Saturday, 26 July 2014

Life on the Magic Carpet

All week I had been sitting on a sensible conference room chair, on the hard glazed tiled floor, looking slightly enviously at the antics on the ‘magic carpet’, at the front. I think it’s about 3m x 6m, cobalt blue background with symmetrical geometric floral patterns in carmine, mustard, black and white, with a coarse weave. Although a bit gaudy, it looked like an almost sacred space on which much of the real business of intensive physical support took place. I noticed that, backstage, they had a collection of rugs, sheets and very soft pillows that were brought out from time-to-time.
At its fullest, I counted thirty seven people on the carpet, including a baby, a toddler, probably a dozen children, twenty-odd adults, and two dogs (the only concession to greencare!).
Detail from the Magic Carpet
But far more interesting than the brute facts was what was happening on it – it seemed to have a whole sub-culture of its own. It was the way in which transient physical contact was continually happening – and wordlessly defining and delivering immensely supportive non-sexual, but very intimate, short term physical relationships. So, to try and be as objective as I can about something so fluid, dynamic and wordless, I shall start with a ‘hierarchy of closeness’ which I soon observed. But of just what was it a hierarchy? Several answers to this crossed my mind over the week – including
·        familiarity with the method (perhaps like the in-crowd and the newbies);
·        how far people had gone in the ‘transition’ process (the more ‘transitioned’ being much more active on the carpet);
·        similar, but with those I saw as ‘staff’ being much easier with using their bodies there;
·        how much ‘space inside them’ people had to offer support – and on the other side of the coin, whoever was most needing of support (the physical support itself could take place in the conference chairs, with people sitting either side, in front and behind - but more commonly happened on the carpet. In fact, people were often led from their chairs onto the carpet by a couple of others when they were looking particularly upset or agitated);
·        how comfortable people were with touching others spontaneously and without explicit permission – including cultural factors (it is certainly not very British behaviour!), age, gender, physical characteristics etc;
·        how comfortable people were with their own bodies.
·        And probably plenty of other things beside.

Life on the carpet
So, what did this hierarchy look like? I'm sure academics and social scientists have done this with far more scientific rigour - but I just wanted to try and capture and understanding of it from being almost in the midst of it, though slightly on the sidelines. Also, I wanted to find a way to communicate it to others back home - in a way we can think about if to, and how to, use it in our own programmes. And I had plenty of time sitting in Bari airport waiting to board my delayed flight home!

Starting with the least connectedness, this is what I made of it:
(1) the least involved were individuals sitting there, not in contact with each other, cross-legged (1a) or legs in front (knees bent (1b) or flat in front (1c)) watching whoever was talking at the time. When a bit more at ease, or familiar with the ways of the carpet, people would become recumbent, though still without any contact with each other:
(2) lying back on an elbow, left-lateral or right-lateral (2a), or lying flat on their back (2b). That’s pretty much all you can do by yourself, so the next levels of the hierarchy introduce touching:
(3) simple touching, such as hand on shoulder, head, foot or back (3a) – just for a second or two; (3b) sustained for a few minutes or more.
(4) as (3), but with gentle continual caressing, stroking or rubbing.
(5) Stroking cheeks, caressing hair, or rubbing head (the latter being more common with children) – without eye contact (5a) or with short eye contact (5b) or long eye contact (5c)
(6) The next level up the carpet hierarchy which I observed, and thought was a significant step up the hierarchy, was continuous contact of big areas of the body. It seemed to have numerous variations: (6a) sitting back-to-back, facing opposite directions; (6b) sitting side-by-side both looking the same way; (6c) holding hands, fingers together; (6d) holding hands, fingers interlaced; (6e) including embracing, arms round shoulders or waists; (6e) sat behind or to either side, embracing or hugging; (6f); ditto, but also including having faces very close together or; (6g) touching. Then moving on to (6h) head resting in the other’s lap (6i) lying together with full contact between one person’s front and the other person’s back. Small children would often also go on to full contact front-to-front (6j), but I assume that didn’t happen at all between adults because of its sexual implications. However, complete entanglement at all sorts of angles and postures (only possible for children or young people with considerable physical supplenesss) did happen – and probably represents (6k).
The next level up the hierarchy, (7), would be to add movement – such as caressing or stroking – while people are already in that continuous physical contact.
Kissing – perhaps (8) – is hard to place in this hierarchy, because it fits in at almost all the levels above (2). Again, if one wanted to describe a kissing hierarchy, perhaps it could be described as (8a) air kisses; (8b) lateral cheeks; (8c) forehead, nose, chin, shoulders, neck, back; (8d) lips (but never prolonged or remotely sexual).
If this scale continued, one might well expect (9) to include erogenous zones and (10) to be sexual intercourse – but, interestingly, this never looked or felt remotely likely. To the ‘northern European eyes’ I mentioned on the first day, it’s hard to say exactly why not - but I think it’s an unspoken combination of trust and respect (‘I trust you that this is not at all about sex’), purposefulness (we are here to support each other towards better health), as well as a sense that ‘something more important is being done here’, and that sex would confuse or even spoil it. It was also seen in the almost complete gender-blindness with which people did physically support each other – which was only different when the particular circumstance required it (such as a man needing male support in a tyrannical mother discussion, or a woman needing to understand what support from a good father felt like).

After the long-distance people had said their goodbyes, the carpet was looking a bit empty – so, feeling that I had missed out on something that might be important, and rather than sitting in the conference chairs, I thought I would summon up the nerve to give it a try. It was fine - I lasted there until the final review finished at 0025 on Saturday morning. For the first hour or so, I was happy with (1) and (2) – slouching around on the carpet like you might do in front of the fire or TV at home. But then, as people came and went, there was quite a lot of symmetrical touch (3), brief caressing (4) and long big goodbye hugs.

Hugging is another important part of it all – though they obviously didn’t all happen on the carpet - anywhere in the hotel was fine. In the conference room, there was a frequently used ritual which was both playful and sincere. Whenever somebody was given a hug in front of everybody, for something they did or said, everybody started applauding, and then slowly shouting out ‘uno... due.. tre... quattro... cinque... sei... sette... otto... nove... diece’ (also sometimes done in English or German) - usually up to ten but all the way to twenty for particularly special ones. I got one of these when I clambered out of the swimming pool, fully clothed and dripping wet, at the end of the last night party...

When I was lounging on the carpet though, the ease of it all felt like it differed with who the contact was with, and I expect this is not how it should be. For me it was also riddled with typically neurotic English doubts like – ‘am I OK to be doing this?’; ‘will they think I’m being presumptuous?’; ‘am I doing this right?’ and numerous similar concerns. But – obviously with the worrying head rather than the open heart - the big question for me was what were the signs and signals that allowed, maintained or escalated it. It was easy to work it out for the times people were in visible distress – talking about emotional subjects, difficulty speaking, tearfulness, as well as the more overtly angry, aggressive and violent outbursts: people just quietly and compassionately moved over to people and offered them the physical support thy needed. Indeed I experienced this several times myself when I was speaking or clearly moved – if I was faltering, or talking about strong feelings, one or more people would almost magically appear next to me. And my experience of it was entirely caring and loving – with reciprocal gratitude and appreciation - although a little embarrassing for my English propriety and reserve!

Back on the carpet, when I was lying down looking at the ceiling, there was one member of the group with whom I felt that I had established a particularly easy relationship, who came to sit nearby. So I (mostly consciously, wrongly thinking through the things I mentioned above) decided to seek that comfort and connectedness of physical contact – and moved my head into his lap (6g, above). After a few minutes of mutual caressing and contact, the active situation of the group moved on – people moved around, and I returned to sitting cross-legged. So although that was probably my furthest excursion into this world of impromptu physical support, it did feel powerfully meaningful; you could easily describe it using TC words like ‘belongingness’ or analytic ones such as ‘containment’.

But, all in all, I couldn't fathom the ‘rules’ for it – and in a very immediate and emotional way it transcended any strictly objective analysis like that. When I first arrived, I found the amount and intensity of it all shocking and energising in equal measure – and can quite understand why people run away and subsequently denigrate it (based on fear of closeness, of course).  But, seeing how genuine and caring this intense physical contact always was – and how utterly authentic and lovely everybody there seemed to be – I really think it needs to be taken seriously as a serious therapeutic intervention, in the right setting and circumstances. Hence my trying to make sense of it in this way in this blog – but please DO post replies if you have any particular thoughts.

Finally, to return to abstract theory, I believe it is absolutely connected to pre-verbal life – both ontogenetically (as we develop ourselves, from babies needing nurturance) and phylogenetically (as we have developed as a species – with the evolution of sophisticated cortical function, which many aspects of modern life have wrongly championed over limbic ones). We forget, suppress or ignore our emotions – and deeper numinous and spiritual experiences - at our peril.

Most psychotherapies recognise this, but some do not. But I have said enough about this before!

Just a thought about greencare here. One thing I often say is that people with severe borderline conditions very often trust animals much more than they do humans - obviously because they have been so badly let down or abused by humans in their past. They get great comfort from looking after animals, and are very physically free with them - as indeed are most people. This can be a very useful precursor to trusting humans enough to talk and start exploring their experience therapeutically - I well remember a mute and deeply depressed and hostile young woman in a TC who came alive, with almost an inner radiance, when she was with animals - but returned to her impenetrable and mute sullenness in the community meetings. But over time, step by step, for example talking to her when she was with the animals, she was able to engage in the therapy. But this process - of doing the comforting physical contact with humans - seems to be very effective in short-circuiting the need to relate to animals, and very quickly developing an uncanny level of trust between people.

So, lastly, a few words of thanks for those who made this remarkable experience possible. It all started with with Enzo Bellomo, the Italian cardiologist I met in London a couple of years ago, when I was speaking at a James Naylor Foundation event. After a while, he came to see what we are up to in our greencare project and TC in Slough, and introduced me to Mariano Loiacono at a small seminar I arranged at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. When I was then invited to the intensive week, it was like a seven days of white space in my diary – where I didn’t know what I would be doing, but knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. For that white space – which turned out to be such a nurturant oasis in my overbooked symbolic-rational schedule – I must give all my heartfelt thanks to Dr Mariano Loiacono and his amazing team at the Fondazione Nuovo Specie Olnus.


  1. Ciao Rex,
    your posts are so interesting and precise. Really thank you for your analitic and deep personal overview. It has been such pleasure to meet you. You were very important and generous during the intensive week. Hope we meet you again soon. Maybe in october in UK.
    A very big big hug to you

    Gaetano - gpascolla [at]

  2. Great analysis and interpretation of the use of the carpet and the overall week. It has been a pleasure getting to know you Rex and I hope we can arrange to meet soon.
    Take care

  3. Awesome article, and amazing writing skills to express in expressing in word such an "intensive week"!
    Cheers for the good read,