Counselling, Supervision, Training, Research, Teaching, Writing. Providing therapeutic services to the people of East Lancashire and beyond.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Courage to Create

In a break from marking essays I have just finished reading The Courage to Create, a short and delightful book by the existential psychotherapist Rollo May. I was motivated to read more of Rollo May by the video I watched and reviewed here. This deeply humane and thoughtful book was a nice antidote to the last book I finished, by the much more combative Thomas Szasz.

Rollo May's book is about the creative process. A painter himself, he draws many of his illustrations from the visual arts as well as science and psychotherapy. The title comes from May's belief that creativity is a courageous act: the discovery of 'new forms, new symbols, new patterns' challenges conformity within society, and the creative genius is often punished for it.

May writes a lovely chapter on creativity and the unconscious, exploring the experience we have all had in which we apply ourselves to a problem for days only to have the answer come out of our unconscious when we finally put our pen down, have a rest or go for a walk. My old teacher used to say 'leave it to the night shift' and he meant just this, let your unconscious mind work on the problem and it will come up with the answer. May argues that the mind needs the 'relaxation of inner controls for the unaccustomed idea to emerge' (63).

My favourite chapter though is May's meditation on 'creativity and the encounter' in Chapter Four. He argues that great art comes out of the encounter between subject and object, between, for example, the painter and the landscape. He argues that the intensity of that encounter, the passion or commitment involved, determines how great that art will be. It also brings with it anxiety (92).I love this idea of the encounter and I immediately applied it to my work as a psychotherapist. Out of the encounter between therapist and client - or out of the client's encounter with self - out of the intensity of that - come new perceptions, realisations, insights and profound change. And yes, it certainly requires courage!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Walking with Power and Grace

There was a flutter in the chicken coop this week as research published in the British Medical Journal strongly suggested that exercise does not help with depression (see the Guardian report here). 

The claim seemed counter-intuitive, but the evidence was pretty conclusive. People with experience of depression protested (see here and here), whilst Clare Slaney saw a hidden agenda at play - the dread hand of austerity around the throat of the prescription gym membership.

There has been evidence that exercise helps with depression (see, for example, the BBC News website here and here) and what about all those endorphins that exercise releases? On Twitter Professor Cary Cooper said the study focused on severe depression only. I'd like to read the BMJ to see for myself, but it's by subscription only and times are tough.As compensation there was a pretty well balanced report, reminding us that this study tested prescribed exercise only, in the Daily Telegraph here.

If the study did involve only those living with severe depression then I can well imagine how exercise came out as ineffectual. Might as well whistle down a storm. But thinking of the guys I have helped - people with moderate levels of depression - life style changes have often been beneficial. Sometimes it's difficult to work out whether people become more active as their depression lifts; or is it that the depression lifts and enables them to become more active?

I'm reminded of a story about Milton Erickson, the psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. He told a man living with depression to count the chimney pots on his way home from Erickson's house. The man did this, mainly to humour the old fellow; but by the time he had arrived at his own home he did feel quite a bit better. Erickson's intervention changed the man's thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Instead of looking down he was looking up, instead of ruminating he was counting chimney pots, instead of sitting at home on his own, he was walking down the street meeting people - you get the picture. The man had a strategy for maintaining his depression and Erickson flipped it round.

On some of the NLP training I've done I've been encouraged to walk with 'power and grace' and if you can behave differently then you will tend to think differently and feel differently. Like Gregory Bateson I think we're built that way - we are cybernetic.

Will walking with power and grace lift our mood? Possibly. Will it shift clinical depression? Probably not. It'll be the same with exercise (maybe).