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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

The spiritual art of planning

The spiritual art of planning. See post at Jericho Tree.

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What is the single most important predictor of a group’s effectiveness? See this post at Jericho Tree.

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Fasting is suddenly fashionable, and the ancient Christian tradition of not just abstaining from meat but radically cutting down on food for two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays) has become the new norm.

It’s the 5:2 diet, of course, but Oliver Burkeman asks how we can apply this ‘fasting and feasting’ philosophy to other areas of life.

It sometimes seems as if every other person you meet is following the Fast Diet, also known as the 5:2 Diet, the eating plan first detailed in a BBC2 documentary last summer and then in a bestselling book, by the journalists Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. It entails eating very small amounts of food (600 calories for men, 500 for women) on two non-consecutive days of the week, and consuming whatever you like on the other five. [It involves] the crucial psychological insight that extreme self-denial almost never seems to work.

The grander claims made for the 5:2 approach are debatable at best: it’s far from clear that it will stave off ageing, dementia or death. (The best results so far have been confined to mice.) Even Mosley and Spencer admit there’s nothing magic about the 5:2 ratio, or the specific calorie limit for fast days. But because you’re never more than 24 hours away from eating whatever you want, it’s a way of eating less – and of being mindful about what you eat – that people actually stick to. It doesn’t overtax your willpower; nor does it conjure images of a joyless life spent permanently without burgers. “Conscious self-denial,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed.” The Fast Diet has a built-in remedy for that.

Which raises a question: might the 5:2 approach work equally well when it comes to those other bad habits we struggle to change – such as failing to exercise, spending too much time online or constantly worrying or complaining? [...]

Why does this approach work when others seem to fail?

The fact that extreme self-denial often doesn’t work, or at least not for long, is one of the oldest truths about human nature: Odysseus, according to the myth, had himself bound to the mast of his ship because he knew he couldn’t resist the sirens by willpower alone. If willpower is a “depletable resource”, as experiments by the psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have suggested, then it’s not hard to see one reason for this: the self-discipline muscle simply becomes exhausted. (In one famous study, students made to resist the temptation of cookies and chocolates had less capacity to persevere at geometry exercises.) [...]

There are other reasons a plan such as 5:2 might make habit change easier. It’s simple and therefore easy to remember – but it’s also precise, and therefore easy to follow. (Compare that with the food writerMichael Pollan‘s famous summary of the rules of healthy eating: “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants”. Being simple but not precise, this is hard to implement.) It also introduces a challenging constraint, of the kind of thing likely to provoke creative thinking: if you’re allowed to consume only 500 calories a day, or banned from frittering the evening on the internet, you might come up with some imaginative new recipes, or original new ways to spend your leisure time.

This moderate sort of approach won’t work for everyone, nor for every bad habit: sometimes, going cold turkey is preferable. “I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it,” Samuel Johnson once explained to the poet Hannah More. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” (That’s the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy.) But if absolutist bans have never worked for you yet, the 5:2 approach could be worth a try.

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I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.

mamet

At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.

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Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

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I’ve just come across this Catholics in Healthcare blog, edited by Jim McManus.

health

As well as the regular posts, it has a very useful page of practical resources, and another page of theological resources.

Here is the ABOUT page:

Celebrating and supporting the Catholic contribution to health, social care and social action

Catholics are busy and engaged in Health and Social Care. We see the work of caring for others as a core part of being Catholic. From being informal carers and volunteers to pursuing careers in nursing, medicine, social care, research and policy, Catholics

There are well over 1.000 Catholic agencies and organizations in the UK providing some form of health and social care, from volunteer groups  in parishes to local and national Catholic Charities , Religious Orders which specialise in nursing, health and social care;  and official agencies of the Catholic Church at local level such as Diocesan agencies. The Catholic health and social care presence is large and diverse.

This blog

This blog is created by, about and for Catholic Christians working in Health and Social Care. The Blog will update you on the work of the Healthcare Group of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales as well as providing you with access to other resources and support.

Our Editor and contacting us

The editor of the Blog is Jim McManus, a member of the Healthcare Reference Group of the Bishops’ Conference.

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A new poster and prayer card have been produced by the National Office for Vocation. You can find the resources here. Here is the poster:

Capture 1

 

I like it a lot – it’s full of life and joy. No poster can tell the whole story of priesthood or religious life; but this captures something of the vitality and joy, of the ‘being for others’ and ‘being with Christ’, that is at the heart of these vocations.

You can download the pdf here and print copies at home. Why not stick a copy on the fridge door to remind you to pray for this intention over the next few days or weeks. And if you are feeling brave, why not put a copy on the kitchen window (facing outwards!), or somewhere equally public – it might get a good conversation going with the neighbours.

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