A few weeks back, John published an article entitled “The psychological wound is a mirage”.

Soon after, Peter le Bretton, PH.D., a friend and respected colleague of John’s, responded with a spirited reply, questioning and challenging the premise.

Their online conversation is published here.


Peter: Dear John, I’m responding to your most recent email bearing the above title. I may have completely misunderstood the meaning you intended, but your message seemed to me to be dismissing the value, and even the possibility of we humans learning from the past.

Learning how we got to where we are today, so we are more likely to see the patterns, and release the hold of those patterns, as we move forward. In other words, less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A depressing feature of our culture today is that few people, especially the young, have little or any historical understanding or appreciation of its value.

I’m not only or even primarily talking about the history taught in school, which is always selected and coloured by the established social order. Hence, we learned that Europeans ‘settled’ here, rather than ‘invaded’, and that the British Crown simply claimed sovereignty of the land.

Most contemporary Australians have little insight into the unintended adverse consequences of colonialism for both the colonised and the colonisers, which continues to this day. Historical writing is necessarily subjective and subject to interpretation. And just as some doctors are better than others, so too with historians.

John: Peter, your engagement is a special gift. Thank you. It provides me with an opportunity to clarify, deepen the conversation and provide you and me with the chance to explore this critically important matter further. I respond within this context: I would like to reach a meeting of our minds.

Let me state unequivocally: I don’t diminish to the slightest degree how cruelly Indigenous Australians have been treated. It is shameful.

And I agree: Although humanity seems to find it almost impossible, we can learn from the past. We must learn from the past. No question!

My focus is this: If we fail to understand 1) how we re-create our past, 2) our tendency to re-live that past in the present moment, and 3) how we can build a better future and 4) we will inevitably repeat our sins of the past in one form or another.

And, as you say, to complicate our lives further, there is a problem with defining our past’s complete nature accurately. The victors have their many versions, and equally, the vanquished, theirs.

Notwithstanding what happened, and is still happening, history will continue to repeat itself if we, Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians fail in getting a fresh start.

Starting afresh can be achieved by a) acknowledging what happened, b) stopping chewing on the past, and c) creating a harmonious future.

And if we fail to understand a) how our Australian culture was created, b) how we continue to recreate that past, c) how our painful past, over time, becomes even more painful, no matter how wicked it was. There is no end to that vicious cycle without that understanding.

Since the British invaded, the story around Aboriginal Australians has become such a cycle. A cycle in which Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have been understandably gripped. Peter that seems especially so right now.

The challenge we each face in getting a fresh start is human ‘memory’ – our blessing and our curse.

The reason is our memories are not like the reproduction we get from a photo or, better still, a video.

Neuroscience has come up with these three propositions around creating memory:

1) Encoding – how we take information in and store it in our memory.

2) Storage: how we hold our memories over time.

3) Retrieval: how we look inward to access our stored memories and how fallible that process is.

Our process of recording, storing and remembering is a raffle with no winner.

Even more worrying is that research demonstrates that whenever we – you and I, every human being – remembers some event, something or someone, we reconstruct that memory each time.

Even for the first time, our recollection is not an accurate recalling of the experience. And each time after that, it becomes further removed from the reality of what we first saw, heard, felt, tasted or smelled – we forget – we distort – we recreate.

And to make moving on from the past even more difficult, we embellish, reimagine and reconstruct our history influenced strongly by our current view of life – our current philosophy, beliefs, opinions and judgements – our personal, conditioned experience of how life is and how it is supposed to be. We make the past align with our current worldview.

We hold a semblance of what happened – sometimes not even that. But what happened becomes increasingly distorted over time. As said, that distortion morphs to suit the inclinations and beliefs of the person remembering – speaking – acting – living their life in each moving moment.

And to repeat what I said earlier: The treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of this country were treated inhumanely – beyond what words can express.

Peter: A thought about time and memory, if I may. I think it is impossible to forget or turn away from memory on the grounds that memory is in the past and therefore doesn’t exist or isn’t real.

To me it is self-evident that memory is very real and that none of us could function without memory, which I see as stored learning. Of course, most of that learning/memory is tacit or non-conscious, a natural intelligence of our body-mind physiology.

Even imagination is a projection of aspects of learning and memory into the future.

John: Yes, Peter, we mustn’t turn away from the past. It is critical that we learn, grow, develop and move on from the past.

Essential to my focus is the challenge of being stuck in the past. Constantly ruminating, being upset, blaming, holding on to the injustices of what occurred – is not the way to learn, develop, and expand our options – to see afresh. Doing so wastes the opportunity to evolve to a level of self-discovery, where – most importantly – we can defeat repetition. Get a fresh start.

In understanding what happened, making amends, discovering how we failed and entering a new era of being in the world together, we are freed psychologically of that past – free to get a fresh start – free to move on.

Peter: I make a distinction between what you refer to as ‘trying to heal the wound’, which is impossible because it is in the past, and learning from the wound, which is impossible if we don’t see it or turn away from it.

Returning to European invasion of this country, as an example, the wounds are covered up and concealed. Consequently, they continue to fester in our individual and collective psyches precisely because they are not seen. As our PM tells us, Australians are not racist; there are just a few bad apples among us. Really?

John: Humanity’s inhumanity to other humans seems to know no bounds, nor our chronic failings towards our kindred sentient beings and on which our existence hangs by a thread – the natural world.

If we fail to recognise that we are one with Life, inseparable, indivisible, we will disappear as a species.

If we are to create a world free of all that ails us, we must discover this oneness for ourselves – within our minds. And to discover that connection we need to see beyond the content, accurate or distorted, of our memory. Only there can we make good and become whole.

Peter: I’m reminded of the German film with the deliciously ironic title NEVER LOOK AWAY, which is one of the most moving and rewarding movie experiences I’ve ever had. All perception requires figure and ground or some kind of difference. Only by seeing the ugly and trapped, can we know beauty and freedom.

John: I’ve not experienced that film, but I respond to your point: we must never look away. Never turn a blind eye. Never turn our back on those less fortunate. Never!

In summary:

In seeing beyond memory – our conditioned mind – we experience our innate qualities of unconditional kindness, understanding, wisdom and common sense*. In that process, our thoughts, words and deeds transform. We transform from how we were, to how we are today, to how we live tomorrow.

Accessing our true nature – these four innate qualities – is how humanity will change. It is how we will heal the rifts and right the wrongs—ending the hostility, making amends and living in peace with each other.

What says you, Peter?

Warmly … John

P.S. – For new subscribers, I reprint here the 4 central cultural pillars of Possibility … our innate state of mind

  • Kindness: Our heartfelt goodwill and gentleness toward all forms of life become who we are – rather than who we would like to be. Our respect for our fellow humans, all other sentient creatures, all flora, waterways, oceans, the air we breathe and the Earth we till, mine, build on and pave over is unconditional.
  • Understanding: Our openness of mind and heart to all familiar and foreign to us expands to be all-inclusive. We look at every idea, principle, fact and piece of information with an open heart, free from judgement. We look at everyone and everything from that state of genuine understanding – to neither agree nor disagree, but to understand the other’s reality.
  • Wisdom: We see the world through our existing knowledge with the heartfelt kindness and understanding described above and with the genuine common sense described hereunder. It is a state of mind where, as best we can, we take a stand for ‘the common good’.
  • Common sense: This quality does not diminish or negate the power of the preceding three innate human qualities. Instead, like wisdom, our heartfelt common sense keeps us grounded in our kindness and understanding, humankind’s shortcomings notwithstanding.