Climbing the magic mountain

I had a dream about a remote land where a traveller told tales of his adventures. At the end of the travellers tales, a young boy asked him a question: “How can I climb Mount Ghebo? It’s a magic mountain that changes shape all the time.”

The traveller replied that he didn’t know of this magic mountain, but he did know how to climb it. The boy looked at him with rapt expectation. “Please tell me: How can I climb a mountain that changes shape all the time?”

The traveller smiled. “Just climb one step at a time”, he said.

Mountain at sunset

Aoraki / Mount Cook

Although the traveller’s advice might seem simple, there’s a profundity to it. More importantly, my dream gave me the solution to a challenge I’d been stuck with for weeks.

The wisdom of the unconscious mind is sometimes revealed to conscious awareness in dreams or the hypnagogic state between sleep and waking. As Freud famously noted, dreams are “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious” (1900). But to some extent that’s how all psychotherapy works. It’s not that the therapist reveals the solution to the client: At some deeper level of understanding the client already knows the way forward, but they can’t access that awareness or perhaps can’t engage with it. The relationship between the client and therapist is widely accepted as being the primary source of healing. This therapeutic relationship can enable the client’s other than conscious mind – which is vast and transpersonal – to access deeper wisdom.

See Focusing and the Cognitive Iceberg for more thoughts on how therapy might work. I touch on dream interpretation in my post on Nightmares, and there’s more about the therapeutic relationship in Beyond relationship? The power of therapy outdoors.

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Should we be diagnosing Trump – or anyone?

There’s ongoing discussion about whether it’s ethical or appropriate to diagnose Trump, after several mental health professionals asserted that he’s a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder. I shared a post to that effect on Facebook, but on reflection realized I was approving of a practice I find profoundly suspect: psychiatric diagnosis.

President Trump

The root of the problem is attempting to treat psychological distress as if it’s just like physical illness. If you have measles, any competent doctor can make a definitive diagnosis. There’s clear and unequivocal evidence of a specific illness. But if you’re suffering from mental distress, you might get a different diagnosis from one professional to another. I knew of one case where a woman had been variously diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. However you labelled her, she was still suffering.

The ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ is the bible of American psychiatry. It’s now in its 5th edition, so we refer to ‘DSM-5’. DSM-5 offers nearly 1000 pages of guidance on how to diagnose ‘mental illness’. Before considering the current edition, let’s step back to to 1973, when, literally overnight, millions of people suddenly ceased to be ‘mentally ill’. I wish I could say there’d been a miracle cure, but the fact is that the American Psychiatric Association had simply removed the diagnosis of ‘homosexuality’ from the DSM.

Is some psychiatric diagnosis just labelling behaviour that society finds challenging? I was in my teens when my father, diagnosed as ‘manic depressive’, told me that psychiatrists had ‘stuck a label’ on his back. His behaviour was sometimes challenging, but was he mentally ill? I started reading Thomas Szasz’s books on anti-psychiatry and began my lifelong fascination with psychological distress.

Debate continues: In 2012 Allen J Frances, who chaired the task force that produced DSM 4, described the latest edition as “deeply flawed” (Frances). He claimed that DSM-5 threatened to “expand the territory of mental disorder and thin the ranks of the normal” (Frances, 2010).

Thomas Insel of the National Institute of Mental Health agreed that DSM-5 lacked “validity” and proposed that we draw on genetic, imaging, physiologic, and cognitive data to create a new diagnostic system (2013). Thomas’s proposal doesn’t question the fundamental validity of psychiatric diagnosis and if the complexity of human being could really be reduced to biology, it might even work. But this technological paradigm ignores relationships, meanings and values. I’ve commented elsewhere on the complexity of human existence and conclude that importing the concept of diagnosis from physical medicine into discussions of mental distress is doomed to fail. As Bracken et al succinctly put it, psychiatry “will never have a biomedical science that is similar to hepatology or respiratory medicine, not because we are bad doctors, but because the issues we deal with are of a different nature”.

In my work as a psychotherapist I’ve had clients bring a diagnosis with them; “psychopath”, “schizophrenic” or “clinically depressed”. Sometimes that label is meaningful for them; sometimes not. In every case it’s the person I work with, not the psychiatric diagnosis. Perhaps we need to do the same with Donald Trump.




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Gratitude is good for you!

January can be a tough month. The bright celebrations of Christmas and New Year are a dull memory, leaving a hangover of credit card bills. Days are typically short, wet and cold, with January 24 claimed – somewhat spuriously – to be Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. As if that wasn’t enough to get you down, there’s the knowledge that Donald Trump will be inaugurated on January 20. Did I say the idea of Blue Monday was spurious? Maybe not this year!

January isn’t my favourite month and I’ve been sensing the gloom. One thing that’s been helpful is focusing on how much I have to be grateful for. If you’re reading this, you probably have a home and a computer. That’s pretty lucky! Less than half the people in the world have internet access, 1.2 billion don’t have electricity and 100 million are homeless. I don’t want to add to the gloom, but to try to focus your mind on all that we have to be grateful for. I know it’s easy to take things for granted, but gratitude can be hugely beneficial.

Gratitude is good for you: it helps lower blood pressure, promotes positive emotions and helps you feel more alive. But gratitude is also great for those around you: grateful people are more helpful, generous, forgiving and compassionate.

Shaldon Beach

Reasons to be grateful: Shaldon Beach

The classic tool for building the gratitude habit is to keep a daily journal about all the blessings that come your way. Simply note how you feel about those minor miracles, joyous everyday events or precious people in your life. You might also try my Gratitude Meditation. It’s quick enough to do every morning and it feels really good, so won’t be a chore.

It’s an unusual meditation as you keep your eyes open and there’s some gentle movement involved. It’s great for everyone, but especially useful if you’re feeling a bit down or depressed. The Gratitude Meditation I present on my website is the core practice, but it can be usefully adapted to specific circumstances. I’ve used it outdoors as a way of giving thanks for the beauty and abundance of the natural world. I’ve also adapted it to give thanks for specific blessings like a new job or healing an old wound. I’ve also used it as part of a grieving process. Once I was past the raw pain of losing my brother, I wanted to give thanks for all that he meant to me and for all that his life had given to the world. Trust me; gratitude heals.







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The Neuroscience of Walk and Talk Therapy

Susan Greenfield is a leading thinker on the neuroscience of consciousness, so my ears pricked up when I heard her talking about how walking can help us think. Do her ideas help illuminate how ‘walk and talk’ ecotherapy works? Walk and talk therapy is much like conventional counselling but takes place outdoors. Therapist and client walk side by side exploring issues just as they would in the consulting room. Walking and talking in the park feels familiar to most people and being alongside the therapist avoids the potentially uncomfortable feeling of sitting opposite them.

Walk and talk therapy is increasingly popular and Susan Greenfield’s work suggests that it might also be very effective. Walking in natural environments has been shown to boost cognitive capacity, improve working memory and enhance recall. Susan describes other benefits:

“It is you who decides to examine a plant more closely or to focus on the far-flung horizon one moment, then perhaps to lean up against the tree the next: this internally driven sequence of events will then have the additional benefit of restoring a sense of control, of giving you a longer time frame in which to develop and deepen your thoughts” (Greenfield, 2016).

Although Susan is writing about walking in nature, she has perfectly described a typical ecotherapy session.

A path through a park

Follow the path …

Susan suggests that as thinking is basically a series of steps, it can be seen as “a kind of movement: the longer the journey, the ‘deeper’ the thought”. She adds:

“the actual physical act of walking could amplify and thereby perhaps enhance this inner process: by reflecting in external movement what is happening in the brain, by having a clear causal link between one step and the next, with the mental being enforced by the physical, the repetitive contraction of muscles could help insure against the mind ‘wandering’, going, literally, off-track” (Greenfield, 2016).

Everything that Susan Greenfield says about walking in nature suggests that walk and talk ecotherapy will enable clients to think more deeply and powerfully. Furthermore, the therapist will benefit in the same way, so we can do our job better. Susan Greenfield may have never heard of walk and talk outdoor therapy, but the fact that her neuroscience research unintentionally supports what we’re doing is exciting news.




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Focusing: A tool for troubled times

I’ve been feeling unsettled over the few days and I’m not alone. Many of us feel the chill shadow of uncertainly cast by the events of the last few months. What’s the best response to such troubled times?

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered us a prayer which I find valuable:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold’s prayer implores God to grant serenity, courage and wisdom. I’m going to take some theological liberties, and suggest that an embodied approach – which for some of us is fundamentally spiritual – can facilitate that work beautifully.

Experiential Focusing provide a means of accessing the wisdom of the body. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating because it reminds us that we have the power to find serenity, courage and wisdom within.

First serenity. Ann Weiser Cornell draws on Focusing to offer a simple but effective way to be with difficult feelings. Instead of identifying with your emotions, which often means they overwhelm you, she explains how to be with your feelings.

Next, let’s consider how we might find the courage to create change. Mary Hendricks-Gendlin claims that:

“Focusing is a force for peace because it frees people from being manipulated by external authority, cultural roles, ideologies and the internal oppression of self attacking and shame”.

If you’re intrigued to know why Mary holds that belief, read her article on Focusing as a Force for Peace: The Revolutionary Pause.

The ‘revolutionary pause’ is just one of the valuable tools Focusing offers to help us change things. Focusing skills have been taught to activists to since the Vietnam War protests of the 1970’s. Rather more recently I’ve facilitated training in Focusing skills for activists and advocated using it as a tool for the Transition Towns movement.

Where does all this leave prayer? I have no doubt about how the divine – however you understand that – provides spiritual inspiration. The BioSpiritual Focusing website puts it well:

“In their connection to the Universe our bodies are our direct link to the Spirit that fills the Universe”.

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Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness and ecotherapy are two of the most ancient and powerful approaches to healing mental distress. What happens when you bring them together? Last week-end I spoke about practicing mindfulness in nature at a conference on ‘Psychotherapy and the Natural World’ at the Eden Project.

The original invitation to deliver a presentation had been open ended; I could have chosen any theme related to therapy and the natural world. Mindfulness in nature came to me almost immediately, but I wondered if I could say anything about it that was worthwhile.

Once I sat with the notion it opened like a flower, revealing a pattern of connections with other core aspects of my thinking: Ecotherapy of course, (Mindful weeding), spirituality, (Aboriginal deep listening), Focusing (Focusing in Nature), Barry Patterson’s “listening to the threshold brook”, and on and on.

sunlight through pine trees

My PhD research identified meditation as one of the pathways to connection with nature that inspired and supported environmental activism. One participant explained that his “connection with the earth” had become “a major part” of who he is. Mindfulness in nature had become a core practice for him:

“just spending time out in nature, just listening. Just looking. Not really thinking too much. It’s good to kind of not think, just become, just let it flow through you I guess” (Harris, 2008).

I’ve realised that the nature connection workshops I’ve been running for years are really mindfulness in nature sessions. Participants do experience a deeper connection with nature, but framing the practice as mindfulness really captures the essence of the work. It also shifts our perception of it: instead of focusing on some outcome – getting a deeper nature connection – it emphasises the process itself. That’s fundamental because mindfulness isn’t about making something happen; it’s simply about being.

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Ecosomatics: An Embodied Ecology

Most people accept that our behaviour is destroying vital ecosystems, yet there’s very little being done about it. Why? There are several factors, but a key part of the problem is that we’re in denial. I find it pretty hard to be with the fact that we’re responsible for the sixth mass extinction. How about you?

My opening paragraph might have made you feel less centred and at least a little more fearful. But being in a state of fear tends to make us less caring,  less open and inevitably less environmentally aware. Reminding you about environmental destruction has – perversely – made you less able to respond to it. But what if I were to give you some simple tools to stay centred and calm while we talk about climate change and mass extinction? What if you could respond to this massive challenge from a place of grounded openness and calm?

I’ve written about Paul Linden’s work on embodied peace building in this blog before; he teaches techniques that enable us to embody peace and calm. About a year ago Paul suggested to me that my work with being embodied in nature and his work on embodied peace are powerfully complimentary. He proposed that we synthesise the two into an embodied ecology; ecosomatics. In this video by Steve Savides, Paul explains our work together.

Originally posted on Facebook by Steve Savides – exploring intention on Monday, August 8, 2016

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Make it real

Right now in a park or garden near you there are real spiders weaving real webs. If you watch this video, you’ll probably have forgotten it by this time tomorrow. If you ever watch a spider weaving a web in the real world, you’ll never forget it. I was in my 40’s before I watched a spider weaving, which is pretty sad but makes the point that this isn’t something we usually do. I remember the moment very vividly: There was this astonishing creature creating a thing of exquisite beauty just inches away from me – right here and now!

I was living outdoors at the time, close to the slow cycles of life. I was exploring the many ways in which we can reconnect to the other-than-human world, practising mediation and studying ecopsychology. I was learning how to really be in nature. Does it take all that to be able to watch something as common as a spider weaving a web? No, but it does require you to step away from the habits of everyday life.

First, you’ll have to let go of expectations, because if you go looking for something like this there’s a good chance you won’t find it. We’ve been trained to expect immediate gratification; if you want to hear a song or watch a tv show, it’s there, on demand. Can you make the effort to look and accept whatever happens? Then you’ll have to slow down: Our stressful and frenetic lives leave us little time to just smell the roses. Next, you’ll need to practice looking with open attention. The weaving spider is there, but can you learn to see it? We live in a world awash with images vying for our attention so we tend to screen what we actually see though a dense sensory filter. All this will take patience.

The rewards for releasing expectation, slowing down and allowing your senses to expand will fall on you as gently and countless as blossom. You may feel deep calm, a sense of wholeness, and a quiet joy. Or perhaps child-like wonder and inspiration. You may even see a spider weaving a web!

Right now in a park or garden near you there are real spiders weaving real webs. Why don’t you just go outside and look? The dismal alternative is to stay in a disconnected virtual world.

Related posts:

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Follow the science: fashions in personal development

Those who’ve been interested in personal development for a while may recall when the right hemisphere of the brain was the place to be. Our left hemisphere is dominant in language and logic, while the right is generally more concerned with spatial skills and imagery. Our culture was criticized for emphasising ‘left-brained’ logic over the more creative ‘right-brain’, and personal development gurus recommended right-brain exercises to rebalance yourself. (See Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 1979).

But getting more ‘right-brained’ was gradually superseded by excitement about brainwaves. During everyday awareness our brainwaves are predominately in beta (12 – 38 Hz). When you relax – or meditate – they slow to alpha (8 – 12 Hz), while deep sleep is charactered by delta waves (0.5 – 3 Hz). Holosync, and similar brainwave entrainment systems, stimulate the brain to produce the brainwaves found in meditation and claim – erroneously I believe – to thereby put you into deep meditation itself.

brain scan image

You are not your brain

Of course things have moved on now and brainwaves are a bit old hat. Holosync started in the late 1980’s, and a decade later neurotransmitters like endorphins were the new elixir. Personal development is still pretty keen on neurotransmitters. It’s not hard to find bloggers promoting dopamine, and I’ve been lauding the endorphin effect myself! But the latest thing seems to be brain structures, with therapists and savvy bloggers now discussing the limbic system and frontal lobe.

The danger in chasing the latest neuroscience research is that we oversimplify it. Brain structure, brainwaves and neurotransmitters are all important to our understanding of mental wellbeing. During meditation, for example, left/right hemisphere communication tends to increase, brainwaves slow, the balance of neurotransmitter shifts and the signalling relationship between the limbic system and frontal lobe changes. Focusing on one aspect makes it much easier to understand – or blog about – but it misses the point; body-mind and place form the most complex system in the known universe. Just remember that the next time someone tell you they’re ‘left-brained’!

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Embodied spirituality

I’m running a workshop on the Endorphin Effect later this month, so I’ve been paying particular attention to my practice. As I was sensing into the endorphin flow during yoga, I realised that what I practice is embodied spirituality. A quick web search reveals that ’embodied spirituality’ is a bit of a buzz phrase, so I need to be more specific about what it means to me. My embodied spirituality integrates;

  • an earth-based Paganism,
  • an intention to ground spirituality in scientific understanding and
  • an embodied daily practice.

Let me unpack that a little.

Some Pagans have discerned two currents within contemporary Western Paganism. Those who are inclined towards the study of occult tradition and formal ritual we might characterize as ‘esoteric Pagans’. Earth-based Pagans eschew formal ritual, and are more likely to simply “go outside to commune with nature” (Crowley, 1996). For Vivianne Crowley these differences effectively mark “low and high church, field and temple Pagans” (Ibid.). My own research suggests that earth-based Pagans use what Gendlin calls Focusing as a way to tune into the spirit of place (Harris, 2011). Learning more about Focusing and applying it with awareness has enriched my spiritual practice. (See Imbolc: The Pulse of the Seasons).

The idea that we might want to give spirituality a foundation in scientific understanding provokes a range of responses. For many it’s a misguided or pointless project, while I think that science and spirituality can illuminate each other. For now, here’s one pertinent example. Endorphins were discovered by a brilliant molecular biologist called Candace Pert. Endorphins provide “a mechanism in the brain for creating bliss and expanded consciousness” (Pert, 1977), and embodied practices like ecstatic dance, mediation and yoga stimulate endorphins. As I write this ‘Faithless’ are telling me that ‘God is a DJ’. Yeah, that works for me, and the many clubbers who find transcendence through dance (Hume, 2007).

Which segues us into embodied daily practice. I start my day with an endorphinated variation on a body scan meditation. That sets me up nicely before I even get out of bed! Morning meditation and a short gratitude ritual follow after breakfast. After work, yoga is a much more effective way to de-stress than a gin & tonic. I can imagine sceptical smiles at that suggestion, but yoga stimulates the production of GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your central nervous system, which means it creates a sense of calmness.

Arguably, all spirituality is embodied, but embracing that understanding with awareness helps guide my path.

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