Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Reflections on Spontaneity

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There is a suggestion that a link can be established between any two objects if sufficient imagination is used.  Even with that assertion, the link between spring lambs in a field near Basingstoke and an important work analysing the psychology of fascism in Nazi Germany may not be an obvious one. There is however such a link and it occurred to me as I looked out at the field in front of the attractive old country house where my counselling room is situated.

The work referred to is Erich Fromm’s seminal book, The Fear of Freedom. Fromm can be regarded as an important figure in twentieth century humanism.  In an analysis which brings together aspects of psychotherapy and politics, Erich Fromm looked at developments in society from the medieval world and the renaissance through to the early twentieth century. He invited his readers to consider the attributes of individuals within those societies.  In looking at what constitutes a free and open society Fromm saw the ability of individuals to be spontaneous as an important activity reflecting the integrated personality. He linked freedom and spontaneity in a powerful reflection on liberty whilst accepting that spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Fromm’s examples of spontaneous behaviour underline the idea that there will many be different definitions of what it means to be spontaneous. Viewed from my window the actions of the lambs in the field below, seems to present sheer unadulterated spontaneity.  Part of the behaviour pattern of each lamb may be functional and dictated by the biological need to stay close to the mother for reasons of sustenance and security.  There are however other occasions where the sheer joy of being alive seems to be reflected in spontaneous random actions such as a sudden rush across the grass ending in a skittish leap, actions which appear to have no purpose other than to demonstrate that ‘ I can’ and ‘I exist’.

If I move away from both lambs and fascism – and I accept that it does seem a strange combination – and come back into the counselling room, I can recognise spontaneity as a missing factor that some clients are looking for.  This need may not necessarily always be identified by the use of that specific word. There is perhaps something around a wish to be just as one is, rather than always having to present in the way that others expect.

There can be occasions when a very obvious behaviour change is sought particularly when those who present for counselling are locked into severe patterns of tightly controlled action.  The compulsive or obsessive who is forced by some internal emotional force to complete rituals of locking or cleaning before being able to leave the house, may wish for a time when the behaviour followed can be free and not controlled.

The individual who also sees consistent destructive patterns emerging in a succession of doomed relationships may want to be able to find a way of reacting to each new encounter which is free and spontaneous rather than following a malevolent script first set down many years ago.

There is something around holding the ability to trust which sits comfortably alongside spontaneity as an important human quality.   It may be that to achieve spontaneity we need to reach a certain level of self trust.  We need to be able to tolerate personal mistakes without creating an aggressive and intolerant reaction.  These are personality traits which for some are out of reach perhaps because of past trauma or neglect. Yet these aspects of our emotional being can be recovered albeit with some effort and work and the counselling room is a key place to carry on that work.

In my counselling work I often return with clients to the maxim that nothing changes if nothing changes.  Within the therapy room change can occur in different ways for each unique individual.  For some, just the realisation of being secure in a safe place can be sufficient to unlock that ability to speak and think without the need for caution or a fear of retribution.  For others a more technique based approach may be required. It may seem counter intuitive to think around learning to be free.  There may be times however when we may need some initial assistance to recognise that the door is now unlocked, the padlock has been removed and we are free to go.  Perhaps a propensity to cling to that pattern of restrictive thinking is reflected in the very title of Fromm’s work, The Fear of Freedom.

In some situations a change from a fixed pattern of thinking may come about not through spontaneity but by the adoption of techniques which gradually encourage the client to adopt an alternative thinking pattern.  This can be reflected in some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) work. Other popular counselling techniques such as Solution Focussed Therapy may seem at first sight to also use a relatively structured approach. The so called ‘miracle question’ does however, have the potential to invite flexible thinking in encouraging clients to look imaginatively at how things could be if favourable change occurred.

Some may regard the most obvious encouragement to spontaneity as the invitation to free association of the classical Freudians. It may be though that for some clients the very expectation of a demonstration of spontaneity may occasionally act as a constriction with an instinctive closing down. Perhaps there is something about a contrived spontaneity which holds have a slightly false ring.

Certainly the actions of those lambs appear as instinctive rather than planned or scheduled. There are of course many different views around the instinctive drives that impact upon us as human beings and Freud in his later years had a somewhat gloomy view of some of those instincts.    

Rather than slip into that darker place, I will take my gaze back to the lambs and to the sheer glee and fun of their immediate world.  We may know the unfortunate end of their story and that one day the sun will go in for each one of them - but for now and for each, that existential sense of being appears to be sufficient for today.

Our place in this world is of course different.  We are blessed or perhaps cursed with consciousness which brings an awareness of where the ultimate destination for each of us lies.  But that eventual future belongs to a tomorrow which is still some way hence.  If we can also trust in today, see spontaneity in our being and celebrate our freedom,  maybe we will be able to experience a lightness in our being – at least for now.

We are presented with options.  At one end of the emotional spectrum we may be trapped and rigid in our thinking.  At the other extreme lies that place of spontaneity and freedom.  We hold within us the latent ability to choose where along that spectrum of spontaneity we wish to be.  We exist and we have choices - if we wish to exercise them. 

Geoff Boutle

added on 6th April 2012

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