Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Learning Edge

I love the concept of the learning edge. It invokes an image of one standing at the verge of a precipice, staring into the dark unknown, the wind battering as if a too strong gust will push one over and in. Because of this, the learner swallows her heart a few times, hesitates, and thinks too much while grasping for the familiar threads that will keep her standing. For some unfamiliar reason she is about to jump and only hopes that when she does it will make sense. Because jumping is the only way she will know. It is the only way that she will learn. And when she does there will be new land under foot, and some new knowledge or skill acquired. Even after deliberating for so long it comes as a complete surprise.

It is an exciting place to stand. As anyone afraid of heights knows it is also terrifying.

Up until last Sunday my daughter, Dana, was standing on that edge at the climbing gym. We watched her as she bouldered. She ascended half way, scanned the wall in all directions clearly seeking safety from her fear. Then she’d find a fitting hold to grasp and jump down. We praised her ability to fall and helped her learn how to stay safe doing it. She would work out a few tough spots, a pattern of riddles on the wall, but never ascend beyond the middle. She felt the holds, explored their shapes; this one looks like a monkey, an ice cream cone, a turtle. She was getting used to the idea. We cheered her when she tried a new wall, a new set of holds, or when she mastered a difficult sequence or move. We discussed our own bouldering projects with her and introduced her to the puzzles we were working on. She watched us climb, fall, try again, discuss different approaches and even master routes. She was thinking about it.

Dana broke through this learning edge on Sunday in the climbing gym. After a quick ascent in the kid’s play area to the top of the mini-wall she proclaimed “I want to go to the bouldering area.”

Quickly, confidently, she grasped the first hold and launched her way up to the top of the twenty foot wall and walked off the top. Then, and this is the amazing thing about kids, she did it another ten times. I love that she repeated it over and over and over again. Repetition is the key to acquiring learning. She instinctively knows this. It is the mortar that keeps all the pieces she put together in place. Each time she went up that wall again, she trained her body to integrate the climbing moves and sequences to perfection. But more importantly, she was training her mind. In the future there will be no excuses, she can do it not only once but twelve times. Once that feels good, she will find the next problem to master and a new learning edge will emerge.

I loved watching her take that step over into the unknown and scale the wall. We were exhilarated but only by a fraction of her delight. It was truly a breakthrough and a complete surprise.

And now I wonder where my own learning edge waits.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Limits of the Mind

Recently, I've been reinventing my life using the dreams and aspirations that I carried when I was younger. They are the kinds of goals that can haunt one if they are left to slumber. I want to be a writer, an artist, more committed to my health and well-being. I want these things, they did not die when I turned 25 years old. This fact has startled me recently. I feel like I have woken up to a truth that I let fall asleep inside me. The truth is that I created these aspirations, they live with me and will continue to until I achieve them or die.

In the past, I had many good habits that pointed me towards my goals; I used to journal, write a lot, draw, go to the gym regularly. Of course, I have many good excuses for not being able to do those things now. Kids, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind. A passion-driven career that has consumed me. Somehow finding time became hard between all the commitments; friends, husband, kids, house, travel, work, recreation. The list of excuses could be endless.

Excuses are roadblocks. They are part of a self-created model of the world. If you tell yourself you simply can't, you won't. This is nonsense. If one wants something badly enough, one can achieve it. I have achieved every goal that I purposely pointed my way towards. My career, my kids, my family. Those were my priorities and they have been very fullfilling. But now I'm exploring rearranging them a little, maybe adding a few more. I feel like I can make the time. I have the capacity.

But it is tough work. I have spent 12-15 years consciously or subconsciously telling myself what I can and can't have. It is my mind that makes it difficult.

Fitness is an easy example. For the last 10 years I've told myself that I have a limit to my fitness level and that I can't get past it. Now, I'm pushing that limit and exceeding those expectations and my mind is playing tricks on me. Here is some of the self-talk:

"You are going to injure yourself and then be miserable when you can't walk."
"This is not a healthy weight for you. Are you anorexic?"
"It is a little late to get in shape, you're 37."
"Who are you trying to impress anyway?"

Luckily, I'm pretty stuck to my goal. I notice the self-talk loud and clear, and I let it slide around my mind, bounce off the edges and then fall away. What is important is to achieve my fitness goal everyday I tell myself. I'm doggedly determined. But this self-talk is deadly. My mind is trying to wear me down, to accept the path that I have dredged for myself, it wants me to seek the easy road.

Writing is more difficult. It is a painful experiment in goal seeking and life enrichment. Writing is intimate. Writing is an exploration of thought. It is an exploration of life. It unpeels and exposes the ugly and beautiful. It forces me to look at my life and my past in ways I've never done before. My goal is lofty too. I'm seeking to make it a public endeavour. I'm working on finishing my first book in 12 years with the goal of seeking publication. And wow, it is consuming me. My mind is full of murder.

"This book is too emotional for you to handle."
"You can't enjoy your kids if you are writing, because you are always thinking about this book."
"The book is too sad, no one will like it."
"This book will ruin your marriage."
"This book is making you have a mid-life crisis."
"It is making you manic depressive."

As if writing a book is a like setting a bomb that destroys everything in its path.

But I won't accept it. I have been writing consistently for almost three months now and I love it. Yes, it makes me crazy. When my characters falter, my heart breaks for them. When they are jubilent, I turn up the Gotan Project and dance around the living room my heart soaring. There are times when a great feeling of profoundness wraps itself around me and I realize the weight of the moments I'm describing. It fills me with every emotion. I'm full.

The truth is that writing is a calling, a passion, a way for me to explore the world and appreciate its vastness. The only thing that can take this away from me is my own mind. I won't let that happen again.