Arranging this, the second Cognitive Hypnotherapy conference, was a very different experience from the first. There was the comfort of Bex and Jan knowing what they were doing this time – with the wonderful Maggie riding shotgun – but there was also the concern that we wouldn’t be able to match the amazing energy of the first.
My job in all this was to source the speakers – and that’s not as easy as you might think either. What did I want our speakers to achieve? What did I want the delegates to leave with? What balance over the weekend would create the right kind of momentum?
I started with a sure thing. Dr David Hamilton is a great speaker made all the more impressive by his authenticity. He was a huge hit at QuestFest 2008 with his knowledge and energy, so who better to finish the weekend?
So who to start? Oliver James has long been one of my favourite authors, with books like Affluenza and They F*** You Up. A meeting with him, and watching him speak on YouTube convinced me that he’d be the perfect opener. The middle order fell in our lap. At the NCH Extravaganza we had the pleasure of watching Dr Susan Blackmore speak about consciousness. Within minutes Bex and I turned to each other and mouthed the same word. Questfest!
For some of us the conference began on the Friday evening with a get together in the bar. I deliberately keep away from the delegate list so I can enjoy the surprise of seeing people arrive who I hadn’t expected, and that pleasure began early. Lovely too, to see Questies who’ve been with us from the beginning mixing with guys who are still working their way towards qualification.
Because the excitement kept us from sleeping we arrived at reception early, only to find ourselves beaten to it by Maggie who already had the badges and welcome packs all sorted – and who really proved quite proprietorial over them, truth be told.
As people started arriving it was just a treat to see friends spotting each other. One of the things I love most about Quest is the way strangers become friends over the course of the training, and the creation of new friendships and the renewing of old provides a perfect ambience for a weekend like this.
Everyone steered themselves into the conference hall, I introduced Oliver, and we were finally off! Oliver’s delivery reminds me of a favourite teacher from school who, seated throughout, draws you into an expansion of perspective simply through his command of his message, and his clear belief in it. What I want for QuestFest isn’t a parade of speakers offering superficial coverage of a topic, or hiding product sales in a presentation, I want people to have an opportunity to expand their horizons. A piece of advice from Tad James I am forever repeating is ‘read outside your field’. Cognitive Hypnotherapy is all about remaining in a permanent state of impermanence, sure of nothing, open to anything that works, and when I look around at the different forms of talking therapy I predominantly see approaches which mainly look within themselves for new ideas. That’s a bit like MacDonalds looking for a new menu without leaving their kitchen. So although Oliver is a distinguished clinical psychologist his talk centred mainly around the subject of his influential book, Affluenza. The message that he gently, but irresistibly, built was that the western world is moving in the wrong direction: that we are pursuing money and objects at the expense of happiness. More, that we are mistakenly pursuing money and objects in the belief that they will bring us happiness. He presented compelling research to show, not only that this actually has the opposite effect – the western world is bowing under the weight of stress, depression and substance abuse as a result of the need to ‘have more, do more and be more’ – but that we know what will bring happiness, our leaders just aren’t following a policy that provides for its conditions.
For example, the smaller disparity there is between those who earn most and those who earn least the greater the level of reported happiness there is within that population – and he cited Denmark as a great example of a country that organises it’s policy to achieve that. I’m writing this just after reading an article that says American Republicans are threatening to block all policies – including those that would bring relief to the poor – unless tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% are reinstated. And of course many of the people doing the threatening are from within that small number of beneficiaries. Clearly the message hasn’t reached the hearts of enough people in the right places.
Oliver’s talk was an appeal for change at both levels – how governments need to create the conditions for happiness to flourish, and for individuals to create those conditions for themselves. He talked about the impact of culture on therapeutic issues, and the particular difficulties women face. Brilliant, engaging, thought-proboking stuff. And then he threw in a marvelous bonus: Oliver’s clinical speciality is children, and in his next book he will be describing a technique called ‘love-bombing’ that parents can use on their children to help them feel more connected to their parents and to boost their feelings of self-worth. A form of intense attached parenting. Not only did he describe the technique for us, he gave us a copy we can begin to use on clients also.
A great beginning, which gave us so much to ponder over an excellent lunch.
I think it fair to say that I couldn’t wait for Sue Blackmore to speak. I had been electrified the last time I was in her audience. Helping the public understand the intricacies of neuroscience is tricky enough, but making the exploration of what is described by scientists themselves as the ‘hard problem’ – consciousness – both interesting and entertaining, might appear to be next to impossible. Not for Sue. Her energy, use of fluffy toys, a rubber glove, thought experiments and games made the afternoon fly as she took us through the key problems of defining consciousness, and the ramifications of what research is teaching us, all with a wonderful clarity.
And despite the phenomenal energy she put into her presentation she was still generous enough to spend even more time with us at the end of the afternoon outlining her 20 years of research into out of body experiences and the paranormal – research in which she was unable to find any evidence of either, but compelling evidence for such experiences being the result of unusual brain activity. And such is her gift that not a single delegate left for the jacuzzi until she had finished.
We had time for a little recuperation before the gala dinner, which we’d arranged to be held in the magnificent mansion house. An opportunity to scrub up and put on their glad rags was enthusiastically seized upon by all so it was a pretty looking bunch who promenaded over to a dinner that was well above the usual standard of conference fare. Sue was our guest of honour, and I got to sit next to her. I have to confess to thinking I might disagree with her about out of body experiences: I’m sure I had one during our conversation – talking memetics and Cognitive Hypnotherapy to a world expert on the former subject must surely have been on my list of ‘experiences I will never have’. Fascinating, fun, and somewhat surreal.
During coffee guests got to enjoy the amazing skill of one of our graduates. Wayne Humphries is an amazing close magician. The squeals of shock and wonder that emerged from the tables where he was performing his tricks were entertainment themselves, but some of his tricks just defy belief. Especially the one with the kiwi.
He was so good that maybe, just maybe, Sue momentarily revised her opinion about the paranormal…
I stood at the mic to do a bit of ra ra and introduce further entertainment. The next few moments is a bit of a blur, to be honest. I think Sue decided I was dressed a bit too conservatively, so draped me in her pashmina and put a gerbera behind my ear. Well you would, wouldn’t you? Other Questies soon joined in, and you can see the result. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of the crowd.? Next time I’ll follow my instincts and wear the spangly kaftan.
The point of my expedition to the mic was to introduce another talent from the Quest stable. We attract many amazing people, Olympic athletes, magicians, scientists, artists, musicians, actors, cab drivers – and a comedian: Janice Twine-Wells. Janice had us crying with laughter as she regaled us with her experiences of working in a special needs school, of accidents with hair removal cream, and expeditions to Tescos. If we didn’t have a disco waiting we could have listened all night.
Ah, the disco. So often an evening can be ruined by too many playings of the birdy song. Happily our DJ avoided just about every disco-error, including Hi Ho Silver Lining. Surreal moment number two was dancing to Jumping Jack Flash with a neuroscientist who had clearly been to Woodstock, or at least watched the film. And later yet another talent emerged: I have known John Harrington for about 15 years and always admired his dancing, but I never knew he could sing. His rendition of New York New York was an absolute show stopper.
All too soon 1 am arrived, the end of a near perfect evening. Near perfect? Well, the venue hosts a lot of golf weekends. A group of men who made the common error of believing that drinking made them less boring and more attractive were a bit of a nuisance as they tried to invade the dance floor or try their lines on the ladies heading for the loo. That said it did give me a rare opportunity of seeing my gorgeous and normally genteel wife in action from a former life. Bex used be a police officer, based in Stoke Newington, so when three blokes tried to gain access to our private room for a second time she intercepted them smoothly and saw them off with the jerk of her thumb. “You were funny the first time, now f*** off!” is not something you expect to come from the lips of one so refined. You can take a girl out of the police, but you can’t entirely take the Police out of the girl, it would seem.
Day two dawned without many looking the worse for wear, which was just as well. Sue was running the morning session talking about her speciality, memetics. This theory has a large presence in my new book, Cognitive Hypnotherapy: what’s that about and how can I use it? So I was very excited – and a little nervous: what happens if Sue contradicts everything I’d understood the theory to mean? Happily (understatement alert) that didn’t happen. Sue began her talk with a fabulous mini-lecture on the theory of evolution, identifying the three key elements of Darwin’s theory: variation by mutation, selection of mutation through their survival, and replication of that mutation by transmission – the passing on of that mutation to future generations through our genes. From this she moved to Richard Dawkins question at the end of his amazing book, The Selfish Gene: are genes the only replicators on the planet? He believed there was at least one other, and he called it a meme – basically any idea that can be transmitted from one person to another. Sue very bravely used religions as examples of memes; bravely because she specifically used them as examples of how ideas work to survive, irrespective of the good or harm they do. ie the purpose of an idea, as far as the idea is concerned, is to be transmitted to as many brains as possible – the effect of the thought is irrelevant to it. And in Sue’s view religions have been one of the most harmful ideas the human brain has had, and she argued the point persuasively and well, although I would say that, being an atheist.
At the same time I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable on behalf of my friends in the audience who are people of faith. At Quest we pride ourselves on having a scientific orientation, and it is a cornerstone of Cognitive Hypnotherapy that the beliefs of the therapist are irrelevant, it’s what the client believes that you should work within. As a consequence we attract a wide range of people with differing spiritual beliefs, but exist successfully as a ‘belief-free zone’. Ultimately I trusted that my friends would be able to filter the information in whatever way fitted their models of the world, while serving as a reminder of the great differences minds can be led to believe in, and a brilliant way of making her point.
Because, make no mistake, it was fascinating. In my book I suggest that our sense of ourself may also just be a meme – an idea we have about ourselves – that emerges from the beliefs we form unconsciously in response to our experiences. A thing I like about this is that we can cease to blame ourselves for everything we do. 90% of what we do is driven by our unconscious, and memetics could mean that we exist only as an idea, not as a reality, so why should we give ourselves such a hard time for our shortcomings? A second thing I like about this idea is that, if we’re just an idea, then have a different one. I believe we can create ourselves in the form we desire, and my book describes why more fully, and how.
Sue left us with one last thought, and it was a big one. She suggested that genes and memes weren’t alone as replicators, there is a third, which she calls a teme: an idea contained within a piece of technology that is able to mutate, adapt and replicate – google was given as an example. This has obvious examples of the nightmare explored in such films as the Matrix and Terminator: a world where machines have become sentient and we exist to serve them. As if our minds hadn’t been boggled already.
My turn was next; a session to bring together the threads from Oliver and Sue and make them explicitly useful to us as Cognitive Hypnotherapists. You can see how I got on by clicking here.
And so to the final lunch, and a palpable buzz of anticipation. David Hamilton was the final speaker and many Questies had listened to him before and clearly couldn’t wait for more. He didn’t disappoint.
David is one of my favourite people. I love him for his intelligence, his ability to speak for hours and include reams of research and statistics without a single note, but mostly for his spirit. He’s a man who teaches kindness, compassion, and happiness – and he embodies it in the way he lives. A perfect person to bring down the curtain on our conference.
We were treated to a wonderful blast of energy that had fascinating facts riding on its waves. He talked about the power of oxytocin and the absolute requirement of physical contact for health – the hugging exercise was embraced by all with great enthusiasm: I was only trying to get out of the room for a pee, but a line formed to hug me on the way. Lucky I wasn’t desperate, or the squeezes too enthusiastic.
He talked about how negative thoughts harden our arteries – they actually do, this is not some fluffy metaphor, whereas acts of kindness soften them. We can live a life of hardness, or a life of softness, it’s our choice – and our heart that will know the difference. And, finally, something that summed up the message I conveyed in my talk: that the meaning of your work as a therapist can be to save the planet, one person at a time. David came up with the perfect piece of research to validate my argument: If you become happier it affects at least 8000 other people. And unhappiness does the same thing. Link that with what Oliver taught us – that what makes us happier is investing our energy in our relationships and our life, not consumerism, and it’s easy to build an argument that our work helps people towards a better quality of life, and that matters to the planet. Inspiring, thought- provoking, and perfect.
All too soon, the weekend was over – although it took an hour for everyone to leave, such was the energy that remained. A remarkable experience. Before the event Bex and I had vowed ‘never again ‘because of the time, effort and worry that goes with its organisation. Within five miles of our drive home we were thinking of who could be our speakers for 2012. I hope to see you there.
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