Learning. It’s Not About Education

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Learning is a whole experience of mind, body, and self in relation to the world

When you pick up an orange you feel its texture and weight in your hand. You breathe in scent emitted by the brightly colored rind. If you’re hungry, you peel and section it to savor piece by piece. A fresh orange has phytonutrients, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that promote health. And it tastes wonderful.

It’s possible to purchase the separate nutritional components of an orange. You simply buy vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, B-complex vitamins, fiber, potassium, and calcium in pill form. Of course replacing an orange with supplements is ridiculously expensive compared to the cost of consuming the fruit itself. And isolated compounds don’t work as effectively in the body as the whole fruit. Besides, where is the sensation of biting into an orange bursting with juice? Lost. Divided into a fraction of the experience.

Imagine being told in your earliest years that pills were superior to food and should replace it as often as possible. Even if handfuls of supplements were deemed more valuable than food by every adult in your life you’d still clamor to eat what you found appetizing. If meal-substitution pills became mandatory for children once they turned five years old, you’d never relate to food (or its replacement) the same way again. The body, mind, and spirit reject what diminishes wholeness.

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Don’t argue. Just take it.

Yet that’s an apt analogy for heavily structured education, where learning is set apart from the threads that connect it to what has meaning and purpose for the learner. Conventional education separates learning into thousands of measurable objectives. It has very little to do with a child’s hunger to master a particular skill or thirst to pursue an area of interest, in fact such appetites tend to interfere with institutional requirements. It’s not designed for the whole child but aimed at one hemisphere of the brain, doled out in pre-determined doses and repeatedly evaluated. The most gifted, caring teachers are stuck within systems that don’t acknowledge or understand natural learning. In fact, most of us believe, however grudgingly, that schooling is necessary for learning without recognizing that damage is done.

For the very youngest children, learning is constant. Their wondrous progress from helpless newborn to sophisticated five-year-old happens without explicit teaching. They explore, challenge themselves, make mistakes, and try again with an insatiable eagerness to learn. Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skills and understanding in a way that’s useful to them at the time.

Although we have the idea that learning flows from instruction, when we interfere with natural learning children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that it has nothing to do with coercion. Children often ignore what they aren’t ready to learn only to return to the same concept later, comprehending it with ease and pleasure.  What they do is intrinsically tied to why they do it, because they know learning is purposeful. They are curious, motivated, and always pushing in the direction of mastery.

Learning is a hunger too.

Learning is a hunger too.

But schooling irrevocably alters the natural process of learning for every single child.

  • The very structure of school makes children passive recipients of education designed by others. They cannot charge ahead fueled by curiosity, pursuing interests wherever they lead.  Although interest-driven learning results in high level mastery, the top priority in school is completing assignments correctly and scoring well on tests. Despite what individual children want to learn, value is given to what can be evaluated.
  • Segregated by age, children are limited to examples of behavior, reasoning, and ability from those at a similar level of maturity. They have little exposure to essential adult role models and minimal engagement in community life.  They’re also deprived of the opportunity to practice the sort of nurturance and self-education that happens when children interact in multi-age settings.  Even collaboration is defined as cheating.
  • A child’s natural inclination to discover and experiment is steered instead toward meeting curricular requirements. Gradually the child’s naturally exploratory approach is supplanted by less meaningful ways of gathering and retaining information.
  • The mind and body are exquisitely cued to work together. Sensory input floods the brain, locking learning into memory. Movement is essential for learning. The emphasis in school, however, is almost entirely static, and almost entirely focused on left-brain analytical thinking. Many children ache for more active involvement, but their attempts to enliven the day are labeled behavior problems. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood behavior has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Coming up with the correct answer leaves little room for trial and error. Thinking too carefully or deeply may result in the wrong answer. The right answer from a child’s personal perspective may actually be the opposite of the correct answer, but to get a good mark the child cannot be true to his or her experience. The grade becomes more important than reality.
  • Emphasis on the correct answer squeezes out unconventional thinking. The fear of making mistakes squelches creativity and innovation. After years of being taught to avoid making mistakes, the child has also learned to steer clear of originality.
  • Readiness is pivotal for learning, particularly in reading. In school, reading is used to instruct in every other subject, so the child who doesn’t read at grade level quickly falls behind. The subject matter in school, even when taught well, isn’t necessarily what the child is ready to learn. The way it is presented tends to be indirect, inactive, and irrelevant to the child. Schoolwork repeatedly emphasizes skill areas that are lacking rather than building on strengths, or goes over skills already mastered with stultifying repetition. Neither approach builds real learning
  • The desire to produce meaningful work, the urge to make contributions of value, the need to be recognized for oneself, and other developmental necessities are undercut by the overriding obligation to complete assignments.
  • Conventional education takes the same approach to a six-year-old and an 18-year-old: assignments, grades, tests. Self-reliance and independence doesn’t easily flourish in such a closed container.
  • Children must hurry to do the required work, then change subjects. The information is stuffed into their short-term memories in order to get good grades and pass tests, even though such tests tend to measure superficial thinking. In fact, higher test scores are unrelated to future accomplishments in such career advancement, positive relationships, or leadership. Students aren’t learning to apply information to real life activities nor are they generating wisdom from it. The very essence of learning is ignored.
  • Schoolwork clearly separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. This indicates to children that learning is confined to specific areas of life. A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Absorption and play are on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability. Often this transforms into cynicism.
  • When young people are insufficiently challenged or pushed too hard, they do learn but not necessarily what they’re being taught. What they learn is that the educational process is boring or makes them feel bad about themselves or doesn’t acknowledge their deeper gifts. They see that what they achieve is relentlessly judged. They learn to quell enthusiasm and suppress the value-laden questions that normally bubble up as they seek to grow more wholly into themselves. Gradually, their natural moment-to-moment curiosity is distorted until they resist learning anything but what they have to learn. This is how the life force is drained from education.

We’re so committed to structured, top-down instruction that we impose it on kids beyond the school day. Young people are relentlessly shuttled from the classroom to enrichment activities to organized sports and back home to play with educational toys or apps when there’s very little evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value.

Many of us think that education has always been this way—stuffing information into young people who must regurgitate it back on demand. Based on dropout numbers alone, this approach doesn’t work for at least a quarter of U.S. students. So we advocate copying Finland or Singapore, using the newest electronics, taking away testing, increasing testing, adding uniforms or yoga or chess or prayer. We’ve been reforming schools for a long time without recognizing, as Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

free range learning,

Figuring something out is itself a delight.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. That’s because most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. This time span comprises approximately 98% of human history. Although our culture and lifestyle have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need in our earliest years highly responsive nurturing that gradually fosters our abilities.

Studies of isolated groups who continue to live in hunter-gatherer ways have shown us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.

Their children play freely in multi-age groups without overt supervision or direction by adults. Such free play promotes self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical for maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

free range learning

It’s about curiosity and awe.

We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities.

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This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Heart Intelligence

” The heart hath its own memory, like the mind.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The deepest truths are felt by the heart. Humanity has known this since prehistory. We keep this knowledge alive in repositories of original wisdom—our stories, our art, and our bodies.

Our hearts brim with the same neurons as our brains, so we experience the world first not through our thoughts but bodily intelligence, both heart intelligence and gut intelligence. We make decisions, learn, and remember with our bodies as well as our brains. Our hearts perceive and respond to the meaning encoded in experiences, building an intrinsic memory of emotion. Sometimes we feel a response directly in our hearts, although we don’t have words big enough to describe this.

In ancient Greek medicine it was known that noble sentiments such as honesty, compassion, and courage strengthened the heart while the most dire emotions weakened it. We now recognize they were on to something. Cardiologists say there’s such a thing as a broken heart, found in people with no blood clots in their arteries, no evidence of coronary heart disease. Instead, stress cardiomyopathy can be caused by intense grief or trauma. We can indeed die of a broken heart.

Heartbeats are a language affecting the way we perceive and react to the world around us. It’s known that strong negative emotion can cause heart rhythms to become irregular and disordered, disordering other body systems as well. In contrast, positive feelings of love, gratitude and compassion create coherent heart rhythms. These coherent heartbeats put the body in sync. As a result, the two branches of the nervous system coordinate with enhanced efficiency, immune responses are boosted, protective and regenerative hormones are released, even brain function improves in alignment with the heart. It’s no wonder that positive emotions summon a full-body sense of well-being. We are biologically guided toward feelings such as compassion and appreciation, since our bodies function most effectively in this state.

Our hearts are not only a primary form of perception. They also communicate with others at a level below our conscious awareness. According to research by the HeartMath Institute, the electrical field emitted by a human heart is 60 times greater in amplitude than brain activity. Its electromagnetic field is 5,000 greater. The heart’s field radiates through every cell in the body, extending well beyond the skin. In other words, we broadcast the electromagnetic signal of our own hearts. This can be measured several feet away from our bodies. Energy activity in the heart of one individual affect and can be measured in the brain waves of another person (or pet!) in close proximity.

As HeartMath Institute studies continue to show, the most powerfully coherent heartbeat is that of the caring heart. Love and compassion are not only emotional experiences, they are sent outward in signals that can calm the heart rates of people nearby. A loving heart at close proximity can calm an angry heart, a sorrowful heart, and yes, a lonely heart.

With feelings of love or gratitude, you reach for your child’s hand in a crowded stadium or subway. Your loving heart rhythm affects your child, and more, it also affects the stranger at your side. All three of you are blessed by those harmonious beats emanating from your chest. Poets had it right all along.

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i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)   -e.e. cummings

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Angry Stranger’s Gift

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Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Decision To Make? Ask Your Body

I tend to fuss over decisions, considering all possible options while weighing the benefits and risks for everyone involved. Sometimes I choose the most difficult path even when it clashes with my admittedly Hobbit-like nature, in part because I have the annoying idea that growth comes from taking on new challenges.

Unfortunately the process of logical decision-making tends to wedge us into what we intellectually determine is best even if it doesn’t feel right. (I’ve gotten myself into plenty of tough situations doing exactly that.) Many of us tap into our intuition as well, but we usually give much more weight to what reason has to say.

These days I’m trying to rely less on my head and more on gut feelings for decisions large and small. It doesn’t take much to realize the glad expansiveness in my chest is a “yes” while a heavy clenched feeling in my throat is a “no.”

I don’t always succeed at this. Recently I agreed to give a series of talks and already dread them. The process of trying to be more aware of what’s authentically right for me is gradual. (NOT public speaking, my body retorts.) I suspect many of us push ourselves until our bodies force us to start paying attention….

Let’s remember, each one of us is a whole person with intelligence coming from our hearts, our guts, maybe all of our cells. But our culture teaches us from our earliest years to be in our heads while ignoring, even shutting off inner knowing. When inner promptings are so strong they override the left hemisphere of the brain, children are often labeled something else entirely—-lazy, reluctant, stubborn, headstrong, picky, anxious, timid, fussy. In reality, our bodies are telling us we need:

1. time to process or time do things at a pace natural to us

2. to step away from a particular person/situation/food/obligation

3. to honor the voice inside that already knows the answer

This is the kind of awareness that people have used since the beginning of humankind to make decisions fully, in ways we rarely access in today’s world.

Here’s a recent example of what can happen through listening to body wisdom. I have poor posture. I fight it, when I think about it, by holding my head up straight for as long as I can remember and more recently, by learning to practice natural posture. But when I’m working at the computer my head tends to sink forward until I’m hunched like a half-conscious orangutan. I know that listening to the body means, in part, paying attention to the body’s messages. So one afternoon I stopped resisting, just for a few minutes.

I listened to what my slumped posture had to tell me. It didn’t say “sit up straight!” It said go with the slump. Feeling a little silly, I let my head sink forward to a ridiculously exaggerated degree. Instantly I recognized in my body the way my father slouched when he was sad, the way my mother’s head jutted forward and down with disappointment. Their postures are in me, speaking to me. I didn’t analyze this, I just sat with it, paying attention to my body in that posture. Strangely I felt relief, even comfort, as my upper body curled like a fetus.

Then I tried the opposite. I pulled my head up into rigid “good posture”and was surprised when tears came to my eyes. My throat felt vulnerable and exposed, as it did when I was a little girl and couldn’t sleep unless my throat was covered. Again, I didn’t analyze right away, I just sat with it.

The whole process took about three minutes. Yet afterward I felt a wonderful strength up my spine. My posture felt buoyantly upright. The feeling lasted all afternoon. It was astonishing to get so much benefit from such a short body-awareness experience.

What I am saying is that your internal guidance system is there, ready to be accessed. You possess logic, which is invaluable as you consider variables and imagine outcomes. You have remarkably instructive emotions—you may feel excited, a little scared, a little eager, and pretty relieved when you imagine yourself going forward with one decision while you may feel let down, hesitant, and resistant when you imagine going forward with a different decision. Just past logic and emotion are actual body sensations. You may feel tightness in your jaw or churning in your stomach or tension in your back. You might feel the urge to stretch or dance or take a deep breath.

Simply remember, when you have a decision to make, consult your thoughts and emotions and body wisdom. The answer is there, waiting for you to pay attention.

For more on this, check out:

7 Ways To Access Your Body’s Unique “Knowing”

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

The Little Trick To Make Any Moment Better

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Inner Cosmos by memzu.deviantart.com

Don’t Sit Up Straight: Why Natural Posture May Be Better

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Pondering the skeleton within (Image CC by 2.0 Dreaming in the deep south)

I come from a family of slouchers and after a typical day at the computer I have ample reason to worry I’ll develop the dowager’s hump my grandmother had by the time she was in her late 50s. Worse, my husband recently required back surgery due to longstanding problems after a car accident.

That’s why I’m on a quest to find out all I can about our spines and our posture. It has taken me in some unexpected directions. Here are some crumbs along this trail.

First off, don’t sit or stand up straight. At least not the way we think is correct, with our shoulders back and chins held high. That, my friends, is not remotely natural no matter what your mother or your gym teacher or your fitness coach told you. I learned this from a book with gorgeous photographs of people all over the world engaged in often strenuous tasks, yet moving with posture that is graceful and perfectly supported. The title, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back: Natural Posture Solutions for Pain in the Back, Neck, Shoulder, Hip, Knee, and Foot. The title doesn’t hint at how important this book is for those of us who don’t have back pain, but nonetheless plan to continue using our spines. The author, Esther Gokhale, teaches what she calls “primal posture.” Her book is packed with more than inspiring images. It explains how we can sit, stand, walk, and lie down in ways that contribute to our overall health and well-being. For example, by using a postural method she calls “stretch sitting.” She gives a brief intro in the following video, instruction starts about 4:20.

Next, all the fuss about building muscle doesn’t get to the core of the issue. Toned abs can’t replace strong, well-aligned bones. I learned more about this from another amazing book Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment
by Kathleen Porter Ms. Porter explains that children in the non-industrialized world naturally sit and stand with aligned posture they maintain their entire lives without the neck, spine, and leg problems that plague people in the developed world. She also contends that a child’s naturally good posture supports learning.

Why do we have so many slumped kids and achy adults in industrialized countries? Our fixation on TV and computer screens may be part of the problem. But Ms. Porter thinks it starts earlier. She notes that the design of car seats, strollers, and baby seats work against an infant’s developing posture. (She offers one solution, called a Baby Wedgie.)

I suspect it has something to do with how little free play today’s kids enjoy, a time when they can engage in brain-boosting and spine stretching movement. A recent study of 4 million U.S. preschool-aged children found that almost half were not taken outdoors to play on a daily basis, probably because we’re busy carting those kids around in car seats that incorrectly position their spines. Ms. Porter explains how to raise kids with healthy posture in her book Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It. The following video does a good job of showing how to grow up with naturally aligned posture.

And finally, it’s worth considering how our bodies react to strong emotion.

During frightening, painful, or otherwise highly stressful experiences our bodies are flooded with chemicals preparing us to react physically. Most often our response, in today’s world, is not physical. We aren’t running away from or fighting off predators as our ancient ancestors did, although our bodies respond in the same way (the “fight or flight” response). We staunch our physical impulses and sit still during all sorts of stressors, remaining immobile during a painful medical procedure, while the boss politely tells us we’re going to be laid off, or when our car is nearly hit on the highway. Experts in trauma tell us that mentally processing a frightening or powerfully upsetting experience doesn’t always resolve it. The bodily movements we wanted to take, but didn’t, are still locked within. There they can cause all sorts of long-term problems, including back pain. (Check out what movement can help alleviate this stress.)

I’m still learning about this as I read remarkable books by Peter A. Levine. The first one I waded through is geared more toward physical therapists and psychotherapists, but still highly relevant for the layperson. I stumbled on it initially because I loved the title’s implication, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. It’s one of those books to read with a highlighter in hand. Now I’m reading one of his far more accessible books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, which I heartily recommend. It casts a bright light on experiences adults may consider average, but which can turn into long-term trouble for kids (masquerading as behavior problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression) unless we know how to help them deal with it.

I love the way seeking out information tends to lead us in new, unanticipated directions. I’m still on the lookout for what I can learn about natural posture. And I’m working on sitting as if I had a tail, one that is behind and not under me. I swear this effort makes me look taller than my almost five foot three inch height. See, another unexpected perk!

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Originally published in Wired.

A New Curse Word

 relax your words,

We hear it all the time. Chances are we say it all the time.

I swear (hah!) it’s the curse of our era.

What’s up with you?

Busy

How’s work?

Busy

How are the kids?

Busy

What was your vacation like?

Busy

What’s next week like for you?

Busy

Ack!

We are busy, pulled in so many directions that we don’t have words powerful enough to describe how time starved we feel. Swamped, hectic, rushed, hurried, slammed, or crazy busy can’t come close.

I suspect that we aren’t busier, in terms of obligations using up our time, than someone our age might have been 100 years ago. Chances are those folks kept the house warm with coal shoveled into a furnace; worked long hours for poor pay in factories, mines, slaughterhouses or worse; traveled at low speeds to get where they were going; struggled to stay healthy in a population easily ravaged by flu, tuberculosis, polio, and other diseases; and put a lot of hands-on hours looking after their homes and families. Talk about busy.

But there’s something going on, because so many of us are constantly overwhelmed. I planned to have some handy studies to cite but the books I meant to consult, The Distraction Addiction and Time Warped were overdue before I’d gotten more than a few chapters in. (Partially the fault of more alluring library books like Someone, The Name of the WindAnd the Mountains Echoed.) And I was busy!

Since the sun’s magnetic field is about to flip, I’d be happy to blame our time hunger on a wavering magnetic sheet and extra cosmic rays but science tells us there’s not a noticeable effect.

Mostly, I’m tempted to point the finger at all those things fracturing our attention. I’m pretty sure that ample time for daydreaming and contemplation is essential to a sense of peace, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Which gets me back to the curse word of our times, busy. I’ve decided that using it is a form of negative self-talk. So I’m not saying it anymore. It is banished from my vocabulary.

My friend Margaret is sure that our perception of time will slow down to a more manageable pace if we replace frantically busy words with words that describe a slower, more relaxed attitude. Maybe then our lives will slow down too. She suggests words like,

meander

amble

mosey

saunter

dawdle

You may be flinging yourself from store to store to get errands done. But consider describing it to yourself as strolling through stores, pondering some purchases, relaxing in check-out lines. A time-shift may just happen.

But give that attitude shift time, lots of room-to-stretch time.

no time, slow vocabulary, slow conversation, self-talk

Vagus Overusers Anonymous

 

vagus nerve peace, vagus nerve calm, vagus nerve relaxation, sigh for relaxation,

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sigh

There I go again, sighing. Most of the time I don’t know I’m doing it but thanks to my family I’m aware that I emit plenty of audible exhales.

My grandmother was a chronic sigher.  Each time she sat down, air rushed out of her mouth. It just seemed like an intrinsic part of her mechanism. A decade or two later my mother became a sigher as well. I should have realized the same fate would eventually strike me. I persist in thinking it’s a phase. Surely the women in my line sighed for the same reasons everyone else does—blowing off stress, expressing relief, giving in to exhaustion. Maybe they just had more than their fair share of sigh-worthy burdens.

There are good body-based reasons to sigh. When we’re stressed or fatigued our breathing is less variable. That’s not healthy. Our lungs, like the rest of our bodies, operate best dynamically. Our respiratory function becomes less efficient if we breathe in one state too long. A deep sigh resets breathing, loosening the lung’s air sacs and providing a feeling of relief.

More importantly, a deep sigh also stimulates the vagus nerve. We know all about the flight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. In that state our stress hormones are turned way up. We’re jittery, impulsive, and cued to react to stress. When we are relaxed, the opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system is active. The vagus nerve is a primary stimulator of this feel-good nervous system, operating via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being. That’s why good deep breaths are linked to the stress-quelling results found with the Relaxation Response as well as more traditional meditation. Acetylcholine also has to do with learning, memory, even reduced inflammation. So stimulating your vagus nerve is great for brain AND body.

Not ready to sigh just yet?

Well, Dacher Keltner, psychology professor and Director of the Greater Good Science Center says that the vagus nerve is responsible for much more. Biggies like empathy and who we are as a species. In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life* he explains that the vagus nerve,

…resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.  The vagus nerve…originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.

…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.

Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate.  Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.

Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.

Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals…as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.

I’m sticking with what the body knows. I’ll be activating my vagus nerve, feeling calm and relaxed. Vagus Overusers Anonymous here I come. sigh

*Portions quoted from pages 228-230 of Keltner’s wonderful book. Read the whole thing!

 

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

walking cures trauma, right way to walk, walk for inspiration, body-based trauma recovery, trauma recovery, depression recovery,

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Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?

resources

Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick

The Antidote Is Awe

cure for stress, coffee ritual, easing worry, finding peace,

My husband and I seek refuge on the porch each afternoon in a ritual known simply as “time for coffee.” Somehow just out the door we’re a step away from the pull of obligations and worries. Here we feel centered by the light through the trees or the sounds of birds or the strange lumbering grace of a bumblebee in the flowers.

Our lives, and yours too, are twisted into knots so complicated we can’t see where they start or end. Those complications are made of bills to be paid, old arguments that didn’t heal, long hours and too little sleep, by endless political bluster and the fallout it causes. It’s good to let go of those tangles, even for a while.

Today on the porch we watched an insect we’d never seen before. It skittered without visible wings, its body open like the spokes on a wheel or the arms of a star. It looked improbable as an undersea creature swimming in the air. We gaped in quiet wonder until it was out of sight.

A few moments of awe are all it takes to remind us that our lives aren’t about those knots. We are pulsing, breathing wonders ourselves in a world bursting with miracles.  It takes looking closely at only one thing to see those miracles, whether watching a spider spin her web or looking at fungi that seemed to spring up overnight.  We exist for so short a time on this beautiful planet. We clamor over concerns when our lives may be better measured by how much awe we allow ourselves.

I have things to do, but it’s time for coffee. I’m heading for the porch. Hope you do the same.

We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.   Lewis Thomas 

Reprint from my farm site Bit of Earth Farm