Saturday, September 29, 2018

Person-Framing Language

Starting last weekend and going until March, I’ll be spending every other weekend in yoga teacher training, learning how to be a yoga instructor.

I have a lot of reasons for doing this, one of which is that I would in fact like to teach yoga from time to time. But the reason that really convinced me to finally do it is this: My own yoga practice suggests that yoga relies a lot on original seeing, and I have a strong hunch that yoga instructors are largely in the business of inducing original seeing in their students. I’ve recently been pretty focused on questions like, “What are the most efficient tactics for helping other people see what’s actually in front of them?”. So I’m hoping to mine this teacher training program for pedagogical content knowledge about original seeing.

I think I encountered a real gem in the PCK department last weekend, and I’d like to share it with you.

As yoga instructors, we’re encouraged to avoid pronouns during classes. For example, instead of saying “step your left foot forward”, we should say something like, “step the left foot forward”, or just “step left foot forward”.

The meta-teacher gave a few reasons for this, but one of them felt really shiny to me. He said that part of our job as yoga instructors is to “take students out of their stories”. He didn’t elaborate on this, but I think it reveals a lot about what he thinks it’s like to practice yoga and to teach it.

He seems to think that if a yoga instructor says “your foot”, you’re enabling story-telling (whatever that is) in the student, when the target mental state is something counter to story-telling.

I wanted to investigate this, so I invented and tried the following exercise (which you could try too, if you felt like it).

Choose a topic, and write about it for at least five minutes. Avoid person-framing language: Do not use words like “I”, “my”, “mine”, “he”, “they” or “one”.

Further (optional) instructions:

  • Begin with a concrete non-social topic like “the breakfast I’m eating right now”.
  • If you want to do more, move to some innocuous social thing like “last time I saw my friend Jeff”.
  • Then, if you have the hang of it and really want to apply this as a tool, choose a fraught social topic like “the turmoil going on in my community this past week”.

I noticed some interesting things when I did this.

The first thing I noticed was that merely avoiding specific words wasn’t enough to really sink into it (unsurprisingly). For example, I originally failed to include “one” in my list of words to avoid, and had to recognize in the middle of the exercise that using “one” was cheating. So if you do this, you’ll need to seek the spirit of the thing as you go, and notice when you’re falling out of step with it.

I also noticed that I spoke a lot, at first, in terms of bodies, as though watching from the outside. I said “The body writing is finishing breakfast.” And I perceived a sort of trap there. It’s well and good to write about bodies, but I was aware of a searching-for-my-keys-beneath-the-lamp-post feeling. I would begin to form a sentence like “I am finishing my breakfast,” realize the sentence didn’t follow the rules, and then slide toward describing an entirely different observation that would be easier to express in a rules-adhering way.

Following the spirit of the exercise lead me to directly confront the parts of the world I tend to describe person-ly. When I leaned into that, there was a lot that sounded like Focusing a la Gendlin: “there is tightness in this chest, and a searching sensation”.

When I leaned into it more, the words seemed to reveal a lot about how I implicitly believe human minds work. Instead of “the body writing,” I began to say things like “the agency and composition processes currently active”. I wrote, “It seems as though attention in this brain has drifted toward an association region that involves memories, imaginings, and expectations about restaurants and headaches”.

I also noticed that the more I did this, the more I tended to choose phenomenological terminology. Lots of words like “seem”, “expect”, and “a perception of”, things that only speak of the world in terms of immediate experience.

I shied away from statements that bundled together observation, inference, and claim. For instance, just to test it, I wrote, “How strange this is!”, and indeed that statement felt out of sync with everything else I had written. The claim that “the exercise is strange” is such a high-level summary. Reflecting on this, I wrote, “A claim of strangeness follows an assessment of strangeness, which follows a perception of strangeness, which follows small observations, each accompanied by feelings of non-expectation, or dissonance, or other things that together might be summarized as ‘strange’.”

The exercise as stated didn’t actually require adherence to phenomenological terminology, or careful separation of mental motions. A phrase like “How strange this is!” ought to be permitted. It doesn’t obviously presuppose personhood. But for whatever reason, avoiding person-reifying language led me to write like a phenomenologist.

Writing about other people was stifling, but also liberating. It was terribly difficult to write about “the turmoil in my community” without talking in terms of people. But what I did actually manage to write down was quite satisfying. I asked, “What is the current hoping of the active processes guiding composition about which phrases near-by bodies will emit in a week when the brains piloting them attend to association regions involving concepts of ‘community policy’ and ‘consent’?”

There’s a crisp-ness to that question, though its phrasing be cumbersome. The thoughts summoned by that question needn’t pass through complex social filters. Or at least if they do, it’s not the fault of the question itself. It’s a spacious question. It gives about as much room as possible to think about humans as I think about shingles, or music, or any other thing that exists in the universe and doesn’t carry a giant perception-warping story around with it all the time.

And I know there are good reasons to think about people in terms of those big stories we all help each other carry. That’s part of what I like about this exercise: I became much more aware of what work pershonhood stories are doing. Everyone is sort of naked and exposed without them, and perhaps crippled when it comes to complex multi-human relationships. It’s rude to think about people the same way you think of shingles. And “rude” is an extraordinarily person-reifying word.

I also think that social frames may be the greatest obstacle to original seeing.

“One of the things yoga has given me,” said my meta-teacher last weekend, “is clarity to see the truth of the present moment.” I think it gives me the same, and the way yoga teachers talk is probably part of how. A rare and precious clarity is available when I can move, at any time, to a mental space where it would just never occur to me that “I” could step “my” left foot forward.