Tag Archives: Life Long Learning

Reading Jabberwocky to the Blind

“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”  The Dalai Lama.

What I’ve been wanting lately is to teach more yoga classes.   For a variety of reasons, this isn’t happening, but having some extra time on my hands has given me the space to think about other passions, e.g. the reading of poetry out loud.  I have been reading poems at the conclusion of my classes since I began teaching yoga in 1998, and I know some of the poems I’ve chosen, e.g. Mary Oliver’s The Journey, resonate with students so much, I get requests for copies.  I write poetry, too, almost as much today as I did when I took Larry Raab’s poetry workshop at the Breadloaf School of English in Vermont.   Writing poetry is a private affair.  Reading poetry — mine or others — out loud is an act of communion.

Last week, a new door opened and I walked through it with no idea where it may lead.   A friend and fellow yogi who teaches a pro bono class to blind students was casting around for something new to offer them.  I found myself agreeing to read poetry to them the following week on a see-how-it-goes basis.

The class ranges in age from mid-twenties to 60-something, two men, five women.  Two are suffering from macular degeneration and are partially sighted.  All of them seemed eager to experience something and someone new.   After the introductions — I walked around where they were seated and clasped their hands as we exchanged names — I asked them about first poems.  The older among them all recalled having to memorize and recite in class.  They thought it made children dread poetry.  The younger immediately spoke about having Dr. Seuss read to them as children.  A happier memory.

They were eager for me to begin reading so I started off with some light verse from Dr. Seuss:  Do you like green eggs and ham?  I started.  I do not like them, Sam-I-am,  they chorused back.  Wow!  Next, Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy Cat, followed by Jabberwocky (smiles).  Some e e cummings, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken (a sigh or two).  Billy Collins’ Dharma — ‘Oh, yes!’  ‘My dog is named that.’  We talked a little about how poems make us feel. ‘Funny inside.’  ‘Emotional.’  ‘Light.’  Next, Walt Whitman’s I Hear America Singing, then A Pot of Red Lentils by Peter Pereira (Please read that again! )  Â Finally, Pablo Neruda’s Ode to My Socks.  ‘Mmm-hmm!’  Applause.

Our class was almost over.  I asked: How would you like to write a poem next time?   (Next time?)  Richard already writes poetry, a woman sitting next to him said.  A brief pause, for Richard to collect himself.  Then, he launched into a recitation of two originals, topped with a third, composed in the moment.   Not just good.  ‘Twas brillig.

The Poetry Foundation

The Writers Almanac Comes to your inbox daily.  Garrison Keillor’s reading of the featured poem is a great way to start the day.

The Poem Hunter

The Changing Brain: A Review of Two Books about Neuroplasticity

by Susan Cooper, Windbridge Member and Community Advisor

All sorts of fantastic, remarkable, and hopeful brain adaptabilities were being explored by some inquisitive folks more than 400 years ago!  We can thank Descartes once again for slowing the scientific acceptance of reality.  It turns out that only recently have we returned to this subject and we now know that our “immaterial” thoughts do indeed have an impact on brain structure just as mind/body relationships impact so much of our lives.

Two books are competing for my “favorite” read about neuroplasticity at the moment:

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD (http://tinyurl.com/y9l6rrn)

Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (with a forward by the Dalai Lama and a preface by Daniel Goleman) (http://tinyurl.com/y88esqt)

The Doidge book is/was a New York Times Bestseller and Doidge was featured on PBS’s The Brain Fitness Program.  He is a psychiatrist and researcher on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  Begley is a science writer for Newsweek magazine, and her book reports on how cutting-edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to reveal that we have the power to physically change our brains by changing our minds and behaviors.

The old Cartesian distinction between the mind and the brain (matter)—and the resulting idea in mainstream medicine and science that brain anatomy was fixed—is falling apart as the “power of positive thinking” gains scientific credibility.  Because the belief was that the brain could not change, Doidge claims that “human nature, which emerges from it, seemed necessarily fixed and unalterable as well.”  Now, however, a new array of possibilities for human adaptability is emerging.

Doidge reports the scientific discoveries in fascinating story after story of scientists, doctors, and patients who, without operations or medications, have made use of the brain’s ability to change.  Over the years, he has met many brain scientists working at the cutting edge who have shown that the physical structure of the brain changes with the activities and thoughts it performs… if one part fails, then other parts take over.  One scientist enabled a person blind from birth to see; another showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off; and another was helping people who had had strokes years before and had been told they would never recover to change that diagnosis.  And get this: If you exercise to increase muscular strength 5 days a week for 4 weeks (doing fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each) you will increase strength by 30%, but if you only imagine doing this—for the same periods—you will increase strength by 22%!  Imagination is funny, indeed!

Begley’s book reads like a detective novel.  It is the tenth book in a continuing series reporting on the dialogues arranged by the Mind and Life Institute (see http://www.mindandlife.org/).  Here, she reports on collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, the Dalai Lama, and contemplatives (monks who have meditated for up to 55,000 hours in their life-times!!).  It speaks loudly and clearly to potential:  We have inner powers and we are in control of them!

The Dalai Lama, in his forward to this book, says, “I am grateful… to Sharon Begley for her artful work presenting this material accurately and attractively.  I am optimistic that the exciting discoveries related here have great potential to contribute positively to the betterment of humanity and the way we may develop our future.”  I, too, especially as I age, am grateful to Sharon Begley for this book about a hopeful new science that will allow me to stay young—at least mentally.

It was in 1986 that the first Mind and Life Conference took place in Dharamsala and was attended by people who encouraged initial dialogues between Buddhism and modern science.  It would appear that although these fields arose out of different historical, cultural, and intellectual backgrounds, they have an amazing amount in common.  Based on the teachings of the meditation adepts, the Dalai Lama wanted to know, from the scientists, if the mind could really change the brain.  Buddhism tells us that that any ‘fixed constraints’ can be overcome—through the right training.  The Dalai Lama was ready to “change Buddhism” if the scientists could disprove these beliefs.

William James, in 1890, said “organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”  But his opinion didn’t count—he was not a neurologist.  In 1913, Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel Prize winning Spanish neuroanatomist, made it clear to his audience that “in the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.” And this was the statement that scientists chose to believe for the next 90 years: the adult brain is hardwired, fixed in form and function, we are stuck with the hand we were dealt….no new neurons and no new functions…period.  As late as 1999, the journal Science reported that the current teaching was that neurons could not be replaced and neuronal networks (after injury, with aging, or in disease) could not be reestablished.  That is, the basic layout of the brain (as diagramed in anatomy textbooks) could not be changed.

But, now, we know otherwise.  Rehabilitation for adults who suffer brain damage from a stroke works!  Psychiatric diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression can be cured.  And, although the adult brain is not as plastic as a child’s, it is much more adaptable than was ever thought.  In the last few years of the 20th century, discovery after discovery proved that brains have stunning powers of neuroplasticity.  They can be rewired simply through the actions we take, our thoughts and behaviors, and in the experiences we have in the outside world.  The size of different regions and the strength of connections can all change based on the actions we have take, the lives we lead, and the thoughts we think.

Ancient Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s own mind.  Its teachings define a person as a constantly changing dynamic stream and this follows closely what has now been learned about neuroplasticity.  The idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind.  We may be products of the past, but we always have had the opportunity to reshape ourselves.  And at long last, the scientists agree.

Read these books—both of them.  They will convince you that you possess the ability to do what you choose to do; it may take time and some effort, but you CAN do it!  We can train ourselves to be kinder, to pay more attention, to exhibit more compassion, and to be less defensive, self-centered, aggressive, and warring.  Now wouldn’t that be something!?!

Rewiring the Brain Through Creativity

Neuroplasticity.  Until the late Dr. Gene D. Cohen mentioned it in his keynote speech at the First Positive Aging Conference at Eckerd College, I had never heard of the term.  It describes the brain’s ability to regenerate and rewire itself throughout the lifespan — a pretty radical idea not too long ago.  You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this as more people come into their 60s and take stock of the years still left to them.  Recommended reading: Dr. Cohen’s ground-breaking book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. The cover photographs of older people, kayaking, swimming, dancing, and making art hint at creativity as “the secret to living with one’s entire being.”

Most of us already know how important it is to be physically active throughout life.  But the connection between a lower BMI (body mass index) and brain function is less well understood.  Here’s a  link to the Franklin Institute’s excellent research on this subject.  Gene Cohen was perhaps the first, however, to suggest that creativity also had an important role to play in staying mentally fit as we age.

As challenging as it can be to change sedentary habits, awakening our innate creativity through some form of artistic expression requires even more will power.  As JFK once commented in another context, we have become ‘a nation of spectators’ as opposed to the poets, writers, painters, potters, photographers, dancers, singers, or musicians we might yet become.   Dr. Cohen called this late blooming the Encore Phase of life, a “phenomenon [that] taps the inner pressure that many feel to do or say something before it’s too late.  Not to overlook the obvious, the phrase applies strongly to the field of music, reminding us of how many noted musical achievements have come late or at the end of a musician’s or composer’s career or life cycle — like the late works of Verdi, Liszt, and Stravinsky.”

One way to get started is to take inspiration of your favorite elder artist.  Matisse?  Martha Graham?  Tony Bennet?   One in my personal hall of fame is poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz.   Some years ago, I had the privilege of hearing him give a reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.  He was in his late nineties then (he died in 2006 at age 100), and looked physically frail.  But when he read the lyrical, Touch Me, his voice was strong and one felt a sense of an artist come into his finest hour.  I have written very little poetry since I left graduate school, but I’ve found my way back to it.  Perhaps for T.S. Eliot, April was ‘the cruelest month.’  But for me it’s National Poetry Month.  I’m juicing up those neurons, one verse at a time.

More on neuroplasticity

The Decade of the Brain

The Deadly Comfort Zone

Singer and songwriter, Paul Simon has a line in his wonderful poem set to music, American Tune, that has always resonated with me. “For we’ve lived so well, so long…” it goes, and later in another verse, he cautions, “…you can’t be forever blessed.”  We have been blessed here,  in the safe, secure, wealthy nations of the developed world.  And as we grow older, it seems that we have also been lulled to sleep, cradled in our comfort zones, dead to the world.

What happened to our thirst to learn and discover new things we had as children?   Think about your grandchildren in their first year, taking those tentative steps, wanting to touch, taste, smell everything.  We were all like that once.  Then, gradually, without our noticing, we started craving something else — safety, security, the known world — even to the point of shrinking our aspirations to fit into what was comfortable, predictable, easy.  In the process, we have sacrificed resilience and resourcefulness, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances upon which our survival as a species depended.  We gave up, and opted for ‘assisted living’ long before our time (if there is ever a time).

Even if you recognize some part of yourself here, the situation is reversible.  True, the bell tolls for us all.  But in the meantime, what is there to stop us from making the most of the ‘life we are given‘ to borrow from a title of a wonderful book by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, pioneers of the human potential movement and founders of Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

Published in 1995, this workbook for Leonard and Murphy’s Intergral Transformative Practice, remains a prototype, indeed a classic, of the self-help genre.  It weaves together proven practices: exercise, diet, daily affirmations, and community, into a program that is both rigorous and enjoyable.  (ITP groups continue to form today).  Here’s a quote from novelist, James Agee, that sets the book’s tone: “I believe that every human being is potentially capable, within his ‘limits,’ of fully ‘realizing’ his potentialities; that … his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can accuse itself.”

Is waking up hard to do?  Perhaps.  But clinging to the deadly comfort zone is a far worse choice.  Conclude Leonard and Murphy: “We believe that by the very nature of things, each of us carries a spark of divinity in every cell and that we have the potential to manifest powers of body, mind, heart, and soul beyond our present ability to imagine. We believe that a society could find no better primary intention, no more appropriate compass course for its programs and policies, than the realization of every citizen’s positive potential.”  Amen.  And go for it!

More information:

Excerpt from The Life We Are Given
Integral Transformative Practice Workshops
Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California

World Cafe – a conversational process for breakthrough thinking.

Institute of Noetic Sciences

Go Online, Get Happy and Healthy!

A report just released by the PHOENIX CENTER POLICY PAPER SERIES indicates that Internet usage can significantly reduce depression among older adults.  Of course, since I’m writing this and you’re reading it, we are in the minority of older adults who are already online (42% of people over 65).  Chances are you, like me, regularly use the Internet to manage your money and health, keep up with the news, shop and share stuff.   You may also have joined one of the many social networks and now have a host of online friends.  You stay in touch with distant family and friends, sending photos and your favorite You Tube videos.  For me, all of this now seems as natural as breathing and I have to remind myself how relatively new the marvelous Internet is.  But I didn’t know that I was also keeping myself — and the economy — healthy by doing all these things until I came across this report.

Here are some interesting facts about depression and the older population:

  • latelife depression affects about six million Americans age 65 and older
  • depression is estimated to cost the United States about $100 billion
  • included in this figure is direct medical cost (31%) and latelife suicide (7%)

Here’s an excerpt of the the abstract:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directs over $7 billion to expand broadband Internet availability and adoption in the United States. One target of such funding is the elderly population, a group of Americans for which broadband adoption is relatively low. An interesting question is what benefits do such efforts
afford? We employ a dataset of over 7,000 elderly retired persons to evaluate the role of Internet use on mental well-being…using the eight-point depression scale developed by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies (CES-D)…All procedures indicate a positive contribution of Internet use to mental well-being of elderly Americans, and estimates indicate that Internet use leads to about a 20% reduction in depression classification.

On the chance that Pseudo-R2 Analysis of Matching Algorithms are your thing, the full report is available in a pdf file,  see link in opening line.

In the meantime, do your patriotic duty.  Surf on!  And invite the Internet holdouts among your buddies to jump in.  The water’s fine.

Eat Before You See Julie and Julia

The last time a movie made me so hungry was when four of us went to see Eat Drink Man Woman in New York City and arrived so late, we had to take seats in the first row.  Fortunately, this was on the Upper West where relief for a rumbling stomach was available on about every corner.  Julie and Julia is about food and people who love it and the people who love them, and if you don’t salivate when Julie produces bruchetta (which I didn’t realize was in Mastering the Art of French Cooking), check your pulse.  And then there’s the scene with the Sole Meuniere.

I took away two things from this wonderful film.  First, I remembered in embarrassing detail how inept I was in the kitchen as a new bride of 23, literally could not figure out which side of a chicken went up in the roasting pan, or how long one could keep leftover stuffed pepper (don’t even ask).  It didn’t help that my then mother-in-law was a graduate of an illustrious French cooking school.  But then, Salvation!  Julia Child and the PBS show, The French Chef.  It saved my life, if not my marriage.  I lived to cook again.

Specialty chef was on my short list of possible Encore careers as I wound down my 11-year freelance writing business at age 56.  It never occurred to me that I should slow down or quit work.  I wanted to make the world a better place through healthy food.  The was pre-Vocation Vacations, so I took myself into Annemarie Colbin‘s The Natural Gourmet in New York for a three-day course to see if I could cut it, and I do mean that literally.  The scene in which Julia masters knife skills on several pounds of onions comes to mind.  At the end of the course, I acquired two recipes at The Natural Gourmet that I make to this day: a wonderful pea soup (flavored with curry and brunoise — very small dice of carrots, onions and celery) and a no-butter, no-sugar ‘healthy’ cookie with an almond and whole wheat flour dough.  I know, it sounds disgusting.  But sadly, I couldn’t master knife skills well enough to be happy as a professional chef, although I’ve improved with practice.  Fortunately, I also loved yoga and movement … but that’s another story for another post, because…

Second, the film is also about blogging and how satisfying it can be, even if you don’t have a dynamite idea like the Julie/Julia Project and no aspirations to become a star blogger.  I’ve been more slacker than blogger here, but I’m changing my ways.  After all, where else can you write about whatever is on your mind?   (Yeah, OK, there’s Facebook.)  It’s a weblog.  Not Tolstoy.