Episode 2: Merging Perspectives
I'm Jess Dandy, and this is PodPath: The SongPath Podcast, where conversations about mental health allow us to explore creative and restorative ways of connecting to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. In this episode, I'll be continuing my conversation with SongPath’s consultant cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, Rufus Harrington. Last time, Rufus and I spoke about the healing power of integrating all parts of our experience, and we develop that today in discussing Rufus’ WISER MIND programme. Devised in his work with Cumbria Constabulary, this resilience training programme has just received national recognition in the Oscar Kilo Awards, an organisation promoting the wellbeing of those working in the emergency services. We ended the last episode talking about Rufus’ practice of Hermetics, a western form of meditation. And today we re-join him in considering the mental health benefits of merging our inevitably manifold perspectives, in the Hermetic tradition, on a SongPath, and through the WISER MIND programme.
The wonderful thing about CBT and the meditation tradition that you ascribe to is this idea that we take a model that in some ways is still rooted in the material, but it is on a large scale. But actually, that largeness and that that spatial expansiveness allows for people to bring their own personal associations and stories to the table, and it can contain them there. And I suppose what we're trying to do at SongPath as well is to take everybody on a similar route, introduce them to very large concepts, but actually say, “Your SongPath is your own; you know, I will never see this tree in the same way as you; I will never have the same associations. I will have my own associations”. And it's allowing for the universal, and the highly localised at the same time. And to my mind and to what we've discussed before, that integration of the universal and the highly specific, the highly localised, the highly personal, the highly subjective, the feelings, the emotions, and then the facts, the integration of those two things is where good mental health lies. And that brings me to your WISER MIND model, which you have developed for psychological disorders, but also for resilience training and…
Jess: …I wondered whether you might talk about that a little bit, and this notion of reconciling emotions and facts, and actually seeing a happy marriage between the two. Because so often we've talked about this idea of emotions needing to be trained as almost being a sort of bad thing. And then you counteract it with evidence, and then you should be happy. But actually, this idea that there can be a symbiosis of those two things and that actually our approach to the world, and approach to ourselves can be something that is far more nebulous and amorphous and rhapsodic, and we can really play with it, as we’ve talked about today.
Rufus: The WISER MIND model that I’ve used, it's evolved out of a lot of modern psychology. I’ve borrowed and stolen from all the best people I possibly could, and, in a way, I try to package all the best bits of psychotherapy into something very, very simple that anybody can learn very quickly, which facilitates developing much better psychological resilience. And I'm actually doing formal research on this; I'm using this within Cumbria Police, and we run a series of WISER MIND training workshops, and we’ve simply had amazing results, working with police officers doing some of the most difficult work you can imagine: all the horrible stuff they have to do and all the amazing work they do. You know, I love police officers, they are sensational people. We are kept safe in our beds at night because they have the courage to go out there and keep us safe – it's amazing. But they need some looking after too, and so, you know, this WISER MIND model developed working to an extent with them. And the beauty of the WISER MIND model, it’s based on some very, very simple ideas: this idea I already talked a little bit about that the brain has got older bits and newer bits, and the older parts of the brain: very emotional in character, perhaps between 350 and 500 million years old; that bit of the brain that really tries to predict what will happen next, to keep you alive. Brilliant bit of kit, done a good job, we're still here, it's still working. And then, over the last two million years, the brain’s had a bit of an upgrade, and we probably developed this much more thinky, rational, analytic brain that doesn't learn just from the past, but can learn also much more from the present, and present experience. But the irony of being human of course is we have in a way these two brains, and something I always do when I'm running workshops is to get people to think about, “How do you make relationship choices?”. You know, “Was it a carefully calculated, logical list that you put together or was in a rush of blood and a load of prosecco?!” And most people conclude that there tends to be a bias toward that more emotional brain running the show, and with all the great consequences that flow from this. But also, what comes out, it’s not just that; there is a thinking, and as you get older, you’ve got a bit more experience, the thinking tends to come a little bit more into the equation, and tends to gain or gather in importance. And what I want people to understand is that it's normal to have these two brains, and the hilarious business of being human is that we are always work in progress. You know, sometimes I introduce the brain as a bit of a design disaster. You know, it's like one of these houses that's been sort of built up over generations and all the piping is kind of older in one bit and newer in another and people have bolted it all together in strange ways, and the reality of being human is we are very, very easily mugged by our more emotional brain; a particular stress takes over, and our more logical self just gets pushed out of the way. And, you know, many of us live on automatic pilot, very rarely engaging the more thinking capacity that we have. Now, there are advantages and disadvantages to this: you know, if a car is hurtling towards me and I have to go logically, “Ooh, look, a car is coming towards me, I might die if I don't move”. I am dead; I have not reacted quickly enough. My emotional brain will do the job for me off a massive stable anxiety and I'll leap out the way great bit of kit and being human we do need both parts; both parts are wonderful. But the problem is we tend to get mugged by one or the other and WISER MIND is absolutely about integrating those different parts of brain that more thinky, analytic side with our more emotional and physical selves: bringing those two things together to generate WISER MIND, and in practice, the technique is deceptively simple: on the one hand, I get people to write down a script of what's going on more in their emotional brain. Now, remember, the emotional brain is a predicting machine, and typically when stressed, it tends to focus on predicting what's going to go wrong. So I get people to actually acknowledge all their doom predictions, all their fears at being judged horribly by other people, and, you know, you get this script together, you know, it's all that lovely stuff, basically: “people are going to see through me at work; they're going to realise I'm totally crap; I'm going to lose my job; I won't be able to pay the mortgage; my partner will leave me because I'm crap and useless; I will end up not able to survive”. You know, all those glorious worries that you don't have to go too far before you find most people have these fears running, and when people are stressed those fears dominate in powerful ways, and they ignore that they're working, they’re in a job, that they are valued, they have good reports from their management, that they have people in their lives who are friends to them, are lovers to them, are in relationships; not everybody runs screaming in the opposite direction when they walk into the room. And what I help people do is get their doom scripts together, their doom prediction script, but then their fact script: that more logical script, descriptive out what's really going on: “What's your health like? What's your finances like? What's happening in your relationships? Let's look at the facts of your life.” And then, using a very specific technique where I get people to read out loud their feeling script, read out loud their fact script for a period of three minutes: not trying to do anything clever, but just listening to those two different parts of your experience, connecting with both parts of your experience and listen to your feeling script, listen to your fact script. But I cheat a bit. Remember, we’ve got to help this new two million-year-old brain out a bit. I get people to image the facts, to read the feelings, read and image the facts. We help the new brain out a little bit. And what people experience by doing this, is that a curious thing happens: that the two perspectives begin merging together, and after I've asked somebody to go through this a first time, and begin to experience what it's like putting the two things together, then I ask them to do it again, but then to treat the feeling script and the fact script as two different people they’re listening to: Mr Feelings, Mr Facts; Mrs Feelings, Mrs Facts. To just listen to these, but then as they read backwards and forwards, to start writing down a third script, the WISER MIND script that emerges from listening to both of these, and that WISER MIND script, in a way, is an integration of the emotional perspective and the fact brain’s ability to look at the present. So, what you end up in the WISER MIND script is a perspective that isn't so driven by the doom predictions, that integrates the facts in the present, that allows you to look at the world from a WISER MIND perspective. And this is vital if you want to change and move forward in your life, because if you're dominated by all the threat predictions, it’s really telling you, “Everything is going to go wrong, so live small, be careful, don't do anything different, stick to what you know”. By getting into the WISER MIND place, that's where you can engage with possibility, it's where you can tolerate uncertainty, it's where you can do creativity, change, growth, relate to yourself, and relate better to others. The whole point of this, you can live more deeply, have more fun. Tame all those anxious threat predictions, then go get a life. The WISER MIND leads to wiser behaviour, and wiser behaviour really again is walking the SongPath; it’s getting on with living and growing. So that's the basis of it. And, you know, training people to use that technique, the beauty of it is, once you've trained someone to do this, if you practise it, you are literally building a neural bridge between your emotional and thinking brain. There's a very basic principle in neuroscience: “things that fire together wire together” in the brain. So this technique is based on those sorts of principles: we fire up the emotional brain; we fire up the thinking brain – wire them together. And, as you practise this WISER MIND, as a muscle in the brain gets stronger, it becomes a more natural state of mind, and the ability of that old threat detecting brain to take over becomes less strong. Your new WISER MIND becomes stronger, and so you become more resilient, less prone to be, if you like, mugged by that threat detecting, anxiety generating brain; you can stay in a better state of mind. It doesn't mean all your problems are solved in five seconds, but it puts you into a state of mind to be resilient: bounce back from problems, to engage with life, to live meaningfully, to do that kind of changing and growing stuff that makes life fun.
Jess: I really like that that focus on fun and flexibility because I think for a lot of us the connotations of resilience are some kind of SAS training, superhero kind of hyper competence, something that is actually quite rigid and fixed in a way, and I think maybe that belies our misconception of what strength actually is. And, as we're now coming to the point where lockdown is slowly being re-evaluated, let's say – very small steps – I wondered whether you might talk a little bit about how we might explore that resilience and that strength in these shifting sands, which are very frightening for a lot of people, and how we might negotiate that changing landscape.
Rufus: The problem with COVID-19, it’s the perfect environment to fire up our threat brains hugely. Ironically, particularly in this phase as we begin to come out of lockdown, because lockdown in some ways has been quite a safe space: we've been kept away from a lot of the threat of the actual virus, but more than that people have actually been locked into their homes, they’ve not been able to work. They've been locked away from a lot of social life, and if you're looking for where the threats are, it's where you basically with other human beings; that's where you’ll find them. So if you’re locked down, life's a lot safer! And ironically, some people have found it very pleasant in the lockdown experience but as we have to go back out into the world, we have to face going back to our lives, the problems, all the usual stuff, and the virus, and it's a virus that can kill you. So, going out into that, that old emotional threat detecting brain, it's very easy for that to go hyper alert, and for you to go out in a very worried, frightened state of mind seeing virus everywhere, which again, this is the advantage of the old brain, it’s trying to keep you alive it's not the enemy but what it won't take account of so easily is that if you take the right kind of precautions, you do your social distancing, you go back into the world being, if you like, sensibly aware of the risk, that you actually take the time to do the right stuff, you can get back into the world with a very good chance of things will be okay, and particularly if you're not in one of the big at risk groups, the chances are you are going to be okay. The vast, vast majority of us are not going to be killed by this virus. Tragically, it can kill anyone who's got a vulnerability to it, but the vast majority of us are going to be okay, and WISER MIND, from a resilience point of view, helps to get that threat brain working together with those facts and our knowledge about what we've got to do going back out, so we can go back out in a more resilient state of mind: not over-dominated by threat, but listening to threat, working with threat brain, but also working with fact brain.
And this is going to be important, because going back into this new world is going to provide many, many new challenges: the whole working landscape will probably be different, people may very much have to be working in different ways, or finding new employments and new ways of life. The impact on relationships: changed friendships, changed geographical situations – there is a huge need to engage with possibility with To default to old habit patterns it wants to just rely on what it already knows: helpful to a point, but we're going to have to start doing things differently: we've got to learn to approach each other, our work, our lives, in a new way – now that needs flexibility: we’ve got to grow, we’ve got to change we've got to engage with new ways of doing this stuff and that's where WISER MIND comes in as a fantastic tool to help and my clients I'm working with them using these techniques to do this and their funding helps because in a very simple way if you get your own internal team those different bits of yourselves working together you're going out there in a much more resilient tooled up state you know you're taking your whole team with you is not just one bit that's doing the job suddenly it's all of you and that's what we need going forward and it makes a difference we've got police officers all over Cumbria using these techniques to get out there and do what they do and if they can do it we can do it.
Jess: Absolutely – it's this notion of having conversations that are generative and creative within yourself isn't it rather than what you said earlier about fighting with yourself.
Rufus: Yeah, or constantly reviewing everything you do wrong you know that is huge motivation killer basically it motivates you to avoid cannot do things if you get yourself into the WISER MIND state it's a flexible can do state of mind.
Jess: Rufus is by his own description and evidence-based dyed in the wool cognitive behavioural therapist but visit his Lancaster therapy room and you'll notice a simple prayer stool and atop that, a large red leather bound book, its page held open by a small clear crystal ball. At first glance, given its appearance handwritten, seemingly on vellum, a wonderfully illuminated manuscript you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for one of the Lindisfarne gospels but on closer inspection this riot of colour steeped in mystery and self-exploration comes from a very different source.
I know that a very special book for you is Carl Jung’s The Red Book and something that we absolutely love at SongPath is a quote from Carl Jung so I thought I might just say it here and then it would be wonderful if you might just briefly talk about the red book and Carl Jung in general:
It is not that something different is seen, but that one sees differently; it is as though the spatial act of seeing were changed by a new dimension.”
Rufus: It’s so perfect because it comes down again to this opening awareness, expanding consciousness. You're looking at exactly the same thing but with the ability to see anew. For example, if you were somebody who was colour blind and you're looking at something you would see it in a very particular way. Now, if somebody was able to sort of give you a pill to fix your colour blindness and suddenly you could see in the way that we do, you would be looking at the same stuff but it would look utterly different – you’d have been having a new experience of it. And this is what happens when you actually go through processes of personal growth, it's like you come out of black and white land into the land of colour because you've expanded the bandwidth of your perception; your ability to see is new and so you see the same things, but differently. And it's a wonderful, wonderful process. And Carl Jung in The Red Book, really it charts the fundamental psychological journey he made in integrating different parts of his own psyche: the man he was before the journey and the man he was after the journey, after he had travelled his SongPath. He was a different person or at least he was the same person but he saw differently because he integrated much more of the different parts of his psyche. And you know, he was actually a very talented artist, and what he actually has in The Red Book, really it's a diary of the journey he made into his own psyche, into his own underworld. He had to journey through this: rather than being disintegrated, he learned to integrate. And the process of going through that kind of a journey is psychologically difficult because you have to, in a way, go through a process where you break down your relationship with the old self; you have to go through a state of chaos and falling to bits, and then coming back up out of that chaos as you go through a process of reintegration. There's another book I've always loved – it was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which on the surface level is a lovely travelogue about England’s sort of colonial past in relationship with India. But the book is actually broken up into three key chapters – and the first chapter is called Mosque, the second chapter is called The Cave and third chapter is called The Temple. And the story begins with somebody very uptight, kind of typical kind of British stiff upper lip person who walks out into a beautiful moonlit temple and they have an experience; they begin to go through an awakening process – that there is more than the rigid rules they’re living with. They then go on this journey which leads them to The Cave which is in a way ‘The Cave of The Unconscious’ and they go down and they have to face different bits of themselves. And this causes all sorts of drama within the actual sort of the story of A Passage to India and there's all sort of sexual tensions and darkness and good and bad – what is good, what is bad, all sorts of things get explored within the social drama the book catalogues. But having gone through The Cave and gone through the chaos, the characters in sense come out the other side into The Temple chapter where a new way of life – a new more vivid, more integrated way of life is achieved, and the characters, they see the same world but they are seeing it from a new position, a new integrated position. And this is what Jung is doing in his own way in his Red Book – that was the diary of his journey from the Mosque through The Cave through The Temple and fundamental journey it's it's buried all the great pathologies is there in Jung’s work it's the basic journey of psychotherapy: somebody faces a dilemma; they are locked in a pattern of living that no longer works for them, struggling wirth symptoms of anxiety and depression. They have to go face some of the things that they don't really want to look at too much; they have to go into The Cave and connect with the things they are avoiding. This starts a healing process and you come out into a new Temple, a new way of life. And that's what Jung was really all about. It’s funny, I was going to be a Jungian analyst; that’s where I thought I was going, but then I met this wonderful man called Dr Victor Meyer, and his equally wonderful partner, Dr Edward Chesser – they became my teachers in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It was a transforming experience for me, and the irony was, they taught me to do in a very practical way exactly what Carl Jung was talking about, with the advantages of some of the modern science as well, but the underlying principles are not that different. Nearly all of cognitive behavioural therapy is based on not avoiding the things that are troubling you: it's about sort of exposing yourself to things in some ways that you find scary and learning to see them in a new way; not as dangerous as you thought they were, and to literally see what you thought was really scary, and realise usually that it’s actually all very normal. It's that process that is so fundamental to be able to grow.
Absolutely, and I think it is interesting what you said that all these methodologies that we've discussed today take on the form of a journey and they are characterised by a spatial metaphor, by different topographies, different landscapes. And I wondered whether you might talk about that idea of why, as human beings, we find the notion of a journey, and the notion of spatialising our own lives so appealing.
Rufus: You could look at this in a real common sense way: we love to travel, we love to have new experiences; but if you look at the impact this has on the human psyche from actually more the science point of view, it could be quite illuminating. We are creatures of habit, as we've been exploring: the brain gets its habits learned; it likes to stick to what it knows, and in the pattern of where you live, in your town, your friendship group, your relationship pattern, whatever it is, that locks you into the old pattern. Everything you know: you walk into your office at work, and it has some triggers, and you sit down, you're sitting in the same way, you speak in the same way, you get the same cup of coffee, you have your little routines. These are great, but they will prevent you doing much that's new and different to get yourself to be into a more creative state, you've usually got to go somewhere else, which doesn't trigger all the old patterns. If you go and do something new, there are a different set of triggers around you, and so your brain starts reacting differently. And so very often when people want to be creative they go away from their normal life. They’ll go and live in the cabin in the woods, a journey of one sort or another, to physically go into new environments, to free the psyche to do new things. We feed the psyche with new experiences, new things will emerge. You see this countless, countless times in the lives of authors and artists – that they have to go on a creative journey of one sort or another, but the real physicality of journeying helps that process, you know. Whether it's people going on a spiritual pilgrimage, which was often the way people were encouraged to find the deeper relationship with the spirit, it was to walk outside your everyday life and go on this journey. If you look at what happens on the most basic sort of spiritual quest that ever gets described in any of the kind of myth, it always begins with somebody who's living in a little village somewhere, getting on with life, some sort of crisis happens and then a journey has to be made, some sort of treasure has to be found to heal the village, which has become sick; something's happened. And the hero of the journey – usually some teacher turns up to help them, to give them a few tools and tips to help them on their way, but then they've got to go on this journey; they've got to go into the woods; they've got to go into the night; they've got to go face various trials to find this special thing, this Golden Fleece, this Grail, whatever it happens to be, this healing elixir, and then they’ve got to battle back as well; bring it back to the village, and bring that healing back. But there is something fundamental in that journey that you move out of what you know; you embrace the uncertainty; you engage with the unknown in order…. But it also may be a new discovery that you genuinely share with the world.
Jess: Yes – I think what is exciting about the practices that you advocate and what SongPath advocates is the idea that this can be scaled down, but the validity can still hold. And I think the apotheosis of that on last year’s SongPath was a labyrinth exercise that you oversaw at the end of the SongPath – this idea that actually this hero’s journey, to borrow from Joseph Campbell, can be concentrated on a very, very localised scale. Again, it's this idea of seeing ‘the world in a grain of sand’ [Blake, Auguries of Innocence], or, to use our Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson, to see that his ‘ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet’ but that he can ‘eat the equator within the crock of soil’ of his pot geranium in his bedroom. This idea that actually we can take the universe and the lessons of these enormous, heroic journeys and experience them on a cognitive and embodied level in something as small as a labyrinth in a wildflower meadow. The wonderful author, Rebecca Solnit talks about walking the labyrinth as coming to terms with truths that she might find ‘pat’ in terms of articulating them linguistically, but they are very ‘profound truths to be found with our feet’. And I think that you adhere to that practice as well but I wondered whether you might talk very briefly about your labyrinth experience and practise.
Rufus: On finding things with your feet, it’s so fundamental. Cognitive behavioural therapy is fundamentally a doing therapy: we discover new things by doing things, and looking and appraising them differently. And if you look at the labyrinth, there's a middle to the labyrinth, which you're trying to get to. You walk through the doorway at the start and the labyrinth takes you round and round in spirals and spirals round that central place. And the beautiful thing is, as you walk around the labyrinth, you're constantly seeing that place in the centre from a different perspective – what a wonderful way to come to know something in more detail than to walk round and round it rather than looking at it just from one angle, and only seeing one little part of it. We walk round the whole experience, we taste it deeply; we explore it fundamentally. And as we journey toward that centre, we've been building up our understanding of it step by step on the journey through the labyrinth; that the labyrinth and the centre are not separate places, it's just when we reach the centre of the labyrinth, in a way, the beauty then, when you're in the middle, you look back and you see the whole labyrinth from the centre; you see the journey, you see the SongPath, and you see it's all part of the same thing. But when you were outside the centre, you saw it from one point of view, when you were in different parts of labyrinth, you saw it from other different and equally valuable points of view, and when you're in the centre you again, you see it again, new and different. In some ways, we are always on this journey; what's at the centre of the labyrinth is our experience of living, and the labyrinth encourages us to perhaps not walk in a straight line but to explore our experience deeply; to walk around our experience with awareness because that's the other point of the labyrinth – you don't do it with your eyes closed; you do it with your eyes open; otherwise it just gets messy. And it is about taking time to engage with your experience of living, to be willing to be open to your experience of it. And that doesn't mean that it's always lovely feelings; it can be uncomfortable feelings; it can be pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We have to embrace both life and death, you know; it's all of it and, you know, true mindfulness is embracing the whole lot – and that is spring, summer, autumn, winter; it’s the circle of the seasons; it’s living and dying; it's that constant process of which we are all a part. Going back to your poet’s pot geranium: that geranium, it grows, it dies, it's all there in the pot and for all of us, it's the same journey. In that way, we can do it in awareness with our eyes open so that we are opening and expanding our consciousness, moving away from disconnection; moving to connection – which again is the labyrinth. In walking through the labyrinth, you start outside it disconnected; you walk into it, and with every spiral you become more connected and the idea at the centre is that that's a decent level of connection that you've achieved.
Jess: But actually the centre could go on forever…
Rufus: It just leads to a new labyrinth, and that's the beauty of it – it's a journey, and within the labyrinth you walk into the centre but then you also walk; you travel back out, and you are still in the labyrinth; you always are. The beauty is that there are these moments where you get a sense of it all coming together and then you're back out into the labyrinth again and it brings you back to the centre; it takes it to the outside, you move through different states of mind. And it's funny to look at all cultures or religions – it doesn't matter what flavour of religion – all of them have sacred space; they all have a temple, a stupor, a labyrinth, a stone circle, whatever it happens to be. But what it is, we live in a life where we're busy getting on with sort of working, feeding the kids, doing all that really important stuff, but very often, we can get caught up in that. But all these religions have always done is said, “Look, we're going to create a space where you can walk out of your daily lives, walk into this sacred and special place where a priest or priestess will do something magical; invite you to come into this lovely space”. And whatever religion it is, it will serve some form of sacrament. And what is sacrament really is, it just represents the connection to the spirit of living. And so, whether it's the cake and wine, whatever it is that you do in your particular religious practice, there is a sacrament where the priest or priestess helps you to connect, to connect to that wonderful life force that is adaptive, that his flexible, that can grow, that can engage with possibility. And having gone and drunk from that beautiful space, having taken the sacrament, charged yourself up then you're ready to go back out there into the world and crack on – feed the kids, do all the things you've got to do – to just know that there is that place you can go to in the centre, the centre of the labyrinth. In some ways, that place you go to take this sacrament. Then come back out and you crack on again but it's remembering to go back into that space that is so so very important. Otherwise you just burnout; you get exhausted; you lose inspiration. It’s always remembering you've got this wonderful capacity within yourself to be adaptable, to be flexible – to change, to engage with the adventure of the possible.
Jess: Brilliant, thanks so much for joining us, Rufus.
Rufus: Absolute pleasure.
Jess: Yes, it's been lovely, thank you.
That was my conversation with psychotherapist, Rufus Harrington Join me next time, when I talk to SongPath’s concert pianist, Martin Roscoe about how he finds his sacrament in the mountains; how exposure to the geographical expansiveness of the mountain worlds translates positively into his own psyche, and about his fascination with legends: cartographical, apocryphal, and operatic. In the meantime, stay connected, follow your thread, and keep walking the SongPath.