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But getting more ‘right-brained’ was gradually superseded by excitement about brainwaves.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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How to keep your New Year Resolution

Every year people make New Year resolutions but 92% of them will fail (Journal of Clinical Psychology). Maybe it’s time for a different approach. Forget ‘I should’ and embrace ‘I want!’

New Year resolutions are typically something like “I’m going to lose weight”, “I’ll get more organized” or “I’ll save more”. If you’re thinking along those lines, I suggest you take a moment to reflect on why you’ve chosen that goal. Is it because you think you should or because you actually want it? If your resolution is prompted by a ‘should’, then I doubt it’ll last long after the midnight celebrations.

But if you focus on what you want to do rather than on what you think you should do, your chances of success improve hugely. Those with a more Puritan perspective might argue that if you want to do something, then it hardly counts as making a ‘resolution’. Perhaps, but how many of us have seriously considered what we want from life and then done something about getting it?

Aoraki /Mount Cook at sunset

Aoraki /Mount Cook at sunset

So, what do you really love doing? Grab a piece of paper and write a list of activities that make your life richer. It’s even better if you can use post-it notes, but paper is fine. Keep to three rules:

  1. be concise;
  2. describe activities;
  3. make sure every one is something you really love.

The acid test for this last rule is to imagine you life without it. Check into the felt sense that arises. If you get a sinking feeling in your body, then it qualifies. You might find that what you’ve written isn’t quite ‘it’, so be prepared to dig around. Is there something else behind what you’ve written? Again, let your felt sense guide you.

If you have listed something that isn’t an activity, modify it. If you want to list something about your love for nature or your kids, think of a related activity. ‘Nature’ might become ‘spending time in nature’; ‘my kids’ could be ‘playing with my kids’.

Once you’re happy with your list, stick the post-it notes or piece of paper somewhere where you’ll see them everyday. Now ask yourself: Are you devoting as much time and energy to each of those activities as they – and you – deserve? The chances are that at least one or two are getting short changed and frankly you’re cheating yourself. So, how can you get to do more of what you love? Use that question to come up with a New Year’s resolution. It may be your best ever!

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Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.

Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.

If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.

Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.

By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.

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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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Nightmares

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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