I finally watched My Octopus Teacher, the much-celebrated Netflix documentary that chronicles the year film-maker Craig Foster spent swimming with a wild, common octopus in the kelp forests near Capetown, South Africa.
Foster credits the octopus as a profound teacher, and she was. Foster, however, was a disciplined learner who brought his full self to investigating the world of the octopus.
His explorations suggest seven keys to deep learning, especially involving the natural world.
1. Show up
Foster made a commitment to enter the frigid waters of the Cape Pennisula daily to visit his friend. Entering the kelp forest over the course of nearly a year allowed him to discover and record aspects of octopus life that few, if any, had seen.
When we show up to learn in a disciplined way, the subtle changes in the environment become more obvious.
When I first moved to Manhatten, I was so overwhelmed by the complexity of buildings, streets, sidewalks, people, and commotion that I could only absorb a superficial amount of what there was to see. As I walked the same streets, day after day, I took in more of the details present in the window ledges, cornices, rooflines, fire escapes, and storefronts. Every walk opened my eyes a little bit more.
Several years ago I took a course on Biodynamic Agriculture with Seattle-area teacher, Barry Lia. I took the course hoping for tools and techniques for using biodynamic fertilizers, processes, and soil enhancers. Barry, however, offered a different kind of learning: a new way of seeing growth in the garden.
For our first assignment, he told us to go outdoors at the same time every day and observe the weather. That seemed so repetitive, but I quickly understood that Lia was developing our capacities to see and feel changes in the environment we would not otherwise recognize.
2. Observe carefully
Foster learned some of his observational skills from African trackers, who could find almost undetectable clues to animal life etched in the desert sand. Foster became an underwater tracker, able to find patterns in small details and movements.
In Lia’s Biodynamic Agriculture class, our second assignment was to plant kale seeds in paper cups and observe their growth. He wanted us to better understand the nature of the genus Brassica, of which kale is a part, by watching the shoots and the first cotyledon leaves emerge. He honed our observational skills using a very small sample of life.
In one scene, Foster unintentionally frightens the octopus then watches. horrified, as she abandons her den and flees. He has lost her. With the focus and intention of a tracker, he returns daily until he is able to see tiny signs of her presence and eventually discover her new den.
4. Think relationally
One of the stunning messages of the film is the complexity and interconnectedness of the undersea world.
To understand any living creature, we have to see the context, the whole in which it lives.
Artists understand this. In his drawing course, master illustrator/artist Bruce Morser helped me to draw using the power of relationships. “See the field, not just the ball,” he would say. “Draw the pattern and let the subject appear.”
In a similar vein, Heather Williams, author of Drawing as a Sacred Activityhas been teaching me to look for lines, intersections, connections, and relationships in anything I want to draw.
I am trying to learn to see relationally.
5. Use body and mind together
Foster learned with both body and mind as he entered the world of the octopus. Swimming and developing his ability to stay underwater strengthened his neurological capacities,
Then, he supplemented his explorations with research. In the evenings when he wasn’t in the water he surfed the Internet and studied the available scientific research.
His tactile, sensual relationship with the octopus also informed him.
In one breathtaking moment, the octopus sends its suckers along Foster’s skin and up to his goggles. Then, later in the film, Foster cradles the octopus against his chest. (Tear alert.)
6. Let go
To really see the world as it is, we have to be able to let go of the way we want things to be.
It was tempting for Foster to intervene in the life of the octopus and save her from shark predators. However, he knew that by so doing he would be upsetting the balance of life under the water, so he watched breathlessly as she was attacked, hoping for her safety. At one point he offered his wounded friend food, then acknowledged his mistake. His job was to let go and honor the balance of life, not attempt to fix it.
That required acknowledging that she would die within a year, if she lived even that long.
For me, the most poignant moment of the film was watching Foster’s face as he acknowledged the pain of knowing he was going to lose her. I sensed the wisdom, strength, and resolution he had gained from accepting the inevitable.
He channeled his love for her and her underwater world into creating the Sea Change Project. The mission of the nonprofit is to help protect the fragile ecology of the Great South African Seaforest.
7. Allow love to fuel you
Foster loved his octopus. “Scientific detachment” was neither a possibility nor was it needed. Foster was still a disciplined observer.
He loved his octopus friend in a way that didn’t anthropomorphize her or see her as a pet. He honored her wildness.
Love kept him motivated to enter the cold waters every day.
Love is the secret fuel behind deep learning.
Love keeps us showing up, and diving, day after day, even when we might rather not.
Love trains us to learn with our hearts as we stretch our minds.
I hope My Octopus Teacher wins the award for Best Documentary Award at the Oscars ceremony on April 25th.
If the film can inspire more of us to love the natural world, respect its teaching, and open our hearts to deeper learning about the systems in which we swim, it has already won the gold.
“If you can awaken this sense of destiny, you come into rhythm with your life. You fall out of rhythm when you renege on your potential and talent, when you settle for the mediocre as a refuge from the call. When you lose rhythm, your life becomes wearyingly deliberate or anonymously automatic. Rhythm is the secret key to balance and belonging.
“Guided by longing, belonging is the wisdom of rhythm. When we are in rhythm with our own nature, things flow and balance naturally…Our modern hunger to belong is particularly intense…We have fallen out of rhythm with life. The art of belonging is the recovery of the wisdom of rhythm.”
As I pause, I invite you to check out any of these posts that you missed.
In Want More of Einstein’s brainpower? I explored how developing our corpus callosum, linking the left and right sides of our brain, may be a key to developing our intelligence in a hyped-up, always-on world. (With a few ideas about how to strengthen our brains.)
Isn’t it time you celebrated? In Can we celebrate now? I offered ideas for finding what and how to celebrate even when the pandemic is not yet gone.
April is an exciting month for me as I get ready to watch the great performances that will be taking place over the next couple of months.
The cast is in dress rehearsal. The previews are looking good. I’ve seen a couple of teasers from bit players out before the main shows.
The first of the small acts were the daffodils, then a scattering of dandelions. The daphne odora recently took the stage with a fragrance strong enough to intoxicate a whole audience.
But the real stars, when the big performances begin, will be the trees.
I love trees. I love their woodsy, sometimes fruity, sometimes resinous scents, the ridges in their bark, their soaring branches, the lichen on them, and how they die and leave mysterious silver snags. The trees that I’ve transplanted onto our property, as well as the madrona, hazelnut trees, and Douglas firs that were here before us, have become friends. As I walk through our woodlands they offer beauty, comfort, and a sense of home. They spark my imagination.
The Hidden Life of Trees
Reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees took my respect for trees to new levels. Wohlleben, a forester turned environmental steward with a poet’s eye, invites us behind the curtain to see trees through the eyes of someone who has loved and studied them for decades.
He didn’t start out to be an observer of tree intelligence.
As a forester, he was trained to see trees in terms of their commercial viability.
He writes, “When I began my life as a forester, I knew as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about animals.”
That changed as he began to observe trees more closely, seeing how they behave as individuals and as a collective. After observing their remarkable power to communicate, he redirected his career and now works to create sustainable, tree-friendly forests.
The hidden world of tree communication
What he shared is fascinating. Do you know:
That trees can communicate with each other over great distances, at times using mycorrhizae (a fungus that connects trees to other fungi), and fungi to send messages over a kind of forest “wood wide web?”
That stumps may live on for centuries, nourished by the trees around them?
That trees care for each other? Not like my grandfather who fixed me eggnog when I was five and ill, but care that includes sending warnings to other trees and sharing resources with weaker members of their tree communities. Tree behavior suggests that trees often collaborate.
A world of relationship
In an interview for the Yale School of the Environment, Wohlleben was questioned whether trees are sentient beings (an idea that could craze some scientists). He replied:
“We have this essentially arbitrary caste system for living beings. We say plants are the lowest caste, the pariahs because they don’t have brains, they don’t move, they don’t have big brown eyes. Flies and insects have eyes, so they are a bit higher, but not so high as monkeys and apes and so on. I want to remove trees from this caste system. This hierarchical ranking of living beings is totally unscientific. Plants process information just as animals do, but for the most part, they do this much more slowly. Is life in the slow lane worth less than life on the fast track?
Perhaps we create these artificial barriers between humans and animals, between animals and plants, so that we can use them indiscriminately and without care, without considering the suffering that we are subjecting them to.” [My highlighting.]
I certainly grew up thinking people were higher up the evolutionary pole and therefore “better” than trees and animals.
Our human brains may be more complex, and we have access to consciousness different than that of our dogs, mushrooms and maples.
But, thinking in terms of hierarchy blinds us to how we’re in this world together and how we need to support the web of relationships in which we all live.
Plants, animals, humans and mycorrhizae have different capacities, roles, and responsibilities. We all contribute in distinct ways to the whole.
What would it be like to live in relationship to the natural world outside of the hierarchical caste system?
When we acknowledge our collective participation in the community/ecosystems in which we live, we take away any permission to blindly hurt each other.
That doesn’t mean we won’t hurt each other. I continue to unintentionally hurt those whom I love.
But I strive to act respectfully.
Does this mean I don’t prune trees (ouch), dig them and move them, kill them with neglect (sadly, occasionally), or decide that a tree must be taken down (always sad)? I do all of those things. When I die, I may be sent to plant-abuser purgatory.
I also use many products that are dependent on wood and trees.
Despite my abuses, I cherish our trees.
Welcoming the trees
When my husband and I moved onto this land, I started “adopting” trees. Enlightened Seattle-area gardeners, forced to make tough choices between keeping a tree and having a vegetable garden, posted their trees on Plant Amnesty, a site that enabled them to put trees up for adoption. In exchange for promising owners a great home for their beloveds, I was given permission to dig up the trees and bring them home.
Each tree came to our property with a story. To this day, I remember my trees’ heritages and the good people who nurtured them.
As I walk across our property, I acknowledge these trees. I like to think they feel the gratitude behind my words to them, but if they don’t it doesn’t matter. Talking to them helps me to feel our relationship.
Knowing the facts about climate change is important. But when environmentalism only appeals to us with facts, it can feel abstract and cold,
In contrast, living with mystery, wonder, appreciation, and love for the trees brings my concern for the environment alive. That fuels my desire to act.
Seeing life as an ensemble
In our individualistic culture, it’s easy to forget how connected we are to the worlds around us, seen and unseen.
Nature never forgets those connections.
I can’t wait for the upcoming performance called “Spring” as our trees bud, bloom, leaf out, and fruit. Some of the stars will take my breath away. Yet as soon as these gorgeous specimens have bloomed and shared their beauty, they will move seamlessly back to their place in the ensemble.
They know, as I try to remember, that when it comes to living in the natural world, we’re meant to play together.
Colossal intelligence that he was, Albert Einstein had a relatively small brain. It measured 1230 grams, on the smaller end of average.
However, what he had that was unusual was an enormous corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that pass information between the left and right side of the brain’s cerebellum.
The good news is while we can’t be Einstein, we can develop that part of his superpower, the corpus callosum. (His physical brain, fortunately, is in the hands of science.)
Given the stresses of living in our computer-centric, data-overloaded environments, we can use a boost of brainpower to better absorb and integrate information.
Giving the left-brain a break
After a spate of intense analytical activity editing my manuscript, I rewarded my left-brain with a little vacation. I put my right-brain to work this week with drawing classes, a week-long art and consciousness intensive, and singing. The intuitive, musical, artistic (right) side of my brain has been getting a workout. It’s been hugely fun.
Spending time in classes or creating in the studio, I emerged with new eyes. It was as if, at least for a moment, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines became more alive. I saw shadows. I felt colors in the landscape and noticed how our fencelines framed our property.
I gazed out the window with fascination.
But when it came time to use the analytical side of my brain and plan a blog post, I hit a wall. The part of my brain that researches, organizes, and writes about ideas said, “No can do. We don’t feel like it.” It offered me no ideas.
I was stuck. “OK left brain,” I said, I’m giving you a break but that doesn’t mean you’re totally off duty.”
No go. It replied, “A break’s a break.”
I reminded it that I need to be able to move between my left and right brain as part of almost everything I do.
Finally, I tried a bribe, “I’ll give you dark chocolate and a long night’s sleep.”
Switching hemispheres was harder than I expected.
Brain development is not just for kids
Much of the research done on strengthening the integration of the two sides of the brain through the corpus callosum has been done on children with learning disabilities. Some research has been done on adults with severe brain-related issues. But what about the rest of us?
As working adults, we challenge our brains every day, and often not in good ways.
Think about the modern office, including our virtual ones. We are bombarded with data and live in constant information-overload. I can’t even buy a cover for my MacBook without doing an hour of research. Multiply that by dozens of more important issues and decisions a day.
Plus, we’re being constantly interrupted. I won’t go into the research here, but something as simple as receiving a text in the middle of working on a project can derail our attention. We tax our brains by diverting our attention and then asking our brains to refocus.
Then there’s screen time. How many hours do we spend staring at our screens and tiring our brains with a certain kind of mostly-analytic work? Not to mention the pleasures of too much Zoom. Bottom line: our brains are stressed.
Our attention spans shorten. And our ability to move fluidly between the different sides of our brains may (I posit) decrease.
Time for some cross-hemisphere training
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to help our brains settle and build back the capacity to move easily between our two hemispheres. The possible benefits of strengthening the corpus callosum are more focus, less stress, less brain fatigue, better ability to move back and forth between tasks, and an increased ability to sustain attention and learn outside of our comfort areas.
More than that, the world urgently needs people who can integrate intuitive wisdom and imagination with the gifts of rational, logical thinking and the ability to work with facts.
I recently started working with Applied Brain Technology (ABT) to see if the hearing loss I’ve experienced might be affecting my capacity to sustain attention and energy. The ear affects the way our brains function. After interviewing me, my ABT coach suggested that the first order of business should be strengthening my corpus callosum.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to do this in addition to using their programs to support the brain with music and rhythms.
Strengthening brain integration: first steps.
Without going into detail (I promised my left-brain I wouldn’t work it too hard), here are some first steps:
Write or work with your non-dominant hand. (The goal here is not to be ambidextrous but to challenge your brain.)
Cross-crawl exercises. Activities that use cross-lateral body movements like crawling, walking or swimming develop brain integration. We gain a brain boost by simply marching in place while extending a hand to the opposite knee (right hand/left knee, left hand/right knee). Four minutes of marching can refresh and reset the brain when stress begins to build.
Music and singing. Tons to be said here, but I’ll save for later.
Drumming. On her website, health authority Dr. Christine Northup cites the benefits of drumming for adults and adds, “Research shows that the physical transmission of rhythmic energy to the brain actually synchronizes the left and right hemispheres.”
Not many of us can be like Einstein, but we can learn from his brain.
In a world that needs us to harness the power of intellect and intuition and use all facets of our brain, the timing couldn’t be better.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein
Life without celebration is like hiking across a snowfield during a whiteout when the sky and the snow merge together and you can barely see your next step. Chilly and dangerous. Everything becomes a blur.
Like the past twelve months.
With the pandemic, lots of celebrations have been delayed or canceled. I salute the brave couples who got married anyway, the kids who graduated, and the families who held memorials, all doing their best to keep their spirits up over Zoom. I was happy to be able to Zoom-celebrate my granddaughter’s high school graduation, but I’m still waiting for her hug!
We’ve all been doing what we could.
Still, life has sometimes felt a little grayed-out.
Time to celebrate…
This week I have a big reason to celebrate: I shipped off a draft of my book to a few first readers. Woo-hoo! This is huge for me. I’ve been working towards it for months.
Balloons! Lights! Flowers! Special dinner and/or…
But wait. The anti-celebratory forces appear to be fast approaching carrying their time-tested weapons for dampening my spirit:
1) Downplaying. As in, “No big deal. The book is far from done.”
2) Task-ism. They intone, “Great. You did it. Now jump into work and see what’s waiting on your to-do list.”
3) No ready rewards. Frankly, I give my dogs many more rewards than I give myself. Where’s my box of handy treats? My dog Royce constantly reminds me that “a life without treats is not worth living.” Why didn’t I think of this?
I need to re-introduce the word CELEBRATE to my vocabulary. My path needs some sparkle and the gift of a pause.
Finding reasons to celebrate is easy, even in the face of periodically dreadful news.
Reasons to celebrate:
I got my second shot.
The first daffodils are up.
Most older people on our island have been vaccinated.
My manuscript is out to readers.
Peas are growing.
My grandson graduates from college this week. (Big one!)
Focus on celebration and you’ll come up with reasons.
Like gratefulness, this requires a bit of attention. And sometimes suspending an atavistic desire to keep moving ahead with tasks.
How to celebrate
I’m hearing some (younger) people saying they are going to have a mega-bash to make up for all the parties they missed last year. I’m not sure this is a good idea. Doctors say you can’t make up for the sleep you didn’t get during the week by sleeping in on the weekends. A big party may be in order, but not one that blows out your circuits.
Besides, for me to give a big party feels like work. I’ll take my celebrations simple, heartfelt, and easy.
12 ideas for celebrating:
Give yourself the gift of time. A guilt-free afternoon is at the top of my ideas! Yummy!
Plan visits with friends. My choice is a gentle rollout of long-overdue cups of coffee together.
Eat special food. We all have our list. Extra dark chocolate. An almond croissant (One gets to go high sugar/high gluten once in a while, right?)
Ask your partner for a gift. If my husband were telepathic he’d know exactly what I’d like, but it doesn’t hurt to tell him. I’ve found explicit works best.
Buy something cool. I’m not into big consumption, but adding a new tube of paint to my collection would be joyous!
Donate or give something away. Do good in celebration of you.
Clean. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but cleaning feels great after a spate of intense computer work.
Take a “create break.” A stretch of time dedicated to creating, whether it be painting, poetry or digging holes in the ground, could be luxurious.
Join someone else’s celebration and share their joy.
Perform a ceremony or ritual that has meaning to you.
Take an extra-long walk.
Or, make a list and extend the celebrations over time.
For my 60th birthday, I decided to list sixty mostly low-cost items or experiences that would make my heart sing. (I actually only hit 49. That was plenty!) On my list was coffee with a friend, a laughter yoga session, a walk in the park, an improv class, a phone call with an old buddy, a long trail ride, a new tube of lipstick, among others.
Just the act of creating the list was a celebration. I gave myself a year to fulfill on my list. It was so much fun that I’m considering repeating the process for an even bigger, fast-approaching, significant birthday.
Celebrating may only require adding a dash of intention or gratitude into what I might be doing anyway. Like taking time to weed.
Celebrating can be about transforming the ordinary with a moment of magic.
Because we all deserve that.
Now for a blast from a distant past…here’s a song from the kings of “Celebration.”
We made it. To here. That should be cause enough to celebrate while honoring the 500,000 plus in the US we’ve lost to COVID.
“Out beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
How I’d love to visit! I only wish he’d left directions.
Hint: The kids in the video below found it.
Me, I’m a judge-aholic.** I grew up with self-judgmentalism. A condition that may be inherited.
I wish I could have a second vaccine dose and be done with it! Instead, it’s taking me years to unwind the effects of my upbringing and our culture.
Early training in self-judgment
I grew up in suburban Connecticut where comparing yourself with others was played like an Olympic-level sport. As children, we began practice in second grade, when we were diced, sliced, pureed, and graded. I learned then that a bad mark could endanger my acceptance into Harvard. (No matter that Harvard was not accepting female undergraduates at that time.)
Harvard, in our community, was placed spiritually just under “Heaven.” Yale came next.
I’d love to purge parts of my cultural upbringing.
To witness or to judge
Recently I’ve had the experience of singing in triads where one person takes the role of the singer, one becomes the encourager/timer, and the third, the witness. Then we switch roles.
Given my training in coaching and listening, I assumed I’d be a good witness. I know how to listen in silence and find something to appreciate in another.
Instead, I learned that the witness role asks me to listen to the singer, hold space for her, and suspend any evaluations. Including appreciations.
Could I learn to witness a singer without having opinions? Even positive ones?
When it was my turn to sing, I found it magical to sound into a space of non-judgment. I could observe and witness my own voice without worrying how I sounded. So what if my high notes broke or my low ones sounded like gravel under a pickup?
I sang without the overlay of judgment. I observed, then returned to silence. My voice relaxed.
But there was still an obstacle to overcome: I like compliments.
“Good” and “bad” comments go together
I am very sensitive to people’s criticisms and negative judgments. I wish I had a magic wand to disappear that part of me.
Even as I loved being witnessed as I sang, a voice in me peeped: Did you like what I did? Did you like my voice? Was it good?
I wanted to let go of the negative comments and hold on to the positive.
In some situations that’s fine. But not when you’re a witness. And if you’re a judge-aholic, en guard!
Praise can feel fabulous. But for us, it’s a slippery slope.
I start by wanting to hear that my voice sounds good. Then the inner peeper starts demanding: More! More! Am I special? Am I loved?
When discernment is necessary
Of course I don’t need to judge myself for judging myself or wanting comments, right?
And, some of the time, self-evaluation isn’t bad. It’s necessary in order to learn the requirements of certain forms of art or music. We learn to discern what works or doesn’t.
The art of discernment is tricky when you’re self-judgmental. For example, when I read music at the piano, there are right notes and wrong notes. You can’t say anything goes. Beethoven would roll over.
Practicing is the art of increasing the percentage of right notes.
But playing wrong notes affects me viscerally. They gong in my ears and quiver in my chest. They cloud my mind and send my back into spasms. When my symptoms escalate, I have to stop playing.
How can I work with standards, aka right and wrong notes, and be a calm witness and not a judge?
It beats me.
My guru in this regard is my husband.
He continually tells me that he really likes to hear me play the piano. I remind him that I play a lot of wrong notes.
He tells me, “I know but they don’t bother me.”
Thunderbolt! How could that be?
He is able to discern right notes/wrong notes and still enjoy witnessing.
He can judge the accuracy of the notes without judging the player.
My husband is clearly ahead of me when it comes to enlightenment. (But not, alas, when it comes to judging himself.)
On a cheerier note
My dogs understand how to hold this paradox. They do not waste time holding on to judgment even when I repeatedly fail them.
For example, during our recent blizzard, they yapped and yelped, “WE WANT TO PLAY IN THE SNOW NOW!!! even as I explained that it took fifteen minutes to wipe off the 15 pounds of snow each of them carried home after a romp. And I had already done it THREE times in the past TWO hours.
They disagreed but soon the incident was forgotten and the boys settled back into the gentle, witnessing state called, “It’s fun to be with Mommy,” and “Can we come up on the bed, please?”
There’s hope for us judges
If you’re a judge-aholic, I’m here to tell you there’s hope. It may take a lot of practice, a lot of witnessing, and a lot of letting go.
In my case, perfection isn’t the goal. That’s a judgment, anyway.
Wish me luck. Recovery requires a steady commitment I can only make one day at a time.
And now for a real treat…kids who get it from Britain’s Got Talent: