Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The sixth sense

Everyone occasionally makes use of a sixth sense: an ability to know something that does not seem to be available to the five senses we normally use to interact with the world. Today I was caught up in an exploration of whether the sixth sense is part of the world studied by physics or part of the constructed reality we make with our minds. How does your sixth sense work?

Go inside and remember a time when you had a sixth sense about something. Notice how you were seeing, hearing, and sensations in your body. Does your sixth sense have an impact on your sensory perception?

Imagine having a sixth sense. The poet Blake said that from four senses we would not be able to imagine a fifth: if you could add another mode of perceiving, what would it be and how would it help you move forward?

It's possible that language is our sixth sense: a way of knowing that is rooted in the world studied by physics and yet connected directly to the world known by our minds.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Opposites and Complements

Why is it, I wonder, that we know so much about opposites and so little about complements? Opposites are contraries: one opposite negates the other. Complements complete each other; like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, their fit depends on their differences. While opposites transform difference into opposition, complements create a frame for collaboration.

Today I was asked where productive tension fits into a model of integrated thinking. Opposites fight each other and similar entities share space within a frame that has gaps, like the outside part of the circles in a Venn diagram. Neither condition generates something new. Complements are the answer: they are held together by a frame so fine it is only a shared edge, a force that pulls together instead of apart.

Complements fill the whole of the frame by being precisely fitted to one another; where one jigs, the other jags. This can look and sound and feel like opposition until it becomes evident that the frame is full, that the relationship has integrity of both form and energy. This integrity depends on the integration of complements. They must form a whole without overlapping. Each must be entirely itself for the whole to be complete.

Figure and ground. Self and world. Sense and imagination.


Friday, October 21, 2005

Beginning in the middle & first principles

One of the intriguing things about integrative thinking is that it encourages the kind of paradoxical sense that is useful in life. That is why when we argue from first principles, we start in the middle and not at the beginning. Put another way, principles have to come from somewhere. So do beginnings.

We are about to start a practitioner training, a fresh beginning with new class. As a class, it will be a beginning, a group of people coming together for the first time. Yet it will not be a beginning for any of the individuals in the class (they all have histories that start before the class) and it will not be a beginning for the course (we've been working to prepare for it!). The first principle of interacting with people is that we always start in the middle.

The idea of first principles, of bedrock presuppositions that allow us to make sense of what comes after, is immensely appealing and often very useful. Arguing from principles means working from what is known and knowable to what is new with a certain degree of hope (if not certainty) that what is known will tell us something useful about what is new. Often we find that we have grabbed the wrong principles as we rushed out the door, and have to go back and find the ones we really wanted. Sometimes we have to dig into the back of the closet to find them.

The nature of training in integrative thinking is often a rummaging in closests or attics to discover old things that correspond in useful ways to new challenges. Because arguing from first principles means accepting that a course never starts at the beginning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Replicating states of trust

It's an interesting problem. What would it take to create in oneself a state of trust and when would it be useful? We are all well aware that it is risky to trust other people, and we are also aware, when we pause for a moment, that many important aspects of our life rest on our ability to trust. Often, we need to consider a situation from many different points of view (and hearing and feeling) before we can find the limits within which it is appropriate to trust or to be trusted.

Tonight I sent my university-student son an exercise in noticing when he is prepared and applying that state to studying for a particular exam. Whether or not he does the whole exercise or enters into the pretending it suggests, just reading through the exercise will suggest to him that he has known how to be prepared and can have access to that knowledge now. It will affirm that he trust himself as he prepares for his exam.

None of us face tests (whether or not they are academic) unless we trust ourselves. Whatever trust means (and it is a slippery word), it begins with making a connection between what we experience and what we believe to be true. Without that trust, we cannot engage in greater trusts: the trust in principles or in God depends on our ability to trust ourselves at least enough to stabilize this one element of our experience.

If we accept that we know how we experience trust, then we can begin to chunk that experience into its sensory components and to replicate them, either by will or by association. Obviously, this is a risky enterprise, since we may teach ourselves to trust in situations where trust is not justified. It is a risk we have to take if we are to be doers rather than thinkers, an act of ego that paradoxically enables us to trust others and to influence them, too.

Too often we accept that trust, like other emotions, is a natural program that unfolds despite our best efforts. It may be true some of the time. It is not the only way of thinking about trust.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Enlightening nonsense

What happens if you stop for a minute and seriously consider something that you currently consider (and may continue to consider) absolute nonsense? Almost every day, someone professes a belief to us that strikes us as a little nuts. Sometimes more than a little.

Take a moment, and think of a situation where someone you liked and respected said something you thought was foolish or short-sighted. Now, imagine for a moment, that you believe it, too. Extend that belief out into your perceptions of different aspects of the world, and notice what changes.

McLuhan thought that any medium (a word he applied to ideas as well as other things) taken to its extreme would reverse itself. If he is right, then any nonsense pushed far enough will reverse itself into something we recognize as good sense. In finding the edges, we learn more about what we believe, and more about what other people gain from beliefs that seem wrong-headed to us.

The key, however, is knowing that we are playing; we are not obliged to change our minds. We only have to suspend judgment long enough to notice differences. If you don't notice any difference, either you didn't think it was nonsense or you haven't really suspended your judgment. Try again. It's at the edges that we find the edge we need.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Self-directed learning and the group

I have a doctorate, which I have always understood to be a recognition that I no longer require someone else to put a stamp of approval on my learning. Whatever the discipline, this is what the highest degree means: not so much that one is qualified to teach others, but that one is qualified to teach oneself. This is, of course, what models of excellence in every field do: they build their own models of learning. Some of them teach others but they all teach themselves.

Often, studies of education confuse the quality of teaching with the quality of learning. Learning in classes is different than learning alone because other people are part of the class: the one who is the teacher may or may not be the one who has the biggest individual impact . Even the biggest individual impact is probably not as great as the total effect of learning with the group. This is as true for the kids in junior kindergarten as it is for people with doctorates. We learn more from a class than we learn alone because we learn from being part of the class while we are learning whatever subject matter we study.

It has taken me a long time to come to this. I suppose it was what one of my most brilliant professors meant when he said that when he wanted to learn something he had to teach it. Maybe he wasn't telling me about the difference between teaching and learning; maybe he was telling me about the difference between learning together (a teacher is part of a class) and learning alone.

This has, of course, changed my approach to both teaching and learning. My goal as a teacher is not to teach brilliantly (although applause is always welcome!); my goal is to create the conditions under which a class becomes a group for enhanced learning, a collection of individuals who not only learn best together; they also thoroughly enjoy the process. The pleasure comes, I think, not only from the teacher's charm and humour, not only from the knowledge of a job well done. It comes from engaging all the different processes we use to connect with other people and connecting all that energy into the skills and information the course conveys.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rainy days and mountain tops

This summer we took the gondola to the top of the mountain at Stowe. Well, almost the top. It was a glorious, warm sunny day, and the gondola pulled us upwards. It groaned occasionally, but the only real effort we made was straining our eyes to see out across the countryside.

Today, it is raining. Again. And dark, and getting colder. There are no mountains in view, and just getting up out of bed requires a certain amount of effort. The groaning is ours.

We are the same people with the same resources and the same capabilities. As the world moves, sometimes we are sliding up the mountain in the gondola, sometimes sitting at the top, and sometimes the sky is so dark and so low we could touch it without climbing at all. Sometimes it drops down to touch us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Riding on a beam of light or mind reading?

It is interesting than when I put 'riding on a beam of light' and 'mind reading' together in one sentence, both seem like the kind of activities that tantalize adolescents. Teenagers feel intensely, are intensely aware of identity and privacy, and have enough energy to reach for the stars. They often seek activity that is an adequate expression of this highly combustible combination. Both mind reading and light-surfing fit the bill.

As you may remember, Einstein imagined riding on a beam of light. For him, this imagining led to a new way to understand light, physics, and time. Ultimately, his daydream changed the lives of people he would never meet in ways that we have not yet fully realized. If we all dreamed as disruptively as Einstein, every daydream would open new dimensions to human consciousness.

Mind reading is equally dangerous. When we think of teenagers, we are drawn to their need for privacy ("You can't go into my bedroom!") and their need for community ("but I have to see my friends!"). They communicate an intense need to be both understood and enigmatic, a need for someone to read their minds and an equal and opposite need to protect themselves. We are drawn to them because they communicate an experience that lives within us, often unexpressed.

We all know people who can read our minds, at least occasionally. We all know the joy of having someone pay us the kind of close attention that results in mind-reading. And we all know the vulnerability of suddenly being revealed in a way that we did not anticipate and do not welcome. How does this knowledge allow us to stabilize our sense of ourselves so that we can open ourselves to close connectedness?

Once we accept that mind reading is possible (a starting point for much science fiction and fantasy writing), we need to make choices about what conditions are necessary for it to occur and when it is appropriate. Is more knowledge always a good thing? Our experience from the other end suggests that mind reading is as dangerous as riding on a beam of light: they both shift our perceptions so dramatically that we cannot get back to where we started.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The power of small changes

I am reading a book called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (by Jeffrey Schwartz & Sharon Begley). It's reminding me again how little we know about the magnitude of change. A very tiny change in the right place can have enormous impact.

Apparently, we have an area in our brain - the orbital frontal cortex - that sits behind our eyes and is responsible for "alerting you when something is amiss." Actually, it does more than alert you - it could "generate an internal sense that something is wrong, and that something needs to be corrected by a change in behaviour." If something really goes wrong, the neurons fire intensely and repeatedly and create "an inchoate sense of dread."

Reading such an intricate and intriguing story, it's easy to forget how very tiny a neuron is, even a group of neurons. Imagine that you could select which neurons fire in your own orbital front cortex. What dangers would you have avoided if only those neurons had warned you that something needed to be corrected by a change in your behaviour? Just a tiny warning, accompanied by the impulse to action, could change the course of a life, or of many lives.

Somehow, an "inchoate sense of dread" is frightening even when we imagine it as a pattern of neurons firing like popcorn or fireflies. I wonder what changes in me as I imagine the stuff of nightmares as a neurochemical sequence that could have been different. Schwartz wonders these kinds of things, too. HIs book is about the impact of mindfulness on the brain, the basis of free will, and the implications of the new physics for understanding ourselves.

The letters on the page or screen are also small; they also trigger a firing of neurons in particular centres of the brain in a particular sequence with a particular intensity.

I wonder: are there any small changes?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Emotional Intelligence

One of the difficulties in explaining integrated thinking is our reluctance to categorize anything but logical reasoning as intelligence. Reading a book called Logic Made Easy, I was struck by how often studies have shown that reasonable and intelligent people do not think according to the dictates of logic. Logical statements are very often subject to rather significant misinterpretations.

I love pure logic; calculus is the one course I absolutely required my sons take in high school. There is an elegance and a clarity in pure reason that is unmatched anywhere else in life, an order so profound that it seems to reside both inside us and around us.

And yet what I have written already requires more than pure reason of my reader. Intelligence is more than reason; it is the ability to respond to reason using all our resources and capabilities. It requires an awareness of our senses and the way that a proposition resides in our body as well as our reasoning, a capacity for wisdom that is more than pure reason.

I am not a great fan of emotional intelligence. Does the phrase mean that some intelligence is unemotional? Who gets to decide? As hyphenated Canadians have long observed, the act of modifying a noun (like intelligence or Canadian) seems to indicate that the thing itself, the essence of the thing, is distinct from the modified version. My intelligence (by which I mean both the information that comes to me and the ability to make meaning from it and transform that meaning into action) is not subject to modifiers. It involves a very clear-headed reasoning and quite often a dispassionate observation of the many factors that would be lost in a logical proposition. Often, these factors include noticing that I am experiencing an emotion and following that reaction to its source. Often, they include noticing the probable emotions of other people, before or after they have occurred.

Integrated thinking is another description of this kind of intelligence: the ability to track multiple streams of information, to observe or create patterns of meaning in these streams, and to respond in ways that influence multiple systems. It is an awareness that the best thinkers and the most influential people are those who are more alive and more aware more of the time. Their intelligence is always more than reason; it always includes emotions, sensory acuity, and the ability to weave disparate capabilities into a single, seamless understanding.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

We are often reminded to count our blessings at Thanksgiving - reminded so often that the act of counting blessings seems more like a guilty exercise in keeping score and not at all blessed. How often do lists really help with anything except accumulating checkmarks (which I will admit to liking from time to time)?

Instead of going wide by counting blessings (and ending up wide of the mark) why not go deep and just imagine one blessing in all its rich and wonderful connotation and detail? If you have ever developed even a small well-formed outcome, you can apply the same process to something that has already happened in order to appreciate with all your senses how exactly right that something was.

Chris and I are thankful together for everyone who came out to play with us on Wednesday night: for the brave new people getting their feet wet and for the practitioners who carried them through positive reframes, calibrations and the gathering of resources. We are thankful for the sound of the training room: laughter and movement and something in the air that signaled the belief that we move forward through serious play.

And we are thankful for each other, for each of the unique blessings that come with having a partner to steady our balance, and fill in our blind spots and pull us forward.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

How to eat an elephant

This weekend, I was reminded that even vegans need to eat an elephant now and then. Particularly if the elephant has already eaten them. I was telling a story about a woman whose children are eaten by an elephant. To rescue them, she allows herself to be swallowed, and then she carves and cooks the elephant from the inside out.

I know another story like this, longer and more complicated, about a boy who becomes a halibut and then a monster whale in order to free his people from another sea monster. Layers upon layers of being engulfed in order to learn, become stronger, and ultimately become free.

Both stories hinge on a knife. The people who get swallowed without a knife stay swallowed. Those who take a knife with them, emerge. The Swiss Army have a point.

The question is not so much what you will allow to swallow you as whether or not you remember to take a knife.

Monday, October 03, 2005

What am I doing?

It is remarkable how quick we are to ask ourselves, "What am I doing wrong?" We are so eager to "fix" ourselves or to be "fixed" that we are eager to seek out flaws and errors so that we can be improved.

When do you remember improving by noticing precisely what you were doing wrong? When do you remember studying your errors and coming away with a pattern for success?

Of course there are many, many times when our expectations of ourselves do not match our accomplishments, times when we make bad judgments or do the wrong thing. There is no suspense: being human means that we do things wrong.

What is mysterious and frequently lovely are the surprising ways in which we get it right. When we ask simply, "What am I doing?" we can look at a situation and see that we have been ingenious in harvesting benefits from difficulties and challenges. We can see that we are good at holding on tight and being uniquely and strongly ourselves, even when that means giving up the easier benefits of conventional success.

Would it be nice to have someone who is infinitely resourceful, innovative and persistent working for you? Perhaps you already do. The place you will find him/her is often the last place you would think to look: Yeats called it "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." More simply, it is the place where you look for what you did wrong.