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Chasing a link from NancyLebovitz on LW, I've spent a few hours this week reading Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin, which reads like a New Age-y self-help manual, providing instructions on how to focus on a 'felt sense' and attain a 'body shift', or 'felt response' including some troubleshooting for the various steps, and then cramming in a whole new manual in the last chapter or two called The Listening Manual, which provides explicit instruction on total listening, active listening, and listening in a group. Despite the weird (to me) language, I saw enough similarities between focusing and techniques that have worked for me to suspect that at least parts of it are quite useful for teaching techniques that I mostly stumbled on, and possibly the whole thing really is as good as Gendlin thinks it is.

A very quick summary, with excerpts from the notes I took.

Summary )

And a random quote from the troubleshooting section, quoted for truth: "Most people treat themselves less like a friend than like a roommate they don't like"

And now for how this relates to the 'best' known therapy out there, CBT. In short: it doesn't. Most of the techniques I was taught that are explicitly part of CBT seem to be the complete opposite of focusing.  For example, let's say I have a party to go to, and I feel scared/anxious/reluctant about going. If i was CBTing, I would list out all the things I was afraid of with regards to the party, recognise them for the exaggerated/distorted ideas they were, and come up with more realistic/balanced alternatives for those thoughts, combined with a hefty dose of "and what's so bad about that?" directed at those fears. If I was focusing, I would tell myself "ok, I think I'm afraid of specific things X,Y,Z about the party, but I'll put those aside for now and see what my fear says if I listen to it directly", and then do so. So one involves enlisting your rational side, both to come up with reasons for your emotions and then to counter those reasons, while the other is more of a Zen thing of approaching the problem holistically and not analysing any of it.  I was originally going to then draw some similarities between the steps of CBT and focusing, but the more I think about it the more it seems like there aren't any, and that a lot of the techniques that I've gotten reasonable mileage from have come from reading elsewhere or suggestions from my therapist that weren't directly related to the CBT framework.

I suspect that CBT is more popular partly because it's much easier to teach  and apply, and because it looks and feels a lot more 'sciencey'. Also because I can't find any papers or studies anywhere about whether focusing actually gets better results than regular talk therapy, let alone the CBT branch.
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Review of Twilight:
Much better than expected
but wouldn't endorse
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James Barclay roleplayed for years (and for all I know, still does) before he started publishing these books and it shows. The story follows a mercenary band called the Raven. They're semi-legendary in the continent of Balaia both for their ability to get the job done and their integrity. In practice they function as a combination of consultants and a top-notch fighting squad. However, we never actually see them doing any of their regular jobs, since each book consists of some apocalyptic event occurring or poised to occur which the Raven end up dealing with.

The core members of the Raven are Hirad Coldheart, a barbarian, the Unknown Warrior, a warrior and overall leader of the Raven, and Ilkar, an elven mage. Over the course of the books they gain and lose various companions (mostly lose, dealing with apocalyptic events is not good for your life expectancy) including a werewolf, a thief, and other mages and warrior types.

The main thing I like about these books is the plausibility of the interactions between the characters. While the Raven are consummate soldiers, able and willing to trust each other with their lives, they bicker and make bad jokes the same way as ordinary people. They obviously care for one another as members of the same group but that doesn't stop them from having serious disagreements and almost fracturing the group more than once over differences in priorities. It feels the way roleplaying should feel, as opposed to the way most people play, where they tend to gloss over most of the actual roleplaying of characters in favour of moving on to the combat and plot revelations.
The realism of the character relationships helps build plausibility and provide a backdrop for the legendary acts the Raven accomplishes. On his website Barclay wrote that he wanted the Raven to already be the best at what they do when he started writing. During the books, they go from being merely some of the best warriors/mages/whatevers in the land to having justifiably legendary status. They deal with creatures from other dimensions and mostly-single-handedly stop wars. And through it all it doesn't feel like sparkly heroic adventures, but just a group of highly skilled people working out what needs to be done and then doing it regardless of the cost. I think this is mostly accomplished through the Raven getting past each obstacle by using tactics and strategy rather than just plowing in. Also the fact that this universe doesn't have magic items or active gods, so the characters can't rely on anything other than their own wits and skills.

I have two main gripes with the series. The first and less serious of the two, is Hirad Coldheart. Not his character or personality as such, but rather than I feel like the author put him in there for the sake of having a barbarian, without any reasonable context. Ok sure, he's a barbarian. So then where does he come from exactly? In the books I've read (and I haven't read the most recent Raven books) we never see any of his people or any other barbarians, the characters never talk about barbarians, and there doesn't really appear to be anywhere on the continent of Balaia for barbarians to have come from.

The other and more serious gripe is the system of magic Barclay uses. It sounds extremely complex and has never been adequately explained. Now the way magic in general works in this universe is: You construct a mana shape and charge it with your own mana stamina. The shape determines what spell you're casting, and the casting sometimes needs to be accompanied by certain hand gestures. What is less clear is how the different mana shapes have such different consequences. I've read about spells that do all the typical fantasy spells effects, from long-distance communication to locking doors and invoking all kinds of forces and elements. To make things even more complicated, there are four different colleges of magic whose mana and lore are incompatible with each other, but who seem to all be able to form the same spells using the same mana shapes. I feel like none of it assembles into a coherent whole
Ideally, I'd like Barclay to address the nature of magic in one of his later books and explain it properly, but my instincts tell me that he won't because he doesn't have an explanation. By making magic both vague and extremely complex-sounding, he can introduce whatever new spells he wants without breaking plausibility. The four college system is probably just an excuse for having powerful political factions. Also, that level of explanation would probably involve a giant infodump that would bore everyone except me.


Anyway, despite the hand-wavy system of magic and Hirad's implausibility, this series gets my stamp of approval. It's heroic fantasy but without the heroic aspect being overdone. And I'm planning to get hold of the more recent books as soon as I'm done rereading this lot, at least partly because I'm curious as to how Barclay managed to continue given the steady attrition rate the Raven seems to suffer.
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The Deed of Paksenarrion is a trilogy that tells the story of a girl who runs away from home to avoid having to marry a pigfarmer, joins a mercenary company and eventually is chosen by the gods to be a paladin and do noteworthy paladin things. I read the books years ago and even back then something bothered me about them that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Now that I've reread them I think I have a better idea of just what it was about them that made me squirm.

In the first book, Paks distinguishes herself in the mercenary company by being enthusiastic and good-natured, but not by much else (other than that stuff seems to happen to her, but more on that later). She's an exceptionally good soldier in the sense that she's obedient and doesn't seem to like thinking for herself, to the point of completely missing her friends point when he warns her that just because you like someone doesn't mean they're necessarily a good person. Despite not actually being that different to the majority of her fellow soldiers, all the supporting characters have a tendency to stand around having conversations about how awesome and promising she is, and to go to great lengths to protect her from the results of her own naivete. Also, stuff keeps happening to her in a way that makes it obvious that the gods also think that she's really awesome and promising. However she's too unwilling to think for herself to actually listen to their call, going so far as to stop wearing a certain gods' holy symbol that her friend gave her because it seems to keep helping her out. Her blind loyalty leads her to want to be just an ordinary soldier instead.

Paks joins the mercenaries with typical childhood dreams of becoming a great hero with a fancy horse and a shiny sword one day. And through the second book it's this dream that spurs her on to half the things she does. At one point she allows herself to be convinced to explore an old and dangerous ruin because of her dreams of glory, and ends up defeating a great evil down there. Good for her huh? At another point she's offered the chance to become a paladin candidate, from where she'll hopefully get the blessings of their god, and again she accepts not because she wants to only fight morally, as she says elsewhere, but because when they ask all she can see in her head is the mental image of the fancy horse and shiny sword. Nowhere do we see any real evidence of paladinish conduct except in her generally pleasant personality and discomfort with fighting morally dubious battles. And still all the supporting characters stand around and have conversations about how awesome she is, when it seems like she isn't really any better than the others, only that stuff keeps happening to her. Also in the second book: Paks goes from being distrustful of a particular god at the end of the first book into calling on him, with no obvious reason for the change. She doesn't even come to trust the god until halfway through, and yet she goes around saying 'holy Gird' this and 'in the name of Gird' that.

The third book sees Paks finally becoming a paladin. In this book she suddenly and without any visible reason gains the ability to make her own moral decisions. Shortly after this she comes into her paladinish powers and becomes a paragon of all that is good, complete with slightly nausea-inducing morality lessons to her followers about how they should act. And everyone fawns on her and shower her with praise for being so awesome. I actually enjoyed this book the most out of the trilogy because while Paks becomes a bit holier-than-thou as a paladin, it's a simple enough heroic fantasy about how the great paladin performed great deeds and overcame great evil. This was in contrast to the cognitive dissonance before between Paks-who-everyone-says-is-awesome and Paks-who-acts-like-a-naive-child-half-the-time-and-only-succeeds-because-the-gods-keep-helping-her

One other thing I dislike not so much about this story in particular, but about the whole world Elizabeth Moon made is her portrayal of paladins. While in paladin training, Paks is told that although paladins can't marry (because devotion to good and god has to come first), they're allowed to have lovers in the capital. And yet every paladin whose story gets told never seems to suffer so much as a single pang of physical attraction. The other paladins she tells the story of are also rather naive and simplistic in their world view. The message seems to be that the chief requirements for paladinhood are 1) Childish worldview and lack of academic intelligence, 2) Complete and utter lack of hormones

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