Thursday, September 13, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience: Final Thoughts

I thought I was done with the last blog post, but then a couple of ideas and questions popped into my head that seemed to warrant a follow up post on the topic of "judgment being the enemy of experience." I am going to pick up from where the last blog left off...

So, why do we love dichotomies and especially the "like / dislike" formulation? I remember we had an authorship seminar a couple of years ago with Gary Shteyngart discussing his novel, Super Sad True Love Story. One of the ideas the novel explores is a futuristic dystopia where technology has taken on an insidious role in everyone's life. The "apparats" (see cartoon below) that everyone wears around their necks are geared to not only connect everyone to everyone else but to display information about the person wearing the device--especially information that compares them to other people in the same room. As Gary said that day, "I am not sure this is actually futuristic..."

During the course of that dialogue, Gary began to talk about how much he was obsessed with Facebook because he could post something, "and people will like it. I post pictures of every 'wiener dog' (dachshund) I see on the street and immediately lots of people will 'like" what I have put up; it makes me feel good." Because he is such a thoughtful and reflective person, he was able to self-implicate and express why he wanted to do that. Though this fall there was a controversy in the literary world over Gary's blurbing of author's books, so perhaps those have replaced wiener dogs.

Later I would come across a Zadie Smith review of David Fincher's film "The Social Network" in the New York Review of Books. In this piece she explores her own use of Facebook and offers that "for our self-conscious generation (and in this I, and Zuckerberg, and everyone else raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked (her italics) is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment."

So, if Zuckerberg has tapped the unconscious dichotomy of his generation--the instantaneous feel good judgment achieved with the one click of the mouse on a "like" button, the un-learning needed to create genuine, authentic experience may require more attention than we think.

My wife is a social worker who has worked with clients diagnosed with "Borderline Personality Disorder." She has used a treatment developed by Marsha Linehan called "Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)." What interests me most is that it is a technique that combines cognitive behavioral techniques with Buddhist mindfulness practice. From an experience-based learning point of view, this combination allows for a cognitive, spiritual approach whose effectiveness can be tested in the real world time. While I am in no way claiming that the people I work with have borderline personalities, DBT provides penetrating insights into the world of emotion regulation and how we might combat the "like / dislike" problem of premature judgment that seems to be so prevalent.

Truth be told, the mindfulness training from DBT is probably what I strive to do with my students in class almost every day. You increase the chances of a moment becoming an experience if you can pay attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment where you are fully present, but with a perspective on yourself at the same time. But how to achieve this double-consciousness? How do we be both on the dance floor fully engaged and in the balcony watching ourselves dance simultaneously?

In DBT there are mindfulness "What" skills--observation, description and participation--that are the content techniques for being fully present. One key is to practice observation and description that are non-judgmental and to focus your participation on the thing one is doing. Last week, my co-teacher did a fabulous exercise where each student got a lemon to "explore" for five minutes. Then we put all the lemons back in the bag and mixed them up. How many people do you think could identify their particular lemon? When I first heard about this experiment, I guessed about half would be able to. But everyone identified their own lemon-- everyone! Would that we could go through everyday seeing every "lemon" so acutely.

But there are also mindfulness "How" skills-- non-judgmentally, one-mindfully and effectively--that are about the communication of what you are observing and describing. I think what DBT achieves with people who chronically struggle with emotional dysregulation might be a lot closer to what we need than we might think. To be sure, there are differences between the populations, but we, as teachers striving to be experience-based, might have much to learn from Linehan's work.

The concept of judgment has a potential to be dangerous territory for anyone, whether it's someone living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), an experience-based learner, or whoever strives to experience life in all its richness for a number of reasons:

1) We sometimes consider a judgment to be a statement of fact.

2) Judgment is often just a shorthand for a preference (when we label something as "bad" it cuts us off from the dialectical/dialogic part of our experience - which allows us to participate more fully in our experiences).

3) Statements of judgment encourage debate over dialogue (and as we have seen in earlier posts, dialogue is far more likely to enhance experiential learning than debate)

The other day I was looking up a former student on Facebook when someone looked over my shoulder and remarked, "Hey, you haven't 'liked" that photo!" It actually had never occurred to me to click on the "like" button at all, I was just looking intently at the picture. May I be able to keep it that way!

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