Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stories and learning

Threads:                        Context, Learning, Mistakes, Stories
                                     (these threads are interdependent; they become a weave)
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     1/25/2011     Learning and mistakes

 The universe is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.
— Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980)

He was an Ericksonian hypnotherapist. They’re different. He told me stories that seemed to get inside me and mean something.
          — client, describing her experience of hypnosis

Stories can be wonderful and supportive teaching metaphors. With fairytale content that completely engages a young child, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” evokes so much: Exploring out in The World; encountering a whole series of “too big / too small / and just right” circumstances—metaphors for choosing the right-sized limits and boundaries that support comfort and well-being; or perhaps the young listener is drawn to the building tension of knowing Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear will soon return home and discover Goldilocks!

We flesh out stories with our own experience
Although the parent may tire of reading the same bedtime story ten times in a row, the listening child fleshes out the words with his or her imagination… and like a waking dream, explores some experience internally that may change from one night to the next.

Stories teach while evoking what we already know
This ability—for stories to evoke and connect with personal experiences within each of us—does not go away as we grow older. And, like dreams, stories can function as metaphors—the language of the unconscious. Without missing a beat, your unconscious can take in a story about the gradual process of learning to walk—or becoming a non-smoker—and use it as support for other, more relevant areas of learning-in-progress.

Many therapists use stories and metaphors in support of their clients’ learning
The excerpt below is from Sidney Rosen’s introduction to “My Voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson." The aging Erickson describes how he taught therapists: 

“I had to spend too much time on one [therapist]. I would rather teach a lot of people how to think, how to handle problems. I have dozens and dozens of letters saying, ‘You have completely changed my way of treating patients.’ I get a lot of [therapists], but I see them less. I see more [therapists] and I see them for shorter times.”

[Rosen] questioned, “And this is the result of…?”

He answered, “Their coming here and letting me tell them stories. Then they go home and alter their practice.”

Obviously “coming here and letting me tell them stories” involved expectations and communications on many levels. For example, anyone who spent time with Erickson was likely to experience various levels of hypnotic trance. With positive expectations, in a trance, we are most open to messages and influences transmitted by Erickson’s stories….
In telling stories, Erickson was, of course, following an ancient tradition. Since time immemorial, stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality…” 
…and in the context of therapy—or this blog—as support for personal growth.

The stories, quotes, vignettes, and questions below invite your conscious and unconscious mind to connect with what you already know about learning… in support of what you are learning now that matters in your life.

The greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fall.
Each of us has experience of this glory: The first time you fell down while learning to walk, did you say, “I’m never gonna do that again”?

Becoming a non-smoker: A story of gradual learning
Even when you consciously have the experience of failing, you are likely involved in learning what will allow you to succeed.

When I start working with someone who wants to become a non-smoker, I ask if they have ever quit smoking before. Almost everyone says no. Then when I ask, “Even for a few days, or a few hours?” they tell me, “I tried, but I can’t quit. I didn’t smoke for 8 months once, but I started up again. And a couple of times I quit for two or three months. But I always started back up. So, no, I never actually quit.”

I’m amazed! They did quit! But because they started up again, they write off their accomplishments as evidence that they didn’t and they can’t quit—rather than see it as part of the process of learning what they need to learn in order to sustainably become a non-smoker. I frame my response:  

You know something about how to stop smoking. You know something about maintaining being a non-smoker—at least for several months. You know something about the circumstances under which you start smoking. So, there’s already a lot to build on here—much more than if you’d never gone through several cycles of quitting and starting—don’t you think? 
A big national study showed that people who are motivated to quit smoking stop and start again an average of six times before quitting for good. If you didn’t know this, you might lose confidence in your own ability to be a non-smoker after several cycles of stopping only to start again.
What learning is taking place each time you quit… and then start again?… that supports you in moving closer and closer to sustainably being a nonsmoker?
It’s not just your head; your body learns, too
Part of becoming a non-smoker is allowing your body’s chemistry, which had included periodic hits of nicotine and other stuff, to come to a new equilibrium. And that process of your body finding a new balance that doesn’t include cigarette smoke takes time… and it is definitely a learning… just like when you were learning to walk, your body feels out of balance, out of whack… until you learn this new balance that doesn’t include smoking. 

What supports you in allowing yourself the time and experience to learn to do something you really want that you don’t yet know how to do? 
Learning to be in satisfying relationship takes time
Learning like this is something nobody else—no matter how well intentioned they are—can do for you. Learning to form a relationship, learning what cues to use—and not use—to decide whether or not you want to continue to explore a new relationship, learning how to communicate with another human being, learning how to include your differences, learning how to have productive fights by which the relationship grows… all of this takes time and learning, learning, learning.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986, see References, below) was a spiritual teacher with a large following. After a public talk, a member of the audience asked, “How can we do good in the world?” After a pause Krishnamurti responded, “Begin by having one right relationship.”

I want to acknowledge that it may be easy at first glance to be attracted to another human being, yet it is a rich, complex, and gradual learning to be in a satisfying long-term relationship.

About such learning…
Of course being in relationship (with our parents, our friends, our lover, our children, our colleagues) isn’t the only learning we undertake (consciously or unconsciously) as an adult. About such learning, Mr. (Fred) Rogers (see References, below)—a wonderful and profound teacher—offers this: 

When I was young (about eight or ten years old), I was trying to learn so many things all at once, things like the piano and organ and algebra and cooking and typing, and I even started to take clarinet lessons. But I just didn’t practice the clarinet, so I didn’t learn. I think I wanted to learn by magic. I think that I had the idea that if I got the clarinet I would somehow know how to play it. But magic doesn’t work with learning, not with anything worthwhile.
I want it now! Accomplishing slowly what you want quickly
Often there’s a part of you that knows what you want, and wants it fast. Then there’s another part that knows how to take the time to accomplish what is wanted… which might be more slowly than the fast part wants it to go. Conflict. Here’s a question: 

What will the part of you that wants what you want—faster than the time it takes you to accomplish it—do... while the part of you that will accomplish what you want takes the time it needs to accomplish it? 
The part that wants what you want (fast!) and the part that knows how to accomplish what you want (more slowly)… both parts share a common interest; how will they collaborate and support each other? How will you let your unconscious assist you with solving this?

More about Krishnamurti

Fred Rogers (2003). “The World According to Mister Rogers (Important things to Remember).” Family Communications, Inc. Hyperion, 77 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023. (p. 119)

Sidney Rosen (ed.) (1991). "My voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson." W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110.
Even if you aren’t interested in therapy, this is a warm fuzzy bedtime read, yet clinically relevant. The stories support fundamental learnings about motivation, overcoming habitual limitations, changing the unconscious mind, taking charge of your life, and more.


Sherry Sugrue Smith said...

I happened to be struck by the concept of BECOMING a non smoker as opposed to QUITTING smoking. I assume this is because it is better to frame something in the positive as in becoming than in the negative as in quitting. I will remember that as I BECOME thinner and stop trying to LOSE weight.

Ray Justice said...

John love your blog on stories and will pass it on to a few friends.

Stories are how I remember what I most want to embody.