you see?

There are so many pieces being written about the lockdown, that I think it has all been said. But often I need to write to understand more about what is happening, as a way to think about it with socially distant but emotionally present others, so ….

The word ‘lockdown’, in its simplicity /crudity doesn’t come near to capturing the complexity of the situation. I want to try and think about contexts, a recurring theme in most of my writing about psychotherapy, and about perception.

 

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One of the great attractions of sketching is the way it makes me look more closely at what is there. I assume I know what a pile of books looks like until I try to draw it, and discover that I need to look again and again as the shapes, tones, proportions, colours reveal themselves to me. We all make so many assumptions of ‘knowing’.

We knew, for example, that it wasn’t possible for most people to work from home: we knew that the local pub sold alcohol, not eggs, milk, and fresh vegetables: we knew that traffic and rush hour was unavoidable: we knew it was impossible for political decisions to be made quickly – and so on. But now we have to look again, ‘knowing’ and living it differently.

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What I hope we can see more clearly, apart from the incompetence and arrogance of the government, is that the people we need to keep us alive and functioning are not the highly paid elite but the medics, nurses, carers, shop assistants, delivery people, refuse collectors, volunteers, neighbours – most of whom see little financial reward or recognition when times are ‘normal’. Then they are conveniently overlooked in a contemporary political/economic context where money goes to money. This distorting haze of ‘normality’ has been blown away to reveal how our society is largely sustained by its low paid and under valued members.

Our priorities have been reordered, or exposed. We see a capacity for compassion, co-operation, altruism, and neighbourliness. We discover a mutuality and interdependence that is ‘normally’  hard to recognise.

Being locked down has made us see the importance of being outside and discovering that the bird song is rapturous when it’s not drowned out by traffic. The countryside is recognised as a precious resource, at last. My neighbours, who have lived there for over thirty years, have never been out for a local walk before and tell me how lovely it is!

Getting outside is a privilege rather than a nuisance and we see things that we have never noticed before…and are in danger of losing.

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We see too the sharp divides between those with space and gardens, online access,  food delivery systems and all those without. Lockdown hopefully enables a clearer vision of the inequalities and injustices of the ‘normal’, both nationally and globally. Even more hopefully, it might enable us to question and challenge the ‘normal’ political and financial decisions that sustain such inequalities – but we will see.

Back in my own version of this lockdown, there is little traffic, a lot of dog walks, friendly encounters at a distance, endless zoom meetings, online classes – and a sense of space and calm that is new. It has surprised me – I thought I already lived a calm life! I hadn’t appreciated the powerful influence of a context in which traffic, pollution, time and financial pressures, daily struggles getting to work or school, health inequalities and social hardship can shape and colour everyone’s existence. It’s obvious now I can see it!

But of course there is another layer. I wonder why I am not using this space to get on with my various printmaking projects, all very active before the lockdown began. I’ve kept up with the sketching – more than usual – but not printmaking. For me, printmaking is a long process, from making the plate, proofing, sorting paper, inking up, printing, to finally cleaning up. At a time where there is so much space and opportunity, I find I don’t have the patience.

A sketch can be done in 20 minutes, with no cleaning up. There’s some underlying anxiety that keeps me from concentrating for much longer than that. So living through a global pandemic turns out not to be so calm after all! This garden, this street may be quiet and peaceful, but the bigger context is awash with distress, panic, pain and helplessness. It washes through all of us and we cannot after all, shut our eyes to it.

Having our eyes open can reveal the wonder, beauty and compassion, and also the distress, cruelty and injustices around us. The worst outcome seems to me to get back to ‘normal’ and turn a blind eye to both.

 

Celebrate the doodle!

The doodle returns! It has been buried beneath more important and worthy projects such as book writing, editing, printmaking, gardening and even dog walking. But now as the year closes down, in the long dark evenings – kerpow! – doodling is back!

It’s hard, though, not to be dismissive. It’s just a doodle, a repetitive mark making exercise, a trifle, only valuable for using up the backs of old envelopes.

But in a past life of psychotherapy training, wasn’t it a possible route to deciphering ‘the unconscious’? Wasn’t it something that once decoded could provide valuable insights into the mysterious interior processes that shape our lives? So I find myself once more reading passages from Marion Milner’s ‘In the Hands of the Living God’ – a detailed account of her 20+year professional relationship with a female patient where drawing/doodling was a key aspect. In many ways I find it a difficult read now but it is still a fascinating testimony to the communicative power of ‘art’ in a therapeutic relationship.

Most of us, however, are not doodling in that context; we are more likely to be stuck in some situation such as a lecture, meeting, phone call, where our attention is split between what we are supposed to be attending to and the shapes emerging from the end of our pen. For my part the resulting doodle is generally despatched to the recycling box without a second thought these days.

This is the doodle that emerged as I was thinking about this blog post…. probably ripe for analysis!

 

But here I am, obviously thinking about the process again. There must be some magic pull in the doodle – why does anybody do it?

Often it involves repetitive mark making, going over and over the paper with the same hand movement. There is something soothing in this, but also like many other repetitive movements such as knitting, it seems to free up some part of the mind to wander.

Being ‘just a doodle’ rather than a drawing or a sketch frees it from any judgment of artistic merit, and it can wander where it will, liberated from criticism. In a parallel fashion, our minds can wander too, sometimes making their way to that very mysterious and wonderful place we call creativity. Inspiration can often spring from doodling! (Claudia McGill , artist, is a good example here!)

It works in psychotherapy settings too. I’m thinking of a supervision group for group facilitators where the introduction of ‘doodling’ has had a very liberating and creative effect. It seemed difficult to generate a freely flowing conversation, despite it being a group that was experienced and committed to reflexive practice. When we explored the inhibitions, some were about fears of judgment; not good enough, not thoughtful enough, and some the familiar  ‘your business is more important than mine’ theme.

Doodles are not open to either of these restrictions. One person’s doodle is as useful as another’s; doodles are neither good or bad, they just are. Once we got hold of the idea that when we spoke in the group, we were doodling, and that we could doodle together, the conversation could breathe…. And we got to some very interesting and creative places as a result.

Let’s celebrate the doodle!

Maps and mapmaking in psychotherapy

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After two years, Psychogeography and Psychotherapy: connecting pathways is published, dramatically reducing my ‘to do’ list. It is still reverberating though, with a blog on the importance of place for Psychotherapy Excellence, and the makings of another one here.

There are various ideas that emerged in the process of writing and editing that are still bubbling away, and one of those concerns maps and mapmaking.  I wrote a chapter on that subject for the book, and this blog is in part taken from there.

It’s an enormous and fascinating area but for now I am thinking about internal maps – the ones we navigate our lives by. The comfort zones, no –go areas, familiar pathways and threatening routes that guide us day to day through our experiences of self and other.

For many people, maps provide helpful metaphors in understanding and thinking about how they feel and behave – perhaps because they can provide both a cognitive, ‘practical’ way of understanding their situation and the possibility of imagining alternative choices. The map can function in a way like the teddy bear, the transitional object; it is real in the sense that it is a tangible object but, like the bear, it encompasses other layers of function and possibility, straddling the boundaries of ‘common sense’ and ‘hidden meanings’.

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In therapy, for many clients, it turns out that the map is the problem. They are travelling up and down, forwards and backwards across a tightly defined and very familiar set of streets and landmarks. There are major avenues: ‘I’m too much for people’,‘ If I start crying I would never stop’, ‘Keep your distance’, ‘Relationships never work’, ‘I’m a terrible person’, ‘Why do people always leave me?’ There are lots of well-trodden streets, such as ‘Nobody really cares’, ‘Everyone takes and no one gives me anything’, ‘I’m only trying to help’, ‘It’s not my problem’ or ‘It’s all my fault’. We are cycling or walking around an estate, visiting every street in turn, spending hours in the rather run-down and desolate playground or scrap of parkland, before turning back once more to walk the same old streets.

We need a new map with bigger horizons and new perspectives, and sometimes the old map just needs to be folded up and put away. The more we insist that somewhere in its streets we will find ‘the answer’ or the ‘solution’, the more we deceive ourselves. Under the guise of working hard, we can remain in this uncomfortable – yet profoundly comfortable – impasse forever. The map has become the attachment object and weaning the client onto a more complex and more open version can be a difficult task for all concerned. The task of therapy is always to expand the map, for both client and therapist.

We may find our way out of the estate and onto the open road, but the exhilaration may be short lived. Instead of walking through the streets we know by heart, we can end up driving up and down the motorway network. At some point, our responses become so predictable and habitual that they carve a highway on our map of the situation. We are continually driving up and down the same piece of territory until we create what is in effect an internal motorway. Motorways are very efficient for certain sorts of travel in some situations, but they are bland and monotonous and pay little regard to the subtleties of the landscape they cut through. Finding other, less well-known routes, smaller and more interesting roads that open up different views of the towns and countryside and cause us to look around, and not get caught up in our routine emotions – this is hopefully what therapy can offer.

In most long-term therapy, there is a point where the client tells me that I must be bored, listening to the same old things repeating week after week. ‘Going round in circles’ is another travelling metaphor that can be opened out, with the help of a map, into something less despondent and negative. It needs a map that pays attention to the details, for these are the signs of change and life in what otherwise appears to be a repetitive trudge along a well-worn track. Those internalised routes through life that have eventually brought people into therapy are powerful and persistent. Despite our best conscious efforts, we are seemingly glued to them, tenaciously attached. Lasting changes come about through incremental shifts; recognising that this week’s walk has pushed further into the undergrowth, stopping to admire the bluebells, noticing a small track leading uphill, taking the path around the bramble patch rather than insisting on walking through it.

Mapmaking always involves abstraction. It protects us from being overwhelmed by the complexity of life, and is a necessary, valuable process. . But there are points where its simplicity or rigidity is suffocating, and in order to breathe we have to look again more closely and creatively. We need our own maps, but we also need the flexibility to modify and redraw them. 

Ploughed fields and boxing hares

2018 has not been a good year for the blog. I’ve been caught up with writing and editing a book about psychogeography and psychotherapy, in between trying to civilise a whippet puppy – work in progress! But now, right at the end of the year, I’m not only determined to resuscitate the blog, but have become part of a threesome of aspiring printmakers.  We set ourselves the task of producing something under the heading ‘November landscape’, which was a good way to encourage us all to look more closely at our surroundings.  The outcome for me wasn’t a new print, however, but this blog. It set me thinking about clichés; in this instance, ploughed fields with winter trees on the horizon. I’d driven past just such a scene and in the early morning light it was beautiful. Then, perhaps foolishly, I googled ‘linocut ploughed field’ and discovered what a popular subject matter it was! In fact there were some very good images of exactly the scene that I had in mind.

Then I thought about some of the other clichéd images – chickens, crows and ravens, foxes, boxing hares, sunsets, teasels, poppy heads, etc. etc. Was the only way out of the cliché trap to search for something original, or move towards abstraction? On the other hand, I have spent many years asking ‘why’ before devising a solution; why change the habit of a lifetime, to quote another cliché.

Why was there this problem? What was it about ploughed fields in winter, for example, that made them so appealing – or boxing hares, or any of the other images that have been repeated so often that they have become fashionable and commercial? And why did I resist joining in?

All the visual clichés I thought about were related to the natural environment. Struggling to understand our place in the natural world, our relationship to landscape and animals, is a constant and enduring thread in human life, even though it has been battered and distorted by industrialisation, capitalism, globalisation, and greed in general. This very human endeavour, to discover and acknowledge our own natural heritage, is perhaps part of what draws us to images of hares and crows, foxes and chickens. I wonder if I’d been born in another part of the world whether I’d have the same fascination for these particular images – or whether it would be the kangaroo or the leopard that had the magic attraction? We intuitively are drawn towards the land and the wildlife that inhabits it, I think.

But what about those clichés not related to the natural world – cars for example? Teapots, watering cans, beach huts, wine bottles – the list seems endless. What is it that draws artists to these subjects? Is it a shorthand for a particular lifestyle; the connection between possessions and personal power; the desire for acceptance; money? For once a subject has become an accepted, coded form of desirability, like a car, then reproducing that brings commercial success. The images become taken over and hollowed out as they turn into consumerist slogans.

What about our very own personalised clichés? I’m thinking about those habitual thoughts that swim around our mind. Some of them are stereotypes, as in ‘women are more emotional than men’ that are shared amongst large numbers of people. Some feel far more personal, as in ‘ if I don’t do it, nobody will’, or ‘whenever I get close to someone, they let me down’, but are also shared by lots of others; some seem even more idiosyncratic and only you will know what I’m talking about!

In psychotherapy groups, the common one, held by so many people, was “I don’t fit in. I’m the odd one out.” Each group I worked with was more or less entirely composed of people who gradually revealed their firm belief that they were the odd one out in the group. Where were these others who were ‘in’, we wondered, when we were able to talk about this.

I don’t have a problem with the idea that there is very little that is new; that we are continually searching for, finding, losing, refinding and refining images, ideas, and skills that have been current for generations. But there is something alive that gets lost in the cliché or the stereotype. We stop paying attention, glibly skating over whatever it was that was struggling to be heard. Behind every assertion of ‘being the odd one out’, for example, lay a detailed, complex history with its own unique trajectory. Perhaps behind the image of the boxing hare or the ploughed field there once lay another nuanced and personal response to the scene that has been stripped away by casual repetition and commercial exploitation.

I noticed in my online search that every now and then I came across an image that made me pause. It was not usually the ones that were detailed and ‘accurate’ representations of the subject, but those few that to my mind and eye had caught something of the character or nature of the crow, for example. It made me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’  inscape – where something concealed had been revealed. I used to be part of a portrait drawing class, and there were rare occasions where someone’s drawing seemed to have discovered the person that we were trying to draw. I suppose this is in itself another cliché, that this is how we identify true ‘art’.  When is a cliché a truism?

To conclude, I’d like to re-introduce you to ‘Neville’, my first attempt at a Japanese style woodcut. Yes, you could call him a cliché, but despite this I have become attached to him. In my eyes, he has personality – something about him that makes him stand out from the crowd, or flock. It might of course be a sort of ‘parental’ delusion – all my children/artworks are unique and special.  What do you think?

 

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Prints in a group

 

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It’s a long time since I did any sketching and I’m beginning to miss it. For now, printmaking seems to have taken over, and I’ve been fortunate to have my own exhibition locally. It’s a small and intimate affair in a very friendly and attractive local pub/restaurant where I have sat and sketched the view many times.

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The reaction, as far as I can tell, has been positive, with one recurring comment that ‘the works are all so different – you wouldn’t think they were done by the same person’.

Well they were, of course, and I have to confess to feeling a little bit smug here. In a very minor way I have managed to stand against the frustratingly simple way that the self is commonly viewed – as a single entity. Personally I don’t see myself that way, and as a therapist I find that approach completely unhelpful. I’ve done a lot of writing about the concept of the self as a group; a number of ‘internal’ characters with different and often conflicting attitudes who have to find some way of working together to enable a person to lead a satisfying life. Just talk to yourself and listen to your own range of different responses and you will start to see what I mean!

It’s perfectly possible and ‘normal’ to hold conflicting or paradoxical views, and we do it all the time. Part of me wants to try out gliding, part of me is scared, part of me is annoyed with the scared part, part of me is imagining disaster, part is romanticising about being able to fly, etc etc. So if part of me produces is one style of  print or art work, and another part does something different, then that is fine by me. There’s an inner group of selves, all busily creating in their own way – that seems to me a plus, not a problem. Plus, if we can learn to manage and respond to our own the inner group, we can be so much more in tune with other people, who are having the same sort of dilemmas and delights themselves.

There is a constant and necessary battle to be fought against simplistic reductionist ways of looking at the world, now more so than ever perhaps. The relentless narrative of self as a unified one dimensional character supports the depressing trend of  being either ‘for’ or ‘against’ –   migrants and refugees, overseas aid, military spending, nationalism, gun control, free trade, nationalisation, open borders, organic growing, glyphosate, biodynamics, etc etc.

That is not to say I think that  no-one should have any strong views; but that these views need to be grounded in an appreciation of the opposing arguments, the available evidence and an awareness of the dangers of self righteousness. In other words, we arrive at a position only after we have been able to hear all the other arguments, listen to the other voices, and make a considered judgment. And if it is a decision that seems to be ‘intuitive’ then there is a lot to be said for asking ourselves whether or not that means we are being too lazy to think or find out about the other point of view! It’s a hard thing to do and I duck out of it at times; the ‘can’t be bothered’ character in my internal group can take over!

Which brings me back to printmaking and my growing appreciation of the necessity to keep on trying. My tutor said that at every stage of making a print there is the possibility of messing it up, from the initial cutting of the plate, to inking, proofing, choice of paper, the setting up of the press, inky fingerprints (oh yes!) and more. It takes me about 6 tries to produce one reasonable print at the moment, so I really need that internal voice that keeps me working at it.