After a terrible time

Please continue

Time to shine

There is a Zen saying, “before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Replace enlightenment with trauma, and its truth holds, of the return to adequate functioning, despite a subtle enlargement of view. Existence can be savoured again, with an appreciation of the fleeting preciousness of a given life-time.

While this concludes blog posts and some direction to relevant information, the quest is by no means over. That is a matter for each individual to take forward, in whatever situation s/he is in, whenever something is missing or wrong. Seek knowledge, recourse, action – whatever meets the needs identified. The solution may be simply and readily found, or it may take time to remedy, but there’s satisfaction in taking back control to steer events towards best outcomes.

For the most part, I’ve deliberately used the passive voice to relay information. While regarded by many writing style experts as a forbidden and coarse mode of narration, and rarely found in current editions of guidance manuals or books of any kind, I’ve selected it because of a personal repulsion repeatedly felt at what often comes across as the presumptuous over-familiar address of the saluting titles, ‘you’ or ‘we’. It’s occasionally comforting to realise ‘you’re not alone’ but more often than not, the implied shared thought or behaviour just isn’t applicable. How could it be the same for everyone? People are so very different in their dispositions and experiences, and changing all the time.

One person at least on my side in this respect is Steven Pinker, in his recent book, The Sense Of Style: “…the grammatical ordering of words to convey a meaning may diverge from the optimal flow of ideas in the reader’s mind. A sentence’s first words should link back to the preceding discussion, fixing the reader’s attention on a familiar entity, and preparing her to learn something new about it…” The passive voice de-emphasises the doer and indicates those affected by actions in an unspecific way that can cover a larger range of circumstances. Of course it doesn’t really matter ultimately, so long as the message helps, or at least doesn’t hurt.

I intend to recycle each post shortly through the same medium, to double as an opportunity for checking that links work, that spelling, syntax and other elements are acceptable, and to complete any outstanding editing requirements. It remains for me to thank readers for engaging, to hope some benefit has been gained from messages compiled, and to wish everyone well.

Compassion, play and politics

40. Content to contribute

get into character, have a say

Play is a tonic in all sorts of ways. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga wrote the seminal examination of play from which modern play studies sprang. Pat Kane, ex-member of 80s indie Scottish band, Hue And Cry, also wrote a book on this subject called The Play Ethic, outlining the principles on which his company of the same name operates to research and workshop play, innovation, creativity and the future. Comments are mounting, however, concerning the slow but insidious sabotage of the spontaneity intrinsic to children’s play by louder questionable interests relating to public safety, more intense schooling and commercial pressures. Many adults too feel bound to be constantly accessible for work, contrary to preferences for work-life balance. Taking a step back can help.

For illuminating and entertaining revelations into ways in which philosophy, culture and science can be surprisingly applied to real life, there’s hardly a better companion than the writer, Nassim N. Taleb. His certainty about the unpredictability of events and enterprises removes blame from loss; he asserts that the game of life doesn’t follow regular rules. This view corresponds with that found in Finite And Infinite Games by James Carse. Infinite games of interaction with others keep opening to more play, without a murderous triumphant finale. Useful notes outline the differences between game types, which includes playing politics.

It’s possible to gauge one’s main political leanings through an online test which challenges polarised positions. Ken Loach, film director famed for addressing thorny social issues, strongly recommends engaging directly with others affected and concerned to remedy problems and injustices encountered by self and others, and to stay sane. Adam Phillips argued that far too little attention has been paid to the knack of sanity, in Going Sane.Intended as a feminist slogan, the personal is political was first used by Carol Hanisch in her 1969 essay; the succinct phrase has since been borrowed, because of its wide resonance, for countless causes.

Naomi Klein has concluded, in This Changes Everything, that the hyperactivity of capitalism is responsible for most of the harm done to the environment. Some buddhist orders, instead of observing a sabbath day, designate a lazy day per week, free time to use as one chooses. Elsewhere this has been called the green virtue: “Laziness is one of the most important practices and medicines for our time and our situation.”

It took Michael Moore to humorously make the connection that unless rulers are affected and determinedly pestered through more or less reasonable routes, they’re usually slow to intervene and fix destructive situations. That is the best argument for anyone feeling aggrieved, on one’s own behalf and/or on others’, to become politically involved in the broadest meaning of the term, in the sense of finding ways to be heard and influence decisions, to take group action, to learn more about issues of concern, their causes, consequences, and possibly ultimately to be the one who people turn to for guidance and advocacy. The Greek word for idiot literally means a “private person (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs).” Democracy falls apart without participation.

Becoming persuasive doesn’t, however, grant a licence to judge others. Unless on close terms with them, how is it possible to tell who else bears hidden scars of harrowing experiences and is masking it with bravado? Meditation practices to develop compassion through equalising and exchanging self with others, as taught by the Dalai Lama, nurture empathy and acceptance. A gentle sensitive demeanour has a calming quality on giver and receiver. Optimism increases with humility on recognition of  common suffering and joy under many guises. Whether wounded or just under the weather, people remember the consolation of kindnesses, large or small. The best person to practise on is oneself.

As Shakespeare said:

“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
…It is an attribute to God himself.”

Martin Luther King nominates his friend Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, 1967

Learning and creativity

39.  College and collage

inform and express

The idea of life-long learning is increasingly a reality for many people. Managing it in a schedule of engagements can pose challenges, but overcoming ignorance rewards effort. In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? , Martin Luther King urged his black compatriots to educate themselves and claim their entitlements to socio-economic advantages, thereby steadily integrating like their Jewish brothers in America had done. He wrote that “deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions”, while “education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. ” Acquiring knowledge and skills, and using them in the world, fosters independence and responsibility. He quotes Cicero (106-43 B.C.): “freedom is participation in power”.

The philosopher Walter Wink has criticised mainstream education systems for moulding citizens to keep capitalist concerns going, oblivious to what really matters. Psychologist Peter Grey has argued against the regimentation of schooling that impedes children and students from leading their own learning. And Parker J. Palmer urges teachers to loosen up and listen to class members as if they are human beings too.

The sufi way supports deeper more individualistic approaches to education. Sufism was mainly cultivated in Middle-Eastern Moslem countries but has germinated in all nations, for millennia, as the seed of great civilisations. It is the ‘open secret’, according to Stuart Litvak in Seeking Wisdom, that’s buried deep within each of us: the essential or dormant kernel of primal truth from whence sprouts knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, when watered by the nutrient of love. Courtesy of a monograph by scholar, Idries Shah (influential member of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge,) one of their number, the revered thirteenth-century poet, Rumi, explains,  “The methods used to help in the production of the higher state of perception include historical, religious and fable frameworks, as well as exercises of all kinds….the effort of man [is] to reunite with the understanding from which he is cut off… ” The desirability of deliberate application to a constellation of lessons is implied. Hindu Upanishads likewise stressed the need for self-development.

In the Buddhist Suttra on the Eight Realisations – “The Fifth Realisation is the awareness that ignorance is the cause of the endless round of birth and death. Therefore, bodhisattvas [compassionate awakened ones] always remember to listen and learn in order to develop their understanding and eloquence. This enables them to educate living beings and bring them to the realm of great joy.”

‘The present moment, contains past and future. The secret of transformation is in the way we handle this very moment’

‘Practise conscious breathing, to water the seeds of awakening. Right View is a flower blooming in the field of mind consciousness.’

Both quotes are from the Avatamsaka Sutra. Everything is interconnected.

Like Eastern analyses of the mind as a storehouse, flexible and subject to conditioning, key Western figures advise gaining knowledge as a grounding, a means to the end of  transformational creativity. In an Interview with Lewis Hyde , author of The Gift, he paints a far less constrained picture than that of mainstream institutions of how to handle information. The quest for nourishment of self and community by giving work away is contrasted with the utilitarian push to master the marketable skills that assure an income and career, though later he reconciles both.

This creative embrace represents the highest level on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs; that of self-actualisation. Attaining this state was originally thought possible only after the other levels had been met, but now it’s generally accepted that stages commonly overlap. When crisis hits, the basics tend to come first, and people sensibly do whatever it takes to secure food, shelter, safety, aid and so on. Once danger’s past, freedoms to reach out return. Libraries, apprenticeships, travel and other more immediate activities can enrich the mind and enhance skills. Matthew Crawford‘s book, The Case For Working With Your Hands, champions craft trades. Finding purpose revitalises.

MOOCS (massive open online courses) usually cost nothing and while generally unaccredited, and prone to non-completion, provide a nice recent introduction to, or continuation of, academic education. Some can even focus on issues being experienced, such as Tulane’s, or FutureLearn’s trauma course. From self-learning to night-classes to part-time or full-time university courses, each may exert an attraction that can be met through fulfilling criteria step by step. There’s even an international institute devoted to creativity studies.

Not alone is it deeply satisfying from a personal perspective, when the time’s right, but creativity is now recognised as an essential ingredient of a vibrant society.

Deciding about therapy

38. The talking cure,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/go64ywcnuiinn2znpeae.jpg

Out with it.

Many people enduring the stressful after-effects of awful events report that counselling or psychotherapy has helped them access resources to cope effectively with challenges. Further glowing accounts of resultant improvements emanate primarily from practitioner bodies; a more modulated Wiki consideration of outcomes, subtitled Criticisms and Questions, suggests benefits occur in about half the cases, on a par with the placebo effect. Most people have to do without qualified input though, due to lack of service provision, or lack of access to it, yet tend to manage somehow.

In the absence of some kind of therapeutic space, however, understanding and coming to terms with damage might be sacrificed. The quality of life of those who survive adversity varies quite a lot, depending on what happened and what happens next. Many traumatised people describe feeling dead inside and may go to their graves languishing in a miasma of anxiety without resolving anything. The resilience of others, who bounce back from horrors with little or no structured intervention, is now being studied to enlighten new helping techniques.

Taking time in an accepting setting to examine any serious disruption seems to bestow an empowering effect, whether done in a strictly therapeutic environment or not. Such outcomes are routinely cited to promote the use of professional services. Not all therapists are well versed in treating trauma though, and traditionally have pathologised the victim, often to avoid conflict with their colleagues. These ‘experts’ are all too human, having often entering the field in sympathy after getting through their own terrible times. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 of Judith Herman‘s book explores what can be expected, good and bad. Further knowledge of the territory can be gleaned from many sources e.g. dvds of programmes such as In Treatment.

Thomas Szasz, in, The Myth of Mental Illness, and other works, challenged conventional assumptions about the value of treatments. Elsewhere, In his rich narrative, If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him, his book about being a psychotherapist, Sheldon Kopp claimed to operate as an entrepreneurial psychotherapist. Fee payment allowed clients to interact with him on an equal footing, an arrangement he contrasted with coerced psychotherapy, where patients involuntarily would have to submit to evaluation by carers whose roles were largely more similar to those of prison officers.

The third type he identified, bureaucratic psychotherapy, straddled extremes of simple persuasion to split therapist loyalty, between client, and parents, school, and/or management. In reality, proof of depraved abuses, and of highly-ethical dedication to clients’ best interests, is found in each of a myriad of extant approaches. Unfortunately, complicated cases fail more, despite Dante’s dictum: “He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it.”

Yet one size doesn’t fit all. When the standard motivation counselling methods weren’t working to keep impoverished youth in education, in 1974 New York, psychologists first devised the more practical alternative of life skills coaching, thus obtaining strikingly better results. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows how success requires the right inputs of opportunities and resources, both in cash and kind, a lack of which is to blame in virtually all cases of falling short.

It’s also important to bear in mind that from therapists’ point of view, other people’s troubles earn their livelihoods and build their careers.The best inoculation against chronic traumatic stress is having voluntary close relationships refined from enduring mutual support. After therapy is deemed complete, the professional closes the diagnostic file and moves to the next customer. They’d better care about who’s there for you outside the office.

Responding to perceived flaws in her fields, psychiatry and psychotherapy, Anne Wilson-Schaef designed a new holistic therapy called Living in Process, as per her books, including Beyond Therapy. Protesting against the reductionist scientific paradigm and noticing addictions everywhere, she emphasised an experiential approach to bring openness to whatever arises, however paradoxical. One of her primary bugbears concerned the inability of psychotherapists to resist concocting and imposing techniques, formulas and standardised frames of reference onto a client’s reality, rather than giving it organic room to breathe and define itself towards more straightforward resolution.

Ideally, word-of-mouth recommendations, credential checks and personality/beliefs match give a better chance of positive results. Helpers need to be honest, warm, and realistic, opening up options and regularly reviewing progress. If doubts arise, trust intuition, especially if questions are aggressively confronted. In such encounters of unequal power, only one participant is authorised to officially label the other as hostile or disordered.

Whether opting for therapy or not, people can do a lot for themselves. In 1979, Janette Rainwater wrote ‘a guide to becoming your own therapist’ called, You’re In Charge, specifying many useful exercises and tools. More recently in the same vain, Philippa Perry gives instruction on self-development in, How To Stay Sane. The publishers, The School Of Life, set up by Alain de Boutain, distributes all kinds of insights on positive changes. Pub psychologist Nash Popovic also disseminates comprehensive wisdom.

There’s an infinite stream of material available on all kinds of issues and services. Discerning and practising relevant quality options, while focusing primarily on rebuilding the universal foundations of a healthy personal life, tends to work best.

The value of time and attention

37. The stuff of a life

precious resources

After accident of birth, for the individual with a limited life-span, how time is spent and where attention is placed determine quality of life. The urgency of this thought tempts some to hop between activities, others to master limited tasks in depth and more to sit back and throw hands up in the air! With flashbacks, intrusive memories and constricted mental outlook typically presenting as obstructive and unwanted post-traumatic symptoms, measures to restore balance to attentional and time-gauging mechanisms after awful ordeals can bring a lot of relief.

Once stress about being overwhelmed or losing out is addressed, exploring the meaning and value of time and attention in each personal case can significantly enhance experience and return on investment in both constraints. Physicist Stephan Hawking, in, A Brief History Of Time, described time mainly as a dynamic affecting movement and formations in the cosmos, something external to human beings. However, the direction of attention affects how time feels, as studies have established: “as the engagement of attention increased so did the underestimation of time.” Concentrating on a chosen task that is enjoyable and feels excitingly new, in a safe atmosphere, opens a zone where time seems to fly.

The mantra of mindfulness, getting in touch with the present moment, has become a popular twenty-first century trend. Without awareness, however, nothing could get done, so mindfulness clearly abides in everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. Various practices, new and old, have been devised to harness its force more consciously because it can train attention and change the perception of time. Being mindful means pausing to observe, slowing down automatic reactivity to see what’s really going on. The associated positive non-judgemental focus on regulation of attention has been found to succeed in soothing the most agitated minds. Warnings about stress are counter-productive without action guidelines to get on top of obligations, or re-organise them, and then fitting in stress management techniques.

The thousands of forms meditation has taken in different traditions can be summarised in five categories: concentration, mindfulness, reflection, creativity and heart-centredness. Based on the result of calmness, Dr Herbert Benson taught patients how to do his exercise, the relaxation response, a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional response to stress. It quietens the mind. So does meditation which, regularly practised, reduces stress, and improves immune and all-round health, amongst many other advantages, as attested by its long history.

By stilling critical thoughts, the resistant part of the mind can be by-passed, the easier to dislodge obsessive thoughts and install conditioning for new better habit formation. This is even more true in the process of hypnosis, that altered state of relaxed awareness in which the unconscious is open to accepting suggestions, whether or not previously believed. Of course, the mind lets down  its guard like this regularly in everyday interactions without realising it, under all kinds of influences. To be fully conscious of everything all the time is unimaginable, beyond human ability, yet as Freud and others pointed out, a dignified life is one lived as much in the light of consciousness as possible.

Although practitioners like Dr Jack Gibson, who earned an obituary in the BMJ for. amongst other works, his book, Relax and Live, used hypnosis in surgery since the ’60s, it has sustained repeated charges of quackery over centuries but is now coming into scientific favour again. Spend a few seconds imagining biting into a lemon. That’s the power of imagery and words to affect the body. Bandler and Grinder’s best-selling book on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Frogs Into Princes, promises easier re-learning based on these ideas.

Positive or guided imagery, metaphors, stories, reframing and other components may also be involved in creating scripts suitable to a variety of complaints. Creating your own self-hypnosis script is easy, while prepared texts and recorded versions are widely available. Whichever relaxation method appeals, though, make room for it, and note what happens subsequently to your allocation of time and attention.

Honing communication

36. Ensuring the message intended,

… is sent, delivered and received

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, claims that in communication, the animal heritage of human beings is on display through body language and sounds made, even across cultures. The common fear of public speaking has been blamed on an inherent terror of being ostracised. As well as a comment on presentations, the phenomenon of neoteny is identified as those traits in apes and especially in humans that preserve biologically youthful features much longer than happens in other species. Unencumbered by defensive appendages or covers, such as claws or fur, the persistent attractiveness and ultra-social group rapport that evidently result mean that members depend heavily on one another to get their needs met.

Every action can be imbued with meaning by whoever might be witnessing it, subject to many factors affecting perception and interpretation. Eric Berne analysed these transactions in his 1964 classic, Games People Play, and the techniques he initially developed in it to communicate more clearly were carried forward by others into programmes such as assertiveness training. The importance of improving communication skills for succeeding in the workplace and in social life is stressed in many such programmes. Online self-evaluation tests are offered, accompanied by exercises to overcome weaknesses.

People’s habitual responses to information or behaviour presented is routinely exploited by advertisers, marketeers and others. An excellent breakdown of the main points made in the most often-cited study, supplemented by apt examples, on Influence, subtitled The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini,has been posted on casanovependrillblog.

Recipients of messages are affected by a few predominant dynamics: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity. These different elements ring true, although intense social pressure to conform while attention is elsewhere is often involved when invoking them, creating an atmosphere of mind games.

The mental capacity of the human race has evolved such a sophisticated fast-paced complex environment, intensified by industrial and technical innovations, that it makes dealing with rapidly-changing situations by falling back on animal instincts more difficult. In uncertain conditions, judgements are arrived at by crunching all available data down into hugely-simplified few options through the use of what Kahneman and Tversky called, heuristics and biases.

This could also mean, however, that default responses are relied on and encounters occur with the same unwanted outcome again and again. Just as the most frequently-heard tip to stay calm while delivering a speech to a group emphasises deep slow breathing, basic relaxation and pausing exercises play a significant part in adjusting maladaptive communication patterns. Creative visualisation is another tool often used to prime for success, as well as actually devising the structure and subsections of a talk or discussion beforehand, and practising it. People swear by this type of preparation.

In ordinary conversations that can become agitated, steps can also be taken to ease matters. One such approach, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, called nonviolent communication, is based on compassionately accepting that everyone has needs and is trying to meet them. In this strategy for positive social change, quite specific guidelines for getting to, and over, the point of strife are summarised: observation, stating needs and feelings, and requesting action. Many people report benefits on learning and applying the process.

Similarly, right speech depends on right thoughts. Instead of blurting things out thoughtlessly, taking a moment to consider how words might affect others refines what is ultimately spoken. Even silence signals something. Just as there are different languages to express the same thing, and different social arrangements to meet similar goals, solving an issue can require an airing of different scripts ,depending on where the actors are coming from. Tolerance conveys permission to safely voice concerns and facilitates more engaging lively debate. Inclusion underpinned by respect is the direction to go in.

Spirit matters

35. The energy in things

Subtle and gross forces

While they’re not the same, religious structures, and their rituals that bind, tend to convey spiritual notions. The implications of intolerance for others’ religious beliefs is sadly projected by many of the world’s war-zones, past and present. Religious enforcement often overlaps political allegiance – think of the Spanish Inquisition.

Given all the many religions in operation, beliefs may conflict, but what threads them together is how they address invisible aspects of life. While keeping the chakras of a person’s subtle body unblocked is linked to ancient lifestyle approaches such as yoga, this cartography of human physiology is still widely invoked by complementary healers. Terrible times can awaken a quest for something to believe in. Research conducted by Dr Randolph Byrd in 1988, though contested, demonstrates the power of faith; those who were the objects of intercessory prayer fared much better on a range of medical tests  over time than a control group. Dr Larry Dossey and others support the claim.

Shamans, the oldest healing religion, deemed spirit to inhabit all existence, as did the Essenes, a sect to which Jesus belonged. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.”

And from chapter 25 of the Lao-Tzu’s esteemed Tao Te Ching:

“There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world”.

Rupert Sheldrake methodically takes Western scientific dogma to task for vetoing the study of non-solid topics, generally related to mind or soul dynamics however understood, in the humorously-titled, The Science Delusion. His peers are catching up now, admitting to a ‘post-materialist’ reality. Some scientists have been drawn to mysteries, such as those described by Michio Kaku in his book, The Physics Of The Impossible, and elsewhere. He dissects the latest findings on human mastery of skills imagined in science fiction, including telepathy, time travel and perpetual motion. Dr Korotkov in Russia has also earned fame for imaging invisible plant life. It has even been argued that science in Europe was primarily sponsored by the Catholic Church.

A spiritual curiosity creeps up on most  people at some time during their lives, spurring them into deeper enquiry. Jack Kerouac retraced the best-known biography of Buddha in a slim volume, Wake Up, articulating his own reflections e.g.  ‘to escape [to nirvana] from the prison, [of samsara] was why the prison was made.” He claimed to cultivate his future works based on it. Richard Grossinger applies similar tenets directly to current affairs in the more contemporary tome, The Bardo Of Waking Life.

Sam Harris argues that people can do without religion while still gaining a lot of quality comfort and support from spirituality. Others cry narcissism at the a la carte approach to faith,  which can amount to no more than a cult of self-worship according to Paul C. Vitz, in his book, Psychology As Religion. Of many useful resources out there, Sounds True and Wisdom Books cater for a wide range of spiritual queries. Ken Wilber’s integral embrace and transcend system is more all-inclusive: it says everyone’s right – and there’s more! He doesn’t stop at recommending the integration of beliefs only, but at blending spiritual essences into everyday routines alongside taking responsibility for developing as a healthy human being, to make it meaningful, for a ‘holy’ (whole) life.

Furthermore, sensing and believing in extra being, inside, outside, above or below the self is less of a shot in the dark than it might seem when numerous well-regarded scientists are now convinced, based on their research results, of the  immortality of consciousness, the seat of the individual self-concept. So, having a little faith, it seems, is not only good for the soul, but sound science, and the solace supplied can be most important during high-stress episodes.