Winifred, my first therapist is still with me, possibly more so than 44 years ago. In my therapeutic work I feel, as Winifred would say, that Something is Happening. A mysterious, numinous force unfolds in each moment and especially in certain therapy sessions. Her ideas from Life’s Currency: Time, Energy and Money are a regular topic of conversation with my older clients. I’ve added Attention as the forth primary resource we have to nurture, protect and use consciously. Almost without thought, Winifred permeates my approach to therapy: spiritual openness, spontaneity, attention to the unconscious and particularly, a focus on dreams.
Of course my recall of Winifred as a person has faded somewhat. For me she has become far more than personal; if I pay attention, I feel her presence deeply embedded in my psyche, an embodied archetype of the Wise Old Woman. Whenever I work with a client’s dream and suddenly know what it is all about, you could imagine Winifred smiling enigmatically and whispering insights into my inner ear.
In my final year at Edinburgh University studying psychology, my future wife, Orianne and I attended a talk by Winifred on dreams at the Salisbury Center. I instantly knew Winifred was the real deal. Unlike a wannabe Fritz Pearls who gave a presentation on Gestalt Therapy or the well-meaning counselor who ran weekend Encounter Groups, Winifred was fully and consummately herself. Her passionate and fundamental trust in the spiritual unconscious permeated every word she spoke.
Soon after, Orianne and I were going to her house at 6.00 pm each Wednesday to join a dream group of 10 participants. The structure of the group was loosely based on Montague Ullman’s ideas: we listened to the dream and gave our own personal associations and responses—no projections or interpretations allowed. Winifred even suggested we not meet outside the group or know too much about each other’s lives. The dream was the thing.
Winifred talked about her life experience but was often silent in the group, so when she made an observation, it was startling and somewhat unsettling. A friend of ours told a dream in which a big poodle played a prominent part. Winifred peered across the group through her large glasses and said with intensity, “You really loved your father!” Our friend looked as if she’d touched a live wire—bolt upright, eyes wide. I knew she was currently filled with rage at her father. Winifred had reached beneath the anger to touch a little girl’s longing for her daddy.
One memorable session, a timid, older woman who hid quietly in the shadows offered a potent dream. Hesitantly in a faint Scottish voice she explained she’d dreamt of, “having relations with the devil.” Winfred looked her in the eyes and asked the pertinent question: “You mean he fucked you?” I am still in awe at the power of that intervention.
Winifred was not only the intuitive psychotherapist, she was also immensely practical and down to earth. The same friend with the poodle dream later suffered a severe psychotic breakdown. For two days she hallucinated blood everywhere, thought I was a rapist and slept at the end of Orianne’s and my bed at night. Naïve and at our wits end, we finally persuaded this young woman to come with me to see Winifred.
I told Winifred the story; she looked at our friend with deep understanding: “What you need is sleep. We should get you some sleeping pills, but unfortunately I no longer have prescribing ability. But I know a friend who might have some spare ones.”
So we set off—Winifred and I with the friend—along the uneven pavements of Edinburgh. Winifred was very unsteady on her feet, so we had to hold her upright as we tottered along. I cannot think of a better grounding exercise for someone with delusional thinking than to hold onto a wobbly revered elder—it was bizarre and brilliant.
Finally arriving at the pill person’s door, we rang the doorbell, got the capsules and tottered back to Winifred’s home. After taking the pills, our friend slept through the night and most of the next day. Her father came to take her home soon after and she recovered fully.
Towards the end of her life, Winifred’s retina detached and she became suddenly blind. Not long after, she invited Orianne and I to tea. That was the last time I saw her and the meeting is powerfully imprinted on my memory. There was blind Winifred sitting across the small table, quietly drinking her tea as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Then she leaned forward as if imparting a precious secret: “You know, it doesn’t really bother me.” That simple comment about losing her sight has resonated with me down the years.
Even thinking of those words touches me deeply. There is something so powerful and transcendent in the quality of her acceptance. At the end of my own life, I only wish to be able to surrender to whatever happens with such equanimity and appreciation. That is the true sign of completion, of knowing I have done all I need to do in this human body. Then, like Winifred, I can take the next step on the journey toward eternity.