Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Directing Energy (with Charles)

I have mentioned my cousin Charles before, in discussing the 'Normalising of Suffering'. He is a Psychologist (and an awesome guy) who focuses on helping people cope with Chronic Pain. We had a chat...

Charles on the left. His daughter's picture of me on the right.

Trev:
One thing Psychologists are trained to do which lay people aren't good at is to listen without judgement. It doesn't come naturally. I recently saw a David Bowie clip where he was giving MTV grief for being racist. The interviewer explained their point of view (basically saying they were giving people what they wanted) and Bowie responded, 'I understand what you are saying'. The interviewer pushed with, 'Do you see our logic?'. Bowie reiterated, 'I understand what you are saying'. Both the listener and the speaker tend to search body language for agreement, and it is a rare skill to be able to listen in a way that allows someone to carry on explaining their view without endorsing what they are saying. Without offering advice. Without trying to fix things yourself. It seems when it comes to Mental Health, the fixing has to be personal. Advice isn't that helpful.


Charles:
All true at one level. Before we find another thing wrong with us however, I suspect judging, like comparing and predicting, is a strong feature of a self-aware human mind with evolutionary benefits. The skill here might be how we learn to respond - with the difficult task of listening - to someone when judgement (and often discomfort) is turning up. I'm giving myself a lifetime to master this skill. I do think our mental health/lives are a personal journey of discovery. I suspect advice might prove unhelpful, because often our thoughts about our suffering are a reflection of an unchangeable past, which we are ruminating on and predicting will be our future. The real question to me however, is whether we need to be "fixed". Many smarter people than myself, would suggest that when we start a journey of trying to "fix" ourselves/others, life might start to narrow, our suffering increase, and simply more problems will emerge that will need to be "fixed".

Trev:
I completely misunderstood evolution until reading Daniel Dennett's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea'. I had heard it compared to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who runs faster in order to stay in the same place, but the penny hadn't dropped. I understood evolution to be the upward trajectory of the past to the future. A prediction of progress. A prediction that things will be fixed. It is interesting that that is not at all how evolution works. The 'survival of the fittest' suggests we know in advance who is the fittest. It is more random that that. Evolution works by doing largely the same thing again and again. The minor, small copying mistakes rather than predicting strength add robustness. If surprises happen, small differences help survival. Perhaps that is similar to advice and fixing? Mental Health comes more from understanding what is. Some acceptance. Some appreciation. Perhaps that is why meditation is seen as one of the partners to psychology and psychiatry in helping.



Charles:
I think there is enormous power for a therapist/ a person normalising (as opposed to fixing) another's suffering. It validates the inevitable fluctuations of our inner world and our life. It also validates something that has already taken place and perhaps opens some space for moving in a chosen direction. One point here becomes whether an individual gives energy to their "problem/symptom" or to their "life". I don't think there is a right and wrong answer here (although we seem to bias energy to problems). Ideally, where energy goes should emerge from an individual's actual experience (e.g. there should be a reward for your actions). I do like the concept of variations. I think it is very useful to notice our patterned behaviour and try make, even arbitrary, changes at times. This likely encourages more mindful living, as well as likely opening new pathways of living.

Trev:
Normalising suffering is incredibly powerful. Knowing other people are also going through similar issues, and you aren't being punished in any way allows us to escape the idea that we are doomed. That random problems are actually a pattern that is going to carry on. Otherwise we can descend into self pity. Problems do seem to get a disproportionate amount of our energy, ironically because we want to get rid of them. A little like terrorists attract more attention than they deserve, and potato salad is more dangerous than sharks (more people die of food poisoning). A little perspective does seem to help. Even an arbitrary shake up. I know that when I have been in a rut, sometimes moving cities has done wonders. But even there it seems like I am offering a fix. I like the idea of art as a channel to normalising our internal struggles. Art as a form of listening.

Automat 1927 - Edward Hopper

Charles:
Agreed Trev, I think art provides a channel to all internal experiences. It's a pity this is often missed completely at a political level. I am truly grateful (particularly to my mother) for being (at times begrudgingly) exposed as a youngster to various art forms. It seems to have vicariously impacted on me. Considering art in this way, also makes me reflect on nature's capacity to also offer self-insight. Taking this on a slight tangent, I previously talked about learning from experience. When considering a "channel", I think one of the joys of being the current generation/s is to learn from those who have come before us. We can view art, read books, etc., and learn, or appreciate something in a few hours, which may have taken someone a lifetime of studying/experience to understand. Each generation can building upon this expanding 'collective wisdom'.

Trev:
Absolutely. I find it interesting that we complain about people being selective in their Social Media profiles and crafting very positive views of their life. Photos of travels and smiles. At the same time, when people share the difficult stuff, it is hard to process. We feel they shouldn't be telling all and sundry. Art (including books) seems to provide an alternative. A way to share without fear of narcissism. It would be great if people could trust Artists enough to confide in them in the same way we do to psychologists/ lawyers/ doctors/ religious leaders. If the Artists are able to then strip out the personal identity which leaves people feeling vulnerable, we would go a long way to normalising suffering. The difficulties surrounding child birth, parenting, divorces, illness, moving home, renovations, family conflicts etc. that are the definition of normal life. In that way people would feel less isolated. Perhaps the books are there already? I am not sure how many of our real struggles are that different from generations past.

Charles:
I would agree that our day-to-day struggles do seem the same as they were for our recent ancestors.  Collective Wisdom (which requires sharing struggles) would be useful in this space. I do think however modern humans are exposed to suffering at a level never seen before. Within a 10 minute time frame I can face my own suffering and then surf a wave of suffering from Iraq, to Sierra Leone, to the upcoming Iowa primaries. When we can't face our own suffering, how can we manage the world's suffering? I imagine avoidance in various forms is our go to strategy. With this in mind, we cannot rely on psychologists, psychiatrists, religious leaders, etc. to help us.  The reality is most will never access this support. It seems the wider audience (yes through art, education systems, communities) these ideas and coping strategies (not necessarily 'fixes') spread, the great chance of wiser collective choices about the world we want.

Trev:
That is why I think lay people can learn a lot from the listening skills of these professions. We need to be able to draw on the support of friends and family when professional listeners are scarce. There are also wonderful books which can provide solace. Matt Haig is writing some incredible pieces in championing Mental Health. 'The Humans' is a funny, warm, and very readable look at the messy but beautiful lives we lead. 'Reasons to Stay Alive' is the story of his own personal struggle with depression. The Book of Life lists a number of artists, writers and philosophers who have made contributions which can help us normalise the challenges of life, and celebrate the good bits. As you say, accepting rather than fixing pain so you can direct your energy to things that matter. Not letting the pain define us.


Charles:
And so we circle back to the beginning. My practical tip to listening better would be to slow down and attempt to listen 1% better. When you ask how we can do anything 1% better, I think we often have an answer and can immediately alter behaviour, without the overwhelming feeling of trying to make wholesale changes. Try the same with accepting something or giving energy to life rather than to a symptom. Trev, I will follow-up your suggested reading. From my 2015 reading, I would suggest Anthony Biglan's "The Nurture Effect" and George Vaillant's "Triumphs of Experience" as excellent insights into living a good life (including coping with suffering). Finally, in light of my "collective wisdom" response, perhaps Trev you could provide me and your followers and updated suggested resources list, based on your own learnings.



Follow Charles Ruddock on Twitter (@CharlesRuddock)

Related Posts
The Art of Pain - Normalising Suffering - Escape Hatch Problem

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