Fathers and Sons

How does a young man test his strength? Like a young stag, he locks horns with his father in a challenge. One of three things can happen next, depending on what kind of man that father is. An aggressive, arrogant father will push back hard and the youngster will be defeated, humiliated and possibly injured. A weak father won’t have the strength to do anything but fall back, leaving his son feeling mild contempt and perhaps confusion. But a strong and grounded father will steadily hold his ground, not pushing against his son but not yielding either. In this ideal case the youngster feels his father’s strength and his love. He can push against his father, testing his own emerging manhood. In this way he comes to learn something crucial about what it is to be a mature male.

My own father wasn’t ideal in many ways but somehow he was good enough at holding his ground against my adolescent challenges without defeating me. When a young man challenges his father, he’s effectively asking a question; “What is it to be a man?” If he gets the wrong answer – arrogant aggression or weakness – he may end up living the rest of his life in response to it.

In my work as a psychotherapist I sometimes see what happens when that adolescent encounter is mishandled. There are weak men, lacking self esteem and often searching for someone to replace their mother. Maybe their father’s answer to their challenge was capitulation, which told them that a man is a weak creature, born to servitude. Or perhaps his father was punishing, telling him that he has no right to challenge authority. The flip side of this weak soul is equally damaged. This is the son whose father taught him that being a man means beating the other guy, even if the contest is unfair. In an attempt to make sense of the way his father crushed him, he builds a strong defense and comes to fear vulnerability more than death itself.

I don’t meet the men whose fathers had the wisdom to stand with firm gentleness, offering strength to push against. They they are the lucky ones who know their place in the world, who feel comfortable in their own skin and know what real strength entails.

Therapy outdoors: Playing with Winnicott

I’ve been doing much more outdoor therapy over the last few months. I think that’s partly because it’s been easier to meet face to face outdoors during lockdown, but maybe people have come to appreciate it more? I’ve been engaged with ecotherapy for years and it was part of my life before I knew it had a name! It was central to my PhD (2008), which is how I met up with some of the UK pioneers of ecotherapy. The many discussions we had inspired me to run nature connection workshops in London. Later I wrote my 2014 MSc dissertation on outdoor therapy and then I trained in the practicalities with Beth Collier. It’s been a rich journey!

Although the core principles are the same, outdoor therapy is very different from indoor sessions. The first thing that struck me when I was training with Beth was how much more fluid working outdoors is. Whatever action feels right for the client is open to them: They are free to stand, walk, stop, sit down or even lie on the ground. If a space feels too open, we can go somewhere more enclosed. If where we are feels claustrophobic, there’s the option to move. Of course wondering why a space feels uncomfortable gives us something to explore, but we have the option of how and where we work with that. Working outdoors can be much more playful than indoor practice, and I’m reminded of Winnicott’s belief that psychotherapy is ultimately about two people playing together (1971).

Patterns of light through green leaves

Saying that outdoor therapy is more playful and fluid suggests it might be less intense, but in fact the natural environment has a way of highlighting issues and pulling away our familiar masks. It’s a much more embodied way of doing therapy and that in itself tends to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Nature has a knack of holding up a mirror to us. What we think of as internal psychic processes somehow get symbolised in the space around us. Ecotherapist’s often refer to this kind of synchronicity: Somehow inner reality and external life get blurred.

I find myself back with Winnicott again. He thought of the consulting room as a transitional space that emerged between the therapist and the client. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). I can’t help fantasizing that Winnicott would have very much enjoyed doing outdoor therapy!

Smashing windows or inner transformation?

I wrote a Tweet today criticizing Extinction Rebellion (XR). It was an honest response but felt odd as I’ve been a supporter for ages and was a regular contributor to the XR newspaper, The Hourglass. So why the change of heart? When XR first came to my attention I was somewhat dismissive. ‘Here we go again!’, I thought. ‘Yet another climate change campaign using the same old strategies we’ve used for decades’. I’ve been involved in environmental activism for over 40 years so my cynicism was not unfounded.

My mood changed as I saw what XR were doing. Regenerative culture was at the foundation of this new movement and it was characterized by imaginative, original and powerful actions. The aim, I thought, was to build a mass movement, raise awareness of the climate crisis and build a truly regenerative culture. I believed XR were engaged in what used to be called consciousness raising, fundamentally changing how people thought about climate change. This was exemplified for me by the Red Brigade, white face-painted activists dressed in red, walking in slow procession. The Red Brigade are silent and they don’t carry banners; the power of their presence flows from a deeper place.

In 1970 the Anti-Apartheid Movement launched a campaign against Barclays Bank. The Bank had a huge presence in South Africa and local branches were regularly targeted by activists. 16 years later Barclays withdrew from South Africa. Fast forward to 2021 and XR activists smash windows at Barclays Bank. It’s hard to gauge the public response but this doesn’t look to me like consciousness raising or regenerative culture. We don’t have 16 years to deal with climate change and frankly that’s simply a symptom of the much deeper malaise. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

The articles I wrote for The Hourglass were often about nature connectedness, which we now know encourages people to protect the environment (Mackay & Schmitt). Related research suggests that mindfulness can also lead to pro-environmental behavior (Barbaro & Pickett). It’s no surprise perhaps that psychedelic experience can have a profound impact on our sense of nature connectedness and can increase positive environmental action (Forstmann & Sagioglou, 2017; Kettner et al. 2019). All three are examples of what I call the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC) and provide a clear escape route from our “illusion of separateness”.

I’m a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Direct action certainly has a place in environmental activism but don’t be misled into thinking it’s the only game in town. Stanislav Grof, the Czech psychiatrist who helped found found transpersonal psychology sums it up beautifully:

“A radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have in the current global crisis.”

To engage with climate change we need consciousness change. Nature connectedness, mindfulness, psychedelics and the rest of the EPoC are far more powerful tools for that than smashing windows.

It’s too late for anything less than the extraordinary.

How to manage the psychedelic revolution

The media is full of news about psychedelic therapy this week. There’s the opening of the new Awakn clinic in Bristol, which uses Ketamine to support psychotherapy for depression, anxiety and addiction. Another organization – Small Pharma – are trialing DMT in the UK as a treatment for people with depression. In the USA, Oregon has decriminalized all drugs and Washington D.C. now permits the cultivation and possession of “entheogenic plants and fungi.” It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that we are at the start of a revolution and things have moved fast since I wondered if psychedelic psychotherapy might be the next big thing in psychiatry a mere 18 months ago.

You’d be forgiven if you have a deja vu feeling about all this; back in the 60’s Timothy Leary and others were proclaiming a psychedelic revolution. Sadly it all went badly wrong, as revolutions so often do. What happened back then and can we learn from the mistakes of those excited pioneers? The main problem was that there was no context for psychedelic experience. Many indigenous cultures have been drawing on the healing power of psychedelics for generations and they provide a supportive context to hold the experience. It’s not simply ‘Tune on, tune in and drop out’!

Context is vital at several levels. Stan Grof, a leading thinker in the field, suggested that psychedelics are “non-specific mental amplifiers of the psyche” (2000), which means that the location and your mindset are key. The psychedelic experience needs to take place in a carefully managed setting and ideally with someone who is there to support you. Most people who work with psychedelics know about set and setting, but there’s a larger context that’s sometimes neglected. Preparation for the experience can make a huge difference and integration afterwards can unpack the deeper significance of the journey. Without integration it’s too easy to miss the potentially life changing lessons of your psychedelic experience. Then there’s the wider social context. You’ve had this extraordinary experience that may well have been mystical in it’s profundity. How do you take that into the rest of your life? Do you have friends or a mentor who understands and supports you? Does your culture affirm or dismiss your experience? While many indigenous peoples have all of these levels of support integrated into the culture, Western Postmodernism most certainly doesn’t!

The good news is that there are organizations and individuals working to create these supportive contexts. There’s a lot to learn but we’re drawing on cutting edge scientific research and, with deep respect, indigenous wisdom. I’ve recently started working as the Director of Ecopsychology at the Synthesis Institute. Synthesis have been running psychedelic retreats in The Netherlands for several years and are now exploring a new approach to help manage depression. My role is to bring the powerful holding and healing of the natural world to this work. Ecopsychology has a lot of offer, especially with preparation and integration but this potential has been largely untapped. Although a special issue of the European Journal of Ecopsychology on the psychedelic experience came out in 2013, it was before the current renaissance in psychedelic therapy.

Psychedelic therapy is complex and requires an interdisciplinary approach that’s very unfamiliar for Western medicine. We need new frameworks, and it’s notable that the psychedelic experience and nature connectedness are two of the embodied pathways of connection; perhaps the EPoC model can help inform the way forward?

So it’s exciting and challenging times! We have a wealth of wisdom and research to draw on as we negotiate this journey. With the revolution well underway, I believe our community can rise to the challenge of creating a holding context for what may be the most powerful experience someone will ever have.

John Danvers on “Interwoven Nature”

John Danvers is an artist, writer and poet whose work emerges from over fifty years of Zen meditation practice. John gave a wonderful presentation at The Embodiment Conference last October called “Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world”. There’s a link to a recording below, but before you listen I’d like to highlight and contextualize what I see as a few key points.

I came across John’s work though the Exeter Meditation Circle, a group I’ve been attending regularly for several years and which he facilitates. I was intrigued by John’s ideas so read his book, Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world (Danvers, 2016). The book Is excellent and it’s enriched my ideas, notably about the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC). John was an obvious person to invite to speak at The Embodiment Conference and his talk is located at the intersection of embodiment and ecology that I’ve rather dramatically claimed is the best way to save the world!

John’s talk ranges across topics that include Covid, ecology, narcissism and politics, but I take his core message to be that mindfulness meditation can enable us to realize how interconnected everything is: there is a “kinship and fellowship between all beings”. This is an ecological and relational understanding of the self.

Wind-broken pine.
Mar-April 2019 13 x 18.75ins Graphite & wash on paper.
John Danvers (http://johndanversart.co.uk/art-2019/)

For those with little or no experience of meditation, it might seem extraordinary that zazan can be so powerful. It’s deceptively simple, requiring nothing more that just “sitting quietly, paying attention to whatever arises in our embodied minds and in the world immediately around us”. But this practice can reveal that the self – that oh so precious center of the Universe that Western culture has deified – isn’t a thing at all, but a process.

“we are mistaken if we believe and act as if each ego/self is a fixed and essential centre of the universe; we become wise when we act on the belief that the self has no fixed essence and is woven into the universe and inseparable from it” (Danvers, 2016).

This is a recurrent theme of this blog; you’ll hear the same refrain in the work of Eugene Gendlin, David Abram, Philip Shepherd and many others.

John eloquently describes what happens when we slip back into habitual thinking. He can feel fragmented, “divided within myself”. He can fall into the Illusion that “my mind is divided from my body”. This sense of fragmentation can lead to him feeling disconnected from the world and alienated from everything: “I’m so locked into my divided self that I feel separated from what’s around me”.

Our minds seem to habitually fall into this state, even after decades of zazen practice. I think there may be good evolutionary reasons for why this divided self seems to be our default mode of being and I’ll say more about that another time.

This isolated self tends to see the world as threatening and too easily finds danger where none exists. In this habitual state of separation “we can be too easily swayed by popular rhetoric”. Recent events in the USA are just the most recent example of what happens when people feel alienated and threatened, but every page of history tells the same story.

We habitually identify with what we’re feeling – “I’m angry!” – and with our opinions – “They’re wrong!” Mindfulness allows us to loosen these attachments and “can help us distinguish between habitual reactions and how things actually are”. We can learn how to open a space between our emotions, thoughts and opinions and our awareness of them. We gain the freedom to distance ourselves from habitual reactions and respond in ways that lessen rather then feed conflict.

The illusion of separation doesn’t only feed political unrest; it forms the foundation of consumerism. Consumerism depends on our tendency to “chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled”, but these can no more satisfy us than a mirage can quench the traveler’s thirst.

Before closing, I want to touch on John’s art, which is informed by his mindfulness. Any art practice is “a form of relationship to the world around us and to the world within us … and those two things are very interpenetrating”. Art can be an act of “self revelation” and “opening up to the world”. Looking at art can reveal how other people see the world, allowing us to “look afresh” in a way that can be similar to zazen. John’s thoughts on art and mediation remind me of the work of Stephanie Gottlob, who comments that her mindful experiences in nature “are an integral part of the creative process”.

There’s much wisdom in John’s talk and his thoughtful responses to questions from the audience. I highly recommend that you listen to Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world.

Most Popular Posts of 2020

The most popular post on my blog this year is from a guest, Stephanie Gottlob, an improvisational movement artist. Although it’s not something I wrote, I’m delighted that this post has done so well as I’m keen to promote Stephanie’s work. I’d guess that part of its popularity is the interview I did with Stephanie for The Embodiment Conference in October, but all that really did was to inform a wider range of people about her fascinating work. I like to think that it’s only when you promote something of quality that you get attention. Stephanie and I are in regular correspondence and rest reassured she’ll be featured here again in 2021. Meanwhile, check out Stephanie Gottlob’s post.

In second place is my post on Embodied knowledge, which is gratifying as this is something I’ve been working on for decades. I finally managed to put together a sketch map of different models of embodied knowing. To be honest I wondered if anyone would pay any attention to it, but I’ve had some academic interest and this post has been read by a lot of you. Thanks! A related and perhaps more accessible post on the same subject was the fourth most popular post: “We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters. I’m pursuing this research in 2021 and I’m planning to organize an online conference on embodied ways of knowing. More on this as it develops.

Left brain – right brain: In therapy was the third most popular post last year. No surprise I guess as neuroscience is fascinating and rather fashionable at the moment! I’ll be looking more into neuroscience this year, especially the ways in which it might illuminate the ways that the embodied pathways of connection function.

Do you have a favourite posts that I haven’t mentioned? Or maybe your favourite made the list of top posts? I’d love to hear your comments!

Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.

Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.

If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.

Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.

By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.

The Therapy Turf Wars

“My therapeutic approach is better than yours!” All too often therapists with one particular approach criticize one – or all – of the others, and I’m sick of it. CBT is frequently involved in these turf wars, partly because it’s the favourite of the NHS. Some CBT therapists imply that their approach is vastly superior to all others, ignoring the evidence that supports the effectiveness of other schools of therapy. Humanistic therapists frequently respond in kind, suggesting that CBT is shallow, simplistic and unable to tackle deep rooted issues.

Ruby Wax is an especially irritating ‘turf war’ critic. Ruby is a passionate advocate of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, an approach I have a lot of respect for. Sadly Ruby feels it necessary to dismiss several of the most important ‘rival’ schools of therapy with funny parodies. Carl Rogers developed the Person Centred Approach (PCA) that unpins most Counselling in the UK today. According to Ruby the PCA is about repeating “whatever you said back to you like a parrot but with love” (Wax, 2013). She goes on to dismiss Gestalt, Existential and Psychoanalytic approaches. Ruby; it may be funny, but it’s not clever!

Triggering my ire today is a book about the Human Givens Approach, which claims that the PCA, Psychodynamic school and CBT are all “piecemeal approaches” and that none of them “are sufficient on its own” (Griffin and Tyrrell, 2007). Their solution is, of course, the Human Givens Approach! The research evidence suggests that PCA, Psychodynamic and CBT can all be effective in certain circumstances. CBT is backed by a robust research base and a Person Centred Approach is one of only four therapeutic modalities approved for the treatment of depression under the NHS.

All this frustrates and saddens me. The Human Givens Approach has a great deal to offer and I’ve integrated it into my own therapeutic practice. But I’m galled that those who developed it feel the need to dismiss other approaches as inadequate. It sometimes feels like I’m back in the school playground hearing one kid saying “My Dad’s bigger than your Dad!” Viewing all this though a psychodynamic lens, I wonder if some therapists have unresolved childhood issues?

The parable of the blind men and an elephant
We need a wide perspective

Given that the human mind is the most complex system in the known universe, is it really plausible that one school of therapy will have the definitive and complete answer to every individual’s unique mental health problems? Maybe one day, but most certainly not yet. Meanwhile I’m adopting a pluralistic approach, learning as much as I can about as many different paths to healing as possible. I try to take a wide perspective, asking myself the question; for this particular client, at this specific moment, which therapeutic lens is going to be the most helpful? This is usually called having an ‘integrative’ approach, but I think I’m best described as a pragmatic therapist: My only interest is what works?

The Decade of Embodiment

Two years ago I hosted a few sessions for the The Embodiment Conference 2018. I enjoyed that experience, especially the opportunity to facilitate a conversation between David Abram and Glen Mazis. So when I was invited to be the Manager of the Ecology and Research Channel for the The Embodiment Conference 2020, I jumped at the chance. I’d need to bring together and coordinate over 100 of the most interesting speakers in the world! Wow! But this was just one of ten Channels that brought together over 1000 presentations for the 500,000 people who registered to attend.

No-one has ever done anything on this scale before and over the last few months we discovered why! It was the most intense work I’ve ever undertaken and it was only by drawing on the embodiment practices I’ve learnt over the years that I got through it. There’s a beautiful symmetry here that illustrates how personal practise can serve a bigger purpose.

Our aim was never simply to get the biggest names from around the world. We wanted to find people doing great work on the margins, the people who’d never spoken at a TED Talk but whose voices needed to be heard. I know of a least one example where a ‘big name’ Keynote speaker reached out to Presenter whose work wasn’t widely known to say how inspiring it was. That’s very special, and brings me to a second insight: An event like this is all about the connections it can create.

Once I’d recovered a little from the long adrenaline powered days of the Conference, I began to wonder, ‘What’s next? Where does this go now?’ Although the Conference was extraordinary, it was a ten day event not a movement. What can it catalyze? I’m already in touch with people about articles for The European Journal of Ecopsychology and – dare I even say it? – I’m planning an online conference on embodied ways of knowing for 2021. This brings me to my closing thought: Overcoming cultural distrust of embodiment is a process we need to express in our everyday lives. Let’s make the 2020’s the Decade of Embodiment!

Samhain: Feast of the Dead

Tonight is the Pagan festival of Samhain, more commonly celebrated as Halloween. At Samhain Pagans celebrate our ancestors & beloved dead. It also offers an opportunity to meditate on our mortality, a fundamental aspect of embodiment which arguably makes life worth living. We work hard to keep thoughts of death out of our minds and the care of the dead – once a final act of love – is now professionalized.

As usual, people dressed up as ghosts and ghouls roam my local high street. But there’s an edge to the celebrations this year as the reality of death feels closer. I suspect the glowing plastic skulls and scary/comic make-up are an attempt to manage our anxiety about the last taboo – death. I wonder what Heidegger would make of it all? He urged us to acknowledge death to avoid the fall into a meaningless life (Heidegger, 1962).

A couple of years ago I was wandering along Brighton beach just before Samhain. Thoughts of death were with me then, as now: I remembered some of my own beloved dead and pondered my mortality. As if in reply, I came across a swathe of feathers, strewn like a shroud on the stony beach.

This is all that remains of some seabird, probably killed by a predator not long before. I sat on the stones and watched as the feathers blew away in the wind, one by one