Viktor Frankl – Meaning from the Noetic

Of the thinkers and artists that have influenced my approach, Viktor Frankl is one of the most instrumental in how I envision healing for my clients. There is a reason Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning can declare on its cover, “over 12 million copies in print”. Within the slim volume contains some of the most profound ideas for transcendence of suffering that has graced modern thought.

MSM-paperback_1024x1024.jpgFrankl, in his 4 years in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz, made the profound observation that prisoners who had something to live for upon release, even if the chances of that something actually manifesting were miniscule, had a chance of survival – and in rare cases, could even thrive. Those who did not were doomed. The latter often gave up, lay down and died. Frankl observed that those who had meaning in their lives were much better able to endure suffering, and even transcend it, often through sharing the light of their transcendence into the dark hell pit of the camp and demonstrating that there was a way in which the suffering could borne.

In terms of application of these revelations, Frankl formulated “Logotherapy” based on the principle (which undergirds all of existential therapy) that suffering is an inescapable, but can be transcended. What can transcend suffering? The answer is meaning. It is up to individuals to make a conscious choice to determine that meaning and to pursue it. To determine that meaning, one must make a choice to change their attitude toward their suffering and resolve to live through that meaning and with is as their moment-to-moment guide.

A depressed person may look at that last paragraph and say to me, “Yea right. Meaning. Nothing has meaning”. To suggest an attitude change sounds like a pale self-help directive, or worse, a judgment that “my suffering is my fault”. Looking at the world through the lens of gray materialism and logic, it is easy for even a person without depression to come to that conclusion. Einstein said, a problem cannot be solved at the level at which it was created. The same is true for overcoming the circumstances that perpetuate and often cause depression.

Within the frame of Logotherapy is the concept of the “noetic” dimension. Roughly characterized as the “spiritual” part of man, it is a place of psychic transcendence from the bare facts of the material, transactional world. From the noetic dimension is seen as the “untarnished core” that, de-vested of defense and damage, gives us the freedom to see that there is a choice for something higher. If we make that choice, if we “change our attitude” towards our circumstances – no matter how awful – we allow for something of profundity and value to guide us through and potentially beyond our suffering.

In therapy, I like to ask, “What gives your life meaning?” but often I must ask, “What once gave your life meaning”? The chasm between meaning and despair seems absolutely insurmountable sometimes. Either way, we investigate the dynamics of our engagement or former engagement in the world, painful as it can be – especially if the enthusiasm for this meaning is lost – and begin the slow process to embody those feelings again. This is done in conjunction with work in which we enter the untouched place within us that even the most depressed person possesses. It is the core of our being and of pure potential before the damage, and it is from this place where we have the freedom from this damage to make a choice of attitude. It is from “another level”, the noetic.

Frankl lost his young wife and witnessed the depths of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Yet somehow, with hope for the future and resolve to stave off hopelessness around him in whatever way he could, he was able to transcend these horrors and help others do the same. One man’s search for meaning in the abyss yielded a knowledge of a way of being that has given hope to millions suffering with existential greyness and despair. This work requires dedication, and just as importantly, faith. Faith that there is a choice to say “Yes” to life; that Meaning will eventually infuse grey existence with transcendent, dynamic color. Our work is to step outside of lackluster and into the noetic realm of possibility, choose our way, and find it.





Dale Carnegie, Taming the Elephant, and Self Transcendence.

My Wartime edition of the Carnegie Classic

I never would have considered reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People if it had not been for Jonathan Haidt’s great book, The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. After all, the title indicates it might be full of superficial strategies to get people to like you so you can sell them stuff. That did not turn out to be the case. You can see in the picture above, I read this book literally, “to death”. But a caveat – this is a 1945 Wartime edition and was meant to serve an immediate purpose, as well as being frugally produced for the war effort, so not particularly durable.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the most useful ideas to come from Haidt’s book is the analogy of a person’s point of view to a rider and elephant. The elephant, for simplicity, the more “primitive” cognitive mechanisms decide on something, and the rider of the elephant “reason”, a more “advanced” mechanism acts as a lawyer, advocate or PR guy to justify the elephant’s decision rather than – as you might think – coolly weigh the evidence and formulate the most logical opinion. Haidt characterizes Carnegie as a “brilliant moral psychologist” who knows how to “talk to the elephant”; to appeal to emotions, which is the only way to actually begin any kind of meaningful relationship with another person – be it business, political or personal.

Of the elephant, Carnegie says: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” The rider will “…attempt by a form of reasoning, either fallacious or logical to justify their…acts”. But do not dwell on the negativity inherent in these assessments. In order to understand people, it is necessary to begin with a clear-headed view of human nature. This realistic psychological profile is the beginning of a series of strategies to decrease defenses and increase genuine communication in a way that would make Carl Rogers proud.

Carnegie’s little book, in diameter only as it is a tight 287 pages, is chock full of the sort of advice that memes and affirmations attempt to convey in a simplistic and ultimately lackluster fashion. In contrast, this book is neither simplistic nor lackluster. Instead, it is a deep and vibrant investigation into human nature with a genuine heart of research conveyed with accessible language and numerous examples. In order to demonstrate the universal applicability of his theory,  Carnegie references the stories of well known businessmen and celebrities of the time, but more importantly lavishly shares the insight of the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Freud and the early psychologist William James, as well as the timeless wisdom of the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Jesus Christ. In four sections, he succinctly summarizes ways that the greats have learned to productively deal with other people on a daily basis, in some of the most harrowing and history altering circumstances, and in some in ways that permanently changed the morality of immense groups of followers for centuries after.

And what of the advice? Geniuses have a way of articulating things we already know, but have failed to properly investigate. The book is filled with observations of ways to engender positive relations, among which are:

  • “Criticism is futile”, he says. It only puts people on the defensive and all the more determined to maintain fixedly their point of view in response to their wounded pride. Nobody responds well to criticism, no matter how correct the criticism seems to be. (This certainly played out in our momentous election)
  • People want to feel important. It is among the greatest of desires, and there is always something you can genuinely admire in someone else if you are willing to look for it. Let them know what it is! Holding someone in esteem gives them a noble ideal to live up to – and people will do their best to do so.
  • Take an interest in people. Listen carefully to what they have to say, and find something that sticks out. It might take a little patience, but eventually anyone will say something that strikes you. From here you can begin to connect.
  • From Ben Franklin: Don’t directly contradict someone, and don’t convey a fixed opinion with the dogmatic words “always” “never” “undoubtedly”, etc. Observe that in certain cases, a person’s point of view may be correct, even if it is not completely so in this case.
  • Have the guts and the self-control to listen to people’s tirades. They are venting – once this anxiety is discharged, the person will calm down and a dialog can begin.
  • Show respect for other people’s ideas. Be open to the fact that what they have to say may add to or transform your point of view – and if it does, give them credit! As the Tao says, “The reason why rivers receive the homage of a hundred mountain streams is that they keep below them”. Ask yourself; do you want credit or results
  • Preserve the right mental attitude of courage, frankness and good cheer…and smile…
  • Make an effort to remember people’s names

“But wait!”, you may say. “How can you be interested, to be genuinely interested in people? Isn’t this just positive psychology and again the dreary platitudes that sound good but you can never force yourself to really execute?” On the surface, perhaps. However, by following Carnegie’s directive to making a sincere effort to understand the emotional makeup of another person and stand in their shoes, you will necessarily find any straw man or adversary turns into another human being who has the same kind of fears and desires as you do. Once you find yourself open to listening, you will be transformed involuntarily – and that is the real genius of Dale Carnegie. By following his method you become not just a better communicator, salesman, friend and the like – you become a better person.

The book is not perfect… The title itself can be off-putting, implying the desire to get something over on someone, and to “win”. There are some cases in which the protagonists in the illustrative real-life narratives are not exactly operating from the prescribed standpoint of complete genuine appreciation, sometimes exaggerating the merits of their target with white lies. In other examples he likely cherry picks stories involving known tyrants such as Andrew Carnegie (no relation) that illustrate his points. It is also dated. Many examples involve businessmen and celebrities who were the Elon Musks and the Brad Pitts of their day, but hearing how Ziegfeld presented each of his chorus girls with a dozen roses may cause the modern reader to wonder, “who was Ziegfeld and what is a chorus girl?”…And there are far more obscure examples.

Additionally, and this is a big one, it is not easy to follow the techniques in this book if you are stuck in your own importance, your own need for validation and instant gratification. This book is calling for is something far greater from the reader than following his techniques for making relationships more positive. This book is calling for ego transcendence and a view of the world in a way that is not unlike a spiritual transformation. In order to carry out any of the advice in this book, you must have decided upon an orientation toward the good, to genuinely want things to improve. This requires more than following 90-year-old advice; it requires a true desire for things to get better rather than an egoic need to being right. “I am not advocating a bag of tricks”, states Carnegie, “ I am talking about a new way of life.”


The Madman and the Muse


The fine line – What goes on in the mind of the Mad artist?

The science fiction writer, Philip K Dick said: “The world we actually have does not meet my standards”

Shine on, you crazy diamond

“He didn’t seem to have to search for a melody, or for a word…the just seemed to be there; they seemed to come very easily for him.” David Gilmour recounted in describing the process of producing Syd Barrett’s solo album “The Madcap Laughs”. The album was recorded shortly after it became apparent that Barrett was no longer able to handle the responsibilities of being the lead singer and songwriter for the band “the Pink Floyd”. For ten years, Barrett created a darkly playful and complicated sound that initiated psychedelic rock. Yet until the symptoms of the insidious disease manifested themselves in mysterious and confounding, and ultimately debilitating ways, Barrett was able to tap into a resource few people could ever imagine.

The genius that was able to piece together zeitgeist, blues and his own vision created a sound that continues profoundly to influence rock and roll, and its accompanying visionary journeys into the unconscious that characterize much of its imagery.  Towards the end of his run, in 1967 Barrett and “the” Pink Floyd recorded the album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” – in retrospect the showpiece of this short career that features the hit “See Emily play”. On this album is a groovy trip of great genius – Lucifer Sam. “Lucifer Sam, Si-Am cat…Something I can’t explain”. Always by his side, nonetheless. To you and I an innocuous furry friend, but to a man whose genius is inching towards insanity, he sees the creature having forced himself into the psyche and had become the right side of the unwilling victim. What seems like a cocky frighter of a stylish drug companion is actually a slim glimpse into a mind that was beginning to turn in onto itself.

The line between genius and insanity has been well discussed, documented and analyzed and yet still remains elusive to comprehend. Even more so when that insanity is schizophrenia – a devastating illness that often kicks in at the time when a young artistic genius is discovering the magnitude of his talent. Like Barrett, perhaps it comes to them with flowing ease – no effort, no writers block no lack of ideas – entirely original. What is the process? What does it feel like? It has been said that the schizophrenic brain does not discern between right an left hemisphere, therefore those churning wheels up there pick quickly elements and make associations without being bogged down by the gateways of rational thought.


Chimes of Madness

It seems the work of the psychotic genius reaches a peak of great creative brilliance, then begins to take a turn for the odd. Think about “Wind Chimes” by Brian Wilson. Released as part of “Smiley Smile”, the album that followed the 24 year old’s masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. It sounds like the Beach Boys – there the familiar vocal harmony – almost acapella but for a spare, long organ notes, a kalimba and some type of Australian tubular percussion instrument. The harmony seems like it was added after the fact, after Brian haphazardly grabbed a tape recorder whilst looking out at the wind chimes, perhaps he was half asleep perhaps drunk. his vocals seem to betray one or the other. Listening closely, the harmony has nothing to do with the Beach Boys. It is his own voice – sped, layered, slowed – He muses about his wind chimes in high-pitched, lazy observance. The trippy bliss is jarringly shattered by what sounds like the appearance of a reanimated corpse in a low-budget shocker illustrated by a horn section. But this is soon forgotten and the acapella self-harmony, musing on the wind chimes “tinkling” resumes, then fades. “Wind Chimes” is no less brilliant in its innovation than his arrangements on “Pet Sounds”, but it any linear influence or reference to the bricks-and-mortar socio-cultural world is severed. The spontaneity remains, but it is not longer grounded in the world of others. That world no longer met his standards.


Two brothers, one talent, two fates

As teenagers, Charles Crumb, Robert’s young brother appeared once to have a comparable potential of talent as the later iconic older Crumb. Through their teenage years, they expounded on the anthropomorphic animal hijinks kids comics of the 50’s. But gradually,  the younger Crumb’s work became increasingly methodical and at the same time more meaningless. He would concentrate on folds in clothing and skin of the characters, to the point that they became the most important aspect of the work and he sacrificed the story completely. By the time the illness manifested, he was filling page after page with drawings of folds and repetitive patterns that emulated comic book lettering.

Ebbing the flow

A friend of mine is an aging and very talented musician. Of late, she is attempting to write one last musical.  This one is for children and her partner is a young man with schizophrenia. The ideas ran wild and, she was greatly appreciative of uninhibited flow of ideas of her talented collaborator. There was a catch, though. It seems the dear chap loved characters – lots and lots of characters. The story had hardly started (involving a muskrat, a bear a frog and a squirrel), when he decided what the narrative really needed was a princess, a talking choo-choo, and two goats. She found it impossible to get him to concentrate on developing dialog between any two or three characters. Once they had written as simple four-line exchange, the fellow’s explosive creativity compelled him to bring in a new character to sing each new line. Soon, almost every lyric had its own character. Fortunately for her, he took numerous smoking breaks during the courses of which she was able to whittle down the charachters. With kind cajoling, and and an overall acceptance of his quirks and assurance of appreciation of his talent, they compromised on 15. He got to keep one goat and the princess. To her, the sacrifice of some coherence was worth the infusion of vibrant originality. By treating him with respect, rather than resistance the resulting compromise was, by their estimation, a successful collaboration.

Another advantage is he has a wonderful singing voice.

The featured image above is by early 20th century Louis Wain, and obviously depicts the evolution of his work. 

Reflections on “Symbolic vs. Literal Interpretation ” on YouTube by Jonathan Pageau


Jonathan Pageau, whose work is featured above in a cropped image, is a Canadian – in fact the only Canadian – Orthodox icon carver. He carries on an ancient tradition of of stone icon carving, and his subjects and their presentation will be familiar to those who know Orthodox Christian art, which to has remained thematically consistent for many hundreds of years (the nuances of the individual artist are subtle, but if you are interested in further investigation of that aspect, one resource I highly recommend is the Tarkovsky film Andre Rublev). Pageau is also a man who is infusing new life and interest into adopting the Christian faith. At a time in our history where the repercussions of the loss and lack of faith and a connection to the transcendent has become obvious to many, this is a critical time for this kind of revivification.

As examples, more popularly known religious teachers sharing this concern and creating ways for people to reconnect with Christianity in the modern world include Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and  Thomas Keating – who represent the New Contemplative movement. I suspect Pageau’s and other Orthodox practitioners’ work will soon, join their ranks – but from a different angle, appealing to people seeking a more traditional and evocative route, rather than a focus mainly on the meditative and mystical elements of the New Contemplatives, who do so partially through an adoption of Buddhist practice and concept of non-dualism, in addition to an exploration of the early Wisdom traditions. Orthodoxy has a capacity to allow a full participation in the living symbols of Christianity, acknowledging and being captivated by the ever-present, transcendent patterns that these symbols represent.

This commentary pertains to Jonathan’s video above, which was released last week. I had meant to comment on it earlier, but it took me a while to have the Eureka moment. What Pageau is saying in this video is of incredible significance, because it is exactly the sort of gem that if someone is willing to make a serious effort to understand will transform comprehension of and appreciation for how the Bible ended up conceptually – and increase understanding as to how true narrative builds on itself and transforms. The implications of this informational commentary are numerous, but two that I can name are: the Bible contains the oldest and therefore, most archetypal and important stories that help us understand our relationship with being, and the symbolism is far richer and deeper than is commonly perceived. A true understanding of the dynamic of this symbolism can breathe a necessary new life into religion so it can be practiced in a meaningful and living way (rather than dead and confusing ritual and dogma) in the modern world.

Pageau indicates a pattern in perception of a certain, necessary degree of isolation of inputs in terms of the magnitude (infinite) of possibility of experience. Attention serves this purpose in order for us to take in the facts. Memory retains these moments of attention in the stream of experience (which is in fact, driven by attention). Attention and Memory co-create necessary symbolism to mark meaning out of infinite possiblilities. The retrospection of memory sorts out the moments of attention and “backtracks”, if you will, to the symbolic points of attention in memory, finds their synchronous relationship,  and using this back and forth “feedback”, thus creates a narrative full of meaning and symbolism. Considering eons of this process, layering and building on itself, gives some clue as to how the Bible has come to be perplexing on the surface, but as deep as anything human culture can possess.

The resultant narrative is such, that if you were to articulate the germane elements, can be understood universally, as the pattern we all have of organizing limitless information undergirds that and all real narratives. Anyone can then place the material into their own pattern recognition faculty and get what you’re talking about (he contrasts this with a random, intolerable stream of narcissistic consciousness which is chaotic and meaningless). This ongoing, moment-to-moment pattern of symbol-making “makes the world a magical place”, as it allows us to live our lives, if we choose to do so, ensconced in beautiful symbolic meaning rather than nihilistically adrift in chaotic randomness.

The dynamic pattern of life is absolutely persistent from the dawn of consciousness. “It is older than God”, says the Tao. It should not be necessary to be a Christian to appreciate that this is the case. Therefore, for a non-Christian, and even from a scientific perspective, the meta-narrative of the Bible – formulated by the meeting of events of man’s evolution of consciousness and the meaning of these events to the narrative history of humanity – results in it being one of the most, if not the most useful sources of understanding of the history of religion and society and of the sciences of sociology, psychology, and any number of ways we understand what it is to be a Human Being. The problem is, as is often pointed out on the JBP circuit these days, the prevailing rationalist/materialist viewpoint in science, academia, and with the educated, policy-making and culture-dictating elite misses, possibly tragically, the forest that holds the trees we examine. Instead, the Bible is considered a jumble of proto-science superstitions, and religion is explained away by the New Atheist mouthpieces for this societal strata as an unnecessary anomaly, a parasitic meme or what have you.

Do you believe literally in the Resurrection? This is a question that confounds Pageau in terms of its implication as, “Is there a man in the sky or isn’t there”? To approach such a question with simplistic duality is the materialist or fundamentalist choice most of the West has come to view religion.  Fr. Richard Rohr has stated, “we whittled Jesus down” to be so small. The Resurrection story is not a one-time documentation of  a magical occurrence akin to something you might see in “Bewitched”; rather it is something unnamable that has such deep significance for humanity and the pattern of being that it can’t be analyzed. To attempt to do so from a “forensic” point of view is almost surreal in its pointlessness. It is such a meaningful “event”, that it persists archetypally in all manner of cultural expression, as alive today as ever, and continually informing us of the true nature of our relationship with being.

I have been following ways in which religion can come be reborn in the modern world for some time now. As examples, among these investigations include the those ideas of the teachers previously mentioned,  as well as the notion of an “emergent” God, as outlined in, A God That Could be Real (2015) by Nancy Ellen Abrams. I also previously began to investigate the existence of the “Religious Mind” as gene-culture development, which I derived from Jon Haidt’s thrilling exploration of morality, The Righteous Mind, which makes a viable case for the existence of such. Even Sam Harris, the most popularly influential of the New Atheists, has not been able to deny his own religious nature and has found himself immersed in one of the oldest extant spiritual practices – Advaita Vedanta (and its accompanying rationale Waking Up). Pageau’s evaluation of the timeless and infinitely deep nature of Biblical symbolism is an important piece of the puzzle to find the spirit we seem to have collectively lost, and beautifully parallels with Peterson’s world-shaking assessments.


Here is a link to Pageau’s article that he mentions in the video.






Righteous Mind #3 – Our Religious Nature

In the second blog inspired by the Righteous Mind, I extracted the use of “elephant and rider” model to create a parallel model of the therapeutic relationship, as well as advice for therapists and anyone to be more open to the why someone else’s beliefs are valid even if they seem irrational – reason is slave to the passions, rather than vice versa. This is the elephant/rider model – the rider of reason is the advocate of the intuitive elephant and justifies intuitions after the fact.

This next blog concerns Haidt’s view of religion – a topic that I find thoroughly fascinating and more pragmatically, I believe it is through the spiritual/religious/nooetic dimension that psychological healing is possible. Why do I feel this way? I have both experienced and observed that being able to step outside myself into a realm that is removed from the chaos of my transactions with the world , reactivity to it’s phenomena and its disappointments in terms of my idealized future, my perspective becomes broader and more compassionate.

Despite my admiration for Christopher Hitchens’ wit (who was a journalist therefore his opinions are in a way forgivable) – the New Atheists have always unnerved me intuitively. My elephant feels that their target (fundamentalism) is just too simple and their view just wrong. The New Atheists (a group of Hitchens and 3 men of science who wrote anti-religious books after 9-11) have a Platonic conception of religious belief – and its metaphor is the charioteer and the horse. The Charioteer is reason, the horse passion, and when reason prevails, as they are adamant that it should – the charioteer takes hold of the reins and steers the horse on the straight and narrow. The New Atheists remain highly influential, especially with millennial men, and  their rationalist/materialist worldview is still undergirds much moral and academic thinking.

Haidt argues against the New Atheists, who claim that religious thinking isn’t just a destructive mistake, or “parasitic meme” that uses people to perpetuate itself, has no real purpose, is in fact “wasteful” and destructive, and needs to be eliminated through reason. Instead, he thinks that religion serves to facilitate and maintain the main factor that contributes to human beings being the most successful as a species – the capacity to cooperate with people who are not kin. Religion is something that deeply coheres a group.

Genetic tendencies for the religious mind likely co-evolved as societies became larger and the Gods became more moralistic. The capability act of stepping outside oneself and into the bigger picture is what Haidt and others call “self transcendence”. He often expresses himself through the work of Emile Durkheim who referred to “homo duplex” – a creature whose mind works on 2 levels and is capable of both profane (lower) and (elevated, transcendent) states of being. The sacred can be observed when people can become caught up in a mutual “circling” or focusing on a “sacred” object. This can be a crucifix, a football, a flag – or just through synchronized movements. The individual can access this domain through practices such as meditation, or communing with the awesomeness of the natural world. This strongly implies that human beings have a religious nature.

Practical application 

One of the main points of Righteous Minds is to bridge the communication gap between members of different moral systems. I am presupposing a desire to communicate with others and to cease division as one of the highest values, and that quality of life can be enhanced greatly the more a person is able to achieve this. Therefore, as a practical application, our goal of this material is to help us increase communication and understanding

If humans indeed have a religious nature, and that this nature co-evolved with the increasing complexity of society to allow for cooperation, than dismissing it or “explaining it away” in New Atheist style runs the risk of being misinformed at the foundation. By accepting that religiosity is part of human nature, then some seemingly irrational desires and behavior make more sense.

When it comes to assessing someone else’s behavior, whether it’s attending church or attending sporting events, just because we personally can’t understand the appeal of a particular activity, and the irrationality and “wastefulness” of it may even annoy us, perhaps Haidt’s information can lead us to be more understanding of the impulse behind it.

So next time your partner becomes enraptured in the final minutes of a football game, rather than doing his chores, understand that this is a transcendent experience and a human need. You likely express this need in a way the he or she thinks is equally irrational. Seeing the process rather than the content of this need as important and binding with a higher state, and often with others, rather than how this is achieved can help a lot with understanding and accepting someone else.

Implications for therapy

When self-transcendence is not engaged, a patient can be nihilistic and hopeless and not see meaning in life. A patient does not have to be religious in any way to access the higher level of his “duplex”. When encountering a patient whose depression manifests in a sense of meaninglessness, it is likely the access to what Victor Frankl called the nooetic dimension is barricaded.

The increasing tendency to inhabit a virtual and disconnected world, we can become out of touch with some of the ways Haidt names as ways to access the transcendent: meditation, connection with nature, and synchronous or circling movement with others around a flag, religious symbol or sports team. Yet that religious impulse remains, as does a need for the transcendent. Without accessing the transcendent, I believe we are not whole.

Not every therapist will agree with Haidt – there are many therapists and patients who would be more inclined to side with the New Atheists,  and thoroughly believe that reason is the ways to health and wholeness. This division may very well have a strong temperamental elements; perhaps to do with the big 5 trait, “openness to experience” (novelty).  You can hear this division played out during Sam Harris’ (likely the most popular of the New Atheists) podcast on which Haidt was his guest, and during which they do not attribute the same value or even validity of the religious mind .

Obviously, It is not my place to determine which way of thinking is wrong or right, and personality probably has a lot to do with which way your elephant will lean. However, speaking for myself, my observations, and the way I practice, I believe that guiding patients to access their transcendent dimension is critical for helping them live a complete and meaningful existence. Haidt’s proposal that the religious mind is both culturally and genetically evolved has only increased my sense of its holistic importance.


The Righteous Mind #2 – Tame your Elephant!


 elephant GIF

This is the the second of my series of blogs reflecting on Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012). I am starting with the first section, because there is more than enough material here for a decent reflection. The point is to try to discern how this material can be used to facilitate communication in real life and in therapy.


Section 1: Intuitions come first, strategic reasons second.

Where does morality come from? In general, Haidt observed, in the Western world, morality equates to something like – do no harm. We seem thoroughly convinced that this is the ultimate “Good” and the basis for all moral decisions we make. However, he noted that in other cultures – in fact many other cultures – purity/disgust and respect/disrespect occupy equal footing in the hierarchy of moral values, which would means that the “no harm” notion of morality is not universal, and therefore, may be need to be reexamined.

Western moral psychology has a long history.  There is the nativist (nature) perspective, represented by Hume, or the empiricist (nurture) perspective, represented by John Locke. Moral psychology has generally followed the Plato-Locke line in which Reason is the noblest virtue.  David Hume, who stated in 1739: “reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” lost the battle. Reason was the way to the good, to morality, to truth.

In a post-Darwinian world, Haidt proposes instead a model based on the re-evaluation of the Hume in which the nativist approach is further elaborated with findings in social, cognitive and evolutionary psychology and, of course, modern neuroscience: that the formulation of individual morality and moral decision-making rests on the presupposition that reason is subordinate to the passions. This gives rise to his “social intuitionist model” – intuitions come first and reason follows to justify the affect. This model works for us as social animals within a society, and as such we care what others think. He proposes a metaphor for individual morality – The elephant and the rider.

The elephant, a lumbering, instinctual creature is our “intuitive mind”. This is where our moral intuition, our gut feelings, about what is right and wrong come from. The rider is rationality. The rider, “the rational mind”, seeks justification for the gut feelings. What is counterintuitive about this model? That reason is in service to the emotions, not to some higher truth. Elephants rule our moral decision-making. All emotion is accompanied by an affective reaction – good and bad feelings, like and dislike, are key evolutionary mechanisms. Affect is how animals choose what will perpetuate their survival – they seek what feels good and avoid what doesn’t. Our brains have the same emotional circuits as all mammals – the great expert of affective neuroscience, Jaak Panksepp (RIP) identified 7 of these. “The bottom line”, states Haidt, “is that human minds, like animal minds are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive and basing their responses on those reactions. The rider will find ways to justify the viewpoint through a variety of mental gymnastics and rationalizations – and these days, through Google, where any and every viewpoint can be confirmed, often with scientific studies.

Haidt then adds the social dimension to the model of the individual’s morality making complex. He illustrates this with Glaucon’s thought experiment in Plato’s Republic of the Ring of Gyges. What if the Ring of Gyges made you invisible and you could take anything (or anyone) you wanted and nobody would ever know? Would you still act morally? Haidt says, for the most part, you wouldn’t, and that “Glaucon is the guy who got it right”. Through the results of studies, he demonstrates that in general, when given the opportunity, most people will cheat. What keeps us in line is accountability to others. Even if we profess to “not care” what others think, unconsciously, we really do. There is a deep evolutionary need for self-esteem. Self-esteem is like a “sociometer” that continually monitors your worth in relationship. Any affective drop in self-esteem triggers anxiety, which prompts us to act in a way that would repair our reputation. That after-the-fact justification the rider is doing is for the sake of the elephant’s reputation.

So, if people are not essentially reasonable, or even virtuous, how do we then, promote productive communication in life?

Haidt, states, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason”. We must dispense with the “rationalist delusion” that reason will lead to truth and to goodness. We must see people as they are – flawed in the sense that they will more or less act lazily and selfishly if they are not accountable. However, they also have the capacity and the desire to be cooperative with members of their own tribes (as do mammals) and other tribes (basically our blessing alone). Although a metaphor for intuition and affect, elephants can be reasonable. Weighty as they are, they can be guided by reason. We want others to understand our point of view. To do so, we need to appeal to the elephant – to another person’s emotions. Despite what we believe, and despite how diametrically opposed our belief can be, we share the same emotional makeup and the common ground can be found there.

Dale Carnegie, he says, had it right. Carnegie in his wildly and consistently popular “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is the master of “appealing to the elephant” and has timeless advice for us to do the same. Elephants will be reasonable if they are approached as the emotional beings that they are. If you want to attempt to persuade someone to understand point of view, you never say, “You’re wrong” and then argue against their viewpoint. Instead, you must exercise emotional restraint and come to them with “respect, warmth, and an openness for dialog”. Haidt includes this quote that Carnegie uses in HTWFIP from Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and to see things from their angle as well as your own”. While attacks may strengthen your alignment with your tribe, you must learn to empathize “across the moral divide”. Presented in a way to generate positive affect, reason can shape intuition.

What are the implications of Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionist model for therapy?

The metaphor of elephant and rider is certainly apt in terms of the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic alliance mirrors this dynamic as we take on the experience of our patients and function as riders on the elephant of pain, depression, confusion, ambivalence and all the human suffering the client eventually trusts us enough to expose to us without embarrassment. We gently guide this lumbering, emotional pain in a healing direction, while always remaining its subordinate. For 50 minutes at a time, we fuse ourselves with our patients so we can become the voice of reason that they often have difficulty accessing in their chaotic state, and help them make order out of that chaos.

What does it mean for us, then, to take this role of the rider on our patient’s suffering, guiding it as it slowly begins to lean in the direction of repair? It requires us to be quite aware of our own flawed human nature, our own tendencies for confirmation bias and post-hoc rationalizing of our own elephant. While we need our emotions to guide us along the critical path of empathy, we must recognize and transcend our own biases and become a rider in service of our client’s elephant. This takes practice, discipline, and an almost spiritual recension of the ego when it is necessary.

An important point for therapy that Haidt mentions is that there are two types of thought: exploratory (truth) and confirmatory (being right). Exploratory thought is the egoless state in which we take in information and determine the affect it creates (how the elephant will lean). As a lean is determined, confirmatory thought jumps right in and provides the justification for the lean after the fact. Most thought, he states, is confirmatory. To remain in exploratory mode takes considerable moral effort and self-awareness. Self-awareness through one’s own work is of course a necessary attribute therapist.

In psychodynamic work, “being curious” is key to helping the client. This means engaging in exploratory thought as much as need be, however we may be personally opposed to the moral framework of what our client brings to the table. As therapists, Haidt’s phrase “empathize across the moral divide” takes on an especially profound meaning, as to be good therapists, to be a good we must place ourselves fully and in our client’s experience and ride the elephant without falling.


The Righteous Mind #1 – Why are other people so crazy?

want to dedicate the next few blogs to these sections of the book as I attempt to integrate the contents into my own hopefully deepening comprehension of why we have such a hard time accepting other people’s viewpoints and how to remedy this.

As a therapist, I see as a source of much anguish in the consternation and puzzlement people feel over how others think and act, as the beliefs and behaviors of people in their lives often affect them directly in terms of negotiation and withholding of affection, criticism and judgment, conflict in how practical tasks should be accomplished, access to money and resources, how people should be treated, etc. People are often completely confounded as to the “crazy” and illogical behaviors of others, and this in itself can be a source of irritation and outrage.

In psychodynamic therapy (the line of practice originating with Freud), the key to alleviating distress begins with “de-mystifying” it; revealing the underlying unconscious complex mechanisms that are causing the pain and exploring how these complexes are working. It seems to me the to mitigating the frustration people have with the confounding behavior of others begins with them engaging in a similar unraveling of the subterranean forces informing this behavior, and by doing so, understanding it. To me it makes sense that this investigation begins with delving into people’s belief systems – what they are, how they are developed and perpetuated, and how they influence behavior and relationships.

In my work, the way of being to which I hold as optimal can be summed up in the following quote from the beginning of a book I am reading:


The book is Jon Haidt’s 2012 “The Righteous Mind”.  I have followed moral psychologist Haidt for some time with fascination as he breaks down the essential belief differences between conservative and liberal,  and how university professor viewpoint diversity is heavily skewed in the direction of the latter. However, it is his work on morality, why people believe what they believe and what informs and constructs their morality (sense of right and wrong) that has become of particular interest to me. As I read and am thoroughly engaged, I also am feel I am adding an important dimension to understanding the complicated realm of belief and why people believe what they believe so strongly.

The book investigates, as is stated on the cover, “Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics”. While the subtitle indicates the timely nature of the material, and the book obviously devotes a lot of space to the topics of political and religious beliefs, there is a substantial amount of material, especially in the opening chapters, that discusses the nature of belief systems in general, why they are at conflict, and what we can do about it. Haidt asserts that we can communicate better and relate more productively using this understanding as a basis, and that some of this divide can be healed and even avoided.

Therefore, I want to dedicate the next few blogs to these sections of the book as I attempt to integrate the contents into my own hopefully deepening comprehension of why we have such a hard time accepting other people’s viewpoints and how to remedy this. My hope is that this investigation will improve my ability to help decrease client’s interpersonal friction and frustration and increase productive communication and mutual understanding with people in their lives. I am hoping that this book will help me become a better and more empathetic communicator and subsequently, a more effective therapist.