BOOK REVIEW: Proust & the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Time to get meta, and do some reading about reading. Wolf’s book explores the neuroscience of reading, the evolution of writing systems, and what keeps some children from learning to read as rapidly as most. If you’re wonder about the seemingly arcane title, Proust’s essay “On Reading” planted a seed of thought that would become this book. The squid bit reflects the aquatic creature’s famous neurological adaptability, which is also witnessed in the learning human brain. Reading as both a mystic experience and as the unanticipated consequence of an extremely plastic brain are among the book’s recurring themes.

Another recurring idea is that reading has a cost. This view was famously expressed by Socrates, who believed reading would contribute to diminished memory, intellectual laziness, and other problems. Wolf reflects upon Socrates’ criticisms, but also draws a parallel between Socrates’ ideas on the subject and the present-day argument that the internet / social media is driving us inexorably and inevitably toward an “Idiocracy” type world.

The parts of the book that deal with the neuroscience of reading do get a bit complicated. It would be hard for them not to as reading is a complex task unfolding within the most complex system that we know of. However, wouldn’t say that this book is any more dense or incomprehensible than most pop neuroscience books – especially as it’s mixed in with less challenging material.

My understanding of dyslexia (Ch. 7 & 8) grew considerably while reading this book. I learned that it isn’t a unitary affliction, but can come about at any of a number of cognitive tasks that have to transpire during reading.

If you’re interested in how humanity learned to read, the benefits and costs of this capacity, and what dyslexia really is, this book is definitely worth reading.

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POEM: Epistemic Hungry Ghost

blocks of knowledge
sit in rubble piles,
having been coveted, hunted, and horded,
they sit in rubble piles

the Epistemic Hungry Ghost
is too busy gathering blocks
to shove and nudge
them into load-bearing
structural integrity

that takes patience & a plan
&
there are too many blocks,
so many blocks —
ripe for the picking —
so many blocks

Who’d have thought learning could be a drug —
a crack-rock addition
with a prettier face
and prettier fidgets?

BOOK REVIEW: Teaching Artfully by Meghan Parker

Teaching ArtfullyTeaching Artfully by Meghan Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 4, 2021 in India (It may be out already where you live.)

 

While I’m not an art teacher and this book is clearly directed at art teachers, I took away a number of useful lessons nevertheless. The book is laid out as a comic book, and is meant to extol the virtues of that artform while at the same time conveying knowledge about art, teaching, and the teaching of art.

The book is organized into seven chapters that are loosely themed according to the seven elements of art: line, color, form, texture, shape, space, and value [in the sense of the level of lightness / darkness.] The connection between the artistic characteristic and what is conveyed in its chapter is more readily apparent for some chapters than for others.

Chapter one (Line) both presents how the book came to be and what the intention behind it is, and also has something to say about process. The second chapter is entitled “Color,” and it touches upon issues such as the nature of aesthetics, the value of the notion of embodiment to the artistic endeavor, and the role of imagination. Chapter three is “Form” and it explores how time, space, and story play into conveying knowledge, as well as offering insight into how form influences perception. The next chapter is “Texture, and it has a lot to do with interaction and human relationships as they pertain to the art classroom. “Shape” investigates the issue of boundaries, such as what really differentiates artist from non-artist, the grammar of comics, and the role of the teacher. It also presents a number projects that might be introduced in the classroom or in one’s self-study. “Space” is probably the most literal title as it discusses the classroom space as well as the more figurative space given to students. The final chapter (Value) has a lot to say about frames of reference and the analogy of painting frames to the frames that individuals operate in and see the world through.

There is a Conclusion that provides some summation of ideas, and there are also notes and a page of references. This book shined a spotlight on a few other books that intrigue me, but that would have been completely outside my awareness — given I don’t read much about the visual arts, but I’m increasingly finding it to be a topic of interest.

As I said, even though its outside my bailiwick, I took away some intriguing lessons from this book — particularly about how variations in the elements of art encourage different emotional and psychological responses. There are a few excellent quotes as well. These powerful lessons weren’t in every frame. A fair amount of space is devoted to both platitudes and [hopefully] cathartic rants about the challenge of being a teacher, and particularly a teacher of art.

The book is festively drawn and colored and (as befits a book focusing on the visual arts) I got even more out of how ideas were portrayed visually than how they were discussed textually. The book takes a light and whimsical approach, and is pretty to look at.

If you’re interested in learning more about the visual arts, I’d highly recommend picking this book up.

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BOOK REVIEW: Range by David Epstein

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.

If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.

The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.

Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.

Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.

Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.

Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]

The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.

I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.

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ESSAY: This I Believe [Including My Views on Unicorns]

Occasionally, I’m asked whether I BELIEVE some idea or BELIEVE in X [i.e. fill in the person, place, thing, or concept.]

If I were to answer these questions honestly, that answer would almost invariably be, “No.”

But, because that can seem overly contrarian — not to mention insane — I often try to guess the sense in which the questioner is using the words “BELIEVE” and “BELIEF,” and then answer accordingly.

Like many words, BELIEVE is one whose meaning meanders, and shadows fall across it in different ways, creating different hues [and impressions thereof,] depending upon one’s vantage point.

Often, people seem to use the phrase, “I BELIEVE X ” synonymously with “I understand X to be true.” “I BELIEVE it” can mean: I behave as though X is true, [but am not necessarily commenting on the degree to which X is supported by evidence or reason.] I, on the other hand, try to use BELIEVE in the sense of: “I accept the truth of X and behave accordingly, but I don’t really have any solid basis on which to rest this conclusion.” I like to draw as few such conclusions as possible, though sometimes it’s hard not to. For example, like most people, I live my life as if we are living in base reality — as opposed to being in some “Matrix”-like computer simulated world, but — if pressed — I’d have to admit that I can’t really support this belief convincingly.

If I were to be asked whether I BELIEVE there is a force that inexorably pulls me toward the Earth’s center, using my own interpretation of the word “BELIEVE,” I would reply in the negative. Before you ask how I can be so anti-gravity [pun not intended, but acknowledged,] let me say that I firmly understand there to be such a force as gravity. This is not to say that I fully understand the mechanism by which gravity works — which I certainly do not — but rather to say that I recognize the truth of such a force’s existence. I can experience gravity in my pathetic vertical leap, and even note it in the very impressive vertical leap of skilled athletes. I see it in the red leaf, twirling as it falls to the ground. I feel it upon takeoff as an airplane’s seat raises against my butt. Furthermore, I recognize that there are many scientists who’ve come to understand a great deal more about gravity than I, but also that none of what they’ve learned through their vast number of controlled observations contradicts my basic idea that I’m being pulled toward the planet (and it toward me.)

At the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, I was once asked whether I BELIEVED in astronomy and astrology? The questioner clearly thought this was a closed-ended, yes or no, question — as if the two fields dealt in identical content. Of course, from my perspective, it was a question similar to: “Do you BELIEVE in Zebras and Magical Unicorns?” — which is to say, not at all a straightforward and closed-ended yes or no question. [Incidentally, the reason I used the modifier “magical” is because I do “believe” in unicorns. I just call them “Indian Rhinoceroses” [Latin name: Rhinoceros Unicornis.]]

A Unicorn — i.e. the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis

The long and short of the matter is this: I strive to BELIEVE as little as I can, and to hold even those BELIEFs only so tightly that they might fall away in the face of learning. Otherwise, what’s learning for [or is it even possible?]

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: January 19, 2021

 

Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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LSNED: The Many Faces of Gypsy Dance

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FYI: LSNED = Learn Something New EveryDay

My wife, some friends, and I went to a dance performance at the KalaRasa Art House in Jayanagar last night. The dance was performed by a duo (made trio for the evening) called The SaraLuna Project, who demonstrated three dance forms with Gypsy roots: Kalbeliya Dance of Rajasthan, Egypt’s Belly Dance, and the Spanish Flamenco. I had no idea that these dance forms were connected (hence the Learn-Something-New-EveryDay [LSNED] segment,) and that they are but three styles along the long trail of Gypsy migration–though I have seen other Gypsy dance forms in Hungary.

This promises to be the first installment of a series that will cover other dance forms in this long and rich cultural heritage. The dance was sensational and it was a learning experience (complete with slides and graphics) as well as an entertaining evening. So if you’re in Bangalore and enjoy dance you should follow The SaraLuna Project.

 

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I’m Back From Thailand

My month-long hiatus from posting has come to an end. I’m back home in India after an educational month in Thailand. I’ve got a lot of posting to catch up on.

I’ll be writing about my two weeks training Muaythai at MTI-Rangsit:

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I’ll share my experiences of learning Thai Massage and Foot Massage at the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medicine and Massage School:

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Plus there’re a dozen books I finished off and need to review and–of course–I’ve got a ton of photos from in and around Bangkok:

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I learned some Thai Yoga (sometimes called Rusie Dutton Yoga) and had some other interesting experiences to write about.

So I’d best get crackin’.

Why I Study Thai Yoga Bodywork

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher.

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher

Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB), also called Nuad Boran (ancient bodywork) or Thai Massage, is a system that integrates assisted yoga-style stretching, reflexology, acupressure massage, and elements of Ayurvedic healing to stretch and massage the body. Its history is believed to date back 2,500 years to Northern India, where its roots lay with Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha–a physician in Buddha’s community. However, the art reached its perfection in Thailand, the nation with which it remains most closely associated.

I recently completed an introductory course in this system in Bangalore through the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

Before I moved to India, I thought a lot about what I would like to learn while I was on the other side of the planet. There’s a great deal of expertise on subjects sparsely taught in the US, and it can often be had at a bargain in comparison to American prices.

Some of the skills I wanted to foster were to be expected. I wanted to learn more about meditation and the ways of living in the moment and with a quieter mind. I’ve played with such practice for a long time, and I came to believe that becoming a better martial artist  and person depended upon cultivating fudōshin— an immovable spirit. I’ve seen no route to that state that circumvents quieting the mind, and that requires observing and training the mind. One can only become more physically capable for a time, then growth depends upon the mind, on shedding petty impulses, on being incapable of manipulation, and on being unswayed my the vagaries of emotion. I’ve begun working on this objective through visits to meditation centers and by making my own practice more regular.

I also want to learn about other martial arts, besides the one I’ve been learning my entire adult life. It makes sense to learn something about the indigenous martial arts of the places I visit. I want to experience the similarities and differences of these arts, and to learn about the cultural elements that shape those differences and elements of uniqueness.

However, one of the biggest surprises has been my new-found interest in studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) When I visited Thailand last fall I studied Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) for a week and Thai cooking for a day, but it didn’t occur to me to take one of the many Thai Massage short courses until I was back home. My interest in TYB is reflective of a broader desire to learn more about the indigenous healing methods of Asia, and that goes back a few years.  I developed a vague feeling that I wanted to study such things a couple of years back when I realized my body was deteriorating too fast for comfort, and Western medical treatment consisted of advising me to stop doing a number of the activities that I love.  Still, I must admit that I didn’t really give  a lot of thought to this interest until I started this course.

Having now thought about it, my interest in studying TYB is closely linked to my interest in martial arts. This notion might seem hard to reconcile.  TYB is a healing art, and martial arts, while they should be grounded in a sound moral philosophy, are essentially about inflicting damage on a body. The  two disciplines seem to be at odds. Still, they have a great deal in common. In each, mindfulness is key. Control of the breath is a common element of both. In Japanese martial arts there is a word, taijutsu, which means body skills, but which implies efficient use of the body. This means favoring bigger muscle groups over smaller ones where possible and taking advantage of the body’s natural alignment (e.g. straight spine) and body weight. These concepts that I had long practiced in budō were also ubiquitous in TYB. Furthermore, a number of the points that I had learned to attack, were now targeted to heal.

Still, some of these same points could be said to be common to any system of movement done properly, be it dance or exercise. So why I was drawn to TYB in particular? The most direct reason is to learn how to fix the failings of my body, and those that I’ve witnessed in others. I experienced these methods as a recipient in Thailand, and could see their value at once.

There’s also a benefit from increased understanding of anatomy and bodily awareness. One learns about how the musculature works to move the body in a way that isn’t easily picked up from textbooks. One begins to read bodies like others read books. One gains insight into the bodily deficiencies that one has taken on without even being cognizant of them. A martial artist may, on average, be a hundred times more bodily aware than the average person, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great room for growth. (It speaks to how sadly lacking in bodily awareness most people are as much as anything.)

Still, this isn’t the full story of why I wanted to learn this art. Another reason came to mind in the introductory session, before we even began learning the technique. The teacher was talking about how TYB teaches humility, and how one has to learn to touch a stranger’s feet with compassion and devotion to that person’s well-being–an act that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  Admittedly, this isn’t a level of humility and compassion that I have developed in life to date. Though I am the son of a mother who–as a nurse as well as a mother–was probably more at ease with putting the well-being others above her own comfort than anyone else I’ve ever met, for me this is a struggle outside my comfort zone. The martial arts teach a kind of humility (a lesson that all too many practitioners find a way to make an end run around), but if one’s practice is separate from one’s career field it’s easy for the notion of service to be so abstract as to lose meaning.

This, of course, returns back to my earlier mention of the mind. One’s ego is the biggest barrier to personal growth. Ego makes one easily manipulated. Ego makes one subject to petty impulses. Ego makes one give into fear and anger.

Learning a stretch

Learning a stretching technique