Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 1 - Optimum Learning Relationships
The human brain-mind is designed for functions radically different from and broader than its current use. An astonishing capacity for creative power is built into our genes, ready to unfold. Our innate capacities of mind are nothing less than miraculous, and we are born with a driving intent to express this capacity...To allow the full development of intelligence, we must acknowledge and cooperate with this biological plan. In so doing, we will find that most of our current problems with infants and children never materialize. For our problems are largely man-made, caused by ignoring nature’s plan. Nature herself worked out all the problems eons ago.
Optimum Learning Relationships
Our goal is to use what thousands of people have discovered about the Zone, the state of Flow and true Play, and apply these “technologies of transformation” to parenting and to education.
Elite athletes understand that being in a good state rather than a bad one can make a critical difference in a championship playoff. For centuries being in the Zone was sought after by ancient performance specialists, Zen archers, Yogis, the Samurai, and others. Long ago in a galaxy far away, the Star Wars myth is filled with images of Jedi Masters flowing in the Zone. For some women, pregnancy and birth are Zone experiences. Sexual intimacy can be transient.
The Zone is not some far off, mystical fantasy. It is right here, right now, pulsing in every cell of our bodies. Optimum is easy, the miraculous natural when resistance to learning and peak performance are reduced or eliminated. If being in the Zone is good enough for athletes and Aikido masters, why not for you and me? Why not for our children? Imagine learning, performing and parenting, “in the Zone” not just in rare moments, but most of the time. Imagine if the resistance and conflicts found in most adult-child relationships was reduced or eliminated. Becoming a Jedi Master may be easier than we “think.” We are “the force” so why not use it. Our goal is to apply what is known about this optimum state to the most important relationship of all, the relationship between adults and children, right now, at any age, in any field.
Optimum Learning Relationships unfold naturally in the Zone. Magical parents nurture and mentor magical children while magical children challenge and encourage adults to rediscover their magical nature. The child challenges the adult to discover undreamed of possibilities while at the same time the adult models similar possibilities for the child. In the Zone, parenting, childhood, and learning become a dance, a playful, expansive exploration of new possibilities, optimum learning, and extraordinary performance.
Our goal is to apply what thousands of people have discovered about the Zone, the state of Flow and true Play, and apply these “technologies of transformation” to parenting and education. We begin by using sport as a metaphor. Any experience that transcends our ordinary sense of self will do; waling in the woods, creating sand castles at the beach, dancing, child birth, watching the sun set, making love. Being in the Zone is not the activity; it is all about our state of being.
Take a moment and list the five worst moments of your life. Describe briefly the context of this moment and the experience itself. Do the same for the five best moments of your life. What were the senses involved in these best and worst case experiences?
The Optimum State
In 1995 Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen Institute and researcher Rhea A. White published In the Zone, Transcendent Experiences in Sports. The book combined 6,500 sources and stories, from both professional and amateur athletes, stories that described moments of illumination and ecstasy, out of body experiences, altered perceptions, and exceptional feats of strength and endurance spanning almost the entire spectrum of sports and physical adventures.
Sport has enormous power to sweep us beyond our ordinary sense of self, to evoke capacities that have generally been regarded as mystical…The great seers of the contemplative traditions have explored the inner life more deeply than most of us, and they have opened up spiritual territories that we may or may not enter. But many athletes and adventures have followed partway, however inadvertently, through the doorways of sport.
Michael Murphy, Rhea A. White
In the Zone, Transcendent Experiences in Sports
There is no one formula to being in the Zone. It is not just one experience, nor is it limited to athletics. Being in the Zone is not really an activity; rather, it is a unique “state of being” or “relationship.” It is not the activity that determines great performance; it’s our relationship to the activity that counts. Being in the Zone is simply being in an optimum “state,” and optimum states have been described in many ways: acute well-being, peace, calm, stillness, detachment, freedom, weightlessness, ecstasy, power, control, being in the present, mystery, awe, unity, altered or extrasensory perception, flow, optimum experience, and authentic play…
What people have in common is that they’re describing a state that is beyond their ordinary functioning. If you unfold what they mean, you find that there are hundreds of different ways in which people go beyond ordinary. Our book, In the Zone, catalogued these different experiences and asked the question, “Why do they happen?” “How might they be evoked?” If we look for the patterns of activity that lead to these experiences we can be deliberate and start training for them. These are technologies of transformation and this is the period I think we are now in.
Co-Founder, Esalen Institute, Author, In the Zone, Future of the Body
Johnny Miller, a world-class athlete, discovered the Optimum Learning Relationship on the golf course.
The strongest energy in the world is love. And if you love what you are doing, you've got a chance to hook on to a clear channel. You become energized, your brain is alert, your body feels strong, your intuitions are there, you have clear thinking; you can be the most that you can be. In 1970 when I went out to win the Phoenix Open, it was like I was playing by myself. I had zero anxiety. No tension. No stress. I was completely confident. When I was over the ball I felt like I was weightless. I had a feeling that I almost could just float off the ground. It was a feeling of confidence but also a warm feeling inside that I was in control. I could dictate my own energy and paint my own picture out on the course. I was able to address every situation and find a creative answer. The shot would talk to me. I'd say fine. It was so much fun I couldn't wait to hit the next shot. I was taking every shot to the highest level, playing "E" ticket golf. Most golfers are only in the zone for a round or two in their life. I was in it more often, because I would listen to my heart. I did all my homework, but I'd listen to the child in me. I listened to that inner voice.
PGA Hall of Fame
Imagine being a parent or educator and relating to children in this optimum state. If it’s good enough for a golf ball, isn’t it good enough for you and the children you love? Do we, or they deserve anything less?
The optimum is a state free of internal resistance or interference. What are the internal resistance factors that create less than optimum states in your life? List at least five.
Optimum means best possible. Learning implies the discovery and perhaps mastery of new patterns or possibilities. Relationship means connection, interaction, and interdependence. An optimum learning relationship, therefore, is “the” most effective process for children and adults to transcend their individual limitations, that is, to grow and to learn, together. Only through such a relationship can we reduce and eliminate the limitations, conflicts and aggression we impose on ourselves and our children, generation after generation.
Optimum Learning Relationships cannot be reduced to a formula. Always present is something “unknown” waiting to be discovered. There is no authority, no fixed rules. The child and the adult are moving targets; growing, learning, changing every day. To respond appropriately, in such a dynamic and changing relationship, both must be keen sensitive observers. What was appropriate yesterday, or even a few moments ago, may be completely inappropriate, now, this living moment. To give such complete attention requires discipline, deep respect, care and affection.
The word “discipline” often implies obedience, doing what we are told, following one’s own or some outside authority, conforming to a pattern. It usually means coercive or forced action, involving rewards and punishments designed to limit or modify behavior. The real meaning of the word discipline is “disciple,” which meant originally, to be a joyful follower. True discipline involves no coercion, no external rewards or punishments. The disciple naturally, joyfully follows the teacher.
Describe a mentoring relationship in your life when you were a joyful follower. What was it about the mentor that made this possible?
In Optimum Learning Relationships the adult follows the child as a teacher as the child follows and responds to the adult. Each follows the “model” and the modeled behavior is precisely what the other needs to “discover” and “learn” at their unique stage of development. For the child, the model may be physical skills, walking, holding a fork, or roller-skating. For the adult the model may be curiosity, spontaneity, or playfulness. Each is guided into new ways of playfully transcending their current limitations.
To follow a model one must be aware that it exists. In Optimum Learning Relationships the primacy of one’s “state of being,” in relationship, is valued over the information, content, the task or challenge of the moment. This attention given to the ever changing “states in relationship” occurs naturally in “bonded” relationships. We can’t really see and respond to another, as they are, while looking out for our agenda, our self interests. A prerequisite to Optimum Learning Relationships is a bond of care and affection.
Learning means the discovery or mastery of new patterns and possibilities. For something new to blossom, there must be opening, an ending or suspension of the old, of the “known” and its “agenda.” Optimum Learning Relationships imply a new relationship with knowledge itself, with information, especially the knowledge and beliefs we hold about parenting and learning. Beliefs are very active. They imply an agenda. This is right and this is wrong. The gravity or active quality of our assumptions often blinds us to what is actually going on, this present moment. We often miss or misunderstand what the child is experiencing, expressing and needing. We see only our agenda, and whether or not our darlings are meeting our expectations, conforming to our image of whom they should or should not be.
Entering an optimum learning relationship demands a shift of emphasis from the adult’s agenda, their focus on predetermined results, to where the child is now, and responding appropriately to the actual needs being expressed in the relationship this very moment. Obviously, the relationship embodies more than just the child. Optimum Learning Relationships value and meet the needs of both, child and the adult. The relationship is reciprocal. Each is bringing the best out of the other as they meet ever new and increasingly complex challenges, together.
The highest expression of human love and creativity is mentoring the next generation. This moment may be the first step for the child, and for us it may be a post a graduate experience. In optimum learning relationships the adult and child experience the same act, but from a totally different points of view. Parenting brings us into to a higher level of the same growth process as the child. And with that, we really come into our own. Through this optimum learning relationship each begins to catch a glimpse of what their next stage of development is all about, a step that transcends the their current limitations.
Being an adult means having an adult agenda, especially when it comes to raising children. List the ten top positive qualities in your agenda for your children. Then list the ten most unwanted qualities.
One has to be in the moment to re-discover the caterpillar for the first time, again, to actually see and feel “what is.” Sharing in the child’s wonder and curiosity re-opens our wonder and curiosity. The bond of affection with a child’s innocent state creates a profound shift in the adult. The shift is seeing the child as he or she actually is rather than looking through an agenda. It has been said we can’t enter the kingdom unless we become little children. Participating in a child’s state of innocence and wonder, opens the door to the kingdom once again.
Human development ultimately involves spiritual development and parenting is, or can be, a powerful spiritual process. Adults discovering and opening to their next stage of development, by serving a child they truly love, transforms the meaning of parenting, and of education.
In taking this step, one discovers that human development, which is our own development, is infinitely open-ended. We, and our children, approach the infinite nature of our nature through stages. Each stage has boundaries. The growth, learning and development we experience at each stage ultimately means exploring and transcending the boundaries of that stage. Optimum Learning Relationships become a playful spiritual process for those willing to leave behind the limitations they have accepted about themselves and their children.
The current approach to parenting, and to education, often means just the opposite. We deny the child’s and our own infinite nature by punishing and rewarding children into accepting and conforming to the same limited patterns we have accepted. We validate our limitations by imposing them on our children.
Culture is bound together by certain ways of thinking. How we perceive ourselves and our children is formed by this cultural model. Conforming to the limitations of culture can never transcend the problems culture creates. A completely different approach is needed.
Optimum Learning Relationships provides a way for each individual parent, coach, childcare provider and educator to create a new set of boundaries for themselves and for the children they love, a wider set that reaches beyond the punitive parental, teacher models we all know so well. Optimum Learning Relationships free parents from the limitations imposed by their own conditioning. In freeing the children they love from accepting false limitations the adult becomes free. Cultural patterns and beliefs, which are implicitly aggressive, are replaced by sensitive, aware, intelligent attention. And this intelligent attention “acts” naturally, spontaneously for the well being of all.
Optimum Learning Relationships invite adults to discover evolution’s next step forward, hand in hand, with each new life. The tools for this new relationship are sensitive awareness, affection, the art of listening and true observation, intuition, playful intelligence, and insight. By taking our cues from the child we discover and create, right now, this moment, the appropriate response. True observation and intuition inevitably lead to new insights, and new insights lead to new models. Playful, always fresh, ever new and challenging, the child is the teacher of the adult and the adult is the teacher of the child. Their relationship becomes the ultimate classroom for both.
In this adult-child relationship (classroom), what are the most important lessons you have learned from a young PlayMaster?
The dance begins anew each moment with simple awareness of the state of their “being,” in relationship. Affection surrounds them, protects them in an atmosphere of trust, safety, and mutual respect. They listen and observe with great care and clarity, as if just that moment having discovered some unknown treasure. Each takes their cues from the other, suspending fixed assumptions of how they should or should not be. They connect, not with ideals and expectations, rather “as they are,” that moment. The ever-changing dynamic of their “actual relationship” becomes the object of playful exploration and novelty; play being the act of learning and learning being pure play. The limitless realm of imagination reveals new patterns and possibilities. These new insights are embodied which transforms their state of being, in relationship. And the cycle repeats, the next moment and the next, playful, always fresh, dynamic and ever so challenging.
Is such a relationship just another ideal, a fantasy? We don’t think so. The dynamic qualities found in Optimum Learning Relationships seem to reflect the underlying principles found in scientific theory know as Chaos. John Briggs and David Peat in Seven Life Lessons of Chaos define “chaos theory” as the study of the underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. “Chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the “sensitivity” of things, and the “rules” for how the unpredictable leads to the new. “ Percolating through the lessons of chaos are three underlying themes, which, when applied to our lives and relationships, can reduce stress and conflict and enhance creativity: Control, Creativity and Subtlety.
How playful are you with the unknown? Are you excited to meet new people at a gathering or do you play it safe and mingle with people you know? Are you a player or a controller? Describe three ways in which your playing or controlling expresses in your relationship with children.
Life is uncertain the scientists say. We humans feel this uncertainty more keenly because our consciousness allows us to remember past injuries and project new disasters into the future. The majority of our creative and intellectual capacity, down through the ages, has been to eliminate uncertainty by predicting and controlling nature and ourselves. The essence of traditional parenting, enculturation really, and most of what we call education is “being in control” or “predicting and controlling” the behavior of children. The true nature of every child however, their limitless complexity and open-ended possibilities places them well beyond our attempts to predict, manipulate and control them. Eventually every parent and educator discovers this obvious fact, much to their dismay. Chaos theory suggests that instead of resisting this unpredictable nature, which is our nature and that of our children, we should embrace it, explore it, play, learn and be transformed by it. Optimum Learning Relationships do just that.
The second basic principle of chaos is creativity. True creativity blossoms when there are “cracks” in our systems of prediction and control. Physicists David Bohm and David Peat describe “creative perception” in Science, Order and Creativity as an extremely perceptive state of intense passion and high energy that dissolves the excessively rigidly held assumptions implicit in commonly accepted knowledge. This sounds very close to the quality of attention found in optimum learning relationships. Creative parenting, which unfolds in optimum learning relationships, does so when assumptions about what “should or should not be” a good child or a good parent are suspended. This opens the possibility for something truly new to slip though the cracks of our efforts to predict and control the future. Suspending assumptions frees perception to attend to more subtle process.
Old-fashioned logic and linear reasoning clearly have there place, but the creativity inherent in chaos, suggests that actually living life requires something more. It requires an aesthetic sense-a feeling for what fits, what is in harmony, what will grow and what will die. Making a pact with chaos gives us the possibility of living not as controllers of nature but as creative participators… To sacrifice control and live creatively requires attention to the subtle nuances and irregular orders going on around us… Chaos theory shows us how apparently tiny and insignificant things can end up playing a major role in the way things turn out. By paying attention to subtlety, we open ourselves to creative dimensions that make our lives deeper and more harmonious.
John Briggs, PhD & David Pete, PhD
Seven Life Lessons of Chaos
The more we learn through personal experience, the more we can learn; the more phenomena and events with which we interact, the greater our ability for more complex interactions. Can you imagine a more complex and dynamic learning experience than the challenge of nurturing and developing the open-ended intelligence of a new human being? Meeting this intelligence “as it is;” changing, expanding, creating new patterns and possibilities each day, is a tremendous challenge, a profound responsibility and a great privilege. Our lives are transformed by responding to the actual needs of the children we love. Discovering that our state of being, moment to moment, is their model, and their state is ours, brings about increased awareness and sensitivity to our own behavior. Only love is powerful enough to bring about such a radical change in perception. Awakening to the deep conditioning we find ourselves, and not wanting to impose our limitations on our children, is powerful catalyst for our own transformation. With abiding affection and basic trust the child leads the adult playfully into their next stage of development while the adult leads the child playfully into their next stage. And this magical state continues, expanding, playfully life long. Yes, this is indeed the optimum learning relationship.
What fundamental changes have you made in your life, changes that enhanced your attention, sensitivity and presence because you wanted to be the very best model or partner you could be, not for your own self-interest but out of respect for a child or a lover?
Intelligence-Who, What & Where?
We begin our exploration of Optimum Learning Relationships by questioning, “what is intelligence and where do we find it?” Ultimately, intelligence can’t be defined for any definition is limited and intelligence is not. We can say that intelligence expresses in living systems as a movement towards wholeness, for coherence and well-being, of the organism and its environment, for the two are not separate. Most of us think of intelligence as brains, mission control, grand central station. Yes, there is a lot of activity going on upstairs, more than we can possibly imagine. The closer we look, however, the more we find that intelligence is spread throughout the entire body and all of nature.
If we look for intelligence only in the brain, we see a very limited picture, indeed. At lest sixty percent of the cells that make up the human heart are neurons, like the cells found in the brain. (add reference) All the basic functions needed for the human body to thrive-movement, nutrition, elimination, reproduction, awareness, and yes, even intelligence-are found in every living cell. Life is holographic. Each part contains a pattern of the whole. Intelligence is everywhere and we are that intelligence. We are in touch with and touched by light, sound, heat, odors, tastes, emotions, ideas, thoughts, beliefs, traditions, and much more every moment. The pattern of relationships that makes each of us unique include galaxies of contacts and connections found inside the boundary of our skin and a universe of forces outside. What we call “me” is this galaxy of relationships, incredibly small and incredibly vast, fading off to infinity in both directions.
Brains Here, Brains There, Brains Everywhere
Some relationships help us grow: others hold us back. To appreciate Optimum Learning Relationships we must understand what it means to be related. Relationship means contacts, connections, and interdependence. Nature has developed complex systems to monitor, interpret and act upon these close encounters. Yes, we call these systems “brains.” As we explore some basic theories about the brain keep in mind that the brain itself is not intelligence, nor doe it create or possess intelligence, anymore than a computer is intelligent. Intelligence is much vaster, much more subtle than any of the forms that intelligence create.
The human brain and nervous system is made of different parts and each part contributes to ever-changing relationship we call living. Brains are unique. Among other things, they have the miraculous ability to take a slice of all the variable forms and energies that make up the world ‘out there’ and build a resonant representation or internal image of that slice. And then, within its limitations the organism can act upon these images.
Our oldest brain centers monitor and create images (or resonant representations) of different external energy patterns: all the things we touch, see, smell, hear, and taste outside. Other sensors inside the body monitor how we relate to or feel about these close encounters, which include the immune system, the maintenance of hormonal balances, and a myriad of other systems and processes. As we move throughout the day external and internal sensors are constantly updating the information gathered from billions of new contacts. This ever-changing flow of information express images or feelings: good, bad, happy, sad, etc. We are these contacts and connections, known or not, always new, always changing, like a river, flowing.
Multi-tasking Windows we find in our computers is no match for the brain in terms of its capacity to simultaneously display physical, emotional and symbolic images. While sleeping, past, present, and perhaps even future images may be displayed as dreams. Perception, awareness: what we call “reality” is an ever-changing blend of multiple data streams-external, internal, past, imagined, and intuitive-simultaneously displayed in consciousness. It took nature billions of years to develop this amazing capacity and we granted, which is part of the miracle.
Thinking, feeling and action, each have their own brain system and language. Symbols and metaphors are the alphabet for thinking. What is the language for feelings? What is the language for movement?
Images, The Brain & Its Operating System
It’s perfectly natural for the brain to translate experience into images. That’s what the brain does, it communicates information through images. Instant replays of memories are displayed as images, complete with the physical and emotional qualities of the original experience. Present sensations may trigger memories of past experiences, which are displayed as images. One memory can cause another memory to explode into awareness. Archetypes, those ancient patterns buried deep in the structure of our cells, may mix in and out of our daily reality. Images can emerge from intuition, telepathy, or direct insight. Dreams are experienced as images.
Reality is an ever-changing flow of images. Some images are more powerful than others. Of the billions of contacts we experience each day, only a few are intense or meaningful enough to warrant our awareness. A physical sensation, hitting our thumb with a hammer for example, may, for a moment, occupy all of our attention. We may be overwhelmed by joy or grief and not notice a mosquito nibbling our ear. A story may carry us into an enchanted world of imagination, leaving the “real” world far from view. Past, present, and imagined images all contribute to the moving mental mix we call “me.”
Before we move onto the next topic, think about the words me, myself and I. Do they refer to the same entity, different entities or different qualities of the same entity? Describe your personal me, myself and I.
To Me or Not to Me? That is The Question
Life is relationship. What we experience (the universe) and how we feel about our experience (who we are) creates a portrait or reflection of an ever-changing pattern of relationships. We don’t normally think of ourselves as ever-changing patterns of relationships. We think of ourselves as me: Joe, Heather, Michael, or Mary. We have accepted the very strange idea that we have a permanent identity, a self-image. Joe is Joe whether he is dressed in a yellow or blue. Mary may look and behave differently at different ages, but Mary is, Mary, or so it seems. Michael is always here, eyes open or shut, awake or dreaming. We take our self-image for granted. It feels so normal and necessary. But where does Heather begin and end? Is she ever really the same? Is the image she has about herself accurate? If Heather’s self-image is just an image, why does she feel hurt if someone makes an unflattering remark? Do images have feelings? Can images be hurt? It may be that the images we perceive as ourselves aren’t at all what they appear to be.
Antonio Damasio, again in The Feeling of What Happens, describes two selves, one he calls “core.” The other is “autobiographical.” The core self is the body-brain linkages; neural and hormonal, and all the systems and circuits which allow the body to perform, more or less reliably, for a lifetime. We might call it our physical self. We experience this “core” or physical self through an immediate feedback process called proprioception. Close your eyes and move your arm around behind your back. Moment by moment, even as the movement is taking place you know where your hand is in relationship to the rest of the body. The same is true for feet, legs, head, the entire body. Proprioception, this immediate sensing the physical body, its nature and genetic history, gives rise to the experience of a “core” self. Damasio states that: “virtually all of the machinery behind core consciousness and the generation of core-self is under strong gene control.” In other words, the experience of a “core self” emanates directly from our biological history. Aspects of this core self are clearly trans-generational. We inherent hair and I color from our parents. Sensitive responses to stress we call allergies are often inherited. Expressing through this core self are ruminants of past generations trailing back to the origins of life itself. All of these “past lives” and the “fields of meaning” they emit are expressing them selves, as our core self, right now. By this definition, all living systems, regardless of size or complexity, experience some form of “core-self,“ unique to their species.
The development of the autobiographical or psychological self is a different matter. As living systems grew more complex, they evolved increasing capacities for memory; physical, emotional, symbolic, and perhaps memories or expressions of non-material fields, a subject we will explore in more detail later. As with the “core-self” the structures, which support the development of autobiographical memory, mature and are dependent on inherited biology. The experiences, which create the specific “content” of autobiographical memory however, experiences, which are unique to each individual, are dependent on and regulated by the environment; family, home, social influences, culture. And it happens so naturally. We encounter an intense experience, either pleasurable of painful and an image of this experience is recorded as memory. This is repeated over and over again, building up patterns of personal images, day after day. Most often, when we refer to our “self” we are describing the images associated with our environmental history.
Clearly what we call our “self” is not fixed or permanent entity. Rather, our self-image is made of many images, some very old, some directly inherited from our parents, others are the result of experiences before birth, some are from childhood, or more recent events which may have occurred yesterday or even this morning. What we call our “self” is made of all these influence, any one of which, at any given moment, may be screaming loudly or silently laying dormant.
Why do we identify with these images? Why do we justify and defend these images as though it were an independent or permanent entity? What role does “self-image” play in optimum experience? Does it contribute, in what way? The evidence suggests that Optimum Learning Relationships begin when justifying and defending the image ends. It is really quite simple. The less energy we invest in justifying and defending our self-image, the more we have for learning and performance. Learning and performance increase as the demands imposed by our self-image decrease.
The images we have of ourselves feel very important, perhaps supremely important and extend beyond our physical and environmental histories to encompasses everything we have learned, all our beliefs, likes, dislikes and opinions. If someone challenges a strong belief it feels like they are attacking “me.” We take it personally. Are “beliefs” part of our self-image? Apparently they are. Just about everything we know becomes part of the image and we create from these images an individual identity. Historically, the idea of each of us are unique “individuals” is quite new.
Identity (in the Middle Ages) was not personal but communal, a matter of affiliation, status, and role. One was a Baker or a Smith, perhaps a Goldsmith, or one was Matt’s son; that was all the ID that was needed either for external recognition or internal self-assurance… The term ”individual” in its medieval usage meant only, “one of a class,” (as we might speak of an individual pearl or paramecium); not until the later part of the sixteenth century, when feudal institutions and obligations were largely dissolved throughout Europe, when status had given way to contract and the entrepreneur was buying out the lord of the manor, did the modern sense of the individual “qua” individual-a man for himself-come into currency.
The Dehumanization of Man
It is worth considering that our self-image is really not a thing. It is a response, a process, more like a stream, than something fixed or permanent. The image comes into being only when it is active, when energy is moving, and what triggers this energy is a threat, any threat, real or imagined.
Go back and review the notes you made regarding me, myself and I. How would you change your descriptions of definitions? To me or not to me, that is the question.
Self as Self Defense
Why do our palms sweat when we step up to the first tee or meet someone for a first date? Why do we get nervous just before we make a public speech? Because we feel threatened. We feel some need to defend ourselves. What will they think of me if I do something stupid? The image rises to the surface most often when we feel threatened. Research reveals a peculiar absence of self-image (and its defense) during moments of extraordinary learning and performance. When we feel safe, completely safe, and engaged in present moment or activity, our self-image disappears.
Real learning happens without a formula in your head. When Joe Montana used to drop back to pass, he wasn’t thinking, “Okay, he’s running out to the right and I’ve done this play before.” No, he’s completely enmeshed in the action. Time disappears. When that happens, you disappear. You literally disappear. What exists is the game and the play, and the joy. Joy happens when you disappear. It’s not about you. It’s about the play and the people.
Performance Specialists, Extraordinary Golf
Shame and The Origins of Self
We described how the images that make up what we experience as “self” emanate from our personal history. According to Alan Schore, MD, author of the ground breaking book Affect Regulation and the Origins of Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, our self-image begins to form between twelve and eighteen months of age, when we leave the safety of mother’s arms and become mobile. Increased mobility brings with it greater risk. To temper our wild explorations mom, dad and caregivers begin to say “No.” Every nine minutes a NO! or DON’T! blocks the toddler at the time of his or her life when the greatest learning is designed to take place. “No” is a threat and threats must be defended against. The defensive response to a perceived threat creates the image.
Schore states; "The mother utilizes facially expressed stress-inducing shame transactions which engender a psychobiological missatunement with the mother." The mother accuses the child just by her look. Her accusative look warns the child that the action he or she is taking or is about to undertake will break the bond. This becomes a permanent imprint and we carry that accusing face with us, lifelong.
Driven by nature’s imperative to explore the world, the child is now threatened if he or she does so by the caregiver-with whom he or she is equally driven to maintain the bond. The resulting conflict sets up the first major wedge in the infant’s mind. The toddler and young child will maintain what integrity they can, but eventually will split and become one of us. We then speak of the emergence of the child’s “social self,” by which we mean he or she has adopted the enculturated mask we adults have learned to wear. And this is the mask we and they eventually identify with, become, and defend, forgetting who we really are.
Over time our reaction to, “No, don’t touch that,” “Do this, not that,” becomes a pattern, a conditioned reflex. Whenever we feel threatened, physically or psychologically, there is a loss of safety, a loss of love, which demands a defense. The defense is the image, which, very early in life, feels normal, real and permanent. Reduce or eliminate the threat and the need for the defensive image disappears. When the image disappears, the energy and attention used to sustain the image can be playfully invested in learning and performance. Pretty simple.
Does wanting to impress the boss or your first date with the beauty/hunk at school make you nervous? How about the first tee with a new foursome? Who is nervous, me, myself or I? Or does nervous happen independent from the self image? If you didn’t have a self image would you still get nervous?
Becoming As Others See Us
Young children don’t discriminate between their authentic nature and their behavior. They are their behavior. For the early child, winning approval and dodging disapproval can be a matter of survival. Survival means fitting into the existing social structure. Self-worth, and by implication self-image, is defined by how well we do this. Ashley Montagu points out that, “We not only see ourselves as others see us, we become ourselves as others see us.”
Just how sensitive are we to external signals? Recent discoveries in genetics confirm that environmental signals cause genes to express and even mutate new forms in relationship to the changing environment. In a thirty-year study of environmental influences on the brain, published under the title, Enriching Hereditary, Marion Diamond, PhD., at the University of California Berkeley, demonstrated measurable changes in the brain, at any age, in response to internal and external changes in the environment. In just four days her laboratory mice grew new brain structures in response to environment signals. If the physical structures of brains adapt so quickly to environmental signals, imagine how these signals impact more subtle processes such as a thoughts, feelings and our self-image.