The Irrational Human

What – if anything – sets humans apart from other animals? I’ve discussed this before and concluded that there really isn’t any significant difference at all; we are simply hairless apes. (See Becoming Animal). But an article by anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made me think again. His proposal is radical: it’s not reason that sets us apart from other animals; it’s the power of irrational thought.

Compared to other species we’ve studied, humans are pretty good at rational thought and rationality has been held in high esteem in the West from at least Aristotle. But Jonathan concludes that humans “evolved to be at least as non-rational as rational” and gives some delightful examples. In the 1920’s the anthropologist Margaret Mead constructed a IQ test for Samoans that asked them to choose the best path from point A to point B. Her rational ethnocentric assumption was that the best path meant the shortest path, but her Samoan respondents chose the prettiest route.

More recent research in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience provide extensive evidence against Aristotle’s belief that humans are rational animals. Dan Ariely gives a good overview in Predictably Irrational, while David Graeber and Daniel McFadden make mincemeat of the nonsense that is economic consumer choice theory.

Jonathan Marks takes all this a step further, focusing in on language and culture. The most essential aspect of human thought and language is that “it is rooted fundamentally in the invisible, the imaginary, the non-physical. How is that rational?” Language enables us “to talk about what was, what might be, and what ought to be. It opens up a world of temporality, of possibility, and of morality. … we [can] talk to people that aren’t there, cultivate aesthetics, enter revelatory trances, and discuss possible worlds that are neither part of present experience, nor directly connected to surviving and breeding.” The human mind is “rooted in symbolism and metaphor, rather than in logic and literalism”. To sum up, culture is both irrational and fundamental to being human.

Boucher exhibition poster with graffiti

Our language and culture have created “a make-believe world, a fantasy”, which provides both structure and meaning to our lives. Jonathan notes in passing that “the important stuff in human evolution here is not going on within human brains, but between human brains.” Given that language and culture give meaning to our lives, we might argue that what goes on between between us includes all the important stuff in human existence.

Jonathan’s proposal turns conventional thinking on its head and, if correct, has all kinds of ramifications. I can foresee many debates related to Bodymind Place themes. For example, does Jonathan’s theory present a challenge for rational therapies like CBT? Perhaps. It certainly seems to validate the humanistic forms of psychotherapy and counselling, which are so often engaged with the invisible and the imaginary.












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Racists Anonymous: Is Racism an Addiction?

‘Racists Anonymous’ is an interesting and radical idea. Pastor Ron Buford, who started it, was inspired by ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: “I started thinking in the AA way”, racism is “an addiction. It’s a sickness”.

I was initially really exited by the whole concept: Maybe I could start a Racists Anonymous group in Exeter! I still might, but there are some questions I need to ponder first.

If racism is a sickness, what does that entail about moral responsibility? Can someone admit to being a racist but put it down to having an addiction? Ron is familiar with that criticism: “What I experience from people of color as pushback is that the harm caused by racism is so great, that some people feel the RA approach lets white people off the hook easy. Somebody’s got to suffer. But what if people wanted to change? What if nobody had to suffer? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” (Paste Magazine).

Ron comes across as a pragmatist: If it helps, let’s just do it. I like that approach, but it leaves other questions unanswered, notably around the increasing tendency to frame personal experience as pathology. While many addiction therapists consider addiction to be a disease, it’s implausible to suggest the same of racism. When Ron describes racism as a “sickness” he may be speaking metaphorically. But given the implied comparison with addiction, I’m not so sure.

Invisiblia podcast

Meanwhile, psychologists Will Cox and Patricia Devine have developed an alternative that is having good results. Their approach frames racism as a habit we learn. They present it as morally neutral, which, although it makes me uncomfortable, is helpful in getting people to engage.

First, we need to accept that pretty much all of us are prejudice against some group or another. If it’s not people of colour, it might be the old, the young or just anyone who’s not like you. But prejudice is insidious and it’s not uncommon to have internalised prejudice against members of your own group. This leads us to the ‘Detect’ phase: Being able to identify prejudiced thoughts arising in your consciousness. Next, ‘Reflect’: without making any judgements about those thoughts, reflect upon why they came to mind. Then ‘Reject’: Substitute those prejudiced thoughts with alternatives.

Neither of these approaches will overcome racism on their own. Racists aren’t born; they are trained, and that training comes from innumerable social cues as well as parental attitudes. We need to be aware of how the media reinforce prejudice – typically though reproducing stereotypes – and challenge it. But working on our own personal prejudice is also vital. Racism isn’t just out there – it’s in here: challenge racism everywhere.

Listen to the Invisibilia podcast, ‘The Culture Inside’, for more on this.

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Rethinking Power, Remaking Connection

Who has power? Political leaders tell us that they have the power and the media frequently reinforce that idea. But we have a choice; we can simply accept that, and hand over our power, or we can take steps to empower ourselves.

 Graffiti on the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

I’m co-facilitating a workshop to help people feel more empowered and to understand the power of co-operation and connection. We’ll be drawing on active listening, coaching and, primarily, the work of Joanna Macy.

Joanna Macy is a Buddhist teacher whose Work that Reconnects is sometimes counted as ecopsychology. I’ve used Joanna’s exercises in previous workshops and consider them to be amongst the very best.

We’re running the workshop in Exeter on Saturday, April 29th, from 10 until 2. Find out more book up online.

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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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