A Personal reflection of SEPI Dublin 2016 by Andrew Maher
After a long intense year of study, combining the Masters in Pluralistic Counselling with the Certificate in Child and Adolescent Counselling, while simultaneously endeavouring to maintain some sort of reasonable work-life balance, obviously, my initial thought on attending a 3 day International Psychotherapy Conference was that it would be a madness of sorts and the idea didn’t illuminate my world (Especially since the Conference was wedged in between the European championships). While friends were packing their bags and heading off to Bordeaux, Lille, and Paris, I faced the dilemma of deciding between some much-needed downtime versus three days at SEPI. Through some resourceful and competent self-talk, a solution to the dilemma was found. Emerging through an inner dialogue between these two separate and valid parts, I engaged in what could be described as my own internal personal version of “two chair work”. Subsequently, the formation and shaping of a new belief evolved which became instrumental to my attendance at the conference. In simplistic terms, the belief that the conference would no doubt be of some benefit to me on my journey to become a research informed practitioner.
Right from the opening plenary the sense of occasion grabbed me; the realization struck me that, encapsulated within this auditorium were some of the greatest thinkers, researchers and practitioners in the field of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Over the next three days, they were there to share their wealth of knowledge. It felt like a warm, open-armed, community ready to embrace a collective of willing learners and teachers seamlessly, interweaving symbiotically and valuing the experience of the other. It felt as if I was submerged, momentarily, into some sort of Buber like “I-thou” collective utopia. The stage was set by Marcella Finnerty, her opening address succinctly acknowledged the cultural context that formed the back drop to the conference. One of the main themes encompassed a reference to Ireland’s own archaic heritage, signposting the current celebrations of our independence a century on. This for me was only the appetiser, my palate desired more and I was not disappointed. The main course was served up with a multitude of flavours, similar to sampling a selection of tapas – on their own not filling or sufficient but when savoured together, they created a unique dish that was superior to the sum of the parts. This, I personally feel, is what John McLeod offered: a range of ideas and metaphors, steeped in reflexivity for us all to share, sample, taste and swallow as we desired.
Again from a personal standpoint, I found John’s opening reflexive offerings refreshing and not at all what I expected to hear. His three personalised concepts in relation to what therapy is, and how he sees it unfolding, all resonated strongly with me. I felt as if I was extended the unique dualism of a window to look through and a mirror to seek my reflection. John suggested that a therapist could be viewed as a craftsman, a designer or an artist. When portraying the therapist as a craftsman who works with an apprentice, John nourished this concept through an explanation that an apprentice needs to show they can make a specific object under the guidance of the more experienced craftsman. Alternatively, another concept offered was that of the therapist as a designer. The view was that the therapist responds to a design brief, articulated and specified in conjunction or collaboration with the client. Finally, the therapeutic relationship for McLeod embodies that of an artist who helps to create something special – an expression of what it means to be human within particular cultural contexts. Considering myself to be Pluralistic, I would embrace pieces of all three of these approaches, with any given client, within any particular session. This should be cultivated via collaboration, enveloping what might be most helpful and supportive for the client. Ideally, this will not solely be limited to a holding support role, aligned in the here-and-now experience, but simultaneously may be more sustaining going forward. Overall it is McLeod’s view of the artist that I am drawn closest to, not just because it offers a more romantic viewpoint, but because of its existential overtones with regards to meaning and purpose in life. Even the Closing Plenary was an intriguing and interesting event with a discussion led by Bruce Wampold. These luminaries collectively ignited the spark and the conference flame was truly alight and burning bright.
The structure of the conference offered multiple lectures, from symposiums to panel discussion and mini-workshops. I attended and participated in many over the course of the conference. Personally, one of the most informative surfaced in the form of a workshop entitled ‘Helping patients to quit suicidal thoughts: a practical approach to overcoming resistance’. A main point in the workshop centred on how to illicit the client’s own reasons for living. The simplistic vehicle was used to illicit the emotional power of the word “because”, while also introducing the concept of blocking, through a solution focused approach. We engaged in practical experiential role plays which were very useful and informative. This kind of learning style suits me best as I believe that some theory followed up by relevant practical and experiential role plays best facilitates integration. With this in mind, however, the best workshop of my weekend came in the form of the Cooper and Norcross workshop on client preferences. It was full of Charisma, energy, passion and knowledge, with both Cooper and Norcross delivering their presentations into a seamlessly interwoven experiential piece surrounding client preferences. The overarching gem or nugget I absorbed was that clients tend to do better in therapy when they get what they want especially in regards to what Norcross referred to as clients’ strong preferences. Here the word strong is key – the idea being that if we can work collaboratively with the client’s strong preferences, therapy is more likely to produce a better outcome.
I later attended a symposium on Pluralistic counselling, with two outstanding lectures, both presented with their own individualistic expression of what embodies Pluralistic Counselling. Again for me, Cooper excelled, however, the poise, elegance, and refinement of Professor Michael O’Rourke’s delivery and opening references to counselling as a deeply spiritual quest and a creative act, kindled my inner psyche. These gifts were more than just an astute informative snapshot and historical journey exploring the origins of Psychotherapy from Freud to Cooper and McLeod. The voyage navigated beyond multiple points of contact, including Frankl, Jung, May, Yalom. Instead, there appeared to be something else at play in this presentation; history was enmeshed in personal insight and meaning, transcending an information based history lesson, but rather exploring the past to give insight into exactly what had happened.
So, though I didn’t get to share the glorious unforgettable moments of a Wes Houlihan or Robbie Brady goal penetrating the back of a net in France, I hold some very good memories of my own in relation to experiencing this innovative conference in Trinity. Rolf Sundet’s concise pragmatic and even humorous discussion and comments in relation to McLeod’s Cultural Capital and Lumsden’s mystical experience presentations were among the highlights. The final hidden gem in the conference was a theoretical presentation by Ladislav Timulak. His topic, Emotion-focused therapy for generalized anxiety disorder, offered a structured theoretical framework on which to hang anxiety. Timulak injected life and expression to his work by introducing the audience to an audio-visual recording of a therapy session. The session consisted of some two-chair work, where one chair was the worry chair and the other the experiencer chair. He unpicked the differences between emotional and behavioural avoidance. He also introduced me to a new concept he called adaptive sadness, which refers to a sadness in relation to what could have been but wasn’t. Overall the conference was a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience in my hometown of Dublin not far from Temple bar and multiple late night venues I had managed over the years. Yet here I am, only a few years later, writing some new chapters in my own book of life. It truly highlights an authentic metamorphosis in personal development, which brings to mind a poignant quote by Thomas Merton (1956) on which to finish: “Perhaps the book of life, in the end, is the book one has lived, if one has lived nothing, one is not in the book of life”.