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Revisiting the sham of culture: Public school edition

Last night in our training clinic, I watched one of our grad students conduct an intake interview with a 17 year old who was recently expelled from school. The idea of expelling kids from school makes me ill to start with, so I watched with a grumpy face. As the session unfolded, I only felt more angry and irritated. This 17 year old kid told the grad student that he was being expelled over, “a lot of little stuff” like tardies, disrespecting teachers, not doing work, etc. I’m not naive enough anymore to buy that story without checking it out with the school, but it was still disturbing. It could be true.

To complicate matters another step, this particular kid is Black, big for his age (athletic big, not fat big) and wore his hair shoulder-length and braided. He spoke very quietly, even after his great-grandmother, who is his guardian left to return to the waiting area. I could easily imagine this guy could scare the crap out of a teacher without really trying, just by being so tall and muscular. But being scared of a kid because he looks like he could tackle you with one arm doesn’t make it ok to throw him out of mainstream society.

[Didn’t you know that’s what expulsion is? Read more here: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities]

I know the U.S. government in general, and the states in particular don’t quite comprehend the problem, but it’s really pretty simple. Here’s the deal, in a simple geometry-ish proof:

1. There is a strong relationship between school failure and life failure (e.g., going to prison).

2. Some kids are at much higher risk than other kids for school failure. We know who they are. We’ve known this for decades (poor, black or brown boys, little to no adult support at home, bad neighborhoods, toxic stress, abused, neglected, and generally stressed out kids).

3. We know that when kids in #2 are given certain types of early and frequent intervention, they are much less likely to fail at school.

4. If they don’t fail at school, they have a hell of a lot better chance at staying out of prison.

5. If they don’t go to prison, they can get jobs. If they work, they pay taxes.

6. If we spend a little money now on those interventions in #3, we will have greater tax revenues in the future.

7. Investing in appropriate educational interventions for stressed out kids literally pays off.

QED, asshats in office. We need intervention for stressed out kids. We need it early. We need it often. We can not wait.

Back to the kid in my opening paragraph. I really hope he comes back. He said he would, but in my experience, it’s about 50/50 with adolescents in trouble who live with folks who aren’t their parents. Great granny looks like she’s about 80. I don’t know that she has the energy to make him get his act together. The kid seemed interested in doing things differently, but also seemed very doubtful about being able to make it happen. I fear we’ve lost this one, mostly due to this dubious expulsion. It’s way past time to stop expulsion.

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Pure Play

During our two-day art and play therapy conference in Mumbai, we talked about a lot of things: brains, trauma, diagnosis, cultural issues, techniques, and theories of arts and play therapies. We also played a good deal to break up the lectures. One of my standard methods of waking up an audience is to have a couple of people come up on stage and teach us all some hand-slap games from childhood.

Hand-slap games are great for a few reasons: they make you stand up and move, they make you engage with a partner, they provide opportunities for both vertical and horizontal neural integration, and they’re fun. It’s most fun when there are people in the audience from different cultures who can teach us games in a variety of languages. I’ve taught and learned these games in many countries now, and I think the Asians may have won.

I’ve seen American and European audience members struggle with some fairly basic hand games, but I’ve never seen an Indian or Thai or Cambodian not be able to completely master a complex hand slap game in English in a few minutes. This phenomena makes me wonder why those of us in the West seem to struggle some with learning new pattern/language games when our friends in SE Asia don’t. I have two hypotheses, and no way to test them, so for now they’re only guesses:

1. Our overuse of tech tools has deteriorated our abilities to learn new physical pattern games and songs. We spend a huge proportion of our play time now engaged with screens and keyboards (like I am right now). I wonder if one of the costs of this new form of engagement is the quickness with which we pick up new physical patterns. Even though a lot of these new gadgets are made in SE Asia, very few people have access to the internet at home, and fewer have x-boxes or other video games at home (except in S Korea and Japan, which I’m not including here). Most college students in India still write papers out by hand, even for computer science classes. Note: the audience was of mixed ages from 18-75, and I didn’t see a difference that way. The men were generally a little slower to learn the games than the women, but I expect that’s because boys play fewer hand slap games than girls and therefore have less practice.

2. There may be different neural pathways and/or structures in our brains depending on whether we are in a collectivist or individualist culture. Although little girls in the West also play hand slap games, we don’t  generally spend as much time with peers as children in the east do. Families in SE Asia are often larger than ours, meaning there are more likely to be sisters around to play with than in the West, and people here tend to live in close-knit multi-family communities (even in high rise apartment buildings). They also think differently about connections than we do in the West. Like I mentioned in my post about manners, people in SE Asia tend to think far more often in terms of “we” than “me”.

I’m not attempting to make a value judgement here, I’m just pointing out anecdotal evidence that there may be a hidden cost in terms of our cognitive abilities attached to our typical Western lifestyle. Certainly, being a little slow on the uptake for learning  a new hand slap game isn’t likely to cost anyone a raise or a Nobel Prize, but what other mental capacities may we be unknowingly sacrificing for tech and personal space? Now that we have the tech (ironically) to look inside our own heads and examine the workings, maybe it’s time to look at how our choices of lifestyle and mindset impact our abilities to learn and connect, preferably before we loose something important that we never knew we had.

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Graciousness

When I was growing up, manners were a Big Deal. Table manners, party manners, school and church and friend’s house manners were all bundled up together in what my mother sometimes called “home training”. Essentially, manners give us cultural reference points for how to behave appropriately for our class, age, gender, position, and culture. Because of my rather intense “home training”, I am able to write a damn fine thank-you note, host a cocktail party successfully, attend a wedding without causing a ruckus, and otherwise generally behave in a way that befits an adult White woman in the U.S. (especially the South, where manners remain a Big Deal).

While I’ve been roaming around India, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the role of manners in a global village. India is a very diverse and ancient place- the manners of the people here are traced back millennia, and can be quite complex and formal. For example, on the first day of our conference, the Chief Guest (a high-ranking bureaucrat from the University) was over an hour late. The opening of the conference was delayed until he arrived, at which time he gave a rambling, off-topic talk for another hour. No one left or began to talk to friends, or checked texts. Every single one of the 200+ audience members waited quietly and respectfully until he finally quit talking and left.

I cannot even imagine the depths of arrogance involved in being a person who thinks nothing of keeping 200 people waiting for an hour (he did not apologize) and proceed to ramble for another hour. My fellow Americans would’ve walked out, possibly after setting him ablaze.

Which brings me back to manners.

In my small experience, Indian people are intensely mannerly, to the point that I’ve begun to wonder if they might all be psychic. I think inside my head, “I’d love another cup of tea”, and it appears. Seriously. As a guest in an Indian home, you are not allowed to lift a finger to help your own self, no matter how stubbornly American-ly self- sufficient you may feel.

Really, manners generally boil down to displays of graciousness. In the West, this generally means helping guests, elders, and friends feel at ease. In India, graciousness seems to extend past helping others feel at ease to helping others feel a sense of being respected and valued, sometimes at the cost of the ease of the host. For example, if you say to your Indian host, “Wow, it’s hot in here”, you may find the whole family being organized into teams to fan you, or to fix the AC, or to otherwise insure that you experience no discomfort whatsoever.

The Indian sense of graciousness involves a level of self-sacrifice I’m not sure I can really grasp as a Westerner. An Indian person would far rather be hot, tired, out of cash, and foot sore than to have a guest do the smallest thing that might require effort. It’s a complete reversal of the usual power balance we see in the U.S.- here, the guest is not just made comfortable, he or she is made to be entirely without any cares of any sort for the duration of the visit regardless of what else the host may need or want to be doing. This appears to be true in homes of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and any other religious or cultural group on the subcontinent.

Interestingly, this concept of complete graciousness to guests seems to extend to clients in the psychotherapy setting. I’m only beginning to put together the whole picture for myself, but it feels as if therapy here may be practiced with a natural sense of attunement and empathy that we work hard to cultivate in therapists in the West. I wonder if we all began to treat our clients as guests in our home rather than as paying customers involved in a business transaction if there might be a shift in the depth and effectiveness of our work?

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Heartache is a Real Thing.

Last night, I watched a documentary called “Shunned” about the old order Amish (old order is sort of like orthodox) practice of shunning. I have no idea how the filmmaker managed to get access to the people s/he interviewed, but the whole film was first-person stories of leaving the order. All of them, including a young woman who had only left home a few days prior to her first interview, talked about how painful it was to disconnect from the world they knew to enter a world they didn’t understand and were raised to believe is evil and dangerous.

The pain of being away from family was compounded greatly by the fact that leaving the order means you’re also excommunicated from the church, which means you’re going to hell. The Amish believe in a very literal, physical afterlife experience, so spending time in a burning pit is not a metaphor for them, it’s a real thing that happens. This belief is part of the reason that the Amish practice of shunning is so effective as a disciplinary method in the community.

In the Amish world, members of the community who don’t follow all of the rules can be shunned, usually for a specific period of time, but sometimes permanently. Shunning involves isolating the person from the group; they sit alone at meals, work alone at chores, sleep alone, sit alone in church. No one speaks to them except to give directions. Once the period of punishment is over, the person is usually able to rejoin the community, but will certainly think twice before making the same mistake again.

The Amish have been using shunning as a way to keep order in their communities since the inception of the religion. It works. Really well.

Shunning is sort of the idea behind our prisons, but far more effective because it’s even more painful. The people in the documentary used the term “heart broken” a lot when describing how it felt to be turned out by all of the people in their lives who matter to them. Heartache is a real, actual experience of pain. If you’ve ever been dumped, you know this. Science, however, has long poo-poo’d the idea of heartache as actual physical pain.

As it turns out, the Amish and dumpees everywhere are right. Emotional pain is just as painful and as real as physical pain. Eisenberger & Lieberman (2005), a couple of neuroscientists, proposed an idea they called “Social Pain Overlap Theory”, or SPOT. Essentially, the point they made is that the pain of social exclusion or teasing processed along the exact same neural and biological pathways as physical pain.

Another term I really like from neuroscience is “technomyopia” which is the idea that only studies that use fancy machines can prove things we know and have always known from common sense and common experience. SPOT is a great example of that; humans have always known that having your heart broken hurts like hell. In fact, it hurts as much as breaking any other part of you. But because scientists have seen this happen with fMRI’s and other fancy machines, it now has a name and is considered to be empirically true.

And that’s a good thing.

With Eisenberg & Lieberman’s work, therapists and other squishy-feelings types can say, Hey, because SCIENCE! when we talk about the pain of heart ache and social exclusion. So, back to the Amish for a minute.

One of the reasons the old-order Amish continue to exist, although their lifestyle is very harsh, non-luxe, zero-tech, and isolated is that they are geniuses at forming and maintaining communities. Amish families usually live in clumps of a dozen or so. Families tend to be large, so a dozen families can make up a community of enough folks to do all of the farming and other work needed to sustain themselves with almost zero contact with the rest of us. The people in the community come to depend on each other for their survival, as well as for friendship and emotional comfort. They are all important to the community; everyone matters to everyone else.

Amish folks are rarely alone; they work in groups, eat at long family tables, go to church every week without ever sleeping in, children share beds, etc. Shunning works because the communities are so effective. Because every individual matters to the community, the community matters to the individual. Shunning is horrible because the community is wonderful.

The dominant culture in the U.S. isn’t very good at the community thing. When was the last time you sat down to supper with all of your siblings, your parents, and your bachelor uncle? When was the last time you helped your bff build a house? Who grew your salad from lunch yesterday?

Shunning is still painful for the rest of us. SPOT insures that anytime a human being is isolated by others, removed from the communal table, and told they’ve done wrong, it’s terrible. When your co-workers don’t invite you to happy hour, it sucks, even if you’re 40 and you know it’s not really the end of the world.

Even when our communities are loose and poorly constructed, SPOT is real. The Amish are careful to put a time limit on the shunning. Amish people who are shunned know it will end, and they can go back to belonging (usually, excommunication is a little different, but even then, people can return, it’s just a lot harder. Forever shunning is like capital punishment and is reserved for serious offenses, like murder and rape). Shunned Amish people know it will only last a few days or weeks, and then they’ll be accepted right back into the fold.

When we shun or exclude people in our world, there’s no clear limit on how long it will go on, or what the person can do to return. This is particularly damaging for adolescents, who desperately need to matter, but don’t have the social skills to make it happen or the experience in life to know that everything is temporary, and that this too shall pass. To an adolescent who is excluded from the community of his/her peers, it seems like forever, like capital shunning.

And here’s my point: as adults, we know social exclusion hurts. As smarty-pantses, we even have scientific proof of this, the SPOT. We need to do a much better job of making sure there’s a way out of the shunning penalty box for kids. Kids who don’t believe that they matter often don’t think anyone else does, either, and we know where that leads.

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Counseling across the “sham of culture”

Last night I finally finished reading the brilliant novel, The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell. It’s one of those can’t-put-it-down-and-go-to-sleep-like-a-sensible-person books. So, as the minutes past midnight ticked by, I reached the conclusion of the book, and as it happened, the end of the rule of the East India Company. In the denouement, the hero is heard to say, “Culture is a sham. It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness”.

Well, hell. I had believed that I was going to shortly be released by Farrell’s novel so I could finally join Will in blissful slumber. That line kept me up until my eyelids finally flatly refused to stay open. I woke up this morning still wrestling with the idea of culture as a cosmetic for the wealthy. Certainly money allows the more privileged people in the world to buy their way into far more comfort than others can afford, but what about the rebuttal given in the novel by the callow young romantic poet, “Ideas, too, are a part of culture. No one can say ideas are a sham. Our progress depends on them”. Given that he meant “progress” in the best British colonial sense, it’s a highly charged term (Farrell has his British overlords starving and rotting in the marble-columned banqueting hall their predecessors in the Company built in happier days to underline the whole “progress” conceit.)

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m getting ready to go back to India next week. I’m taking grad students, and we’re co-hosting a conference on art and play therapies for trauma at a college in Mumbai. There are a *lot* of ideas going on there, and many of them are about “progress”.

All of which leads back to the starting point of the circle: how much of what we call “culture” is cosmetic? How much of what we generally call “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” counseling is then also cosmetic?

Because I am truly a pedant some days, I’m going to begin my response (certainly not an answer) with a definition. Mr. Merriam and Mr. Webster say, “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).”

In therapy, the key bit of the definition is the middle, the “way of life” bit.That’s where we tend to get hung up- how differently people from various cultures view constructs such as the “right” way to conduct male/female relationships, the “right” way to behave in public, to work, to/if worship, etc. We’ve seen a far too vivid example of clashing ideas of what’s “right” in terms of the behavior and role of the police in Ferguson recently.

So, right, back to the therapy room with us.

How much, if any, of the typical “cultural” considerations we tend to consider when working with people are cosmetics designed to paint over (white wash?) the ugliness of life? When counseling students write up case reports, we always expect them to talk about the client’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, and social class. This is intended to help the reader better understand the issues presented and the relevance of the treatment plan.

I do think including cultural/demographic data is important to designing effective treatment: the inner world view of the client is central to the likelihood that treatment will be helpful. Knowing your client is generally considered to be key to helping him/her.

But what if  it’s not?

If Farrell’s hero is on the right track, maybe culture matters less than we’ve been taught? I think working with play and art as healing media certainly flattens out a lot of the usual demographics, especially with young children. What I mean is, children can decide that a car is a car, or it’s a bed, or it’s a spaceship. Since I don’t use any of the classic psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theories where the therapist interprets the symbols in the play or art for the client, which is very judgement-laden and very seriously culturally created, it is what the client says it is.

Even so, when working with clients or students from cultures very different from my own, such as the students I’ll be teaching in India later this month, how much of what I’m saying is “progress” is a cosmetic to make the ugliness look better?

I’m going to talk a good deal about brains while I’m there. Brains are pretty much the same in all humans, anatomically. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how our brains work; how they’re hurt by traumas and how they can heal, in the last few years. It’s wonderful to know more about all of that. We should be able to extrapolate some of this into new formulas for medication that are more effective and targeted. We should be able to devise more effective therapies. We certainly have a huge quantity of new evidence that play does, in fact, heal.

But how relevant is that in a country with nearly zero mental health care?

I don’t want to be the Avon Lady of mental health in the developing world. I think in order to avoid that sad outcome, I’m going to have to be on my toes to be sure I can tell if I’m carrying a suitcase full of make-up around with me. And I’d better be careful not to open it up and start make-overs on a bunch of unsuspecting Indian folks. I think they’ve seen that act before.

Explaining empathetic attunement in India

As some of you may know, I’m preparing to take a group of my graduate students to India next week for a two-week whirlwind tour of the northern parts of the country. One of many highlights of the trip is a two-day conference at NK college in Mumbai. I’m the keynote speaker, and of course, my topic is play therapy.

I get to talk about play therapy a lot. Usually, I’m talking to professionals or grad students who already have a pretty decent idea of what play therapy might be. At this conference, I get to introduce the idea of play therapy to about 150 college students (mostly psychology majors), professors, and professionals who have probably never heard of play therapy, AND who live in a very different cultural context from the one I inhabit.

To call this a bit of a challenge is a serious understatement.

I’ve been working on my outline and slides for months now, and I’m not satisfied with them yet. I’ve got the usual suspects lined up: Virginia Axline’s 8 principles, the basic attending skills in play therapy, how to set limits, some brain stuff. But I don’t yet think I’ve captured the IT that makes play therapy such a powerful modality for working with kids.

When I think about what the IT, the driving force of play therapy, is I get lost for words (which is not a common occurrence, trust me). What can I call the magic that happens in the space between the child and the play therapist? You know, that feeling of being invited into the inner world of the child’s imagination and thoughts, being in sync, attuned, congruent, aligned? This, in my opinion, is what makes therapy tick. I find it to operate most powerfully when I’m helping my client access his or her creative, affective brain, getting out of the rigid, verbal, linear left brain and into the visual, contextual right brain. I’ve just never found a perfect English word to describe it, and now I have to find a way to describe this to a group of people for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language.

When I teach beginning counselors here in the United States, I often use Judith Jordan’s idea of mutual empathy to explain the “it” of therapy. Mutual empathy differs from one-way empathy in therapy in its bi-directionality. In most ways of working, therapists are trained to use empathy to enter the world of the client. In mutual empathy, the therapist feels the clients feelings with him or her, and helps the client to understand that their feelings impact the therapist as well; that their feelings matter to the therapist. I believe that this process occurs naturally in engaged play and expressive arts therapy. Left brain-to-left brain contact, which science now tells us helps grow and repair relational neural pathways, may be the “it” I’m raving about today.

But how to explain that to 150 Indian students and scholars? In an hour?

I’m still working on it. However, I have found a word in Urdu (a cousin of the language of old Persia which is widely spoken in northern India, also the language of some of the greatest poets who ever lived) that might help: manoos. It seems to be a little different from our word empathy, and from the Hindi word for empathy, which means the same as the English. Manoos seems (I say “seems” because I’m definitely not a linguist nor do I speak Urdu) to impy a feeling of care and warmth for another person or an animal such that it/they are no longer a stranger and there is a mutual affection and understanding between yourself and the other.

Maybe manoos isn’t the answer to explaining the empathetic attunement therapists must use, but I’m going to move ahead with it for now. Maybe manoos will at least start a conversation about how inadequate language can be in the face of felt experiences? I’m going to keep wrestling with this, and hoping for a flash of enlightenment.

Rumi, one of many brilliant poets who wrote in Persian, a cousin to Urdu, wrote:

I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways.”

Maybe that’s the definition of tuning in?