Maybe This Brain Can Be Reset

Maybe This Brain Can Be Reset

"I do know enough as a psychologist about learning and memory. And I know that we learn. How much of this I need to do in order to change, I cannot say. But I can say that there is a point at which this brain is not just elastic in moving to what is being suggested, but that it may be plastic in that it can be reset into a new mold."

~ Mahzarin Banaji

Things We Are Saying To Ourselves

Things We Are Saying To Ourselves

"An inner voice always used to be an outer voice. We absorb the tone of others. A harassed or angry parent. The menacing threats of an elder sibling keen to put us down. The words of a schoolyard bully or teacher who seemed impossible to please. We internalize the unhelpful voices, because at certain key moments in the past, they sounded compelling. The authority figures repeated their messages over and over until they got lodge in our own way of thinking." 

~ The School of Life

More Time to Play

More Time to Play

"Educators are worried that you need that content for the exams that you're going to take, but what's more important is that you should want to learn. What's more important is for you to know how to find that information if you need it. What's more important is for you to learn how to problem solve and use that information." ~ Adele Diamond

Never Give Up

Remarks by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command at the University of Texas at Austin Commencement on May 17, 2014:

Start each day with a task completed.

Find someone to help you through life.

Respect everyone.

Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today and—what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.

Simple to Practice, Difficult to Remember

Simple to Practice, Difficult to Remember

People tell me they find it satisfying to pay closer attention to the sensory details of ordinary experience, but that they get frustrated with themselves when they forget to practice.

What makes it so difficult to establish a habit even when we’re convinced of its benefits?

What if we based education on the study and practice of being happy and healthy?

"What bums me out is to know that a lot of kids today are just wishing to be happy, to be healthy, to be safe, not bullied, and loved for who they are. So it seems to me, when adults say, What do you want to be when you grow up? they just automatically assume that you'll be happy and healthy. Maybe that's not the case.

Go to school. Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Boom! Then you'll be happy. Right? We don't seem to make learning how to be happy and healthy a priority in our schools. It's separate from schools and for some kids, it doesn't exist at all. 

But what if we didn't make it separate? What if we based education on the study and practice of being happy and healthy? Because that's what it is: a practice. And a simple practice at that." 

~ Logan Laplante, from "Hackschooling Makes Me Happy," TEDxUniversityofNevada

Capable of Change

Sharon Salzberg, from "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," On Being, October 31, 2013:

They say that metta or lovingkindness is a practice of generosity. It's like generosity of the spirit. And the best kind of generosity comes from a sense of inner abundance, because if we feel depleted and overcome and exhausted and just burnt out, we're not gonna have the wherewithal inside, the sense of resourcefulness, to care about anybody, even to notice them all that much.

It's not only a kind of self-indulgence, but it's a self-preoccupation that happens when we feel so undone, so unworthy, so incapable of giving or whatever it might be, however it might manifest. So I really do see that factor of lovingkindness for one's self is this tremendous sense of strength and resourcefulness in terms of connecting to others.
I guess the one question that's very interesting to reflect on is how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I've done or said and having the energy to actually move on?

So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it's from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I'm gonna go on now in a different way because I'm capable of that. I am capable of change.  

March 1971

Listening to the recent On Being conversation with Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman on "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," reminded me just how significantly Sharon's practical insights have impacted my life.

I listened to an audiocassette version of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness back in 2002 when training for my first marathon and before my first silent retreat. It was during this time that I also decided to leave the field of social work. I was tired. I felt exhausted, not by the people I tried to help who were suffering from mental illness or child abuse, but from the lack of reliable resources to give them. I spent my days evaluating emotional pain employed by organizations who seemed to have almost nothing (tangible or intangible) to provide in response to it.

So many of the professional helpers I worked with were glaringlly ill equipped to manage their own often serious problems let alone the challenges of people with billable issues. None of us were taught skills or strategies for taking care of ourselves or for maintaining healthy boudaries. A supervisor once said, "Social workers are a dime a dozen. If you don't want the job anymore, there are a line of others who will take it." This was in response to my trying to argue that the quality of work I was providing was beyond the expectations of the role as evidenced by my willingness to facilitate difficult treatment planning meetings in the absence of engagement from higher paid professionals.  

When you decide to leave the helping professions, people squint at you and shrug and tell you that you're burned out. But this diagnosis never rang true to me. We were constantly documenting that our clients needed to gain insight. It usually felt like a hollow goal. An imposed ideal. Everyone knows it's easier to be objective about another person's problems and what she could do to improve her plight. Isn't that what makes the perspective objective. But what was consistently lacking was an independent variable to test in the laboratory of the suffering person's life. Even if there was such a variable to tweak, however, there would still need to be some investment on the part of the person himself.

When I left social work, it was not due to burnout, it was the result of gaining insight.

I went in search of practical strategies I could experiment with to try to take better care of myself. I'd been attending weekly yoga classes with an exceptional teacher who uses a meditative approach. She pointed me to Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are which inspired me to experiment with bringing the practical strategies learned in yoga out into the ordinary activities of my life. When I heard about a four-day silent meditation retreat lead by Phillip Moffitt, I signed up months in advance. His wisdom articles in the Yoga Journal reminded me of the practical wisdom I'd discovered in these other books.

I was nervous about not talking for four days, but realized a few hours into the retreat that my worries had been misplaced. The silence ended up being a remarkable luxury, one that becomes more valuable as opportunities for experiencing it seem to become more scarce. What I wasn't prepared for was the rigorousness of the sitting and the boredom of the walking. This was problematic since these were the main activities we engaged in from very early in the morning until late at night. I was so physically and emotionally uncomfortable that I wanted to leave after a couple of days.

But when I met for my brief interview with Phillip, I told him that the only strategy that seemed to work when the physical pain became too intense to bear was the lovingkindness strategies I'd learned from Sharon's book. They involved considering the well-being of others and yourself. He suggested that if this approach brought relief, then perhaps it would be a good idea to include at least a bit of it during my daily meditation practice over the next two years to see if I noticed any impact.

I decided this prescription was either completely absurd or the most realistic suggestion about addressing some amorphous internal resistance that I'd ever encountered. Is it the consumerism that we're swimming in that makes us insist on instant resolution to our decades-old problems? When does anyone ever suggest more than ten or thirty days before promising to give your money back.

So I took him up on the challenge.

I attribute the consistency of my mindfulness practice since that day to this experiment. And I did notice an impact. But instead of noticing something being added to my life, I observed an erosion of an invisible barrier that I didn't know was there until it began to wear away. A wall between me and other people, but also between me and aspects of myself.

One of the most significant challenges I faced early on in the lovingkindess practice was trying to wish safety, happiness, health, and comfort for myself. Considering the well-being of the most difficult people in my life was much easier than this. I could simply not do it. It felt like a physical impossibility. One of the things I love about this work is that I did not need to get bogged down in this problem as a story to resolve. I did not go looking for causes, although looking back from the distance of years, I have some strong guesses about where the deeply ingrained self-loathing orignated. But reason alone would never have been enough to help me untangle them.

Periods of Incomprehension

Excerpt from "How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic Monthly, May 22, 2013:

"I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.

When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.

And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language.

The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me.

...There is a symmetry in language ads that promise fluency in three weeks and weight-loss ads that promise a new body in roughly the same mere days. But the older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend."

Sticking with Your Future

"We tried to predict which cadets would stay in military training and which would drop out. We went to the National Spelling Bee and tried to predict which children would advance farthest in competition. We studied rookie teachers working in really tough neighborhoods, asking which teachers are still going to be here in teaching by the end of the school year, and of those, who will be the most effective at improving learning outcomes for their students? We partnered with private companies, asking, which of these salespeople is going to keep their jobs? And who's going to earn the most money?

In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't I.Q. 

It was grit.

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."

~ Angela Lee Duckworth

See also:




Excerpt from "Find What You Love and Let It Kill You" by James Rhodes:

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be "good enough".

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. 

Read the whole essay...

See also:

This is What I Found Through Practice

Exceprt from "Susan Blackmore on Zen Consciousness," To The Best of Our Knowledge, December 9, 2012:

Steve Paulson: I want to take you back to your Zen practice, and one thing I find curious is when I was reading how you describe it, you say you actually are not a Buddhist yourself. You practice Zen, but you don't call yourself a Buddhist. Why did Zen hit home for you so profoundly?

Susan Blackmore: Well, go back to the 1970s. And imagine me in the end of the hippy era, in all my flowing skirts, and my "far out, man," and listening to The Greatful Dead, and Pink Floyd, and taking interesting drugs, and all of that stuff. And I had an extraordinary out of the body experience, and I was really obsessed with trying to understand the mind.

I was studying physiology and psychology at Oxford, and that wasn't giving me  I mean, it was wonderful, I enjoyed it  but it wasn't giving me answers on those kinds of things.

I went searching. I trained as a witch and I learned to read tarot cards. I did all kinds of stuff, and I became a parapsychologist and looked for paranormal phenomena and never found any. One of the things in that whole mishmash of stuff, is that I came across a Zen group and started practicing meditation. All the other things gradually fell by the wayside — through my research as well as through my ordinary life. The Zen practice was the only thing that survived. And I found it enormously helpful, not just in the kind of intellectual way we are talking about now, but in the whole way of living my life.

But the really important thing for me is that when I write about Zen and about meditation and about what I have found, I want people to be clear that I'm not saying this is what the Buddha said or this is what Buddhism says. I'm saying, this is what I think I found through practice that I've been helped through Zen to learn. 

See also: "Higher Consciousness," To The Best of Our Knowledge, December 9, 2012

Room to Breathe

Room to Breathe Official Trailer from Russell Long on Vimeo.

Excerpt from "Meditation Creates a Little Breathing Space for San Francisco Students," by Richard Schiffman, Huffington Post, October 19, 2012:

There are two jobs that have become a lot more difficult in recent years. One is being a teacher, which was never easy at the best of times. But in an age of virtually unlimited opportunities for distraction and rapidly shrinking attention spans getting kids to focus on their schoolwork can be (with apologies to dentists) like pulling teeth. 

I know: As a former school aide working with young children, it was often all that I could manage just to break up fights and keep the decibel level below that at an international airport. Any "education" that actually took place in such an environment was a small miracle.

The other job that has become a whole lot harder, of course, is being a student. Believe me, I sympathize with their plight too! Today's kids are weaned on electronic devices where they move between one website, text-message, or video game and the next at lightning speed. Where does a child learn how to direct their attention to just one math problem or reading assignment when there are so many distractions a click away?

Yet recently I watched a deeply moving and inspiring film that gave me hope. Room to Breath, by director Russell Long was filmed in a public school in San Francisco. The Marina Middle School with 900 students is one of the largest in the Bay Area, and it has the dubious distinction of having the highest suspension rate in the city.


Looking Back

"It was Bea Feitler who taught me that you learn by looking back."

~ Annie Leibovitz, recent recipient of the Wexner Prize

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ - "Documentary" from Homestead on Vimeo.

See also: 


Cultivating Well-Adjusted Humans

I wrote this letter of appreciation a couple of years ago when Lanning's Learning Tree Child Care Center closed in Wichita, Kansas. I am very lucky to have worked there while I was in college. It was a job that fit me better than any other I've had since then and I learned so many important lessons.

Thank You Lanning's Learning Tree
by Daron Larson 

I had personal motives for wanting to work at Lanning’s Learning Tree. I’ve been aware of a strong parenting impulse since I was a child myself, but I knew that I had many things to learn before taking on this significant responsibility. I remember taking a developmental psychology class at Wichita State and discovering that the complex task was full of paradoxes and counter-intuitive insights.

Children need consistent limits in order to feel safe in the world. They need to be stimulated to develop their capacity to appreciate the world around them and to see things from the perspective of others. When freedom is so great that boundaries can’t be identified, a child can grow to feel like he’s floating in a universe that is completely random and unpredictable. When boundaries are too strict and confining, a child can become too afraid to venture outside her own limited point of view.

College is a great place to learn about theories, but where could I possibly go to find out how to put these insights to work and to develop the practical skills required for nurturing a young human being into a thriving adult? Lanning’s Learning Tree.

I learned that reading and singing to young children are like soil and water and sunshine to flowers. It literally passes on to them the gift of language which we so easily take for granted.

I learned that our expectations of children need to be based on developmental stages which are constantly changing yet generally predictable. Demanding apologies and sharing before these social skills begin to appear just frustrates all parties involved and serve no real benefit.

I learned that when a child is ready to play on a particular playground structure, she will seek it out and climb on it herself and then be able to make her way back down without assistance.

I learned that it is the responsibility of the caregiver to set up an environment where children can succeed. We find ways to gently redirect attention and increase the opportunities for responding with praise rather than raining down a steady stream of correction. It’s so much more satisfying to do your strategic work up front instead of having to constantly cook up consequences for avoidable problems.

I learned that self-esteem can’t be forced on children because we love them, but that it flows naturally in response to their individual willingness to engage in tasks that challenge them.

I learned that children tend to repeat behaviors that evoke intense reactions in adults. If the reaction is strongly negative, they will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. If the reaction is positive, the will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. Some kids go through their entire childhood getting in trouble just so they can hear their name repeated over and over again with emotion, even if the emotion is unpleasant.

I learned that children influence caregivers as much as caregivers influence children.

And I learned to review the guidelines and strategies on a regular basis to remember and clarify and reinforce what I assumed I already understood.

I cherish my memories of showing up to work while it was still dark, helping serve breakfast, walking the school-age children to elementary school, attending my college classes, waiting for the end of school bell to ring, walking the kids back to Lanning’s, and then hanging out reading and playing games until their parents came to pick them up.

I observed directly the developmental stages in constant bloom all around the various buildings and playgrounds. It felt like a laboratory for cultivating well-adjusted humans where the teachers, like scientists, were consistently challenged to actively introduce creative independent variables with the greatest likelihood of helping children thrive and blossom. All of this helped shape me into the parent that I became.

No possession or job title or award or amount of money can even approach the value of this to me. No one ever manages to do this perfectly, but I have been the best parent I could possibly have been because of my time at Lanning’s Learning Tree.

For this I am deeply, deeply grateful.

See also: