Saturday, August 29, 2020

We Can All Be Genies of the Lamp

I was watching an old Twilight Zone episode, the one where a troubled man finds the famed Aladdin’s lamp. He rubs it and out pops the Genie, offering him one wish (people have been abusing three wishes, says the Genie, so they only offer one now!). The story continues as the man imagines wishing for his wildest dreams and inevitably, he winds up unhappy with each fulfilled wish since his own self-limiting behaviors and poor image of himself and his abilities sabotages him every time. Finally, he decides on his wish – to become the Genie himself, gaining power and self-esteem through helping others. It was a profound reminder to me that as educators, we can all become Genies in the Lamp for all those who come under our care. But so many students of all ages carry with them self-limiting behaviors and assumptions. Teaching them facts and equations alone is not enough – not nearly enough. We have to come up with ways to give them the tools to think critically, reason rationally, challenge the assumptions that riddle our lives, and to deal with the extreme information overload that plagues us all since the proliferation of the Internet. Otherwise, the same self-limiting ideas and beliefs that hold so many back will continue to dominate their lives. Fortunately, a wealth of techniques exist to help us accomplish these goals. Teaching in this way is what I call “deep teaching.” Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970s spoke of a distinction between a "shallow" and a "deep" ecology. The view that humans are separate from and above the natural world is considered a shallow, human-centered view. Deep ecology recognizes humans as just one of many strands in the web of life and views the earth as a complex collection of interdependencies. Similarly, I define a "shallow" and a "deep" teaching. Shallow teaching is anthropocentric, striving to create in students a sense of superiority and control over the natural world, whatever the field of study. Teaching human power relationships as defined by modern Western culture is the foundational principle of shallow teaching. Shallow teaching also emphasizes the separation of fields of study, physical laws as the sole basis for all life, the perception that there are unchanging truths in our world, and that knowledge is gained by those who memorize the most raw data. Shallow teaching emphasizes the importance of the individual and reinforces the concept of rigid boundaries in the individual and in society. Deep teaching redefines our notion of power, restructuring our relationship with the natural world by teaching that one gets the most power by sharing all that they have. Strength comes from sharing, not from taking. [See more on this in my Ed Week interview at] In this new paradigm, for me to be strong, you do not have to be weak; for me to have all that I need, someone else does not have to go without; for me to be safe, I do not have to build high walls; for me to be secure, I do not have to have large amounts of money.

The notions of power, strength, safety, and security are redefined in terms of sustainability, not the attainment of personal isolation and wealth. In this blog, I will explore the principles of deep teaching and present exciting examples of how teachers around the world are inspiring students to break free of the assumptions that rule their lives and hold them back. There is much competition for the intellectual attention of everyone today, especially students. Television and print media news teach our children to be satisfied with 30 second soundbites of information and to make global, far reaching conclusions after hearing only a few seconds about a situation. Possibly most damaging is that they teach that after 30 seconds to a minute, the story is over and we don't have to concern ourselves with it any more. By the time a typical TV viewing child has graduated high school, he or she will have seen over 500,000 commercial advertisements, tens of thousands of violent acts including murder, and thousands of confusing and contradictory sexual messages. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that children who are developmentally under the age of eight are not able to understand the intent of advertisements and, in fact, accept advertising claims as true. Look at the results: 31 percent of nine year old girls think they are too fat and 11 percent of eighth grade girls are on diets! TV has contributed in a major way to obesity and diabetes because it is the principle cause of inactivity in kids and adults. The average 15-year old has viewed over 13,000 television killings by that age. Studies have also shown that heavy television viewers express more racially prejudiced attitudes, overestimate the number of people employed as physicians, lawyers, and athletes, perceive women as having more limited abilities and interests than men, hold exaggerated views about the prevalence of violence in society, and believe that old people are fewer in umber and less healthy today than they were 20 years ago even though the opposite is true. (Aronson, Elliot, The Social Animal, W.H. Freeman and Co., Eighth Edition, 1999.) The AAP recommends that, "Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills." For kids older than two, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours a day of developmentally appropriate, nonviolent television programming. So what are the effects of all this subtle and not-so-subtle indoctrination? I can’t help but think it affects our students’ attention span, priorities, and beliefs about how the world works, both socially, environmentally, and physically. Deep teaching may be needed now more than ever. Transforming our teaching from shallow to deep starts with transforming the way we teach by remodeling our lesson plans. Here is a way to start the process. First, select a lesson plan for remodeling. Start with what you plan to teach tomorrow. Then, write down the fundamental question you hope to have the students answer through the lesson. Then come up with “fundamental and powerful concepts, insights, understandings, and knowledge” that you want students to leave with after the lesson and choose two or three of them. Don’t think you have to accomplish them all in one session. Now come up with experiential, participatory, discovery-based activities that will allow the students to discover those principles. For example, supposed you planned to teach a session about why it seems so hard to attain world peace. Here’s an example of how the remodeling process works.

TOPIC World Peace and Justice FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED Why is it a “fight” to attain world peace? WRITE DOWN THE FUNDAMENTAL AND POWERFUL CONCEPTS, INSIGHTS, UNDERSTANDINGS, AND KNOWLEDGE YOU WANT STUDENTS TO DISCOVER - CHOOSE 2 or 3 (no more) FOR THIS LESSON 1. Achieving “world peace” means different things to different people. 2. When you consider the social, economic, political, and personal points of view, there are many artificial barriers to world peace. 3. Not everyone may want world peace. 4. World peace can only be obtained through the attitudes of people, not laws, technology or other superficialities. 5. To take the student out of their own ego-centered world and think on a broader scale. 6. To demonstrate the importance of the individual’s views and actions. SOCRATIC QUESTIONING OF THE TEXT OR HANDOUTS What is the point of the paragraph? What do you think about it? What do you think about her interpretation? CREATE EXPERENTIAL, PARTICIPATORY, DISCOVERY-BASED LEARNING ACTIVITIES Example: Role play 1. Count off 4 or 5roups of 4 or 5 students each, depending on how many are in class 2. Assign roles in group: a) Congressperson, b) lawyer, c) professor, d) military general, e) mother from a developing country, f) whatever you can think of. 3. Each group has a facilitator/moderator (if you have enough students, the moderator does not participate in the discussion). 4. Each group has a recorder who takes notes and reports on their work. VARIATION Instead of spreading around the roles in each group, you can have a whole group represent just one role and point of view. GROUP ASSIGNMENT/TASK Taking on your assigned role and point of view, work together to come up with a plan for world peace. TIME Use any time slot you have. I have done this in just 15 minutes or for 2 hours. THE PRODUCT Can be a written group report or just having the recorder stand up and give their report orally. FOLLOWUP Students write a couple of paragraphs on what you learned from this exercise. OUTCOME Trying to create a plan for world peace while assuming the roles of the assignment quickly bring to light the various obstacles that exist when people advocate their own agendas in any group situation. This deceptively simple exercise is a good example of how you can remodel your lessons to allow for self discovery – the best way for students to learn. It will take some time to switch to this approach, especially if your curriculum has been based on imparting large amounts of data. But it will be well worth your efforts to embrace the classic tenant of critical thinking teaching: Teach less so that students learn more. Check out the resources below for more help on transitioning to discovery-based teaching strategies and please send me the exciting, discovery-based lesson ideas you use that I can share in this column. 

RESOURCES The Center for Critical Thinking A wealth of some of the best resources for teachers in critical thinking, this site blends the work of Richard Paul at the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University in California with critical thinking resources around the world. A great resource for remodeling your lessons. The National Institute on Media and the Family Lots of statistics on the impact of TV watching on our children – and adults – to give you ideas about how to compensate in your teaching. The Neil Postman Information Page A consummate educator and critic of the influence of media on education, Neil Postman (1931 — 2003) wrote over 30 books and countless articles. His classic work, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” will influence your teaching for all time. Jackie A. Giuliano Ph.D. is the President of the Center for Lifelong Learning (, providing workshops that at least triple reading speed and double memory. He has been teaching critical thinking-based courses for 15 years. He can be reached at

Thursday, January 2, 2014

National Curriculum NOT the Answer

"Common Core is a real-world approach to learning and teaching. Developed by education experts from 45 states, these K-12 learning standards go deeper into key concepts in math and English language arts. The standards require a practical, real-life application of knowledge that prepares Washington students for success in college, work and life. "
    ----  from Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

     A common curriculum has been developed and is about to be implemented across the nation. Currently 45 states subscribe to this concept. Is this an educational innovation or educational Armageddon?

Critics say that the process for creating the new K-12 curriculum standards involved very little research, public comment, or even input from educators. In fact, of the 135 people on the committees that came up with these standards, none of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.
     Stephanie Feeney of the University of Hawaii, chair of the Advocacy Committee of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators was shocked when the standards were first revealed in March 2010. She said, "the people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.”

     This has been the problem with educational standards all along. They are rarely written by real classroom teachers and often represent the ideas that government and business leaders have about what makes a good, productive, compliant worker. Big businesses have invested billions of dollars in schools to bring such curriculum to students who they see as merely future workers.

     You hear these people constantly talking about how we need a stronger science and math curriculum to compete. Well, what about developing passion, creativity, and the very things that spark innovation and progress? Einstein was a lousy student. Isacc Newton was a sickly child and unremarkable student who created calculus before he was 22 as he was pondering the forces that kept the Moon in orbit. He defined gravity for us. It is unlikely that any of the discoveries that have formed our view of the universe would have been uncovered if children of those ages had been subject to the Common Core!

     In my speed reading classes, I see the results of decades of lackluster public instruction. Every day, thousands of people around the nation (and developed world) are reading and rereading books are articles, losing their place, getting sleepy, and not remembering what they read. Half of all students drop out because they can't keep up.

     Reading instruction in US public schools is a complete failure, yet schools refuse to embrace progressive ideas that could turn it all around.

     As a result of lackluster reading skills taught with methods that have been proven ineffective in creating good readers, students become frustrated, depressed, and associate learning with stress and anger. They make life changing decisions about themselves that affect their careers, their personal lives, and ultimately, their ability to be happy.

     When you think about it, it is madness, really.

     Millions of people have been taught to speed read. I have personally taught thousands. It is absolutely possible to read and remember thousands of words per minute in your reading instead of reading a pathetic 100 - 300 words per minute that is the top speed of most people. They read and reread, but can't remember.

     Why? It is because they are being taught that if you go slower you remember more. Yet the truth is actually the exact opposite of that. The faster you read, the more you naturally remember!

     John Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year and now an anti-mass education advocate, would likely think that the issues I have with the Common Core were included by design. 

Gatto says that students are products of an educational system that has taught them to be indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. He goes on to say that so many students are mistrustful of intimacy, they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, and addicted to distraction (from his book, "Dumbing us Down.")
Needless to say, Gatto has become an icon for a segment of the homeschool population.
Gatto thinks that many aspects of society would fall apart if children weren't trained to be dependent. He says “the social services could hardly survive; they would vanish, I think, into the recent historical limbo out of which they arose. Counselors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply of psychic invalids vanished. Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun.”

The way people are taught to read is nothing short of creating intellectual dependency. Training people to read in a way that creates chaos and confusion, which creates loss of confidence and makes it nearly impossible to keep up with what is going on in the world, keeps people dependant on others to tell them what to do.
The phone conversation I had with a Seattle School District official a few years ago who told me that the speed reading program I overviewed for them did not represent the “best practices” for the district still rings in my ears. They were content with their reading program that produced huge dropout rates, a high percentage of illiteracy among their students, and low rankings among the nation’s schools.
Gatto also said that one of the lessons he was forced to teach children was provisional self-esteem.  He said “if you've ever tried to wrestle into line kids whose parents have convinced them to believe they'll be loved in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn't survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that a kid's self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.”
Gatto claimed that the consequences of teaching provisional self-esteem are grave. He says that students are never taught the skill of self-evaluation, the “staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet.”  The most damaging consequence is that the “lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials.” Soon they conclude that people need to be told what they are worth.
If Gatto is right, then most people have experienced decades of soul dampening learning experiences that have created rather negative conditioned responses towards learning. For example, how many people do you know that have a really positive view of learning? Not many, I expect. So many students experience boredom and feel unfairly treated by both teachers and fellow students that few describe their elementary, middle, and high school experiences in a positive light.
It is no wonder that students in my speed reading class exhibit the same fear of change, the same resistance to trying something new, the same lack of belief in their abilities as I saw among the thousands of adult students I encountered during my teaching career. The good news is that in spite of the challenges most people experience in public, mass education, most still have a primal urge to succeed and to excel, in spite of the influences that try to hold them back.
The new K-3 standards are particularly damaging and early childhood education experts Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige feel they "will lead to long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math. This kind of “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens." They go on to say that, "the standards will intensify the push for more standardized testing, which is highly unreliable for children under age eight."
Ah, testing. Testing companies are anxious for the changes, though, as they stand to make billions of dollars as schools across the country prepare to increase their standardized testing in all grades.

Teachers need to be given the freedom to use their skills and gifts to craft an appropriate learning journey.
Time to wake up. Do we put our children first or the needs of business for productive workers? We'd better decide soon.

[1] Gatto, John Taylor, "Dumbing Us Down."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Drama of the Cosmos

The Drama of the Cosmos

"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a
clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to hange, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's
going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity."

Gilda Radner
(1946 - 1989)
            Every aspect of the universe, every star, every planet, every life form, every rock, every molecule, every atom, everything, is part of a process, part of a series of events that has a beginning, an end, and many steps in between.

            People used to know this.

            Once we were, as a people, more aware and more connected to the natural idea of processes, more connected to the natural world and to nature where processes are obvious and visible everywhere, all the time. Morris Berman may have described it best in his book "The Reenchantment of the Earth." He said, "The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama."

            It is worth exploring the concept of disconnection further, as it may help explain why it seems so easy for people to get impatient and want a quick fix to their challenges in life.

            Many scholars believe that we ceased being direct participants in the drama of nature a long time ago, as long as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, when humans stopped their nomadic existence and began settling in large groups that eventually became cities.  Many mindsets were formed during this period, and a new relationship with nature became firmly entrenched in our culture. Nature became the provider of resources, the wild land to be tamed, and the prize to be owned.

            Chellis Glendinning, in her ground-breaking book “My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization,” says that the domestication of animals 10,000 years ago may have been a turning point in our disconnection from the natural world.

            A long time ago, when our connection to the natural world was more easily seen, people fed themselves mainly by subsistence farming, growing only enough to feed their families. The size of the population was kept down by high infant mortality and a natural spacing of births caused by the suppression of ovulation during the three to four years women would breastfeed their children.  Today breast feeding, if done at all, is done for 3 to 4 months on average.

            Around 5000 BC, the invention of the metal plow literally changed the face of the Earth for all time. Crop productivity increased, irrigation assisted agriculture began, and families began producing more food than they needed. The excess food had to be stored and sold.

            The population began to increase because of the larger supply of food. Women began breastfeeding less, since they had to spend more time in food production. People cleared increasingly larger areas of land and began to control and shape the surface of the Earth to suit their needs.

            The domestication of animals changed forever our relationship with the other life forms on this planet. Author Chellis Glendinning says that the relationship with the natural world changed from one of "respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination." She feels that the domestication of animals and the transformation of our earthly neighbors into food resources created a condition where the human psyche maintains itself in a constant "state of chronic traumatic stress."

            Urbanization began as people began to settle around the large farms they created. Specialized occupations and long distance trade developed. The trade in food and manufactured goods made possible by agricultural based urban societies created wealth and the need for a managerial class to regulate the distribution of goods, services and land. Separation of people by economic class was now firmly in place.

            As ownership of land and water rights became a valuable economic resource, conflict increased. Armies and war leaders rose to power and took over large areas of land. A new class of powerless people, the slaves, minorities, and landless peasants, were forced to the hard, disagreeable work of producing food.

            Forests were cut down and grasslands were plowed to provide vast areas of cropland and grazing land to feed the growing population of these emerging civilizations and to provide wood for fuel and for buildings.

            The massive land clearing altered many habitats and hastened many species to their extinction. Machines that could harness energy by burning fossil fuels increased the average energy resource use per person. The number of people needed to produce food was decreased, so our connection to the land through the growing of food was steadily eliminated.

            Our eating habits, our living habits, the way we treat animals, the way we let technology into our lives, and the way we take in our information about the world dramatically affects our connection to the planet and to ourselves.

            Even the technological choices we have made are determined by cultural forces in play at the time. The steam engine is an interesting example of this. A working steam engine was created around the time of the birth of Christ by Hero of Alexandria 18 centuries before James Watt, the recognized inventor of the steam engine, built his. No one was very interested the first time it emmerged, though, since slaves were already doing the jobs. It wasn't until slavery was outlawed in England in the 18th century that the need for such a device attracted investors.

        The most recent statistics from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that only 21 percent of infants are being exclusively breastfed for four months. This percentage drops to 16 percent by six months of age. More and more parents send their children to daycare, denying them the comfort, security, and connections that can only come from being with a parent.

     Our disconnected ways are firmly entrenched in society and even our birthing and child rearing practices continue this tragedy. Unnecessary Caesarian births are at an all time high.

            Few children are allowed to become comfortable with nature, and parents are quick to scold them for tracking dirt (precious earth) into the house. Bugs are killed on sight, and most children grow up fearing nature.

            We have many obstacles to overcome if we are to reestablish ourselves as dynamic participants in the natural world and to restore an appreciation for the time it takes to realize a dream.

            Many of today’s DVD prophets do us a great disservice by not being clear about how long it took them to realize their dreams. When you attend their costly workshops or buy their books, you get the idea that once they understood how to think or perceive their lives correctly, all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, their dreams came true. However, that way of looking at the outcome doesn’t acknowledge the lengthy, often decades-long process that preceded the burst of insight or epiphany that was followed by their success. The fact that only a tiny percentage of participants from those workshops realize their dreams is a testament to this reality.

            Scott Berkum, in his book “The Myths of Innovation,” reminds us that throughout history, we have often only been told of the end result, the epiphany, and not about the process that led there. Nearly all textbooks teach about end results and few consider the process. Teachers reinforce this omission by teaching to tests, to outcomes, and to course objectives. It’s not their fault, since their salaries and jobs depend on their students’ test scores which is often tied to whether or not a school will receive federal and state funding. There is no time for process, only answers to the test questions.

            But the reality is that successes, discoveries, and bursts of insight are not isolated events that come on suddenly, but are the result of all the thinking and hard work that has come before. They are the final piece of a complex puzzle. All the days, months, and years of thinking, sorting, and occasional confusion that went before the answer was realized becomes a distant memory. I wonder if this tendency to forget the pain of the process is programmed into our species as an evolutionary survival trait. It is well-known that hormonal influences allow the memory of the intense pain of childbirth to fade in most women. If not, who would want to go through that again?

            Today we have few opportunities to explore processes.  Mass education emphasizes the result and the destination, not the journey. History is taught only in terms of what happened when, not how it happened, why it happened, and what forces of society and the individual were at play at the time to make it happen.  Students are tested to give the right answer, and they are taught that there is only one answer when in reality there are usually many. Critical thinking and reasoning are rarely taught in school and our children often turn out to be one dimensional, unreflective thinkers, content to get their answers from the TV news, newspapers, or the latest television or DVD evangelist.

            Our schools are bastions of homogeneity, stripped of creativity, dumbed down so that the 25 children in the room will act as expected. Any who don’t, any child who exhibits creative, out of the box thinking or a learning style that rejects the prepackaged pace of school curricula today is often deemed a “problem” who requires “special education.” They are usually removed from the class, sometimes medicated, and always ostracized for being different.

            Have you ever wondered why there are so few big thinkers in the world? With the greatest number of people ever on this Earth, why don’t we seem to have more people like Galileo, Kepler, Helen Keller, Isaac Newton, Emilia Eherhart, Einstein, or other great philosophers, scientists, and theologians? Do you think it’s because all the big discoveries have already been made? That is unlikely.

            Could it be because most of the big thinkers who discovered the way the Earth, our Solar System, and the universe works were somewhat nuts themselves? In fact, they not only thought outside the box, they lived outside it as well.        

             Some had mental illnesses, including depression and bi-polar disorder. Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity and the inventor of calculus, all before age 27, was a sickly, lonely and morose child. He would have been a “special ed” kid for sure. Would he have been able to make the discoveries he did if he has lived under today’s school system? I doubt it. He likely would have been ridiculed, isolated, and medicated.

Ferris tells us that this man, who through painstaking observation and research wrote the Three Laws of Planetary Motion that survive intact to this day, had no computers, no telescopes for the majority of his life, and no Internet.
            Johannes Kepler, described by Timothy Ferris in his book “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” as a “self-loathing neurotic,” discovered how the planets in our Solar System move in the late 1500’s, how they move faster when they are closer to the sun and slower the further away they get and how their orbits are shaped like ellipses, not circles.

            Yet this brilliant thinker was a man of great social ineptitude, who, with his food-stained clothes, made a living casting horoscopes for European princes, but was rarely paid. Immanuel Kant would later describe Kepler as ''the most acute thinker ever born.''

            But Kepler, the most acute thinker ever born, had a life plagued by sorrow. His six year old son, Friedrich, was killed by smallpox carried by soldiers fighting the Thirty Years War. His wife grew despondent and died soon after of typhus. His mother, accused of practicing witchcraft and barely acquitted (her son tried to defend her and did an awful job), died six months after her release. Shortly after, Kepler wrote about a dream he had of a trip to the Moon where he looked back and saw the continents of Earth. His descriptions are remarkably like what we later saw when Apollo astronauts photographed the Earth on their way to the Moon.

            Kepler died on November 15, 1630 at the age of forty-eight after falling ill with a fever on a trip to collect some of the money an emperor owed him for horoscopes he had cast.  On his deathbed, it is said he did not talk, but pointed his finger first at this head and then at the sky. His epitaph was of his own writing:

            I measured the skies, now I measure the shadows
            Skybound was the mind, the body rests in the Earth.

            His grave was trampled under by war and has since vanished.

            How many of the world’s potentially great thinkers, philosophers and theologians are locked away in mental institutions or hopelessly medicated by a culture who no longer understands – and in fact fears - process, creativity, and bursts of insight?

            Tycho Brahe, a contemporary of Kepler whose precise observations, made just with his naked eye, enabled Kepler to make the discoveries he did, was described by Ferris as

". . . an expansive giant of a man who sported a belly of Jovian proportions and a gleaming metal alloy nose -- the bridge of his original nose had been cut off in a youthful duel. Heroically passionate and wildly eccentric, he dressed like a prince and ruled his domain like a king, tossing scraps to a dwarf named Jep who huddled beneath the dinner table."

            Tycho died of a burst bladder at a formal dinner in his honor because it would have been impolite to excuse himself. But the accuracy of his naked-eye observations rival those made with future telescopes and computers.

            Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, scientist, politician, philosopher, musician and artist who lived in the 10th Century AD, saw visions of God that inspired her thinking and her incredible musical compositions and artwork.

            These great thinkers, these men and women who observed and defined the laws of the universe and the movements of the planets, were disturbed individuals by our Western standards. Imagine them in a public school of today. How long would they last before they were removed as troubled children and classified as special education kids and medicated?

            No new Keplers or Galileo’s or Tychos or Hildegards? No wonder.

            There are educational models that address these issues and do their best to help children reach and honor their potential. Most are rejected and even ridiculed by mainstream public education, but the success of their graduates provides plenty of evidence of their effectiveness.

I am writing a book about being patient . . .

We have a lot to unlearn about the way things work

 "If one more millionaire/billionaire modern day philosopher tells me that I can get rich tomorrow if I only clean up my thinking and attend his or her weekend ($5,000) seminar, I am going to burst!"

            Everything in the universe is governed by a process. Some of those processes take millions, even billions of years.  Yet somehow we live our lives believing that we can have whatever we want whenever we want.  As a species we lack patience completely.  But this wasn’t always the way it was.  For centuries humans had patience and little else.  They understood that things took time.  And if you wanted to learn something new, it was understood that it would take time to learn it.  If you wanted to learn how to paint, you didn’t think you could learn that in a weekend or even in ten weeks.  In fact, you knew that it might take you 10 years as an apprentice in order to learn how to paint.  So what happened to our patience?

            This chronic lack of patience may be the single most important factor contributing to the challenges of the world today.  We expect instantaneous results for everything we do and we get angry when we don’t get our way.  We conclude that we have failed if we don’t get what we want, when we want it, and exactly the way we want it.

            How would the world change if all of a sudden you didn’t need to have exactly what you wanted and have it immediately?  What if you knew it might take 10 years to achieve your goals and your dreams?  I’ll bet some of you would get very depressed right away!

           But think about how freeing that could be, to take the time, to integrate new knowledge, to allow your goals and ideas to evolve, to grow, to change. Imagine taking the time to process new ideas and new perceptions.

            Nearly all of education at every level suffers from this chronic lack of reflection and integration time. Students are expected to learn an entire field of study in just a few weeks. This, of course, is impossible, but the student goes away from the experience thinking that they are done with the subject.

            This may be the greatest damage being done by the system – turning out people who think that the superficial look at the subject they have had during their brief class makes them proficient.

            Since the post World War II push to demonstrate that the United States was the world leader in consumer goods production and the relentless propaganda presented to the American people that their success must be measured by the size of their bank accounts and the number of gadgets in their homes, so many who have been brought up in or embraced Western cultural values have had difficulty in finding their true path. That era resulted in an economic system shackled by the doctrine of supply and demand. An endless supply of widgets must be manufactured, whether or not they add value to our lives, which must be endlessly purchased by the people in order for the nation to survive.

          Generations have been indoctrinated since birth to get a good job (meaning one that pays enough to afford all the things you want to buy, not one that fills your soul), become independent as soon as possible and leave your family (certainly no later than 18 years of age), get married (to someone of the opposite sex who has a good job, of course), and buy a house.  So many of us have come to believe that these ideas are based on fundamental truths or forces of nature that hold the very fabric of the universe together.

           Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Lump into those erroneous assumptions the confused ideas we have about what makes a man a man and what makes a women a women and the result is one mixed up, confused, fearful, unhappy society that seeks fulfillment in shopping malls and drowns their sorrows in alcohol, drugs, or the modern-day legal teen drug of choice, video games.

           The drive to make money and collect possessions is so strong that our very sense of self-worth is intimately tied to our salary and our bank account balance. Is it any wonder that our schools turn out single focused, homophobic, money driven people? Is it any wonder that the divorce rate and the college dropout rates are 50 percent and more? We haven’t a clue how to manage our lives, our relationships, or our search for knowledge and meaning.  We stumble through one self-help program to the next, searching for the answer from outside instead of looking inside.

           It is no surprise that we are desperate to “get rich quick,” to buy book after book, DVD after DVD, and watch endless talk shows with guests that profess of having “the way” to get us rich? Of course, this plays in very nicely with the fundamental tenant of our economic system: goods must be manufactured and bought for the system to continue. We make the modern day prophets rich by buying their books, their inspirational calendars and datebooks, and their audio and video programs, all of which do little more than make us feel like we are losers since we aren’t financially successful after reading the book, watching the program, or attending the lecture.

           But they are seductive and addictive and we can’t wait until the next book, paying little attention to the fact that our situation has changed little, except that we now have an extra expense from all those inspirational books and materials.

           Do any of us really know what we are searching for? Money, to be sure, tops the list, but how we make that money seems to be a minor consideration. But we do know one thing – and even our modern prophets have this at the top of their lists – we want to be rich. We want the American Dream – houses, cars, entertainment devices, the latest computer, and on and on. Have you ever heard any of the modern prophets tell their audience that you don’t need money to be truly happy? Sadly, too few reveal that basic truth.

           It is important to note that what has been described as the classic search for the American Dream is not an evil conspiracy to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is simply U.S. Economics 101. For the American economic system to work there has to be endless consuming. A natural consequence of that system is that there will be a small percentage of the population, about 3 percent, who has 80 percent of the wealth, provided to them dutifully by those of us who embrace the wage slavery required to earn just enough money so that we can buy the goods that they manufacture.

           Not enough money? No problem. Just borrow what you need and pay it back later, with interest. When President George W. Bush said at the first press conference after the September 11th attacks that the best thing Americans could do for the country was to go shopping, he wasn’t being heartless or evil. He was simply being an advocate for the economic system that is in place in the US and has been since the nation’s beginning. Every U.S. president has that responsibility, no matter how progressive they appear to be during their campaign.

           Our first challenge may be figuring out what our true values are, not just accepting the ones that have been handed down to us by well-meaning parents and a mass education system designed to support our nation’s economic values. Identifying the influences that have shaped our lives and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to discard may be an important step towards self discovery.

           Malidoma Some, born in West Africa, holds three master's degrees and two doctorates from Sorbonne and Brandeis University. He currently devotes himself to speaking and, with his wife, Sobonfu, conducts intensive workshops throughout the United States. In one of his classic books, “Ritual and Community,” he said,

"Industrial cultures live with the essence of two extremely dangerous phenomena. One is the good side of production; the other is the danger of what happens to the tools for production when they are devoid of any spiritual strength ... "

"... The spirit liberates the person to work with the things of the soul. Because this reaching out to the spiritual is not happening, the Machine has overthrown the spirit and, as it sits in its place, is being worshiped as spiritual. This is simply an error of human judgment. Anyone who worships his own creation, something of his own making, is someone in a state of confusion."

           We have to examine what we value and what we have placed value on. We have to decide what is important to us, what we would take a stand about, and what we want to be remembered for a hundred years from now. It’s important.

           And it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process.  It takes time.

           A process? Taking time? That part of you that has been trained to demand the quick fix, instant gratification, and the idea that you are supposed to feel good all the time or you are just not doing it right will be telling you right now to put down this book and find one that outlines the steps to get rich tomorrow. That’s OK. Feel that feeling. Feel that resistance. Embrace it. And then categorize it as one of those influences and conditioning of your life that may need reassessing.

           How different would your life be if you grew up learning of the complex process behind every fact, the troubled times, the hard luck, the beautiful bursts of insight that make up every life today and throughout history? How different would your life be if you never saw a television drama where deeply complex issues were resolved in an hour (actually, about 42 minutes after you take out the commercials)?

           How different would your relationships be if you never saw a movie where one minute a couple is arguing and one ends up walking out the door when the scene shifts and they wake up in bed together the next morning? It is the moments in between the start and the end of anything that matter, yet we have few opportunities to learn how to manage those moments in-between.

           This book is about those moments in between and how to fully live them, how to embrace the process that is your life, how to be comfortable with uncertainty, with, as Gilda Rader called it, “delicious ambiguity,” and how to appreciate your life as a journey and not just as a series of destinations.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Power of Seeing Connections

Deep teaching is about exploring relationships and connections and about delving deeply into the processes all around us. We have to examine what we value and what we have placed value on. We have to decide what is important to us, what we would take a stand about, and what we want to be remembered for a hundred years from now. It’s important.

And it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process. It takes time.

A process? Taking time? That part of you that has been trained to demand the quick fix, instant gratification, and the idea that you are supposed to feel good all the time or you are just not doing it right will be telling you right now to stop reading this article and find one that outlines the steps to get rich tomorrow. That’s OK. Feel that feeling. Feel that resistance. Embrace it. And then categorize it as one of those influences of your life that may need reassessing. 

Every aspect of the universe, every star, every planet, every life form, every rock, every molecule, every atom, everything, is part of a process, part of a series of events that has a beginning, an end, and many steps in between. 

People used to know this. 

Once we were, as a people, more aware and more connected to the natural idea of processes, more connected to the natural world and to nature where processes are obvious and visible everywhere. Morris Berman may have described it best in his book "The Reenchantment of the Earth." He said, "The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama."  

Today, we have few opportunities to explore processes. Mass education and shallow teaching emphasizes the result and the destination, not the journey. History is taught only in terms of what happened when, not how it happened, why it happened, and what forces of society and the individual were at play at the time to make it happen. Students are tested to give the right answer, and they are taught that there is only one answer when in reality there are usually many. Critical thinking and reasoning are rarely taught in school and our children often turn out to be one dimensional, unreflective thinkers, content to get their answers from the TV news, newspapers, or the latest television or DVD prophet.

Disconnection, separation, division, detachment, disassociation - these are all words that describe the way most people view our world and themselves, possibly as a consequence of shallow teaching. So many of us feel disconnected from the Earth itself, separated from the delicate web of life, divided from each other by arbitrary encumbrances, detached from the very meaning of our existence, and disassociated from the awe and mystery of the world and the universe. 

Our daily lives are filled with more events than our elaborate datebooks can contain, we live by the litany “oh, that there were only more hours in the day,” and we bemoan our lot in life. We are scared to death of spiders and cockroaches, consider the natural world as wild, untamed and therefore dangerous, and resist awareness into the intricacies of our world for fear of having to take on one more responsibility. 

We in the Western world have tried so hard for so long to disconnect from the Web of Life but try as we might, we have not and cannot succeed. The embrace of the Earth is too strong. We cannot walk away from the planet of our birth and even when we try to cut those bonds by traveling into space, our bones and bodies wither. Those few human beings who have walked on another world, who have come as close as anyone to breaking the bonds of our home planet (still embraced, however, by the long arms of its gravity), came back so changed, so transformed, that their lives were irrevocably altered. These astronaut/pilot/scientists all became teachers, artists, mystics, healers, farmers, or theologians (except one who became a beer distributor and another who became a defense consultant), but few may have reasoned why they were so transformed. (The Other Side of the Moon Video, Castle and Hendring, 1990) 

We can learn so much from these men who tried to cut their bonds with Mother Earth and failed, who experienced its awesome power from 250,000 miles away in space, who felt the intense power of the place of our birth, who, while standing on an airless, lifeless Moon, felt the great gift of our existence. Yet they were so unprepared for the experience, so trained in the disconnected approach of Western science, so confused about their place in the universe, that the great gifts of awareness, awe, truth, and beauty that were revealed to them as they stood on the surface of the Moon and looked back at their home often turned to dysfunction, trauma, and fear. 

What a challenge we Earth-bound people have to embrace awareness, experience the awe, and feel the beauty of our world if men trained and educated by our culture had such difficulty from 250,000 miles away, seeing the interconnected ball that is the Earth hanging in their sky. Yet in spite of the inability of their training to prepare the lunar astronauts for the full impact of their experience, all of these men were transformed in one way or another. We can break the bonds of our cultural, intellectual, and emotional limitations. We can open our eyes to see our connections and realize our true place in nature, but we need help. The disassociation of the last few thousand years will not erode overnight. But by carefully teaching each other to re-member, re-integrate, and re-associate, the embrace of our Earth can be felt again.

 There are many tools created by many individuals that can aid in this task. All of the tools are simple and can be applied in any situation, whether it be personal, professional, academic, or spiritual. They all have at their foundation one basic tenant: that “the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.” This we must do as we begin our long journey of re-learning. Our very ability to see the world as it really is has been clouded by a long legacy of distraction.  

Developing a relationship with the natural world can have profound effects on our perceptions of the universe. Opening our minds and hearts to include the idea that a tree has rights and that a dolphin may be our neighbor can forever change one’s appreciation for life. Even flushing the toilet with a mindfulness that the waste is, after minimal treatment, going into the ocean and not magically disappearing, can dramatically alter perceptions.

But with an open heart and open mind comes a price – and it is a high price for those living in the U.S. today. That price can be horror, shock, revulsion, and powerlessness. Deep teachers are needed now, more than ever before in our history. Now the opportunity exists to synthesize a few thousand years of experience and to take the next step towards living within the web of life.

 We can become discriminating thinkers – and teach our children, family, and friends to become that way too. Here are some ideas how:

• Realize that you may not have been given the tools to successfully wade through all the complex, mumbo-jumbo out there. Seek help.

• Ask questions. Probe assumptions. This is probably the easiest thing to do immediately. Ask “why” and “how” and “where did you hear that” and “how do you know that?”

• Hold yourself strictly accountable for what you say. Don’t even tell a friend about something you heard about unless you know where you heard it. Don’t contribute to the growing mythology we all have about what is going on in the world, how the world works, and who is good and who is bad. Find out for sure. When you read something in the newspaper, realize that it is a very incomplete picture of what is really happening. When you talk about it, preface your statements with words like “well, I don’t know what is really happening, but I read in the Times that . . .” This is a very important step in keeping your mind and heart open. Say what you mean and mean what you say. 

• Reject stereotypes. Watch your language. We reinforce our own flawed learning everyday when we are sloppy with our thinking and our language. Don’t participate in the assumptions of our culture that continue to isolate us from each other. Don’t say things like “women love to shop” or “men love sports.” Don’t accept any of the assumptions that are often made about Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, or whoever. When you hear someone say “oh you know them, they are so lazy” when referring to some other culture, STOP THEM. Tell them that such a statement is inappropriate and unfounded. If you listen and laugh, you are participating.

• Don’t watch the television news AT ALL. There is nothing you can gain from it. Nothing.

• Seek alternative information sources. Seek out alternative bookstores in your community. Resist patronizing the large chain bookstores. Visit an alternative bookstore and then visit the superstore. Notice the difference in the type of books carried. Reflect on the affect that such selective book offerings in the superstores have on the public. What if everyone knew about alternative bookstores and their selections? Visit a women’s bookstore in your community. Look at the amazing titles they carry. Reflect upon how the world has been affected by the fact that our perception of the universe has been seen from almost exclusively a white class-privileged male perspective.

• Examine your spending habits. Think carefully about what you need versus what you think you want. Are you spending to fill an emotional need, because you’ve been denied something you thought you deserved at work or as a child, or because you are angry or sad? Think about this very carefully. 

It is easy to get discouraged, to feel overwhelmed. But if you realize that the choices you make in what you buy and what you eat can have such a dramatic affect on the world, you can get quite a bit of power back. If you realize how easy it can be to smile at someone or to help someone in need, you will start to see that the answers to our dilemmas lie not just in legislation or politics, but in our hearts. Just figure out what you want to be remembered for and what is important to you. Then, do everything in your power to make those things come true. 

Now let’s begin.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feed and dark wings.

Wendell Berry