What is counselling?
It’s a vast array of possibility, taking so many forms. It might be offering a regular, drumbeat-like space for someone who is near to drowning in grief. It might be profoundly transpersonal, relational work for a person emerging through a crisis of faith. The starting point – sometimes the whole work – is about respectfully discovering how it is to make contact, exploring what is and isn’t possible in a world in which contact is dangerous or traumatic – or experienced as such.
Counselling is a practice which has stretched me in ways I never imagined I would be stretched, at the coalface of my relational abilities. It leads me to look at who I am and who I think I am – in terms of the intersecting of identities – how I work with the power differential inherent in counselling, checking I am not adding further harm, through reflective practice beyond therapy and in supervision and further training. Counselling is never the same twice. It can be akin to something like shape-shifting, making it challenging to describe pithily – or in words.
What has inspired you on your counselling journey?
The two therapists who lead the introduction to basic counselling skills workshop that I did for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education in the early 1990s. They conveyed, in those few hours, the magic of how reparation and healing can happen relationally. A seed was sown, and I trained as a therapist a few years later. Much as I value being an educator and a pedagogue, I never became a schoolteacher.
What does spirituality mean to you?
It leaves me cold: most words that point at the deeply knowable, yet humanly ungraspable, have that effect on me. But, hey, words are necessary. I was a church-going child, although I realise now that I had already found the sacred and divine, playing on the common with my dog, sitting with the wildflowers under the vast, blue sky, far from humans. The Mendip hills rose behind me, and, on a clear day, I could see the rise of the Brecon Beacons to the north-west and Cotswolds to the north. I was a disillusioned teen, though still full of faith, then a head-first, enlightenment-seeking Buddhist through my 20s. Now, I meditate as firmly as possibly planted on the earth, rather than hoping to transcend the extraordinariness of being a messy human in a world full of other fabulously complex beings. I’m a lover of everyday awe and wonder, often found in the most mundane.
Most useful piece of advice for a student or newly qualified supervisor
Remember that the therapy room is a microcosm of this vast, beautiful and troubled world. People don’t need to be fixed. Find out what conditions sustain you in working as a therapist. I have found that what gets called self-care (a term that obscures our interconnectedness) is a practice of lifelong regeneration. That’s three pieces of advice.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Currently this one, attributed to Wu Cho:
'There is no secret teaching, no Pure Land –
Only this dirty old universe
With its infinite opportunities to be kind.'
Favourite counselling book
Many of Nick Totton’s books have shaped my work, so it would probably be one of his. Counselling books aside, it would be the poetry of Pablo Neruda or Naomi Shihab Nye.
Favourite podcast or website
Currently, the website of Merete Holm Brantbjerg. Ten years ago, at a European Congress for body psychotherapy, I did a workshop with Merete and made a mental Post-It-Note to do it again. Last year, I started training with her and her co-tutor Kolbjorn Vardal in deepening my understanding of hypo response and hypo arousal. Their synthesis and approach to relational trauma therapy is powerful, practical and kind-making medicine.
Favourite piece of music
The Beatles, Here, There and Everywhere (I think I should have been a ‘60s child). Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor, which stopped me in my tracks on first hearing it in my early 20s. As a childhood violin player, it was beyond me how anyone could make a violin sound that vivid; one minute like a human screech, another the call of an owl, then siren song. For dancing in the lounge, indie-rock tracks of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Tip for a successful counselling session
Show up fully with the person in front of you in that moment. I mean, it sounds obvious; but for me, it is part of earthy and elemental enlightenment practice. Being right here, as present as possible, breathing, listening with all of myself, while energetically not getting in the way.
What is the most important issue facing the counselling world today?
Profound uncertainty, because uncertainty is everywhere, isn’t it? Plus, the struggle between things being measured, defined and categorised and things being beyond measurement, definition and categorisation seems to be reaching fever pitch. Both points of view are useful. Maybe we need to slow it all down and spend time in the middle ground between the two, taking time to listen carefully, understanding the polarisations and divisiveness. Ultimately, love, curiosity and deep respect for everything that lives are at the heart of therapy, and I, or we, could do with remembering that in our trade.
1 Shohet R, Shohet J. In love with supervision. Monmouth: PCCS Books; 2020.
2 Foundation for inner peace. A course in miracles. New York: Penguin; 1996.
3 Kopp S. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. London: Sheldon Press; 1974.