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Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Schwartz’

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I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday and the last will come out next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope!  Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire!  Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God!  Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquillity on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!

Bahá’u’lláh

Practicing Weeding the Garden

schwartzA few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to their Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91) and felt it could be used more widely to dispel almost all intrusive and undesirable patterns of thought and feeling. I was so impressed that I thought it worthwhile eliminating all psychobabble and creating a simple mnemonic so the whole idea was easily remembered and used. This is the first of two weeding techniques.

Spot It

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the storm breaks.

Step Back

The second stage is stepping back. It involves reminding myself that the habit is not me. I can change it. Thoughts and feelings are mostly just brain noise that can’t necessarily be trusted: actions are often their equally unreliable product. I can step back.  This makes the next step possible.

Stop It

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough and step back, I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am. It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change. The brain is plastic.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

Swap It

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself and the mind will cloud up again.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Prayer and meditation are obvious remedies for the spiritually inclined. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Step Back, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next session. You may notice that I draw a distinction between the mind and the brain. We may need to explore this briefly if it is not clear why I am making that distinction.

There is a simple practice that gives us a readily portable substitute for any undesirable pattern of thought and feeling. It’s the mantram, the second practice to help us weed our minds.

Eknath Easwaran

Meditation

I owe a better understanding of this idea to Eknath Easwaran and his book on meditation – Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life. He advises using quotations as a core meditative means of training our minds (more of that next time). He recommends the Mantram as something more portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at inmost centre of our being.  . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He recommends we use the mantram at all moments of stress or simple waiting. It helps keep us calm and, for him, every repetition counts, taking us slightly deeper each time we repeat it with focused concentration. He strongly recommends we use it before we sleep.

The mantram (page 112) is also ‘particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on to and gradually slows it down.’ When a mistake triggers a mind bomb (page 113) ‘[t]he best course to follow at that time is to repeat the mantram a few times and recollect yourself so you can proceed at a measured pace.’

A Mantram-style Exercise Based on a Bahá’í practice

Is there a way that, by using words, we can have some confidence that we are replacing a negative thought process with something more positive? Bahá’u’lláh, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, instructs Bahá’ís to repeat the Greatest Name 95 times each day.

  1. It hath been ordained that every believer in God, the Lord of Judgement, shall, each day, having washed his hands and then his face, seat himself and, turning unto God, repeat “Alláh-u-Abhá” ninety-five times. Such was the decree of the Maker of the Heavens when, with majesty and power, He established Himself upon the thrones of His Names. Perform ye, likewise, ablutions for the Obligatory Prayer; this is the command of God, the Incomparable, the Unrestrained.

About the repetition of Alláh-u-Abhá, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

Let all experience the spiritual enrichment brought to their souls by this simple act of worshipful meditation.

This would seem like a good place to start. Obviously there are many ways of fulfilling this spiritual obligation. What is clearly important is that is should be done mindfully. Below is an illustration of one possible way of achieving such mindfulness. For those who are not Bahá’í, then any spiritually inspiring word or short phrase can be used instead.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm.

We can use our rate of breathing to pace our use of the Greatest Name (or whatever spiritually significant words we have chosen). In the Aqdas it only says “repeat”, so we may feel that this can be done within the mind alone or that it requires to be said out loud. If we are repeating the Greatest Name or its equivalent for us in our heads it is possible to do so on every in-breath: the virtue of this from a meditative point of view is that we perhaps “inhale” some of its power as we do so.  If we repeat it aloud, it is hard to do so except on the out-breath. For the purpose of this group meditation, it is better to repeat our chosen words in our mind silently.

Of course, for this to completely fulfill our spiritual obligation as Bahá’ís we must perform our ablutions (the ones for our obligatory prayer will do if we are saying the Greatest Name at the same time). We also need to “turn towards God.” This may not prove possible here at this point.

We will simply be trying out one way of replacing brain noise with an uplifting alternative.

There is no need for us in this case to count as we are not attempting to replicate exactly the Bahá’í discipline. Also there is no reason why Bahá’ís should not at other times draw on the power of the Greatest Name to settle our distracted or disturbed minds. Others should feel free to use any spiritually significant alternative in the same way.

When we have finished, we can share how that felt and what we learnt.

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Sunset in Builth

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model.

I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

MindsightWell, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

 

Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he Master and Emissaryillustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

Robert WrightTo cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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Skyblind v4

In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of the experience with Ian, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste!  I’ve in addition included references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity, emotion focused therapy, and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the last of five instalments.

We began this sequence of posts with a bit of theory. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end it the same way.

Thinking thro CulturesRelativism

So, now for a discussion of the relevance to this work of relativism.

I see some value in Shweder’s description of relativism, in his mind-opening book Thinking Through Cultures and operate from within that frame of reference when I am engaged in collaborative conversation: `Relativists are committed to the view that alien idea systems, though fundamentally different from our own, display an internal coherency that can be understood but cannot be judged (page 114).’

As a result, I seek to know as much as I can about the context of another person’s thinking in order to make it intelligible, and I have generally found that sufficient information leads to coherence: other people remain unintelligible usually because I know too little about their frames of reference. As a result I too contend that individuals `can look at the “same” world and yet arrive at different understandings” (page 120). As a result I seek to `provide [a]. . charitable rendition of the ideas of others, placing those ideas in a framework that makes it easier to credit [them], not with confusion, error, or ignorance, but rather with an alternative vision of the possibilities of . . . life’ (page 121). I find this approach hard to live up to but can see no better one to use for these purposes.

Shweder provides further useful hints: `. . . since speakers always mean and convey more than they say, meaning is revealed by making explicit the relationship between the said and the unsaid’ (page 186).

He goes on (page 197):

In drawing inferences from what was said to what was unsaid, participants need to be informed, and in fact become informed, about things that were never mentioned,’

and (page 198):

. . . to construct the meaning of discourse in a communicative array, as either a participant or an observer, involves referring the explicit content of speech (what was said) to two indexed levels, the context and all the relevant prior background knowledge needed to make sense of what was said’ .

What is said (page 218) is not `isomorphic’ with `what is meant.’

I find I have to work very hard at eliciting all the necessary background information that would make an initially incomprehensible statement intelligible. Many people I work with leave me to fill in far more about their background and assumptions than I can possibly do. Perhaps they fear to say too much or perhaps they assume too much: perhaps both. The account of the work I did with Ian illustrates the truth of this I think: with hindsight I can see ways in which we might have done a better job of helping him transcend his problems: but then hindsight is always 20:20.

Trauma and Psychosis

All too often I am unable to fill in the missing pieces at all. Whenever I have managed to do so I have been struck by the link between earlier mental pain and the experience of voices. Sometimes when the person has not themself been able to provide the link the family has done so. I did not yet know what to make of those people whose lives and selves have been laid waste by demons and who yet fail to provide through their own story or the stories of their families any apparently traumatising situations.

At the time I was doing the work I have described in this sequence I had only the evidence of one article in the Schizophrenia Bulletin to suggest that trauma and psychosis were in anyway strongly linked (see Benjamin, No 1  in the reference list below). A lot more work on this has been done since.

For example an article in Schizophrenia Bulletin of 29 March 2012 (Reference 2)  Varese et al write, after examining 36 studies:

This review finds that childhood adversity and trauma substantially increases the risk of psychosis . . . . Furthermore, our findings suggest that if the adversities we examined as risk factors were entirely removed from the population (with the assumption that the pattern of the other risk factors remained unchanged), and assuming causality, the number of people with psychosis would be reduced by 33%. The association between child-hood adversity and psychosis held for the occurrence of psychotic symptoms in the general population, as well as for the development of psychotic disorder in prospective studies; the association remained significant when studies were included that corrected for possible demographic and clinical confounders. The analyses focusing on the effect of specific traumas revealed that, with the exception of parental death (although this association became significant after the exclusion of a potential outlier), all types of adversity were related to an increased risk of psychosis, indicating that exposure to adverse experiences in general increases psychosis risk, regardless of the exact nature of the exposure. This meta-analysis found no evidence that any specific type of trauma is a stronger predictor of psychosis than any other.

Mind & BrainBrain-Mind-Meaning Relationships

Even though it is something I have dealt with earlier on this blog, I cannot resist another foray into the heartland of reductionists, but for a slightly different reason from my usual one: the mind-brain relationship. Dennett, in his materialist thesis Consciousness Explained, proposes an interesting model which excludes the `soul’ (which Shweder, much to my satisfaction, includes – page 256). None the less, within his argument he summarises a position with which I find myself in almost complete agreement (page 218-219): he asks how do behaviour programmes `of millions of neural connection-strengths get installed on the brain’s computer?’

Brains, he claims, require a form of `training’, which includes the `repetitive self-stimulation’ of inner speech. The `successful installation’ of these programmes `is determined by myriad microsettings in the plasticity of the brain, which means that its functionally important features are very likely to be invisible to neuroanatomical scrutiny in spite of the extreme salience of its effects.’ He adds (page 221): `We install an organised partially pretested set of habits of mind . . . in our brains in the course of early childhood development.’

I feel that, though difficult, the modification of these `habits of mind’ can be accomplished by adults with consequent changes to the `microsettings’. One means for accomplishing such changes is collaborative conversation.

Another term that has been used is interthinking (see Mercer). Mercer feels this process can achieve remarkable results. He talks of the crucial function of language and says:

[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:

We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.

My sense is that collaborative conversation, and the interthinking it promotes, can change the wiring of the brain.

There is clear evidence that individuals can do this, working with a therapist.

For example, in The Mind & the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.”

His model involves four stages for learning to manage obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

Mindfulness booksThis amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

There is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work the authors spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism. that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

While OCD is not the same as the hallucinatory experiences that can, in the presence of other difficulties, lead to the label psychosis, the evidence that willed effort can change the brain surely must apply here as well. As collaborative conversation leads to deliberate and conscious behaviour change, I am sure that it will also alter the way the brain is wired.

Its efficacy depends upon the presence of various motivating or facilitating factors. It is not possible to generate an exhaustive list of these, but trust was mentioned by Ian as a key component, and, in my view, in the light of dissonance theory, the person’s involvement in collaborative conversation has to be seen by them as something they are choosing to do, not something that is forced upon them.

Some limiting factors are apparent from the backgrounds of the two examples of collaborative conversation I shared with you. For example, both people depended for their survival in the community upon a large network of professionals. Sadly, as professionals we were often pulling in different directions at the same time, were absent when we should have been present, or present when we might better have been absent, and often with well-intentioned insensitivity we encumbered our clients with our idea of help.

amygdalaFocusing on Emotion

Later work on Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT – Reference 3)) suggests ways in which that approach would have been very relevant to the difficulties experienced by the people I was working with, and would have further potentiated the efficacy of what we were doing together. Les Greenberg writes:

. . . . . the challenge of any effective psychotherapy, be it of trauma, anxiety or depression is to transform amygdala reactions so that innocuous reminders of past experience are not seen as a return of past loss, failure or trauma.

I’ve dealt with the role of the amygdala at great length elsewhere on this blog (see links for more information), so I won’t unpack it further here, except to say its main function is as an intensely powerful danger warning system.

He goes on:

Evolution however has blessed humanity with more negative basic emotions than positive ones, in order to aid survival. An important conclusion to be drawn from an evolutionary point of view is that negative emotions are often useful. Anxiety, anger, sorrows and regret are useful or they would not exist. Unpleasant feelings draw people’s attention to matters important to their well-being. However when unpleasant emotions endure even when the circumstances that evoked them have changed, or are so intense that they overwhelm, or evoke past loss or trauma they can become dysfunctional.

In Greenberg’s view insight is not enough:

Although re-appraisal or insight provides people with a new way of thinking or deeper understanding of the reasons they feel the way they do, cognitive change of this nature is unlikely to reconfigure the alarm systems of the brain, or the emotion schematic networks that have been organized from them.

He argues for a deeper process of emotional re-education:

Emotion coaching is aimed at enhancing emotion- focused coping by helping people become aware of, accept and make sense of their emotional experience. Coaching is defined in general as involving a mutually accountable relationship in which both client (trainee) and therapist (coach) collaborate actively in the creation of an educational experience for the client who is an active participant in the process. Emotion coaching entails a highly collaborative relationship involving both acceptance and change . . . . . The goals of emotion coaching are acceptance, utilization and transformation of emotional experience. This involves awareness and deepening of experience, processing of emotion as well as the generation of alternative emotional responses. In emotion coaching a safe, empathic and validating relationship is offered throughout to promote acceptance of emotional experience. An accepting, empathic relational environment provides safety leading to greater openness and provides people with the new interpersonal experience of emotional soothing and support that over time becomes internalized . . . . . In this type of relational environment people sort out their feelings, develop self-empathy and gain access to alternate resilient responses based on their internal resources. Emotion coaching is a collaborative effort to help clients use their emotions intelligently to solve problems in living by accepting emotion rather than avoiding it, utilizing both the information and response tendency information provided by it, and transforming it when it is maladaptive.

Looking back I can see how we were attempting to achieve this but were not fully aware that we were doing so. Also I was unaware of the existence of this model at the time. It was not registering on the therapeutic radar.

This is perhaps why Ian on reflection, as I mention in a previous post, did not feel the gain was worth the pain. That left me feeling uneasy, in the aftermath, about the use of the approach and alerted me to the need to forewarn people of the difficulties they might encounter, so that consent to continue would be better informed than in Ian’s case.

On balance, though, I strongly suspect that even in those early days the approach did bring significant benefits. Hopefully you would agree.

References:

1. Benjamin, Lorna (1989) Is chronicity a function of the relationship between the person and the auditory hallucination? Schizophrenia Bulletin. She observed that a high proportion of people in her study had experienced a trauma of some kind prior to the appearance of their voices.

2. Filippo Varese et al (2012) Childhood Adversities Increase the Risk of Psychosis: A Meta-analysis of Patient-Control, Prospective- and Cross-sectional Cohort Studies,  Schizophrenia Bulletin.

3. Les Greenberg (2004) Emotion–focused Therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2010 and is preparing the way for a lengthy consideration of Jeremy Rifkin’s book on empathy and civilisation. 

I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

MindsightWell, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

 

Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he Master and Emissaryillustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

Robert WrightTo cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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. . . . man must strive that his reality may manifest virtues and perfections, the light whereof may shine upon everyone.

(Bahá’í Administration: page 9)

Do you think excellence at an activity is a gift or is it earned?

Sir Michael, a character played by James Fox in a recent recent episode of ‘Midsomer Murders,’ clearly thought it was a gift handed down in the genes and deranged his whole life around that creed (I won’t say more in case I spoil the plot, if such a plot can be spoiled at all). Apparently most of us believe the same or something like it, much to our disadvantage. It’s the result of natural talent, we conclude, rather than hardwork so if I haven’t already got it it’s not worth trying to acquire it.

Over the last few decades it has been slowly becoming apparent that this is nonsense. Previous posts have referred, for example, to Jeffrey Schwartz‘s hard-headed look at the issue in The Mind and the Brain. Practice may not make you perfect but it raises your capacity beyond your wildest dreams and changes your brain in the process. All you need to do is stick at it for long enough with the right attitude. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Towards of the close of his book Schwartz writes (page 371):

We have been blind to the power of the will to direct attention in ways that can alter the brain. Perhaps, as the discoveries about the power of directed mental effort systematically to alter brain structure and function attract public awareness, we will give greater weight, instead, to the role of volition.

Schwartz’s book, while written for the general reader, is not the most accessible text in the world, brilliant though it is.

When it comes to attracting public awareness to his basic thesis, there is a much better candidate. It’s called Bounce. I nearly didn’t buy Matthew Syed‘s book because I thought it would just be a rather predictable rehash of what I had already learned from sources such as Schwartz. I only got it in the end because I needed to spend at least £10 in the book shop (I’m not saying which one – they’ve already got far too many branches) to get Eat Pray Love extremely cheap.

It was definitely a smart move – buying the book I mean, not devising the special offer.

Syed pulls all the research and thinking together mostly around the subject of sport, though he does throw in other examples such as chess and music to enrich the mix.

From the point of view of this post his main points at the start of the book cut to the chase.

He quotes Anders Ericsson‘s study of violinists in which Anders attempts to determine what distinguishes the very best from all the others. The result was clear (page 12):

Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.

(He doesn’t waste words, as you can see.) It takes at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to make an expert. He goes onto illustrate how, in any complex field whether it be firefighting, chess, violin playing or table tennis, expertise is entirely dependent upon long experience of a certain kind.

He explains what kind of practice he’s talking about (page 58):

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake.

The fascination of his book is largely in the parts I am missing out. He gives examples from his own experience, from interviews with people that he’s met and from his reading, that bring the whole subject to life. His telling of the story of the Polgar family (pages 60-66) – Laszlo, Klara and their children – is a key and compelling illustration of his point. All their three children, from a background of zero chess expertise, became chess prodigies, and the father had predicted that they would right from the start provided he gave them the right opportunities to practice.  And they loved to practice, and practice, and practice. His eldest daughter became the first woman grandmaster ever, and his youngest daughter the youngest grandmaster, male or female, ever.

Some people think it was coincidence but I think the father proved his point. The many other examples Syed gives simply hammer more nails into the coffin of the myth of natural talent. This is a more suitable myth for the evolutionists to target than the idea of God as we will see very clearly later.

However, it isn’t enough to practice because you want to. There is more to it than that (page 72):

Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Schwartz’s book constantly reinforces the same conclusion about the power of deliberate and sustained attention, while at the same time emphasising that anyone with a reasonably intact brain – and that’s almost all of us, even those of us with strokes and other brain injuries – is capable of learning to focus in this way if they want to.

When I shared some of Syed’s ideas with a friend of mine, she told me about her experience with knitting – yes, she definitely said knitting:

I find that most people don’t have much of a belief in excellence being earned and they do tend to assume that ability is mostly genetic.  I don’t know where that belief comes from, but it is not in the least bit empowering and is actually wrong.  I think I sub-consciously believed it myself until recently, and then I changed my belief only because of my own direct experience.  I decided to start knitting about two years ago and at first I was actually quite bad at it, worse than some of my friends.  However, I have knitted in every spare moment I’ve had since then.  Now, I have knitted garments that are so good that people can’t believe I hand-knitted them myself.  . . . . . I am definitely not gifted.  I have just had a heck of a lot of practice over the past two years.   Also, some bits of my knitting were so difficult to get right that I unravelled and re-started it eight or ten times until I managed it, focusing very hard on it and learning an awful lot as a result.

Before he moves on to consider another aspect of practice that is of critical importance, Syed makes a point of fundamental importance that I will return to again later (page 103-104):

It is only in sport that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of other individuals, and never by society as a whole. But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit. . . . The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.

It will take another post to begin to unpack this at greater length and to show how the ideas he is conveying here extend far beyond sport, not only to finance but to spirituality as well.

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I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

Well, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he illustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

To cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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In a previous post I examined the problem of will power and unconscious processes. I took the position that free will is real and that we can choose where we place our conscious attention though we cannot necessarily control what our underlying mental and brain processes do with the material that reaches them. As I understood it the academic consensus was pretty sceptical of the whole idea of free will seeing the “illusion” of choice as reducible to automatic brain functions with nothing left over.

This flies in the face of subjective experience, a sense of moral responsibility and most religious traditions including the Bahá’í Faith.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice about how to meditate clearly presupposes that we can choose where to direct our attention.

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these.

(Paris Talks: page 176)

Moreover he unequivocally believes that all our conscious thoughts are within our control and we can decide what to do about them:

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content.

(Paris Talks: page 29)

It is therefore not surprising that I was very pleased to discover a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with these intuitions.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way.

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . . .

(page 18)

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism:

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

(page 40)

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality” (page 47).

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes:

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

(page 94)

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out:

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism. that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

(page 95)

That last idea is something that will have to wait for another post, when I have read the whole book, rather than just the first half of it. I am simply too excited by the ideas expressed to wait until then to share my enthusiasm for what they are saying.

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