My latest blog post!
You can find it here on the Psychology Today website:
For images of some my roses, visit Roses.
Every time I turn around these days, Leif is standing on top of a table, grinning broadly. At sixteen months old, my son is a stealth mover, quick and quiet. If I simply look away for an instant, he pulls out a chair whose seat is as high as his chest and levers himself onto its flat expanse, using a dip of his shoulders and head to haul up his legs. He then lifts one leg to the side to bridge the span from chair seat to table top, and pulls up to standing.
Why? He’s not usually after any object in particular–he is not even tall enough to see what is up there–though once there he inevitable notices his brother’s glass of milk or an uncapped marker. He climbs spontaneously, almost instinctively, whenever a chair enters his field of perception. Or a couch; the toy box; a flight of stairs. A parental leg, or a sister’s back.
What motivates him, it seems, is less any retrievable object than the doing of the movement itself–the sheer joy of its accomplishment. He is in a phase where this urge to climb is his movement pattern of choice for connecting with his world and discovering what it has to offer him: what new sights and sensations will this chair-climbing, table-scaling move generate in me? Continue reading
I think of myself as a technomoderate. While I sit at a computer for some time nearly every day, I do so selectively. I email regularly, blog periodically, and update my website from time to time. I surf the New York Times daily, and Facebook weekly. While writing, I invariably call upon google or amazon to help me find a source or research an idea. In all, I use the web in moderation, to get the job done, while living most of my life in the real world—or so I thought. Then we spent two weeks at the end of the summer without an internet connection. Two weeks?
One day in August, the satellite dish stopped working. It simply refused to send our signals or receive those from afar. Was it clouds? The skies were clear. Over-grown trees? We trimmed. A shift in dish position? The technicians tried several before concluding that we needed a new transponder. Time required to order, deliver, and install: two weeks.
Two weeks. I wasn’t on vacation, or on the road. I was home, where all of the farmwork, artwork, and bookwork happens. I had proofs in hand for my next book that needed to be done and delivered, electronically. Two weeks?
Immediately, I felt disoriented. How was I to proceed? I routinely rely on my computer connection, I realized, to organize me. It sets my tasks to do, with its in box, out box, and drop box; its pop ups and sidebars; downloads and documents, blog feeds and posts. It is more than a list; it is a desktop with depth, a room in itself. And as I enter my computer’s room, that room enters me, recreates itself inside of me, as my world.
Yet my computer was strangely quiet. It no longer beeped and blinked at me with news of incoming messages. It was as flat as it looked, no longer a portal into realms peopled with friends and family, experts and strangers; and no longer offering a daily array of thickets to explore. To be plugged in to a virtual world is to be oriented by it, and I hadn’t known to what degree.
It is one of the first lessons that any dancer learns: if you want to go up, you have to go down. If you want to soar with the greatest of ease, first you must bend your knees.
It is a lesson rich with implications. For example, the movement down might seem to lead in the opposite direction of where you want to go. I want to go up! It might seem to delay gratification. It might even seem to pose an obstacle to what you desire. The reverse is true: going down is the movement that enables a dancer to go up.
Further, since it is impossible to stay up forever, going down is also the movement that enables a dancer to land without falling. It is her ability to complete the arc of a jump that gives that jump its dynamism and punch.
This logic characterizes all natural processes. It is not just a question of balance, but of a rhythmic oscillation that involves moving in two opposing directions in order to move at all. We must exhale to inhale, sleep to wake, eat to run, and so on.
It is a logic that our mind over body training teaches us to ignore.
I ended last blog asking about the kind of movement practice that would provide us with the sensory education we need in order to ensure that our use of electronic devices in particular and technology in general serves the ongoing health and well being of our selves and the planet.
Short answer: we need movement practices that encourage us to bend our knees.
Longer Answer: The driving force in our technological development, one with long roots in western civilization, is to resist the downward pull of nature. We aspire to transcend our sensory selves and go to god, or at least into rarified realms of objective reason. We want to protect ourselves from the shocks and uncontrollable wildness of the natural world, while harnessing its power for our own ends. The latest gear promises to save us time and energy, to save us from manual labor, pain and death, to save us from ourselves. Following this path, we use our screen devices to move up and out of our bodies into vibrating virtual realms of imagination, abstraction, and ease.
We take it as a sign of advancement that, in the middle of a cold winter night, we can be wide awake, texting on a blackberry in a warm, well lit room, drinking coffee and eating bananas.
Yet our insulation has become isolation. Living in contemporary times, we hardly even feel the downward pull of nature in us and around us. The technologies that connect us with people and places and knowledge around the world lure us away from a sensory awareness of the nature of ourselves and the oscillating movement that sustains our existence. We stand on tiptoe, trying to reach higher and higher.
To balance this upward flight, then, we need to engage in practices that draw our attention back down into our bodies and out through our senses. Given this aim, it doesn’t really matter what kind of movement you make. What matters is whether you open to sense and appreciate how the movements you are making are making you.
I offer four guidelines.
1. Move in ways that require you to breathe. Of course, every movement we make requires us to breathe, and breathing itself is a movement we make that makes us. However, when we engage in movements that require us to breathe more and other than we do when sitting or standing, several shifts happen. We become more aware of the fact that we are breathing and that we need to breathe. We also shake off the patterns of compressed breathing that we have mastered in our quest for moving up into our minds. Most of us never breathe to our full capacity. We have forgotten what it feels like. We don’t even know that we are not breathing with our bodily selves. We have lost the ability to sense what we aren’t sensing. So move in a way that demands that you breathe big.
2. Move in ways that require (some) coordination. When we engage in movements that require the repetition of specific patterns of coordinating our limbs and lobes, several shifts happen. First, we become aware of the fact that we are always making patterns, and that we have the capacity to learn to make new patterns. Second, in so far as we are moving in ways that are requiring us to breathe, we will also find that our differences in our breathing generate new experiences of the movements we are making. Our experience of the movement pattern changes, depending on whether we are inhaling or exhaling, winded or full. We find our running stride lengthens, our yoga stretch deepens, or our swimming stroke quickens. So move in a way that requires you to execute patterns of sensation and response.
3. Move to invite your attention into your breathing, moving bodily self. When we are moving to breathe and breathing to move, the breathing movement exerts a downward pull on our attention, drawing us to notice what we are feeling as we move. Let it. Feel the twinge of a muscle ache, the pinch of a stitch, the ease of a released cramp. When you do, you are feeling how the movements you are making are making you. Your movements are producing those sensations and your responses to them. And once you realize this fact, you can also begin to sense that you have the ability to make movements that will not produce whatever feelings of discomfort you may be feeling. You begin to appreciate the wisdom of your bodily self. You open to the rushes of energy and vitality that strengthen your sense of who you are.
4. Move, if you can, near nature. The nature in us responds to the nature around us in ways that help us come to our senses. Nature offers experience in the round, engaging all of our senses in ways that extend beyond their ranges. Move in ways that place you in infinity.
Run, walk, bike, swim, dance, ski, do yoga, stretch, mow, play tennis, fold laundry, clean the house.
If we move to breathe and breathe to move in patterns of rhythmic, coordinated action, with a willingness to have our attention drawn into our sensory selves, preferably in a natural setting, we will develop the internal criteria we need in order to discern when it is time to unplug from our virtual worlds and reconnect with the lived experience of our sensory selves. We will know when we start to suffer from an isolation from our sensory selves. We will feel the discomfort of it and seek to move differently.
We will also have the internal sense we need to make sure that the thoughts we are thinking and the dreams we are dreaming while soaring in our virtual realms will support us in replenishing our sensory sources, so we can jump again. We will be more likely to generate ideals and pursue values that honor the earth in us and around us as the condition for our thinking and dreaming at all.
Going up is great, ecstatic even. But to do it well, we need to be able to bend our knees and land on our feet.
Findings published from the third installment of the Kaiser Foundation’s research project on children and their use of media shocked technophobes and -philes alike. According to the report, kids ages 8-18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day plugged into an electronic device (such as an ipod, smart phone, computer, or television). This figure does not include an extra hour and a half spent texting or talking on cell phones; time devoted to homework, or an extra three and a half hours of media exposure accrued by multitasking.
As one commentator concedes: it no longer makes sense to debate whether such technological use is good or bad. We need to “accept it” as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”
Must we equate ipods with oxygen? Debates over the morals and merits of technology are as old as human civilization. There are questions to ask that move us beyond good and evil.
1. Are we using our tools in ways that weaken the sensory capacities they extend?
Every human invention extends a set of basic bodily capacities in a direction farther than it could otherwise go, and in effect, reduces our need for developing those skills and sensations.
Recall Socrates’ debate, for example, over the act of writing, as an extension of our capacity to remember. When we write something down in order to remember it, aren’t we giving ourselves permission to forget?
2. Who is using whom?
The tools we use organize our patterns of physical and mental movement; shape our thoughts; space and time our tasks, and map our sensory awareness. Using tools grants us a sense of ourselves, and what we can do. It structures our relationships to other people, places, and elements. Whether pencil or plow, book or boat, ipod or iphone, the tools we use use us to make them work. We learn, in using the tool, what turns us on.
The issue these questions share concerns our participation in the rhythms of our bodily becoming. The movements we make are making us. But how? As we invest ourselves in this technology, are we cultivating a range of skills and sensibilities that aligns with our ongoing health and well being?
Answers are trickling in for kids who are plugged in. Regarding the sensory education such technology use provides, evidence is emerging of a correlation (at least) between hours spent consuming media and pounds added consuming calories. However, the causal factor between childhood obesity and screen use, believe it or not, does not seem to be sitting.
While researchers point to food advertisements as encouraging excess intake, the issue may have more to do with how screen use educates our senses. While watching a screen, regardless of whether we are in a chair or on an exercise bike, we train our attention away from what our bodily selves are doing and towards what is coming to us through the monitor. Tuned in we tune out. We reinforce the sense of ourselves as minds over bodies that causes us to override the wisdom of our bodily selves in all realms of our lives–including in our ability to follow the arc of our eating pleasure to a sense of enough.
Moreover, in using these devices we not only train ourselves to think and feel and act as if we were minds in bodies, we train ourselves to desire this sense of ourselves as itself a primary source of pleasure, accomplishment, and even health. Our dopamine level surges when we override our bodily discomfort to check email, harvest soybeans in Farmville, or receive the latest tweet from our favorite star.
As for how our tools are using us, commentators regularly comment on the enhanced multitasking ability of the techno-savy. However, it isn’t the multi in this formula that is new. Humans have been manipulating complex maps of parallel and entinwed processes for millennia in order to survive. What is new is the sensory and kinetic range of the tasks: since media use occupies a smaller swath of bodily selves than the tasks of, for example, making all our own food and clothing, we can indeed train ourselves to tolerate more of them.
So what difference does it make if our kids use these technologies in ways that reinforce their sense of themselves as minds over bodies, and reduce their sensory range?
I offer three points, knowing there are more.
First, Rodolfo Llinas’ recent book argues that how bodies move influences how brains develop. One implication, anticipated by Nietzsche in Human All Too Human, is that when we train ourselves to still our bodily selves in order to think and read and write, we cut ourselves off from a primary realm of our creativity—our senses—and the source of materials through which we think at all. It is not an accident that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a dancer.
A related vein of inquiry concerns empathy. As the Blakeslees document, people with a greater visceral awareness—that is, a heightened awareness of their own feelings and sensations—demonstrate a greater capacity to empathize with other humans. Such empathic qualities correlate regularly with the ability to create and maintain mutually life-enabling relationships. One implication is that bodily practices that train our attention away from our sensory selves—even in the name of networking—may diminish our capacity to form strong, mutually beneficial relationships with other humans. (In what sense are fellow Facebookers friends?)
A third line of concern is one Richard Louv raises in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv diagnoses a nature-deficit disorder among our children, precipitated in part by an increased use in technological devices. As kids train their senses away from the natural world, they don’t learn how to be in the natural world—how to open to receive it. They think that “nature” is what they see in their wildlife videos, and get bored with the real thing.
Louv asks: where is the next generation of environmentalists and natural scientists who will be able to notice and care about the destructive impact humans are having on the very web of life that enables them to be?
Whether we are talking about the relationship to our bodily selves, to other humans, or to the natural world, then, the logic is the same. We may be losing our ability to sense and enact what we need in order to be able to create relationships that will support us in our ongoing sensing and enacting. Nietzsche called such a state decadence.
We do know that the question of how to cultivate relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world is a primary challenge we confront in the 21st century. It is also clear that electronic devices are not about to disappear.
The question that arises then is this: what kind of practices can or must we engage alongside our electronic device use, so that we can be sure to develop the sensory awareness we need to engage and use this technology in ways that enhance our ability to thrive? What kind of movement matters?
My fourteen-year-old son hates homework. It’s not the work per se. During school hours, Jordan is happy to learn and will lecture at length on fine points of modern history or the properties of an equilateral triangle. Give him the same assignments at home, however, and he perceives them as an intrusion of his time and space. An injustice.
Home, he reasons, is for other kinds of work. Home is for milking his cow, Daisy, and planting potatoes. It is for chopping down a tree with an ax whose handle he carved, and then using Bright and Blaze, his team of young steer, trained to a yoke he shaped and shaved, to pull the log into the barn, where he and his sisters will hack it into firewood. Home is for churning cream he skims, from milk he squeezed, into butter and ice cream (though not both at once).
While school is for schoolwork, home is for home-work.
The question of education is in the news, running alongside concerns about the United States’ ability to sustain its place in the evolving global economy. We are familiar with the refrain: innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship will secure us jobs. Schools must teach the next generation these essential survival skills.
So far so good. The next question, of course, is how? Can you even teach creativity? The oxymoron is evident. Some deny that it is possible. But what does it take to be a creative, innovative entrepreneur?
For one, it takes the perspective required to see a problem as a problem in the first place, independent of what others think. It takes the passion of wanting to do it better. It takes the patience to wait for ideas to come and mature, and the persistence to brook the resistance new ways inevitably elicit.
In short, if we want to nurture creative problem-solvers, we need to help kids develop an intrinsic desire to unfold what they have to give in making the world a better place to be.
Did I say it would be easy?
I recently read NutureShock, a book about parenting practices that unmasks our common sense ideas as not so sensible after all. One chapter focuses on theories about how to develop the “executive functions” of the prefrontal cortex that aid us in planning for the future, carrying out strategies, and harnessing our impulses to them. These executive functions are almost always described as a top-down kind of self-control: mind over body. Until recently, the road to such skills has been paved with training that focuses primarily on the intellect.
However, as NutureShock relates, the balance is shifting, for researchers are discovering more effective means of developing these skills. Project-based, case-driven, collaborative learning opportunities are being proposed in which students design, carry out, and even assess their own work. When students learn what they need in order to solve a problem, they know that what they are learning matters. They know why. They care, and so invest more of themselves in learning.
In the preschool years, such learning is called imaginative play. Ask a four-year-old to sit still and you may get thirty seconds. Tell him that he is a dragon guarding a precious jewel and you might get four minutes. Involve a jewel thief, a dragon family who loves the jewel, and the magic rainbow it opens, and he may sit for twenty.
The same logic works for a twenty-year-old. Put her in a life-like situation, and see how learning disciplines improve. Why? Those so-called executive functions are fueled and funded by our emotional, sensory selves. It’s not so mind over body after all.
If our aim, then, is to nurture passionate, patient, persistent problem-solvers, the plot thickens: how do we teach our kids to play?
I am learning with Leif again. Master of rolling that he has become, he no longer needs to pull his knees to his chest to initiate the move. He simply twists his torso, belly button first, and rolls to the side, hauling his legs behind him. He learned this torso twist because the leg-lifting, jack-knife move he practiced so many times arranged his body in this pattern, pulling it into his sensory awareness as a possibility. He learned it, he perfected it. Now, this corkscrew is his move of choice as soon as you lie him down, for example, when attempting to change his clothes or a diaper.
Once on his belly, however, he finds himself again at the horizon of his abilities. Stuck. He tries arching his back and lifting his arms and legs off the floor, waving and kicking, while making the sound of a strangled cat.
Then, after several moments of ear-scratching screech, he resorts to that same knees-up pattern of movement that taught him how to roll in the first place: he pulls his knobby knees up under his body. Lo and behold he finds his toes. They connect with the floor. Executing his usual downward push, something unusual happens: he finds himself launched forward in space, at the edge of his blanket, forehead to the floor. Wow!
What’s happening? Faced with a new challenge (belly down), Leif mobilizes a pattern of sensation and response he already knows how to make (knees up). When he does, the familiar pattern takes a different shape in relation to gravity and weight (toes connect). He learns about him self and his world based on what happens when he makes it (face to floor). The pattern evolves (a bit more up). He repeats the experiment again and again, playing with the possibilities, and hones in on those patterns of movement that unfold his potential to move some more (he’s almost crawling!). The movement Leif is making is his making him.
While the spinal movements Leif is making are basic to human health–at the core of yoga, dance, and other physical disciplines, overlooked to our detriment in our sedentary lives–what’s even more important about Leif’s adventures is the process he is engaging. He’s playing in the most fundamental way we humans can: discovering and creating the patterns of sensation and response that make him who he is. He is not just moving, he is exploring and unfolding his potential to make new moves. He is playing at his own horizons and doing so because it is fun. He is participating in the rhythms of his bodily becoming.
To survive in this century, we are going to need to learn to make new moves in relation to the most basic elements of our ongoing existence–food, water, air, earth, and its human and animal creatures. We need to be able to play–to envision, plan, and carry out scenarios that anticipate the impacts of our actions on the health and well being of the earth in us and around us. What are we creating?
We might think that once we learn the basics of rolling, sitting, crawling and walking, it is time to restrict the focus of learning to our intellects. However, for our thinking to remain free, flexible, and responsive to our time, we need exercises that challenge our intellects as well as bodily practices that call our attention to how our movements are making us. To respond to the challenges we face, we have to care. We have to know why it matters to our bodily lives, and to do either, we need to move in ways that bring our senses to life.
It’s our home-work.
Bright and Blaze may not know it. They are not just pulling a log. They are pulling into existence a passionate, patient, persistent problem-solver.
Cats of all kinds are famous for it, after their notable naps. Cows do it too, after hours curled cud-chewing. I see human babies doing it, and know I can’t live without it. Even so, I was somehow surprised to realize that chicks do it too. Chicks stretch.
Our twenty-six fluff balls are now three weeks old and sprouting tufts of feathers from all sides. One by one, while otherwise peeping, pecking, and pooping, a chick pauses. A ripple of movement begins in its shoulder, fans through its feathering wing, leaps to a lengthening leg on the same side, and spills out through a perfectly pointed toe with such intensity that its wingtips tremble. Chicks stretch.
It makes me think. For these birds, each stretch spreads through a range of motion that the bird needs to fly. The stretches bubble up spontaneously, improvised yet patterned. The moves are obviously pleasurable (or perhaps I project). If birds could smile…
It makes me think. Why stretch?
Cultural conversations about stretching reflect our attitude towards bodily movement in general. As noted in the last post, discussions about movement are dominated by the language of exercise and fitness. Stretching, in this regard, is something you do to your muscles in order to have a better workout or race result. Stretching is a physical means to a physical end.
From there fierce debates ensue over how, when, whether, and why. Does stretching weaken our muscles or prevent injury? Does stretching disperse lactic acid for a speedier recovery or put undue strain on fragile tissues? Does stretching increase flexibility or merely preserve it? Should it hurt or not? Should you bounce or hold or resist? What seems to count most are the measurements—how fast, how far, how much. Can you touch your head to your knees? Your hands to the ground? Hey, how’s your split?
Haunting these debates is an assumption that a muscle is a mechanical piece prone to harden over time like a rubber band or an old shoe. Keeping “it” toned and tuned is the responsibility of some one called “I”—someone armed with science’s best results. Yet according to science, the verdict is out. No one knows. Or do we?
Leif wakes up from his nap with a big smile. It was a good one. I watch as his fists ball, his elbows bend, his knees tuck up, and his back bends in an arc of intensity that shudders through his small self. His body is yawning, opening, releasing his limbs to move. He smiles again, waving his legs, extending his joy through the tips of his toes. No span of sensation escapes the awakening. All here and now he is.
We are missing the point about stretching because we have lost a sense of our bodies as the movement that is making us. Even while neuroscientists plot body maps in the brain, most people remain convinced that movement, aside from a few involuntary processes and reflexes, is from the top down. Brain drives; Body follows.
However, our brains are bodies too, and the bodies we are are not ours. If anything, we are theirs. The muscles we move move us, and they are alive, ceaselessly recycling, replenishing, and regenerating energy that exists to empty itself along a string of similar cells. Like a plant wants the sun, our bodily muscles want to move.
Moreover, this muscle movement that we are is not simply physical. Muscles don’t just move bones. They move our senses—the eye that scans, the ear that cocks, the nose that nears, the digit that fingers. How we move determines what we perceive, what we feel, and what responses we can imagine. The movement of our muscles also orients us in space and time: time is how long a movement takes; space is where it gets us.
It is the action of our muscles, grunting or groaning, that draws into sensory awareness a lived experience of ourselves as agent “I.” Approach or withdraw? Tangle or resist? Grab or release? My “I” is the one who did and can and will again make that move.
How we move our bodily selves, then, provides the basis for everything that our brains have to do in the realm of the executive “I.” Organizing, abstracting, calculating, reasoning, conceiving, planning, and carrying through are all mental movements predicated on and predicted by the earliest contraction and release of our bodily selves.
Stretching is an impulse to move. Stretching we bring our senses to life, animating the planes and surfaces of our sensory awareness so that we have at our fingertips what we need to participate consciously in making the movements that make us who we are.
I lie down on the floor. The congestion in my brain, the tension in my shoulders, the stiffness in my limbs are all letting me know: it is time to move. I breathe down into the ground and lift one knee towards my chest. Holding it with laced fingers, I exhale down into my bent hip and out through the leg lying along the floor. I do it once and then again. Suddenly a hamstring releases, seemingly of its own accord. My lower back sinks into the ground. Ribs lengthen, and ripples reorganize the bones of my spine. The front of my forehead eases and thoughts begin to flow.
Ah yes, that is what I was forgetting while sitting at my desk. While it is true that I begin the stretch, soon enough the stretching is stretching me past patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, and into a present place where I am free to respond anew, in the moment and for the moment.
More is being stretched than muscles here–I’m stretching my sense of self. It is my “I” that is in danger of becoming hard and rigid, unyielding in its beliefs. It is my sense of who I am that must remain elastic, flexible, and free, not identified with the past patterns of movement that I have become, but rather with the process of making those patterns that “I” am. That’s the point.
It’s all about love.
Stretching I find ground, or ground finds me. A sensing center of self emerges where I can discern what will keep me moving and loving based on how I have moved and where I am now. My bodily self knows.
It is this finding and feeling that feels so good I want to do it again. I want to be this awake, this resourceful in every moment of my life, regardless of how restricted my reach may be. If I am beating and breathing, my movement is making me, and there is an infinite range of increasingly subtle sensations to discover.