Psychotherapy: Cultivating a poetics of life

A cherished companion in my musings about art and therapy is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne.* They were written to Rilke’s wife while the poet was in Paris in summer and fall of 1907 for the memorial exhibition of paintings by Cézanne, who had died the previous year. This quote is from a section I return to often:

“Works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. … So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against … that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic” (pp. 4-5).

Although Rilke is speaking of what is necessary for an artist to give birth to a work of art, the subject could just as well be a person seeking therapy. After all, chances are that what brings him or her to that point is an inner sense of being in danger. Literal, physical danger is relatively rare, I suspect; the threat being registered is actually to the inner being, to the psyche or soul-life, and this threat manifests as an unconscious, existential fear. In our techno-industrial and materialist culture, soul-life – even the idea of it – is under considerable pressure and more or less unavoidably compromised, for this way of thinking is suspicious of invisible psyche and distracts us from experiencing it for ourselves. The soul’s refreshing but tender ecosystem, with its singular rhythms and uncommon desires, is easily outshone by the external world’s messages about success and what to value, which it opposes. It is in an agony of longing for its own true tones, with their strange star-dust rills and untamed utterances, and to rest, centred, in this beauty. It is the soul, that persistent traveller, who finds the narrow lane, shows up at the gate and pulls the bell cord for therapy.

Techno-industrialist culture, while immersing us in a steady stream of “prescriptive” technologies, which Ursula Franklin* tells us are “designs for compliance,” works hard to suppress our personal madness, and to make it seem as if everything, if it is of this world, is inherently understandable. That is the logic of the machine and of things out of relationship. Desolation, anxiety, anger, grief … these become, in the contemporary lexicon of mental health, ‘disorders’ attributed to ‘chemical imbalances,’ despite the sketchy evidence for such a view.

In reality, there is little chance of transformation unless each day we strive to meet our danger and pain as far as we can, unless we receive our madness like a guest and discern its unexpected, ecosystemic rightness – a distinctive and necessary thread in the living work that is our own consciousness, our own becoming. For the task is to become what one is. When we labour to eradicate our difference, to prune the non-compliant tangles, the part in us that chagrins and we cannot stand, then we are at odds with the singularity of our inner being. Therapy worth the name must dare to approach what Rilke referred to as the inborn design that longs to be made visible, experienced and embodied. The therapeutic way is to meet inner conflicts on their own terms. Any pruning and untangling that then occur will seem almost effortless. In time, something like a new substance, a quality of being, emerges quietly from our inner ecosystem, the way everything new in nature appears: whole, resilient, often surprising. Conflict and madness mature into a capacity to be with ourselves, to weave our singularity into the fabric of the world.

As long as humans have existed, our tribe have given shape to soul’s journey. It is not accidental that today’s surge in serious mental disturbances is correlated with the Industrial Revolution (see Iain McGilchrist*): the more the techno-industrial mindset gains on us, the more radical becomes our separation from nature, and simultaneously the more acute the need to attack the singularity of a genuine soul-life. What we get is a kind of collective numbing: the song & dance we know as efficiency, sanctioned normalcy. The age-old expressive arts, such as painting, music and stories, can still initiate into a soul-life. Traditionally, therapy as healing ceremony never strayed far from them. Art and ceremony reveal what perceptive scientists learn too, that we dwell within a great mystery, which is not reducible to bits and bytes nor quite knowable.

Sooner or later a person in therapy may be astonished to find that, as the original goals – for example, a relationship that works, confidence or liking oneself – come into tantalizing reach, there appears to be more to them than the hoped-for improvement in quality of life. It can seem then that our distress was an instigator and a guide, as if it was motivated by a goal of its own: to situate us once again in the wider web of life, beyond the personal. The odd sense of becoming linked into a greater reality can be frightening: the ego protests, it is not accustomed to the possibility of such an inner presence. It seems this is our true terra incognita, the unknown terrain of the soul, hinting at the totality of being which Jungians call the Self. It usually takes repeated experience of it before its truth can anchor us sufficiently to bring about that sense of belonging that leads to peace and healing. In women’s dreams, the interior presence may show itself as a beautiful, loving stranger. He represents the Self’s inexhaustible mystery and demonstrates how to participate in the treasure rather than try to possess it.

To lose one’s soul-life is to lose everything. As therapists we stand up for that life, if we mean that it should have depth and resonance. What is birthed will not be art in Rilke’s sense, but a work all the same. Critics frequently mock the idea of becoming oneself, yet the profound changes in self-understanding and conscious relatedness that ideally result from therapy can readily be described with that phrase. Becoming oneself announces a strange mix of new and old, something that, as Rilke said of the artistic process, cannot be grasped. Explanation might kill it. What a person in therapy creates is an instrument for a poetics of life, a rich exchange between inner and outer worlds at the threshold of paradox.

* Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

* Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

* Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Here is my suggested reading list:

Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jerry Mander (1991). In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Joanna Moncrieff (2009). The myth of the chemical cure: A critique of psychiatric drug treatment. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Russell A. Lockhart (1983). Words as eggs: Psyche in language and clinic. Dallas: Spring.

Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

Gary Geddes (Editor) (1975). Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Anthony Lawlor (1994). The temple in the house: Finding the sacred in everyday architecture. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

David Suzuki (2010). The legacy: An elder’s vision for our sustainable future. Vancouver: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation.

May Sarton (1983). Plant dreaming deep. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sally Dingo (1998). Dingo: The story of our mob. Sydney: Random House Australia.

James Fitzgerald (2010). What disturbs our blood: A son’s quest to redeem the past. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Tomas Tranströmer. Poems (various collections).

Ce qu’il faut pour vivre/The necessities of life (2008). Benoît Pilon, Director. Telefilm Canada.

Johanna Beyers is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit

Parenting well through connection

I recently became a certified Parenting by Connection instructor through Hand in Hand Parenting ( I decided to take this training both because I wanted to continue to improve my parenting skills, and because I wanted to help make the lives of parents and children easier.

My own parenting story is that, like many parents, I found that parenting was much more difficult than I imagined before I had kids. Equipped with many tools that I learned implicitly from my parents that I didn’t want to use, I found myself floundering as a mother with young children. I had a vision of how I wanted to be, but didn’t really know how to put it in place. Reading parenting books and talking to other parents helped some, but I needed to learn some ways that would work, fit with my values of non-violence and attachment, as well as address my needs as a parent. In addition to the usual challenges of parenting, my son showed signs of anxiety very early in life, which turned into not speaking at school during most of junior kindergarden. We tried all the usual routes – hospitals, a children’s mental health centre, as well as a child therapist. None were that helpful, and some were downright judgmental and disrespectful to me as a parent. When my son was 7 and my daughter 4, I found out about Hand in Hand Parenting through Lawrence Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, and found something that felt really right to me.

Hand in Hand Parenting is the organization that teaches parenting by connection, and was begun by Patty Wipfler over 20 years ago. I found that there was a lot of overlap with attachment parenting in the focus on connection, but there was a new element that fit intuitively for me as a therapist, a parent, and a former child. Along with the focus on the essential need of children to feel securely attached to their parents and caregivers, the parenting by connection approach also emphasizes the need of children to be able to offload the stress of the inevitable experiences of disconnection and of daily life in the messy, emotional ways that children know intuitively how to go about. That means not stopping children from crying through the common ways of threats or distraction, containing children through their fear and anger in respectful, warm ways, and both challenging and supporting children through life’s vicissitudes. There is also a lot of respect for parents in this approach, which felt like a welcome and warm relief. They advocate a realistic view that parents can only offer respectful attention and high quality care to children when they themselves have the opportunity on a regular basis to be listened to and to express all their own messy feelings with other adults. The cornerstone of their approach is listening, both to children and parents. Parent to parent listening is done through listening partnerships between peers, and listening to children takes place through one of four listening tools. These are special time, setting limits, staylistening, and playlistening. I’ll give a short description of each of these below.

  • Special time: This is a short, defined period of time, during which there will be no interruptions – no telephone, door, or siblings to be tended. You can use a timer if you like. The parent chooses a time where they are as free of worries and fatigue as possible, and focuses their warm attention on their child. During special time, the child is in charge of what you do. The parent follows the child’s lead, within safe limits, reversing the usual balance of power between parent and child. The parent lets their affection, interest, and approval radiate. Through this process over time, your child’s trust in you will grow and they will start to show you the areas in which they are struggling. They may start showing you how they feel scared of you when you’re angry, or think they’re not smart, or they may start to get upset over slight things, like a small hurt or the ending of special time. This is good! These are feelings coming to the surface that have been there all along, which just needed some trust to be able to come out.
  • Staylistening: This is what a parent does when a child is upset, whether the child is crying, having a tantrum, or feeling afraid. The parent stays in close contact with the child, offering their warm attention and presence. They don’t try to fix the feelings, but instead stay with the child, offering a few words of caring, until the feelings subside. The child then often feels much better, and goes back to being their more flexible, sunny selves, able to cooperate and to think well.
  •  Playlistening: This is a form of listening which helps children to bond with their parents through laughter, and to offload some of their hesitancies, fears, and worries. The parent’s role is to give the child the upper hand, allowing them to be safely in charge, while you look for ways in play to let them laugh extensively. In our culture, play often turns into competitive contests. In this kind of play, the parent ensures that the child will win out through their superior strength and cleverness. This gives children some relief from the challenges of being a child – always being smaller, less skilled, less respected, and less free to determine how things go. This looks like things such as a child pushing her dad over with her foot while he’s pushing her on the swing, over and over again, while she laughs heartily and he falls over in mock dismay and surprise. Or a parent becoming the “shy one” too afraid to go into his new school, while the child reassures his parent, and encourages him in. This allows the child to have some power over difficult experiences. If you know of issues that are worrying your child, you can try initiating playlistening around these – issues such as separation worries, fears of failing at school, sibling battles, and many others. The parent becomes the one with the trouble, and the child the one causing it, or the one with the solution.
  • Setting Limits: This is something that all parents do on a regular basis. Limits such as bedtime, TV watching, cookie eating, hitting, biting, or not doing homework. Most of us experienced these limits ourselves as children accompanied by some degree of harshness. Instead, they can be accompanied by warmth, or playfulness, and a willingness to listen to all the feelings that children have about the limits in their lives. Children naturally want to be cooperative, and when their need for connection is feeling full, they can accept limits much more easily. When they don’t feel connected, though, their brains aren’t able to think well, and they become unreasonable. This unreasonableness has often been interpreted by parents as manipulation, or some kind of “badness” that needs to be punished, whether through isolation, harsh words, or even physical punishment. Instead, we can meet this “off-track” behaviour with an approach where you limit the behaviour, but listen with caring to the feelings underneath it. An example of this is where a child is hitting another child. The parent needs to physically intervene, hold the child, gently preventing any further harm while saying, “I can’t let you do that”. The child can then struggle, cry, and rage until they feel better. Children need their parents’ or caregivers’ warm limits when they are feeling “off-track”, and will even purposely look for situations where they can get a limit to bring relief.

I will be co-leading a free teleseminar through Hand in Hand Parenting on September 12th, and leading an online Building Emotional Understanding class starting October 2nd. Information about these courses will be available on the Hand in Hand website soon, along with many other courses here:

Sandra Flear is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit