In Conversation with Paul Christelis on Playfulness and Therapy

London Therapy

In Conversation with Paul Christelis on Playfulness and Therapy

This excerpt is from my podcast Alanism Ep.3 where I sat down with author, therapist and mindfulness coach and director of School of Moments Paul Christelis to discuss playfulness, creative process and therapy:

ALAN

One of the main reasons that I started this podcast is I really want to explore the therapeutic value of engaging in the creative process.

So music, for example, there’s just something so amazing, for me anyway, when I play the drums I just get this feeling of connection, and when I’m practicing some piece or some combination that’s really difficult and then finally getting it, it’s almost like putting a key in a lock or something… something shifts, and I go ‘Oh yeah, now I can do this.’ And I can keep building on that, and it’s almost like a little high that I get at the end of playing. And I think a reason for that is also just reconnecting to the body.

I know you practice mindfulness, and you work as a therapist. And so, I know that the mind-body connection is important to you as well, and I think there’s something about engaging in the creative process that maybe brings those two things together… because you have to practice a technique, but once you have the technique then you can move into a more creative space.

PAUL

I think sometimes with the technique, when you’re learning the technique it can be quite cerebral. So a lot of your attention is on just the mechanics of it. But after a while, once it starts to… you feel it in your bones, it’s like being unconsciously competent at something. And then you’re not accessing or coming to what you’re doing from a cerebral space anymore, it’s just like a more embodied kind of thing.

ALAN

So early on in the creative process, I guess, there’s no other way around the cerebral process, like you said, you have to consciously practice a movement, if it’s dance or music or something, but once that becomes second nature, then as you say, it becomes more embodied, maybe implicit memory is a good description as well, where you don’t have to consciously think about it, it almost just happens organically.

PAUL

I don’t know if you noticed this, but even with a conversation like this, when we start there’s that sense of ‘Well we just started, this is a new space.’ And I just noticed that I was accessing something in my head, and just as we’ve been speaking it through, and the space becomes more knowing, or more knowable, there’s more of a sense of ‘OK, I’m more aware of what I’m feeling now.’ So, I’m sensing I’m speaking more from my body than I was from my head when we started.

ALAN

As soon as I hit record, I think that’s what you mean, because we were already in conversation prior to hitting the record button. And then as soon as I said ‘OK, now we’re recording’, all of a sudden it’s like ‘Oh’, like something shifts, right. ‘Oh, now we’ve started something new. OK, what are we doing? What’s happening?’…performance anxiety, right!

PAUL

And actually it’s a lot like that in a therapy session where I find with clients, I don’t know if you find this, but you know you have those moments of acclimatizing at the start, and then there can be that kind of sussing each other out, and a lot of the work is going on in the head, and then you just sink into it, and then the space becomes a lot more porous and full of possibility, and you don’t really know where you’re going.

ALAN

And that’s OK… and in my experience anyway, that time of sussing each other out can be shorter or longer depending on the person as well, and the relationship. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions (or multiple months!) to drop down into a more sensory experience or embodied experience.

PAUL

I think that’s right, and I think trust is a big part of that. You’re working sometimes with people where there’s difficulty around trusting each other, or trusting the process, then it’s very difficult, I think, to get to a place where true play can happen. It’s like you’re still negotiating the space together, and you’re still getting a sense of how trustworthy and safe the other person is, but sometimes that’s necessary so that you can create the conditions in which then the true playing can happen.

ALAN

It’s so interesting, because you do have to set up some parameters don’t you. I mean even if you’re painting you’ve got the frame, at least, to contain the painting. And so I see therapy and the counselling process that way as well. You set up the parameters: ok this the time, this is the space, then the psychological negotiation, and then hopefully at some point that just becomes part of the process, but not something you have to think about and over-analyze, and eventually you can then drop into that playful space. Although, I don’t know how many people would think of counselling as playing, but I think there has to be some kind of improvisation, and there’s a creative quality to counselling as well isn’t there.

PAUL

Well, really I wish more people would actually equate what we do with playfulness, I think that’s really missing in the work that we do. We were talking just before we started about how it [therapy] can feel like a serious enterprise, you know ’It’s gonna be traumatic, and in fact real work is only possible if you’re working on something serious’ and then you’re furrowing your brow and this kind of thing. And I’ve been aware, and it’s almost been a silent intention of mine, that I’ve got to laugh at least once in a session, regardless of what’s actually happening and what the client is bringing. And I think that’s very, very underestimated, is that quality of heartfulness, of playfulness, because I think you can even bring difficulty and you can bring seriousness, and you can really get in touch with it if you’re coming from a place of playfulness too. If there’s no play, then I think there’s a kind of… it just becomes a bit arid, and I think it doesn’t allow the client’s synapsis to… they’re dry instead of juicy. You want to introduce some kind of moisture into the session. I’m not sure if that’s the best word to describe it!

ALAN

Not the dreaded ‘m’ word! But it makes sense, otherwise it’s quite dry and brittle maybe. And it’s not a comfortable place to be. And not to say that doing difficult work is necessarily comfortable, but at least it can be rich and rewarding, and you can have a laugh even when you’re feeling down. I think that humour is underestimated, underused, underrated… obviously it has to be used correctly. But to just take humour and playfulness out of the equation, I think, it’s not allowing the person to have a full experience of what it means to be a human being either.

PAUL

Absolutely, and I think that’s also how you really connect, that’s been my experience anyway. That’s been my experience as a therapist is connection often happens in those moments of levity, and it’s not the same as being superficial, because if you can genuinely share those moments, there’s a real deepening of the relationship. I think it also helps a client access those parts of themselves more easily as well.

ALAN

It’s not humour in the sense of just laughing something off or avoiding, but as you say, that genuine connection to what can sometimes be quite absurd as well. Sometimes situations are just absurd!

PAUL

Life is absurd!

ALAN

Sometimes it’s so powerful to just throw your hands in the air and say ’It’s out of my control’ or whatever, but to just allow ourselves that psychological space I think, rather than getting locked down into the seriousness of it. Because there is a lot of serious stuff happening in people’s lives, and in the world in general, it would be very easy to just get completely bogged down and almost immobilized as well. And I found that for myself, you know, I make sure to inject some kind of humour, or some levity into my day. Whether that’s watching stand-up comedy or whatever the case might be, because that’s part of life too isn’t it. And it’s not just a mindless distraction, I think it speaks to who we are as human beings. Yes, we have serious things to deal with, but there’s also joy and playfulness even in the most awful situations as well, right.

PAUL

I agree, and it makes me think of artists like David Lynch. He’s an artist I really, really admire. He’s really fascinating because if you look at a lot of his work, people might describe it as being quite morose, and really strange and weird, and dark, but if you listen to him speaking about his process, you’ll see that there’s something incredibly light. He practices transcendental meditation, and he talks about how these ideas come from this spacious, creative, playful space, and it’s really fascinating because even when you’re watching something that he’s filmed, or you’re looking at a painting or a sculpture, you can see and feel the darkness and the weirdness, but you can also sense where it’s coming from which is not a dark place, it’s actually a place of abundance.

Listen to the rest of the podcast here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *