My interest in health really began in my 20’s (I’m now in my late 40’s). I’ll explain a little about my life to then, to give you some background, and then tell you the story of my interest in health.
Up to My 20’s.
I was brought up a fairly serious evangelical christian. This meant that we were meant to be disciplined and put others first. I usually went to church twice a day and the youth group attached to the church went out on a suitable activity on Saturday nights and had a Bible Study on Friday nights. It was pretty full on. In evanglical christianity our physical bodies were (and still are) largely regarded with suspicion: they usually appeared in our lives as bringing ‘temptation’ our way – and against this we were to be always on guard. We were encouraged to live a life of vigilance and deliberateness. This pretty much suited me – I was quite a heady person. That the god we followed had taken on a physical body was in a parallel universe; it didn’t impact on the suspicion with which we were meant to regard physical life/body. It wouldn’t be ’til my 30’s that this contradiction would hit me over the head.
I completed year 12 and then a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in English Literature) at Sydney University.
My 20’s: Beginning to Discover My Emotions
It was in my 20’s that I joined a christian mission group called Fusion Australia (not a perfect, but a remarkably admirable, organisation). They put in lots of energy to training and, I suppose because it was a youthwork organisation, there was lots of emphasis on self-awareness and relationships. This was my introduction to taking my emotions seriously: in the christianity I was brought up in emotions were not trusted and thoughts were. So I had largely ignored my emotions. But then I came up against the truth that our emotions had a huge impact on our relationships (one of the strengths of evangelical chrisitianity is its commitment to truthfulness). And I found that I could be a good listener.
Up until this point I had attempted to use thoughts to relate to people. If people didn’t understand me or what I was saying I would try to explain a more general intellectual system. (After all emotions were subjective and so how could they help?) It was now – in my early 20’s – that I discovered that what really communicated was what was most individual. The most vividly personal experiences were what touched others most profoundly. My formulation of this (I was then and am still very verbal) was the paradox: the most individual is the most universal.
My time in Fusion was, on the whole, a very positive experience. We were given fantastically good training. And we were largely trusted to set the direction and get on with the job. There was a genuine valuing of the individual and their unique calling. My one claim to fame comes from this time – I once shared a house with Scott Rankin. Scott is now doing magnificent work with young people – developing dramatic works with them that tell their own stories. It really is important and innovative work.
It was during this time that I discovered Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy. We had been introduced to gestalt therapy in our training in Fusion. This book changed my life. The exercises in awareness, married with superbly written theory, freed me up enormously. I learned four things from it that have been enormously important to me.
- Most profoundly it introduced me to thinking in polarities. This led to me seeing that what were often thought to be alternatives or contradictions were often different ends of a continuum.
- It also introduced me to thinking contextually. My eventual formulation of this was: everybody is sane. That is: when we know how people see themselves and their situation then their behaviour makes sense – we can usually see that we might do exactly the same thing.
- It also introduced me to the fact that experience occurs in the here and now. This isn’t a command (it is often understood to mean something like: you shouldn’t think too much, or, don’t think about the past or future). It is an observation. It amounts to an invitation to broaden what we are experiencing – plans and reminiscing also occur in the here and now and can also be delightful and fruitful activities. When I can become aware of other aspects of my experience in the here and now, when more of me is present to my experience, then I usually have a more satisfying experience.
- That our experience is unitary. For me this means that we are one social-individual entity with physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions.
[For those christians interested there is a superb study of the OT that shows the biblical conception of people is also unitary. It is J Pedersen – Israel Its Life and Culture. Vol.1. It was published nearly 100 years ago now. This was the book that changed the theological idea of the person from fragmented (arguments were over the different parts and what they meant – the heart, soul, mind etc) to the unitary. It is very well written and easy to read. It is also horrendously expensive to buy. If you have a theological institution or a university with a theology section near you read it there.]
If you are looking for an adequate theory of psychotherapy Gestalt Therapy is a superb foundation. It was published fifty years ago and is still well ahead of current practice and (in my opinion) theory. I think this is just as true of those who claim to do gestalt as those who don’t. (A topic I could go into into at great length. If you are interested a friend and I write a blog called Community Psychotherapy that deals with this issue.) It is not an ‘easy read’ – you need to read each sentence. But in my view every hour spent with it pays dividends. It is an adequate theory of psychotherapy (in about 250 pages) and a set of experiments that can lead you to living a far more satisfying life (about 200 pages). I regard this as a truly great book.
Coming next: part two: my 30’s