Sarah Van Gogh: What led to you producing your new book, Respark: igniting hope and joy after trauma and depression?
Graham Music: I have felt for a long time that there are certain things in many psychotherapeutic techniques, not just psychoanalytic ones, that need adjusting for us to be able to help people live the fullest, most enriching lives they can. And one of the things that needs adjusting is that practitioners need to be able to ignite a spark in people. Whether ‘joy’, which I use in the title, is quite the right word, I’m now not sure. Perhaps ‘courage’ would have been a little better. But, anyway, we have what we have, now the book is out!
Of course, we must face painful feelings, for sure. But some of us can struggle to embrace hopeful, positive ones too. Many clients/patients can find it easier to be in the doldrums than to hope; and many therapists concentrate on helping people manage and cope with their grief, anxiety, and despair and so forth, but don’t feel so able to help move clients towards states of pleasure and hope.
One of the theorists I refer to in the book is Neville Symington. He writes about the idea of ‘the life-giver’1 – a potential part of us that drives us towards life and hope. For me, it’s been a struggle sometimes to find that in myself, and I think my therapeutic technique is the result of developing ways to help others find it in themselves. Not in a defensive way that tries to deny or avoid the pain, but more in a way that means someone can connect to a deep sense that life is there for living, and it is worth living.
SVG: Do you think there was something synchronous about your book coming out during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many of us have been struggling to hold onto hope?
GM: It’s probably not a coincidence that I wrote it during the COVID lockdown. During that time, I could feel in myself a shutting down. A major factor in the loss of hope and a dampening down within people was the loss of connection we all faced, as well as the general increase in mistrust and anxiety. I’m sure the book was written, in part, for me as well as for other people.
SVG: A big part of your work is within the NHS. That institution has been hugely affected by the pandemic. Could you say a bit about that?
GM: It’s been affected in so many ways. For instance, I’d love to be talking to you now in person, and the ways that many of the services in the NHS have had to go online, mean that people are leaving in droves. There has been something so disheartening for NHS colleagues about only being on screens and not really being able to feel other people.
What I’ve written about in Respark is that so much of therapeutic work is about being in touch with bodies. Not literally touching, but about being in touch with bodily states, nervous systems, how people feel in the moment, in the room. There’s so much about this that we miss when we can’t be in the room. And we don’t even know we are missing it when we’re working on screen. Smell, for example, is so evocative, and is doing so much that we are rarely consciously aware of. And if we can only see someone’s head and shoulders, then there’s such a lot of loss in terms of being able to notice synchrony of bodies, or when that is lacking, and for that information to inform the therapeutic process.
One of the things I explore in the book, which isn’t a new idea, but is just a new way of describing it, is the notion of ‘the nervous system whisperer’. We are sounding boards for our clients (and for everybody we come across in our lives), and if we can be open to this, then we can be picking up things from and resonating with whoever we are with in person. Therapists are nervous system sensers, who have to become nervous system whisperers, that is, people who can actually use their sensitivity to help their clients bring about changes to their nervous systems, so that they can live more full, open lives.
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SVG: I guess we could understand modelling as part of this. Clients get important things from us, just by, in effect, drinking in what it feels like to be with someone who can do certain things for themselves, such as self-soothe, be patient with themselves etc. Like in the spiritual tradition of darshan – when one is simply glad to be in the presence of a spiritual guide or mentor, not because they say anything explicitly aimed at being helpful, but more because the one who comes to see the guide can get something by soaking up the feel of the other.
GM: That’s an interesting perspective. I’m not sure I would like to think of a therapist as someone who is.... [does a mime of bowing down in prayer before someone]. But it’s clear that our clients/patients are picking things up from us, about the nature of our being, all the time. It’s particularly clear when you work with kids: if your attention wanders, or you’re distracted by something, they will start getting up and moving around, or throw things or kick you! When we’re working well as therapists, we’re grounded, embodied and present, and that gets communicated non-verbally to the client. Basically, if we can be emotionally present to ourselves, we can be more genuinely emotionally present to the client, and that is one of the most curative things we can do for them
SM: I take your point that therapists are not gurus and should be wary of becoming inflated. I suppose I’m not saying that we can only take clients to places where we have been to, in ourselves, but if we have been there, then that can be powerfully healing.
GM: Yes, and that’s especially true of trauma work.
SVG: That’s Jung’s idea, isn’t it – that the patient comes to analysis with something that is making them sick, and they basically give it to the therapist to make them sick too – ‘Here, get to feel the way I feel!’ And the job of the therapist is to feel it, let themselves get sick, and then cure themselves of that sickness. Which is to say they have to find a different meaning in the symptoms from the meaning the client finds (often, ‘I’m bad, there’s something wrong with me’) and hold the symptoms instead with more compassion and deeper understanding. And if the patient sees that this is possible and that the therapist has, in effect, cured themselves and is not ailing anymore, they understand, intuitively, that this may be possible for them too.
GM: It’s certainly an idea that’s central to psychoanalysis, central to the idea of therapeutic containment: helping to metabolise, process anguish, integrate painful feelings inside ourselves, which can then make them safe enough to give back to the patient. I’m not sure ‘curing’ is the right word, though. I think it is more to do with showing we can be a capacious enough container, which can hold and manage those feelings. Respark is a lot about describing the process by which we close down on things because we fear they will be too much for us to bear, and how we can be helped to open up, to face and bear and manage them. We see this movement towards what’s difficult and painful in a lot of spiritual practice. And that’s what mindfulness is about too: staying open to something, being able to move towards it, inside ourselves, as we learn that we can be bigger than the painful feeling.
SVG: Who was it who said, ‘I am human and therefore nothing human can be alien to me’?2 Trying to be that capacious, so that I can hold it all... that’s a lifetime’s work!
GM: Absolutely. And if we think we have made it, and we’ve got there, we should probably hang up our boots!
SVG: I remember something a poet friend of mine told me years ago: the ancient Greek idea of psychopodia. They thought that whenever we look at something, then tiny, invisible threads or tentacles, each with a minute foot at the end, come out of our eyes, reach towards the object of our gaze and rest on it, rather like the way an octopus reaches out and touches things. And this explains why we can feel it when someone looks at us.
GM: Goodness. I love that idea! It predicts quantum physics – the whole idea of the observed being changed by the observer, and vice versa. In fact, there are plenty of ideas that have been rejected by recent, established thinking as being too ‘woo-woo’ and whacky – like Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘morphic resonance’3 – and which are coming to be seen, more and more, to make sense. We may not have the full language to describe or explain the experience of those sorts of ideas yet, but I think we absolutely are being affected, at a bodily, cellular level, by things like how we are looked at.
SVG: I want to return specifically to talk about Respark, as it’s such a good book. I really want to encourage therapists to read it. One of the things I loved about it is how skilfully you blend psychoanalytic thinking, current neuroscientific research and giving the reader a rich flavour of what goes on in your consulting space. Can you say a bit about that? Is that what you set out to combine?
GM: I’ve integrated several different things into my practice, over the years. I began in non-directive play therapy, which was all about empathy and watching for when your attention drifted off and thinking about what might have triggered that in you. That was very person centred. Then I moved into a more integrative, humanistic approach, in which we had to be more in touch with bodies; we studied experientially as well as intellectually. We looked at the work of Wilhelm Reich and I learned about the ways defences can get lodged in the body, as well as about psychodynamic thinking. And then I left a lot of this behind for years. After I trained at the Tavistock, I thought, ‘I should just be more psychoanalytic!’. But now I’ve ended up bringing all of that together, within myself and in my practice. I don’t really know quite how I’ve done that. I guess everyone does it in their own unique way – finding their own blend. I would always encourage people to feel that they can be open to and incorporate new things in the way they work.
SVG: The metaphor you use throughout the book is that of a spark – and you use that to unpack how, for example, some people had their spark to begin with, but it went out, or some people never even had a spark kindled in the first place, and yet others are misfiring and having too much uncontrolled sparkiness. How do you think that metaphor came to you?
GM: I had been increasingly thinking about energy. I mean in terms of biology. I was realising, after working a lot with people who are quite shut down, that there was something important to do with energy that was going on in these people. There was a profoundly de-energised state in them. You can see this, for instance, in kids who have experienced a high level of neglect and come from very deprived environments: they will usually have a very flat way of being, a lack of affect that you can see in the prosody of their voice, in the way they move, and the pallor of their skin. And this can be understood because of a process of contracting and a going within, in response to threat. I also began to think about what’s going on in the bodies of people who have experienced trauma, which leads to them ending up in seriously dissociated states.
And I have a theory now, that I explore in the book, about the way that trauma and neglect take root in the body, more deeply than we have tended to think, at the level of our actual cells. I got influenced by the work of Robert Naviaux, who has written about what he calls the ‘cell danger response’.4 This is to do with our mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of energy in our body: they are in every cell in our body, and when there is a serious threat to our body, they shut down and stop making energy, as a way of protecting us.
This is an important biological phenomenon that I think we’re going to see more writing and research about in coming years. It may help us to a better understanding of what is going on for someone with, say, autism or chronic fatigue syndrome, and what is going on for someone who has experienced trauma, and now has troubling emotional and psychological symptoms. In the shutdown states I’ve described, there’s always a lack of energy, a lack of spark, because the spark has come to feel dangerous, because we have got used to feeling shutdown as a way of keeping safe. This is an important part of where the central metaphor in the book came from. And I think this explains why a big part of helping people in these states is to do with helping them feel safe with us, first, so that it can become tolerable for them to reconnect with that vital spark, that life energy.
1 Symington N. Narcissism: a new theory. London: Karnac Books; 1993.
2 Terence. [Online.] https://medium.com/in-medias-res/the-wisdom-of-a-former-slave-7bcceaaa0d0f (accessed 13 April 2022).
3 Sheldrake R. A new science of life. London: Blond & Briggs; 1981.
4 Naviaux RK. Perspective: cell danger response biology – the new science that connects environmental health with mitochondria and the rising tide of chronic illness. Mitochondrion 2020; 51: 40–5.