therapy redux

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[This is a response to guest post: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/therapy-counseling-etc/]

I agree that CBT is superficially the perfect rationalist therapy. I was a maybe a bit too harsh on CBT in my recent post. Research shows that it works as well as any other therapy. I’m a bit annoyed though that everyone points to CBT when there are plenty of other research-based therapies out there, and just because CBT is one of the most researched therapies, it doesn’t necessarily mean the effect size is any greater, etc., etc.

I do think that “feared truths” keep us from updating beliefs in the face of evidence. If an evidential conclusion implies no emotional impact, it seems that the brain updates easily. If an evidential conclusion implies negative emotions, then parts of the brain update reluctantly, if at all. It’s an odd evolutionary situation. Maybe it’s just evolutionary randomness or maybe this weird updating has a fitness benefit. Either way, it seems to cause more suffering than it alleviates. It’s part of the tragic aspects of the human condition.

I try very hard to notice when I’m resisting an update. I try very hard to see why I’m resisting an update, what feared truth or meaning about the world that it would imply. And then I try to explore whether *that* belief is accurate, and so forth. This is all with gentleness, trying to accommodate the resisting parts, recognize their truth and validity and so forth. Often I’ll eventually find that these almost preverbal parts of myself have a valid and useful intuition that cuts across the normal ways I have of looking at the world. But all this is very, very, very hard. It is sometimes much easier to do with another person there, all things being equal.

And here’s what drives me crazy about CBT. The “thoughts and beliefs” that people say or write down in order to challenge often do not map very well to the “actual thoughts and beliefs” that the person holds. Call it naive CBT, maybe. I guess it’s like anything else, there’s a bad way to do it and a good way.

I agree that people act from tiny, primed parts of themselves, whatever it loudest in the moment. They get jerked around by stimuli in the environment and random stimuli in their own heads.

I agree that there are an infinite number of actions available in any moment. At every moment the brain presents false choices and false dichotomies (“I can do this or that but neither work!”). In fact, there are all sorts of counterintuitive ways to carve up “action space,” some better than others.

I would point out though, of course, that not all futures are available in any moment, and not all actions lead to what futures are available. The future is probabilistically constrained, actions have consequences, not everything is possible or probable. Most people reading this have a relatively forgiving reality to live in though. Many mistakes are possible to recover from, things are never as bad as you think, etc., etc.

I agree that therapy “opens up new non-silly options.”

So I guess a few things jump out at me regarding self-modification.

I guess there are two types of self-modification I would make a distinction between. I’ll call them “in frame” and “out of frame.”

With “in frame” modification, what you want is “legible.” You know what you’re looking for, you strive for it, maybe you even strive for it obliquely–you know that aiming directly at it isn’t the best way to get it.

The other type of modification, you don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. It’s unpredictable, it’s surprising. There’s the quote, “Enlightenment is an accident; Meditation makes you accident-prone.” I think there’s probably an analogous state of affairs for therapy. If your world-space, your ontology, shifts, and your epistemological practices shift, it’s difficult to understand what the heck is going on while it’s happening or even days or years later. I guess you do learn to more effectively role with it, though.

Anyway, these days I try to aim more for relatively safe but unpredictable and surprising changes, rather than changes I can predict in advance. Openness, vulnerability, surrender, something, something, trust but pay attention but relax and let go… Hmm…

Anyway, girl stuff? Agent of Good? Would it be useful to expand in those directions?

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Why therapy has been useful for me

 [This is a guest post. Mark isn’t responsible for anything in this post. New? Start here: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/articles/]

In reply to: https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/therapy-counseling-etc/

 With regards to CBT: It seems to be attractive given the current scientific-rationalist zeitgeist. Update your beliefs, change your life.

I’m a fan of Wilber’s division of therapy types by stage of ego development. Different problems at different stages, with different therapy types being useful.

My own experience: Talk therapy with someone who does not even believe in “therapy” as problem-solving, but who is interested in exploring narratives, just naturally lent itself to focusing and then to internal family systems.

When I say naturally lent, I mean I quickly started to feel body shapes for problems, and eventually drifted into feeling parts, hearing parts talking, and having them fight.

There is experience, the stories we tell about experience and the meaning we derive from it. The first on lives in moments of pristine experience, the second in our communication (to others or ourselves) and the third in our life-long meaning-making. My therapist is especially interested in the two second types. Most of the times I’ll describe something “X, therefore Y” and he will say “Couldn’t the causality be reversed?” and I see that I wish that not to be the case because it entails something Bad. Which means it usually is the case, or I’m not taking it seriously because the conclusion feels undesirable (Stephen Colbert calls this Truthiness). If I do take it seriously, which usually then I do, I am capable of going into it, and it is usually Not That Bad. Suddenly I’m freer (see 2 below)

Why I think therapy matters:

1) Therapy allows you to act from Self (in Internal Family Systems talk)

I generally feel people act from Parts and not from Self. This explains why people seem to overreact, cause violence on one another, and be generally in a “protective” mode. Therapy allows you to relate from Self which means you cause less pain to others and yourself, this is important if you want to see yourself as and Agent of Good.

2) Therapy unblocks stuff

At any point there is an infinitude of actions available. Life is really an action-space with an infinitely large transition table. Most of the time the brain does not see “silly” options. If you are hungry, buying a rifle and hunting your own food is not the first idea that comes to mind (Hofstadter talks about “implicospheres” – implicit counterfactual sphere referring to things that never were but that we cannot help seeing anyway, e.g.: “If you had been here 5 minutes later I would have been gone”). The brain doesn’t see them because they are uncomputable in principle, and trying to go through them would leave you helplessly immobilised.

But sometimes they are not seen, even though they are not silly. Maybe you can integrate your SO into your friend-circle. Or maybe not, but now it appears to you as an option. Therapy frees you, it opens up new non-silly options. 

3) Therapy allows you to think like reality

From an essay on how human attachment is derived from our ability to stimulate neuronal assemblies by thinking

Ideally, a mind with amazing powers of self-control would delete the association between “wake up” and “put arm around girlfriend” as soon as the relationship with the girlfriend ended.   However, a mind without emotional interference in its Hebbian network dynamics would do the next best thing: the association would gradually dwindle over time.   For a typical human mind, on the other hand, the coupling of the “wake up and put arm around girl” network with the mind’s emotional centers, will cause this association to persist a long time after simple Hebbian dynamics would have caused it to dwindle.

(Compare this to ACT therapy and Relational Frames – the ability of the human mind to create arbitrary relations guarantees that any activated neuronal assembly can eventually activate one with a painful memory – which is why suffering never goes away). Therapy allows you – in my experience, YMMV, and so on – to get closer to the mind with “amazing powers” or the one that has the association dwindling.

Put these three together and you have a pretty strong system for self-modification.

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therapy, counseling, etc.

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I just want to make a little plug here for counseling, therapy, etc. I might expand more on this in the future. I am not a licensed mental health professional. I myself see a therapist a few times a month. I’ve recently been going for a few months, now, and I’ve done therapy for three to ten month at a time, a few times in the past.

Depending on the healthcare situation in your country and/or your current life situation, it can be really expensive to see a therapist. And therapists vary widely in, frankly, intelligence, theoretical background, skill level, consistency, etc.

But, if you can find a good therapist, and it may take some expensive experimenting, it can be one of the most important investments you ever make in your entire life. I’ve written before about how meditation is not a panacea. My position is heavily inspired by Ken Wilber’s writings, and a gentle, still brilliant, new-agey introduction on his perspective can be found in No Boundary. (A very dated but more technical perspective I believe can be found in Transformations of Consciousness. He may or may not be working on an update to this book right now.)

It’s extremely difficult to take a comprehensive, outside perspective on yourself. That’s one reason to work with a therapist, to get at least one outside view. Another reason is that two heads can be better than one. If you’re like me, dialoguing with someone about your stuff helps. And sometimes there’s stuff you need to talk about where friends won’t work, or you don’t have any friends who are much older than you who have the heavily biased but combined wisdom of having talked to hundreds of people about their problems.

So, therapists are people. They are not magic. And you make yourself vulnerable. I am frankly on guard for moralizing, subtle emotional violence and so forth when first starting to work with a therapist.

Regarding modalities, and this is freaking just me, I usually find CBT-esque approaches to be trite, insulting, and not particularly helpful. And I’ve found “talk therapy” to often be unfocused and not particularly helpful. But “talk therapy” has been useful at time. And so have EMDR and Focusing in the course of a therapeutic relationship.

I will say that I was very skeptical of psychodynamic approaches. But if you find someone who’s over fifty, who seems to have a strong theoretical background, and who clearly still loves what they do, I would give it a shot. For all modalities, I think there is huge variance in effectiveness depending on the therapist and your current life situation.

I guess my real point here is that we can carry vast, sweeping, tangled blind spots throughout our entire lives and shape our entire lives around them. If you have any interest in the vast, open expanses of what your life could be, who you could be, your alternative futures, possibilities, capabilities, the vastly different ways the world could look to you, no matter how clearly you think you see…

Therapy is a crapshoot. It is. But it’s also a game of skill. You can get better at choosing therapists and engaging in effective therapeutic relationships. And the potential payoff is a life or lives that you literally could not have imagined beforehand.

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Attentional and Motivational Dynamics of Goal Space (Part One)

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So let’s say that something about your life is not *handled.* (Or, lots of things.) It feels like if you left this thing on autopilot it would never improve. And it feels like you have no idea what to do to move it *towards* handled. There is no clear path forward, or any path at all.

You can sort of describe things you want and don’t want, in general language, but those descriptions don’t suggest a way forward. You don’t know if going after the things you want will actually get you to the things you want. You don’t know if you even want the things that you want, or you can’t be sure of what the concrete shape of what you want should be. And you don’t even know if the things you want are possible, let alone actually desirable once you have them. And you’re not sure what you should want at the expense of other things you want. And you’re not sure how the concrete things you have to do, in the present, those things you do to keep the game going, should interact with these vague, ambiguous, ill-defined, uncertain future possibilities. Furthermore, these goals, wants, desires bounce around in your head as you think, ruminate, read, try stuff out or don’t, take first steps or don’t, have conversations, etc. Furthermore, you don’t trust some of your desires. You suspect that they are solutions to problems you don’t need to have or that there are things you could do first to dissolve the *need* for those solutions, if you could only figure out what steps to take in that direction.

So let’s say you’re willing to experiment, to take actions in various directions, maybe even write down some language, write down some “outcomes” or “goals.” But, sometimes this doesn’t work, for a lot of reasons.

First, that goal language might have no energy behind it the next time you look at it, or even whilte you’re writing it. The sense of what you want(ed) with all the attendant energy, motivation, emotion behind it is no longer there. It’s not that the goal is gone, it’s just that the link between what you wrote and the goal is gone. The words you got down weren’t a good anchor.

Or, another thing could happen. You try to get some words down, but you notice that the act of trying to put words to the goal starts to interfere with the goal. It’s like pinning a butterfly to a board. You caught it, but you’ve killed it. Sometimes some gentle effort can capture the goal without killing it, but some goals resist being captured in this way. These goals are nuanced, shifting, complex, fragile–perhaps not the goal itself, but what would be a reified expression of that goal in the world. It’s hard to hold onto vivid, rich, meaningful essence that you deeply cherished and valued in the first place as you try to capture a concrete realization of that goal that’s stable enough (in terms of situated achievability) to move forward on.

Or, another thing could happen. You try to get some words down, but you notice that the act of trying to put words down is interfering with other goals, duties, responsibilities, needs that are more immediate. Attempting to concretize this goal creates disruptive ripples in goal space, making it an overall a non-starter to try and actually get that goal down and integrated. It’s probably still there in a vague and diffuse way, there’s still energy behind it, but it’s not focalized, not graspable, but having it graspable would cause problems.

Or, another thing could happen, the goal doesn’t contain the means, it’s ungrounded. But neither can you link actions to the goal in such a way that doing those actions feels like and means that you’re doing the original goal. You don’t feel like you’re doing the goal, you feel like you’re doing meaningless actions that don’t feel like you’re doing the goal. They take a lot of effort and you don’t feel like you’re actually moving closer to the goal.

Or, in an attempt to set explicit goals, you intuit that setting goals will make it less likely that you’ll get what you want than setting no goals at all. The kinds of goals you habitually reach for don’t map well to what your deeper intuition feels you actually need.

Or, sometimes your monkey machinery is interfering with seeing the world clearly and sometimes the world isn’t arranged in a way that fit your brains ability to generate discrete, legible goals. Deep down you don’t believe your goal or plan will work or you believe it will take too much energy away from other important things. (And whether or not this perception is actually true, it feels true.)

In any case, for any of those reasons above, you’ve got nothing to grasp, no representation to hold onto, no framework, no gears to turn, no machinery to crank, no way to get good traction and a sense of progress towards what you actually want. Or, it’s a patchwork of those things. Bit and pieces, fits and starts, attempts and experiments and experiences–You’re moving forward, maybe, sometimes, but it’s not *handled*: It takes a lot of attention, cognition, emotional energy. Sometimes that feels good, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it interferes with the rest of your life.

So, I’m exploring how to have a light touch in goal space, to make non-disruptive, creative forays, to experiment, to sketch something you can come back to, that has energy behind it, that you can get believable traction on, that doesn’t interfere with your other goals, legible or illegible, that moves you forward on illegible goals that you care about without doing damage to them or your representation of them. I wonder if it’s possible to deliberately, directly work with goal space, scribing goals that embed seamlessly with illegible goal fields and other explicit goals, that participate in superordinate related goals…

There’s this phenomenal thing that happens when you attend to a goal (or any emotional object, or any object): Everything else “dims.” It’s as if everything hinges on that one thing you’re focusing on…

To be continued…

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the deep spirit of this blog

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On the consulting page I mention the “deep spirit” of this blog. I was wondering if I could put that into words. Here is an attempt:

  • scientifically non-contradictory spirituality
  • the ultimate concern of having ever better ultimate concerns, values, ethics [or, sigh, recursively-bootstrapping-self-optimization]
  • the realization of human potential along all axes, across all timescales
  • grace (“meditation is an accident; [smart] meditation makes you accident-prone”)
  • surrender (to self, others, and world)
  • reaching out and affecting really real reality as an expression of your will
  • folly
  • love

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” –Richard Feynman (Cargo Cult Science)

“Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” –Stephen Leacock

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social navigation hypothesis of depression

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So, it’s apparently controversial, but I kind of fell in love with the social navigation hypothesis of depression:

http://biology.unm.edu/Biology/pwatson/public_html/dp1.htm

It just feels so right, so it has to be right, right? (Kidding, but it’s elegant: Signaling! Bargaining! Extortion! Involuntary cognitive allocation!)

This is a surprisingly good Wikipedia page, too:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_approaches_to_depression

Gotta view everything through the lens of evolutionary psychology. It’s not the only lens, but it’s a fundamental one. Granted, stuff like stress, suffering, and life-long psychological trauma, fucking human condition, but, oh, the surprising, sudden, latent capacities strewn through our DNA, only a life-situation removed from unfolding within us. Our prison, but our values, our potential, it all has to start with embracing the monkey, living the monkey, being the monkey. It’s the only secure foundation to build on.

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consulting? become a guest author

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I’ve updated the bottom of my consulting page:

A teeny tiny trickle of people who are interested in consulting with me is starting to come in. Any interaction around the content of this blog, and anything I can do to make a seeming difference in other people’s lives, is EXTREMELY gratifying and energizing.

But, I have very little time and leftover cognition: I am working a shitty-intense professional job to bank money and simultaneously trying to make meaningful progress on my one-person-super-secret-world-conquering startup. And, I’m trying to do both in under 45 hours a week (forever; because fun/completely-disconnecting-from-responsibilities/intimacy/friends/healthy-slow-food/exploratory-meetups/plenty-of-sleep). This involves pushing back hard at my manager and doing just enough to not be too stressed about getting fired, and that’s really stressful. Anyway.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with the consulting. Here is an experimental solution.

If you would like to consult with me, you can become a guest author on my blog. (You own your posts; See below.) You can write posts which I will of course see. You can write your own thoughts and questions, respond to my posts, and maybe other guest authors or visitors will dialogue with you in comments or their own posts. I will jump in when I have time and when I am inspired. […]

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