Monday, March 30, 2009

Nourishing Potential

Visibility and Attention

When I speak of visibility, I’m referring not to what’s visible to us, but how visible we are to others. To feel another’s attention is almost like being touched. If it’s positive attention, accepting and encouraging, it’s like being stroked. If it’s negative, critical and rejecting, it feels like we’re being hit. This isn’t just metaphor. If someone looks at us with contempt, it makes our heart race. We respond physically to how others react to our presence. The chemicals and muscle tension register whether we choose to consciously acknowledge it or not.
Psychologist Nathanial Branden feels that our most important social need is for visibility. We need to feel seen and responded to by others. It’s an affirmation that we exist. When we feel we are seen we feel connected to the world, when we feel we aren’t we're isolated. When people are listening in conversation it feels good, if they aren’t it’s frustrating. When a parent turns away from a child, the child feels unworthy of attention. The state of invisibility leads to whatever actions have been known to get attention in the past.
A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that every student in this very smart class of illusionism students had been diagnosed with attention problems. It bothered me that such an interesting and varied group of intelligent minds had been identified as defective. My concern grew when during the hardest assignment I gave that semester, the room was as quiet as a library, everyone thoroughly concentrated, and their attention held the whole evening. Throughout the semester the harder the assignment, the more complete their attention. This started me wondering how much of what we’re terming a defect might be boredom reflecting capacities we don’t consider in our model of education. Given the complex stimulation of the modern world from the beginning of life, these students may have developed intelligence that the 20th century educational model fails to take into account. What doesn’t fit the old model is diagnosed as a condition to be fought instead of a new capacity to nourish. The current methods of evaluation try to fit complex individuals into narrow slots thought up by someone who probably has an entirely different life experience. To succeed the student may have to override what they feel is interesting and important to adopt a standard that may not have any usefulness in their world. The way we approach standards today has too much to do with power. It serves to filter out all but those who match the values of those who set the standards. It puts people with different kinds of excellence at a disadvantage. Limited models of reality cloak the range of human perspectives. Everything else is invisible. Beyond the knowledge we fail to take into account is the disrespect implied by not seeing other points-of-view.
With loving, respectful attention people can grow and develop their particular capacities. Studies of motivation in ‘91 (Caine &Caine) have shown the superiority of internal motivators to external- whether punishment or reward. We have much better results when we feel we’ve chosen our own goals. They write, “…internal motivation becomes difficult to generate as people begin to see themselves as fulfilling only goals formed by others.” All researchers come to same conclusion- we need to abandon the “paradigm of behavioral contingency”. Neither carrots nor sticks got the best results.
Education needs to develop ways to see the individual and offer means for each to pursue projects that match and further their interests. To pay attention and offer the support we see as necessary, the student becomes more engaged, more visible, without being controlled.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Centering Change


One of the first things that attracted me to the “I Ching” was the assumption that everyone knows right from wrong. It always counsels us to be “firm and correct”, never explaining what that is. The ancient Taoist belief was that if you wrote it down, spelled it out, people would figure out how to get around it, whereas if you looked at a world of constantly changing relationships, fairness and the right course of action could be judged individually. Every situation is different.
Erich Fromm distinguished two different types of ethics, referring to them as humanitarian and authoritarian. The attitude of the “I Ching” aligns well with the humanitarian mode which is golden rule based. We know what right is by what we do or do not want to be done to us. The study of mirror neurons gives that idea a concrete basis. What we see enacted, we feel inside through neuronal mimicry. This is working in all but the rare individuals psychiatry used to call sociopaths, who could hurt others without conscience because they were so disconnected from their own feelings that they could feel no sympathy for others. This would suggest that we can become more conscientious in our relations to others if we understand our own feelings better. Seek out the imagery that stirs our deepest places and reflect on what that shows. Pay attention when actions are out of proportion to the situation and search out the older pattern that was triggered.
Authoritarian ethics holds up obedience as the primary good and disobedience as the central evil. Yet people have done some terrible things while under orders. Obedience delivers us from the responsibility to understand right and wrong for ourselves. This is likely why Krishnamurti felt that all authority is an obstacle.
Goodness has nothing to do with the law. My efforts not to hurt others have nothing to do with being afraid of punishment. A picture of a young swimming star smoking pot at a party is only an issue because we treat obedience as more important than virtue. The fact that Michael Phelps is a role model has nothing to do with external obedience to authority. He’s an example to others because of his inner discipline and determination, his humility and genuineness, qualities anyone would do well to emulate. At the other end of the scale, we have authority’s representatives aiming all of their attention at the disobedience itself, since for them that is the more serious threat to cultural willingness to obey at all costs.
The laws most often invoked to bring someone down are laws about lying, where a person’s human instinct for self-protection is brought into conflict with authority’s insistence on truth or penalty. The original offense may not seem that serious, but the disobedience involved in lying for self-protection can be inflated endlessly as disrespect for the “rule of law”. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair, not for the affair itself. Long before humans evolved, creatures were using deception to protect themselves. Peter Breggin wrote that when children lie, it’s because they feel unfairly coerced. The same strategies are carried into adulthood.
The focus on the law is eroding our goodness, our ability to practice virtue because it develops the connections between us, because we choose to, because it enlarges us and helps us grow as human beings. Being good makes us feel good, not because it builds self -esteem but because in the act, we’re not thinking of ourselves at all but reaching out and participating in a bigger picture in which we are included. As social beings our reward system supports helping each other. It comes naturally. Led by our sense of beauty, we act in harmony with our situation and take pleasure in kindness.
Thich Nhat Hnan said smiling is mouth yoga. It stimulates good brain chemistry in ourselves and in everyone we smile at, lighting up their mirror neurons. It’s an easy way to spread goodness, positive brain chemistry and reinforce the goodwill within us.