Sunday, December 20, 2015

The United States of Therapy

As you might discover by noting the post dates - I am a feckless blogger.  Or else I am simply very busy (who isn't)?  Its been an interesting Fall season as I've taken a big bite out of my professional internship. As I've said, I'm an LPC Intern - which is a way of saying that my license is provisional and I need a certain amount of supervised practice before the state lets me loose on the world on my own. Part of this fall has been focusing in on my initial direction as a therapist.

Its funny how we get in our own way and refuse to let ourselves see the obvious choice.  This is certainly true of me anyway and I'll bet its true of a lot of people. We ignore the career staring us in the face, the lover, the passion or pursuit.

So, I've been noticing a confluence of several themes in my life and in my education as a therapist. I'm noticing many healing techniques that are built upon states of consciousness and manipulating them.  I know people practicing NLP and hypnotherapy.  I have been treated via Somatic Experiencing and EMDR.  I have a general background in mindfulness through my own struggles with anxiety and my studies in Wilber's integral theory. And I have a long personal interest in brain states induced through binaural beats - which an acquaintance and colleague of mine used in his own life to resolve deeply traumatized reactions.  So - in short - I'm going to focus on states.  Emotional states, states of consciousness. There's some kind of evolving practical knowledge in the therapeutic world that states really can be used effectively.

Its almost a rebound against a rebound against mindfulness.  For awhile last century it seemed like everyone (or at least a certain kind of West Coast therapist) believed that meditation leading to some kind of enlightenment would beat Western theories of psychology - that the Zen master or the Dalai Lama didn't suffer from the limits of our Westernized psyches.  It turned out that this was a pipe dream, which in retrospect seems pretty obvious.  But there are definite benefits to meditative practice and even to the experiences of the path to "enlightenment" in the meditative traditions. For the most part though, in therapy, we are using the early benefits of meditation to just loosen up our fusion with our thoughts and feelings and present experiences.  Paradoxically, by going mindfully into our present experience we can begin to tell the difference between it and us. So, there was this enthusiasm for meditation, then a disillusionment, and now a practical engagement.  Isn't there some kind of technology adoption curve that looks like that?

But another way of looking at mindfulness and different kinds of meditation, is that it induces different states of consciousness - literally different "modes" of operation in your mind/brain. Your brainwaves look different.  Your emotional responses and thoughts are markedly different.  Your sense of identity shifts out of your verbal, thinking self, and into something else, something open and witnessing, something bigger than our petty concerns and worries.

And there seems to be something about certain ways of reaching for these state changes that are healing in themselves - and they all seem to have something to do with cross-hemispheric stimulation - something to do with making your brain hemispheres talk to each other intensely.  EMDR seems to do this. Binaural beats seem to do this. "Tapping" or "EFT" seems to do this.  And I'll bet mindfulness does it too.  For that matter, I'll bet yoga, dancing, running, and any number of athletic flow states affect us this way as well. Probably music too.

So that's what I'm after.  Healing states - navigating them - invoking them - finding the underlying unity in all these approaches.

Its strange that this wasn't obvious to me months ago - and in some ways it was - but somehow over the past couple of weeks it all came together and I became sure.  Weird how it all comes together sometimes.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Should"

I had an interesting conversation with my therapist today.

Yes, I go to therapy regularly.  If your therapist doesn't, or hasn't had extensive experience as a client, get another therapist.  Therapists aren't supposed to give advice - but I'm pretty comfortable with that one.  Your mileage may vary, yadda yadda.

We were talking about some events in my life and I mentioned maybe I should have done something differently.  My therapist said "There is no such thing as 'should'".

To which I said - "yes, of course there is such a thing as 'should'" because I think there is a lot of crap floating about the self-help, self-development, and therapy community about how everything is created by our intentions, or how everything is a cultural construct, etc. etc.  My opinions on these ideas are complex, at least several paragraphs worth, but I think I can very simply state that no, our actions really can hurt others in ways we are responsible for and therefore there are some actions we have a responsibility to avoid.  In other words, "shoulds" are real.

At the same time, I, like many people, have an over developed sense of what I am responsible for.  I take too much personal responsibility for the suffering of others.  I am too ready to pick up the need to apologize or to take on guilt or shame for something that often is not my fault, responsibility, or personal business at all.

So after spending some time picking this idea apart with my therapist it became clear that what they were trying to help me understand is that "should" is an abstraction, divorced from the moral facts of a situation.  "I should do X" doesn't really help us understand exactly what is the moral situation with X.  It is a summary - a conclusion - not a starting point.  So in that sense, yes, there is such thing as "should".  It is an abstract concept that is ungrounded in circumstances.  It is easy enough to say "I shouldn't kill people."  but its also easy to see there are times when yes, actually you should kill people.  So what is this "should" if it has all these exceptions and qualifiers?  Its an idealization - an abstraction - something without a direct correspondence in our lives.  It is a real object - but its a real thought object - a different kind of thing than say "kill" which much more directly represents choices, actions, and consequences.

So instead of saying "should I do XYZ?" , "should I apologize?", "should I intervene?" you get closer to the real quandary if you try to ask what is really going on.  What harm has been done?  What kind of intention was behind the harm?  How are those harmed reacting to it?  Are they suffering?  Are they aware of it? Are they over-reacting?  Are they under-reacting?

All of which is just a really verbose way of saying its a good idea to question ourselves whenever we say "should", about ourselves or others.  Make sure we understand what is really happening.  Don't be satisfied with an abstract intuition of obligation.  That intuition is a guidepost - an invitation to reflect - it isn't the answer or the truth.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

How I work, part III: Development

This is one of the things that brought me to a counseling career, an interest in development. It kind of started with a new age and/or progressive political interest in what it means to be "evolved". You hear people throw this word around a lot. An evolved person. An unevolved person. Often there is an association with some personality feature or other. To some, being evolved means to have outgrown childish things, to buckle down, hold down a job, raise a family, stop partying every night and going to work with a hangover every Monday. To others being evolved means to meditate and do yoga and eat vegan and compost. To even others, it might mean having a very logical and scientific view of the world, that you aren't taken in by all that church and sandals and yoga beads and homeopathy stuff. I'm sure you can come up with your own examples, which often seem mutually exclusive.

People are often quite proud of whether or not they or some person they know or some person they read or listen to is evolved. It seems to be a pretty desirable quality. And people who aren't evolved get some kind of disdain or at best grudging sympathy, bless their hearts. Some people might put it differently. They might use words like aware, mature, grown up, enlightened, realistic, etc.

So I wanted to know what people meant by all this. It seemed like there was something true there, even if some of it was just clearly in-group politics. I mean, people like you and me are obviously the best kind of people, right? And so I came to learn about adult human development.

One way of looking at development is that it is simply learning. We all learn things all the time and that new knowledge, even if it isn't factual knowledge necessarily, changes us, expands our capacities, while constraining others. But it's also a way of describing exactly how that learning changes us, changes our attitudes and beliefs and behavior.

In some ways there are some pretty predictable patterns of development. They were studied by people like Kohlberg, and Gilligan, and Loevinger. In other ways, human development is a crazy fractal pattern with as many variants as there are people who have ever lived. Still, there are some predictable thresholds that we cross in life, and though they have common life events as catalysts or harbingers, they aren't as simple as the signposts of college, marriage, career, parenthood, midlife crisis, mentorhood, retirement, etc.

Developmental stages are often enough a part of the reason clients come to me. Maybe it's something relatively common - adjusting to a new job or a new marriage. Sometimes it a massive shift that completely reorganizes how you see the world. The kind of shift that has a wealthy investor giving most of his money to charity and taking up work with the poor and hungry, or a shift that changes a drug dealer into a minister, or a nun into a professor.

As a counsellor it is a privilege to be involved in these shifts. Sometimes they are small harbingers, early scent on the wind of a gradual process. Sometimes they are something of a crisis, a massive upheaval in a client's life. But which ever it is, these encounters are different from the medical/clinical model. There is no diagnosis, or at best we might call it a phase of life adjustment difficulty or something like that. There is nothing to "fix", no symptom to help a client cope with or lessen. Instead we get the privilege of standing next to someone who is transforming. Like whispering words of encouragement to a butterfly while they're crawling out of the cocoon. Some would say this is true of almost all counseling, but I think it's true of adult development in a special way.

So, I stay on the lookout for developmental processes. They can easily be confused with disorders or life problems, and they certainly can cause problems - can you imagine the difficulty of your entire worldview shifting? The meaning and importance of things can change radically. Your family and your peer group will likely think something is very wrong. You quit a church, a job, a career, a marriage. Or you suddenly start a very new and different one.

Right now I can see developmental processes pretty obviously at play in some of my clients. I'm excited to work with them. It's the difference between foundation repair and doing a major renovation or expansion on a house. Or helping an athlete heal an injury vs helping them break through to a new level of performance.

And sometimes, we start building on to the house, only to discover we need that foundation repair before we can proceed - which is part of why my job is endlessly interesting.




Monday, September 7, 2015

How do I work? Part II: trauma

If you have anything to do with the psychotherapy world, then you know that trauma is the watchword - its on everyone's lips.  Its the in thing right now.  I think there's very good reason for this.  We're getting some good results with some innovative therapies - developed over the last several years (and longer) - that focus on trauma and our theoretical understanding of what trauma does to our nervous system.

To put it really briefly, we've all got trauma of some form or another.  Maybe its trauma, or maybe its Trauma. For example - I still have unreasonable emotional reactions to things that remind me of certain childhood situations, long past adverse experiences, and difficult relationships.  That's trauma - it left scars, and the scars influence how I feel, think, and behave even today.

Now - when someone is in a horrible accident, or survives a war, or a horrific near experience with violence, or are chronically abused or neglected as children - that is Trauma with a capital "T" and people sometimes develop PTSD as a result.  Not always, interestingly. Not even most of the time.  But too often. The lesser traumas our lives present us with can cause us to develop responses that seem related to PTSD even if it isn't the full horror that some of us suffer.

On the one hand, as adults we often feel as if we should put on our big people pants and get over it. But the truth is that there are some things we just can't seem to get over easily and even if they seem trivial and childish, they still have a lot to do with some of our most painful emotions.

Now I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking about Freud and the couch and "tell me about your mother." And about some poor soul discovering that their fear of asparagus comes from the awful accident they had in the garden when they were three - and poof, they're cured.  Funny enough, even though that kind of scene is still a staple of film and TV - Freud abandoned that theory in about the second year of his practice.  He was certain he had found the scarring event in a patient's past, and the insight could produce a kind of relief-through-understanding in his patients - but it didn't cure them.  Their problems persisted in spite of knowing the apparent cause.

And yet - the trauma therapies that counselors are using now are remarkably similar to that fictional "eureka" scene.  I won't really try to explain what the different therapies are or what they do here - I'm getting long winded enough.  But the key is that there are certain kinds of emotional reactions we all have, that bother us deeply, often to the point of a diagnosable disorder, that seem to derive from trauma and the reactions our brain and nervous system have to the flight-or-flight response.  The new trauma based therapies work with inspirations from neurological theory to help us unlearn those responses, often quickly, and often without the long verbal psychodynamic inquiry into our past that we all associate with therapy.

So - when people start talking their emotions feeling out of control, and stress, and anger issues, and even anxiety and depression - I start looking for trauma.  It isn't always trauma - but often it is and it helps to treat it that way.  I've benefited a great deal from trauma based therapy and it is clearly an area I need more training in - because many, many people who walk through my door need it.  They need it yesterday.

Monday, August 31, 2015

How do I work? - part I. Shadow.

On the one hand I feel some hesitance to talk about modalities - basically because I think its a little crazy how people are expected to find a psychotherapist.  There's this alphabet soup of techniques and theories and approaches and why on earth should any average person be expected to sort any of that out.  How is anyone supposed to know what the heck EMDR, AEDP, CBT, DBT, MB-CBT, EFT, SE, SFT, ABC, XYZ, TLM, TMI, etc etc is supposed to be or how to choose which one is going to be good for them?  And further, we know one of the most important things about the success of psychotherapy is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client. Now how are we (clients and therapists) supposed to navigate that?  Especially if someone is in crisis?  What are we supposed to do?  Sign up for Psychotherapy OKCupid?

But on the other hand I am not Oz behind the curtain and so I want to be transparent and demystifying about what I do.  I plan to do a whole series of posts (and maybe vblogs) on what all these things are, how they work, what they are good for, etc. For now I'll just stick to some generalities instead of throwing three-letter acronyms at you.

Today I'll talk about Shadow - I am a big believer in shadow work. All this really means is that, more than likely, the things that drive you batty in life are the very things you need to have more of in your life.   Liars make you furious? You probably need to lie more (or maybe just reconsider whether your own "truthfulness" is actually that helpful). Aggressive people frighten you?  You probably need to be more aggressive.  Incapacitated by sadness because you feel neglected?  You probably need to recognize all the ways you neglect yourself and others.  This is an oversimplification but you get the idea. There are many varieties of this - Byron Katie's approach, Gestalt, Jungian approaches, etc., but they are all some form of recognizing the things in life that you are denying about yourself - that you are unreasonably avoiding.

A common reaction to shadow work is that some fear that it erases moral judgments, encourages one to become more immoral or amoral, or encourages one to forgive offenses in an undeserved or unmerited way.  I get this, I had the same responses. But the truth is - this isn't about the moral choices you are going to make in life - it is about your unreasonable and self-hurting emotional reactions to life.  No one is going to tell you to start to live amorally or to forgive the unforgivable.  Instead, the goal is to be able to think clearly about our choices and not be driven by primitive responses to conditioning. If you are having road rage every time you see a panhandler - the issue is not whether or not panhandling is a moral choice - the issue is that you are having an out of control emotional response that is preventing you from making your own skillful choices in life.  You are still free to make up your mind about panhandling after you get your road rage under control - you just won't be letting primitive parts of your mind and brain drive your behavior.

So I'm always watching for shadow.  Its usually, at least, an additional stressor that isn't helping a client's situation.  Sometimes it is one of the core problems a client needs help with.  Repressed anger lurking as shadow material is almost a textbook definition of depression.

But I'll tell you what shadow isn't - or at least it isn't necessarily. It isn't your "dark side" or your "evil side".  Its a little trickier than that.  Its the parts of you that you think are dark and evil and so you want nothing to do with. Sometimes they are actually dark and evil impulses that you are having trouble understanding.  More often they are simply human impulses and needs that we mistakenly refuse to acknowledge out of a misguided belief that they are not allowed, they are bad, they are evil. Assertiveness isn't bad.  Opportunistic and exploitative aggressiveness can be bad.  But we often make the mistake of equating simple assertiveness with an agenda to become Genghis Khan.  You say it out loud and it sounds ridiculous, right?  But many of us live this way, and it eventually gets us into trouble because we don't allow ourselves to be assertive in a situation that clearly calls for it - out of a misguided fear of being an over-aggressive jerk or worse.

When you come see me, you can be sure we'll talk about shadow.  I think it is a vital topic in psychotherapy, and really just in life in general.  If you do nothing else with psychotherapy - find and embrace your shadow.  Arguably, shadow is one of the great contributions of western culture to our collective human understanding of the mind.   There's a lot of freedom locked up tight in your shadow, and its very straightforward to pick that lock.  Either get to work unlocking it or wait for your reactions to life to kick you in the pants enough times that you have little choice but to pay attention.






Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sitting in the therapy room with me.....

Ok, so enough about spirituality and woo - two completely disconnected topics, imho.  Maybe a more relevant question is what is it like to work with me.  Maybe someday soon I'll have some clients willing to write something from their point of view, but I'll try to tell you what I think I'm like.

I think the first thing you'll notice is that I try not to be pretentious.  I'm just a person, we're just talking. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a priest. I'm just a middle aged guy. I know some stuff.  I've been through some stuff.  I've been trained in some stuff.  Maybe I can help you.  Maybe I can't.

I don't dress up particularly.  I try to make sure my clothes aren't distractingly casual, or sloppy, or worn, but that's all in the eye of the beholder.  My Birkenstocks are practically rotting off my feet. I don't see a problem wearing a bowling shirt and shorts.  If you are looking for someone in slacks and a dress shirt - that's not me. My professionalism is in how I treat you, not in how I dress.

I'm not terribly careful with my language.  If I see that my casualness is bothering you, I'll do my best to reign it in.  But I also believe in being real about the level of suffering people endure.   People are not in "significant distress" - they feel like they are fucking losing it.  They feel like they are going through Hell - literal, capital "H", Hell.  Their situation isn't "difficult" - it sucks.  Life can pretty much suck sometimes.

I'm not into mystifying the thing we are doing.  Its similar to my attitude about spirituality.  We're doing something real that we can talk about honestly, in real language.  I don't think its going to lessen the effectiveness of our relationship if I'm open about what I think we need to work on together and how we're going to go about it.

Similar to spirituality, I think there's a big difference between objective descriptive language, and practice language.  Practice language is meant to convey a certain state of mind - to clash with certain ideas or put stress on different mental structures.  But it isn't normal language.  Its like massage therapy - in massage therapy - or any kind of physical therapy - you put pressures on your body that are not normal.  They aren't things you encounter in everyday life.

Psychotherapy is no different.  I may ask you to hold some really strange idea in your mind as a therapeutic practice - but I'm not going to ask you to take that strange idea back out into the world and live it as a true thing.   I mean I might ask you to do it as homework - but I'm also going to be pretty clear with you that its an exercise.  If I try to convince you that something is literally true about reality that isn't in keeping with your current understanding - its going to be because I think there's evidence for it - not because I think it will be therapeutic for you to believe it and so I have to bend the truth.

Not that I think a lot of therapists habitually lie to their clients, not at all.  But I do think there can be an over-mystification of therapy. A belief that you just can't let the client see behind the curtain.  I'm all about taking down the curtain and being real with you about what I can do for you.

And finally, what I hope you'll feel when you work with me is that I listen to you, that I believe you, that I care about what is happening for you, and that I support you as a normal human being struggling with normal human things. I hope you feel like you've found someone who understands you, or who at least is willing to try to understand you, to work at it if I'm not getting it, to not just pigeonhole your experience.  I hope that I'll succeed at hearing about your real life, not just the diagnostic code that seems to fit.



Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Woo.

Well I'm back from vacation - I had a great time with friends on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Did you know that Lake Michigan has sand beaches and crystal clear water?!?  I sure didn't.  What a beautiful place to go in the heat of August.  More humid than any beach I've ever been to, but still a wonderful spot.

This one's long. I don't blame you if you don't read it all.  But if you read all the way to the end, I'll tell you some winning lottery numbers.

Today I want to talk about The Woo.  You know what I mean.  Ghostbuster/X-files stuff.  Psychic spies, UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, Astral Projection, Chakras, Chi, conspiracy theories, you name it.  All that stuff that New Agers love, religious conservatives fear, and clear-headed rationalists poo-poo.  I love this stuff.  I guess that makes me a New Ager.  Well, maybe I once was.  But wait a minute before forming an opinion of me.  Exercise some skepticism before deciding I'm hopeless or awesome or in spiritual danger or whatever.

I'm a rationalist.  But I also think rationality and empiricism have limits.  Its really easy to dismiss some of this stuff.  Sure, if you want to be safe and never take an intellectual risk you can just ignore all this stuff.  And to be fair - that's not a bad position to take.  More than likely none of it is every going to be that relevant to your life or your work anyway.  Safe to tuck away in Wally's Pile of Perpetual Ignorage.

Further - the popular writing and thinking about these topics is bad.  Bad reasoning, bad science, and further just plain bad writing. I think the most annoying thing many popular writers do on these topics is they "bury the leed".  I'm pretty well read on some of these ideas and often a writer (or "investigator" as they often style themselves) will hit upon something that is truly provocative and astonishing - but it is so buried in crap its no wonder that no one notices it.  So it takes a little bit of a passion for it in order to dig any of this stuff out, and if you don't have a passion for it, well I understand why you just want to steer clear.  I mean, who gets dates talking about UFOs?

For my part, I think I developed a passion for these subjects early.  Childhood fascination.  That fascination has grown into a more general fascination for scientific mysteries and for the fringes of scientific progress in general - not just about these lurid woo-woo topics - but anytime we are hitting the limits of what we know or think we know.  I think that's part of why I'm a counselor - because what is more fascinating or mysterious than the human mind?  

So, just to set it straight, I'm not going to sit here and tell you UFOs are actually piloted by aliens, or Bigfoot is trying to send us psychic messages to save the planet, or that our souls are reincarnated continually to learn lessons and to raise our chakra vibrational energies.  I'm too much of a rationalist and a materialist for that.  But I will say that by exploring my fascination with these subjects I've learned more about science, reason, epistemology, and phenomenology than I think I would have had I simply stuck with safer topics.

For instance, UFOs - whether you dismiss or embrace the topic - what do you actually know about it? What kind of data and analysis have you seen and understood? Have you looked at any of the handful of government funded studies on the topic?  Given them anything more than a cursory glance at the conclusions.  I've looked at some of the limited data there is on the subject and lots of perceptions you might have about the topic are probably false.  For instance, did you know the more educated an observer is, the more likely their report is going to be classified as a true unidentified?  It isn't ignorant yokels giving us our weirdest stories - its the best and brightest among us.  Just to cut to the chase here - no I don't really think aliens are visiting us. But I do think people are seeing some strange things and they aren't nearly as easy to explain as some want to think.

I think The Woo often falls into this kind of inbetween place.  Is all the crap people write about it true?  Clearly not. Not even some significant fraction of it.  But is there something here worth understanding in a way beyond "they were high and they saw swamp gas"?  Maybe.  I think that's my attitude in a nutshell. Maybe.  As the old chestnut about science goes - it isn't "Eureka!" its "That's funny....".  Some of the best Woo data falls squarely into the "That's funny" bucket.

Another topic that I think is far more defensible than UFOs is psi. Psychic stuff.  I think there's something there.  I think its something that people can do but whatever it is it is a weak effect and easily screwed up by any number of factors. I don't think its a sign of enlightenment or some crap like that (we'll talk about enlightenment another day). Rather, if anything, its something primitive and animal.  Something old and fundamental.  There is plenty of evidence from serious, credentialed scientists that there is something here, and most of the critiques of the science are pretty thin and kind of boil down to "I wouldn't believe it even if you had the best evidence imaginable."  Some people have said exactly these words when presented with very good evidence.  Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, Psychokinesis (at least Micro-PK), I think these are pretty defensible topics.  A great deal of complex work has been done in this area over the last 100 years or so, and many of the critiques of this work are just crap.

I'd say the biggest problem with it is that it so easy in principle to understand, that well intentioned researchers - whether credulous or skeptical - wade into the field without understanding all the work that has gone before.  They think they can end the debate once and for all with some simplistic demonstration that will or won't work and that will be that.  I think the controversy around Bem's work several years ago fits that model pretty well.  On the other end of the spectrum you have people like PEAR labs, originally at Princeton, who have tirelessly gathered data and improved their experimental design and data analysis for decades - to the point of doing joint publications with their prime skeptical critic, Ray Hyman, a man who is clearly a qualified scientist and statistician, as opposed to a lot of self-appointed skeptics who amount to journalistic know it alls (not so different from me). In the end, Hyman was left saying something like "Well the numbers do say something is there, but I wouldn't call it psychic." which is hardly an invalidation of PEAR's work.

It is by understanding the evidence for psi or Generalized ESP as it is called - that I learned a great deal about statistical analysis, types of errors, experimental design, etc. Whatever this thing is, it is very very tricky. You can't just do some kind of naive number guessing trick and say that tells you something.  It takes automation, lots of trials, double and triple blinds, etc.  Not to mention time and money.  My guess is that there are something like five serious parapsychologists working in the entire world today.  Five. And they don't have funding. Because Woo. So I think we shouldn't be surprised that progress in this field is slow.  You can read a book published in 1995 and probably not much has changed in the field since then.

I'm pretty convinced there's something there. I think the evidence is strong.  I've had personal experiences that fit what the evidence supports too. Does that mean anything people write about Improving Your Psychic Powers is true?  Clearly not.  But I also think if you're convinced there's just nothing to this ESP stuff, then you probably don't know the evidence - and no wonder because the popular publishing on the topic is atrocious and very few serious science writers will touch it with a ten foot pole.

So why write about this?  Because I like to talk about myself.  Because I'm an egotist, like everyone else.  And to show you what kind of counselor I am.  I'm the guy who will talk about the thing no one else will, and I won't just write it off, I won't immediately dismiss it or invalidate it.  Whatever your experience is, lets talk about it.  You know your life better than anyone, which yeah might not be saying much sometimes. Think about how hard it is to prove *anything* about your experience to anyone else?  You saw an odd red bird yesterday - can you prove to anyone you saw it?  Nope.  You have a really bizarre relationship arrangement with five other adults involving things people think are shocking, or kinky, or disgusting, but it works for you.  You're happy. Its not my job to shoot that down - to tell you you're doing something wrong or dangerous.  Lets talk about it.  I'll talk to you about Bigfoot, what do we have to fear from kink or polyamory or whatever?  Does God talk to you directly and tell you things about what's going to happen?  Lets talk about it.  I'm not going to just tell you you're psychotic and we have to get you in to a shrink immediately.  Maybe its really comforting that God is talking to you.  Maybe you're coping with your life really well.  Does he tell you to hurt people?  To hurt yourself?  No?  Well what does s/he tell you?

I'm the guy you can tell anything to.  I won't tell you that you are crazy.  I won't tell you that you are a terrible person.  Really this is true of any good counselor - but this is how its true about me.

So come tell me your crazy story, I can't wait to hear it.

(I lied about the lottery numbers. Don't listen to people who promise you lottery numbers, okay?)



Monday, August 10, 2015

Meaning (or Spirituality - Its what's for midnight snack as well)

Okay okay - my brain is aging.  I can never remember things.  I sometimes worry that I have some kind of cognitive decline - recent studies say that folks developing dementia often notice it long before anyone else does.  But I just did one of those online Facebook IQ tests and I totally kicked its ass - so I *must* be fine, right?

Well anyway - as I was writing my spirituality post last week I knew I was forgetting something.  My very-important-definition-of-spirituality had four elements and I just couldn't find the fourth one.  It was a Rick Perry moment. Oops.

So, blinding flash of the obvious, element #4 is meaning.  Meaning is a very important part of anything we are going to call spirituality.

So what do I mean by "meaning"?  We talk about this stuff all the time, usually in cliche's.  The meaning of life.  Meaningful events. A crisis of meaning.  Meaning-making.  In some ways it seems as vague as the term "spirituality" itself.

I like to think about it very literally.  What are we doing if we are seeking the meaning of something?  We are attempting to interpret it.  What does that sign mean?  What does that word mean?  What does it mean that my name plate is no longer on my office door? What does this letter about a warrant over a parking ticket mean?

Really, this act of interpretation is the very definition of soft science.  The hard sciences are things you can actually put your hands on to some extent. Concrete things.  Things most people can look at and see the exact same thing.  When I flip this switch does this laser burn a hole through the wall?  Yes? (Oh sorry about your hand there.) No one is really going to argue about whether or not you have a cauterized wound on your palm.  We might ponder the fundamentals of what quantum mechanics and relativity mean about the nature of reality - but at that point you are really veering off into philosophy and interpretation and right out of the realm of hard science.

Soft science, on the other hand, requires interpretation by definition.  It involves things you can't measure directly - you can't lay your hands on them or on some kind of unambiguous effect of them.  You start out by asking someone what they mean.  "Interpret this for me." In clinical psychology, you know someone is depressed or manic by asking them how they feel.  Yes, there are visible markers too, but someone can really look like crap and not be depressed at all.  Even if someone seems hypomanic, you really have to talk to them - and maybe to their family - to find out if their behavior is unusual. Maybe they are just really high energy. Maybe they had too much coffee.  I mean we have our suspicions, but before we can really make up our mind we have to ask our jumpy friend about their internal state - they have to interpret for us - they have to help us understand what their behavior means.  Even if they are on the roof taking off their clothes and flapping their wings for take-off, we still don't quite know what is going on until we talk to them and get some information about their internal state - their subjective experience - that we can't observe from the outside.

Even with the exciting progress we are making in brain imaging, I am always struck by how dependent we still are upon interpretation.  Do you know why we know that image of a depressed brain is of a depressed brain? Because we talked to the person and asked them. Someday perhaps brain scans will be a reliable correlate of mental illness that will help us understand when someone isn't being truthful or perhaps they just lack sufficient self insight to accurately interpret their internal experience for us - but it will still only be because we correlated our scans to interpretative interviews we have made with other people.  Its built in.  Meaning is present - even in a computerized fMRI that seems to reduce us to wetware, or moist robots (I love that phrase - moist robot).

Meaning is everywhere - and reconciling ourselves with the meaning of our lives - whether collectively or individually - is part of spirituality.  We seem to need a sense of purpose in our lives or we lose our way.  At the bottom, that is what meaning is all about.  Intention. Purpose.  And living our lives in such a way that the intention comes through.  For a religious person, this intention is often the intention of a deity - and the meaning of our life is in how closely we adhere to God's intended meaning for our lives.  Some non religious people have a trickier problem on their hands - for they live in a world seemingly without meaning.  No one meant anything by it at all.  It doesn't represent some intention - some deeper meaning that we have to interpret.

Loads has been written on this modern and postmodern crisis of meaning.  I've got my way of coping with it.  It seems to be working for now.  There is nothing that says my way is going to work for my clients - but what will work is having a companion in the conversation who understands the dilemma. I think this need for meaning in our lives is fundamental and essential to how well we grapple with the other 3 aspects of spirituality as I conceive it - contentment, ethics, and compassion. If we live in a meaningless world - if we are cast adrift with no reason to believe any of it matters, then why be compassionate?  Why live ethically?  And how are we supposed to find peace with that other than through nihilism?

I don't make the mistake of claiming that a religious solution to these questions is the only way.  There are reasons to live ethically and compassionately in this life - but the search for those reasons and the conversation about those reasons is all about an interpretative search for meaning. We know we need a base of meaning to operate from - we seek it instinctively even if we don't know that's what we are doing.  Maybe we think we are just working on the philosophy of ethics and we don't realize that running through it all is a quest to find meaning.

There are cognitive theories for how we think that maintain, basically, that human brains are meaning-making machines.  Its what we do.  We make meaning. Given a stimulus - our natural response is to try to make sense of it - to try to interpret it and determine what it means, what does it say about our present, past, and future. We instinctively seek the meaning of our experience - not only do we seek it - we create it.  It is a product of our minds.  Meaning lives in our subjective world and we constantly have to interpret it for one another, pulling meaning out of our minds and projecting it out onto experience.

These may seem like very different things - but it seems like it is only a difference in scale.  The difference between asking the meaning of existence itself - vs asking what a foreign word on a sign overseas means - vs trying to determine what a sensation on your leg means (is it a spider? an ant?). Its all the same - things are happening all around us and it means something to us - and in order for us to make peace with our lives, it seems to be fundamentally important to make peace with these questions of meaning.  

What does it mean that I spent 40 years working for constantly changing stockholders who really didn't care about my work?  What does it mean that the marriage I spent 12 years building dissolved without warning leaving me on my own? What does it mean that I am having doubts about my faith?  What does it mean that I've believed in science and reason my whole life and have just realized that there are huge epistemological problems underneath the whole thing?

These are the kinds of things that keep us up at night - that kick us when we are down - and that keep us going when we think it is hopeless. And that's why meaning is the essential Fourth Horseman of Spirituality.






Saturday, August 8, 2015

Spirituality - its whats for dinner.

I've had a lot of time to think about spirituality in my adult life.  I was raised in a steadfastly Southern Baptist home.  Church 3 times a week at least.  Choir. Bible School. Revivals. Church Camp in the summer.  Instead of Boy Scouts I went to Royal Ambassadors - a sort of explicitly Baptist version. Instead of prom, I went to a sweetheart dinner and listened to my brother-in-law croon chaste love songs (Years later he taught me to play guitar but I always wanted to be able to sing like him as well - its something I can only barely do to this day.)

As I grew older I became less interested in the Southern Baptist story of the world. As an adult I am very much a secular humanist.  I look to science and reason.  But my raising left me with some deep convictions: that it is important how we treat one another; and that our lives mean something.

After broadening my horizons beyond my family's religion, I've explored all kinds of things.  I've done new age. I've done paganism. I've done eco-feminism. I've meditated. I've circled.  I've Zohar'd. I've walked labyrinths. I've listened to brain tapes.

In 1995 I read Ken Wilber and so discovered his integral ideas - and that has had a huge influence on my life. Its a large part of the reason why I'm here, writing a psychology blog, starting my counseling internship, someday building my own counseling practice.  A central theme in his work is the reconciliation of science and spirituality and all of my peers and colleagues and teachers and friends in the integral community at least have some kind of nodding acquaintance with spirituality - and more often a deep, abiding interest and practice of it.  Wilber even wrote a book, published in 2006, called Integral Spirituality - with his usual offering of fascinating insight.

But I've never been quite satisfied with how anyone - including anyone in the integral community, and including Mr. Wilber himself, much less anyone else out there in the world - actually defines this word, spirituality - even though I suspect that my definition would fit into his meta-theory on the subject just fine, probably under the category of "ultimate concern".

I've learned what it isn't, at least.  It isn't spiritualism - that is - a belief in an afterlife, in a soul, in heaven or hell, or reincarnation, or chakras, or auras, or crystals, or psychic powers, or seances, or out of body experiences, or any of those things.  All of those things are spiritualism.  Many dearly held religious beliefs are spiritualism - but that isn't spirituality.  That is actually a kind of science.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying crystals are scientific etc.  I mean - it is a set of claims about reality, about cause and effect, about the course we can expect our existence to take.  This stuff might be existential - but its not spiritual - not directly anyway.

I also don't think it is something you get from meditating - or at least not from meditating or praying by itself.  If there's one thing I've taken away from my involvement with Wilber's work it is that skill and facility and deep acquaintance with the singular point of consciousness at the root of our mind does not mean that you aren't an asshole - or worse a fascist - or an abuser. I know this theoretically, historically, and from direct experience.

I'm almost to the point now that I want to delete the word from my language.  What the hell does it mean to be spiritual anyway?  So many of us seem to think its a good idea, something worthy (of course not everyone).  What the holy hell is it?

And here's what I've come up with for myself.  Spirituality is anything that helps me be a better, more compassionate, more ethical, and more content person.   If it doesn't do those things - I'm not interested.  If you can't make a good case that something you're proposing helps those things - it might be something worth doing, and it might not - but its not spiritual.  If you can't point to how a writer, or a teacher, or a cleric, or an artist is growing that way and helping others around them to grow that way - then I'm sorry, I'm not interested in how "spiritual" they are, because in my book - they aren't.

If you have to make excuses for why your spiritual teacher hurts people around them with misbehavior, be it sexual or interpersonal or financial or political or what-have-you, then they don't measure up for me. That's not spirituality.  That's power.  That's monkey stuff and snake oil.

And what does this all have to do with psychology and counseling?  Well, a lot I think.  I think my clients are, at least partially, looking for this.  They are looking for help coping.  They want, at least, to be more content.  Many of them want to be better people.  They look in the mirror and they aren't happy with what they see, maybe because they regret choices they've made, or they feel damaged by experiences they never asked for, or they feel limited by their situation and want to do something more with their life than they feel their diagnosis or label allows them to.  And this definition of spirituality is something I want to help them with.  I want my clients to be more content, more ethical, and more compassionate.  I want them to be as good a version of themselves as they can be.

That doesn't mean I necessarily have any clue how to do that or that I have any business trying to offer them shrink wrapped solutions.  But its something I've struggled with - and I can stand with them while they struggle with it too. And I might invite them to pray, or to read something, or to meditate, or any number of other things - but ultimately if I'm not helping them find that more content, ethical, compassionate self, then I might be helping them do something good and worthwhile - but it ain't spiritual.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wanna help me network?

Hi - thanks for checking out my blog.  Could you tell me what you think about the following as a way to ask for networking help?  How do you think I can get my name out there in Austin?

-John.

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My friends,

Whatever drew you to this site, whether it was Facebook, my business card, an email, or a conversation, I need your help.

I'm beginning my internship at Treaty Oak Psychotherapy and I need help finding the people who need me. I need you to pass my name on to someone.  I need your help networking and getting my name out there.  If you just pass my information on to two people - that's all I need.  If you are the kind of person who can easily connect with 10 or 50 people, that's great too.

I know not everybody feels comfortable with this kind of thing - and that's just fine with me.  I don't want anyone to do anything they aren't ok with.  If this just isn't your thing - that's great.  You're already doing me a big favor just by reading this.

Here are the kinds of people I'd love for you to connect me to - primarily in Austin:

People who are into psychology, therapy, and/or spiritual growth.
People who are great networkers.
People with lots of social media followers (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr)
Or really just anyone who you think would be interested.

If you know people who need someone to talk to - please point them my way:

People who:

suffer from anxiety, depression, or some other common mental illness;
struggle with intense emotions of anger, fear, worry, or grief;
suffer from the stress of their lives and careers;
are beginning to feel dissatisfied in their marriage;
are looking for deeper meaning and contentment in their lives;

Or simply people who feel like they need to talk to someone about what they are living through.

So you see - I don't need you to find clients for me - I just need you boost the signal.  Some fraction of people out there will know someone who needs help.  If all you do is spread the word that I'm looking - that's all I need.  Just like the old shampoo ad:  and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on.....

If all you've done is read through this - thank you so much.  If you can think of a couple of people you think ought to know about me - that's wonderful and thank you again.  If you can think of a few people who you think can really spread the word about me - that's wonderful help and I appreciate you so much.

Please let me know any way I can return your help.

Have a great day,

-John.







So who the heck is this guy?

I am the oldest rookie.

Or I am a normal guy in midlife.

Its simple - I have a great career as an engineer. It pays well. Great benefits. Not a whole lot of nonsense to put up with.  But there's a couple of problems - I'm looking at my career options from here on out - say 50 years old plus - and there aren't a lot.  In electrical engineering there's not a lot of room for elders.  Although the integrated circuit industry is graying - just like a lot of industries in the United States - I look around and I just don't see a whole lot of engineers in their 50's.  I look at the "next steps" available to me in my niche of the industry and none of them really look great. I could become a middle manager.  Great. Yay!  Or I could become an account manager of some kind - a salesman in other words.  Again I Say Yay!

And here's the other problem - engineering has just never really done it for me.  Not really.  I just don't want to spend my whole life making widgets.  I need something a little more meaningful. Something I can not feel regretful about in my old age.  For some people its great.  Some people love it - it really works for them.  Not me.

So why counseling?  How do you go from being a nuts and bolts techie to a touchie-feelie sharing interpersonal healer-helper? In what universe does that make sense?

The answer of course is that I've always been both, and in some ways the same qualities that served me well as an engineer will serve me well as a counselor.  First and foremost I seem to have a talent for understanding how hidden and obscure processes affect the visible world.  In a different life, perhaps this would have made me a conspiracy theorist - and I confess those kinds of mysteries have some inherent appeal to me - but that same inclination works well for an electrical engineer which is all about understanding abstract and hidden qualities of reality in order to get some kind of desired result.  I mean, have you ever seen an electron?

And obviously - this works in psychology.  We develop theories for how this hidden world of the mind, and the subconscious and unconscious parts of our minds, directs our behavior and influences our experience of life - and then we propose techniques that will help us gain more control over minds and our experiences based on those theories - even if that "control" is sometimes more about letting go of control than anything else.

What you'll get from me as someone with an engineering background is a scientific foundation and an avoidance of jargon and vague assertions.  I like to speak plainly about what we do and what we can expect it to do for us.  As plainly as I can anyway, because much of what our brain and mind do is still pretty mysterious.  We learn more everyday, but we are still working with theories that don't really explain where mental illness comes from and can't confidently predict what kind of therapy or treatment will heal it.  There are some bright spots - techniques that seem to work very well - theories that seem accurate and predictive.  But largely - we're still fumbling in the dark.  We know some things that help. We know some things that really don't help.  We've learned a lot since Freud pioneered this psychotherapy dance (and btw even if Freud was a little too focused on sex, a great deal of what we still practice in psychotherapy can be traced straight back to Freud). But the mind is still a huge mystery - one that we are making progress at understanding - but a mystery nonetheless.

I think that, mostly, is why I am here.  There is a mystery here and I want to be part of exploring it - and I hope you'll give me some provisional trust and come along with me a little way to see what we can see.

















Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Inadequacy of Assessment Instruments (aka funny clip from the Martian).

Sometimes you just have to admit the assessment is wholly inadequate as seen in the new promo vid for The Martian.  I envision an append to their files:

"Assessment Note: In retrospect, whoever thought 10 days in the hole would even scratch the egos on these folks was an *idiot*."

I also envision the psychologist following up with the Commander: "You seem sensitive to discussions of gender dynamics. Say more about that..." and then walking out with a black eye.

The fantastically fun basis for this flick began as a hobby science blog - I think anybody with a smidgeon of scientific enthusiasm should read the book and at least consider watching the movie. Its so much fun and I love how the author made the obvious decision that anyone with the character to survive several hundred days alone on Mars has to have a fantastic sense of humor.