Being Greater Than Our Suffering

Musings on Ben Okri and Jeremy Corbyn in conversation at the SouthBank – 15th July 2016

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering” Ben Okri

Picture-of-Ben-Okri-and-Jeremy-Corbyn_full.jpegI read Ben Okri’s book ‘A Way of Being Free’ some 15 years ago and remember being blown away by what he had to say about the power of stories in our lives, embracing cultural differences and evoking a new kind of politics. It was a very important part of my initiation into a way of being that is both hopeful in its outlook and grounded in the reality of the world as it is. Ben Okra is regarded, as one of Africa’s leading writers and if you are creative in any way this book is a must.

It was facinating  to Ben Okri in conversation with Jeremy Corbin at the Southbank Centre. They were talking about creativity, literature, art and culture. When this was planned the UK political landscape was very different and inevitably the issues of the European Union and Jeremy’s leadership machinations came through. Something I wasn’t aware of was that Jeremy Corbyn spent two years in Jamaica, with Voluntary Service Overseas after leaving school, something he has described as an “amazing” experience.

Listening to Ben Okri on stage was the same as experiencing his words through his books and novels. He wrote a poem called A New Dream of Politics. This was in response to Jeremy Corbyn calling him a genius amongst others like Maya Angelou and James Keir Hardie in his Labour Party conference speech. Ben read this poem in the masterful way that he does. It is a reminder of the power of his writing and the potential to reach out to our higher selves even in the rough, tough world of politics.

Here is the poem.

A New Dream of Politics

They say there is only one way for politics.
That it looks with hard eyes at the hard world
And shapes it with a ruler’s edge,
Measuring what is possible against
Acclaim, support, and votes.

They say there is only one way to dream
For the people, to give them not what they need
But food for their fears.
We measure the deeds of politicians
By their time in power.
But in ancient times they had another way.
They measured greatness by the gold
Of contentment, by the enduring arts,
The laughter at the hearths,
The length of silence when the bards
Told of what was done by those who
Had the courage to make their lands
Happy, away from war, spreading justice
And fostering health,
The most precious of the arts
Of governance.

But we live in times that have lost
This tough art of dreaming
The best for its people,
Or so we are told by cynics
And doomsayers who see the end
Of time in blood-red moons.

Always when least expected an unexpected
Figure rises when dreams here have
Become like ashes. But when the light
Is woken in our hearts after the long
Sleep, they wonder if it is a fable.

Can we still seek the lost angels
Of our better natures?
Can we still wish and will
For poverty’s death and a newer way
To undo war, and find peace in the labyrinth
Of the Middle East, and prosperity
In Africa as the true way
To end the feared tide of immigration?

We dream of a new politics
That will renew the world
Under their weary suspicious gaze.
There’s always a new way,
A better way that’s not been tried before.

Who are the inspirational figures quoted by Jeremy Corbyn?

White empathy vs Black empathy

I am a psychotherapist in the UK. What’s happening with black empathy in the wider social consciousness and in ordinary everyday life? Looking at the news media and going about my business as an individual, black empathy is seriously lacking.

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It might be there lurking under the surface of things and not wanting to reveal itself in all it’s glory for fear of something happening to push it back in again, or there might not be that much of it to start of with. And what about white empathy?

Alton Sterling was shot early in the morning of Tuesday, July 5. According to officials and reports of the incident, a homeless man called 911 to report that he’d repeatedly asked a man who was selling CDs and wearing a red sweatshirt for money and, after saying ‘no,’ the man brandished a gun. After Baton Rouge police responded, officials say, they found Sterling selling CDs and got into an altercation with him, hitting him with a Taser and wrestling him to the ground. During the struggle, Sterling was shot. Two videos captured the final 45 seconds or so of the incident, including part of the shooting.

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The shooting being captured on film

The narrative that race was not part of this, which is all too familiar around these issues, would most likely have continued if it weren’t for the smart phone and social media. Thank God for the smart phone. Watching the news coverage of this incident and the subsequent shootings of police officers in Baton Rouge  I am rendered numb as I’m sure others are. These killings are extremely challenging and complicated to talk about for all kinds of reasons. It’s not just these shootings that are evoked; it’s the many shootings previous to this, the statistics around black peoples’ lower rate of life chances (black men in particular) and also what could be described as everyday micro aggressions, which happen in black people’s lives all the time.

As a psychotherapist thinking about these issues, what is foremost in my mind is not so much the extreme examples of ‘them and us thinking’ but the ordinary everyday racial biases which accumulate over time and leave us all a little bit more numb. This numbness increases as we watch the extreme edges of this bias moving into hatred and non-empathy for the other side of the black/white divide.

A massive challenge for society, including the news media and those tasked with looking after the mental health of the population, is staying with the experience of black people’s hurt that comes from having to deal with race oppression and the impact of white privilege. The conversation itself is a difficult one; even between those we might call our friends or colleagues. There is something powerful that gets evoked within us when we evoke race.

99% of the time when talking about these issues, or when we are forced to have these conversations about the black-and-white divide, things invariably get organised through a lens where white empathy is the focus. The “I’m not a racist” stance.

When talking about Brexit for example or about these killings in the US, we are aware of the high likelihood that this conversation could seriously disrupt the relationship. What we previously might have thought were solid relationships can become fractious as the issues are seen through the white empathy lens and empathy for the black experience is either unexamined and unknown or actively pushed away.

With the Black Lives Matters campaign, there are countless arguments and articles arguing against it. Some arguments say; “are you saying only black lives matter?” or “don’t all lives matter?” These types of arguments are pointing towards the lens of white empathy. Even though a white empathy lens is a given in the wider conversation about race, there is still an annoyed insistence that white empathy remain the focus or at the very least be side-by-side.

In counselling and psychotherapy this white empathy lens is all around. It’s in the theory and evident in the training (as many students I have spoken to will attest) and it’s evident in the community of the people that it treats. Dr Isha McKenzie-Mavinga has coined a term she calls “A black empathic approach”. She talks about this approach as paying attention to the cultural influences of racism and keeping in mind the bias towards a white empathic approach. For many people there is a capacity to connect with a black person’s other life experiences but they cannot connect with a black person’s experience of being black without racial bias getting in the way.

Having the race conversation is a big first step to addressing race inequality. A conversation that stays focused on the issues of hurt that arise out of racism for black people is the very basic first step. Can’t we have these conversations without being forced to have them when someone gets killed?

Eugene Ellis

Psychotherapist and Founder of the Black and Asian Therapist Network

Within the Brexit Crucible

Days after Brexit…

Didn’t have a good night sleep the night after the vote. All I could think about was the feelings left after the EU in/out campaign. My feelings, like many others, are many and complex but after a mediation what floated to the top was a deep feeling in my heart of woundedness. A feeling that I live in a country that can be so easily swayed into ‘them and us’ thinking. That is blind to the brexit-2games the owning classes play and that would so easily shoot itself in the foot in its despair. A country swayed by the rhetoric of life being better out of the EU and a trust in politicians to make that happen given the record of the government in recent years.

The implicit promise that life would become better for people lower down the economic ladder is as unlikely inside the EU as outside. What we have done however, is increase nationalism and kept the underlying and often hidden status quo. The ‘we are strong and can stand alone’, the ‘we’re alright Jack’, the poverty mentality – it is deeply unsettling. What have we done!

As psychotherapists we are aware of the psychology of human nature, the shocking ease at which human beings can exploit the socio-political boundary marker of ethnicity to evacuate powerful feelings onto others. How easy it is to hijack the capacity to think humanly and compassionately about others. There is a pressing need to really understand and come to terms with these processes in order to protect ourselves against this self destructive fault line in human nature. 52% for leaving the EU 48% against. If we did not know it already, there is clearly work to do.

Eugene Ellis

Founder and Director of the Black and Asian Therapist Network

The Black and Asian Therapist Network wants the government to rethink it proposed policy on enforcing counselling on benefit claimants.

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As from June 2015 the first pilots of the Department for Work and Pensions scheme to provide psychological therapies – specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – at Job Centres will be taking place for people suspected of having mental health problems. This is the first of ten pilot schemes in advance of a national project planned to begin in January 2016. The plans, which will make mental health treatment central to the fight to get Britain back to work after the recession, will eventually see centres providing CBT set up around the country.

Those of us at the Black and Asian Therapist network are appalled that psychology is again being used as a way to oppress those on the margins and support organisations like UKCP, BACP, Pink Therapy and the Mental Heath Resistance Network in strongly objecting to the use of therapy being used in this way. Therapy is only therapeutic when it is conducted in a mutually agreeable way and with a view to creating an outcome that a person seeks. This might well be to get back to work as quickly as possible but coercing vulnerable people into this position is unethical. Added to this there is a strong likelihood that those involved in making referrals might assume CBT works for everyone and penalise those that don’t improve.

Using therapy in this way is a gross misunderstanding of what therapy is about and The Black and Asian therapist network urges the government to rethink it’s strategy

Eugene Ellis
MA, Dip, IATE. UKCP registered Integrative Arts Psychotherapist
Director of the Black and Asian Therapist Network 

www.baatn.org.uk

Mark Duggan Inquest – response from BAATN and PCSR

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Politicians, police and the CPS continue to underestimate the psychological difficulties of improving relations between the authorities, seen as agents of a malign majority, and members of minority groups (Mark Duggan family reacts with fury to

inquest verdict of lawful killing, 8 January). They are operating on the surface of things. Members of our two particular organisations of therapists know from their daily work with individuals who endure feelings of persecution and being at risk how hard it is, even in the safe therapy room, to talk about feelings of humiliation, disappointment and anger caused by outer world events. This inquest verdict is another such event. Members of the Black community have genuine anxieties that they might be hurt or even killed, and this is more so for young men. What happens within society fills up the internal world of feelings and emotions in ways that more socially oriented points of view can’t possibly acknowledge or don’t understand. The consequences of social injustice resonate on a bodily level. Hence, prejudice and group hatred may be likened to serious infectious diseases. Therefore, we would like to emphasise that living in a racist society is deeply, if less tangibly, psychologically damaging to members of the so-called majority.

Rotimi Akinsete, Black and Asian Therapists Network
Nick Totton, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility

This was sent to the Guardian Newspaper and other Newspapers and journals

PCSR – Taboo Conference

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TABOO!

6th Psychotherapy and Politics
PCSR Conference
18th and 19th May 2013

LGBT Invisibility – Charles Neal: ‘A Body of Experience’
Black Issues – Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga: ‘Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process’

The first day of the conference examined the sexual and social prohibitions of gender in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer) studies, with a focus on education and clinical practice in the psy-professions.

The second day explored factors that influence how intersecting identities and the traumatic impact of racism and multi-dimensional oppressions are processed. There will be three workshops and a group process run by an analytically trained psychotherapist.

At the end of the conference it was decided to write an open letter from this 6th psychotherapy and politics conference to all training organisations and accredited bodies and their membership organisations in the field of counselling, psychotherapy and psychology stating the moral imperative  to adopt curricula and content on GSD (Gender & Sexual Diversity) and Race in accordance with the 2010 Equalities Act as the minimum benchmark of best practice required in our profession.

It was also decided that after this was completed that an internet petition should be started to act as a follow up.

Shall keep you posted.

Eugene