Saturday, April 28, 2018


Give yourself time | Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

I would like to introduce you to Time Decompression; or Time Expansion, if you prefer.  It is a technique I developed while researching counselling psychology, and studying the way time seems to work in therapy sessions.

If you have ever watched yourself when you were anxious, or reflected on it afterwards, you may have noticed that anxiety often has at its root an impatience for things to be otherwise, and quickly.  Perhaps you are anxious because you have an exam next week, and you do not feel that you know enough.  This kind of anxiety has four components:

1. You feel that something in your life needs to change
2. You feel that it is difficult or fearful for you to effect that change
3. You (consciously or unconsciously) conceptualise a time limit for that change
4. You (consciously or unconsciously) feel that the time limit is too short

Therapy sessions are often set at 50 minutes.  Some therapists try to offer convoluted reasons for this, but the main reason is that an hour is western humans' go-to time for meetings, and therapists need to wee, and make notes (10 minutes therefore deducted).  The strictness is so that therapists can appear very professional.  I mean, really, what would therapists have to denote ther professionalism if they did not control the time, and pathologise anyone else who wanted to control it?!

What I noticed was that anxious clients often felt the need to cut meetings short, and certainly were out of the door quicker than depressed clients.  It was as though anxious clients lived in accordance with an invisible rule: get home as quickly as possible.  Home, whatever it was conceived to be, was a place of safety.  Time pressure was evident pretty much all the time, even in micro-behaviours.  Such clients tended to be watchful of other people's movements, and keen to detect when it might be time to move on.  It was as though they were alarm clocks, set with a hair-trigger mechanism, liable to panic at the least provocation.

Time felt compressed.  As a counsellor, I often rely on absorbing a sense of where a client is in the moment.  Internalising into myself what was going on for them, I became aware of a kind of impatience, and over-watchfulness, together with a sense of personal inadequacy - a feeling, in short, that, as above, (1) something was wrong, (2) it was difficult to confront, (3) it felt urgent or pressing, and (4) waiting was not an option.  Thus the body became a kind of pressure cooker, boiling up with urgent need, perhaps the skin flushing, panic symptoms arising... all in a kind of impatience with the world.

I don't want to pathologise my clients.  I experience the same thing too.  Most of my human knowledge is gained from self-observation.  I am at least as guilty of anxiety as the next person.  But I am outlining what I think I saw.

This, to me, is to do with our experience of time.

We all, consciously or unconsciously, apply time frames to our lives.  You might feel you should be married by the time you are a certain age, or out of bed by a certain time, or have disposed of a lost loved one's possessions by a certain month... we are often full of self-imposed requirements that our worlds change by a certain time.

In my research, I took this thought, and tried to apply an opposite.  If anxiety is often characterised by time compression (i.e. wishing things could quickly be otherwise for us), then perhaps anxiety could be reduced by time-expansion (or time decompression), by lowering the pressure to change our world in a short time.

I began to ask myself: what tasks do we perform which might be time-expanding, and anxiety-reducing?

In my ponderings, I noticed that boredom was a kind of opposite of anxiety.  I noticed that, when bored, individuals' adrenal systems closed down, and they started to fall asleep.  They no longer needed to be alert and hyper-sensitive.  Now, I bet you have never heard a doctor prescribe boredom as a medicine for patients!  But perhaps it is not such a silly idea.

Boring situations have certain characteristics, which are in many ways the opposite of the anxious characteristics:

1. We feel that our challenge or extreme action is not necessary
2. We feel that it is all too easy to assimilate and experience
3. There seems to be no time limit to things (such as an interminably boring lecture!)
4. There seems to be no urgency (perhaps everything is flat, routine, predictable)

I am not suggesting we live our lives permanently bored!  But I am suggesting that we apply to anxiety an opposite context, in order to balance it out and calm it.

If you are anxious, I suggest you design for yourself an activity which consists of the following:

1. A manageable, minimal level of challenge
2. A fairly easy thing to get your head around
3. A time guide which is much longer than the activity needs
4. Something that is not urgent

An example for me: if I wish to calm down easily, I pick up my boots, and polish them.  I know how to do it; it's easy; I give myself half an hour, much longer than I need; it's not urgent (my life won't end if I can't polish my boots!).

For you, it may be something else.  But try to choose something easy, and give yourself a longer time than necessary to do it.

There are several benefits to this approach.  I have used it a lot myself (I am my biggest experimental guinea pig!); and friends and clients have seemed to find it helpful.  A few classic benefits are:

1. It reduces adrenaline levels.  We all need to use our adrenaline systems, but not all the time, and not on overdrive!
2. It makes you feel more peaceful.  Your friends will appreciate your chilled-out manner :)
3. It broadens your attentional bias (when anxious, your world compresses; when peaceful, you can see more)
4. It gets something useful done! (Even Formula 1 drivers need their cars cleaned... you are giving yourself a 'pit stop'.)
5. It teaches your mind, conscious and unconscious, that everything is not urgent.  And it really isn't.  The universe has billions of years available.

Think of your diary as an elastic band.  When your appointments are constricting and urgent, you will feel your flow constricted and strangled by urgency.  Your body will tell you that it is tired, but your adrenaline system will tell you that things are urgent.  This is the formula for adrenal fatigue.

Time-expanding activities relax the elastic band a little.  Your life is still held together by a little structure, but you have room to move, to breathe, to be yourself.

When anxiety is getting the better of you, try to find a simple activity that you enjoy, and give yourself a nice long time to complete it, much longer than you need.  You will find your adrenal system relaxes, your attentional system expands, and you become more peaceful.  What more could you want?

If you are interested in practicing this or other forms of relaxing activity in your life, do get in touch, and I'd be happy to work with you, and learn from you, in developing helpful techniques.  Everyone is different, and I welcome the opportunity to meet others who want to join together and find practical ways to be peaceful.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality. Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash

One of the most underestimated ways to develop is simple copying.  Which is strange, because humans are very good at copying.  Our genetic foundation is based upon an ability, in principle, to replicate large chunks of our functioning between generations.  And our cultures are founded on rituals and processes which replicate, in principle, traditions, thereby passing them on.

You'll notice I said 'in principle' when talking about human replication.  In actual fact, no replication is perfect.  Nevertheless, we are, more than we know, biological and cultural photocopiers, perpetuating ways of life and being easily and naturally.

Why do I describe copying as an underestimated skill?  Well, centres of learning, for instance, often pride themselves on being centres of critical thinking.  But many qualifications can be obtained simply by copying of the factual and cultural practices of the institution awarding them.  At worst, we have a hypocritical situation where schools and universities say that they are encouraging creativity and critical thought; but in practice they reward replication of what they expect to see.

So copying is underestimated in that we pretend it has little role; we kind of ignore it, as though it is not worth thinking about.  Instead, we celebrate how innovative we are being, how new, how groundbreaking... while continuing, in practice, to replicate.

You might notice an ambivalence in this article about copying.  On the one hand, I seem to be saying it is a good thing, that we cannot do without it.  On the other, though, I seem to be suggesting it is a hidden sin, a symptom of hypocrisy.

I guess I feel that it is both.  On the one hand, it is a foundation of art, craft and science.  Tradition enables the building of knowledge bases which can inform the education of students, who can then get a head start, incorporating into their practice generations of awareness without having to suffer for it.  And replicability enables the building of scientific libraries, predictive in nature, offering models of being which can be assented to because consistently and methodically attained.

On the other hand, there comes a time when simple replication feeds those who replicate, but creates nothing new.  If institutions reward replication too much, they will become blind to the new.  Members of those institutions will have to escape in order to create.  Hence, I suppose, dissidence, where citizens move from the trammels of a self-replicating culture, towards one which offers more breathing space.

When young, we are, in a sense, built to investigate... but also to copy rapaciously.  For instance, we passionately seek out first experiences - we want to know what new sensations feel like, what new places have to offer, what happens to things when we drop them, throw them, put them in our mouth.  Thus investigation is embedded in our being from the start.

But, allied to this, and in some ways keeping us safe, is a complementary urge to copy.  We feel safe when we do what others are doing.  We compare, and feel it acutely when we feel too different; we often seek to buy what others buy, to join the groups that others join.

So I am certainly not suggesting that copying is inherently bad.  We need it in order not only to assimilate others' practices, but to extend and communicate any experience by association.  The replication of grammatical rules and understood vocabulary enables language to bear meaningful discussion.  Without it, we would have to reinvent the world every day; we would have the cultural equivalent of Alzheimer's.

However.  And it is a big however.  We need, I think, to be more open about what copying we are asking for.  Enough of education which pretends to be high-proportion critical thinking, but is in fact high-proportion regurgitation.  Let's be honest.  Let's say clearly 'Yes, much of our education is in fact a practice which rewards the replication of a set knowledge base.'  Let's not pretend to be more creative than we are.

And when we vote, let's be aware how much we are copying the cultural practices of our friends, or our heroes.  Let's not pretend that we have thought our way, personally, to our own views about everything.

The public and media have reacted with something approaching horror to revelations that some companies make it their business to manipulate our views, and control the knowledge we access.  Well, if we are copying beings, what do we expect?  If we pretend we live in a critical nirvana, where our thoughts are pure and individually-made, then yes, we will react with horror to the thought that our perfection might be tainted.  However, if we admit that our whole lives are soaked in copying; that we copied our language, our politics, our style, our material existences, from others, with only limited modification by us... if we admit this, then we have a chance of better allowing for companies that manipulate.

The social media debate just makes more obvious something that happens all the time: we copy others.  A large part of us is built to swallow what people say wholesale.  That's why and how we can enter the world of a film or a book - we are built that way.  Even Stockholm syndrome is not a surprise when we think about it this way - we are so easily manipulated because we are constantly looking for world-views to assimilate and swallow pretty much whole.

I have focused on copying.  But there are plenty of other ways of thinking.  In particular, there is critical thinking, in which we learn to take apart, and stand at a distance from, what we see.  There is also strategic thinking, in which we begin to choose exactly what we copy, and how.

But let's, at first, start where we are: the human race is a race of flagrant copiers, swallowing pretty much whole each other's ways of life, words, languages, styles, practices.  Let's stop pretending we are so original.

Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality.

All this is not to say originality and creativity do not exist.  But I am arguing that, unless we stop and realise exactly how much we are uncreative and unoriginal... unless we do that every day... then we will not begin to be truly original and creative.  We will simply think we are, and go about regurgitating the same things, applauded by those who think the same things, not realising that we are just repeating, repeating.

When was the last time you rewarded someone for doing something different?  Honestly, are you more likely to reward your friends if they take you into new territory, or if they simply reassure you about a copied truth you don't want to let go of.

I remember a tutor once telling her class to think critically at all costs.  I remember that same tutor, the following week, telling a student that their critical thinking was simply resistance to the traditional truth.  You can't have it both ways.

I'm not suggesting we do anything differently.  Only that, perhaps, we could become more aware of exactly how much of a role copying plays, even in adult life.  Then we might better understand group-think, politics, social media, and many other aspects of behaviour.  In my psychology training, copying was, as I see it, vastly underplayed.  It was as though the tutors and textbooks were ashamed that things could be that simple.  After all, it's creativity that makes us human... isn't it?  I wonder.  I really wonder.

Humans are natural copiers.  But we pretend we are not.  We pretend that we have reasons for everything we do, when often we have simply copied what others do.  Recent interactions between politics and social media have presented us with a frightening truth about how manipulable we are.  And yet we can't quite accept that this is how we function.  Perhaps we should be more honest with ourselves, and admit that most of our lives are copied.  Perhaps, only then, can we engage our critical and strategic brains effectively.  First, we need to realise exactly how far our urge to copy extends.

So I challenge you.  I say you are not original.  And if you think you are... how are you going to prove me wrong?

Saturday, March 17, 2018


It takes a strong person, and a lot of integrity, to remain steadfastly connected to a calm perspective when everyone around you wants you to take sides.

Recently there has been a lot of fuss about Russia.  I don't mean to demean the fuss, but to put it into context, international relations have always had their ups and downs, and at times of great political heat, populations tend to get caught up in the bias.  I was thinking how it relates to the fuss that goes on in families - the same accusations, the same misinformation, the same provocations, the same reactiveness.  I was wondering what could be learned.

There are a few characteristics of these times.  Remember, perhaps, the Iraq war(s), and how various pieces of 'information' were assembled into dossiers and presented as fact.  In particular, chemical and biological weapons, it was implied, existed, and were quite possibly to be used.  Wording was found that pushed the known truth to its boundaries and slightly beyond, to maximise acceptance of the desired political stance.  The public and Members of Parliament were made to feel disloyal if they did not join the lying (or twisting of the truth); if they did not, they were accused of being traitorous in some way.

What are the main things that change when things get intense?

Think of the last argument you had with a loved one.  I bet it was hard to avoid statements like 'You always...'  When we're annoyed, and in the heat of the moment, our angry selves take over, and make the truth subservient to our personal needs. We are inclined to borrow from the truth to support our own perspective.  It's not how it should be, but we do it because we think we are under attack.

Currently, politicians are lining up to show their loyalty to the UK by inventing new phrases about 'Russian Oligarchs' and 'Putin's henchmen'.  The implication is that Russia (we don't really know what we mean by this) is somehow irredeemably bad, and will always do bad things.  The only option, apparently, is to stand up to Russia, to ostracise it, reduce its influence, and starve it of resources, until it comes to its senses and gives in.  Life is not that simple, but we don't care; we just want a clear enemy.

Governments have an advantage here.  Logically, they must keep a part of government private, to do investigations.  Politicians have access to such investigations before the public.  Therefore, politicians are in a position to imply anything they like, and to hint that someone, somewhere, in the private realm, has disclosed evidence to them.  No member of the public can challenge that.

In this way, at times of threat and haste, no one has time to wait for conclusions.  Politicians have great power, in that they can assert what they like, and loyal staff will not contradict them, for fear of being disloyal.

The temptation to manipulate public opinion is so great, that politicians use it en masse, and then cannot turn back, because they might seem to be supporting 'the other side', whatever that other side, that enemy, might currently be.

Again, think of the last time you got upset with a loved one.  During an argument, or an intense situation, we can be tempted to speak first, and check our facts later.  It is almost impossible for us to restrain this urge to pretend we know more than we do.   We are desperate to gain control of the story, and so we assert what we can, especially when no one can prove us wrong.  Religion can be misused in this way.  Who can argue if someone says that God has inspired their point of view?  

Suddenly, when politics gets intense, a 'for or against' mentality applies.  In personal relationships, too, we make the same distinctions.  Watch a couple splitting, and you will often see a great wariness about the 'story' that gets put out.  Friends' loyalties are tested, as each ex-partner tries to ascertain who is 'on their side'.  Families often divide on biological lines, and one or other party can lose a lot of friends overnight.

In the current frenzy about 'Russia', Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, has been accused several times of being somehow allied with the enemy, when he simply calls for restraint, and patience, in waiting for evidence to come through about the truth of a situation.  It takes a strong person, and a lot of integrity, to remain steadfastly connected to a calm perspective when everyone around you wants you to take sides.  But it's how wars start, and we'd do well to look at Mr Corbyn's example, whatever our political perspective.  Waiting is unfashionable, but it often pays off in the modern intense political arena.  A lot can change in a few days or hours.

So, in families, or among friends, or in politics, three things in particular can go wrong:

1. We start making sweeping statements about our enemies
2. We stop waiting for evidence, and pretend we know things we don't
3. We start trying to alienate those who disagree with us

In personal lives, the kind of things we say include:

'John was always difficult.  I think he's got a psychological disorder.  I saw him with Jane the other day.  He's such a nasty piece of work.  I don't know what she's thinking.'

In political lives, the kinds of things we say include:

'Jeremy has always had links to socialist governments.  He's unelectable.  He's now trying to defend Putin.  I don't trust him.'

In all our lives, all the time, fact and fiction are linked.  That's why we read books, return to life, read more, live more... fact and fiction are fused in an alliance which helps us learn about life.  In a right relation with each other (when our intentions are compassionate), they help us.  In a wrong relation with each other (when our intentions are malicious), they turn our minds upside down.

So what's a better way to be?  Well, remember that famous poem 'If' by Rudyard Kipling:

'If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...'

That poem advocates maintaining a peaceful calm and a clear perspective whatever the circumstances.  It's worth a re-read.

In the meantime, maybe, to protect yourself against all the truth-bending:

1. Stop talking so much, and just listen.
2. Wait and see.
3. Be compassionate towards everybody.

There may be a time when you need to take sides and fight.  But just make sure you're not being manipulated in the moment.  Make sure you're not accidentally fighting someone else's battle.  Make sure your intentions are free of bias.

Modern politics is increasingly 'in the moment' and frantic.  To protect ourselves, and the truth, we need to get better at listening, waiting, and being compassionate.  That way, we can't be manipulated into fighting other people's battles.  We can stay free to make peace.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Requiring a doctor’s certificate for time off can trap staff at home, fearful that they must be completely ‘well’ to return. In contrast, a continuous-protection, ‘how can I help?’ attitude can break the cycle.  Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

Workplaces make a lot of noise about mental health, especially the big ones.  But I wonder whether some of the central ways to improve mental health are being missed, through a misguided attempt to look good at the expense of real change.

The UK is still stuck in a kind of dark ages when it comes to managing mental health.  We haven't yet worked through several of its ethical dilemmas, I suspect for fear of being politically incorrect.  The result is a strange mix of attitudes, hypocrisies and legal conundrums which leave employees and HR departments reeling.


Three tensions perhaps dominate when it comes to mental illness.  If an organisation cannot work out its policies with regard to these tensions, then it will be stuck in limbo.  Everyone involved will be left with an uncomfortable feeling that the right solution has not been found.


An organisation that focuses on the medical model will find itself constantly asking for medical evidence of mental illness. 

  • This leads to further unhappiness in the employee, as they repeatedly return to doctors and hospitals to ensure that the right evidence is available
  • It also encourages some employees to stereotype their symptoms in order to 'achieve' a recognised diagnosis
  • Furthermore, it creates a problem if the employee recovers.  At the point where illness recedes, the employee's protection can disappear overnight.  Sometimes this leads to a relapse, as it is the only way the employee can access further help

An organisation that focuses on an existential model has a better chance of providing consistent support.  (By existential, I mean taking the employee's valid human experience seriously at all times, regardless of diagnosis.) This is because:

  • The employee's subjectivity is respected, and to a large extent their view is treated as evidence in its own right
  • Employees are allowed to be themselves, without having to conform to particular symptomatic rules
  • The border between 'ill' and 'well' is soft rather than hard, meaning that care can be offered irrespective of the employee's state

Even so, an existential model has its problems.  Old-style administration does not work, as 'illness' cannot be 'proven' in the same ways.  Organisations are terrified of being taken advantage of, and therefore are at a loss of how to invent new approval systems for, say, time off, without requiring medical opinion.


Most organisations still function on an illness model.  If you're ill, you take time off.  If you're well, you come back.  Some organisation do offer flexibility, but it's slightly clumsy.

  • An illness model dehumanises employees with emotional difficulties, as it implies that they need to be 'cured', rather than perhaps changing the organisation itself to make space for different emotional responses
  • An illness model can misdirect attention away from an unhealthy organisation, and scapegoat employees, who might be perfectly healthy if it weren't for emotional toxicities in the organisation itself

Some organisations now operate on more of an ability continuum.  This has some advantages:

  • Employees are encouraged to be open about what they feel they cannot do.  Focus can then be on finding ways to overcome the issue together, rather than forcing interpretation 'inside' the individual employee
  • Organisations can become more flexible, as a problem solved for one employee can help thousands of others

Again, an ability continuum has some issues.  Not least, it can be expensive to adapt an organisation to incorporate different abilities.  It can feel inefficient.  This is not a problem for me, because I think efficiency is overrated.  But efficiency is still worshipped in many economies.


This is the biggie.  We still exist in a world where organisations try, prima facie, to portray a perfect image.  Everything must be said right, everything must be seen to be done right.  You can see it when scandal hits: heads roll, as though we could easily identify the 'imperfect' staff, and by sacking them suddenly make our organisation 'perfect' again.

Many organisations operate on the perfect public image model because the public expects them to.  Particularly charities.  The recent furore over Oxfam staff conduct is a case in point.  A big 'imperfect' label has been plastered all over Oxfam.  Now, it thinks, it must not stop until it can give itself a big 'perfect' label again.

  • Being perfect is unrealistic.  We are discovering that in personal lives: we now need to apply it to organisations.  The perfect public image model can lead to good staff being sacked in order to appease, and to falsely reinventing the organisation as re-perfected
  • Perfect public images are by nature oppressive to both employees and customers.  Everybody has to be fake.  A kind of fake-speak evolves to take care of the mythical perfection.  Phrases like 'we are doing everything we can' are born, which essentially mean nothing, but sound perfect
  • Information is withheld.  On a perfect image model, no one can find out anything bad about the organisation.  So staff are punished if they speak outside the organisation's world, and everything difficult is referred to a legal department

However, some organisations have worked out that this is all an illusion.  They go for the imperfect public image model.  They allow themselves to make mistakes, and do not scapegoat those mistakes; they own them and discuss them.

  • Openly imperfect organisations show themselves to be evolving
  • Openly imperfect organisations enhance mental health by reducing the requirement to fake everything, which is a key cause of mental illness in its own right
  • Being open about imperfection means that problems do not have to go into purdah while they are 'resolved'.  Think of the pain for families when the NHS has to keep quiet about a bad patient experience.  Think of the pain of NHS employees who are told to keep quiet while 'investigations' are carried out.  Openly imperfect organisations know that the truth does not need keeping quiet, except where respect demands specific discretion


In general, we could divide the world of organisations into two types:


You can see this through the eyes of those who are off work with stress.  Often, there is little contact with the organisation.  I remember during my counselling training, when my father was dying, I took time out.  At exactly that point, when I asked what support would be available, the answer was: 'While you are on interruption, and we will not be able to provide any contact, support or counselling.'  So there you are, even an organisation that existed to train counsellors, was unable to see its way to actively support those who needed time out.  More than that, they saw it as their legal duty to dissociate.

Look out for organisations that insist on appearing to do everything perfectly.  Governments do this.  In the quest to appear to root out badness, they will sack individuals at a moment's notice, and then blithely say they have got rid of the problem.  High-performance organisations often do this: their message, to themselves and others, is: 'We are all well; if someone is ill, they cease to be functionally part of our operation.  So we remain well.'

The logic is undeniable, but so is the inhumanity.


In these organisations, the experience of the stressed can be different.  Instead of 'Come back when you are well', the message is 'How can we help you through?'  There is never a point at which the organisation disengages. 

Look out for organisations that are open about their faults.  Look out for leaders and managers who, instead of seeking fake perfection, get their hands dirty and are prepared to involve themselves in problem resolution. They are rare, but intensely valuable.  

There is a humanity is such organisations which is not logical, but you will know it when you experience it.  It feels warm, as though you are being allowed to make yourself at home.


Personally and professionally, to encourage mental health in all those around you, maybe try the following:

  1. Listen to, and accept, their personal account of their experience, and work with that
  2. Try not to divide people into those you feel are unworthy of their problems, and those who are having 'real' problems.  It is arrogant to require some kind of certificate of authenticity for other people's unhappiness
  3. Focus on how you can help individuals do their next thing.  Adaptations might happen in you, in your joint environment, or in them, but it is unlikely that the only solution is for the other person to adapt.  It makes no sense
  4. Be openly imperfect.  Everyone can then breathe a sigh of relief, and get on with negotiating life calmly, without your frantic insistence that 'everything is fine', and your constant scapegoating when it is not.

For organisations, in particular:

  1. Respect every employee's personal experience.  Don't invent an ideal employee and only listen to them
  2. Let employees take time out when they decide; don't always be requiring independent proof.  You wouldn't do it to your partner (I never heard anyone say to their partner 'can I have a doctor's certificate?' when time out was requested!)
  3. Focus on enabling employees.  Adapt, adapt, adapt
  4. Think about how, in your conduct and your publicity, you can quit being all perfect and patronising, and start being openly friendly and imperfect.  The public will like you better that way anyway


Companies, please ditch the constant requirement to appear perfect.  Especially senior management.  It's not healthy, and it's not even believed. 

Instead, make a home for people where they can be themselves, and negotiate their empowerment with them as they go.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Photo by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash

There is a great movement at the moment towards evidence-based practice, in all walks of life.  Ironically, it has arisen as a political reaction.  In the UK, there has been an evidence-based response to two events in particular.  Firstly, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US.  And secondly, the election of exit from the European Union as the UK's chosen path.

Donald Trump has not been afraid to make statements of fact which are open to being disproved.  A famous example was his implication about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.  Many media miles were travelled performing fact checks on this and other claims.  It has become a bit of a game to wait for a claim, check it for evidence, report the evidence, and debunk the claim.  Donald Trump humself doesn't seem to mind too much.  Once the statement has been made, he is on to something else, getting interested in a new thing.  His is not a mind that wants to dissect the past with a fine toothcomb.  I can't imagine him as an archeologist.

Politicians arguing the case for or against the UK's exit from the EU, too, have put claims out there which have later been the object of controversy and challenge.  Here, the most famous message was 'We send the EU £350 million a week.  Let's fund our NHS instead.'  Again, it has been a favourite game to check this for evidence, and challenge the claim.  Again, the producers of such slogans are often on to new projects, and find themselves somewhat hampered by the political archeologists who insist on digging up evidential controversy.

However, I suggest that those on the side of evidence are missing a trick.  They are using typical laboratory techniques for assessing statements which are made out there in the field, outside the laboratory, where events can often overtake our controlled thinking.  There is a danger that they will be found, still in their white coats, debunking myths, when life on Earth has ended.  If so, they will have failed to convince.

The evidence-gatherers have been part of a generation of passive citizens who have taken part in funded experiments.  Their nurturing has been done in a safe school environment, where the system is as follows:

1. You get funded for research
2. You do research in accordance with the rules
3. You publish your results
4. You are evaluated by your peers
5. You are given your reward

There is little to do in this environment but perpetuate the same evidence-based systems.  There is no army to apply factual claims.  There is not even any funding unless you are seen to be useful by someone, whether is be a business wanting to further its aims, or a student wanting to further their career.

The fact-producing arena, in short, has no talons.  It waits at the bird table, and feeds on whatever seeds are thrown at it.

This is not the world of the statesman.  (It's a gendered word.  I'd rather say statesperson.  But statesman is the familiar word.)  The statesman does not live in the laboratory.  A good statesman will be familiar with the produce of scientific research, certainly, and will take it into account.  But, primarily, the role of the statesman is to lead.

Statemen thrive on myth.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean myth in the sense of lies.  I mean myth in terms of engaging stories which tell a truth.  And the truth here is different from laboratory truth.  The truth of myth is a story which holds all the world together with what I call a 'felicity' - in other words, a good producer of myth happily joins together all the complexity of the world in an inspiring moment of simplicity.  This inspiring moment of simplicity is what is experienced as truth, but it is not so well understood by current journalists.

Religious leaders are statesmen of a sort (although much of the honing of speeches is done by others after the event).  They are held up as examples of how life can be simplified into something inspiring.  This kind of truth frees us up to act in simple ways without being hampered by the complexity of everything.

The system for statesmen is different:

1. You experience a challenging life
2. You build up enormous reserves of inner strength
3. You share what you have learned
4. You gain a body of support
5. You are simplified into an ideal, an example to follow

Statesmen are more resilient.  They have an ability to reinvent themselves in response to complexity.  They are like sculptures sculpting themselves with their environment, seeking out new relationships with their surroundings.

So we have two versions of truth. 

  • One collects data, in a well-behaved manner, according to established rules, and then publishes results.
  • The other collects experience, often going against pre-established rules of conduct, and then shares learnings, gaining a body of support.

We can see this battle, for instance, in arguments between science and religion.  Representatives of science have methods, and only state things in accordance with those methods, however complex.  Many religious statespeople have learned to simplify life - that is their special truth - into wise sayings that are felicitous and transformative.

Adherents of religions who have learned to gain solace from the truth in its simplicity... they do not need the complexities of science to practise their religion.  Equally, adherents of science who have built careers from applying method... they do not need the simplicity of religion to help their lives to cohere.

There are two different functions happening here.  The truth that clarifies with simplification, and the truth that clarifies with method.

Look at the election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Donald represented the truth that clarifies with simplification; and Hillary the truth that clarifies with method.

Perhaps a number of voters, in their evaluation, sought a presented truth that simplified the world into something they could handle.  Perhaps, in Hillary, a number of people saw someone who was a practised applier of method, comfortable and cold in her dealings.  Perhaps a number of people saw, in Donald, someone who eschewed method, but spoke with simplicity, based on experience.

I am not taking sides.  I am just looking at what might be happening in terms of the history of ideas.

Evidence and faith can be complementary.  Statesmen do come along who are able to blend method and simplicity.

But often, political leaders come across as either unbearably methodical (with the public starting to use robot analogies); or unbearably simplistic (with the public starting to use madness analogies).

Perhaps change starts from within.  Perhaps we can start by learning two things:

1. Life is not all method.  However scientific you think you are being, lend a thought to our human need to simplify, to find a truth, a myth, a story, that felicitously holds the world together in a view we can assent to.
2. Life is not all simplicity.  Just when you think you have the simple truth in your hand, something will happen to wake you up out of your complacency, and you will have to modify your view in order to survive.

Political events can polarise the public into representatives of scientific truth, and representatives of simple truth.  Leaders can seem firmly in one camp or the other.  We might benefit from learning that neither evidence, nor faith, need encompass everything.  Perhaps the science-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by simple truths; and the faith-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by facts. Perhaps a well-rounded politician appreciates the influence of both. 

Monday, February 19, 2018


Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash

What's your unopened package?

When things happen to us, we have one of two reactions.  If the experience is an easy one to assimilate, to understand, then we process it then and there.  But if it is difficult in some way - if we don't have time to process it, or we can't afford to, or it's too much for us to understand... then we make a little package.  We don't even know we're doing it.  We move on to the next thing, but the unopened package will sit there at the back of our minds for as long as we leave it, like an unopened gift left over from Christmas.

Except that it doesn't feel like a gift.  If, for instance, we have been abused in childhood, and didn't understand what was happening to us, then our unopened package can be like a ghost, haunting us without even telling us it is there.  If a current experience gets close to the one that we tucked away, then we can react in ways that we ourselves don't understand.  Our sensitivity seems out of proportion to the current event.  But it is only our mind trying to protect itself from the difficulty of having to open up the old package in order to understand, unblock, the current situation.

Another way of understanding this is as a story we have failed to comprehend, to assimilate into our life story.  We all write for ourselves an autobiography.  When other talk to us about life, we recount selected events from our life as symbolic of who we are.  But we choose those events we publicise: we are our own PR team, desperately struggling to offer the world a clear and coherent picture of a successful human.

Except what happens to those stories, those experiences, that happened to us, but that we couldn't find any sense in?  The unexpected death, the unfair deprivation... these stories pile up behind the scenes, in that department of our mind called 'untold stories'.  We cannot tell them properly, because we have not found in ourselves the words to encompass what went on.  It is only when we have a language for it, that the 'it' becomes our story.

In that sense, the misunderstood story is the untold story, something that cannot be part of our autobiography, because there seems to us no sensible way of incorporating it.  It is denied, put away, left unopened, neglected.

One thing that can be a great healer in providing language where there is none, is contemporary language.  Until there are enough words and stories in circulation, you can end up feeling alone, as though there is no way of expressing how you feel.  But as soon as your experience finds a parallel in modern life, finds a way of expressing itself by saying 'Yes!  That!  My experience was like that!' - once that happens, there is a kind of relief in associating one's own experience with general wisdom.

The person who years ago never came out as gay, can point to other coming out stories and say: 'Yes, that's me too.'  The person who has suffered at the hands of others, whether bullying, harrassment, or any other kind of abuse... that person can watch the film, read the book, learn the language, and then say 'Yes, that's what happened to me, too.'

Some experiences, however, are too complex to be unwrapped by a single film, or a political movement, or a story.  They are the experiences that are left over, making us feel isolated from the world, because it may be that no one understands us.  Even if we suspect that others feel the same and have been through the same, there is no way of proving it.

Poetry is one way of offering that proof.  The way the system works, is that a poet makes a new form of words that attempts to encompass an experience or set of experiences.  If you like, the poet is defining a new emotion, as separate from anything anyone has defined before  A new modification.  In this way, the title of a poem can become iconic, as though it represents an experience set that has been somehow nailed to paper for once.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of poetry is in the communication with the listener.  The listener can be the poet themselves: it's a perfectly valid form of poetry, words from the self to the self.  It can be transformative.  But, in addition, there are times when a whole room, or a whole body of readers, can participate in an enhanced understanding, simply by being open and hearing a new way of putting a story, an emotion, an experience.

Some experiences have the unlucky characteristic of being unshareable, for whatever reason.  It may be that they are family secrets which cannot be released more widely without repercussions.  Or personal secrets, where an individual needs to share and express inner voices which their usual world wouldn't understand.

A good counsellor understand their role in this respect.  The client may have come to them as an act of trust, so that they can begin to disclose to an other things which have had to be kept under wraps.  The client brings their unopened package.

Often, a client brings, at first, a small package.  They are testing the therapist, seeing how well they can handle a client bringing before them something confidential, sensitive.  If trust is found, then another, bigger package is shared and unopened together.  Then another.  Until, perhaps much later, a big package that has been clogging up the hallway is brought in for gentle dismantling and opening.  It is essential that this process is safe: it can be like unwrapping an unexploded bomb.  It deserves ultimate respect.

An analogy from real life is the friend to whom one brings one's problems.  You may have different friends for different problems, because you have learned that different people can and can't handle different things.  Often, in adult life, you will be drawn to friends who can hear things your parents couldn't.  You are seeking that listening ear you didn't get back then, so that you can open the packages from childhood that you deferred opening because you didn't understand them, couldn't relate to them.

 So, I'd ask again, I wonder what your unopened packages are.  The unresolved stories you have lying around an untidy mind.  The emotions that get stirred when a current experience has a weirdly profound effect on you. 

You are a richer mind than you know, full of these things, waiting to be explored.  How much, or little, you want to explore them, is up to you.  But it can be quite a rewarding thing, quite freeing.

And to be able to help others open their unopened packages, in safety and in confidentiality, that's a skill and an art worth developing.

We all have stories from earlier in our life that we can't yet process, and hide away.  In our adult life, we make up stories about ourselves, and collect them together into a well-practiced autobiography that we rehearse in conversations.  But the untold stories never come out.

Sometimes, though, new cultures offer new languages, new stories, with which we can see our past.  We watch a film or read a book, and see our own reflection for the first time.  Or we write a poem, and offer a new sharing of something, a new way of opening life's incomprehensible packages.  Or we go to a counsellor, or a trusted friends, and respectfully and carefully unwrap each other's unknowns.

It's always a question worth asking: what have I not understood?  What have I packed away without bothering to open it up?  What are my unopened packages?