Sabre Toothed Tiger  scary eh?

Sabre Toothed Tiger
scary eh?

Human beings evolved as much prey as predators. To survive, our ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant for threat – you only have to miss the sabre-toothed tiger in the grass once for your genes to leave the gene pool.* So, we have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for threats – that’s handy when you’re crossing the road, but most of the time we’re not really in that much danger. Unfortunately the unconscious processes of your mind don’t know that, so they react to minor criticisms, disagreements and mistakes as though they are threats to your very existence.

This is known as the Negativity Bias – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes our minds as having evolved to be ‘teflon for positivity, but velcro for negativity’. I’m sure you’re familiar with the experience of receiving feedback, and managing to pretty much ignore all of the appreciations, while focusing your attention sharply on the one thing that isn’t enthusiastically appreciative. All of which makes life pretty unpleasant at times – that’s because evolution doesn’t care whether you are happy or not, all it’s worried about is that you pass on your genes.**

Fortunately neuroplasticity allows us to reprogram our brains so that instead of constantly looking out for failure, rejection and threat we learn to look out for success, acceptance and possibility. This is the principle of Solution Focus approaches.

In a simple machine, knowing what the problem is can be a real help – you just replace the broken part and everything is sorted. In a complex system like the human psyche, a business or a community, learning all you can about a problem may make you an expert on problems, but usually won’t tell you very much that’s useful about the solution.

Solution Focused inquiries, like ‘when doesn’t the problem occur?’ or ‘where do things work best?’ bring a different perspective to situations, and start to open up possibilities. They also help the brain to work in a way that stimulates creativity, rather than triggering defensive fight/flight responses.

Learning to rewire the way you approach life isn’t an overnight job – after all you’re working against millions of years of evolution – but you can experience positive effects very quickly. Here’s a little exercise I almost always give to my coaching clients, and regularly do myself.

Give yourself 10 minutes and write a list of What’s working?/What’s better? make the list as long as you possibly can and include as wide a range of things as possible – from the cup of tea that you just enjoyed, to a major work achievement, to someone opening the door for you, anything and everything you can think of – keep asking yourself ‘and what else?’.

You can do this on your phone, tablet or computer, and it works even better if you use pen and paper. Once you’ve finished your Working/Better list you can write your To Do list – make sure all the items on that list are small and specific first steps ‘send an email to Bob to arrange a meeting’ rather than ‘renegotiate the Bob Co. contract’.

What this does is gets your brain firing on all the networks associated with success, connection, and positivity, so you feel well resourced to tackle the jobs ahead – and breaking those jobs down into bite-size chunks helps to avoid the tendency to get overwhelmed. And it sometimes helps you to notice opportunities that you might otherwise overlook.

Give it a try, all you’ve got to lose is your negativity bias.

* Disclaimer – I have no idea whether sabre toothed tigers did actually hunt hominids, but you get the point

** Disclaimer 2 – Evolution is a process, to describe it as caring or not caring about something is ludicrous – but you get the point.

NeuronesSince the development of scanners that can measure blood flow in the brain without seriously harming people, we have been learning a lot about how our brains work. Some journalists have called this the Golden Age of Neuroscience, although it’s more likely to turn out to be the Dawn of Neuroscience. We’re learning that the human brain is far more extraordinary than we ever thought – as far as we know, it is the most complex thing in the universe.

One of the things we have learnt is that the brain is in a constant process of change: everything we do, think and say subtly alters the network of neurones in the brain, a process described as neuroplasticity. Any given behaviour – let’s say being frightened by a dog – strengthens the connections of a particular sequence of neurones, creating what is called a neural-network. If we repeat the behaviour, then that particular neural network is reinforced – as neuroscientist Donald Hebb put it (back in 1949!) “what fires together, wires together“.

What this means is that every time you repeat a behaviour, you gradually wire up your brain in a way that makes that way of responding to events more likely, and ultimately so habitual that it takes great effort for you to choose another way of responding. So an incident of being frightened by a dog can be reinforced again and again, so that being frightened of dogs in general becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Of course the early practitioners of Buddhism had no idea what was happening in the brain, but through seeing people’s behaviour and watching their own minds in very subtle detail in meditation, they were able to observe the way in which we gradually build, embed and reinforce our habits of relating to the world. They called this process karma.

Over time, of course, the meaning and interpretation of words drifts. Nowadays people tend to talk of karma as some kind of cosmic retribution system – it is even embedded in the Hindu caste system: if you are born in a lowly caste, then this is your karma for having been bad in your previous life – and some people have even applied this absurd reasoning to disabled people.

Sadly, some cruel and exploitative people are never punished; some kind and generous people live lives of great difficulty and distress. Your karma is your mind – your particular set of reactive habits to the world and your experiences: feeling threatened by people in authority, or the psychologically damaged person on public transport; getting angry (or collapsing) when people disagree with your opinions; whether you like or are frightened of dogs.

Karma was not, and is not, a description of a great cosmic process, but an incredibly sophisticated way for a pre-scientific society to make sense of the development of neural-networks in the brain. And the fantastic thing is, it’s never too late for you to create new neural-networks that are more helpful, more kind, more creative, and happier. John Lennon was wrong, Instant Karma isn’t necessarily gonna get you.

Here’s a quick video of me trying to sum up meditation in under 2 minutes:

It’s one of a set of about 8 videos Mark Wash and I dashed off in an hour, so the production values aren’t exactly of broadcast quality – but at least this one doesn’t make it massively obvious that I’m too fat for the shirt I’m wearing!

Some slightly odd comments on YouTube so far, and for some reason more dislikes than likes, so any appreciation or constructive criticism welcome. You can do that by clicking on the ‘Watch on You Tube’ icon on the bottom right of the video. Thanks.

I’ve been neglecting this blog, and haven’t posted anything here for a long time – despite this it gets a regular 30 or so visits a day, up to 50 some days. I recently started a new blog, Charlton Fun City, writing about music and posting videos and clips, and have been trying to write something for that every day. As is probably inevitable with a man of my age, not much of it is about new artists; so far it seems to mainly be about  the new material of old artists.

A few days ago I started to think: I’ve got a load of emails waiting for responses – mostly they’re the ones that need a bit of time and thought to complete – so shouldn’t I be doing that rather than writing posts about Wilko Johnson’s farewell gig? Come to that, shouldn’t I be writing more on this blog? After all, I’m a self-employed person working in a fairly small niche, and always battling to pay my bills and stay on the right side of the Mr Micawber’s famous happiness calculation.

Chip and Dan Heath

Chip and Dan Heath

My favourite sibling author duo, Chip and Dan Heath are bringing out a new book shortly, and have been sending out emails trying to drum up trade and build a buzz. I first encountered them through their second book Switch, which is an overview of research into how to get change to work well. As you might expect from the authors of Made to Stick, (which is about getting people to hear and remember what you’re trying to communicate), it is well and engagingly written, in an easy-to-read style familiar from the works of Malcolm Gladwell, who they credit a couple of times.
book-switch-300x391
Even though it doesn’t give as much emphasis to Solutions Focus approaches as my SF chums would like, I think Switch is great, and I consistently recommend it  – in fact if you’re reading this blog then I definitely recommend it to you, you can read/download the first chapter here  –  and I’m looking forward to Decisive, which is subtitled “How to make better choices in life and work”.

One of the points they’ve been making in their prepublication publicity emails, is that we have a strong tendency when faced with a decision to see it in starkly binary terms: should I do A or not? or at best, should I do A or B? Of course the range of possibilities is much more open than that, and the Heath brothers talk about ‘widening the frame’ to look for other possibilities.

So when I was meditating this morning, one of my distractions was the realisation that I don’t have to choose between having a music blog, or a blog about change and growth, or answering my emails – I just have to choose which to do each day. So now, instead of aiming to write a music blog each day, my aim is to write something each day – some days it will be a music blog, some days it will be a response to one of those back-up emails, and some days it will be a blog here.

Now, you may have noticed that the tile of this blog sets up an either/or choice: Either/Or Vs Both/And. The truth is that sometimes we can only have one thing or another – we can have our cake or eat it; I probably only have the time to write one thing each day; you can either use a semi-colon or a comma. So there’s a time for everything – and that reminded me of a song, so why not go for a both/and with this blog post, and make that point with some footage of an old band?

So where could you ‘open up the frame’ to consider both/and options – or even a whole host of different possibilities?

 

1 Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel

Psyche in the Underworld

Psyche in the Underworld

However inappropriate or unworthy it might seem let it arise and pass away, resisting the temptation to attach great significance to it.

2  Don’t expect it to go in a straight line

Grief is non-linear – one day you might feel fantastic, and the next furious, and the next exhausted, and so it will go on.

3 Be very patient with yourself

When you are bereaved, whether by a death or another kind of ending in your life, it is as though part of your soul moves into the underworld. The time-scales of the underworld are very slow, and care nothing for the efficient productivity of the bright light of day. For most of us this is massively inconvenient, as we need to get on with work, family life, etc, but we just have to let it work its way through at its own rate. Be kind and patient with yourself – it might well take longer than you think it should or want it to.

What would you suggest to help someone who has been bereaved?

Here’s a first draft of a top ten communication tips – there’s plenty of material here for a blog post for each entry, and probably dozens more really useful tips. What would you add? Let me know in the comments section.
  1. Tell the truth – Resist the temptation to exaggerate or understate for effect or to emphasise a point. Be as factually accurate as possible – without boring the pants of people!
  1. Be kind – This may be more important in your internal communication than your communication with others. Either way, avoid the temptation to use the truth as a weapon, and avoid harshness – both in tone and in content.
  1. Create harmony – Resist getting caught up in gossiping and avoid slagging people off. Speak appreciatively of others as often as you can, and break the habit of internal moaning.
  1. Make sure what you say is worth hearing – Talk about the things in life that are genuinely significant – go beyond property prices, technological gadgets and celebrity gossip so that you use communication as a way of genuinely connecting with yourself and other people.
  1. Is now the right time? – It might have been preying on your mind all day, but is it really ideal to pounce on somebody as soon as they’ve come through the door? Take the other person into account before you launch into explaining your solution to the economic crisis.
  1. Take responsibility for understanding – If you don’t understand what someone has said, apologise for not getting it and ask them to explain it again (rather than blaming them for not explaining it properly). Check that you have been understood – if you haven’t, then apologise for not being clear enough and explain it again.
  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood – This is a bit of a hoary old chestnut, but none the less helpful for that. What’s it like when someone insists on thrusting their opinion down your throat? It’s likely to make you gag, so don’t do it to others.
  1. Saying the same thing louder is unlikely to aid understanding. This was the comedy hub for dozens of ‘Brits abroad’ sitcom based movies in the 70s – it wasn’t very funny then, and it still doesn’t work. If what you’re saying isnlt understood you need to find a new way of getting the point across.
  1.  It’s OK for others to disagree – If someone disagrees with us we normally think that they don’t understand, then we think they’re stupid, then we think they’re evil. Actually, they probably just disagree – and that’s fine.
  1.  Have periods of silence – Allow some space in your head, and some quietness in the world. Learn to be with others on companionable silence – at least once in a while.

‘This Is Water’ by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish

swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete … A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea.

But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues”. This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again.

But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

Or if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks …

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am – it is actually I who am in his way.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider.

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.

Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. I

know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.

It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

 

· Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio

 

This version is taken from the Guardian website, where it is bizarrely described as ‘fiction’. It is also published in book form by Hachette.

Here’s another book precis from my friends at Coaching on Call

3 Seconds: The Power of Thinking Twice by Les Parrott
As a psychologist, Les Parrott was interested in research that showed that it only takes three seconds to redirect a negative impulse in the human brain. Three seconds – the time it takes to make a decision.

In this book he outlines the six common impulses that typically sabotage success, claiming that three seconds is all that stands between those who settle for ‘whatever’ and those who insist on ‘whatever it takes’.

The Six Impulses

The six immediate impulses that Parrott identifies are, he claims, predictable and accepted by most of us without a second thought. Yet they lead to mediocrity and unfulfilled potential. Here he suggests that instead we take just three seconds to reconsider – to consciously replace the first automatic impulse with a second less natural but more effective one, as follows:

Empower Yourself
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” vs “I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”

Embrace a Good Challenge
“It’s too difficult to even attempt,” vs “I love a challenge.”

Fuel Your Passion
“I’ll do what happens to come my way,” vs “I’ll do what I’m designed to do.”

Own Your Piece of the Pie
“It’s not my problem, somebody else is to blame,” vs “The buck stops here.”

Walk the Extra Mile
“I’ve done what’s required, and that’s that,” vs “I’ll go above and beyond the mere minimum.”

Quit Stewing and Start Doing
“Someday I’m going to do that,” vs “I’m diving in … starting today.”

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are.
The people that get on in this world are those who get up and look for
the circumstances they want and if they can’t find them, make them.”
George Bernard Shaw

This is a famous piece from the Gestalt tradition, which I think is very important.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

Arnold Beisser

Arnold Beisser


For nearly a half century, the major part of his professional life, Frederick Perls was in conflict with the psychiatric and psychological establishments. He worked uncompromisingly in his own direction, which often involved fights with representatives of more conventional views. In the past few years, however, Perls and his Gestalt therapy have come to find harmony with an increasingly large segment of mental health theory and professional practice. The change that has taken place is not because Perls has modified his position, although his work has undergone some transformation, but because the trends and concepts of the field have moved closer to him and his work.

Perls’s own conflict with the existing order contains the seeds of his change theory. He did not explicitly delineate this change theory, but it underlies much of his work and is implied in the practice of Gestalt techniques. I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.

The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.

The person seeking change by coming to therapy is in conflict with at least two warring intrapsychic factions. He is constantly moving between what he “should be” and what he thinks he “is,” never fully identifying with either. The Gestalt therapist asks the person to invest himself fully in his roles, one at a time. Whichever role he begins with, the patient soon shifts to another. The Gestalt therapist asks simply that he be what he is at the moment.

The patient comes to the therapist because he wishes to be changed. Many therapies accept this as a legitimate objective and set out through various means to try to change him, establishing what Perls calls the “topdog/under-dog” dichotomy. A therapist who seeks to help a patient has left the egalitarian position and become the knowing expert, with the patient playing the helpless person, yet his goal is that he and the patient should become equals. The Gestalt therapist believes that the topdog/under-dog dichotomy already exists within the patient, with one part trying to change the other, and that the therapist must avoid becoming locked into one of these roles. He tries to avoid this trap by encouraging the patient to accept both of them, one at a time, as his own.

The analytic therapist, by contrast, uses devices such as dreams, free associations, transference, and interpretation to achieve insight that, in turn, may lead to change. The behaviorist therapist rewards or punishes behavior in order to modify it. The Gestalt therapist believes in encouraging the patient to enter and become whatever he is experiencing at the moment. He believes with Proust, “To heal a suffering one must experience it to the full.”

The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment.

Kardiner has observed that in developing his structural theory of defense mechanisms, Freud changed processes into structures (for example, denying into denial). The Gestalt therapist views change as a possibility when the reverse occurs, that is, when structures are transformed into processes. When this occurs, one is open to participant interchange with his environment.

If alienated, fragmentary selves in an individual take on separate, compartmentalized roles, the Gestalt therapist encourages communication between the roles; he may actually ask them to talk to one another. If the patient objects to this or indicates a block, the therapist asks him simply to invest himself fully in the objection or the block. Experience has shown that when the patient identifies with the alienated fragments, integration does occur. Thus, by being what one is–fully–one can become something else.

The therapist, himself, is one who does not seek change, but seeks only to be who he is. The patient’s efforts to fit the therapist into one of his own stereotypes of people, such as a helper or a top-dog, create conflict between them. The end point is reached when each can be himself while still maintaining intimate contact with the other. The therapist, too, is moved to change as he seeks to be himself with another person. This kind of mutual interaction leads to the possibility that a therapist may be most effective when he changes most, for when he is open to change, he will likely have his greatest impact on his patient.

What has happened in the past fifty years to make this change theory, implicit in Perls’s work, acceptable, current, and valuable? Perls’s assumptions have not changed, but society has. For the first time in the history of mankind, man finds himself in a position where, rather than needing to adapt himself to an existing order, he must be able to adapt himself to a series of changing orders. For the first time in the history of mankind, the length of the individual life span is greater than the length of time necessary for major social and cultural change to take place. Moreover, the rapidity with which this change occurs is accelerating.

Those therapies that direct themselves to the past and to individual history do so under the assumption that if an individual once resolves the issues around a traumatic personal event (usually in infancy or childhood), he will be prepared for all time to deal with the world; for the world is considered a stable order. Today, however, the problem becomes one of discerning where one stands in relationship to a shifting society. Confronted with a pluralistic, multifaceted, changing system, the individual is left to his own devices to find stability. He must do this through an approach that allows him to move dynamically and flexibly with the times while still maintaining some central gyroscope to guide him. He can no longer do this with ideologies, which become obsolete, but must do it with a change theory, whether explicit or implicit. The goal of therapy becomes not so much to develop a good, fixed character but to be able to move with the times while retaining some individual stability.

In addition to social change, which has brought contemporary needs into line with his change theory, Perls’s own stubbornness and unwillingness to be what he was not allowed him to be ready for society when it was ready for him. Perls had to be what he was despite, or perhaps even because of, opposition from society. However, in his own lifetime he has become integrated with many of the professional forces in his field in the same way that the individual may become integrated with alienated parts of himself through effective therapy.

The field of concern in psychiatry has now expanded beyond the individual as it has become apparent that the most crucial issue before us is the development of a society that supports the individual in his individuality. I believe that the same change theory outlined here is also applicable to social systems, that orderly change within social systems is in the direction of integration and holism; further, that the social-change agent has as his major function to ‘work with and in an organization so that it can change consistently with the changing dynamic equilibrium both within and outside the organization. This requires that the system become conscious of alienated fragments within and without so it can bring them into the main functional activities by processes similar to identification in the individual. First, there is an awareness within the system that an alienated fragment exists; next that fragment is accepted as a legitimate outgrowth of a functional need that is then explicitly and deliberately mobilized and given power to operate as an explicit force. This, in turn. leads to communication with other subsystems and facilitates an integrated, harmonious development of the whole system.

With change accelerating at an exponential pace, it is crucial for the survival of mankind that an orderly method of social change be found. The change theory proposed here has its roots in psychotherapy. It was developed as a result of dyadic therapeutic relationships. But it is proposed that the same principles are relevant to social change, that the individual change process is but a microcosm of the social change process. Disparate, unintegrated, warring elements present a major threat to society, just as they do to the individual. The compartmentalization of old people, young people, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, academic people, service people, etc., each separated from the others by generational, geographical, or social gaps, is a threat to the survival of mankind. We must find ways of relating these compartmentalized fragments to one another as levels of a participating, integrated system of systems.

The paradoxical social change theory proposed here is based on the strategies developed by Perls in his Gestalt therapy. They are applicable, in the judgment of this author, to community organization, community development and other change processes consistent with the democratic political framework.

A day workshop led by Jnanagarbha
Sunday 19th June,

10.30am – 4.30pm
Croydon Buddhist Centre

Jean-Paul Sartre infamously claimed that “hell is other people”. Whatever we think of this, the truth is that practising in the Triratna community we have to spend a lot of time with other people.

If you’d like to

  • feel more fully at ease in groups
  • understand how different people relate to groups in different ways
  • communicate with others more fully – hearing and being heard
  • explore the phases that groups go through

Then this workshop is for you.

Knowing something about group processes, and having more awareness of our own habits and responses in group settings can help us both to use them more effectively for our own Dharma practice, and to communicate the Dharma more effectively and to a wider range of different people.

This is workshop is designed to help us to make more of groups, and is designed as much for those who feel comfortable in groups as for those who find them challenging, and as much for those who lead groups, as for those who take part in them.

The content of the workshop will evolve in response to those who are taking part, although I expect we’ll cover material such as:

  • An exploration of the fundamental issue of how to be in relation to others while retaining a sense of self – known as the Love-Will polarity
  • Introducing some simple models of group stages:

Tuckman’s famous ‘forming, norming, storming, performing’ progression
John Heron’s Seasons metaphor
Schutz’s ‘inclusion – control – openness’ model.

    • Addressing some of the issues of our own and others’ anxiety in groups, looking at:

The three domains of anxiety: understanding, acting and connecting
Existential and archaic anxiety

While this day is a companion to the Mandala of Kalyana Mitrata Day earlier in the year, it is suitable for everyone to attend.

The cost for the day is just £25 and you can book online, or call the Centre on 020 8688 8624

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