Who is watikanyilpai ?


Over twenty years ago, my friend and colleague Jungian analyst Craig San Roque and I were camping out at Yarrapalong, near Yeundumu, in remote Central Australia.  We were being taught some of the elements of  Western Desert Aboriginal  medicine by two wonderful ngangkari (the Western Deserts dialect word for traditional healer), who are now deceased (kumantjai) .  We’d been invited on the basis of some dreams that we had shared with Andrew Spencer Japaljari, another traditional elder.

We slept out under the stars, and Leon dreamt of a huge man (wati), an ancestral being whose job it was to wander about from place to place , taking care of things, nurturing things (kanyilpai) . His nurturance extended across the entire globe.  Hence watikanyilpai, the being/man (wati) who continually looks after/nurtures (kanyilpai) everything.

Many years later, as I look about at the planet, and try to make sense of it and my own life, it seems clear to me that the most central issue for us is nurturance. Get that right at the very beginning, those vital first two years of life, and a generation of more nurturant empathic humans may treat each other and animals and plants and the environment with some kindness.   Get it wrong, and we slide innexorably into global disaster.

So HOW do we nurture the nurturers ?  The watikanyilpai  image inspires me, but it would be really good to get a closer look at the details ? What is he actually doing ?

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The politics of Nurturance

How can we encourage society to be more reflective about nurturance, so that we can nurture the nurturers better. ?


In the last 15 years or so, the  neuroscientific evidence  behind all this  has exploded.  Our understanding of the nuances of the nurturance process has also grown (it is subtler than many of us realise, if how it is portrayed  in the media is anything to go by). We are thus more confident about what kinds of nurturance work best.

Good quality nurturance produces functional, resilient beings, with a well developed capacity for empathy. Abuse and neglect leave severe permanent damage which is very difficult to undo. Our prisons and mental health systems are full of people with awful early histories of abuse and neglect. There are also subtler versions of nurturance  failure, which   result in human beings  whose capacity for empathy is flawed; the narcissists, and the corporate and  political psychopaths who blight so much life on this Planet.

We are living in a time where there is an intuitive awareness that, if we don’t, somehow, develop a critical mass of nurturers at the global level,  our children and their children may inherit a planet not worth living in; a  hellish  world of  violence , social , economic and ecological collapse .The quality of nurturance obviously has a flow on effect beyond the individual. It shapes, for good or ill,  our relationships,  the wider culture, and subsequent generations.

And nurturance , unlike genetic manipulations, does not require a high tech input.  If we can nurture the early nurturers, we pre-empt cascades of human miseries. And we don’t need to be perfect nurturers, just “good enough”, to use Donald Winnicott’s astute turn of phrase.  Nurturing the early nurturers is by far the most powerful, cost- effective and constructive measure for good  available to us for the welfare of this planet.  But where are the men in all this?

In this essay, I will be describing  some of the advances in our understanding of the process of nurturance. I will be reviewing some of the scientific  evidence  that underpins it.  I will also  be looking at aspects of the political process through the lens of nurturance

But we need to start with a very curious phenomenon. Nurturance,  both at the level of discourse and praxis,  is  neglected , denied and even attacked, and has been throughout human history.  There is a curious hostility  at work;  a mindless neglect, a dumbing down, or even outright and sometimes violent  opposition.  Since our capacity for empathy (including our capacity to understand and extend nurturance itself) is largely a product of the nurturance we receive ourselves, this collective antipathy strongly suggests a collective failure at the very earliest levels of  nurturance.

This is true even of the mainstream discourse of evolutionary theory; Darwinian “survival of the fittest” (though theorist Martin Nowak of “SuperCo-operators” would challenge this). The mainstream paradigm has tended to focus on “survival” at any cost.  But what or who are the “fittest”? …..the issue is not just any old survival, but the kind  of survival, the nature of the survivors.  

The “Selfish Gene” is mindless (and heartless). But we, its expression, need not be.  How we nurture shapes the expression of the genetic givens, for better or worse. Even rat babies fail to develop normal nervous systems if they are not licked and groomed enough. But the human capacity for reflexive awareness gives us an extra edge of influence, for good or ill. How we nurture determines whether our society will be one of Hitler clones  or Dalai Lamas. 

 Yet nurturance, as we noted,  seems to provoke resistance, even outright hatred, but also a subtler but no less destructive collective amnesia or mindlessness.  It is as if nurturance needs to be re-learned and rediscovered with every generation. Nurturance itself needs nurturing.   We are an empathy-challenged society. Witness the mindless narcissistic posturings of a Donald Trump or Sarah Palin. Look at  our inability to empathise with asylum seekers, or the recent “repatriation” to the UK on technical “legal” grounds, of a troubled human being who had lived in Australia for 40 years. And sending  refugee children alone to Malaysia is a gross failure of elementary empathy.

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Left and right brain tango

We are right brained creatures for the first 2 years,  to such an extent that our right brain becomes, and remains, the larger of the two hemispheres, especially its anterior parts. The left hemisphere only begins to develop from the second year onwards. By and large the right hemisphere perceives experience as holistic and relational, but also fearful when pushed to its extremes.  When you are a little creature  in the jungle, the object of prey, you get into right brain mode.  You flee your attackers, you run to your protectors. Animal studies confirm this.

When you are in left brain mode, the experiential mode is more linear, logical and particulate, but it has an exploratory element , a curiosity, that becomes murderous when pushed to extremes;  a predator mode.

Iain McGilchrist, in  his book “The Master and his Emissary” reviews  cutting edge neurobiology  research into  hemisphericity, and its impact on history art, culture politics. Each hemisphere of the brain has its way of being, a different “take” on the world,  a different “version” of the world.  “The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world”.  The right has a broader outlook, “has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be”,  including  protectors and predators. Right brain is relational, but also apprehensive. Iain favours the notion that it is a good thing when left and right hemispheres are relating well with each, because a third more integrative mode of awareness becomes possible. 

Professor Jack Pettigrew (University of Queensland) sees clinical mania as a state dominated by left hemisphericity, where predator mode has gone berserk, delusionally self-righteous. In depressive states, right hemispheric activities predominate.  Jack  advances some compelling neuroscience evidence for this.

I am condensing and oversimplifying enormously, but there is  much convergence across neurobiology, animal ethology, and social psychology research to support  these broad strokes, and their experiential grounding. 

In fact, you can try some of this out for yourself.  Look at which side a nursing mother holds her infant. The chances are it will be on her left, all the better to support maternal right brain to infant right brain communication, as recent studies confirm. 

When you are with your dog, or observing  a magpie in your backyard,  note which eye orients towards you (remember left eye equals right brain attention, and vice versa).  Looking at you with her left eye (right brain), your dog is in  relational mode, may want to give or receive some nurturing. Your magpie however is less  familiar with you , and  her right brain could be in apprehension mode.

Now your companion’s head orients to the right (right eye left brain), and you are an object of curiosity and play. But if  you are with a dingo and his right head (left brain) is looking at you too persistently,  you’d better take cover, curiosity may be turning to predation .

But what does this have to do with nurturance?  Again, put simply, the goodness of the dance of attunement between  baby and  carer depends on a base of security, and actually determines crucial aspects of brain development, in particular capacity for self monitoring, empathy, relationship, impulse control, “theory of mind” (the capacity to know and map the inner lives of other beings),  themes well developed by UCLA child psychiatrist researcher Dan Seigel and his colleagues. The actual brain wiring and the “programmes” that develop and get supported by  this  depend on nurturance.  If attunement is consistent , left and right hemispheric functions will develop optimally;  good relationship between mother and child, good relationship between amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Once past infancy, and assuming you have had a “good enough” experience of nurturance, you are now neurologically equipped to develop broader connections with  society and culture. This is paralleled by better quality left right hemispheric attunement.

Patricia O’Rourke, a gifted baby and infant therapist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, nurtures the nurturers. She helps women struggling to mother their babies and infants, by bringing an experientially grounded sensitivity which draws on her deep experience of psychodrama, the most powerfully interactive of all the psychotherapies. She has written a thoughtful thesis on the links between nurturance, attunement processes and psychodramatic modes of enactment.   In essence, once a secure base has been established (for the baby in nurturance , for the protagonist in the psychodrama), several mutually interactive processes can  then be accessed, which will develop sense of self and other, greater capacity for self- tracking (‘mindfulness’ if you will), greater empathy with others, and those experiences of vitality that we call play or spontaneity or creativity.  Processes of healing and reparation emerge as all of the above goes on. Patricia distinguishes several processes common to the two domains. In the psychodrama, the protagonist  is supported by the audience and a cast of actors. Their triple task is to “mirror”, “double”, and “role reverse”.  Mirroring or reflection by the group shows the protagonist what is going on for her. In doubling, one of the actors takes this further, and immerses themselves in the protagonist’s state of mind, as a resonating “twin” prepared to take her turmoil into their own being. In role reversal, this capacity for empathy extends further, as actors take on the roles of critical others in the protagonist’s life (the mothers, husbands, children, friends and enemies etc).   There is of course a parallel  in the infant’s nurturing process. A mother “mirrors” her baby when she matches her noises and movements, so that the baby can receive something of herself and begin to build a sense of self. In “doubling”, she takes it further by  resonating deeply with her baby’s state of being . The baby can now get a sense of being deeply empathised with,  she now has a companion who bounces with her joys and aches with her sorrows.  Her developing awareness of self deepens because there is a sense of being kindly understood. Resilience is promoted, and a dawning sense of the “other” as separate but loving. Later on, as the capacity for play and language increase, and left and right brain begin to interact,  both cognitive and emotional empathy can extend beyond the mother-infant pair to include others, paralleling the capacity for “role reversal” we see in psychodrama. Mistakes will be made, but they can also be repaired. This reparative re-assurance moves the child beyond Hamurabbi’s rigid  universe of “what once is written can never never be unwritten”.

Coming from a different direction (Self-psychology and the syntactic analysis of  interactions between therapists and their patients, and mother and their infants) Professor Russel Meares comes to similar conclusions. “Theory of mind” (the capacity for empathy) and the capacity for play/creativity/healthy spontaneity emerge through good quality nurturance.  His classic “The Metaphor of Play” is worth  re-reading.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington reminds us that there are subtler forms of nurturance failure that also have a profound impact on our capacity for empathy.  Neville is a world expert on  narcissistic process, which he understands as a state of mind that always prefers fantasy and rejects the real.  This is familiar to all of us as the “morning after “ syndrome.  Last night,  Brad Pitt’s  clone came into our life, across the proverbial crowded room.. The fantasy got a battering when we discovered his name was Brian, he came from Gundagai, and wore purple underpants. In the morning, we dismiss him. He just does not measure up to the fantasy.  And yet, had we not been so fixated on the romantic vision, and got to know the real being better, we may have found that he is a jazz pianist and  loves dogs and children. We may have even found that our opinion of purple underpants has improved.

This dismissive approach to the real and actual has some of its roots in early nurturance patterns.

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What is nurturance?

What is nurturance?  

Providing security is just the first albeit essential step.  Using that as a base upon which the developmental dance of attunement can be enacted is  the next step. But this is actually not enough, if the result is a limited empathy, an individual who may be functional but still identified with narrow tribal or sectarian concerns.  A further step is needed, to do with enlarging the scope of mindful empathy. Let me try to unpack this for you. 

Let us begin in the uterus, at 5 months to be precise. This is the time when the  right amygdala, an almond shaped  nucleus  which determines experiential salience,  first comes on line. Domestic violence lights it up, as do any other stresses on the mother (and the mother’s amygdala).  In mother and baby, fear triggers a fight or flight response. If it is overwhelming, a frozen hopelessness ensues.   But anything  less extreme will also activate  safety and comfort seeking clinging behaviour via the right amygdala’s  connections with other regions in the right prefrontal lobe. The social engagement systems get activated.  Caring responses will then pacify  amygdalar overactivity, and, over months and years of such experiences, memories/internal representations of comforting are laid down neurologically, so that it becomes possible for the growing being  to pacify itself and build resilience.  What I’ve described is an (over)simplified version of the laying down of basic attachment states and behaviours to do with  psychological  resilience . This is the vital secure foundation for the next steps, developing a sense of myself, developing a sense of other beings.  These require the beautiful dance of inter-relational attunement that we see  between mums and babies, when a secure base is in place.  For the next  few years, this neurodevelopmental dance goes on between infant and carer, and between right amygdala  and its to and fro connections with the rest of the (mainly) right brain, especially the middle anterior bits that have to do with emotional modulation and relational processes (to internal experience, experience of others, experience of the world). Alan Schore, probably the world’s leading contemporary infant  developmental researcher, puts it graphically; the mother’s right anterior lobe programmes get downloaded  into the baby’s right anterior lobe, for good or ill. 

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“The nurturing we receive in the first few years of life has a big influence on our mental and physical health. It shapes our own ability to be nurturers, our capacity for empathy in the way we relate to each other, other life form, and our planet. Why does nurturance get so little air time?” says the father.

“Oh Dad “,  says the daughter;  “the word itself is so gawky.  And what does it actually mean? But more important, every mum will think of a thousand times they did or felt or thought the wrong thing, another thousand times when they didn’t have a clue. I was at a friend’s house the other weekend and we as mum’s were talking the hard sides of mothering – those moments (sometimes extended) of loss of control. Nobody tells you that that is going to happen. Parenting books and theories make it sound as if all that can be simply ironed out. So there is always a background fear that ‘I am not good enough’ as a parent (friend, partner, person. . .), that my job will produce a little Hitler, or more simply someone who has trouble loving/respecting me (and themselves and others) when they grow up. Narcissistic! It’s just so painful. As if we don’t get blamed enough eh?”

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