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The Teachable Mind Marries the Changeable Moment


I was having a soak in the hot tub with Dar last night--she just got home from her Come Alive. She's full of beans, having really put herself out there in terms of building relationships. For many moons, Dar has convinced herself that she 's not good at forming intimate relationships, nor at talking with people. The feedback she got from other participants was just the opposite. What happened next is the topic of today 's Into the Centre.

Dar changed her opinion of her self.

Life, of course, is a lot like school. Let's take math. In grade one, we're taught to add. Now, the goal of learning to add is two-fold.

  • The first reason to learn to add is... wait for it... to learn to add.
  • The second reason is to prepare to learn to multiply.

In other words, every lesson simply prepares us for the next one, giving us something to build upon.

For many people, this rule of teaching is forgotten. Life provides opportunities for growth in understanding, always in the form of a challenge. Each time one occurs, we are confronted with a choice. Will we be teachable, or will we choose to do what we always do, think what we always think?

This is too important not to say again: each inter and intrapersonal skill we have can be seen, as we're saying, two ways: it can be seen as a thing unto itself, or it can be seen as a building block for the next learning. Like learning to add. The purpose of learning to add is to be able to add. Pure and simple. The purpose for learning to communicate is to be able to get our needs met and to have a medium for the exchange of ideas. Pure and simple. Until the first multiplication problem comes along. Until the first misunderstanding comes along.

That 's the changeable moment.

Imagine the poor kid, entering grade three, thinking, "Wow! What a rough two years of school. Addition. Subtraction. Reading. Penmanship. Printing.  Now I can just sit back and relax." The teacher drops a sheet of paper on the kid's desk. The kid reads, "3 x 3."

The kid may think, "What a stupid teacher. She doesn't even know that the sign for addition is '+'. I'll point out her mistake to her." Another kid has been parented to be self-critical. He might say, "Oh God, I must not have been paying attention back in grade 2, I' m missing something here, I'll never be able to get this."

Another kid, in another row, says, "I have a hunch the teacher is trying to teach me something new. But that's not fair. I already know all I need to know. The teacher should change. She should stop trying to help me learn. Doesn't she know that I can't learn anything new?" (Of course, if he was 38, he'd be saying, "I can't change my understandings now. I'm too old and set in my ways. Besides, the way I am is the way I am. And then there's the genetic component.)"

The message is: "I think I'll stop right here. Change is unnecessary -- too difficult -- whatever."

We live in Mennonite land. There are many "Orders" to the Mennonite faith and the Old Order are the ones who dress in black, eschew buttons as "proud," drive horse and buggies, and aren't allowed to have phones or electricity in the house. (One of the ironies we amuse ourselves with is that farmers are allowed to have phones for their business, so you'll see a guy in black, driving his buggy down the road, talking into a cell phone. But I digress.)

Most Old Order Mennonites pull their kids out of school after grade 8. They figure the kids have learned all that they ever will need to know from school. They have basic math and writing skills -- enough to run a farm. To leave the kids in school when the hormones and the philosophy discussions kick in -- well, that's too big a risk, as they might change their minds and choose to leave.

Lest we laugh too quickly here, I understand where my Mennonite neighbours are coming from. As a psychotherapist, I endlessly hear two variations on this "I've learned enough - I can't change" theme.

1) "Woe is me! I'll never have a successful relationship, good sex, a meaningful relationship with my parents/kids, a better job, respect, enough toys" - whatever.
2) " I've tried and tried to change my life / spouse / job / understandings / way of being in the world - by doing 'x' . It never works. Please, teach me to do 'x' better, so it will finally work."

In both cases, the client wants my support for their staying stuck.

There have been several articles  in the Toronto newspapers lately on depression. I touch my own sadness on a fairly regular basis, I know that there is a strong pull to just let myself go fully into a depression, even though I know the signs and "know better." It takes a steel will and the willingness to ask for help (for me, that's Dar) to get through the episode. (I'm writing a new booklet on this. Stay tuned.) Anyway, I intrigued myself enough to read one of the articles.

They started by extolling the benefits of drugs. (Naturally. This is North America and North America is chemically addicted.) 3/4 of the way through, I read, "Psychotherapy is just as effective for treating depression as drugs. (It's just slower - real change always is. -WCA) What's required is an empathetic therapist who can teach the client new ways of seeing her or his life. (emphasis mine)" Hmm. There it is again.

The teachable mind marries the changeable moment. Life is a series of changes. Change is the sea in which we swim. To rail against change is the height of silly. The only solution is teachability (the willingness to change ourselves) which could also be described as flexibility.

Back to math class and '3 x 3.'

  • The kid who thinks she can relax will tune out and be left behind.
  • The kid who thinks the teacher must be wrong about the 'x' sign thinks she knows it all and that others are stupid and incompetent. Her goal is to smarten everyone else up. In her superiority, she'll cross out the 'x' , insert a '+' , get 6 and think, "Boy, I sure showed them!"
  • The self critical kid will simply give up, and will stay stuck right where he is, based upon whatever he chooses to blame for his inadequacy.

And then, there's little Johnny. His hand shoots into the air. "Mr. Brown! Mr. Brown! I don't know what this 'x' is. Can you tell me how to solve this?" Mr. Brown says, "Class, this is something new, called multiplication. Imagine you have three piles of three pennies. How many pennies do you have?" For the simply curious, the light goes on. And a new skill is born.

For the wise, comes another insight. "If I am to be fully myself, I must always be willing to change my understandings. My mind must be open - my heart must be open. I'll need to reach out to others for new understandings. Because as soon as I say, I can't, I can't."

It's up to you. But really. How do you choose to stay stuck in a changing universe? Maybe it's time to give up your illusions. For a better set of illusions. Which, soon, will be given up too. As Frankie sang, "That's life !" The wise soul, in the end, knows that he knows nothing. 

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