Ashton Applewhite’s eye-opening Manifesto is well worth reading; it is like looking in the mirror and being met with an expanded view of oneself. I thought my approach to life was ageism-neutral in that I am aging, thrilled to be here so no complaints about getting older, and yet, this book proved otherwise.
As with all of the “isms,” we are socialized at birth with ways of perceiving others, be they the same as us or different. So much of that socialization depends on the combination of who raises us and the culture in which we live. We can think we are neutral yet regularly and inadvertently practice multiple micro-slights and aggressions. This is why it is important to have conversations, read books, and be openminded to learning how unintentional words and actions can cause harm.
Stated towards the end of the book, It’s harder to unlearn than to learn, especially when it comes to values. The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices. This is where the book shows its value, in pointing out the many varied ways that we and others practice ageism. I looked in the mirror and was surprised what looked back at me.
While this was not a suggestion in the book, here is an experiment to try. For one week every time you make a comment about someone that causes you to invoke or allude to their age, pause and rephrase the comment without the age reference. The reference does not have to be a specific number, it could merely include words signifying older OR younger and accompanying adjectives. How does that change your thought? How does it change your opinion? How does it change what you mean to convey? Does the age qualifier make a difference? Why?
Utilize this experiment even when thinking or speaking about yourself. How does that change your self-perspective?
[UPDATED April 22, 2022 – Just found some quotes from this book that I had written down. Adding them here for ease of access in case I want to refer to them in the future.]
Self-efficacy is “belief in your ability to handle what life has to offer.”
A “normal aging brain enables greater emotional maturity, adaptability to change, and levels of well-being.”
“Aging means living, just a living means aging.”
Cognitive Reserve is built by challenging the brain with novel, complex problems (that, through work, can be solved); developing and maintaining social networks; and through exercising. Partner social dancing, board games, reading and playing a musical instrument have all been found to be activities that help build cognitive reserve.
There are numerous posts on this blog about aging (or ageing) as it is a reality of life and a topic that has interested me ever since my Dad entered his late 60s (when I was in my late 30s) and began showing signs of dementia. I wanted to better understand the aging process, and how people cope with what can be for some a debilitating process.
The first half of this post’s title comes from the 47 minute documentary of the same name that I just finished watching. It speaks for itself and, if all goes well, is embedded just below these opening lines.
As for Ashton’s book, turns out even those of us who think we are beyond using ageist terminology probably use it more than we realize; I certainly am discovering that thanks to her writing.
One other thread that caused me to smile…the Gillian in the documentary is the same Gillian Lynne who Sir Ken Robinson talked about in his groundbreaking TED Talk Do schools kill creativity? starting at the 14 minute mark where he mentions what he considers the third aspect of intelligence.
Within us there is most definitely a brain-body connection. To quote Mary Richards, emotions – thoughts – beliefs live in our bodies, not just in our brains. Mary is one of two yoga teachers (the other being Lizzie Lasater) leading Deep Rest, a four week deep dive into how to nourish our bodies through exhaustion.
Our bodies and our brains have an intimate relationship, not just due to sharing the inner space of our outer shell, but also because our emotions and thoughts manifest within our bodies. Ever get a nervous stomach, that sensation of butterflies in your belly, before speaking in public or going on the stage or taking a test for which you might or might not have sufficiently prepared? Ever feel a loop-de-loop in your heart or belly when you see someone you love or have a crush on? Ever have your heart feel heavy or your body feel deeply tired when you are overwhelmed with sadness? Ever hear an unsettling story and have the hair on your arms stand on end? Ever find your body physically experiencing something being described to you by someone else?
This first of four exploratory weeks focused on “somatosensory processing” or sensing what is happening in the body. I have been practicing yoga for 16 years and leading yoga for almost five years, and one of my mantras is “let your breath be your guide.” By focusing on the breath it becomes possible to tune in to the sensations of the body and that, in turn, makes space to notice what we feel and how we feel.
Deploy our intention to pay attention to the barely susceptible sensations of the body and connecting them to perceptions, beliefs, judgements in the brain and welcoming them as messengers. From those messengers, we can learn.
In the practices I guide there are always multiple pauses with the cue to go inside and listen to what the body has to share, notice the sensations, and respond accordingly. As Mary noted in her brief lecture, in asana (asana being poses) we are learning to concentrate on sensory experience, and by noticing the sensory feedback we are then able to make choices based on that feedback, often different choices than might have been made if we weren’t paying attention to our sensory experience. The ultimate result is we can start to change the rote patterning of our brains that responds based on past experience and begin to rewire our brains to respond based on current experience.
Lead with the present tense of the body
So how does all this fit in with the topic of the course, dealing with exhaustion. Mary and Lizzie provided one way to think of immense tiredness: it results from either hanging on or pushing away rather than accepting and acknowledging. (See the first quote.)
Using the currently free app Pocket Brain to display colorful, clear visuals, Mary discussed the various areas of the brain that are related to planning and executing movement. Most of what follows comes directly from my notes, which in most instances is verbatim.
Pre-frontal cortex Focuses on the “where” of movement, such as where to place the feet.
Pre-motor cortex Sustains our attention for movement that takes place over time, such as in building, cooking, putting something together or sustaining a headstand.
Primary motor cortex This area is a major contributor for yoga students and teachers as it informs movement choices based on auditory and visual cues.
Primary somatosensory cortex Sensations are processed from pain, touch, vibration, temperature and, interestingly, the smaller the input (such as fingers), the more space allocated in this area.
Somatosensory association cortex Information is interpreted, and objects can be recognized without seeing them, such as feeling something in the dark or behind some other object and knowing what it is. Mary likened this to connecting the dots.
Primary visual cortex This is where we process what we see. Mary suggested trying to practice with eyes closed, if that is accessible. When we practice with eyes closed, other areas of the cortex are lit up that increases our accuracy in regulating balance.
Anterior lobe of cerebellum (The cerebellum has long been my “favorite” part of the brain as it deals with novelty and movement.) Movement is refined in this area and gross (large) body movement is coordinated.
Posterior lobe of cerebellum Coordinates fine-motor skills, such as fingers.
At this point in the lecture time was fast approaching for the physical, experiential portion of the live webinar. Mary provided a brief overview of the Pons (bridge between the cerebellum and the cerebrum) and Medulla (information highway between brain and spinal cord, and regulation of respiratory and cardiovascular systems), which sit at the base of the brain above the brainstem. In particular, she mentioned sensory nerves (sight, sound, touch), which send information from the body to the brain, and motor nerves (movement instructions to contract muscles), which move information form the brain to the body. She noted that there is a lot more movement in the sensory nerves than in the motor nerves, upon which Lizzie questioned whether schools are designed adequately given what we know about movement and how children spend so much time sitting.
I picked up (or maybe was reminded of?) new vocabulary. Sensory nerves are afferent, “conducting inward or towards something” while motor nerves are efferent, “conducting outward or away from something.”
My first yoga teacher once shared these words at the beginning of a practice.
Life is not the way it’s supposed to be – It’s the way it is – The way you cope with it is what makes the difference
This third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), taking responsibility for your feelings, seems to me directly related to Deb’s comment.
As we go through life, each of us will hear words directed to us or about us. The words may not be what we think they should be, but nonetheless they are the words that are uttered.
How we react and respond to the words is what will make the difference. We will have control over how the words make us feel, and that, in turn, will impact how we cope and deal with the situation. This opportunity for taking responsibility for our feelings and actions is what makes all the difference.
On the face of it, this may seem logical and even manageable. However, I think that learning how to manage our emotions, how we feel, is a learned art. So how does NVC approach taking responsibility for one’s emotions.
NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.
Nonviolent Communication, page 49
NVC suggests there are four approaches we could take in dealing with a negative message or action: blame ourselves, blame others, sense our own feelings and needs, sense others’ feelings and needs. At various times I have certainly laid claim to each of those, sometimes – especially when I was younger – employing more than one to deal with a negative situation.
Over time (which I often say is a benefit of aging) I have learned to parse my reactions and feelings before ascribing any blame. Indeed, except in extreme circumstances, I have worked successfully at trying to understand where the other person is coming from to better grasp the meaning behind the words or actions. Ultimately, this leads to reflecting on my needs and on their needs.
I have just finished reading chapter 7, and so far each chapter concludes with one of the more interesting and useful methods I have encountered for checking on understanding. Ten brief one- or two-sentence statements are presented.
To determine if the reader and author are in agreement about the precept that was discussed, the reader is asked to choose which statements reflect the precept. The author, Marshall Rosenberg, then discusses his choices and why. He never says “right” or “wrong;” rather, he simply explains why, if the two of you chose the same you are in agreement, and if you chose a different response, why you two are not in agreement. I found this a positive approach to garner understanding and promote additional thought.
This is a chapter in semantics. But I get ahead of myself!
Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg for communicating with others. I have been reading his book and thinking about how useful it might be for a wide ranging array of conversations as well as for garnering an understanding of oneself. My previous post was about the first of the four essential precepts of NVC; this post is about the second, identifying and expressing feelings.
On the one hand, especially for me, this might seem quite easy to accomplish. I can often sense my feelings and usually have little difficulty expressing them, though more intense feelings or feelings as a result of complex situations, often leave me a bit encumbered in trying to state how I feel.
Turns out, precept two is an exercise (and a chapter) in semantics. Semantics is all about the meaning of words, and what we may call “feelings” are not always – according to Rosenberg – feelings. For instance on page 43 there is a list of words, many of them verbs that end with “ed” and he ascribes these words to “how we interpret others, rather than how we feel.” The way I speak, any of these words could easily have been used to express a feeling.
Rosenberg makes several distinctions: “between feelings and thoughts; between what we feel and what we think we are; and between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings.”
All is not lost in the world of words! To assist with expressing feelings Rosenberg provides a two-and-a-half page list of words for describing emotions. (Refer to the image at end of this post.) As for the difference between emotions and feelings, there is a wealth of information available with a quick web search, and I leave that to you if it is of interest.
Perhaps the strongest lesson I take from this chapter is the importance of thinking before I speak in order to come up with accurate expressions of what I want to express. For me, this is not just about expressing feelings, but having conversation in general. There is such a wealth of words available to us if we give ourselves time to choose them and incorporate them into our daily language. I am not suggesting using “fancy” words when simpler ones will do; just choosing the words that most truly reflect our feelings and thoughts.
Not too long ago I heard of a new three-session workshop, Difficult Conversations: Using Nonviolent Communication in Our Relationships, hosted by a yoga teacher whom I have studied with multiple times online. The required reading is the book What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authored by the teacher and her former husband. Ultimately, I decided to pass on the workshop to conserve funds that have been too readily spent during the pandemic!
In the meantime, during a conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned the workshop, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!”
All this by way of explaining how, thanks to our local library, I have come to read Rosenberg’s book.
In general, I tend not to have patience for reading self-help books, which is what this book initially felt like. However, I was determined to give it a try and so pushed on to chapter two and then chapter three, by which point I was hooked.
Nonviolent communication (NVC) is grounded in four essential precepts, the first being observation without evaluation. Immediately this idea hit home. As a teacher and a parent, I can recall too many instances where adults made value judgments based on what they saw rather than simply stating what they noticed. A typical example: This child is lazy because she does not turn in her homework on time. The observation would be: This child does not turn in her homework on time. The judgement is: This child is lazy.
This type of thinking is not unusual for us humans, as assumptions about the reasons behind what is seen or heard helps to give meaning to actions. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for those assumptions to be made without benefit of knowledge or understanding of the actual conditions behind the action. The result is inaccurate evaluation; evaluation that is incorrect.
Our older son and his wife are both trained Montessori Guides and as such had to studiously learn how to observe children without evaluating them. After one of her training days, Sandra returned home and described spending hours at the Central Park Zoo diligently recording regularly paced observations in a journal. Each observation was of the same animal throughout the day. Even while it was sleeping she remained attuned to how it positioned itself, whether it moved, if it made noise, and anything else it did.
This may sound tedious, and at times she said it was, but it brought home to her the importance of simply observing. The exercise helped to fine-tune her sense of looking, watching, noting, heightening her awareness that observation takes focus. And, as I learned in a nature journaling class this past fall, only by truly focusing on an object can you begin to see it. Often, this focus leads to questions, which should be duly noted for future research, yet the questions are not the actual observation; they are two distinct entities.
Liz, the nature journaling instructor, shared the Curiosity Cycle. As this is a cycle, the Further Questions would lead to additional Observations, and so on. Drawing is from my Nature Journal.
While this is not a one-to-one equivalency with NVC, the observation component meshes them together. Simply put, an observation can only ever be a neutral statement of what is seen. The way to know the meaning behind what we see is to then ask questions to find out the “why”.
…I noticed close to one hundred ducks swimming in the Mill Pond, almost all of them moving in the same direction. Gradually, a bunch would turn 180 degrees and ascend in flight. Maybe they were swimming with the tide, or preparing for flight by swimming in one direction to give themselves enough of a runway for taking off in the other direction. And that had me wondering if there is any intentional synchronicity to floating en masse? Knowing that they do not ride the currents as other water fowl do, does wind direction impact how ducks prepare for flight? What is the relationship of this large group of ducks to one another? What is the deal with duck families?
I have not read the New York Times online in many months, and only receive the print edition on Sundays. However, it is mid-August, I am up quite early this morning, Joe Biden has just announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, it is still dark outside, and I decided it was time to return to checking in with the world what with the election a little less than three months from now.
(Not that I have been absent from the news; my husband keeps me up-to-date and I receive daily ‘breaking news’ emails from the Times. I just haven’t felt there was anything to be learned by bombarding myself with the negativity of the news. Fixed mindset, growth mindset or sanity mindset?)
This by way of explaining how it is I serendipitously came upon an article about Carol Dweck, someone I first wrote about in December 2007. At the time, Dweck’s theory of Fixed and Growth Mindsets made a big impression on me. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to believe that they are born with whatever intelligence they have, the brain is what it is, and that’s all there is, whereas someone with a growth mindset tends to believe that their brain is malleable, meaning it can change. Which mindset would you think is more conducive to learning?
As an individual, a parent and a teacher I found much to appreciate in the theory for myself, my children and my students. At the same time, I also felt thwarted by an educational system that may have wanted teachers to inculcate their students to the theory, but was unwilling to alter the checks and balances and methods of assessment that still sent home messages about individual learning not totally in concert with the idea that failing can promote learning.
If you are willing to take risks you will sometimes fail at what you try, but the very act of failing will give you the learning experience that sets the ground upon which the next learning risk will take place. This cycle of trying and making mistakes is what learning is all about. If you have a growth mindset then the mistake-making is not the end of the world but rather a jumping off point to decipher what went wrong and how it can be changed for improvement. That process is actually what learning is all about. Someone with a fixed mindset will likely give up and, as a result, not make any progress.
For years, until I retired from teaching this past June, I would share the following simple statements that actually have much meaning behind them:
Try it and see!
You made a mistake. How fascinating! (This came from a talk I watched by Ben Zander.)
Flop with fanfare, revise with relish! (I picked this up from an education listserv.)
So here I am this morning, browsing today’s articles in the Times, when an image captioned by “Feel Like You’re Going Out of Your Mind? Consider Your Mind-Set” comes into view. Over the years criticism has been lobbed at Dweck regarding this theory of mindsets, and perhaps what was most satisfying is that she took in the criticism and then used it as a springboard to fine tune the theory and further her research.
In any case, I appreciated stumbling upon this brief article. It was both a reminder of ideas I used to think about, as well satisfying to serendipitously revisit a person who had made educational news and was still out there doing her thing.
Last year at this time, I had recently finished reading Frank Ostaseski’s book The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, and written a post about it here. Around that time I also subscribed to the Metta Institute‘s newsletter, which seems to come infrequently. The “Institute was established to provide education on spirituality in dying” and it grew out of the Zen Hospice Project, founded by Frank Ostaseski.
The most recent newsletter arrived about a week ago, and from it I learned that Ostaseski had experienced several strokes. Since my Mom also had a stroke, I was a curious to know how the experience impacted Ostaseski, and relieved to see that the newsletter also included a link to a recent interview of him at the EndWell conference, where he spoke about The Paradox of Vulnerability. (The video is also embedded at the end of this post.)
I was stuck by the pacing of his speech, which may or may not be his typical way of speaking, and by the sound of his breath, which may or may not be related to having had several strokes. But there were two comments that most impacted me. One was his reply to Courtney’s question about what he now thinks is bullshit as opposed to prior to his strokes he saw as “okay” bedside approaches to people on the journey of dying.
His response was to tell a story of a man who was dying from AIDS. Frank was sitting by the man’s bedside as the man reached for something, in the process knocking over a glass of milk. Frank told the man it was no big deal, that it could be cleaned up. The man, incensed, angrily retorted that it was a big deal. In stopping to think about this, to that man it was a very big deal to lose control of one’s body and of one’s abilities.
This, in turn, had me thinking in general terms of how often I have said to someone “it’s no big deal” in my attempts to ameliorate their discomfort. Yet, maybe I should reconsider this comment and think more intentionally about validating what the person may be feeling by at least acknowledging the way they are feeling. Much to ponder about this.
The other comment of Frank’s that still has me thinking is his story about conversations doctors and therapists have been having with him. They keep talking to him about recovery, which just now I looked up online in order to see the specific definition: Recovery is a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
To Frank, it is not a matter of recovery. Rather, and to my mind profoundly, to him it is about discovery – what he is learning about himself and the world in each moment. Perhaps it is akin to seeing the world through a new lens, and it is definitely about accepting what he is discovering rather than fighting against it. Another online search yielded several clarifying definitions for the word discover: Find something or someone unexpectedly, become aware of, be the first to find or observe, perceive the attractions of an activity or subject for the first time.
Perhaps this feeling of discovery is a practice of self-compassion, of accepting oneself for who you are at that very moment, of going inside and not turning away from what you find. In my yoga practice and my yoga teaching this approach surfaces in meditation and in practicing loving-kindness towards oneself. I suspect it is something with which Frank Ostaseski is quite familiar as a Buddhist.
I previously blogged about Rick Hanson here in November 2017, and recently came across him again in an interview as part of the Mindfulness & Compassion at Work online summit. A friend sent me the link to MCW and I wound up watching two of the Day 1 interviews.
Hanson’s talk began with a review of brain development, which he likened to floors.
Floor 1 is the Reptilian brain – the brainstem and cerebellum located at the top of the spinal cord. This floor deals with safety.
Floor 2 is the Mammalian brain containing our limbic system – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Floor two deals with satisfaction.
Floor 3 is the Neo-cortex – the cerebral hemispheres, and deals with connection.
Hanson’s pithy analogy, which sums up his interview and also explains how these floors interact and function as a whole is:
The body (hardware) makes the mind (software).
What most interested me was Hanson’s discussion of the brain’s negativity bias. (For more detail you can read his article Confronting the Negativity Bias.) In the MCW interview he describes our brain as being like “velcro for the bad; teflon for the good” which was a necessary survival mechanism back in the days of living in the wild. Back then there was an over focus on safety because otherwise a person might become another animal’s dinner.
Over focusing on safety meant continually scanning for anything that could be detrimental to one’s life, thus the tendency to attend more to the negative factors (velcro for the bad) and less to the positive factors (teflon for the good). Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, our brains have not forgotten how to self-protect; however, in our modern world we have far fewer heavy duty stimuli to protect against.
Instead, because the self-protection apparatus still resides within us, the system kicks in to protect us against the stressors of daily living instead of from becoming a lion’s next meal. This can become a problem if we do not learn how to ameliorate our limbic system’s natural tendencies to release cortisol whenever stressful situations are encountered. When cortisol (aka the stress hormone) is released, it sensitizes the amygdala to be on the alert. This, in turn, weakens the hippocampus, which would normally calm the amygdala and signal the hypothalamus to reduce the signals for the stress hormone. Not learning how or being unable to control our limbic system’s responses can result in living with chronic stress.
Hanson, who is the author of numerous books including Resilient, and Hardwiring Happiness, talked about the benefits of building self-reliance and “positive neuroplasticity.” According to him, just 10 minutes a day is all it takes to bring all three floors of the brain into a more positive, cohesive system. To quote him:
During the day look for about half-a-dozen little opportunities to feel a nice experience and notice that experience.
Acknowledge one thing in particular that you want to grow inside yourself and look for pathways to grow it.
Reset yourself by re-centering to drop into a safe, content, connected sense where all three levels of the brain are working in unison.
This resilience practice can help us manage with a strength that is calm, confident, contented, and coping rather than reactive. Via a deep breath or sigh establish a feeling of stability and move forward from there. For a slew of “simple practices” to hep build this resilience check out Hanson’s resources here.
I just finished reading Bessel Van der Kolk’sThe Body Keeps the Score. This is a powerful, at times quite difficult body of work to read. Being confronted by stories of other people’s trauma was at times shocking and at times cringe-worthy. I had to focus my eyes to stay on the stories yet disassociate myself from the actions behind the words.
With that said, this is a work of major importance for anyone interested in beginning to understand what trauma is and how it impacts people. In January of this year I participated in a trauma-informed training with the idea of teaching yoga in prisons. What brought me to the training was my brief experience co-leading a yoga class at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York where I felt woefully unprepared. However, the training did not begin to adequately address my questions. In search of more information, I was introduced to a woman who offered to meet with me and share experiences and information. As both a lawyer and a yoga teacher in prisons, she highly recommended Van Der Kolk’s book, and her suggestion was spot on.
There is so much information that this first read felt more of an overview. However, the book is quite in-depth, providing an overview of how the human brain functions and processes trauma, exploring how children’s brains develop and are impacted by trauma, explaining traumatic memory, and concluding with descriptions of multiple different paths to recovery. I have no idea if I will ever reread the book, but if I were to pursue the field of teaching yoga to populations impacted by trauma then this book would be on my book shelf and wind up with sticky notes coming off numerous pages.
It took me awhile to read and it is one week overdue at my library! Each chapter deserved attention and time to process. I found myself jotting down a quote or comment here and there as something caught my interest, beginning with the idea that trauma is held in all the cells of the body. I began to better understand the meaning of interoception, which is to feel and experience our body and visceral sensations. This ability can be deeply impacted by the experience of trauma. Furthermore, memories of somatic trauma are implicit, within body sensations, not explicit as narrative. In other words, memory of a trauma is held within the body, not within the frontal lobe where story telling would originate.
In order to have a sense of agency, the feeling of being in charge of your life, there needs to be interoception, attachment and attunement, these latter two a crucial part of healthy childhood development where the child develops a sense of self. Attachment is the act of developing a bond with a primary caregiver, usually a mother or father. Attunement is the synching of emotions and physical actions with another person, again usually the primary caregiver. This relies on mirror neurons, which Van der Kolk aptly describes as neural WiFi allowing one to pick up the movement, emotional state and intention of someone else.
I worked to understand what Van der Kolk referred to as the essence of trauma: Dissociation.
Dissociation [happens when] the overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed. (pg 66)
If the first two hundred pages are all about the brain and an explanation of trauma, told via other people’s stories, the last hundred and fifty are about recovery.
Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership…The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. (pg 203)
Alas, while I wanted to leave this book with a sense of hopefulness, I found myself as discouraged as Van der Kolk when he noted in his conclusion that our western society does not seem compelled to visit the causes of trauma. Currently in the United States our various civic and political structures often undermine the very approaches that research tells us would help ameliorate the base causes of trauma. As he concludes: The choice is ours to act on what we know.