Unconditional Love and Regard – or Neutrally Focused Attention?

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Renowned psychotherapist Carl Rogers became known for a handful of interventions that continue to inspire those of us who believe in listening to people and their stories – really listening, not just waiting for an opportunity to apply our own opinions (or theoretical framework) to their data. His ‘person-centred’ approach offered ‘unconditional positive regard’ to the client, who may never have experienced such an opportunity before. Sure, if you had parents who treated you well, with lots of love and support, you would have been raised with an aura of this kind of regard. Someone who listened to you and let you really be yourself, no matter what. But many people didn’t have that opportunity; many had to compete for love and affection from the start; some never got much of this kind of attention at all and somehow, in spite of it all, raised themselves to become relatively stable adults. Even those raised with love and support had to be disciplined, had to learn about what constitutes acceptable behaviour, when they pushed their innate power games too far. These power games include being cute and adorable for rewards, of course, as well as being contrary and willful for the sake of it (aka self-assertion).

 

And here’s my point. Perhaps, as Rogers seems to have begun to think later in his career, it might not be the case that unconditional positive regard gives the best results in a therapeutic relationship. And what I want to add to this is: perhaps we might be better served, in everyday relationships as well as in therapeutic ones, offering unconditional neutral regard. Let me explain. The problem I see with unconditional positive regard is that it offers exactly what Rogers saw it would; an opportunity for someone (here, the client, but I want to extend this discussion to anyone we might consider could benefit from this set of ideas, including ourselves) to believe fully in themselves and the “OK-ness” of their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, dreams and desires. First of all, I think this is a wonderful idea and I do support it – for a while. The problem is, we don’t really or always actually know what is good for us. Sometimes, we need someone who cares about us to say no. Experienced guides in the arts of spiritual discipline can offer this; at least, they often have a better idea of when we are over-balancing in one direction and could do with a nudge to set us straight.

 

This could still be a case of unconditional positive regard, if you like. But rather than only supporting the inner life of the person in question, it also pushes it. Towards challenge, rather then indulgement. Towards constructive change, rather than just affirmation. Towards evolution and not just the warm fuzzies. This is partly why I am calling for unconditional neutral regard instead. Because that limit to desire, that external force saying “No,” can be just as edifying, just as helpful, just as loving in the long run as the “Yes” ever was. The wisdom of the earth teaches us that this world is a place of limits, as is this body in this life. Let’s learn to maneuver skillfully within this realm, responding to an even balance of positive and challenging feedback so that we evolve and adapt, in flow with the universe as it is, rather than as how we wish it was. As Rogers himself so aptly stated: The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination”

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Wild Minds; healing, dance, storytelling, wisdom and community

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I just spent the weekend at the second annual Wild Mind gathering. This event is filled with workshops and presentations that engage participants around themes very familiar to this site: the interconnectedness of human and natural worlds, the empowerment of the individual in a setting of wisdom traditions, and conversations amongst this wondrous more-than-human world.  I was very happy with my offering, as i got to tell White Fella Dreaming stories around the campfire on Sunday night. I think i have discovered the perfect setting for my work; the same one utilised for the building of culture since the dawn of human consciousness. With no script or even much of an agenda other than to share the spirit of this work, i drew on Joseph Campbell’s ideas of what makes a successful mythology and leaped into how we could find this innate within each of our souls, as well as learning respectfully from indigenous traditions such as (and especially!)  those of the Australian land.

What a rich ride it turned out to be. An appreciative crowd, with an appetite for stories that embed us more deeply in the sacred nature of the earth, in the majestic spread of the cosmos, in our humble, wonderful hearts. Thoughtful questions and comments allowed us also to explore a couple of areas in particular the prevalence of a sense of shame amongst modern westerners. This is not an area i have worked very thoroughly, so the excursion was welcome, especially as it was raised by my great mate Nic Morrey, an experienced integral psychotherapist. My initial response came from both my own personal experience and my understanding of the history of civilization. For me, the context of the agricultural revolution behind all large-scale societies introduces the depersonalisation of nature, as it sets human industry up as the master of the environment. We channel the waters with irrigation to increase crops and increase the mating habits of domesticated animals in order to profit from thee activities. In turn we build cities with the surplus energy, which also must be stored, creating a need first for walls and then for armies. The goods must be protected.

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Humans being intelligent and perceptive creatures, we sense the unevenness of all this force, the danger of stepping out of our former place as hunter-gatherers living in balance with the rest of nature (or at least in much closer contact and with mush more respect for its limits!). Early agricultural societies even performed guilt rituals in light of this recognition. Like many members of a colonising force – a new Australian who profits, whether i want to or not, from the subjugation of the misunderstood indigenous inhabitants of the land – i have felt it necessary to examine my feeling of guilt about this violent appropriation. But that was some time ago and i have healed that wound. Today, i love my own soul, as a person born on this land, seeking more and better ways to live in touch with it and to spread respect for the First Nations peoples who still live here, as well as for their ancestors and for mine.* But Nic pointed out that while this history of depersonalisation could be healed, the prevalence of a sense of shame in modern individuals requires a systematic, or at least well thought through, response. For him, there is an archetypal pattern being worked through in each of us, from original connectedness, through a necessary rupture, and back to a consciously negotiated peace settlement. This would equate to an evolutionary path, which works much like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, through an antithetical force to a higher synthesis of complexity – which is my favoured definition of evolution. (Nic used a Vedic metaphor, from originally blissful Brahman through Shiva the Destroyer to the Shakti power of Divine Love. I’ll leave it to him to correct me if i got him wrong on this!)

As another friend James O’Brien pointed out, this is another way the myth of Genesis can be read; as a “Fall” into consciousness, out of the original Garden of Paradise, which forces us to work our way back to the Divine though hard work. I can’t help but always remind us of the very agricultural nature of this metaphor, though, which returns me to my original thesis about cultural and historical context …  and around and around and around we go. Wherever we find ourselves on this spectrum of possibility, we have to deal with it somehow. And my sense is that healing is always contingent; that we must revisit these wounds, within ourselves and our world, whenever we are faced with them, so as not to turn a blind eye to the ongoing suffering they cause when unattended.

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There was so much more going on in this fireside session of story-telling and across the whole weekend. (For more see here) What a rich way to spend some time, in the company of so many inspiring people, all working towards the same sense of community, supportive in times of need, evolutionary in focus, awake to the riches within the self and the earth, dancing freedom and holding space for the way we work with limits and love in sometimes trying times. Here’s to many more Wild Minds!

*There was also a fantastic workshop by Simon Thakur on Ancestral Movement. Simon’s position on ancestors is the same as mine as outlined here. I’m going to have to write soon on the ideas he is working with: that we embody all other creatures, and in fact aspects of the entire evolutionary process, in our own bodies. The obvious result of tapping in to these ways of moving is that we discover new levels of empathy with all life. Exciting work! Another highlight i want to write up that includes very similar ideas and experiences: the Cosmic Walk. Coming soon.

Images: 1. Purchased. 2. “The walls of Babylon and the temple of Bel” by Drawing by Mr. William Simpson R. I., and published by Prof. Charles F. Horne – Scanned from Sacred Books of the East *Babylonia & Assyria* editorship by Prof. Charles F. Horne (copyright 1907). Drawing by Mr. William Simpson R. I.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_walls_of_Babylon_and_the_temple_of_Bel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:The_walls_of_Babylon_and_the_temple_of_Bel.jpg. 3. “Bush in fog”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bush_in_fog.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bush_in_fog.jpg