Nexus – A client’s dilemma

My two therapy sessions with Symbolic Modelling
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What follows is a client’s description of what happened before, during and after two therapy sessions of Symbolic Modelling with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley.

[Note: This account contains the client’s memory of the questions we asked, not necessarily the precise formulation of our questions.] 

I was in complete confusion over a very difficult decision, a decision that seemed like the most important one I had ever faced at that time, and I knew that I was not clear enough on the issues to trust my own judgment completely. That’s not true, actually – of course I could trust my own judgment, had I had one, but my judgment wasn’t coming up with anything congruent or definite enough to go with. I was incapable of coming to a judgment, and so I turned to Penny and James for help.

It was like this

I had always been somewhat shy as a teenager, and though I had overcome that tendency as I’ve grown, my sexual confidence had never seemed to follow suit. I was dogged with a recurring issue of impotence – associated with becoming intimate for the first time with a woman. Once I became familiar and secure with her things were fine, but there were always those initial “first night nerves”. Not only that, even in the act of sex, I had always felt like a spectator – the whole act seemed underlined by an inner tension.

While working away from home I had an affair. With this particular woman it was different … the whole thing seemed out of our control, as if we had both been dumped on a roller coaster and shoved off. I was able to let go of myself more than I ever had before. My appetite was suddenly the way it had been when I was nineteen, but this time I could do something about it – I was capable of seeing it through, riding the wave to the beach, surrendering to my long-dormant capacity for desire.

Which brings me to my decision

I was determined that what I needed was to leave my long term relationship to allow this new side of me as much freedom and opportunity as possible. I had missed out for too long and now it was time to make up for lost ground. I know you’re thinking “Why not find all this within your relationship?” which was exactly what my girlfriend said. Simple and clever in principle, but our relationship had never been built on that. We had a bond based on an incredible spiritual, intuitive, intellectual and emotional compatibility. Never had I ever found anyone else around whom I felt completely myself. Never had I felt so completely understood by another human being. We’d broken up and rejoined two or three times over our five years together. In fact, it is a testament to the strength of our love that my deep dissatisfaction with my own dawdling sexuality had not prompted me to completely reject her as I had too many women before.

As I told her my decision, and felt the full force of her pain and confusion, I knew that my regard for her, that love, was still there but I felt without a shadow of a doubt that I could no longer compromise myself and my sexuality. To carry on without this new part of me in my life would have been a betrayal more severe than the one I was perpetrating on the woman I believed to be my soul-mate.

Enter Penny and James: Session 1

I shall write what I remember of the two sessions I had with them, but you will appreciate that some detail is lost. (NOTE: all the questions I attribute to Penny and James are paraphrased as taking note of the actual Clean Language used was the last thing on my mind!)

After spilling my guts on the floor and outlining the above, I said something like:

I just want to fast-forward two weeks to when the decision is made. At the moment everything is up in the air – it’s all suspended like a volleyball at the apex of its arc, and I feel kind of shaky but its also a powerful time, you know, because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and anything could happen but I know it’ll be all right

James asked me, what was the experience of being in this situation, making a decision, here and now, like?

There’s left and right in front of me and a vertical dividing line between them and the left is darker and the right is paler. I’m at a nexus (for some reason I really seized on this word), a fork in the road of my life – I want to go forward and get on with my life but I don’t know which way to go and I can only pick one.

James then asked some paralysingly insightful questions which enabled me to to locate myself with respect to this dividing line.

I’m on the precipice, about to go forward and I want to leap forward – there’s no sense of being at a height but a sensation of being on the edge, on the verge – almost exciting.

Then there was some questions about what would I need to move forward from this place.

Well, if I were sitting here, all that would have to happen is that something in my field of awareness would have to catch my curiosity and I’d automatically stand up and go to it without thinking.

And so the decision would be made?

Yes, the decision would have made itself without thought from me.

As I tried to verbalise what was just an intangible state of things, I realised that I could in fact “see” this experience, and “feel” it – within my mind. The more I talked and investigated, the more real it became. The struggle to put the whole experience of this intensely emotional time into words, into communicable concepts, actually formed images in my consciousness. Images I could feel, or feelings I could see – I’m not sure which. (It was only later that I realised this was symbolic modelling in a nutshell – nothing could have been simpler or more natural.) At this point I noticed a vertical line in a painting on the wall directly opposite me in their lounge. (Serendipity? Or had my choice of where to sit in the room been subconsciously self-selected for my greatest benefit?)

I need to move forward and to go either way with congruence, but I can only go one way, like a fork in the road.Whatever I decide I can no longer compromise myself, I have to be clear on this decision. I could go right and leave the relationship but I cannot escape the feeling that I would be losing something incredibly precious. I could go left and stay, but that is what I know, and what I’ve found out about myself through this recent affair is that I am more capable than I ever believed possible of adventuring, exploring the new and unknown and really enjoying it – like someone has unlocked the gates to a playground that I’ve always been on the outside of and for the first time in my life I can stand on my own two feet and walk into it. And who knows? It might really be fun instead of terrible and frightening like I always thought it would be. I know that I can go to a place that I’ve never been before – do things I’ve never done before, and that is absolutely where I need to be right now.

Penny perked up and asked me to think about what I’d just said.

I took this to mean I had to go to what was new (my heart sank) – after all, I realised, the right side (single life) was paler, lighter – was that not a sign in itself?

James said,“I need to be in a place I’ve never been before”. Here you are in this shaky, suspended but powerful place – have you’ve ever been here before?


I’m paraphrasing of course, but the upshot of this session was that my franticness to reach a decision – whatever decision – had lead me to overlook the place I was actually at while I examined these two alternatives in front of me. It was revealed to me that this was a new place, which explained why I felt quite empowered and exhilarated by it, and also that it was OK just to be there, examine my surroundings and embrace the experience instead of trying with all my might to find the way out of the situation. In a way, it was like learning to accept and have patience with this inner turmoil, and in the process I was honouring my strongly felt agenda of exploring the new and unknown and at the same time learning that this was indeed the only place right now that was going to teach me anything about myself – after all, it was a place in me I’d never fully explored before. This was a revelation to me.

Physicalising my metaphor

Penny encouraged me to physically stand and explore the “left” and “right” by walking over to them in the room. As I entered the left space I felt depleted, unhappy, blocked, trapped. I just let the adjectives come as I felt the feelings, and then very shortly an image occurred to me that connected all these sensations together and encapsulated the overall experience for me. It was like a dark tunnel, no way forward or to either side. I hated it. The right was a totally different story and the image came much more quickly. It was an open white landscape, featureless but for the sense of the occasional person dotted here and there. Space in all directions and horizon all round. The accompanying sensation in me was of openness, lightness, freedom, relief, easy breathing.

As we talked, I made it clear that I did not attribute all those “tunnel” feelings to my girlfriend as an individual. I was smart enough to realise straightaway that these were things I’d felt in every relationship I’d been in. Indeed, these feelings had sabotaged even the most promising liaisons I’d had, in ways that I could feel but was unable to explain. I knew that that tunnel was called “Relationship”.

James helped me realise that not only was this metaphor (left tunnel, right plane) revealing the structure of this specific decision but also the structure of deciding in general. In a way, I was fortunate that I’d come to them with such an important decision. As there was so much riding on the outcome, my attention was fully engaged – the emotional intensity of the metaphors was strong and the images were clear – much more information about myself was available to myself than might have otherwise been the case.

And while I could see no obvious resolution, James predicted, based on his experience, that the presenting metaphor would evolve (and, I reasoned, the decision would make itself clear as a consequence).

We finished this session by assigning my homework to draw my “metaphor landscape” and to research “tunnels” and the word “nexus”.

Between sessions

That evening when I got home, I contemplated what had gone on and started writing the episode up in my journal. The place where I am, the “Don’t Know” state, was remarkable to me in that it was a place of no expectations, a sense of underlying faith in events, acute senses, fully focused concentration, wide open attention, a sense of being fully present in my situation (not spectating). It was a discovery in its own right and it started to seem that here was the freedom I was so desperate for. Come to think of it, there was almost something quite sexy about it. I certainly was there with my whole body in awareness, not cut off from my waist like I usually had been before the affair. I congratulated myself that all I had to do was to sit with and wait for something to “catch my attention” and the decision would be made.

Looking further at the metaphorical landscape I’d developed, I became aware of a sense of disquiet about the featureless white plane on the right. Sure, it felt light and full of relief at first, but the more I contemplated what it meant to me, the more I sensed that it was not all that I had assumed. It struck me that the plane was empty, empty of meaning. I was free to explore and do what I liked, but explore what? You can’t discover anything in a featureless landscape because a featureless landscape is just that – featureless. It has no characteristics of any kind. You can walk anywhere on a white plane and it will still be a white plane. You’ve already found all there is to find.

Although I sensed I could interact with people on the plane, I knew that either I would then move off, having not “picked anything up” from the casual encounter, or I would have to really encounter them and that would mean only one thing – another relationship, another tunnel. I saw in a flash that it would always be an ever-repeating cycle, that the choice I was faced with presently would be the same choice that I would be faced with the moment I wanted to spend any real time with a person in the future.

Associations started flowing about the left and right of my metaphoric world:

Absence of self-will
Pure whim
Set, defined meanings
Void of meaning
Being a “good” boy
Breaking rules and being “bad”
Too many thoughts
Inaction due to overload

The tunnel was without direction, without a way forward because all sides were blocked – I felt encased – but in a way, I thought, the plane is also without direction because it is pathless. There is no distinction at all in regard to where you are or where you’re going, because there are no features to differentiate position or heading. In short, it offers the illusion of freedom, but it is a freedom without value. Compare that to the tunnel, which is so structured, so value-bound, so set in rules, that no movement is possible or conceivable at all.

It seemed good and right that at last events had come into my life that allowed me to express the “right” side of my nature, to be disobedient, to depart from the established order of my world (I had never felt so alive before). But it also seemed obvious that an integration of these two sides was the best outcome.

Even in my professional life, the job I was doing at the time of the affair had also led me to see that I had approached my work in an overly scientific, rule-bound way. I had not allowed myself the freedom to play at it. But lately I had found myself freeing up and starting to change, but I knew instinctively that play by itself is not enough. You need both work and play, I said to myself, in order to learn and grow.

My research on tunnels turned up: A passage underground for (a) Mining of minerals, (b) Movement of people or things, (c) Conducting water.

The first two seemed significant. I was also struck by the fact that this definition of tunnel was about travel or access, not imprisonment as mine was.

Incidentally, the word tunnel comes from the Old French meaning cask or vault. Cask comes from the Spanish for skull, I found, and as I looked for further associations, I was struck by the expression “cranial vault”, which means “the dome of the skull”. Was my tunnel a symbol for my own skull? Was being stuck in this tunnel analogous to being stuck in my own head?

The word “nexus”, I thought, meant intersection (as in fork in the road), but the precise definition is a bond, a linked group, and, most of all, “a means of connection between parts”. A reference, perhaps, to the reformation of the split between my right and left? 

That night I dreamt of being terrified by a white rat that was trying to eat my genitals as I lay, partially paralysed and helpless, on the floor. Awoke in sweat.


Five days later was my next appointment with Penny and James.

That morning

That morning I awoke, and this was not a dream, with a strong image in my consciousness. I’m standing in a tunnel – a big tunnel with high ceilings. Almost as though it was naturally occurring, not man-made. The walls are encrusted with glittering things, ores, veins of precious metals, jewels. I’m close to and looking at the left wall, the right is eight or ten metres away, and the ceiling is anywhere between ten and twenty metres high. Sense of a very strong light source ahead. I’m exploring – free to stop and dawdle and look round, but always the awareness of an overall journey and ultimate destination. I have a pouch at my side to collect things I find, and I’m examining a particularly large precious gem embedded in the left wall.

This is the merging I was hoping for. Structure and space combined and invested in each other to form shape, direction and meaning. You can’t have language without both consonants and vowels. Play is meaningless without some rules, and a journey is meaningless without direction, but the rules themselves don’t make play and a direction alone doesn’t make a journey. You need someone to give themselves to it, their individuality, their spirit, their unique will, being, and divinity. I’m rambling .

I was struck by the closeness to the left wall, which in my original decision metaphor was the “in relationship” side. Did it mean the same now? Why was I examining this huge gem? Was that my relationship? What was I to do next? Pull it out of the wall, leave it, go to the right side of the tunnel? No idea.

What I do know is that I felt deeply compelled to deal directly with the issue of sex. I felt certain that that was the thing to deal with next.

Session 2

I gave Penny and James a broad indication of my history with the inhibitions and fears and failures I’d had with it, and the many contributing factors – single Catholic mother, the way she used to cover my eyes when something erotic or sexual happened on the telly, no male role models, chronic shyness, etc., etc., but I told them I felt sure that really there was one uniting thing under all this. I’d pursued various forms of therapy before that time, and trying to exorcise the problems in the form of their details was of no use. What was needed was a deeper approach.

There’s just an “I can’t have it” about sex, you know?

And what’s that like?

It’s like I’m small, say three to five years old, and I’m standing at the iron fence around a playground and all the other kids are playing inside and I want to be with them and I can’t and my hands are holding the bars and I’m looking through at them and I so want to be allowed in but I’m not. (Tears)

And what is stopping you from joining them?

I thought long and hard about this, and as I did so, a memory which I had intended to tell them earlier but had forgotten came to me:

During puberty, when I used to lie awake and fantasise about being with girls I could see their faces and breasts but everything below the waist (on them and me) was just sort of not there. Like a blind spot, almost. If it could speak it would say “You’ll find out when you’re older” (my grandmother’s favourite line) or “To be filled in later “. Even though I knew what was practically involved in the sex act, as far as my imagination was concerned, there was no sense of what went on down there, much less that it could be or would be pleasant.

What kind of eyes are they that see nothing below the waist?

I struggled with this, and it felt like I was guessing when I answered: My mother’s eyes.

Penny mimicked my mother’s-covering-the-eyes motion. And where is mother?

This was one of the toughest to answer. I sat and thought for ages. (I was later told that this was OK as the information that the conscious mind does not have immediately at its disposal may be more valuable than the information it does.)

Once again, it felt like guessing at first, but the more I verbalised it, the more it felt real for me until it was a undeniable reality:

Behind me, above and behind me. And it’s like we’re bonded like there’s no space between our flesh like we’re one body and oh god she’s holding on to me and holding me back from going into the playground because she wants me for herself and she’s terrified of being alone because my daddy left us alone together and she’s really frightened (Lots and lots of tears) I remember my stepfather would go away on business and when she felt lonely she let me sleep in her bed with her and I liked that because I always had trouble sleeping otherwise, and one day she said I couldn’t sleep with her anymore because it was “dangerous” and I didn’t understand that because I was only eleven or so but it made me feel weird that she said that.

You can see that part of Penny and James’ skill is sorting through such a flood of material when it comes to pick out and pursue what’s most constructive for the client’s desired outcome.

Further questions established my mother’s feelings and motives at the time and the fact that I had been subconsciously aware of all of them (a real surprise to me) and that I had consented to playing her surrogate spouse in my father’s absence in exchange for her attention and affection, if not actual parental love. In effect, I had surrendered my lower body, my animal self, my naughty unpredictable playful self to her control, because her response to my disobedience or distance from her was as out of proportion as it was frightening. 

She punished and shamed my spontaneity and my sexuality. I resolved in myself, at an unbelievably young age, to champion her cause, to never let her down, and make up for my father’s “mistakes”. (I was always a big fan of Arthurian legend and it interesting to note that the Queen’s champion was usually a knight who was not only a formidable warrior but also a devout one – in other words, his code of honour was based on the austerities of monk-hood and he more often than not would be sworn to chastity. Was I her knight in shining armour?)

I just wanted to make everything all right – and I paid a high price for it.

What would bond like to happen?

To be broken

Can it?

I believe so

And what has to happen for this bond to be broken?

I need to get her off, off me (gestures as if to ward off my mother’s grip on my shoulders)

And what would happen just before that?

For some reason I seem surrounded by this green translucent glue and its suffocating me and I need to get out

And can you get out?

I just need to do this (gesture as if creating a crack in this sphere and parting it and the chest moves forward as if becoming free of it) and – oh, yeah – it feels like its fallen away from me

And what’s that like?

It’s like I’m sitting erect in a white void. I can breath easily and I feel exhausted and in need of recuperation but OK.

And where are you looking?

Up and forward, Down and forward, Within

And what kind of eyes are they that look up and forward, down and forward, and within?

They’re my eyes

And what has happened to mother?

She’s still behind me but she’s a long way off. We’re physically separate.

And what has happened to bond?

It’s much longer because of the distance and its thinner, almost ethereal

… I feel like I’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson but my lower body is tingling, aware.

And later

In the days that followed, I had a number of memory fragments. But the biggest revelation in the next fortnight was that it was not the external aspect of my decision (whether or not to continue the relationship and move in with my girlfriend) that was important – after all, one can make a decision and change it after six months if necessary. What was important was the internal state of mind that I brought to the decision, the relationship, and to my whole life. The extent to which I could live my life without being ruled by my buried past or by things in me that were hidden. That, it seems clear to me, is the true prize in the quest for self-knowledge.

It’s five weeks later, and I now live with my girlfriend. I’m still realising things, and still working on the relationship, and to be honest – all the issues have not gone away overnight. It takes a while to process these things. But I can say that I am happy to be where I am, more empowered than I was before, and I confident that I am going to get to wherever it is that I’m going to.

Dec 1998

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