Simon’s Blog

I don’t want to meditate today.

Human growth is a contradictory experience.  We feel the boundaries of self expanding and the experience of humility growing at least as fast.  Our humanity means we are the inheritors of strengths and weaknesses and some of the more embarrassing among those weaknesses is the tendency to overestimate our strengths. The explosion of psychological research since the 1960s has helpfully exposed many of our misapprehensions.   Some of these need to be accounted for in our quest for psychological and spiritual growth.  Take the bias of illusory superiority to which we are chronically prone: Far more people think of themselves as better than average drivers than is posible.  There’s also the Dunning-Kruger effect, also known as the “sophomore” effect (sophomore = wise fool, hinting at the ego inflating effects of introductory knowledge).

Some specific examples?  Well, meditation and its effect in enhancing day to day mindfulness is such a powerful aid to living happily that it is sometimes astonishing it is not a more common practice than it is.  It is also typically a practice that is often non-practiced by its, ummm,  adherents: “I don’t really need to meditate, I’m already quite/very/extremely mindful.”  Or “I get as much relaxation out of a beer/glass of wine/cigarette as I do out of a half hour of meditation.”

I’m hoping that neuro-psychological investigation of the physical brain changes that arise from meditation will, however slowly, erode the mind-sets that support these sorts of.  If one is thinking of meditation as enhancing an abstract and desirable quality like “mindfulness”, our normal tendency to see ourselves as illusorily superior can easily convince us that “I’m already quite mindful.”  However,  it is a melancholy truth that, as one grows in meditation practice, one becomes more and more aware of the gaps in mindfulness, past and present.

However, if we’re thinking of meditation which, by changing our brains’ structure and activity, enhances our ability to be mindful, that might help us decrease the very human perils of over estimation of our positive attributes.  It’s much harder for me to think “oh, I’m quite fit” when I have physical evidence to the contrary or when I think honestly about the amount of exercise I have actual done to enhance my fitness. “I’m quite fit despite not exercising” doesn’t sound particularly convincing, even to myself.

An article by Alice G. Walton in Forbes magazine found here: Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope discusses the effect of regular meditation on the brain/mind’s tendency to  uncontrolled chatter and particularly to chatter about our worries, obsessions and dissatisfactions, actual and imagined, and the effect of this on our general happiness/calmness.  The chattery mental content is typical of the output of what’s known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) within the brain: thinking about self and circumstances.

Says Walton:

“New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “ ‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”  So we spend less time thinking about ourselves and our problems. “

Brewer found also that meditators show this pattern of lower activation of DMN and “me” centres even while not meditating.  This confirms the experience of those of us who have a regular practice that the mind does quieten over time and that unnecessary thinking, what Martine Batchelor calls “proliferation” which in turn generates unnecessary anxiety, declines with practice.”

Other research by Andy Newberg, MD shows that, unsurprisingly, areas of the brain involved in attention and concentration are activated and external awareness de-activated.   So, combining the two findings, meditation seems to be a practice of going inward to get out of oneself.

The article also compares the effects of meditating with the effects of giving in to a craving as an attempt at self calming.  While she uses the specific example of smoking, the second para below deals with the poor results obtained even by satisfying cravings healthily.  The calming is only temporary and has no effect on our between treat mindset.

Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday

Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.

So, if you meditate….please meditate.   Don’t let your unreliable minute-to-minute “I wants” distract you or convince you that that glass of wine is better for you  or, essence of self deception, that you don’t really need it.


Developmental Coaching: What’s it about?

While our development as human beings is experienced as a unity, it is useful  to temporarily and artificially segregate individual facets to clarify what seems to be happening and to allow us to gain some traction in making changes.  Each of the services I offer through this site is aimed either at directly facilitating development or at transcending blockages impeding or distorting development.  This post will try to provide some background on two particular facets of our development which can be enhanced via directed coaching.

Following Otto Laske, we can talk about the cognitive side, how we make sense of the world, and the social/emotional side, how we make/find meaning and values in the world.

With cognition, we can be said to move forward on (at least) two fronts:  Epistemic Position: how we conceive of truth and our ability to know; and Cognitive Complexity: how well we use the strengths and weaknesses of logical thinking and, simultaneously, how well we marshal trans-logical or dialectical thinking while avoiding the incoherence of illogic.

In the social emotional dimension we move forward in our ability, simultaneously, to be our own person in making decisions that match or define our values AND to be respectfully, and even lovingly, integrated in our relationships with others and work.

Both aspects combine in a growing ability to manage our emotional reactivity, to be more creatively constructive and to live a more satisfying, productive life which is both emotionally and spiritually rewarding.

It’s important to note that the discomfort and even pain that precedes a developmental transition is not necessarily a signal of emotional or psychological dysfunction.  While we all carry our share of emotional blockages and pain, development itself is frequently a discomfiting process, whether we see it in the travails of childhood and adolescence or the transitions through which, with luck and effort, we proceed as adults.  The good news is that, while these discomforts are inherent in our human situation, the growth that we attain usually reduces the suffering they cause us.

Our primary means of cognitive development is formal education while social/emotional development is mediated by school, family and friends.  As we progress through our schooling and growing within our family, our body (including our brain) and mind are maturing and, ideally, our life circumstance matches or slightly exceeds the levels of complexity our developing body and mind can handle.  This helps us become more competent in our current level of development and leads us, sometimes kicking and screaming, toward the next. If we are lucky in our teachers and environment, this dance of stretch, master and stretch again continues through our school years.

Once we finish our formal education however, we are usually presumed to be fully developed and it’s supposed that mastery of new tasks, relationships, levels of responsibility or, indeed, environments will be simply a result of learning new skills rather than the development of new levels of mental complexity.  Various researchers like Elliot Jaques, Robert Kegan, Michael Basseches and others have demonstrated that this “skilling up” theory is inadequate to explain either the demands of work at higher levels of complexity or the mental characteristics required to meet that demand.  Kegan and Basseches in particular have demonstrated that there are developmental paths that can allow us to attain levels of cognitive and social/emotional sufficient to meet these demands constructively.

Kegan, in his book “In Over Our Heads” uses as his opening example the demands of the transition from being a son/brother or daughter/sister in the family of origin to being the mother/father of a new family.  The transition usually requires the new parents to establish balances in their relationship with each other, their relationships with their own children, their relationships with their own and their partner’s work and with their own and their partner’s parents and siblings.  This is a huge leap in complexity in interpersonal relationships and, for millennia, the literature, theatre, movies/TV and theatre of all cultures have been built on the ramifications, dilemmas and conflicts inherent in it.  In this example, the husband’s strong orientation to his parents is interfering with his relationship with his wife and he is struggling to re-balance and re-orient his feelings of obligation and central value toward what is now his family.  Indeed he is struggling even to understand that the discomfort and awkwardness that he is experiencing is arising from his inability to contain these two conflicting sets of obligation simultaneously.

Coaching at this developmental level involves, at minimum, helping the client see their situation in ways which reveal rather than conceal its complexity.  This can sometimes mean introducing the idea that the conventional view of the simplicity and obviousness of our lives is a large factor in generating the conflicts in which we so often find ourselves.  This in turn often helps the client see themselves in new ways which increase their ability to see themselves as both unique and self-responsible AND as embedded in the mutuality of affective and intellectual relationship.

This process is both congruent with and complementary with the material which we teach in Cultivating Emotional Balance.

How Our Groups Work

Groups allow us to work at several levels with others.  They allow us to explore our own experiences in light of the feedback from others.  At a deeper level, they allow us to explore and share our relations with our collaborators in the group and get feedback from them on their experience of us.  This can be profoundly moving, deeply transformative and also very challenging.  It requires commitment and emotional resilience from members.

I offer groups in two formats: Men Only and Open.  Both groups run with the same philosophy so, while we encourage members to bring their outside experience to the group, we mainly concentrate on what happens in relations within the group.  Simply complaining about other people or circumstance is discouraged; the challenge is to use our experience to find out how we are in the world and in the group and, if appropriate, to move to a different way of being that is more rewarding both for us and for our fellow members.

The groups meet fortnightly and commitment to a one year membership is a requirement because groups go through their own developmental process which is not always comfortable.  The extended commitment is necessary to give all members the assurance of a stable environment to do the work. It is also to ensure the group is together for long enough to allow trust to develop and for members to mean something to each other.

Each group negotiates its own ethos but common agreements include:

  • Confidentiality: what happens in the group stays in the group. Many groups prefer that members do not identify other members in outside conversations and do not share specifics of what happens in the group.
  • If members interact outside the group, they will share their interaction at the next group meeting.
  • Members do not talk outside the group about other members who are not present.
  • If an absent member is discussed in a group meeting, the discussion is shared with the member when they return.
  • Members do not interrupt each other or talk across each other.
  • One conversation at a time.

I will provide an emailed summary of how I saw the group to each member within two days of each session. This is not meant as a description of what actually happened in the group; it is meant as an additional input to your own thinking and, possibly, as a challenging way to interpret what happened.

Once the group starts, new members will only be added during the year if the group agrees or requests it.

For those who wish to know more about how the groups work, the work of Irvin D. Yalom is central to my approach and I also make use of Adlerian group counselling as described by Sonstegard and Bitter.