My father died in April 2018. He was 92, and, as he told the bemused doctor who had been called to see him two days earlier, he was ready to go. Having suffered many infections in his last years, he was now bedridden due to osteoporosis and a back injury sustained in a fall five years earlier. His mind was still busy, reading and writing pretty much to the end, but his once active body was failing him. This particular infection was to be his last. His was probably what we think of as a good death. It followed what most of us would think of as a good life.

Sharing the end days of a life is a deeply moving experience. The vantage point they offer, perhaps more than any other, throws into panoramic view the expanse of experience we refer to as a human lifetime. Memories drift like wind-blown leaves, accumulating into themes as we try to make sense of the unfathomable. How do we tell the story of a life? When all else is stripped away at that moment of death, how do we understand the journey that has been taken?

On the face of it, my father had many ordinary successes. He was ordained as a Methodist minister but, in fact, spent most of his career in educational chaplaincy, firstly as chaplain at a boys’ boarding school, and then, for 27 years, as a college chaplain. In this latter role he saw the college where he worked grow from a small women’s teacher training establishment, to become part of the much larger Roehampton University. There were many changes in the world then, and these were reflected in his teaching (for he had a lecturing role alongside his religious one). Religious education no longer centred on Christianity but became multi-faith. He had to educate himself about world religions and engage in conversation with different faith groups. This interest continued into retirement. He taught classes on world religions at his local U3A group well into his 80s, as well as being active in his community in many other ways. Had he needed a CV, it would have been a full one.

There were other life journeys. My father and my mother married in 1952. In those days, probationary ministers were not allowed to marry until they had completed their training, so my parents’ wedding came somewhat later than they would have chosen, but they still made their 65th anniversary. A few years after they married, I was born, and, three years after that, my brother. We were apparently an ordinary family. We visited grandparents for holidays, had friends to tea, and made expeditions to London’s many museums on Sundays. The family photo albums show smiling faces and days on the beach.

There were painful times too. Mostly these stayed hidden. My father’s own childhood had been shaped by his father’s frequent moves. His father, also a minister, was born of the Victorian era. After an impassioned and adventurous youth, he had come to fatherhood in his 40s. His postings included a missionary compound in China and a series of churches in small English towns up and down the country. In his teens, my father was sent to boarding school in Cornwall. He rarely talked of this experience. I sensed that memories of it brought a melancholic flavour to his life. So too did his mother’s death when he was in his early 20s. He rarely spoke of her, but when he did, there was a wistful tenderness in his voice. Nor was that the only loss. I discovered in adulthood that there had been an elder brother, stillborn two years before my birth. It was a difficult time. When I was born, my father was in a sanatorium, recovering from TB, one of the last to be treated there before the advent of antibiotics.

My father was passionate in standing up for things which he believed in. He worried about the world, and was politically active most of his life. Always a pacifist, he had been a conscientious objector during the war, choosing the coal mines instead of fighting. My early memories include watching the television news at my grandparents’ house to see if we could spot him on the Aldermaston marches. He also took me to hear Lord Soper at Speakers’ Corner, though I was far too young to take in what was said.

Supporting the soul journey

As therapists, we listen to people’s stories. We join our clients at particular junctures in their life-journeys, often when events cut cross-sections through the layers of narrative, and help them make sense of things from the vantage point of now. This is, as many have commented, a privileged position and we have to make choices about how we respond.

Therapy is, in its nature, selective. What we say co-creates the conditions for the client’s self-view. In a tangle of personal data, we work together, exploring loose ends and story fragments, lived and unlived lives. As we do so, we inevitably bring our own assumptions and prejudices to bear, and, even when we resist the idea, we bias our listening with our personal stories.

What, then, should we listen to? How do we support the soul-journey as it emerges from the stories which we hear? In this article so far, I have reduced 10 decades of my father’s life to four short paragraphs, each themed to different aspects of his life: career, family, troubles and passions. Any of these might provide focus for therapeutic process, depending on the orientation of the therapist concerned. Their content is all true in one sense, but equally each is a story, a construction of my making and of the times in which we live. I have put together facts and seen significances, based on my frameworks of viewing the world. No doubt, in reading it, you too will have made associations and formed opinions and hypotheses.

Similarly, in the therapy room, we listen with stories in mind. We listen reductively. We listen creatively. We make links, which may or may not be accurate, shoehorning the process into 50 minutes, or an hour. As practitioners, the choices we make in construing a client’s story may be conscious and intentional or unconscious, driven by habits of thought and view. Therapeutic discourse often follows well-worn patterns, fitting with theoretical models and underlying life philosophies. Thus, clients may reinforce their pre-existing scripts, or rewrite their histories, giving them different nuances and throwing different events into the spotlight of consciousness.

Stories matter

The stories which people tell themselves about their lives matter. They shape the sense of identity and of what the world is about. They make different futures possible. The psychological filters which create these identities, and the values and beliefs which lie behind them, provide frameworks within which a person’s spirit grows or not.

Buddhist psychology is founded on an assumption of human suffering as normal and integral to the healthy life. Human experience includes losses and disappointments that we would often broadly refer to as trauma. It is our existential nature to live with our mortality, to know that we and all those we love are fragile, impermanent beings. In this context, ordinary human psychology is a product of the patterns of thought which we develop to ward off knowledge of this reality. Fear of our fundamental vulnerability leads us to protect ourselves, shrinking away from experience and distancing ourselves from suffering by various mental strategies. Bad things happen to other people. They happen for discernible reasons that we can identify and learn to control. They can be prevented. Thus a mythology develops that if we could just eliminate these sources of suffering, our lives would be happy and fulfilled.

According to this view, human psychology is primarily avoidant. Its patterns involve either rejection and withdrawal, or compulsive grasping at distractions and addictive processes. Such reactions are behavioural and sense-based, but they become deeply interconnected with the sense of identity, and the lifestyles and environments which support it. Everyone has such habit patterns and identity formations, but some patterns are more restrictive than others: denial, compulsion, narrowness of view, negativity, and disconnection from real relationship.

Identities are thus psychological defence structures, protecting us against the knowledge of impermanence. To maintain them, we seek out like-minded groups, based on shared ideas and values. We create psychological bubbles. These give an illusion of safety, yet stifle vitality as they disconnect us from the reality of our being. We stay within our algorithms. Over a lifetime, however, the psyche evolves. Despite our defences, we are not static beings. We add layers of reaction and complexity, and this produces multiple identities for most of us. In the process, we may become more or less rigid in our thinking and in our way of being. The important point to understand is that all of this process is rooted in existential fear.

For many therapists, the primary philosophy is reparative. It provides space and tools to explore and address the wrongs of the past. The client may be variously viewed as victim, damaged or survivor. Behind these labels, however, lies a rhetoric that views psychological difficulties as instances of things having gone wrong, often expressed in the language of rights and justice; unmet needs and traumatic incidents. The therapist empathises with the client’s suffering and seeks to ameliorate it. While Buddhist psychology would not reject such methods, primarily it suggests that real transformation at the deepest levels of the psyche involves engagement with these existential fears and a profound acceptance of our nature as mortal beings.

In our modern world, happiness is highly rated. Of course, no one can argue with those who want to be happy, and, as therapists, our mission can easily be promoted in terms of relieving its opposite, unhappiness. There is, after all, much of the latter around. It is the common misery of unhappy lives which generally drives clients into our consulting rooms in the first place. Happiness, however, has become an industry, and the psychology of happiness, a science. Not just to be cultivated in the consulting room, it has become a business venture. It sells products, placates the militant and keeps the populace settled.

When we look at the journey of the soul, however, it does not so much involve seeking the highs through acquisition, or even settling into bland contentment in an unquestioning life that brings real depth, as honouring the dark times which interrupt the complacency of the status quo. It is these that stand out as important milestones along the path. In other times and other places, rites of passage involving challenge, and sometimes significant danger, have often shaped the life transitions of people. Coming- of-age initiations marked the division between childhood and the adult life. Maturity grew through navigating adversity. Bravery and stoicism marked out those with exceptional strength to lead.

Therapeutic approaches engage with different aspects of the psyche. While some therapies are grounded in the search for positivity, others focus on what are seen as negative aspects of people’s lives, seeking to repair and mitigate suffering. We are influenced by trends in the wider culture – the quest for happiness, belief in rights of the individual, satisfying unmet needs. As a result, we listen differently, focusing on successes or trauma. Buddhist psychology suggests that it is not the pursuit of happiness that creates a good life. Such efforts can too easily become another compulsive distraction. Rather, it suggests expanding our capacity to engage with both light and dark in our lives without becoming mired in avoidant mind-states and behaviours.

In as much as it arises, the happiness born of this approach is deep-seated contentment of the soul and acceptance of our ordinary, mortal nature.

Death gives life meaning. It is an ever-present reality but, in therapy, it is often the unspoken elephant in the room. Sometimes, clients talk about death openly. More often, it hovers implicitly, a theme that only emerges if space is given and we are open to it. Loss, on the other hand, is everywhere. Honouring it means viewing it, not just as something problematic, an interruption to be traversed as quickly as possible, but rather as a source of growth and deepening in the psyche.

My father found joy in living. He was interested in everything around him – people, places and ideas. Right up to his last days, his bed was littered with books and maps and drawing materials. He saw life as a gift and engaged in it richly. At the same time, he was disciplined. Even in his last days, he continued his daily bible study and his exercise routines. He valued his relationships and wanted his loved ones around him. He had experienced his share of losses and difficulties over his lifetime, but he trusted the process. For him, death held no certainties. His was not a simplistic faith, but he willingly entered into dying, trusting all would be well, whatever form it took. At the end of his life, my father was contented. He was happy to look back at the path he had followed, and, in doing so, to embrace the mystery of death.