Protest Marches: What’s the point?

I was at the Climate Change March in London on Sunday. I hadn’t planned on going. “What’s the point?” I thought. I’ve been to many protest marches over the years and I’d begun to doubt if they made any difference. Maybe they even served the status quo by fooling us into thinking we were doing something worthwhile. A mate of mine summed it up in his Facebook post: “If protest worked it wouldn’t be legal”.

By chance or unconscious design, I was in London on Sunday anyway and it felt right to go along to the march, despite my doubts. I had a great day meeting up with old mates, enjoying the creativity and feeling part of a global community of climate change activists. But did it change anything?

Climate Change Marchers 2015

Climate Change Marchers

On the train back to Exeter I started reading a book I’d had on my Kindle for months: Psychology for a Better World, by Niki Harre. What I read was remarkably pertinent to my dilemma. Niki shifts from the more typical focus on the problems we face to emphasise “sustainability as a collective, social enterprise aimed at new ways of managing ourselves.” If you see our lack of sustainability as a problem to be solved, then whatever solution you pursue will be contentious. But if you are “helping to create a viable alternative to our current ways of life, the meaning of what you do changes” (Harre, 2011). This side-steps the rather simplistic cause and effect model adopted by those sceptical of the value of protest. If you’re looking for a simple, directly measurable effect of protest, you’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. “The ‘best’ action is not best in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the physical world, it is ‘best’ in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the social world” (Harre, 2011).

What kind of useful effects might we see from the climate march? I had a good time, met some mates, danced a bit and saw some beautiful art. So what? Maybe that’s the whole point! Positive emotions enhance our creativity, expand our understanding of the world and spur us to greater achievements. They also make it easier for us to face challenges. Niki claims that “positive emotions are not only useful for creative tasks, but also for tasks that involve re-examining our personal practices”. By being at the march I enhanced my ability to face the challenge of climate change, boosted my creativity, made it easier to re-evaluate my personal behaviour and spurred myself to achieve more. Not only that, it renewed my sense of being part of a community with a common cause. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need more of all of that. Going on a protest march isn’t the whole solution, but it’s very far from being pointless.

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“The body is always in the now”: Wise insight or foolish illusion?

Several years ago I had what I believed to be a profound insight; the body is always in the now. I wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion and I later read other people saying the same thing. The mind is like a channel hopping teenager, flicking from one idea to the next a thousand times a day. But the body, I thought, remains in the moment, always present, resting in the now.

I’d been caught in the illusion that deceives most of the Western world, a myth that I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel; the fantasy that mind and body are fundamentally separate. If the mind can be following some story about the past or future while the body remains in the now, they must be quite different. But if there’s actually one system – the bodymind – then it’s impossible for the ‘body’ to be in one state and the ‘mind’ in quite another.

Golden colored dog plays in Autumn leaves

Being in the now.

Is there any value at all in my original idea? Given that several spiritual teachers I respect had the same thought, I doubt it’s completely wrong. So what led me to conclude that the body is always in the now? The idea emerged from my meditation practice which often uses embodied experience as a focus of attention: I watch my breath or pay attention to physical sensations. At such times my awareness typically becomes more present, more in the moment rather than following a narrative about past or future. It might seem that by allowing my ‘mind’ to be more in tune with my ‘body’, I become more in ‘the now’.

But if that’s an illusion, what’s actually going on? If we focus on the actual process (awareness of embodied experience) rather than an illusion (‘the body’), it makes more sense. To the extent that I am aware of my embodied experience, the bodymind is ‘in the now’. That doesn’t sound as good as ‘the body is always in the now’, but it is much more accurate!

In an important sense there’s no such thing as the body. The concepts ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are cultural fictions. We may well choose to keep using those words because the alternative would be too linguistically unwieldy, but be aware that language distorts the phenomenological reality.

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Modern Halloween is obsessed with the stuff of nightmares: the undead, ghouls and things that go bump in the night. What makes this fun rather than truly terrifying is that we remain in control. We play at being a zombie and can take off the mask if it starts feeling uncomfortable.

But what about the sweat soaked darkest night horror of actual nightmares? We’ve all had the experience of waking up with a heart beating like it’s going to burst, staring into the hard darkness, held still in the chill memory of a nightmare. We are not in control. Our animal selves are so overtaken that the rational thought “it’s only a nightmare” remains powerless. And the question looms; is the nightmare waiting for me in the darkness of sleep?

Ram's skull

Trick or treat?

Why is it that the nightmare is so often waiting for us? Like some terrifying TV repeat, nightmares often come back. This topic is alive for me because a friend recently asked me for my advice on the topic. Why do they keep coming for us and is there any escape? The question came after a large meal and a few glasses of cider, so my answer was less than satisfying. But I awoke the next morning with more clarity. Nightmares, like all dreams, often carry a message for us. This is especially true for recurring dreams or nightmares. In most cases, if we can get the message, the dream will stop. At that point the unconscious mind has done its work; your conscious self has understood the lesson.

Therapists have been helping people with dreams for centuries and powerful work can be done using interpretation or more direct engagement with the dream process. Gendlin developed a way of using Focusing to explore a dream (Gendlin, 1986). He doesn’t start with any specific school of interpretation but with the dreamer’s relationship with the dream. Maybe Jungian theory will open the meaning of the dream, but it might just as well be Freud’s ideas or a Gestalt approach that holds the key. The therapist cannot know in advance what language the dream is speaking, but the dreamer’s embodied felt sense does. So a Focusing Oriented Therapist guides the dreamer to sense into what their felt sense tells them about the dream. I love the fluidity of this approach as much as the fact that it’s grounded in the dreamer’s embodied knowing.

My own experience of using Focusing in this way was profound. My psychotherapist and I had spent most of a session unsuccessfully trying to tease out the significance of a particularly odd but powerful dream. Soon after a colleague guided me though the same dream using Focusing. Within 10 minutes the dream opened up like a oyster, revealing the pearl within.

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Getting there or being here?

It was a perfect day to be on Dartmoor: blue sky, warm sun, a gentle breeze to cool the skin and wild expanse all around. I was cycling along the Two Moors Way, determined to get to Piles Copse before 4pm. I’d sit and have a cup of tea there by the river. It would be beautiful! “It’s not far now – just over the next ridge”, I thought. “Maybe ten minutes away?” I was quite aware that I wasn’t noticing the moor all around me: I had to focus on the cycling, on getting to Piles Copse before tea.

Quite suddenly I stopped. Where was I right now? All my attention was on getting somewhere else, not on being in this fabulous place. I got off the bike and sat on the grass. As I sat a cyclist sped past. He seemed to be in a race with himself, utterly absorbed in getting there – wherever that was – as quickly as possible. But now, at last, I was being here.

Cows on Hangershell Rock

I wandered a short way from the path up towards Hangershell Rock. A cow stood there, staring at me. Then her calf joined her. Soon there was a gathering of Dartmoor cows on the Rocks and we stood contemplating each other. The cows seemed to exemplify being here, in this moment, in this place. We shared a moment of being together and then they began to wander off. I felt that they had unintentionally offered me a lesson in how to be. Dartmoor is often like that: a wild careless teacher.

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The moment of now

Many years ago I saw a talk by the American photographer Duane Michals. Michals rarely works with a single image, preferring to create short sequences of pictures that question our conventional understanding of reality. Michals created a characteristically intense moment in his presentation when he repeated one word about seven times in a way that emphasised its essence: Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!

For those few seconds I was entirely in the moment. It was an unforgettable experience. All this was long before Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, but they highlight the same mode of consciousness.

The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals

The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals

I work with that moment of now every morning during my meditation practice. Some days I can truly be in the now for a while – really being with my breath – and it’s an extraordinary experience. There is a timeless calm. But the ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t sit still for long and in the next moment there’s some commentary running again.

I’ve found it very helpful to approach watching my breath with the same attitude of attention as I adopt with a psychotherapy client. When I’m with a client I work to be completely present. What is happening right here right now? If I can be with my breath that way, then I become present to myself, to this moment, to now.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh.

But sometimes I get caught up in the striving. After my meditation I’ll judge my practice: How much of the time was I present? How persistent was my monkey mind? I might conclude that ‘Today was better/worse than yesterday.’

John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). Just such a moment came today, in the midst of an otherwise quite ordinary Friday, and it made me realise that meditation isn’t about achieving something – less monkey mind or more ‘timeless calm’. It’s the practice that matters, not the result. Moment-to-moment awareness – being in the now – emerges slowly from practice. The realisation that now is all there is comes like a strangers smile, unbidden and unexpected.

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Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors

The relationship between client and therapist is considered by many to be the single most important factor in successful therapy (Loewenthal, 2014). But what happens to that relationship when the therapy takes place outdoors? If you haven’t experienced therapy outdoors, you might wonder why it would make any difference to the therapeutic relationship. Isn’t it just like conventional therapy, but outdoors?

The short answer is, it depends. A few outdoor therapists strive to control the impact of the immediate environment, but most engage with it, often finding that nature becomes a kind of co-therapist. When nature enters into the therapeutic relationship, things get interesting! The client begins to form a relationship with the natural environment as much as with the therapist. The therapist is no longer “the professional with the answers and advice”, but instead becomes an “expert at facilitating therapeutic conversations” (Jordan & Marshall, 2010).

© Adeline O'Keeffe

© Adeline O’Keeffe

Ecotherapist Martin Jordan suggests that when we work outdoors “the myth that the self is somehow separate from nature becomes exposed as the fallacy it is” (Jordan, 2009). This complicates our understanding of the relationship between therapist and client even more. Once again – as so often in this blog – the question arises of where ‘self’ ends and the ‘other’ begins. But if the ‘self’ becomes “entirely entangled with the Other”, we might “risk losing the difference and thus any possibility of relationship” (Harris, 2013b).

David Key, an ecotherapist I interviewed for my MSc research, brings these questions to crisis point. David said:

“What actually happens when people go out into wild places, the thing that’s therapeutic, is something … I don’t know, it feels like it almost isn’t about relationships, it’s almost a Becoming […] that actually goes beyond relationship. […] Relationship is the process, not the product”.

This extract illustrates what I most like about this interview: you can hear David working with complex ideas and trying to force language to express something that refuses to be named. His ideas seemed to evolve as we spoke. David rhetorically asks “How do we as human beings even conceptualise the therapeutic relationship that the land or the sea offer us?” We can’t, but the attempt to do so is hugely illuminating.

The full interview has just been published in Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology. The article is entitled “What impact does working outdoors have on the therapeutic relationship? An interview with ecotherapist David Key“.

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New place, new thinking?

After living in London for several decades, I recently moved to Devon. Today marks my first month here and I’m wondering if living in the countryside instead of the city is having any impact on my thinking.

Philosopher Christopher Preston concludes that “people craft some of their very cognitive identity in communion with a landscape” (Preston, 2003) while anthropologist Keith Basso explores how Apache conceptions of wisdom are inextricably bound up with place. An Apache cattleman named Dudley Patterson told Basso that “Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places” (Basso, 1996).

Dudley explained that this couldn’t be understood without riding out to the places of wisdom. The anthropologist had to “experience the places with his body”; the “topography of the land had to filter through his limbs, the smell of the vegetation had to permeate his clothes, and the sweat created by the struggle of getting there had to drip from his body onto the ground” (Preston, 2003).

But it’s not enough just to be somewhere. A certain attitude of focused awareness is also required. We need to pause and “actively sense” our relationship to place (Basso, 1996). Dudley explains the Apache way:

“You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. … You will be wise. People will respect you” (Basso, 1996).

I think this helps explain why I haven’t noticed any particular changes in my outlook or thinking. I’ve been preoccupied with the practicalities of moving: finding a place to live and setting up my new psychotherapy practice. However, living in a radically different place can have a profound impact. Christopher Preston spent one summer volunteering for the National Park service in Alaska and found that the place “played itself out on my body and made its way into my body”. As a result his “being-in-the-world … took on a local character” (Preston, 2003). That change took just two months. If I can apply a little Apache wisdom and begin to actively sense my relationship with Devon, who knows what – or who – might emerge?

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Therapy outdoors: Playing with Winnicott

I’m training with Beth Collier to practice psychotherapy and counselling outdoors. I’ve completed an MSc dissertation on the subject but that’s just theory – this is practical and I’ve got a lot from these sessions. Learning the nuts and bolts of working outdoors has been really useful, but the most interesting element has been the opportunity to practice therapy in the park. Typically we’ll pair up with another trainee and be either therapist or client in a real session. Although we don’t get into anything too heavy, we all share real life issues so the process actually is outdoor therapy.

Although the core principles are the same, outdoor therapy is very different from indoor sessions. The first thing that struck me was how much more fluid working outdoors is. Whatever action feels right for the client is open to them: They are free to stand, walk, stop, sit down or even lie on the ground. If a space feels too open, we can go somewhere more enclosed. If where we are feels claustrophobic, there’s the option to move. Of course wondering why a space feels uncomfortable gives us something to explore, but we have the option of how and where we work with that. Working outdoors can be much more playful than indoor practice, and I’m reminded of Winnicott’s belief that psychotherapy is ultimately about two people playing together (1971).

Patterns of light through green leaves

Playing with patterns

Saying that outdoor therapy is more playful and fluid suggests it might be less intense, but in fact the natural environment has a way of highlighting issues and pulling away our familiar masks. It’s a much more embodied way of doing therapy and that in itself tends to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Nature has a knack of holding up a mirror to us. What we think of as internal psychic processes somehow get symbolised in the space around us. Ecotherapist’s often refer to this kind of synchronicity: Somehow inner reality and external life get blurred.

I find myself back with Winnicott again. He thought of the consulting room as a transitional space that emerged between the therapist and the client. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). I can’t help fantasizing that Winnicott would have very much enjoyed doing outdoor therapy!

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Pinakarri: Aboriginal deep listening

‘White Fella Dreaming’ recently posted a blog about Pinakarri, a practice from the Aboriginal Mandjilidjara Mardu people of Western Australia. Pinakarri literally means “ears standing up” and is usually translated as ‘deep listening’, a listening with the whole bodymind. It struck me because of the similarities with practices I’m familiar with from ecopsychology, spirituality and therapy.

This is a slightly edited version of the guide to Pinakarri from White Fella Dreaming:

  1. Sit quietly and sense where your body connects with whatever is supporting you right now; the ground, chair or cushion.
  2. Feel the weight of your body and notice how the earth supports it. No matter what you are sitting in, it is made of earth in one way or the other. The gravity that holds you there was created with the beginning of the Universe.
  3. Become aware of your breath. Listen to the difference between the in breath and the out breath. This is how the Universe sounds when it sings through your body.
  4. Become aware of the slight difference in temperature between the in and out breaths. This difference is what you give to the act of breathing. The heat involved in that change comes from the Sun. It is warming up life through your body and you are a channel for this process. You embody the energy of the Sun. You are completely unique and absolutely universal at the same time.
  5. Now listen to the beat of your heart. This began in the womb and stays with you until death. It beats out a particular rhythm and sound.
  6. Find the first point of tension you become aware of. Breathe into that spot and consciously relax it with the power of the Sun and the universal energy you are now aware of. Breathe out the tension.

You embody the energy of the Sun

While much of that sounds like Buddhist breathing meditation, several elements recall a Western Pagan earthing ritual (Starhawk, 2004) and other aspects echo the practice of ‘grounding into being here’ from Whole Body Focusing. All of it sits beautifully within certain strands of ecopsychology (e.g. Bill Plotkin and David Abram). Have these approaches appropriated Aboriginal practice? I very much doubt it. Although there has been a lot of influence on Western Paganism and ecopsychology from indigenous wisdom, I think it’s likely that people across the planet have learnt this kind of deep listening simply by virtue of being embodied and aware.

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Why meditate?

Last night BBC Radio 4 explored the question of mindfulness. Is it a panacea or just a fad? Although the presenter was occasionally somewhat tongue in cheek about the whole topic, her cynicism was tempered by the fact that for a lot of people, mindfulness works.

But the programme got me thinking, and in my meditation this morning I began to wonder: what is the point of meditation? For a long time I was mediating because I enjoyed it for its own sake. I find it relaxing and occasionally blissful. While that’s all great, I was missing the real point of meditation, which is to cultivate mindfulness.


Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Meditation is deliberately taking some time to practice being mindful. Whether focusing on the breath, music or the taste of a chocolate truffle, meditation is the conscious practice of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Through meditation we become more used to being mindful, and I know from personal experience that regular practice leads to moments of being mindful at other times.

The potential benefits of mindfulness are myriad. While there is sound evidence that mindfulness alleviates anxiety and makes chronic pain much more bearable, it has far wider applications. My own experience bears out Eric McCollum’s belief that mindfulness makes us better therapists (2014) and long term practice can have profound spiritual implications. There is a lovely interview with psychotherapist Miles Neale that points out that the Buddha was a revolutionary who was “trying to empower people to have a radical transformation” that would enable them to “collectively change the fabric of society”. That leads a bigger question about mindfulness and morality that I’ll to return to later, but for now, if you don’t meditate, maybe you’d like to give it a go.

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