Institutional racism

One of the most challenging days of my life was the day I spent in a roomful of lawyers, in Germany. An Army 1st Lieutenant and race relations education officer, just back from six weeks of training at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), I was assigned to conduct a one-day race relations seminar at the U.S. Army headquarters in Heidelberg. The attendees were the staff of the Judge Advocate General – all of the Army lawyers in Germany, including the one-star Judge Advocate General, himself. Because lawyers join the Army at the rank of Captain, I was the lowest-ranking officer in the room. And I was the only non-lawyer.

I was used to encountering resistance to race relations education, and I knew that leading this seminar wouldn’t be easy. Sure enough, during the morning session, many of the things I said about personal racism were challenged, and I felt like I was being cross-examined. I wondered if my presentation was getting through to anyone. Then, gradually, some of the lawyers present nodded their agreement as I made controversial points, and seemed to be coming around.

When I talked about institutional racism in the afternoon session, I continued to encounter resistance from some of the lawyers. But others began to side with me, saying things along the lines of, “Actually, Tom, he’s right about that” and “Let him finish making his point.” At the end of the day, several attendees thanked me and shook my hand. A week or so later, I got a letter of commendation from the general, stating that it was clear why I’d been chosen “to be an instructor in the difficult subject area of racism.”

The only way that I was able to hold my own in a roomful of lawyers was that the evidence was on my side. I had the facts; the lawyers who argued with me only had opinions. Still today, many white Americans remain blind to institutional/systemic racism and white privilege. They have opinions about the disparities between the white majority and people of color, but they don’t know the facts about institutional racism.

Many of the facts I learned at the DRRI came from the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which analyzed the societal factors that provoked the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. The report disclosed inequities in employment, housing, social services and education, and identified discriminatory practices in policing and in the criminal justice system. The report concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Sad to say, not much has changed since the release of the report.

Institutional racism is a web of persistent, interrelated inequities having to do with housing, hiring practices, education, nutrition, health care, and law enforcement. People who are blind to institutional racism tend to believe that the disparities in wealth and social status are attributable to factors like intelligence and ambition. But, in fact, there is still widespread societal discrimination against people of color. The playing field is still not level.

The “white flight” to the suburbs left many inner cities mostly populated by people of color. Since most school districts are funded by local property taxes, and property in run-down inner cities and pockets of rural poverty is generally less valuable than in white communities, many minority group children get an inferior education, limiting their job prospects. Access to affordable health care, including preventive care, is often limited in minority communities. Many of these communities are also “food deserts,” with no supermarkets to provide fresh produce and nutritious alternatives to the junk food sold in neighborhood bodegas and convenience stores. Not only are job opportunities limited by poor schooling and job training, numerous studies have shown that many employers are unconsciously biased toward white job candidates over equally-qualified minority candidates. The economic inequality between white people and minorities can’t be denied. White people who don’t see or understand the mechanics of institutional racism are likely to lay blame for this disparity – consciously or unconsciously – on the victims of systemic racism.

People of color are disproportionately accosted or arrested, persecuted, incarcerated and killed in police custody, relative to white citizens. This is either because people distinguishable by their abundance of epidermal melanin are “racially” more prone to criminal behavior (as some people still believe), or because our criminal justice/law enforcement system is systemically racist, and in need of reform.

On race relations

As an Army officer, I was trained to be a race relations educator at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) in 1972, and spent a year in Germany leading race relations seminars. I’ve written in a previous post (“Who is a racist”) that it’s not simply a matter of whether one is or is not a racist. Personal racism isn’t a binary, either/or phenomenon. Racism exists along a continuum, between “hardly any racial bias” and “hates people because of their skin color or ethnicity.” Everybody has a place somewhere on this continuum, and where you place yourself may not be where others who know you would place you.

One thing I learned at the DRRI, and still believe, is that you can’t grow up in a racist society such as ours, unaffected by racism. None of us are completely color blind. I’ve known many people who would reflexively deny having any racist beliefs or tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. To admit that you’ve inherited residual racist beliefs or inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white. Another thing I learned at the DRRI was that guilt is a lousy motivator for change. Despite my personal history of ongoing self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I still can’t claim to be completely free of racism’s taint, myself.

In my DRRI training, I learned about both personal racism and institutional racism. I think that there are still a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society; but in this post, I’ll only be writing about personal racism – specifically implicit bias and confirmation bias.

Bias is universal; it’s part of being human. It can be racial, cultural, religious, or political. Implicit bias is often reflexive, unconscious; and it’s not always necessarily a bad thing. I may have a bias for bland food or for spicy hot food, depending on the foods I grew up eating. This may mean that when I eat out, I’m not likely to try a new dish that the menu describes as spicy hot. It may mean that when I choose which movie I want to see at the cineplex, I’m more likely to choose a film whose protagonists resemble me, or who come from my culture. It’s easier to identify with people I see as being like me. It doesn’t mean that I’m racially prejudiced; it’s just my unconscious preference. Being a heterosexual, I may prefer a traditional romantic comedy over a gay-themed love story, even if I’m not homophobic. No matter your race or cultural identity or sexual orientation, you’re biased to choose one thing over another, based on your life experiences.

Confirmation bias is also universal, and usually unconscious. It means that if I’m given new information on a topic that I’ve already formed an opinion about, I’m more likely to believe and remember things that confirm what I already believe, and less likely to have my opinion changed by things that might challenge my belief.

Even if we bear no ill will to persons of a racial or ethnic group other than our own, our beliefs about them may be unconsciously influenced by common stereotypes attached to that group of people. When I lived in Germany, I observed that some of the same stereotypes that have been attributed to African Americans in our society were attached to Turkish “guestworkers” who lived in ethnic ghettos: they were lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, and all the men wanted to have sex with German women.

The biggest remaining fallacy that continues to fuel racial stereotyping is the idea that race is a biological phenomenon. The concept of race as we know it didn’t exist until the era of European colonialism. Race is a social construct designed to justify the exploitation, colonialization and enslavement of that segment of the human race identifiable by the darkness of their skin. Part of the concept is hierarchal: some races are superior to others. In fact, all human beings belong to the same race. If you go back far enough, we’re all kin.

So, now I question whether or not “race relations” is an outdated term, perpetuating the notion of different races. It seems to me that “intra-racial relating” might be more accurate in describing the sometimes troubled relations within the family of man.

Our mental health crisis

John F. Kennedy was one of our most visionary presidents. He set a ten-year goal for landing on the moon and, although he didn’t live to see it, the goal was met. He envisioned an agency, separate from the State Department, that would give American citizens the opportunity to live and serve as volunteers in developing countries around the world; and the Peace Corps became a reality. He envisioned, and provided funding for, a national mental health system, made up of local mental health centers, to replace the system where most mental health treatment was provided in large, centralized state institutions.

For most of my career as a psychologist, I was employed at community mental health centers (CMHCs). Little did I know when I started out in 1976, working for a CMHC in rural Alabama, that these were the halcyon days of our national mental health system. Mental health agencies had adequate funding to meet community needs. The plan was to decrease reliance on expensive (and often unnecessary) inpatient treatment in state “mental hospitals,” by providing outpatient mental health services at the local level. Almost all of the initial funding was federal dollars, with the understanding that the federal funds would gradually decrease, and states would allocate a portion of the money saved, to replace the federal funding for community outpatient treatment. The goal of the well-intentioned plan was called “de-instititutionalization.”

All across the country, states made plans to eventually shut down the massive institutions that often “warehoused” patients with chronic. severe mental disorders. This saved the states a lot of money over time, but the state legislatures failed to carry out their part of the plan and replace lost federal funding for community mental health treatment with state dollars. Instead, the money saved went straight into state general funds, and funding for community treatment gradually diminished, year after year. The range of services provided shrank over time. Community outreach and support services programs closed down and CMHCs became understaffed. Clinicians (like me) initially hired to provide individual, family and group therapy found themselves doing less therapy, and more and more bare-bones case management services for their ever-increasing caseloads of underserved clients. A lot of seriously mentally ill people received only occasional fifteen-minute medication management sessions with a psychiatrist.

With the big, centralized institutions shut down or downsized, and with the inability of most CMHCs to adequately meet community needs, across the country more and more people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems have joined the ranks of the homeless. In many cities, hospital emergency departments stay backed-up because of all of the severely mentally ill people who need treatment and can’t get it elsewhere. Jails and prisons have become primary providers of (often inadequate) mental health services. Often, police officers are the first point of contact with people who are psychotic and out of control, sometimes with tragic results.

Few police officers are adequately trained to do effective interventions with manic and psychotic people. If the states had done their part and adequately funded community-based treatment, and we had the national mental health system that Kennedy envisioned, the first responder in a psychiatric crisis situation would be a social worker or a psychologist, not a cop. Police have enough responsibilities, without having to respond to psychiatric emergencies. Jails and prisons have enough problems to deal with, without having to be de facto mental health centers. Jails and prisons are obviously not environments conducive to stability and recovery.

Mental illness and substance abuse are some of the root causes of the rise in homelessness, and too many Americans are more judgmental than compassionate when they encounter homeless people. There remains in our society a stigma that brands mentally ill people as the Other, not as individuals whose impairments should be recognized and addressed on a societal level. Our national mental health system is a disgrace, partly due to stigma and the consequent marginalization of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. We need to elevate our compassion for these people to the level of our compassion for people suffering from cancer and other physical diseases – maladies that have ad campaigns promoting awareness and compassion We need to treat substance abuse as more a public health issue than as a criminal issue.

Prevention is a vital part of medicine, and gets a lot of attention when it comes to physical illnesses. Kennedy’s plan emphasized prevention, and we need to develop a national model that puts the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse on a par with the treatment of physical injuries and diseases.

Why I write

Those of you who follow my blog may have wondered what’s happened to me, since I haven’t posted anything for months. I’m back, and I owe you an explanation. I plan to resume posting on a regular basis, but time will tell how frequently. I haven’t succumbed to the Plague. My only excuse is that in late May I injured my left knee in a fall, and required surgery. I realize that recovery from a knee injury doesn’t explain my silence as a writer; but it’s been part of a confluence of events that I’m trying to make sense of.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer, even though I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. It wasn’t just a fantasy about achieving fame or making money; I just knew that I had things to say. I read a lot and admired good writers.

I started out as a political science major in college, but discovered that my favorite classes were English literature courses. It didn’t take me long to switch majors. As a boy and as a teenager I’d mostly read adventure (including all of the Tarzan novels) and science fiction but, awed by the brilliance of such literary masters as Milton, Shakespeare and Goethe, I fell in love with literature. My first short story (science fiction) was published in The Citadel’s literary magazine, The Shako, and I served as poetry editor during my senior year. (Pat Conroy, The Citadel’s best-known alumnus author, held that job my freshman year.) It would be years before I wrote my next short story, but my brain was brimming with ideas.

Most of my fiction remains unpublished, but I hope that will change. I’ve written over a dozen short stories that I’m still proud of, as well as a crime novella and a speculative fiction novel. My two published books are non-fiction. Two years in Kingston Town is a memoir of my Peace Corps service in Jamaica (1991-93), with my wife Maria. Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything, an examination of how we became a Propaganda Society, was the result of much research, and received several favorable reviews – including one in Kirkus Reviews. I had hoped it would be used as a textbook in high school and college social science and English classes, as an aid to teaching students about propaganda. But that didn’t happen.

Most writers — even good ones — have to get used to rejection and to persist in their efforts to get published. I’ve come to understand that what distinguishes true writers from dilettantes and people who write, motivated by fantasies of fame and money: we write because we must. I’ve said for years that writing is my therapy and, sure enough, now that I’ve had several unproductive months, I ‘ve been feeling that there’s something missing from my life. Writing is part of who I am. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it’s like I get an idea in my head, and it wants to get out. So I start to put it into words, usually on paper for the first draft.

As I re-read and re-read the first draft, I make changes until I’m satisfied with it as a first draft. (Bestselling author James Michener said that he wasn’t a good writer, but was a very good re-writer.) I write my second draft on WORD, editing as I go, and print it out. As I read it over and over again, I continue to make improvements, polishing my prose until it says what I set out to say. Writing fiction, I continue to edit on WORD until I achieve what I consider a “final draft.” Blogging, as I type out my latest post on my WordPress blog site, I continue to find things to improve upon. So, what you read is a polished third draft.

At various times during my career as a psychologist, I wrote “You and Mental Health” columns for local newspapers. In them, I tried to de-mystify esoteric psychological concepts, and to educate readers about psychotherapy. While my father enjoyed my fiction, he told me that he most liked my mental health columns. He said that I had a gift for explaining complex things in layman’s terms. This praise and encouragement is part of what got me to start blogging.

Everyone is adapting — or trying to adapt –in their own way to this strange parenthesis in our lives that is the pandemic. I consider myself fortunate that I haven’t been significantly anxious or depressed, or afflicted by “cabin fever.” But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been affected. The confluence of socially-distanced living and my knee injury seems to have temporarily sapped me of my creative momentum. I feel like I haven’t been fully myself lately. Until today, having written these words. It’s good to be back.

Hip, cool, and woke

I got a BA in English before I got my MA in psychology, and I’ve always been fascinated by language. I learned that languages are – other than dead languages like Latin –  living things that evolve over time, to capture meaning and convey information. So,  my first point is that “hip,” “cool,” and “woke” are just words, with meanings that vary from person to person. What’s cool to you might not be cool to me.  But in my experience, many people use hip and cool interchangeably, and apply the term hip to places like coffee shops and to things that can be bought, like clothes or haircuts. This is a significant departure from the original  meaning, in which hip is a state of mind.

Cool is in the eye of the beholder, and it applies to people, places, things and actions: you can eat at a cool tavern, with cool friends, wearing cool clothes, and listening to cool jazz. Cool fads come and go, and the cachet of cool is used to move a lot of merchandise. Things can be made to seem cool by marketers and influencers. Certain things cannot be cool, like prisons.

Hip can’t be bought or rented or worn or inhabited, although marketers have used the word as an adjective, to be applied to this destination or that product. In its original meaning, hip can only be applied to persons. Dialectically speaking, you either are or are not hip – but it can also be seen as existing along a continuum. A synonym for hip is “aware,” as in “hip to what’s goin’ down.” “I’m hip” doesn’t  mean the same thing as “I’m cool”; it means “I understand.” To be hip is to be in the know, to see what un-hip people don’t see. Hip originated in Black dialect, because people of color tend to be aware of things that the majority of white people are blind to – as I once was. If you were hip, you kept your eye on what The Man was up to.

I wasn’t truly hip to American racism until, as an Army lieutenant, I attended the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), to be trained as a race relations education officer. Sure, I had been aware of some aspects of racism before then. I knew that people of color were frequently discriminated against. Although I ‘d had Black classmates and teachers at the international school I’d attended in Vienna, my Georgia high school didn’t integrate racially until my Junior year. I hated racism and thought I was pretty well-informed about it.

But it wasn’t until my immersion in race relations education at the DRRI that I truly became “hip to what’s goin’ down” in America. Not only did I learn from classroom instruction, but in late night discussions in the barracks with brown- and black-skinned classmates (as well as a few Asians and Native Americans), who talked frankly about their own life experiences. We were the pilot class at the DRRI, and we felt a sense of brotherhood and trust. I became hip to the reality that white people live in a different America than people of color. I began to see things that I had been blind to.

Just as religious people can be guilty of “holier-than-thou” attitudes, it’s possible to fall into “hipper-than-thou” judgments. Hipness is perhaps best viewed as existing along a continuum, and where you place yourself on the Hipness Scale may not be where other hip people would place you. But it’s not a contest.

The concept of hipness seeped into white consciousness via the so-called Beat Generation, especially through the writings of Jack Kerouac. (He wrote that his definition of hip was someone who could score drugs in a foreign country.) The Beat Generation had a great influence on the Baby Boomer generation, and hipness was so central to the youth rebellion of the sixties that the long-haired, tie-dyed cultural rebels became known in the media as hippies. Not all of them liked the term, but the so-called hippies prided themselves in “knowin’ what’s goin’ down” and “dropping out”  of conventional society. They kept their eyes on what The Man was up to.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote, “There are no “squares” . . . Everyone is his own hipster.” What she meant by hipster was something entirely different from the contemporary meaning of the word, as I understand it. These days hipster seems to describe a style or a lifestyle and, to me, more resembles “cool” than the original meaning of hip. Perhaps the word “woke” is the contemporary analog of “hip to what’s goin’ down,” with a side of political correctness.

Values clarification

In order to rationally address the subject of values, I need to first examine the notion of absolute values. When I was a boy, I believed in certain absolute values; but as  a young man,  I began to question the concept of moral absolutes. Raised a Christian, I’d been told that the truth is always simple and, early-on, I liked that idea. But moral absolutes reduce the range of human choices to black or white, eliminating any shades of gray. That’s not the world I live in. Moral choices are more complicated than some people would have you believe.

The Ten Commandments are a classic example of moral absolutes. “Thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute, and yet many people who profess the Ten Commandments as the basis of their moral code think that killing by soldiers in wartime is acceptable. Some “pro-life” people who believe that abortion is murder believe in capital punishment.

As an idealistic teenager, I got involved in the Sing Out America/Up With People organization, organizing local Sing Out casts in Georgia and South Carolina. Sing Out America was a promotional effort for the Moral  Re-Armament (MRA) movement. MRA  claimed to have a Western ideology to counter Communism, and promoted the idea of “absolute” honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. While this appealed to me at the time, I gradually became disillusioned with the MRA philosophy and the whole concept of absolute values. I  got comfortable with relativity and ambiguity in the determination of moral values.

I believe that values are bound to culture and circumstance. In primitive “subsistence economies,” where everyone has to carry their own weight in order for the tribe to survive, it’s understandable why an elderly or disabled person might  be expected to leave the tribe and die of exposure in the wilderness. In an economy of wealth, where more is produced than is needed for tribal survival, this practice is unnecessary, and would understandably be seen as cruel or inhuman.

So, I’m a believer in moral relativity. I believe that circumstances often determine what is “right” and what  is “wrong.” This moral philosophy has been called situation ethics – a concept attacked by religious zealots as a Satanic war on morality. The Republican Party has presented itself as the “party of values,” as if its values were absolute. In fact, everybody has values, from the Pope to gangsters like Tony Soprano. They just value different things.

Values clarification rises above the notion of absolute values and simplifies the moral equation with its specificity. Every moral stand involves a choice – it involves this over that. You either value your vow of fidelity to your spouse, or you value having sex with somebody else. You either treat people the way you want to be treated, or you sometimes steal from other people. You either value staying high on your favorite drug all the time, or you value a life of moderation and responsibility to the people who depend on you.

There are professed values and lived values, and we’ve all known  hypocrites who don’t live by the rules they say they believe in. The Bible says pretty clearly that rich people don’t go to Heaven, and yet there are many rich Christian fundamentalists who apparently believe that a camel can  go through the eye of a needle. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to love your enemy, and your neighbor as yourself; but  I’ve known a lot of Christians who  don’t even try, although they give lip service to Jesus’ prescriptions. Organized religion is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, and I feel sure that there are plenty of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu (etc.) hypocrites.

Religious or not, many people lay claim to have the “right” values; but only moral absolutists can do this. Some of them just don’t think or care about the gap between their professed and lived values; others rationalize and equivocate, as with the Christian belief that we’re all Sinners, but that our belief in and love of God will save us from paying for our sins.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Voltaire said that doubt is a disagreeable state, but that certainty is a ridiculous one. Since I can’t make myself believe in the tenets of any particular religion – although most of my lived values are Judeo-Christian in origin – I remain a moral relativist. An existentialist at heart, I can live with ambiguity, uncertainty, shades of gray. Values clarification is a tool I can use to examine moral choices. My first marriage was polyamorous; but although I’ve been happily and monogamously married for thirty years to my wife Maria, I don’t necessarily view monogamy as morally superior to polyamory. The choice between the two is a matter of situational, lived values.

Improving your memory, Part 2

As regards memory, I believe there’s something to the notion “use it or lose it.” People who are convinced that they don’t have a good memory often don’t work to improve it. Excepting those who have a neurological memory deficit, it can become a negative cycle, a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t trust your memory, you don’t use it; and because  you don’t use it, you don’t trust it.

In my last post I gave examples of mnemonic devices that you can use to improve your recall. I also described how I used a mnemonic device in concert with a behavior modification technique to change a targeted behavior problem. In this post I’ll share some things I’ve discovered about other mnemonic aids.

For instance, I’ve had a bad habit of leaving the stereo amplifier on – sometimes for a day or more – after playing a cd. I just didn’t notice that the little red power light was on. So I “amplified the signal”  by putting the cd jacket on the floor beside the sound system, and not picking it up until I’ve turned off the stereo.  Temporarily placing things where they don’t belong, but where you’re bound to notice them, is a simple mnemonic aid, when associated with a specific behavior.

Turning routine behavior patterns into mindful rituals has saved me a lot of frustration. I’ve programmed myself to always put my car key and my house key in the same place when I come home. This is probably obvious to most of my readers, but I’ve known a lot of people with memory problems who haven’t developed this simple habit. You can learn to do something mindfully until it becomes automatic. I have some obsessive-compulsive traits, and if I’m “on autopilot” when I leave the house, I might have anxious thoughts after I drive away: “Did I lock the door?” So, I’ve learned to lock the door mindfully, recording the act with the camera of my eyes. It’s a ritual, and it works. Teach yourself to be more frequently mindful of common tasks, and you’ll simplify your life. Never in my life have I lost a wallet, a credit card, or an important key. If I have a good memory, it’s because I’ve worked at it. You can, too.

As a writer, I’ve developed my own system to help me remember things and to connect ideas. I always keep index cards and a pen handy – in my shirt pocket when I’m out and about. If I have an  idea or come across something I want to remember, I jot it down. When the card gets crowded with ideas, it goes on The Pile, on my writing desk. Recent ideas are easy to find, near the top of The Pile. Then, every few weeks, I break out a legal pad and go through The Pile. Some pages on the pad are labeled, by topic or writing project. I record some items/ideas on the pages, line through others that I can’t use (“why did I write that down?”), and trash the index cards. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, describes using a similar system in his follow-up book, Lila.

Sometimes I tear a blank page from a legal pad and use it to organize my thoughts for a project. I write down a working title and the first words that come to my mind (or from my index cards) on the topic. Then I “shotgun” any key words or related ideas from my head, onto the page. When I see associations, I may draw lines to connect items; or I may number items, to form a sequential outline. Most of my blog posts start with key words or index card notes, and what you read is a polished third draft. I write my first draft on a legal pad, my second on WORD, on my PC, and continue to refine from the WORD document as I transcribe my finished post.

Journaling is an excellent memory aid, especially if you’re a writer. Recording both thoughts and events aids your recollection of details in the months and years that follow, and is very helpful if you ever want to write a memoir or an autobiography. We tend to subconsciously edit our memories, and an honest journal can help you to remember what really happened. I kept a journal for the two years I served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and it enabled the writing of my first published book: Two Years in Kingston Town – A Peace Corps Memoir.

I’ve kept quotebooks since I was in grad school, so I have access to all of my favorite quotes. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that you “. . . make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like a blast of triumph.” Over the years, I’ve started personalized quotebooks as unique gifts for family members and close friends, seeding them with quotes that I think will mean something to them, and leaving the bulk of the pages blank, to be filled with their own favorite quotes.

Finally, I’ve learned over time to use calendars as memory aids. Not only do I use the wall calendar in our kitchen to record upcoming appointments and trips, but I record birthdays for the coming year, and things like the date when the hummingbirds arrived last year – so I’ll know when to put out the hummingbird feeder. I now save each year’s calendar, as a historical record of when we did what. I hope that some of these suggestions have been useful in helping you to learn to trust, and improve, your memory.

Improving your memory

I know people who don’t trust their memory and don’t rely on it as much as people who do. It can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. I also know  people who habitually misplace things like wallets/purses, keys and cell phones. Just as you can strengthen a muscle by exercising it, I believe that you can strengthen your memory by actively using it. You can learn to rely on it more often by using mnemonic devices. These are images, acronym words and phrases, or rhymes and songs, used as memory aids. The more you use them, the more confident you can be about your memory.

Teaching college courses in psychology, when we studied memory, I’d demonstrate a mnemonic device that uses imagery to quickly memorize a list. I’d ask the class to name ten items on a food shopping list, taking a few seconds between items to conjure up an image. Later in the class I’d recall and recite all ten items, in order. I never once failed to remember all of the items. The technique I used requires memorizing ten words, each of them rhyming with a number between one and ten: bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, line and pen (as in pig pen). If the first shopping item is bananas, I quickly visualize  a whole banana in a hamburger bun. If the second item is honey, I visualize a shoe filled to overflowing with honey. If the third item is chicken, I visualize a chicken tree. And so forth. The weirder the image, the better. Each of the ten words/images I use serves as a mental “peg” to hang an image of the item on. Try it out; impress your family and friends.

A variation, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, is called the method of loci (Latin for places), or the memory palace. You visualize a building you’re very familiar with, such as your home or the house you grew up in. Memorize ten locations, in the order in which you’d see them, coming home, i.e. the driveway, the walkway to the front door, the front porch, the doorway, the table against the wall in the hallway where you stash your keys, etc. Each location is a visual peg on which to hang an image of an item on your list. If the first item is eggs, you might imagine a giant fried egg covering the driveway. Etc.

The use of acronyms (i.e. NIMBY for “not in my back yard”) is also a kind of mnemonic device. It’s easy to remember the colors of the spectrum by memorizing the invented name “Roy G. Biv”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. You can remember the names of the planets in our solar system, in the order of their distance from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) by memorizing the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us noodles,” or by coming up with your own sentence. Once you grasp the technique, you can memorize lists by crafting acronym words or sentences.

Short-term memory is limited to approximately seven numbers/items at a time, but chunking – breaking up a longer sequence into chunks – makes memorizing easier. It takes a while to memorize a ten-digit phone number (8054769238), but it becomes easier to remember in the form 805-476-9238. Rhyming and singing can also be used as memory aids. I still use the rhyme I learned as a child to remember the number of days in each month: “Thirty days hath September/ April, June and November./All the rest have thirty-one/except the second month alone./To it we twenty-eight assign/’til leap year gives it twenty-nine.” Many children learn the letters of the alphabet, in order, by singing the “ABC song,” to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

You can use mnemonics and a behavior modification strategy to become more mindful and change bad habits. I used to leave stove burners on after cooking – a bad habit that could potentially ignite a kitchen fire. So, I did two things to modify my behavior. I got in the habit of turning on the stove light whenever I used a burner or the oven. I would only turn off the light after I’d checked, and turned everything off. I used the stove light as a mnemonic device. That helped me to decrease the frequency, but I still left a burner on sometimes. So, I got in the habit of making a mark on the kitchen calendar every time I left a burner or the oven on. Not only was it (in the language of behavior modification) a mildly “aversive consequence” to admit and record each failure, it was an exact record of the frequency of my failures. Over time, I saw a decrease in the frequency, and it’s been over a year since my last failure.

I set a goal, made a plan, and modified my behavior. You can do that, too. Rubber bands can be helpful in modifying some undesirable behaviors. If you tend to lose track of where you put your cell phone, wrap it in a rubber band between calls. When you use your phone, wrap the rubber band around several fingers, tight enough that you feel it. When you finish the call, the rubber band reminds you to be mindful of where you put the phone, before you transfer the rubber band from your hand, back to the phone. You can learn to be more mindful about keeping track of your phone, and eventually do away with the rubber band.

Set a goal, make a plan, and you can improve your memory and replace bad habits with good ones.



Mind Magic

Being a psychologist, I’ve done a lot of thinking and studying about the human brain – the organ that makes us “the magic animal.” Humans can not only see things as they are, but as they could be. Our cognitive abilities and our imaginations allow us to create cultures and cities and symphony orchestras and entertaining stories about things that never happened.

It was my privilege, as a therapist, to be a witness to people changing their lives in positive ways. I’ve seen parents become better at raising their children. I’ve seen violent people learn that anger needn’t lead to violence, and learn to control their behavior no matter how angry they got. I’ve seen couples discover deep emotional intimacy while respecting one another’s boundaries. I’ve long suspected that major changes in a person’s behavior patterns (i.e. mastering anger management) was probably causing structural synaptic changes in their brains. Synaptic pathways mediate both emotions and behaviors.

My suspicions have been validated in recent years by research on brain neuroplasticity. Our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves structurally and functionally, by forming new neural connections. Brains can “re-wire” themselves to compensate for injury or disease, and to adjust to new or changing situations. My guess is that the brains of bilingual people have more complex neural pathways related to speech and language than people who only speak one language. I suspect that it gets easier over time for formerly violent people to use their anger management skills, because daily practice creates new neural connections, new reflex behaviors.

The human brain has a wide repertoire  of states of consciousness (SOCs). The very notion of “altered states of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a “standard” SOC – which is clearly not the case. Your SOC is different when you solve a math problem, or listen to music, or perform in front of an audience, or make love. So, I submit that we have a range of standard SOCs, which everyone experiences, as well as a range of alternate SOCs – some of which not everyone will experience. Taking drugs – including alcohol and nicotine – reliably alters consciousness in a variety of predictable ways. I won’t get into drugs as a means of altering consciousness in this post, other than to recommend Michael Pollan’s  book, How To Change Your Mind, which is about the potential of psychedelic experiences to bring about  lasting positive changes in peoples’ lives – even after a single “trip.”

I’d like to briefly share some of the things I’ve learned about our potential to “change our minds” without using drugs. Rational thinking  is a learnable skill. We all have rational and irrational thoughts. Many people can’t tell the difference between  them and sometimes act on irrational thoughts, complicating their lives. Rational thinkers are people who can differentiate their rational thoughts from their irrational thoughts, and make rational decisions. I believe that the brains of rational thinkers are wired differently – through practice – than the brains of those who can’t tell the difference. Active listening is a learnable skill that improves receptivity to nuances of interpersonal dialogue and music appreciation, among other things. Over decades of listening to classical music, I’ve become a better listener. Listening is often a passive process, but active listening is mindful listening, with no intruding thoughts.

Hypnosis is generally understood as a SOC “induced” by a hypnotist, where the brain is receptive to suggestion. People who are good hypnotic subjects can learn self-hypnosis to relieve pain, overcome bad habits, and otherwise improve their lives. Meditation is similar to active listening only in that it involves mental focus. But in active listening, the mind is focused on some external thing, whether words or music. Experienced meditators can maintain awareness,without any object of that awareness. There are things to be learned by simple, sustained awareness that can’t be learned by thinking, or be put into words. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation where the meditator is focused on their immediate experience, to the exclusion of thoughts about what they’re experiencing – especially judgments like good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Walking or chopping wood can be the focus of mindfulness meditation.

Not everyone experiences all of these SOCs; some require preparation and effort. Training that I received from anthropologist and practicing shaman Dr. Michael Harner enabled me to experience the shamanic state of consciousness, in which I’ve had vivid experiences of “journeying” in Dreamtime and encountering spirit animals. You can learn more about the techniques of shamanic journeying at, the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which Dr. Harner founded.

While I agree with Michael Pollan that psychedelic “trips” can, under the right conditions, be profound, positive life-changing experiences, I wrote this post as an overview of non-drug SOCs that can change our minds and lives. If you want to know more about any of these tools for personal growth, I’ve written in more detail about psychedelic consciousness, shamanic journeying, rational thinking, active listening, hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness in previous posts. You’ll also find a few entertaining stories about things that never happened.

Your mind is magical.

Turning off your mental radio

Although this post is about meditation, and I’ve taught basic meditation techniques to people for years, I’m not a daily meditator, myself. I think of meditation as an ancient, effective psychotechnology – a tool/skill for controlling mental activity. I’ve found it to be helpful in many situations, and have described learning to meditate as learning to “turn off your mental radio” at will.

A Buddhist text describes the mind as a “drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion,” and thinking is the source of much human suffering. Many people that I worked with as a therapist often felt overwhelmed by the unending press of their own thoughts, resulting in high levels of stress and distress – often in the form of anxiety and depression. People suffering from insomnia complained that they couldn’t stop thinking when they needed to be sleeping. I’ve written about rational thinking as a learnable skill in previous posts, but meditation gets at the root problem of runaway thoughts – regardless of content. Practicing it can prevent a thought from becoming an unwanted “train of thoughts” that might take you to places you don’t want to go. In a meditative state one can be aware, without being aware of any thing.

I’ve never had chronic sleep problems, but my rare experiences of insomnia used to be hellish, as I tossed and turned in bed, telling myself that I was having a terrible time. Now, when I have trouble falling asleep, I can avoid being aroused by the content of my thoughts. I can turn off my mental radio and experience getting needed rest, until I fall asleep again. I no longer torment myself with unwanted thoughts that keep me awake. There are other benefits that come from learning to meditate. You can learn it all by yourself. All it takes is practice.

There are many ways to learn how to meditate, and you don’t have to learn yoga or tai chi to discover how to control your mental activity. Daily meditators extol the benefits of their practice, but even occasional meditation can be a helpful skill, enabling you to keep your focus and to reduce your stress. As a therapist, I felt obligated to remain 100% present in the here-and-now with each client. Sometimes I would do a brief meditation between therapy clients, to clear my mind.

I started out with what I call one-point meditation, and went on to learn to maintain awareness, without any object of my awareness – no-point meditation. There are many different focal stimuli that can be used to learn one-point meditation. Probably the most popular method is to focus on your breath, to the exclusion of all thought. But learners can also focus on a visual stimulus such as a candle flame in a dark room or a mandala, or an aural stimulus – a ringing bell or a mantra such as “Om.” In mindfulness meditation, you focus on your present surround or activity, to the exclusion of thoughts about the situation or activity. Walking, or washing the dishes, can be a meditation.

Other than mindfulness meditation or movement meditations such as tai chi, most meditators sit, keeping a straight spine. As you follow your breathing, or try to lose yourself in a mandala or a candle flame or a mantra, thoughts will intrude on the purity of your concentration. One thought can easily lead to a train of thoughts that distracts you from your focal point. Learning to meditate involves learning not to let these thoughts carry you away from the object of your concentration. You notice the thought but don’t follow it, letting it pass, while focusing back on the candle flame, the mantra, your breath, or the activity you’re engaged in. When you first achieve a meditative state, you’ll know it; but as soon as you think, “I’m meditating!” you’re not. Repeat. With practice, you can extend the time that your awareness is one-pointed, uncontaminated by thought.

Once you make progress in one-point meditation, and can let intrusive thoughts drift by without distracting you from simple awareness, you can start to practice turning off your mental radio altogether, with no focal stimulus. I know from long experience that I can be alert and aware, without being aware of any thing, including my own thoughts. In the meditative state, I’m free from stress. I can meditate briefly, to clear my mind between mentally taxing activities. I can clear my mind of intrusive thoughts when I want to fall asleep.

Rhythmic breathing is central to learning meditation, even if you’re focusing on a candle flame or a mantra or an activity. Breathing is a constant, automatic activity. When you bring it into conscious awareness, you can learn to empty your mind of thought – if that is your goal. (Pranayama yoga teaches people to alter their consciousness in a variety of directions, by altering their breathing in prescribed ways.) Your initial practice sessions need not last long. If you set aside ten or fifteen minutes, several times a week, you can teach yourself how to turn off your mental radio.