Future History

History, if one is ever written, will not be kind to the politicians and business leaders of our generation. The obsession with competition, power and money that are the hallmarks of the capitalist society will be seen in hindsight as a sickness. They will be seen as personality flaws at the very least and highly dangerous delusions at worst. The historians of tomorrow will ask why billions of people allowed such individuals to lead them.

I rarely quote the Bible and if I do it is to make wry observations about the homilies and stories that biblical writers used to illustrate their ideologies but on this occasion I think that the famous quote, “the love of money is at the root of all evil” is particularly apposite.

I continue to find it strange that a concept such as money can cause such destruction for so many people and pleasure, of a sort, for so few. I consider that those who seek money and power have a basic insecurity in themselves that can never be satisfied and that they seek external gratification through control of others through the possession of money and power. I’m sure that I’m not saying anything new as the Buddhists in particular have been observing Western culture and commenting regularly about how we attempt to grasp on to a concept as though it is a thing.

Future historians will wonder at the weirdness of the idea of buying and selling money to make a profit. Their world will not include currency, if the human race ever gets there, there will be a system of exchange, value will not be added to the system of exchange, value will come through a person’s labour that adds quality and security to the life of others. Rentiers will become a thing of the past, production for the sake of profit will no longer exist and indeed will be pointless in tomorrow’s world.

Future generations will look back at the crass stupidity of those who refuse to form networks, collaborations and common purpose. The future will be represented not by many different factions competing with each other but many different perspectives respecting one another, respecting difference, understanding that different points of view can be held and do not need to be suppressed with verbal or physical violence. There will be a huge recognition of diversity of the need for difference in order to create and maintain curiosity, exploration and sustainability.

Those who seek to divide and pit one against another will be seen as dangerous and unhealthy.

A utopian vision, perhaps, but if the human race doesn’t recognise that it has to work with itself in all its different forms in order to survive there will be no human race.
Value can only be achieved by a genuine altruistic desire to improve the lot of everyone and not just for those in our friendship groups, families, communities or nations. If the human race is to survive then the dinosaur thinking that has ruled for the last 140,000 years which is based upon fear, fear of loss, fear of harm, fear of insecurity and fear of others has to change into a form of thinking which begins to think about possibilities, opportunities (for all) and collaboration.

The sad thing is that millions of people across the planet are thinking similar thoughts to me, trying to find ways to express themselves in order to make a small change while the strong and powerful suppress their voices in any way that they can to address their own insecurities and maintain the status quo.

Who am I to think that I can make any difference? The people who have the power don’t wish to make the change, don’t need to make the change for they don’t see a future, they don’t even consider or be concerned with what history might say about them for they have no understanding of the consequences of their actions. Nor, it seems do they care.

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A little bit more

For some time now I have been musing over a behavioural quirk that I have seen so many times in so many different environments. Human beings seem to have a fundamental insecurity, they always want that little bit more but ironically, they are always prepared to take that little bit more away from somebody else.
Oliver Twist was the boy who dared to ask for more. Dickens novel is just as relevant today as it was when he wrote his story of poverty and misery. Below is probably the most famous extract from the story of Oliver twist:
“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. ‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice. ‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’ The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, ‘Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!’ There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance. ‘For MORE!’ said Mr. Limbkins. ‘Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?’ ‘He did, sir,’ replied Bumble. ‘That boy will be hung,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. ‘I know that boy will be hung.’”

These two paragraphs continue to epitomise the split in our society today as it did then. Never has there been so much owned by so few while so many have so little and are laden with debt while working for low and subsistence wages.

On the 15 November 2018 the British public saw the pathetic squabble that the Tory party became after Prime Minister May announced her, deal or no deal. That squabble wasn’t about sovereignty, it wasn’t about better living standards, it wasn’t about autonomy, it wasn’t about freedom to choose who we deal with. No! It was about power. It was about those who want a little bit more power, a little bit more influence, a little bit more security, a little bit more money. What makes it so terribly sickening is that these politicians, on both sides of the house, are prepared to seek their own “little bit more” at the expense of millions of people who are going to suffer as a result of political greed and insecurity.

These British politicians are prepared to put their own selfish need before that of the people that they were elected to serve.

Harari (2018) puts it very succinctly, “The key problem with the network of fortresses is that each national fortress wants a bit more land, security and prosperity for itself at the expense of the neighbours”. What he fails to say is that it is not the people as a whole who seek these things, it is a small minority of people whose desire for personal power influence and wealth dominates their actions and their beliefs; their need for “a little bit more” drives their ideology at the expense of others.

They are no better than the fat master in Dickens novel screaming outrage at the demand of the small boy asking for a little bit more while they stand there corpulent, red-faced indignant at the idea that the feckless poor should want more.

On Friday, 16 November 2018 Philip Alston United Nations poverty envoy published his report on poverty in the United Kingdom. He observed that about 14 million people live in poverty and 1.5 million people are destitute. There are similar audits of extreme poverty across the world not least of which was the United States of America who social policies have been ruining millions of Americans lives while making the super wealthy richer.

He makes the observation that the British government is in denial. Indeed statements from ministers suggest that nothing more than a few tweaks will put right the minor problems with their social care and health polices. This is insightless sociopathy on a grand scale.

There is, however a true irony in this situation, as the master of righteous indignation,  the man who claimed to be “draining the swamp” is probably the first and foremost political leader who is ruining his country by the stripping of wealth from others for the benefit of his small and elite social group. There are also others in the United Kingdom like Jacob Rees-Mogg and other arch financiers and brexiteers who see an opportunity to make money out of the misery of others. Yet I think that these men and those who support them have done the world a favour. How is that?

Donald Trump, Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson and many others have become the epitome of the insightless, uncaring and narcissistic politician. We now all have something to compare those amongst us who seek power and influence at the cost of others. Trump is the archetype; his behaviour has raised awareness of the sociopath and the psychopath who seek to rise up the ladder of success not caring whose corpse they stand upon along the way.

There are many studies that indicate that those with these sociopathic tendencies are much more likely to rise to the top of organisations as they care little for those whom they are quite prepared to tread upon to reach their own selfish goals.

For example, Kevin Dunn (2012) has expounded a theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, but he also argues that society has never been more psychopathic. He claims that psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused. He goes on to say, “if there is one thing that psychopaths have it is the consummate ability to pass themselves off as normal everyday folk, while behind the facade – the brutal, brilliant disguise – beats the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.” He also goes on to say that psychopathy in the right doses can be positive, enhancing and beneficial to society. It seems to me that with unfettered predatory capitalism goes unfettered predatory sociopathy and psychopathy. Jon Ronson in his book “the psychopath test” makes many of the same claims and cites many studies that suggest psychopathic individuals are much more likely to rise to the top.

There is an assumption about evolutionary theory that success is driven by having just that little bit more, being just that little bit better than those with whom you are competing whatever kind of creature you are. It is illustrated by the peacock’s tail. Unfortunately, there is little evidence for success of this premise. Nearly 99.99% of all species have ever existed on this planet are now extinct. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I certainly wouldn’t be betting on the human race. The human race has devised more ways of destroying itself and all the other creatures on the planet than anything that has gone before. Yet we continue to plough on with our petty, self-destructive behaviours with little insight into the consequences of our desire for a little bit more.
The growth of capitalism and competition amongst human beings is seen to be a good thing but I think that many on the planet now see that this is actually a waste of resources, a waste of talent and a waste of lives driven by the insecurity and greed of a small number of individuals who are fundamentally sick and worse still anti-human.

The idea that more is better is driven not by the majority of the population but by those whose fundamental psychological insecurity means they have to feed an ever more demanding ego in an attempt to reduce the fundamental fear that they feel of being left behind or not having as much as the next person. When this insecurity is driven by an incomplete personality that has no conscience and little empathy it has the potential to be disastrous for all of us.

We need not look just to chief executive officers, politicians and other people who like to play power games. The real antisocial psychopaths exist in every walk of life, wherever they can take advantage and exercise power over others you will find them.

The population as a whole is now beginning to recognise these characters but as yet they are not fully aware of the danger that they represent. True psychopaths are so single-minded that they have no ability to recognise the consequences of their actions, either for themselves or others. Their only goal is to meet their own particular need at that moment and in that place. Whatever their reasoning is they place themselves before others. However, their behaviour is ultimately self-destructive as they are unable to cooperate in a meaningful way with the vast majority of those around them and eventually destruction is the product.

There is another irony in this situation, as psychopathic behaviour is exposed those that fail to adapt fall by the wayside and those highly successful psychopaths change their behaviour, adapt and move on to new territories that will continue to meet their need for attention, security and power.

We need to begin to ask questions in a serious way about what we want the world to look like, ecologically, economically and socially. We need to create a vision that we can begin to move towards that the overwhelming majority can sign up to. that vision will subvert much of the selfish, greedy and destructive behaviour we are seeing currently. Right now we are moving towards a future that is foreshortened, benefits few and ultimately destroys the ecology and stability of our planet.

This is occurring because we allow a small number of very damaged and dangerous individuals to drive divisive, confrontational and destructive policies that continually “others” anyone who does not agree with them. We do not need to look far to see these behaviours in a significant proportion of our current world leaders.

This change will not come from the top but from social change by the masses demanding change, seeking to discover what works in their own communities, networking and working together. Can this happen – I’m not sure. the human rave seems to have a propensity for self destruction driven by fear. It is time we begin to work out how we can overcome our evolutionary past and seek safety rather than try to run away from danger.

Alston, Philip (2018) https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Poverty/EOM_GB_16Nov2018.pdf

Dutton, Kevin (2012) the Wisdom of psychopaths what Saints spies and serial killers can tell us about success. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Harari, Y. (2018) https://medium.com/@the_economist/we-need-a-post-liberal-order-now-1dda83298782

Oliver Twist, https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/twist_more.html

Ronson, Jon, (2011) the psychopath test, picador, London.


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Why are there no aliens?

The search for aliens has gone on now for about 70 or 80 years. During that time there has been no reliable indication that there is life on other planets in other galaxies. Scientists have been trying to calculate the likelihood of alien intelligence using statistical methods. Looking back at an older copy of the new scientist I noticed this quote:
“You have to make some assumptions about what the aliens are doing in all these calculations, unfortunately, and the data set that we have with alien activity is fairly sparse,” says Shostak. Our only example of intelligent life is on Earth, and there’s little reason to expect that ET resembles us. But, says Loeb, extra-terrestrial signals should be no harder to find than other astronomical events.” (New Scientist 2017)

Now, I’m not one for getting involved in conspiracy theories, let alone theories about alien life and visitations to earth by extra-terrestrials, but I am interested in what intelligent life on this planet is doing. Right now, homo sapiens who appear to be the dominant species currently, if only by its ability to destroy everything else through its need to have “a little bit more” is being pretty stupid.

For example, today the world wildlife fund produced a report that suggests we are destroying our own planet stating,

“The top threats to species identified in the report are directly linked to human activities, including habitat loss and degradation and overexploitation of wildlife. This report sounds a warning shot across our bow. Natural systems essential to our survival – forests, oceans, and rivers – remain in decline. Wildlife around the world continue to dwindle,” said Carter Roberts, President and CEO of WWF-US. “It reminds us we need to change course. It’s time to balance our consumption with the needs of nature, and to protect the only planet that is our home.”

This statement got me to thinking about how human beings seem to operate. We see ourselves as the big brained smart mammals on the planet. We have a unique ability which seems to be that of imagination. We can use imagination in a helpful way or an unhelpful way.

Right now, the majority of world leaders and their supporters seem to be using their imaginations in a rather unhelpful way. As I have observed in previous blogs, building walls and barriers, “othering” other nations, other colours, other creeds and other ideologies. Our leaders continue with short-term profit seeking activities to maintain what is well known to be a broken global economy.

For example,
“Is citizen anger and impatience changing the political environment to such an extent that the wheels are now falling off the global economy due to a broken trade system? As world leaders disagree and collide in a more contentious and fractious environment in the backdrop of trade wars and regional conflict, are we heading towards an inevitable global recession?” (European financial review)

I think that the idea that it is only going to be a global recession is to be wearing rose coloured glasses of the most opaque kind. There are so many commentators now who would say that the next decade is absolutely crucial to the survival of not only many species on the planet but possibly that of the human race as well.

What has this got to do with aliens? Well, my thinking goes something like this: if intelligence develops, as it has done on our planet, but fails to curb its most basic selfish impulses for survival of self and kin, then its own intra species fighting will ultimately kill it off. It seems to me that organisms that evolved from the mud and slime of the planet and have innate qualities that drive personal and kin survival (the fundamental driving force of evolution – the only successful organism is the one that breeds successful offspring) these basic drives will inevitably produce conflict as the fight for resources intensifies.

A truly intelligent species would recognise this paradox and instead of competition and the biological arms race which includes the creation of weapons of destruction, both local and mass, would learn to cooperate with each other in order to survive. Perhaps a truly sentience species would learn to begin to think about what it wants and move towards a more safe and secure world through cooperation. That species might be able to use its imagination to develop the world in which “othering” is a bizarre concept that only exists in its past as an aberration in the development and growth of that species.

However, judging by our statistical group of one, the human race, the likelihood of the ability of a species to turn from competition to cooperation in a sufficiently short time to be able to survive the worst excesses of resource wars and the need for “a little bit more” to be safe and secure at the expense of others around them seems vanishingly small.

So I wonder, if there is no contact from aliens or indeed signals crossing between galaxies that would indicate intelligent life, that sentient species promptly go and destroy themselves through some kind of bizarre consumption of planetary resources and intra species competition that effectively destroys the species’ ability to survive.

Perhaps intelligence along with sentience is sufficient of a paradox to prevent its growth and survival either on this planet or any other.

I leave you with a small thought from a cartoon that George Mombiot put on twitter a few weeks ago, “yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”


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“Traumaticus” a Working Conversations Company

Since August 2018, when a significant change of circumstances occurred, I have had many requests for therapists to work with people who have suffered trauma throughout the United Kingdom. At that time I had no intention of setting up a national trauma network.
Since then the pressure to do something that would provide a reputable and reliable service based upon accredited therapists and practitioners has become overwhelming. In response to this we have now constructed a new arm to our business called Traumaticus. Traumaticus means, “the nature of trauma”.
We chose this name for a number of reasons but first and foremost because we see traumatic responses as normal and natural behaviours that are a product of an unnatural or horrific situation that is outside of the experience of most people.
The key to dealing with trauma is not to treat it as pathologically abnormal, nor is it to minimise the person’s experience but we believe that recognising that the person’s response and behaviour to trauma is both understandable and normal and a way of coping with a horrific situation whatever it is.
We also consider that the most important aspects of any help and support that might be given is helping the person to understand their own qualities, abilities and resilience in managing to survive.
Trauma does not occur in a vacuum. Trauma occurs in an environment that is toxic in some way. Whether it be a car accident, battlefield experience, personal injury or abuse (physical, sexual or emotional). A person who has suffered trauma of some kind does not need to be told that they have now developed some kind of pathological response to normal life. They may well have developed a different response to the one that they had prior to the trauma but that response is their way of coping and surviving. For many their response to trauma does not become unhelpful until such times as they are in a new environment. It is then that their behaviour becomes “out of step”.
At Traumaticus, we use minimal interventions to gain maximum beneficial change. As far as possible, we try to avoid using technical language as a person who is struggling with distress is often also struggling with comprehension as a result of what has occurred to them. As many trauma specialists note, memory is often apparently compromised. Asking a person who is still in the grip of the aftermath of a trauma, (whether it is single or prolonged), to learn a new language and to comprehend a whole set of new ideas about themselves is just plain unreasonable. Therefore, we work with what the person is already capable of, can comprehend, and help them to build upon that and explore what might be possible for them in the future.

contact: adminone@psychological-therapies-unit.co.uk

or me Steve Flatt on steve@psychological-therapies-unit.co.uk

for further information.

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Palestine, Israel, power and problems

Earlier today I was out on my pushbike getting some exercise. I was cycling down a relatively small but straight country road and there was a van parked on the left-hand side with its hazard flashers going. I approached the van with some caution and began to overtake it. As I began to move past it, it set off! As I got level with the driver’s window he realised I was there and paused allowing me to move in front of him. I was both annoyed and pleased with him. Annoyed because he set off without looking and pleased because he stopped when he realised that had he continued he would have probably knocked me off my bike.
I often go out on my bike in order to muse about difficulties that I am having with various topics or activities in my life. Just before I began to overtake the van I have been considering a number of conversations I’ve had with a close friend about the Middle East and Israel/Palestine in particular. Now I do not profess to be an expert in anything but least of all in this particular tangle of religion, politics, power and resources. It is a thorny problem that has defied a solution by the best minds (and some of the worst) on the planet.
After I settled down from my near miss with the van I turned onto a much larger road and I continued my musings about this apparently intractable situation. While I was continuing my thinking the van that I had overtaken earlier drove past me at speed. The road where he overtook me (and it was a male) was much wider and I was very much tucked in to the left-hand curb as I cycled along. However, the van driver seemed to think that it would be appropriate to drive as close to me as he possibly could, indeed so close that I actually brushed along the side of the van with my elbow as he went past. He then speeded up still further and drove off moving significantly to the right and closer to the crown of the road as he did so.
This action, which struck me as an apparently crude attempt to create some kind of emotion within myself, led me to begin to think about my earlier thoughts which were about Mark Serwotka’s comments in the last few days regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Even as I write the word conflict I am thinking that there are those who will protest at the use of the word. So perhaps I should return to the use of the word problem, though that seems a rather trite description of the events that occur on a daily basis in around Israel, the Gaza Strip and other areas where Palestinians and Israeli’s are resident upon the land.
Mark Serwotka, in a recording published by the Independent, PCS general secretary suggested the country (Israel) had created the story to hide what he called its own “atrocities”. The reason I made the link between this and my brush with the van and its driver was that while I appeared to be the injured party with regard to the initial situation where the van pulled out in the second situation the van driver’s behaviour was clearly intended to be intimidatory and the driver sailed sufficiently close to the wind to unnerve me but without actually doing anything that I could reasonably claim to be a deliberate act.
The friend with whom I had been having the discussions about the Israel/Palestine problem and asked me if I understood what Serwotka’s motivation could have been at this particular moment in time. As someone who works with people as a psychotherapist I made the profound error of making assumptions about motivations of which I could know nothing. Afterwards, I began to consider my own behaviour in that respect and began to realise that while it seemed to me that there were a number of possible reasons why Serwotka behaved in the way that he did and I have little doubt that from his point of view they were good reasons. I felt in much the same position as I had with the van driver who also had his own good reasons for behaving the way he did. However, neither set of behaviours appear to have added anything of benefit in either situation. Nor did I have any knowledge of the motivations for the behaviour.
The rest of the bike ride was taken up with considering the Palestine/Israel problem from a different perspective. One of the things that I have learned about the situation is that what isn’t made clear in much of the rhetoric and discussion has taken place over the past months is the relative positions of the protagonists in this extremely angry and polarised argument about anti-Semitism.
Whichever position this situation is considered from all the people involved no doubt have good reasons for behaving the way they do. Whether those good reasons are based upon facts, lies or beliefs doesn’t change the fact that those individuals, communities and nations hold onto those facts, lies or beliefs.
I do not propose to carry out an in-depth analysis of the Israel Palestine problem for I neither know enough to be able to make sense of it nor do I have the experience and analytic capacity to be able to make any kind of objective assessment. Therefore, I’m going to focus on two aspects of this situation that seem wholly incompatible to me.
The first is the right of Israel to exist as provided for by the arrangements made in 1948. Again, I do not propose to argue the ins and outs of how that came about and who was displaced as a result of that event. I’m sure there is plenty of historical fact and fiction that could create plenty of heat rather than light around who did what to whom. I am more interested in the reality that is today in which an Israeli state clearly exists and is recognised by majority of countries across the world. That Israel exists is vitally important to Jews throughout the world; it is a recognition that they are not stateless and that they do have a homeland to where they can go and be recognised as part of a Jewish nation. It also represents, ironically, a place of safety as well as identity.
The second is the demand of Palestinians to have a right of return and by this I understand that this is a right of return to the lands that they occupied prior to the existence of Israel in 1948. My understanding of the situation is simple, perhaps too simple but I understand from reading a considerable amount of material that there are many factions within the Palestinian groupings that believe implacably that Israel should not exist. And therefore, the right of return would also mean the end of Israel as a state.
My limited understanding of the Israeli position is that there can be no right of return for exactly the same reason – that it would be the end of Israel as a state. The reasoning from the Israeli point of view is quite different to that of the Palestinians. The Israeli viewpoint is quite simply one of numbers: if Palestinians were allowed to return to occupy the lands that is now Israel and had an equal right to vote and to elect the members of a government who would then govern the land, whatever it was called, they would very simply outvote and outnumber any Jews who were also occupying land in the territory and this would ultimately be the end of what might be regarded as a Jewish homeland.
My discussions and my explorations, albeit very limited, of this particular problem suggest that there can be no solution while both of these opposing positions are maintained. Therefore, I began to consider alternative approaches as I do in my work with individuals, organisations and communities.
When a problem is intractable it seems to me there is little point in continuing to consider it in the same light and in the same way time after time. As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. It seems to me that both sides use the same kind of thinking and consequently come up with the same solutions. Those solutions being unacceptable to the other side on every occasion. The solutions also often lead to violence and destruction.
The question I want to ask and which we hear so little about is what are the aspects of this situation that both sides can agree upon? What are those things that do enable cooperation? What are those things that both sides are able to work on together and build trust? What are those small steps that both sides have taken to attempt to come together in some way and work on smaller problems that can be solved and perhaps in and of themselves be steps towards a different solution.
I am aware of many initiatives that have taken place between Jews and other members of the Israeli state and people who would consider themselves Palestinians and members of that particular ethnic group that have made progress, only to be destroyed by the demands of others with regard to the bigger and intractable differences.
This change of approach also has to take place in organisations like the British Labour Party which has become increasingly polarised by stances taken defending one side or the other. It is also likely that this position taking is not a straightforward desire to see justice for one side or the other but as an opportunity to muddy the waters still further using economic and purely political ideologies in either a positive or negative way. For example, citing the economic superiority and ability to use force of an Israeli state in relation to the Palestinians while conversely the Israelis citing their geopolitical weakness with regard to numbers and how any change of political status would radically alter their ability to exist as a nation. These tools become useful in the inevitable internal wranglings of such an organisation and can be used to manipulate leaders in unhelpful and inadvisable ways.
I can see the fear and anger and more importantly, the insecurity on both sides in the Middle East. I can see that fear, anger and insecurity in the differing factions within the Labour Party. Furthermore, I can see how the relative strength of the different factions will be undermined by even the smallest movement or concession toward the other. This intractable position then inevitably produces behaviours that reinforces existing behaviours by both sides. This in itself creates greater chasms and more divisions that leads to further misunderstanding, entrenchment and distrust.
No lasting solution can be built upon the quicksand of mistrust and disbelief in those with whom we attempt to communicate and work with. It is my belief that Mark Serwotka chose to act in the way that he did, not because he wanted to do anything useful, but because he wished to apportion blame (which is a largely pointless exercise in the situation) to Israel and furthermore he did not consider in any way the consequences of his actions and what they might mean to others involved both in the British Labour Party and in the Middle East. He is like my van driver who perhaps felt irritated by my inconveniencing of him enough to attempt to give me a scare so that perhaps in future I won’t be such a nuisance to van drivers who are clearly more important than I am as a cyclist.
One of the things that has come from my thinking about this is that this situation is driven by fear and fear of loss; loss of life; loss of land and loss of status. Perhaps it is time that the protagonists both in the Labour Party and in the conflict in the middle east for which it has become a metaphor, consider what they might do to begin to build something together that is worthwhile, rather than attempting to tear down that which they fear.
If that were to be the case, then perhaps protagonists might look more widely at some of the solutions that, while apparently much more distal with regard to the present day, are inevitably proximal with regard to our children and our children’s children. For if we are to survive as human beings then we need to consider the possibility that the squabbles we see today, not only in the Middle East and the British Labour Party but worldwide, could potentially bring about the end of our species either brutally in a final nuclear solution or slowly by the destructive overuse and waste of resources that could destroy our habitat and that of all the other species on this planet.

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The metaphor of the horse and rider.

Antonio Damasio in his book “Descartes’ Error” describes very clearly and lucidly the unfortunate case of Phineas Gage, who suffered a very serious brain injury when a 3 ½ foot long, 1/2 inch diameter steel bar was explosively pushed through his left cheekbone piercing the base of the skull and exiting through the top of his head. The crucial thing about Gage’s story for the therapist is not the physical injury, but the profound change in personality and behaviour that took place following the insult to his brain. Gage changed from a highly competent railway engineer, making complex and highly responsible decisions on a daily basis to a boorish ill tempered, ill-mannered man who made consistently bad decisions for the rest of his life. Damasio makes careful and considered analysis of the medical notes provided by Harlow, the physician who tended to him, and our subsequent knowledge of Gage’s life story and makes the observation that Gage had become, “a child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strongman… The strongest admonitions from Harlow himself failed to return our survivor to good behaviour”.

There can be little clearer description of the disconnection between a well formed intellect and a powerful emotional basis. Gage’s most unfortunate accident and miserable subsequent life gives us a clue to the power and importance of the bond between the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system and primitive brain, a bond that I describe in terms of a horse and a rider. It is this bond that seems to me be helpful for understanding how and why human beings behave the way they do.
Jonathan Haidt provided me with the idea of the rider and horse from his book, “the righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion”. He states quite explicitly that he “chose an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger – and smarter – than horses.” In my opinion this part of the human brain has not developed to be smarter, but merely to be more successful in survival. It is the development of the rider (prefrontal cortex, PFC) that created smartness, though as we see the world over, having a prefrontal cortex does not necessarily make us wise!

Now while I can understand his reasoning about the elephant being bigger and smarter, it is more difficult for people to associate themselves with an elephant and understand what it might be like to ride one. Nor is the elephant renowned for its skittishness and ability to be spooked by the smallest things. I prefer the horse as it is a very threatminded creature that spooks easily, lives in the here and now and reacts quickly when threatened with anger or fear and these reactions are also characteristic of human beings in danger or under stress.

He goes on to say,
“automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles. When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and experienced charioteer. Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present. It can, learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters. And, most important, the rider acts as a spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking…. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.”

Haidt also makes another very important point when he said that he stopped thinking about emotion versus cognition and started thinking about intuition versus reasoning. To me, his allusion to intuition is a reference to what most people might call “gut feeling”. An automatic emotional response driven by millions of years of successful evolution that enables the creature experiencing it to have a better chance of survival.
The horse and the rider metaphor is important as it recognises those times when people are struggling with anxiety and depression. Let me explain, the people I work with often complain of not feeling like themselves anymore. Questions like, “why am I like this?” or statements like, “I don’t feel in control of myself any more” are frequent, confusion about not being “me” anymore is often expressed.

I provide the horse and rider analogy in these sort of terms:

Do you remember a time before all this began when you were well? What were you like? Sometimes the person is able to describe themselves, at times when they were feeling competent and together, feeling comfortable inside their own skin, knowing who they are and being able to behave in ways that makes sense to them. Sometimes I have to encourage them to describe how they were with prompts and detailed questions about what their life was like before they started to struggle with their misery. Then I describe the horse as emotional, physically powerful, threatminded, spooking at the smallest things, scared or angry, wanting to hide away from “danger” and generally avoidant. Many people recognise themselves but say that it is not them and that they don’t understand why they are now like this.

I then describe the rider as the rational, logical and pragmatic person who is sat on the back of the horse. When the person is well and enjoying life the horse and rider work well together, the join between them is seamless and both are happy and comfortable with their role in the person’s life. Indeed, together as horse and rider they could win the Grand National (or perhaps that should be the “Grand Notional!”).

However, when the person becomes stressed, depressed, traumatised, bullied, suffers loss or some other setback in life the control tends to move from a balanced point between the horse and rider to a point where the horse is slightly more dominant and thus the characteristics of the horse begin to take over and the person becomes more avoidant in many aspects of their life. They may feel reluctant and anxious about going to work, seeing friends, spending time with intimates, the horse is driving a loss of confidence in the person’s abilities simply through its desire to avoid situations that may involve risk (no matter how small) of any kind. The rider begins to feel a sense of loss of control as this reluctance to engage is experienced. The immediate consequence of this is a sense of feeling out of control and the rider tries to grip the horse more tightly, which as every horse rider knows, makes the horse go faster, creating a vicious circle.

It is difficult to know which comes first, the horse taking more control to avoid the fear or the rider feeling out of control and losing confidence. Either way the result is that the horse transmits its fear to the rider and the rider transmits their loss of confidence in themselves to the horse creating a feedback loop in which the rider is clinging to the horse tighter and tighter making the horse go faster and faster (panic attacks).
Like most ways of helping ourselves to manage our psychological processes, the answer is simple but not easy. Relaxing on the back of a runaway horse would not be easy, trying to let go and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by your anxiety is not easy either but very necessary for a change of behaviour.

Fortunately, there are another ways of taking control back from the horse that is by the use of reason and also by taking control breathing. The rider is a very new phenomenon in terms of evolution. The rider only appeared a few hundred thousand years ago but in that short period of time since it has transformed its environment, from one of almost constant physical threat to a rather benign environment in which the vast majority of threats are intellectual and not physical. Unfortunately, the horse continues to respond to any threat and can only respond in one way which is a profoundly physical response arousal and preparation to run or fight. (For a comprehensive view this see my online lecture at https://stream.liv.ac.uk/a9r9u78k ) of the purpose of those “symptoms”.

It is very simple, but not easy, to change what we think to something that we desire, what is wanted, away from paying attention to that which is not wanted. We are threat-minded creatures we evolved to notice threat, for if we failed to notice threat it was more than possible, in prehistoric times, that we would die or be seriously injured, which amounted to the same thing. In today’s world threats are largely intellectual, they are unlikely to kill us. For example, losing a job or a relationship may be devastating emotionally and intellectually but it is not life-threatening. Yet even the idea of these things occurring produces significant levels of anxiety and stress and this is because the horse is reacting to what has been imagined, something that may or may not occur in the future. However, the horse, our primitive self, cannot take the chance that this is not real and thus responds in the only way it knows how through physical arousal in preparation for running of fighting.

It is our imagination that causes so much damage and produces so many stress responses. Therefore the logical and rational way to change this is to change the way we think and in order to do that we have to overcome millions of years of evolution that has produced a very sophisticated survival machine upon which we self-aware creatures are now precariously sat. It is really important to begin to think about what is wanted and move towards the safety of a preferred future rather than try to run away from a perceived danger. To illustrate this, I use the story of Little red Riding:

The story of Little Red Riding Hood is a great metaphor for how life works. The story goes something like this:
Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH) goes into her grandmother’s cottage to see Grandma as she is not well.. LRRH goes upstairs to Grandma’s bedroom to talk to Grandma and goes to give her a kiss. LRRH realises that it is a wolf in the bed and not Grandma! she screams and runs out of the cottage through the forest to get away from the wolf.

Now there are a number of crucial observations to make about this little story that relate to Solution Focused thinking.

1) Is LRRH running away from the wolf or running toward safety. In SF we look for what is wanted (or the place of safety), we try not to run away from what is not wanted but move toward what is wanted?

2) Which way is LRRH looking as she runs through the forest? Many would say that she is looking back to see where the wolf is but this doesn’t help! Why? well, when we look back we slow down and worse still we are more likely to run into something unseen (like a tree trunk) that is in front of us. So, SF encourages to look where we are going and think about what we are heading for.

3) what is LRRH thinking about as she runs through the forest – thinking about the wolf and its teeth doesn’t take her anywhere – except to terrify her. So, thinking about what is wanted takes her in the direction she wants to go is less anxiety making and a step in the direction she wants to go.

Next time you are anxious or struggling think about LRRH and consider which way would be helpful to you to look and what would be helpful to think about to take you where you want to go.

There is a second option however, there is one system in the body which the intellect and the primitive self both control, and that is the system of breathing. It is the only system in the body that is controlled by both the horse and the rider. When the horse becomes aroused it increases the rate of breathing in order to get more oxygen around the body and we begin to pant. Breathing becomes fast and shallow. However, it is well known that if we can slow breathing down in these situations by taking a long slow deep breath in and exhaling slowly our arousal tends to reduce.

There are many exercises that include breathing as a fundamental part of helping to relax. In any stressful situation, unless you’re about to be mugged by a hyena run over by a bus, taking a deep breath slowing everything down, pausing if you can and describing to yourself what is actually happening, helps to reduce anxiety.

This is helpful, but only helps to reduce the anxiety in the moment, the key going forward is to learn to breathe in a more controlled manner and to begin to think about what is wanted and creating in your imagination picture of the future that is preferred. What is even better is to create that future in detail and rehearse that picture as often as you can.

Which would you prefer, a world full of past fears or a future full of hope?

Haidt, Jonathan. (2013) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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Building bridges

The mechanics of building bridges
My colleague and friend, Suzi Curtis has talked in the past about pontificating, about metaphors, metaphors as bridges, the use of metaphors in Solution Focused Practice as tools. In this short piece I want to think about tools too, but in a rather more mechanical way.
I was once a mechanical engineer, using tools to build things was what I did. Working with my hands to create something from raw materials.
When I changed career, I built a bridge between what I did then and what I do now, that bridge turned out to be psychology and my subsequent fascination with the embodied mind. It is a short but obvious story…
We are flesh and blood, but we are also mind. For most of their existence there has been some sort of a Gulf between psychiatry, psychology and sociology; this Gulf has taken many forms.
Whether it is about biological, social or individual behaviour; or, my specialism psychology which, it would seem, has only recently begun to take our bodies seriously as an essential part of the being that is human.
That gulf between professions has been created by language – technical language.
Each profession has developed its own technical language creating ghettos, silos and specialists. Ghettos that only the initiated belong to; clubs which develop special signals and signs that isolates them from the general population and makes them special in their own eyes and ears.
Gillian Tett, in her book ‘The Silo Effect’, says “People often live in separate mental and social “ghettos,” talking and coexisting only with people like us. In many countries, politics is polarized. Professions seem increasingly specialized, partly because technology [or language] keeps becoming more complex and sophisticated and is only understood by a tiny pool of experts.”
She also goes on to say that being in a Silo “can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and social groups too. Silos breed tribalism. But they can also go hand in hand with tunnel vision.”
The keywords in the above quotes are “talking” and “experts”. I guess you already know where I am going with these thoughts!
I’m going to consider expert first. I worked in the motor racing industry for 16 years before I trained as a psychologist and nurse. One of the first things I learned from one of my tutors during my apprenticeship was the engineering definition of an expert:
I remember him coming in to lecture to us all one day, by the way his name was Mr Tugwell, I guess you can imagine the kind of comments that a bunch of 18 year-olds made about that! He said right at the beginning of the lecture, “Boys (remember that this is 1969), one of the most important things you should remember for the rest of your professional careers is the definition of an expert. It goes like this, “X is the unknown quantity and a spurt is a drip under pressure!” It is one of the few aphorisms I have never forgotten.
Solution focus practice recognises that there is only one expert and that is the person themselves upon themselves. We recognise that we are not the experts in the lives of others; we are not able to divine or anticipate the thoughts of others, nor do we attempt to do so. This not knowing position has often caused those who practice solution focus in its many different forms to be ignored or dismissed by other professionals – except by those who choose to listen with a constructive ear.
The second thing I want to consider is language. Solution focus practice is entirely dependent upon two things, our ability to listen and our ability to then use the language (whatever that language is, and it may be the language of behaviour or actual construction) we hear to effectively to help others to develop their own preferred futures.
Solution focus practice has some great questions that are formed from commonly used language, but it does not have a technical language of its own. Solution focus practice uses the language of the people that the practitioner is working with. In that sense it is a bridge in its own right.
Language is the bridge between people, it is the bridge over which understanding moves, crossing the gulf between individuals, between organisations and from the past into the future.
I never cease to be amazed by the level of connection that people can make using such an imperfect and ambiguous tool.
When I discovered solution focus practice I discovered a whole new way of communicating that enabled me to drop so much of the technical language that I had been taught. It was a revelation.
Language is ever evolving, greater understanding comes with exchange, with using language that is common to all working together, listening carefully and exploring the words and actions of others with gentle probing enquiry.
Communication and language in particular, is the universal tool of the solution focused practitioner.
It is not the hammer of technical language beating the words of another into shape, denying and changing the form that the other person wishes them to have.
The language of the solution focused practitioner is more like the archaeologist’s trowel and brush, carefully removing the dust from around the jewels of our clients’ thoughts, helping to expose those thoughts, ideas and potential actions so that they can see and understand themselves better; even though we might never understand what it is they see.
Language is our bridge – it helps us to cross the chasm between one another. We must continually test and examine that bridge and how we use it to make sure that the way we use it is rigorous, consistent and of the very highest standard.
In the future we are going to hear from many more people who have spent considerable time examining themselves, their practice and the consequences of their activities. For those of us who want to learn those voices will come from a myriad of different places, professions, cultures and orientations. The key will be to listen and learn to the people we work with rather than direct their thoughts and impose limitations upon their behaviour. The key to future success lies not with “treatment” but with acceptance and thoughtful, trusting support and collaboration.
Tett, Gillian. The Silo Effect: Why putting everything in its place isn’t such a bright idea (Kindle Locations 291-294). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

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