Ocean of Sorrow

Ocean of Sorrow

I recently spent a couple of weekends doing the core training offered by a co-counselling network. I met some lovely people and had great conversations with several of them but I soon found that the philosophy behind the course didn’t match my worldview. The first weekend was so grim that I ended up buying myself a bunch of flowers on the way home and craving anything with beauty, joy and happiness. I don’t normally do the happy clappy positivist stuff – preferring a healthy dose of realism – but the relentless gloomfest was driving me into places that I don’t think, perhaps, the course organiser intended.

During the course much emphasis is placed on getting in touch with what are deemed to be suppressed emotions through accessing and then venting them in the raw via counsellor-client verbal exchanges and physical and psycho-drama type explorations. Each person alternates in the roles of client and counsellor and the theory is that the client remains in overall control of any encounter. There is a very restricted menu of interventions that the counsellor can make in any session and the limits of these are agreed by the participants. The usual person-centred strategies of open questions, mirroring, affirmation, etc., are not part of the method and are actively discouraged.

Sadly, it seemed to me, much of the course was designed to encourage wallowing in self-pity and in blaming others for any hurt that had been experienced in one’s life – and indeed expressing anger towards them in the most volatile way possible. It’s true that many had faced great suffering but there was no overview or place for consideration of the other person’s perspective or the possible motivations for the perpetrator’s actions. It’s a case of being victim or perpetrator in a very simplistic and binary way. Everything is black or white. There’s no complexity, shared responsibility or mitigating circumstances. If someone once hurt me then that is all that matters; no wider picture, context or objectivity is sought; we just stay with the depth of feeling. It’s resolutely one-sided and (alas!) self-centred.

We were a very varied group of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Some were deep in the midst of major life changes or heavily burdened by historical crises. Some of us where there out of curiosity about the method or to explore feelings and skills. There’s no doubting the reality of the hurt that some participants had experienced. I do, however, doubt the efficacy of intentional, repeated and vividly enacted remembrance of suffering. Venting anger or even rage clearly does have a place; but of the same old incident, repeatedly? There seemed to be an encouragement to be back in that place of great hurt and, rather than using proven strategies in an attempt to put down the burden of pain and bitterness, to carry it with us into the present.

This repeated exercise must colour the present: it brings past anguish to the forefront of the mind and taints what is here and now. This becomes chosen pain and, once alerted to the pattern, it seems that there would be something masochistic and unskilful about continuing to choose that option. The manifold opportunities the present moment offers become spoiled by the volitional overlay of past suffering. That suffering cannot be undone, of course, but we can learn to leave it behind and use the present moment constructively.

We were repeatedly told that the examples our instructor gave us were “real, not acting”. These mainly consisted of lots of shouting, swearing and hitting of cushions in relation to people who had hurt him over the years. Some examples were around self-esteem issues and school days. Despite the reassurance that we were witnessing something “real, not acting”, I couldn’t help musing why, if these strong and violent emotions could be turned on and off at will to illustrate a point, this experienced co-counsellor wouldn’t take the opportunity to flick the “off switch” and move on to more constructive patterns in daily life. Was there some enjoyment of the strength of feeling? These decades-old experiences still seemed to be deeply lodged and, if this was “real, not acting”, then the action of accessing that past hurt doesn’t seem to be truly cathartic but more like enshrining it. To what end? There seemed to be an element of excess is best; and greater approval the more emotionally incontinent one became.

This was a short course and I don’t know how well it represented the broader co-counselling community. My impression, though, was of a group which sought to enshrine suffering, as if that somehow made each member more “real” or noteworthy, rather than to move beyond that suffering. It seemed entirely hopeless. The structural protections intended to ensure the client remains in control of each session disallow meaningful intervention from the person in the counselling role and replace it with scripted lines that seemed of minimal help to anyone. This was most clearly illustrated by one participant who was deep in new and raw grief. She was desperate to feel something, anything, in her present numbness. Had she been in a more standard therapeutic environment then someone could compassionately have introduced her to the stages of grief – among which numbness is usual – instead she was left struggling to conform to what she felt grief should look like to the group. I couldn’t envisage a less helpful situation for that person at that moment.

Thank goodness that there was an opportunity for real, heartfelt, conversations between the sessions. There we could share experiences in a more measured way, having consideration for the other rather than merely ourselves, and to consider that we are more than the sum of our feelings.

I hope that some participants will find other, more fruitful, avenues to explore in helping them to function beyond past trauma. It made me reflect on how wonderful practices like metta and karuna meditation (from the Buddhist meditation tradition) can be in such circumstances.

“He abused me, he hurt me,
he defeated me, he robbed me!
Those who brood on such thoughts
will never be free from anger.

He abused me, he hurt me,
he defeated me, he robbed me!
Those who relinquish such thoughts
will be freed from anger.

Hatred is never settled by hatred.
It is settled only by non-hatred.
This is an eternal law.”

– The Dhammapada