Saturday, 9 November 2019

#761 Integration Now

     “Da Vinci’s approach was an integrated science, philosophy, and art of quality and wholeness, an exploration of patterns, systems, and the interrelatedness of things, more complete than the mechanistic and reductionistic understanding. He understood the parts and the mechanics; he designed hundreds of mechanical devices and carefully studied their properties, including precise understanding of things like the human arm or of the flow of fluids – hydraulics – recognizing its applicability to everything from water in a stream to blood flow in the body.
     But while he understood full well that the arm, for example, provided mechanical utility and could be dissected into individual components, he did not reduce the arm or the human or nature at large simply to mechanics. His reverence for natural creations and his ability to recognize patterns and interconnecting phenomena provided an integrated science and art, value and meaning, rationality and beauty. Without this larger, more integrated way of knowing, as he says, we ‘do injury to knowledge and to love.’
     To what extent does our prevailing educational approach leave out parts of the mind – ways of knowing – and thereby foster the same kind of injury? Today, how do we reconcile mechanistic and holistic understanding, awe and information, quality and quantity, and while we are at it, find what the ancient Greeks searched for – the good, the true, and the beautiful?


     Confusion arises in education today particularly because we are in the midst of an epochal change and we cannot quite clearly make out the horizon and thus how education should best proceed. Civilization appears to move through various eras or epochs of knowing, that is, the grounds on which we constitute truth and knowledge. Philosopher Michel Foucault referred to this as the episteme of an era. Thomas Kuhn spoke of scientific paradigms in a fairly similar although more circumscribed way. Basically, the episteme is made up of the assumptions, rules, roles, standards, and methods of knowing that guide and limit how we think and know. We cannot quite see this; it is a kind of epistemic unconscious or underlying field that we operate within. This matrix forms the conditions and limits of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place. Such an epoch of knowing emerges from, overlaps with, and then eclipses the previous episteme. For example, we might conclude that the early Renaissance was followed by a modernist period. (Because culture is not homogeneous, multiple epistemes could exist as part of different power-knowledge systems or subcultures.) We can recognize some of the characteristics of the predominant modernist episteme of the past few centuries including the role of the individual, the application of a scientific, materialistic, reductionistic, objectivist knowing as the standard of truth. This naturally led to education that emphasizes facts, measurement, control, predictability, generality, reduction, materiality, and the like. It also would tend to miss observations and conclusions that land outside that episteme.
     More recently, the postmodern turn has opened great cracks in the modernist episteme. It helps us unpack facts and ask critical questions about knowledge. For example, we recognize that truth and knowledge are often tied to power. When we ask, ‘Who funded that research?’ we are recognizing the mutability of objective fact. Truth is mediated by our intent, expectations, social status, language, race, history, and more. In Washington and elsewhere we may now even refer to ‘true facts’ revealing this postmodern recognition of just how facts can be a product of power and spin, not only reduced, objective, certain, and measurable.
     I want to make clear that this in no way whatsoever diminishes the importance of science or facts or measurement or logic, but it places them in the context of human understanding and culture. It helps us think critically and go behind the curtain of so-called objective knowledge. We can thank this postmodern shift for elevating critical reasoning and questioning, helping us recognize that ‘truth,’ to one degree or another, is socially construed.
     The modernist era has helped us to distinguish in so many ways. The postmodern has helped expose how culture and context shape what we consider to be true and good and beautiful. But we are on the cusp of something more.
     The challenge for this new era is not just to differentiate, dominate, or deconstruct, but instead to integrate. An industrial era yields to the information age, but the front edge is not merely about more information, it is instead an age of integration. Goethe said it this way: ‘To locate yourself in the infinite you must distinguish and then unite.’
     We already see the harbingers of a drive toward integration in all sorts of front-edge initiatives: mind-body medicine; fusion of art, music, and technology; East-West dialogue in everything from culture to cuisine; neurophenomenology as a research approach to merge direct experience and brain activity; social neuroscience that challenges the assumptions of discrete, individual consciousness, recognizing the linking of brains; new previously inconceivable blended fields like neuroaesthetics and neuroethics; lessons from paleobiology being applied to global finance; tide pool ecology informing approaches to post-9/11 national security; and the largest annual academic prize being the Templeton Prize for the integration of science and spirituality, two domains that have been radically segregated for four hundred years. We are coming to recognize interconnection in everything from pollution to politics to persons.
     The fundamental assumptions of reality that underlie the modernist epiteme are not only being deconstructed but also being turned upside down. We are moving from an understanding of the world as chunks of dead matter to seeing it as part of a self-organizing, living universe. In domain after domain we are coming to recognize connection, interdependence, and integration at every level of being. With it we have the possibility and the need, in the words of Thomas Berry, to move from seeing the world as a collection of objects to experiencing it as a communion of subjects.
     However partial our view of the horizon is, we are standing in a position that enables us to recognize many of the features of this knowing: integrating versus abbreviating, holistic versus reductionistic, connection versus domination, emergent and coconstituted versus materially existent and individual, value-laden versus valueless, interdependent versus isolated, dynamic versus static, probabilistic rather than deterministic, subjective and objective, intuition and logic, forest and tree, commonality and difference, compassion and calculation.
     The challenge for this age is not just about more information and faster connections, more differentiation and domination, but to find a way to bring together the bits and the bytes in living the integrated life in a world of global interconnection so that we, as da Vinci warned, stop doing injury to knowledge and to love. If our education and our consciousness are to be a match for this century, this is where the trail of knowing leads. But how do we proceed?


     Our understanding of knowing is multifaceted and in education emphasizes memory, reasoning, learning style, language, intelligence, and on and on. Acknowledging the vast array of distinctions, I want to cut beneath these to claim that with respect to education, consciousness, and culture today, there are two ways of knowing. That is, there are two fundamental ways that the mind works to know the world. There are myriad variations to be sure and certainly plenty of other ways to slice this rhetorically, but the most salient concern today comes down to this.
     One way we will call categorical. This knows the world through abstraction, through separating it from us, through taking apart to understand. In a sense everything is reduced to parts, to lowest units that are differentiated, named, catalogued. It reaches its apex in metaphor of computer zeroes and ones. Categorical awareness narrows in to focus on detail and seeks precision, objectivity, and presupposes certainty. It simplifies and represents, proceeds linearly and sequentially, and generalizes. Our schooling emphasizes this way of knowing, and for the most part, only this.
     The other knowing is through contact instead of category. Its style is direct, relational, embodied, and recognizes wholes and connections. Awareness through contact enables a broader view, one connected with the world and the body, scanning for changes in the environment. This knowing seeks novelty, picks up implicit meaning and metaphor, is able to read faces and other cues of individuals instead of simplified, predetermined, and generalized categories. Knowledge through contact is evolving, implicit, and indeterminate since it always exists in relationship to something else and is not ever fully graspable.
     Iain McGilchrist*, drawing from a vast body of neuroscientific and phenomenological data, makes a compelling case that these ways of knowing have neurological substrates corresponding to the anatomically distinct hemispheres of the brain.” 
         Tobin Hart. “The Integrative Mind: Transformative Education for a World on Fire.” Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

        * Iain McGilchrist. “The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Yale University Press, 2019.
                 AND wrt health-care education:

Friday, 8 February 2019

#760 From Black-and-White Thinking towards Intimacy

     We all experience "ups & downs," "good times & bad," etc. In fact, our contact with life's "opposites", and our "approach-avoidance" reaction to them, started in utero!

     “From the very beginning of our lives, even from before we are born, we organize ourselves in response to our environment. We pull away, with our body and our consciousness, from whatever is painful or overwhelming, and we constrict those parts of ourselves that are experiencing pain. Our pulling away from abrasive stimuli is not just a mental process. It is an actual constricting against the sensation of pain.
     … trauma (is) any event that is too intense, too painful – emotionally or physically – or too confusing to be fully received.

     (This) is simply the ordinary human condition. We all grow up to some extent limited in our human capacities, such as our ability to love, to speak freely, or to think clearly, by (trauma-induced) holding patterns … Although we may be aware of feelings of tension in our body, most people are not aware of the limitations in their ability to receive and respond to life, unless these limitations become severe. Most of us accept our limitations as being ‘just who we are.’ ” Judith Blackstone

     We approach pleasurable opportunities to promote well-being & survival. Conversely, we avoid or withdraw from painful experiences as protection from harm. This biological approach-avoid dichotomy underlies all motivational tendencies, forms the basis of emotion, & promotes adaptation.
     We're biologically & culturally programmed to seek pleasure & avoid discomfort. But life includes pleasure, pain, as well as uncomfortable periods of growth that take place beyond our comfort zone - in liminality - a state of in-between-ness, ambiguity confusion & even boredom.
        Lovas J, Gold E, Neish N, Whitehorn D, Holexa D. "Cultivating Engagement through Mindfulness Practice." Poster Presentation, American Dental Education Association annual meeting, March 19, 2012, Orlando, FL. 

     Our struggle to avoid pain & liminality, and cling to happiness is the basic obstacle to joyful, full engagement with life.
     Particularly in our youth, we might assume that "really living" is a wild roller coaster ride. During periods of calm & peace, we may actually become anxiously "bored." With age, however, we tend to prefer peace over emotional extremes.

     Mindfulness practice cultivates wise acceptance of, & the ability to work equanimously within the entire range of what life brings us - embracing all the apparent opposites, even all apparent paradoxes
     Our minds cannot comprehend this - a serious, often permanent road-block for many. HOWEVER, for the few who are sufficiently interested, patient meditation practice allows us to experience the fact that literally "everything is workable," moving us well past mere acceptance, towards intimacy with ALL of life.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

#759 Savoring Mindfully

     Positive psychology defines "savoring" as "the process of learning to focus attention on positive events to increase one's sensitivity to naturally rewarding experiences, such as enjoying a beautiful nature scene or experiencing a sense of connection with a loved one." Garland EL et al. "Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement for Chronic Pain and Prescription Opioid Misuse: Results From an Early-Stage Randomized Controlled Trial." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2014; DOI: 10.1037/a0035798

     This differs from how I use the term mindful savoring in teaching MBSR, the central focus of which is seeing the full scope of reality clearly, as it actually is. My use of this term overlaps with the definition of "connoisseur," and may best illustrated thus:
     A wine expert (sommelier) can "blind taste" a variety of wines and with great accuracy, provide details of the type(s) of wine, type of grapes, country of origin, perhaps even the specific vineyard and year of harvest, and how well this particular vintage/winery combination represents the region. With great enthusiasm, a wine connoisseur can provide considerably more details than this, and yet actually consume little if any wine (they usually spit it into a special container), and unless the wine is actually spoiled (eg "corked"), will not indicate whether or not s/he personally "likes" or "dislikes" it. 
     Mindful savoring is based, first & foremost on intimacy - a profound openness to & interest in, a kind of love if you will - an open mind & heart - toward all wines & wine-making in general. This is qualitatively different from rigid, reactive, black-&-white judgments / personal preferences ("I hate this" - or - "I crave this").
     The important mindful aspects of savoring: non-judgmental, open / transpersonal (vs narrow / personal) awareness & psychological flexibility (vs rigidity).

     Consider the effect on your quality of life were you to mindfully savor the innumerable people & phenomena you encountered - the richness of the infinite variety of experiences is unimaginable. 

     In contrast to mindful savoring, aren't we more prone to rigidly identify with our preferences? How unlikely are we to meet people / phenomena that we rate amazingly desirable ("must haves") or that we rate terribly undesirable ("must avoids") - very seldom, right? But don't the vast majority of people / phenomena fit in between - the vast numbers of "neutrals" we hardly notice or even try to avoid, having judged them "boring"? (Remember the "inn-crowd" in high school?)
     To the extent that we fail to mindfully savor, our life is dull & frustrating,filled with wanting, striving, waiting & disappointment.

     Psychological flexibility paves the way towards de-armoring, knowledge about & intimacy with ourself, others & life in general. Rigidity, the opposite of psychological flexibility, is an armored dead-end: