Therapy as Poetry

Poetry can be a form of therapy. But have you ever thought about how psychotherapy itself is a lot like poetry? Yeah, me neither.

Until the other night in a dream, I was telling a group of other psychotherapists that “Therapy is like poetry?” I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about.

But truthfully, before my dream, I had never considered the analogy.

It’s not so unusual for dreams to reveal knowledge that seems like uncommon wisdom — similar to the kind of wisdom found in poetry. Once I had a dream in which I heard the distinct voice of a German woman, with a thick German accent, telling me, “Whatever you do that is not from a place of authenticity, will incur a debt!” She sounded like she meant business, so when I woke up, I wasted no time calling a woman whom I had been dating for a short time to say what I had been afraid to say before my dream: “I’m sorry, but it’s over.” It was the right decision, though awkward and sad.

Dreams and poetry can do this for us, can’t they? Images and metaphors clarify and penetrate us in a way like no other forms of communication. Images speak to us, disturb or enlighten us, and they can transform us. Through images, we are able to imagine what’s going on with our souls and what our souls actually desire — authenticity, for example, as in the dream of the German woman’s warning.

A long time ago, I was in a marriage that would eventually dissolve, and I had a dream in which a man who was suicidal split himself, right in front of me, into multiple clones of himself. If it had been a poem, it would clearly have been a poem of travesty and despair and deep internal conflict. But, at the time, I didn’t interpret the dream, nor did I present it to my therapist. Only two years after my wife left me, did I dare open my dream journal to review what had been going on inside of me prior to my marriage’s demise. When I finally looked into the frightening image, I saw the self in me I had been afraid to face at the time I had the dream. I saw that my sadness, fear, and anger had escaped my conscious awareness because I did not want to see it. I had been holding onto my marriage too tightly, ignoring problems that were festering underneath what seemed like an otherwise very good relationship.

“Therapy is like poetry,” then, in the sense that therapist and client listen to the spoken images and the unspoken ones. Often, for example, it is the image of the “inner child” who has been forgotten and ignored. He or she will show up in symptoms such as burn-out, or irrational anger or overwhelming anxiety because that part of the self has not been given a voice in the cadence of our lives. Just as poetry can stir up emotions and thoughts we didn’t know we had, so does good psychotherapy make space for spontaneous thoughts and emotions that lead to healing and hope. It’s as if we need to speak out loud in order to know ourselves in the presence of someone who cares to hear our deepest inner rhythms.

I recall these lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching”:

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.


What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.


Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.


Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting,
nestled around him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

Rilke is referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God in the Old Testament; but even if you aren’t familiar with that story, you can probably feel it’s sense in the “sinews” of your body and soul — especially during those times when an illness or a relationship or a loss has wrestled with you all night, or for weeks, or years. Or you’ve wrestled against something, as in my marriage, that you wouldn’t or couldn’t face — until, if you were to move on with energy and desire and hope, you had to come to terms with your own dark Angels.

So if we listen deeply, as in therapy we try to do, we may hear the sounds, the images, the hidden rhythms of our lives seeking to sing songs of our souls. We may have to let go of something precious — like our egos, or a relationship that’s run it’s course, or a dead-end job — but what we find may be far greater than we could have ever imagined.

Becoming Empowered

Recently, I re-read the spiritual classic, Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada, a book that was wildly popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I didn’t understand it at all in 1984 the first time someone recommended it to me. But having to recover from COVID the last few days, I had plenty of time, and I devoured every word.

Castenada was later suspected of being a fraud, having borrowed from others and fabricating much of what he experienced with Don Juan, his mentor-shaman. But what made his work so relevant was his attention to the human need for myths to live by — at a time, when all myths of the establishment were being called into question and dismantled.

While counseling a young man with whom I had worked for over three years, discussing his thoughts about the kind of man he wanted to be, Journey to Ixtlan spontaneously popped into my mind. It was if I had suddenly time-traveled back to a period in my young adult life when I, too, was struggling to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I had a shaman of sorts — a Chaplain supervisor — who often helped to put me back together after long days of tending to the sick and the dying. Young men and women need such shamans or mentors to model what a meaningful life as a man or woman looks like. They demonstrate what personal empowerment is and what a difference inner power makes.

Falling apart and putting oneself back together is not an uncommon experience — if you live long enough. Like Castenada following Don Juan into the pitch-dark night, you have no choice but to trust your instincts in the face of the terrors that befall us: broken relationships, lost jobs, depression and anxiety-filled traumas of all sorts and kinds, and near brushes with death. We’re left feeling disoriented and off-balance — not readily aware that these “brick walls” sometimes turn into welcome “detours.” I consider myself fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who had already built up a store of power from their own life experiences. I became an apprentice to how they had learned to manage ordeals of suffering. They spared me the gory details of their own experiences, but in essence, they taught me how to transform my own encounters with sorrow and suffering into personal power.

We pay it forward anytime we lend our emotional support to a young adult who is looking up to us. Our own experiences of transformation help them, not by giving them our power but by showing them how to develop their own internal resources.

A client may say to me in the middle of a counseling session, “I wish this wasn’t so hard!” I feel that, too. But then, reflexively, I think, “If it hadn’t been for the hard things I’ve dealt with, I might not be here, right now, today.” I may recall and even share a funny but poignant scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, when the coach, played by Tom Hanks, yells at his right fielder for dropping a fly ball. Right there on the baseball field, in front of all to see and hear, she melts in tears, crying out at her coach, “It’s too hard!” To which Tom Hanks replies, “Hard? Hard? It’s the ‘hard’ that makes baseball great!”

The most important, if not all, lessons that I’ve learned in life have come by using the storm force winds of life to steer me along the edges of apparent or real defeat towards some new perspective or some new awareness that I may have, otherwise, missed completely. The guiding stars of my life have only been noticed by embracing the darkest of times.

So when my clients sometimes comment that they wish they didn’t have it so hard, I’ve been known to quip, “Is it really harder to face this and challenge yourself than it is to continue doing what you’re doing? It may take as much energy to change as it does to maintain the status quo – but the payoff is a heck of a lot better.” It would not surprise me at all if, in response, I was told “Go to Hell!” But so far, that has never happened.

Our best friends, by far, are those who can tell us the truth in the face of our ordeals, while being kind about it, too. Personal power comes from these moments of truth that are like seeds that take time to germinate and grow. Later, we may laugh together when they tell us, “I’ll never forget the time when you told me…, fill in the blank.” What was hard to hear at the time became a lesson never forgotten, because it was exactly what we needed in order to move forward, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Light found in the midst of darkness becomes truth that empowers us to live fearlessly and with joy.

You can make an entire life worth living by mining the treasures buried in sorrows, frustration, and defeat. It probably won’t be easy, but each time we face our ordeals with the right kind of support and with courage, we experience a new burst of power, while becoming stronger, wiser, and more deeply in love with the mystery we call life.

Modern Day Icarus: Flying Too High

Wishing one could fly must be a fantasy for every child — I don’t know. Maybe only for boys. My fantasy was to be like Superman. My mother safety-pinned a towel around my neck, and off I would fly around the house, faster than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings with ease. Of course, by suppertime, I had to wash my hands, sit down at the family table, and return to my Clark Kent life.

The Greeks told stories about this kind of fantasy, only the stories were meant for adults. The myth of Icarus was about a young man who was given wings made of wax and feathers. Icarus was warned that he could fly at will and as far and as high as he wished, but to be careful not to go too close to the sun, else his wings would melt. This is akin to placing a child in the middle of a chocolate factory and telling the child not to eat too much. Good luck!

We have modern day stories of Icarus: men and women who fly too close to the sun, crashing and burning for all to see. They’re like modern day morality plays, reminders of what happens when we get carried away with ambition, or swallowed up by sexual desire, or lost in our greed or our grasping for power, success…, you name it. We’ve seen it all. And sometimes, we’ve even been there ourselves. We know what it’s like to have to rebuild our lives from the carnage and wreckage we’ve incurred. Friends of mine in recovery programs tell me that the day they hit bottom was the worst day of their lives,…and the best. The beginning of sobriety and the birth of hope.

The most common form of the myth of Icarus I see in my private practice are those corporate employees who have been given the golden handcuffs: outsized salaries with bonuses and perks, paired with otherworldly expectations that amount to three words….Produce. Produce. Produce!

When human beings imagine themselves to be human doings, Icarus is being constellated in those persons’ souls. A slim portion of employees on the bell-curve of success — the ultra Type A’s of the world — can actually do this, apparently, without much damage. The rest of us on the upslope and downslope of the curve have to really struggle to keep up the pace, and the price is usually high: broken relationships, families that are starved for the heartfelt presence of an absent parent, all forms of addiction and depression and anxiety-disorders, and any number of demons related to threats to one’s physical and spiritual health. Our inner lives, home to the values inherent in being a human being, becomes relatively forgotten or rationalized in comparison with our outer concerns and values related to treating ourselves as if we are robots or machines.

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist who wrote MAN’S SEARCH FOR A SOUL, wrote that “…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” We see this most glaringly, not just in individual lives, but in the larger culture as well. When there are more guns in America than people, for instance, Icarus has flown too high, with disasters happening with tragic regularity. When corporate and individual profit is more precious than care for the earth, Icarus is close to a having a meltdown. We, as a nation, seal our fate, when we ignore the values of protecting our children above all, and when we create economic and environmental debts that generations to come will most certainly have to pay, and painfully so.

It’s not all so dire as it might seem, though. The Greeks told stories like the myth of Icarus for a reason: to remind us of who we are and what we are capable of creating, with enough awareness and courage. It takes heroic courage to make one’s family a priority over productivity and profit. It takes heroic courage, to strive for balance in one’s life, vocationally and spiritually. It take heroic, Icarus-like courage, to use God’s gifts for improving the world, rather than just dominating it or selling our souls for the sake of political and economic power. Falling to earth doesn’t have to be the last word. It can be the beginning of reclaiming our souls and the soulfulness of the world.

Affairs: Cancer or Cure

The couple sitting in front of me in my counseling office looks nervous and concerned, almost frightened. It’s as if their marriage has been threatened by a kind of cancer and they already know that the outcome is going to be disaster or a very painful process of recovery unlike anything they ever imagined. I know and they know this won’t be easy. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to get going. The sooner the better.

I have been doing this kind of work for over 30 years. The couples who have experienced infidelity surprise me. The ones I think will be able to heal and rebuild trust often fail. The ones who succeed defy my expectations. Those ones are often the “worst case” scenarios — multiple affairs over many years with secrets on top of secrets, and betrayal on top of betrayal. Yet, these couples are the ones that have taught me the most about what it takes to heal from the damage caused by infidelity.

The question I hold, privately at first, is this: “What was the soul of the one who had the affair looking for?” And “What was it in the soul of the marriage itself that was missing?”

So often in our culture, marriages begin with lots of soulfulness, magic, mystery, inspiration, and of course romance. But the demands of jobs and careers, raising children, maintaining homes and loyalties to extended family and friends take precedence over the deeper needs of one’s soul. What began with spontaneity and lots of heartfelt desire devolves into a relationship that is functional and conventional — mystery, novelty, and romance have left the scene.

Looking for and finding answers takes time. In therapy, hurt and anger are center stage initially. Truth-telling, too. The whole truth. Though, there’s only so much truth a wounded partner can take, and it has to be administered in doses, like chemotherapy, so as to not kill whatever slim rays of hope there may be of rebuilding trust and desire. The one who betrayed may promise that it won’t happen again. But of course, it will, unless the soul somehow gets a voice.

What couples have taught me is that an affair is, almost always, an unconscious agreement on the part of two people to bring a third party into the marriage in order to address a problem or problems they have been unable to resolve on their own. The marriage has become centered around the children, with no time to nurture the relationship that brought those children into the world. Or work at the office and at home has consumed all hours in a day except what’s left for sleep. There’s no time for nurturing the self. The couple has forgotten that playfulness and freedom fed the soul of the relationship in the beginning, and the marriage has gotten lost in a life of obedience to multiple commitments, paying the bills, and keeping a constantly busy schedule. You get the idea. It’s a familiar story. Often, it’s the price of success — success narrowly defined, that is.

And yet, most textbooks treat infidelity as if it was a cancer to be removed or destroyed; and then, all will be restored to the way things were before the betrayal ever happened. The story of how the couple unconsciously created the affair can get lost and forgotten. The symptom has been cured, but the seedbed for the next potential betrayal simply lies dormant, undiscovered, and unhealed. I tell a couple in the first session the most important sign of healing is someday, if they’ve done their work well, a total stranger could ask each of them separately, “what happened,” and the story each of them told would sound basically the same: stories of what their souls had lost and what their souls had found.

I receive postcards and notes occasionally from the couples who have been willing to go deeper together. They are smiling and happy, usually in some scene on a lake or in the mountains, or at the beach. I know the courage it took to reinvent themselves and recreate a marriage with legs for the long run. They didn’t just get rid of the problem. They used the problem to discover paths of soulfulness and hope. Marriage 1.0 was exchanged for a completely revamped Marriage 2.0: marriages with plenty of responsibilities, but also marriages filled with heartfelt honesty, emotional vulnerability, playfulness, and dreaming together about lives of meaning, honesty, and renewed desire. Every marriage has it’s set of problems, even the happiest ones. What makes the problems worthwhile is a couple’s willingness to stay conscious of their authentic needs and working towards their dreams together.

Therapists and Mister Rogers: Priests of Secular Culture

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We are the Priests of secular culture. Mister Rogers and me and my clinical colleagues.

Acceptance, unconditional positive regard, warmth, empathy, compassion. We are Church for both the unchurched and many Churched-folk who find sanctuary and solace within the space and time of the clinical hour.

Let’s face it. The Church has not been doing its job for some time. It’s nothing new. People flock to psychologists and therapists of various ilks to cure their ills. We all know it. Masters Degree programs in psychology and counseling know it and they are proliferating while church attendance is dropping precipitously.

We are the new houses of prayer. We are the new confessionals where people come to pour out their souls, where people seek absolution from their failures and neuroses (sins, in Church-parlance). The clinical setting is the new sacred space and therapists are the new priests.

Our partners in crime in this takeover of the sacred are the multitude of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups throughout the land where men and women who have gone sober relinquish the demands of their selfish egos to a Higher Power. Church is alive and well — it’s just forwarded its new address to a different set of locations. There are no rolls or stewardship campaigns, no mission committees or Boards of Trustees. But attendance Monday through Saturday is incredible.

Insurance companies don’t like to think about such things. They are leery of anything that smacks of religion — what Freud referred to as “the opium of the masses.” But the word religion comes from the Latin root word which means “to connect” — to reconnect to what is essential in being human and alive. Which, by the way, is what therapy is about: reconnecting with ones soul, reconnecting with one’s significant other, reconnecting with the wellsprings of life and of justice.

What is missing from the new Church of therapy is a moral compass in many cases. We still need a moral compass, a system of values to guide us in an age of postmodernism where absolutes supposedly don’t exist. But some therapists get it.

The morality of compassion is universal, for example. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy modeled this. More recently, as depicted in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks does a splendid job of portraying a Christ-likeness that is more symbolic than literal — and yet, every bit as powerful as the Gospel character from Galilee. Mister Rogers embodies compassion. Feelings matter, and he’s not afraid to “go there” with children or adults: anger, sadness, pain, divorce, death. The existential moments of human life are all on the table in the sacred neighborhood of Rogers-land. Take your shoes off with him — you’re instantly on Holy Ground.

On one occasion, Mister Rogers is talking with a little boy whose story is one of unspeakable pain and suffering. The journalist interviewing Mister Rogers for an article in the magazine Esquire notices that Mr. Rogers whispers something in the little boy’s ear. Mister Rogers shares that he asked the little boy to pray for him — Mister Rogers! The journalist comments that it makes sense that Mister Rogers wanted to help the little boy feel that he mattered. But Mister Rogers quickly responded. He asked the boy to pray for him, not because the boy needed to feel special; but because Mister Rogers himself needed the boy’s prayers. Anyone who had suffered as much as this boy had suffered must be very close to God!

We therapists are close to God everyday because we are close to the suffering of individuals, couples, and families who are hurting. They have come to us because they believe we will listen without judging, honor their pain without giving cheap advice, and steer them towards hope without the kind of preaching that is often frightening and judgmental. We are humans together and we are doing sacred work. We get to see grace-in-action every day.

In this sacred clinical space, we pray for each other, indeed. Church.

Unwanted Dreams and the Freedom of the Soul

In a recent dream, I was in the act of taking black and white snapshots of my father (long deceased) who was behind bars. He looked forlorn there, standing in a tiny jail cell where apparently he had been sentenced for an unknown crime.

I don’t like these kind of dreams. They’re disturbing and depressing. Though my father and I were never close, I still would never want him to be jailed. But I also know that in my dream my father’s image is actually a stand-in for a part of me. So what’s up with that? What part of me is feeling sentenced?

I have a new appreciation of late for people who suffer with chronic pain. When my orthopedist, who has already replaced my right hip with an artificial joint, looked with me at an X-ray of my arthritic left hip, it made perfect sense why I had been having lots of pain and lots of difficulty walking. Bone on bone! A cortisone shot would help to tide me over for a few months, but a second hip operation is definitely in my future.

Pain does things to the mind. It makes me feel old at 65. Even though I work out, try to eat right, stay active, work five days a week, and basically have a very positive outlook on life, I have been feeling much more “mortal” recently. I’m quite unhappy about what I refer to as “design flaws” in the human anatomy — those much too human vulnerabilities that seem to rear their heads more and more among almost every friend I know.

When friends and colleagues are stricken by illness, I automatically assume that I am immune from such things because I take such good care of myself. Wrong though this thinking is, I hold onto it like a cherished possession, creating a neat image of immortality and invulnerability….And, apparently, setting myself up for this other dream-image of being sentenced behind bars.

But as I worked with this dream and after sharing it with my therapist, I realized that actually I am not sentenced. I have choices: a great surgeon whom I trust, a wonderful job that I find fulfilling and doesn’t require a lot of physical strength, and retirement savings that I can use to get me through a time of rehabilitation after surgery. I am blessed with caring friends, a loving and supportive relationship, and a wonderful family. So with a new hip, if all goes as well as the first hip replacement, I should be pain free again. But obviously, I am entering a phase in my life when I will need to alter my delusional expectations of invincibility as I make some adjustments to my level of activity.

Growing old gracefully is not necessarily for the weak of heart. But it seems now to be a better challenge than kicking and screaming against reality. I won’t, obviously, live forever; but neither am I sentenced to the jail of my own making.

WHY PSYCHOTHERAPY?

counselingShould I or shouldn’t I pursue psychotherapy? And if so, then when and with whom? Important and sometimes crucial questions.

Truth is, most people wait until there is some kind of crisis in their lives. A loss, a break-up of a relationship, an illness, a job loss. These are the most obvious times, and it’s best, I think, if it’s sooner than later — before things get out of control or start falling apart.

But I think there are other not so obvious times to seek out a psychotherapist, someone who is most of all a good listener. We suffer most, sometimes, when we feel alone or when we feel as if no one really knows who we are. Conversely, we feel better if there is at least one person in the world who listens and cares or who affirms us just for being the person we are rather than for what we do. We are human BEINGS, right? Not human DOINGS.

We are a complex lot, we humans. And we are so imperfect. So, it’s easy to get in the rut of putting on a public face everyday for each other, for our children, for our partners, for our bosses. It can be frightening to let others know our hurts and our insecurities. But the  public faces we put on are like the tip of the iceberg — there is so much more beneath the surface of the lives that others can’t or may not want to see. Who knows the secret or private or even the hidden realities of our lives, the lives we know best usually only when we lie awake at night thinking, wondering, wishing, or worrying?

When I was in between relationships some years back, I posted a profile on an internet dating website. Instead of stating my vocation as psychotherapist or minister — which I knew would cause most women to run away as quick as possible — I listed my vocation as “someone who listens and keeps secrets.” I figured this might be more intriguing than frightening, and that I might attract someone who would want to get to know me beyond my public image, title, or job. And thankfully, I did!

We tell our therapists, mostly, our secrets — that which we would otherwise keep to ourselves. Oh yes, we might share over coffee or lunch with a friend something of what we are discussing and learning about ourselves in therapy. But with our therapist, we can go as deep under the surface as we wish; or we can go as deep as we feel safe to delve. Someone who has no judgment or no agenda except to be there for us and us only — to me, this is the core of a good therapist. Someone who knows me at my best and at my worst, and helps me to know even the darkest parts of me that exist like unexplored islands of mystery, discovery, and healing. I know well how seeds long buried in the fertile depths of the soul can grow into something life-giving and beautiful.

So, maybe there are many reasons to seek out a psychotherapist. But this is the key ingredient I try to provide: a safe sanctuary, a sacred space. We meet to talk about whatever is important, whatever hurts, and whatever gives the soul breath, life, hospitality, and joy.