AEDP West Sunday Seminar
with Candyce Ossefort Russell, M.A., L.P.C.
February 15, 2009 | San Anselmo, CA
Faith in the Night: Staying With What Is

REVIEW by Karen Pando-Mars and Lisa Hauck-Loy

On  February 15, at the Sunday Seminar in San Anselmo, CA, AEDP West was thrilled to have Candyce Ossefort Russell present, Faith in the Night: Staying With What Is. We had a great turnout and an enthusiastic and involved audience.

Candyce opened the afternoon with a demonstration of her commitment to authentic presence. She told us that knowing herself, she needed to start slowly and attune to herself and the group. She took a quiet moment and looked around the room. Then, she read us one of her favorite poems, You Darkness, by Rilke, the last line of which echoed throughout the day, I have faith in the night.

This is the beauty of Candyce and her work; she embodies that which she speaks. Having lived through her own dark night with the help of a willing and able therapist among others, she knows about that night, what it feels like to walk through it and look into every dark cranny, accompanied. She lives the life of one who has emerged heart, soul and psyche tempered, bright, soft and strong. Through reflecting on and processing her own experience, she has learned not only what is required to be the one who accompanies and how to “be with” another, but how to demonstrate and talk about it.

There were some powerful points that Candyce illustrated with questions and notes, poetry and quotes which became the framework for her presentation. We have attempted to summarize them here in this write up.

Fundamentally, for a patient to share powerful affect, she/he needs to feel safe, the therapist’s presence, and the therapist’s belief in why it is worth it to go into pain. Safety elicits powerful core affect, and the experience of feeling safe expressing core affect increases affective competence. Expression and reception of core affect create transformation. We promise our clients that we will be receptive, open, present, and regulated so that we can help regulate them. We want the patient to never again feel alone with overwhelming emotion.

We have to be ready to “take it”, to hold a lot. Candyce acknowledged that this is no small thing we are asking of ourselves, saying, “Empathy is not for the faint of heart.” Limbic resonance is required as we feel with our patients and allow our own feelings to be contingent with theirs. When trauma is experienced, our worldviews of safety can be shattered. Candyce emphasized how it is essential that we not be alone when we enter these dark places with our patients. In order to be affectively competent, we must neither defend against or get lost in our patients powerful affects and we need to be comfortable with the discomfort that may arise in the process. For this, we need support and community.

Candyce ’s next slide said, “Today, let me hold your hand” and the following quote from the Hafiz poem, Today.

      “Something has happened
      To my understanding of existence
      That now makes my heart always full of wonder
      And kindness.

Candyce put forth how being with patients in the darkness means she must have “faith in the night” in order to stay with what is. She shared what she sees as three building blocks for such faith. The first building block was science, the theoretical constructs of neuroscience and attachment theory. We can now see neurological changes from full emotional experiences. Dyadic emotional regulation creates attachment security, which allows curiosity and exploration, thus development. The second, our experience witnessing the transformation that happens for our patients when they express deep emotion deepens such faith. The third building block is our own visceral personal affective experience.

Seventeen years ago, Candyce experienced a sudden profound loss, deep grief, and was partnered by friends, family and her therapist “into death”. In this presentation, Candyce shared some of what she learned as she “crafted a new world in the void.” She named deepened compassion, humility, non-judgment, and love of life, courage, gratitude, abundance and universal connection. To then witness patients’ transformations further solidified her faith. Having emerged with faith in the night Candyce knows fearlessness as she values dark places, trusts in the process, trusts patients’ hearts, and can hold and discern between deep core affect and unbearable aloneness.

Questions arose from the audience about this discernment. “How do you know the difference between the black hole and deep crying?” Candyce paused, gathered her felt sense and articulated her experience. “The difference is between falling and flowing. In falling there’s no floor, there’s desperation, and I need to put a floor in. In flowing, I look into the vastness, into the tender places, with her”. In unbearable aloneness, there’s stuckness and looping that lacks language. In flowing, there is a moving through with direction. There is language to describe even the core affect of despair.

More questions arose about what to do when patients feel unbearably alone and have a hard time taking in the therapist. Candyce described how she might call up the patient’s defenses, like intellectualization, in a proactive and adaptive way, as tools to help provide a floor. She gave an example of saying to a patient, “This feels like a lost place, you regulate your feeling by thinking, let's think about how we got here so we can regulate this big feeling that way". She may simply say, "Can you see me? Let's come back to the present."

Candyce shared a quote from Stephen Levine, Unattended Sorrow about “softening our pain with mercy” instead of hardening it with fear. The heart expands, as “my” pain becomes ”the” pain, finding in our own pain the pain we all share. Odd as it may sound, when we share the insights arising from our pain, we become more able to honor “the pain.”

As the path of the self-righting tendency took us to the universal, the reciprocal cascading nature of such transformational processes was illustrated. Transformation begets transformation. Candyce encouraged us to be mindful, to allow for our own transformational experiences in everyday life to open doors. “It is the openness to what is that transforms.” This openness to what is was beautifully evidenced in the work Candyce brought to share with us.

Candyce introduced her patient who grew up with a raging, hateful mother and a terrorizing, abusive alcoholic father. She described her childhood as extremely traumatic. J had been in therapy prior to her work with Candyce, which began six months earlier than these sessions. She was motivated in her therapy and was very resilient, although she still struggled with a tendency towards shame spirals. She had recently joined Candyce’s writing group. The value of having patients in both individual therapy and group work concurrently was clear as we watched Candyce help J process her shame experiences from the group. This work depicted her healing journey, which in Candyce’s words became not the absence of pain, but the ability to meet it with mercy instead of self-loathing.

In the first tape, J comes into the session after an experience in her group therapy with Candyce which caused her suffering. The aftermath of the group experience left J in a tug-of war about her participation. She asked “Is it ok to say I don’t want to do it anymore because I suffer?” She had had a headache for days since the group experience. Candyce calmly guided her to deepen her attention to the pain she felt in her head, and J found “I want to die.” She spoke of her great pain and shame, and how paralyzing she felt it to be, with no way to freedom.   All the while, Candyce responded in her lilting voice, as though cradling J with her gently, rocking presence. J was apologetic that she wasn’t giving Candyce more information, to which she replied how she was receiving lots of information and direction. Then J said, “I feel like all I do is cause pain. There’s no place for me.”

At this point Candyce revealed her deep compassion saying, ”No wonder you want to die.” So clearly and fearlessly – she reflected J’s experience and held her, understanding just how dire her state. Candyce spoke her sense that the shame made it seem like J was underwater. “You’re under a big tsunami of shame and looking out from under that water of shame the world is distorted. How ‘bout I take your hand and tell you what I saw in the group. I didn’t see what you saw. Can I tell you what I saw? Courageous, articulate, I was so moved by you and impressed by what you did and the risk you took.”

This was such a rich demonstration of the allowing, being with an experience first, not trying to change anything, enabling a deepening unfolding to the point that the essence of the pain revealed itself. There could be a new meeting of the experience with a true other who could offer another perspective. A perspective of the best self which J could actually receive and allow to move her own self as it came from someone she trusts and values and already feels seen and met by. Candyce also deftly used humor: ”It’s an AFOG… another fucking opportunity for growth!” From this point forward the dyad moved from the experience of a deep shame state into core state, building a narrative of the experience and from there moving into transformational affects and the cascading reciprocal experiences of sloughing off the old skin revealing the radiance of self acceptance and love, shared with another who also had tears in her eyes. As the patient emerged from core affect, she quipped, “The goodness in those tears; you need to find an acronym for that!”

Candyce’s second tape was the session following, where she and J processed the positive and transformational affects she was enjoying as a result of the last session. J referred to that session, ”I was sad for me (mourning the self) for being terrified of being alive for so long”. Candyce described a core state session as “just being along for the ride”, but in this one she was still an active healing presence. Candyce observed J to be going through a high level integration, and we could see that, indeed, a profound shift had occurred.

Another beautiful quote from Candyce further articulates this moving process. “The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses it. Love is the bridge”.

Her patient articulated her new state. “I can close my eyes and rest and it feels really good. I need to give my body time to heal. I’m here with me. I’m not alone. I can feel myself!” As she reveled in this shift, the “I don’t have the right to be happy” voice slipped in, and she realized “It’s just the old cells talking.” Then, “It’ll be interesting to see what I have to offer. I used to think I had nothing to offer. Now I’m not afraid.“

Candyce spontaneously exclaimed,” You are delightful!” which landed on J’s open, beaming face. J processed what it felt like ”to feel that you’re special,” and she expressed her gratitude for Candyce’s steady and generous presence through her dark night.

We all felt so fortunate to be at that seminar, to partake in Candyce’s heartfelt sharing and elegant teaching of moving through four states and three state transformations in two sessions. Her holding the tension, between soothing and riding the edge of anxiety into core affect and gracefully and confidently being stronger, kinder and wiser for J to trust and appreciate, was delicious and nourishing!

Gratefully submitted, 
Karen Pando-Mars and Lisa Hauck-Loy