My river has never looked so beautiful

How can we create lives which are truly worth living, given that these lives come to an end?

Abraham Maslow, author of Toward A Psychology of Being and originator of the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” diagram (see below), was one of the most influential figures in the establishment of the Humanistic Psychology movement in the middle of the last century. In 1957 Maslow suffered from a severe heart attack. His near-death experience blessed him with a profound and intense appreciation of life, which he later beautifully reflected on in a letter to a friend.

“The confrontation with death – and the reprieve from it – makes everything so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful… Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.”
Abraham Maslow, quoted in Rollo May’s book Love and Will

Patriarchy, intergenerational trauma and power struggles in relationships

While there has been significant movement in recent decades towards a society in which women are treated equally to men, the society we have today is still fundamentally sexist. Yes, there’s been progress, but as the recent scandal involving Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein demonstrates, “The Patriarchy” (the oppressive patterns of thought, behaviours and institutions, like Hollywood, which keep men in a position of power over women) still dominates our lives. In fact, the issue of sexism in today’s society is more complex and pernicious than it was in the last century, because in most settings overt sexist behaviour is now considered to be politically incorrect. Therefore in many instances sexism has been driven underground.

Nothing speaks more directly to this reality than the meteoric rise of internet pornography over the last twenty years, a phenomenon which has huge ramifications not only on the issue of equality between the sexes but also profound implications for the mental health of a growing number of men and a subsequent impact on their relationships, as this excellent video interview with sex addiction therapist Paula Hall illustrates. It may be a socially unacceptable and potentially sackable offence to wolf whistle at a female coworker or pester her for her phone number, but the taboo of pornography means that there need not be any such boundaries in the secret lives of men. The dissonance between public and private behaviour, always a significant dimension of our of society, has been further exacerbated by these developments, driving men’s sexist beliefs further into the domain of their shadow where they’re easy to disown.

Patriarchal power and intergenerational trauma in relationships

Patriarchal power relations have been firmly in place for thousands of years, profoundly influencing our thoughts, feelings and the way we see the world, both on a conscious and unconscious level. This is a system which is entrenched in our thinking. It’s like the oxygen we breathe, most of the time we take it for granted and therefore we fail to appreciate that what so often sickens our relations with our partners is the fact that the atmosphere in which these relationships take place is toxic. However, it’s important to remember whilst The Patriarchy practically privileges men over women (e.g. the gender pay gap), it is a system of thought which pollutes the thinking of both men and women. On a conscious level, we may believe that women are equal to men, but on an unconscious level we have all inherited from our parents and ancestors trauma in relation to sexual inequality which goes back for generations. This “intergenerational trauma” can cause huge problems and power struggles for couples in committed relationships.

Four hundred years ago, free thinking, independent women were considered to be witches and burned at the stake if they did not follow the rules, challenging the inferior position they were allotted in the oppressive, patriarchal and dogmatically religious society of the time. A hundred years ago, women who refused submit to the will of their fathers and husbands, reacting against the puritanical and hypocritical oppression of the era, were diagnosed as hysterical and locked away in asylums and institutions. Today, the female body is just as much a site for control, domination and oppression as it was fifty years ago, albeit at the same time as also being seen as a symbol of their empowerment, a complex and contrary topic I will leave others to debate.

Although we may not be aware of it, this shameful historical baggage has a significant influence on the dynamics of our society and our relationships today. Power “games” between men and women have been playing out for centuries. These power games still have the capacity to destroy relationships and leave permanent wounds. Often what causes us to engage in these power games in the first place is the wounds we inherited from our parents. If there is no space for healing, these are undoubtedly wounds which we will hand down to our children. So what is necessary for this healing to take place?

In conclusion, I wish I had an easy answer to this hugely important question. I believe empathy is a big piece of the puzzle. Empathy is the capacity to see and feel things from someone else’s perspective. It is the ability to witness and be alongside someone in their pain without judging, advising or trying to fix. However, it is an experience that is not possible if our own pain is getting in the way. Therefore, I believe another important piece of the puzzle is forgiveness, another thorny topic which (for the time being at least) I will leave others to debate.


Further reading

Anxiety and the benefits of ambient music

This lovely short film tells a very personal story about how a young man suffering with anxiety and prone to panic attacks discovers a new universe of relaxation, safety and a feeling of groundedness as a result of listening to ambient music at home and on his headphones as he makes his way through the world. In a society that can often feel relentlessly busy and stressful, it’s simple practices like these that enable us to slow down enough to be able to check in with ourselves and get a sense what’s going on for us underneath all the noise and static.


More resources

Reconnecting to your inner child and the deep web of life

At it’s heart, counselling offers a way for us to to process our suffering and our distress – and to find meaning in it. There is an increasing amount of evidence that demonstrates that it’s the quality of the relationship between counsellor and client which is the main catalyst for this process of healing and growth. Something quite mysterious and transformative can happen when two people relate really honestly with one another. This is because our identities are not fixed. Our personalities are much like the surface of the ocean, constantly shifting and changing depending on the currents, prevailing wind and other factors. Our personalities adapt depending on who we’re relating to at any given time.

Have you ever experienced the strange and unsettling sensation of going home for a weekend to visit your parents and finding that you begin to regress into a adolescent or childish version of yourself? I certainly have! The relationship between children and their parents are so powerful they can often overwhelm the identities we form in our adulthood. The English language doesn’t even have a specific word to describe the relationship an adult has to his or her parents – we will always be their children!

Think about yourself at home with your partner, at the office, socialising with your friends, when you’re on your own. Does your behaviour change? In each of these different situations are you consciously acting out different roles or does your personality adapt and change to meet these different situations? Are you more confident around some people than others? Do you like yourself more when you spend time with people you love and trust?

Identity is relational – it is formed in relationship with others. It’s the meaning we create between us – the dynamics of our connection to one another – which really counts and which makes all the difference when it comes to personal change, not only in a counselling relationship, but in ALL relationships.

“When a partnership is based on growing, evolving choice, when it’s interpersonal politics is free of a desire to control, it develops in a unique, idiosyncratic way.”
Carl Rogers

We are not only independent, free thinking individuals making our way in the world, we are also interdependent – we need other people to help us make meaning in our lives so we can change and grow in healthy ways. We cannot do it alone. This understanding of our fundamental interconnectedness with one another is the cornerstone of radical ecology. It is an understanding which is sorely absent from the cultural story our modern society is acting out. This is a story of individualism and separation, one which perpetrates the myth that identities are isolated inside our skulls, that we are completely separate from everyone else. It is the antithesis of the kind of connection an ecological view of the world implies. It is important that we update this cultural narrative, which at the end of the day is only a story about what it means to be human that we have come to accept as reality.

However, changing this story is one of the hardest things we can attempt to do. We recognise that this story of separation is one which we, as children of our culture, have taken to heart. We can talk easily enough about the importance of connection but, more often than not, we keep our deep emotional selves hidden from one another, protected behind carefully locked doors in our minds. With our adult capacity to think rationally it’s quite possible to grasp the idea that we are all interconnected, but it is our Inner Child – the child within each of us – who needs to be convinced. This is the part of us that has been most wounded by our culture, long before we were mature enough to begin making rational sense of the world around us. The Inner Child does not understand rational arguments. The Inner Child sees things in black and white, responding to basic emotional expressions from others (love, fear, anger, sadness) with basic emotional responses.

The Inner Child experiences these feelings very deeply, but the scars of all those old injuries, so often unwittingly inflicted upon us by our parents, injuries passed down from their parents, act like a barrier to their free and open expression, and so often they’re pushed down into our unconscious or projected onto others because they’re too powerful to deal with. The Inner Child has swallowed whole the story of separation our culture has whispered in our ear every day of our lives from the moment of our birth. Most of us growing up in this culture cannot help but become traumatised by this story on a fundamental level long before we’re old enough to make any kind of meaningful choice about what we believe in. Although our Inner Child longs for connection, there is simply too much at stake to take the risk of reaching out to another with authenticity and vulnerability. The Inner Child’s greatest fear is of abandonment, which is experienced like a death. No wonder we keep this part hidden most of the time.

If we’re one of the lucky ones, there are places where we feel safe enough to invite our Inner Child to be witnessed by another. Counselling is one such place. Those of us who have experienced the healing and the acceptance that this kind of openness engenders have had a taste of the kind of connection that is possible with another human being, the blurring of the invisible, illusory boundaries which separate us, a fleeting sense of the interconnectedness of the human community. This kind of connection with others is all too rare, but with time, patience and the right conditions, an environment which is safe, stable and free of oppression, self-understanding and self-compassion develops. Our Inner Child naturally blossoms and helps us find the courage and the creativity to begin the task of finding out who we were to begin with before we swallowed whole the lie that we are separate and alone. With great relief we realise it does not need to be this way.


Further reading

Brené Brown on the value and importance of vulnerability

This TED talk on vulnerability by shame researcher Brene Brown has been watch over six million times – and for good reason! Based on many years of research, in the video Brené explores the way in which our ability to courageously express our vulnerability in appropriate ways enables us to become more resilient to shame, develop clearer boundaries in our relationships and begin to experience what it’s like to live wholeheartedly.

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” It’s going to bed at night thinking, “Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly


Further reading on vulnerability

Eight things we need in our relationships to feel okay

Transactional Analyst Richard Erskine talks about his research into the fundamental things we need to experience in our relationships in order to feel okay. This short video is aimed at counsellors and therapists but I think there’s also a great deal here for those who are struggling to figure out what may be missing from their lives and from their relationships.

We all start out knowing magic

We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

Robert R. McCammon

Successful people

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But she does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. She needs people who live well in their places. She needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.

David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry