A very insightful lecture on the work of Carl Rogers. There are several variants on Peterson’s lecture on Rogers. The one from 2014 to me is the best. it’s actually interesting how different subsequent versions of this lecture are – he’s not just recycling and repeating his lecture notes.  It’s a long discussion, but quite worthwhile.

Here’s what he says:

We’re going to continue in our discussion of clinical personality theories today, moving away from the psychoanalytic theorists or the depth psychologists. We’re going to start to talk about the phenomenologist and the existentialists, and so I need to lay down a bit of background first. I think we’ll start with a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism. Now, for the phenomenologists, this is a tricky concept to grasp.

I think I’ll actually start by telling you something that Carl Jung wrote about in the last book he published, which was called Mysterium Coniunctionis, which means mysterious conjunction. He sort of believed, posited, that there were some extensions of moral development past the higher levels of moral development that Piaget identified, and there were three of them. He said they could be symbolized by masculine feminine conjunctions, or that they were in the literature that he had researched (mostly alchemical literature from the late middle ages). He said that one of the goals of moral development or of psychotherapy was to produce a union between the emotions, the motivations and rationality. And you can see that that’s actually been a theme for all of the theorists we’ve talked about so far. Partly what psychotherapy, or personality development seems to be about is the continual integration of the personality so that the person, the psyche, isn’t at odds with itself and it can move forward with a minimum of conflict. And that’s something related to the Piagetian idea of an equilibrated state. So if you’re in an equilibrated state you don’t have the sense that there are parts of you warring against other parts, because you’ve been able to weave everything together into a coherent identity that covers the past and the present and the future.

So the first stage in what Jung believed constituted higher development was the union of the rationality with emotion and motivation and he saw that was symbolized in the literature that he had reviewed by masculine spirit and feminine emotions and motivations – bang – together in one thing. So that then would be the united mind and spirit in a sense.

And then the next stage, which was symbolized again by the masculine-feminine symbolism, was the united mind-spirit with the body. So what that would mean was that once you got your act together, so to speak, you would implement it in your behavior so that there were no contradictions between who you were, in terms of how you thought and how you felt and what you wanted, and what you were actually doing.

And modern philosophers have described what they call a performance contradiction, which they formally described as another type of lie essentially, another type of deceit, that you say one thing and that you do another. And it’s interesting because it’s not a form of logical deceit in a sense because your conceptualizations are abstract and your behavior is concrete. But there can still be a contradiction between the two, especially when you start to understand that most of what your psyche are representing are schema for action rather than for representation. So the point is that once your emotions and motivations are working alongside your rational mind, really that your rational mind is properly nested within them, because that’s a much more accurate way of looking at it, then the next thing you should do is act consistently in accordance with who you are.

So that’s stage two. Both of those stages are pretty easy to understand. But the third stage is actually a phenomenological stage, you have to think phenomenologically to understand it. So here’s one way of thinking about it. Imagine that you go home and you’ve set up a room. And in that room, it’s not a very nice room, maybe you’ve got some posters hanging on the wall and they’re hanging a little cock-eyed and dust bunnies are mating under the bed. You have piles of paperwork that you haven’t done and homework and maybe there’s the odd crust f bread or so forth lying about. When you walk in there, it’s you and the room. That’s one way of thinking about it. But another way of thinking about it is that when you walk in there, you are the room. Just like you’re the room when you’re here, because the room makes up a part of what you’re experiencing. And the phenomenologist would say in a sense the best way to conceptualize the self in its totality is what you experience. Everything that you experience is you. And so what that would mean is that there’s no difference between putting the posters up on your wall properly and cleaning up underneath the bed and maybe making it and finishing your homework. Putting your room in order so that you feel confident and calm there and maybe so you can enjoy being there and maybe so that it’s even beautiful there. There’s no difference between that and fixing up your own personality.

So then you could say, here’s another way of looking at it. And I do believe this is a very profound way of looking at things. Then imagine that you could extend that viewpoint, it’s kind of easy to understand when you think about it as your own room, because you’re in there quite a lot, let’s say you’re in your room ten percent of the day. So we could say that the experiences that characterize your room are ten percent of you (at least for the time being) and that you can have a low quality experience in there or a high quality experience. Then start generalizing that to the whole house. So then you can start thinking, are there problematic places in the house? Problematic relationships among the people in the house? And those problematic relationships are also you? And you can tell when there’s a problem because you encounter undesired negative emotions in relationship to some relationship or in some physical locale within the house. And maybe you could fix that. Little incremental bit by incremental bit you could work on that. You could note that the negative emotion you don’t want to have arisen signifies something. It signifies that that situation in some sense is non-optimal. And then you could work on strategies to optimize that. And you don’t do that until you stop making the presupposition that there’s you and then there’s the house. The distinction between you and where you are is a very unclear distinction.

So then let’s say you’re walking down the street or you’re going into a store and maybe your manners aren’t as good as they could be. Because to be really socially sophisticated is a real art. It can take you decades to learn how to do that properly. And people who are really socially skilled have a much higher quality existence because no matter where they go, they immediately establish a relationship with the people that they’re talking to. And then it’s not an impersonal and dead or aggravating interaction. So maybe they walk into a store and the first thing they do if someone comes up and helps them is look at the person and ask them how they’re doing and how they’re day has been and make a little relationship and the person is kind of happy about that and it sort of pops them out of their persona role. And then you can have a discussion about what you’re doing in the store and what they want and then all of a sudden it’s a high quality experience. And that person, everywhere they go, if they’re skilled like that, they’re awake and they’re attentive and their listening, everywhere they go they can have a high quality interaction. And people who learn how to do that, learn to do it partly by noticing when they’re in an interaction with someone somewhere that if it isn’t going in an optimal manner, or if it’s producing undesired negative emotions then there’s something wrong with the way they are being in that situation. And they pay attention to that and try to figure out how to modify it. A lot of it is attention. And listening, which are key components of Rogerian psychotherapy – attention and listening.

So you can go into your room and you can identify little problems in your room that you could fix, that maybe you would fix, so maybe you could start fixing them and that would improve the quality of that particular environment and then you could start to generalize beyond the locales that are more specifically under your control.

If you’re walking down Bloor for example, and you go into a store and you talk to a clerk, the probability is pretty high that the clerk is at least reasonably functional, so you should be able to get beyond their barrier in a sense and have a genuine interaction without too much difficulty.

But then maybe you’re wondering down Bloor and you run across someone who’s schizophrenic and maybe alcoholic at the same time. Well that’s a part of your experience that might supersede your ability to transform.

The phenomenologists and people like Rogers aren’t making the claim that you should be able to solve every problem that you come across or even that you should try, Because there will be things that you experience that will be so complex and problematic that you might make them worse if you fiddle around with them. You’ve got to be very careful not to extend yourself dramatically beyond your skill level. But you can certainly start in isolated locales. And if you stop presuming a priori that there’s some radical distinction between you and the environment you happen to be in, because it’s all your experience. If you stop making that subject – object distinction, which is one of the things the phenomenologists really objected to because they concentrated on being as such, which was sort of lived experience as the ground of reality rather than the objective world as the ground of reality.

If you allow yourself to step outside that dichotomy and you start to understand that wherever you go, including the places that you’re in a lot, that there’s no distinction between fixing up those places when you notice that there’s something wrong with them and you could fix them up and fixing yourself up. It opens up a whole new avenue to getting your life together. People always think they have to work on themselves. This is one of the things that I think the psychoanalysts didn’t get quite right, although Jung touched on it in his later works.

All of you isn’t inside your head. For the psychoanalysts a lot of the work that you were doing on yourself was on the relationship, say, between your conscious and your unconscious mind. But a tremendous amount of that was inside your skull so to speak. But the phenomenological approach enables you to start reconceptualising the psyche as something that extends beyond you and always will. And so that you can work on its reconstruction at any level of analysis where your own nervous system is signalling to you that there’s a problem. And the way it does that is, well a variety of ways, but two of the most reliable ways are negative emotion.

There’s a new paper, for example, that shows that conscientiousness is quite tightly associated with proneness to guilt, so that’s the negative emotion that seems to go along with conscientiousness. So guilt and anxiety and shame and those sorts of emotions, which are unpleasant, also simultaneously signal the presence of a problem. And resentment, that’s another good one. So instead of having those emotions as an enemy and just want that to go away, you can think “OK, my being, my embodied being is signalling to me that something is non-optimal here.” And then it’s not an enemy because it’s something that’s trying to improve the quality of your present experience and your future experience. If you don’t push that aside and pretend it’s not happening or assume instantaneously that it’s the fault of the environment or the person that you’re talking to, then that can be incredibly instructive. Negative emotion is incredibly instructive, but you have to adjust your attitude so that you understand that it’s signalling to you the presence of corrective information (if you could just figure out what that information is). And that can come from anyone, a person or a place or a thing or yourself. You don’t need to make the distinctions.

So if you’re having an argument with your partner and it’s not going very well, there’s a tremendous tendency among people who try to win the argument with their partner. But you can’t win an argument with your partner, because then you win and they lose. Then you have a loser on your hands. And if you do that a hundred times maybe you’re better at arguing than they are, for example, or maybe they think in a more intuitive way so maybe they can’t dance on their feet quit as fast as you, or maybe the situation is reversed. If you win the bloody argument a hundred times, you’re not a winner, you’re just someone who’s beat up your partner a hundred times.

What you want to find out is what the hell it is that you’re talking about. And sometimes that takes a tremendous amount of patience and they should be doing the same thing to you and very frequently the kinds of things people are arguing about are only the tiny, like the snow on the surface of a glacier. The real argument is deep, deep, deep underneath. But unless you listen intently and for a long period of time, you’ll never figure out what it is that you’re arguing about. And then if you win, the person won’t be able to talk about it and that problem will be there for the rest of the relationship. And maybe for the rest of your life. Unless you solve the problem, it’s not going to go away.

And now I’m going to start talking about Rogers by specifically going over some of the things he had to say about listening. Because I think I’ve learned more about listening from Rogers than from any other personality theorist or psychotherapist that I’ve encountered.

Now we could go back to the fundamentals of psychotherapy. Really what you’re doing in psychotherapy is trying to help the person become a better person. And that’s not exactly a scientific formulation, ‘better person’. And it’s a tricky thing to get at because people can be better persons in lots of different ways. Merely the fact that people vary in their temperaments indicates that your way of being a better person [points at student] and your way of being a better person [points at another student] wouldn’t necessarily be the same way. Like, maybe someone’s great on the violin and someone else is great on the piano. The great is the same, but the instrument is different and that’s a good way of looking at it. And so partly what you do in psychotherapy, and I think you do this in any genuine relationship, is not only is the dialogue about how to become a better person, the continuing dialogue is also always about just exactly what constitutes a better person. So you’re talking about the goal and the process at the same time. And what you’re doing is working it out so the people go into the conversation with a specific orientation. And the orientation is generally the client and therapist and the client comes with a problem – their life isn’t acceptable in its current form and they come with one more thing which is the desire to make it better.

And something you should all know, because this will stop you from tangling yourself up in your life to a tremendous degree, you cannot help someone who hasn’t decided that they want things to be better. Unless they make the decision that they want to make things better, forget it! You’re wasting your time and all it will do is hurt you.

And I should also tell you that that was one of Rogers’ necessary preconditions for psychotherapy. Another one was honesty in communication. But the person who was coming in for the therapeutic process had to be there voluntarily.

And it’s a weird thing, and I don’t know how to account for it, but I don’t think that you can talk someone who doesn’t want to have things be better into wanting that. They have to come to that decision on their own.

So they come in, with having made that decision. So it’s very, very difficult, maybe it’s impossible to do psychotherapy with someone who’s been remanded by the court. They’re there involuntarily and they’ll just put up a wall, not always, but a lot of the time they’ll put up a wall and just wait it out. You’re not going to get in there with a screwdriver and pry off that shell.

So the person has to step forward in a sense, and say, well, you know there’s something not right about the way things are going for me and it could be better. And somebody else might be able to help me figure that out. And that’s a really good attitude to have when you’re listening to someone, because disagree with them or not, there’s always the possibility they will tell you something you don’t know. And lots of times when people are talking, what they’re trying to do is impose their viewpoint on another person. You hear conversations like this all the time. Their arguments really and their often ideological arguments like you’re right and I’m wrong, or sorry…that never happens. I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m just going to hack at you until you shut up or you agree. Really you’ll never agree because you’ll just don’t get someone to agree that way, it’s not possible. But you might be able to cow them into silence, or anger. But that’s a dominance hierarchy thing, that’s not a real conversation. All you’re doing is establishing that you’re a lobster with bigger claws than the person you’re trying to pick at.

A therapeutic conversation, which is a genuine conversation, is one in which both the people in the conversation are oriented towards a higher state of being while they’re conversing. And you can tell when you’re in a conversation like that: it’s very, very engaging. In fact, if the conversation isn’t engaging, then that’s a sign you’re not having a conversation. And that’s a pretty useful thing to know too because here’s another thing I can tell you, that if you take to heart can save you an awful lot of grief and misery: If you’re talking to someone and they’re not listening, shut up! Just stop. It’s like you can tell if they’re not listening, and if they’re not listening, quit saying words. You’ll just end up feeling foolish anyways, it’s like you’re throwing ping pong balls at a brick wall – you’re not getting anywhere. If they’re not listening that’s a sign that the situation isn’t set up to allow you to progress on the path that you’re choosing.

And so then you have to stop, and you think “Well, ok, what’s going on here? Why is the person not listening? Am I being too forceful? Do they not understand what I’m saying? Is it too much about me? Do they want to talk? What’s going on? Maybe they don’t want to be here?” There’s all sorts of possibilities. That’s when you need to wake up, pass what it is you’re trying to impose on the situation and explore and see what’s there. And that’s way more interesting than trying to impose your viewpoint. Another is that if you’re talking to someone, you know I like to talk to people whose political views are very different than mine because I can’t really understand  how someone’s political beliefs can be really different than mine. I’ve got a coherent representation of my beliefs, but it’s very interesting to talk to people who radically differ because they’ll tell you things that you haven’t considered. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it’s much more informative to walk away from a conversation having learned something that you didn’t know than it is having won the stupid argument which you can’t win anyways. And that’s especially the case when you’re dealing with people who are close to you, who you’ll have around for the rest of your life. You cannot win an argument with them. All that’ll happen is if you win, they’ll get you back. Sooner or later. They won’t listen to you the next time you have something to talk about or they’ll get resentful and then they won’t be helpful. You just can’t win an argument with someone who you have repeated contact with.

What you can do however, is you can have a conversation that’s a real conversation and maybe you can come to terms about the thing you’re discussing. And that’s negotiation. It like, you now “Well what do you want?”, but you have to really want to know. We’re having an argument – what is it that I would have to do, because we’re having this argument, what would I have to do in order to satisfy you? And then the other person might say “Well, there’s nothing you can do to satisfy me – I’m so mad at you!” That’s not helpful. The other person has to think “What are the condition for my satisfaction?”

So maybe your partner says “You’re not paying enough attention to me.” Alight, what do you want? Exactly? Do you want to talk for 15 minutes at breakfast? Do you want to talk for 20 minutes at lunch? Do you want to spend an hour at night watching TV or you want me to act differently when I come home and I’m at the door? You’re feeling unattended to – what do you want? Well then they’ll say if you love me you should be able to figure that out. That’s wrong, because you’re stupid. You won’t be able to figure that out. What the hell do you know? So the other person, unless they want to corner you into being the kind of loser who can’t figure things out…why are they with you then? They need to think about that. What is it that I want from this person? What would constitute more attention? That’s making the argument much more high resolution. And then if you give the other person a chance to actually respond. And then you have to allow your partner to be a moron, because of course they are, and so once you tell them what you want you have to let them do it badly ten times because they’re never going to do it right the first time.

So sometimes when I’ve seen people (I help people with marital problems), one of the things I often recommend is they go on a date. They take themselves away from the home where the kids are. Maybe they don’t have kids – it doesn’t really matter – and they do something that’s just focused on each other. And of course first of all they tell me they don’t want to do that – it’s stupid. It isn’t, by the way. It’s not stupid – it’s like, oh, you don’t want to go out and have an enjoyable time with your partner? You think that your relationship’s going to survive when all you do is snipe at each other and do horrible things together. Well, that’s not going to work. So then they’ll finally say “OK, we’ll go on a date.” They’ll both look disgusted by the whole idea. And then they go and it’s like and it’s just miserable, right. It’s like one person says something to the other that immediately sets them off when they’re out on that date and they’re kind of mad about going anyways. And then they come back and go “Well that just didn’t work and we’re never going to do it again.”

Like, no – so you’re telling me you’re never going to go out and do something enjoyable with your partner again? Because it didn’t work very well? It’s like people don’t think about it. It’s like so maybe when you’re taking your partner out and you haven’t been getting along, it takes you like ten times before you have a relatively ok time. But ten times, if you’re going to go out with them let’s say go out with them every two weeks.  That’s around 25 times a year and let’s say you stay together 30 years, assuming you manage to get your act together, so that’s 750 times. So if you practice ten times, you might be able to 740 good times out together. And that’s an underestimate and so 10 times of practising is hardly a problem for that kind of return.

Following this path is all part of the Rogerian process of listening. And listening is trying to figure out what the hell the other person is telling you and understanding at the same time that they don’t know. Especially if they’re upset, they’re not even sure what they’re upset about and they don’t know what they want. You can corner them by saying well, you want to be attended to more, what do you want? And they’ll try some weird defense like I told you already, “if you loved me you’d already know”, which is a cliché and it’s a foolish cliché, so you can’t let that stop you.

I should also tell you the sorts of barriers people will put up if you listen to them too.

Well, usually what happens if you’re pushing someone, but this is in a listening sort of way, but what do you want? Why do you want that? What would be the conditions of your satisfaction? You’re pushing them fairly hard to articulate their concerns and sometimes their afraid to do that. If you’re trying to hash out an issue, people usually have like five routines they can go through.

One is they block you with some cliché. Or they say something annoying and then maybe they’ve got one other verbal trick after that. And then once you push through that, then they cry or get angry. And if you still don’t stop then they stomp off.

And so, if you’re going to have a successful conversation about something difficult you need to have a routine for each of those. It’s like, just because the person’s angry doesn’t mean the conversations over. And just because the person’s crying doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a sadist. Often tears are a trick, they mask anger. And what the person is doing in part, is they’re using their emotions as an exploratory technique to find out “How important is this? What happens if I just break down? Will the person shup up?”  And if the person shuts up, then they think, oh it’s not that important. Because they’ve been able to use a technique, I’m not saying this is conscious, it’s deeper than conscious. It’s just how people rub up against each other when they’re trying to figure out how things are structured. And so if you quit when they get upset, then they think, oh well, this thing isn’t so important that it’s worth this much upset.

But if you continue, well then they’ll run away. Well, one of the things you have to do, if you’re in any kind of relationship, you got to make a rule which is “You can leave, but you gotta come back.” We’re not done with this, you can’t run off because it’s breaking the contract of the conversation. You gotta stay and hash it out.

Now I’m going to read you some of the things that Rogers talked about. So one of the things he talked about is this idea called Unconditional Positive Regard. Now, I don’t think that’s a very good phrase cause unconditional positive regard is one of those things that can be turned into a new age cliché in two seconds, like “No matter what you do, I’ll love you.” Like, no. There’re lots of things you could do that are just not going to garner a lot of love. So unconditional positive regard, it’s not like there isn’t an idea behind that, because there really is an idea behind that. But like I said, it got all new agey after Rogers formulated it and it sounds like, well all you have to do is be consistently positive towards the person and you know, they’ll flourish.

First of all, you’re going to have unconditional positive regard for Hitler? Like, no! And not only that, you have a responsibility not to have unconditional positive regard for yourself or for other people because what you’re trying to do is make things better and so that means that the things that make things worse are bad. Right? If there’s better, there’s got to be worse. And if you’re in favour of better you have to be not in favour of worse. So I’m going to untangle unconditional positive regard a bit, and like I said, Rogers, his word choice wasn’t very good.

Here’s a different way of thinking about it. If you’re in a relationship with someone, and this could even be a very short relationship. It could be the kind of relationship you have when you go to talk to someone in a store. Like I said, you can get sophisticated about it. Let’s assume it’s a longer term relationship. You have to decide what, if you’re going to have that person’s best interests in mind when you have the conversation. You got to have that as sort of a top value in your value hierarchy. The reason we’re talking is because I want things to be better. Not better for me. Well, maybe better for me too, but the better for me is a subordinate part of the better. The reason we’re communicating is because we both want things to be better. And then we both aren’t absolutely sure what it would mean for things to be better. We’ve got to exchange information until we figure that out and neither of us are sure about how we’re going to get there and so we have to exchange information until we figure out how to get there. And that’s the initial axiomatic precondition for a true conversation. And that’s unconditional positive regard.

I regard the person I’m talking with as someone who could transform in a positive direction and who’s willing to attempt that and who will communicate to that end. Even though they might screw up, and there’s going to be things in the way – the sorts of things psychanalysts talk about as resistance. And then they’re going to regard me the same way. You know, I’m also going to make mistakes along the way.

Now, Rogers pointed out that in order to communicate with someone in that manner, you had to be willing to put yourself in their shoes essentially. And he said “You had to comprehend the alternative phenomenal field”, which is ok, I’m here, and this is my viewpoint coming out from this place [points at his head]. Now you have a viewpoint and they’re similar enough that we can communicate about them, but they’re different enough so that they’re not equivalent and the differences are actually meaningful. So I know I’ve got to pop myself out of my framework, put myself in yours and figure out where you’re coming from. And that’s the goal of the conversation. So sometimes that can even help you figure out where you’re coming from. You can say, looks to me like you’re really angry and the person will say no, I’m just sad. Like when they’re all red, eh? They look like they’re going to bite you, but they say no, no. But it really looks like you also might be a bit angry. And they’ll be angry about you saying that of course, but that their emotions are so jumbled together, in a sort of chaotic jumble, that they don’t actually know what it is that they’re experiencing. It’s this terrible, unarticulated, chaotic bodily state that is signalling something, but it hasn’t been articulated, so they’re kind of a mess.

So your careful observation, as long as they trust you, and they should trust you if they know you have their best interests, whatever that is, in mind (or at least that you’re trying that), then they can trust you and you can help them clarify what it is that they’re feeling. You know, what’s sort of coming up from the body and what that’s associated with and what they’d like to do with it.

Rogers says “Real communication occurs, and the evaluative tendency avoided, when we listen with understanding.” Now, the evaluative tendency he’s talking about is, well, let’s simplify this a little bit and say I’m radically left wing and I’m talking to someone who’s radically right wing, and we start talking about something like income distribution. And the right wing person says, well let’s say the left wing person says “Well, there’s all these people at the bottom and they don’t have a lot of money and a lot of the reason that they’re there is because they’ve encountered very, very harsh circumstances or maybe they have an illness or something like that and you know, there’s a real distribution of intelligence so a lot of time people are at the bottom because they just don’t have the cognitive resources to climb.” And the right winger goes “Rubbish, rubbish. The reason they’re at the bottom is they don’t work hard enough and they don’t take any care with their long term thinking”.  And so the left winger says “Well that’s just prejudice.” And the right winger says “You’re just a bleeding heart liberal.” And poof! That’s the end of the conversation.

And that’s the evaluative tendency, it’s like you just come away the same as you were when you entered the conversation and there’s been no exchange of information whatsoever. All there’s been is a hardening of prejudice and you can walk away feeling morally superior because, you know, you demonstrated what a scumrat your opponent is and how morally upright you are. Well, that’s the evaluative tendency. That’s not a conversation that’s going to lead to progress. If anything it’s going to lead to increased feelings of prideful arrogance on your part, cause you know everything. And on their part too. And increased polarization. Not a helpful way of communicating.

And this sort of thing, as we’ll see when we move into the more social and political consequences of failure to communicate, that’s a microcosm of what goes wrong in society when it really starts to fall apart. When the individuals within a society who have different viewpoints no longer communicate, the whole society shakes and trembles. And you can think about this from a democratic perspective too. You might say “What’s the purpose of elections?” Well, people who are aligned with particular ideologies think “We need to win the elections because our viewpoint is right.” But then you might ask yourself, then why are there these other viewpoints? And why do things go so bad when one viewpoint dominates so heavily that everyone who has the other viewpoint gets shot. That seems like a bad thing. So what exactly is going on in a democratic state and what’s going on is that there’s all these different viewpoints.

A lot of them are temperamentally informed so we know for example that liberals are higher in openness and lower in conscientiousness than conservatives. And conservatives are conscientious, but they’re not very creative and open. So they’re really good at running things. They’re good at being managers and administrators for example. But they’re not very good at being innovative. The liberals are good at being innovative because they’re open, but they’re not very conscientious. They have to be less conscientious in some ways if they’re going to be creative, because conscientiousness can constrain creativity. And so for the society to work properly, the people with the liberal temperament and the people with the conservative temperament have to interact with each other. The liberals think up all the new companies and the conservatives run them.

So and then in the political state per se, conscientiousness is a virtue, although if it’s exaggerated too much, especially the orderly part, then it can become tyranny.

Openness is a virtue too but you don’t want every bloody thing changing every second.

So there’s got to be some constant negotiated peace between order and innovation. And the way that that happens is that the two sides have to communicate. It isn’t that one side wins or the other side wins, it’s that the dialogue stays open so that the viewpoints can be represented properly so that as the environment moves, cause sometimes  maybe the environment is such that being conscientious is going to be better and sometimes the environment moves so that openness is going to be better. Because the environment moves, the conversation has to track those movements for society to be healthy across time.

And the same thing applies to any long term relationship. You marry someone, now you’ve got two brains and they don’t work the same. It’s like do you want to have two brains or do you want to have one? That’s the first question. You’re going to do a lot better with two. So how do you optimize the functioning of the two brains? Obviously they’ve got to communicate. There’s got to be freedom of expression and there has to be listening. So that’s the evaluative tendency, which is “You’re wrong!” before I even know what you’re talking about. At least I should know what the hell you’re talking about before I decide you’re wrong.

And so back to the poverty issues, like what predicts poverty? Well, the sorts of things that the left winger talks about that produce poverty, so do the things the right winger talks about.

So if you’re really unconscientious, that’s makes you the sort of person that will rely on others to do the work. If you’re unconscientious, you’re much more likely to be poor. And so that’s a real social policy problem too because you have this horrible problem where you have to sort out what’s causing the poverty. And who’s taking advantage of the attempts to alleviate it. Do that’s more of an individual temperament problem, which is what the conservatives are talking about. And then you also have to figure out how to address it on a social level, which the conservatives don’t like to think about. But it’s not like either side has nothing to say. There’s information in both those perspectives.

It’s problematic though, when you put them together, the phenomena becomes paradoxical and it’s very difficult to come up with a solution that challenges your cognitive resources. What the conservative and the liberal want to do is just simplify it down to one explanation. It’s sociological, that’s the liberal. It’s temperamental, that the conservative. And so then they have one answer to how it can be fixed. We should fix society, that’s the liberal. Those people should just get their act together, that’s the conservative. Fair enough, except probably the problem is complicated enough so that there’s more than one solution necessary. Since it’s not even a problem. Poverty is not a problem, poverty is like ten thousand problems and some of them aren’t even associated with each other.

There’s the poverty that’s a consequence of alcoholism. That’s not the same as the poverty that’s a result of very low intelligence. And that’s a completely different problem than the non-conscientious poverty, or the abuse poverty. And there’s no reason to assume whatsoever they should be amenable to the same solutions.

“Real communication occurs and the evaluative tendency avoided when we listen with understanding.” Understanding, that’s an interesting word. You might ask yourself, what do you mean when you understand. And it’s got this sort of physical aspect to it, that’s the stand. And then there’s the under part, which sort of implies that to understand you have to be under it and standing. And so, partly what happens is if I can listen to you with understanding, what that means is I get a clear enough picture of what you want, so that I can change the way that I am. Maybe the way I look at things, like the perceptual scheme through which I view the world, but also my actions. But if I can extract that from you, then I understand. I would be able to take what you told me and change myself if I felt that was appropriate or maybe it would just happen automatically because now I have a deep understanding of you.

And people are afraid of that, right because let’s say you’ve got yourself all hemmed in with some ideology and you’re feeling pretty secure about that. And then you listen to some dimwit who’s got completely the opposite perspective from you and you listen hard and all of a sudden you’ve got cracks in your system. And then you have to think “Oh, maybe things are more complicated than I thought they were. Everything isn’t all tied together in this neat little package.” And that can be unsettling. In fact if you’re listening to someone, and you’re really listening and you’re not being unsettled, the probability is pretty high that either that you’re not listening, or you’re not talking about anything of real consequence. Because if it’s important and you’re listening, it’s going to shift you. So it’s going to set you at least a little bit into that state of chaos. And what you’re doing then, so you know, so that instead of identifying with who you were, which is the person you were before the conversation, you’re identifying with the person you could be as you move through the conversation. And that’s a way better thing to identify with.

Are you going to identify with your beliefs, this is a Piagetian idea, are you going to identify with your beliefs or are you going to identify with the process that allows you to generate beliefs? And often those things are in contradiction because if you identify with the process that allows you to change your beliefs, then you’re assaulting your beliefs, even though you might be correct in them. It’s demanding to do that. You’re reconfiguring your physiology. And there’s an intermediary period of uncertainty that goes along with that. What if they’re right? Well, then what?

“Real communication occurs and the evaluative tendency avoided when we listen with understanding. What does this mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regards to the thing he is talking about.” So there’s also, Rogers is very much emphasizing the idea of embodiment. So you can listen to someone, you can listen to their arguments with their mind. It’s a very logical process, it’s sort of a rational and logical process. In some sense that’s what you’re talking to when you debate. And the idea there is that the argument is a cognitive phenomena and that the logic is structured in a logical way and that the way that the argument is settled is by the exchange of information and the relative coherence of the two perspectives. A very rationalistic perspective. And it’s very useful to be able to debate, don’t get me wrong, and have your mind organized so you can put forward a logical argument. That’s why you’re in university, to learn how to do that (believe it or not).

But it’s not the same sort of thing that Rogers is after, because Rogers talks about the interactions between people as embodied, so if I’m really watching you when I’m talking to you, paying attention to your face, you’re going to be expressing emotions with your face screen, because that’s what it does, right? Your face expresses emotions so that other people can infer what it is that you’re up to, even more than you know, because if you knew you could just tell them. You wouldn’t even need emotions. What the hell do you know about what you want? That’s why you’re having a conversation with someone, to figure it out.

So you’re watching them like mad and you’re watching their posture and maybe you’re mirroring them and you can do that consciously to some degree, but it’s probably better if you just do it unconsciously. And then when you’re mirroring them with your body, they can feel what they’re feeling and you can start to draw inferences about what it is that they want by noticing how you’re feeling. This is often one of the things that will stop people dead in the course of the conversation because the other person will get upset and then you’ll watch that and that’ll make you feel upset and then you’ll go “I can’t deal with this anymore. It’s too upsetting!”

Well, maybe the fact that it’s upsetting is actually an indication you really should deal with it. You can’t just run away from it. It’s upsetting, you know – up setting – something’s being flipped over. That’s why it’s upsetting. Well you don’t want to bail out just because you’re upset; Like, you know, clue in. That’s not the time to quit. You want to maybe detach a bot from your emotions so you don’t get drowned in them, so you can use them in an informative manner, but you don’t want to stop. You’ve got things going.

“Stated so briefly, this may sound absurdly simple [well, I didn’t state it so briefly]. But it’s not. It’s an approach we have found extremely potent in the field of psychotherapy. It is the most effective agent we know for altering the basic personality structure in an individual and improving his relationships and his communications with others. If I can listen to what he can tell me, if I can understand how it seems to him, if I can see its personal meaning for him, if I can sense the emotional flavour it has for him, then I will be releasing potent forces of change in him.”

Well, so you can imagine. Your brain is always trying to figure things out. Well, let’s extend that a bit. It’s not just your brain, it’s your psychophysiology, it’s your whole body trying to figure things out, right? And you can’t just think about it as a logical and mental process. Your emotions are evaluative processes, they’re trying to give you information, but they’re not very articulate. It’s like, you come home and you’re all angry and touchy and your partner says something that’s pretty mundane and you just blow. They say to you “Why are you like that?” and they say “Well, I hate it when your boots are in the way of the door!” “Oh, that’s why you’re having a fit is it? The boots are…” “Well, they’re always there.”

You can be sure that there’s a big mess underneath that. And it’s going to be hard to approach that person because angry people are kind of…well, they’re irritable for sure, but they also have this kind of shell on them that’s touchy. They’re touchy. You touch them, you know, they get irritated at you. And so if you mirror that, if you’ve been listening to them and watching them then they can start to figure out if they’re angry and maybe they’re more angry than the situation demands. And if you listen to them be angry for a while, which is very annoying because maybe they’ll be angry at you, then maybe they’ll calm down and they’ll start to differentiate that emotion into articulated statements.

“Well, I had a really terrible day at work.”

“Well, what was so terrible about it?” And they’ll tell you a story and they’ll say “Well, that’s happening all the time!” And then you ask them about that and they say “Well, my boss is unreasonable in his demands.” and so then you ask him about that and you find out that the person either has a tyrant for a boss, sometimes that happens, right? A real bully. And then the answer to why they’re mad about the shoes is because they should change jobs.

Or maybe you find out that they have no idea how to say no to their boss. They just say yes, no matter what he or she says and that means they’re too agreeable and then you have to figure out how maybe they could learn to say no and how they need to check their resentment when they feel they’re being taken advantage of. It’s very, very complicated. And it’s no wonder people want to avoid it, But that’s another truism, if someone is overreacting, then they’re not reacting to that thing, it’s that thing plus a whole bunch of things that are related to that thing, sort of. And they don’t know what it is. And so then if you listen to them and they talk about it, they’re actually thinking.

Because what you might think is that you think and then you speak. And so you don’t have to talk, you could just think. But that isn’t right. Most people don’t really think. They don’t sit down and meditate and think logically through a whole sequence of problems. The thoughts sort of appear in their heads spontaneously, sort of like a reverie. But they’re not really, they’re not philosophers. They don’t have that kind of command of the language. And so, then when they’re talking to you, they’re actually thinking. They’re thinking out loud. And for all we know, maybe thinking is more effective when you say it out loud because maybe I’m wired up so that my brain assumes that if I’m willing to tell it to you, to make it public, then it’s more true than those things I’d like to keep to myself.

And so one of the things you’re doing in a therapeutic session is you’re just letting the person talk. When I’m with a client they don’t want me to do anything for the hour I’m with them but shut up and listen. And maybe now and then I can just clarify something.

I have one client in particular who’s very socially isolated and this person hasn’t come to see me for a long time. And they just want to, this person comes every two weeks, and what they want to do is talk about the last two weeks. And they want me to listen and so I have to engage, right? I’m listening and that’s a communicative process because your face is changing and you’re nodding, you know, you’re reacting. So you’re in the communication but this person just wants to talk. And then they sort themselves out, you know, figure out what it is they’re upset about and that’s good and they can go off and operate in the world for two weeks. And that’s all just listening. Well, just listening…listening is hard. And people aren’t taught how to do it.

“If I can listen to what he can tell me, if I can understand how it seems to him, if I can sense its personal meaning, then I will be releasing potent forces of change in him. If I can really understand how he hates his father [that could be a conversation that could go on for months], or hates the university or hates communists, if I can capture the flavour of his fear of insanity or his fear of atom bombs or Russia [you can tell that this is a little old], it will be of the greatest help to him in altering those very hatreds and fears and in establishing realistic and harmonious relationships with the very people and situations toward which he has felt hatred and fear.”

So for example, let’s say someone comes into a therapeutic session and they say “I was just having a conversation with my father. I just hate my father. Every time I talk to him, he just makes me angry!” And like that’s all a low resolution representation, right? Like one pixel – father equals anger. It’s not differentiated. And that’s a problem because their body’s responding as if this person needs to be taken out like you might take out a prey object or something that or just destroy it. Because that’s what anger’s like, right? Anger’s sort of like you’re an object to be destroyed. And there’s truth in that because it wouldn’t be elicited by the father unless there was some necessity for the anger. But it’s so generalized and global it’s not helpful. It’s like “OK, let’s talk about your father.” Well, how would you do that? What did he do recently to upset you? Then you listen and you don’t give the person advice about what they should have done because what the hell do you know about what you should have done? You might have to listen for fifty hours before you could offer a helpful suggestion and even then it probably won’t work. So you listen and then they tell you some stories about…this is almost like the Freudian psychoanalytic approach…they tell you some stories about what their father as like in their childhood and then a bunch of things that pop up in memory and then, you know, they start laying out this story, like they’re laying cards out on a table. And they just lay out all these cards, a thousand cards, and they’re all representations of the father. And then they sort of exhaust themselves. They’re out of angry stories about their father.

And then maybe they say “Well, you know, it wasn’t all bad.” Then they start laying out some things about him that…well, he drank all the time but he was really…he always took care of us. He wasn’t an angry drunk and he stayed with my mother. So what’s happening now is the picture of the father is getting differentiated, right? It’s not just one pixel. It’s differentiated. And then you might say, well, ok, here’s all these angry things. How many of them are still relevant? How many of those do you have to deal with? And the person thinks, well eighty percent of these anger things are dead, they’re in the past. And seventy percent of these good things weren’t good enough to make up for the rest of this mess. But then you get a smaller pile of specific things. And then maybe you can start figuring out ways that – or the person can start figuring out ways that those might be addressed moment to moment in new conversations. Like it’s a strategic plan. What’s the situation? What exactly is going on here? Lay it out.

And the emotions are a great guide to that because the first thing you want to do is – everything that makes you emotional – those are things that aren’t dealt with yet. They’re not fully articulated. You don’t have a strategy, you don’t have a fully developed representational system. That’s why it’s still emotional. So it’s like your body and your mind come up with emotional representations first and only as you work through them, which means talk about them essentially, strategically. They don’t even turn into words until you do that. And that’s where I think Freud went wrong. Those things aren’t repressed (although they can be). They’re not repressed. They just never made it all the way up to articulated representation.

And lots of things are like that. When you’re in a bad mood, it’s like “I’m in a bad mood!” Well, what does that mean? Well, you don’t know. Why don’t you know? Are you repressing it? No, you’re just too stupid to figure it out. And so then you’ve got to talk to someone. You know, “I’m in a bad mood!” well, you know, “How are you feeling?” and they’ll get all spiteful and tell you how they’re feeling and then to differentiate it and maybe they remember something that happened at work and then you can kind of map out the mood. And that starts to loosen it.

“We know from our research that such empathic understanding, understanding with a person not about him, is such an effective approach that it can bring about major changes in personality. Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type that I have described. Fortunately I can suggest a little laboratory experiment which you try to test the quality of your understanding.” OK, so this is lovely because you don’t often actually get a technique from a therapist that actually works. You get sort of vague techniques like help the person lay the cards out on the table. It’s kind of at a high level of abstraction. But this exercise, you can actually do. And you can do it a lot and if you do it, it will teach you to listen.

“So the next time you get into an argument with your wife or a friend, or with a small group of friends, stop the discussion for a moment and for an experiment institute this rule.”

Well, you don’t have to be that formal about it, you can just do it, once you know the game.

“Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”

Now that’s so cool. Here’s the typical argument. So we’re arguing and I want to win, so you tell me a bunch of things and so then I take those things and I turn them into the stupidest possible representation of those things – I weaken your argument and make you look like a fool and then I destroy it. And you’re making your opponent into a straw man, that’s the strawman argument. You take what they’re telling you and you caricature it and that way you can make them look absurd and make them be ashamed and then of course you set up this skinny little opponent that you can just demolish with one punch. It’s really crooked. And it shows that you’re a coward. Because what it means is you have to have an opponent that’s, you know, crippled and thin and starving and inarticulate before you can possibly win, before you could possibly progress. It’s a pathetic way of having an argument.

What you should do is listen to the person and help them make their argument as strong as you possibly can. And then deal with that. Because then you’re sure that you’re taking them seriously.

“And to that speaker’s satisfaction.” And that’s so cool. So we’re having an argument. Well I don’t know, maybe we’re having an argument about who going to be responsible for grocery shopping or for doing the dishes or for cooking or any of those domestic things that continually cause couples to be at each other’s throats. Like so, you’ll have some arguments about why you should do whatever it is that you’re going to do. And in order for the argument to progress I have to tell you back what you said. And you have to agree that I put it properly. Well that’s so annoying. It just runs so contrary to what you want to do. Of course you want to make the other person sound stupid so you can beat them. This way you can’t do that because you have to listen well enough so that you actually understood what they said. And then you have to formulate their argument so that they’re willing to agree that that actually constitutes their argument.

Well, that’s really difficult. But so useful because first of all it does mean that you understood them. And second, it immediately indicates to them that you’re not just trying to win. You’re trying to listen and they’re much less likely to get all irritable and angry at you because at least you’re trying to listen. You’re not making them into a fool. And you know, often when people are trying to tell you what they want – because they’re all afraid of telling you what they want – because maybe they never got what they wanted in their whole life. They had a history of bad relationships and poor parenting and that sort of thing. They’re just bloody terrified to tell you they might actually want something.

And so as soon as you indicate to them that you actually heard what they said, and you’re willing to take it seriously enough to formulate it properly, well then, it’s like one step towards trust. “I see you did listen. At least you know where I’m coming from.” That doesn’t mean you agree. Just because you understand someone’s argument doesn’t mean you have to agree, but at least you know what the argument is.

“You see what this would mean.” One of the things Rogers does continually in his therapy, and I do this a lot, is like I listen to the person and they kind of go through a narrative, a spontaneous narrative, often following a chain of association as Freud pointed out. They’ll tell me a spontaneous narrative and I’ll say ok, it sounds to me like this is what you said. And I’ll try to lay out the argument. And maybe now and then I’ll ask for clarification if there’s a part I didn’t understand or if I see that there’s a part that seems contradictory, you know, they said this thing here and this thing there and I’ll tell them that. You know, seems to me you said this here and this here, I’m not sure how to put those together. I don’t say, you know, that makes your argument incoherent. I say, well I don’t get how to understand that and they kind of go “Oh, ya.” Because people will admit to that if you just point it out flatly. It’s like I’m not involved, I’m just listening. It’s not my problem, it’s a problem.

And that’s another thing that’s useful too. The other person is entitled to their suffering. You don’t get to take it away. It’s their destiny. So you can listen to their problems without having to think that you have to take them on as if they’re yours. You have to mirror them, but it’s their problem and they have to figure it out and that’s good. You need a problem to figure out, it’s not necessarily a terrible thing that they have a problem.

“It would simply mean that before presenting your own point of view, it would be necessary for you to really achieve the other speaker’s frame of reference, to understand his thoughts and feelings so well that you could summarize them for him.” And that’s useful too because the way we remember things is, you tell me a long story and I tell it back to you. I do not tell it back to you! What happens is I listen to it and I try to figure out what the thread of the argument is and then when I tell it back to you it’s way shorter. And tighter. And that means in some sense it’s got all the essentials, but less of the baggage. That’s what you’re trying to do when you ask someone to get to the point. They tell you this long story, like this tree that’s full of dead branches and it hasn’t been pruned, and they’re standing there and maybe the living branches you can hardly even see. But you’re concentrating on them so when you tell it back to them you just tell them the part of the story that’s alive. And they listen to that and they go “Oh yes, that’s what I meant.”

And then, that means you’ve changed the memory, right? If they agree, you’ve changed the memory, you’ve divested it of all the excess baggage just like pruning. And that’s what you’re doing, so that’s a dialogue, it’s mental hygiene. And that’s what people do.

You’ve got to wonder, why do we talk? Well, to exchange information, ya, and there’s utility in it. Like if you know how to do something and I don’t you can tell me. But, that isn’t the sort of thing people are doing most of the time. Most of the time they’re telling you their story. This is what happened to me. And then another person will say, well, this is what happened to me. And there’s this mutual attempt to organize…that’s how people organize their brains. We organize our brains by talking. And so if you don’t have someone to listen to you, well especially if it’s over a few decades, you’re going to have a brain that’s like a whole forest of trees that needs a forest fire, it doesn’t need just some trimming. It’s really in trouble. So you need to have someone to listen to you and the best way to do that is to find a bunch of people and listen to them, because that’s a friendship, it’s a real friendship because you’re both trying to move towards a better place, whatever that place is. And it’s a great relationship then.

“Sound simple doesn’t it? But if you try it you’ll discover it’s one of the most difficult things you’ve ever tried to do. However, once you’ve been able to see the other person’s point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised.” Well that’s partly because now they’re sort of vague complaint is tightened up into a specific problem and you have to reconfigure how you’re responding to address that specific problem.

“You will also find the emotion going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced and those differences which remain being of a rational and understandable sort. If you’re really willing to understand a person in this way. If you’re willing to enter their private world and see their life the way their life appears to them, you run the risk of being changed yourself.” Which is…that’s a good thing. If you’re involved in a real conversation, the way that you will change will be beneficial to you, but it’s a challenging thing because it will mean that you can’t stick to the little rigid framework that you had entering into the argument. You have to loosen that up and be willing to open the door and, you know, change the walls of your house.

“You might see it his way [that would be good]. You might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. The risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” Well, imagine, you’re trying to build yourself into a fully-fledged you. Well, here’s one way of doing it. Hang around with people like you, who think the same way you do and then whenever you talk they just reflect back whatever you have to say. Or you could start putting yourself in situations that you’re uncomfortable with. You know, pushing yourself a little bit and go out where there are people that aren’t like you. And then you think, well how am I going to get to understand these people? And the first thing you do, is you got to pay attention and you’ve got to listen. And then maybe you’ll be able to interact with them and – poof – that’s another environment that you’ve mastered. And then there’s more of you. Because now you can operate here and here and maybe you think, well that was kind of fun. So now I’ll go here and I’ll try this. And you go there and you listen and you pay attention and all of a sudden – bang – you can operate there. And if you do that over a fifteen year period, you’ll be someone who can go anywhere. And not fit in exactly, that’s like you’re visible. It’s not like you’re fitting in, it’s like you can operate there. You can talk and listen, you can gather information, you can trade, you can be useful there. And you’re not going to run up against people and risk unnecessary conflict.

Because if you listen to people, you just cannot believe what people will tell you if you listen to them. If you can listen to people, they will tell you profound things so fast it makes your head spin. Because people are really weird creatures, they’re like Dostoevsky characters, they’re peculiar, they think in weird ways, they have weird experiences and bizarre dreams and ideas about the future and their political theories are just about as crazy as you could possibly imagine. If you listen to them, they’ll tell you why they think these things and it’s not boring. That’s another issue, if the conversation’s boring you are not listening. Because if you’re listening, the conversation will change so that it won’t be boring. You can tell, if you’re in a conversation that’s boring someone at least is not listening, so it could easily be you.

“If I enter as fully as I am able into the private world of the neurotic [or psychotic] individual, isn’t there a risk that I might become lost in that world? [Most of us are afraid to take that risk] The great majority of us cannot listen. We find ourselves compelled to evaluate.” And the evaluation is I’m going to keep you away, I’m going to pigeon-hole you, classify you, make the classification negative, describe you as irrelevant and push you aside. Because then I don’t have to pay attention to you, I don’t have tom listen and I can stay in my box of certainty, my little narrow box of certainty.

“The great majority of us cannot listen. We find ourselves compelled to evaluate because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage and we do not always have it.” OK, so Carl Rogers, he’s a phenomenologist, it’s your experience that’s real. You need to represent that experience and you need to communicate it to other people and you have to communicate it within a frame. And a proper frame is we’re trying to make things better here. And you know, in order to adopt that frame, that’s not just a simple statement, right? I mean you can tell yourself that and try to put yourself in that state of mind, but to do that you have to really think through your value hierarchy. You have to decide, what are you up to? Are you here to make things worse? Or are you here to make things better? And you might think, well clearly I’m here to make things better. Ya, sure. No. That’s hard. And people are full of resentment and fear and anger and they’ve been hurt in all sorts of ways, they want to take revenge and their just full of contradictory impulses.

And so to weave all those contradictory impulses together, and to overcome all those hurts and disappointments and reasons for revenge and resentment, you’ve got to do all that before you can say I’m here to make things better.

Because if you’re still possessed by those sorts of experiences and contradictions, you’re going to be motivated to make things worse all the time, just out of revenge and spite. You know, you’ve been hurt, you’re going to hurt.

And so, you adopt the framework that Rogers is talking about, it’s a difficult enterprise and partly it’ll come about the more you listen, you have the chance to exchange information. The more you’ll deal with those inner contradictions and that collection of hurts and irritations that’s corrupting you and twisting you in the wrong direction.

So the Rogerian perspective is very useful. The reason I concentrated on that one quote of his today is that’s such a useful thing. You can try it right away, the next time you’re talking to someone. Maybe you have a friend who wants to talk things over, it’s like listen to them. And when there’s a pause, say “Well, it sounds to me like this is what you meant.” And they’ll go “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.” Maybe. If you were really listening they’ll be real happy about that. They didn’t know what they meant, they’re just telling you this story about why they’re annoyed. And so then you’ll think “Oh, wow, I got it!” and they’ll be happy and they’ll tell you something else and they’ll walk away from that conversation just much lighter and you will too even though, it’s a weird thing. You might think if you listen, people are going to dump a bunch if trouble on you. Like, well, yes. But if you’re willing to listen despite the fact there might be a bunch of trouble dumped on you, then you’ve also told yourself that you’re the sort of person that can tolerate having a bunch of trouble dumped on yourself. And that’s an extremely positive attitude to take towards yourself. And you’re not just saying it, you’re acting it out. And so that’s a sign of faith in yourself.

And you’re not stu…well I said you were stupid, like you are in relationships, but you’re not totally stupid. You know, you’ll be able to notice that you’ve been willing to expose yourself to a risk. And when your body and mind are watching that, they’ll think “Oh, I’m the sort of thing that can voluntarily expose itself to a risk.” Well, that’s like the secret to making yourself strong. It’s exposure. And so you can do that in very conversation. And that toughens you up as well as informing you. It’s a very powerful technique and I would recommend try it and see what happens. It’s also fun because it’s like you’re following a thread of the conversation. If you’re really listening the conversation will continue and it continues in a meaningful way. And then you that you’re in the right place and it’s like a challenge to your capacity to pay attention. And then you get engaged in the conversation, all conversations. You get engaged in them and then you’re in engaging conversations all the time. That’s a good thing.




This lecture is called Virtue as a Necessity. And the reason I gave it that title is because virtue, ethics, morality isn’t a field of study. It’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest. It’s also a mode of being upon which everything you do in your life rests.  The way you understand yourself or fail to, the way you understand other people or fail to. And more deeply than that, what role it is that you play in your life in the world.

One of the things I’ve learned for example, being a clinical psychologist (I’ve spent thousands of hours helping people sort out difficult problems), is that lack of virtue makes people ill. I’m not saying that my clients themselves lacked virtue, I suppose some of them do and some of them don’t, but to the degree that they’re embedded in a network of relationships where virtue is fundamentally absent, they’re tortured and tormented and they’re unable to find firm ground.  And that’s not a biological problem, although biologically fragile people might be hurt more by a lack of virtue.

A lot of what you do in a real relationship with people, and at least to some degree in a clinical relationship is supposed to be real, is to provide a forum where people tell the truth. And that’s hard because people don’t like to tell the truth particularly – the truth is difficult. It’s difficult for a variety of reasons.

When I first thought about this lecture, I had a slightly different title. The title was Virtue as an Existential Necessity. And that’s a bit philosophical so I modified it. But there’s a reason for that because the concept of virtue means to be virtuous; existentialism is the study of being. I think that you can’t really understand what makes up virtue until you modulate or modify your notion of what constitutes being. This is a hard thing to do.

Modern people are fundamentally materialistic. And there’s some utility in that: we’re masters of material transformation. And the fact that we’re materialist in our scientific philosophy has made us extremely powerful, maybe too powerful, for our morality. Extremely powerful from a technological perspective, but it’s blinded us to certain things. And I think one of the things that it’s really blinded us to is the nature of our own being. Because we make the assumption that the fundamental constituent elements of reality are material. We fail to notice that the fundamental constituent elements of our own reality are not material. They’re emotional, they’re motivational, they’re dreams, they’re visions, they’re relationships with other people. They’re conscious: they’re dependent on consciousness. And self-consciousness. And we have absolutely no materialist explanation whatsoever either for consciousness or self-consciousness. And we don’t deal well, from a materialist perspective, with the qualities of being. And everyone knows those qualities exist, I mean for most people there’s nothing more real than their own pain. Pain transcends rational argument in that you can’t argue yourself out of it: it’s just there. And, materialist or not, there are very few people who are willing to allow the claim that their pain is merely an epiphenomena of some more fundamental material process. Pain is fundamental. Consciousness is fundamental. And I think that unless you understand that, you can’t think properly about virtue.

So I might start the discussion about virtue with a discussion about being. Well, what does human being look like? Well, the Buddhists say life is suffering – that’s the first fundamental Buddhist dictum. And I suppose a modern person would tend to think of that as a very pessimistic claim. But I found when I shared that information with my students, once they understand what it means, it’s actually a relief because people run around madly, suffering  away, and all of them inside their little shell think ‘Well, there must be something wrong with me because here I am suffering and that isn’t how things are supposed to be.’ Well then, you might say ‘Who says that’s not the way things are supposed to be?’ The Buddhists say life is suffering. So what that means is, if you’re not suffering, that’s a good thing, that’s lucky, that’s fortunate, that’s not the way of the world. That may be something to be grateful for, ecstatic about even.

And of course in Christianity, the central symbol of Christianity is the crucifix, which is not a positive symbol in any way: it’s a symbol of betrayal by friends, opposition from the state and mortal vulnerability. It’s about as powerful a symbolic representation of the idea that life is suffering that you could put together, which is of course why the power of that symbol extends across several thousand years.

Judaism: I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock to anyone in the audience that Jews are acutely aware of the suffering that’s involved in life. So it’s useful to know, to understand what it means that life is suffering. It’s a fundamental ontological truth. It’s a fundamental statement about the nature of being. And there’s a reason for that, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s perfectly comprehensible. We’re finite. We have a lifespan that’s bounded temporally, we have maybe a hundred years and that’ll pretty much be it.

And then there’s other forms of extreme limitation that are imposed on you that have very little to do with you. They’re arbitrary facts of being. You’re a certain height, you’re a certain weight, you’re a certain amount of attractive, a certain amount of intelligent, you’re a certain amount of athletic, you’re a certain amount of mentally ill, you’re a certain amount of pre-disposition to cancer. And it’s frequently the case that people like to attribute those vulnerabilities to some flaw in their own nature, but what they are instead is conditions of existence.

Human being is predicated on a kind of fundamental limitation in that we are what we are and we’re not other things. And so that means inevitably that the awareness of human being comes along with suffering. And life poses the question: ‘How to conduct yourself in the face of suffering?’. Not only yours, but everyone elses. And it’s an inescapable question, except maybe you’re fortunate and you’ll have periods of time where something absolutely horrible isn’t happening to you.

Now you think about this, because you might this is pessimistic, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s actually one of the most freeing things that you can realize. Maybe there’s nothing particularly wrong with you at the moment, but there’s a high probability that you have a family member that has something seriously wrong with them. And there’s a very high probability that if you don’t, you will soon. Maybe you have a partner that has something seriously wrong with them. And to know this frees you from the false illusion that life can be conducted without suffering.

Suffering’s an integral part of being. Well, why is that? Who knows? It’s a metaphysical question, but I have some ideas about it that have helped me and there are things that I have read. I read for example an old Jewish commentary about the reason for creation. It’s like a zen koan, this idea. You take a being with the classical attributes of God: omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, a totality. And the question is: what does a being with those attributes lack? And the answer is limitation. And then you think, well what’s so important about limitation? If you can be anything or do anything at anytime whatsoever, there’s no being. Everything is one thing. There’s no differentiation between things. So something that’s absolute and total has no being, it has to be parceled out into limited being. And you know this because you all play games, you play video games, you play games with other people, you may play games you don’t even know you’re playing. And when you play those games you put limits on yourself, you play by a set of rules. And the reason you do that is when you limit yourself, arbitrarily in some ways, whole new worlds of possibility emerge. And so there’s a powerful metaphysical idea that being is not possible without limitation.

So that’s an interesting idea. So you say well what’s the price you pay for being? The price you pay for being is limitation and the price you for limitation is suffering, so the price you pay for being is suffering.

So what’s the problem with that? Well, suffering makes people question the validity of life. Everyone does that. If something terrible is happening to you, you’re going to wonder why you? That’s for sure.  Why not you might be a better question because it’s inevitable, but you will wonder that: why you and you’ll wonder is it worth it? Especially if what’s happening to you is terrible and prolonged. Is it worth it? Does that cost that you have to pay for being justify itself? And therefore is being justifiable? And everybody asks and answers these questions. In fact the process of asking and answering those questions underlies everything you do all the time. Because you’re answering when you act one answer which is yes, being justifies itself. You’re answering a different way sometimes when you act which is no, being does not justify itself.

And the question then might be, what happens when you answer one of those two ways. Well, to untangle this, the first thing I want to do is talk to you about the antithesis of virtue because it’s always struck me that when you’re talking about something that could conceivably be regarded as optimistic, it’s difficult for people to fundamentally believe you. You know, if I stood on stage and said “Well, the purpose of life is to be happy.” you might find that vaguely comforting, but there’s no chance in the world that you’d believe it if you have an ounce of sense because if you’ve lived you know that there will be periods of time where happiness is not your state. And so there has to be more to life than happiness because there’ll be a lot of your life that isn’t happy.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  who wrote the book The Gulag Archipelago, that was one of the axes that brought down the thick tree of communist utopianism said the idea that human beings are made for happiness , that’s a philosophy that’s undermined by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel. And what he meant by that was, if you find yourself in a particularly terrible situation (you’re enslaved for example by malelovent utopians). And they’re pushing you into a form of slavery and they’re beating you to attain their ends. The idea that you’re made for happiness is not going to be of much comfort under those circumstances. And so, Solzhenitsyn’s point was you’re weakened by your belief that life is for happiness because that philosophy cannot sustain any sustained challenge and you will for sure encounter such a sustained challenge.

I do think that modern people can believe in virtue, but not easily, because virtue sounds religious in  a sense and we have real trouble, whether we’re religious or not, with religious preconceptions because our scientific forms of knowledge and our fundamental materialism has really radically undermined our ability to believe in any transcendent being.

But one thing that modern people can believe in, I think without much difficulty at all, is evil. Solzhenitsyn said, for example, that the most important event of the 20th century, as far as he was concerned, was the Nuremburg judgement. And you may know, you should know, that after World War 2 a group of National Socialists from Germany, who were deemed particularly responsible for the absolute horrors of the final solution and the mass factory genocide that accompanied it, were put on trial. And a standard defense for their actions was ‘Well, I was ordered to do it.’ And the Nuremburg decision denied human beings, regardless of their ethnicity or national background or beliefs, the legal right to use that as a defense, under certain limited circumstances.

And the argument was that there are some things that are so self-evidently not good, not virtuous, that if you engage in them you’re existentially guilty. You’re guilty outside the bounds of your culture.

There’s a transnational and transethnic morality. We don’t know what it is, but we know what it isn’t. It isn’t pointless torture and genocide.

At minimum to be virtuous is to live your life in such a way that the probability that you would engage in such actions, given the opportunity, is minimized.

Now people think, well they’re already doing that. If they were in Nazi Germany they would have been a rescuer, not a perpetrator. But that’s wrong. You could take this audience and put them back in 1939 or thereabouts and 90% of you, 95% of you, 99% of you would either be in the perpetrator class or the going along with the perpetrator class. And you may sit and believe you’d be in the one percent, and maybe you would because how do I know, but that isn’t how the historical facts sort themselves out.

And it turns out that it’s not that difficult generally to put people in a situation, normal people, where they’ll do something that really doesn’t look very good. Those of you who are familiar with psychology know about the Milgram experiments, for example. You know about the Zimbardo prison experiments: you take perfectly normal college students and put them into a situation that they know is a dramatic farce, they know isn’t real, give some of them the power of prison guards and make some others arbitrarily into prisoners and in three days you have to shut the whole experiment down because the prison guards have turned into Nazis and they’re enjoying torturing the prisoners even though they know (whatever know means) that they’re innocent.

That says something about the manner in which people conduct their existence. They’re very susceptible to malevolent action.

If you look at Genesis, a very old book, a very influential book. There’s a strange sequence of events that befalls Adam and Eve. It’s in two sentences. A snake gives them an apple. And that wakes them up. Well, there’s a good book by a southern California primatologist that was just published last year that suggested the reason that humans have such great vision, way better than most animals except for raptors (birds), is because our visual systems were designed to detect predatory snakes. And the way she discovered that was by comparing the populations of predatory snakes around the world to the visual acuity of the primate groups that lived in those areas. And what she found was essentially a one to one correspondence.

Our visual system, which is the ability to see, and to be enlightened let’s say (because enlightenment for example is associated with vision) – the snake gave that to us because we had to pay attention to predatory things that were after us for tens of millions of years.

And fruit, that’s interesting. We have colour vision because we were fruit eaters. Our colour vision is precisely evolved to detect ripe fruit.

So that part of the story is right. There’s a story that involves women too, but I’m not going to tell that one today. You have to be awake to outsmart women. That’s the story. And so that’s why they’re tangled in there with the serpents and the fruit.

What happens when Adam and Eve wake up? It’s a series of strange things. The first thing that happens is the scales fall from their eyes so they can see, all of a sudden they’re awake in a way they weren’t before. And the next thing that happens is that they realize they’re naked. Now one of the things that people have nightmares about is being naked on a stage. Which is often why when you see people on a stage they don’t tell you anything they think. Because they don’t only not want to be physically naked, they don’t want to be metaphysically naked either. And they protect themselves from the inquiring eyes of the audience. No one likes to be naked on stage. Why?

Well to be naked is to have your defenses stripped from you. When the Soviets wanted to really torture the hell out of you at two o’clock in the morning, they’d cave in your door and then they’d strip you and shave you when they got you to prison because once you were exposed in all your suffering catastrophe, then you were much easier to torture.

To be naked, to realize you are naked, is to realize that you’re vulnerable. That’s why Adam and Eve immediately cover themselves up. They realize they’re naked, they cover themselves up: it’s a story about culture. Once people woke up and realized their limitations, their mortal limitations (which is also their knowledge of death), the first thing they do is cover themselves up.

And the second thing that happens is they know the difference between good and evil. And that’s a strange thing. It’s not good and bad. It’s good and evil specifically. It’s also something that animals don’t know. And I think, I thought about this really for 20 years, what does that mean? And then earlier this year I think I figured it out, what it means is you don’t know how to torture people until you realize that you’re vulnerable. As soon as you’re self-conscious of your own vulnerability, then you can take what might only be a predatory act, say on the part of a wolf because a wolf will bring down a moose or something like that and eat it, and drag that out into three months of artistic torturing.

And so that means that your recognition of your own vulnerability immediately allows you to determine what’s evil.

Then you might ask yourself under what conditions would you be likely to manifest that drive? I think that’s easy to figure out if you watch yourself. If you watch yourself without presuppositions, which means to watch yourself honestly, or to watch yourself as if you’re someone you don’t know. Because you don’t know yourself because you’re too complicated to know yourself anyways, so you might as well just come right out and know that. One of the things that’s kind of useful about recognizing your capacity for evil, if you can do that without traumatizing yourself, is that it’s the pathway for recognizing your ability for good. You don’t get to one without the other. Because you have no idea what you’re like before you know how terrible you can be and not only that, you won’t take yourself sufficiently seriously. If you know you’re a loaded weapon, and an unstable loaded weapon, then you’re much more likely to pay attention to what you do.

But that means you’re not particularly nice. And it means that if you were given the opportunity, maybe you would have been a Nazi prison guard.

In Genesis, the first thing that happens after Adam and Eve wake up is that thay have two sons, Cain and Abel. And Cain, who’s Abel’s brother, he doesn’t get along very well with God. Now I don’t really care if you believe in God, because I don’t really know what people mean when they say they believe in God anyways, but the story goes that Cain doesn’t get along very well with God and the reason for that is Cain keeps doing things and they don’t work. Everything Cain touches turns to ash whereas his brother Abel, God likes him (God only knows why) , and everything goes really well for Abel. So Cain is kind of a failure and Abel’s a smashing success and not only is he successful at everything he does, but he’s a good guy too, which is really rude because if you’re really successful at things you should at least be wretched intrapersonally so that people can forgive you.

So Cain takes this for a decade or two and then he’s just had it, he’s had it with God. He thinks ‘How can God make this sort of universe where I’m breaking myself in half here and getting nowhere and my brother – doors open for him left, right and center.’ So he goes and complains to God and he says ‘Look, what’s going on, what sort of reality did you conjure up here? Abel has it good, I’m having a miserable time, maybe you should do something about it.’

And you think, that’s pretty interesting you know, that Cain would think that, because you have to ask yourself what sort of presumption does Cain have to assume that the dismal quality of his being is attributable to God? Because what Cain does in that instant is to make himself the judge of being. And I would say that you should be cautious about making yourself the judge of being because there’s always the possibility that there’s a few things you don’t know.

So God sort of let’s Cain in on the secret. He says ‘Look, the fact that you’re suffering miserably away actually isn’t my fault, it’s your fault.’ He says to Cain ‘Sin crouches at the door like a predatory cat ready to jump on you, but if you wanted to, you could overcome it.’ This is not what Cain wants to hear. Cain wants to hear that he’s an innocent character and he has nothing to do with his own misery and it’s all God’s fault and God says instead straighten the hell up, you know you could do it. And even though you know you could do it you won’t. And so that’s that for Cain. He was upset when he first went into the discussion, but after he got this little piece of news that his suffering was to be laid at his own doorstep, then he’s out of the realm of human and the story says ‘his countenance falls’, which means he’s angry and upset.

And the first thing he does is run off and kill Abel. Why? Well, it’s revenge. Abel is God’s favourite and Cain has already judged being and found it wanting. The best way he can express his desire for revenge is to find someone who’s having a pretty good time of it and to arbitrarily eliminate them. And it might be of some interest to note one of Cain’s grandchildren is the first persons who makes weapons of war.

So that brilliant little story, so long ago associates the moral failings of the resentful individual who’s unwilling to take responsibility for the nature of their own being, directly with atrocious acts of social conflict. And that’s another thing to know, because if you’re going to be virtuous you have to take yourself seriously. And if you start to understand that you’re networked with other people, that you’re not one little dot among seven billion, you’re networked with other people. So you know a thousand people and they know a thousand people and so you’re two people away from a million people and three people away from a billion people. You’re in a causal network and all your actions matter.

And Solzhenitsyn said there’s as many centers of the universe as there are individual consciousnesses. That’s a very interesting way to think and why can’t it be that way? We don’t know anything about consciousness and certainly seems to be how it feels if you’re one of those conscious centers and so maybe it is that what you do matters.

I think that often people come to the conclusion that life is meaningless because that’s a better conclusion to come to than the reverse. Because if life is meaningless, well then, who cares what you do. But if life is meaningful, if what you do matters, then everything you do matters. And that puts a terrible responsibility on the individual and I think that people are generally unwilling to bear that.

So life is suffering. What does that do to people? It makes them resentful. These are pitfalls of being. Except being has a structure. One of its fundamental structural elements is suffering. But suffering produces other characteristics of being: resentment is a characteristic of being. People feel resentful when they believe that they’ve been taken advantage of. And if you feel resentful, it may be that you are being taken advantage of.  It may also be that you should screw your head on straight and look at things properly. And it may also be that you should talk to somebody to find out if you’re being taken advantage of or if your head just isn’t screwed on straight. But to talk to them then you have to tell them the truth and in order to tell them the truth you have to have practised being honest. Because if you haven’t practised being honest, then you’re not going to have a friend that you can talk to and even if you did, you’re not going to be able to tell them what the problem is. And then they won’t be able to help you sort out whether or not you’re being taken advantage of or whether you’re a little bit insane.

If you’re resentful then maybe you have to tell the person who’s taking advantage of you that they should stop doing that. And maybe you have to tell them in a way that will make them stop, which is no easy thing. Or maybe you’re resentful because you’re a nasty little bit of the world and you have a chip on your shoulder and no matter what people do with you you’re resentful, in which case you have some internal restructuring to do. And you might ask, why should you do the restructuring? And my answer to that is resentment, along with hopelessness and nihilism and all sorts of other moral pitfalls, puts you on the road to cruelty and atrocity. Misery loves company. And if you feel that things are fundamentally unjust and that the slings and arrows of being are aimed specifically at you, why should you treat anyone else with compassion or justice? Because things are fundamentally unfair. And even more deeply, why shouldn’t you conclude that things should be eradicated because fundamentally they’re unfair.

I think that’s what Hitler concluded. I also think that’s what Stalin concluded. And the evidence suggests that Stalin was gearing up for the Third World War, he had hydrogen bombs, he’d already killed 30 million people. He had his practise trials.

And you know, there’s an old psychoanalytic idea and the idea is that if you can’t understand the motivations for the behavior, look at the outcomes and infer the motivations. And so Hitler killed a 100 million people if you include the whole Second World War and God only knows how many Stalin killed and Mao killed more than Stalin.

Why? Well their cover story was Utopia. And I guess people believed that. Well, why? It didn’t look very utopian when all those millions of people were dying. I think all those people who participated in those processes used their rational utopianism as a cover story for their willingness to particpate in the atrocity. Because what they wanted to do was participate in the atrocity, they didn’t give a dam about Utopia.

And you ask yourself, well, how much do you try to force the world to behave according to your terms?

Now the Catholics have always had trouble with rationality and modern people, especially the sort of hyper-atheists that you hear from now and then. They don’t like that because they believe that rationality is the highest virtue and that’s wrong. I mean it’s a terrible thing to say in a university, except maybe the university isn’t here to teach you to be rational, maybe it’s here to teach you to be virtuous. And those aren’t the same thing.

The rational person says, well I understand and having understood I impose an order and then I work to make that imposed order a reality. That’s what every ideologue does, it’s what every utopian does.  It’s convincing and I think the reason people do that is well, it’s complicated, partly they want an explanation for their being. But more importantly than that they want a mask that covers up their tendency to atrocity with the appearance of virtue. And most utopian thinking is of that sort, even though the mask can be very well argued.

And you ask me why I believe that and the reason I believe that is because we had a hundred years of it and that’s how it turned out.

One of the things that was terrible about living in the Soviet Union was that you couldn’t suffer because things were perfect. So if you were suffering and you even admitted it, then you were instantly an enemy of the state. So if you’re an ideologue, your own suffering makes you a heretic. You undermine your belief in your own bloody system by suffering. Well, then that’s fine. If your own belief can stop you from suffering then more power to you, but if you’re still suffering a bit, or a lot, or a tremendous amount, then you can ask yourself ‘Maybe there’s something I don’t know?’

Here’s an existential exercise. And this is not rational. Let’s say that virtue is worth pursuing. And it’s worth pursuing because a virtuous path is the only path that justifies being to itself. That’s the definition of virtue. A virtuous path justifies being to itself. Being is suffering. So you need a justification for your suffering. So then you might ask yourself ‘Are there times in my life when I feel that my suffering is justified?’ And this is a good question. And you could ask yourself the reverse question too, which is ‘are there times in my life when my suffering is clearly not justified?’

And I could say, well watch yourself for three weeks. Just watch like you don’t know anything. And see when you’re somewhere that justifies itself. Now, you might say ‘How do I know?’ and I’d say ‘Okay, here’s some hints. You’re not self-conscious.  You know it’s not good to be self-conscious, right? It loads on neuroticism. It’s a negative emotion. We think of it as a higher order cognitive function, but people find it unpleasant. You tend to be self-conscious when you’re false or ashamed. If you’re deeply engaged in something, your self-consciousness disappears. So engagement in something meaningful appears to make self-consciousness vanish. It also makes time vanish, right? Because if you’re doing something that is intrinsically meaningful, then the sense of passing time disappears. And so that temporal limitation that plagues you, vanishes.

And I could say maybe you’re having a miserable time of it and you’re only spend two percent of your waking hours in that condition. And maybe you don’t even know when that is. But you could watch. You could see and say ‘Hey, look – I spent ten minutes there and I hardly even noticed and I felt that the nature of my being justified itself.’ Well maybe you wouldn’t say that to yourself, but you could. You could say ‘That was worth it.’ And then I could say ‘Well, practise that.’ Above all else, forget about everything else.

And then there’s an alternative exercise. Pay attention and figure out when absolutely you’re being does not justify itself. That’s even easier. Because that’ll happen whenever you do something that you immediately regret or are ashamed of or even more precisely, makes you feel disintegrated and devalued.

Nietzsche said people betray themselves for the sake of their good name all the time. You can feel this, it seems to center in your solar plexus. When you say something or do something that is not virtuous, then you’ll disintegrate and then you’re weak and you can feel that. And then you’ll cover it up with a bunch of rattling arguments trying to convince yourself and other people that what you were doing was actually okay. But you know. And it’s your rational arrogance and authoritarianism that forces you to not drop your stupid presuppositions and just pay attention to what your being is revealing to you.

We don’t think that way. We don’t think being reveals things. It reveals things all the time. We just don’t pay any attention. Why? Well I think we really don’t want the responsibility. I really believe (I thought about this for a long time), I really believe that that’s the case.

Here’s a quote from the Toa Te Ching, I have a great translation of this book, it was written by Loa Tse years and years ago. It’s one of the world’s classics of literature. The person who wote this wasn’t a philosopher, the person who wrote this was a master of being. That’s a different thing because a philosopher thinks, but a master of being doesn’t think because thinking is a tool and being is something that supersedes any tool.

He said ‘It is by sheathing intellect’s bright light that the sage remains at one with his own self, ceasing to be aware of it. By placing it behind, detached, he is unified with his external world. By being selfless, he is fulfilled, thus his selfhood is assured.’

I show my students in my Maps of Meaning class Pinocchio. Pinocchio’s a very complicated story in the Disney version and in the previous versions, with a deep mythological base. One of the things that happens in Pinocchio (a lot of strange things happen that people just swallow, right? There’s a puppet that turns into a human being, there’s talking cats, there’s blue fairies, there’s stars, there’s whales that eat people) and everyone swallows that with no problem, right? You go to see Pinocchio you don’t even notice that a puppet has just gone into a whale and you know, what the hell’s going on? And the reason you don’t notice that is because it means something and you don’t know what it means but you know that it means something and you’re willing to ride on it. Weirdly enough, because it compromises your rational principles completely. It does. These are religious experiences that people have in movie theatres, they suspend disbelief, they go along with it. It’s not rational, but they believe it. If someone says ‘But that’s not real.’ you say to them ‘Maybe you could shutup so I could watch the movie.’

You don’t want their rationality interfering, it’s the wrong time for it, it’s the wrong place for it. Geppetto wishes that his pet puppet could become real. It’s a very unlikely wish, which is something he says, very unlikely to happen. Actually I think Jiminy Cricket says that. To have that happen, Geppetto has to wish on a star. It’s a strange idea. The star is something that partakes of the divine. You could say that if you look at the night sky, where you can really see it, you know that, right? You look at the night sky and infinity opens itself up before you and there’s nothing to say except…there’s nothing to say.

And to wish on a star is to put your eyes above the horizon and to pick a transcendent point and to wish for something, to want for something that’s beyond the concrete and immediate. And to become virtuous and not be a puppet is to aim at something transcendent. I could say, well at least it’s the absence of evil, that’s something. Well, maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe it’s virtue in and of itself.

There’s a line in the Sermon on the Mount (it’s a very strange sermon) and the line is ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.’ It’s a very strange piece of advice, it sounds completely impractical, right? Limit the focus of your consciousness to the day and leave the worries alone. It means something meditative I think. When I do therapy with people, I try to do this, I don’t think because I don’t know if…I do sometimes, but I shouldn’t… I don’t necessarily know what their problem is or what they should do about it. But I can listen and if I listen (and maybe I learned this in part from Carl Rogers’ writings), if I listen then thoughts will occur to me. I’m not thinking them, it’s different. I’m letting the thoughts come up. I tell my clients, ‘Try to tell me the truth and I’ll try to listen without being too much of a son of a bitch and maybe, you know, maybe we can work something out.’ And then they’ll say something to me and maybe I’ll think ‘Well that thing you said now and that thing you said half an hour ago don’t seem to be coherent, so maybe you could straighten that out’ or you know, it seems more like I’m tracking what they’re saying and when I’m listening to them I’m in the same place they are. We know the neural mechanisms for that. You are in the same place as someone when you really listen to them. And then thoughts come up and I tell them what they are and it’s impersonal because I’m not trying to get them to do anything particularly. I’m just aiming maybe at helping them figure out what’s going on and having a little bit less suffering. It’s not the imposition of an ideological structure. And the idea behind this particular piece of advice is, you can try this too, you wake up in the morning and you think okay, this could be a good day (whatever that means). You don’t know, right, what a good day is? But maybe you’ve had a couple and they’re not so bad and so maybe you think you could have another one. But you don’t know and you think, okay – you ask yourself, and this is meditative ‘What is it that I need to do today so that this would be a good day?’

And your brain will tell you. It’ll say ‘You know that bill that’s hiding under five pieces of paper on your desk? You should haul that sucker out and pay it.’ Or there’s something you’re avoiding that makes you anxious that your brain will pick up on right away and say ‘You have to do these whatever number of commitments today, and if you do them then you’ve fulfilled your obligations.’ And the idea behind this piece of advice is that if you fulfill your obligations everyday then you don’t have to worry about the future. And that’s a very interesting idea. It’s predicated on the notion that there’s a wisdom inside of people that’s deeper than mere rationality. And I believe that to be the case because we’re far older than mere rationality from an evolutionary perspective, from any perspective you want. We’re deeper than rationality.

And we know, psychologists have learned in the last 20 years, rationality is bounded ridiculously in all sorts of different ways. It’s not the master, it’s a servant. It’s an unruly servant, even though it can be a very powerful one.

The totality of you, the wisdom that’s embodied in the totality of you, far outstrips rationality. And if you listen to yourself, and do the difficult things that your self tells you to do, the idea is you don’t have to compute the utopian future because it’s following whatever  you tell yourself to do every moment is the best path to whatever the best outcome is.

It’s a strange way of thinking because if you’re a utopian and a rationalist you already know what the right outcome is. Then you have to run around pointing guns at people to make bloody sure they do the right things so that the outcome you’ve computed occurs. And that doesn’t seem to work very well.

And so you see this idea in Daoism too, the idea is to give up the end. Because you don’t know what it is. And you don’t – it’s an admisison of ignorance. Where are you headed? You don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be headed somewhere.

Follow your moral intuitions. Stop doing the things that make you feel weak. I’m not talking about following a moral code, although that can come into it if you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing at all. Then following a moral code is a good idea because it’ll at least get the ball rolling. It’s a form of apprenticeship.

So, you know, not doing the obviously bad things is a form of discipline. It isn’t the notion that I’m talking about now, this is a different thing. This is pay attention to what’s meaningful because you can see what that is. You may find you’re terrified of it because everybody’s got this little secret wish…’I really love doing…’ I don’t know what it is. It’s different things for different people, but they’re afraid to do it, because as soon as you do what you really love, then you expose your nakedness, right? You say this is what I really like. Instead you just shove that under the bed and do something you don’t care about at all and then if people judge you, it doesn’t matter.

But the problem with that is there’s no life there. There’s no force. There’s no you. And without that the suffering will do you in and then you will become a bad person and that’s not a good thing.

So you have to see what it is that you find meaningful, whatever that is. And then you have to fight for it. You have to fight against yourself, you have to fight against other people because what do they know about it? You have to fight against nature maybe even to stand up for what it is that sustains you. And that takes courage. It also takes honesty. Partly because if you’re not honest you can’t trust your own intuitions. And this is an important thing. Think about this and this is why virtue is a necessity.

If you lie to yourself or to other people, then you corrupt the structure that you use to interact with being. You corrupt it. And if you corrupt it, then if you listen to it, it will guide you to the wrong way. Or maybe it’ll be so corrupted you can’t listen to it at all and then you’ll have to listen to somebody else. And that might not be a good thing, especially if you’re already corrupted. Because then you’ll listen to the person who tells you to do what you really want to do but won’t admit it to yourself.

And that explains how Hitler found all his followers. They had abandoned they’re own mode of being, it made them bitter and resentful, and empty and hollow, and weak and cruel. And then they trained their leader to tell them what they wanted to hear.

If you’re honest, which is painful, you see that a lot of the things that you say aren’t real. You’ll see that a lot of the things that you do make you weak. You’ll see that a lot of the people that you associate with are probably not good for you. And then you have a lot of difficult choices to make.

You can stop with the obvious lieing. That’ll clear things up for you a lot. And you can start communicating with people. One of the things I teach my clients is if you’re resentful say something about it. Say something about it. You tell the person ‘Look, what you asked me to do is making me feel resentful.’ Now, if they’re your wife or husband or someone you love, you should listen to them because they might say ‘Well, grow up. Take your dam responsibility and leave me alone.’ And maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’re a bit of a bully and you have to say ‘Quit pushing me around.’ Maybe you have to have an argument with them. An honest argument where you say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me’ and they say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me.’ And you battle it out until you reach some sort of settlement and then you don’t have to be resentful anymore. Then you won’t be mean and cruel and vicious. And you have to be honest in order to do that.

Here’s a way of thinking about error. You don’t exactly know what you’re doing, so how do you get to the point where you know what you’re doing? I think follow your internal intuitions and be honest about it. What’ll happen is a star will appear and guide you. And the star is whatever makes your life meaningful. And maybe you’ll take some tentative steps in that direction and you’ll get a little ways and you’ll think ‘No, that’s wrong.’ And then the thing that makes your life meaningful will appear over there. And then you take a few tentative steps in that direction. But as you step and walk towards these things you change and as you change you get wiser. And what happens is, you keep following these things that make your life meaningful, then you correct yourself across time.

You see the thing there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong but you keep chasing it and as you chase it you move forward. And as you move forward and as you do things you learn from your mistakes because you’re honest and you’re watching. You get wiser and wiser and the consequence of all those mistakes is you’ll self-correct the mistakes and twenty years down the road maybe you won’t be making so many mistakes.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. So you would need 10,000 hours of practice following what it is you need to follow.

I’m going to close with two things. I’ve come to the conclusion, as a consequence of studying the things I’ve been telling you about, that belief has a religious substructure. If you go all the way down into someone’s belief structure, right to the bottom, what you find are religious presuppositions. The person might not agree, but I don’t think that matters. I think generally people don’t know.

Here’s an old religious presupposition, older than Christianity, though I suppose Christianity is the most powerful proponent of this viewpoint. There’s a heaven and there’s a hell and you should live your life so that you end up in one of them. What’s happened to Christianity is that that’s an afterlife thing. I don’t think it is an afterlife thing. I think it’s a now thing. I see people who are in hell all the time. And you can see them if you walk down Bloor St. I’m not kidding, it’s no joke.  If you walk by someone in hell, you can’t look at them. You won’t look at them, you’ll give them a wide berth. And if you look at them and you really look at them, they’ll either become aggressive or ashamed because they do not want you to see where they are because they don’t want to see where they are.

And by the same token, heaven’s a real place too and now and then and you don’t notice because you don’t believe in it.

There’s an old gospel, a gnostic gospel, that was dug up in 1957 – the Gospel of Thomas. And in the Gospel of Thomas Christ says ‘The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.’ And I don’t think that’s a metaphor (or maybe it is a metaphor, it’s a deep metaphor). It means that life, human life, is very expansive and we live in the middle. It’s kind of a mediocre middle often. And at one extreme there’s hell and the other extreme is heaven and we bounce back and forth between them without really noticing.

And I could say, well here’s something to consider: If the things that you’re doing are landing you in hell, stop! Unless you want to be there. And you know if you think, all you have to do is think about your life over the last year. You can be certain that you can call to mind times when you would have rather’d that did not happen. And so the lesson from that is clear: don’t set up those conditions anymore. And by the same token, if you watch yourself you can tell when you’re where you want to be and I could say, well, if you’re where you want to be then that’s really the right place and all you should ever do is practice to be there.

The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.

So this is what I would say about virtue. Virtue first, is the attempt to see that heaven. And it’s a questioning thing. And I’m not saying that it’s the same for everyone. I don’t believe that all because people are individuals. Just to see it.

And the second thing is to attempt to live in it. And I truly believe, I truly believe, that there is nothing that you can do that’s better for being (not only for yourself but for everyone that you interact with). None of you know your potential. People are amazing creatures.

You know that people can be abysmally awful. But they can be as remarkably good as they are abysmally awful. I think it’s rare, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. What’s a human possibility? Well no one knows. Maybe it’s near infinite. We know nothing about our own being or our relationship with the totality of things.  We may occupy a more important place than we all think. And the consequences of our actions, our virtues or our lack thereof, echo, may echo, far beyond what we want to believe.

So I would say try to find out what’s good for you. Just watch. Don’t listen to anybody else. Or maybe you should. Maybe they’ll give you some hints, you know. But you’ve got to sort it out for yourself. And when you find out what’s good for you and what isn’t, do the things that are good for you. Until you like being alive, until you’re thrilled to be alive. See what happens.

And I would also suggest there’s nothing you could possibly do that will be more profound and useful than that.

That’s all.

The Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada has released bankruptcy data for the first quarter of 2011.  bankruptcies continue to trend lower than the recession peak, and closer to pre-recession levels.

Here’s a long term graph of consumer bankruptcy data, from 1991 forward.

Since the beginning of 2007 (approximately pre-recession), you can see the leveling off in the short term chart.

In terms of actual numbers, here’s the comparison between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2010.

Comparing bankruptcies and proposals (for consumers), the number of proposals for March (4,458) was the highest in the period I have data for (since January 2007).

For businesses, that same trend is not evident even though there was an up tick in both bankruptcies and proposals in March (bankruptcies up from 287 in February 2011 to 399 in March and proposals up from 81 to 169).

Statistics Canada has released its Labour Force Survey for March 2011. The unemployment rate was barely changed from the prior month (down to 7.7% from 7.8%). Here’s a long term chart from 1976 to the present.

A shorter term chart (January 2008 to present) shows the changes since the period immediately prior to the recession.

The shorter term chart highlights how unemployment, which initially rose quite quickly, has been slow to come down.

It still remains lower than the US rate, though the US rate had been falling faster than the Canadian rate and the difference between the two is not as large as it once was.

The current difference is 1.1% (7.7% in Canada vs. 8.8% in the US), but in April 2010 the difference was 1.8% (8.1% vs. 9.9%).

The Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada has released its insolvency statistics for January 2011. The number of consumer insolvencies for January 2011 (5,864) was the lowest since December 2007 (when there were 5,192) and the lowest figure for the month of January since January 2000 (when there were 5,451).

Here’s the long term graph for consumer insolvencies (aka personal bankruptcies) going back to the beginning of 1991:

A closer view looking just since the period immediately preceding the recession:

For the same period (January 2007 to present) the decrease is bankruptcies is not matched by a decrease in proposals (the number of proposals actually increased from the prior month from 3,219 to 3,342).

The implications of this? I’m not sure if there’s any data on what proportion of proposals eventually end up as bankruptcies, but the increasing number of proposals seems to mitigate some of the gain from the decrease in actual bankruptcies.

For businesses the trend continues to be a bit different, with proposals decreasing along with bankruptcies, though decreasing at a much lesser rate.

I have, for many years of my life, been bothered by recurring nocturnal calf cramps. For those not familiar with the condition, they are a very strong and painful cramping of the calf muscle occurring during sleep or when waking, with muscle soreness not infrequently remaining after the cramp had ended.

Only in the last few years did I seriously consider taking steps to address the problem and to track both my calf cramps and the steps I was taking to alleviate them. In the past I had made changes in my diet and in my exercise regimen, but never tracked their effect (if any) on calf cramping. Improving my diet and engaging in some sort of exercise (including some stretching)  seemed to improve things (based on my recall), but I had no data to support my impression.

Off and on, starting in 2008, I began to track my nocturnal calf cramps. Starting in early May and ending in late October, I recorded six cramps in that six month period:

I really don’t know how to account for the gaps between incidents or for the grouping in September. Looking back at the records I did keep, I don’t see any major changes that would account for it. Or what would account for the four month period where I experienced no cramps at all. I think this underscores the need to keep accurate and consistent records when tracking something like this.

In 2009 I again starting tracking at the beginning of February through to the end of August. I recorded three cramps during that eight month period:

Again I have no real explanation for the frequency or for the gaps. Three in eight months this time versus six in six months the previous time. This is a pretty significant decrease in frequency, without apparent reason, including an almost three month cramp free period.

I started tracking again on October 15th of 2009. To the end of 2009 I experienced no cramping (and this was in the absence of any particular treatment). This time I started tracking continuously to the present, but I did not continuously track supplementation (I had on and off supplemented with Magnesium Citrate, 200-400 mg per day).

From late 2009 to mid 2010 I experienced eight cramps as follows:

Again there are large gaps and a grouping of five cramping episodes in late May and early June with no readily apparent explanation.

On June 7th 2010 I began regular daily supplementation with 200mg of Magnesium Citrate (brand: Now Foods, if that’s important). In the period following I experienced cramping on:

Starting September 11th 2010 I also began supplementation with Potassium Citrate, approximately 400mg (4 x 99mg to be exact), taken in the evening along with the Magnesium Citrate (the Potassium Citrate was also from Now Foods).

Reasoning behind the supplementation: magnesium supposedly aids muscle relaxation. Potassium is involved in electrical signaling (potentiality) of muscle movements (activation).

The Dietary Reference Intakes for these two minerals for an adult male (31+) are currently:

  • Magnesium: 420 mg
  • Potassium: 4700 mg

From the above figures it can be seen that my magnesium supplementation was a fairly high percentage of the DRI (just under 50%) while my potassium supplementation was a relatively small percentage of the DRI (less than 10%).

After September 11th 2010 (with the combined magnesium and potassium supplementation) I only experienced one very minor (not really painful) calf cramp on December 8th 2010 – which actually occurred after waking, but while still in bed. I’m not sure I should even count this as an event, since it isn’t something that woke me as had occurred previously. So essentially there were no further nocturnal calf cramps from mid-September 2010.

During this time I also added a couple of activities to my exercise regimen. Starting in August 2010 I started playing badminton again (something I hadn’t done since childhood) and in November 2010 I also started taking ballet classes (something I had never done before). Possible importance: the ballet involved a lot of work using and stretching the legs (especially the lower leg). Badminton also involved a lot of movement, though less specific than ballet.

Starting January 1st 2011 I discontinued the magnesium supplementation. My reasoning was that I had still experienced nocturnal calf cramps after beginning magnesium supplementation. Perhaps just potassium alone would be sufficient, since I had experienced no further significant cramping episodes after adding the potassium (of course there’s the possibility that there was a synergistic relationship between the two – eliminating one would hopefully reveal whether that was true or not).

Since January 1st 2011 there have been no re-occurrences (3+ months now). Successful so far, but given that I also made some changes to my activity regimen since September 2010 I am left wondering if the change might have been due to that rather than to the supplementation. I think this highlights the difficulty of ascribing an observed change to a single variable, since as evidenced by my previous data collection efforts there had been other significant periods of time where I had not experienced any cramps (periods of up to three  months) for no readily apparent reason.

So starting April 1st 2011 I also discontinued the potassium supplementation (so now I am not taking any supplements at all – not for this or for anything else). I will continue to track any nocturnal calf cramps. There have been none so far.

This is something that will have to be an ongoing project for me. The data I have gathered so far have been very helpful to me and I feel I have learned from what I have done so far, but I don’t feel that I can draw a definitive conclusion. The potassium supplementation would seem to have been helpful, but further tracking and experimentation will tell me more. This is an ongoing project for me. Perhaps just a decent diet and the appropriate physical activity will suffice.

The aspect of potassium supplementation that concerns me is that the amount I supplemented with was not really very large in terms of the daily requirements. Looking at the USDA nutrient database for food equivalents of my supplementation I found the following:

  • 200 grams of baked potato contains around 1,000 mg of potassium
  • 220 grams of duck contains around 550 mg of potassium

Other good sources are tomatoes and beans.

So it would not be difficult to get the amount of potassium I was supplementing with from food sources without having to radically alter my diet. My current plan is to complete a three month period (April through to the end of June) with no supplementation and see my results.

Thoughts: My efforts so far have made apparent to me the difficulty in tracking and in thinking of all the relevant variables that might be responsible. It’s convenient to think that there might be a single controllable, measurable variable to account for things, but I’m really not sure that this is the case. I did some research and the medical literature does not reveal a documented cure for this condition, though it is generally theorized to be a result of an electrical/electrolyte imbalance, hence the potential importance of potassium intake and supplementation. I used Potassium Citrate in my experiments, though other forms exist. The citrate is readily available and inexpensive. Potassium Chloride is also readily available, but contains chlorine is also an electrolyte (so it can effect muscle function).Then I would be in the position of not knowing whether the observed effect was a result of the potassium or chlorine.

Related to the last post regarding bankruptcy data released by the Office of The Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada, for the last three calendar years (January 2007 through December 2010) I’ve taken the data for both consumer and business insolvencies as well as for proposals.

The definition of Proposal from the OSBC website:

An offer to creditors to settle debts under conditions other than the existing terms. It is a formal agreement under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

First the consumer insolvencies and proposals.

Interesting to note that while actual insolvencies have been declining, proposals have not been and in fact show an opposite trend.

Now business insolvencies and proposals.

Business insolvencies peaked earlier, though the last couple of months have moved up significantly (which was not the case in November and December of 2009), even though business proposals have been flat.

Today the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada issued the consumer insolvency statistics for December 2010. Consumer insolvencies (personal bankruptcies) were down compared both to the prior month and to the prior December.

Since September of 2010 the monthly figures have been running below 2009 and 2008 levels, but still above the levels recorded in 2007 (prior to the recession).

Here’s a chart for the same period.

For the same period here’s a chart showing personal bankruptcies compared to the unemployment rate for the same period.

From the chart it is evident that bankruptcies have dropped more than unemployment, but still remain elevated compared to pre-recession levels.

And the long term chart (for bankruptcies) going back to the beginning of 1991.

It’s interesting to compare the data for Canada to the data from the United States. Calculated Risk has posted a chart for annualized personal bankruptcies going back to 1996 (note the abrupt change from 2005 to 2006 is due to a change in American bankruptcy legislation). Here’s the US chart (from Calculated Risk, not me).

And for comparison here’s the Canadian chart for the same period.

Just looking at the period since the recession period, bankruptcies in Canada have eased off from their highs compared to the US figures.

About a month ago I did an impromptu test of the effect of exercise in cold weather and glucose metabolism.

I had a 100 gram chocolate bar (Green & Black’s Almond Milk Chocolate) before heading out at around 1pm. The temperature outside was around -12° C (around 10° F) and the walk to the park took about 45 minutes. When there I did some ice skating (two half separate hour segments) and walking around, taking pictures. I consumed only water while there.

I left a bit after 6 pm and on the way home stopped at a supermarket and consumed another 100 gram milk chocolate bar (generic store brand) on the way home. Arrive home at 6:55 pm.

After that I made measurements of blood glucose (using a One Touch Ultra Two meter) and of body temperature (using a house brand unit I bought at Shoppers Drug Mart several years ago) taken orally.

According to Wikipedia the commonly accepted normal range for oral temperature is:

36.8° C ± 0.7 (36.1 to 37.5) or

98.2° F ± 1.3 (96.9 to 99.5)

Observations: My body temperature was on the low side on the first measurement (it would have been a good idea to have taken an initial measurement before having gone out, in addition to blood glucose).

At 7:30 there’s already a significant jump in body temperature, back into the lower end of the normal range. Blood glucose shows a modest spike upwards.

At 8:00 body temperature has gone down a bit. I’m thinking there may be some measurement error with this older thermometer. There’s no reason it should have gone down as I was indoors the whole time (though there’s always some variability in readings). Blood glucose has already gone back down, the increase was very short lived. Normally I would expect a higher and longer lasting increase in blood glucose.

Thoughts:  This experiment was really quite impromptu. When I originally went out for the day I had no plans to measure anything. It was only when I was on my way home that I decided that it might be interesting to look at what would happen (hence there were no initial measurements taken earlier in the day).

Conclusions (if any): Is the ability to quickly metabolize the ingested sugars related solely to the level of physical activity, or can some of it be attributed to the cold weather as well (since energy must be utilized by the body to maintain normal body temperature). I don’t think I can say conclusively based on one instance, and it would be good to conduct an equivalent experiment in warm weather as well (though the activity level can never be exactly duplicated). It’s certainly plausible that the moderate blood glucose response was partly due to the cold.

Gustav Le Bon, from the Introduction to his book The Crowd (1895):

“History tells us, that from the moment when the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final destruction is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds known, justifiably enough, as barbarians.  Civilisations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds…A civilisation involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture – all of them conditions that crowds, left to themselves, have invariably shown themselves incapable of realising.”