Monday, 24 March 2014

Zorro and the circle of focus...

Something I've been explaining to pupils recently: when we focus, we get more done, we got it done more effectively, and that means we have more time to do other things and enjoy life.

In the film, The Mask of Zorro with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, a young, wayward man, Alejandro Mullieta, full of revenge for his brother's death is taken to train by Don Diego de la Vega (the original Zorro). His training involves bowing to discipline and, most interestingly, to learn to fight within a circle. Nothing outside the circle exists, "unless I say it does," says Don Diego.

The circle is an excellent metaphor for focus. Everything outside the focal point becomes irrelevant and should be disregarded.

When we do not focus, we are tempted into doing many things at once - and we do them all poorly. (There is no such thing as effective multi-tasking - unless, one of the tasks is menial and does not require attention - e.g., ironing or cleaning: then we could be listening to an audio book!)

When we try to read book with the tv on, when we try to do our budget while having a conversation, while we try to play with our children while our attention is diverted by inner thoughts ... we half list, half read, half study, half pay attention. Or worse.

Instead, in everything we do, we need to be as focused as the young Alejandro must be. At first it is frustrating, the constraints make us angry - especially if we are creative and love having a go at everything (as I must admit I do!). But the circle conditions us to remain on task, to put our energies into what we're doing.

Slowly but surely, our abilities in that area increase; our expertise is enhanced and we are able to get the work done quicker, leaving us free to do more things.

Watch the clip here.

Currently, I am learning to trade forex and stock markets. I've thrown myself into the circle to calm down: for the past three months, I've been like a kid in a toy shop - there's so many markets to trade, so many movements and strategies...what to play with, what to play with?!

Trading gets rid of many demons in the head: so many emotions emerge when putting money down on the market and the direction it consequently takes - joy and despair mixed with frustration and exhilaration. But much of my trading has been like the young Alejandro - taking on too much without  any focus. In the clip, Don Diego asks him what the sword is for - Alejandro replies, "for sticking it in the other men." "Oh dear, this will take time," replies the old Zorro. Similarly, with trading - what's the button for? For taking a trade. Oh dear, this will take time, I can hear my mentors...

And this is very much like life and any learning we do.

When we concentrate on that which needs our priority, our foremost attention - we do better.

And often, we enjoy it ... because our brains are wired to learn. We are a curious species - and when we focus that curiosity, we can change the world!

(Or at least our understanding of it!)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Time to celebrate rather than moan - a confession!

I had revelation today. It's been a long time coming but from now on, my articles will seek out the positive and accentuate the great, the wonderful, the beautiful.

Criticising is an easy sport, and I am, as a philosopher and educator, highly concerned about some trends we're in - ranging from diet to curriculum to the mass media and environmental issues; but we can all gripe, and I gripe enough about gripers...but it's time to change.

I'm a very positive chap: I look for the positive in most things, except perhaps when I write, when I get the demons that plague my mind and our culture out on paper and try to constrain them, like a Chinese painter in a fairy tale, who manages to chain the magic dragons that come alive on his murals by painting chains on them!

There is much to moan about - people, idiocy, governments, taxes, pollution, pharmaceutical products, tv, violent computer gaming - but there's so much more to celebrate than to damn. Our history books are replete with wars - but not the joys and successes of every day people.

So here's my promise - from now on, I shall only look for the positive for the Educational Thoughts and for my other columns.

Let me know if I fail and I shall go and hug my boys and get that positive outlook again. Talking of which, they're playing outside and I'm going to join them!


Friday, 14 March 2014

Discipline - pain or pleasure?


Discipline conjures up images of strict headmasters whipping boys with canes, of repressing natural instincts through institutionalised learning and creating schooled zombies, of standing in line and doing as one's told. It implies pain.

From Pink Floyd's The Wall

Yet discipline - and the word disciple - comes from the Latin word discere to learn. A disciple is one who follows a teacher or a set of principles, and it is instructive to note that when we think of discipline we think of a set of principles involving the application of force, of forcing people into modes of behaviour deemed appropriate by others: hence a disciplinarian is not on first thought a teacher or moral role model such as Jesus Christ or the Buddha but a person who inflicts violence upon others or on him or her self.

Like many things in our world, we need to challenge the orthodox. We humans are prone to creating bizarre notions of ourselves and other peoples and the nature of things, and this is just another part of the mayhem we create in our thinking and presumptions. 

The popular view is that discipline involves pain - usually inflicted on the self or on others. Pain is integral to such a philosophy - even if it is couched in the 'no pain, no gain' thinking. But when we tell people that they should feel the pain to get better, how many run forward and gleefully cry, "Count me in!"? And how many then keep up the pain over time? 

Huffington Post

Those that do pursue painful activities may have a deeper guiding philosophy than that of the mere pain/pleasure nexus so favoured by the utilitarian philosophy that western thinking has fallen prey to. They are guided by either a longer perspective of the success to be gained from current pain, or from a deeper, more interesting set of values. Or they are just masochists who believe that to a be self in this world must involve pain and that the absence of pain is somehow wrong or makes them feel guilty.

On the other hand, they may rewire the word pain into something more positive. 

To be disciplined does not have to mean getting the hair shirts out! 

What discipline means depends on the guiding philosophy - on our perception of the world and the associations that we make. 

Pain is a word. 

It is a concept that we create to describe a feeling. 

If the word did not exist, would we feel pain? 

At this point, you may reply that we are dealing in semantics and of course we would feel pain even if we did not have the word?

Would we? Imagine cutting your finger and then describing it as follows: the skin is cut and a nerve is reacting to tell the brain that it should remove the finger from the sharp object and that a chain of reactions will now start to repair the cut; in the meantime, you may find the emergency noise created by the nervous system distracting as the electrons and chemicals ring the first aid bells, but like any extraneous noise, you can ignore it. 

We know people can can ignore pain. We know the brain's cognition of pain can be overridden by a release of adrenaline. We know that people can mentally control their body to not feel pain. 

The issue is deeper. All the words we use are frames through which we view the world - our world is a product of our language. Close your eyes and think of the colour blue for thirty seconds, open them and you'll focus on the blue things around you. What we think of, we look for.

Yes, the world is, but what it is and how we perceive it and talk about it is through the medium of language. When I am training (strength training with Guy Baker in Nottingham), I could vocally express the pain that I feel when pushing a weight. My muscles are on fire - I see what I term the 'white fire' that accompanies a strenuous effort, but I don't use the word pain. Pain is something I want to avoid, so I would not push as much if I thought of it as painful

What the philosophy (and psychology) of language tells us is that there are many windows through which we view the world. If we look through the pain window we see, guess what...pain. We expect pain, we look for pain, we focus on pain. For the orthodox disciplinarian, this is what life is about - the simple philosophy of no pain, no gain. 

But if we look through the self-improvement window, we see a more developed self, a stronger self, a more physically and mentally fit self. When looking through this frame, we do not associate improvement with pain - we associate it with development, growth, profit, health, strength, love, and generosity. Development is a positive process and the self improvement window is a wonderful, positive frame through which to view the world. It implies that the world is orderly, that we are rightfully here to enjoy it and to get the best out of it for ourselves, and that what we learn and how we improve gives us a greater confidence to act within the world and with other people properly, honourable and with dignity and coherent values. 

Pain is a negative word and if we think in negatives, we attract negatives - we see them all around ourselves and we focus on them. 

Looking through the pain window we effectively stress ourselves: we expect pain - and when we expect a painful experience, we pump out the adrenaline and our higher mental functions diminish or freeze, we go into flight/fight mode. And stress is the cause of all illness. (Think about it - a toxin stresses the body, a pathogen stresses the body, psychological or environmental factors can stress the body). 

We can instead alter our view by using different words, by associating tasks and events differently. When we change our vocabulary, we change our view of the world. 

This is profound and easily verified: people who focus on the negative tend to be sicker and poorer (in a range of things) than people who  are positive. People who say, "I can't draw or spell" certainly can't. but they are basically saying, "I'm not going to even try." Why? Because, for whatever reason, they find drawing or spelling (or any other endeavour we care to name) difficult and usually associate the difficulty with pain. 

Yet when we associate a task with positive feelings such as achievement and improvement, we are more likely to do them and enjoy the progress that results.


But many people think that their perception of a task is fixed, that their emotions are a given that cannot be altered, which means that improvement in impossible. Their response cannot be challenged - it is hard, it is difficult, it is painful.

I hear it a lot in my practice from young children (who switched them off!!?) as well as adults. 

One of my adult clients (aged 49) intimated that she was no good at languages because she hated them at school. Yet she travels to France a lot and has avoided learning basic phrases because, as I pointed out, her teenage self associated language learning with distaste/difficulty...pain. A coin dropped and we made it a goal to learn some French for fun

And so we return to the notion of discipline. If we now associate discipline with positive attributes - of self-improvement, of timetabling quality time with family and friends, of learning a new skill, or strengthening the body and moving to a healthier state, then we can grow. And improvement requires discipline.

Instead of the usual associations of pain and handwork, discipline can be seen as a means to improve the self: a commitment to love the process of learning and growing!

To become disciplined means setting up a routine and following a list of priorities; but those priorities must mean something to you. They cannot be imposed, except from contractual reasons (work and family commitments) – they must come from your deepest needs and desires of self-fulfilment.

The routine and discipline of being true to yourself becomes quickly enjoyable because you’ve walked through the self-improvement door rather than the door to chores and pain.