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 http://www.shamanism.org, 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.

Rules for “fair fighting”

Lovers are going to fight sometimes – hopefully, only with words. It’s inevitable, because no two people in an intimate relationship are a “perfect match” in terms of habits, preferences and expectations. Boundaries have to be set (and re-set) because each of us is unique, and adjustments are inevitable in a healthy relationship. The balance of power is an issue in many or most romantic relationships. Joni Mitchell wrote  (and sang) “You and me are like America and Russia,/ We’re  always keeping score./ We’re always balancing the power,/ And that can get to be a bore.” I know a lot about balancing the power, not only from my own personal experiences, but from years of doing couples’ therapy, as a psychologist.

Knowing that conflict is inevitable in lasting intimate relationships, I studied, and came up with my own set of rules for “fair fighting,” to minimize destructive messages and to keep open the possibility of mutually satisfactory resolutions. Dialogue can be constructive or destructive. Destructive arguments can leave wounds, which can either fester or heal over time. If both partners act in good faith with one another over time and earn to fight fairly, old wounds can heal, and they can avoid lasting damage to the relationship. Here’s my list of rules:

(1) Practice the Golden Rule, and remember that there needn’t necessarily be a Winner and a Loser when you and your partner have a disagreement. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that you always have to treat your partner the way they want to be treated; it means mutual respect for boundaries. “Okay. I agree to stop bringing up that time you got drunk and cheated on me ten years ago, but you don’t get to shout at me.” Yelling, cursing, and degrading language are all counterproductive to mutual understanding and harmony.

(2) If one or both of you has lost your temper, either of you can call a time out. Stop talking, trying to get the last word in. It’s hard to be rational when you’re angry. You may or may not need to  physically separate during the time out, but don’t resume the discussion until both of you have cooled down. Repeat as necessary. It might help to write down your thought and feelings during the time out, if that helps you to get perspective.

(3) Stay on topic. Deal with one problem/issue at a time. Avoid “and while I’m at it . . .” digressions, and don’t drag in past grievances. Don’t stonewall, i.e. refuse, over time, to discuss a topic that your partner thinks is important. Don’t deflect or pivot: “Let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about you.” Try to avoid blaming statements. Take turns doing active listening and ask for clarification if you need it. Ask neutral questions that elicit feedback, such as, “Does that make sense to you?”

(4) Try not to generalize. Be as specific as you can, and avoid absolutes like “always,” “never,” and “every time.” These generalizations are seldom objectively factual, and tend to elicit defensive responses. Statements like, “We never make love anymore” trigger thoughts counter to that statement, i.e. “We made love last Wednesday.”

(5) Avoid questions-that- aren’t-really-questions – statements phrased as if they were queries, usually starting with “why” or “what.”: “Why are you always on my case?” “Why don’t you act like a real man (or woman)?” “What do you take me for – your maid?” “Why are you such a big baby?” Such statements in the form of questions invite a defensive, and sometimes angry, response. There’s no “answer” to the “question” that would satisfy the asker.

(6) I-statements (first-person) are usually much easier to digest than you-statements (second-person), which can be contradicted, argued over. If you start a sentence with “I feel/want/think/wish . . . ” your partner can’t contradict you, because you’re the final authority on how you feel and what you think. It’s easier to hear and understand, “I wish you’d spend more time with the kids” than ” You hardly ever spend tome with the kids,” let alone “Why don’t you ever spend time with the kids?” It’s easier to hear “I think you’re wrong” than “You’re wrong.”

Metacommunication is talking about the way we talk. Here’s an example: Pat “How do you think we’re doing, applying those fair fighting rules we learned in counseling?” Lindsey “I think we’re doing better, but I wish you’d stop bringing up the past when we argue. How do you think we’re doing?” Pat “Well, we haven’t had a shouting match in weeks, so there’s improvement. I need to work on ‘one topic at a time.’  But I don’t like it when you get angry and keep going on, after I call a time out. We need to stop talking and cool off when either of us calls a time out. It’s just not important for one of us to get in the last word.”

Shakespeare wrote, “Love does not alter when it alteration finds . . .”. True, lasting love involves tolerance. True love will find a way to rise above conflicts, in service of harmony.

Effective communication and “fair fighting”

I wrote in my last post that I’d share my “fair fighting rules” for couples in a later post. I’m feeling on a roll with the topic of effective communication, so here goes. Arguments inevitably arise in all long-term committed relationships. They can be constructive or destructive. As a therapist, I coached individuals and couples in communicating effectively and avoiding destructive disputes. The successful use of these guidelines depends on good faith between the persons involved, meaning that neither partner tries to dominate the discussion, and both want there to be a positive outcome, based on honest communication. In honest, good faith disputes between equal partners, there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. (In game theory an I win/you lose interaction is known as a “zero sum game.”)  It’s possible to “win all the battles, but lose the war.” If you follow some basic rules, a disagreement is more likely to lead to a win/win outcome.

(1) Be mindful. Stay in the here-and-now and be aware of your emotions. (2) No attacks, threats or generalized judgments. Easy to say, but if you’re both mindful and acting in good faith, you can avoid these traps. (3) Be an active listener, with one person talking at a time. Don’t interrupt. Each of you gets to express yourself, each of you wants to be understood. (4) One topic at a time. Don’t drag in other issues or stuff from the past. (5) Try to express yourself in I-statements. You-statements, especially generalizations, tend to lead to defensiveness and denials. If you say, “I think/feel/want _____,” the other person can’t contradict you, can’t say “No you don’t.” I-statements invite understanding and empathy. (6) Avoid generalizations, often characterized by “always” and “never,” or  “should.” If you’re critical of something about your partner, try to frame it constructively. (7) Be assertive. Clearly state what you want/don’t want, or what you mean. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind. (8) Don’t miss opportunities to validate, or to acknowledge your understanding of, your partners feelings or point of view. What’s your common ground? Try to understand your partner’s position and express any empathy you may feel. (9) Avoid questions-that-aren’t-really-questions. They’re usually characterized by “why”s, such as “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” This is actually a statement (“You never listen to me.”) phrased as if it were a question. There is no answer to this emotionally-loaded pseudo-question that would satisfy the asker, because it’s not really a question. (10) If appropriate, turn the tables. Ask, “What do you think we need to do?”

I had the professional privilege of working in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program for two years. DBT programs are designed to treat people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The program I worked in was run by Dr. Shari Manning, who studied with Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT. I spoke briefly with Dr. Linehan at a professional conference years ago and mentioned that I’d worked in a DBT program under Shari’s supervision, to which she replied, “You’re a lucky man.” And indeed I was. My participation in the DBT program at Columbia Area Mental Health Center was a great opportunity for professional development. Working in a DBT program requires adherence to a model and methodology as precise and rigorous as psychoanalysis. You have to follow fixed protocols and work within a peer consultation team that supports and guides your work with this very challenging population.

I’ll get into DBT in more detail over time, but suffice it to say for now, DBT programs teach specific skills to people who frequently have difficulty with relationships. For two years I co-led DBT skills training groups, and worked individually with clients in the program, coaching them in the use of the skills. One of the skills modules is interpersonal effectiveness. For now I won’t go into the acronym DEAR MAN that DBT uses as a mnemonic device, but will briefly describe the process that it outlines. First, you strive to be mindful and stay in the here-and-now. If necessary, you describe the situation or set the context. You express your feelings and/or opinions, then assert yourself, asking for what you want or saying “no” to something you don’t want. Next you try to say something positive, if only to express your appreciation that you were listened to.

An interpersonally effective communication might go something like this: “We’ve been friends for a while now and you’ve helped me when I needed it. I value your friendship and I hope we stay friends. But I can’t hang out with you when you’re drinking anymore. You know I’m going to meetings and trying to stay clean and sober. It’s not that you get obnoxious when you’re drinking, like some people. You can be lots of fun when you’re high, but I just can’t risk getting triggered and relapsing. You don’t drink during the day, so we can meet for lunch. Or if you want to try quitting again, maybe we can go to meetings together, and hang out over coffee afterward. You’re really a special person and I want you in my life, but my sobriety has got to come first.”

The speaker  here is attempting to preserve the relationship, but setting clear boundaries. She’s specifying the conditions under which they’ll meet in the future, without attacking or judging or blaming. In some interpersonal exchanges, a willingness to compromise is called for, but not in this case. Whether or not the relationship survives, the communication will have been effective. Effective communication is a learnable skill set.

Client-centered therapy and active listening

Dr. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy was one of the major therapies within the human potential movement. I had the good fortune to meet him briefly when he was the keynote speaker at a convocation of the Association for Humanistic Education, held at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in 1976. I’d just listened to his address and then joined my ex-wife, Doris, who was selling her hand-crafted jewelry from a blanket on the lawn outside the education building. Dr. Rogers came out of the building and Doris’ display caught his eye. He was being escorted by a faculty member, but stopped to look. I can’t remember anything that was said between the three of us, but I was in awe of the man and couldn’t believe I was actually talking to him. He bought a piece of Doris’ jewelry as a gift, so I’ve subsequently made the claim that Carl Rogers helped put me through grad school.

Rogerian therapists don’t make analytic interpretations, or provoke authentic responses, or recommend goals to the client. Goals are established by the client, who does a lot more talking than listening in therapy sessions. A good Rogerian therapist is an active listener, who strives to understand the client’s sense of self, interpersonal boundaries, and experience of being-in-the-world by carefully listening to his words. The therapist might ask clarifying questions, but mostly listens. Actively.

After listening to a detailed account of a client’s issues with her dominating mother, the therapist doesn’t respond with an interpretation, but reflects on his understanding of her experience. “It sounds like every time you’re around your mother you end up feeling angry and worthless. I also heard you say that you keep having intrusive thoughts about your mother dying in an accident, and you feel terribly guilty about having these thoughts.” If the therapist has accurately and non-judgmentally reflected the essence of what the client was trying to express, this usually promotes increased trust and a fuller disclosure on the subject at hand. When the therapist is on the mark, the client knows that the therapist cares, listens carefully, doesn’t judge him, and seems to understand. If the therapist misses the mark, the client will usually let him know right away.

Often in everyday life we only give part of our attention to what others tell us, or are distracted by our own thoughts or reactions. Listening is often a passive act. Active listening means giving our full attention to what we’re being told, without allowing our thoughts to distract us. It’s a kind of mindfulness. In a different arena, music appreciation, certain kinds of music demand more of the listener than others. To fully appreciate chamber music, or a sitar raga, or jazz by Coltrane, you have to quiet your own thoughts and give your full attention to the music. In the interpersonal arena, sometimes we need someone who cares enough to listen actively when we have something important to say, whether that person is a therapist, a pastor, a spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend.

Active listening is a learnable skill. I started learning it in grad school. Even when I was working in a therapeutic mode other than client-centered therapy, I was an active listener. I’ve always believed that I owed it to each client to give them my full attention. Sometimes I’d do a brief meditation between clients, to clear my head. Like most things, you learn active listening by practicing it. You have to learn to suspend your own thoughts, and you do that by simply noticing any thought that intrudes on your active listening. Like a stray cat, if you don’t feed it, it goes away. Focus on listening without judging. You can practice listening actively to classical music or jazz, too. Learning to listen actively to complex music is its own reward. Active listening gets easier with practice.

When a parent would come in complaining that their child used to confide in them, but stopped, I’d coach them in active listening and non-judgmental reflection. When a child feels understood and validated, she develops higher levels of  trust and is more willing to talk about what’s important in her life. Learning to be an active listener will give you a tool that some therapists use to establish trust and encourage disclosure. It will make you a better parent, friend or spouse. When you listen carefully and reflect back what you’ve heard accurately and non-judgmentally, the person you’ve been listening to knows that (1) you care enough to (2) really hear them (3) without judging them and (4) you seem to understand and accept what they’re going through. Everyone (other than sociopaths) wants to be understood and validated, and you can help people you care about feel accepted as the unique person they are. In terms of personal growth, Carl Rogers  taught that self-acceptance is the fertile ground in which the seeds of growth can flourish.