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.

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.

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.


Jacobs Ladder - Chagall  Before beginning group dreamwork, I had a dream. I had heard Joyce Hudson speak at the Summer Dream Conference at Kanuga, and when I came home, I began to wonder how I could develop a dreamwork community in my hometown. So, here’s my dream:

I am in a bookstore in an old two-story house, and I’m upstairs on the second floor. There are tables of books throughout the room, and an elderly gentleman, dressed in a grey suit and white shirt is standing behind me. I turn and ask him: “Do you know where I might find a book called ‘The Symbolic Life’?” He points to the table beside of me and says, “Sure, it’s right there.” I look, and there on the table is a large volume with the title, ‘The Symbolic Life.” I wake up from my dream.

When I awoke, I felt as if I had received an important message, but I had never heard of a book called “The Symbolic Life.” I had a few minutes before seeing my first client for the day, so I decided, “What the heck! I’ll glance through the titles on my bookshelf to see what I might find.” So, there on the shelf where I keep a number of Carl Jung’s volumes from his collected works, I found a book with the title, The Symbolic Life (Jung, 1939/1950, [CW 18, pra.638]). I attached no real significance to this discovery. But I was certainly curious, so I opened the book. There, in the table of contents, was a chapter entitled, “The Symbolic Life.” Now I was excited. What had my dream done?

Later that day, I took time to read this chapter. It was a presentation that Jung gave in 1939 to a group of Catholic and Protestant clergy in London. In it, Jung outlines his basic approach to the psychology of the unconscious, but it’s the ending of his talk that hooked me. Jung tells these clergy that Christianity must stop looking to Jesus to save us from our sins. Instead, Jung went on, the faithful must be as courageous as Jesus was so that they might “take up their own crosses.” This idea is Jung’s basic view of individuation. But Jung goes on to say that the path of individuation leads straight through “the least of these” Jung says, “What if ‘the least’ of these is actually in me?” What if what is most valuable and most essential to my own path of individuation is what I consciously or unconsciously reject or dismiss?

To say that a lightbulb went on for me is an understatement. In reading Jung’s words, I knew what it meant for me to do group dreamwork. I would equip others with the tools they need in order to connect with their own shadows – the “least of these” in me and in them, so that we, too, might live courageously and live with a sense of meaning and purpose, just as Jesus teaches us to do.

So soon after my discovery, I invited people in my church and community to a public presentation on “Dreams as a Spiritual Path.” I put together a PowerPoint presentation, and about 50 people attended. Afterwards, 10 people signed up to study Joyce Hudson’s book, Natural Spirituality (2000), and we agreed to meet every other week for two hours to learn about Jungian psychology and to practice dreamwork by using the projective method taught by Joyce Hudson.

Over the ensuing years, enough people took the course that I offered, that I started two dreamwork groups. I later moved to Charlotte, losing touch with the dreamwork community for a while. But since then, I was invited back to Davidson to join a dreamwork group made up of some of my original group members plus some new folks. This has been an amazing journey and a wonderful coming full circle for me. I continue to be in awe at the ways in which our dreams guide us and serve us in the life and work of the soul.


Hudson, J. (2000). Natural spirituality: recovering the wisdom tradition in Christianity.                 Danielsville, GA: JRH Publications.


Jung, C. G. (1950). The symbolic life. In R.F.C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C.G.                 Jung (Vol. 18, pp. 267-290).

John Rowe is a psychotherapist and spiritual director in private practice in Charlotte, NC. John is also an ordained United Methodist clergy (since 1978) and received his Ph.D. in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2007. He has participated in several Summer Dream and Spirituality Conferences and he completed the Spiritual Direction training through the Haden Institute in 2016. John now serves on the board of the newly formed Haden Foundation which raises funds to provide scholarships for those who wish to receive dream leader or spiritual direction training through the Haden Institute.


Stopping Time (2)Recently, I had a couple of experiences in which it felt as if time stopped. A felt sense of time stopping, not a logical measuring of time. I did not plan to have these experiences, although I certainly was an agent in bringing them about. Let me explain.

The first experience happened unexpectedly. I met up with a friend whom I had not seen in nearly 50 years. We had had a close relationship long ago in elementary school and then middle school, but we had stayed in touch only very sporadically over the years. We really didn’t know who the other had become, but there was a definite mutual interest in catching up. So as it worked out, our paths crossed one crisp, sunny early spring afternoon, and we took the opportunity to meet for a walk in a local park.

We were only together for a couple of hours, but it felt as if time mysteriously stood still. In all, we probably walked a total of three or four miles, but distance was meaningless. If I had planned to go for a 3 or 4 mile walk, knowing me, I would have procrastinated, found other things to do. But this was different. We connected. Awkward at first, not knowing how to start a conversation that had ended almost 50 years ago, we easily slipped into a conversation that flowed with a rhythm as palpable as the steps we took effortlessly and joyfully. There was a sense of seamlessness between our conversation, the sharing of memories, noticing the obvious beauty of our surroundings, and promising to stay in touch as we said our goodbyes. I have little doubt that we will stay in touch. We shared something so special — both created by us, and also created by something that was bigger than us. I have no assurance that we can succeed again at stopping time in the same way. Maybe we can. But no. This felt like a gift — a gift joyfully and gratefully received.

The second experience happened a few days later at a Moody Blues concert at a local theater. The crowd was made up of mostly old folks like me: people who listened to the albums of these wonderful minstrels who flourished during the mid-60’s and 70’s; and now we are all in our mid-60’s and 70’s! It was, by far, the most wonderful concert I have ever attended. The old dudes on stage took us back to when we were young — if only for a few moments. We listened, rocked in place, stood and cheered, sang, and remembered who we were before life happened to us in ways both pleasant and sad. And we forgot for those three hours who we now were — all was timeless. There was only an eternal now, savored and enjoyed and celebrated — at least, until the last chord faded with the applause, and we began heading back into the reality we call our lives.

Both of these experiences are holy moments for me. I cherish them as two of the most important experiences — among many others — in my life. And they cause me to wonder. I wonder whether I can find other opportunities to stop time. These times carry a felt sense of mystery that transcends life, infuses it with meaning and joy, and also a longing for more. If these times are gifts to us, can we not find ways to be open to receiving them so that our lives are enriched and deepened by them? Can you join me in the search? Let me know what you think.




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.


messy relationshipsCan we be completely honest about relationships – even the best of them? Relationships are messy, are they not? Yes, relationships can be wonderful, and they can also be difficult. Ending a relationship is certainly one of the most painful of human experiences. Beginning a new relationship that seems full of expectation and hopefulness can be one of the most frightening of human experiences, while also being exhilarating and magical. We may try, try, and then try again, with the help of the most recent manuals on love and “divorce-proofing” a marriage, and yet, no one that I know ever avoids the maddening and unavoidable messes that intrude on the heights and joys of intimacy.

I recently began re-reading Thomas Moore’s book, Soul Mates (1994). Since my first reading of Moore’s insight-filled work, I have experienced the odious experience of divorce, not once but twice. I have fallen in love — well, let’s not count the times — and fallen out of love. And sometimes, even though I am remarried to a wonderful partner, we have our times of hurt, confusion, and messiness. It is not so much that we necessarily lack the communication skills that we need, or that we could benefit from improving on techniques for conflict resolution. It is, rather, that our souls are created for conflict and messiness. Let me explain.

In romance, relationships seem to blossom and flower. We feel a sort of expansion, a feeling of us against the world. The couple in love usually is viewed by others as being a bit crazy or out of step with everyone else in their social circles. The couple in love may act as if they are above the strife and suffering of life in the world. They appear almost ethereal, given to aesthetics and emotional heights that regular human beings often experience as pure indulgences. But this is the way of romance. It’s an adventure, full of hope, expectation, feeling larger than life, and often filled with riskiness and daring and even a kind of wondrous madness. The feeling of having found one’s soulmate sustains us through the maddening times because the other person feels like the one and only person in the world who is just right for me.

Psychologically, a unique feature of romance is that ego defenses come down. We tell tales to each other in love, sometimes tales never told to another person, because vulnerability reigns supreme. We are open, full of wonder, and full of whatever acceptance feels like – in love, acceptance is the aphrodisiac that sets our souls to flight. Until, somewhere along the line, someone gets their feelings hurt. The ego defenses that had softened, slowly begin to harden again, and a little distance creeps into the previously unfettered intimacy. The soul, at this point, imagined by the Greeks as a fragile butterfly, retreats little by little, unless the hurt is repaired.

On our better days, we know how to repair these hurts, but the truth is that most of us are ill-equipped to know how to repair the wounds of love. Where would be have learned how? Did anyone have the kind of upbringing to teach those skills of healing love’s wounds? I have been working with couples for over twenty five years, and I have yet to meet couples who are masters at knowing how to do this. Some are better than others, sure. But we all have egos, we tend to defend ourselves too much, and over time the soul tends to withdraw into a safe harbor far away from the life of the ego. The soul may reappear in a relationship at work, or in other zones where there is safety, or else the soul makes a new home in the shadows of fantasy, addiction, or some other symptom or illness.

Such is the way of soul. When the fragile butterfly of our being retreats, it enjoys creating a conflict just so it can come out of hiding once in awhile, even though the result is unpleasant. Or the soul may contribute to some other symptom or form of disturbance – anything to have a semblance of life. Carl Jung referred to the dark expressions of soul as having to do with the Shadow, the land of the repressed. So, if we want more soulfulness in life, this is the exploration the soul requires. We have to be willing to go down into our imaginations to see what the short-tempered outbursts symbolize at the level of the soul. To see what causes us to daydream and fantasize, what distracts us from our ego-centered consciousness, we have work to do on making peace between ego and Shadow.

So the messiness of our relationships, ideally, is our teacher. Our messes, when consciously engaged, are the teachers that show us the way to bring soulfulness to the lives we seek to live. I would have never consciously chosen the failures of my relationship history. At the same time, however, they have turned out to be exactly the wise teachers I have needed to serve me along my way. I have learned much because of the wounds of love, and I am grateful for those partners, pastors, and other healers who have opened my eyes to see the light in love’s dark shadows.

Weaving a Life of Meaning

 This gorgeous beauty, black and yellow, patient and still, lives outside my front door. Each night she deconstructs and re-constructs her web. Her web is her hoWriting Spiderme as well as the source of her sustenance and survival. Sturdy and flexible, this product of her patient and wise weaving, provides a means for her livelihood. Nightly she works hard, so that during the day her food will magically appear, not just for herself but also for her children who will traverse the fall and winter in their mother’s care so that they will be birthed into creation come springtime. Alternating between repose and effort, the Writing Spider weaves a life.

What does it look like for us to weave together lives that have a sensation of meaning and purpose? A life that is not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the larger whole. And what does it look like to live in sync with the rhythms of one’s own unique temperament, weaving together the various filaments and threads that life hands us in a way that gives one a sense of wholeness and purpose?

There are probably many ways to address such questions. Religions and philosophy strive to answer such profound things. Depth psychology addresses such questions from the perspective of listening deeply to the various ways that the soul deconstructs and re-constructs the conscious or ego-centered mind that dominates our thinking and behavior during the day. The ego actively decides what is acceptable and unacceptable to our dominant mode of thinking. Then at night, our dreams take the material that is left-out of day-time consciousness and then seeks to weave together a tapestry that expresses the totality of who we actually are. A life well lived, from the depth perspective, is one that tends to the weaving together of conscious and unconscious images. The ego-mind is relatively conservative by nature, while the unconscious mind sees everything as food for thought and for our potential vitality. We dance our lives between these polarities – conscious and unconscious – and we seek to grow as we strike a balance between the two. Carl Jung referred to this dynamic dance as the process of individuation.

In my own life’s journey, I see this dance play out in between the polar opposites: periods of darkness interspersed with periods of light; times of incredible joy mingled with unexpected times of sorrow and pain; the experience of satisfaction in the company of others while, at other times, retreating into long periods of solitude and reflection, and moments of clarity bracketed by times when I feel confused and lost. I have not been able to resolve these polarities by force or manipulation or sheer willpower – though I have certainly tried. The opposites often co-exist in exasperating ways. Grief interrupts joy, sorrow disrupts happiness, darkness interrupts light, and sometimes the necessity of solitude cuts me off from the need for meaningful relationships. But I know this, now, after 62 years: I need both, and become anxious, angry, depressed, or even sick when I resist these rhythms and fight against them. It’s easy to say “go with the flow,” but the challenge is to actually do so.

Dancing, weaving, going with the flow – knowing when to hold on, when to pursue, and when to let go — these images stir my imagination and give me a sense of hopefulness. Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Bishop in the Catholic Church, encouraged his flock to make space for God by becoming “mothers of being,” by creating space within for “nothingness,” so that God would have room to take up residence within the human heart and soul. When we learn to dance with what “is,” we can learn to weave what God gives us hourly and daily — and nightly — into a life that matters and has meaning for ourselves and for those for whom we care. Like the Writing Spider, we can weave together the various and often disparate stories of our lives into something beautiful and strong, not just for our individual journeys but for the world as well.