Almost two years ago, Franny and Robert, friends from St Mary’s, invited me to present at the 2009 Scottish Conference of the Bridge Pastoral Foundation (BPF). The BPF, originally known as the Clinical Theology Association, was founded in 1962 by Frank Lake, a Christian psychiatrist who is reported to be one of the pioneers of pastoral counselling in the UK.
On Easter Monday, we drove to St Andrews. For Americans, this is the ancestral home of golf, but for Scots it is the seat of the oldest university in Scotland and according to legend is where the relics of Scotland’s patron saint were brought in the first millennium of the common era. The weather was sunny and warm(ish) when we arrived at St Leonard’s School; however, the rest of the week was apparently more typical for St Andrews: overcast, cold, and very windy. Our room faced the sea, overlooking the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, built in the 12th and 13th centuries and for several centuries the ecclesiastic capital of Scotland.
I was the main speaker for the four-day conference, doing three 90-minute after dinner presentations and two afternoon workshops of the same length. The theme of my presentations and indeed for the whole conference was: “Working with Emotions: A Path to Spiritual and Psychological Growth”. The conference blurb went like this:
Emotions are an essential part of what makes us human, helping us take in what is important for us in the situations in our lives; offering direction for effective action; and linking body and spirit. However, many of our experiences of our emotions are quite difficult: We often find ourselves stuck in repetitive, painful emotions; or we find ourselves numb and unable to access important feelings when we need them ion our relationships with others; or we get overwhelmed and frightened by emotions that we are not sure we can bear. So emotions have great power for good and ill in our spiritual and psychological lives, making it vitally important that we develop our ability to effectively work with our own and others’ emotions, in our daily lives, relationships and psychological and spiritual development. The theme for this conference is therefore working with emotions as a path for spiritual and psychological growth and accompaniment. In plenary sessions and workshops, Robert Elliott will guide participants through a series of sessions aimed at introducing the basic concepts of contemporary emotion theory, including presentations, small group exercises, and personal sharing.When we first met to discuss my participation in the conference, Franny and Robert warned me that my talks would be after dinner and that my audience would be a mixture of professionals and lay people and wouldn’t want to sit through a long dense, lecture. The audience would want to get involved in some sort of exercise, they said, preferably involving personal sharing in small groups or twos or threes. Hmm… I’d been thinking of focusing on basic PE-EFT emotion theory, but it was clear that my standard 1-hour overview lecture was going to be too long and dense for this group. I decided to break it up over the three 90-minutes slots. I generally bombard my audience with material, preferring to overwhelm rather than bore people, but thought that it would be instructive to see what happened if I used a different strategy.
In the event, this approach worked brilliantly. Each time, I talked for about half an hour, focusing on a small bit of PE emotion theory: The first night this was the concept of emotion in general and its adaptive functions; the second night, the emotion scheme model and the five aspects of emotion; and the third night, types of emotion response. Each night I played a 5 – 15 minute video clip, offered a small group exercise for 10 – 20 minutes, led discussion, and answered questions after each component. The first night, after I’d talked for half and hour, I offered the audience a choice of whether to see the video before or after the small group work; they startled me by clamoring for small group work. The second night, I decided on the spur of the moment to begin with the video. By the third night, I was confident enough in their process to give them 20 minutes for the small group work.
It was a strange experience for me to watch them working in pairs or triads, going at it intently, while I sat in the front of the room. This sort of small group work, such a central part of the counsellor training culture in the UK, was foreign to me when I arrived here two and a half years ago. I’ve since gotten used to it, but it still doesn’t come naturally. So I found myself feeling a bit bored and jealous of the participants. I played with my computer, which has the capability of displaying one image through the data projector while I looked at a different image on my screen, but couldn’t get out of the Powerpoint file I was displaying. (The third night, this caused my computer to lock up, which was annoying when I tried to go on after the exercise, so in future I’ll have to work on occupying myself more effectively during group exercises.)
At the end of each of these talks, the audience expressed their appreciation by applauding strongly. This inspired me further, so that by the third night, I’d really given it my all: I’d spent all morning making a new flow chart to help people identify the four emotion response types (leaving it up on the screen as a visual aid during the exercise); I’d presented my audience with a challenging exercise and given them plenty of time to do it; I’d answered their questions; and I’d finished with an intense, powerful video clip. Thus, when the third and final presentation was done, the applause went on and on in a way that felt almost overwhelming and I felt the audience’s appreciation wash over me, like a wave, buoying and affirming. Something special had happened here between us, and I felt a moment of genuine happiness and joy.
On Friday’s closing session, we did an exercise. By this time, of course, I’d also done two workshops on emotion regulation (using Clearing a Space and Two Chair Work as examplars of containing and accessing emotion); spent three afternoons wandering around St Andrews exploring the ruined cathedral and the remains of the bleak sea castle (with its creepy underground mine and countermine); and gone to Thursday night’s ceilidh to which I wore a kilt for the first time. I'd been very impressed by the quality of the organization of the conference, with it's multiple layers of supervision and careful attention to boundary issues, and even more by the quality of the people attending and supporting the conference.
For the exercise we were asked to reflect on the three phases of our experience of the conference: as we’d arrived, engaged in it, and now were about to leave. We were encouraged to express this in some way. Most people drew pictures, but I pulled out my trusty Pukka Pad and wrote the following:
What I brought to the conference: Anxiety: Who are these people? What will they want/need? Can I meet them productively? Will the complexity of the relationships be OK and manageable for me? Will it get so messy that this will spoil the experience and make it a grind rather than an adventure?
What has happened for me during the week: I felt welcomed, but somewhat on the outside because I was not in a small group. Although I had to do a lot of presentations, the pace was fairly leisurely and I didn’t feel pressurized (as I usually do at conferences). It didn’t feel like a vacation, but it was a relief from my everyday life. Nevertheless, some part of me longed to be part of the intense processes going on all around me, and felt left out and at times a bit lonely. At the same time, it felt freeing to be able to take my hands off the wheel.
What do I want to take away with me from this experience?
1. A set of new inputs and workshops to apply elsewhere in my work.
2. A sense of being able to blend my research/theory/practice with my spiritual life.
3. A sense of community with a new group of people and respect for the culture of this conference.