Learning to learn: Gain without pain
This post is precipitated by one of the least pleasant experiences of my life and one of the more pleasant.
The bad: a nearly one month period (so far) of intermittent and occasionally extreme pain, that has sent me to the emergency room twice, and scurrying to other practitioners before and between those visits.
The good, and the proximate cause of this post: is this, an essay on "Learning to Learn" by Moshe Feldenkrais.
"Learning to Learn."
So pay intention. (Comment directed at me, but you can pay attention, too.)
No. Invest attention. It will pay off.
What drove me to find this essay was the condition of my body, the effectiveness on my condition of even the tiny bit of Feldenkrais practice that I had learned.
I started with enormous pain in my right hip and lesser pain in my knee and miscellaneous pains elsewhere. I lay down on a yoga mat. I made small motions with my head and observed how even the tiniest head-motion changed my pain, sometimes quite dramatically. After a doing this for a while I used a self massage tool (Body Back Buddy, here) , which I've used previously to reduce chronic neck and back pain. But this time instead of "breaking down the pain" I used it gently, moving and pressing other parts of my body, again observing how even the lightest touch changed the pain in my knee and hip. After another fifteen minutes of this, I rose, moved around gingerly, and found that my pain continued to remain abated.
This was, as they say, serious shit.
So I went googling for a better understanding, and found the above-referenced essay. It so resonated with my earlier experience with Feldenkrais, with this experience, and with experiences unrelated to the physical domain that I decided to write about it. My goals were to deepen my own understanding, and to test Feldenkrais theory by applying it to writing.
Success on both counts.
Here are some of the things that he says in the essay, along with my comments.
Time is the most important means of learning.
You take the time to learn. You don't put pressure on yourself to learn. That's the opposite of what I do much of the time. He explains more about why this is so important.
Fast action at the beginning of learning is synonymous with strain and confusion which, together, make learning an unpleasant exertion.
This explains many of self-improvement failures. Maybe most. Maybe all. I'm enormously motivated to learn; that drives me into and forward through unpleasantness. As time passes my motivation wanes, and the felt result of the unpleasantness grows. Some research on the measurement of pain neatly quantifies this (article here, original paper here). Pain is measure in units called "dols." 8 dols is the pain produced by a second degree burn.
The study's authors concluded that 8 dols of pain equaled four successive two dol experiences
So a chronic condition of "strain and confusion" in my writing makes it an "unpleasant exertion" that might be measured in millidoles, and will pile up sufficiently to become multidole pain strong enough overcome my self-generated motivation.
Which may be why I have so long relied on sources of external, and unpleasant motivation to keep me moving forward. I do this even on things that I self-determinedly desire to do. I go as fast as I can. I pressure myself as much as I can. And that produces short-term success and longer term failure. I've been long-term successful in some of these same areas by letting the pain wear off and going back for more. But now I see that's not efficient.
Do not "try" to do well
...Internal conviction of essential inadequacy is at the root of the urge to try as hard as one can, even when learning.
This line really nailed it. It's led to this post. It nicely summarized the feeling that I have had as I "try" to write. I make greater and greater effort, all the time adding to my "conviction of essential inadequacy" and increasing the amount of "strain, confusion, and unpleasant exertion" that I feel.
In other words I write (which I love to do) until I hate it. The milidols of small pains build until whatever pleasure I might feel is buried under them. And then I quit.
So how do you avoid this?
Efficient movement or performance of any sort is achieved by weeding out, and eliminating, parasitic superfluous exertion. The superfluous is as bad as the insufficient, only it costs more. [Emphasis mine]
That's some of what's wrong with my writing. I write fast, and endlessly correct, and post when my dissatisfaction at not posting exceeds the discomfort I feel about posting. What a solution!
But there's another way.
When one becomes familiar with an act, speed increases spontaneously, and so does power. This is not so obvious as it is correct. [Emphasis mine]
I love that line. "This is not so obvious as it is correct."
Look for the pleasant sensation [Emphasis in the original]
So that's what I'm doing now. Writing more slowly, and looking for the pleasant sensation, and realizing that unpleasant feelings are symptoms, not of my "essential inadequacy," but rather that I'm forcing myself to go faster than comfort requires.
You will get to know new skills as a reward for your attention. You will feel you deserve your acquired skill, and that will add satisfaction to the pleasurable sensation.
Lovely. Eloquent. True.
And here is Moshe Feldenkrais moving from the domain for which he is renowned to one of the domains that I care much about:
Only when we have learned to write fluently and pleasurably can we write as fast as we wish, or more beautifully. But "trying" to write faster makes the writing illegible and ugly. Learn to do well, but do not try. The countenance of trying hard betrays the inner conviction of being unable or of not being good enough.
That goes on my wall.
He wrote this for me.
Maybe for others. Certainly for others. But this is a message, from the grave, for me.
Learn to write fluently and pleasurably.
Do not try to do "nicely"
A performance is nice to watch when the person applies himself harmoniously. This means that no part of him is being directed to anything else but the job at the hand. Intent to do nicely when learning introduces disharmony. Some of the attention is misdirected, which introduces self-consciousness instead of awareness. Each and all the parts of ourself should cooperate to the final achievement only to the extent that it is useful. An act becomes nice when we do nothing but the act. Everything we do over and above that, or short of it, destroys harmony. [Emphasis in body, mine]
Self-consciousness instead of awareness.
We usually learn the hard way. We are taught that trying hard is a virtue in life, and we are misled into believing that trying hard is also a virtue when learning.
I've always taken "trying hard" as one of the greatest virtues. Now I'm rethinking this. The image I hold is Kaya, who does not seem to try hard. Instead she seems to pick her own pace, working slowly, continuously, comfortably and pleasurably to master skill after skill.
Learning takes place through our nervous system, which is so structured as to detect and select, from among our trials and errors, the more effective trial. We thus gradually eliminate the aimless movements until we find a sufficient body of correct and purposeful components of our final effort. These must be right in timing and direction at the same instant. In short, we gradually learn to know what is the better move.
Sounds like Kaya to me. As least as seen from the outside.
...the smaller the exertion, the finer the increment or decrement that we can distinguish ...The lighter the effort we make, the faster is our learning of any skill; and the level of perfection we can attain goes hand in hand with the finesse we obtain. We stop improving when we sense no difference in the effort made or in the movement.
This is at the heart of Feldenkrais' method. Light effort so that we can distinguish wrong moves from correct ones. Plenty of time to see the differences. Only then can we continue to improve. The very opposite of what I do!
Learning and life are not the same thing.
In the course of our lives, we may be called upon to make enormous efforts sometimes beyond what we believe we can produce. There are situations in which we must pay no heed to what the enormous effort entails. We often have to sacrifice our health, the wholeness of our limbs and body...
To the extent that I've succeeded in life it's often been by making "enormous efforts" and I've paid "no attention to what the enormous effort entails."
But life is different now. And it was actually different than I perceived it then. But that time is past. Let's talk about now. And about writing.
I'm not a writer on deadline. My job does not depend on my writing well. And even if it did, there would be times when I have to take the hit, suffer through the unpleasantness and strain and get 'er done. But that's not now. Now is for learning and for "looking for the pleasant sensation."
Learning must be slow an varied in effort until the parasitic efforts are weeded out; then we have little difficulty in acting fast, and powerfully.
And why learn to do things efficiently? Because:
...energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed into movement, or into another form of energy. What, then, happens to the energy that is not transformed into movement? It is, obviously, not lost, but remains somewhere in the body. Indeed, it is transformed into heat through the wear and tear of the muscles (torn muscles, muscle catarrh) and of the ligaments and the interarticular surfaces of our joints and vertebrae.
So long as we are very young, the healing and recovery powers of our bodies are sufficient to repair the damage caused by inefficient efforts, but they do so at the expense of our heart and the cleansing mechanisms of our organism.
If we have not learned efficient action, we are in for aches and pains and for a growing inability to do what we would like to do.
Aches and pains. I know you well.
And on concentration, he says:
Do not concentrate if concentration means to you directing your attention to one particular important point to the utmost of your ability. This is a particular kind of concentration, useful as an exercise, but rarely in normal occupation and skills.
And this about how we've mis-learned to learn:
We are so drilled or wired-in by prevailing educational methods that when we know what is required of us, we go all-out to achieve it, for fear of loss of face, regardless of what it costs us to do so. We have it instilled in our system that we must not be the worst of the lot. We will bite our lips, hold our breath, and screw up our straining self in an ugly way in order to achieve something if we have no clear idea of how to mobilize ourselves for that task. The result is excessive effort, harmful strain, and ugly performance.
Do a little less than you can
By doing a little less than you really can, you will attain a higher performance than the one you can now conceive. Do a little less than your utmost while learning. You are thereby pushing your possible record to a higher setting.
Now I think I might need to apologize to my kids for always asking them "Did you do your best?" Now I might say: "Did you do nearly your best, but just far enough from your best that you could continue to learn to do better?"
Ahh well, we learn. Sometimes too late for some things. But never too late for everything.
I encourage you to read the entire article, again, here. It's worthwhile.
Meanwhile I've just written about the easiest post I've ever written.