Many Hands Clapping

The applause was hearty and sustained. It nearly died but somewhere in the room the volume was raised and others joined in. No, it wasn’t a concert, nor was it for an entertainer or popular celebrity. A middle-aged indigenous man stood with his head bowed – seemingly overwhelmed at what was happening and the fact that it was happening at all. It nearly didn’t. For some months before in a wave of deep despair he drove his speeding commodore into a concrete pole. Six airbags prevented another suicide statistic.
If the despair before the attempt was bad enough, the depression after was worse. The addition of ‘failed attempt’ brought another layer of shame that seemed beyond help. He was ‘seen to’, counselled and monitored, but the trauma persisted and the black cloud of depression remained.
“Do you still do therapy?” I was asked. A close friend of his sister was impressed with the training materials I had provided. Her trainees were front line health workers from remote communities in Arnhem Land. The trainer had been on a search for new approaches to old problems in emotional health. “There has to be something better because we are hardly making a difference” she said. She found what she was looking for in the UK, then chanced upon my name as the first Australian qualified in the approach. I was happy to use my time in lock-down during Covid to make videos and resources she could use. However, therapy by telephone was another thing altogether for me. I hesitated, and relied on that good old standby response: “It depends”. She wanted to give her friend my name, for her brother was in a very dark place. It still depended, for people can get out of dark places without me. “He works with aboriginal women to get their kids back and aboriginal men in rehab and prisons. He is the best healer we have and we can’t afford to lose him”. I didn’t hesitate after that, and when his sister contacted me I told her I would be happy to talk to him.
Some time later he reached out and talk we did. For hours, time only a retiree could spend. It didn’t take long to feel like kindred spirits. I discovered we were both mavericks bucking a system in a passionate defence of the marginalized, and sadly, earning more condemnation than applause. I discovered something else. The trauma was not linked to the horrific crash, but the deep shame coming from his being sacked in front of his colleagues in a job he loved. The very public humiliation would upset anyone of us, but the sense of shame felt by this indigenous man pushed him into a dark place that got even darker.
My therapeutic approach is very client-centred – short on analysis and long on finding out how they see themselves. Knowing their ‘essence’ or their deepest sense of identity is important, sometimes they know it, sometimes we discover it together. “What is your totem?” I asked. “I am a Torres Strait Islander and my totem is the diamond stingray.” He also said he doesn’t think about it much, not that unusual for those living in urban areas like Canberra.
During my years of private practice, the removal of the effects of trauma has been more successful than any other therapeutic intervention. There is good reason that the technique was mandated by the UN for use by villagers in post-genocide Rwanda, it is simple, fast and effective. And so it was in this case. While not necessarily part of the process, I always ‘value add’ while they are still deeply relaxed. I take the opportunity to add helpful metaphors to consolidate change for we are dealing with the emotional brain which is pre-language and pre-thought. Coming from our recent understanding of why humans dream, is a fresh appreciation of stories, especially ones with the client’s own metaphors.
A long-held mantra of mine is ‘success breeds success, but also spite, jealousy and envy’. So I could relate to his work history of being the best healer in a system using every foul means in their power to pull down the high flyers. So I used the stingray with its shiny surface as being impossible to hold back. It owns the ocean, has few predators and moves with such elegance over the Thursday Island shoreline.
It didn’t take long to see that it had worked. When we next spoke, with a new found excitement, he told me he had had an epiphany. “I have been fighting against the system, I now need to work smarter. Waiting for the tide to change is better than struggling against the it” he told me. I was concerned, for the tide to me represented business as usual, and that it was not for turning. I needed to be sure he would still go into bat for mothers wanting their children back, the prisoners and addicts needing hope. I needn’t have worried.
His passion for advocacy and healing was revitalized. He couldn’t wait to get employed again so he volunteered where the need was greatest. His presentation slide said it all; titled ‘understanding the oceans, tides and currents’, it said of the stingray: ‘it looked like it owned the sea, and knew where it was going … sometimes staying still, always in control, and hassled by nothing.’ More epiphanies followed leading him to use stories and metaphor to amazing benefit for incarcerated indigenous suicide survivors. The presentation slides didn’t show us the prisoners or the insides of their prison, but we could see the insides of a process that worked to restore dignity and hope again.
It nearly didn’t happen. When a ‘call for papers’ for a national First Nations Suicide conference came out I encouraged him to present. I countered his ‘that’s not my thing’ with ‘if you’re not qualified to speak about indigenous suicide who the hell is?’. It worked. His presentation entitled ’Six commodore airbags – a suicide survivor’s story’ had listeners spell-bound. Many teared up, especially when he asked his therapist to join him onstage where two cultures embraced. Perhaps no wonder the applause was sustained.

Healing Mission

I have been invited to speak at a First Nations Mental Health conference in Cairns next month. People ask “What are you going to talk about?” I mean a fair question to an old white guy. My topic is ‘Stories That Heal’ or the role of therapeutic storytelling. Stories like this:

Healing Mission
It was toward dusk when I finally arrived at Ngukurr. Not that I could see much on this, my first visit to the community, for the smoke from a welcome to country ceremony lay heavy in the still evening air. But I could see the RV’s, hundreds of them I learned later, most of them ‘grey nomads’ but several families too. Welcomed to country for a very special reason and on one condition – that they provide accommodation for at least two invited guests for two nights. The invitees were there to experience the premiere of a First Nations theatrical production titled Healing Mission, a play written and performed by indigenous people from the community.

Formerly known as Roper River Mission, Ngukurr is a community of some 2000 residents located near the Roper River in Arnhem Land, about 330 km south-east of Katherine. Some time ago, a small but determined group of women wanted to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of missionaries and the setting up of a church and school. It should have been a straightforward undertaking but it wasn’t. An equally determined group, mainly men led by an elder that saw little reason to celebrate the event, pushed back. It is unclear what drove their resistance, as best anyone can gather the reasons are a mixture of culture, theology, and a claim that the missionaries did more harm than good. In what seems to be the only stated view of the resisters they claim: “They brought a view of God that is not the God of our country, but one that helps white people get their way”. The only celebration they would be part of is one that respected dreaming and the Great Creator Spirit. As a non-churched believer I think ‘good luck with that idea’.

It seems good luck showed up – like amazing good luck. It was luck, for example that enabled the warring factions to arrive at an agreement of sorts and get the show on the road, so to speak. Opinions differ as to how they came to work together, but one version has it that a group of teenage girls, home from boarding school on the Queensland coast, grew exasperated with the discord, which by this time had become community-wide. They took matters into their own hands and proposed an imaginative way forward – write a play about the history of the missionaries, include the story of Ngukurr’s famous Anglican minister from boat-boy to ordained priest, and let the audience decide what was harm and what was good from the missionary endeavour in East Arnhem Land.

Before the audience could decide anything, however, a lot of work had to be done. The best hope of writing a play lay with the girls, but they had returned to boarding school. Curiously, the leader of the resistance, a respected elder, had had years to ponder the role of missionaries. Initially experiencing being their favoured son, he had considered training for ordination in the church, but he began to realise how many deeply-held beliefs would have to be laid aside. He was not prepared to discard his convictions and connection to the spirituality of the land, and as he began to question aspects of white man’s theology the ‘favoured son’ title soon become dangerous exile. While banished from the church, he held his status as elder in the community. However, playwright he was not.

Now as you know, I had only recently arrived in the community, so gathering insights as to how the play, now set for the world’s stage, came into being did not come easily. My hasty information-gathering however, did convince me of one thing. Somewhere in the process the movers and shakers had the good sense to search beyond their regions and follow the trails of indigenous people who left homelands and had made their mark in white-man’s world of theatre, music and event management. The search yielded amazing talent, and most important of all, talented and experienced people who had still retained a deep love of their culture – just waiting to be asked it seemed.

A big ask, but as it turns out, not too big. The playwright for example, herself a Yolnu woman, now a professor of theatre and dance at Macquarie University, enlisted the assistance of her post-graduate students. The students were delighted with the challenge, for they knew that their professor was extremely well connected in corporate, media, and government circles, and they knew also that her passion never failed to bring about great things. Great things like funding for them to travel to Ngukurr to interview the community members of both factions and weave a story that made a rich tapestry of lived experience. A tapestry with threads of such colour and diversity that any differences were beautifully woven into a single transcending whole. A story now ready for the stage, well not quite, a story ready for direction and production.

The professor did not reach the top of her game without having plays of hers directed and produced by people she trusted. People that she could entrust the birthing and coming to stage of her creation with nothing of the cultural sensitivities and subtle nuances missing. People who made themselves available for weeks of working with community where actors had to be cast from raw stock. And people, like the professor, that were passionate and not the kind to give up when things got fractious. Yes, there were resisters still, as there are in every community. Resisters to people from ‘outside’; to change of lifestyle; to giving up things; the people that did not share the vision of replacing what is with what could be. Ones that failed to see the amazing opportunity to be proud people once again, to take centre stage instead of hiding behind the theatre, dignity lost in a fog of shame.

And now the stage is set. More than one hundred dignitaries, many personally invited by the professor and also a fair contingent from the girl’s boarding school were there. For many, this was to be their first exposure to First Nation peoples’ story, and certainly their first ‘on country’. Reading the invitee list beforehand, it strikes me that rarely, if ever, has an audience been so diverse; members of the political, religious, corporate, academic tribes, merging into a coherent, observant, waiting, and yes somewhat uncertain whole. Guided to their seats by young community members, they lose their tribal identity and become part of a single age-old humanity witnessing the great drama of life played by actors on a mission – to bring together, to rise above differences, and, above all, to heal.

Fighter Pilot

My son shouted me a gold-pass ticket to see Top Gun – Maverick. No wonder it is breaking box office records – there is something about fighter pilots. It reminded me that somewhere in my files of patient records is a fighter pilot story. When I came home from the US I found it, made some minor changes and here it is:

(Name removed) is an 11 year old high-functioning Asperger’s boy; extremely bright; excelling at everything he does – swimming, surf-lifesaving, school work, with a flawless memory for detail. But, impossible to get along with. School demanded parents get ‘him seen to’; parents had him ‘seen to’ by all sorts of diagnostic professionals. In the mother’s words, they were all long on symptoms but short on solutions. So, out of some desperation she contacted me.

The first session did not go well. He didn’t want to go through the ‘being seen’ process all over again, gave me a summary of all the other people who had tried to work with him and what they had told him. His mother, becoming increasingly embarrassed, tried to moderate the scathing assessments of the professionals he had visited. The contempt for anything his mother said was undisguised, and you could imagine how she felt about being shown up in front of me. I felt for her, and after listening patiently, and with more recklessness than professionalism, I told him that no child in my presence speaks to his mother like that. I gave him a few helpful suggestions of a general nature and left it at that. I certainly did not expect any more contact.

His mother rang, and to my surprise said the boy wanted to come back and talk with me again. I agreed, but only on the condition that he be on his own. I started him working on a mind map – some way of organizing his thinking. On a follow-up visit he brought his completed mind map. As I expected it was a brilliant piece of work – this lad was aiming to make his mark on the world as a fighter pilot. Talk therapy I realized, would only work if it was in a context of activity. So I outlined the next project: making a clay original, applying latex rubber to make a mould, then casting a product in the mould before applying special metallic finishes. He chose to make a boar’s head with big tusks, he had in mind a small version of what one would see from the wall of a hunting lodge in Europe. Like I said, he was high-functioning. Very. While working away together I told him this story:

At the International Airshow recently, an American F14 Tomcat put on an impressive aerobatic display, and as the fighter landed, hundreds of people crowded around the area where it parked waiting to see the pilot. As the shimmering grey beast settled down, a ladder was placed alongside the cockpit, the canopy lifted, and out climbed the pilot. He carried his helmet and oxygen mask, paused on the top of the ladder and acknowledged the applause from the crowd. A minibus was parked nearby, and the rest of his ground crew were waiting for him. He walked toward them, and then an amazing thing happened.
He noticed a teenage girl in a wheelchair, and without hesitation turned and walked toward her, crouched down in front of her, talked at her level, signed his name on her program then tapped her gently on the knee before walking away. The crowd cheered.

“Do you know why they cheered?” I asked the boy. He didn’t, more concerned about getting the tusks to stay in place on the boar’s snout. I continued.

“The crowd had just seen one of the world’s best fighter pilots on display – no question this pilot knew his stuff and had just proved it. But when he chose to acknowledge someone who likely would never walk, let along fly a plane, he became more than a great fighter pilot, he became a great person. He showed that in the moment of his glory, he could be aware of others, to bring a memorable moment to someone who would appreciate it – that’s why the crowd cheered. You could well become the best fighter pilot in the business, but if other people don’t like you, all your skill doesn’t count for much. But, when you can be the best, and still show that you care about others, that’s what really matters”.

When the boy’s mother returned, she looked at the boar’s head and tried unsuccessfully to convey the impression that this was the thing people ‘seeing’ her son usually did. She phoned several days later expressing gratitude that her son was acting so much better toward his siblings, and wanted to know what I had done to bring about what she believed was the beginning of better things. My response was to for her to ask her son what we had done together, and if details were not forthcoming, prompt his memory with some reference to a fighter pilot.

She never did to get to understand what had happened, but wanted to discuss further appointments. I proposed a series of workshop sessions using ‘stealth learning’ – the boar’s head and more design projects being the context for other dimensions of learning based on a new understanding of the ‘context blindness’ of the Autism/Asperger’s disorder. It was some time before I had a reply. The parents had heard about another specialist in this disorder, and they had a referral to see him.

As I put the boar’s head back in the clay-bin, I wondered if the specialist would use such things, or more to the point, a fighter pilot.

Good Company

I am not sure if you have ever sat on the footpath outside a building site with your Grandson. If you have you will share my delight; if you haven’t you have something to look forward to. For more than an hour we watched three tower cranes lifting building materials skyward, cement trucks manoeuvring into very tight spaces, huge semi-trailers backing between stacks of scaffolding and whatnot, and workers of every size, nationality and gender doing their thing. But the thing is, I don’t think there was one of them that did not notice the little three-year-old sitting with his grandfather watching the action. The truck drivers had to watch their mirrors but still noticed Lucas and honked the horn. The crane doggers took a special interest and gave him the thumbs-up while they blew their whistles and the load they had just secured would spiral way above our head.
It felt so good to see men and women at work with such humanity. They were working hard, and I have no doubt their bodies would ache at the end of the day. From the footpath, they seemed to be happy. I was reminded of so many people I had dealt with in therapy, and raised the importance of ‘purposeful action’ – these people may have become physically tired, but emotionally they felt part of something that gave them purpose and meaning.

Looking at my photos later I noticed on the security fence: ‘Choate Construction – 100% employee owned.’ I had to google that later and find out what sort of company it was. Yes the sign meant what it said, and I also learned they had just taken out a national workplace safety award. They pride themselves in being a ‘family’ and looking after each other. Their patented railing system is used on building sites all over the country. I am sure the ‘thumbs up’ to a little boy was part of a deeper job satisfaction. In a world where so much attention is directed toward stuff being pulled down and destroyed, these workers were lifting up and pouring concrete. And, in the land of corporate capitalism where so many workers do not share fairly in the rewards for their effort, here was an inspiring example of people-as-family, not just ‘employees’.
To get to this land and come home again we flew Qantas. Yes, we were part of that well-publicised delay in Dallas, Texas, and I do not intend to join the pile-on against the national carrier. But I do want to say this. Travelling folk understand things can go wrong, after all the machines that take us across oceans are complex and to leave one country and arrive in another requires a lot of moving parts. And a lot of people. That is my point. The travelling folk, or at least as far as I could tell, the several hundred we were with, can deal with things that don’t function as they need to, but what made people angry was there were no Qantas employees to be seen or heard. The little we were told came from non-Qantas staff, and they seemed just as confused as we were about the representatives of the company being missing in action. Perhaps they didn’t care, after all their company is still fighting in court for their right to dismiss staff without proper consideration, legal or moral. The very opposite of ‘family’ rather than employees.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Since the early eighties, I have had an interest in successful well-run companies. A book entitled ‘In Search of Excellence – lessons from America’s best-run companies’ came out about that time, and I remember reading about Delta Airlines. So while in Atlanta recently, we had the opportunity to visit the Delta Museum. What a delight. I found out that what has become one of the world’s best airlines began as a crop dusting company in the Louisiana delta region. Formed to deal with the boll-weevil devastating the cotton crops, it soon grew into a passenger carrier and then a major global airline. The early aeroplanes are on display, along with the major types of post-war propeller planes through to modern jets. Very interesting, especially the opportunity to walk all around them as well as inside.
The thing that struck me most was that during the fuel price increases and economic hard times during the eighties, Delta refused to cut staff. This prompted three cabin staff to organise a fund-raising campaign to raise three million dollars to buy a next generation jet as a sign of gratitude and confidence in the airline’s future. Not surprising, after nearly thirty years’ service, it is an aeroplane proudly on display and housed in its own hangar. I don’t think there is anything like that at the Qantas museum in Longreach. It is difficult to raise funds to buy a new jet if you are missing in action, or worse still, without a job at the airline.
I write about a little boy sitting on the footpath; of cranes, cement trucks and aeroplanes, but it is people that count. They are integral to the many moving parts, and when they feel a sense of belonging and family loyalty, of being appreciated and valued, they make a worthwhile contribution. Things get built, and people get to faraway places. I just hope it is this world that my grandson gets to play his part in. I can hear the dogger’s whistle and see their thumbs up to that.

The brain as a pattern matching organ (Part Two)

Every time your purchases are scanned electronically, a process called ‘pattern recognition’ identifies each item, adds them together, and prints out a docket. The bar code is read by a scanner, it sends the code details to a data bank which finds a perfect match and identifies this unique item among thousands in the store. The human brain uses a similar process – it makes sense of things by matching what it sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, with what is already on file as a neural element or ‘pattern’. Better described by UCLA Berkeley Professor George Lakoff: Thoughts make use of an extensive but unconscious system of metaphorical concepts – a typically concrete realm used to comprehend a different domain.

The electronic scanning process relies on a perfect match and can only make sense of what is scanned if the exact code has been stored in the data bank. The human brain however, is metaphorical in nature and not limited by only being able to make sense of exact matches, or what is already on file. It can use approximations to make some sense of totally unfamiliar experience. An example of this process could be seen in a recent ABC documentary of the first contact indigenous people had with Europeans during the atomic testing in remote South Australia during the 1950’s. The film crew interviewed Yuwali, a Martu tribeswoman who was a teenager at the time, and her expression upon seeing a white vehicle approaching was “Look, those white rocks have come alive and they are rolling toward the camp!” Yuwali was making sense of new information by matching it with what she already knew. With more exposure to white people, more sense-making patterns were added, and she was able to make those distinctions between vehicles and rocks.

What if ‘approximations’ are used instead of distinctive patterns to make sense of our environment? Good question, especially given the subtleties of social interaction and the demands of relationships. Most of the people I see in my practice are using a limited array of patterns, and many people are helped enormously by adding to their repertoire of patterns. Being able to draw on an expanded array of sense-making patterns increases the prospect of accuracy – their perceptions are closer to a shared model of reality. Social interaction becomes more fulfilling, and relationships more rewarding.

Not all people are helped. There are some people who seem unable to accept that reality is what each of us build using our experiences, our learning and our sense-making process. Some people regard reality as an absolute, a franchise they have exclusive rights to, a view that allows them to dismiss other’s views so readily. They hold their point of view with tenacity not unlike a primitive survival response – their sense of life, identity and future seems to be threatened if they contemplate a revision to their thinking. Little wonder their social interaction is characterised by superficial, short-term, one-sided encounters and their relationships limited to those able (or resigned) to tolerate their inflexibility.

Reminds me of philosopher Karl Popper’s words: … even great scientists fail to reach that self-critical attitude which would prevent them from feeling very sure of themselves while gravely misjudging things.

While customers would not tolerate ‘approximations’ in the purchasing process, humans need to be open to the possibility that the sense-making process may not be serving our best interest, and prepared to part with the ‘feeling very sure’ in order to ask that crucial question: Is this how it really is, or just the way I think it is?

The brain as a pattern-matching organ (Part One)

We make sense of (intellectually understand) everything we see, hear, touch, by matching the information with a neural element (or pattern) already on file in our brain. The continuous stream of information is processed quickly and efficiently. The familiar information is a close match (we understand it well); unfamiliar information takes a little longer but with the use of an approximate pattern, we are able to say “Hmmm, it is like…” thus making sense of new information.

The healthy brain has a fascination for the unfamiliar or novel, it is continually ready for the challenge of making sense of things it does not understand, continually learning, thereby adding to its library of patterns. The term ‘approximate pattern’ is important, for without this, the new information cannot be processed or understood.

It could be said then, that the brain is a pattern-matching organ. This definition has implications for understanding the healthy brain, as well as getting a clearer picture of what happens when things go wrong. The implications include:

  • metaphor (‘it is like’) is fundamental part of information processing
  • what we ‘know’ depends on the number of patterns we have access to
  • learning relies on new information being added to existing approximate patterns
  • our model of ‘reality’ comes from the patterns we use

Many patterns are instinctive, they were formed during the development of the foetus and are necessary for survival – avoiding harm and getting our needs met. In the process of making sense of things, the information from our sense organs passes through the survival part of the brain that filters the stimuli for threats to our needs getting or being met.

Pattern-matching at this level takes place before any conscious awareness, it is pre-language and pre-thought. The implications of this fairly recent understanding are significant, the principle one being thought as we know it, is a ‘re-presentation’ of the original stimuli that may or may not have changed depending on the patterns used to make sense of it. This ‘filtering’ process means innate human needs influence thought itself.

The patterns used in this filtering process include ones we were born with, and ones added during our formative years and beyond. While some of these patterns are generic, many are unique to the individual – formed by learning and experience. Pattern-matching is an efficient way for the brain to make sense of stimuli based on what it has processed before, and avoids having to deal with a vast array of experience as though it is a first-time event. (Alzheimer’s is characterised by poor access to patterns, thus responding to each experience as a new event.)

While pattern-matching may be an efficient process, it is subject to factors that may increase or decrease its capacity to select appropriate patterns for specific situations. Emotions, for example, essentially prepare the body for action of some kind, from the extreme fight flight freeze response that marshals a host of body systems in preparation for action, to a more simple tactile sympathy gesture that may have little more physiological dimension than a moistening of the eyes. With heightened emotional arousal the level of sophistication in the brain’s search for an appropriate pattern is reduced, and a pattern from a limited range will usually be selected.

This primitive pattern-matching is known as ‘black and white’ thinking as the shades of grey, those insights that give each situation a here-and-now uniqueness, are lacking. Perfect for survival responses, but decidedly limiting if used on an on-going basis. Where the primitive patterns are used over and over again, thinking becomes self-focused, narrow, and pessimistic instead of expansive, explorative and others-focused. This thinking style is usually present in stress, depression and anxiety-related conditions, and the recognition that patterns are the filter through which all thoughts are formed, and the understanding that emotional arousal (excessive worry for example) causes a primitive thinking style, provides for effective therapeutic approaches.

Emotions Revisited

Emotions are neither good nor bad – they just are. They cannot be otherwise, for they operate from that part of the brain clearly removed from the values and belief-driven executive function. Much confusion arises when we assume characteristics of mental processing on that part of the brain that operates below any level of awareness. The emotional brain, variously known as the primal brain, the subconscious, or more specifically, the limbic system, is value neutral – relying instead on the awareness (thinking) part of the brain to function in the person’s best interest. Like other living organisms, humans interact with their environment to get their needs met, and our best interests are served when the interplay of emotion and thinking lead to effective interaction and needs – physical and non-physical, being met appropriately.

As described in a previous blog (24.03.2011), emotions facilitate this interaction. They prepare us for action and carry an expectation that the action will meet a need. The crucial thing about emotions is not about  ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’,  but whether they are discharged effectively. A continuing state of emotional arousal or undischarged emotion reduces the brain’s processing capacity, places stress on the system, and raises the prospect of low mood instead of well-being.

So, given that emotions just are, how is one to handle this statement from a world authority on well-being, Martin Seligman (Flourish, Random House, 2011): Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is underway, that psychological capital is accumulating (p66).

My response, tentative at this stage, is that feelings – pleasant or otherwise – are much later along the stimuli-response sequence. Feelings are not simply emotions, nor are they the product of emotional arousal – they are the result of the successful interplay of emotion and thought resulting in needs being met and signs that growth is underway. Separate the emotion; recognising its function in the below-awareness phase of the sequence, and we are better able to focus on feelings or mood states, which clearly have good/bad, positive/negative dimensions.

This focus on feelings or mood states enables specific interventions at the stages that precede feeling good or bad. A focus that begins with a better understanding of emotions, contains an appreciation of the interplay between emotion, thought, action and feeling as discreet entities, and leads to successful interaction with the environment and needs being met. Growth instead of mere survival; flourishing, with more good moods than bad.

The myth of the chemical cure

Airports are fascinating places. I particularly enjoy observing people – the various games people play while pretending they are neither with others nor game-playing. Anthony was not pretending. He was very aware, at five years old, of the game of pressing his grandmother’s buttons as he out-smarted and out-ran her. On one lagging pass, the mid-sixties lady gave me that tired look and a handy explanation: “ADHD”

The explanation did little to quell the rising emotional climate among other travellers-in-waiting, but, I must admit, it confirmed the appropriateness of what I felt like doing: having a good old game of chasey. Imagine the fun we could have, we mightn’t be able to jump the seats like Anthony could, but we could cooperate and outsmart him when he landed in the other aisle. Then rough him up good-humouredly before letting him go again.

By the time we boarded, Anthony would have been exhausted, and sleeping like a baby halfway to Auckland. Instead, his grandmother had other plans: I’m saving his medication for the plane, as though placing him in a medicated fog was the only sign of relief on the horizon.

I call this ‘the myth of the chemical cure’ after Professor Joanna Moncrief’s remarkable book of that name. Anthony’s grandmother was able to announce to a group of total strangers the four-letter ‘explanation’ for her grandson’s behaviour, and the card up her sleeve was a tiny yellow pill to medically fog her grandson for the next few hours. Acceptable practice because, as we all know, medical problems need medical solutions. It is, as education expert Sir Ken Robinson claims in his latest video with all the viral potential as his previous ones, We resort to giving children quite dangerous drugs for the same reason we routinely removed their tonsils – medical fashion. I suggest it is more than just ‘fashion’ when one considers the marketing advantages of widespread demand for prescription medication. Besides, fashion and marketing have always partnered with each other and in their own interests, and manipulated people to buy a solution for every problem – perceived or otherwise.

Anthony’s grandmother had bought the package: a fashionable explanation and a ready medical solution. Too bad Anthony wasn’t consulted before his brain was bombarded with chemicals with a yet unknown longer-term effect. As I said, a game of chasey was my preference, no need to consult Anthony on that one.



Brain Growth

I came across an interesting question last week: “How much of the psychological and spiritual suffering in contemporary affluent cultures is due to unrecognized failures of growth?”* The writer, his credentials of professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies at UCLA notwithstanding, did not provide an answer. Nor shall I, but as a therapist who sees a fair share of human suffering and distress, it is possible to suggest: a lot.

One of the central tenets of the Human Givens approach is that psychological suffering is not present when a person is getting their physical and emotional needs met appropriately, and one of these important needs is the one for growth – to be challenged and stretched mentally. According to Walsh (2008) “the mind contains an inherent developmental drive towards growth, and given appropriate conditions and practices, the mind tends to be self-healing, self-actualising, and self-liberating”. It is clear then that ‘inappropriate’ conditions that fail to provide opportunity for intellectual nourishment, stimulation and learning; and practices or interaction with the environment that leaves the need for mental challenge and stretching unmet, will remain unhealthy, unfulfilled, and stagnating.

Now, it is not as though the distressed people who see therapists can describe their malaise in this way, hence the ‘unrecognised’ in Walsh’ question. Contemporary affluent cultures tend to create the illusion of growth; people are immersed in a constant flow of information, yet remain essentially ill-informed; their senses constantly stimulated yet so often they remain detached and bored. They become perplexed and believe in the ‘myth of more’ – without realising more of the same will bring in its wake, more of the perplexity and sense of stagnation.

Walsh provides four antidotes to stagnation:

  • Awareness: for with awareness comes choice, and a sense of autonomy and control over their environment and interaction with it, leading to mental challenge and growth.
  • Growth-orientated relationships: couples, groups or communities provide the benefit of shared endevours, mutual support, encouragement and enthusiasm.
  • Teachers: and the love of learning. As James Michener once proclaimed at a life-enhancing moment: “I am going to associate with people who know more than I do” – perhaps explaining his accumulation of 35 honorary doctorates in five disciplines before his long and productive life came to a close.
  • Regular sustained practice: perhaps the most important of all as Walsh concludes: “I have seen some very impressive friends and colleagues fall into traps of stagnation, depression and addiction”.

Antidotes that are all possible in an affluent culture, providing that innate drive is allowed to express itself fully and appropriately.

*Walsh, R. (2008) Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4:3

Depression Breakthrough (part 2)

The question becomes: What can be done to break this dreadful cycle and lift the black cloud of depression? To break this cycle, to move away from the sad end of the scale, the orientation response mechanism needs to work again. Working properly, it enables us to concentrate and focus, to prompt motivation so that emotions are discharged by purposeful action during the day and not overload the system at night. Although some sufferers can, given enough time, make this shift along the scale themselves, many people suffering depression find they need professional help.

A professional that fully understands this recent understanding of what depression actually is, and is up to date on new insights from various fields other than their own, is usually able to make a difference quickly and simply. They would start by lowering the emotional arousal allowing the clear-headed part of the brain to think properly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking, and they are capable of ‘hijacking’ the thinking part of the brain.

I must stress, that working with the emotions first in order to influence thinking is crucial. Emotions are in place before thought, so any attempt to fix emotional problems by changing the way people think, is working against the way the brain works. If it works at all, it will take a long time – most psychological intervention is based on this faulty assumption, leaving depression rates to rise alarmingly.

With emotions calmed and thinking in place – therapeutic in itself for a depressed person – it is possible to look for things that once gave them pleasure, something they were passionate about – usually something they have not done for a long time. Notice that I am not looking for why they are depressed – dredging up events of the past only makes them emotionally aroused again.

While concentrating on some activity that they used to get pleasure from, we put in place a simple goal, something they can start and complete before they sleep that night. The goal is clear, achievable, and will meet a deep emotional need, a need for purposeful action; to feel alive, and engaged again with this thing called life.

It is possible to have agreement, commitment, and an intention from the depressed person, but little emotional buy-in because I have not impacted the part of the brain where the problem lies. A lot of head nodding because it sounds like a good idea, but the emotional brain doesn’t do words, so the person goes away and soon the old feelings of not doing anything come up again.

To reduce the chances of that happening, I work with the emotional brain, in the language it understands. As it doesn’t do language, I simulate a healthy dream process and use metaphor, images and stories to effect change at the feeling level. The goal of purposeful action that will set them up for a better sleep becomes embedded in the emotional brain, it is like a script complete with what it feels like – I have made a difference where it matters.

It is called a ‘breakthrough’ because it makes so much sense to therapists, to people who used to be depressed, and, I am sure, to you as well. It makes sense because it is based on what depression actually is, not on what we thought it was. It makes sense because the therapy is simple and effective, and lifts depression for good.

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