Wired to survive?

According to evolutionary neuroscience we’re not wired to be happy or content but simply to survive. It’s a new science, so such judgements are subject to review, but it certainly seems that our bodymind system easily becomes dysfunctional in modern industrial societies.

Paul Gilbert is a clinical psychologist and developed a new therapeutic approach called ‘compassion focused therapy’ (CFT). Paul has identified three basic bodymind systems; one is focused on potential threats, another on finding resources, and the third on calm contentment & soothing. When the threat system is active our attention becomes like velcro for danger signs and teflon non-stick for anything positive: If you’re on alert for wolves then the fact that the moon looks fabulous is pretty irrelevant! Short-term that’s fine and once danger has passed we naturally shift to either the search and reward mode or the calm contentment system. As long as there’s a cycle between these three systems, we’re fine.

Adapted from Gilbert, 2019

Because the threat system has survival value it can override the other two and it’s activated whenever there’s a perceived danger. The threat system works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis so will trigger whenever we feel that a situation isn’t safe. Many people live in situations which don’t feel safe; low income, precarious or stressful work, discrimination, difficult relationships or just keeping abreast of the news. That means that the threat system is often over-active and many people don’t spend enough time in the regenerative contentment & soothing system.

Compassion focused therapy draws heavily on mindfulness to help people learn to rebalance themselves. By becoming mindful of when we’re stuck in the anxiety provoking threat system, we can learn to shift into calm contentment. Self compassion is hugely helpful in this, and though we all have compassion, we may not practice it much. In our culture it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a distraction from the busyness of our lives. But in fact compassion is a form of courage that inspires us to act. With practice we can develop more compassion for ourselves and others, healing within and making the world a better place in the process.

It’s worth noting that mindfulness is the key strategy in CFT. Mindfulness, like so many of the other approaches to alleviating mental distress, is an embodied pathway of connection. If we really are wired to survive, perhaps early humans developed the embodied pathways of connection as a route to a deeper thriving? Practices like mindfulness, ritual, dance, psychedelics and the deliberate use of trance emerged early in human evolution. These same practices are retained by many indigenous groups and have therapeutic value for them. The same is true for all of us: These ancient healing practices can take us beyond mere survival mode to a vibrant, joyful existence.

It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Diagram of cognitive iceberg
Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.

The Embodied Pathways of Connection in Therapy

My previous post introduced the EPOC, embodied practices that can reveal our radical interconnectedness. I initially came across the EPOC during my PhD research into spiritual eco-activism: The EPOC both inspired and supported the campaigners I worked with (Harris, 2008). Years later I noticed something curious; the EPOC I’d identified amongst road protesters seemed to underpin much of psychotherapy!

That may initially sound implausible, but the deeper I’ve looked into this apparent link, the more sense it makes. My research with activists identified seven EPOC; nature connection, meditation, Focusing, ritual, dance, trance and psychedelics. These seven all map to psychotherapeutic practices:

  • nature connection is the foundation of ecotherapy;
  • mindfulness meditation is at the heart of third wave CBT;
  • Focusing is a therapeutic practice;
  • psychedelic psychotherapy may be the next big mental health breakthrough;
  • dance therapy has been around since the mid-60s’;
  • ritual is widespread in psychotherapy, while
  • trance is an altered state of consciousness which is common in psychotherapy.

This is a big subject, but there’s two points I can make about how the EPOC function in psychotherapy. First, the EPOC facilitate access to embodied knowing and that process is fundamental to how psychotherapy heals. Second, they can dramatically widen our perspective: If you’re focusing too much on your own mental processes, mental distress is often the result.

John Kabat-Zinn launched the therapeutic mindfulness revolution that’s transformed the lives of millions. He believes that connection is fundamental: “the quality of the connections within us and between us and with the wider world determines our capacity for self-regulation and healing” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Many Focusing Oriented Therapists speak of that connection too: “Focusing allows our consciousness to settle into that area in ourselves where there is physical in-binding with the rest of the cosmos” (Campbell and McMahon, 1997).

Research into how psychedelic psychotherapy works has come to the same conclusion: “a sense of connectedness is key” (Carhart-Harris, et al, 2017). The theme of connection also runs through dance therapy: Connecting the mind and body, the conscious with the unconscious, the self with the other (Halprin, 2002).

This leaves ritual and trance, which are both complex and multifaceted. I’d argue that ritual is fundamental to many psychotherapeutic approaches and my experience of psychoanalysis felt deeply ritualistic. But for the moment, I’ll be more specific and reference Family Constellation Therapy (FCT) which explicitly draws on African healing ritual. FCT is based on the notion of the ‘knowing field’ a web that “propagates information and affect through the family and ancestral network” (Adams, 2014). That sounds strange to Western ears, but accords very well with Eugene Gendlin’s claim that “Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people. In fact, the whole universe” (1981).

Trance is much more common than many of us suppose: When you’re watching a film or reading a novel, you’re most likely in trance. Hypnotherapy is of course the most obvious use of trance in psychotherapy but it’s arguably more fundamental. Furthermore, nature connection, meditation, Focusing and psychedelics can all induce an altered state of consciousness which we might call trance. On that basis, trance can certainly facilitate a sense of deep connection. There’s also a powerful association between psychotherapy and shamanism which gives trance a central role (Thalhamer, 2015). Boundaries get very blurred at this point because Shamanism is intimately engaged with nature connection and can include aspects of meditation, Focusing, dance, ritual and psychedelics.

We’re now close to the place to which these embodied pathways of connection all lead. For Glen Mazis this place is about ‘earthbodying’; Philip Shepherd names it “radical wholeness” (2017); David Abram might speak of participatory perception (2010), while Susan Greenwood writes of “a heightened awareness of an expanded connected wholeness” (Greenwood, 2005). For me this place is characterized by a particular kind of embodied knowing, the “wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one” (Harris, 1996).

The Embodied Pathways of Connection

What links mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and the therapeutic technique of Focusing? They can all help us access to our deepest embodied knowing and awaken us from the illusion of separation. For Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and lifelong peace activist, the purpose of our existence is “to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” But how?

Meditation is one path, and John Danvers wrote that mindfulness is a tool for coming to “fully realise that we are relational beings in a relational universe” (Danvers, 2016). John describes an experience where mindfulness allowed his fixed sense of self to dissolve:

“the egocentric, unitary, ‘I’, wasn’t there. Instead a different state of being was at work (or at play) – as if the edges of myself were dissolved into the surrounding space. It felt like there was no separation between me and the world” (2016).

Gail Bradbrook felt an inner stuckness for years. She was passionate about social change, but none of her campaigning efforts had really taken off. So Gail headed off to Costa Rica to experience the healing power of psychedelics – AKA enthogens – including Ayahuasca. She had heard reports of how “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet” (Bradbrook, 2019). The experience was transformational and on her return home Gail co-founded Extinction Rebellion.

Throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Robert Greenway led groups on multi-day treks into the wilderness. He found that spending several days in wild nature could have a “profound impact on the psyche”. People typically had “feelings of expansion or reconnection” that he identified as spiritual (Greenway, 1995). I’ve written about this wilderness effect elsewhere, but it’s important to note that spending even a brief time in nature can open our awareness of deep connection. Claire Thompson describes her experience of watching a dramatically beautiful sunrise:

“I didn’t realise until afterwards, but my sense of self was absent. I was simply absorbed by the intrinsic wonder of the view and intimately involved in deep contemplation of the pure grace and delicate beauty of nature. I was an integral part of the scene” (2013).

Loch Voil

Ritual is one of the most ancient, powerful and widespread pathways to connection. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that being “part of a powerful ritual” can enable us to “come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one”. A lot depends on the intention of the ritual and the integrity of those who facilitate it, but it’s no accident that members of my local Extinction Rebellion group will lead a Summer Solstice Ceremony this evening to support the movement.

I’ve often written about Focusing and Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychotherapist who developed it. In essence, Focusing is a process of sensing into the body, curiously open to what meaningful sensations might be there. Many people have walked this pathway of connection and Herbert Schroeder is a good example. Herbert was working as an environmental psychologist for the US Department of Agriculture when he began experimenting with Focusing in natural spaces. He experienced “an inward, bodily sense of myself expanding out into space, as though the boundary separating myself from my environment had become relaxed and permeable” (2008).

How can practices as diverse as Focusing, ritual, meditation, taking psychedelics and walking in nature have such dramatic – and similar – effects? Gendlin gave us a key part of the answer when he wrote that the “physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe” (1981). Gendlin, like many other thinkers, recognized that we are not the isolated individuals of our cultural myth.

The quotes above all speak of connection, relationship, expansion and the dissolution of boundaries. Although they’ve taken different pathways, they seems to be arriving at the same place; the wisdom of the body that revels what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “illusion of separateness”. Mindfulness, psychedelics, nature connection, ritual and Focusing are all pathways that lead us to deeper connection. Crucially, they are all part of our embodied experience. These then are embodied pathways of connection (EPOC). There are other EPOC, some of which I’ve already identified; trance, dance, sex and sensual experience. Others are still to be recognized, so if you think there’s an EPOC I’m missing, I’d love to hear from you.

In my next post I’ll explore the role of the EPOC in therapy.

Psychedelic psychotherapy: The next big thing in psychiatry?

The UK Home Secretary has announced a review of cannabis for medicinal use. Does that bring psychedelic psychotherapy a step closer? When LSD was synthesized back in the 1950s psychiatrists were quick to see its potential. Research proliferated over the following decade, producing over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers. The results were overwhelmingly positive and “psychedelic therapy was truly considered the next big thing in psychiatry” (Sessa, 2017).

So what went wrong? Several factors came together to stop what could have been a revolution in psychotherapy. Millions of people were taking LSD recreationally, and perhaps inevitably there were casualties. Psychedelics open us to experiences that the more reactionary elements of society find weird at best and even threatening, so it’s no wonder that the press leapt on any negative news. Psychedelics like LSD are the most powerful mind changing substances that exist and deserve to be treated with respect. There are a few basic principles to using psychedelics: Are you in the right mental state to take them? Is this the best place and time for the trip? Carefully considering these essentials – commonly known as set (mindset) and setting – will very much reduce the risk of a ‘bad trip’. In a psychotherapeutic context set and setting are carefully controlled and the whole process is facilitated by a trained professional.

A second factor was the rise of antipsychotic drugs which led to less emphasis on outpatient psychotherapy sessions. Someone with a more conspiratorial turn of mind might also point out that psychedelic psychotherapy promised a permanent cure for many mental health disorders. People who are cured don’t need a daily dose of expensive drugs to keep them feeling (kind of) OK.

The psilocybin molecule

The good news is that research into psychedelic psychotherapy is undergoing something of a renaissance. Clinical research using psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’), MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, ayahuasca and LSD is ongoing. Psilocybin looks especially promising. A recent review of seven clinical trials found “large effect sizes related to improved depression and anxiety symptoms” (Thomas et al.) The results overall are encouraging: Psychiatrist Dr. Ben Sessa concludes that psychedelic psychotherapy “is a cost effective way of treating otherwise unremitting mental illness” (Sessa, 2017).

Why is psychedelic psychotherapy so effective? According to one influential paper, one of the key processes is a shift from “disconnection (from self, others, and world) to connection” (Watts et al., 2017). I’m hugely excited by all this, not least because there are some parallels with my PhD research. My research suggests that what inspires and supports many environmental activists is a profound sense of connection. The experience of living close to nature and practices like mindfulness help facilitate this, as does the use of psychedelics like psilocybin. Could it be that a sense of connection – or reconnection – is the underlying mechanism behind our sense of wellbeing?

Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness and ecotherapy are two of the most ancient and powerful approaches to healing mental distress. What happens when you bring them together? Last week-end I spoke about practicing mindfulness in nature at a conference on ‘Psychotherapy and the Natural World’ at the Eden Project.

The original invitation to deliver a presentation had been open ended; I could have chosen any theme related to therapy and the natural world. Mindfulness in nature came to me almost immediately, but I wondered if I could say anything about it that was worthwhile.

Once I sat with the notion it opened like a flower, revealing a pattern of connections with other core aspects of my thinking: Ecotherapy of course, (Mindful weeding), spirituality, (Aboriginal deep listening), Focusing (Focusing in Nature), Barry Patterson’s“ listening to the threshold brook”, and on and on.

Sunlight through pine trees

My PhD research identified meditation as one of the embodied pathways of connection with nature that inspired and supported environmental activism. One participant explained that his “connection with the earth” had become “a major part” of who he is. Mindfulness in nature had become a core practice for him:

“just spending time out in nature, just listening. Just looking. Not really thinking too much. It’s good to kind of not think, just become, just let it flow through you I guess” (Harris, 2008).

I’ve realized that the nature connection workshops I’ve been running for years are really mindfulness in nature sessions. Participants do experience a deeper connection with nature, but framing the practice as mindfulness really captures the essence of the work. It also shifts our perception of it: instead of focusing on some outcome – getting a deeper nature connection – it emphasises the process itself. That’s fundamental because mindfulness isn’t about making something happen; it’s simply about being.