We really do need to talk about blame.

We really do need to talk about blame.

We really do need to talk about blame.

Here are some recent news headlines:

“Right-wing figures blame Matthew Perry’s death on Covid vaccine.”

“Britain in crisis, blame Gary Lineker.”

“Tyson Fury tells fans “blame me” after lacklustre Francis Ngannou showing.”

“Putin says the West is to blame for anti-semitic mob storming Russian airport.”

“Hamas leader to blame for collapse of Gaza, says Israel.”

“Israel to blame for Hamas massacre, says Iran.”

Reading these headlines, I have come to a conclusion: blame is lame.

Blame doesn’t actually help anyone. Before you blame me for trying to absolve people of responsibility, hear me out. I will explain below why blame is often antithetical to responsibility, accountability, or peace.

Blame is reactive. It is the process by which a human mind loses nuance and context and collapses complexity into good vs evil. This process has its roots in childhood. Humans are born the most vulnerable creatures on planet earth. This vulnerability comes with a a lot of fear, as American philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes:

Fear is our earliest and also most primitive  emotion…infants, thrust into a world of need and pain, fear that the good things  – food, a secure embrace, bodily comfort – will be withheld, and our  experience of hunger informs us that the world is erratic and unpredictable. Our reaction to this painful situation is to try to grasp  at the sources of good things, and that means controlling others. This  reflex – from fear of deprivation and pain to the project of controlling  others – persists as an undercurrent, even while we develop  sophistication and begin to understand the world.”

This reflex was given shape by the great Child Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who described a primitive defence mechanism in infants where – to protect themselves against overwhelming anxiety – they split the world into good and bad (or ‘good breast and bad breast’). Klein calls this the ‘paranoid schizoid’ position. In healthy human development, the infant moves from this binary splitting of experience into a more integrated, nuanced view of reality. Now the infant can intuit that  objects and people (and mother’s breasts) can be both good and bad. Klein called this the ‘depressive’ position, because there is a sobering melancholy or grief when we accept that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than previously believed. Once we arrive at this more nuanced view, the mother, or her breast, or other external objects can no longer be easily blamed for every frustration or setback.

You may have seen a meme doing the rounds that asks the algorithm to “please show me people who can hold nuance and complexity.” Nice meme. Definitely did not work for me.  Social media thrives because it taps deep into our paranoid-schizoid selves. These algorithms show us content that is binary and blamey.

Blame is a defensive shield against vulnerability. When people feel powerless, impotent, or ashamed, blaming ‘others’ protects from these feelings, and gives a clear, simple and direct target for overwhelming emotional energy. Brene Brown dug into the psychological research on blame and concluded: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability by definition is a vulnerable process.”

Blame may give us the illusion of control, but it is just that: an illusion. When we collapse the world into good and bad, our ego and our identity gets fortified, and we may experience temporary relief from feelings of fear, impotence, or grief. But those feelings continue to haunt us. Beneath the fortified ego lurks the fear that the world is chaotic, confusing, and scary, and we have way less control than we imagine.

Writing of the politics of blame, Nussbaum explains that “In politics, fear-driven blame provides the illusion of control without actually facing and solving the underlying problem, and it is a source of great danger, since it can lead to dehumanization and even violence. When political leaders tell people that there is a target, and that  they are not simply helpless, they feel a lot better. Converting fear  into blame, they feel that they have a plan of action. In this way, fear  feeds and underlies retributive anger, and anger is the dangerous  offspring of fear.”

The energy of blame puts people onto the defensive, and fuels cycles of anger, hatred, and violence. Think of an argument with a partner or a co-worker where you were blamed for something going wrong. Mostly, when we feel blamed our nervous system is triggered and we go on the defensive. Blame doesn’t lead to resolution. Blame doesn’t lead to peace.

Blame is contagious. Research shows that when we see others blaming we end up doing the same. A Stanford University experiment had 100 participants  read a news clip about a failure of  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with one group’s excerpt including a  statement in which the governor blamed special interest groups for the  failure and the other participants reading a statement in which he took full ownership of the failure. Later, participants wrote about an  unrelated personal failure and had to explain what caused it. Participants  who read about the governor blaming others for a mistake were twice as  likely as the other group of participants to blame someone else for  their own slip-ups.

And blame divides. When we cast blame we create an ‘other’ who becomes the repository for our hurt feelings. In this process of ‘othering’, blame prevents us from seeing the role we might have had to play in the problem. Blame prevents us from seeing the shadow that lies in our own hearts. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero. A binary. Good versus evil.

So what can we do?

It’s simple. Whenever you notice the energy of blame arising in yourself, say hello to the tender, vulnerable part of you that is terrified of things spinning out of control. Know that every single human being alive on this planet feels that same primitive terror. It is one thing we all have in common. 

Before you cast blame, ask yourself: ‘is this energy leading to peace?’ If the answer is no, then try a different approach.

And see if you can find a place in yourself (we can call it the depressive position) that is open and available to the complexity and nuance that is reality. 

Real problems are difficult to solve. They require dialogue, co-operation, an environment where people are willing and feel safe enough to accept personal responsibility and to accomodate competing narratives. One of my favourite phrases from the world of compassion-focused therapy is:

“It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.” 

This is the energy we need to cultivate right now. 

Less finger-pointing. More personal responsibility and compassion for all.

We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

This is a picture of me, in the early days of my love affair with football. ‘The beautiful game’. It could also be so cruel. I remember standing next to my dad at Maine Road football stadium in Manchester, as thousands of men sang to the referee over and over again: ‘you don’t know what you’re doingyou don’t know what you’re doing‘. I have no idea how I experienced this at the time, but I think part of me thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and another part of me felt the excruciating shame of that referee.

The song stuck with me, to the extent that towards the end of my meditation this morning the song reverberated again around my mind: ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ This time it wasn’t about a referee. It was about me.

Imagine, for a moment, a baying crowd of thousands of drunk and aggressive men surrounding you, jabbing their fingers and screaming ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ You don’t need to have been a referee to know this feeling. We have all had experiences growing up where we were mocked, judged, laughed at, bullied. And as we grow into our adulthood, we have all had experiences where we really struggle with something – work, relationships, parenting, life. When we do find ourselves struggling, these early shame memories can coalesce in our minds like a gang of disembodied bullies lying in our unconscious waiting to pounce.

I often have the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing – as a father, as a therapist, as a charity CEO. And when this feeling comes up, I often notice a contraction in my chest – a bodily prism refracting all those moments I have been judged, criticised, or bullied for not knowing what I’m doing.

But this morning in my meditation, I transformed this chant into a full-hearted celebration. I owned it. I imagine standing in front of a crowd of thousands of drunken, angry people jabbing their fingers, and there I was dancing a little jig and singing out loud with absolute joy and freedom: I DONT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING! I DONT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!

It is really ok to not know what you are doing. The practice of owning this is called humility. And humility is a lost art we need to rediscover. The part of us that feels it needs to know and control every aspect of our selves and our lives really gets us into trouble. The part that feels it needs to know and control, this is our inner controller. Beneath it is a scared child that once got bullied, shamed, or judged for not knowing what it was doing. Give that child some love, and join me in celebrating all the areas on our lives and in this world where we really do not know what we are doing.

This super duper powerful meditation will help you to gently let go of that anxious part of you that feels it needs to know and control everything. Some of my more recent subscribers may have received this meditation already, but this version I am sharing is a new one with healing sounds created by my friend Giovanni Bonelli aka Notte Infinita. Please check it out!

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    Peeping Through The Stained Glass: a story about optimism versus realism

    Peeping Through The Stained Glass: a story about optimism versus realism

    Peeping Through The Stained Glass: a story about optimism versus realism

    So last night in Manchester I was headed to my Five Rhythms class and was really looking forward to it. (For those who don’t know, Five Rhythms is a dance movement practice designed by a brilliant therapist called Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s.) But, I had to stop off on the way to get someone to look at my computer. The computer guy was taking ages. I was running very late. By the time computer man was done, I knew I would almost certainly miss the class, but I thought ‘fuck it, let’s take a risk’ (I’m pretty wild like that). I arrived outside the Methodist Church in Whalley Range 20 minutes late, the door was locked, the class had already started, and as I peeped through a stained glass window I could see a room full of people gyrating. “Oh well” I thought to myself. “I’ve missed it this week. Never mind.”

    So I walked back to my car and bumped into a red-headed woman walking towards the church with a fold-up bike and a huge smile. She told me she was looking for the Five Rhythms class and that this was her first time. I said: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we have missed the class for this week.”

    She smiled at me and said: “I’m a relentless optimist. I’m sure we can find a way to get in.”

    And so, she proceeded to walk around the whole church building, looking through every stained glass window to see if she could catch the eye of one of these gyrating bodies. After 10 minutes of peeping through stained glass windows, she managed to catch the attention of one of the organisers who very kindly let us in. We spent the next two hours dancing, gyrating, shaking, moving our bodies to work through fears, anxieties, insecurities, grief and trauma and, at points, reaching states of pure ecstacy.

    There is a lesson in this story I want to explore with you: it’s about optimism versus realism.

    You see, I have in the past described myself as relentlessly optimistic. I have believed in the (almost) infinite potential of human beings. And I’ve been a subscriber to the school of ‘anything-is-possible-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it’.

    ​​But over the years, as I experienced a number of losses and heartbreaks, my optimism lost its sheen. I’d probably describe myself these days as more of a ‘realist’. The type of realism I’ve been subscribing to more recently is best summed up by this quote from the I-Ching — which I currently have written on a pad next to my desk:

    It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are,

    without any self-deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events,

    by which the path to success may be recognized.

    Turning to face things exactly as they are — that’s the mature response right? That’s the necessary counterpoint to all this spiritual bypassing and saccharine, Pop Idol, positive thinking, manifest-your-destiny type of stuff.

    But let’s just think about this together for a moment. What does it really mean, to face things exactly as they are, without any self-deception or illusion?

    When I turned up to the locked door of the Five Rhythms class, I thought I was facing things exactly as they were, without any self-deception or illusion. I’d accepted that there was no chance I was getting into the class now the door was locked.

    ​​Why did I accept this?

    ​​Because in another Five Rhythms class in London, I had arrived similarly late and wasn’t let in. My mind recorded this experience as ‘reality’, made a rule about it: if X then Y.

    But this red-headed woman with her big smile (she is called Madeline by the way) was bringing to the church a different version of reality. She had never been to a Five Rhythms class. She was arriving in this experience with what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi famously called a ‘ Beginner’s Mind’:

    “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

    Unlike me, she had never experienced being late to a Five Rhythms class and not getting in. And she self-described as relentlessly optimistic.

    So, who was being more ‘realistic’ here? Me or Madeline?

    The way we view reality is conditioned by our past experiences. Over time, and especially through painful and traumatic experiences, our optimism can contract into a kind of ‘realism’ that we might convince ourselves is more mature, more ‘realistic’. When we have painful experiences like not getting into an event we were really looking forward to, or having our heart broken in a relationship, or losing someone we love, our minds create rules designed to protect us from future suffering. Why would I spend 10 minutes trying to get into a Five Rhythms class, when I know from past experience this is most likely to lead to disappointment? Why would I open my heart in a relationship, when I know from past experience that opening my heart leads to me getting hurt? Recently, I worked with a client who lost her mother when she was young and couldn’t let herself get too close to her nine-year old daughter because she was terrified about dying and leaving her daughter heart-broken.

    We of course need rules to make sense of this complex world, and to protect us from suffering. But sometimes, we need to shake ourselves free from these limits or rules. Sometimes we need a dose of relentless optimism, to believe that anything is possible, because who knows what might happen if we just kept peeking through those stained glass windows. We might find a way to open a door that we were convinced was locked. (NB. A message to the cynical part of your mind: opening up to optimism doesn’t mean denying the reality of things like death. We need to use our discernment to judge in what situations we could benefit from an extra dose of optimism).

    So here is a simple, but powerful exercise for you:

    1. Think of one problem area in your life where you have convinced yourself you are being ‘realistic’. An area where you have settled on a belief about how things ‘really’ are. It might be in your work, your finances, your relationships, your ability to overcome obstacles.
    2. Imagine in this moment you are opening your mind and heart (as much as you feel comfortable), and as you read these words imagine you are receiving a direct turbo-charged infusion of beginner’s mind optimism for that area of your life you have chosen.
    3. With this turbo-charged, beginner’s mind belief that there is a solution out there, that you can unlock the door, decide one action you will take in the next 24 hours.
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    Humankind Visits the Doctor

    Humankind Visits the Doctor

    Humankind Visits the Doctor

    A letter has just arrived for you:

    Dear Humankind,

    You are overdue a full health-check. Please arrange an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

    With Love

    Your Doctor.’

     

    Fortunately, the kind of health-check available to you in the 21st Century is deeply holistic. In more recent times, Humankind had forgotten that the pain he was feeling in his head was connected to a skin condition on his feet. Now only the most ingenious of distractions could allow him to ignore the multiple connections between the many parts of his being. Of course, distractions are ever more ingenious. 

    So, here is an account of his long overdue visit to the Doctor. She is a brilliant, holistic physician. She has a keen awareness of the harmony required for him to be in optimum health.

    The first thing she does is listen to his story. This is no mean feat. His story is so dense. There are so many competing narratives, subplots, red herrings. He talks so fast nowadays, its like listening to Vicky Pollard on speed. She has to work hard to slow him down. Eventually, she pulls out some themes that she is sure are relevant signs of his current state of health. First, many of his stories are about himself. Most of the tales he tells of his recent past all seem to revolve around promoting his own self-image. At times, his vulnerability comes through in his story, but he is generally quick to gloss it over. Second, he appears deeply confused. He talks about his brothers and sisters and the love he has for them, but his actions often seem to contradict that feeling.  It is like he is living a large part of his life against his own wishes. ‘What even are his wishes?’, she wonders. When she asks him to tell her about his self-care routine, he flip-flops along a spectrum between recounting acts of great kindness to himself (whenever he reminisces about time spent in nature, he glows) and reporting moments of sado-masochistic nihilism (he winces as he describes how much money he spends on things that only make him happy for the briefest of moments).

    From listening to his story, it is really difficult for the doctor to tell whether there has been a deterioration in Humankind’s condition, or whether he is in a better state of health now than he was before. So, she begins her internal examination. She begins by plugging him into the MRI, for a peek at his brain. She is surprised that the overall size of his brain is in fact no bigger now than then the brain of his distant cousin the Neanderthal, who hunted for food, and lived in caves some 300,000 years ago. However, she notes that the left-side of his brain is swollen and causing pressure, whilst the right-side of his brain is diminished and cut-off from the left. She checks her textbook and notes that this pattern indicates a personality with “an insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss” (Gilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, 237). However, on closer inspection, she can see evidence of electrical activity along some disused neural connections from the right-brain to the left. She smiles when she sees this: it is a sign that harmony is being restored.

    Her next test for Humankind is on the condition of his heart. She wires him up to the cardiogram and the readings show an irregular heartbeat. She suspects he doesn’t know how to give his body the rest it needs. She wonders what motive is driving him to this state where rest is difficult to achieve, given that he doesn’t have to struggle so hard any more to get enough food to energize his whole body.

    The last test the doctor performs is on Humankind’s stomach. This test is telling, as it shows how the body is processing its waste. When she sees the results she is appalled. It is clear he has been taking in far more than his body needs. The excess is being converted into toxic fluids that are seriously damaging his physical environment. ‘If you keep up this level of excess’, she tells him, ‘your body will die in less than 50 years.’

    It will take some time for the doctor to figure out these results. The picture of Humankind’s health is complicated.  In her attempts to make sense of the picture, the doctor must fight her tendency to focus on the negative symptoms. Her health-plan must take into account the areas of strength which, if nurtured enough, will help to restore harmony to his body. But her biggest task is to figure out why Humankind, with all his intelligence, his technology, his wisdom, has, almost in spite of this, caused so much harm to himself. Figuring this sado-masochistic impulse out, she realises, will be the key to him sustaining optimum health.

    In the Quiet Evolution, we aspire, like the doctor above, to be able to look, with clarity and compassion, at the parts of our collective body that are ill and in need of treatment. We also want to share messages of hope and strength. End-of-times prophets prey on people’s fear. We simply invite you to consider the offerings here as something to enjoy, to experiment with, to discard if it doesn’t serve you. We believe that the medication Humankind needs most of all right now is the pill marked: ‘look inside, with love’