Lifelong Learning and a Beginner’s Mind

Lifelong learning is the practice of continuing to learn throughout one’s entire life, especially outside of or after the completion of formal schooling. It is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.

Image by Gyae Min

Lifelong learning can be informal or happen in more formal settings and courses. There is a wide range of experiences that fall under this large umbrella. Internships and apprenticeships and taking actual courses in a school setting but not pursuing credits or a degree qualify as lifelong learning. Teaching yourself a new language or how to play an instrument also qualifies. Sometimes the formal and informal mix. You start playing tennis with a friend and then take some lessons to improve your game. Maybe you’re learning a computer language to advance your career. Maybe you’re learning French so you’ll be better prepared to travel to France.

I have written a lot about online learning on other sites. Back in 2012 – which was called “the year of the MOOC” – I was very involved in this new form of online learning. These Massive Open Online Courses were seen as a way for learners to take courses free of cost online along with thousands of other learners. The courses were being offered by the top universities worldwide. This idea of “open education” was not completely new but was still considered a radical shift.

I taught (or perhaps facilitated) an early MOOC about MOOCs in education. I took dozens of courses for free. I gave talks about them. My wife and I wrote a chapter for a book about them.

The hype and buzz of MOOCs have cooled down but they still exist. Some evolved with a business model, so the “open” part is gone. I taught graduate students at a university where we offered certificate programs that packaged several courses together for people looking to add to their skillset while employed or to upgrade skills in order to move up or move on to other careers. during employment. This is quite formalized lifelong learning.

I have also done much more informal lifelong learning both as a student and teacher. I have facilitated classes in writing, art, and technology topics for libraries, galleries, and adult learning schools.

I am currently working with a local lifelong learning organization in New Jersey. They offer opportunities for in-depth, high-level learning and socialization for 55+ adults. These classes are free of charge, but registration is required.

During the pandemic, almost all the courses offered went virtual and for two years I was teaching online. We are just emerging from that and offering in-person classes again.

Image by truthseeker08

All of this had me thinking of the concept of a “beginner’s mind.” Originating from Japanese Zen Buddhism, the term (also known as shoshin) refers to a paradox: the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.

To have a beginner’s mind it means dropping expectations and preconceived ideas about something. It means seeing things with fresh eyes and an open mind, like a beginner. When you learn something new, you can be confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning. But a beginner’s look is also curious and can be filled with wonder.

Lifelong learners are best approaching new learning with a beginner’s mind which means an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. That is true even when you are an adult and studying a subject at an advanced level.

This is not an easy thing to do. Preconceptions and closed-mindedness is probably as much or more likely the older or more experienced a learner has become.

I first learned about beginner’s mind (not surprisingly) in a class on Buddhism. The book I was assigned to read was the classic Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind,

There are lots of places online for lifelong learning. MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, Canvas, FutureLearn, Udacity, P2PU, and The Open University, as well as other sites like Skillshare and Duolingo offer thousands of classes and most are available for free. I don’t know about you but my wife and I have learned how to do any number of things from YouTube how-to videos. Yes, all that is lifelong learning.

Do Nothing

I saw the perfect book for the weekend on a shelf at my local bookstore. It is titled How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. You would think that there would be no need for a book on how to do nothing. Just do it. Or I suppose just don’t do it.

The book’s subtitle (seemingly required of all non-fiction titles these days) is “Resisting the Attention Economy” which gives you an idea of what her idea of doing nothing involves.

Odell is an artist who teaches at Stanford University, but she is writing about the pull of digital technologies – notifications, targeted ads, social media, and all that. You might be able to guess some of her plan to do nothing – unplugging and retreating from tech. She advises slowing down and cultivating attention to the physical world.

You know that a full retreat from the digital realm is unrealistic, and she knows that too. Balance. If you use digital means to stay in touch with friends and relatives that’s okay, but balance that with real-world interactions. She gives her own best practices to resist digital influences on our lives.

Balance and attention. Clearly good and increasingly difficult-to-follow advice. Attention is a precious resource that is being stretched and it does have limits.

There are many methods to improve attention. I saw an article suggesting some ways to improve your attention span, which is something that seems to be getting shorter all the time as a result of too many things that draw our attention.

Have you heard of “whole body listening?” It is a technique that is even being taught to young students.

How about focusing in a conversation and listening without interrupting? I need to work on that.

You can try spending time just listening to something. It can be birds outside, water in a creek, a podcast, or a piano concerto. But do it without doing anything else. No drinking coffee, checking your phone, looking at people nearby, eating some chips. Pure listening.

If you have ever taken a class on learning to meditate, you have discovered that emptying your mind and “doing nothing” is quite difficult. Practice.

The Vanity Search

search
Image by Tumisu via Pixabay

I recommend that you do a vanity search. Actually, many privacy experts also recommend it. A vanity search means to search one’s own name on Internet search engines. Yes, engines plural. On Google and even the ones you might not use (Bing, Baidu, Yahoo!, Yandex, Ask.com, and DuckDuckGo. Put your name in quotes and search. Try variations on your name.

Why? Well, the vanity part is to see that you have an online presence. Sometimes a nice ego boost. But there is also the bad side, such as finding out things you don’t want online are online, including photos (yes, image searches are part of this as well as blogs, news, etc.) comments and reviews you left on sites.

I do this regularly. I find little things – a comment about a T.S. Eliot poem on a blog and one about inner journeys.

Sometimes I find that someone has legitimately reposted something I wrote. With this one, I found a new virtual friend with similar interests. (We even share a mantra.) I have also found reposts that I don’t endorse – like someone who duplicates this entire blog on another site in Russia.

Image searches also turn up photos of mine being reused – with proper attribution – like my little Buddha on the tricycle.org website, and one of my beach photos, a little bit of Miss America in Atlantic City, and one of my many photos of windows – this one is of Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room (probably) at UVA.

Poe's room
Room No. 13 on West Range of UVA’s main campus. I doubt that Ed had a raven statue in his room.

I even discovered that several sad little “blogs” that I started back in the day still exist. The Internet never forgets. Maybe I should delete it? Instead, I added something new to this little poetry thing.

I don’t use guest posts by other people on my blogs but I have been asked to write or add content to other people’s blogs.  I forgot about this guest post I did in 2016 where I was asked to write about Skills That Will Help You Find Life After Teaching.

I think I may have too much of an online presence. I don’t remember doing this webinar on podcasting but apparently, I even got paid for doing it.

I found a bunch of legitimate articles I have written. This was for a journal in 2013 when I was working at NJIT and really doing a lot with MOOCs. (those are Massive Open Online Courses) I found another presentation I did on “MOOCs For Pre-College Career Exploration.”

I found lots of people simply linking to things I’ve done, like this research guide at a university linking to my Endangered New Jersey blog.

I find an assortment of photos and bios of me. Here is one from the Tiferet journal that has published several of my poems.

I don’t count the things I find in a search that I already know are there. I have been posting poetry writing prompts and poems that poets have submitted on my Poets Online website. What is more interesting is when I find that someone has reused one of the prompts and one of my poems. In this case, they didn’t ask to use it (not that I recall) but at least there is a link back to my website.

I always find something new about myself when I do a vanity search. I haven’t shared any bad or unpleasant ones, but that is out there too for all of us. Make sure you check out yourself.

Unblocking Writers

blocked writer
Image:Lukas Bieri | Pixabay

I saw this quote on the Advice to Writers website:

Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say.  ~ Alexander McCall Smith

I don’t think that is true for all writers. The block is real for many writers. Generally, it is not an issue for me. In fact, a friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She is a poet but goes through long periods of not writing at all. I write all the time. I write too much. I write too much online which I shouldn’t consider less noble, but I do when compared to working on poems or articles to send out to journals and publishers.

I think one cure for writer’s block is writing. Even in my earliest teaching days, I would tell my students who were blocked when writing in class journals to just write. Write about being blocked. Write a line from something we were reading in class and go from there.

I wrote earlier about writer’s block and I often post things about writing. This meta practice of writing about writing is another way to beat the block.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. That is another kind of block and I’ll admit to hitting that form at times. Coleridge also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write. I know I saw this idea quoted somewhere but I could find the source today: You don’t have to suffer for your art. Making it through high school is quite enough suffering. Having taught middle school for a number of years, I’d say you’re ready to be an artist before high school for some people.

Looking at my drafts for this site, I saw that I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to look at it again read it and write today about not being able to write. She quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says:

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”

Do you have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write. That friend who asked me about writer’s block is someone who works best under some pressure. She likes writing workshops that require you to produce and read your poems to the group.

A dictionary definition of writer’s block might be “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it is a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block. Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are and then developing writing models.

Reynold and I are believers in neuroplasticity. She says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Of course, the block can also be a full creative block that goes wider than just writing. It is important to recognize why you get blocked. Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly, many of us are our own toughest critics.

Despite my friend’s preference for deadline pressure, if you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can also block people.

This brings me to solutions. They are as numerous as causes. You will find online and in books strategies and block breakers. Here’s a very partial list.

Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

Do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. Get up from the desk and make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

Combine solutions. Take the dog and yourself for a walk. It combines exercise and a change of scenery which might even newly inspire you.

Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a still life, chop some firewood.

I found it interesting that some research shows that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain is effective.

Free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. It may not produce a finished product but that is not the point.

I’m not good at getting rid of distractions, but that is highly recommended. You may not be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder but when you’re writing on a screen having email, social media, and notifications there with you is definitely distracting. Now that 24-hour news, TV and movies are on your phone all that can take you away from your writing. Notifications play on our fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important.

The most Romantic (capital R) and the almost mythical solution is to “get away” from it all. I’ve had that fantasy inside me since I was a teenager reading Walden. I’ve written about that cabin out in the woods for a writing place, but I recognize that I might still just be sitting there unable to write and happily distracted by rabbits and a nearby river or pond. I wrote that you should not need a cabin in the woods to write, which should be obvious, but the dream persists.

I am a big user of notebooks and more recently notes on my phone. I have a lot of one-line poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and I always have a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and have left to simmer.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms that is an issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons – not so great. But if I am banging up against that block in the morning, I might do other things and come back to writing after lunch.

Binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. He didn’t expect every morning poem to be great – or even be a poem. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.

Confesssion: I went back to the draft of this post because I was at a loss for what to write for today. I don’t have a deadline, but I do try to posts at least two times every weekend. When I have a “lost weekend” it bothers me. Then, I write about the lost weekend. Write. Just write.

Death Cleaning

trash
Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

 

I came across a book on the “leave one, take one” shelf at a neighborhood cafe titled The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I started reading it and while I sipped my chai latte, I wrote a little ronka poem on the subject.

Death Cleaning
It’s not dusting, vacuuming, or straightening up.
It’s permanent organization for your everyday life.
It’s the cleaning your family would do
after your death, being done by you.
Clear conscience and shelves in the afterlife.

It sounds at first like a pretty depressing topic. The book’s subtitle gives you a bit more about it: “How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.” It is not cleaning out your stuff because you are going to die – though you are going to die – but rather doing the sorting and sifting of a lifetime of stuff so that your family or someone doesn’t have to do it when you do die.


I’m a bit of a collector (some might say a pack rat). I have comics from childhood, shelves, and shelves of books, file cabinets of paper I saved from my teaching days, boxes of old magazines, a wall of vinyl record albums, tools and screws, nuts, bolts, and nails (some of which were my father’s 50 years ago. These things have some value beyond sentimental. My wife has warned me that if they are still around when I’m not around, my sons will probably throw most of it in a dumpster.

I am quite willing to sell all the albums and comics and things of value. The problem is finding someone who wants to buy them. I tried the eBay route about ten years ago. It’s a lot of time/work and rather frustrating. You have to list, package, ship, and then deal with people who think your 40-year-old “mint” condition comic stored in plastic is only “very good” because the paper has yellowed.

But there is more to death cleaning than cleaning. It is a time to consider your mortality and maybe do a life review. Every year, I remind myself and my wife that we need to update our will. We made it when our two sons were toddlers. They are now married and with their own families. Why haven’t we done it? Laziness is one of the reasons, but more so is probably not wanting to confront death.

The last time I went to the hospital for a small surgery, I had to update my living will. To me, that was like going to a funeral. Death staring you in the face.

I recently went through two big boxes of papers that we had saved for our sons containing schoolwork, drawings, awards greeting cards and other things from their twenty years at home. They had each looked through their box before and pulled out a few items but said I should go through and see if there was anything I wanted to save. They were not concerned with the process.

I wanted to save a lot of it, but my wife said all of the saved stuff needed to fit in one plastic tub that fits perfectly on a closet shelf. It took me days to go through their two boxes. I knew I’d save anything creative – poems, stories, some drawings, journals started and abandoned, and a few award certificates. I tried to save something from each of their school years. I still imagine that someday they will want to look at it, but I may be wrong. Maybe the next time they take possession of their box, they will dump it into the recycle bin.

I actually enjoy cleaning in almost all its forms and I found sifting through my son’s boxes an enjoyable nostalgia trip. I’m good at cleaning and organizing. I’m not good at letting things go. When I clean my home office, I often just move piles of things into drawers and files and neater piles.

Am I just a sentimental, nostalgic old man? Are they just a new generation that puts less value in “things?” They don’t own albums, CDs, DVDs or many books. They stream things and use screens to read.  A tablet can hold a library and take up less space than a hardcover copy of Moby-Dick.

This Swedish idea of döstädning, (=death and städning= cleaning) is not exclusive to that country. It is done all over the world in some form. Doing this decluttering, sorting, and getting rid of things (selling them, giving them away, donating, or just trashing) now rather than at the end or having your survivors have to do it is a good idea.

The book I picked up has a companion volume in The Swedish Art of Living & Dying Series. The other book is
The Swedish Art of Aging Well with a subtitle of “Life Advice from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You by the same author, Margareta Magnusson. She wrote the second book after she had unburdened herself from the emotional and actual baggage, she could focus on what makes each day worth living, and her discoveries about growing older.

I’m pretty good already at my own discoveries about aging and appreciating each day. But Magnusson really is saying that we should all be less afraid of the idea of death.

 

Listening To Stones

labyrinth
Desert Rose Labyrinth

Some years ago, I discovered the work of Dan Snow. He builds with stone things practical and artistic. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone.”

A few decades ago, I built a twenty-foot stone wall along my own driveway with the help of one of my sons. It is nothing like Snow’s work and I make no claims to “art.” I bought my stones;in six unnatural sizes. I secured them with adhesive cement.

It took me more than a week to dig out the bed for the wall from a small slope. Then I had to create a base. The most enjoyable, frustrating, and almost artistic part was arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics, and strength.

It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “Zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices, such as the Zen of tennis. But I know why people attach Zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, almost spiritual connection to the practice.

This gives us the Zen of: writing, gardening, running, building a wall  etc. John Stewart had The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. CBS Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that might be described as a moment of Zen.

I bought two of Dan Snow’s books. In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by them, you might think it had been there for a century or more. I couldn’t find any images that I can reproduce here but look at the gallery on his website.  His “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. I like some of his phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”

My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in New Jersey it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place many years ago (before I built my driveway wall) he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand at the time why he was making so little progress. I understand now. Hugh is a real artist and I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.

Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both of those authors and they are worth posts of their own.

Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list, but the book of that comes to mind today is Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 25 years ago and I found the meditations there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and one of my favorites about a cabin in the woods. For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”

Writing is like building with stone. You set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful building than writing an essay or a blog post. Still, I hope my essays and posts occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.

Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book,   Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions, and causeways. He also combines stone, wood, and metal into many of the sculptures.

Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen “wallers” in the British Isles. It took thirteen years fo him to achieve his Master Craftsman certificate.

I may need to have some formal study in all this. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.

Further Reading
Dan Snow’s “In the Company of Stone” blog
Annie Dillard’s quirky official site