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England and psychological inflexibility

Coach Eddie Jones and captain Owen Farrell  in the post-match media conference

This weekend gave us an extraordinary rugby story. Not Wales winning the Grand Slam – although well done to them – but what happened when England played Scotland. England crushed Scotland in the first half, leading 31-4. Then, in the second half, Scotland suddenly scored five tries, to lead 38-31 with four minutes left. England looked totally shell-shocked. The captain, Owen Farrell, seemed to lose his cool and was substituted. Somehow, England managed to gather their wits and score a try in the dying seconds, to draw the game 38-38. It was the highest-scoring draw in rugby test match history.

In the post-match media conference, coach Eddie Jones admitted that England have a mindset problem. This is the third or fourth time they have given away a big first-half lead in the second half. They relax, take their hand off the tiller, then can’t adapt when the tide turns. We saw the same thing happen when they lost the game and tournament against Wales. They had a very clear plan – kick and run – but Wales adapted to it in the second half, and England didn’t have a Plan B. Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio called it ‘tactical interia’. They need leaders on the pitch with the ability to see what’s changing and the psychological flexibility to react.

It reminds me somewhat of Theresa May. Just keep going with Plan A, because there is no Plan B.

I know some of the England team a little from my days working as ‘philosopher-in-residence’ at Saracens rugby club. I was invited  to do a talk there in 2013 by David Jones, head of personal development at the club. I felt pretty uncomfortable talking about how ancient philosophy helped me overcome social anxiety, but just thought ‘fuck it’.

It went down surprisingly well. After that, we started a ‘Saracens philosophy club’. Every month or two, I went to their training ground in St Albans, and gave a half-hour talk on some aspect of ethical philosophy or psychology. Then there would be a group Socratic discussion on the question. Usually around 10 or so players and coaches would attend, including many of the England set-up, like Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, coach Paul Gustard (now Harlequins coach) and others.

Saracens philosophy club – spot the non-rugby player

They really enjoyed it, both the basic Stoic-CBT stuff (like ‘focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t), and the chance to talk to their team-mates about what really matters to them. It was part of a broader Saracens culture, built up over the last eight years, which aims not just at winning, but on ‘making memories‘, making the players feel cared for, encouraging warm, honest relationships. It’s this culture (along with the huge amounts the team spends on players’ salaries), which has helped Saracens become the top rugby club in Europe over the last few years.

Why isn’t that winning Saracens mentality carrying into this England squad? ‘It’s 100% mental’, said coach Eddie Jones, ‘and not easy to fix. It will take some digging into the team’s psyche.’ He’s right. The team needs to be more resilient, certainly. But you can be Stoically resilient and not adapt to change. Theresa May is quite Stoic. Just stick to your principles and to hell with the consequences. More than that, the team needs psychological flexibility, which is the ability to stay composed in changing circumstances, and react with nimbleness and insight.

I wondered, can one teach psychological flexibility?

As it happens, I was sent a video the next day by a friend, about a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which aims to help people develop ‘psychological flexibility’! That sounded too good a coincidence to miss, so I spent yesterday teaching myself about it.

ACT defines psychological flexibility as ‘contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being and, based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behaviour in the service of chosen values’.

Steven Hayes

The approach was developed by a psychologist called Steven Hayes in the 1980s. He grew up in California, got into Eastern philosophy through Alan Watts, lived in an ashram, and then become a behavioural psychologist. In the late 1970s, he developed a serious panic disorder which ruined his life. He was trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, so looked to that for assistance, but discovered that rationally disputing his panicky beliefs didn’t much help.

Instead, he found Eastern contemplative practices offered more effective advice. Rather than disputing his negative thoughts and emotions, like CBT and Stoicism teach, he just observed them and accepted them, as the Buddha suggested. Both Stoicism and Buddhism seek to help people cognitively distance from their thoughts, but they use different methods to get there.

This ‘observe and accept’ approach is similar to mindfulness-based stress reduction and Mindfulness-CBT. But Hayes says that his ACT approach gets to the same goal as mindfulness – greater psychological flexibility and consequently greater well-being – without requiring people to sit and meditate. He says:

Some of the things we can do to put the core of the wisdom traditions into, for example the factory floor, you can do in ways that take 60 seconds, not in ways that require sitting for any period of time. I ask some of my contemplative practice friends: ‘is this really for Joe Six-Pack or is this for the educated elite?’ In the Eastern countries where meditative traditions developed, the normal folks are not sitting around doing 10-day silent retreats, only the monks are. We’re trying to put that into the factory floor, and that’s just not the way to open the door. There are parts of the South where I used to live where if you used the B word [Buddhism] people would leap up and run out of the room.

This is a very good point. I gave a talk on wisdom practices at the European Commission this weekend, and  got a generally positive response. But I noticed two negative responses: first, ‘I tried meditation and couldn’t do it’; and second, ‘isn’t this just for the middle class?’ So I think Hayes has a point here. The response to mental suffering can’t just be ‘meditation for everyone’.

A second way ACT differs from CBT and Positive Psychology is in a general acceptance of suffering. CBT and Positive Psychology posit happiness and flourishing as the healthy norm. The great wisdom traditions disagree – they say the norm for all beings is suffering. Wisdom can’t help us escape suffering, unless we achieve the distant goal of Nirvana or complete enlightenment. But wisdom can help us change our relationship to suffering.

Suffering is to be expected, not run away from or personalized. You feel sad or afraid or confused or angry sometimes not because you’re dysfunctional but because you’re a human being in samsara, a world of constant change, ubiquitous delusion, worldwide suffering and death.  That’s not the whole picture but it’s always going to be some of the picture. You’re always going to suffer somewhat. But you can learn to handle the suffering rather than run away from it.

The Enlightenment massively improved the material conditions of humans, but created the expectation we could rationally solve human suffering, by fixing society or upgrading the human machine. CBT / Positive Psychology somewhat bought into that Enlightenment mechanistic optimism. It’s not the case. Suffering is more of a given than that.

A third way ACT differs from CBT and mindfulness is its inclusion of values. Both CBT and mindfulness take psychological techniques from ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism and Buddhism), and drop the ethical context (virtuous living) and the metaphysical goal (harmony with the Logos or Nirvana). That’s because they are trying to be evidence-based sciences rather than moral or spiritual philosophies.

But their lack of ethics is a problem. We can use the technique of CBT or mindfulness to be more rational, and still a bad person. We could be a rational bank-robber, or a mindful sniper. These instrumental techniques have been absorbed into neoliberal capitalism, becoming $toicism and McMindfulness.

Yet how, in a multicultural scientific world, can a psychology include values without becoming preachy? ACT, a bit like Positive Psychology, tries to help people articulate their own values and goals, then give them the means to move towards them. In that sense it’s in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the philosophy of John Dewey and William James. Let people define ‘flourishing’ for themselves, then help them move towards that definition.

ACT teaches people to know the difference between goals like winning the rugby world cup, and values like courage, trust, compassion and persistence. Winning the World Cup is a one-off project, values are life-time projects.

Wales captain Alun Wyn-Jones played through the pain to help his team win. He who has a why can cope with almost any how.

Having goals to aim at and values to commit to helps one accept a certain amount of suffering along the way. As Dostoevsky wrote: ‘He who has a ‘why’ can cope with almost any ‘how’’.  We can’t wait until we’re confident and happy before we start out towards our goal – if we do that, we’ll be waiting our whole life. Rather, we develop confidence as we move towards the goal, while still feeling pain, anxiety and sadness along the way.

And we may change our goal or our framework of values along the way. You don’t just set one life-philosophy and stick to it your whole life, do you? We change and environmental conditions change, so our life-philosophy has to change as well.

Two ACT theorists, Kashdan and Rotterburg, define psychological flexibility as

the measure of how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) re-configures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. Thus, rather than focusing on specific content (within a person), definitions of psychological flexibility have to incorporate repeated transactions between people and their environmental contexts.

CBT tries to get people to a static, personal state, called ‘psychological health’ or normality. As if our beliefs can be labelled true or false, normal or sick, regardless of the social context we’re in. ACT takes a social constructivist position – our beliefs exist in a dynamic interaction with other people and with our environment. This can create feedback loops, where our negative beliefs are reflected back to us by others and become true (this is what happened to me with my social anxiety). Health doesn’t just involve adaptation to the social norm (a criticism often levelled at CBT and Stoicism), but the social norm itself is a dynamic construction between all of us on the planet.

These are some of the ways that ACT aims to teach ‘psychological flexibility’. Hayes says its goal is similar to the ancient Greek goal of eudaimonia, which means flourishing or ‘having a good flow of life’. I think it differs from CBT, Positive Psychology and mindfulness in some important ways. Rather than measuring emotional outcomes (depression / happiness) it measures processes of change, and highlights improved psychological flexibility as a key mental process that can be measured and improved, leading to better outcomes in life.

Can this help England? I don’t know. Apparently they have hired two psychologists already. They may just focus on performance, which wouldn’t be much help. Or they may teach CBT, which would be some help but not necessarily the most efficient solution to England’s problems. I’ve emailed them to suggest they hire Rob Archer, a psychologist I know who specializes in ACT for organisations.

I hope they get the help they need, though bringing in a sports psychologist for a session or five just before a World Cup (as Roy Hodgson did) is a bit late. What one is really talking about is a team’s culture. That’s set by the coach in every detail and interaction, and it takes years to grow. Saracens has a winning culture partly because the players feel loved and valued as humans, not just high-performing machines.  Is that the case at Eddie Jones’ England? Do the players feel loved and encouraged to act with emotional openness, flexibility and creativity, or do they feel brow-beaten and ordered to stick to the boss’ game plan no matter what?


The closest I’ve come to enlightenment was the two minutes when I was lying in a bloody heap on Valsfjell Mountain in Norway. This was back in February 2001. While skiing down a steep slope, I crashed through a fence, flew off a cliff, and landed with a thump, breaking my leg and several vertebrae. That moment, my consciousness was transported to somewhere or Something, where it was enveloped in a white light and told ‘you’re OK’.

This was after I had suffered from post-traumatic stress for six years. I felt fundamentally broken, and struggled to trust and connect with other people. I was in a vicious loop of social anxiety, and shock at having ‘lost my self’.

IT gave me this information: ‘Your soul is infinitely precious. Its value can’t be added to or taken away. Nothing can harm it or destroy it, not even death. Relax and trust the treasure within. Rest in the inner garden. Stop worrying so much about others’ approval. Praise doesn’t add one krone to your value, criticism doesn’t lower it.’

In the weeks after that off-peak experience, I felt re-centred and rejuvenated. After years of begging in the street for others’ approval, I suddenly realized I had the keys to a mansion. This wondrous soul, this well of love and power within us, makes us the wealthiest, most blessed beings, if we could just shift our perspective and realize it.

That experience was 18 years ago. Since then, I have often forgotten who I am, and gone back to begging in the streets. Unless you’re Eckhart Tolle, you’re not constantly bathing in the warm light of the divine, not consciously anyway. You’re catching the occasional ray. Meanwhile, you need to find your way in this material dimension. Work, taxes, relationships, family, pension. And sometimes, you feel like you don’t have enough of something – love, respect, money, confidence – and you can easily switch back into feeling deficient, empty and hungry for external validation.

How does one balance a feeling of inner sufficiency with the need to go out there and hustle for a living?

I read a good book recently that talks about the power of feeling enough, and how this can play out in work, in the economy, and the environment. It’s called The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist.

Lynne urges us to become more conscious in our relationship to money, and the assumptions and myths we hold around it, so that we become capable of seeing money as a vehicle for our ideals.

Lynne is a very successful fund-raiser. She has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for various charities, particularly The Hunger Project and, more recently, an organisation called The Pachamama Alliance, that works with indigenous Amazonian people.

She says our relationship to money is often shaped by three basic myths: ‘there is not enough’, ‘more is better’, and ‘it’s always been this way’.

The first two, she says, create a Hobbesian mind-set of scarcity, in which the world is a harsh battlefield, a brutal scrabble for survival. There will be winners and losers. There is not enough, so you’d better get yours quick, and the more the better.

That mind-set comes from a place of deep insufficiency, an inner emptiness, pain and spiritual hunger. ‘There is not enough’ is closely connected to another deep myth:  ‘I am not good enough’. I am flawed and unlovable, therefore I need to prove my worth through external things, like sex, power and status. The habitual cravings come from a fear of our ego’s emptiness and an ignorance of who we really are.

The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes:

For so many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much—just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work—to make us feel that we are not okay. As a friend of mine put it, ‘Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing.’ When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.

The trance of unworthiness ‘makes it difficult to trust that we are truly loved. Many of us live with an undercurrent of depression or hopelessness about ever feeling close to other people. We fear that if they realize we are boring or stupid, selfish or insecure, they’ll reject us. If we’re not attractive enough, we may never be loved in an intimate, romantic way. We yearn for an unquestioned experience of belonging, to feel at home with ourselves and others, at ease and fully accepted. But the trance of unworthiness keeps the sweetness of belonging out of reach’.

How can we wake up from this trance of unworthiness, this dream of ‘not enough’. Lynne Twist writes:

All the great spiritual teachings tell us to look inside to find the wholeness we crave, but the scarcity chase allows no time or psychic space for that kind of introspection. In the pursuit of more we overlook the fullness and completeness that are already within us. [This scarcity chase] is the driving force for much of the violence and war, corruption and exploitation on earth.

We need to wake up to our inner richness, to the natural resource of consciousness, the renewable energy of wisdom, love, relationships, creativity. We need to realize we have enough resources to meet the challenge of the present. Twist calls this attitude ‘sufficiency’:

Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources…When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete. We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives.

From a development perspective, sufficiency means not thinking western donors can or should save poor third-world countries from their helpless destitution (the Band-Aid school of development), but instead realizing those countries and communities already have skills and assets which they can draw on, and we can learn from (like the incredible botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonian tribes). It means working with them rather than trying to save them.

From a personal perspective, embracing sufficiency means not focusing only on the problems and deficiencies in your life, but instead appreciating your strengths and gifts – including the gift of consciousness – which you can draw on to meet the challenges that arise. When you appreciate all you are and all you have, you can begin to open in confidence and love to others, rather than defensive neediness.

She quotes a beautiful poem by the Bengali mystic Rabindranath Tagore to illustrate this shift from a scarcity to a sufficiency mind-set:

I lived on the shady side of the road and watched my neighbours’ gardens across the way reveling in the sunshine.

I felt I was poor, and from door to door went with my hunger.

The more they gave me from their careless abundance the more I became aware of my beggar’s bowl.

Till one morning I awoke from my sleep at the sudden opening of my door, and you came and asked for alms.

In despair I broke the lid of my chest open and was startled into finding my own wealth.

Since the late 1990s, Twist has worked with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon called the Achuar, through the Pachamama Alliance. She says she became aware of the Achuar after taking part in an Amazon ‘dreaming ritual’ (ie an ayahuasca ceremony) in which she saw the tribe in a vision. She tracked them down and they, apparently, were expecting her. They’ve worked together ever since.

This is where mysticism, environmentalism, psychedelics and economics interact. We need to change the dream we’re in, change the myths we live by, to move from a ‘not enough’ anxious scrabble for survival, to a mind-set of ‘there’s enough for all of us’. That involves waking up to the ‘enough’ within, to the natural wealth of our consciousness and the joy of connection to other beings. It also means recognizing the power of our minds, myths and imagination to shape reality.

Twist writes that her work with Pachamama Alliance involves a sort of political dreaming:

The future we dream, and which is emerging as reality, is one in which these pristine ecosystems are protected and the indigenous people who are the natural custodians of these forests are respected for their intelligence and vision.

She adds:

we must think and talk about money as part of a true ecosystem—a single system in which we view the economy and the ecology as fundamentally bound together. For too long the economy has been viewed as separate from ecology, but nature has showed us that the two are inextricably joined. In fact, the economy is a subset of the ecology.

How does this exciting vision relate to my life and plans at the moment? Well, as regular readers know, I’m trying to shift my relationship to money this year, from a ‘broke writer’ mind-set to something else. I want to build an organisation, a home for wisdom research and practice, and that involves asking funders for money. This involves a shift for me, from the ‘I’m-a-freelancer-so-I-don’t-care-if-you-reject-me’ mindset, to a more collaborative mindset of ‘work with me and help me build something worthwhile’.

It means having the courage to ask others to help me, and risking rejection and failure. Lynne Twist is great at this. She says:

I love to ask people for money. Fund-raising is a calling for me, not the dreaded assignment or burdensome obligation it is sometimes made out to be. Fund-raising is hard work, but I also believe fund-raising is sacred work… a great fund-raiser is a broker for the sacred energy of money, helping people use the money that flows through their lives in the most useful way that is consistent with their aspirations and hopes for humanity…

This is a great attitude. ‘I love to ask people for money.’ It’s not Law of Attraction, not quite. It’s having a strong vision, and calling others to help, but doing that from a sense of your own sufficiency, rather than from a place of neediness and deficiency.

The next stage for me, I think, involves developing from a very independent and people-suspicious writer (who secretly craves community), to growing more of an organisation, community, and working culture where all of our consciousness is allowed to show up. I’m sure it will involve me confronting various myths and dreams of unworthiness in myself, and going through various setbacks and growing pains.

But in some ways, it’s just a game. We can try to play the game well, and enjoy the process, without betting our self-worth totally on the outcome. My soul, your soul, are fine as they are. We are infinitely loved, our souls are infinitely precious. We can work from a sense of sufficiency, a sense of play, an openness to what we’re feeling, and joy as we realize our potential.

Here is a little poem I sometimes say to myself, which helps me turn off the demented secretary of my ego and rest in my soul for 20 minutes or so.

Nothing to do

Nowhere to go

No-one to impress

No-one to become

Nothing to add

Nothing to take-away

Nothing to improve

Nothing to reduce

Nowhere to get to

Nowhere to escape

Nowhere to be

Except here