The unexpected.

I spent two days in an unfamiliar suburb of Auckland recently. When I was driving through the business district I noticed a New World supermarket had relocated to a new site across the road.  I’m fascinated at the speed spaces can degrade if they are no longer maintained. There is something reassuring and threatening in the way nature reclaims environments vacated by humans. Also the silhouette of the New World letters made me think we always leave traces of our past no matter how we try to distance ourselves from it. The picture I made shows something of these two elements. Yet at the time I realised the photograph didn’t work in the way I had hoped. What was most interesting was my imagined title for the image ‘The old New World”. I noticed some frustration, and while reflecting on my disappointment in the photograph, I looked down in front of me. There in the grass by my feet was a fish. I was struck by the thought that i had not seen a fish laying in grass before. I forgot the supermarket and became curious about how this fish ended up there. The idea of a fish out of water seemed to resonate with my experience over the past couple of days. I had been staying in an unfamiliar place, and had also that day attended a cultural event that was foreign to me. I was out of my normal environment, and this fish seemed to symbolise something of this. I do like the photo of the fish. The composition and light feel right, but more important, the experience and meaning behind the image are meaningful. The journey of making the two photographs reminded me that while we may start out looking for something particular, we often end up having the most profound experience when we meet with the unexpected.

Up close and far away.


Waiting for the Waiheke ferry to leave the downtown terminal I noticed the complexity of vertical and horizontal lines in front of me. The scene felt compressed and over flowing, and in the moment I wondered if it was a representation of how I was feeling about myself and the city. On my return from Waiheke Island I saw the land at a distance. It was now a wedge between sea and sky, and no longer had the tall and looming presence of the close up photo. The distant scene filled me with a feeling of potential, as if on my return to the city I could see the land and myself anew.

End of Summer.

The transparent plastic screen on the upper deck was down to protect the passengers from the driving rain and sea spray. It gave everything beyond the boat a mottled, hazy, wet look. The screens were up all summer, but I had the sense they would stay down now Autumn had arrived. I felt some resistance to the idea that the season was changing. The long evenings and balmy salt laden air had always made the summer ferry rides to Waiheke almost meditative. I often arrived at Matiatia with my mood uplifted.
But something is changing. The endless panorama of hard light and high shadows is collapsing into grey sky. It would be easy to also collapse into a seasonal melancholy of longing for a longer summer, if it were not for the beauty of the light. The diffuse shadows of overcast days wrap around everything, destroying the myth of our harsh kiwi light. In the absence of glare we can look into the landscape without squinting. Its softness invites us in, and we in return can release to the dream like quality of it abstraction.

Psychotherapy 2035

Lisa arrives at her weekly psychotherapy session. She finds it hard to believe that its 2035  already. She started therapy in 2031, at the time thinking she would get some short-term help for depression. She likes that her therapist will talk to her in person. He ­— the gender he takes when they meet in the flesh — seems happy to move between meeting in the physical body and working online with Lisa’s digital self. Lisa has been having a repetitive dream that she wants to work on today.  She begins the session by saying she wants to show her therapist the dream images and also let him experience her feelings and sensations associated with the dream. They agree to log into a psychotherapy Internet server, where the two can begin the process of connecting their mind and body. Lisa sets her user preferences to allow her therapist access to her images, thoughts and feelings. Her therapist preferences are set to silent mode, meaning Lisa will only receive feedback through her therapist’s speech, gestures and posture. Her therapist, under different circumstances could change these settings to allow his own brain cycles and physiological profile to integrate with Lisa’s.

Connecting our brains.
How might this future scenario come into practice? One way is through development of the brain–computer interface  (BCI), which links the human brain to the Internet or other communication networks. This system takes electrical signals from the brain and sends them through brain implants to a computer system. Currently this technology exists to repair human function, such as restoring hearing and vision. Brain signals are also used to control robotic limbs, wheelchairs and computer screen cursors. This can also be two way with electrical signals from peripheral devices feeding information back into the brain. These systems can also link to networks such as the Internet, which means brain signals can move across space and time.

Implications for psychotherapy?
What would it mean for psychotherapy if humans were able to directly communicate their thoughts and feelings with each other? The power of psychotherapy is being able to offer the client an attuned and empathic relationship. This provides the client with a sense  that the therapist has not only heard them, but has also felt the emotional component of their communication. To empathise and attune the therapist must use what they see and hear in front of them, while also feeling what is happening in their own body and mind. There is some to and fro between the therapist and client as they attempt to refine their understanding of the client’s experience. What would happen to this process if the therapist and client  linked brains through a computer interface? It would alter the therapists experience of having a ‘felt sense’ of the client. This felt sense is complicated and unclear because it is overlaid with the therapist’s personal history and current life experience, hence the need for the psychotherapist to develop their own self-awareness through personal therapy. The therapists ‘felt sense’ is tentative because they do not experience what the client feels. In a future BCI environment the therapist could feel the emotions, see the images and share the thoughts and dreams of their client.  The therapist could also share their regulating capacity directly with the client. For example if the client feels overwhelmed by a current event, or triggered by a past emotion the therapist’s brain cycles could be available for the client to return to a baseline level of emotion. This happens to some degree  currently when the client feels reassured by the therapist’s ability to think and feel on their behalf when they are unable to.
These futuristic possibilities come with the same concerns that we already have about the internet and our identity, such as: anonymity, identity theft, viruses, personal attacks, autonomy, corporate power, etc. But in this future scenario the brain and body are directly affected. Its one thing to have a virus on your computer and another to have one in your head! Yet the accelerating integration of technology into the human body challenges us to imagine the ethical, technical and clinical implications of a Cyborg psychotherapy.

Notes.
My motivation for this post was Melanie Swan’s article The Future of Brain-Computer Interfaces: Blockchaining Your Way into a Cloudmind. https://jetpress.org/v26.2/swan.htm

An example of the early stages of brain to brain communication in rats https://youtu.be/ld_9CnH9m9I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Goodbye Daddy’

I’m sitting in a service station forecourt drinking coffee and watching motorists crawl along the neighbouring McDonald’s drive through. Other customers prefer to park and walk in.

A woman in her thirties strides towards the restaurant, pulling a small child with her. The frustrated child tugs on the woman’s rigid arm, while jogging to keep up. The roles appear reversed. Most children run ahead, while the sullen parents drag themselves across the asphalt.

Coming the other way is a grey haired man in his late 50’s holding the hand of a small boy. Beside the pair is a younger man, in his late twenties. The trio stop and talk beside a late model Ute. The young man talks to the boy and offers him a McDonalds toy. The boy ignores him, so he places the toy on the bumper of the Ute.  The younger man walks towards a motorbike parked nearby. The older man takes the boys hand and follows. The three seem intimately connected, but the young man appears distant in some way.

I imagine he is on a supervised visit with his son. My fantasy is the boy’s mother is absent because of on-going conflict with the father. This means the older man becomes a chaperone. Regardless, the scene upsets me. I recall the stories parents have shared about being apart from their children. I look across at the toy perched on the bumper. As an object that will represent the bond between father and son, it looks precarious.

The young man is making an effort to talk with the boy. He drops down on one knee, holding his arms open he asks for a hug. The boy stares at the patterns his feet are making in the pebbles of the service station garden. The young man asks again. Hearing this, the older man encourages the boy.  Suddenly, registering his father, the boy yells out “Goodbye daddy” and jumps up. For a brief moment they embrace, then, moved by invisible forces, they recoil.

The boy watches without emotion as his father stands and puts his helmet on. As he rides away the bike wobbles, as if shaken by an internal force trying to find equilibrium. The boy is distracted by something moving on the forecourt and starts to run off. The older man pounces, takes the boy’s hand and together they walk back to the Ute.

 

 

The pain and regret of playing rugby.

Uncle John* loves rugby. He played from childhood until the age of 40. While he is intelligent and articulate, his identity and social status in the past has stemmed from the prowess of his body on and off the field. This power did not come cheap. Over time he accumulated a range of physical injuries. He suffered a broken nose, the loss of four front teeth, concussions, strained muscles, damage to his spine and torn ligaments in both knees.

For as long as I can remember Uncle John tolerated the pain without complaint. His silent suffering reinforced his masculinity, while denying the expression or feeling of more vulnerable emotions.

The tension of tolerating severe pain without feeling the associated emotions means he is often irritable. This contributes to his intolerance of emotional or physical distress in others. It also makes him sensitive to comments that suggest any weakness in his character.

This sensitivity means Uncle John requires careful handling, so as not to wound the delicate ego that underlies the tough facade. I find it exhausting tiptoeing around him, while also bolstering the immature aspect of his personality. I’m left with the impression of dealing with a small boy, who requires constant attention and affirmation. This demand generates frustration in me that feels risky to communicate, which leads to stilted and tense interactions between us.

I have never had the courage to address this dynamic with Uncle John and convinced myself that now he is in his early seventies, change is even less likely. Yet on a recent visit he recounted running into an old rugby mate, whom he hadn’t seen for some time. Enquiring after each other’s health, they soon linked playing rugby with their current physical ailments. They questioned if it was all worth it, asking each other if would they do it all again. Both expressed doubts. In talking with me, Uncle John was clearer, saying, “it wasn’t worth it.”

I couldn’t believe it. This declaration seemed to shake the very foundations of his identity. His honesty forced open a portal to another world, in which proving his masculinity would be unnecessary. In this fantasy world boys would not be shamed for expressing emotion. We would encourage them to develop the feminine qualities of nurturing and empathy, and question the impulse to exercise power over others. Uncle John challenged my belief that he would never change. He also helped me realise that we can update our thinking and behaviour throughout life.

*Uncle John is a fictional character.

 

His Porn, Her Pain.

According to Dr Marty Klein America is experiencing a porn panic.  This panic originated with the introduction of broadband Internet, which unleashed unlimited, free, high quality pornography on an American public that already felt ashamed and fascinated about sex. In his book His porn, Her pain  Klein traces the history of this panic and states that the public have often had a strong reaction to disruptive technologies, giving many examples, such as, how “Congress criminalized the mailing of condoms and of condom advertising” in the mid 1800’s.

Klein believes the porn panic is part of a disturbing tradition of sexual moral panics that have gripped the American public. These include; the fear that children would be kidnapped, raped and murdered; attacks on gay people, accused of ruining heterosexual marriage; the destruction and censorship of music with sexual overtones and the fear of masturbation. Klein says these ideas now seem out-dated, but at the time they could be deadly, in the case of black men deemed a sexual threat to Southern American women.

One of the key ideas in this book is the important role of fantasy in our life. Klein claims that fantasy is a fun way we get to imagine and play with different sexual possibilities. He reminds us that we must not conflate fantasy with desire, because it is the belief that our fantasies will lead to action in real life that contributes to the moral panic about pornography. Klein believes this panic leaves us feeling ashamed of our sexual fantasies, which inhibits our ability to share our fantasy world with sexual partners, because we fear judgement.

As a result Klein says men often arrive for therapy feeling guilty, confused, frustrated and hopeless about what they perceive to be a problematic relationship with pornography. The first thing Klein does is find out if they actually have a porn problem and if so, what kind of problem. He helps narrow down the origin of the concern by breaking it into three parts. They are:

  1. Someone else says you have problem; and/or
  2. You’re concerned that you might have a problem; and/or
  3. You have an actual problem.

While there is considerable overlap in these three possibilities, they allow insight into whether the problem stems from an internal or external conflict. This knowledge directs the focus of psychotherapy, for example, if someone else believes you have a problem, first you need to get clear about how you feel about using pornography. Then you must communicate this to the other person. The external problem raises issues around interpersonal relating and challenges you to stay in connection with another, while also remaining faithful to your own position.

The internal problem demands investigation into the relationship you have with yourself. The feelings of fear, anxiety, shame and guilt associated with using pornography is a result of the rules and beliefs about sexuality that have evolved over your lifetime.

In both of these scenarios Klein takes a holistic view of the client, paying attention to other aspects of life, such as: their relationship to masturbation, as distinct from pornography; how they function overall in intimate relationship; their ability to engage in work and social life; the use of alcohol and drugs and their general relationship to the internet. Klein takes this approach because he believes that problems with pornography don’t in fact revolve around pornography. He justifies this by saying that often when pornography use stops the problem still persists, or manifests in a new form.

The overarching message in His porn, Her pain is that open and honest communication resolves perceived problems with pornography. If you are able to acknowledge and accept your fantasy world, you will feel less shame and anxiety. As a result you will be more spontaneous and present with yourself and your partner.

 

 

Boys do cry.

The male voice, lets call him Robert, in the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry sounds devastated that the person he loves has left him, even though Robert admits to pushing them away. With no chance of getting them back he says it is pointless crying. For Robert tears are only shed if there is a possibility they will provide a mechanism for reconciliation. Crying has no intrinsic value for him. Rather than externalize his inner pain through tears, Robert chooses to mask his difficult feelings with laughter and lies. This adaption to suffering seems consistent with the stereotypical image of the stoic male who is out of touch with his feelings. While boys may start out in life crying more than girls, by age 11 the frequency of their crying decreases in comparison to girls. Robert’s claim that boys don’t cry is in part a command reinforced through social and cultural conditioning.

This pattern carries forward into adult life, resulting in the common observation that woman cry more often and more intensely than men. Yet, evidence suggests that men have intense feelings that move them to tears, but unlike woman they do not shed their tears due to a fear of appearing weak. Both men and woman perceive this control as a positive male virtue. When men do cry they are judged favourably if they can express intense emotions in a controlled manner. One place men achieve the fine balance of hyper masculinity and emotional vulnerability is in sports. In moments such as wins or losses it is appropriate for a player to cry, as long as they are in control of their emotion, rather than the emotion being in control of them.

So counter to popular belief boys do cry, but in a different way to girls. The main characteristic of this difference is the element of control. For men, one of the primary functions of this control is to separate themselves from woman who they may perceive as being emotionally out of control. But what is the cost for men in maintaining this control? For one, it becomes very difficult to stay in relationship with someone who you are attempting to not identify with. If a man’s sense of self is contingent on being different to woman, then he must devalue them. For example, “you throw like a girl” is a standard insult boys receive from other boys on the playing field. In this scenario the young boy’s identity is being formed from an external representation of what he must not be, rather than from an affirming support of how he feels inside. Also, controlling emotions takes large amounts of energy. If this energy is available we can respond to the emotional events of life in a more spontaneous and creative manner. If not, we risk becoming rigid and guarded in our attitudes, emotions and body, which restricts our capacity for loving and playful relationships.

There is conflicting evidence whether crying is emotionally, or physically beneficial. With that in mind I am not suggesting men should cry more. Rather crying is one aspect of a man’s emotional repertoire that can be affected by social conditioning that encourages us to control our emotions. We may therefore benefit from thinking about those mechanisms of control.

 

 

 

 

The pain of the absent father in Jay-Z’s song ‘December 4th’.

The Grey Album by Danger Mouse is a mix of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with samples from The Beatles LP The Beatles. Jay-Z’s birthdate, December 4th, is the title of track four. It describes his early years, including, his parents’ separation, a period of selling drugs and his eventual decision to pursue a rap career. The song begins with Jay-Z’s mother Gloria Carter describing his birth.

He was the last of my four children
The only one who didn’t give me any pain when I gave birth to him
And that’s how I knew that he was a special child

Carter sounds hopeful that Jay-Z would provide salvation, from what we soon find out was a difficult marriage.

I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adaness Revees
Who made love under the Sycamore tree

Jay-Z imagines his parents were once in love. The child part of him holds a vision of two people who cared for each other at one point. The subsequent loss of the father also signifies the loss of the couple, a union that symbolised a cohesiveness that was not yet formed in him. Jay-Z’s image of parental love is a natural idealization of the couple, something every young child feels and wants for their parents at some point. As a child Jay-Z was in the process of internalising his parents. What happens to the masculine aspect of his personality when this external representation is absent? From his lyrics we can assume there is a resulting lack of balance or harmony.

But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matching my gear

Jay-Z’s internal feeling of fragmentation manifests on the surface, expressed in his wardrobe’s lack of integration. He feels despair that his father is gone. Yet on the outside he must maintain the masculine facade that everything is okay.

Now I’m just scratching the surface cause what’s buried under there
Was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared

To be emotionally torn apart yet for it to remain invisible is unbearable. If we suffer a massive physical injury we expect to receive the appropriate care and concern from medical professionals, family and friends. Physical pain is tolerated by society because it is clearly visible, which means we are more able to accept it. If our bones are broken we do not hide the fact. Yet this is what often happens in emotional injury. Social pressure requires Jay-Z to bury his pain. But as the pain goes underground it also leaks to the surface.

But, I noticed a change in him when me and my husband broke up

Carter notices Jay-Z’s withdrawal, but it is not acknowledged between them. It appears that while she observed her son’s behaviour shift over time she struggles to address it. Rather her beatings, which may signify her desperation to reach him, made no difference.

Now all the teachers couldn’t reach me
And my momma couldn’t beat me
Hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me

While influential figures outside the family unit are significant, they cannot replace the missing father.

With that disdain in my membrane
Got on my pimp game
Fuck the world my defence came

What are Jay-Z’s options if he experiences the people around him as punishing, or incapable of reaching him? It is naive to believe he should have the capacity to communicate and pursue his needs directly. The only option then, is to turn his back on the people he needs most.

Then Dahaven introduced me to the game
Spanish Jose introduced me to cane
I’m a hustler now
My gear is in and I’m in the in crowd

Alone and hurting Jay-Z turns to his peers. In doing so he descends into the underworld of drugs and crime. Soon Jay-Z’s pain is soothed by the superficial pleasures that sex and money provide.

And then I bought him a boom box
And his sisters and brothers said that he would drive them nuts
But that was my way to keep him close to me and out of trouble

Carter finds a way to reach out and protect Jay-Z. She does this by recognising his passion for music. She encourages this creative outlet by buying him a boom box. By doing this she attempts to support Jay-Z on his own terms, instead of enforcing her own beliefs and values onto him.

And “trust” is a word you seldom hear from us
Hustlers we don’t sleep we rest one eye up

While there is a feeling of containment within the gang culture, there is no possibility of relaxing. There is an absence of a reassuring figure in Jay-Z’s life that could allow him to let his guard down. Is this the missing father? The presence of the older male, who allows the young man to release the burden of maintaining a front.

Jay-Z’s story communicates the pain a young man experiences when his father is absent. Even though Carter struggled to stay connected with her son, she attempted to identify and support what was important to him. In doing this she was able to keep him close, which I imagine gave Jay-Z a feeling of safety when everything around him felt like it was fragmenting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire building in the outdoors.

Recently I find myself watching YouTube videos on how to make fires in the outdoors. I have no sense of why this activity currently interests me, but I am aware that my early experience of fire making made a lasting impression. I remember spending parts of my primary school holidays working with my father who was a hunter. When we stopped for lunch we would often start a fire to make a cup of tea, or dry wet clothing. Later in my teens I would make fires with driftwood on the beaches of the Manawatu-Wanganui region.

My YouTube searches could be seen as a longing for a  past that was more closely connected to the classical elements of the outdoors.  I also begin to wonder about my work as a psychotherapist, and the associations it may have with making fires.

Shelter from the elements is important in building a fire. We could visualise the psychotherapy room as a warm, dry, and protected space, in which there can be some reprieve from the turbulence of external events. If we come to therapy in a depressed state – which is often associated with dampness – it may be hard to imagine getting our internal fire started. To make a fire in the wild you must first gather a small amount of very light and dry material. Perhaps initially it is the job of the therapist to gather the tinder, or what I imagine as identifying the parts of the patient that are still animated; the tiny gestures, expressions, and actions that indicate the presence of hope. The spark that pre-heats this tinder may originate from the therapist as they hold this hope for the patient, or it may come from the inevitable friction felt between the patient and therapist as they come together.

The fire maker gently blows on the pre-igniting tinder until it combusts into flame. Then very small dry twigs are added. In this way the foundation of the fire slowly builds. As the fire builds bigger sticks can be added. In psychotherapy the working alliance between patient and therapist strengthens in a similar way. As trust and safety increases heat is generated in the relationship, and consequently the capacity to approach bigger issues is slowly increased.

In the video below Kap describes how gentle you have to be in starting a fire

“When you tap on it the gathering of the little particles start to move, and the finest one falls into the fire pot, and also allows the air in there… don’t over do it.”

In this video Survival Lilly shows her technique for building fires in the forest.