Last weekend, while taking a break from the Positive Psychotherapy conference I was attending, I walked along the circling footpaths in the Boston Public Gardens. All around me flowering trees raised limbs thick with blossoms just beginning to open, sweetening the soft spring air.
I had come to the conference to find out what the established view, the Harvard’s eye view was of this newcomer to the psychotherapy pantheon, and to figure out for myself how it fit with narrative therapy and narrative psychiatry. I had read Marty Seligman’s book, Flourish, and loved its focus on strengths and gratitude and connection and what was going well. But Seligman is positivist, proffering the official definition of happiness (which he was still fiddling with) and explaining how to get it, while narrative practices are post-modern, by which I mean that ideas and technologies of happiness are understood to be contextual, cultural and contested. Narrative practitioners are curious about what the person seeking happiness would say was happiness, how that person would define it, how they would say that happiness sneaks up on them, where it picks them up hitchhiking, where it might take them dancing.
What I love about narrative therapy is the deep honoring of each of our ways of being happy. Our own happiness recipe. I can’t agree with what Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina. The way I see it, happy families are in fact all different; every happy family is happy in its own way—and that is where the magic is. Narrative is about asking questions to discover and draw forth and flesh out and cook up that recipe, to find out where we can get the carrots and onions and cream to make soup out of the stone that someone might bring in as if it is all that they have.
At the conference, I discovered that most of the winds under the wings of what is called positive psychotherapy are mindfulness practices. Mindfulness invites us to pause and be present and loving and accepting with what is, with what we are feeling or thinking or experiencing. Mindfulness invites us to name our experience. For example, Chris Germer, who presented beautifully on fostering practices of self-compassion, invites us to notice when we are suffering and name it as such: This is a moment of suffering. I find this similar to narrative practices that invite us to externalize the problem that is causing us to suffer, to give the problem a name, and to consider what relationship we want to have with it. As a narrative therapist, words are like a bouquet of flowers from which I offer one and then another to my patient, asking might this or that be a fitting name for their experience. While I find suffering to be a word that honors my experiences of emotional pain, not everyone does. We can ask, Might suffering be a word that resonates for you? Grief? What about emotional pain?
In his practice of fostering self-compassion, Chris next invites us to acknowledge the way in which suffering is a common and inevitable human experience, to say Suffering is a part of living. Is this not a comforting story? We are not alone in our suffering after all. In narrative practices, we seek to invite forward stories that might offer comfort and connection with others. Is part of the suffering the thought that there is something wrong with you if suffering is present? Is that true? Would you say that others also suffer? How is it for you to bring to mind the thought that everyone suffers at times?
Chris’s final step in cultivating self-compassion is to invite us to be kind to ourselves. May I be kind to myself. While personally I value kindness, as a narrative therapist, I would want to first clarify whether the person consulting with values kindness. Would you say that kindness is something that you value? If they answer yes, I might ask them to tell a story of their experiences of kindness, where they learned to value kindness and other questions to make their relationship to kindness more vivid, nuanced and personal. Would you say that those who are suffering are deserving of kindness? Might you deserve kindness when you are suffering? Might you offer yourself kindness when you are suffering? What might that look like? What words might you use to offer yourself kindness? With what kind of gesture might you offer yourself kindness?
I was particularly drawn to Chris’s work because of its gentleness and the way in which it resonated with my own mindfulness practice—and because of my own suffering that weekend. Sunday, Mother’s Day, was the first anniversary of my beloved father’s death. My dad was an unfailingly kind, loving and gentle man who raised his six children with humor and encouragement. His absence, combined with the ongoing absence of my youngest child who had left home in the fall to go to college 3,000 miles away, seemed to foster a daily dysphoria that greeted me before dawn, catching me unawares, all foggy-brained and ready to believe any thought the waking world offered me. Many mornings during our long winter I have had to push up through layers of sadness and regret to be able to get upright enough to brush my teeth. A dragging sense that something was wrong lurked and pounced on me in the interstices of my days, irrespective of the weather, compounded by the thought that my misery was out of proportion to my losses. As I walked out in the fresh breeze and warm sunlight of the Boston Public Garden last Saturday, tulips shone and bobbed and cherry blossoms cascaded along branches. I paused before a young sugar maple with tender new leaves opening like tiny hands. One year ago we had planted a sugar maple on my sister’s farm near her orchard of peach and apple trees and scattered my father ashes under it. My eyes filled with tears. I paused and put my hand over my heart. This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of living. May I be kind to myself.
It really helped me feel better.