Sunday, December 18, 2011

What matters?

A Christmas / winter solstice letter

This year instead of what happened, where we went, what we did, and who we did it with… what are we aware of that underlies the choices we made and how we responded to what happened?

Dear Friends and Family and All,

We did many things this year, including work hard, travel to and stay at beautiful places (Maine stands out); we’ve gone through difficulties and we’ve enjoyed ourselves, each other, and our connections with others. If we went into it, the description would be pretty similar to years past. Rather than describe the specifics (again), here’s what underlies it.

Over the years, we have continued to peel the layers of an onion-like question: “What matters to us?”

Good feelings. One of our psychotherapy/body/mind teachers, Charlotte Selver, was 97 when we first started studying with her in the late 1990s. We remember her saying in her ancient croaking voice, “You can’t go far wrong if you follow what feels good.” It would have felt different coming from somebody in their late teens, but she was going on 100. It stuck with us both. What sort of good feelings? Maybe stuff like engagement, interest, satisfaction, connection, love.

The Outdoors. We both love The Outdoors, particularly natural settings like woods, or canyons, or streams… but our backyard works, too. We love the seven 80+ foot pine trees that surround two sides of our backyard, the community of birds—including many recognizable individuals—that frequent Lana’s five feeders throughout the year, and John continues to love the clear night sky.

Being physical. Moving—hiking, running, biking, snow shoeing, cross country skiing and tai-chi kind of stuff. It feels good doing it, and it supports us feeling good in between doing it.

Relationship and intimacy. Being connected to each other and friends, family, clients, ourselves.

Being quiet. Meditation, retreats, sitting on a rock on a mountainside in Acadia National Park, Maine, lolling on a bench in a nearby park.

Work. Using our resources and skills to help others accomplish their goals, stretching ourselves to discover new abilities and to grow.

Learning more about how to make use of what is difficult in the service of learning more about good feelings.

We wish for each of you a good year and more of what matters. May your responses to the various circumstances of your life arise in a way that supports your increasing good feelings.

        Love, John & Lana

Friday, October 28, 2011

“Teach me to interact with my son the way you interact with me.”

 New Thread:               Communication

A male client made this request during a recent session. His son, a young man, lives independently of his parents. Below is a fictionlized and condensed exchange, gleaned from many interactions with clients over the years, that might serve as a response to his request. It applies to fathers with sons as much as clinicians with patients, lovers with each other, friends with friends—and most fundamentally, it applies to each of us with ourselves… allowing the time, space, and curiosity to come to know who we are.

The intimacies of interaction 101
JT:    Well, what’s your experience of how I interact with you that is how you want to interact with your son?

Client:    You ask my permission to ask me something, or to suggest something. You tell me to use only the bits and pieces of our interaction that are useful to me. You tell me to change what occurs to you to say… and make it right for me. You are careful to make sure I follow what I think and feel is right for me. You tell me whatever I come up with is the good stuff. You tell me if you say something and it doesn’t fit, then you probably blew it, because you don’t know me well enough. You tell me no matter how much or how long we interact, I will always be the expert in what’s best for me.

You hardly ever suggest what I should do. Or if you do, you tell me it’s not because you think I should do it, but because you are curious about what I think in response to the suggestion.

You ask me questions about what I’m doing. Although you ask me about what I don’t like, or what I think the problem is, you seem much more curious about what lights me up. When I do something new that I like, you ask me about it, and what I imagine supported me in doing the new thing, or the new thing I learned.

You take time to think about what I tell you. Sometimes you ask me if I can hold on to what I’m next going to say, so you can sit still and let what I just said sift around inside for a while. You often ask me questions about what I just said—not as a challenge, but to check your understanding of what I said.

If you get lost or your attention drifts you tell me, and ask me to go back to what I said that you last got. Or you ask me a question about what I said that you didn’t get. I know you are listening, because I know you know when you’re not, and you tell me.

You look at me while I’m talking. You don’t just respond to what I say, but to how I say it. You ask me what it meant when I changed my voice while I said something. You notice when I have an emotional response to what I’m telling you.

While you talk to me you take in my non-verbal responses and it affects what you say and how you say it. Or when you notice I have a response to what you are saying, you stop and make room for me—maybe asking me “what just happened?” or just waiting, giving me space.

In this portrayal, this father’s request, “Teach me to interact with my son the way you interact with me,” implies he already recognizes a lot of what took place in his exchange with me that he wants to bring to his interaction with his son. The starting point of my response is to ask after what he already knows. The vignette above is streamlined; it does not include the exchanges we would have or the questions I would ask that would support his connecting with, clarifying, and using what he is learning.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Becoming more available to one’s intelligent responsivity

Threads:                        Context, Learning

Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
All of a sudden I found this thing... the ability to play off of things and work with other people and create....
                  — actor Robin Williams, describing his early improv studies
A physician friend told me of a recent experience (here freely paraphrased): He was interacting with a patient and found himself not only listening to her words, but also watching her movements, hearing the changes in voice tone and noticing the movement of breathing. When she asked a question, he found himself responding. He didn’t know what he was going to say even as he continued to say it, it all just flowed between them. When there was no more to be said, no more to be heard, she thanked him and left. 

After telling me this, with raised eyebrows and a shrug he said, “How do you teach spontaneity?” His question worked on me for the next couple days. 

What is spontaneity?
Spontaneity is an athlete or performer in the zone; it is two friends riffing verbally—jokes and great puns of the moment; it is being available to your own intelligent responsivity without having to consciously manage it. It flows.

Study, practice, and experience support the arising of spontaneity
In many domains—athlete, musician, painter, therapist, actor—the ability to be unself-consciously responsive in the moment doesn’t just happen. It arises from years of study, practice, and experience. Robin Williams has described years of acting in school plays and with improv groups; formal study at Julliard; studying movement, facial expression, masks, accents, animal movement and behavior, and more… it all provides support for his prodigious in-the-moment responsivity.

Although I am writing in the context of the clinician/patient interaction, all of this applies to other areas of living as well.

Learning to become more available to spontaneity
I don’t think you can teach spontaneity. I think a more useful question is something like, “How does one become more available to one’s own spontaneous responsivity on behalf of generating a therapeutic outcome for one’s patients?”

Useful frame: Assume you have an unconscious
Here’s a frame I find useful: Assume that you have an unconscious. Not instead of, but in addition to your conscious knowledge and abilities, your unconscious consists of all the competences and sensitivities and coordinations (with self and other) that function intelligently and resourcefully without requiring your conscious management. This includes your competence for spontaneity.

This frame isn’t about parking your conscious mind in idle and letting your unconscious do the driving; this is about including more aspects of your responsivity and intelligence in therapeutic interaction with your patients.

Making the assumption that you have an unconscious is a useful because you can ask it to help you learn and do things you consciously believe you can’t otherwise learn or do. You can engage abilities within yourself that normally function out of conscious awareness.

Invite your unconscious to assist
At the start of each block of appointments, in addition to being available to your normal knowledge and competencies, invite your unconscious to:

1)     “bring to my notice what will evoke within me a therapeutic response
to my patient;
2)     “assist me in interacting with my patients in a way that evokes within
        them what will promote a therapeutic outcome; and

3)    “assist me in being available to my intelligent, spontaneous
        responsivity on behalf of promoting a therapeutic outcome for this
There’s overlap in these intentions, but that’s okay; the weave supports the desired outcome.

Make a deal with your unconscious that supports your learning
Consider making the following deal with your unconscious: If, during your session with a patient, it occurs to you three times to do or say something, no matter how weird, out-of-left-field, outrageous, or seemingly inappropriate it seems to your conscious mind, you agree to do or say it. And that you consciously understand what occurs to you three times during a session is a direct message from your unconscious to do it.

Part of the deal: Go at a pace you can keep up with
If you decide to make this deal, include this piece—it’s important: Ask your unconscious to present only those “3x” messages to you that it knows your conscious mind has the capacity and willingness to enact.

Deepening of conscious/unconscious coordination
All this will support gradual deepening of the coordination between your conscious mind and unconscious mind as you become more confident in the therapeutic efficacy of enacting these messages from your unconscious—even if sometimes it seems at odds with whatever conscious framework you might be holding.

The learning gradually becomes integrated
After a while, you’ll no longer need the “training wheel” construct of a message occurring three times. You will naturally come to rely on your unconscious and include spontaneous responses in your interactions with your patients—without having to know why you are saying or doing something before you are willing to say or do it. You just say or do it: Spontaneously.

Another way to go about this
I have practiced what I just described for years and it has been effective. Part of my training as a hypnotherapist has also included participating in hypnotically facilitated groups lasting several days in which all agreed to explore learning to be more available to the intelligence of our spontaneity. The collective resources of the group supported each member in their own unconscious learning process.

Comments welcome

Comments--particularly stories of your experience of the unanticipated and surprising intelligence of your own spontaneity--are welcome. 

In 2001, Robin Williams gave a 2+ hour interview and teaching class as part of the Inside the Actor’s Studio TV series. It is a tremendous video: he’s with student actors, he cares about them, he has no script, he’s responsive to the people and things around him, and he threads improv throughout. 

See the entire interview starting at Robin WIlliams, Inside the Actor's Studio. For a few minutes of world class spontaneity go to part 6 of the interview starting at 1:31.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Getting unstuck: Part 2

Changing unconscious learnings

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     5/13/2011     Getting unstuck: Part 1

“I could try and figure something out all day long but then if I just allow myself this kind of time and space (in a hypnotic trance), I get this deeper understanding that changes things.”

     — client, exploring her own thinking
           and emotional responses

Changing a golf stroke is one thing, but changing unconscious learnings—those aspects of our behavior that seem unchangeable, that just seem to be a part of who we are—is quite another. How do we change something that 1) we learned out of conscious awareness, 2) we still don’t have much awareness of, 3)  now constrains our behavior in ways we don’t like, 4) we haven’t been able to change so far, and 5) seems like just part of who we are?

What’s it like to be constrained by an old unconscious learning?
First, nobody says to themselves, “I have an old unconscious learning I’d like to change.” Instead, we simply have some behavior or some repeated experience that’s a problem, and we can’t change it.

Here are some examples:

Anxiety and fear triggered by something specific
You might have anxiety triggered by one of the following: spiders, speaking in front of groups, the texture of certain fruits and vegetables, driving across suspension bridges, flying in an airplane, the (even remote) possibility of throwing up, worms, ants, mice, certain sounds, or some other circumstance or thing. Trying to avoid encounters with what triggers your anxiety is increasingly limiting.

General anxiety or crummy feelings
You are anxious most of the time: can’t really find a cause, it just seems to be who you are. Or, no matter what your accomplishments, you always find a way to feel incompetent, or less than. Some folks refer to this as a “self-esteem issue.” Whatever you call it, you don’t like how it feels, and you haven’t been able to change it.

Expressing anger in a way that creates distance, not intimacy
When certain circumstances trigger your anger, you end up yelling and being threatening to the other. This isn’t playing well with your spouse, kids, or work relationships. Nothing you’ve tried (e.g., counting to 10) has changed anything.

Relationship problems
You get into multi-year relationships, each with a person that turns out to be an alcoholic (or some other behavior you find impossible to live with), it goes sour, and breaks up badly. After three cycles of this, you wonder, is it just the luck of the draw, or are you somehow involved in co-creating these dead-end relationships? Or the other way around: all three people have called off the relationship with you, citing some deal-breaking behavior of yours. You really don’t know what they’re talking about, but you’re wondering if you’ve got something going on out of your awareness.

Eating issues
You’re overweight, it’s adversely affecting your health, and you haven’t liked the way you look for a long time. You’ve tried diets, joined Weight Watchers™, you’ve resolved to walk every morning, you’ve actually lost weight more times than you can count—and gained it back (and then some) each time. Nothing has worked, you steadily gain weight.
The process of refining and building on old unconscious learnings
In all these instances, updating old learnings of which we have little or no conscious awareness proceeds in a way similar to what I described for improving at golf or as a guitarist (see Getting unstuck: Part 1):

1)  Establish a learning context (ie., what change do we want?),
2*)  Deconstruct (what we already do and how we might have learned it)
3*)  Separate (what’s useful from what’s not)
4*)  Disorientation (i.e., the old doesn’t work, and there’s no replacements, yet)
5*)  Integration (of the new with the old)
6)  Ratification (consciously noticing we have changed)
*But there are significant differences
In working effectively with unconscious learnings, hypnosis or other forms of hypnotic engagement are often used to facilitate steps 2, 3, 4, and 5, above. We’ll go into this in more detail; for now consider that hypnosis is a way of engaging our natural unconscious abilities to learn something new on behalf our interests, health, comfort, and well-being.

Hypnosis is not magic
Hypnotherapists didn’t invent hypnosis. It came about by studying how people naturally learn things outside of their conscious awareness, and learning how to engage and support that natural learning process as part of a therapeutic interaction. In this context (as opposed to the manipulative interactions involved in what is called stage hypnosis), the hypnotist doesn’t “put you under.” They support and invite you to enter a state in which your natural unconscious abilities have time and space to function.

To a curious 6 year old: "My job is to help people learn to use who they are in ways they like better."
          — JT
 Hypnosis is just support for a learning process
And it’s not just a question of throwing hypnosis at a problem and waiting for something miraculous and new to emerge. The structure of the old learning needs to be gone into (deconstructed) at some depth. Just like if you want to improve your golf game… you first go into what you’re already doing… and in the process, begin to discern what’s working and what’s not. You work at it.

Recognize that change belongs to the person changing.
The successful therapeutic interaction engages
your natural abilities, conscious and unconscious,
in ways that support and allow enlivening change.
In a future entry we’ll go into this more deeply using an example of working with a (fictitious) client who is unhealthily overweight and feels hopeless doing anything about it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In support of Not Knowing

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     6/24/2011     Getting unstuck

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
             — Andre Gide

…but not always “for a very long time.”
   — JT


In the course of this blog, I am gradually making more suggestions on behalf of engaging your unconscious competence and abilities to learn what clarifies and promotes your interests and well-being.

In the previous entry I sketched a frame for how we continue to build on what we have already learned. I used improving at typing, baseball, golf, and guitar playing as examples. The process of refining what has already been learned seems to involve a period of disorientation—wherein the old no longer works and the new has not yet emerged.

Before going further, here is a collection of quotes (a few of which have appeared in previous posts) in support of allowing one’s self the space in which something new can emerge… the space in which you truly do not yet know what you are in the process of learning.

Time to Grow
You see, we don’t know what our goals are. We learn our goals only in the process of getting there… You don’t know what the baby is going to become. Therefore, you wait and take good care of it until it becomes what it will.
Let it develop
My learning over the years was that I tried to direct… too much. It took a long time to let things develop and make use of things as they developed.
Life delightful
Life isn’t something you can give an answer to today. You should enjoy the process of waiting, the process of becoming what you are. There is nothing more delightful than planting flower seeds and not knowing what kind of flowers are going to come up.
             — above three quotes: Milton H. Erickson

You can't connect the dots looking forward
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
            — Steve Jobs, 6/12/05 Stanford University Commencement address
Can’t organize my life! Let it ripen on its own
[Suzuki] was beginning to see that he couldn’t organize his practice, his life, the teachings he was receiving, and the lessons he was learning. He had to let go of all that and leave it to ripen on its own. He had to adjust minute by minute. He was getting a glimpse that the way is to have “a complete experience with full feeling in every moment,” not to use each moment to think about the past or future, trying to make sense of it all. What he was coming to was not some mushy all-is-one-let-it-be approach. It included a view of oneness, but it also included the opposite—that each moment, each thing, is distinct and must be addressed mindfully, not with some vague idea of universal significance.

             — David Chadwick,“Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings
                  of Shunryu Suzuki.

…And three quotes that, for me, have the flavor of allowing one’s self to develop, to find a way…
Sitting quietly,
doing nothing.
Spring comes,
and the grass grows by itself.
             — author unknown, from the "Collection of Sayings from the Zen Forest"

Ellen:    “I might go back to school for creative problem solving.”
Sister:    “What kind of a job can you get?”
Ellen:    “That would be a plan. I like to make judicious use of planning, so I
             don’t think I’ll make one for this.”

             — Ellen Schneider

Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.
             — Thomas Edison

David Chadwick (1999). “Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki.” Broadway Books, a division of Random House,1540 Broadway, NY, NY 10036. p83.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904 – 1971) was a Zen teacher who popularized Zen Buddhism in the United States. He founded the San Francisco Zen Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. See Wikipedia entry for more.

Milton H. Erickson quotes are from posters published by the Milton H. Erickson Foundation Press. See video about Erickson.

Ellen Schneider, personal communication, Rochester, NY 4/12/11

Collection of Sayings from the Zen Forest (Zenrin Kushu) compiled by Toyo Eicho (1429-1504). This particular saying/translation was given to me by Mark Bryant. A translation of this collection is in print and available: Shigematsu, Soiku (translator) (2004 ). “A Zen forest: Sayings of the Masters.” White Pine Press, Buffalo, NY.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting unstuck: Part 1

Continuing to build on what we've already learned and accomplished (...and some of the underlying principles of hypnotherapy)

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     5/13/2011      A frame for how we learn
When he dropped the idea of fixing his own swing and decided to take on a new teacher, his third since turning professional in 1996, Tiger Woods warned everyone who would listen: There is no quick fix. That was last August, and he was telling the truth.
        — Larry Dorman, New York Times, 3/9/2011

 What if we don’t like something that we do on autopilot, like our golf stroke that hasn’t improved for years? Or some aspect of our behavior we don’t like but seem unable to change?

How do we open up old learnings that have been on autopilot, separate what’s useful from what is no longer useful, and continue to build on what we’ve already learned? This blog entry continues where the previous post left off (see “A frame for how we learn.” ).

Old frame: Galton’s wall—abilities are innate and limited
Many people thought that, for a given individual, there were upper bounds of innate ability. In the mid-1800s, Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, beyond which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass” (Foer, 2011).

New frame: A lot of what we’ve learned functions on autopilot
Let’s cast this in terms of the frame we developed in the previous entry about how we learn, again, using typing: Once we learn typing “good enough”—given the circumstances in which we are learning it—our ability goes on autopilot. Once it goes on autopilot, learning stops and we can use our ability without having to think about it. In terms of our frame, Galton’s wall implies that once something goes on autopilot it stays unchanged and on autopilot forever. That turns out not to be the case. Here are several examples.

What’s on autopilot can be opened and learning can continue
Assume you type well enough for writing a blog and emailing. Now you are jazzed about starting a low-overhead business in which you transcribe recordings of business meetings. How do you boost your current 50 words per minute (wpm) with one or two errors to 120 wpm with less than one error? Are your typing skills forever locked to what’s already on autopilot?

Of course not. But you may have to start over in learning to use your fingers with the kind of efficiency, speed, and accuracy your new goal requires. Assuming you undertake this task (which may require the rigor of taking a formal typing course), once you learn it good enough for accomplishing what you want, it all goes on autopilot again.

Refining what has been good enough: Derek Jeter’s swing
Derek Jeter has been the shortstop for the New York Yankees since 1995. His production as a batter has made him the clear choice for lead-off hitter since 2009. He is 36, relatively old for the demands of the sport, and his reflexes are a hair slower than they used to be. The past several seasons he has not gotten the bat to the ball as quickly nor as accurately as he once did.

Before the beginning of the 2011 season, Jeter worked with a batting coach studying videos of his at-bats, deconstructing what had worked good enough on autopilot for so long. He learned that tightening his swing by changing his stance and eliminating a habitual lifting and lower of his left foot would give him an additional few hundredths of a second as the ball approaches.

When the season began, Jeter’s first 100 at-bats were the worst he’d had in years. He continued to make small adjustments which gradually integrated into his swing as his refined batting mechanics went on autopilot. Although it didn’t magically give him the reflexes of a younger man, he is hitting better than he did last year.

Getting better
An excerpt from Foer’s “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer” article from which I quoted in the previous blog entry:

Amateur musicians… tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough…. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.

Cycling in and out of autopilot: Tiger Woods
Three times throughout his career he has hired a different coach to rework and refine his swing. Each time, he and the coach together have deconstructed what had previously functioned on autopilot. In dissecting Tiger’s mechanics, they eliminated what had been constraining and made adjustments in support of improved performance. In the course of this process, he has gone through a period where his old stroke has been tampered with and no longer works well and he has not yet learned a new stroke well enough to rely on it. His game worsens. It gradually improves as the new learnings become integrated with what remains useful of the old—and once again his swing goes on autopilot.

Woods’ most recent hiring of a coach and his reworking of his stroke is occurring in the context of his recovery from the very public and messy separation from his wife and child; you can appreciate that he is rebuilding more than his golf swing (see Reference, below).

The process of refining and building on old learnings
The process of refining and building on what had previously functioned on autopilot, illustrated in the above three examples, can be described as follows (see Footnote, below):

1)  Establish the learning context: What change do we want? What is no longer good enough? What do we want better or in what circumstances do we want more options? (Using the vignette above about ballplayer Derek Jeter as an example, he wants to improve his batting average.)

2)  Deconstruct and study what we already do that we want to be different: Break it into parts, like taking apart an old mechanical clock that no longer keeps time, or an engine that won’t start. (With his coach, Jeter takes apart his swing.)

3)  Separate what’s useful from what’s not—and keep what’s useful: Letting go of what no longer supports the outcome you desire, what no longer fits you, what no longer works. (Jeter and coach make small adjustments and eliminate a small step he had always taken with his left foot.)

4)  Disorientation: This is not an action we take, but an experience we have as part of the learning process; what had been on autopilot no longer works, and we haven’t yet learned any new options. As a result we can feel disoriented as we begin to learn what we do not yet know that supports our desired outcome. (Jeter’s batting average tanks; the old no longer works, the new hasn’t ripened.)

5)  Integration of the old and the new. This is not a conscious action we take, but part of our learning process that takes place unconsciously. As we continue to build on what we had previously learned that supports our goals and interests, new learnings integrate with useful old learnings and gradually become available to us on autopilot. (In the course of more than 100 at-bats, Jeter’s batting improves as more of what is new goes on autopilot.)

6)  Ratification: The feedback by which we consciously acknowledge we are in the process of moving towards our desired outcome. (Jeter’s batting average is now better than in the past year.)
This is a process that involves opening an old learning that had previously functioned on autopilot and learning something new, and, like any other learning, it takes time… and it decidedly does not come about by trying to do more of what no longer works good enough. In other words, we continue to learn as we go, not go as we have learned.

This description is not meant to be rigid
The ordered sequence above—describing the process of refining and building on old learnings—is meant to get you in the ballpark of learning as we go. The actual experience is less orderly with many of the steps occurring in parallel or being iteratively cycled through any number of times. For instance, the learning context may become clearer as you deconstruct and separate out what’s useful from what’s not; disorientation and integration can take place simultaneously.

Another example: Learning to continue to learn on the guitar
A story that underlines the disorientation that often occurs in the wake of deconstructing what had been on autopilot: I was self-taught on the guitar. By the time I got to college I was gigging and backing up other performers on their gigs. I knew I didn’t really know what I was doing—I didn’t know the names of the notes, didn’t know any theory, and there were other guitarists whose playing sounded like magic—they must have four hands or something.

Feeling stuck: Finding a teacher to help me get unstuck
After college, I continued to play out, but I wasn’t getting any better and I didn’t know how to get better myself. I asked around and found a classical guitarist from England who lived within driving distance.

Deconstructing and separating what’s useful from what’s not
At our first meeting he interviewed me and watched me play. Then he asked me if I was interested in doing the work to learn how to use my hands to play anything I wanted to on the guitar. “Yes, I am.” In the next lesson, he changed the way I held the guitar, the way I held my hands, and how my fingers struck the strings. I couldn’t do anything. Nothing. Even in trying to hold the guitar in this new way it would start to slip out of my lap.

Disorientation: The old no longer works and the new isn’t in place
In subsequent lessons, he gave me exercises which I practiced 90 minutes every day. During lessons I spent fifteen minutes striking one string with the same finger, once per count of four: Bong-two-three-four, bong-two-three-four. He’d say either “yes” or “no” for whether or not it was a good strike. I couldn’t tell.

After a couple months I started to be able to tell. Six months into it, as he listened to me strike each string with each finger, I began to cry (I was 24 and felt ashamed, but couldn’t help it). I told him I couldn’t play anything I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything new.

It wasn’t that my playing got worse; it completely fell apart. I didn’t know how to use my hands in a way that produced music. I was disoriented and felt hopeless.

He told me he knew that, and that gradually I would be able to play with a control and fluidity that would never have arisen out of my old way of playing. He said I’d already made a lot of progress and of course I’d just continue to build on what I’d already accomplished. I wanted to believe him, but it didn't match my experience over the past half year.

Integration and ratification 
He was right. In the years I studied with him and afterwards, as long as I played, I continued to improve.

The process of continual learning: Staying unstuck
He taught me how to keep learning. Another way of saying that: He taught me how to keep from settling into the good enough of going entirely on autopilot. For the 30 years I played out, I spent my practice time working through exercises and stuff I didn’t quite have the chops to play the way I heard it in my head. When I was in my practice room, my wife would ask me to shut the door… it wasn’t music coming out of that room, it was me stumbling around working on what I didn’t yet know how to do.

The structure of hypnotic engagement
It is no coincidence that the gist of the six point description, above—the process of refining and building on old learnings—also forms the guiding principles from which I structure a hypnotherapeutic interaction in order to engage the individual’s unconscious resources on behalf of learning something new.

I first encountered this process in the context of learning hypnotherapy (see Footnote). It applies equally well to conscious learnings (improving your golf swing) and unconscious learnings (previous learnings you weren’t aware of learning, like your relationship to food, or how you form and maintain relationships with others).

A discerning outside perspective is useful (and perhaps essential)
To get ourselves unstuck and out of autopilot, even for an easily identifiable skill such as typing, hitting a baseball or a golf ball, or playing guitar often benefits from discerning outside help—we are simply not aware of enough of the details of what we do, particularly when what we do is on autopilot. A good coach or teacher helps us deconstruct what we already do and separate out what’s useful and build on that.

Changing unconscious learnings
Similarly, when we undertake to change and refine an old unconscious learning—that has determined our behavioral, thinking, emotional, or physiological patterns—a good therapist, particularly a hypnotherapist (I’m biased about this), is often useful to have on your coaching staff.

In an entry soon to follow I’ll provide several examples of undertaking changing unconscious learnings. 

Dorman, Larry (2011). “Woods sees some progress, but others are looking for victories.” New York Times, 3/9/2011. (see complete article)

Foer, Joshua (2011). “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” The New York Times Magazine, 2/20/11. The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. p. 35 (see complete article)

Shpigel, Ben (2011). “To increase production, Jeter tries subtracting a step.” New York Times, 1/28/11. (see complete article)

Picture credit: Stuart Franklin / Getty Images: Tiger Woods and teacher Sean Foley

Paul Lounsbury & Nancy Winston developed a framing of hypnosis and hypnotic learning based on their experience as students of Milton Erickson. The six point description I use here is altered slightly from theirs so as to apply to learning circumstances (e.g., modifying a golf swing or revamping one's technique of playing a musical instrument) which don't obviously involve anything hypnotic. Paul and Nancy founded and have led The Advanced Training Group in Psychotherapy Cybernetics (of which I have been a member since 1997) using their framework for facilitating learning in the group and its members.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A frame for how we learn

…how what we learn goes on autopilot and how it happens that we can feel stuck      (Coming Soon: getting unstuck)

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     4/5/2011       Gonzo blogging: The blog does the writer

It is better to learn as we go than to go as we have learned.
— Leslie J. Sabler

Cliff Notes: When we learn something good enough (like typing, walking, or the various aspects of being in relationship) it goes on autopilot; we do it without having to consciously think about it. The upside: We have more attention for other things. The downside: We don’t get any better at what’s on autopilot… which might be okay… or not.

This entry explores this aspect of our learning process, including feeling stuck when a previously good enough learning—now on autopilot—becomes a constraint. The next entry will explore how we can get unstuck or not stuck in the first place.

I do not intend this as a theory or a rigorous model of learning; it is a frame offered in support of changing aspects of ourselves that seem stuck and unchangeable.

Consider these two common human experiences:

“I’ve reached my ceiling” at competence X. No matter how much time I spend doing X, I don’t get any better.

For example, when we first start to play guitar, golf, ski, run, (or whatever), we quickly notice progress; after a while, no matter how much time we spend doing the activity… we don’t seem to improve.

“That’s just who I am.” I have behaviors I wish were different. I’ve tried to change but nothing has worked. 

For instance, we might experience ourselves as someone who is chronically anxious, or doesn’t sleep well, or is uncomfortable in social situations, or doesn’t set boundaries well,  or only likes meat and potatoes, or has a bad temper… and we’ve been this way as long as we can remember.

Stuck by any other name: “I yam what I yam”

In feeling that we’ve reached our limit with respect to a skill, or feeling that we can’t change our behavior or how we experience ourselves, the commonality is feeling stuck… unable to change or improve. As Popeye (a 1940s era cartoon character, see Reference) sang:
“I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”
I think a lot of us feel this way: “There are aspects of what I do, how I behave, how I experience myself in the world that I’d like to change and have tried to change but nothing has made a difference. I guess ‘I yam what I am,’ and nothing will change that.”

A useful framing of some aspects of how we learn
I lifted the next two paragraphs from the previous blog entry because they were good enough. This business of “good enough” will gain significance as you continue reading.

When we learn something, a skill, an attitude, walking, anything… when we’ve learned it Good Enough, our unconscious takes it over. That specific learning stops, and it’s available to us on autopilot. Good Enough means good enough for the circumstance in which we learned it. Many variables might get folded into the calculation of good enough… and this occurs mostly out of conscious awareness.

Given that conscious awareness seems to be a limited resource—like a flashlight that lights up only what it’s aimed at—it’s to our advantage that we seem to function this way. It allows us to be available to our past learnings without burdening our limited conscious capacity.

Example of this framing of how we learn: Learning to type

Let’s use typing to explore how learning something “good enough” and becoming stuck might be related, and then how, once stuck, we might get unstuck. Some of the ideas here were inspired by an article in the February 20, 2011 issue of The New York Times Magazine by Joshua Foer entitled “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer.”
We learn incrementally, building on previous learnings
We learn typing a bit and piece at a time. First, we must consciously find the key associated with the letter we want to type. To do this, we continue to build on previous learnings—already on autopilot—such as hand-eye coordination.

As we learn a little piece good enough, our unconscious takes it over
As we gradually learn the location of individual letters and symbols good enough, our conscious attention is freed for other tasks, such as learning to use more of our fingers with less total movement. Again, as various aspects of finger efficiency are learned good enough, our unconscious takes them over too.

What constitutes good enough depends on such things as the immediate demands on our attention and the context in which we will use typing… good enough to get a job as a transcriptionist is different from good enough to peck out a personal email.

The bits and pieces settle and lock into place
Eventually, the component competencies of typing have all been learned good enough and our unconscious takes over management of the entire task. All those little bits of typing-learning settle and lock into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We no longer consciously think about the mechanics of typing.

We begin to rely on our ability to type without thinking about it
At this point, typing becomes a tool, a means to an end. Our conscious focus is on writing—a blog entry, an interaction with Google, whatever—not on learning to type.

Our competence at typing has reached the good enough plateau
Now, our typing happens on autopilot. Although we may use a keyboard to write for hours each day, our typing doesn’t improve.
What else have we have learned that’s on autopilot?
If this frame of how we learn (and how we use what we learn) was only relevant to skills like typing, I don’t think this blog entry would be worth your while to read, or my time to write.

I’ve organized several of sequences of learnings, below, to evoke in you the awareness of the width and breadth of what I’m pointing at—and to bring to light how we incrementally learn and construct how we enact and experience ourselves. Here are some examples of what we learn and then rely on:

how to rollover on our stomach and back again, hold our head up, sit up, crawl, walk, climb stairs, jump, skip, hop, swim, ride a bike, safely cross a street, drive a car

how to use a spoon, drink out of a glass, eat solid foods; what foods we like and don’t like, what we eat when, how to cook, how special foods are part of the makeup of special occasions, what part food and eating plays in our relationships, what food means (e.g., love, comfort, safety, it makes me fat, it’s killing me)

how to hear a sound and turn our head to see what made it, reach for something, move towards something; what’s okay to reach for, what’s permissible to want, how to go after what we want, how we feel about what we want, how we feel about what we have, how we feel about having what we want; how to go about getting what we want, what money means (e.g., it’s good, it’s bad, can never have too much, can never have enough, it costs a lot to make, it’s easy to make, it’s for spending, it’s for saving…)

how to know something about thunder, rain, lightning, air, sunshine; the sound of a cat’s purr, birds, crickets, a bell, a passing train close by or in the distance; the smell of rain on a hot road, fresh baked bread, maple trees budding in the spring; the feel on the face of sunshine, a breeze, snow

how to make sounds, understand spoken language, speak words, coordinate our speaking and breathing such that inhaling doesn’t seem to interrupt the flow of what we say; how to communicate with tone of voice, inflection, and pauses; how to use body language and understand someone else’s body language without consciously thinking about it; how to write, how to read, add numbers, tell a story about what happened, tell a joke

how to know what your name is, what someone else’s name is, how to say hello and goodbye, ways to communicate what you want and need, how to play with others, how to respond to conflict, what attracts you to another and what doesn’t, what you like about another and what you don’t, how to listen, how to form a relationship, how to be in a relationship, how and when to end a relationship, what it means to be in various kinds of relationships—with others you identify as acquaintance, friend, best friend, buddy, lover, mate, colleague, boss, subordinate, teacher, student, parent, child, son, daughter, infant, youngster, teenager, adult, or elder
Like typing, once all such things are learned good enough, they too go on autopilot. 

Most of these learnings are what I call unconscious learnings (see previous blog entry) about which Milton Erickson (1996) said,

[You] can learn easily things about yourself and learn them without needing to know that you have learned them. [And] you can use those learnings without needing to know that you know those learnings.
These learnings form the foundation of how we live
For each of us, this complex structure of interconnected learnings, most of which function without conscious awareness, forms the foundation of the contexts out of which we make meaning, respond, generate experience for ourselves, interact with others, and continue to learn new things.

Because of our unique personal histories, our learnings are nuanced and structured differently within each of us; and so we are each different from any other.

As long as it works, this is great
That we may rely on previous learnings without having to consciously manage them is wonderful! Most of what we know how to do we can do without thinking. Our conscious attention is free to attend to something else.

And like typing, we can enact any one of these learnings-on-autopilot repeatedly and it doesn’t change.

But what was good enough then may no longer be good enough now
What if we don’t like something that we do on autopilot, like our golf stroke that hasn’t improved for years? We feel we’ve hit our ceiling. We feel stuck.

What if we don’t like something we do on autopilot for which we don’t have a simple name? For instance, we formed our first serious primary relationship just fine; then after a couple of years it turned sour. So did the next three, including our current relationship which is in the process of coming to a painful (and familiar) end. We can easily think “that’s just who I am.” We feel stuck.

How do we get unstuck?
How do we open up old learnings that have been on autopilot, separate out what’s no longer useful while keeping what is useful, and continue to build on them? We’ll begin to explore this in the next blog entry.

Erickson, M. H., Rossi, E. L. (1996). Hypnotherapy: An exploratory casebook. Irvington Publishers, Inc., NY. p 120

Foer, Joshua (2011). “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” The New York Times Magazine, 2/20/11. The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. p. 35 (see complete article)

Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar, and first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929. Sammy Lerner wrote Popeye’s song “I yam what I yam” for the 1933 film short “Popeye the Sailor Man.”