Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Recently a friend and colleague made an interesting comment when saying, “You can’t teach wisdom.” We were talking about the idea that parents and teachers who are concerned with the developmental evolution of young people, had a responsibility to seek the same kind of evolution and development for themselves. They needed to both work on the rough edges that they themselves might have as a result of their own past development, and also should embrace the idea of personal development by recognizing that it continues throughout life. But when I suggested that this be a required part of teacher training and ongoing professional development, that’s when the “You can’t teach wisdom” comment came up.

I don’t agree. I think there are at least three methods available for “teaching wisdom”, specifically in so far as it applies to personal development and understanding the development of others.

 

1. While lecturing and instructing about wisdom may not be effective, it is generally understood that life experience is the main way that life wisdom develops. Such experience can be random events, or can be directed by carefully considered events. When a young troubled person is sent to a demanding program like Outward Bound, which forces them to confront personal challenges in a controlled environment, it is the experience that does the teaching as that person grows new insights. This is why corporate training activities including everything from laser tag to teambuilding games are persued by companies. It is why the social climate and day to day process of interaction should be carefully considered in schools.

Authors such as Jon Young and Mark Morey have done a lot of work concerning Rites Of Passage and their importance as people progress through the stages of life. They have identified several through childhood and adolescence, but have also pointed to many others spanning lifelong development. Each important life stage, they say, should be accompanied by a rite of passage that symbolizes and celebrates the new skills and responsibilities achieved. We often think of the adolescent rites of passage, with some cultures having maintained them, like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, but often these are anchored in religious responsibilities rather than societal ones. For many adolescents, the only rite of passage that they experience is getting a driver’s license, getting drunk or losing their virginity, -of which only one comes anywhere near the defining requirements of symbolizing and celebrating new skills and responsibilities.

I am speaking about adolescent rites of passage because it is the one we are most familiar considering, but there are many achievements both earlier and later in life that equally demand such recognition.

 

2. Related to the engineering of experience is the role of the mentor. A mentor is a person who has already achieved some of the qualities of development which may still be lacking or weak in the person being mentored. A mentor not only engineers experiences which might assist a person in their development, but also can be a sounding board and feedback system in day to day life. It is generally accepted by psychologists and sociologists that people develop more effectively if they have good feedback that encourages them to reflect on their progress. In many arenas of life we call this a coach.

Mentors are used a little in the teaching profession, although my experience is that they are not used effectively or deliberately. They are sometimes introduced in situations where a teacher is experiencing difficulty. The idea that all teachers, even the best ones, might benefit from mentors (and may act as mentors) is dealt with very superficially. The idea that parenting might benefit from mentors is all but absent, except maybe for the sometimes good, sometimes bad advice that might come from grandparents. It’s basically a crap shoot.

Both teachers and parents would benefit from formal mentoring programs with established standards and goals.

 

3. Those standards and goals could come from a variety of sources, but there are a few that I’ve come across in my own development which I think are extremely valuable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a lot of brain and neurological research and discovery done in the past two decades. In addition, and in a way that compliments that work, there has also been a surge in the consideration of mindfulness and meditation, largely spearheaded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. His book, Wherever You Go there You Are is a foundational block in this work. Over the past few years I have been researching a lot of material on these two subjects, most notabley Eagleson’s Incognito and some of the work done by the Integral Life people. Also, I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of Hal and Sidra Stone on multiple self theory.

So it was a delight to find a psychological writer and theorist who combined all of these different facets into one main model. Dr. Dan Siegel has written a several books over the past decade on an approach that he labels “Mindsight”, including The Mindful Brain, Brainstorm and Mindsight. In this model Siegel combines recent advances in brain theory and neurology with theories about the mind and how we experience influences and impulses from different parts of our brain. To that he applies the practices of mindfulness and meditation, noting their relationship to the idea of neuroplasticity, which is the ability for conscious intention to have an impact on the neural connections in the brain. Reading this material was like a vindication of so many of the ideas that have guided my own teaching over the past decades. It seems to be a distant cousin of NLP theory, although Siegel never mentions it.

The application of this model and its well laid out techniques and practices, would be a formidable tool for self development and evolution. It is also a demonstrated method of encouraging empathy. I would easily argue that these kinds of personal advancements qualify as a way of “teaching wisdom”.

 

Ken Wilber’s Integral Life theories and techniques are also relevant here. Integral Theory, based on Spiral Dynamics, is a road map for personal evolution. Siegel’s work actually dovetails excellently with Integral Life Theory, although he doesn’t mention it at all in his writing. Integral Theory lays out stages of personal development in a hierarchical fashion (which some people find hard to accept) and describes ways in which to advance through those stages. Here, mindfulness and meditation are also important to the process, although Siegel does a better job (for me at least) in providing the specifics of the means for doing this. An advantage that Integral Theory has is that the larger model can be applied to almost anything imaginable. It is relevant to personal development and world economics, equally. In addition, another facet of Integral Theory is the 4 Quadrant view of epistemology and reality, which Siegel uses extensively, although never really describes it.

Here, then, are the maps and means of “teaching wisdom”. It is perhaps the most important thing to teach, and it is seldom given the priority that it deserves. School curricula pay lip service to it if they don’t outright ignore it. Parents are expected to absorb these kinds of parenting skills as if they were genetically implanted, which we all know they are not. For the most part, random experiences rule, when deliberate consciousness is what is needed.

I think any 21st Century initiatives in education have to seriously consider these issues and practices.

Lately I’ve been finding that much of my non-fiction reading kind of interlocks and contributes to the research on pedagogy and education that I’m exploring for what may, optimistically, turn into a book. That shouldn’t be surprising as when I read an article or listen to a podcast and a book is mentioned, it will either peak my interest or slide by.

I’m just finishing the first chapter of one such book and so far it is just blowing me away. Every once in a while you encounter a book where you say, “I wish I’d written this,” or perhaps “I could have written this.” Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel is one such book. It is about research in adolescent brain development and its implications. As I’m reading the first chapter, I’m constantly saying to myself, “I’ve been saying that for years.” There are passages and sentences that I have, in fact, spoken or written in the past, such as:

“For males especially, who seem to biologically need to court danger, in some fashion to “come of age” as young men, to test limits and face risk to prove they can come out alive, there must be some culturally sanctioned rites of passage we can reinvent that don’t involve a two-ton weapon barreling down the road with innocent victims in its wake.”

The first chapter, which, honestly, is as far as I’ve gotten so far, brings forth another idea that has dominated my life for decades. Adolescence is not something to be endured, but rather one of the most important developmental periods in our lives. While there are critical periods in early childhood for sensory, motor and conceptual development, adolescence is a critical period of its own. It is the period where we make important decisions about ourselves involving vitality of life, self improvement, creative exploration and social engagement. Such things are strongly affected by the adolescent years and are fairly crystallized and established by the time we’re twenty-five. Research shows that, usually, it alters very little again until after age fifty. Because of it’s volatility, the adolescent mind can thrive or crash and burn. But there are things that can be done to stack deck in a positive way.

“With awareness, the power of the adolescent mind can be utilized to benefit oneself and others. … The push against traditional ways of doing things and of thinking about reality can yield ways of thinking outside the box that enable new and creative ways of doing things to emerge.”

It is wonderful to find support for the ideas that have molded the youth programs and groups that I’ve fostered over the past four decades. It’s a great feeling to read a few paragraphs and then quietly pump my arm and say, “Yes!!”

I’m very much looking forward to the rest of this book and highly recommend it to those who have, work with, are or have been adolescents.    …Going back to my reading now.

 

I see from my blog stats for the past week or so that a lot of people were attracted to my book reviews and discussion of Hugo and Nebula Awards.

For those people, HERE is the list of the 2014 Hugo Nominees, courtesy of John Scalzi’s Whatever Blog, the earliest listing I came across.

I was really happy to see Parasite by Mira Grant on the list.  It is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  But I really have liked everything Mira Grant has written.

I’m hoping that Wheel of Time doesn’t take it as it is there mostly as a technicality.  If the newest book by Sanderson was nominated alone it would make more sense.  But nominating the whole series is like going to a county pie contest and finding a whole bakery competing.

Two events have coincided to produce this post.

The first was visiting the Philosophy section of a book store with a friend and noticing that there was a whole section devoted to “The Philosophy of …”, the usual things including stuff like Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, Ender’s Game …  You get the idea.  Oddly there was no “Philosophy of Hamlet or Wurthering Heights”, although Sinefeld and The Simpsons made it.  I find that there is often a philosophical connotation attached to Science Fiction and Fantasy/Horror.  This is probably because these genres challenge human nature in ways that bring forward philosophical ideas and speculations moreso than will Mystery or straight Fiction.  That’s not to sideline Hamlet or War & Peace, or even more current authors like Marquez or Rushdie, but I find that speculative fiction is often more conducive to a popular treatment of philosophy.

The second thing was starting to read Mentats of Dune, the new contribution to the epic Dune series.  The current releases are written by the original author’s son, Brian Herbert (along with Kevin Anderson), but the original work by Frank Herbert, simply titled Dune, is arguably one of the best Science Fiction books ever written.  I think it holds its own quite well among Fiction books in general.

And so I wondered whether there was a “Philosophy of Dune” book out there anywhere.  Turns out that there is, but glancing through the table of contents it just doesn’t seem to concern itself with the same topics that I’d be likely to emphasize.

Frank Herbert’s Dune (1966) undoubtedly was one of the most profound influences on me in my teenage years, and that influence has stuck.  As I’ve reread the novel in later years I was genuinely surprised to recognize the themes that were an integral part of my outlook, and how so many new ideas dovetailed nicely into the old ones.  To properly explain the full range of philosophical ideas present in Dune would easily take 40 or 50 pages.  Maybe one day I’ll do, but right now I just want to touch on them

Dune is very much about trying to define what it means to be human.  At the very beginning of the story the main character, Paul, is given a test to see whether he is a human or an animal.  The Bene Gesserit represent the definition, having mastered themselves through self discipline on all of the levels of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.  Other special groups within the book exemplify each level separately.   The Swordsmen have the perfect physical control and discipline of warriors.  The Mentats have the intellectual discipline and skill.  All struggle with a mastery over emotion, although the B.G. are most proficient at using it.  Awareness and transcendent forms of consciousness are important parts of the definition as well.

The Space Guild Navigators bring into the story the nature of cosmic reality and it’s relationship to consciousness.  Given the new discoveries and theories in Quantum Cosmology, these ideas were well ahead of their time.

Many questions of political philosophy are raised in Dune, such as the merits of an aristocratic vs a democratic government.  It also demonstrates clearly the different styles of leadership, which can find correspondence to different levels of social evolution as described in Spiral Dynamics.  The egocentric style of the Harkonnens (Red) is opposed to the more pluralistic or even “Integral” style of the Atreides.  A lot of the characterization around the Atriedes characteristics revolve around the nature of being honorable and what that means.

The spice in the novel is a metaphor for oil in our own world situation.  The scarcity of a critical substance translates into power.  Related to that are the many environmental lessons of Dune.  I’m sure that reading Dune fostered my own environmental leanings.  The importance of the environment, maintaining its balance, and the life lessons which can be learned from a close connection and love of the land are all central to the novel, personified in the form of the Freemen.

The Butlerian Jihad was one of the first treatments of the dangers of AI domination over humanity. Skynet and all of the other paranoid scenarios around AI didn’t arise for another two decades.

The idea of cellular memory in both the Mother Superiors of the B.G. and in the Tleilax gholas is particularly interesting giving some of the recent genetic research which is starting to demonstrate a strong relationship between environmental events and genetic transference.  This isn’t going to lead to memory of past genetic lives or anything like what the B.G. experience in the novel, but the idea is still a fascinating idea.

Getting back to and ending with the idea of the definition of human nature, Paul Ateides to me was a hero who combined fine breeding with excellent training, a challenging and fulfilling relationship with his environment, a family that valued the highest ideals of character, and a mystical experience that allowed him to transcend and integrate it all.  To me Philosophy is essentially examining the nature of reality and determining how to use that in order to best live our lives.  Dune was, to me, a powerful force in developing both of those things.

NOTE:  Both Dune movies don’t come anywhere close to offering the same thinks as the novel does.  Do not try to infer anything about the book from the films. 

It’s that time of year again when Hugo and Nebula Award nominees are published in preparation for the conventions that will decide the winners, to be held shortly.  The Hugo nominees are listed and the Nebula nominees should come out shortly, but there is lots of speculation on the list.  Traditionally that means that I start some informed reading, although I’m not really eligible or, for that matter, inclined to vote on them.  It’s just a good “recommended reading” list.

The Hugos and Nebulas have come to encompass Fantasy as much as Science Fiction novels in recent years, with the whole Game of Thrones / Lord of the Rings spotlights shifting attention to the Fantasy genre.  Personally, I’m not nearly as fond of Fantasy as I am of Science Fiction, so I’m a little disappointed to see this shift.  It can be seen in the bookstores as well (those that are left) in the amount of shelf space delegated to Sci Fi and to Fantasy.  Where once the latter held a distinct secondary ranking, it is now crowding out the Sci Fi. 

Two Sci Fi books that appear on several lists for this year’s best are Fire With Fire, by Charles Gannon and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, both of which happen to be initial offerings in a series. 

Fire With Fire almost lost me in the first third of the book.  It starts off strongly, introducing a mystery on  a newly settled planet, but then shifts over to a whole different plot line with a series of disjointed action scenes.  It actually never returns to the original mystery.  Fortunately I stuck with it as about 40% of the way through it the novel takes another sharp turns and gets down to the main business of the story.  It becomes quite fascinating , looking at interspecies diplomacy peppered with action and intrigue.  Long sections are kind of cerebral, but it’s interesting speculation and, for me at least, unique and worthwhile.  I particularly liked the main character whose ability to analyze and evaluate situations was kind of like a cross between a Mentat from Dune and Holmes from TV’s Elementary (without the heroin addiction). 

I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the next installment.  Largely because of it’s slow parts I would rate it a B+ rather than an A.

Ancillary Justice is a far future, Star Wars like, space opera, combining some interesting ideas about AI with interstellar political intrigue.  There are lots of fast paced action sequences, although I found the flashback format a little tedious at times, and the characters are not highly compelling.  There’s a kind of impartial and unemotional quality to the characters, which is probably quite appropriate to the story and scenario, but still makes things seem a little flat.  In spite of that, it has lots of excellent points and I would also give it a B+, …although I think I’d rate it a rung or two higher than Fire With Fire

Looking forward to Neptune’s Brood by Charlie Stross next on the list, …but not till I’m done with the newest release in the Dune series. 

I don’t usually read Horror, but this one attracted me. As a youth group leader teaching survival skills, the idea of a Scout Troop stranded on an island, confronted with an epidemic of ravenous worms, was somewhat appealing.

To say that the book is intense is a bit of an understatement. Once it gets rolling, which is pretty quickly, it often makes Walking Dead look like a romp in the park, although it doesn’t depart from the credible. The idea of a biological weapon gone bad is convincing. The writing is vivid and wincingly detailed. The characters are masterfully done, with very candid glimpses inside their minds to see how these young characters interpret their fear. You get to know them very well, which, of course is critical to good horror writing. You have to feel the pain. The author has captured the essence of the young teenage mind and the characters’ confusion over how the “adults” could just leave them to suffer and fend for themselves. One main character realizes that adults thinking that they have it figured out and under control is just a sham. He sees that adults are not that different from kids, and is not impressed with the ways in which they are different.

Nick Cutter is a pen name for successful author Craig Davidson of Toronto. When I picked up the book I didn’t realize it was a local author.

I really enjoyed the novel, finding it extreme and severe. It is a harsh book, full of grotesque and monstrous imagery, and lots of twists and turns. I suppose that is the sign of good Horror. But it also has class and sophistication, with real depth and insight into human nature. Using it in a High School literature class would be unlikely, but it would be an excellent choice. There’s lots of meat. In several ways.

I would give The Troop an A-.

To be clear from the outset, this post is intended to be critical and to provide a discriminating perspective from which to read Wilber and Integral Life material.  It is very much oriented towards the student of Integral Theory.

I discovered Ken Wilber about 12 years ago and slowly became intrigued and excited by his ideas.  I say slowly because many of his ideas and much of his writing is pretty dense and involved.  Until you ease into it, the ideas are slippery and easily misinterpreted.  But over that period of time Wilber’s ideas, largely developed from Spiral Dyanimics, have clarified a lot of things for me and have provided an interesting and productive way of interpreting events in the world.  I don’t want to go into the specifics of the theory here as that would be time consuming and redundant (a it appears elsewhere in the blog and is easily found in summary articles on the Internet.)

Two of the things that came out of Integral Theory is the Integral Life website and Integral Life Practice, “A 21st Century blueprint for physical health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity and Spiritual Awakening.” Through these media, Wilber and the Integral Team are trying to take the abstract theory and turn it into a practical method of self development.  It’s admirable and prevents the theory from being purely idealistic philosophy.  I found the Life Practice and many of the articles very practical and helpful.  Even Strength for Life, by Shawn Phillips, and Integral approach to fitness and weight lifting is a useful and practical book.  I don’t have a problem with the site, book and all the related appendages from trying to be commercially successful, however I have two criticisms.

The first is that when the commercial message supersedes the philosophical message, (as is often the case with Tony Robbins for example, who oddly is featured on the Integral Life Site) then you are on thin ice.  When I log into my account at Integral Life, for which I pay an annual fee, I expect to have access to resources about Integral Theory.  Instead, in more recent times, an alarm bell goes off in my head when I see what is increasingly displayed.  More and more the Integral Life site is becoming an infomercial about all of the other products that you can buy for an additional fee. (To be fair, there is still a significant amount of resource material accessible, -enough to make me not cancel my subscription.)   Not only that, but many of these other products seem to be loosely vetted, with everything from Integral Christianity to Integral Buddhism to Integral Art to biographical material about Ken Wilber.  It has become a New Age cornucopia to the point that I’m reluctant to recommend the site to friends that I want to introduce to Integral Theory.

Take for example the newest web enterprise, “Your Superhuman Potential”.  While I don’t necessarily object to most of the specific points that are made, the overall presentation is tacky and elitist.  Just the use of the term “superhuman” presents the whole thing in an unsavory light, promising to make you better than the average person.  It asks you to sign up for a free conference video from Wilber, who will undoubtedly use the opportunity to reiterate Integral Theory, as he does in every speaking engagement, and then will offer a program which reportedly is going to cost close to $1 000.  And there is no guarantee that this course is not just a repackaging of old interviews and videos, as was the case with the old Integral Operating System course.

Everyone needs to be able to turn their ideas into financially successful offerings.  People have to make a living.  I don’t mind paying for courses like these if I am sure that I will receive the promised value.  But my experience over the past few years is that a lot of the time the people promising to deliver that value fall short.  I think it is the Tony Robbins method of doing business.  Have a free or inexpensive introductory lecture which amounts to little more than an infomercial, hook your customers and tie them into a commercial model that insures financial success, all done with a slickness that is reminiscent of David Icke.  (Susan Cain in her recent book, Quiet, does an excellent analysis of this.)  From an Integral Theory point of view it is a very Orange, perhaps even mean Orange, way of doing it.

The second criticism is that most of the new material on the Integral Life website is related to spirituality.  Now, again, I understand that Integral Theory has a very important contribution to make on religious and spiritual questions.  I even understand that the overall concept of evolutionary development probably requires a spiritual component.  However, in recent years Wilber seems to have put all of his energy into this field, and that is reflected in the website.  When I want to introduce a friend to Integral Theory, it is most often the psychological, pedagogical, political and economic parts of it that I want to share.  These are more down to Earth and accessible.  The spiritual stuff, though, is what often comes up in Google searches and which is often emphasized on the website.  Not only is it much more inaccessible, but it also is less clearly defined and in a state of deliberation.

Integral Spirituality, and the brand of Buddhism which is often pushed by Wilber, has many interesting and exciting features.  I love the work done by Michael Dowd bridging religion into Modern and Post-Modern models.  I love the work on Big Mind and Zen Buddhism.  However, I can’t help but wonder if a current preoccupation with Integral Spirituality may be at the cost of development in the more down to Earth Integral areas, and whether the emphasis may actually be scaring away people wary of New Age fluff.

The bottom line, I think, is to not accept Integral Theory and Ken Wilber as a doctrine or scripture, but to realize that it is a model that is undergoing changes, and is, unfortunately, turning into an enterprise which may need to shed light on itself.  Is Integral Life and it’s associate ventures at a Red, Amber, Orange, Green or Second Tier stage?  Ideally it should be at all of them.  And that perhaps is what is happening with the Tony Robbins marketing model.  But something seems askew and I’ve had to shake my head occasionally when dealing with Integral Theory.  I think it may need to shake its own head a little, too.