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(March 2020) Desire, the Unknowns of Narrative Practice, and a Coronavirus Poem

During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we must stand together while standing apart. (Irish politician, 03/2020)



I’m often asked about various facets of narrative therapy I’m in relationship with; Questions on theory and practice understandings, modes of teaching, supervision, new workshops, the broader community, and what the future horizon of narrative therapy might look like. 

A fairly broad-based question coming up a lot is “what are you thinking about these days?” Hmmm.

I feel this question is researching not so much what I’m doing in my narrative therapy practice, but what I perceive my practice of narrative therapy becoming?

My answer often changes since each and every day, I wonder about the possible directions my practice hasn’t yet taken.

I question what my practice might be missing? What my practice is leading me toward and away from? What lays on the unknown side of how I presently practice my practice? What constructs are restraining my thinking? And so on

Directions I haven’t yet taken occupy me with childlike imagination and bewilderment. They sit snuggly alongside a fierce competitiveness to know more and to be able to do more in my practice. 

My time spent contemplating new practice directions takes up a lot, if not most, of my daily solar system. And I’m fully and completely OK with this. 

The relational world, created out of virtual and future-focused questioning about new directions and unknown practices, was once a bit shaky and unwieldy. Many times I felt alone and a bit desperate in this pursuit to serve clients better. However, as I worked on taming conversations supporting worry, the relationship with the unknown eventually became friendly, or at least friendlier. Developing a worry-free conversation took time and a certain kind of fearlessness. 

Through the years, the narrative therapists I have come to deeply respect have all put themselves through this necessarily arduous and uncomfortable rite of passage. No shortcuts. No false claims. No bullshit. No bravado. 

Rigorously questioning my practice eventually sparked up a trusting relationship with the uncertain questions I posed. The trusting relationship unavoidably took time to establish since the ongoing questioning of experience continually kept my practice on the razor’s edge of discomfort and not knowing. 

However, as odd as this may sound, after I stuck with the daily experience of just how much I didn’t know about my practice, it grew into something rather sociable, helpful, likeable, and kindly rather than something to be feared. 

I also realized that without persistent contemplation and chasing the hunger of the new and unknown, and testing out the otherwise different, I would, with great certainty, end up with an entirely boring and flat narrative therapy practice. And this, my good friends, is the primary thing I fear.

Seeking out new directions about narrative practice creates a relationship with a beautiful and vexing unknown - an unknown filled with “Aha!” moments set within other countless unknown moments. Moments are sometimes followed by threaded ideas that, given the right atmosphere and context, along with some sacred unknown something, begin to ruminate, for as long as they might, until different ways of doing and understanding illuminate and transport the arrival of the new into practice view. 

Simply put, this requires a practice of pushing ones’ practice towards something you’re not completely sure of and still pushing it as hard as you can down the track. 

One experience of the unknown was situated within an adult eating disorder ward. Given the casualty rate, to say that I was initially terrified would be an understatement. The conditions of my employment were based on an agreement allowing me to conduct narrative therapy inspired Anti-anorexia and Multiple family groups within their psychiatric hospital. 

There wasn’t any practice template for me to follow. Women’s lives were severely at risk. Working with trial and error, the foundations of a solid narrative therapy practice and a heavy dose of fear eventually fashioned new ways of working. And with this, something entirely different emerged - the birth of the infamous Vancouver Anti-anorexia/bulimia League. 

The experience offered me a clean example of pushing directly into the headwind of the unknown and terrifying. Anti-anorexic practice was shaped entirely through long sleepless nights, and what I was learning about anorexia and bulimia by witnessing the harsh experiences of the women and families struggling to keep death at bay. I have written volumes about the Vancouver League and my Anti-anorexic group/family practice where you’ll witness a persistent and sometimes desperate evolution to invent new ideas, practice and difference.

When eventually Anti-anorexic practice difference created ‘news of difference’, the new practice ideas emerging were not necessarily ‘right,’ because I wasn’t necessarily searching for the right or the absolute way. However, the newly established Anti-anorexia group practice was different ‘enough’ to anything I had ever known, and somewhat surprisingly, created the kind of change never before experienced in the hospital’s eating disorder program. Most importantly, the response I received was that the practice ‘felt’ right to the women and families involved.  Women who came out of the program to form the Vancouver Anti-anorexia League were continually open to something new, and together we created something different. This lead us to ask even more questions about what I wasn’t doing, what we could do differently, and what might be possible.

I never quite know what the alternative practice knowings are, but I do know there are many more of them and they are 'out there'. 

Arriving at new practice knowings is not a passive process, nor does it involve waiting on discovery, since discovery suggests the new idea has always been there. It involves more of a movement towards catching creativity through a relationship with some sort of yearning to craft and produce 'differently'.

Standing on the cusp of something unknown in my practice is guided by twin-sided actions of humility (stemming from not knowing) and 'desire' to know more. Desire is not something I see as lacking, but rather the question of (in line with Gilles Deleuze) what desire might create and harvest.

The twinned relational phenomenon of humility and desire is ever present. For example, humility and desire occur during my interest in what our Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy faculty are continually questioning and experimenting with in their own practices of narrative therapy. After our discussions, I will often go for a walk by the ocean to critically reflect and daydream on the practice of what someone else is doing. Their work leads to questions of how their new ideas can be taken up within, for example, my new forms of Relational Interviewing with couple relationships. It's never ending.

For the phenomenon of humility and desire to occur, I believe I must come to terms with what I don't know, rather than fearing or hiding it, and remain open and transparent about what I don't know with anyone who cares to inquire.

The humble fact is this: I realize I don't always know what I don't know. But it makes sense to know there are aspects of my narrative practice I don't know. Trouble happens when I lose the desire to know about what I don't know - If you know what I mean? Ha!

For example, last year I began realizing how much I didn't know about what the post-separation intimate couple relationship was. And this was while I was teaching the practice internationally! A word to the wise, next time you're in a narrative therapy workshop, ask the presenter what they don't know about their practice.

As a narrative informed Relational Interviewing couple therapist, I began asking myself all kinds of questions: What do I actually know about the post-separated couple relationship landscape beyond normative, taken for granted cultural knowledge? (Not much). What exactly does the newly separated post-romantic landscape act like? (I'm not sure). In what ways is the separated relationship landscape of meaning and practice different and similar to friendship and romantic/intimate relationships? (I kind of know but really don't know). Why is this newly separated landscape important for couple relationships, legal systems and therapists to consider? (Something I'd like to know and find ways to get to know).

Is the popular version of entering into the separated couple relationship as straightforward as picking up the former friendship where it left off prior to becoming intimate? (I don't think so). If the newly separated couple relationship is different from a friendship, then how is this future separated friendship realized? (Haven't a clue). Are there some values taken up and practiced in friendships and intimate relationships that are transported and practiced differently in the newly separated relationship? (This is both puzzling and fascinating). 

How would I begin to contemplate the meaning of the distinct differences regarding how each of the three relationship sites (romantic/intimate/separated) relate to the body, temporality, rituals, values, power relations, extended family, cultural expectations, desire, sex, commitment, responsibility, risk, suffering etc.? (This may take a while to get to know). How does each distinct relationship experience all this complexity - differently? (Now that would be cool to know). What are the values that may overlap each of these relational expressions? (Hmmm).

After several months staying tight inside the humility/desire territory of not knowing important aspects of my couple therapy practice, I began considering other questions like: What am I most learning from how couples are responding to my questions regarding relationship separation as an entirely unique relationship landscape? What do these couple relationships still have to teach me? When will I know enough to name and draw out this new relationally separated landscape? What is the best way to introduce and write about the separated relational landscape? Based on what couple relationships are teaching me, how can I begin, yet again, the process of questioning and organizing my Relational Interviewing practice around the separated landscape - differently? 

And on (and on!) it goes . . . I'm not sure one ever quite knows exactly how or when the stars line up to assist a shift of practice consciousness, but just knowing that if and when I do know just a little bit more about something a little bit differently, something I often 'taste' but remains elusive, I just might receive an opportunity to do what I already do in my practice differently and more creatively. 

During my practice history learning with Michael White, there was nothing better than the experience of crossing over and into something I didn't quite know before. And even though Michael's practice was at times difficult to grasp, I had an intuitive inkling that if I practiced my practice hard enough some new practice understanding would arrive – and sometimes they did in bunches. 

The great thing is this learning has never stopped. There is no endpoint to my learning from Michael, even though he died 8 years ago. And there is no endpoint to learning from my daily practice learning. This is the beauty way.

One day, seemingly out of nowhere, I asked Michael a new question. I asked him what it 'felt' like to ask the narrative therapy questions he was asking the client families we were seeing together. I remember a great quiet took over our usual quick-fire, back and forth conversation. At first, he looked baffled. Then he smiled. 

Michael said something like, "It's hard to relay the non-discursive aspects and expressions of my work, and it's something I'd like to look further into." He went on to explain how narrative therapy had a long way to go in contemplating the non-discursive aspects of practice. 

To help me understand what he meant by the non-discursive aspects and expressions of practice, Michael asked me what I experienced when I read Irish poetry or when I witnessed the grey whale migration on Canada's west coast. We discussed this for a long, long while. 

The 'feel' of my relationship to narrative therapy practice is difficult to describe. And please let me make it abundantly clear, when I refer to the 'feel' of my relationship to narrative therapy practice I am not talking about my feelings

What I can say is how the 'feel' of my narrative therapy practice, likened to say the feel Duane Allman had in his guitar playing, is one of the most beautiful and intimate relational expressions I have ever known. It is this unspeakable 'feel' that keeps me searching and asking more questions about the unknown. 

Unfortunately, translating the exhilaration and intimacy of the 'feel' of my relationship to narrative therapy practice is something I wish I could more fully articulate in the workshops I teach. I'm working on it. ;)


I don't know about you, but the first few months of 2020 were packed to the rafters with narrative therapy practice, travel, workshops and learning. And this was good. 


Covid-19 arrived after I returned from teaching in Hong Kong on January 19, 2020. My scheduled travel and training workshops overseas stopped. 


Our Bergen Nordic Narrative Therapy conference was postponed for one year. My overseas workshops are on hold through May. I'm left wondering about scheduled workshops in June through September. How about November? Wishful thinking.


Realistically, we're looking at several months of social isolation, financial instability and mass public worry ahead.


As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy has dramatically reduced the membership cost for TCTV.live. 


TCTV.live had tremendous growth in membership last year. We turned membership fees into the hiring of a new development company who has spent months of hard work and creativity, developing all the new facets of the interactive TCTV.live learning site.


We hope, during these interesting times, TCTV.live brings the narrative therapy community together and serves it well.


An additional part of our response to the pandemic includes a new and very low-cost monthly student membership. We hope this helps.


Take a look HERE. Pass it on. Join me, the VSNT faculty and hundreds of other narrative therapists interacting on the site. 


Thinking of you.


Feel free to write to me anytime at yft@telus.net.


Take care,


Stephen


A Poem sent to me by my sister Anne, by Lysa Toye:

Lockdown Yes there is fear. Yes there is isolation. Yes there is panic buying. Yes there is sickness. Yes there is even death. But: They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise You can hear the birds again. They say that after just a few weeks of quiet The sky is no longer thick with fumes But blue and grey and clear. They say that in the streets of Assisi People are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them. They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound. Today a young woman I know is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighbourhood So that the elders may have someone to call on. Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way All over the world people are waking up to a new reality To how big we really are. To how little control we really have. To what really matters. To Love. So we pray and we remember that Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate. Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness. Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be meanness. Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love. Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now. Today, breathe. Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic The birds are singing again The sky is clearing, Spring is coming, And we are always encompassed by Love. Open the windows of your soul And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.

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