Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I recently went to my first 'open mic' poetry event. I had been meaning to go for years, but something, the stalling engine of the unknown, got in the way. This time, I left the house and accepted no excuse from my mind to go back.

The most beautiful thing about the evening was the chance to see and hear other characters, so different, stand and read. Some spoke from memory, their hard-won words burned into their minds like habits. Some read from a lectern in the corner with didactic poise. When it came to my turn, the feeling felt familiar, as though I was with old friends, beside a fire in some Scottish cottage after a hearty dinner. I had no idea what to read, so I had brought along a mini-variety-pack - something loving, something funny, something risky, something thoughtful. Hearing applause was strange, like unexpected rain on an old shed roof.

It felt that I had stepped into a big family of friends all over the country, doing something because they wanted to. If you listen carefully, it's a chance to glimpse a wealth of different lives, all packaged and arranged for you in lines. The stories were so varied: the aftermath of a heart attack; the pleasure and pain of visits to the gym; even a psalm recited. You couldn't ask for more - the pleasure of other's lives presented for you on a plate, to listen to with eyes closed, on a gentle autumn night.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I'm sitting in a patisserie in Brighton. The morning sun floods a white light into the wide street. Some people are reading, some talking, some chatting. In a little while, I'll walk up the hill and join the others, to sit in peace and learn a little.

Sometimes I imagine the mind as a little democracy inside a person. When things are going well, when we are busy but not too stressed, then every element works together without too much disharmony. But when something goes wrong - maybe there is not enough food, or an internal imbalance - then the parts of ourselves start to argue and work against each other. This can also happen when things are very quiet - just as too much peace can make a democracy mischievous, so quiet conditions can make parts of the mind start to work against each other. Instead of viewing ourselves as a single individual, perhaps we can view ourselves as a little population of hundreds of different motivations. When there is something to do or achieve, they all work together. When there is nothing to do, they can start to argue a little.

Meditation is a quietening of the mind. So we shouldn't be surprised if, when we are quiet, the different elements of the mind start to talk and argue between one another.

Many meditative traditions focus on discipline. I was reading about some Buddhist methodologies last night, and was surprised at how intricate and detailed some of the systematic approaches were. They all had strange-sounding names, lots of different levels and paths, and a recommended 'order of events' to make sure people developed in the right way. I was puzzled by the dogma, by how prescriptive it seemed to be. I asked a monk, a teacher, why there was so much of it. He suggested that I thought of it, not as a required way, but as a suggested structure.

"A mental model, you mean?"
"Yes, if you like, a mental model."

This I can relate to. We have a lot of models in the scientific tradition - ways to approach truth, but none of them being the truth itself. They are just ways of disciplining ourselves so that we can develop.

I guess that's why some system is helpful in meditation. Without it, we are left to our own resources, and can easily end up in a battle with ourselves, with nothing to keep the internal chatter in harmony. Perhaps the disciplines of meditative traditions are like the rules of a peaceful society - not primarily there to control us, but to enable our parts, our 'inner population', to work together constructively.

I suppose that's why meditation is good for you. It enables you to be at peace when you are quiet. It gives you a way to keep all the elements of your 'internal population' in harmony, even when there is no external need to bind them together. A peaceful integrity.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Such a beautiful noise on Wednesday, when a crowd of birds, suddenly and unexpectedly, landed in the garden, and sang as they splashed in the water.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

Thursday, September 22, 2011


One of the possible functions of displaying emotion is to signal your underlying state. If you are upset, and signal this to your friends with a quivering lip and a lowered head, then they are more likely to perceive your distress, and comfort you. Equally, if you are happy, and signal this with enthusiasm and hugs, then your group can all gain a bit of wellbeing! There is thus a social incentive to externalize your emotions, whether positive or negative.

But what happens when this goes wrong? Supposing a child receives incongruous signals from a parent at a crucial stage of development. For example, supposing a child shows distress, but is consistently met with indifference. They will learn that there is no benefit in displaying their distress, and may even learn to hide that distress, if the parent is unwelcoming or violent. This teaches, very early on, the art of disguising emotion. It explains why children in such circumstances often grow up with an advanced ability to hide what they are really feeling. There is a disjoin between internal feeling and external display.

This can develop even further. Some theorists believe that even false emotional displays can have a social function. We can see this in group behaviour, where individuals often quickly change adapt their behaviour to match the response of their friends, even if that was not their starting emotion. In effect, they are sacrificing their individual response in order to preserve their group identity.

Where someone has learned early to disguise their emotions, this function of false emotion can be misused acutely in adulthood. Adult life can end up being viewed as essentially a game of poker. Social transactions take on the tensions and tactics of a high-stakes game of cards, where each person is perceived as 'selecting' an external display to match a power play, not a true underlying state. In this world, truthfulness takes second place to strategy, and a sense of intimacy is replaced by an awareness of power.

Thus, an adult can emerge who is not sharing who they are inside, but is constantly positioning themselves for maximum defensive effect. They will be afraid of intimacy, and will regard the concept of 'the truth' as relative, to be adapted to circumstances.

You might recognize this profile in many leading businessmen and politicians! Indeed, there is a growing body of literature suggesting that many in positions of power even have psychopathic tendencies. This makes sense when you think that the ability to disguise emotions, and awareness of power plays, are considered core competencies in these fields, and are simultaneously the very skills enhanced by parental indifference and hostility.

So, sometimes, the internal emotion and the external display become divorced from one another. The result can be an adult who does not make friends, only allies. They find it hard to truly share, because they cannot fully trust another person. Their early experience has programmed them to be two people: the inner feeling, and the external display. And it explains why allies can so quickly turn into enemies… friends can be rejected quickly if they cease to be helpful in terms of external objectives, or if they catch a glimpse of the hidden, vulnerable inner self.

How can we change? Firstly, what is probably helpful is a loving and trusting environment, with a consistently low level of threat, so that the defences become redundant. Once the tactics have no purpose, they may be dropped. And secondly, I think we should admit that we all have a little of this ability in us. Everyone develops some ability to moderate their external displays of emotion, in order to manage situations. The aim is to use these abilities for kind purposes. For example, self-restraint in the interests of other people is a sociable form of display modification. I have had situations this year where I have had to work incredibly hard to be patient and restrained, even though my insides were crying out with a sense of injustice and unfairness! However, despite this need to manage our responses, we must never lose the ability to know our own genuine emotions, and share them with others truthfully. That kind of openness and intimacy is the basis of loving relationships.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


How do you value a hug? Or an act of kindness? Or a day at home? Or a new friend? In this time of recession, it becomes very important to understand what has underlying value for us.

We find it easy to put a value on items that are sold in shops or on the internet. We can simple look up the price, and assume that this is the 'going rate'. But for decades psychologists have found it problematic to analyze precisely how people make their individual decisions about values. Many decision theorists - some even Nobel prize winners - have assumed that people make decisions in a mathematical way, setting a value on an outcome, and taking into account the probability of that outcome. We can see how that might work for purely financial decisions such as gambles. Although, even with gambling, something else seems to be going on which the psychologists find it very hard to account for with their formulae and tables.

It seems that , however much we try to explain decisions on a rational basis, people don't behave like computer programs. When we are weighing things up, we tend to do it qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Otherwise, how do we account for a person giving up everything to look after a sick relative? Or giving up a life of profit just to learn something new?
One interesting task you might like to try, is an activity called 'Non-monetary Exchange Rating'. The idea is that, first, you choose something which is NOT money, that you wish for. Then, think of something which is NOT money, that you have available to give away, and decide how much of it you would sacrifice to gain what you wish for. For example, imagine your house or flat is messy today, and you wish it was tidy...

How many hours of sleep tonight would you sacrifice tonight for a tidy house tomorrow?

A sample reply from an acquaintance was 30 minutes.

Then you can think of other things that you would like to gain or achieve - for yourself or another person, and value that instead, in terms of what you would give away. The person who did the above task found that, in terms of sleep tonight sacrificed:

1. A tidy house was worth 30 minutes sleep sacrificed
2. An evening at the theatre was worth 150 minutes sleep sacrificed
3. A visit to a restaurant was worth 120 minutes sleep sacrificed
4. A meal for a homeless person was worth 180 minutes sleep sacrificed

The value of this kind of task is in the learning, not in any quantifying per se. We find out what our priorities are, and what we consider to make up the quality of our life. We might even be surprised by what we discover, and may change some of our decisions on the basis of what we find!

Sunday, September 18, 2011


At a psychology seminar the other day, I was interested to experience a number of different approaches to teaching and learning. It was interesting to be a delegate myself. Often, it is the other way round, and I am so busy training, I don't have a chance to see what it's like to be a training victim!

By the end of the day, I had noticed a number of things characteristic of good learning, and a few characteristic of problematic learning:

Features of excellent sessions were:

1. The trainer seemed to be in control from the first moment, inspiring confidence
2. The information was distilled into useful diagrams or anecdotes for easy digestion
3. Questions were welcomed, and answered attentively and intelligently

In contrast, in the problematic sessions, the trainer lacked sureness, simply repeated information from sources without restructuring, and avoided questioning.

However, the onus is not all on the trainer. A learner has a job to do, and I did list some features of good learners, in life as well as in academia:

1. Good learners are attentive throughout
2. Good learners choose their questions carefully, and participate actively
3. Good learners help other learners to learn

On the other hand, problematic learners seem to have, shall we say, attentional issues - always being distracted, Their activity isn't careful or guided, but is generalized, or focused on other things. And they were obsessed with themselves, without any sense of a group quest to learn.

I guess that's true in life too. When we're doing things, being confident, outward-looking and attentive goes a long way. And when we're learning or listening, it helps to be actively focused on the other person. So many times in recent months, I have to say, I wish I had been more attentive, and listened harder. It would have saved so many misunderstandings! Oh well, it's never too late to learn a lesson, and there's always tomorrow... :-)


A friend recently gave me some rhubarb she had grown herself. It was lovely for the family to cook and eat. I realized that I didn't know anything about it nutritionally. So I did some investigating. It turns out that it's a great source of potassium, and a very good source of fibre, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and manganese. So it's good for bones, teeth, muscle and soft tissue, and healing processes. Now I know. A very irrelevant blog. But interesting to me!

Friday, September 16, 2011


I was having coffee with a friend today, and we were talking about how easy it is to be trapped into a routine. Sometimes we crave more adventure, but the ultimate experience evades our grasp.

I was sharing a theory I have, which runs like this. We are divided into two people. One of these people is idealistic, and comes up with ideas for new things to do. The other one is realistic, and has a natural inertia which makes sure we don't depart too far from our routine (which, after all, helps us survive). The problem is, the realistic one almost always wins. This is because it is supported by the force of habit, and the fact that our whole environment is built around our usual routine.

So, in order to create adventure, it is not enough to come up with an initial new idea. If we stop there, then Mr Realistic will take over straight away, and before we know it, we will be back into our old routine, and disappointed with ourselves for not escaping. We need to start breaking existing habits, and creating new ones. Only when we successfully break up our existing routines, can we make room for adventure.

Here are five tactics which encourage the break-up of Mr Realistic, and make room for adventure:

1. Get out of the house. Your house is full of things which remind you of your usual life. Being outside and away will stimulate your brain to accept a flow of new things.
2. Get into the company of different people. The interaction will challenge your old habits and ways, and stimulate you into taking up other behaviours.
3. Move your furniture! One person I know is often in the habit of doing this, as it provokes her into tidying up loose ends, and seeing the world in a different way!
4. Throw things out! Accumulation of sterile things, which never move, persuades you to sit with the same thoughts day on day.
5. Burn your bridges. If your habits have something to go back to, they will.

One word of warning: be balanced about this. A logical consequence of following all five tactics at once is to become a tramp wandering the streets with no possessions. Probably plenty of adventure… but no home! A way of preventing this, and staying within healthy norms, is to make social commitments in a new direction - examples include booking onto a course or activity in advance, or getting a friend to partner up with you.

The best influences in changing yourself are often friends - my coffee friend and I can encourage one another into new adventures, and then meet up and share the tales. All part of creating your own story and identity!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I have heard it said that hate is an inevitable reverse side of love which comes in the end, part of a 'cycle of passion'. So often in newspapers, we read of relationships 'turning sour'… when people can't 'get what they want', they become enemies. But surely this is a misunderstanding of what it is to love. Love isn't a finite romantic cycle, it's wanting the best for others, and making a choice to give. Even if others turn to hate and hurt, we can ignore the trend, and break the cycle by being loving and creative.

"...if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies." (Martin Luther King)

Monday, September 12, 2011


What a beautiful thing it is to get outside in the open air! It must be something natural, built up over millions of years, but you can't beat the feeling of wind against your skin, the sun on your face, and the body travelling across the landscape.

Psychologists often talk about ecological validity - the need to make sure that we assess thinking in the light of man's normal, natural surroundings. Well, what more ecologically valid than to re-experience the pleasure of walking along paths? What better use for 'working memory' than matching the careful movement of limbs to fallen trees and hanging branches? What better use for problem-solving skills than assessing which path to take across the countryside? What better use for perception than evaluating the shifting sounds and sights of a changing view?

Riding a bicycle recently, I was revisiting places from my past - the lake where I did so much thinking years ago; the woods where I played and laughed with the kids and friends; a house where a good friend had lived - although they had long gone, the memories drifted gently around the windows and doors; and, elsewhere, a house where I used to live, now let to others, but still with its character. Somehow, all these features on the landscape were happy things, the past integrated into the weathered flow of the present, and time expanding across the years as I moved along. Travelling encourages perspective, literally. Coming home, the sun sang against my skin, and home seemed somehow different, better, wider, freer.

It's the body's natural state to move itself effortfully among familiar and changing views, and to be outside often. So, next time someone suggests a walk or a bike ride, say yes!