'Distant stars': Splodge, nothingness and the creative benefits of frustration

When we have a problem we want to find a solution. That’s pretty understandable. But what if there isn’t one readily available? What if there is only nothing? And sometimes that’s the case - the problem is that there isn’t anything – there is nothing, no-thing at all a void, a black hole.

Sometimes this happens in a therapy session too: we can talk around, through, about, over a problem, but there is still nothing arising from that seems particularly helpful. Sometimes we might explore this problem through free association, dream content, a metaphor or an image. It is not an easy process and although it’s difficult and frustrating, eventually something comes to mind. Yet this something doesn’t really mean anything so it still may as well be nothing. The  frustration is still there.

The splodge

This encountering nothingness is an interesting and common phenomenon in psychotherapy/ art therapy that I have personally experienced as both a client and psychotherapist. Sometimes there is a ‘main image’ that has been consciously drawn and the client may feel comfortable talking about, but the abstract doodle next to it which was less consciously created is just a ‘splodge’ that doesn’t mean anything to them.

 ' Splodge 1 ': Alex Monk 2018.

'Splodge 1': Alex Monk 2018.

In such instances I might ask the client why they might feel more connected to and find it easier to think about the meaning of the ‘main image’ which is often (but not always) more figurative but feel less connected to the (often more abstract) ‘splodge’? Why is it that ‘the splodge’ isn’t worth thinking about?  Often people quite understandably don’t know the answer to this and it is what I would like to be explore further in this blog-post. Indeed for the purposes of this post, let us use ‘the splodge’ to represent psychic phenomena in a session that emerges that doesn’t feel relevant or make sense and leads us only to a kind of thinking cul-de-sac.

Why is it that  ‘splodge’ like phenomena aren’t worth thinking about or is it that they represent something that for some reason cannot be thought about? Or is this a fuss about nothing? Can’t a splodge just be a splodge? 

Something & Nothing/ Known & Unknown: the hemispheres

An obvious way to begin interrogating these questions is to explore how our brains work in relation to perception. Iain Mcgilchrist’s excellent ‘The Master and his Emissary’ explores in some depth the role of the brain hemispheres and their relationship to attention and how this impacts upon our experience of the world. Based on Mcgilchrist’s research, one might conclude that the dominance of the left hemisphere in our culture could explain why ‘splodge’ might get rejected in such a way:The left hemisphere tends to stick with what it knows.

If objects are not recognised through the L-H prism then they probably don’t merit further thought. Mcgilchrist (2012, p.83) postulates that the left-brain has ‘an affinity for what itself has made’ contrasting with the right’s ‘affinity for all that is ‘other’, new, unknown, uncertain and unbounded.’(ibid). Perhaps this is why a more figurative image is favoured over a ‘splodge’ as one feels a more natural affinity for something that has been consciously created. It is something one knows and recognises; both of which are associated with certainty and safety. Yet something that happens unconsciously (a dream) or semi consciously (splodge/ doodle/free association) might make one feel potentially more anxious when attempting to explore their meaning. It should be noted at this point that (as Mcgilchrist is at great pains to emphasise) both hemispheres are involved in doing pretty much everything but the way in which they each pay attention  

Our left hemispheres have a preference for solutions (based on what is already known or that is familiar) that of course can be useful when solutions are readily available, but such a preference can ironically in of itself heighten anxiety. A left hemisphere perspective might also be attributed to creating this very feeling of ‘nothingness’. ‘Splodge’ becomes a 'no-thing' and no longer worth thinking about because it doesn’t actually relate to anything. Conversely, the right hemisphere employs ‘metaphor, irony and humour, all of which depend on ‘not prematurely resolving ambiguities’ (italics my own, Mcgilchrist, 2010,p.82) and are also the creative aspects of consciousness which can loosen things up and help us to solve problems rather than getting bogged down in their detail.

It surely follows then, if we wish to contextualise, solve a problem or find meaning from something we have created that we need the help of the right hemisphere: the left cannot do it alone. If we can harness the right's tolerance for ambiguity (and holding several ambiguities at one time) and engage its playful curiosity then this might even things out a little and give us the capacity to wonder about what ‘the splodge’ could be. To be creative is to embrace the novel and the curious and not only based on what we know already: creating our own things and not only copying those of others. 

 ' Splodge 2 ' Alex Monk, 2018

'Splodge 2' Alex Monk, 2018

 

Creative reverie

Psychotherapy is a setting where a sense of reverie or openness to novel and creative thoughts can be cultivated. There are of course plenty of other means besides this that have been employed for millennia; from ancient devotional practice through to physical exercise. Film director David Lynch has written about his own form of reverie in his short book ‘Catching the big fish’. He illustrates how he has discovered some of his best ideas through transcendental meditation. Lynch’s films are themselves often very much of the right hemisphere and perhaps rather splodge like. They are however more often described as ‘oneiric’ or dreamlike, as they consist of surrealistic fragments which leave people in a state of wonder and/or appalled by their frustrating lack of a coherent narrative: just as you feel you are getting a handle on what’s happening, meaning dissolves right before your eyes. It really is like watching a dream unfold.  

Reverie, Mothers & CREATIVITY

The way in which the word ‘reverie’ is employed in the previous paragraph does not seem too far from the definition from that in the Oxford dictionary ‘A state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream’. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion used ‘reverie’ to signify a more interpersonal rather than intra-psychic process. Bion's ‘reverie’ signifies a Mother’s readiness to contain her child’s fear or rage and, through a process of ‘projective identification’ the Mother modifies what the child has projected into her and returns them so that the infant can now internalise them in a way that are bearable. This creates a space where they can now be thought about: this space becomes one that is also open to creativity - thinking one's own's thoughts. The reverie of the Mother leads to the infant’s own capacity for it. Rage and fear are still experienced as affects (it is not about getting rid of them) but are now tolerable.

 If a Mother on the other hand, for whatever reason does not modify these primitive affects in this way then they are returned to the infant in the form of ‘nameless dread’ (Bion, 1967 p.116)  which fills the space and absence, 'no-thing' becomes quite intolerable: all thoughts become associated with this ‘dread’ and cannot therefore be thought about. If we expect something to happen when we are infants and it is not there in this scenario and there is absence/no-thing, it is too much to bear.

If however, there are enough of what Winnicott (1962) called ‘good enough’ experiences where our caregivers meet the infant's needs well enough then s/he begins to tolerate the frustration of things not turning out as s/he expects and this itself becomes ‘an apparatus for ''thinking''’ and creativity (Bion, 1967.p111)  . Through this process we then find frustration 'more tolerable'.


‘A capacity for tolerating frustration thus enables the psyche to develop thought as a means by which the frustration that is tolerated is itself made more tolerable.’ (Bion, 1967, p.112).


 Developmental reasons then also may account then for an intolerance of absence and along with the influence of the left-hemisphere, could be the reason for instances where there is this premature closing down of ambiguity and loss of curiosity. Perhaps the primitive nature of 'splodge' like phenomena are too similar to the 'nameless dread' that could not be thought about when it was first experienced and quite understandably the feeling of nothingness serves as a dissociative shield against it.

A key benefit of psychotherapy is that it can enable us to think with gentle curiosity about life’s frustrations and explore their ambiguity rather than give in to the temptation to concretise them right away (which could be said is another way of defending against feeling something.)

 ' Splodge 3 ' Alex Monk, 2018

'Splodge 3' Alex Monk, 2018

 

Digital frustration

 The cultural aspect to this discussion looms large. What is going on collectively here? Could it just be that there is a general malaise in the world when it comes to dealing with things that are frustrating, or anything that resembles 'the void'?

Before the digital age when artists talked about ‘creative block’ there was a sense that they had met an impasse where a flow of creativity had run dry. Of course there were plenty of ways then to ease one’s frustration as artists have done for a long time (narcissism, sex, drugs, alcohol) yet now there are complex algorithms which offer endless ways in which frustration can be removed, though in some cases, in exchange for one's creative life. This might be through browsing social media timelines, or searching for a Netflix series to watch. This perhaps sounds rather dramatic and such pursuits of course can be harmless enough, but there is a danger of experiencing a kind of mundane numbness in the process and the frustration still bubbles just below the surface anyway - it's an illusion. This is not a judgement upon individuals, rather a political statement: by temporarily and mundanely relieving ourselves of our frustrations through things like social media which are supposedly ‘free’ we are in fact paying for them by not creating anything, by not thinking, or at least in the way Bion described. When ones looks at it this way, this feels like something revolutionary, really worth fighting for – fighting for the right to be frustrated, bored and not having a clue what to do next, but most importantly, our creative selves. Of course the digital world now has an enormous influence on how we deal with our feelings of frustration, of the void. The inherent accessibility of the digital world and the information it provides is a wonderful thing and I do not wish to idealise a world without it or indeed the past, though you may accuse me of such based on the following example.

 

ANALOGUE FRUSTRATION - Distant stars 


As a child I can recall my first experiences of listening to  shortwave radio –  those fortunate enough to have experienced this will know, (and if not, I absolutely recommend it) - some patience is required to delicately turn the dial to ‘tune in’ and find a station. This can take time and can indeed be frustrating, and now in the digital age when such a search is no longer necessary, this might even seem rather pointless. Yet as you turn the tuning dial, a range of pleasant and unpleasant frequencies emerge, in the high, low and mid range; each in their unique way holding the promise of a new station, like distant stars, broadcasting in an unknown language, perhaps introducing a piece of music that is equally alien and beguiling. Then perhaps suddenly, (as happens with shortwave radios, or at least the ones I had) the signal is lost. Maybe forever. You give up and go to sleep. The next evening you try and return the dial to the same frequency, yet there is only white, brown or pink noise. You will never know what the station was or have the name of the piece of that music you heard. This would be even more frustrating now as you’d probably like to Google it and share it on social media, yet sadly it’s lost so you can’t.


Of course such an example as this is not one of acute frustration. True frustration can indeed be thoroughly unpleasant and even horrific.  Yet my intention is just to use this shortwave radio anecdote as a playful means of illustrating how we might think of the benefits of frustrating experiences. They might also become experiences of mystery out of which are born the memories that we can hold most dear and can draw creative inspiration from. By being with our frustrations, this can enable us to mourn what we do not know (or could not have known) and find some acceptance in. 

'What can I contain of it? It escapes and eludes me

The tides wash me away

The desert shifts under my feet'

Kathleen Raine, 'The moment'

Special thanks to Chris Mawson and Natalie Kennedy for their thoughts that helped me to write this article.

References

Bion, W. (1967). Second thoughts. New York: Aronson.

McGilchrist, I. (2012). The Master and his Emissary. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Raine, K. (2000). The collected poems of Kathleen Raine. Ipswich: Golgonooza Press.

Stevens, V. (2005). Nothingness, No-Thing, and Nothing in the Work of Wilfred Bion and in Samuel Beckett's Murphy. The Psychoanalytic Review, 92(4), pp.607-635.

Symington, J. and Symington, N. (2008). The clinical thinking of Wilfred Bion. London: Routledge.

Winnicott, D.W. (1962) Ego integration in child development. Reprinted in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, pp. 56-63. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1965

 

 

Saints and sinners: Breaking the cycle of painful relationships with Fairbairn & creative approaches

 Saints and sinners: Breaking the cycle of painful relationships with Fairbairn & creative approaches

 Many people feel curious about why they continue to repeat the same relational patterns that they consciously know make them suffer and find themselves attracted to in relationships with people who in the end make them suffer. This blog aims to explore how this profoundly painful dynamic develops and how it can be healed and lead to a potentially more fulfilling and creative life, predominantly using the theories of Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn.

What is Art therapy anyway?

There are many myths and misconceptions about what art therapy actually is and here I set out to explain what it is and how it can help you. 

What kind of things does it help with?

Art therapy can help provide relief from a range of issues including addiction, relationship problems (to oneself and others) life changes, grief/ bereavement, anxiety, depression, trauma and a range of other factors which may be impacting on your feeling of well-being. It can also help people with learning disabilities and ASD to express themselves in a neurotypically dominated world.

Attachment research points to our earliest, pre-verbal experiences as the source of many relational difficulties and mental health issues which develop later in life. Art offers us a gentle and indirect way of exploring these early experiences in a safe, confidential and contained setting, with an art therapist who is trained to help you digest and make sense of your experience.

Why not just talk about what’s affecting me?

Talking can work well and certainly some of each session may be spent just doing that, depending on your needs. However, art therapy enables you to access parts of yourself you may not otherwise have been conscious of. It also provides a means of accessing the ‘felt sense’ of your experience and emotions, rather than searching for words to describe them: when you consider how unique all of our experiences are, that’s pretty important. It is also sometimes rather difficult for many of us to describe with words how we feel at the best of times so working with non-verbal media can therefore help us to gently express ourselves in less direct or intimidating ways. Once we have expressed ourselves through non-verbal means, we can then work with the therapist to help us to think about our emotions, sensations or images and then use words to make meaning of our experience. 

Do I need to be able to draw or paint?

Absolutely not: technical skills in the arts are not at all important. It is very much about experiencing the process rather than the finished product. People who have attended art therapy often find that they have been brought up and schooled to think in the opposite way. Not having to worry about what something looks like and just being able to play with the art materials without being judged in this way can feel pretty liberating. This said, drawing & painting may not be for you and there are plenty of other creative forms of expression available during the session.  Some arts psychotherapists with an integrative training may also work with bodywork/ movement, clay, poetry, storytelling and music. This way of working then frees you up to find medium(s) that you feel most comfortable with using.

But I’m not really a creative person!

Many of us when we get to the point we are adults and come in to therapy have lost our connection with our natural ability to play and hence the creative parts of ourselves. The innate creativity of the child inside us gets lost along the way; in many cases, from well intentioned, yet misguided adults who have given us the wrong kind of criticism. As Picasso famously put it: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once s/he grows up.’

Using the arts in therapy helps us to rediscover our child again, where the world of the imagination continues to live inside us and there is endless possibility. By slowly reconnecting with the imaginative world of their child selves, clients sometimes find that this then becomes mirrored in their adult lives too: new options start to make themselves available and offer fresh perspectives on life. This can be remarkable to witness.

Why work with a therapist? Why not just make art on my own?

This is a very valid question as art is very much a therapeutic tool in itself and for some people making art is already enough. Art making alone can really help to regulate anxiety and ease the stresses of daily life. Yet there is also something important about not only the making of art, but also speaking to someone who is trained to help you make sense of it in relation to your unique life experience.

‘Art therapist’ is a state protected title and art therapists are required to have in-depth and rigorous Masters’ level training including many years personal therapy. They also have regular supervision and are required to work in the NHS as part of their training. They must be registered with the HCPC (Health care and professions council) to use the title and whose primary remit is to protect the public.

To find out more about arts therapies check out the links below:

The British Association of Art Therapists

http://www.baat.org/

The Institute for Art and Therapy in Education

https://artspsychotherapy.org/

Capacchione, Lucia. Recovery Of Your Inner Child. 1st ed. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Print.

Finding flow: A highly effective and free treatment for anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in many different ways and there are a wide range of reasons to feel anxious if we think about it. Yet anxiety is essentially a survival mechanism and it is experienced by everyone to some degree as we are biologically programmed to do so in order to survive. When it alerts us to danger anxiety therefore is perhaps a rational response to an irrational world. Moreover, anxiety is often about inner conflict, where opposing thoughts collide as we ruminate and try to find ‘solutions’ and ‘answers’ to ‘get rid’ of anxiety. Theodore Roethke captured this feeling of dread and helplessness in his poem ‘The Lost Son’:

‘Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?’

Anxiety ranges from an optimal level where we feel alert yet are still in control (perhaps before a job interview or an important meeting) to an unpleasant nagging, through to engulfing panic attacks with overwhelming bodily responses as the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is activated. The resulting symptoms include increased heart rate and sweaty palms, with elevated production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When we are in the throes of acute anxiety, the right part of our brains floods the thinking, analytical left-brain with a stream of fragmented images and sensations, which render us in the kind of freeze state which Roethke so evocatively captures. This is why we may have panic attacks, or want to get out of that ‘door’ as soon as possible.

However, it is perhaps the ‘to whom do I go’ in the stanza which is more relevant here, as it may allude both to the anxiety that separation from loved ones leads to, and to our inner wisdom that the best antidote to this is within the company of someone with whom we feel safe, learned in the days before we knew any words at all.  In this feeling of safety we release the hormone oxytocin, which is what soothes the distress.

When we are in a panic state, ‘time’, as David Bowie put it, ‘will crawl’, an agonizing state of stasis. However, when we are with those we love, or in a situation we enjoy or are immersed in, time seems to pass so much more quickly. This phenomenon of 'time flying when we are having fun’ has been associated with the quickening release of the hormone dopamine. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi called this experience ‘flow’, when we are ‘in the moment’ or we ‘forget ourselves.’

 Psychotherapy and Counselling in London 

This ‘flow’ state can be activated in myriad ways spent alone, or with others. These include swimming, walking in nature, laughing with friends, in devotional or religious practice, or laying in a field watching the clouds pass in the sky.

The arts can also be a path to ‘flow’, for as we engage more with the world of the right brain and we are not thinking so much, it becomes less alien and scary to us. This includes creating art, getting lost in a painting at a gallery, making music or listening to some, dancing, or watching people dance. Don’t forget play too: by watching a child playing we can remember how lost in the moment we can be when we play and thinking takes a back seat.

References:

Bowie, David. David Bowie Time Will Crawl. 1987. Audio Recording.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow. New York: Harper and Row.

Panksepp, J. and Biven, L. (2012) The archaeology of mind. New York: W.W Norton.

Roethke, Theodore. The Lost Son. 1st ed. 2017. Print.

The Painful Nature of Uncertainty in the era of Brexit and Trump.

In the current socio-political climate it feels easier than ever to have our opinions validated by others. We can have our earliest narcissistic needs met as we increasingly operate in social media bubbles with those who share similar opinions to ourselves along with articles from the same newspapers we like to read. Yet although social media gives us a much greater means to express ourselves, we are equally more than ever at odds with those we don’t agree with. 

Recent events such as Brexit and the US election have polarised us from one another more than ever, between the ‘good’ (us) and the ‘bad’ (them). Journalists sometimes foster this split with seductive headlines, which magnetically appeal to the very earliest parts of ourselves; those parts which crave certainty, and like to be told what the answer is.

The problem is that between these opposites a void can appear which we may experience as emptiness, or an inner conflict as we try to wrestle with and then attach ourselves to the rigidity of ‘truth.’  And as soon as others challenge our ‘truths’, it can cause us great pain as we are reminded of how uncertain our world is and how vulnerable we are behind our rigid perspectives. 

 Psychotherapy and Counselling in London 

Perhaps then it can be helpful to experiment with allowing some curiosity to replace certainty and introduce some flexibility to our rigidity. Also by practising loving kindness and exercising compassion for ourselves, we can become more accepting of the opposites within us. We can all be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ’stupid’ or ‘clever’. So perhaps there is a need to soften our perspective when we encounter opinions that are different from our own.  

By practising activities that enable us to reflect and be in the flow of the moment, we can then gently get to know what that void feels like and perhaps grow less afraid of it. This might mean cooking a nourishing meal, spending time with good friends, going for a run, or meditating. And once we have been kinder to ourselves and allowed some space to breathe, we might find not only less anxiety and conflict inside ourselves and with others, but discover a greater sense of wellbeing in a world where uncertainty isn’t so bad after all.