Monthly Archives: December 2010

Lessons learned

At work I just finished writing a report summarizing some of the programs I led this year, including the summer program for high school students that ate my life.  One of the required sections in the report is a “lessons learned”.  One of the things I wrote was that students in summer programs need more unstructured time for personal reflection and independent exploration in order to integrate formal learning with meaningful experiences and personal values.  This is not a new realization.  It’s a lesson I have been taught for a long time, and one that I have been learning over and over again this year, but it didn’t really become integrated in my mind until today.

Whenever I talk to students about the learning experiences that are most meaningful to them, it’s the unscripted moments and moments outside of class that they remember and cherish most.  These moments connect with what they have formally learned, building the scaffolding for changes in understanding, attitude, and behavior.  My students learned a lot from the curriculum I developed this summer, but I believe their experience would have been even more impactful and personally enriching if I had given them more time for integration parallel to learning, and more freedom to explore.  Unfortunately, my approach to planning the program mirrored my approach to work this past summer.

Whenever I’m extremely busy, free time is always the first thing to go.  I hang onto sleep and food and cleanliness for as long as I can, but I had always seen free time as superfluous, expendable, and willingly sacrificed.  That’s what I did this summer, when I worked 100+ hours a week and gave up every other use of my time and my mind for work.  Not realizing that time for reflection and integration is vital to learning, planning, working, living.  I really need time to process things; after a meaningful experience, it usually takes a few days for my thoughts to catch up, and new realizations and epiphanies about past experiences will often leap at me in my leisure time.  It takes time for new experiences and knowledge to become rooted in my mind, and only after they become rooted can the tendrils of meaning begin to sprout and form connections with other thoughts residing in my mind.  It takes free time, time not spent in other strenuous mental tasks, for that to happen.

In the midst of this summer, I had some really epic experiences that could have been life-changing, could have inspired me to new artistic undertakings or intellectual passions.  They didn’t, because I had no time to reflect upon them and let my brain marinate in the juices of thought before diving into my next obligation or endeavor.  Those experiences are now cataloged in the back of my brain, still meaningful, but stunted from lack of aeration.  And there are many more experiences, little things that could have bloomed into enlightening trains of thought or small epiphanies, that I am not even aware of.  When I look back on the middle 50% of my year, it is a dense mass packed so tightly that the cells of experience are ruptured.

There was one other time I worked myself into a hole that deep.  One semester in college I exhausted myself by taking a demanding course load and working two jobs while going through my time-consuming deconversion process.  One day I suddenly realized that the reason I felt so physically sick was probably because I kept forgetting to eat; I had lost so much weight that my clothes hung baggily; and I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept or showered.  This summer, when stress seized me with stomach pain so severe I could barely walk, I looked around and wondered again how I had gotten there.  Lack of self-care, lack of sleep and food, yes, but the root cause was lack of time for reflection and integration.

I had thought I could plow right through this time because I had planned everything out at the beginning of the summer.  I knew what was coming, and mentally prepared myself for it, so I thought that time for reflection and re-assessment was unnecessary.  Without giving myself that time, I didn’t even realize what I was doing to myself.  This relates to another lesson learned in my summer program, which is not to over-plan.  I had planned every minute detail of every class and every day, forgetting that the best teaching moments are often spontaneous and unscripted.  There is a delicate balance between planning and spontaneity that leads to the most optimal teaching and learning experiences, and when I am not exhausted and thought-deprived I have often been able to find that balance, or at least stumble upon it accidentally.  With a stale mind, I was completely unable to adapt and seize onto teachable moments as they passed, nor did I leave time for those moments to flower.

At the end of the summer, my biggest fear was that I would allow this to happen a third time.  Because despite the exhaustion and pain and the feeling that I had lost myself and failed my students, the most immediate lesson I learned was that I could do the impossible, accomplishing an incredible amount of work in such a short time.  I thought that now that I knew I could do it, however painfully, I would be tempted to do it again in the future.  This time I feel confident that I have learned the real lesson, and it has been integrated with independent exploration and meaningful experiences in my mind.  Already this experience has led to the overturning of my priorities.  Work was kicked out of its top place, with the realization that however important or worthwhile or fulfilling it is, my life should not be subservient to my job.  Now I also know that whether learning or teaching something new, or working on a demanding project, it is a perfectly legitimate and necessary part of the process to go for a long walk and think about absolutely nothing.

Here’s to a New Year of new experiences, new ideas and new lessons learned through reflection and integration.


Not thinking

Sometimes the best way of thinking about something is to not think about it.  To put my mind at rest and simply let things float through it without trying to pin them down for focused pondering.  Not thinking is surprisingly hard; whenever I try to do it, I find that I invariably end up chasing down and interrogating some particular thought without even realizing it.  The most effective non-thinking happens when I’m half asleep, drifting off or just waking up while my mind strolls through backlogs of memories and fragments of thoughts.

I find myself thinking about work a lot in my spare time, but I almost never actually come up with solutions to problems while I’m pondering them.  The solutions come to me while I’m riding my bike and contemplating the shapes of the mountains, or immediately upon waking up to my alarm clock in the morning.  On a number of occasions, I have leaped up from my bed and immediately ran to write down a new curriculum idea or answer to a logistical problem, knowing that it would flee quickly once I was in pursuit.

Like seeing faint stars in the night sky by not looking directly at them, not thinking about things tends to bring them more closely into focus, as if there were a blind spot created by thinking too deliberately.  A few days ago I was dozing on a red-eye flight with my face squashed against the airplane window, thoughts galloping past my mind.  In the not-words, not-pictures, not-sounds way that passive thoughts have of presenting themselves, thoughts of a paper I’ve been editing for work surfaced.  In the clarity of fuzzy dreamlike thinking, I suddenly realized a glaring content error that I hadn’t noticed before.  Later, I also recognized a few long-forgotten memories that displayed themselves in surprising detail, somehow rescued from permanent loss.  I generally mourn the forgetting of vivid memories and cherished details.  While I’ve already forgotten what those resurrected memories are, I now know that they are still contained in the stream of my mind, and will be let loose sometime when I am not thinking about them.

Besides sleep, another harbinger of passive thinking is movement.  Walking, biking, driving, or sitting on a train, the stream of changing sensory input challenges the senses in the same way that a stream of passive thoughts challenges the mind.  Loosening my grip on individual details and letting the scenery pass by, my eyes are able to discern patterns and recognize motifs.  I often find that after encountering a deep work of art or a profound experience, the best thing to do is take a walk or a nap, to think away and let the tendrils of meaning take root slowly while my eyes and mind map other patterns.

Even as a Christian I recognized the importance of not thinking, although at that time I attributed it to the work of the Holy Spirit.  A few times upon returning from a spiritual experience such as a retreat, I knew that the experience itself was only the beginning of a deep undercurrent of spiritual work that would make itself known over weeks or months or years.  It would be the work of God shaping my heart and mind, sowing spiritual seeds that would take shape gradually.  Now, through memory and the surfacing of forgotten thoughts and details, I am still reaping patterns and motifs from those long-ago experiences.

Yesterday I was moving into my new apartment, carrying armloads of heavy boxes up and down stairs.  When my muscles are working hard to hold onto something, my mind is less able to do so.  Thoughts slipped through me in a frenzy, at pace with my quickened breathing and heart rate.  But when I took a break and sat down to transcribe the essay that had been composed in my mind, the words fell between my fingers and I was left with only a few syllables and the faintest shadow of an idea.  Sometimes ideas are just not ready to be captured; they must be allowed to wander, and take up residence in their own time.