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  • Sarah Beth Hughes, B.S.W., MSc

Prayer and Protest: Practices of Tender Therapy

The only tangible things I have left of my working relationship and friendship with Michael White are his books, articles, and the few video recordings of him that are available online. I love these things, and they help, but they are so very different than my intangible, felt memory of him and his ways of connecting to people. I sold the books for the Dulwich Centre and travelled with Michael to his teachings in North America and Europe for eleven years. I got to see many, many Michael trainings across those years and I got to hang out with Michael and many of his friends. Many of his friends have become my friends and that is another lovely way I get to hold onto my memories of him through our ongoing conversations. I also hold inside me a sense of tender and respectful practices that I feel are the heart and soul of the Narrative Worldview.

Michael would often see people in a live session during a workshop and this was always enthralling to me and how I learned the most from him. I would start off scared for the people who were putting themselves out there in this way as I imagined how vulnerable this might feel. Michael always put such care in how he looked after people and my fears would calm down as I would see him start out slow and connect to the people about the weather, where they are from, what was on their T-shirt or something that could be seen as small talk. However, this was important talk. Michael was genuinely interested in the answers and in making them feel seen and heard, welcoming them into the conversation by showing practices of hospitality. And in giving them subtle but clear nods to his way of honouring them being experts about their

lives and ways of making meaning. He would not assume anything about them. The conversations slowly built into rich stories where people were interested in their own lives and making new meanings as they gained some altitude to observe their preferences for their own lives. This caring and careful Michael, who gently guided people through these transforming conversations, is the one I want to hold on to in connection to how I want to be with the people in my life. This tenderness as a practice is what I hold inside me as my precious connection to Michael and to my own knowing of what matters most to me.

In Michael’s writing, he often included sections of transcripts of his conversations, perhaps in an attempt to capture some of his tender and transformational ways of being with clients. I am not sure the tenderness always comes across. Not for me anyway, as his powerful and connected way of being with people went beyond the words that were spoken. I love his writing, don’t get me wrong. He is brilliant, well read, gives clarity behind his thinking. This is Intellectual Michael White: the teacher, writer, thinker and revolutionary. You can read his books and learn so much and he inspires so many people. Who I want to introduce you to and figure out how to describe, is Tender Michael. This is who he was when he was meeting with people, doing the work, attuning in profound ways.

How do I write about this tender attunement in words?

I will attempt to do this, and I invite you, if it feels okay to you, to feel into some of the words and ideas. I ask this as I think this concept goes beyond words and so I invite your body into the reading.

Notice what might feel expansive. Or what lights you up inside.

Notice what does not.

What activates your thoughts, your sense of possibility...

Witness yourself, in your body, reading these words as an experience.

Maybe this sounds crazy, but I know part of what keeps Michael alive in me is that felt sense, the resonance moving through me. Sometimes this is a calm, ‘yes, this feels right’ and sometimes it is an opening up, an excited sense of thinking or knowing beyond what I knew was possible. Or a new direction appears and ideas and questions flow in an unexpected way. A way that allows me to see outside of the usual therapy questions, the familiar maps and into new territory that is very specific and, hopefully, meaningful to the person I am talking to. I see them relax into this flow or perhaps sit forward with new curiosity about what they might discover in their own answer. This is the tender attunement that Michael demonstrated, and I try to bring out in my way.

I will try to explain what I mean by attunement practices. For me, being in tune with a client — or a friend or any person I am talking to — is important as it creates a connection, a flow between us that feels safe and like a channel is open where we can explore together. I do this by slowing down on the inside and really tuning into the other person. What they say, their energy, how they are moving and how they respond to what I say. If I ask a person if it is okay to ask about their mom who recently died and they say “Yes, of course.”, I also notice what their body is saying. I might feel a kind of wall come up in them, I notice their hands went into fists and then opened up again, I may hear a slight sense of resignment in the “of course.” So, I step back a bit and say that we don’t have to start there or go there at all. I feel them settle a wee bit and I put my hands in fists mirroring them and wonder about what I noticed in their hands. One person might also tighten their hands and then note how they feel so much tension about their mom and this might lead to a whole new conversation about their ambiguous feelings about grief and their uncertainty about how to feel. Another person might freeze up if I ask about their body and I see how uncomfortable this feels and so I shift to asking about their cat, Rolly, and the joy he brings, and I feel them lighten up. I am not trying to manipulate in order to reach a specific goal, but I am trying to notice and follow what feels safe, what develops connection and trust, what speed feels matched up, what helps them feel heard and what helps build solid ground under them before we go into any possible uncomfortable areas. I want to have them feel that I am holding an understanding of them that feels good to them, and their particular identity built on what and who matters to them. For me, an understanding of what matters to them is important to develop meaning around and a felt sense of this between us. This is a different dance for each person and each new time we talk. And it is my job to notice the missteps in the dance, even the tiniest bit of misalignment, and then find a way to realign. I feel like this is gentle attunement, and I say gentle as it should be with a humble tenderness and flexibility that is not obvious or over the top. The hope is to create a connection that feels safe and mutual and is growing from the ground of what the person most cares about and most wants to explore together.

In 2006, a year before he died, Michael taught a weeklong intensive course on Trauma and Violence in Spokane, Washington. On the first morning, he introduced the work by saying, “this will be a week of prayer and protest.” And he described the work as tender therapy. I wrote down those words at the top of my page - prayer and protest - a tender therapy. I felt like these words, the concepts that I knew were coming, they felt like a prayer inside me, changed how I

work, live, and breathe. Both/And. I could both be tender and powerful. I could both have a gentle loving approach to my work AND stand up in resistance, protest what is not okay. I can do both at the same time. We can do both at the same time. We can be tender, soft, kind, attuned and stand for what we accord value to and stand against what does not fit for us.

I wonder if Michael, had he lived longer, would have written the words prayer and protest in an article? Hearing him speak the words was a shift for me. Maybe that is why they caught my heart and mind so deeply. He never, in my experience with him, described his work this way before. In fact, he was careful about how he spoke of spirituality and wanted to be sure this was understood as a kind of tangible spirituality.

He said in a published interview called On Ethics and Spiritualities of the Surface:

Although I find many of the contemporary immanent/ascendant notions of spirituality to be quite beautiful, and the notion of the soul far more aesthetically pleasing than the notion of the psyche, and although I remain interested in exploring the proposals for life or, if you like, the ethics, that are associated with these notions of spirituality, I am more interested in what might be called the material version of spirituality. Perhaps we could call these the spiritualities of the surface. ...

These are the spiritualties that can be read in the shape of people’s identity projects, in the steps people take in knowing the formation of the self. This is a form of spirituality that concerns with the forming of one’s personal ethics, that is reflected in the care one takes to attain success in a style of living. This is a transformative spirituality in that it so often has to do with becoming other than the received notion of who one is. This is a form of spirituality that relates not to the non- material, but to the tangible. ( White, M. Reflections on Narrative Practice, page 132)

In that same workshop, he was saying the word prayer and he described the work of therapist’s as gently and soothingly washing the feet of our clients so they felt safe and cared for. He meant the feet, as I think of it, as grounding of clients in safe territory of their life, having them feel connected to a sense of identity, feeling into what they accord value to – and yet, here he was invoking an image of Jesus humbly washing the feet of the prophets. And he connected this to a tangible act of creating a context of safety. I had been going to his workshops, working at his side for eleven years and never once did he speak so openly about how he works in this soothing way. And I knew he meant this as a practice, a spirituality of the surface. I love holding onto the feeling that my work is about soothing, that feels so valuable to me and I crave to hear this taught about. Usually, Intellectual Michael would teach, and Tender Michael would see the clients in the workshops. Intellectual Michael had spoken of maps of practice, rigor, ethics, questions, meaning making, story development and maybe a bit about attunement. But I had not heard him speak of tenderness. It is hard to convey in speaking and writing and yet in the words of prayer and the soothing act of washing the feet, I get a felt sense of his tender practices.

After he died, I felt the hole, the absence of him and his ways in so much of what I was seeing in the world of narrative practices. I heard people echoing his ideas, his tone of voice, his languaging of questions – but I felt something was missing. I could not put my finger on what is was. What was missing? What was I craving? It felt connected to it being a tender therapy.

I found myself carrying around the now tattered, little spiral notebook full of my notes from that 2006 workshop. I opened the first page and saw those words – prayer and protest. I put the little book in my purse, my computer case and I took it on trips. It was my talisman. My visual reminder of Michael and that feeling of connecting to this tender way of working.

What does that feel like? I can tune in by seeing that little blue notebook in my mind’s eye. Or by feeling into my heart, looking for the calm Michael feeling. Is this prayer? I don’t know. That is not a practice I grew up with, it is an idea I pushed against. And I am not praying to Michael. Heavens No! He did not want to be a guru, he made that clear in his responses to people who treated him like he was the holder of some special knowledges. So not in that way, but he did have ways of thinking and being that educated me, or brought forward in me how I most want to be. That important knowing of how I want to be, the tenderness, is connected to my relationship with Michael. I hold that in my heart in a specific, soft woolen brown, settled feeling of knowing what matters here in this moment. Questions for clients arise softly out of this place.

Questions that are attuned to how this person is feeling, what might get them curious about themselves, what might soothe them and spark a connection to what matters to them.

This feeling I am calling my practice of tenderness. I strive to hold these ways in my work, in my life. In all my relationships.

What does this have you thinking and feeling? Does tenderness resonate with you? Or another embodied practice? Or ideas such as kindness, compassion, practicalness. What might your preferred practices of life look like? What is the history of this for you?

I ask about practices, as my version of Michael would ask us to move beyond the word and into the practice of it. He might say something like be careful of seeing this word or idea as a substance. “I have tenderness” sounds like I have something inside me, a measurable amount of a substance called tenderness, or it could be attunement, kindness or self-esteem. Is it too low or too high? Check the measuring cup. Michael loved to draw out with images how we think about ideas. He would not want these ideas to become substances or nouns, but he would remind us they are practices, verbs. I practice tenderness. Thinking about it this way is helpful as a reminder that I do not need to be perfect at it, but I need to keep practicing, keep trying, and keep learning. And keep connecting to the “why this matters” to me, how it connects to what I accord value to.

If this word is a substance, a noun, it can’t be questioned. How the other person responds does not matter.

I’m doing it like this because I love you. I’m giving you my tender heart.

Well, if it doesn’t feel loving or tender to the other person – the receiver of it – then it is not. If you say something loving and it hurts the other person – it is abuse in the name of love. That is the danger of it just being a word and not a practice.

Questions I might explore to develop my practice of the concept of tender attunement:

What is the history of this concept?

What are the particularities of the practice?

How do I do this in relationship? It is not just up to me how I define tenderness as I am also working with the response of the receiver.

How often have you heard someone say things like they value respect and non-judgmental ways, but you don’t feel it in them? You can’t trust it as it is just words, a display and not concepts and practices of living. And I know I have been to therapists who have told me that this is a safe space here and it sure did not feel safe to me. I am sure I have done this or similar things at times. I do not want to declare ideas, but I want to construct these concepts together, feel them as congruent and practice them together.

How do we develop concepts?

The Narrative Worldview and post-structuralism invite us to see that concepts are alive and changeable, near and particular to us and not just words or ideas about human nature. Michael warned us frequently not to get trapped in the cul-de-sacs of human nature. That is, we forget to question some words and ideas as we get caught up in the belief/discourse of human nature like it is natural to be kind, good and have hope... I find myself caught in these traps frequently. Especially if I jive with the words. I found myself in a cul-de-sac of human nature last week when I was running a group for people with grief from a traumatic death. A woman was talking about her daughter and how they both shared non-judgmental ways and how important that was to them both. I agreed, smiled, and nodded. Now when I think back, I see how I might have developed that into a concept, a set of practices with a rich history particular to her and her daughter and perhaps connecting them. That might have been more useful to her and led her to possible steps and a sense of agency rather than just agreeing with her. What was I even agreeing with? I don’t know what the word “non-judgmental” means to her or what the concept looks like in action in her life. And, luckily, I am practicing so I don’t have to be perfect and now I can come back to this with her and ask her some questions, if she is okay with this, and perhaps help to thicken this concept and this might bring a richer connection to her daughter. If there was not another group, I could send her an email to let her know I was wondering about what this idea of being non-judgmental means to her and what it looks like in practice.

Words can become concepts if the story of the word is developed richly, across time in what in Narrative Practices is called re-authoring conversations. This builds the complexity of the idea and a person’s stance on it. Why does this concept matter to the person? And not in a naturalistic way – basic human nature – which comes from an internal idea, like that we have basic goodness in us, or we all have hope. These ideas are not bad, but they limit where we can go. Narrative conversations are more interested in intentional understandings that are multistoried and connect to our intentions for life. These understanding of what matters to us, helps these words move into concepts and practices that help us know how to proceed in relationships and in life. We cannot live by just words, but concepts help us move forward, know how we want to live.

Here are some writing prompts and questions to play with...

As you read this, what word or concept sparked in you, lit up your interest? What ideas were brought forth that you want to play with?

Tenderness, loving, kindness, practicing, curiosity, respectfulness, non judging, care, love or....

Why is this word important to you?

What is your relationship to it?

What do you want your relationship to be?

What is some of the history of the relationship to this?

Who does it connect you to?

What story of it might you tell?

When you look at this story, what are the practices of it?

What sometimes gets in the way of these practices?

What is your stance on what gets in the way?

What practices/steps/acts might you take that are fitting with the stand you are taking?

As you have been exploring this concept of _______ and what gets in the way of ________ - have you had any realizations?

Why are these important to you?

What do you want to remember?

When you feel into this concept, your realizations, your preferred practices of this out- how does this feel in you body?

What sensations arise?

Do any images, colours, metaphors arise out of this feeling?

If it is helpful to remember this feeling, what might be a good way to hold onto it?


Savour the feeling for a little longer, really notice how it feels in you. This helps It stay in your body, supports your nervous system.

Can you see it as an image, a shape, or a colour?

Maybe draw or paint this. Play around with colours that capture a bit of the taste of this feeling.

Take a photo that reminds you of this – i.e. the pink clouds of the morning, two birds on a wire

Keep writing about it. What stories can you tell about this? Childhood – teen years – recent past or.....possible future...

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