Chapter 1: Relationship
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Chapter 1: Relationship
At school we were taught mathematics, reading, and the geography of the world, but few of us were taught much about the geographical mapping of the home we live in—our bodies. –D. Farhi, pg. xv
It is the first day of class. You are the “teacher”—expectant, a bit nervous, hopeful that all will go well this year. You hear a rustling in the hallway. The time has come. In a moment your classroom will be filled. But filled with what exactly? What is about to walk through the door? Pause for a moment. Take this question seriously. It is a question about perception—what you “see” walking through the door will determine, in large measure, what is possible in your classroom this year.
For many years what I perceived that what entered my classroom were beings that seemed, for the most part, withdrawn, afraid, and resigned. I was seeing in them what also lived in me—fear, anxiety, resignation—and this kept me from being present to them, limiting possibilities for genuine learning. Caught in this perception, it was easier to participate in the charade—to play the game of “let’s pretend” that so often passes for education—than to be real, alive, present. That is changing. These days I see that what enters my classroom are people, each unique, each filled with hopes, fears, values, beliefs—each with fantastic possibility—each on a journey to awareness.
A good starting point for this “journey to awareness” is to be awake to the fact that we, each of us, experiences the world in something physical called a “body” and that this body is connected to the entire universe. Indeed, as Nisker (2001; pg. 12) points out:
“Science is showing us our oneness with all things. The physicists have found evidence that we are sub-atomically joined at the hip to absolutely everything else in creation. The chemists and biologists have named the common molecules that make us co-existent with the atmosphere, the earth, and all other living things.”
And now the last student has arrived. Put yourself in the classroom. There you are. You make eye contact with each of these beings gathered around you, with the knowledge that they are not simply minds, but, rather, body-minds. Yes, the mind and body are not separate; they are joined, one, with mind infusing body. You know, too, as you behold these beings, that education is a “journey to awareness” and that your job as teacher is to serve as guide, and that included in your “job” description is a requirement that you guide your students into a deeper awareness of that which is most fundamental to their existence—their magnificent mysterious bodies.
So, it is that we begin this exploration of what it would mean to teach as if life matters, not with the traditional emphasis on things such as assessment, classroom management, and pedagogy, but, rather, with an inquiry into the form and function of our very bodies—not as objects to be manipulated, but as subjects for relationship.
Our starting question is one that I often ask my students on the first day of class—namely: “Who are you?” If you are like them, you will respond by giving your name and your social identity (e.g., “I’m Joe, a sophomore, majoring in communications.”). What you are unlikely to say, or have much conscious awareness of, is that who you are, most essentially and fundamentally, is a vertebrate, a mammal, a biped, a primate. Strangely, many of us fail to see ourselves as living organisms—beings with bodies—mammals!
It seems that we have been conditioned by our culture to see/perceive our bodies as objects—things that we wake up with, feed, and put to bed. We live in our heads imagining that our brains are all that matter. But consider: Our bodies are not “objects;” they are dynamic happenings. To awaken to the dynamism of your particular body, pause and place your finger on your wrist to locate your pulse. This is the life force throbbing within you, renewing and invigorating your cells. Take a moment more to examine the skin on your wrist with the knowledge that all of your skin is completely replaced every six weeks, the old skin cells sloughed off and new cells created—a new you! Such is the body’s dynamism. Finally, hold a hand up to your mouth and breathe out feeling the moisture and warmth of your breath, bringing you news of your body’s hot core—the metabolic fire burning in each of your body’s trillions of cells.
Indeed, all of us are, first and foremost, a body. But in our schools, when teachers tend to treat students as “brains on a stick,” it is easy to forget this. Indeed, teachers, often unwittingly, encourage students to detach—separate from—their bodies. In so doing they are simply reinforcing a distrust of the body that has operated for thousands of years in the West. At least since the time of the Greeks, Western thinkers have denigrated the physical, arguing that our bodies are base, out-of-control and in need of discipline. The antidote to the wild body is the mind with its capacity for reason, logic, pure thought. So it is that we have been encouraged to worship the mind while holding the body in contempt.
Living Outside Our Bodies
It is no surprise then that many modern people live, in effect, outside of their body. In this vein, I a reminded of a story I was once told about a Yanomami Indian who became very sick and came out of the Amazon jungle in search of help. Eventually he made his way to a small village on the banks of the Rio Negro and there he was directed to a health clinic. While he was recovering in the clinic, a nurse gave him some crayons and suggested that he draw a picture. She was astounded by what happened next: The man first made an outline of a human body; then he filled in a human skeleton; in the skeleton he crayoned in the organs making up the body; next came layers of muscle; only at the very end did the Indian add skin and clothes. If the nurse had not been there to watch she would have only seen the final picture—a brown-skinned man wearing shorts and a tee shirt. This native man had a way of seeing that was very different from that of “civilized” people. It seems that he was seeing more deeply, more fully, more holistically; he understood that humans have bodies. In our so-called “civilized” society, by contrast, crayoning is done in coloring books; the human figures already have clothes on; all that’s left to do is to color the clothes.
Teachers guide students on their journey to awareness by helping them observe, question, experiment, and practice. Thus, the starting place for teaching as if life matters is to apply these verbs—observing, questioning, experimenting, practicing—to the exploration of our bodies and in so doing to help students awaken to the magnificence of their own bodies. Yes, it is time to welcome the body into the classroom.
Our Bodies as Teachers
When the idea of this book first began to gestate I knew right off that I wanted the first chapter to be focus on the body. I didn’t reach this conclusion through any logical process. I just knew that the body—my body—would be my starting point. My approach here is to consider what I/we might learn from our bodies: What might the breath teach us? What about our skin? How about our bones? And our cells? Our atoms? And last, but not least, what about our hearts?
Our Breath as Teacher: Inviting Presence
Our first breath heralds the beginning of our lives, just as our last breath signals our death. In between birth and death, we are gulping air constantly. It would have been more to the point had Descartes said, “I breathe therefore I am!” Why? Because we can’t think without our breath but we can and do breathe without thought.
Air, along with the nutrients we take in with the food we eat, is what powers our cells. Resting you use about 8 quarts of air each minute; when you walk around, your consumption doubles to 16 quarts; and when you play basketball or take a jog, you are likely taking in 40 or more quarts of air each minute. Indeed, you and I are immersed in air as surely as the fish of the sea are immersed in water. Take a fish from the water and it flops and dies; likewise, remove us from our native medium, air, and we collapse. If you need reminding, simply hold your breath and watch what happens. In a short time the blood vessels in your head will begin to bulge and your heart will start pounding as your body aches for oxygen.
Our breathing happens on its own; life literally breathes through you; you might say, life breathes you. To experience this right now, bring your attention to your breath and each time you exhale release any anticipation of your next breath. Just relax and allow yourself to be surprised by the coming of each new breath. You are truly being breathed by the universe; the universe is breathing through you (Nisker, 1998).
The Art of Breathing: Each of us was born knowing how to breathe. It doesn’t take practice. Observe a baby lying on her back and you will see a model for good breathing. On the in-breath the child’s lungs expand and her diaphragm drops down causing her soft belly to rise effortlessly while massaging her internal organs; then on the out-breath her belly flattens as her diaphragm pushes up, helping the lungs to deflate.
Unfortunately, by the time most of us reached high school we were no longer breathing in this natural, full way. We had, in effect, forgotten how to breathe. Watch an adult’s breathing and you are likely to note that the action is restricted to the upper chest area. The breath is shallow; the belly doesn’t rise on the in breath, nor is the belly soft. This is what Gay Hendricks (1995) calls “upside down breathing.” Rather than having the belly inflate outward with the in-breath, the chest rises up, while the belly remains flat and often tight. Do a check on yourself right now. Take a deep breath. If you are like most folks you will suck your belly in and tighten your abdominal muscles, while lifting and inflating your upper chest. This is classic “upside down breathing.” In healthy breathing, the chest rises up very little; rather it is the belly that inflates outward because of the downward action of the diaphragm.
Our diaphragms are the key element for healthy breathing. This thin, dome-shaped sheet of muscle is located at the interface between your lungs and your abdominal cavity. If it helps, think of the abdominal cavity as a snare drum with the diaphragm as the drumhead. On the in breath, provided the belly muscles are relaxed, this drumhead expands downward creating space in the chest cavity so that air is able to come all the way to the bottom of the lungs. However, if the belly is tight, the diaphragm will not be able to sink down, and breathing will be restricted to the upper chest.
When our breathing is shallow (i.e., upside-down breathing), the air we take in comes into contact with fewer capillaries in the air sacks of our lungs. In fact, each minute only about ½-cup of blood flows through the top of the lungs—where many people confine their breathing. When breathing extends to the middle of the lungs, the incoming air has access to about two cups of blood each minute; when breathing is extended to the bottom of the lungs, 4-5 cups of blood are available for oxygen uptake each minute (i.e., about ten times more oxygen uptake potential compared to top-lung breathing) (Hendricks, 1995).
How is it that we have forgot how to breathe? In a word, “stress” is the main culprit. When we humans experience stress, our bodies tense up as a prelude to our innate “fight or flight” response. In this anxious state our breathing quickens and becomes shallow and chesty.
Stress has now become ubiquitous in America: We wake to an alarm clock, gulp down coffee to get geared up for the day, fight traffic to get to work where spend our time resolving problems. Then, exhausted, we return home where we zap some processed food in a microwave and veg out in front of the television. Stress is not limited to adults; adults transfer their anxieties to their kids, filling them with fear about survival in a “dog-eat-dog” world.
Because living under stress is all that most of us have ever known, we might mistakenly conclude that our lives are relatively stress free. Let’s see if that’s true. Pause right now and do a quick body scan, noting where you are holding tension in your body. Start with your face. Are your eyes soft and relaxed or a bit strained? And how about your jaw---is it loose (teeth not touching) and relaxed or slightly tensed (jaw ‘set’/teeth touching)? How about your neck—is it floating peacefully on your vertebral column or rigid? And now your chest—open and at ease or somewhat constricted? And, finally, your belly—is it soft like jelly or a bit tight/tense like fudge? Your body is a much more reliable source of information about the stress that you are holding than your brain because it is in your body that you hold your stress.
Modern-day stressors can be very subtle as can their effects on our nervous system and our breathing. For example, a recent university study revealed that simply walking on hard surfaces (e.g., concrete/asphalt) as compared to natural surfaces (grass) “causes people to unconsciously brace their bodies by tightening their abdomens and breathing faster and higher up in their chests. It is thought that the jarring of hard surfaces increases our arousal response and thereby increases our risk of illness” (Farhi, 1996, pg. 71).
Another subtle stressor is the cultural taboo against rounded, soft bellies. Look at the covers of popular magazines and note how almost all of the pictures are of men and women with flat, tight bellies. When was the last time you let your belly hang out? Holding the belly in—tight and braced—has become a way of being (Hendricks, 1996). The tragedy here is that with the belly in and braced we can no longer breathe in a healthy, natural way.
What human beings really want is to feel good—to be filled with vitality and a reliable path to vitality is through the breath. Movement therapist and yoga teacher Donna Farhi says it this way:
“If you wish to have a breathing body, a body filled with true energy and vitality, it will be necessary to reinvent yourself with you own definition of beauty. I am always amazed at how wonderful men and women look when they are comfortable in their bodies, regardless of their shape or size and how, even the most classically beautiful people, appear unattractive when they are constricting (or have an obvious loathing for) their bodies. When you allow your body to breathe freely you will exude an air of confidence and ease so that your real beauty—who you are—can shine though. What makes you feel good can also make you look good” (pg. 39, Farhi, 1996).
Cultivating Breath Awareness: Cultivating breathing awareness can yield unexpected dividends for teachers and students alike. Consider your own experience as a learner: Can you learn when you are tense, uptight, constricted? And now place yourself in the role of a teacher who, noting the signs of stress in the bodies of her students, decides to take steps to help her students cultivate breathing awareness to reduce stress and thereby enhance learning. Rather than be something cute or trivial, teaching breath awareness should be a high priority for as Gay Hendricks points out:
“Since yesterday at this time you have taken perhaps twenty thousand breaths. In your lifetime you will breathe in and out more than a hundred million times. Given the sheer volume, it is easy to take breathing for granted, to assign it to the deep background of life. But what if you made a tiny improvement in something you did that many times? If you can learn to breathe even a little bit better, you will notice immediate, profound shifts in your physical mental and emotional well-being” (pg. 4).
Indeed, “Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level and your concentration. Everything you do, the pace you keep, the feelings you have, and the choices you make are influenced by the rhythmic metronome of your breath. . . . By refining and improving the quality of our breathing we can feel its positive impact on all aspects of our being” (pg. xiv-xv; Farhi, 1996).
How might teachers invite students to give attention to something that takes care of itself—something that, perhaps, they have never consciously attended to? I find that there is no better starting place than guiding students into a felt experience of breathing. It is a simple as asking students to bring their attention to their breath and then while they are focusing on their breath to consider questions such as:
-Where do you experience your breathing—Chest? Ribs? Nostrils? Shoulders? Pelvis?
-Where in your body does your breath originate?
-What does you breathing FEEL like?—Smooth? Jerky? Thick? Raspy? Rhythmic?
-What is the frequency of your breath—i.e., the duration of your in-breath compared to
-What about the depth of your breath—deep or shallow or in between (Farhi, 1996)?
To answer these questions, students have to study their own breath. In so doing, they become aware of their breathing, perhaps for the first time. As this happens, they come to realize that their breath is a kind of “teacher,” inviting them into body awareness, body presence.
The most basic breathing practice, and the one I share with my students, requires that one simply sit upright in a chair with head in alignment with spine. Once students have settled into an alert, relaxed position I ask them to bring their attention to their breath. And then I direct their attention to their breath coming into their body (diaphragm lowering, belly rising) and then leaving their body (diaphragm rising, belly settling). To get a tactile sense of the breath, I have them rest their hand softly on their bellies and to feel their belly rising and falling. I remind them that they shouldn’t try to control their breath; just witness it as it moves in and out. And there is no need to verbalize or conceptualize. It is enough for them to simply feel their breath as it passes in and out through their nostrils, to feel it as it opens and deflates their chest, to feel it as it lifts and lowers their belly.
The idea is for my students to observe their breath closely—to really study it. There is more to see than just an in-breath and an out-breath. Every breath has a beginning, middle and end. Every inhalation goes through a process of birth, growth, and death and every exhalation does the same. As Nisker (pg. 37, 1998) points out, “If you sit with your breath for just a few minutes, you can actually feel that with every inhale energy is being pulled in and filling your body, the oxygen flowing to all of your cells and being consumed to keep you alive. Each breath is a gift…”
As my students learn to observe their breath, they find that their attention often wanders. At first, to even manage one in-breath and one out-breath without having thought intrude is quite an accomplishment. This is not surprising because we, humans, are habituated to thinking. Indeed, much of our "waking" life is spent in our heads, thinking about the past or the future. When attention wanders, I guide students to simply note that their thoughts have wandered without making any self judgments. When they return to their breath, they are automatically placed back in the present. I encourage students telling them that the breath, once they learn to befriend it, can serve as an anchor, helping them return to their “center” throughout the day and especially in moments of upset.
As teachers, it makes no sense to introduce breathing or centering practices into the classroom unless we, ourselves, have developed personal practices in this realm. If you don’t believe wholeheartedly in the power of the breath to bring yourself and your students more fully to life, your students will pick this up and you will surely fail. If body and breath work are new to you, don’t despair. Consider it as an opportunity for learning. Beyond practicing on your own, consider requesting time off to gain competence in body awareness, pointing out to your superiors that it will enhance your capacities as a teacher and a learner. If they don’t understand, consider using a portion of your summer vacation to go on a meditation retreat or breathing workshop. Opportunities to explore ‘body/breath work’ abound and are easy to locate on the internet via “google.”
It may seem strange to suggest that an essential part of schooling should involve learning how to breathe or that to graduate from high school students should demonstrate competency in breath awareness and have mastery of the “essential breath.” Yet, this is precisely what I am calling for because there are manifold lifelong benefits that accrue from learning the art of healthy breathing.
Our Skin as Teacher: Inviting Intimacy
Recently I did an experiment. As students came into my classroom I greeted them as I customarily do and I also touched each person unobtrusively on the arm. Then, before class began I asked if anybody had been physically touched by me as they came into the room. Most students registered my touch. I used this as a jumping off point to explore the subject of touch. To get students involved I invited them to explore their personal “touch history.” This involved reflecting on questions such as:
• What are you earliest memories of being touched?
• Can you recall experiences of being touched by your mother, father, siblings, grandparents, teachers?
• What are your favorite ways of being touched?
• Do you have personal prohibitions and/or discomforts around touch?
• What is you experience of touch with pets?
• How about your experience with clothing and objects (e.g., teddy bear) that offer tactile comfort?
These questions offer a means for initiating a conversation about touch. Lamentably, there is a great deal of ambivalence around touch in our culture. From an early age, we hear the message, “Don’t touch!” This remonstration comes in many forms—Don’t touch the stove, the wet paint, your father’s tools, that bug, someone else’s toys, your “privates.” The message is clear: Touch is dangerous! The prohibition on touch is particularly emphatic in our schools where touch is often associated with sexual harassment and promiscuity. For both teachers and students alike, the message is: Keep you hands to yourself!
The prohibitions that surround body touching in the West have trace their origins, in part to Christian religious teachings that regard it as shameful and therefore sinful to participate in actions that have no other motive except to bring pleasure to the body. Caught in this cultural vacuum, it is no wonder that children and adults, alike, seek substitutes—in the form of stuffed animals, baby blankets and pets—for the touch that human nature leads us to crave.
Human touch is essential to human survival and well being. Babies who are denied touch fail to thrive and often die. Indeed, the great majority of infants (less than one-year-old) who were cared for in orphanages in the early 1900s in the U.S. died. Absent the presence of a mother to hold them, rock them, nurture them, they literally wasted away. Touch is also essential to wellbeing of adults, particularly when we become ill. For example, the fluttering heartbeat of coronary patients in intensive care units calms down, becoming more regular, when a nurse holds a patient’s hand to take his/her pulse, only to revert to an abnormal state when the nurse leaves (Davis, 1999).
Rabbits Teach us About Touch
A research team at the Ohio State University School of Medicine was studying the effects of a high fat diet on cholesterol levels and arterial thickening in rabbits. As expected, they found, overall, a strong positive correlation between fat in the diet and arterial blockage due to cholesterol. However, there was one grouping of rabbits subjected to the high-fat diet that failed to show the expected increase in cholesterol and associated arterial thickening. The researchers were mystified by this seemingly anomalous result until it was revealed that the particular investigator who had cared for the rabbits showing the unexpected result had a habit of petting, stoking and talking softly to the rabbits under his care. Was this merely a coincidence? To find out the research team decided to run a second experiment with two groups of rabbits, both receiving the same high-fat diet and treated identically in every way except that the rabbits in one group were removed from their cages several times a day for petting and stroking, always by the same investigator. At the conclusion of the experiment when the research team examined both groups of rabbit’s, they discovered that, indeed, the test group that had received regular handling had significantly less arterial thickening than the group that did not experience touch. To be absolutely sure, they conducted the experiment yet again only to encounter the exact same results. To put these rabbit results in a human context: Touching, stroking and soft talking significantly reduced the incidence of atherosclerosis, a vascular disease that kills more Americans than any other. Indeed, the evidence is mounting that touch is a most extraordinary “medicine,” for rabbits and humans, alike (Dossey, 2003).
But we don’t really need medical research to convince us that body touch is good for us. We all know how wonderful it feels to be touched. I remember to this day how sweet it was to have my mom rub my head at night when I was a little boy. And when my Father suffered a stroke and suddenly I had the opportunity to care for him instead of receiving his care, I know how sweet it was to be able to offer him foot massages. I also know how enlivening it was as an adult to live in Brazil, a place where social touching is as natural as breathing. In this vein, Davis (1999) observes that U.S. friend talking in a coffee shop make physical contact, on average of two times per hour. Meanwhile, for two Puerto Rican friends, the average is 180 times per hour and Brazilians, I’d be willing to bet, average in this same ballpark.
We humans are made for touching. We are covered with skin, not a hard shell. In fact, the average human has 18 square feet of skin embedded with five million nerve endings, each ready to be triggered by touch. Do you suppose this is some accident of nature? Hardly! Our skin is there for relationship. It allows us to experience and receive the world. Think about it: If touch didn’t feel good, there would be no pair bonding, no sex, no mothering, no fathering, no species, no survival! We are hard-wired for touch.
When the natural desire to both give and receive touch is frustrated, as it is, to a significant extent in our culture, this blockage manifests in various forms of social dysfunction. In this vein, Prescott (cited in Davis, pg. 109), conducted a study of 49 distinct human cultures and found that in cultures with high levels of violence, the children tended to receive relatively little human contact and affection; whereas in cultures were the incidence of violence was low or non-existent, young children received comparatively high amounts of touch and affection. Prescott also found that cultures where affectionate touching behaviors were prohibited tended exhibit such unsavory social practices as slavery, wife purchasing, theft, sexual mutilation and the killing of enemies. “Apparently the restriction of outlets for physical pleasure and skin stimulation results in frustration and efforts to seek other forms of stimulation, most of which are counter productive to a society” (pg. 109; Davis, 1999).
It may very well be that the antisocial behavior evidenced among school kids, including precocious sexual activity, would largely disappear if our children received a steady diet of loving touch from their very first days of life. Indeed, Prescott found that one variable alone, determined with 80% accuracy for whether adults in a given culture were violent or peaceful. The factor was the presence of physical contact in child rearing—specifically, ensuring that newborns were in close and continual body contact with their mothers or other adult caretaker. This means being jostled about on a caretaker’s back or hip during the day and sleeping with a loving adult at night. In other words, it means receiving lots and lots of touch, conveying the message that the child is unconditionally loved and cared for.
Our skewed and backward beliefs about body touching make it difficult for us to be open, loving, and nurturing human beings in our schools, at work, and in our homes with our children. And, yet, to “teach as if life matters” calls us to reach out and touch life, touch each other. It is through touch as much as anything that we bare witness. When words fail us it is touch that communicates more than words ever could. When we allow for touch, we make the classroom hospitable for the wholeness—the body, mind, and spirit—that is each student.
Dianne Connelly (All Sickness is Home Sickness, pg. 100) captured the magic and power of touch with these words:
‘Little do I know the extent of my identity with my body until I am touched. Little am I present to my body, until a hand is laid upon me calling me to the “temple,” to the housing of my self, to the homing of my spirit, to the dwelling of my existence. . . The hand that touches my body touches my life. My body is in me. . . So, when you touch me, the “commons” of me, my body, you enter my life, my being, you come into my dwelling—no matter where you touch me. Touch always involves the presence of the body, my own and the other’s. Touch presences.’
Touch Explorations in the Classroom: Teachers can take the lead, helping colleagues and students alike, overcome the crippling taboos around touch. They can do this in a spirit of exploration and playfulness. For example, in addition to a “touch history” (described above), it may be timely to have students conduct school-wide, or even neighborhood-wide “body-touch surveys.” Questions might include:
• What comes to mind when you think of the word touching?
• On what part of the body do you usually touch people?
• Who touches you regularly?
• How do you usually want or like to be touched?
• Do you remember any particular time or times when touch especially helped you?
• Why do you think people don’t touch more?
• Why don’t you touch more?
• Who do you believe gets touched more often—men or women? Who do you believe does more touching?
• What do you think of this health prescription: “three hugs a day”? How many hugs do you get a day? How many do you want? (Paraphrased from pg. 215-216; Davis, 1999).
In addition, there are endless opportunities for creative social experimentation focusing on the effects and power of touch. Davis (1999) describes two such experiments involving students at Purdue University. In the first, clerks in the library were instructed to unobtrusively touch the hands of some book borrowers when taking their library cards and not to touch the hands of others. Then, as the borrowers left the library, they were approached and questioned about their experience in using the library that day. Those who had been touched by the clerks, even when they weren’t aware of it, reported more positive feelings about themselves, the clerks, and the library than those who were not touched.
In a second experiment, students purposely left a dime in a public telephone booth. Then they waited until someone went into the booth. When that person left the booth, the student who had “planted” the dime approached and asked if a dime had been found in the booth. The response was almost always no. Then, the experimenters decided to conduct the exact same experiment but this time when they asked if the dime had been found, they touched the person who had been in the booth on the arm for a few seconds. Under these new conditions, the dime was returned almost every time!
Finally, students can do “touch” experiments among themselves right in the classroom. For example, they might explore the range of emotions and intentions that can be communicated and experienced via touch. This can be revealing, especially because many people assume that touch is touch—it’s all the same! One protocol for this inquiry is to have students form pairs and sit facing each other. Have them decide who will be the toucher and who will be the touchee. Explain to the toucher that he will be using his hand to touch his partner’s forearm. Touching will occur four times. With each contact the toucher will convey one of the following emotions: anger, tenderness, indifference and sexual arousal. Before each touch the toucher will spend as much time as necessary to really feel inside the particular emotion that he will convey through his touch. For example, if the emotion is tenderness, the toucher might imagine that he is getting ready to reach out to gently and lovingly touch a sick child. After each touch, the person being touched (who sits with his eyes closed) interprets the touch as coming from anger, tenderness, indifference or sexual arousal. Only at the end will the person doing the touching confirm or deny the touchees answers.
An amazing thing happens when students do this experiment: They come to realize that they can both convey and correctly “read” a wide range of emotional states through touch. It’s virtually impossible to give “a perfunctory touch while saying you care, or a sexual touch while saying you just want to be friends and make it believable. You will know the difference and so will the one you touch” (Davis, 1999, pg. 22).
With exploration and experimentation, courage and love, we can reclaim our birthright to touch and stand with Walt Whitman in saying: Touch me, touch the palm of you hand to my body as I pass, Be not afraid of my body.
Our Bones as Teachers: Cultivating Awareness
It is so easy to take our bodies for granted. Here I am sitting typing away. But what’s holding me up? After all, my body is mostly water. It’s my skeletons of course. Without our skeleton all of us would be sloshing around on the ground like so many jellyfish.
The Human Skeleton: Can you remember the first time you saw a human skeleton? For me it occurred in Ms Duke’s tenth-grade biology class. I remember how excited she was when she announced that she had acquired a skeleton for us to study. Our response was muted, tainted with unease. “Whose skeleton was it?” someone asked. Ms Duke explained that it was someone unknown to us who had agreed to donate their skeleton to science after their death. In due course the skeleton was delivered to our classroom. I remember the whiteness of it. It seemed ghostlike. The skull pocked by gaping eye sockets and a clacking jaw gave me the willies. But beyond that I little recollection of that skeleton. What did I learn from being in it’s presence? I suppose I committed the names of some of the bones to memory: tibia, metatarsal, scapula, sternum….. but the lasting legacy of that skeleton was not awe or wonder, but, rather, a kind of disagreeable aftertaste—i.e., a subtle discomfort with all things skeletal. This aftertaste of persisted for some four decades. Then, I had the pleasure of reading Wes Nisker’s book, The Buddha’s Body.
In his book, Nisker offers a kind of guided meditation leading the reader through a tour of the body, using the roadways of the skeleton as the route. With Nisker as guide, suddenly the human skeleton was transmuted from something grotesque to something magnificent and awe-inspiring. Here is my abridged version of Nisker’s tour:
Come to a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, and then close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath, simply observing it, and relaxing, releasing any tension you might be holding.
When you are ready, bring your attention to your skull, sensing the hardness and weight of your skull bone. Sense this skull bone of yours by humming out loud. The vibration caused by this humming will resonate throughout the openings and cavities of your skull. Now bring your attention to your various skull openings—the holes for your eye sockets, nose, and mouth. Explore, in particular, your mouth cavity by clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth together. As you do this, experience the power of your jaws. These jaws—your jaws—connect you to your mammal lineage; you share your jawbone structure with all the “chewers” on the planet. Clack your teeth.
Next, move your attention down to your neck by placing your hand on your throat. Then speak out loud the words, “This is my neck,” noting the vibrations. The source of these vibrations is your vocal chords (small folds of flesh housed within your larynx) that, when coordinated with tongue and lips, give you the ability to talk. Again, speak a few words, paying attention to the exquisitely coordinated movements of your tongue, your lips and your mouth and the resultant vibrations that form in your throat. This capacity that you have for speech was pivotal in the development of human intelligence. Indeed, a significant portion of your brain is linked to speech.
Now, bring your attention to your spine. Extend your spine by stretching upward… then twist it, noting your spine’s flexibility. Even if you let the muscles of your torso go slack, while sitting or standing, your spine continues to offer shape and definition to your trunk, holding you erect. Nisker (page 73; 1998) offers a “deep time” perspective:
“Our spine and ribs were born in the ocean, as tubular-shaped marine creatures began to develop ridges that segmented their body, along with a flexible spinal rod called a notochord. The structure was a way to protect the innards while still allowing for mobility. Five hundred million years ago these “chordates” gave rise to the first vertebrates, which were primitive fish. Later these fish evolved into amphibians, and later reptiles and mammals. And we still carry [this] basic design, head to toes.”
From the spine, move your attention to the bones of your shoulders, shrugging and rotating them and then extending this movement out through your arms, noting all the ways that your arms can bend and twist. These arms and hands of yours that in your ancestors were used for locomotion—e.g., as fins and wings and forelegs—you now have available for other endeavors such as creating tools, playing, hugging.
Leave your arms and hands now and move your attention to your pelvis, the platform that serves as a fastener for your lower appendages. Move both of your legs, one at a time, paying special attention to the socket where your pelvis and your thigh bones join. Next, explore the range of motion possible in your knee and ankle joints. As you explore, consider the role that these legs of yours have played in the evolution of the human body: “Those who study evolution say that the actual human story begins in the African savannah, when our earliest ancestors switched from brachiating—swinging from one tree branch to another—to walking on the ground. That particular move, from the trees to the grasslands, required several major adaptations, including the behavior of rearing up and walking on two legs” (pg. 75-76, Nisker, 1998). Our legs have enabled us to stand upright. We humans are the ones who stand erect, arms free, head upright… with our hearts and soft bellies exposed to the world.
As we walk through the bones of our bodies, we are reminded that we share our basic body plan-- head, two arms, two legs, a trunk with all our mammals relatives. And we can go back further—350 million years ago—to the first reptiles and amphibians and see that we are also connected to them by this basic body plan.
And now, to conclude, bring your attention to your feet and toes. Flex your toes and then curl them. Consider that your primate ancestors used toes, not so different from yours, to hold onto branches and vines as they moved through the treetops. Drop your attention down to the bones and flesh of your feet, remembering that this place—your feet—is your base—your foundation—the place where you and Earth meet (Nisker, 1998).
A meditation like this, given its emphasis on awareness and grounding, might serve as kind of reminder that a teacher could return to from time to time inviting students to use body awareness to come back to center—back to ground.
Experiencing Deep Time
As a complement to the walk through the bones (above), if students are feeling bold and feisty, I offer them a lived experience of the human evolutionary journey. This journey begins with everyone, myself included, lying face down on the ground (preferably outside), with our feet together and our hands resting at our sides. When we are all settled in, I suggest that we all simply experience living in the world in this way—i.e., like worms with no appendages. I lead the way and soon everyone is slithering about in search of morsels of food. Then, after a few minutes, I explain that we are about to make a huge evolutionary leap forward. To do this we have to move our hands from their stationary position by our sides to a place beside our shoulders and set our palms so that they are pressing against the ground. We are now able to push up with our newly evolved paws and in so doing our horizons expand. Again we move about, this time dragging our tails behind—like bony fish come to land. And then it is time for another evolutionary leap—the move to quadruped mammals. I separate my legs and come up on all fours. Following my lead, some rise up as horses, others as ocelots, others as raccoons. Take your choice I tell them and do more: Take on the characteristics of the mammal you have chosen, imitating that being’s vocalizations, ways of movement, and habits and, as you do so, note how this affects your awareness and consciousness. Then, the time comes for the next evolutionary leap; we rise up onto two legs, becoming primates, enacting the habits, vocalizations and behaviors of chimpanzee, orangutan, gibbon, noting the advantages and limitations of the primate life style. Finally, it is time for us to stand fully erect as human beings and to consider the implications of this unique posture for the development of awareness and consciousness. In this act of standing, I invite students to stand tall, recognizing that they are part of an ongoing evolutionary saga (Gelb, 2002).
Bones, Bodies and Posture: As a teacher, I am aware that my skeleton—the way I move it and position it—communicates a great deal to students. So it is that I have been seeking to bring ever-greater awareness to my body posture. I have aided in this inquiry by my Life Coach, Richard Chadek. One of Richard’s most profound teachings came on a summer day in 2003. At the time, Richard and I were in Washington D.C, sitting on a bench close to the Vietnam Memorial. I was telling him that I sometimes lack confidence when presenting novel ideas and exercises to my students. Richard asked me if I would demonstrate what I was talking about. He offered to play the role of “student” and asked me to be “ teacher.” pg. xxiii I stood up, took a deep breath and began, inviting the class (personified by Richard) to participate in a role play, called the “amoeba of change,” designed to illustrate how social change occurs. When I was finished, Richard asked me to observe my body posture. In that moment I saw that my toes were pointing in toward each other, my knees were slightly bent, my hands were deep in my pockets with fists lightly clenched, my chest was slightly contracted, my shoulders were slumped forward and down, and my head was slightly bowed. Richard suggested that everything about my body presentation suggested that I was resigned to failure! He was right!
Next, Richard asked me to stand with my right foot a few inches in front of my left foot, while placing most of my weight on my left foot (i.e., so that I was leaning back slightly). Then he instructed me to arrange my body so that my torso and shoulders were drooping down somewhat. Finally, he instructed me to collapse-contract my chest a bit. Once I had settled into this posture of “back-down-contracted,” he asked me to check how I felt. Did I feel ready to greet the world? Was I filled with confidence and agency? Was I ready to launch a new initiative? Ready to embrace the next person I met? Hardly! What I felt was weak, vulnerable and a bit pathetic.
Finally, Richard invited me to transform my posture by: 1) shifting my weight forward to my right foot (i.e., leaning forward slightly; 2) lifting my torso and shoulders up a bit, toward the sky; and 3) opening and expanding my chest somewhat. The idea wasn’t to exaggerate, but simply to work within the range that was within my natural repertoire of movement. Once I had assumed this new posture (forward-up-open) Richard, again, asked me to observe how I felt. In this case, I felt bold, engaged, animated. Then, feeling playful, I experimented, shifting back and forth between the various positions—forward and back, up and down, open and contracted, checking for differences in my emotional state. I was surprised to note how simple, even subtle, changes in my body configuration affected my overall sense of ease, well-being and agency.
Change your Body Posture, Change Yourself
There is an additional exercise developed by Augusto Boal (1992) that compliments Richard’s ideas. Boal’s exercise (called “The Designated Leader”) allows teachers and students alike to explore how slight shifts in our body presentation can affect not only the way we feel, but, also how we are perceived. The exploration is simple. Imagine you are the teacher. Begin by inviting class members to stand in a circle with their eyes closed. Have them assume their normal body presentation (a la Richard). Once all eyes are closed, explain that you are going to pass around the outside of the circle and lightly touch just one person on the shoulder. This person is to adjust his/her body presentation in such a way as to convey that he/she is the leader of the entire group, without resorting to any exaggerated postures or expressions. Once everyone nods their understanding, you move around the outside of the circle and touch one of the students. Then invite everyone to open their eyes and survey those standing before them, trying to determine who the leader might be and then, after another moment, have everyone point to the leader. You can vary this investigation by telling those gathered that the exercise will be done twice and that their guesses will only be spoken after the completion of the second round. On the first round don’t, in fact, touch anybody and on the second round touch everyone! Follow this with a debrief inviting observations and insights. This exercise reinforces the power we have in our bodies to communicate presence and power.
Richard, concluded our time together in Washington by asking me which combination (back/forward, down/up, contracted open) came closest to how I presented myself to the world on a daily basis? In that moment I realized that I mostly knew myself to greet the world from a “back/contracted/down” position. “And if you put a word to your dominant position, what would it be?” asked Richard. My word, I realized was: “Careful!” When I changed my body posture to forward/up/open, I felt engaged in the world and my word shifted to “Ready!”
We can all take Richard’s teachings into our classrooms to help both ourselves and our students appreciate the power we have within our physical body to influence our overall state of wellbeing.
Our Hands as Teachers: Evoking Creativity
The inventor Buckminster Fuller used to hold up his hand when he gave public presentations and ask those gathered, “What is this?” Someone would invariable call out, “It’s a hand.” Fuller would then point out that when you look at your hand, “what you see is not a hand; it is patterned integrity.” The entire universe is manifested in your hands. Indeed, when you look at your hand, what you really see is “the universe’s capacity to create hands.” (pg. 4, Senge, et al. 2004)
Look at your hands—yes those hands of yours that are holding this book. If you are like most people, caught in the trance of daily life, you probably take those hands of yours for granted. Weeks may go by without noticing them. Then, something happens—you bang your thumb and yelp. Yes, pain awakens awareness. When author Alice Walker burned her hand, rather than ignoring the pain or popping pain killers (a common response to pain these days), Walker took another tack. She held her burnt hand with tenderness, caressing it, kissing it and even apologizing to her hand for hurting it. In effect, she experienced her burnt hand as a part of her which was hurting and responded by holding both her hand and herself with tenderness.
Looking Deeply into the Human Hand: Take a moment now and look through the skin of your hands to the underlying bone structure. In this bone structure we see evidence of our relatedness to the rest of the mammal line—even to bats for if you were to spread a bat’s wings, you would see etched in its wings essentially the same bone structure that defines your own hand, bone for bone.
Now, try moving your fingers one at a time. Then, bring your attention to your thumb—this remarkable appendage which sits opposite your fingers. Explore its dexterity and range of movement in concert with your four fingers. If you were to lose one of your fingers you could still get along OK; not so for your thumb. To appreciate your thumb’s specialness, try pinching your nose hard, using your index finger and thumb. Easy, right! Now try doing the same thing just using any combination of your fingers minus your thumb! If you want further proof of the benefits of your opposable thumb, use duct tape to immobilize your thumbs, taping them to the index finger of each hand. Now unbutton your shirt (Nisker, 1998).
The Buddhist teacher/activist Joanna Macy, in an effort to open awareness to the hand’s evolutionary journey, points out that it has taken almost five billion years of conditions particular to Planet Earth to bring forth the human hand. Macy and Brown (1998) offer a guided meditation that is useful in grasping this point. Though this exploration can be done alone, it is more powerful with a partner. I have my students find partners and then stand facing each other. Then, I have them close their eyes so that they can bring all their attention to the sensation of touch. With eyes closed they extend their right hands to each other and I guide them as follows:
“What is this object you are holding? There is life in it. If you were anywhere in outer space, in intergalactic reaches, and you were to grasp [this object], you would know that you were home. It is only made here. This is a human hand of Planet Earth and it has taken five billion years of conditions particular to this planet to shape it. Take both your hands now and turn it, feeling it, flexing it. Explore it with great curiosity as if you had never known one before, as if you were on a research mission form some other solar system. Please note the intricacy of the bone structure. Note the delicacy of the musculature, the soft, sensitive padding on palm and fingertips. No heavy shell or pelt encloses this hand. It is vulnerable; it is easy to break or burn or crush. It is an instrument of knowing as well as doing.
Open your awareness to its journey through time. This was a fin once in the primordial seas where life began, just as it was again in its mother’s womb in this lifetime. Countless adventures since than have shaped it…. This hand connected with tree and wind as it refined its intelligence. This hand: the ancestors are in it, ancestors who learned to push up on dry land, to climb, to reach, to grasp, to chip rocks, to gather weeds and weave them into baskets, to gather seeds and harvest them and plant them again; to make fire and carry it, banked, on the long marches through the ages of ice. It’s all in that hand from an unbroken succession of adventures.
Similarly, open your awareness to this hand’s journey through this particular lifetime, ever since it opened like a flower as it came out of its mother’s womb. Clever hand that has learned so much: learned to reach for breast or bottle, learned to tie shoelaces, learned to write and draw, learned to wipe tears, learned to give pleasure. You know there are people living now who believe they are worthwhile and lovable, because of what [this] hand has told them. [And] there are people living now whose last touch in life will come from this hand and they will be able to go into their dying knowing they are not abandoned. [Too,] there are people living now who will be healed in mind or body by the power that this hand allows to flow through it. So experience how much you want [this] hand to be strong and whole for this time, to serve its brother-sister beings and the planet of which it is a part. And before you part, learn it by heart so that you can remember it is always part of your world. Experience how much you want it to be strong and play its part in the building of a culture of sanity and decency and beauty. Without words, express your appreciation of this hand, and your blessing for it.” (pages 96-97; Macy and Brown, 1998).
I always do a “debrief” after this exercise, first allowing time for partners to share their experience, followed by an opportunity for sharing among all group members. It is not uncommon for students to observe that, though they learned about evolution in high school, it has never occurred to them that their very own hands embody the story of evolution from the ancient past to the present.
The Healing Power of our Hands: Imagine this scene: A group of small children are frolicking in a playground at recess and one falls down hard smashing his right knee into the pavement. He yelps out in pain and begins to cry. His teacher, hearing the boy cry out, goes to him and gently puts her hands on both sides of his bruised knee. She assures him that everything will be okay and asks him to breathe with her…. In breath; out breath. Once the boy stops crying and begins to relax the teacher explains that there is reason why she has put her hands on both sides of his knee. Our hands, she explains, contain energy and this energy can be used to heal ourselves and each other. Yes, touch is more than mere physical stimulation. If that’s all it was, we could use a machine to rock and pet an infant but we know that this would not satisfy the baby’s craving for the life-force energy and love that are embodied in human touch.
As the above scenario suggests, we have amazing power in our hand—our hands can heal. The healing occurs through a process called “resonance.” Modern physics teaches us that everything in the universe vibrates. This means each of our bodies vibrates; we are all vibrating with life-force energy but we vibrate at different frequencies.
Anybody, with a little practice can learn to heal with his/her hands. We can do this by raising the energy vibration in our hands and, then, placing our hands in proximity to a body part that is in pain. For example, if your friend is experiencing a headache, you could very lightly place you hands on both sides of the region in pain and hold them there for 20-30 minutes while at the same time breathing energy up through you body and out through your hands. “By sandwiching” the area of pain between your hands, you are in effect creating a strong resonant field that will allow that tissue to change vibration and heal itself” (pg., 50; Gordon, 2006). Richard Gordon, author of Quantum Touch, calls this “running energy.” Anybody can do it and with a little practice you can document the effects for yourself.
Using our Hands to Align Inner Resolve with Body Energy: A deepening awareness of the human hand reveals that our hands are not simply “tools” for accomplishing physical tasks. Indeed, just think for a moment of the ways you use hand gestures to express yourself—your anger, outrage, approval, delight, uncertainty. Consider, too, the power of sign language to communicate complex thoughts and feelings. And there is more: People in Asia consciously place their hands in certain positions to help align their body energy and inner resolve with larger energy fields. Such hand positions are called “mudras.”
I introduce my students to mudras by inviting them to place their two hands at chest level, allowing the finger tips of their right hand to touch the corresponding finger tips (including thumbs) of their left hand—forming a kind of tent with the palms a couple of inches apart. Pause for a moment to try this. As you place your hands in this mudra, see if you sense any energetic shifts in your body. Play with this by going back and forth, creating and dissolving the mudra noting any effects, however subtle, on your energy level. Now, explore further by separating your fingers and then bringing only the thumbs of each hand together. Then, one by one, slowly bring your index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers and pinkies into light contact, being attentive to subtle changes in body energy. Next, tense your hands, and then clench your fists, noting any effects on your mind-body state. Finally, choose a virtue (e.g., generosity, trust, compassion, kindness) that you would like to practice more fully and then experiment with ways of positioning your hand(s) that conjure the essence of this virtue. You will know you succeeded if the mudra you create, in some measures, evokes the virtue for you.
Through guided activities like this, I invite students to explore the connection between their hands and their overall sense of wellbeing and purpose. In a larger context, it is interesting to consider that every action that we perform during the day using our hands is a kind of mudra—gripping the steering wheel as we commute to work, pattering away on the keyboard of our computer, washing the dishes. Imagine opening up the door to enter the bathroom as a mudra—reaching out to touch and rotate the door handle with full presence to your hand and the door handle.
In sum, we need look no farther than the human-body skeletal plan and, in particular, the human hand, in our search for extraordinary classroom materials. For therein, we discover the story of our evolutionary origins as well as the possibility to communicate emotion and conjure virtue, along with an invitation to fully inhabit our bodies and ground ourselves in the living earth.
Our Cells as Teachers: Cultivating Virtue
Aside from our outer skin and inner bones, what else are our bodies composed of? When I ask our students this question, they usually respond, tentatively, with categories such as “tissues,” “organs,” “muscle.” Yes, we have all been taught that the body is an amalgam of systems composed of organs and tissues. I worry, though, that all this labeling can lead us to mistakenly conclude that our bodies are static objects. But our bodies are not things; they are not nouns, but verbs—not objects but living processes:
“If you bring concentrated attention to any part of your body, you will eventually feel tingling, twitching, flowing, or bubbling sensations, evidence of the natural processes taking place inside of you at every moment, usually beneath your awareness. You may be experiencing digestion, or metabolic activity, or the tingling of nerves as messages are whisked around through your body. When we consciously experience these sensations, we become familiar with our body as a process rather than a thing, and recognize that its life goes on within us and mostly without us.” (pg. 44, Nisker, 1998)
All the action in our bodies is occurring in and through our cells. The fact that our cells are invisible leads us to forget that, just as the page these words are printed on is composed of fibers, so our bodies are composed of cells. Biologist, Bruce Lipton (2005), offers a wakeup call:
“You may consider yourself an individual, but as a cell biologist I can tell you that you are, in truth, a cooperative community of approximately 50 trillion single-celled “citizens.” Almost all of the cells that make up your body are amoeba-like, individual organisms that have evolved a cooperative strategy for their mutual survival….Human beings are simply the consequences of ‘collective amoebic consciousness.’” (pg. 27. Lipton, 2005)
Our individual cells, Lipton reminds us, exhibit intelligence; they are capable of surviving on their own. Scientists who “grow” human cells in culture note that individual cells exhibit intent and purpose by seeking environments that enhance growth and survival and avoiding ones that are toxic or threatening to survival. In other words, just like a complete human, our individual cells are capable of analyzing and responding to thousands of stimuli from the environment. Indeed, biologists have discovered that isolated human cells can carry out all the basic life processes—i.e., respiration, digestion, circulation, etc.—that our bodies carry out. In the case of cells, they do it within specialized structures called organelles (i.e., miniature “organs” existing in the jelly-like cell cytoplasm). Again Lipton (2005):
“The biochemical mechanisms employed by cellular organelle systems are essentially the same mechanisms employed by our human organ systems. Even though humans are made up of trillions of cells…there is not one ‘new’ function in our bodies that is not already expressed in the single cell. Each nucleus-containing cell possesses the functional equivalent of our nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, excretory system, endocrine system, muscle and skeletal system, circulatory system, integument (skin), reproductive system and even a primitive immune system…” (pg. 37)
The “intelligence” of our cells should not be so surprising. After all, life on Earth began as single cells more than four billion years ago, and, then, about three-quarters of a billion years ago, the first multi-cellular organisms—loose aggregations of several hundred cells—began to appear. Over time, more complex multi-cellular forms—plants and animals—with specialized organ systems have come forth, but the key point here is that these so called “higher” life forms, including humans, are fundamentally made up of cell communities! Hence, our bodies—by their very biological design and evolutionary history, can best be understood as communities.
Exploring the Teachings of our Cells in the Classroom
Deepak Chopra in The Book of Secrets (pg. 9, paraphrased, 2004) describes how the “community of cells” making up our bodies exhibits the same qualities that are essential for our collective survival as humans:
Acceptance: Cells “recognize” each other as equally important.
Every function in the body is interdependent with
every other one. Going it alone is not an option.
Awareness: Cells exercise awareness by flexibly responding to
surrounding conditions from moment to moment.
Getting caught up in rigid habits is not an option.
Communion: Cells keep in touch with each other. Messenger
molecules race hither and yon to notify the body’s
farthest outposts of “desire” or “intention.”
Withdrawing or refusing to communicate is not an
Giving: The primary activity of cells is giving, which
maintains the integrity of all other cells. Total
commitment to giving makes receiving
automatic—it is the other half of a natural cycle.
Hoarding is not an option.
Higher purpose: Every cell “agrees” to work for the welfare of the
whole. If necessary, a cell will die to protect the
body, and often does. Selfishness is not an option.
After pointing out the ways in which “our” cells act together to ensure our survival, Chopra concludes: “This is the way life works….life’s way… The result of cosmic intelligence expressing itself over billions of years as biology. To solve the mystery of life requires only one commandment: Live like a cell.” (pg. 9)
Chopra gives voice to what modern biology is revealing—that our essence is community. And there is more! Our bodies, in addition to being organized as a community of cells, serve as habitat for other communities of organisms. Yes, we are “home” for other beings; our bodies are wild ecosystems in their own right. There are trillions of single-celled organisms living both on us and inside us. All told we are home to several hundred different species. Inside our mouth cavity, alone, there are species specialized to live on the tips of our tongues, the backs of our tongue, our gums, our cheek pouches, and our teeth surfaces. These organisms generally cause us no harm and many, actually, offer us benefits.
“Living like a cell” means seeking, always and everywhere, to expand our awareness; it means participating in a journey toward ever-greater awareness. In our lifetimes, in so far as we grow steadily in awareness, we reproduce on the time scale of a single lifetime what has happened over evolutionary history as life developed from the first simple bacteria-like cells (prokaryotes) to more complex single-celled organisms (eukaryotes), and on to multi-cellular forms. With each “step” awareness has grown—intelligence has expanded.
An important message here, not to be overlooked, is that our bodies have great wisdom—they might serve as our teachers. Indeed, Chopra suggests that we should let our “body’s wisdom point the way.” Our cells, it seems, live by rules—namely: acceptance, awareness, communion, giving, and higher purpose—the very same rules laid down by all the world’s great spiritual teachers. Imagine, each day, challenging ourselves to measure up to “code of conduct” that operates in our cells. Given this intention: these questions might guide us on a daily basis:
-Acceptance: Who have I been judging and rejecting and how might I move toward
-Awareness: What do I need to be paying more attention to so that I can free
myself from behaviors that cause suffering to me and others?
-Communion: What “bridges” might I mend so that friendship can be restored?
-Giving: What might I do for someone today to make his/her life richer?
-Higher Purpose: How might I bring my “big self” more fully into the world today?
What we know is that life goes amok when cells violate their internal code of conduct. For example, cancer—the unrestrained growth of just one type of cell—is an expression of “greed” at the cellular level (i.e., a violation of the ‘giving’ code), and the consequences are disastrous. In this vein, Chopra (pg. 11) asks:
“Why is greed good for us and yet spells destruction at the level of our cells…? Why do we allow over consumption to lead to an epidemic of obesity when our cells measure to the molecule how much fuel to consume? The very behavior that would kill our bodies in a day hasn’t been renounced by us as people. We are betraying our bodily wisdom....”
To grasp Chopra’s point, let us imagine how it would be if our bodies operated on the logic of modern economics. Start with blood cells produced inside our bones that are the raw materials necessary for body functioning. In the global economy our blood cells would be analogous to the raw materials produced in supplier countries around the world. In the human body, blood cells travel, via the circulatory system, to the body’s organs and tissues. In the economy countries and multinational corporations are analogous to organs, connected to each other by shipping routes and communication networks (a kind of nervous system). Meanwhile, the human brain that coordinates the body’s activities is analogous to, say, the World Trade Organization. Now, consider what would happen, in the case of the human body, if the “heart headquarters” was to declare that, instead of distributing blood in an equitable fashion to all body organs, it was, instead, going to start selling blood so it could accumulate wealth. If certain organs weren’t able to pay the price, the “heart” would simply store the excess blood. In this scenario, organs which were unable to pay would be deprived of the oxygen-rich blood they needed to remain healthy. Clearly, the body, as a whole, could never survive under such ruthless conditions, and yet our collective body—the body of humanity—is subjected to this kind of treatment. Consider:
“Though our products, including our food, originate all over the world, we do not share fairly the means of their production or their distribution. The UN tells us that our food supplies are presently enough for all humans to eat well, but industrial countries own or control the bulk of food supplies, and they can set prices for the world market. Rather than let prices go down by flooding the market with food, they hoard or destroy surplus food and pay farmers in their own countries to stop producing, while huge numbers of humans go hungry... In our bodies, troubles of this kind do not arise, for our bodies evolved cooperative economic systems from the start.… In its natural wisdom, our body recognizes that any unhealthy part threatens the health of the whole… As long as human economics remains more competitive than cooperative, we hold up progress toward the evolution of the body of humanity” (pg. 274-276, Sahtouris, 2000)
Now you might be thinking, “All this is interesting enough but, in practical terms, what does it have to do with my work in the classroom?” My answer is: “Everything!” For here we are early in the 21st Century, living at a time of moral and ethical ambivalence. Our young, like the young of past eras, seek meaning, wisdom and virtue. But often this search is hijacked by fears about the future and the absence of compelling wisdom traditions. So isn’t it like a great cosmic joke that the moral and ethical guidance that we all, old and young alike, seek is played out second by second in the very cells of our body. We—our very bodies—are our teachers.
Imagine then, how it might be if, at the beginning of the year, teachers sat together with their students to examine the “rules” that the trillions of cells in each of their bodies followed in order to create a vibrant healthy community, and, then, used these lessons/guidelines to create a healthy safe classroom community?
In sum: At a time when the appropriateness of including conventional religious teachings in our schools is highly contentious, there is a middle way that could satisfy all sides—namely: Observe and follow the precepts for successful community living encoded in our cells through billions of years of evolution. Yes, ethical behavior is enfleshed in our very cells if we care to look. Our cells have mastered the art of survival… the art of being human.
Our Atoms as Teachers: Inviting Wonder
Our cells, and by extension our bodies, are mostly water. When humans are born we are 90% water; as adults we are 70% water. In other words, we exist mostly as water. Think about this! Better yet, pause and fill a glass with water and set it in front of you. What you see before you is mostly what you are. Take a sip: You are “you” sipping “you.” Consider as you sip: What is this liquid that is wetting my lips? Swirl it in your glass. You probably learned somewhere in your schooling that water is two atoms of hydrogen combined with one atom of oxygen, but this isn’t the full answer to: “What is water?” Asked differently: “Where does hydrogen—this most abundant atom in our body—come from?” Most “educated” people graduate from college not knowing the answer to this question; they have no idea where the most abundant element comprising their very bodies—hydrogen—comes from? Odd, no?
In this not-knowing, we are denied the most basic knowledge of who we are, for in the story of hydrogen is the story of our human beginnings. When our great grandparents were in school there was no chance that they could learn about the origins of hydrogen because it wasn’t known at that time. Now we know. Essentially, all the hydrogen now on Earth—all the hydrogen comprising your body—was formed some 13 billion years ago when the Universe exploded into being. Now get this: Hydrogen was only created is that primordial flaring forth—the Big Bang—never again since then. And it was hydrogen that gave rise to the galaxies and first stars.
Consider for a moment the implications this. If all the hydrogen in that glass of water in front of you is 13 billion years old and if what you are is mostly water, then how old are you? Your human age might be 20 or 50 or 80 but the stuff of “you” is 13 billion years old!
We are ancient; we have come forth through the generative creativity of the Universe. When we see and come to understand ourselves through this larger lens, our sense of our bodies can’t help but be enlarged.
Water, of course, is more than hydrogen. What about the atom of oxygen that completes the water molecule? How did oxygen come into being in our universe? Did someone simply invent it? Did “God” create it? Just as with hydrogen, the answer to this question holds clues to our human origins!
During the first several billion years of the Universe’s existence, there was no oxygen, no carbon, no potassium. These and all the other elements of our bodies were created in the fiery furnace of dying stars. Yes, we owe our existence, the very elements of our bodies, to the generative powers of star death. We are stardust, not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real sense. Through this cosmological lens, we see that our ancestors include ancient stars because it was through their dying that the heavier elements making up our bodies were produced. Our own star, the Sun, will also burn out one day and in its dying will spread cosmic dust across the Milky Way, a “seed” source for the birth of new solar systems, perhaps with living planets like ours.
The point we wish to make is that in water, this most basic molecule of life, is written the story of human origins. Not surprisingly, recent research by Masaru Emoto (2004) suggests that the nature of our relationship with water may be the single most important determinate of human well being. This is because water is highly sensitive. In Emoto’s words “Water is the mirror of the soul. It has many faces, formed by aligning itself with the consciousness of human beings” (Emoto, 2004, pg. 39).
Emoto’s thesis is based on two facts. First everything vibrates: you, the chair you are sitting on, the tree in the forest, the stone on the mountain. The frequency of vibration differs depending on what it is that we are talking about. Second, all that vibrates—i.e., everything—emits sound waves. Fortunately, we, as humans, are not able to hear the sound waves produced by the vibrations of many of the things that surround us; otherwise we would go batty. Water, on the other hand, is extremely sensitive to the unique frequencies being emitted by the world and in this sense has, in Emoto’s view, the capacity to mirror the world (2004).
Recently, I shared Emoto’s work with a group of 25 middle schoolers in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I began by asking how it might be possible to test Emoto’s hypothesis that water is somehow able to mirror what’s going on around it. The students pondered this quietly. Then a hand shot up and a boy flushed with excitement said, “You could measure what’s in the water, like the pollutants. That would tell you what’s going on in the town where the water came from.” I responded that Emoto, in fact, has been taking samples of drinking water from all around the world—New York City, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Sydney, Rome, and on and on, but he has not been analyzing the water for pollutants. He has another way of studying water to reveal its “soul.” He photographs the crystals that form as water moves from a frozen to a liquid state. Among the first samples of water that Emoto analyzed was tap water from his native Japan. He was in for a big surprise: “The water of Tokyo was a disaster—not a single complete crystal was formed. Tap water (in Tokyo) includes a dose of chlorine used to sanitize it, and this disturbs the structure found in natural water. However, within natural water, no matter where it came from—natural springs, underground rivers, glaciers, the upper reaches of rivers—complete crystals formed” (pg. xxiii, Emoto,2004)
Emoto has examined the effects that music has on water by exposing pure water to different types of music. The protocol is simple; he places a bottle of water on a table between two speakers and plays music at a moderate volume. Then single drops of water are taken from the bottle and placed, one-by-one in fifty separate Petri dishes. These dishes are then placed in a freezer for three hours. Finally, the samples are removed, one by one, and a light is aimed at the top of each frozen drop. Crystals form momentarily, as the drop moves from solid to liquid state and these crystals are photographed. The photographs (published in Emoto’s book, The Messages of Water) are deeply revelatory: “All the classical music that we exposed the water to resulted in well-formed crystals with distinct characteristics. In contrast, the water exposed to violent heavy metal music resulted in fragmented and malformed crystals at best” (pg. xxiv). Thus, the vibrations from music have the power to fundamentally alter the crystalline structure of pure water.
Emoto extended his work by considering the effects that words might have on water. Here, too, the protocol was simple. He simply wrote words or phrases like “Thank you” or “You fool” on pieces of paper and affixed the paper to bottles containing pure water, with the words facing inward. Remarkably, he found that water exposed to just the words “Thank you” formed beautiful crystals, no matter what the language; whereas water exposed to “You fool” produced crystals which were “malformed and fragmented.” In Emoto’s words: “The lesson that we can learn from this experiment has to do with the power of words. The vibration of good words has a positive effect on our world whereas the vibration from negative words has the power to destroy” (xxv).
But how could it be that “good words” that are not spoken vibrate? Perhaps it is our thoughts about these words that affect water. After all, thoughts contain their own energy, their own vibration which in turn could affect the condition of water. One way Emoto attempted to investigated this idea was by photographing the water crystals from the polluted water at Fujiwara Dam in Japan both before a Shinto priest prayed over the water and after his prayers were completed. He discovered that the crystals that were formed before the prayers were distorted but those formed afterwards were whole, symmetrical, balanced.
In sum, just as our cells have much to teach us, so too does water. It is as alive with mystery and resonance as we are. Emoto found that the very most beautiful water crystals are formed when water is exposed to the words “love and gratitude.” He suggests that love, alone is not enough. “We need to feel gratitude for having been born on a planet so rich in nature, and gratitude for the water that makes our life possible. When you drink water with a feeling of gratitude the water itself is physically different than when you drink the same water with clouded feelings in your soul” (pg. 81).
Summing up, imagine schools where our young learned to have a reverence for water, H2O, the molecule that comprises 70% of our bodies. A school where they came to know that hydrogen, the most abundant element in their bodies, had its origins in a stupendous explosion—the Big Bang—that occurred some 13 billion years ago… And where they discovered that the other elements comprising their bodies—e.g., carbon, iodine, phosphorus, potassium, etc—came into being as a result of the explosions of dying stars (i.e., that stars are part of their personal genealogy). Would this not invite awe and wonder?
And, what-the-heck, lets really bust loose and envision students, as they enter their classrooms, dipping their fingers into a porcelain bowl filled with pure water as a way of sanctifying—making sacred—this time spent that they devote the pursuit of knowledge. Holy, holy, holy water.
Our Hearts as Teachers: Releasing Compassion
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, these hearts of ours have been beating away, 100,000 times each day, since the day we were born. In fact, the beating started when you were an unborn fetus, before your brain started to form. Now, each minute, your heart pumps two quarts of blood through your vascular system, a network that is 60,000 miles in length (That’s more than two times the circumference of Earth!). Amazing, is it not?
Your heart, as it turns out, is much more than a pump. It has its own neural network—its own brain. This “heart brain” is engaged in a two-way information exchange with the brain in your cranium. What’s more your heart brain has the capacity to actually learn as well as to sense and to feel.
Indeed, the heart, more than any other organ in your body, responds to your overall emotional state and broadcasts this state to the rest of your body, thereby affecting your well being. One way this is done is through electrical transmission. With each beat of your heart, a blood pressure wave spreads through your arteries (you register this as your pulse). This pressure wave ensures that oxygen and nutrients reach your cells. At the same time, the blood pressure wave creates a large electrical voltage, producing an electromagnetic signal that permeates every cell of your body and extends up to ten feet outside and away from your body.
The Heart as Broadcaster
In a very real sense your heart is a transmitter that is broadcasting day and night. It is your moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings that comprise your heart’s broadcast because these directly affect your heart. The “effect” is registered in what heart researchers call Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is simply the measure of beat-to-beat variation in heart rate. As you sit reading this text, you might assume that you heart is beating at a regular rate, but if you were hooked up to a heart rhythm monitor as you were reading, we would discover that the beat to beat variation in your heart has been changing constantly. Why? Because as you read, you experience different emotions—e.g., excitement, worry, confusion, appreciation, boredom—and these emotions, even though at times very subtle, affect your heart rhythm and, by extension, the electromagnetic signal your heart sends to the cells of your body and out into the space around you. Negative emotions (e.g., confusion, worry) create disharmony and incoherence in your heart’s rhythms whereas positive emotions (such as appreciation and affection) create harmony and coherence in your heart’s rhythms and, by extension, balance throughout your nervous system.
The message should be clear: The heart is not simply a mechanical pump, nor is it an “organ.” Words like “pump” and “organ” objectify the heart and in so doing blind us to the magnificence of the heart as integrator and center of our health and intelligence. Though head intelligence is essential for survival, heart intelligence provides an intuitive, direct knowingness that is an essential aspect of overall intelligence. “When heart intelligence is engaged, our awareness is expanded beyond linear, logical thinking. As a result, our perspectives become more flexible, creative, and comprehensive” (pg. 16; Childre and Martin 1999).
Recent research reveals that it is possible to access this heart intelligence, thereby contributing to our overall wellbeing. For example, when subjects in the laboratory were asked to imagine that they were literally breathing in and out through their heart/chest and then were guided to activate positive heart emotions like love, care and appreciation, their heart rhythms became more coherent. This is important because coherent heart rhythms alter the body’s biochemistry (e.g., by reducing the production of the stress hormone, cortisol), as well as affecting the body’s immune system (e.g., by boasting levels of IgA, an antibody that is the first line of defense against infection and disease).
Cultivating Heart Intelligence in the Classroom: Research at the HeartMath Institute reveals that when our heart rhythm patterns are smooth (i.e, when we are relaxed and calm), we think more clearly; however, when our heart rhythms are disordered our ability to reason clearly and organize our thoughts is diminished (Childre and Rozman, 2005). This finding raises the question, what, if anything, can be done to promote smooth, coherent heart rhythms? The researchers at HeartMath have been addressing this exact question and in the process have developed a battery of simple techniques that can be used to promote coherence, thereby contributing to optimal conditions for learning.
One useful HeartMath technique (I discuss others in Chapter __) that I use in my classroom is called Quick Coherence. “Coherence,” in this case, refers to the clarity of thought and emotional balance that occurs when the body’s systems are in sync.
The first step in Quick Coherence is to simply shift one’s attention away from the brain or mind and, instead, to tune into the heart. To get the idea, I invite you to try this right now. Simply pause and focus on your heart. If this seems confusing, begin by focusing on your left big toe. Now, shift your focus to your neck. Now, focus your attention on your heart. Once your attention is anchored in your heart, expand your focus to include your breathing and imagine that you are literally breathing in and out through your heart, slowly, gently. Continue until you find a natural rhythm. Your breathing should feel smooth and open, not forced. This calm breathing rhythm modulates the heart’s rhythm, making it more coherent, which, in turn, has a powerful soothing effect on the brain. The third and final step is to bring to mind something that fills you with a sense of well being. For example, you might call to mind a favorite place or person, or an activity that always leaves you feeling good inside. The idea is to actually re-experience, to the extent that you are able, this good feeling. This simple three-step sequence—heart focus, heart breathing, heart feeling—brings all of one’s body rhythms into alignment by virtue of the fact that the heart that is the most potent rhythmic oscillator in the body. Indeed, the heart sends more neural information to the brain than vice-versa; it is the heart rhythm pattern that tell the brain what the body feels. Research at HeartMath confirms that engaging in this basic practice enhances physiological and psychological well being thereby creating conditions conducive to learning.
Ar HeartMath technique that builds on Quick Coherence is known as Attitudinal Breathing. The first two steps are identical to Quick Coherence—1) heart focus 2) heart breathing. The third step entails selecting a positive attitude—like compassion or appreciation—and then breathing this positive attitude in through the heart and out through the solar plexus. In the context of schools, Attitudinal Breathing can be a powerful way to begin a class. This can be done simply by inviting students to breathe in attitudes like balance, non-judgment, or acceptance before beginning a lesson. This technique can also be used to help individual students who might be struggling with difficult emotions. The idea here is to select an attitude to breathe into the heart that counter balances or offsets a particular state of disequilibrium that one might be experiencing. So, for example, if a student is feeling angry and upset, he/she might be coached to breathe in calmness or forgiveness. It such a case, it is fine to combine attitudes—e.g., to breathe in love and breathe out compassion.
HeartMath is finding ever-wider application in U.S. schools as evidenced by the following examples (HeartMath Research Center, 2001):
• “At risk” students enrolled in a 16-hour HeartMath training course at Palm Springs Middle School (Dade County, FL) realized significant improvements in work and stress management, as well as improvements in relationships with peers, teachers and family.
• A sub population of Minneapolis students who had failed the state-mandated high school graduation exam received 25 hours of instruction in HeartMath learning enhancement skills. When thsestudents retook the state test they showed substantial improvements in both test scores and passing rates compared to students who did not receive the HeartMath training.
• Fifth and sixth graders at Creighton Elementary Summer Academy in Phoenix demonstrated significant improvements in reading proficiency after 18 hours of HeartMath training.
• Twenty administrative leaders and 90 Human Relations representatives from the Georgia’s DeKalb County school system felt capacitated to make significant improvements in dealing with stress, conflict resolution and time management as a result of HeartMath training.
If the goal of education is to expand awareness and self-knowledge, as well as to promulgate health, then the heart should be at the core of all educational curricula. Indeed, the next frontier in human understanding is the consciousness frontier. In this vein, consider that the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of each of the 6.6 billion human inhabitants of Earth contributes to a kind of “consciousness climate.” This climate—coherent or incoherent—is the atmosphere we are immersed in minute-by-minute throughout the day. And “coherence or incoherence is broadcast via the consciousness climate much as music or noise is broadcast via radio signals. Stress first gets broadcast person to person—in homes, schools, offices, and streets. Then amplified and reinforced through TV, radio, and print media, the stress momentum goes global, reaching billions of people daily” (pg. 256; Childre and Martin, 1999).
Now, imagine if the core mission of our schools was to affect the consciousness climate of Earth, moving it away from judgment and violence toward acceptance and compassion. This would require that we recognizing that today’s children are the first in the history of the world to receive massive amounts of information directly from the media without adults to filter it. And in tandem with this, recognizing that most of what is presented in contemporary music, television, and movies undermines core heart values such as kindness, care, compassion, respect, and appreciation, that contribute to coherence. In other words, our kids, and we adults as well, are being subjected to a “consciousness climate” that creates disharmony and incoherence in all of our bodies which, in turn, contributes to global disharmony. This has to stop. What better place to start than with the young tender hearts beating away in the schools of the world.
Our Brains as Teachers: Cultivating Empowering Beliefs
We conclude our tour of the body’s remarkable “teachers” with the brain—that spongy mass of tissue encased in our cranium. Like the other body parts, it is easy to take the brain for granted, imagining it’s just waiting there to be of service. The truth is that our thinking, specifically our beliefs, have an immense impact on the degree to which we are able to avail ourselves of the remarkable services the brain has to offer us.
When it comes to learning, there is nothing important than our beliefs about our own individual intelligence. For example, consider the statements below and for each one, decide if you mostly agree or disagree with it:
1-Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
2-You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
3-No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
4-You can always substantially change how intelligent you are (pg. 12; Dweck, 2006).
If you tended to agree with Statements 1 and 2 you have what Columbia University professor Carol Dweck calls the “fixed mindset.” Individuals with this mindset believe that traits, like intelligence or musical ability or shyness, are like a card hand you are dealt and there isn’t much you can do about it. This said, it is not always the case that a person has a fixed mindset across the board. For example, someone might have a fixed mindset when it comes to their artistic talent believing that they were born without artistic sensibilities and there is nothing they can do about this, while, at the same time, believing that certain of their personality traits can be changed.
Now, if it turned out that you tended to agree more with Statements 3 and 4 above, then you fall into what Dweck has dubbed the “growth mindset.” People in this mindset believe that no matter what their traits and abilities are right now these can always be enhanced and improved through effort. In contrast to the fixed mindset, those with the growth mindset believe that it’s impossible to know someone’s true potential and therefore that almost anything might be accomplished given enough hard work, passion, and training (Dweck, 2006).
Still Wondering Which Mindset?
If you are still wondering which mindset you fit into, here is a scenario that may provide a clue. Imagine that you are in college and you have just gotten a mediocre grade (C) on your chemistry exam. Your professor tells you that she has made a copy of everyone’s exam (with names removed), and invites anyone who is interested to have a look after clas. To make it easier, she explains that she has arranged the exams on a table in accord with the grade, with the ‘F’ papers first and then the ‘D’ papers, then the ‘C’ papers and so forth. Now, imagine that you accept your prof’s invitation. Which test piles would you tend to gravitate toward?
Those with a growth mindset go directly to the ‘A’ papers. They want to see where they made their mistakes and learn from those mistakes. However, those with the fixed mindset seek out exams of people who actually did worse then they did! Why? People in this mindset are more motivated by the opinions of others than by a deep innate hunger for knowledge. Thus, looking at the exams of those who did worse than they did is their way of feeling better about themselves (Dweck, 2006).
All of us come into the world with the growth mindset. To be human is to be curious and open; we are all born with an intense desire to learn. Babies are constantly observing and trying things out. They learn day-by-day and as they meet new challenges and learn their brains form new neural connections. This is true for adolescents and adults as well; human intelligence grows, develops; it is not fixed.
Yet by age 3 or 4 some kids have already adopted a fixed mindset belief when it comes to learning. This is made evident by the fearful responses some children have to new opportunities for learning. Dweck in her book, Mindsets (pgs. 16-17) offers this example:
We offered four-year-olds a choice: They could redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or they could try a harder one. Even at this tender age, children with the fixed mindset—the ones who believed in fixed traits—stuck with the safe one. Kids who are born smart ‘don’t do mistakes, they told us.’
Children with the growth mindset—the ones who believed you could get smarter—thought it was a strange choice. Why are you asking me this, lady? Why would anyone want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over? They chose one hard one after another.
So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. [They believe that] smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It’s about becoming smarter.
This, of course, begs the question: How is it that some of us take on the fixed mind set and others the growth mindset? One way to approach this question is to consider the hallmark qualities of a fixed mindset student:
• Students in this category are caught up in the need to constantly prove their intelligence to some outside authority.
• They are preoccupied with worrying about whether they appear smart or dumb and whether they will be accepted or rejected.
• When they fail at something (e.g., a bad grade on a test), they interpret this as an indication that they are not intelligent in the eyes of others.
• They are adverse to risk because this could reveal their shortcomings to others.
For fixed mindsetters (in contrast to the growth mindsetters) there is no such thing as learning for the sheer joy of it; there is no excitement in stretching oneself to learn something new; there is no capacity to see failure as an opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes; there is no delight of challenge and risk. Given that the fixed mindset orientation begins when we are still small, the question becomes: What would cause a child to adopt the attitudes and behaviors bulleted above? It may help, in this rumination, to imagine yourself as a small child, utterly dependent on the goodwill of those around you for your survival and seeking, in any way possible, the approval, love, and respect of your parents. Now, note that the common element in the four bulleted items is the need for approval from someone else. In the early years of life the “someone else” is usually one’s parents. In cases where parental love is highly conditional, children, for the sake of their very survival, do everything in their power to avoid disapproval from their parents.
So it is that they become performers, always acting to please and thereby run the risk of losing the ability to respond to their own inner voices, longings, and passions. The upshot is that their human birthright—namely, to stretch and grow and take risks and exercise passion in the pursuit of learning—atrophies and with the passing of time they fall deeper and deeper into a fixed mindset.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that parents and teachers want what is best for their children. They don’t purposefully seek to engender a fixed mindset and yet sometimes their messages do just that. Yet, parents and teachers, often unwittingly, are constantly sending messages through their words and actions, influencing how the children in their care come to think about themselves. These messages, without intention, can engender a fixed mindset: “You have permanent traits and I am judging them” or a growth mindset: “You are a developing person and I am interested in your development” (Dweck 2006).
For example, consider these statements spoken by a well-intentioned mother to her son: 1) You are so smart. I can’t believe how quickly you did that! 2) Holy Cow! Your drawing is great! You are going to be the next Rembrandt! 3) Oh my, you got an ‘A’ without even cracking a book. You are truly brilliant! On the surface, the Mom is simply praising her son, building up his confidence, right? But, now, put yourself in the son’s place and consider the messages below the praise that he might be hearing: 1) I am only “smart” when I learn something “quickly”; 2) I better stay away for challenging drawings or Mom will see I am not “great”; 3) If I want Mom to continue thinking I am “brilliant” I better quit studying.”
The point is that children can easily become addicted to the praise of parents and teachers. When this happens, like good addicts, they do anything to keep the praise coming. The result is that learning is no longer important, only looking good which means avoiding failure at all cost because in the fixed mindset, failure means you are dumb.
But consider the outcome if this mother, instead of praising her son’s intelligence and talent, were to focus her praise on the process involved in her son’s learning endeavors. Now, her praise might sound something like this: “That math problem set was long and complex; I am proud of the way you stuck with it and got it all done” or “I am fascinated by the colors in your painting; tell me about it” or “I am intrigued by your essay on democracy and am wondering what inspired you to write it?” or “I enjoyed listening to you play that clarinet piece and I am curious to know what you were feeling as you played it?” In these instances the mom focuses her praise on the experience, the effort, the process that led to her son’s learning and development, thereby engendering a growth mindset. The result: The son is encouraged to explore, take risks, and exert effort.
The point is that praise is helpful when we praise a child for qualities that he can control, like effort, but it backfires when we use it to apply a label, like “smart,” to a child. This was dramatically illustrated in a study conducted by Dweck and colleagues involving 400 fifth-graders and three tests. The first test consisted of ten problems from a non-verbal IQ test. All 400 students did reasonably well on this test and after it was over all of them received individual praise but not the same type of praise. Some students were praised for their ability. In this case, a child was told: “You did very well, getting almost everything right. You must be really smart.” Other students were praised for their effort. They were told: “You did very well, getting almost everything right. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, the students in the first group were made to feel that they had a special gift (intelligence), whereas those in the second group were praised for applying the effort necessary if one wants to succeed. In reality, kids in both groups had the same overall average scores.
However, the two groups began to diverge immediately after receiving the praise. For example, when all the kids were offered a challenging new task that they could learn from, those who had been praised for their intelligence overwhelmingly rejected the offer, apparently afraid to do anything that would might expose their intellectual limitations. Meanwhile, ninety percent of those who had been praise for effort readily accepted the challenging new task that they could learn from.
When it came time for the second test—which was purposely made very difficult—none of the students did well and they were all told as much. The kids praised as intelligent interpreted their poor performance as revealing that they weren’t intelligent; however, the kids praised for their effort concluded that their poor performance simply meant that they needed to apply more effort. And that’s just what they did. So when the third and final test was given (similar in difficulty to the first test) these kids scored 30% higher, on average than on the first test, while the test scores for those praised for intelligence dropped 20% below the first test. It appears that this group were knocked off balance by their failure in the second test and lost faith in their ability while the “effort” had apparently used the hard test to hone their skills allowing them to perform better when they returned to the less demanding problems. And that’s not all. Dweck reports an additional disturbing finding from this study:
We said to each student: “You know, we’re going to go to other schools, and I bet the kids in those schools would like to know about the problems. So we gave students a page to write out their thoughts, but we also left a space for them to write the scores they had receive on the problems.
Would you believe that almost 40% of the ability-praised students lied about their scores. And always in one direction. In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful—especially if you are talented—so the lied them away.
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.
So telling kids they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think this is what we’re aiming for when we put positive labels—“gifted,” “talented,” brilliant”—on people. We don’t mean to rob them of their zest for challenge and their recipes for success. But that’s the danger.”
In instances where a child really does master some school assignment quickly and effortlessly, rather than the mom saying, “Geez, you did that in a snap without any mistakes” (tantamount to her saying that she values speed and perfection which have little to do with genuine learning), the mom might observe instead, “Geez, that assignment was a waste of your time because it was way too easy. You need to find something more challenging that you can learn from” (Dweck, 2006).
Working with “mindsets” in the classroom: Fortunately, we are not stuck with our mindsets? We can choose to change them but this requires unlearning. The fixed mindset belief that one is born smart, average or dumb and nothing can be done about this has to be uprooted before a growth mindset can take hold. The “uprooting,” according to Dweck (2006) involves giving students a new way to think about and understand intelligence. For example, imagine if, as a child you were told that your brain grows and gets stronger as you learn new things in the same way that one of your muscles gets stronger the more you use it. And you were shown images of how a small child’s brain grows more and more neural connections over time. And you were helped to see that as you learn new things the neural connections in your own brain were multiplying and growing stronger and that by tackling new learning challenges you helped your brain cells to grow and connect with each other, making your bring stronger and smarter. In short, what if you had been introduced to this “expandable theory of intelligence”?
Adopting this view of brain development is tantamount to embracing the growth mindset and when a person does this, his/her learning skills increase dramatically. This is what Dweck (2006) discovered, based on research conducted at a New York City junior high school. The research began by asking students, making the shift into junior high school, if they believed that their intelligence was a fixed trait or was it something they could develop? Dweck choose to focus on students during there first two years of junior high. She chose these grades because it has been widely observed that student’s grades plummet during the transition to junior high. Dweck observed this to be the case for some but not all students. In fact, in her study, it was only the students with the fixed mindset that experienced declining grades. From the beginning of junior high until two years later these fixed mindset kids showed a steady decline in grades. Meanwhile, the grades of the kids with the growth mindset actually improved over the two-year period. It is important to note that the academic performance of both groups was indistinguishable in elementary school. Dweck (pgs. 58-59) interprets her findings as follows:
In the fixed mindset, adolescence is one big test. Am I smart of dumb? Am I good-looking or ugly? Am I cool or nerdy? Am I a winner or a loser? And in the fixed mindset, a loser is forever.
It’s no wonder that many adolescents mobilize their resources not for learning, but to protect their egos. And one of the main ways they do this is by not trying…. In fact, students with the fixed mindset tell us that their main goal in school—aside from looking smart—is to exert as little effort as possible…
For students with a growth mindset, it doesn’t make sense to stop trying. For them, adolescence is a time of opportunity: a time to learn new subjects, a time to find out what they like and what they want to become in the future.
Dweck might have stopped right there. After all, she’d made an interesting discovery: A student’s beliefs about intelligence (static vs. dynamic) appear to influence his/her academic performance. But she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted more evidence. In this context, she wondered what would happen if she taught the growth mindset to kids with the fixed mindset? With this question in mind she worked with colleagues to develop a workshop, consisting of eight sessions, designed to teach students study skills. Students were divided in two groups. Students in the first group received the basic study skill workshop. Those in the second group received the exact same workshop but with a twist: In their case, the study skills information was contextualized in terms of the growth mindset and how the brain works. For example, students in this group were told that the brain is like a muscle—i.e., it grows and develops when it is exercised and challenged (i.e., the ‘expandable theory of intelligence’).
Before this workshop the math grades of the students in both groups had been in rapid decline. But afterwards, math grades for the students in the second group (the ones who were taught about the brain) began to rise while not such improvement was noted for the students in the first group. It is important to note here that the math teachers had no knowledge regarding their student’s participation in one or another of these workshops. Dweck (pg. 215) summarizes her findings this way:
The growth-mindset workshop—just eight sessions long—had a real impact. This one adjustment of students’ beliefs seemed to unleash their brain power and inspire them to work and achieve…The students in the other workshop did not improve… Because they were not taught to think differently about their minds, they were not motivated to put the skills into practice.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets at the Dinner Table
Just as teachers can cultivate the growth mindset in the classroom, so, too, can parents at home. For example, Dweck invites parents to imagine directing the content of dinner table conversation toward the growth mindset. In this vein, imagine parents who, during dinner, ask their children questions like: What did you learn today? Tell a story about a mistake you made today and what it taught you? What’s the one thing that you put the most effort into today? These “seed” questions allow space for conversations about effort, frustrations, breakthroughs, and learning strategies. And in those instances when a child responses reveal a fixed mindset, parents can guide them. For example:
“When your fixed-mindset son tells stores about doing things better
than other children, everyone says, “Yeah, but what did you learn?”
When he talks about how easy everything is for him in school, you all say,
“Oh, that’s too bad. You’re not learning. Can you find something harder
to do so you could learn more?” When he boosts about being a champ,
you say, “Champs are the people who work he hardest. You can become a champ. Tomorrow tell me something you’ve done to become a champ”
(pg 229, Dweck, 2006).
In sum, what we are talking about here is the biology of belief. These amazing brains of ours are filled with thoughts, concepts, beliefs. What we believe can change us—affect our motivation, our aptitudes, our very brain chemistry. Assume the fixed mindset and you are fearful, timid—you live in a world of limits and you have little control. Switch to the growth mindset and learning is about you—the world shimmers, desire and motivation are ignited. As we, as a people, take steps to teach as if life matters we will no longer ignore the central role our beliefs—have in shaping our learning potential.
There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.
-The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya (Pg 33, Nisker)
All we have is life to live and our transporting vessel for aliveness is the body.
-Dianne Connelly (1993, pg. 100)
As we come to know the wonders of our bodies, we come to fully accept them—to love them. This quality of full acceptance is beautifully illustrated in a story told by Martha Beck (Finding Your North Star):
When I was in college every few weeks I’d join this or that group of artists and we’d all pitch in a few bucks to rent a studio and hire a model. Most of the people we got to pose were college students with bodies that matched the social ideal—slender, fit, perfectly proportioned. After all, who else would risk standing naked in a roomful of strangers? And then, one day, we got somebody really different.
She looked well over sixty, with a deeply lined face and a body that was probably fifty pounds heavier than her doctors would have liked. She’d had a few doctors, too, judging from her scars. Shining purple welts from a cesarean section and knee surgery cut deep rifts in the rippled adipose fate of her lower body. Another scar ran across one side of her chest, where her left breast had once been. When she first limped onto the dais to pose, I felt so much pity and unease that I physically flinched. But we were there to draw her, so I picked up a pencil. . . . And so, as I began to draw this maimed old woman, the most amazing thing happened. Within five minutes, she became a person of absolutely wondrous beauty. She didn’t look like a supermodel; she didn’t have to. Her body, in and of itself, was as beautiful as a piece of polished driftwood, or a wind-carved rock, or a waterfall. . . . When this perceptual shift happened, I was so surprised that I stopped drawing and simply stared. The model seemed to notice this, and without turning her head, looked straight into my eyes. Then I saw the ghost of a smile flicker across her face, and I realized something else: She knew she was beautiful. She knew it and she knew that I’d seen it…
We all know the shock of suddenly becoming fully aware of something that was right before our eyes all the time. This happens when the “thing” is so close to us (e.g., our body) that we can’t gain any distance from it and, thus, are unable to see it. It is our hope that in reading this chapter you have gained the distance necessary to suddenly imagine a big, exciting and welcoming place for the promotion of ‘body’ awareness in education. In the process, we hope that you have become intensely curious about your own body, realizing that “the body” offers one of the most relevant curriculums imaginable for teaching and learning.
Yes, our bodies are “speaking” to us—you might even say “teaching” us—all the time, if we care to pay attention. The truth is that most of us don’t pay attention.
Lamentably, in most school settings, the idea that a student’s body might serve as an important teacher, if he/she cares to pay attention, is threatening—subversive even— because it posits that there might be other authorities, besides the teacher, that are worthy of a student’s attention. In effect, it challenges the general notion that learning occurs by having an outside agent (the teacher) put something (information) into a “container” (the student’s head).
But if we ignore the body in the educational process, pretending it doesn’t exist, as is so often the case in schools, students are likely to finish their formal schooling imagining that the only resource available to them, when problems arise, is their thinking—i.e., cognition. But often thinking, alone, does not lead to clarity, but instead to a mental quagmire. The path free of quagmire involves listening carefully to both the mind and the body.
If we are to teach as if life matters, we will have to develop a new set of beliefs, a new relationship with our bodies. Instead of ignoring our bodies, we will need to ask, throughout the day, “What is my body trying to teach me?” If we do this, we will discover that our bodies have great wisdom, provided we simply take the time to listen!
Beck, Martha. Finding Your Own North Star. 2001. Three Rivers Press, NY
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. 1992. Routledge, NY
Childre, Doc and Howard Martin, The Heartmath Solution. 1999. Harper San Francisco
Childre, Doc and Deborah Rozman. Transforming Stress: The HeartMath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension. 2005. Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Connelly, D. M. All Sickness is Home Sickness. 1993. Traditional Acupuncture Institute, Columbia, Maryland
Davis, Phyllis K. The Power of Touch. 1999. Hay House, Inc., Carlsbad, CA
Deepak Chopra. The Book of Secrets. 2004. Harmony Books, NY
Dossey, Larry. Healing Beyond the Body. Shambhala. 2003. Boston
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. 2006. Random House, NY
Emoto, Masaru. The Hidden Messages in Water. 2004. Beyond Words Publishing,
Farhi, Donna. The Breathing Book. 1996. Henry Holt and Company, NY.
Gelb, Michael J. Discover you Genius, 2002. Harper Collins, NY
Gordon, Richard. Quantum Touch: The Power to Heal. 2006. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA
HeartMath Research Center. Science of the Heart. 2001. Institute of HeartMath,
Boulder Creek, CA
Hendricks, Gay. Conscious Breathing. 1995. Bantam Books, NY
Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief. 2005. Mountain of Love/Elite Books, Santa Rosa, CA
Montagu, A. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. 1986. Harper & Row, NY
Nisker, W. The Essential Crazy Wisdom, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2001
Nisker, W. Buddha’s Nature. 1998. Bantam Books, NY
Macy, Joanna and Brown, Molly. Coming Back to Life. 1998. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada
Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. 2000. iUniversity Press, NY
Senge, P, C. Otto Scharmer, J. Jaworski, Betty S. Flowers. Presence. 2004. Society for Organizational Learning, Cambridge, MA
Williams, Robert. Psych-K: The Missing Peace in Your Life. 2004. Myrddin Publications
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