Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 3: Three Ways out Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind, as well as Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.]


That’s the million dollar question isn’t it.

The Suffering Mind wants none of this crap, this very human-suffering-crap – for no other creature on this planet suffers in the way that we do. None of them possessing the language with which to suffer: words, concepts, abstract symbols that can make thoughts and feelings and text-messages as mind-breakingly real at times as sticks and stones.

My dog Max experiences the pain of existence in exactly the same way that I do: the pain of physical and emotional injury, the pain of social abandonment and exclusion, of not getting what he wants. Max experiences “reality slaps” like this on a daily, even hourly basis (as do I). But he doesn’t suffer them in the way that you and I do. Not one bit.

Max will never write a blogpost or create a piece of technology called a laptop on which to write it. Nor will he, or any other member of his species invent something like the internet to disseminate these words to other sentient, language-producing creatures.

Us homo sapiens have immeasurably benefitted from language, but consider for a moment the price we’ve had to pay in allowing language to be the primary currency of all our mental processes. Because that’s how, for the most part, we communicate both inside ourselves as well as externally with other human beings. Think of the ways in which language produces joy and pleasure but also immeasurable suffering for each and every one of us on a daily basis, and for our human species as a whole.


If everything your language-focused mind has been trying to do so far hasn’t really helped, or helped in only a small way, maybe it’s time to look at some other options?

If you’re frequently locked in the struggle I’ve described above with your pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, problem-solving mind, maybe you need a more RADICAL solution: one that still uses language (our primary currency, we can’t avoid it), but is also opens us up to other channels of processing?

What we perhaps need is a solution that targets those three crappy layers, but not necessarily in the default Jim’ll Fix It ways of this thinking/languaging lump of human meat we call “the brain”.

If the Blinkered Mind is programmed to say GO AWAY to pain, as well as becoming at times overwhelmingly FUSED with it, then one thing we can maybe start to do is introduce some Receptive Mind strategies into the mix.

In this layer, we might need some DEFUSION processes to help us when we’re “stuck” in a particularly strong reaction (mental or physical) to a painful event.

We might also start practicing MAKING SPACE FOR for difficult thoughts and feelings.

MAKING SPACE FOR practices are an alternative to allowing the mind to do what it does best and by default: pushing painful stuff away, or wrestling interminably with it in the hope that it can be solved like a maths problem. This might help us to free ourselves up to focus on more meaningful actions and activities instead.

Part of this might also involve cultivating the second layer of RADness: Aware Mind.

One aspect of Aware Mind is the development of a more FLEXI-SELF approach to life’s challenges: practising ways of seeing things from different, and hopefully more helpful angles. Also: not getting into arguments or disagreeing with what our minds tell us about the world and ourselves.

To help us do this, we might need to “drop anchor” again and again in order to bring our minds back in MINDFUL CONTACT with what’s actually going on right here and now, as opposed to the what’s happening inside our language-filled heads.

Also, let’s clarify your core values and  begin some devoted, committed action: a few small steps, towards some meaningful goals in your life.

Each of the drawings in this post took me varying amounts of time to create, from a few minutes to a number of hours, and many weeks of writing and fiddling around with words and images to put it all together. The process was at times frustrating and disheartening when things didn’t go according to plan, but in the end I got this crappy little article out of it – a crappy little article which is meaningful to me, and hopefully for you too?

I’ve deliberately used a somewhat “spiritual” word here for the third RAD layer: Devoted Mind. Not because the valued actions need to be religious or spiritual per se.

You can be devoted to your family, or to a creative pursuit, or a football team. I’m devoted to my dog Max, and to my therapy practice, also to learning poems I love, like this one, off by heart (preferably on a walk or a hike). But I don’t have any expectation that you could or should become devoted to dogs or poetry or hiking, unless these are aligned with your core values!

We need to work out what you want to be devoted to, as well as how you’re going to show (through your actions) your devotion. It does seem though that choosing something important in our lives  “to set apart by a vow” (the origins of the word “devoted”) is almost essential when it comes to living life the fullest.

You get to choose however what you want this to be and how you can turn that into something meaningful that you can then dedicate time and energy towards.

So are you ready to take back control of your super-helpful, often over-helpful, problem-solving, pain avoiding (crappy) brain and get back to living your life to the fullest?

If you are, let’s talk some more about this RAD crap and see how I can help you to get a bit closer to some of the peace and contentment you seek, that we all seek, as well as a life that is valued and meaningful to you in the long run.


If you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind ]


Let’s dig a little bit more deeply into our very human crap.

Might it be fair to say your mind is labelling all of that crap as BAAAAAD crap at the moment? Good, let’s label it as BAD crap, because maybe that’s what it is, even though it’s also our brains and minds doing their brainy/mindy/languagey/labelling stuff (good me/bad me, good Mum/bad Mum, good day/bad day etc.).

It’s not our brain or mind’s fault. They’re designed to do this, remember? Problem-solve as much as possible through evaluation and comparison in a bid to keep us away from anything they perceive as a threat to us? And it’s not our fault for sometimes buying into the very BAD stuff they sometimes or often come up with. A rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong!

For the sake of simplicity though, let’s say there might be three layers to our suffering, three layers of BAD crap.

The first I’m going to call BLINKERED MIND.

When pain in any shape or form shows up in our lives, our problem-solving brains become very, very busy and focused on this pain as if the the pain itself were a terrible threat to our continued existence.

In order to work on these problems our brains quite often fuse with the painful thoughts, feelings, urges, or body sensations, to the point where the thing we’re struggling with starts taking over our lives.

It can sometimes feel or look like that moment in any good horror film where some poor soul is being jerked about like a puppet by the demon now controlling its mind and body. We too can also become controlled, smothered, overwhelmed by our own problem-solving, pain-solving minds.

Also, because pain in any shape or form is so uh painful, our suffering Blinkered Minds will often try to avoid this pain in a very intuitive way.

“GO AWAY it says to the painful thought or feeling. Also: “I’m getting away from all of this shit!” Maybe we go away with booze or drugs, ice-cream, TV (or in my case ice-cream and TV), Twitter/WhatsApp/Facebook, or working long hours.

Or maybe we physically try and escape our lives: staying in bed, or going on a holiday, or cutting off communication with someone we’re in conflict with. Again: the natural, default GO AWAY function of our brains and minds can sometimes start to run, and ruin, the whole show!

When our minds go Blinkered they often also go into Autopilot Mode.

Their focus, their “route” you might say is set, or stuck in a particular way of doing things.

Autopilot Mind equally gets stuck in the past or the future. Focusing bitterly, or regretfully, on where our lives are flying to and from.

Also: why this might be happening to us, or why this has always happened to us, returning again and again to a particular set of memories and experiences.

Sometimes our minds do this fruitfully, as when they sit down to write a short story or a memoir, but very often they do this with a great deal of suffering, and almost no benefit for our present lives.

We also often become fixated on what’s ahead: doing so so with anxiety, worry and problem-solving busy-ness.

Autopilot Mind has no time to enjoy the journey of life. Life is never a sunset or a shooting star,  always just another maths problem.

Like we might binge on a Netflix series, Autopilot Mind binges on problem-solving in an attempt to make sense of, or find a solution to our suffering. But because it’s on Autopilot, when it gets to the end of the suffering script or “route”, it just goes back to the beginning and starts all over again.

So we get stuck on certain routes or grooves of the mind, outdated coping strategies that whirr around and around like a broken record.

We can also get stuck in a certain way of being, a certain kind of identity. Why don’t you sit back for a moment and ask the Identity-Setting part of your mind to complete the following sentence stem and see what it comes up with.

[SPOILER ALERT: It’s unlikely to suggest anything especially positive. Minds aren’t designed to do that. Positivity doesn’t keep us safe from perceived threats and harm.)

Whatever “me” our suffering minds are identifying with at this moment…(again, complete the sentence stem below for yourself)…

…this “idea” of ourselves, these words, become like a small, claustrophobic single-seater aircraft which we can’t get out of until it lands.

Here’s another one for you to get your mind to work on.

Last one.

The main problem with this process is that our minds are designed to fly in certain patterns continuously, without ever landing.

Unless we help them to do so.

So that’s the second layer of BAD crap: when our minds, in the process of carrying out their primary tasks (analysing our lives as if they were maths equations) end up flying in quite rigid, inflexible patterns.

It’s often a case of 1+1=2 when dealing with our somewhat inflexible minds.

And 2, more often than not, can sometimes just equal more…pooh. More suffering.


Perhaps as a result of the first two layers of crap, but maybe also for other reasons we become DISCONNECTED from all the good stuff in our lives.

In Blinkered and Autopilot Mind we are often out of touch with those things that give our lives meaning, which is to say our core values.

What is it that really drives us? What do we want to actually DO with our one wild and precious life, other than fighting off painful mind-states?

Understandably, when we are disconnected or unclear about this, we can also become disconnected from…LIVING!

Which is to say: we stop doing all the things that are most meaningful to us whilst we fight with our minds. Instead of focusing on valued-living activities, we might also end up doing other stuff: things that we think will “make us happy” or give us some momentary pleasure (tub of Belgian Chocolate Häagen-Dazs and an endless stream of mindless sitcoms for Steve, please!), rather than feeding our souls.

Or maybe we end up doing what other people, or even the marketing forces of our culture tell us will make us happy, but often fail to do so.

So what to do about all of this BAD crap?!

Good question. You can find some answers to that in my final post on The Suffering Mind: Three Ways out of The Suffering Mind.


Otherwise if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap? A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind

Hello, are you feeling a bit crap?

If you are, welcome, you’re in good company.

You might not feel like you’re in good company. In fact, you might feel quite alone at the moment: at odds, and kind of stranded with your suffering mind.

When we’re feeling crap, it’s very normal for our suffering, problem-solving minds to react to those crappy feelings with a lot of self-doubt and worry.

This is the kind of thing my suffering mind starts saying. How about yours?

Our suffering minds will usually start responding to the problem-solving questions they pose to themselves, giving us lots and lots of feedback.

Imagine the above “feedback” delivered in the sneery, sermonising tones of your least favourite person. I call this part of my suffering mind “Dave” after someone I went to University with. Dave really thought he was my friend but he was actually a bit of a know-it-all bully. Do you have your own Dave, or Mildred who’s absolutely certain of what you’re doing wrong with your life?

Here’s another question the suffering mind poses to itself and attempts to answer.

Let’s watch Dave answering the must-be-something-wrong-with-me question (for me). You might like to tune into your own suffering mind at this point and let your own Dave or Mildred supply you with a wrong-with-you list for yourself.

And it probably won’t stop there.

When our suffering minds get stuck into us, what they “say” can feel very real and pertinent.

Our response is often just to suck it all up: “Yes Dave, you’re right! I am all of those shitty, unlovable qualities! And look at my massive, Dumbo-sized ears!!!”

This is because, when our minds start to suffer, we become fused with their words to the point where they can start to feel really overwhelming! A bit like this.

We lose sight of the fact that these are just words being churned up by our own minds in an attempt to “helpfully” explain the reasons for why we might be feeling so crap.

Our suffering minds forget that they’re just a blank page onto which anything (any thought, feeling, sensation, urge) can be “written” no matter how hurtful or ludicrous. Instead we all too easily buy into and sort of become those words floating around in our minds. When that happens, I would call my experience a “suffering” one. How about you?

When we are suffering, not only do we blame ourselves for being human, but also others. We might even start blaming Dave, our very own minds and brains, labelling and sometimes shaming them with analysis, diagnoses and put-downs.

We can also become very frustrated with ourselves for not-feeling-OK.

He’s right though.

A healthy human brain like Dave is perfectly compatible with a suffering mind. In fact the two might go together like [cue this song from Grease!]: a rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong?

Maybe this is because Dave was not –sorry Dave- designed by Apple (or Samsung).

Three hundred years of evolutionary science and a 100 years of neuroscience have pretty much confirmed that our healthy, but oftentimes suffering human brains are “designed” with 3 primary tasks.

Can you guess what those are?

Go on! Before scrolling down, guess the job description for that three pound blob of fat, and blood and white-grey matter, that sits perched on the top of your spinal cord, which we all proudly call THE HUMAN BRAIN!

You can perhaps start to see how these primary tasks carried out 24/7, automatically, in no consultation with our minds, might lead to good feelings at times, but also lots and lots of suffering. Almost as a by-product.

Say I’m at my local Morrisons, happily filling my supermarket trolly with ice-cream, and wine, and cheese, and crackers, and chocolate, and maybe some salad too. I’m looking forward to all that yummy stuff, and feeling pretty good at this pleasure seeking moment (dopamine!).

I’m also relieved to have seen and avoided my neighbour – the one I had an argument with with last week who I spotted walking down another aisle. Whew, and another dopamine hit of pleasure!

But maybe that evening I eat the whole tub of Hagen Daz as I am wont to do and drink most of the wine and feel sick and full of self-loathing.

And maybe if I hadn’t avoided that uncomfortable meeting with my neighbour in the supermarket we might have been able to get back on an even keel?

If you’d like to dig a little bit deeper into this, please take a look at my second post, Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.

Or otherwise, if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605).

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Anxiety Control Living A Valued Life Ritual Structure Values


We need to talk about ritual. The anthropologist Roy Rappaport writes: “Humanity is a species that lives and can only live in terms of meanings it itself must invent.” If this is so, ritual is fertile ground for creating meaning in our lives.

For meaning, we often substitute the word philosophy, but a distinction needs to be made here a la Foucault’s discrimination between philosophy and spirituality. Philosophy, says Foucault, attempts to articulate the conditions and limits that circumscribe a subject’s access to truth. Spirituality, in contrast, consists in a set of practices through which “the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.”

Embedded in the word “spirituality” is, of course, the word “ritual.” Ritual knowledge, the knowledge gained from spiritual practices, postulates that in order to know there must be a transformation of the subject. Although the S-word is not bandied around that much in psychotherapy anymore (Freud’s atheism enduring to this day_, I think the cogntive-behavioural transformations we’re seeking in our lives are sometimes better understood as spiritual ones. Ritual gives us access to these spiritual truths.


Ethology explains how animals adopt rituals in order to smooth over the conflicts inherent in our inner emotional states. Animal ceremonies evolve, so the reasoning goes, in response to having to manage emotional discord created by ambivalence inherent in the conflict created by two or more behavioral tendencies that may lead to trouble. Sexual attraction, for example, draws a pair close together, but proximity also produces fear and the desire to flee, on one hand, and hostility and aggression on the other. A balanced attitude from the extremes of flight or fight is required for successful mating, and the ritualization of appeasing gestures and displays is the route to establishing such attitudes.

Certain psychotherapeutic schools, especially those designed to work with trauma (Schema Therapy, EMDR, Internal Family Systems) are all alive to the ritual possibilities of healing. Trauma and ritual have always in some way been linked, chicken-and-egg like. So how do we create in our highly abstract and technology-infused culture the space for abreaction that might be found in Traditional cultures like the Inuit and which we as human animals might still require for our well-being.

The Inuits, as do many tribal societies, employ drumming matches and singing duels to deal with conflict situations within the tribe. Someone who believes himself wronged by insult, theft, or injury may challenge his opponent to a singing duel, which takes place publicly, in the enclosed confines of the igloo. Jokes, insults, and derision, delivered with a sarcastic and mocking tone, are staples of the match, accompanied by dramatic enactments, such as pretending to sew the opponent’s mouth shut, sticking out one’s buttocks, or breathing in the face of the opponent. The opponent, for his part, is to take in the performance with reserve and equanimity, until his turn comes to sing complaints and insults. In this way, mistakes, misdeeds, faults of character, and perceived wrongs are freely and publically aired, a process that relieves such wrongs of their potency to generate violence. Typically, the contest ends with a reconciling feast. Such duels can last for days, even years, and are conducted both within and across communities.

I think we can learn a great deal from the ways in which these tribal conflicts have been solved for millenia while trying to understanding how our inner conflicts can be managed.


Frazer in his Golden Bough suggested three things about ritual. First, the original and primary ritual form is that of blood sacrifice. The word sacrifice literally means to do (facere) a sacred thing (sacra). Metaphorically speaking, the blood element indicates that this “sacrifice” needs to feel deeply meaningful and valuable. We sacrifice something in the short term (money, time, effort) for a long term goal.

Second, ritual represents natural process or mythic-historical events or narratives, the stories of our lives and those of our tribes.

Third, ritual is inherently an act of magic, informed by the idea that “you can produce any desired effect by merely imitating it.” I think this is true for the enactment processes of experiential psychotherapy models like Schema Therapy and Internal Family Systems where we attempt to “enact” a change by visualising or re-enacting new ways of being. It’s that old Gandhi line: Be the change you wish to see. Ritual, to use Don Handelman’s term might also be seen as “events that re-present.” Ritual in this view is like a piece of society, or the socialised psyche, which society or client-therapist cut out and offer to themselves for inspection, reflection, and possibly criticism.

What often gets in the way of this happening in sessions, is that we can struggle to step out of a more superficial “play frame” in order to enter the deeper healing frame of ritual. In the play frame messages and gestures are understood to be fictive, if not actually false: the child waving a wand is not Harry Potter, and that child knows it. Within the ritual frame, in contrast, messages are conceived and understood to be somehow true and real; another way to put this is that the ritual frame articulates that which is taken to be of ultimate, foundational, and fundamental value. The difference lies in the metamessage associated with each. The metamessage of ritual is that everything within the ritual frame is sanctified, true, real, and believed.

We see this very powerfully in the documentary The Work, my favourite doc of this year where the prison in which certain dramaturgical and body-centered rituals take place, becomes a kind of transformative “cave” of the soul, maybe like the Chauvet caves explored by Werner Herzog in his equally wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Imagine: small numbers of our Paleolithic ancestors descending into the dangerous territory of the caves. Perhaps a charismatic individual leads them, revealing and inducting new members into the mysteries of the underworld. There, in the shadows and light cast by torches, they drum, sing, and reach out to the textured surface of the walls, with their cracks, folds, and hidden recesses. The skulls and bones of animals are handled and enshrined in niches or on rocks, which serve as our earliest altars. Images of animals are painted; earlier paintings are revered as icons of the intimate relation between human and animal worlds, and as links to the group’s ancestors. The impulse to leave the daily world of light and safety for the dangers of the caves suggest an urge to seek out a distinct place for extraordinary (ritualised) acts, a place that by virtue of its very separation from ordinary life was perhaps thought to offer knowledge and experience of the world in its totality.


Ritual can also be seen as a way of structuring our lives. Most religious communities are structured on an hourly, if not even minute-by-minute basis. We can learn a great deal from the ritualised structuring of these communities. Let’s look at a passage from the “Testamentary Admonitions”, written by the statesman and courtier Fujiwara no Morosuke over a thousand years ago:

Upon arising, first of all repeat seven times in a low voice the name of the star of the year. Take up a mirror and look at your face, to scrutinize changes in your appearance. Then look at the calendar and see whether the day is one of good or evil omen. Next use your toothbrush and then, facing West, wash your hands. Chant the name of the Buddha and invoke those gods and divinities whom we ought always to revere and worship. Next make a record of the events of the previous day. Now break your fast with rice gruel. Comb your hair once every three days, not every day. Cut your ngernails on a day of the Ox, your toenails on a day of the Tiger. If the day is auspicious, now bathe, but only once every fifth day.

We have here a template you might say for ritualized living:

  • Repeating an action (perform each morning; repeat seven times)
  • Prescribing and regularizing the details (next do this; next do that)
  • Linking and elevating the action by associating it with sacred values, narratives, or gures (chant the name of the Buddha)
  • Framing an action temporally, in terms of symbolic or historical time (in the name of the star of the year; look at the calendar)
  • Invoking powers or gurus to whom reverence, respect, honor is due (divinities whom we ought always to revere and worship)
  • Performing the action with a special attitude (look at your face; reflect)

Sometimes when we are struggling in the welter of experience, it can be useful to think of how we can ritualize our lives according to these guidelines.

One of my daily rituals is to to learn and recite poems. Taking the dog for a walk each day I recite an ee cumming’s poem which has these lines in it:

i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Every time I recited these lines, no matter what has been going on in my head up to this point, I notice that I am able to become more present to the world around me, especially the natural world. My ears really do wake up (even to the roar of traffic, but also bird-song), and my eyes open to the diversity of nature’s forms. Ritual brings us back into the rhythms of our bodies, our culture, and our species. Through ritual we become fully alive once again to the present moment.



Aldous, G., & McLeary, J. (2017). The Work. Dogwoof.

Eliade, M., & Doniger, W. (2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. (W. R. Trask, Trans.) (With a New foreword by Wendy Doniger edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. New York: Harper, 1958.

Frazer, S. J. G. (2009). The Golden Bough A Study in Magic and Religion. (R. Fraser, Ed.) (Reissue edition). Oxford: OUP Oxford.
Handelman, Don, and Galina Lindquist, eds. Ritual in Its Own Right: Exploring the Dynamics of Transformation. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005.

Handelman, D. (n.d.). Framing. Theorizing Ritual, Eds., J. Kreinath, J. Snoek & M. Stausberg. Leiden: Brill. Retrieved from

Herzog, W. (2011). Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. Revolver Entertainment.

Markman, K. D., Proulx, T., & Lindberg, M. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Psychology of Meaning (1 edition). Washington, DC: American Psychological Assoc.

Rappaport, Roy. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

By Heart Ethics Living A Valued Life Maslow Pleasure Poetry Koan Transcendence Values

I Have Wasted My Life

32030865198_3e9f731e1a_bThere is a well known poem by James Wright with a title so long it sounds almost silly at first: Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. The poem, I think, gets to the heart of what I’m trying to understand here. It shares the experiences of a human creature, Wright (?) having a series of devotional, almost otherwordly moments, and yet the poems also stays profoundly embedded in this world, the world of nature. It also ends on a real humdinger of a last line. If poems had ‘plot twists’ a la The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, this would be it.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The poem commences with an incredibly evocative visual palette of bronze and black and green [2], before moving into the more abstract realms of empty spaces: the ravine, the empty house, the sound of cowbells seemingly unattached to any cows. Notice the use of the definite article in the first two lines (“the bronze butterfly…the black trunk”), as if this was the only bronze butterfly and the only black trunk in existence.

Often with transcendental experiences, there is a sense of the utter rightness and revelatory significance in an impression or a thought, accompanied by an ineffable slipperiness in how to communicate this understanding to anyone else, even a future self who is no longer in that state anymore. There is also a kind of alchemy at work here too: of turning shit (“the droppings of last year’s horses”) into gold. Surely whatever we do with our lives, no matter how productive they are, we are always going to be comparatively lacking compared to the numinous perfection of this pastoral scene?

I’m curious to know more about Wright and the making of this poem, so read a bit from James Blunk’s biography of Wright. I read of how in August 1960, Wright (alcoholic, philanderer) [4] brought his family out to Robert Bly’s farm in Minnesota to be near to his friend and mentor. One day the two drove to Bill Duffy’s farm on Pine Island, a city that also numbered Ralph Samuelson, inventor of waterskiing (FYI) as one of its inhabitants. Duffy had gone off to Tangier to teach, which is perhaps why the house in the poem stands empty. Bly had been asked by Duffy to do some maintenance work on the farm, and so explains Blunk, “while [Bly] and a carpenter drained the plumbing and built a new cellar door, among other chores, Wright retreated to a green hammock that hung between two maple trees at a distance from the house” and wrote this poem.

As I attempt to learn this poem by heart (it’s a great poem for by-hearting by the way – while learning/reciting it, you and 1960 Wright are one – eerily so) I keep on returning to the following question: what is the opposite of “I have wasted my life”? If waste is to squander, misuse, spend like water, be prodigal with, blow, mishandle, fritter away (which is also inbuilt into the process of living a life), what would it mean to do the opposite? A thesaurus suggests a list of stingy alternatives: to hoard, to save, to accumulate, to profit by, to take advantage of, to exploit. Are these in any way better options?

Maybe the opposite side of the Life-Well-Lived/Used spectrum might be:

“I have utilised my time on this earth profitably”?


“I have made the most of my life”?

Or what?

Maybe these sentences would resonate more if presented as a series of ‘nots’: I have NOT squandered, misused, frittered away my life, LIKE OTHERS HAVE, AND DO! So where’s my pat on the head for that? Who is going to give me that pat on the head?!?!

Once again, we’re back to one of the earliest and most fundamental of ethical questions, which is also the title of that frustratingly unreadable book by Sheila Heti: How Should A Person Be?

Be, not do. For being (in this case: lying in a hammock mindfully) doesn’t necessarily lead us to feeling we’ve used our time meaningfully whilst embodied here on this planet. But how should a person live, if living is more than just being? Especially when that living is gifted to us in limited quantities? Bernard Williams opens his classic book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with the following statement: “It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live.” Simon Blackburn in his primer Ethics: A Very Short Introduction notes how tricky it is to even listen to the self-appointed moral philosophers, both those in academia, and individuals who play this role for us in our family of origin or friendship circles:

“We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them.”

This is particularly true for the psycho-active substance user, whether that substance is sugar, coffee, nicotine, cannabis, or alcohol. Our default position is generally one of “don’t tell me how many chocolate digestives, lattes, cigs, joints, pints I should consume!” when perhaps the more interesting response, if we can put our defensive outrage on hold is: let’s think philosophically and psychologically about all of this stuff, because it’s at heart a really, really interesting question and affects us all in one way or another.

I like writers who remind me of how tenuous and unfounded our notions of who we are are, how shaky (because temporally and culturally specific) the foundations of our ethical universe are. Paul Bloom in his book How Pleasure Works marvels at the fact that “Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing….This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, two-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: “I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends.””

Which is perhaps to say: we all spend our evenings Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, whilst someone else (for Wright it was Robert Bly and the carpenter), are  no more than ten feet away, sawing, hammering, and constructing something far more important (at least in terms of Maslow’s triangle) for human existence.  

The question that interests me is whether at the moment of being immersed/lost in our respective imaginative worlds, the neurochemical functioning of our brains is really that different when all of us are engaged in states of flow, either substance/conversation/exercise-enhanced or not? Would it change the way you feel about Wright’s spiritual (for want of a better word) experience at William Duffy’s farm if you knew that he had been assisted or “led” into that experience via a psychoactive substance like a strong coffee, or a chocolate bar, or tobacco, alcohol, cannabis?

I don’t think so. But then I’m the guy who pays a lot of attention to people’s dreams, as well as the their unconscious motivations expressed in their fantasies. And there’s clearly nothing self-possessed or abstemious about our dream worlds.

Why do we feel the need to be so categorical? The novelist David Mitchell has Wright’s poem stuck to his wall “as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see…”

“I forget this all the time,” he writes, “all the time. If I remember to do what the poem ask for 0.1 percent of day—slow down, look closely—then that’s a great day. An enlightened day. Usually, though, it’s nowhere near even that.”

What Mitchell is suggesting, and what another commentator Patricia Hampl draws out more explicitly is the negative-capability at work in the piece, to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenges. This lies at the heart of the being productively unproductive and vice-versa: “He has wasted his life precisely because he sees he has not wasted his life enough. Or really at all until this moment. That was his mistake. He has not failed.”


Strategies and tools Values

What Do We Mean by “Values” (and why are they so important for our mental and physical health)?

[Photo by noitacifier]
[Photo by noitacifier]

Very often when working with clients, we get onto the question of their values.

These discussions are not necessarily about values in terms of “principles or standards of behaviour” – although they might include these. Rather, values, we could say give us a lens through which to discover or reaffirm what it is that really matters for us in our lives. It helps to have a clear sense of what really matters for us, as this can give us a kind of value-driven compass with which to live our lives in (hopefully) a richer and more fulfilling way.

Perhaps the best definition of what we means by values is the one given by Kelly G. Wilson below:

“Values are freely chosen ways you understand your place in the world; they are patterns of behaviour that evolve over time based on your actions, and you feel satisfaction mainly by doing these actions for their own sake, not for any outside incentive or rewards.”

Kelly goes on to explain each of these different facets.

Values Are Freely Chosen

[Photo by Sabik Akand]
[Photo by Sabik Akand]

This is probably the biggest way that our understanding of values differs from most of the common uses of the word. These are not anyone else’s values. They are yours and yours alone. I wouldn’t tell you what to value, and I would encourage you not let anyone else tell you either. You get to pick. While there are many preselected sets of values you might choose to subscribe to, for the purposes of our work together, you need to decide for yourself what they will be. If you adopt someone else’s idea of what is valuable and it doesn’t line up with what you really feel is important to you, you’ll just find yourself struggling with another set of stories that don’t work in your life.

Understand that the fact that you get to pick your values doesn’t mean that you will always be a perfect example of them. If only. You may choose to value your relationship with your children very highly. Does this mean you’ll always be the perfect parent? Not at all. Of course there will be times when you do things, even intentionally, that won’t square up with your idea of what it means to be a good parent. Your basic choice to make this area of your life a priority is what constitutes your value (and we’ll have more to say about pursuing your values in the next chapter on commitment).

Values Describe Your Understanding of Your Place in the World

[Photo by Cecilie Sønsteby]
[Photo by Cecilie Sønsteby]

This aspect of values might be a little harder to wrap your brain around. Think here of Viktor Frankl and his decision to remain behind to take care of his patients in the concentration camp even when he had an opportunity to escape.

If you didn’t know the details of his story—if you thought, for example, that he was just a guy in a terrible place who had a chance to escape and didn’t take it—it would be hard to make sense out of his decision.

Knowing how Frankl understood his place in the world—what it meant for him to be a doctor, a friend, and a fellow human being—explains and dignifies his choice. When we’re talking about values, we’re going to mean those ways in which you’ve decided to relate yourself to the role you will play in the world—as a member of a community or family, as a learner, as an artist, and so forth.

Values Are Patterns of Behaviour

Values from this perspective are not individual acts. Buying your wife a bunch of flowers does not make you a good husband. A pattern of acts that show consideration, thoughtfulness, and kindness is more like what we mean by values. Giving a bunch of flowers on Mothers’ Day or “just because” might be part of the pattern. It is the pattern that will cause, at the end of your days, someone to stand graveside and say, “he was a loving husband, and I will miss him so.”

Values Develop Over Time, Based on Your Actions

[Photo by eivindmork]
[Photo by eivindmork]

If you choose to value being a good husband, that value is unlikely to be static. Take someone for example, has been with his wife for more than thirty years. Being a good husband at year one does not look exactly the same as being a good husband at year thirty-one. Our most profoundly held values ask us to grow and change our patterns of living even though the central value remains constant.

This is another one of the ways in which our understanding of values differs from the everyday use of the word. Some understandings of the word might be written down into some kind of code. But our understanding of values evolves over time as the result of many, many actions you might take in the service of patterns of living you care about.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, in the sense we mean, you don’t really “clarify” or “discover” what it is that you value. Rather, you construct it over time as you engage in a pattern of actions that, eventually, start to look like a value. There are certainly lots of snake-oil salesmen out there who have plans and systems in place to help you “clarify” your values. Take this kind of thing with a grain of salt. Once you decide what you want your life to be about, only your efforts over time can really work out for you what this actually means. And the meaning and pattern will grow and change over time.

Values Are Intrinsically Rewarding

[Photo by Wonderwebby]
[Photo by Wonderwebby]

Here’s your lesson in behaviorism for the day:

There is a very basic idea in behavioral science that organisms (that is, people and animals) will work to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Pleasurable things are known asreinforcers; painful things are known as punishers. You get off the couch and go to the cookie jar, reach in, and pull out a snickerdoodle. Mmmm. Your behavior is reinforced. You walk to the stove, turn it on, and stick your hand in the fire. Ouch! You’re punished for your behaviour. From this point, you’re more likely to go get a cookie and less likely to stick your hand in the fire.

For nonhumans, reinforcers all relate to pretty basic things like food, sex, shelter, and social contact. But because of our story-telling brains, humans can get reinforcement for all sorts of places. If you doubt this, try giving a chicken an “employee of the month” award or tell a horse that it’s not going to get into heaven if it keeps wandering out of the paddock.

One of the basic qualities of a value in the sense we mean it is that it creates its own reinforcement. As we understand it, the act of being a good Mum becomes its own reward, if that’s something you value. Likewise, being environmentally responsible, being kind to animals, and learning to make beautiful music on the trombone can all be intrinsically rewarding, if they are things you value. If you only practice the trombone for hours each day because of the salary you get from the local symphony, yet otherwise detest the whole endeavor, you probably don’t value trombone-playing all that highly.

You may find yourself in a place where nothing feels valuable. Please, please, please ease yourself into the stream of life. It is in that stream of activity, engaged in with awareness and flexibility, that you will find things to love. There are only so many things to love that you can find hiding under your bed. And moving around in the world can be hard, but we think, if you practice the things we describe in this book, you will be glad you came out and joined us in this varied and extraordinary world.

What Do You Want Your Life to Be About?

5619838221_5559e9ab8d_bThis may seem like a hard question or it may seem like an easy one. Either way, it is a question worth lingering over. You can think about this question for yourself now, but it can also be a really worthwhile exercise to do with someone else, like a therapist or a friend.

Are you ready to take the plunge?

If you’d like to do the exercise by yourself, here are some instructions to do so.

If you’d like to do it with me, please do get in touch.