Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Nati Baratz ‘s film Unmistaken Child

Documentary of 28-year-old Nepalese monk Tenzin Zopa’s four-year, and eventually successful, search throughout Nepal, Tibet, and India for the child calculated to be of the proper age — only one to one-and-a half years old — to be the reincarnation of his beloved master, the widely revered Geshe Lama Konchong.

Shot against the profoundly beautiful, craggy hillsides that ground Tenzin Zopa’s search, the film shows the dual nature of the young boy who is both child and identified as the reincarnated master. As a toddler, Tenzin Ngodrop must at once pass traditional rites and tests of soul memory before he is identified as Geshe Lama Konchong’s reincarnation — eventually offering blessing to the many Tibetan Buddhists who comes recognizing his identity — and undergo, as the little boy that he still is, such rituals, in scenes both traumatic to him and touching, as the shaving of his head for his new monastic life.

The scenes between Tenzin Zopa and the child are inexpressibly tender and knowing, speaking to the continuity of love, as the gentle monk nurtures in Tenzin Ngodrop the soul that in its previous body cared for him from his seventh year forward.

Unmistaken Child is available at Netflix.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Films | Leave a comment

Electronic Technologies & Consciousness (Guest author: Julie J. Nichols)

Vitruvius with cell phone

Our society’s growing engagement with electronic technologies leaves its mark on our neurological and musculoskeletal systems. If our bodies and our consciousness are inextricably connected, then our obsession with technology also impacts that mysterious part of ourselves that makes us who we are, as individuals and as a species. The question is not so much whether technology affects human consciousness as how we want to co-create the reality our electronic tools are making possible.

Every new technology we humans have invented has subtly changed our experience of our physical structure.
The wheel greatly expanded humans’ limited movement on foot, modifying forever our ancestors’ dependence on the lower limbs. Similarly, writing by stylus, pen, type, and now electronic keyboard has altered our ability to communicate face to face. Each expansion transfigures our existing sense of space and time.

More recently, the Great Depression, the development of the atom bomb, and the Cold War gave rise to postures and facial sets very different from the body language of most Americans under 30 today. Baby Boomers remember in their bones the formal, controlled — even judgmental — expressions and professional presentation of parents who came to adulthood during the Depression and World War II, marking their need to maintain the appearance of order in times of great hardship. Such outward expressions make for a big contrast with the informal, even sloppy appearance, easy smiles, and indifferent hand and facial gestures of Millennials, who no longer perceive their bodies — or their lives — as having the same limitations their elders experienced. In just a couple of generations, we’re already seeing major changes in adaptation to technology, in the role of the physical body in daily life, and in the very consciousness of our culture.

Any use of technology, electronic or not, changes brain structure, whether practicing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano or shooting baskets on a court. These changes are discernible on scanning instruments and in muscle aches and pains. In both brain and muscles, new structures are created, new connections forged, by real-time, four-dimensional, bodily interaction with the technology of the piano and the ball court.

Pushing buttons on a keyboard synthesizer causes synaptic changes that are going to have their own structure. Say an amateur player uses her reading eye and brain to decode a set of instructions and to select color-coded or word-inscribed buttons to push. It’s the machine making the music. The amateur player is not interpreting with her own fingers and mind the complex phrasings and voicings that express the intentions of the composer’s and musician’s hearts. And, although some argue that this mechanical music has its own virtues, playing a synthesizer involves less nuance, less subtlety of hand and finger coordination, and much less complexity. On a piano, such interpretation expands the neural connections, the consciousness, of the player, whether amateur or professional.

In the same way, playing Wii games as virtual sports does get our muscles moving. But a player serious about basketball proficiency requires the feel of the ball in the hands, the actual swish of the ball through the net. Through interaction between the body and the technology of ball and basket, neurons make necessary new connections among brain, eyes, ears, muscles, and nerves. These connections expand consciousness in ways dimensionally different from the effects of pushing buttons and focusing on screens. To stare at a screen and pretend to throw a ball is quite different from doing so in reality, where constant minute distractions in space and time and inconsistencies in balance, weight and mass require that the human player must negotiate continuous infinite adjustments. It’s this negotiation that results in real-time proficiency. Remember that line about “10,000 hours of practice” being the baseline of proficiency in any endeavor? Ten thousand hours of Wii games will give you proficiency in — Wii games.

It’s clear that some of the current obesity epidemic is the direct result of increasing technology use. If we always sit in front of a computer monitor, television set, or movie screen because the infrastructure of our society encourages it — because doing so is built into the very architecture of our lives — well, the results are clear. Our increasingly fat-ridden anatomies reflect our belief that passively receiving and storing energy is the desirable norm. We forget that physical health depends on a lively reciprocity between energy input (food and drink, vitamins, and light) and output (movement, work, rest). Perhaps we actually begin (want) to believe that it doesn’t matter. We lose sight of the ineffable truth that the body is designed to evolve with our consciousness, and vice versa, that we might co-create reality through free intelligent choice — that our body’s health and capacities matter for the good of the world we inhabit.

 

Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.

Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.

 

Digital natives, born into the world of electronics technologies, take for granted the so-called need to “plug in”; to multi-task through several different media simultaneously; to access information far more rapidly than their parents ever could; and to stay connected to “friends” far and near throughout the day without interruption. For the current generation of American youth, anxiety comes not (as it did for their grandparents) from the notion that physical, bodily, worldwide real destruction could descend without warning from the button-pushing of a faraway madman. Instead, it comes from the thought of being without cell phone, Internet connection, or multitudinous apps on a handheld screen. Where their elders feared for their bodily safety — for their lives — Millennials fear the body’s virtual loss, no longer sensing that it is its strength, capacity, and independence that matter for survival. Millennials’ dependence on electronics to keep them connected to friends, family, and information — their sense that safety, survival, pleasure, and pain aren’t bodily issues but electronically-regulated ones — may be the characteristic that most distinguishes them from the generations that came before.

Futurists wax enthusiastic about the potential of robotics, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering to alter our very idea of what is human. However, the addictive call to stay “plugged in”; the prioritizing of the game on the cell phone over the fellow traveler on the bus, ski lift, or hiking trail (as pictured in many TV ads); and the inability to arise and attend to embodied actuality find their beginning in curiosity and exploration, develop into habit, and then curtail the ability to choose. It behooves us to remember that human physical structure, human consciousness, and technology evolve together.

Alone, Together.

Devaluing the needs and capacities of the first for the siren call of the last inevitably damages the sacred entity in the center.

What “bounces back” quickly in your sensory reality during those rare moments — perhaps on a vacation — that you “unplug”? And what in your body feels disturbingly unfamiliar or missing?

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

The Body’s Measure

3,000 miles in 3 years.
Not strictly by foot — by foot would take a lot less time.

Let’s do the math (very, very roughly):

  • 3,000 miles: 3 years.
  • That’s 1,000 miles per year: really, only 3 miles per day.
  • That’s a pretty leisurely pace.
  • But: taking 12 hours of travel-time to do those 3 miles.
  • What could possibly take that long, and be worth 12 hours of travel time per day, over three years, to complete?
The prostrations of a pilgrim — for three years straight.
The Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim faces Bodh Gaya, the site in India where the Buddha is thought to have achieved his enlightenment. He raises them to the crown of his head, then lowers them to his throat and then his heart, cleansing mind, speech, and body. He sinks to his knees, then all the way down, sliding his hands along the ground till they reach far overhead and his forehead presses into the earth.
Prostration 1

He has to get up from this posture, walk his feet forward two paces, and begin the process again, his hands only somewhat protected by their wooden clogs. After three years of this daily 12-hour practice, he has a bone growth on his wrist and a wound on his forehead that won’t heal. He doesn’t mind.

Few traveled by this method as far or for as long to participate in the Dalai Lama’s 2002 offering of the Kalachakra initiation as this pilgrim, interviewed in Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheels of Time. Yet it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to Robert
prostrate over the full 33 miles that circle the sacred Mount Kailash, a journey that takes two or three weeks.

The prostrations performed in pilgrimages of any length are meditations, focusing the mind through repetition. The site of the meditation is the performer’s own body. Its exhaustion, soreness, even its sores serve as reminders that the believer is not his body, and that the body itself is only an illusion of separateness, a misrepresentation of a deeper, non-dual reality.

Westerners prostrating facing Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet.

Along with both social and spiritual bows, prostrations are of course acts of surrender as well, bringing the head below the heart, sometimes so significantly that one has experiential understanding that one’s head is not the center of the universe. In doing prostrations, one is literally upsetting the head’s seeming dominance.

We could lay this a different way: Prostrations, we could argue, are also ways of knowing. Measuring the earth in four-, five-, or six-foot lengths is a means of coming to knowing it intimately. In the course of becoming a human inchworm, one learns not only the earth’s size, but one’s own.

CubitThe ancient world used human beings as the measure of space. A foot, a nose, an arm, a finger offered the basic length of measure. Remember the cubits used to measure Noah’s ark? They were literally (in Latin) a forearm’s length, going fingertips to elbow. In some cultures, the practice of mapping one’s measure onto the land remains quite alive. In South India, for example, the kalaris, or red clay huts that are used for martial arts practice are built on the measure of the guru’s own foot size: it’s length 42 times the guru’s foot long, it’s width 21 foot-lengths.

A very contemporary example of using the body’s measure as a way of knowing comes up as an elementary-school math exercise. In his book Learning with the Body in Mind, Eric Jensen suggests that kids measure items around the classroom with parts of their body and report the results: “This cabinet is 99 knuckles long.” Kids come back excitedly to share their discoveries, finding that, although each person’s palm’s width is different, the measurements by their bodies take them more into a sense of unity than ultimately of difference — and that the world not only submits to their measure but invites their awe at how much bigger it is than they.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

Nanette Sawyer’s Hospitality the Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome

In the midst of her book on cultivating hospitality, Reverend Nanette Sawyer recalls a meditation retreat she attended years prior. As the retreat closed and attendees lined up to receive the blessings of the spiritual teacher, Sawyer felt an uncontrollable craving for a moment of personal contact with her. Ignoring the line of devotees in front of her, she frantically waved a personal card she had written and repeatedly called out the teacher’s name, each time a bit louder, in the hope of catching her attention.

When finally the teacher turned her attention to Sawyer, entirely ignoring the card she held in her hand, she felt in the teacher’s darshan, or blessing gaze, the reflection of her deepest self back to her, allowing her to ground  and solidify those parts of herself that felt she needed some form of external validation.

We often think of hospitality in the context of opening one’s arms to friends, neighbors, and strangers. Instead, Sawyer uses the story to demonstrate the power of another form of hospitality, that of making room for and welcoming the hidden, harder-to-accept dimensions of oneself. The teacher’s gaze held Sawyer in a receptivity to her self, in all its darkness and neediness, and to make them equally welcome in her psyche. It allowed her to face the aspects of herself she had been trying to escape. It allowed her to do something she encourages her readers to do as they foster hospitality with family, neighbors, strangers, enemies, and creation itself: to face her own deep estrangement.

Sawyer’s book is not an especially original work, but it draws together many different kinds of human experience under a three-part model of hospitality that joins an essentially inward attitude, “receptivity,” with a way of being with others, “reverence,” and with the outward actions that spring from “generosity.” In so doing, and with a selection of practices that permit reflection on hospitality to self, others, creation, and God, she helps us think about ways of staying open and of creating a home for all

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Books | Leave a comment

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

A Harvard brain scientist who suffered a massive stroke in her late 30s, Jill Bolte Taylor has unique qualifications to understand the decimation of many of her left brain’s functions as each occurred. Once she recognized she was having a stroke, she exclaimed to herself, “How many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?”

Ironically, the very capacities Taylor would need to use to make sense of her condition were the very ones to be damaged, some for years to come. In her memoir of the stroke, Taylor retells, blow-by-blow, the collapse of the brain functions associated with recognizing and producing language. What she gains through her stroke is a mystical experience of the unity of all creation, which she postulates can only happen once the left brain is quieted.

Thus, the book offers what could be considered both a participant-observer’s account and a scientist’s analysis within the emerging field of neurotheology, which attempts to associate precise, “objective” locations in the brain with mystical experience. Blogger Elizabeth Kadetsky (http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/living-in-the-moment/?emc=eta1) likewise remarked the similarity of her mother’s state of mind, once Alzheimer’s disease had set in, to the state aspired to by Eastern and Western yogis alike and celebrated in Patanjali’s first yoga sutra, often translated as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

As she realized she was having the stroke, Taylor recognized she was losing the associations between bits of knowledge she knew she possessed. She then dropped a perduring sense of her purpose in phoning for help, and finally lost the ability to recognize the numbers on her doctor’s business card as anything but squiggles. Yet in her debilitated condition, Taylor was at war. Part of her wanted never to return to the land of language, to the argumentative, even arrogant, scientist she characterizes herself as having been. For what she experienced, as her consciousness centered largely in the holistic perceptions of the right brain, was the sense of the reality of her being, the fluctuating boundaries of the self. No longer taking as real either her own personality as Jill Bolte Taylor or that personality’s attachments, she found she felt no obligation to be “Jill Bolte Taylor.” Rather, she realized, “I am a fluid.”

Gradually, through years of rehabilitation and tender re-parenting by her mother, Taylor miraculously recovered her full capacities, learning how to perform as she had once done Jill Bolte Taylor once again in her public speaking engagements by studying previous performances on videotape.

In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor relies heavily on her scientific background and her perceptions from within the stroke state. While she gives credit to the findings of analytical brain scientists, she heroicizes her own brain’s adventure, never acknowledging those experimenters in the direct experience of reality associated with both Eastern and Western meditation practices. Yet, in addition to documenting their own experiences in first-person accounts and in guides for practice, Buddhist meditators have had their brain patterns while in meditation widely studied in the Western laboratories Taylor champions.

The pioneering achievement of My Stroke of Insight, therefore, is not its evocation of an enforced state of consciousness similar to self-realization, but rather its systematic portrait of intellectual and perceptual breakdown–uniquely undertaken by psychonaut Taylor.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Books | Leave a comment

A Practice in Engaging the Ritual Dimension

Consider a ritual in which you are a central character–not the kind you have to wait a lifetime for, but one in which you participate virtually every day–saying goodbye. The act has both a ceremonial (a more outward) dimension and a ritual function.

To illustrate, I once went to a lecture by an Indian professor, who opened his session with a prayer: May our time together be filled with learning; may no enmity divide us from each other.

I had never considered that any kind of personal distaste, hatred, or conflict could divide one from another in the context of a lecture. After all, isn’t a lecture an intellectual exercise or, at most, an intellectual exchange? We come and leave as attendees to a lecture.

Yet this visiting professor showed all of us the potential of the lecture format to be replete with ritual content. Bracketing the event as one in which common learning ought to be central, he altered the more typical view that I held. One could see it as something more than an event in which one comes to and leaves as an individual mind (carried around by the body as a tripod for the brain).

Instead, perhaps even a lecture is an experience through which we might recognize our shared purpose in coming to understand the text at hand and be in relationship with a respected teacher and a social body.
Goodbyes are similarly relational.

Consider:

What can a goodbye accomplish?

Two possibilities:

  • cleansing the relationship of any unspoken “enmity” or anything else that might divide, and
  • generating authentic expectations for the continuation of contact on another occasion.

What do your goodbyes not merely look and sound like, but accomplish?

Try this:

For a day, make a complete goodbye with each person you meet.

Consider a ritual in which you are a central character–not the kind you have to wait a lifetime for, but one in which you participate virtually every day–saying goodbye. The act has both a ceremonial (a more outward) dimension and a ritual function.
To illustrate, I once went to a lecture by an Indian professor, who opened his session with a prayer: May our time together be filled with learning; may no enmity divide us from each other.

I had never considered that any kind of personal distaste, hatred, or conflict could divide one from another in the context of a lecture. After all, isn’t a lecture an intellectual exercise or, at most, an intellectual exchange? We come and leave as attendees to a lecture.

Yet this visiting professor showed all of us the potential of the lecture format to be replete with ritual content. Bracketing the event as one in which common learning ought to be central, he altered the more typical view that I held. One could see it as something more than an event in which one comes to and leaves as an individual mind (carried around by the body as a tripod for the brain). Instead, perhaps even a lecture is an experience through which we might recognize our shared purpose in coming to understand the text at hand and be in relationship with a respected teacher and a social body.

Goodbyes are similarly relational.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Insight Practices | Leave a comment

Blending in, Busting Out: Choices in Social Costuming

 

Paparrazzi sculpture in Bratislava, Slovakia.

 

As many a miserable celebrity has wondered, is there any escaping your body in public life? How unintelligible or indecipherable can you really make it?

Aside from being a too-famous actor or singer, say you’re a criminal wanting to escape detection, a stalker trying to keep an eye on your prey, or an undercover operator trying to pass unnoticed. You have two tasks before you: first, to try to diminish the physical markers that make you seem distinctively to be you — the way of dressing, the body shape, the hair style and color. These things can be changed within a day.

Some things don’t submit as readily to alteration. Changing one’s height is not so easy, but the early 19th-century French detective widely acknowledged as the father of modern undercover detective work, Eugène-François Vidocq, demonstrated an aptitude for this. As one observer of Vidocq’s day described, “He is a remarkably well-built man, of extraordinary muscular power, and exceedingly active. He stands, when perfectly erect, 5 feet 10 inches in height, but by some strange process connected with his physical formation he has the faculty of contracting his height several inches, and in this diminished state to walk about, jump, etc.”

 

Eugene-Francois Vidocq, "father" of undercover work and master disguise artist.

 

It’s something to aspire (down) to. Those who can change the so-called “unalterables” have the greatest chance of passing unrecognized.

Second, once you’ve removed the things that make your everyday body stand out, you want to add in those physical and social things that will help it blend in into the given environment — whether it be the swagger of a biker gang, the stillness from the seemingly invisible back of an uninspiring high school classroom, or an unobtrusive street stride where you intend mischief on an as-yet-to-be-determined pedestrian. The Russian spies recently apprehended in Long Island did what their neighbors did: “infiltrated” the PTA and cocktail parties. A neighbor saw them as entirely of her world, telling The New York Times, “But they couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas!”

Some people who abandon their identities in order to enter a second world — federally protected witnesses, for example — end up believing in the person they have costumed themselves, outside and in, to be. Literature and film are rife with tales of undercover operators who “go bad” — who, that is, are convinced by the social world they have entered, at first as outsiders, that they actually are who they pass themselves off as being. The alterations to their customary appearance contribute to the sense of a changed identity.

How do self-costuming adults use these techniques? Costumes prepared for the elaborate masquerade balls of the 17th and 18th centuries, extravagant as they were, attempted both to make the dancing partygoer personally unrecognizable and to be equally outrageous as all the othercostumes at the dance — whether the dancer was playing a character from the Italian theatre or a count, a shepherdess, or a gondolier. They both subtracted the telltale signs of the everyday person and added signs of fitting in, even through extravagance. They werealso designed as vehicles of seduction for both the ball and afterward, their memory magnifying the wearer’sallure once she or he was back in conventional clothing.

Costuming for contemporary Halloween celebrations works a bit differently from this. For at these, far from being concealed, one’s own “best” distinguishing features may be on display in ways they are not the rest of the year — a pair of legs in a nurse’s (?!) fishnet stockings; a pair of usually concealed breasts pushed up for display in a strangely bustiered witch’s costume; a man’s surprisingly luscious lips filled in in lipstick for a drag costume. They are designed for recognition and to elevate the qualities of the existing body rather than disguise them.

And because of scanty social conventions that govern just how original or extravagant any individual’s costume is expected to be, blending into a group can be quite limited.

Perhaps, as with 18th-century masquerade costumes, part of the desire behind the distinctively sexual displays adults may make at Halloween time is not only to draw an evening’s attention but also to change others’ perception of one’s body during the rest of the year: that demure girlfriend of a sort-of friend of yours is actually a wildcat underneath; the socially orthodox lawyer in the office four down retains an air of sensuality throughout the year. As everyday bodies blend visibly back into the social scenery, pesky memories return of that freer behavior on that one day a year many of us rebel simultaneously against our usual social structure, using our bodies as our parade grounds.

Comment from Jan Edwards: All your issues are thought provoking, but I have a particular interest in clothing and what people say about themselves by how they dress. My years as a costumer taught me that my job was basically to stereotype people. Especially when I was doing commercials because the 15 or 30 second spot required that the clothes say a lot at a glance.

October 14, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Who’s the Who of the Body? Adventures in Bodily Misrecognition

You’re in a conference room, wondering why all these seemingly intelligent people around the table can’t seem to remember what this “follow-up” meeting is a follow-up to. You all remember there was a “launch” meeting two weeks ago, but from among the nine (occasionally prodigious) brains around the table, there doesn’t seem to be a whole one to be assembled from all the pieces that has a hope of reconstructing what decisions you all made.

And then there’s that young fellow you’re pretty sure is the lover of the long-lived VP sitting two seats down. The innocent keeps offering ideas that sound suspiciously like his man-friend’s. Why are they beaming at each other as each thinks he’s thinking his own thoughts?

Many of the world’s mystical traditions tell us that the apparent separateness of bodies covers over a deeper reality: that there is a seamless continuity between you and all those who are apparent “others”: Not only is your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor is yourself. So is everybody (and — guess what? — everything) else.

Aside from our religious or spiritual perspectives, in our everyday rounds we live out what could be considered a very rough but down-to-earth, social counterpart of the idea that bodies do not house distinct selves. Identity can be intersubjective. We think the thoughts others have shared with us as if they were our own, as in the rapid volleying of the same idea between the lovers at the conference table. We carry forward our parents’ judgments while not recognizing their source (probably far before even them). We catch the mood of the testy traveler verbally assaulting the airline employee at the ticket counter.

That intersubjectivity can extend from the phenomenon of more than one person thinking the same thoughts or experiencing each other’s moods to the sharing of identity through physical likeness — think of identical twins’ potential for experiencing themselves as a collective being, perhaps in response to other people’s confusion of one twin for the other.

I find that I think of the sharing of selves across bodies in connection with the frequency with which I am taken to be someone else in public places. Here’s what happens:

I’ve made a special trip to a suburban mall, and am striding swiftly toward the “anchor” store that carries the cosmetics brand I’m seeking. Echo! I hear a woman call out from where she is sitting. I keep walking: that’s not me anyway. Echo! she exclaims again, her voice edging toward me this time with lightning bolt edges. Why the urgency? I wonder. And, people name their children that?

The woman’s no longer sitting, she too is striding, with energy and toward me, a smile tinged with anxiety on her face. Though she’s not holding her arms open to me, she walks in an open-hearted way.

She thinks I’m Echo. Hesitantly, I think I should be kind: this woman will be disappointed, her tender heart tumbled a bit, when it turns out I am not her long-lost friend (relative?). It’s only as we get within about eight feet from each other, that her expression of joy, as at a surprise reunion, turns. Yet it’s not disappointment I’m reading on her face, but apparent confusion. I’m not her younger sister’s best friend from home; there’s something about me that clues her in. Yet, because I remind her so much of  Echo, in a sense I’m also not not her.

The woman stays glued to me after asking me my name. The woman, who without apparent embarrassment introduces herself to me as Pamela, seems fond of me — like longtime fond. Why does she hang on, as if she’s hoping that through gentle persistence I will be Echo after all? We chat a bit. She tells me about her sister’s friend and how long it’s been since she’s seen her, about the time Teresa and Echo carried the regional debate team. She wants to hang on. Soon it seems she’s talking to me as if I were Echo.

And what’s happening to me? From the very point at which I recognize that she has mistaken me for someone else, I have been somewhat willing to play the part, to give the woman the experience of recognition and reunion. In some sense, if I look that much like her, aren‘t I Echo (whoever she is)? At a certain point, I’m not just humoring Pamela: I’m entertaining the idea that, on some plane, in some respect, I am Echo.

Obama opposite his Indonesian lookalike Ilham Anas in Reuters photo

Over and over again this happens: something like the same self appearing in different bodies. The Indonesian Obama lookalike is a local celebrity peppered with questions about American politics. Your new girlfriend looks an awful lot like your last one, and for some reason you think you’ve already told her the things you only told the beforehand woman. The teacher at your kids’ school routinely punishes both of the twins when it’s only Natalia who goads the other girls at recess. An auditorium full of (probably) heterosexual men raise their hands, indicating they believe Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gay because they played cowboys in love in Brokeback Mountain (and they still look rather a lot like themselves).

The Hindu dictum Thou Art That has been interpreted to mean that the self we take ourselves to be is none other than the universal self present in all. Personality can be taken on and shed at will; indeed, it has always been only a put-on. Thou Art That suggests that the fact of having different bodies or shells should not be taken to represent genuinely distinct selves. Add to that the phenomenon of mistaken identity, and, in a sense, neither the self nor the body can be said truly to “belong” to any one. They are both slippery surfaces — which is why, in literature, meeting one’s doppelgänger, or physical double, is tantamount to coming face to face with one’s own death — the death, that is, of one’s ego. Save a lot of money on your Halloween costume and check the mirror; a character is ready for the playing, no special accoutrements needed.

Sarah Snazell, artist
“Doppelgaenger” oil painting by Sarah Snazell.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Physical Education

Moving to learn is not just for kindergartners: it’s for everyone who has a body.

While young students regularly play with “manipulables”– props that help them “get” concepts in math and literacy, older ones can deepen their understanding of cell mitosis or the concept of checks and balances in American government. They can gain the feeling of an historical period or culture, or acquire, through their bodies, deep understanding of otherwise abstract artistic and mathematical principles such as contrast and symmetry. The potential for learning through active strategies is both wide and deep.

Adults, too, can be powerfully affected by moving to learn. Paradoxically, it may be those adults who are not confident movers for whom learning through the body can be the most affecting, in part, learning psychologist Dawna Markova argues, because bodily activity activates the deepest, most unconscious modes of understanding for them.

As teachers become willing to wrestle with the extra work of making activity centers, the vulnerability-enhancing playing of experiential simulations, or the practicing of yoga with their students to enhance their social-emotional learning, they re-experience what their students do — the awkwardness, uncertainty, and jagged learning curve of trying to acquire an understanding for the first time. They not only provide but have powerful learning experiences.

Using their own bodies in their professional roles, teachers help students build both passion for the learning they face together and trust for where the teacher is trying to take them; it also inspires them to higher levels of achievement.

What follows are suggestions for integrating movement into the general education classroom experience. Teachers don’t need to be either “perfect” or “graceful” to do this. All they need is a willingness to try alongside their students. A grand leap from “just read about it” or “just talk about it,” it’s literally a “just do it”!

Trying Out Putting Learning on Its Feet

1. Build trust.

As you participate with your students and learn more about movement that you can use in your classroom, be mindful of any attempt to exploit the study of mind-body disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts for the purposes of classroom management or control. This can be a swift way to destroy the trust you have worked long to cultivate with your students! While it is true these practices can instill significant learning and health benefits for the students, including the ability to self-soothe, to direct attention, or to contribute to a caring classroom environment, students can readily sense the difference between adults who bring them these methods in order to control their behavior and those who treat their bodies respectfully, as students’ own.

A speech therapist in one of my workshops was flabbergasted by the improvement in rapport between her and one of her students, a boy with ADHD and receptive and expressive language delays. Together they did simple yoga balances — such as the popular Tree pose — and practiced conscious breathing. Afterward, she reflected, “Seeing his teacher trying to balance, and teaching him how to fall using muscle control created a different type of relationship between us. We had sorely needed something positive. It was powerful.”

2. Even though this work is highly motivating, set realistic expectations.

Nowadays, children may be as divorced from their bodies as once only adults were! A teacher of fourth and fifth graders was able to get her students to develop an impressively wide array of synonyms for the words calming, energizing, and focusing — the types of yoga poses they would practice together to enhance learning readiness. However, once they got up on their feet and began practicing, she reported back, students had difficulty accessing actual body sensations and putting names to them.

Students who don’t even realize they’re flying off the handle can’t instantly calm themselves: they need first to become aware of their anger, frustration, fear, sadness, or other negative emotion. Learning to articulate their feeling and bodily states will precede students’ ability and willingness to explore alternative expressions.

3. Recognize opportunities for making a concept real to a student physically.

The body is available to help with many different types of learning, which is why I like to refer to kinesthetic intelligences, in the plural. In some learning tasks, simple bodily repetition of a motion solidifies the learning “in the body,” as when learning to use scissors. In others, pairing a motion with a musical or verbal cue can help to embed learning in memory: think of the scene in the film Akeelah and the Bee in which the main character spells “effervescent” perfectly as she beats time jumping rope. Kinesthetic learning also pairs beautifully with intrapersonal, interpersonal, and spatial tasks, such as discovering one’s relationship to a poem by moving as it is recited, learning to tell time by becoming a “body clock,” or participating in social simulation games — all examples of successful lessons implemented by teachers I have worked with.

4. Don’t confuse learning through movement with performing through movement. Rehearse, don’t perform.

Much of the literature on multiple intelligences has answered to teachers’ anxiety about how to assess learning activities that are not paper and pencil-based. It’s thus easy to confuse kinesthetic learning with kinesthetic assessment, the sometimes-inauthentic performances of learning that have so often been inelegantly used to determine what children understood from a unit.

Preparing for a performance is quite a different task than putting learning on its feet. For most students and most body-based learning activities, the true learning that is available resides in the experience of figuring something out using the body, in the “rehearsal.” When a student experiments, on his feet, in order to discover the meaning of a Langston Hughes poem, he is simultaneously thinking critically in ways that affect his movement and moving in ways that develop his thinking. Similarly, acting out where on the ill-fated Titanic the poorer people and the wealthier would have been housed offers students more potential for insight and for meaningful connections about social class in its historical perspective than does the performance of the eventual scene for the class. Consider giving more weight to students’ approach to rehearsal than to their performances.

5. Keep students’ (and teachers’) bodily experience their own.

Be careful that, as you bring students’ bodies into play in the classroom, you let decisions about how they use their bodies reside with them. As a Chicago-area third-grade teacher said, students “are capable of making appropriate decisions about what their bodies need.” Give students freedom not to participate, for whatever reason, so long as they are not distracting the others. More often than not, given the opportunity to watch first, and see a teacher who’s “in there,” moving along with her students, students will come and participate, once they’re ready.

Remember that the teacher’s willingness to model, her respect for students’ bodily experience, and her exercising of her imagination about ways to use physical activity to reach learners are all much more vital to students’ learning experience than her expertise as a mover. Put on your own “thinking feet” and, with your students, take them for a walk.

What have you learned through doing, trying, practicing– whether in a class or “on the street,” either recently or long ago?

And if you’re looking for further ideas about how to put learning and thinking on their feet, see some school-ready resources in the post below.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Resources & How-To | 1 Comment

School-Ready Resources for Kinesthetic, or Body-Based, Learning

Armstrong, T. (2000). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Bryner, Andy, and Dawna Markova. 1996. An unused intelligence: A handbook for implementing the five disciplines of learning organizations. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Campbell, L., Campbell, B., & Dickinson, D. (2004). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Campbell, M., Leibowitz, M., Mednick, A., & Rugen, L. (1998). Guide for planning a learning expedition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.

Fontana, D., & Slack, I. (1997). Teaching meditation to children: Simple steps to relaxation and well-being. London: Thorsons.

Gilbert, A. G. & Smith, H. P. (1992). Creative dance for all ages: A conceptual approach. American Alliance for Health and Physical Education.

Griss, S. (1998). Minds in motion: A kinesthetic approach to teaching elementary curriculum. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Jensen, E. (2000). Learning with the body in mind: The scientific basis for energizers, movement, play, games, and physical education. San Diego: The Brain Store.

Komitor, J. B., & Adamson, E. 2000. The complete idiot’s guide to yoga with kids. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books.

Rotz, R., & Wright, S.D. 2005. Fidget to focus: Outwit your boredom: Sensory strategies for living with ADD. New York: iUniverse.

Schewe, M. L. (2002). “Teaching foreign language literature: Tapping the students’ bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.” In G.
Bräuer, (Ed). Body and language: Intercultural learning through drama (pp. 73-93). Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Spolin, V. (1986). Theater games for the classroom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Walling, D. R. (2006). Teaching writing to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wenig, M. (2003). Yogakids: Educating the whole child through yoga. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Wilhelm, J. R. (2002). Action strategies for deepening comprehension: Role plays, text-structure tableaux, talking statues, and other enactment techniques that engage students with text. Jefferson City, MO: Scholastic Professional Books.

Wormeli, R. (2005). Summarization in any subject: 50 techniques to improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Resources & How-To | Leave a comment

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