Trump - Brexit - Climate Change - and Psychotherapy..?
We live in strange times. For many of us, these are very disturbing times. Many of us are finding it difficult to navigate the world as it changes around us at an alarming rate, challenging our values, our purpose, even our sense of who we are... We can be facing feelings that are hard to articulate to ourselves, let alone to share with others. Some of these feelings can challenge us at the deepest, existential levels - what is true out there? What is life all about, when the ecosystem is in meltdown? How do I live well in these unprecedented circumstances? What is right action in these times?
Do you need conversation at this existential level? To be met and understood where you happen to be, right now? Contact me!
The Brain as a "Don't Get Killed!" Device
So why is it that negative thoughts can be so troublesome and hard to get rid of? Why do we look at the news and get despairing/anxious? Why is it that we can be so anxious about how we are with other people, how we fit in, whether we're accepted, whether we're good enough? Well - take a look at it this way:
From an evolutionary perspective, what matters most? Survival, right? And in that imperative to stay alive, our strongest suit is our brain. Think hunter-gathering on the savannahs, surviving against sabre-toothed tigers etc. Can't out-run 'em - might outwit 'em. So the mind - the bit of our brain activity we have some awareness of - is a radar, constantly the lookout for danger. Back then - and now. At that level of functioning, not much has changed in hundreds and thousands of years.
And part of our survival is to stay in the group. We're social creatures - we're not built to go it alone. So fitting in, being liked/accepted, being somewhere in the pecking order, is part of survival.
This perspective helps us to see that our anxieties have a useful function - or did have. So when we want to live freer of them and the way they can impede our happiness, we need to start by accepting them (and that part of ourselves). Being kind and loving of those parts of ourselves, understanding where we're coming from, gives us a firmer base from which to move to better states. We won't change ourselves to being calmer, happier etc by bullying ourselves out of our anxieties. Therapy offers a gentle, holistic way forward.
Radical Acceptance 2
Thanks to M - who read my first piece on Radical Acceptance and put me onto Tara Brach's (2003) book of the same name. Well, it seemed unlikely that I'd hit on a completely original idea! And it's great that our thinking is part of our shared life on this planet. And Brach, as a Buddhist practitioner, makes a wonderful use of mindfulness in enabling us to extend a radical acceptance to those tricky parts of ourselves we'd rather do without. She builds a firm base in the practice, using the breath as an anchor for awareness, for the mind to come home to. From that place, one can then locate unpleasant thoughts, images etc, in the body - ie where in the body do I feel most dis-ease when facing this thought? Breathing into that place - heart, chest, forehead, wherever - allowing that discomfort or pain to be held gently and kindly in the breath. Not to change it, but to accept it. The acceptance in gentle awareness may bring ease, or other shifts, but if the aim is to get rid of the dis-ease, we'll fail eventually. This is about accepting our human experience, and holding each part of it in the wider flow of life's energy. A healing, therapeutic prospect.
OK - so... I have a long relationship with depression. I've learned a lot about it, what gets me into it and what gets me out of it. It's the part of me above all others that's what Jung called "The Wounded Healer." I think all therapists have their version of this, however much we might want to sweep it under the carpet. I know that for me, it's what gives me empathy for others' distress.
My acceptance of this part of me has until recently been, well, a bit grudging. I'd rather not have this bit of me, but hey, here it is again, and what can you do?
Looks like I've turned quite a corner on this lately. The notion came to me in my meditation of radical acceptance. Not the reluctant "hey, what can you do?" stuff, but "Well, so I AM really personally down right now about the state of the planet, the poisoning of the atmosphere, the poisoning of public discourse by Trump et al. I feel ill with it... And why wouldn't I? I embrace this response in myself right now. I allow these feelings full access. No apologies. No feeling that "I ought not to feel this way". This is it - this is me - full on, unedited, right now. And (in the words of EFT) I'm OK anyway."
There's something bracing about this embracing of how I happen to be right now. I can be more comfortable in exploring this state... (Often I'm surprised how relieved friends are when I share my downs - like they get permission to articulate their own down states.) And then the state shifts... Something else comes up... There's a flow of experience again, because I'm not blocking anything...
"Work Sex Money - real life on the path of mindfulness" by Chogyam Trungpa (Shambhala, Boston & London 2011) has been really helpful on this bit of the journey.
Tutu, Tibet, and Neuroscience
I've just read 'The Book of Joy' (2015) by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu - a five day dialogue between the two Nobel Peace Prize Winners on how to be happy. One of the best aspects of this great, easy read is how much their interlocutor, Douglas Abrams, links what they say about being happy to contemporary neuroscientific evidence. And quotes from psychologists, eg Lyubomirsky:
The Psychology of Sustainability
The Anthropocene Geological Period and Psychotherapy
My friend Andrew Mitchell has just had a great paper accepted for publication. 'Uncertainty and Hope: Therapeutics for the Anthropocene' looks at the ways change-making conversations, as finessed in psychotherapy, can be part of the solution to sustainable living. The move as he says is from controlling nature to living with and within the natural world. The Anthropocene period - the new geological period we've (arguably) entered as humanity for the first time in our history impacts the planet's geology - is 'not only an ecological crisis; it is also a crisis of cognition.'
I'm just re-reading 'The Mindful Way Through Depression' by Mark Williams et al. (2007). Some marvellous reminders of what mindfulness is all about and very down-to-earth ways of being in touch with experience - 'implicit, intuitive, nonconceptual, direct knowing...' (ibid, p62)
- on purpose
- in the present moment
to the unfolding experience moment by moment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003)
Outcomes of practicing mindfulness? Calm; focus; presence.
Let me teach you how to use mindfulness in your own life!
For several years now, my morning routine of yoga, Alexander Technique, whatever happens to be included, also has a Gratitude piece. As I'm lying on the floor I come up with at least 5 things for which I'm grateful. I don't let myself think too much about it, looking for flow, and 5 is minimum - after that I stop counting.
This came to me through my first encounter with an EFT practitioner, and it's common practice in many therapies. It was hard at first, but I enjoy the habit - and the outcomes. I've been amazed at the difference it's made, cumulatively. It makes it so much easier to be grateful, accepting, of all sorts of things during the day, even when I'm not consciously doing the practice. Just lately I've taken to writing the thanks down - bit more of a hassle, but a bit stronger as a practice too.
The most surprising development has been going on spontaneously to giving thanks for stuff that's difficult - feeling low, facing conflict, not wanting to do something... 'Thank you for my feeling crap today...' And I might really get into it, describing just how crap, and where in particular in my body... And as I do, I feel myself relaxing; the body eases in (sometimes out of) the state as the mind gives thanks. That's a challenging piece of learning. The power of acceptance.
17 Feb 16
Working, resting, balancing, being
I've had it really tough lately. I can get very absorbed in thoughts - like climate change issues. That stuff can really get me down. In common with a lot of people, I can find the whole area massively overwhelming and depressing. Some reading has helped enormously, like Sally Weintrobe's 'Engaging With Climate Change' (London 2013). Psycho-analytic thinking at its best. 'Active Hope' by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012) I found good too - in an extremely challenging way.
The biggest issue for me is how much wellbeing work I need to do to deal with this material. That's where I wobble sometimes. Building up the life-affirming side - needs more time and care just now! The company of good people, understanding, openness, laughter, exercise - love and beauty - in abundance! And coming back into the present, always - in the end, here and now is all we've really got. So what helps me get back there?
Learnings - from everywhere -
So life's a journey. And it's just about learning. Discovering over and over that the more you learn, the more there is to learn.
I've spent the last year suffering from sciatica. Boy was there a lot to learn about managing ongoing pain! I'm over it now, largely. No more pain killers. Working back into my yoga, pushing against the pain there - cautiously!
One of the interesting learnings on this bit of the journey has been Alexander Technique. Had about 6 sessions so far. Relaxing lying on the floor on my back with knees to the ceiling for 15 mins twice a day. Progressively releasing muscles just by thinking about them - not physically letting go - very efficacious. This seems to work as a complete reaching a place of stillness - a meditative moment, with all the benefits of stopping, letting go, clarity...
The other really helpful bit is learning the self-instructions for stopping old habits and starting new ones. My teacher, Dr Miriam Wohl, sums these up -
- say 'no' to the automatic reaction (whatever it is in the moment - negative thought, rounding shoulders...)
- release the eyes, mouth and neck so the head goes forward and up
- let the back and front lengthen (by releasing)
- let the trunk widen (by releasing)
- buttocks and thighs release
- then before movement, release ankles, knees, hips, 'top-joint' (neck)
This is essentially on the physical plane, but there's something here that's useful psychologically too. I'm exploring AT in relation to states of being/feeling. And it's no surprise how our physical stance affects our mood. Feeling low is especially linked with rounding the shoulders, drawing the body downwards...