Posted on Leave a comment

Podcast: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

ITunes Podcast: 006: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”

— Blaise Pascal

One of my goals with the Landscapes for Learning project is to draw more attention to the need for an explicitly taught wisdom curriculum for high schoolers as a counter balance to all the demands of the external landscape put upon kids today.

To become wise is to know oneself– one’s essential or fundamental self which is always in a state of becoming and might be creatively developed throughout life. This essential self is foundational to the more social self—roles we play in the practical world, the expectations of others we try to meet. If we can help kids live from the inside out early on in their young lives, they may just be able to stay true to themselves– to their authentic selves so that they always have shelter, a home, to which they can return when life on the external landscapes get challenging.

One way to travel one’s inner landscape is through meditation. Meditation and mindfulness practice has become trendy recently, and it is useful as a relaxation tool, but it’s also an avenue to something deeper– to enter into the world of the essential self.

Allen Gaskell has been practicing meditation regularly for many decades, as well as practicing yoga, forest-bathing (which he didn’t know had that name until recently!), white-water rafting, and other outdoor immersion activities. He is a former Mental Health Counselor who worked in prisons, within the court system, and created a counseling center at Salem State University. He also worked for many years with Veterans with PTSD. A Vietnam Veteran (3 Tours of duty in reconnaissance and wounded in action), Allen enthusiastically enlisted in the military after high school in N.Y. and later attended college to study comparative religion at the University of Vermont. Shortly after, he stumbled across a book about Vipassana and the rest is meditation and mindfulness history.

He recently completed a 90-day silent retreat this past fall, so I was curious about what that experience was like and thought others might be interested as well. He talks with me about the value of meditation in his life, especially today in a very noisy and busy external landscape.

We talk about the workings of our minds when we observe it through meditation or yoga practice, thoughts about why, how, and who ought to be teaching about the inner landscapes, how to “sell” suffering to others or invite them into self-reflection and self-awareness, and how to learn more about our own humanity to recover it from a life in a technological-consumerist culture.

I loved our almost entirely unedited two-hour conversation! Enjoy.

Click Here for ITunes Podcast: 006: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

Posted on Leave a comment

Podcast: The Call of the Wild with exotic animal handler, Niki Cesar Tracchia

“All good things are wild & free”
-Henry David Thoreau

Niki tells her story about traveling across the landscapes of nature– as avid hiker/outdoor enthusiast, wolf-advocate (yes, they need our help!), Bikram yogi, and exotic animal handler. After a not-so-great, though sadly typical, experience with public high “schooling,” Niki blossomed into an avid learner and teacher after she answered what she terms her “Call of the Wild.”

Niki is a wonderful and interesting example of the various forms of learning and teaching that happen outside the narrow academic realm of school.

Click here to listen…

A few quotes from our conversation:

“When life is trying to tell you something, when the some ‘thing’ keeps calling you back, you should probably listen.”

“I learned not to have expectations… or believe in limits about what I could do or couldn’t do.”

“I just knew I was in the right place. I just knew– this is it. This is my life. This is me.”

“So many doors opened for me.”

“I am so grateful….I love my life. I wouldn’t change anything.”

I really hope you enjoy listening to Niki about her sense of self-awareness; interconnectedness; the wild; listening; and openness to what life brings. Her  enthusiasm for authentic forms of learning and teaching are contagious!

27750054_10157092079011040_7352745517903180397_n

27655106_10157083181236040_359049839699476430_n26992021_10157053131306040_3732563790375905608_n27544853_10157087368191040_2534423674221395007_n27459225_10157055507916040_5098955635736099063_n26112130_10156951728096040_1197298691620003628_n

For more information:

Curious Creatures @ https://www.curiouscreatures.org/ 
​The New England original
Interactive LIVE ANIMAL Programs & Parties
Established by Dean Kosch in 1987

Wolf Hollow @ http://www.wolfhollowipswich.org/
114 Essex Road
Ipswich, MA 01938
Tel: (978) 356-0216

Bikram Yoga 
Find a studio location anywhere in the world.
@https://www.bikramyoga.com/

LINK TO PODCAST

Creative Commons License for “Political Lunatics” by Earthling (intro and outro music)
“Political Lunatics” by Earthling

Posted on Leave a comment

A Meditation on Learning

Every moment has something to teach. Can you look closely, deliberately, at the landscapes in your life as opportunities to learn — to live fully and authentically as you, as nobody else can ever do, except the one and only you? You don’t have to do it well. Just try. Learning lends life its meaning, and that meaning is tailored specifically for you and only you.

The landscapes have so much to offer. Can you be open to what they have to say? They speak, if only we might get quiet enough to hear, to develop the ability to listen deeply. If only we might slow down. Just stop. Be. You don’t need to “use” the landscapes. You only need to be there: in them, on them, with them, and experience them fully, to appreciate them. You cannot wrestle meaning out of them; you must allow for that meaning to come to you, and it will. But it takes courage and patience and fortitude to act in a way that may be unfamiliar– to be a receiver, to be gracious, to allow. It is our true nature to live this way, in harmony with landscapes both inside ourselves and across the natural landscapes of the earth.

Listen to the landscapes– what stories do they tell? What lessons will you learn? What do the landscapes teach us? How can we learn to listen to them? In listening to landscapes we are listening to ourselves, our true nature. Indigenous people know this, intuitively, spiritually. We tend to disregard that type of “knowing” because it isn’t rational. It seems “beyond” us, a little bit too “out there” for us because we tend to want to master or utilize the products of learning for some sort of gain, to get ahead, to profit. But, there are more ways to “know,” beyond logic. It’s sort of like taking a leap and hoping a net appears. If you trust, the net appears, without fail.

Stay open to receiving the universal life force and energy which provides guidance to you; this is the other way of “knowing.” This type of learning through listening for what life is telling you can serve as an important reminder of how much you cannot control. It will show you your limitations and guide you to accept, let go, or move beyond those limits.

Have you ever had the experience where an answer to your problem just comes to you, seemingly from nowhere? A great idea just drops itself into your lap, like a butterfly lighting on your windowsill? The truth is that we are dependent creatures– dependent on the messages and unexpected experiences — the gifts and struggles– life sends to us. We are not as independent as our ego leads us to believe. For this, we should be grateful.

You don’t have to be in control or utilitarian when you are learning, only awake and willing and attentive. Lifelong learning isn’t like school. There are no grades. It’s not about progress. There is no competition. There are no parameters! Simply become a student of your own life to see what you can learn. As HD Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I hope to inspire and encourage you to recognize all that you have to learn about yourself and the world, each day, each moment over the course of your entire life. You have an inner wisdom waiting to be heard.

Learning requires openness, vulnerability, willingness, and humility. Children have such qualities, by nature. They are human sponges, intrigued by everything in their environment, but sadly that intrigue and openness stops. Why? School happens; western culture happens; socialization and conformity happens. But we can learn to recover from our conditioning. Learning can re-open us to our innocent and youthful natural curiosity. We can become a flower petal blooming, over and over again.

Learning will inevitably lead you to growth, but some people resist learning because they fear change, and fear overwhelms. This is also why we need to explore our interior landscape so we understand our emotional body, our psychology, and our physical body and how they work together to make us uniquely an individual human. Self understanding will enable us to do what’s best for us rather than copying the responses or choices of others. We don’t need to follow the crowd. We can trust ourselves.

Fear is so manipulative within the physical body and the mind, it can literally cause a person to see black as white or down as up. Reality becomes distorted through the lense of fear. It doesn’t just cloud our judgment, it changes our perceptions of reality! So much so that valuable learning is resisted or denied, and that is a tragic loss of opportunity for growth. Indeed, the hardest lessons are the most impactful, valuable, and memorable– but they hurt because they usually involve fear and other overwhelming emotions and reactions in the body. Nobody likes pain, and few learn about why it happens or how to cope with it when it does. We can learn to embrace our pain, our suffering and transform it through learning. Then we can find meaning, even in pain and suffering.

The fact is when you stop learning, you start dying; you wither. Water corrodes when stagnant. Human beings have to keep laboring, moving, thinking, feeling, learning, and thriving. Through constant and continual learning, that is, when you deliberately pay attention to life and see all your experiences as landscapes for learning, you will discover there is joy and wonder all around you, all the time (and always will be!), no matter what.

Even in the most brutal of situations there can be opportunities for learning and growth. At Auschwitz, Victor Frankl observed human beings, despite their tremendous pain and suffering in the concentration camps, continually finding reasons to live through learning. He writes in his famous, Man’s Search for Meaning:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add deeper meaning to his life… What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. (p.67,76)

Perhaps because most of us do not live under such duress, we take the power of learning for granted. Do we think learning or “education” is only for the privileged? Do we think it occurs in a particular or conducive environment? Do we forget or become complacent about the opportunities to learn and continually grow throughout our lives, across every landscape? Perhaps we are just too busy or distracted by the hustle and bustle of life in an industrialized economy that puts tremendous demands on us and constraints on our time, even though some demands we put on ourselves and are excessive or unnecessary.

You will find opportunities for learning in the places and faces that you meet each and every moment of each and every day of your life; you are surrounded by nature as well—that is always available to you as a landscape for learning! You will find learning opportunities in the steps that you take across the landscapes of your life, whether those steps are tentative, merely casual, or aggressively intentional. Together, we are all travelers over the landscapes of life where love, fear, pain, and joy are only some of the very best teachers, but only IF you are open enough and only IF you are aware enough to receive the lessons. Adjust your frame of reference to learning and the world will change right before your eyes.

Become an enthusiastic student of life. Take learning into your own hands, rather than living merely as the victim of what happens to you in your life. Rather than thinking that things happen to you, perhaps you might come to understand instead that things happen for you– they occur as continuing education, as Frankl noted, even within the most challenging environments and times. Developing the attitude of a student will transform the way you see the world and all of your experiences.

To develop a disposition for learning and openness you might be required to complete a considerable amount of unlearning as part of the process of growth. You have been taught and conditioned in ways that likely have severely limited the way you see the world and the way you see and think of yourself. Examining your own life– your mindset, your worldview, your values, your beliefs, how you spend your time, your habits, your carefully constructed perceptions about yourself (your identity) is a process every capable person can learn to address to better understand what it means to be human, so that self understanding can be gained as well as understanding of our fellow humans.

Indeed, it is every person’s responsibility to “know thyself” as many great teachers from Socrates to Buddha to Emerson to Martin Luther King have urged. What comes with self-understanding, though, is the often challenging process of unlearning, which is why many people start toward self-knowledge but abandon the path. It isn’t easy to deconstruct yourself because you feel like you might come undone or completely fall apart: emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially. Loss is part of the learning process. It takes a great amount courage to confront yourself, do the work, and rebuild yourself– to get your shit together, but the payoff is worthwhile both for you and for the rest of the world. This is what the hero does! This is what Frankl did and watched his fellow prisoners do, each choosing to “take up [their] cross.” Brave people look in the mirror. Cowards run, pretend, hide,or give up. They become closed, unwilling, ignorant, arrogant, and stuck.

Shedding limiting ideas about yourself, others, the world, and an inflexible mindset will allow you to become more pliant and supple, more flexible and strong (this is your yoga). You will discover your true self, the pure self you were born to be. You will have to excavate all of your social and cultural conditioning. You’ll have to go back and reclaim that innocent unadulterated, wild child you were, so full of potential and life force, that self you were before your were subjected to the “industrialized” world and “ schooled” and “socialized.” This is when you lost all that lovely divergent thinking and when your imagination was put to the side, or minimized, or put into the all encompassing service of your logical thinking / academic brain. It’s when you went indoors for hours and hours to be tamed and taught self-regulation and conformity and order; your head was then filled with “shoulds” and “oughts” and “musts,” and when you wandered away or imagined anything unconventional or you questioned authority, you were scolded back into the carefully shaped reality that was efficiently managed for you, lest you be labelled and cast aside as “abnormal” or a “trouble-maker.” It’s when you became disconnected from nature and thereby yourself.

You were kept inside the container of school, institutionalized, confined to a chair in front of screens for hours on end, and those who did not rebel, the do-wellers and the get-along-and go-alongs, who blindly accepted what they were fed without question grew up to be the same people who keep the system chugging along to inculcate the next generation in the same ways. This will stop when we begin to reconsider the real purpose of real learning. Rehabbing the current education system from within is not the answer. Reconnection with nature and ourselves, our souls, is.

It is my contention that the current mental health crisis among our youth, the skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression, is a result of our long-held Western cultural values based on materialism, excessive consumerism, ego-based competition, and progress. We have raped and pillaged the natural landscape and as a consequence soiled and littered our interior landscapes —the body, mind, and soul. The sacred has been replaced with science; beauty and mystery replaced with information and answers for gain. Yet, what we fail to recognize is that we are the natural landscape; we are not separate, as we have been conditioned to believe. So how can we create a more meaningful, healthy life for ourselves and others?

We can immerse ourselves in landscapes– that is, we can commit to lifelong learning. We can commit to learn about ourselves, our inner landscapes, finding good teachers (counselors, therapists, mentors, coaches) to help us explore. We can learn from the natural landscape to care for our world and all forms of life. We can learn how to learn better and more often, and we can make learning– authentic learning—our most important value, priority, motivation, behavior, habit, identity, right and ritual. Finally, we can find people to share our lives with –next door, across the street, or across the globe. We can share our humanity through learning.

Posted on Leave a comment

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all,

In The American Scholar, his speech to Harvard graduates, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “Life is a dictionary!” encouraging Americans, especially the young scholars in front of him, to trust their own experiences: direct, sensory experience in nature, if they truly wanted to live a life of learning. You can read all you want and spend all your time in the library, blindly accepting the dogma that’s been handed down to you by rationalists who supposedly know better than you, he said (in so many words), but that will never substitute for discovering the world, nature, and your own inner nature, through personal experience. It was unconventional back then and sadly still is today.

In our Information Age, we can know just about everything, everyone, and everywhere. That’s how you became the Know-it-alls! We spend far more time in front of screens, typing and clicking, safely in our minds (often completely unaware of our own bodies), safe from nature. It’s “out there” and we are “in here,” separate, unequal.

adultsiphoneskidswalkingwith-iphones

The library of Emerson’s time is the Internet of our time. Young “scholars” today look at almost every aspect of their lives: the world, nature, and themselves (selfies) through the lenses of their iPhones.

 

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), our disconnection from nature causes a shrunken sensory world, impoverished experiences, and a sort of “cultural autism” which include  “feelings of isolation and containment” (p.64). We are literally trapped indoors, inside our own minds, as we surf the Web, thinking we are “everywhere” yet sadly, not anywhere at all, not even in our bodies. Knowledgeable, but not. Connected, yet disconnected.  

girlat-computer-silhouette-2Louv quotes Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst, who says, “What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life…It’s a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional” (p.65).

Ah, Ya think?

Louv goes on to write in his chapter subsection entitled “Losing our Senses,”

“Today, the life of the senses is literally, electrified. One obvious contributor is electronics: television and computers. But simpler, early technologies played important roles. Air-conditioning, for example…Few of us are about to trade our air-conditioners for fans. But one price of progress is seldom mentioned: a diminished life of the senses…as human beings, we need direct, natural experiences; we require fully-activated senses in order to feel fully alive (my italics).

Twenty-first-century Western culture accepts the view that because of omnipresent technology we are awash in data. But in this information age vital information is missing. Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing below the ‘transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it,’ as D.H. Lawrence put it, in a relatively obscure but extraordinary description of his own awakening to nature’s sensory gift. Lawrence described his awakening in Taos, New Mexico, as an antidote to the ‘know-it-all state of mind,’ that poor substitute for wisdom and wonder:

        ‘Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe and the globe is done.

        This quote is true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean and saying you know all about the sea…

        As a matter of fact, our great grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: ‘It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.

        We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.’” (p.57-59)

nddevolution

And, so here you sit Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all: efficient, progressive, high achieving, American travelers and patriots, with the world (of information) at your fingertips sitting on chairs in your air-conditioned schools and cubicles Googling away for answers. 

Sincerely,

A Little Birdy
p.s. Here’s some food for thought:

  • Might an antidote to the “know-it-all” state of mind be Shunryu Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind?
  • Where does “schooling” fit into such delusional thinking amongst our young people?
  • Why are kids locked up in the institution of public school all day completely disconnected from more direct, sensory experiences?
  • Has the institute of American public education actively supported a disconnection from nature and instead promoted the values of technology and utility to ensure a dumbed down work force so numbed out and disassociated from their true nature that they won’t ever revolt?
  • Do you think about nature as something “out there,” separate from you?

For Further Reading:

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, (2008) Workman Publishing, N.Y..

Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Leo Babauta’s Zenhabits post for further reading on the concept of Beginner’s Mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Complusory Schooling

Zachary Slayback’s The End of School

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Posted on Leave a comment

Just a thought…How Higher Ed. Can Help the Natural Landscape

After reading “Ending Extracurricular Privilege” by Olga Kahzan in December 21st issue of The Atlantic Monthly, I realize just how much influence higher education has on the values, beliefs, behaviors, habits, and choices of their incoming students as well as their parents and their high schools. (I mean, I know the competition among students over grades has completely destroyed the joy and authenticity of learning and creativity, but…)

I’ve seen the administration and school committee where I work (and my children’s high school) consistently respond with, “How high?” when colleges and university admissions request that they “jump.” You want global studies? Done! You want cross-curricular courses? You got it! Study abroad programs? Yes! Right away! Community service? Of course! And a substantial portion of the job of an entire department (Guidance) is to help students create these required stellar resumes starting in 9th grade. By grade 11, it’s too late! That’s a lot of resources geared toward shaping kids to meet college admissions expectations.

volunteers

The personal qualities and characteristics colleges seek in candidates almost always become the secondary school community’s goals which are aimed at raising and shaping teens’ behavior and time, at least from what I have witnessed. And it’s not an entirely bad thing! Achievement and service are valuable. It gets out of control when it’s forced or completely ingenuine. I believe intention does matter, especially when it’s a gauge of character. When kids are competing against each other over who can gain more community service hours to best the other’s resume? Umm… no. That doesn’t seem very “communal.”

The extracurricular resume of students is a map of how they spend their “free” time beyond the strictly academic realm. Many times, I might argue most times, students complete obligatory community service hours for the sole purpose of their resume and its desired effect on college acceptance. How can admissions officers know which student has genuinely community-oriented values?

christian-community-service

It also appears that schools require community service because that will help their students gain favor with college admissions; they build it into the curriculum, if you will. Kids have no choice in the matter or they don’t graduate. I have heard the following, and other versions of the same from students: “I have to get my community service done or my parents will kill me.” Is that service or forced labor? This is only one of the issues Richard Weissbourd raises in the article; he raises several others worth considering.

recycle-green

It’s rather impressive that higher ed has such power to motivate kids to complete service, and work, and play sports, and join clubs, and do well in school (c’mon, you know that kid, those parents), so what about requiring applicants to go green– to serve our earth, to be 100% focused on full immersion in the wild, or to nurture the natural landscape and all it’s living creatures, or to provide evidence that they recycle and show that they moderate or eliminate their carbon footprint, and somehow show that they don’t support (via consumerism) unhealthy and corrupt business practices that harm the environment, including all its life forms?

It’s just a thought.