Remember that it is a brain that is coming up with the theory about the brain

Humberto Maturana, Francisca Varella and Heinz Von Foerster are all dead now. And I really thought their whimsical inquiry around human cognition may have died with them. And then I read this paper

It starts by saying ’Cognitive science is itself a cognitive activity. Yet, computational cognitive science tools are seldom used to study (limits of) cognitive scientists’ thinking.” ……I stopped reading here to check the authors and publication date, but it is recent and it wasn’t Heinz!!!! Feeling a little excited I read on….. ” Here, we do so using computational-level modeling and complexity analysis. We present an idealized formal model of a core inference problem faced by cognitive scientists: Given observations of a system’s behaviors, infer cognitive processes that could plausibly produce the behavior. We consider variants of this problem at different levels of explanation and prove that at each level, the inference problem is intractable, or even uncomputable. We discuss the implications for cognitive science.”

I haven’t read anything so wonderful since Heinz died in 2002. Granted I may have been looking in the wrong places and I thank the pandemic for revealing the nonsense in those places.

One of the really helpful things that Heinz spoke about was the difference between a trivial and a non trivial machine. “The trivial machine is all the rage among the followers of the notion of causality” he said in his conversations with Bernhard Poerksen.

The precondition for speaking about a cause and effect relationship, is that the rule of transformation is known. You have to know what makes the cause become the effect. In a simple machine there is an unconditional and unchangeable relationship between the input and output.

In medicine we have tried to turn snippets of the vast complexity of the non-trivial machine that is the human body into trivial sub unit machines. We have diagnoses that can be thought of as trivial machines and they are actually handled by doctors as if they are trivial machines. For example, diabetes can be diagnosed by a fasting blood glucose level. Above a certain reading it is diagnosed definitively, below a certain reading it can be excluded definitively and in between there’s another whole new world to turn glucose intolerance and insulin resistance into a trivial machine. The more unchangeable we make the relationship between treatment and effect the better the medicine.

It is such a satisfying field to work in if you like certainty and tidiness.

And so boring if you like uncertainty and messiness.

The medicalisation of human suffering has tried to follow the same path and as Heinz might say, it really is a horror show.

This lovely paper unpacks the horror and fictionally removes it and then, just as Heinz was prone to do, although possibly borrowed from Gregory Bateson’s metalogues, the authors use a fictional dialogue to explain what they mean. I’ll paste the metalogue herefor those who want the short version of the good bits of this lovely paper…….

“Unpacking the full implications of our results for cognitive science research practice is not easy, and we imagine that those reading this may have all kinds of questions, objections, or counter-intuitions. Given space limitations, we cannot possibly address them all. Instead, we unpack the implications of the results using a fictive dialogue, addressing the most likely concerns along the way. In the dialogue, Dr. Conjectura (denoted by C) plays the role of the skeptic who does not see the relevance of the results for their own practices. R relays our responses.
C: I appreciate you trying to help me achieve my research goals, but I can’t see how you are doing so. How are the theorems relevant to me? I am never in that ideal situation.
R: What ideal situation?
C: You formalized my inferential problems by assuming I have perfect, errorless observations. But my data are always incomplete and noisy.
R: The theorems show that in the ideal situation finding explanations consistent with the facts is not tractable. How can more uncertainty about the relevant facts make this problem easier? It seems it can only make it harder.
C: Fair. But you set an unrealistic standard for explanation. No explanation is perfect, but at best an approximation.
R: What do you mean exactly by ‘approximation’?
C: Well, for instance, explanations do not always need to be
consistent with all the data.
R: We need not assume such a high standard. Even if an explanation needs to be consistent with, say, half of the data,5 generating such ‘half-consistent’ explanations remains intractable.
C: Oh. That’s counter-intuitive.
R: I hope this takes away your worries about the idealizations we introduced? In general, many problems that are intractable to solve exactly are also hard to solve approximately, for various meanings of ‘approximation.’6
C: But I still do not understand. If you would just give me perfect, error-free observations, shouldn’t it be easy for me to infer the mechanism producing that data?
R: Explanation does not come for free. The number of possible mechanisms you could describe with language and mathematics is astronomical. Finding a description that pinpoints a mechanism consistent with the data is like finding a needle in a haystack: there exists no general efficient procedure for searching the space.
C: But I’ve already narrowed down the options. I’m looking only for explanations of a particular cognitive architecture type: [insert your favorite framework, e.g., ACT-R, Adaptive Toolbox, PDP, Subsumption-Architecture, etc.].
R: Our analyses encompass this view, as one option, by constraining the space of possible functions (the set F ) and algorithms (A), according to your architectural commit- ments. Even with such general a priori commitments, the space remains astronomically large for architectures with non-trivial computing power.
C: What do you mean by non-trivial?

R: Well, even if a system has few possible internal states and its behavior is fully governed by simple rules, generating explanations of its behaviors remains intractable.7 you think that human cognition is simpler than this?

C: No, likely more complex.
R: Then our intractability results apply to your work.
C: Are you saying my work is hopeless? I cannot hope to ever generate a satisfactory explanation for cognition?
R: I wouldn’t say hopeless. If you were to hit upon a satisfactory explanation through sheer luck, then you could recognize this.8
C: Sigh. That’s not much of a plan …
R: I don’t think you need to be any more discouraged by intractability than by the inherent uncertainty in your data, generalizations, and theory that you were already dealing with. But it does mean that your inferential work cannot be proceduralized in any efficient way. So best not try to make an algorithm, or an otherwise too-strict set of rules, to replace your scientific thinking.
C: Why not? What could go wrong?
R: You may fool yourself into thinking you are searching the whole space, while you are actually stuck in a small corner of an astronomical space outside your considera- tion. It may also cause you to assume that the system you are studying is simpler than you really believe, because otherwise your procedures would not converge efficiently.
C: Well if any procedure I might use will hold me back, what can I do?
R: I would endorse a meta-approach of not proceduraliz- ing. This is especially important now, as we increasingly focus on a too narrow set of methodological approaches in cognitive science.9 The best advice I can give pertains to the community: our only hope of understanding the mind is if the community allows for pluralism10 in approaches and an unbounded number of procedures different researchers may adopt.
C: Why unbounded?
R: Because it is known that intractable problems cannot
be solved by a fixed number of parallel procedures.11
C: But if we impose no limit on the number of approaches,
wouldn’t there be many bad ones?

R: Recognizing the need for and legitimacy of alternative approaches is a prerequisite to productive critique.12 So you can critique approaches on substantive grounds, but I must dissuade you from viewing any fixed (set of) proce- dure(s) as the right one and trying to convince others that they should adopt it too. I’ve noticed you grumbling about the too-subjective methods13 some of your colleagues are using, and I must encourage you to live and let live.14

……..And so, I humbly strive to live and let live……..

A meander through the connections between public health, kittens and the lack of improvement in mental health outcomes.

Public health is all about managing the health of a population. The driving forces are really not intended to manage an individual’s health.

Individual health management is tailored to the individual but almost never translatable to managing a healthy population.

If you think about the last time you went to the doctor and were prescribed a treatment, you understand that it would be very strange to say ”that treatment was good for me so the whole population should have it”.

Well orchestrated lockdowns during the early stages of the Covid pandemic successfully reduced the the death toll in Australia. We had a negative “excess death rate” for 2020 and 2021. That is a fantastic public health outcome. However the wellbeing of some individuals was actually negatively impacted by lockdowns. It was a great decision for the population and turned out to be a really bad thing for some individuals.

Getting your head around how public health and individual health priorities are different and often collide turned out to be very hard for people during the pandemic and fuelled most of the social unrest that we saw.

With Public Health initiatives it is expected that a small percentage of individuals will opt out or will be unsuitable due to their individual health requirements, but Public Health initiatives do not need 100% compliance to work.

I suspect that there are many systems that this collision of priorities creates unrest.

As many of you know I co-founded a Neonatal Kitten Rescue Hobart. We rescue tiny kittens who are unable to feed themselves. These vulnerable waifs and their stories have amassed a big following and a small army of supporters. The not for profit is financially sound and the work which is all done by volunteers is highly regarded.

But, the cat is classed as an invasive species in Tasmania. Despite 200 years of integration into the Tasmanian eco system it is still demonised by many, and mass cullings are randomly undertaken despite poor evidence that such actions will achieve anything.

Rescue is an individual welfare issue and the Tasmanian ecosystem is a population issue and the forces commonly collide. There are also lots of factional groups competing on the interest of one species over another. I have recently discovered that the Sugar Glider, while native to Australia is introduced into Tasmania and is decimating the swift parrot population be eating nestlings and their mothers as they sit on eggs. Culling cats increases sugar gliders and decreases swift parrot females, which are usually monogamous but are now having extra marital affairs due to the excess of males. It is complicated.

The muddied water that is mental health policy is a similar area where competing forces have had bad consequences. We have seen interventions driven by population data impact terribly on individual mental health time and time again. The cashless debit card is the most recent train wreck here in Australia.

The right intervention for an individual many times takes them out of the workforce which is bad for the population. Theres a book called “Sedated: How modern capitalism created our mental health crisis” which looks at this issue of tying work productivity to DSM categories. What can seem like an innocent distinction for the clinician to make is painted in a new light as a noxious force in the capitalist machine.

Clinicians see daily how interventions that work with individuals are just not translatable to the masses. The idea that they might translate fuelled 60 years of stagnation in the field of psychotherapy. Many therapists with skills in marketing and good intentions ran with their personal discovery from working with a few clients, a new technique that they thought would work for the masses. Lots of TED talks were had, keynotes and conference tours with no improvement in outcomes in population mental health and possibly even more alienation of the poorer socio-economic cohorts who suffer the most.

The clinicians that I admire rose a little on that wave and didn’t like what they saw, choosing to return to the basics of foundational teaching and focusing on doing good work in the full awareness that there is something seriously missing in the field but until we find it we can focus on doing good work with individuals and working on being available to the more disenfranchised cohorts.

There is something very humbling about working in a time that we will look back on as a profession with embarrassment. We know we will look back with shame on things like human rights violations of psychiatric inpatients, on medicating children without knowing what the drugs we use actually do on many systems. On receptors that we know exist outside the brain but we have little understanding of what they do there. And yet doctors still prescribe.

SSRI product information contains a warning that the drug increases suicide risk in under 25’s. It has had this warning for my whole career and prescriptions continue to be written and under 25’s on SSRI’s continue to suicide. And yet doctors continue to prescribe.

Neuroscience, the golden child of the ’90’s has also not delivered. We could say it’s in it’s infancy, but after 30 years of intense study and no improvement in outcomes for people, it is more likely that its basic fundaments are flawed. The observations are very gross. For me its like saying ohhh you went to the gym and did arm curls and now you have big biceps. The big biceps must have made you go to the gym and do arm curls. You must have had a genetic predisposition in your biceps that predispose you to go to the gym. I read any neuroscientific observation through that lens to help keep things real. There are way too many dodgy semantic links between two observations being made.

So why the meandering on this sunny winters morning in Tasmania, 42 degrees South, when I haven’t written a blog for so long? There isn’t enough written on how badly we are doing with mental health. Theres not enough gentle questioning of the foundations we take for granted that must actually be flawed for such monumental inaction to have been the norm. Gandhi said a long time ago that you can’t change anything without a newspaper, I am a fan of conversations for possible conversations. we don’t know what we don’t know.

For me, I think management of suffering has been too much in isolation for the last century. Healing always used to happen in community. In large group rituals. Making it a one on one thing in a clinician’s consult room was such an odd thing to do.

An erstwhile blog about mental health

It has been a long time since Ive written a blog. These blogs were originally an enthusiastic exploration in an attempt to improve my work and teaching in management of mental health in General Practice. It turned into largely disillusionment about the mainstream direction of mental health care.

So often there’s a family in crisis and lots of government departments involved wanting employment, training, school attendance as outcomes… but the family doesn’t have stable accommodation. They dont have an income to pay their bills, they have an ever present threat of retribution for non compliance, and commonly other threats in the form of court orders and family violence. How does one think about completing a school assignment with all that going on? Children experience a world of disconnect and that the system doesn’t care. How does a stretched, stressed, usually single parent provide for the needs of such children when to do so risks their only source of income.

So much money is spent by this system, but never where it is needed. Ive seen these families do well when stimulus packages and cash payments relieve their stress. I saw it in the GFC and through the covid lockdown. Something must be wrong when relieving financial stress and bringing some equality through an external impact on the wealthy, makes such a difference to the people who are really suffering.

And we never look at these things that work and say to ourselves “maybe we should do more of that”

In our work with clients I think it’s the same. Something makes a difference and instead of doing more of that with this client, and being attuned to the things with each individual client, we turn our single success into a new theory and ram it down ther throats of all our clients. Just look at who is on the current lecture circuit doing just that. That’s what the system does too and it causes damage.

So I have a few proclamations from my 30 years as a doctor and from my General Practice which has specialised in mental health.

A good mental health practitioner is good with a diverse population of clients and is invested in the clients that they seem to make worse. They build strong relationships and most importantly they care. They admit their mistakes and they can apologise if their ideas caused hurt. They dont claim to have the answer. They never blame their client. They dont give up on people. They aren’t wedded to theories and they discredit unhelpful theories that clients have picked up from the broken infrastructure that have caused suffering and disempowerment.

I believe that we will look back in 100 years at our theories on mental ill health and be embarrassed. Like so many generations before us we will see that our constructs and explanations damaged people.

I value scientific exploration. But true science explores the phenomenon to be explained and if the explanation doesnt fit it is thrown out. We dont bend people to our explanataions, we must change our explanations…or better still, don’t have any explanations…at least for the next 100 years!

“I don’t believe just ‘cos ideas are tenacious it means they are worthy” Tim Minchin

From suffering to acceptance as the start of your future

Did you ever watch MacGyver? An action TV series of the 1980’s. I used to really like it but it was never high brow. Then I was reading an article maybe 15 years ago by Humberto Maturana on conservation and change. The article was describing how in a particular emotion your intelligence is maximal. The example given was MacGyver. The emotion this character was always in was one of acceptance both of his environment and of his own abilities. He didn’t ever say, darn, if only I had a different candy bar I’d be able to fix that acid leak. He didn’t ever wish the contents of the lady’s handbag contained an item that wasn’t there so he could more easily defuse the bomb. He just saw things exactly as they were while holding what needed to be done to survive, and hey presto, he solved the problem. I can still laugh when I think of Maturana citing MacGyver in a serious scientific article.

Emotional pain, just like physical pain is pretty horrible when you are connected to it. You escalate it when you say…..this thing that is how it is shouldn’t be how it is. I wish it wasn’t how it is…… That’s how to increase your suffering. Suffering happens in the space between how it is and how you wish it was.

But I wish it wasn’t like this you say! Well my Grandmother would then say “Spit in one hand and wish in the other and see which gets full fastest”

Once you get that it is how it is, everything you have ever learned about getting through things like this will be available to you. You will be maximally intelligent. When it is how it is and it isn’t how it isn’t you are right there, at the start of your future

The funniest conversation I’ve had this week about that was with a man who was railing against the justice system, which let’s face it, is broken. It isn’t how it should be, that’s for sure. He was suffering by wishing it would function the way it is supposed to. Ha!

I asked him if he’d ever had a tool that was a bit broken, but he could make it work. He told me about a drill he had that was dicky if you moved it through it’s gears. At first he’d thought it was broken, but the necessity to use it had him fiddle with it. He’d somehow learnt the trick and could use it pretty effortlessly despite it being kind of broken. If someone asked to borrow it though, even when he explained what to do they struggled. He somehow knew it had taken time to learn and he wasn’t entirely sure how he had mastered it. It was how it was and it wasn’t how it wasn’t and he’d learnt it as it was…. not as it was supposed to be. He could use it by not expecting it to work the way it was supposed to, but instead, working with it the way it was.

Lifes like that.



Integrity is something we know is important to have ourselves and to recognize in others if we ever want to successfully collaborate in work or play, but just like love and trust we don’t always know how to speak about it’s presence. We more often have an emotional or body experience of its absence.

I like how Werner Erhard speaks about integrity. He makes it doable and seeable and gives some clue as to its absence before the inevitable pain hits.

He speaks about integrity as wholeness and therefore as workability. If a wheel is whole it works. If there’s spokes missing or broken then it doesn’t work.

In dealings with other people integrity is about keeping your word. If you don’t keep your word, if your word is broken, then your dealings with other people don’t work. You are out of integrity.

If the person you are dealing with has no idea about how to keep their word, then no matter how kind and loving they seem, your collaboration will not work.

Some people are very slippery with their word. There’s no point getting upset about that as people will always behave like themselves, but it’s important to see. So often we feel the hurt or the let down before we see what was broken. It’s so much more confusing when a basically kind and loving person does it, but seeing where they broke their word, or actually never gave their word even when you thought they did, can help to clarify. They may be kind and loving, but you can’t collaborate with them.

Humberto Maturana says that ALL relationship problems are resentment for broken promises that were never made.

One map to navigating unworkability is to clarify what isn’t working and ask for a promise. When that promise is then broken you have grounds for complaint, until that time you are just stewing about something that they aren’t doing that you wrongly assumed they promised to do.

The classic relationship one is that by living with someone you assume they will do their share of the housework. When they don’t you get resentful. But they actually never promised to do your version of their share. A simple conversation clarifying promises can make all the difference. If someone says they cannot promise what you are asking, it’s actually a gift of clarity. You then get to decide whether or not you want to continue with what they are willing to promise, or not. That’s for you to decide and the consequences are then yours to manage.

Thats my take on Werner’s take on integrity. I like it.



Rebranding Therapy

Therapy is effective. The effect size is large. It is as effective as bypass surgery for angina. A treated person is better off than 80% of people who do not go to therapy.

How has something so effective managed to have so little appeal?

Gandhi articulated a strong sense of how the institution that grew up around the Indian quest for home rule similarly missed the hopes and wishes of the people.  This clip from Richard Attenborough’s movie encapsulates the rift.

We make speeches for ourselves and those middle class affluent people who have time to wonder about popular pseudoscience. But the people who are toiling under the sociopolitical heat of poverty and disadvantage remain dispossessed.

By 1997 Apple computers had been around for a long time, were reliable and easy to use but had no mass appeal. When Steve Jobs returned to the company he cut down the range of products from almost twenty to just four. All four were successful due to their high performance, affordability and aesthetic design.

Imagine consolidating 400 models into just four, highly performing, affordable and aesthetic models of psychotherapy. One for the inventors, one for the doers, one for the dreamers and one for the explorers.

Every person’s map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint

Margaret Mead said that she thought Milton Erickson invented a new therapy theory for every individual he saw. For a young student that sounds like an insurmountable task, but Rob McNeilly said that he didn’t invent it, he just listened to each individual’s theory and respectfully expanded it.

Erickson suggested that therapists should explore anthropology. The ability to observe and discover is much more important than to theorise  or impose. He did not colonise his clients, and I suspect he learnt a lot more from Margaret Mead than she did from him.

Theres a lovely paper, Ethics and Second Order Cybernetics by Heinz Von Foerster

He says….

Margaret Mead learned fast the colloquial languages of many tribes by pointing to things and waiting for the appropriate noises. She told me that once she came to a tribe, pointed to different things, but got always the same noises “chumulu.” A primitive language she thought, only one word! Later, she learned that “chu mulu” means “pointing with finger.”

In the movie What the bleep do we know? we heard that Indigenous people on Caribbean Islands could not see Christopher Columbus’s ships as they passed by. In that somewhat shocking discovery we get a glimpse of our own unfathomable blindnesses. We can only see what we understand and believe. Believing is seeing….not as is commonly said the other way around.

Every person is as unique as their thumbprint. No two people understand the same sentence the same way. Learning to be more interested in our client’s unique understanding allows us to curiously enter their territory and evocatively expand their vision.

Who were we before our learned limitations?

  • The obsession with measurement tools in therapy and popular psychology is an interesting cultural phenomenon. The field jumped on the coat tails of medicine when it was achieving breakthroughs by measuring actual biochemical and physiological entities like blood sugar and blood pressure, exploring what bodily processes affected them and what treatments could alter them. The more understanding about the processes the more advances in treatment and the more trust that was built with patients who really just wanted a cure.

The trouble is that measuring traits like personality and thoughts and beliefs, or even brain activity are just not the same. You can study the brain but you can’t know one single thought it is having. The issue of the influence of the observer is more troublesome than in any other field as it’s always the brain that is building the theory of how the brain works. As Jay Haley so eloquently put it, therapists are part of the truth they seek.

Scientific method has been discarded in favour of the illusion of science. Correlation stands for cause and researcher’s beliefs about what the amygdala, hippocampus or limbic system must be doing so influence what they find. Careers are made on marketing and charisma in a field where you can find a study that supports anything you believe in and as a practitioner you haven’t been taught the skills to critically evaluate that study. The scenario that results would be like teaching firefighters how to start a fire but not how to stop one.

Psychological tools that measure human traits are universally measuring learned limitations.  As if knowing more about our learned limitations ever helps us unlearn them! The last decade has seen a rise in measuring outcomes of therapeutic interventions but again the emphasis has been on addressing what isn’t working. Therapists discover areas they need to work on and find ways to practice outside of the therapy room. It’s an encapsulation of what client centered strength based practitioners have been doing with clients. Find out what’s missing and create a way for the client to learn and practice. The therapist becomes the coach for the clients deliberate practice.

What would be different if we had chosen to measure strengths and abilities? If we’d found a way to disclose those often transparent abilities that people have, that leaders like Erickson could see.  Leaders whose reputation was built when people saw he was getting good results with difficult cases. These leaders didn’t self promote and only knew a platform as something you stood on to catch a train.

Despite all of that, there is a long tradition in every culture of humans who are suffering being helped by other humans. The modern iteration of psychotherapy seems only to be palatable to a small cross section of Western society. The people who could most benefit don’t seek it out even though we know it is as effective as most medical interventions. It doesn’t show up as useful and so often has been tainted by association with punitive measures starting as early as being required to see the school counselor because of a behaviour issue or being subjected to testing because there is clearly something wrong with you. What would be different if the emphasis on those early interventions was on finding what is right with you so that teachers are better able to help you. And what if the emphasis in modern psychotherapy was on finding what was right with you so that therapists were better able to help you?

Man Overboard


I haven’t written a blog for a while. I came to a standstill in the exploration of excellence in the field of therapy and went on a kind of experiential sabbatical. I think I came to the conclusion that the current paradigm would work if it wasn’t for the people. A bit like the old saying that the operation was a success, but the patient died. People also say that hospitals and schools would run smoothly if you did away with patients and students.

I thought it might be useful to look at the problem of mental illness culturally, since looking at it medically didn’t get us anywhere… and by that I simply mean that there is no evidence that we have improved outcomes for people since the medical profession took on he task of treating emotional suffering after the Second World War.

Returning to the topic of cultural change takes me back to hang out with some splendid explorers. The ones I like are Humberto Maturana, and the others who came out of Chile’s turmoil with a fascination in ontology, Heinz Von Foerster and his connections with the Macey conferences and beyond, and then the greats who have created it without necessarily talking about it intellectually like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu. 

Humberto Maturana was interviewed by Bernhard Poerksen to create the lovely book “From Being to Doing” In it he spoke about his time in Chile after the coup where Pinochet assassinated Allende and the country was thrown into tyranny. Everyone who was able, tried to get out while they still could, including Maturana whose friend Heinz Von Foerster scrambled to get him a University post in North America so that he and his family could escape. 

In the ten days or so that it took for a position to be secured Humberto had watched as all the free thinkers and movers and shakers fled the country. As a University lecturer he found himself wondering what would happen to the young people, to his students, and what would happen to democracy if all the democratically minded people left.

He had in the past been fascinated by the stories that his friend Heinz told about cultural change that happened in Nazi Germany, of which Heinz had personal experience. In those phenomena that shocked the free world, including that there were good people who actually didn’t know what was happening and were upholding and supporting the regime that was perpetrating atrocities. How did that blindness get created? 

Maturana was beginning to see how. Curfews were being imposed and people disappeared under cover of night. Plausible stories of cover up and some sense that things must be happening for a greater good because the country was still functioning began breathe life into a bizarre unreality.

He decided to stay.

One of the many things I admire about him was his ability to maintain his dignity in the face of potential oppression. Here is a chilling example:

He and a hundred or more other University academics were invited to dine at the palace with Pinochet. History did not build confidence in situations where large groups of people were rounded up by dictators and many of them feared for their lives. 

Pinochet gave a toast to the fatherland and they sat down to a delicious meal. Before dessert was served Pinochet stood again from his seat where only a few meters away Maturana heard him say “Ladies and gentlemen, the sole purpose of this meeting is to get to know each another. That is all. You may feel quite safe; there will be no demands on you of any kind.” 

He sat down again and Maturana then picked up his glass and stood and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I would also like to toast our fatherland with you. We are gathered here today in the company of the president, and that is a rare occasion under any government. I will therefore seize the opportunity and bring out a toast with you and the president to the effect that we all who are here today contribute to the intellectual freedom and cultural autonomy of our country, Chile”

Now you can imagine the terror in that room as he spoke, but Maturana understood that power only exists where their is obedience. By standing with dignity and preserving his autonomy he helped to restore the dignity of everyone in the room. Pinochet clapped his hands together three times and the room exhaled. Later, in the mingling, Maturana was urged to approach Pinochet who shook his hand and said “I share your good wishes for this country”

Take another moment to share Maturana’s reflection: “It really was a bizarre situation”

Twenty or so years ago, we began seeing a cultural shift in government departments in Australia that had trickled down from some big shifts in leadership. Books were written like “Tampering with the Asylum” and there was enough political commentary for most people to see that something fishy was going on. It wasn’t yet so mainstream that you couldn’t stand up and call out acts of tyranny, and a common analogy of the day was that of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Back then you could be the little boy who stood up and said “But the Emperor is naked”

Not long after this a colleague said “Yes, but the world isn’t kind to the little boy who says that”

That comment has stuck with me as I have watched in government departments as piles of such little boys (and girls) are chewed up and spat out, and we are now seeing this spread from government department to private industry and to schools.

I no longer use the “Emperor’s New Clothes” analogy, as it’s too dangerous, and have moved through the “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic” analogy and am more and more seeing people drowning and flailing in the water in these organizations.

The Fat Man in “The House of God” instructed his hospital Interns: In any emergency, take your own pulse first. Or, said another way, when the oxygen masks fall in the plane, fit your own mask before helping others. If you’ve ever tried to help someone who thinks they are drowning you have likely experienced that the flailing force of their grasp to be saved can be life threatening for you.

I used to think that people higher up in the organisation should know better and have a responsibility to the person under them. It might be true, but it isn’t useful to have that expectation if nothing comes of it. I began to think instead that they were under the influence, like the good people in Germany who fought for Hitlers regime believing that it was right. I often shared stories with people who were damaged by such treatment, of the denazification programs that happened after the war that helped those good people grapple with the terrible things they had done. This reframe helped to make the damage seem more cultural than personal, which sometimes helped the pain. 

More and more, though, I am seeing that those people doing the damage are just drowning too.

Erickson was asked to see a patient in a mental institution around the middle of last century. The man kept saying “I shouldn’t be here” he said this over and over, even in response to attempts to help him. Erickson simply walked up to him and said “But you are here” to which the man replied something like “Oh shit, how do I get out”

I see so many people grappling with injustices in our present day culture, and I do so myself, all the while saying “It shouldn’t be like this”

“But it is like this”

Oh shit….. 

Darkest before the dawn

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Martin Luther King Jr.

I wasn’t around when women were not allowed to vote, but I was alive when indigenous Australians’ newly granted suffrage was reflected in our constitution. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to experience such discrimination.

In a way I was lucky, because I have a Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestor and I was born during the time of the stolen generation, though I was too white and privileged to be at any risk so that never had any grip.

I remember the shock I felt when I lifted my head from my busy middle class white life to watch Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, and was hit by the realisation that he had just voted for the first time in his life in the election that made him president.

My first child was born during the finals of the 1995 World Cup, so I missed the enormity of South Africa’s win in their first inclusion in the tournament after a decades’ long ban opposing racism and apartheid. This story, portrayed in “Invictus”, is one of my now favourite movies.

I am happy to live in a world where people can have their own opinions, and can hold their political and religious ideas dear. Where they can live whatever doctrine they believe in as it applies to them in their own homes. These opinions could be like what color to paint your lounge room, or what you think constitutes art. They could even share their opinions with their black LGBTI neighbor over tea and scones while their children played happily together in the back yard with the Muslim children from over the back fence.

I don’t know though, how to live in a world where a law of the land can apply to one human being and not another? I can understand why we do not let our children vote, but how do I live in a world where, say, we let children with blue eyes vote and children with brown eyes not vote?

I don’t think there has ever been a time in history where one human being didn’t discriminate against another, and if we are waiting for this eventuation to create world peace, I think we will be silent for a long time. But there have been times in our history where great leaders allowed us to transcend our primitive human tribalism and see a world where there is space for us all.

This poem, Invictus, gave Nelson Mandela strength to stand when all he wanted to do was lie down. Twenty Seven years in prison for being black with an opinion can do that to a fellow. I love this poem and offer it so it may also inspire all oppressed Australians in our darkest hour.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley


And from Winston Churchill

“The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation. This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this—a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.’”
—House of Commons, 9 September 1941


The mood of Australia is pretty happy with shallow and premature exultation. So I dare to dream of a time for boasts and glowing prophesies where all humans are equal under the law. Who is with me on this? WHO IS WITH ME?