Sunday, May 31, 2015


Entry for 31 May 2015:

When I was about 10, around 1960, I sometimes tried to imagine turning 65 in the year 2015, which seemed at the time to be an impossibly distant science-fictional future.  Would we have all blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons?  Would the air still be breathable, or would the planet have become so polluted as to be uninhabitable?  Would there be flying cars?  Would people have gotten to Mars? Would there be videophones?  Would we be reading books on little flat screen things?  Would I be a well-known author, like my grandmother?  Would I have found True Love?  You could tell that I read a lot of science fiction, had a vivid imagination, and wavered between pessimism and romanticism. 

So here I am, more than 50 years later, living in Scotland with my partner, Diane.  The world hasn’t ended, at least not yet.  My kids are grown up and doing well.  I have two grandchildren, Mizuki (5) and Yuki (1).  The other day I got a wonderful birthday card from Mizuki. 

We haven’t blown ourselves up, and the air is still breathable.  There are no flying cars, although unmanned drones are starting to be a big thing.  People haven’t gotten to Mars, but our little mechanical rovers have, and through them we have also.  We have tablet computers where we can read and save all the books we care to, which is a good thing, because our bookshelves are all filled up. And then there is Skype, where I can see my grandkids every week, even if I sometimes have trouble hearing anything over their excited chatter.  I’ve published several books and something like 150 scientific articles and book chapters. Although I once wanted to be a science fiction writer, I now hope that most of what I’ve written is more science than fiction.  Oh, yes, I did eventually find True Love, but in the process discovered that what is really true about love, is that it is scary and frustrating and amazing and a lot of work. 

Even though I’ve now reached the classical age of retirement in the culture in which I grew up, I’m having trouble getting my head around fully retiring.  After all, I’ve already retired once, when I when I moved to Scotland 9 years ago to take up a position as professor of counseling.  I’ve been there, done that. Besides, I’m still having a lot of fun with the training, psychotherapy, and writing I’m doing.  My main complaint (aside from the usual dissatisfactions with the level of bureaucracy and administration that are endemic to being an academic in a university at this point in history) is that I don’t have enough time to write. 

In my family it is traditional on one’s birthday to contemplate the numerical significance of one’s newly acquired age.  65 factors into 2 prime numbers: 5 and 13.  My father died 9 years ago, not long before we moved to Scotland, when he was 78, 13 years older than I’ve just become.  My mother died 3 years ago, at the age of 83, at the end of her 3rd Saturn Return.  I’m a cancer survivor, after been successfully treated for prostate cancer 5 years ago, in 2010. So far, it has not returned, but together with the deaths of my parents, the cancer has given me a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life and the value of living each day to the fullest.  At this point, my goal is to do the most good that is in my power to do with the time I’ve got, and to have fun doing it.  Happy Birthday, me!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pilgrimage 6: Homeward Bound Reflections

Entry for 22-23 May 2015:

Saint Ann's Church, Bethesda, Jerusalem
1. It was very good to be completely yanked out of my familiar places and routines. It’s been years since I had a real vacation, where I just went away and did almost no work.  It has taken something like a pilgrimage to achieve this:  A project in itself that has been so absorbing and demanding and yet at the same time wasn’t work.   I’m exhausted, so obviously it wasn't a rest; it was more of a balancing or a grounding. 

2. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, we became unstuck in time, as we flipped back and forth first between stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions, but also between ministry, death and birth parts of the Jesus story.  Such lived-through re-tellings are impossible to tell in straight narrative order, one thing after another; instead as we traveled from place to place, we looped through time, and sometimes it seemed as if everything was happening at once, and that the places overflowed with surfeit of meaning.  I hope to be able to make sense of more of it afterwards, when enough of the pieces have been collected and there is space to assemble them into something more useful than “complex and difficult”.

3. The big, technicolour places -- Bethlehem, Gethsemane, the Church of the Sepulcher, which incorporates Golgotha and the Tomb – I was disappointed by these.  I was distracted by the shear crush of people, the multi-layered weight of history and expectation, and the watchful proddings of the guardians of these places telling us to move along, be quiet, dress appropriately etc.  In these places I felt as though I was going through the motions, like walking through a movie; it was more of an intellectual process.  These places were interesting but for me ultimately not very involving or transformative.

For example, I never imagined the Birthplace to be the centre of the modern city of Bethlehem that has grown up around it.  The 2.5 churches (Roman Catholic and Greek/Armenian Orthodox) competing for pieces of the cave/stable don’t really bother me that much, even though they’ve divided the place amongst them like the woman who told Solomon it was OK to cut the baby in half to share with the other mother-claimant.  But I was unprepared for the urban, commercial nature of the place.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, given that tourism is after all their main business, and has been for many centuries. No wonder there’s a shopping centre two blocks from the cave, and there are sales everywhere, providing constant distraction.

4. These Big Places just made me homesick for Galilee, the wilderness, and the desert, where we started: The falling-down ruins, the wildflowers, the hyrax or “rock badger” (think wood chuck or large rat), the Sea of Galilee, where the sun glints and the wind dimples the water.  In the same way, far more satisfying than places like Church of the Sepulcher or the ornate Barluzzi shrines, were the simple Franciscan chapels where we often stopped for prayer or a brief reading.  The white limestone, clean lines, and lack of ornate decoration, marking various Little Places, made a space for me to appreciate the smaller moments.  
Saint Ann with young Mary
5. One of these simple but deep places touched me greatly: the Church of Saint Ann, next to the pool of Bethesda, just a bit north of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There, unexpectedly, I encountered something about my mother (and by extension about myself), that I had never put together:  My mother wasn’t just named after her grandmother Anna and her grandfather’s sister Annie, she was also named after the Virgin Mary’s own mother Ann, that is to say, Jesus’s grandmother.  I think that this had a lifetime impact on my mother in lots of ways, but most obviously through her fascination with Mary and the image of the Goddess, which I have inherited.  (It’s no wonder that several days later at a Palestinian collective store in Bethlehem I found myself spending rather more than I had intended for a lovely Russian Orthodox icon of Madonna and Holy Infant.  This is now part of a little Marian shrine in our living room.)

6. A welcome pleasure of this pilgrimage was how much archeology we did, seeing all the layers of history, one after another: ancient ruined synagogues and mikvahs (ritual baths); Roman camps, towns, temples and forts; massive Herodian structures; the half-demolished Byzantine churches, with their floor mosaics and rows of broken columns; even recent but abandoned structures like the mosque at Banias (Caesarea Phillipi).  For me, these places, particularly places by Sepphoris, Tel Dan, Chorizim and Capernaum (to name just a few) provided a kind of antidote or counterweight to the crowds and the commercialism.

7. We left as we arrived, in the middle of the night, like the Magi. Instead of camels, we mounted the large Nazarene Express bus one more time, passing through the streets of Jerusalem, still full of people (though not so many as during the day).  The highway to Tel Aviv airport was busier than the ones we took 11 days earlier to Arad in the south.  Surrounded by darkness, our time here now seems almost dreamlike, rich with experiences and images that resonate deeply but often contradict one another.  It is a big dream, like the one Diane had the other night. We will be a long time figuring this one out, all the more so because it is full of fear, confusion, pity, and wonder.  It is at the same time both dreamlike and as real as anything in our lives, or maybe even more so.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pilgrimage 5: An Emotion-Focused Therapy Interpretation of the Conflict between Israel and Palestine

--> Entry for 18-22 May 2015:

This is a continuation of my previous entry on the history of military occupation in Israel.

During the time we’ve been on pilgrimage in Israel, we’ve learned a lot about its ancient and recent history.  As part of this, I’ve reflected on my many Jewish friends and colleagues, whom I’ve known and loved over the years.  I’ve also read up on the history of the 1967 and 1973 wars here.

And I’ve been mindful of the many parallels between the history of Israel and that of the United States and the British Empire, their relationship to native/indigenous peoples, and my part in that as someone who lives within the privilege of a majority culture. For example, I’m aware of the claim (made in 2008 by the SNP) that in East Glasgow, not far from my office, the average life expectancy for men is lower than it is in Gaza (Channel 4 News, 2008). 

What I’m left with about all this is a sense of mutual tragedy and sadness.  My understanding of the psychological basis for this tragedy has several other sources:
• My work as a psychotherapist for many people with trauma histories, especially over the past 30 years of my practice as an EFT therapist;
• My work with people with social anxiety over the past 8 years;
• The study that my PhD student Robin Hinson and I did in the 1990’s on working with prejudice, which we carried using an experimental one-session EFT protocol for working with “difficult people”;
• Charles Eisenstein’s analysis of the ultimately self-defeating nature of what he calls the agenda of control in Ascent of Humanity (2007); and
• Psychotherapist Al Pesso’s analysis of the roots of terrorism in childhood exposure to narratives of injustice and cultural trauma (which I talked with him about last year in Berlin) (Pesso has developed a form of Empty Chair/Self-Soothing Work for addressing this.)
All of these have given me an acute sense that in some way the Tragedy of Israel and Palestine is something shared and deeply intertwined. 

Here is what is emerging for me: The peoples of Israel and Palestine are locked together in a deep, shared history of mutual trauma and injustice, leaving them feeling broken, violated, distrustful, afraid and angry.   Over millennia, each has suffered repeatedly at the other’s hands; and these events have been lovingly preserved and rehearsed from generation unto generation, without understanding or forgiveness. 

For example, in the case of Israel, there is very much a sense of national trauma going back for thousands of years, but reawakened in the 20th century, first by the Holocaust and then strongly reinforced by the 1967 and 1973 wars.  Human beings are powerfully evolved to learn rapidly and often rigidly from situations in which their very existence is threatened.  One-trial learning is generally sufficient in this case to lead us to put strong protective measures in place so that such threats will “never again” happen.  In the case of Israel, such learning has happened repeatedly in living memory.

These traumatic events and the associated vulnerability have resulted in victims becoming perpetrators, over and over again (as I noted in my previous entry), thus creating a cycle of abuse, which I am hypothesising may have led to a deep sense of emotional and spiritual impurity, whose source is a vague sense of guilt that has been pushed out of awareness.

Instead, eternal vigilance and readiness to take offense have been the rule.  Each feels threatened at an existential level by the other, and seeks to both make themselves safe and to claim and control what they feel is theirs.  The more they seek to do this, the more they threaten the Other, causing them to become more vigilant and to try to gain more control over the Other.  It is this constant guarding and seeking control that is the heart of the problem, because it continually makes the problem worse by threatening the Other. 

In Emotion-Focused Therapy, with both individual and couples, such negative cycles between partners or between parts of the self are common and feel wholly intractable to those involved (and often to the therapist).  However, according to EFT “the only way out is through”:
• First, we offer a situation in which all parts of the self (or both members of the couple) feel deeply and credibly understood and validated. 
• Second, this enables the person or persons to slow down and become more deeply aware of their core painful, stuck emotions.  In this case, we have among other emotions, lingering anger at old injuries and fear of the Other as dangerous.  These emotions have to be understood and accepted, but by itself this is not enough to change anything. 
• Third, with seemingly intractable problems, it appears to be important to spend time developing an appreciation for the cost that maintaining a stand based on these emotions has had for the person. (I thank Laco Timulak for making this point explicit.) 
• Fourth, for emotional transformation to take place, there must be another step, to identify alternative, more adaptive emotions.  In this case, these include: curiosity about the Other and what they may have to offer; sadness at disconnection and separation; realistic fear at the long term consequences of one’s own intransigence; genuine empathy and compassion for the Other’s suffering; and perhaps even appropriate, motivating guilt for the role that one has played in the bringing about or allowing the Other’s suffering. 
• Fifth, by creating an atmosphere of mutual openness, this emotional transformation makes it possible to begin a process of negotiation and resolution. 

I’m not saying that such a process is easy; it isn’t.  But I’m not sure that I see any alternative other than despair and giving in to a continuing cycle of traumatising interactions, which only perpetuate and deepen the problem.
Wall Art, Wall of Separation, Bethlehem


Channel 4 News. (2008).  FactCheck: Glasgow worse than Gaza?  Retrieved 21 May 2015, from:
            Eisenstein, C. (2007). The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self.  Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Pilgrimage 4: Military Occupation in Israel: Ancient and Modern

--> Entry for 17-20 May 2015:

Military conquest and occupation is a constant theme on this pilgrimage: It’s easiest to start with the Romans, safely removed by a couple of millennia. There were other military conquerors before the Romans: Babylonians, Persians, Greeks among them; and others came later, including early Moslem invaders, Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, and the British. 

However, it’s the Roman presence that we can see most clearly today. We see this everywhere in both classical Roman and later Byzantine incarnations: Lots of ruins with their architecture and mosaics; and in place names, like Tiberius, where we stayed for four days.  We see the heavy Roman footprint strikingly at Masada, where the Romans successfully besieged a group of Hebrew Zealots holed up in Herod’s fortified desert palace, and also in Jerusalem itself, where the Herod the Great's Second Temple is conspicuous by its absence on the Temple Mount, having been torn down by the Romans in 70 CE.  

The Roman military occupation created a whole set of complex dynamics for Jewish people of that time, especially around how much and in what ways they should collaborate/ cooperate in the face of overwhelming force, as opposed to rebelling.  In Sepphoris we saw evidence of many centuries of hellenisation and living peacefully under Roman rule, even while rebellion raged elsewhere in Judea.  And of course several Jewish rebellions were put down brutally and decisively by the Romans, eventually leading to the diaspora of the Jewish people.

But the Jewish nation has also repeatedly played the role of military conqueror and occupier. In the first instance, they originally conquered the even more ancient Canaanite peoples who preceded them in what is today Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.  For example, last week we visited Tel Dan, the ruins of the city of Dan, far in the north, near Mount Hermon.  As described in the Bible, this was  a peaceful, prosperous place, known variously as either Laish or Leshem, before the Israelites conquered and burned it to the ground and then built their own city on the spot. 

Checkpoint, Wall of Separation, Bethlehem
As we’ve travelled through modern Israel over the past week we’ve passed through the occupied West Bank three times, visiting Jericho, Nablus and Bethany.  Along the way we’ve passed through military checkpoints, seen roadblocks, following the course of the Wall of Separation, as well as the incursion of settlements into the disputed territory.   We’ve seen the Bedouin shanty towns in the South and followed recent news stories about whether Palestinians were going to be forced to travel on segregated buses to and from the West Bank.  We’ve talked with Palestinian Christians and heard how difficult it is for them to live and to maintain hope in the face of the intractable difficulties they and their children face.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many people who were traumatised or bullied earlier in their lives.  As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the worst, most morally corrosive things that can happen to someone who has been badly mistreated is for them to find themselves in the roll of the perpetrator of similar abuse on others.  And yet it seems to me that this is exactly the situation with Israel today, and has to be as harmful to the Jewish people of Israel as it is to the Palestinians, in or out of the West Bank and Gaza.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pilgrimage 3: Biblical Literalism vs Embodiment in the Holy Land

--> Entry for 15 May 2015:

Below the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth there is a hole in the ground, the cave where according to tradition Mary lived with her family.  Thus, by inference, this is the place were she received a message from God telling her that she was pregnant with the Messiah.  (As my mother often noted, angels don’t just carry messages, they ARE messages.  By tradition, the name of the angel in this case was Gabriel, Hebrew for “God is my strong one”. )

This cave is just a small room, a cell really, seen in cross-section, with the fourth wall missing.  At the back there are stairs leading up to the surface.  The room contains a shrine like an altar, bearing the words, “Verbum caro hic factum est”, which translates roughly as, “Here the Word is made flesh”.  This reference to the Gospel of John isn’t meant as some kind of poetic license or metaphor; it’s supposed to be taken literally.  If there is metaphor involved here, it’s in the image of God as logos, that is, the order or meaning of the universe.  The words are saying that in this place the Order or Meaning of the universe is becoming embodied in the baby that Mary conceives at this moment. 

We/I can quibble whether this is in fact the case with all babies, that they/we each are deeply imprinted with the meaning and order of the whole Universe.  However, although this in itself a miracle, I’m trying to talk about something else here.  Similarly, we/I can argue about whether “Word” (“Verbum”) is a literal description or instead a metaphor for God.  On the one hand, if God is unknowable, then all descriptions of God have to be metaphors; on the other hand, if “Word” is to be taken as a literal description of God, then whatever we understand to be the ultimate order or meaning of the everything there is, that is God.  In modern physics this includes the five physical forces, relativity, quantum mechanics, the 9 or 13 dimensions posited by String Theory, and so on; these are God.

I don’t know which if either of these two interpretations I prefer, but I do know that there is something very powerful about the sheer physicality of experiencing God in an embodied way, for example:
• The experience in my body of the physical beauty of the early morning sun burning a golden red path across the Sea of Galilee, which fills me excitement and energy;
• The expanse of the green hills and valleys we saw the other day from the high point of Sepphoris, which brings a sense of calm and peace;
Mary's Cave, Nazareth
• The sense of deep connectedness or bodily resonance with other people that comes at times in church or in fleeting moments of deep contact that can happen in psychotherapy. 

In these days here in Galilee, however, I’m picking up another kind of embodiment:  The stories I’ve heard and read since childhood come alive and are concretised so that they are no longer just stories made up of words.  Here is: Mary’s little cave room, as real as my childhood bedroom, where she experienced a Message from God, a message that was a baby. These aren’t just stories; they are news accounts, however fallible, of things that happened to people I might have known and shaken hands with, people I can identify with, who recognisably have the same kinds of fears and hopes as I do. Embodied stories; words made flesh.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pilgrimage 2: It’s All About the Water

--> Entry for 13 May 2015:

We don’t start in Jerusalem:  That’s where the story ends. 

Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of the Wilderness, or in this case the modern Israeli city of Arad, not far from the Dead Sea, an old stopping place or encampment.  We arrive in the middle of the night, after a long journey, as if landing on new planet.  The rooms are plain, almost Spartan.  Black Ethiopean jews, or jet-lagged American teenaged tourists, sit outside looking at their smartphones as we collect our luggage.  There are tuna sandwiches in our room.  Another 4 hour night.

We spend the next 2 days exploring parts of this Wilderness: 

We begin at Ein Avdat, descending by switch-backs into a stunning canyon of light-coloured rock. There we imagine Moses facing insurrection and striking one of these rocks with his staff to produce a spring of life-giving water.  Water becomes the main theme for these two days, as we are shown ancient water water systems for channelling run-off from rare rainstorms and flash floods into underground cisterns in Be’ersheva (on the southern border of ancient Israel near the Negev desert) and Masada (Herod’s towering hill-fortress in the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea).  Along the way on the first day we visit the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat (which didn’t have enough water), before having lunch at a kibbutz, which has its own pond of water out front like an advertisement of plenty for all to see.  On the second day we also visit Jericho, touted as the world’s oldest city, founded next to natural spring.  Water is power.

Ritual Bath, Qumran
But the water issue really comes home for us at Qumran, the site of the ancient ascetic Essene community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This whole community was organised around twice-daily purification rituals, involving full immersion in water, so we see 6 or 8 different purification pools, water channels feeding them from multiple underground cisterns.  It’s as if the rarity of water eventually led to a kind of obsession with washing and by extension purification of all evil thoughts. 

We know where such obsessions end: The more you clean, the more your skin itches, making you feel dirtier, and thus the more you have to clean. Maybe you even pick up a skin disease from the communal bath.  Next perhaps you start hoarding water, or stealing it from others.  People notice the conspicuous consumption of water; there are water shortages and maybe even “water wars”. Or maybe you are prone to allergies because your house was too clean or you weren’t allowed to play in the dirt, so that your immune system didn’t develop properly.  Or your excessive use of antibiotics leads to a C diff infection.  Ultimately, your hunger for physical or ideological purity isolates you from others or narrows your repertoire of adaptive emotional and behavioural reactions, which leads to fundamentalism and more bad things.
Floating in the Dead Sea

To cleanse ourselves of this cleaning obsession we instead go down to Dead Sea for a swim.  We initially were quite leery of the idea of doing this, because the Dead Sea is where all the raw sewage from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank goes.  On the other hand, the Dead Sea is so salty that it’s hard to know what sort of bug might be able to survive that, so we allow ourselves to be swept up in a wave of general enthusiasm, and go cavorting around in the black mud and super-buoyant waters.  I guess that we are not cut out to be Essenes, but we are left feeling itchy and in need of a good shower…

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pilgrimage 1: Making Space for My Unreadiness: Start of a Pilgrimage

Entry for 12 May 2014: 

It's pretty hard to make space for heart and soul in a busy life that seems to move faster all the time. But here we are in the middle of night driving south from Tel Aviv Airport to Arad near the Dead Sea. Thirty-five of us set off this morning from our homes in central Scotland to journey here via Istanbul. I can't speak for anybody else but I know I left in a distinctly unready state, not ready for such a journey back to our historical, cultural and spiritual origins. I've been racing around for weeks, ever since  I got back from two weeks dealing with home repairs in Toledo.  It can all feel very fragile and ungrounded at times.  "I'm not ready", something in me cries.  Perhaps we are never ready for such a voyaging back. But here we are, fragile, ungrounded, and unready. 

Of course Israel isn't ready for us either.  In the south, the roads all seem to be under construction.  Like the UK, Israel has a new/old government, but things just seem as broken as ever.  We too live contradictory, broken lives, warning signs flashing in the night as we trundle along, not really knowing where we are going.  We take it on faith, because the future is a place we've never been to before. In the middle of night, it's easy to imagine that some of these roads into the southern wilderness follow the tracks of ancient paths and caravan routes. At least we have company in our journey.