Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.

 

Wisdom by way of Picasso and Elizabeth Bennet

Our greatest thinkers, artists, innovators and scholars have in common a curiosity that persists throughout life. They are open to new ideas and never stop learning. As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

All dimensions of wellness “act and interact” in ways that impact quality of life. Growth in the intellectual dimension helps us pro-actively solve problems, widens our understanding of the world and its people, and gives us a sense of control over events. Intellectual well-being is a key factor in maintaining resilience in the face of stress because it enables us to think critically, to see opposing points of view and to trust ourselves to make good decisions.IMG_0416

Recent findings from the Benefits of Lifelong Learning project show that non-job related adult education increases self-confidence and well-being, leads to greater tolerance of and trust in other people, and broadens social networks. Adult learners become more health-conscious, start doing more volunteer work in their communities, and show increased motivation to further their studies. Learning begets learning, or as daVinci noted, “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Earlier this week, I attended a funeral where a young man eulogized his grandfather by sharing with us some of his wisdom. The older man was intensely proud of his grandson, yet he often said to him (with a smile), “Remember – you’re always a freshman.” Not only was he saying, “Don’t get cocky,” he also meant that we’ve always got something to learn, we’ll always be new to something. Or as John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

There’s often a sigh of relief at graduations – whether high school, college or grad school – that formal education is finished, at least for a while. But after some time passes, many of us miss those days in school, and not just because of the lifestyle. We miss being challenged, stimulated, exposed to new ideas, that buzz we get when we feel ourselves growing. Unfortunately modern life often distracts us from further intellectual pursuits – we get caught up in earning a living, raising a family, keeping up with the latest technology, and think that we don’t have the time or money or energy to take a class, learn a language or practice a musical instrument.

Fear sometimes holds people back too. Deciding to learn something new first requires us to admit that there’s something we don’t know. That’s more difficult for some of us than we’d like to admit. We don’t really want to be “a freshman” again. What if we fail? What if we’re not good at something? Can our fragile egos take the risk?

Fortunately, there are ways to dip a toe in the water of intellectual growth if signing up for that degree program or those cello lessons is too big a step right now:

  • Read a book for fun. Yes, fun. It might be non-fiction on a topic that interests you; or try fiction in a genre different than your usual taste.
  • Attend a seminar or lecture. Local newspapers are usually full of listings for free events, at least in big metropolitan areas.
  • Write. A private journal or a blog such as this one will stimulate critical thinking and send you out looking for information and ideas.
  • Play old-fashioned board games or card games. Many of these challenge you to think strategically.
  • Watch a TED talk. They have thousands of short lectures that offer “ideas worth spreading.”
  • Stay up to date with events in the world, but don’t just accept what you see and read. Question it, look for the opposite view.

There’s a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he doesn’t have the talent for easily conversing that some people do. Elizabeth counters by saying that she doesn’t play piano as well as some women, but she always took that to be her own fault for not practicing enough. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own growth and development, aren’t we?