Saturday, 5 November 2011

Choosing Peppar

We were excited but also a little nervous as we boarded the suburban train. Having spent many months discussing the pros and cons of adopting a dog, my partner and I were finally on our way to look for a new addition to our family!

We were off to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, a modern facility located behind a huge derelict power station on a triangle of land between two busy railway lines in South London. Every year, almost 12,000 lost, abandoned or abused animals pass through its doors and we were hopeful that one of them would be coming home with us that very day.

We approached the reception desk expecting to be welcomed as knights in shining armour riding to the rescue. Instead, we were presented with a long application form which, in addition to our names and address, required us to state our occupations, work hours, income, previous dog-owning experience and reasons for wanting to adopt. We even had to write a description of our house and our neighbourhood. Having filled out the form, and after a considerable wait, we were summoned for an interview where a rather stern lady checked our answers and asked us more questions. Finally, we had to give permission for one of their inspectors to visit us to make sure that our home was suitable.

The excitement that we had left home with that morning had almost completely disappeared and a part of me wanted to rebel against all this bureaucracy and red tape. It wanted to remonstrate, “Why are you making this so difficult? We are here to help you out. Do you want us to take an animal off your hands or not?!” I recognised this as the internalised voice of my father who had a healthy disrespect for any kind of officialdom.

At last we were allowed into the kennels, and almost instantaneously this voice subsided. The dogs were housed along corridors on three floors and as we walked past the individual enclosures they tugged at my heartstrings inducting my softer, more compassionate self. I was struck by the pure uncomplicated energy that they embodied. They were simply what they were at that moment - happy, curious, sad, shy, cautious, aggressive, hungry…...

I noticed my reactions - how I praised some as “intelligent”, “handsome”, or “confident”, whilst others I judged as being “stupid”, “ugly”, or “timid”. Sometimes my partner and I agreed and sometimes our instant appraisals differed. Of course the words that we used said much more about the qualities that our primary selves valued than they did about the dogs!

After looking at well over a hundred animals and meeting several of them one-on-one, we felt completely overwhelmed. Worse still, we couldn’t agree on what characteristics we were looking for. I was attracted to the larger, longhaired variety - especially the ones that seemed alert, intelligent and strong. My partner, on the other hand, was entranced by the smaller, shorthaired dogs with sweet temperaments. With so many conflicting voices in our heads we realised that we needed time to process our reactions, and decided to come back another day.

For a month, we held the tension of these opposing positions as consciously as we could while pondering our choices. Then, hoping that we would find a compromise, we went back. As before, I felt an energetic pull towards some dogs and my partner to others. As much as I wanted us to choose a dog there and then, I was aware of a voice in my head that was saying, “No. Not yet. You are not ready.” It felt as if we were being tested. Were we honestly acknowledging the different selves at play in our deliberations? Did we have the patience to sit with the process and sweat the choices? Once again we returned home empty handed and waited for something to stir in us that said, “OK, now you are ready.”

Our perseverance was rewarded. On our third visit to Battersea we felt drawn to one particular enclosure. From behind the bars a pair of big brown eyes stared up at us out of a jet black face. As we peered in, a bushy two-toned tail wagged its greeting as if to say, “There you are at last. It’s me you’re looking for!” We were taken aback. This wasn’t the type of dog either of us had expected. We hadn’t imagined that our new dog would be a Rottweiler/Collie cross! But it was too late. She had found us. And that same wise voice in my head said, “Yes, this is the one.”

We named her Peppar, and she has settled into our home so well that it’s difficult to imagine the time before she arrived. Her interesting genetic mix matches the wonderful pairs of opposites she embodies. She can be both bright and obtuse; eager to please and rebellious. At times she is unbearably sweet and affectionate and at others grumpy and independent. Asleep, she is the picture of relaxation, but when chasing cats or squirrels nothing will distract her razor-sharp focus. Mostly sociable and playful, she can also be fiercely territorial and stand her ground against other dogs.

I know that Peppar has come into my life as my teacher. I watch myself getting into the same positive and negative bonding patterns with her as I have with other pets - she is the child to my Controller, my Strict Father, my Indulgent Mother and my Proud Parent. At the same time, I can also see that all the many aspects that enliven her being are potentially available to me. I’ve started to practise just hanging out with her, following her lead and resonating whatever energy is running through her in the moment - much as I would when facilitating a client. This is sometimes easy for me - as when she is in a pleasing, playful or relaxed mood - and sometimes difficult - as when her more instinctual and fierce sides take over. In this way, unbeknownst to her, she is helping me to recognise, explore and embrace some of my more disowned selves.

Peppar knows exactly how to be a dog. But of course, she does not know that she knows. Much as I marvel at her ability to be totally immersed in the moment, more marvellous still is the potential I have as Homo Sapiens to self-reflect, to develop an Aware Ego process that can stand between opposing energies, and to be able to make more conscious choices.

So welcome Peppar and thanks for being my teacher! I’m so glad we chose you. Or did you choose us?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sweet Temptation

‘The only thing I can’t resist is temptation,’ wrote Oscar Wilde. Standing in front of the display of cakes and pastries at Torelli’s - my local café - I am sorely tempted. There are butter croissants, pains aux chocolats, frangipanis, pains aux raisins, flapjacks, fairy cakes, jam doughnuts, apple and apricot Danishes, a carrot cake, and a soft cheesecake on a delicious biscuit base. Can I resist?

A voice inside me says, “Don’t succumb!”, but immediately another counters with, “Why not? Just one with your coffee. What difference will that make? Start your diet tomorrow. You didn’t eat any yesterday and you didn’t have a big lunch today. You deserve one!” As I stand in line waiting to be served, I am amazed at how imaginative and insistent this part of me is as it tries to persuade me. “Your coffee will taste better if you eat something sweet with it. Besides, you’ll be supporting your local café and helping to pay the salaries of the baristas who count on your custom. You wouldn’t want to let them down, would you? It will make them happy if you buy one.”

There is an air of desperation about this Sweet Tooth self - almost as if it is afraid of what will happen if I don’t indulge. I can feel the muscles in my stomach tense. Will I give in…..?

I grew up in a home where there was always a ready supply of homemade cakes and tarts. My mother loved to bake and no teatime was complete without something deliciously sweet on the table - a Victoria sponge cake, strawberry jam tarts, a coffee cake or a fruit cake. And then there were the desserts that rounded off the main meal of the day - rhubarb crumble with custard, lemon meringue pie, sherry trifle with cream, bread and butter pudding…. It was my mother’s way of expressing her love, and so long as she continued to provide I felt nurtured and safe. Whether through her influence or because of a genetic predisposition, Sweet Tooth has exerted a strong influence on my food choices throughout my life.

I have noticed that whenever my normal desire for cakes, pastries and biscuits increases it’s a sign that parts of me are feeling anxious or vulnerable. Rather than consciously dealing with whatever it is that’s causing these feelings to arise, Sweet Tooth has me head for the nearest patisserie or put a couple of extra boxes of chocolate biscuits in my basket at the supermarket. The sweetness acts as a palliative, a kind of self-nurturing that provides a measure of comfort and a temporary relief from my inner disquiet.

In the past few months, since my partner left for an eight-month stay in his home country of Thailand, my consumption has risen significantly. Of course, he and I are in regular communication via phone, email, Skype and text, but that does not satisfy my need for physical connection and intimacy. I miss him and in an effort to mask the feelings of loneliness and emptiness Sweet Tooth has made a daily ritual of the trip to Torelli’s and its ‘irresistible temptations’.

In the last week, however, something has changed. Results back from a regular medical check up found that my cholesterol levels are much too high. A consultation with my doctor and an in-depth discussion of my eating habits with a nutritionist pointed to an irrefutable conclusion: I have to give up cakes, pastries and biscuits. Family history makes it imperative - my mother died of a stroke and my father of a heart attack. It is obvious that my health and longevity depend on my ability to change my diet.

So now there is a new voice in my head, a voice I am calling my Aware Eater. He is there all the time, looking over my shoulder, advising me what to eat and what not. He takes his rules from the nutritionist: cut down on fats, especially saturated fatty acids; and as for hydrogenated fats and trans fatty acids, they are out completely! He has me read ingredient and nutrition labels on everything I buy and if I transgress, his friend, my Inner Critic, gives me an earful!

As I stand wavering in front of the display in Torelli’s it is his voice that is telling me not to succumb, tightening my stomach in resistance. “But if you don’t eat something,” says Sweet Tooth, “you’ll be overcome with longing for your partner.” “Eat the chocolate croissant and you’ll die young,” comes the repost from Aware Eater. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. These selves are at war in me!

Realising that whichever decision I make I am going to upset one of them, I take a deep breath. Time to place my order. “Hi John,” says my favourite barista, Camillo, “Your usual large coffee and a pastry?” “Just the coffee today thanks,” I reply, “I found out that I have high cholesterol. I have to change my diet, so I’ve decided it is just one pastry a week from now on.”

As I sit and drink my coffee I congratulate myself on being able to stand between Sweet Tooth and Aware Eater and make a conscious choice. I realise that apart from giving me knowledge that may well prolong my life, the gift that high cholesterol offers me is an invitation to take more care of my feelings around my partner’s absence and nurture my younger selves in more healthy ways.

Is it my imagination or does this coffee taste more delicious that usual?

Thursday, 22 September 2011


“I want a dog.”
“OK, then you should get a puppy.”
“No, I don’t want the hassle of training a puppy. I want an off-the-shelf, ready-to-go, adult dog. And one that has had a full medical at the rescue centre.”
“Hmm… Well, I still think that what you need in your life is a puppy.”

My friend and I had this conversation a few times. If we were out together and saw a young dog pulling at its leash he would point to it, smile knowingly and intone: “A puppy.” Oscar knew me well and was very intuitive. But I was beginning to get annoyed by his insistence. I didn’t want a puppy and that was that!

I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time. I lived alone, worked from home and had a lot of control over my schedule. My small rented house had a back yard and there was a communal area in front shared by the other single-storey, adobe houses. A fence surrounded the whole complex and many of the renters had pets. A medium sized, mature, well-behaved dog would provide me with some company and force me to take more exercise. There was a neighbourhood park just up the road and a dry riverbed nearby where I could walk a dog for miles. I decided to go to the rescue centre the next Monday.

Late Sunday evening there was a knock on my door. It was my next door neighbour. Cradled in her arms was what at first I took to be a fluffy black hat. “Hi. I have just come back from a camping trip in the White Mountains and look what I found there. This little critter was scavenging in a trash tip. He was such a mess I had to take pity on him. I couldn’t just leave him there, but with my crazy work schedule there’s no way I can take care of him. I know you have been thinking of getting a dog so I thought you might like to adopt him.”

She opened her arms and a pair of soft brown eyes peered at me with a mixture of interest and fear. The ears were bald from scratching and the coat was mangy. “The poor thing had a piece of wire tied around his tail when we found him. God only knows what cruelty he has suffered. I think his short life has been pretty tough.” After a pause, she offered him to me to hold, “How about it?”

A part of me - my stern Rational self - was horrified, telling me very clearly not to be swayed by her emotive words. But as I held the little guy and felt his thin, bony body, my heart melted. He seemed so vulnerable and alone in the world. “Give me time to think about it,” I replied.

Later that evening Oscar came by. “You see, I told you. It’s fate. Of course you have to adopt him!” And so it was that Bip came into my life. He cost me an arm and a leg in veterinary bills - de-worming, de-lousing, antibiotics, vaccinations. I had to toilet-train him and put up with chewed chair legs and other damage to household objects. No one knew for sure, but the best guess was that he was a Retriever-Newfoundlander mix. As the months passed he grew ever larger, his increasingly long black hair clinging to carpet and cushions whenever he moulted.

I had just come across Voice Dialogue and was slowly becoming aware of my inner cast of characters - the ones that ran my life and the ones that were more buried. I soon realised that Bip was my disowned Wild Child - high energy, confident, outgoing, inquisitive, risk taking. My primary selves - my Rational Mind, Pusher, Pleaser, Organiser and Planner - knew they had to take charge of him or he would run amok.

My mother once told me that soon after I was born, when it was clear she wouldn’t be able to have any more children, my father made the following pronouncement: “John is an only child and we are not going to spoil him.” I watched myself follow this injunction with Bip. I set strict limits around playtime. I would romp and tussled with him and play tug of war with an old slipper. But then with his excitement revving up, I would feel a powerful urge to disengage. “That’s enough for today,” my inner Strict Father would say and I would pull back my energy and focus instead on answering emails or quietly reading a book. My father had done the same to me when he had withdrawn to his office and busied himself with church matters. He had been the organist and choirmaster as well as treasurer on the parish council and his free time was rationed. Part of me empathised with Bip as he looked at me with those doleful eyes, willing me to carry on playing. But my Strict Father was resolute and would not be won over.

Control was a big issue between us - especially when Bip was selectively deaf to my commands. If he didn’t stay when he was told or come when I called him, I would feel a pang of anxiety, immediately followed by a smouldering anger. He would look at me for a second as if to say, “You’re kidding. No way!”, and then be off, leaving me barking helplessly, “Come here when I tell you to!!” When I finally got him back on the leash my Controlling Father would scold him for being so disobedient. Bip would act contrite for a while, head down and tail between his legs, but pretty soon his tail would be up, his eyes sparkling and he would be on the look out for the next adventure. Secretly my buried Rebel admired and adored him, willing him to cut loose whenever he got the chance.

When I gave him treats, groomed him or told him how handsome he was, I would feel my Nurturing Mother glow inwardly. But this would always be accompanied by twinges of guilt - I was after all breaking the golden rule and spoiling him. My self-esteem would be affected by people’s reactions to him. If someone ignored him I would feel upset - as if I had been personally shunned. On the other hand, when people petted and admired him for being such a handsome and clever dog, I would hear my Proud Parent say to himself “That’s my boy!”

Bip met the love of his life when he was two years old. Esperita was a giant Airedale whose owner, Michael, lived in a big house on the very edge of town in the Tucson Mountains. They bonded the first time they met and seemed destined for each other. Walking the two of them in the desert or in the town I felt an amazing sense of pride - as if my “son” had found the perfect “daughter-in-law”! I doted on her even as I remained stern with him. When I left the USA, Bip went to live with Michael and Esperita. Aged fourteen, he ended his long life in very different circumstances to the way he had started out, as that poor, abandoned mutt.

Bip was my teacher and Oscar’s intuition had been absolutely right - taking care of this little being was just what I had needed in order to learn more about my inner selves. Now, twenty years later, I have a weird feeling of déja vue. I have a house in London with a garden, a stable home life, and my schedule is my own. I am thinking about getting a dog. As before, my first thought is to adopt an adult rescue dog. Uncannily my partner’s response is: “What we need is a puppy!”

Friday, 29 July 2011

The Young Cyclist

The young cyclist sped round the corner on the pavement (sidewalk) and nearly hit me. I was startled and then angry and after I had collected myself called after him that he was crazy! I watched indignantly as he carried on without so much as a glance back in my direction. My reactive voices started up as I walked on towards the town centre: “So irresponsible, inconsiderate and rude! He could have at least apologised. Typical of young people these days!”

By the time I had walked to the next major intersection I had calmed down a bit and started to focus on my to-buy list. I waited for the little green man to indicate that I could cross the road safely. I was thinking about which order I should visit the various shops when who should pull up beside me but the same cyclist. He was listening to his i-pod and seemed oblivious to me. I was incensed!

My reactive voices started up again and before I knew what was happening I stepped towards him and tapped him authoritatively on the shoulder. He looked surprised and wary. I launched in. What did he think he was doing riding so dangerously? He had nearly hit me just now. Cyclists should ride their bikes on the road or on cycle paths, not on the pavement which was intended for pedestrians like me.

He reluctantly took an earphone from one ear. “What’s your problem?” he scowled. I repeated that he had ridden his bike dangerously and had nearly hit me. “No, I saw you and avoided you. Anyway, I can ride wherever I want.” “Have you ever read the Highway Code?” I spluttered. “You can’t do just as you please. The rules apply to bicycles just as much as to anyone else.”

It was water off a duck’s back. He gave me a look of studied indifference. The green man showed and he raced off, this time looking over his shoulder to utter, “Piss off!” I was left feeling outraged and impotent.

I was unable to let go of my judgements about the young cyclist. I felt destabilised and in no mood to do my shopping now. I needed to sit down and get a handle on my reactive voices, so I headed for a favourite coffee shop.

Sitting down with a comforting cup of cappuccino I started to reflect on what had happened and my reactions. What did my visceral judgements tell me about my Primary Selves? Startled and shocked by nearly being knocked over, I could now see that several selves had jumped into offensive mode to protect my vulnerability: my Responsible Self, my Rule Follower, and my Considerate Self. I developed them all in my youth under the influence of my parents who were kind, responsible, law abiding citizens. They were the selves that were judging this young guy so harshly. Additionally, there was the self that has developed since I turned 50 which judges “young people these days!”

I smiled as I contemplated the latter and how I had hated it when my father used to say the same about people of my generation. I realised that my father was alive and well and living inside me! But also alive in me were the energies represented by the young cyclist. As I separated from my Primary Selves I could feel their discomfort as I started to look at the Disowned Selves the cyclist represented: Rebel, Rule Breaker, and my Carefree and Confident Selves.

I suddenly remembered my father saying to me in his later, more mellow years that he was worried that I hadn’t been rebellious enough as a teenager. In retrospect, he thought it was not healthy to be such a good boy all the time. Well, of course, I had secretly rebelled and broken the rules. I had ridden my bike all over London in dangerous, heavy traffic when my mother’s rule was that I was supposed to stay only in the safe streets close to my suburban home. I had also ridden on the pavement and in my fantasies I had bad mouthed anyone who got in my way or criticised my behaviour!

As I acknowledged this, I felt my judgements about the cyclist ebb away to be replaced by a smile of recognition. To complete the process I decided to reframe my judgements and ask what gifts a small dose of the cyclist’s energies could bring me this afternoon. Hmm…. let me see…. yes, greater self-assurance, the confidence to break the rules sometimes, and a sense of fun.

I finished my cappuccino and left the café to get on with my shopping. As I went from shop to shop I realised that I felt calmer and more expanded. I had a spring in my step that wasn’t there before. And I noticed the young sales assistants seemed to respond to me with a smile, a lightness, and (was it my imagination?) a wink of recognition!