Even learning demands our mindful attention, without which the learning process gets laced with implicitly encoded conditionings from our painful past. These unconscious conditionings then sour our process of learning the same way they sour everything else in our lives, a process that should be like play: Pleasurable, passionate and fun. In this essay I would like to address this issue in more detail, spurred on by learning impasses some participants in the Mindsight Intensive encounter.
Both God and the devil dwell in the details, as you all know. The devilish details need to be smoked out from their burrows and forced into the light, which is exactly what one of the Mindsight Intensive participants recently did (I don’t mention his name, because I did not ask his consent). He wrote the following in an email to me:
“Hi Dr T – Me again!! In one of your previous e mails that I can’t locate you mentioned if you don’t understand something then ask or something along those lines? Do you recall that e mail? Anyway, I don’t know if it’s just me or others are experiencing the same issue? I find it very hard to follow that last session; quite frankly you lost me!! I was rather discouraged after “thinking is it just me that’s not getting it”!! Is this common? I did discuss this with one of our classmates and she felt the same way. She said that maybe others were experiencing the same, but hesitant to share it. Is this Intensive to deep for me??”
Another student wrote the following shortly after:
“Thank you for the ‘light reading’ over the holidays. Took a quick look … and boy do I feel stupid… At first glance, it would appear I’m in way over my head….. You’re killing me (figuratively)…. If I am still clueless by the 2nd, please consider a refund?”
Incidentally, several participants had so far only given me positive feedback about the new course, saying that they all seemed to really enjoy it. This is in itself interesting, because it is quite obviously much easier to tell your teacher that you really like what he or she is doing, much more difficult though to communicate that you don’t understand.
In my role as mindfulness teacher these emails from struggling students are pure gold, because through the courage of these folks to say it as it is, we get all served on a silver platter the most mouth-watering menu of mind creations we all have or will encounter one way or another. What these two participants express is universal and deserves a closer look. Incidentally, in my experience students who openly explore this interesting energy and information flow of the mind feeling stuck, end up doing exceptionally well.
Let me start with some research findings regarding the common traits of highly intelligent people as compiled by Shana Lebowicz:
1. They are highly adaptable, meaning that they are able to admit when they are not familiar with a particular concept.
2. They understand how much they don’t know: They are not afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, because if they don’t, they can learn it.
3. They have insatiable curiosity: This means being open to experience, which includes intellectual curiosity. Einstein apparently said: “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”
4. They are open-minded: This includes a willingness to accept and consider other views with value and broad-mindedness and be open to alternative solutions, while also being careful about which ideas and perspectives we adopt.
5. They like their own company: This is the ability to love one’s own mind and embrace what we don’t like about it.
6. They have high self-control: Impulsiveness is replaced by planning, clarifying goals, exploring alternative strategies and considering consequences. Remember the marshmallow experiment from one of our last sessions?
7. They are really funny: Having a great sense of humor is essential, because it also allows us to humor our own foibles and limitations and not be too identified with them.
8. They are sensitive to other people’s experiences: This refers to emotional intelligence, and as you know, the resonance circuitry in the brain responsible for a harmonious relationship with others is the same that is responsible for our relationship with ourselves. To deal with learning challenges we need to apply a lot of gentleness and self-respect, which we summarize with Daniel Siegel’s acronym COAL, curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.
9. They can connect seemingly unrelated concepts: This is the process of linkage that is part of integration, and a hallmark of creativity.
10. They procrastinate a lot: This refers to completing daily tasks, because the mind is busy with more important things. It also speaks to an important brain function for health: The ability to daydream, meandering and noodling around, aimlessly indulge free associative thinking just because there is nothing else we can do at that moment.
11. They contemplate the big questions: This means spending time musing about the meaning of life, about the universe, life and death, and the point of everything we encounter or do.
To address these unpleasant feelings that can arise during learning we can start very simply. Like any other experiences, learning experiences are either pleasant or unpleasant. The unpleasantness of a learning experience is part of the inevitable pain we routinely encounter in our lives. Unpleasantness immediately creates a sense of aversion, which means that our organism activates processes by which it can eventually eliminate the pain. As this occurs, old conditionings, unresolved implicit memories and other learned behaviors get mixed into the process of finding a solution, thereby complicating the original experience of unpleasantness manyfold, turning the inevitable pain (” … I find it very hard to follow that last session …”, or “… At first glance, it would appear I’m in way over my head.”) into optional suffering (“… I was rather discouraged…”, or “…. boy do I feel stupid”). Since the first instinct is to ‘get rid’ of this pain and suffering, thereby activating the fight/flight or even the freeze system in the brain, the aversion, which is now so amplified that it is experienced as intolerable, sets in motion powerful identification mechanisms (“… is this Intensive to deep for me?” or “… I am just too stupid for this …”). Such identifications suggest that we are the problem, rather than that we unwittingly create a problem and therefore end up having a problem. We then mistakenly believe we are incompetent for the challenge reality confronts us with, and escape actions we call ‘avoidance’ are immediately put in place (“I have to leave the course” or “Please refund me the money”). Without having had the chance to examine these complexities, we identify with our wish to flee and … voila – we have just wrecked our lives with yet another automatic reaction that really does not solve anything except for providing us with the illusion of temporary relief.
One fundamental aspect of mindfulness and mindsight is the ability to see clearly, and when such cascades of automaticity occur (which tends to happen more often than not), what we need most is to STOP: Stop, Take a breath, Observe and Plan. This is our cherished YODA (You Observe and Decouple Automaticity), without which we cannot interrupt the automatic and destructive cascade from aversion to avoidance, from craving to grasping, or from indifference to ignoring. Unable to bring spaciousness into the gaps between the inevitable original arisings (aversion, craving and indifference) and the following evitable reactions (avoiding, grasping and ignoring), life becomes hell and the mind our worst enemy; conversely, if we can stop in the gaps and take our time to look around, observe and reflect, life becomes liberating and the mind our best friend.
Remember that you participate in a mindsight course, which means that everything that arises during the course, absolutely everything, all your experiences without exception, including experiences of feeling incompetent, stupid, in the wrong place, overwhelmed, in over your head and more, all these experiences are worthy of examination. When you do examine them, a whole world of freedom offers itself to you, where learning challenges become fun rather than drudgery, interesting rather than insurmountable, growth-promoting rather than stifling, and reassuring rather than unsettling.
How can you go about turning such adversity into an advantage?
1. You need the courage to publicly feel stupid. This courage is not just necessarily given to you; you may have to practice it by throwing yourself into the perceived jaws of judgments. A course such as the Mindsight Intensive lends itself beautifully for that, because we are in the company of like-minded people who all practice being comfortable with ignorance. You are in good company when you embrace ignorance – didn’t Socrates already over 2000 years ago say that the only thing he knew was that he didn’t know anything? Didn’t we examine in the first 3 sessions how peripheral our consciousness is, and how dominant, unfathomably vast and eternally inscrutable the non-conscious is? Haven’t we seen again and again how our left-brain compulsion to know limits what we can see, and that the art of unknowing is at the centre of our training and our ability to embrace complexity and health? So be my guest: Cultivate comfort with stupidity!
2. As you listen to the lectures or read the material, separate in your mind what you do understand from what you don’t (differentiation), then flag what you don’t understand and reach out by asking questions, both in the sessions and via email, asking both me and your classmates about what you don’t understand. Ask and ask and ask until it becomes a full-time job and people get sick of your asking (at which point you can with good conscience relish your role of questioning nuisance). In my own experience as a child I quickly discovered that classmates of mine seemed to get things so much faster than me. By the time the teacher had finished explaining something they all seemed to get it, while I didn’t. So I started to ask and pester my teachers, requesting them to slow down and take it step by step. At first, I developed a reputation of being a slow poke, at times even dense. My saving grace was that I not only did not care about my reputation, but secretly relished it, because it always yielded great results, and the knowledge I acquired became rock solid. With time however, as my classmates waited patiently and not so patiently until I got it (some of them very happy that I asked because they didn’t get it either, but were afraid of asking), we all also started to discover that my ‘not getting it’, slowing down and repeating the process of explaining, yielded new, unexpected and deeper insights into the material that would have never surfaced otherwise. It became a running joke that certain classmates of mine tried very hard to become more dense like me.
What we can learn from this is that ‘not getting it’ for the most part has nothing to do with being dense, stupid, incapable or any of those nasty things (although it has everything to do with wrongly perceiving yourself as being all those nasty things). On the contrary, it can be the expression of a different learning style, maybe even a learning disability, or simply an unconscious intuitive knowledge that fast and superficial skimming through the material will not satisfy, and that a slower, more reflective, even contemplative approach is required to understand more deeply than on the readers digest level. Even if it is a learning disability, the very process of asking and slowing down, parsing the knowledge into digestible bits, turns what may seem like a disadvantage into a strength.
Asking is the mind correlate to the neural formation of new associations in the brain. By asking you expand the wiring in your brain, you open your mind to infinite possibilities, and you deepen your relationships towards greater depth and mutual understanding. By answering you limit your brain wiring to the conditioned, you close your mind into the prison of beliefs and preconceived ideas, and you restrict relationships to the superficiality of inauthenticity. You may be aware of how difficult asking is for you. Your mind may be constricted by implicit memories of parents and caregivers discouraging you or even scolding and rejecting you for asking questions, causing you to feel stupid for not knowing. Socially in the group your relationships may be restricted by a constant fear of judgment, projecting on others that they all know while you are inadequate. These entanglements beg to be recognized, not acted upon, and healed, so that we can get back to the business of integration, not staying stuck in rigidity or chaos. Stupid questions don’t exist, only suffering students who think they are stupid, or suffering teachers who think they either know or have to know everything. Remember, the main goal of finding answers is not to become smart, but to find better questions!
3. Accumulating knowledge that remains at our finger tips and can be used in the field of the present moment whenever we need it, requires that we study far more than we will ever need. This principle forces us to embrace the wide context within which we act and live our little lives, thereby ensuring wiser decision making. So yes, sweat, curse, work hard, and if necessary kick me figuratively in the shin. As they originally said in the hockey world, when the going gets tough, the tough get going! And then, ladies and gentlemen, then comes the prize of all this intelligent struggle: You are furiously rewiring your brain towards integration and health – not bad isn’t it?
4. When initially you are not an expert in this field of mindsight, it will naturally take a bit longer to get into it. You might for example be reassured to know that I have had the privilege to work with Linda MacDonald whom most of you know in our course, a family doctor who has trained with me and others for many years, and who now teaches the MBSRPs at our Mindfulness Centre, and see her sweat buckets for a long time as she was racking her brain trying to understand the details of these things. She reminded me of myself, when as a full-fledged psychiatrist with already many years experience I started to study the brain and quickly realized how utterly ignorant I was on the subject. It took me 2 intensive years and a few thousand dollars of courses and training to start feeling a certain mastery of the field. Don’t even mention to me spirituality: I seem to talk a lot about it, and people seem to find inspiration from what I have to say, yet I really know nothing about it, because there is nothing to be known. Such are some of the paradoxes we encounter in this fascinating field of free and easy living. So don’t be too hard on yourself. It will just take time, like anything else that is worthwhile.
5. You don’t have to become experts on the brain, but I hope to provide you with an opportunity to become experts on mindful living. So what I lecture on may seem a bit complex at times, but I always try to boil it down to the essential idea that will help us on our journey of mindfulness. Apply this to the handouts you receive, too. Some of those handouts are detailed and complex, and the idea is not to memorize that, but to use it as reference when you need to go into more detail. In order to aid sifting through all that I have created the slides, which distill what’s most salient. As a means to collectively engage in always keeping the big picture alive, we will regularly have review and consolidation sessions such as the one coming up on January 2nd, 2017, exactly for the purpose of distilling relevance from complexity without ignoring or be afraid of complexity and context. Remember, what we study conceptually needs to be experienced in an embodied way, otherwise, for the purpose of this course that is focused on actual transformation and personal growth, this knowledge remains superficial and useless.
6. The place of not understanding or following is in fact a wonderful place of opportunity. It is the place of our limitation, where growth and expansion beckon. Regard any feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, ‘its too hard’, ‘I can’t do this’, etc. as old conditionings or implicit memories that have outlived their usefulness. When these destructive emotions and thoughts arise, remember the principles of mindful learning: Stay open to novelty, make new distinctions where everything seemed incomprehensible at first, remain sensitive to different contexts, practice developing an awareness of multiple perspectives, and always orient yourself towards the embodied present moment. This encourages the mind to disentangle itself from premature conclusions, categorizations and routinized ways of perceiving and thinking. Certainty eliminates the need to pay attention. Given that the world around us is always in flux, our certainty is an illusion.
7. Mindful learning involves concepts such as intelligent ignorance, flexible thinking, avoidance of premature cognitive commitments and creative uncertainty. It is neither conceptual and conditioned, nor formlessly creative; neither left-brain linguistic, linear and logical, nor right-brain non-verbal and holistic; it is rather a sideways stance of learning, an ‘orthogonal shift’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn) in awareness, where left- and right-brain styles, conceptual and creative processing are intertwined, where learners are conditional in how they take in information, and uncertainty is a friend. Creative uncertainty strengthens our learning and makes the learning experience more enjoyable. The process of learning is the essence of being, not doing.
8. As Leslie Kaminoff points out, Yoga is not about doing the poses; its about undoing what’s in the way of the poses. I see meditation and mindsight in exactly the same way. Meditation is not about doing concentration training; it is about undoing what’s in the way of concentration. Dynamic Mindfulness as I have come to call the approach I developed, does exactly that – by focusing on undoing through surrender to gravity and closure of the doors of avoidance, concentration naturally arises. In this sense the feeling of being stuck, not understanding and wanting to flee the course is simply a gift, the expression of what’s in the way of awareness. By simply embracing it as useful and interesting information about ourselves, we can learn to transcend it and discover the treasures it hides, treasures that have always been there, but we lost touch with them. So I don’t refund; I provide opportunities to refind instead.
So … let’s go! Lets play with what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think we know! Lets experiment with ignorance, stupidity and incompetence, and above all, lets have a lot of fun together learning to unknow!
Copyright © 2016 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.