Helping Each Other Fly

Whereas all other animal species on Earth evolve naturally toward the mature and fully self-actualized ideals of their distinct genotypes, the fulfillment of human potential requires a mediating system of inventions and conventions known as culture.

Without culture humans are incapable of realizing the full potential of what lies within us.

And yet, it is also the case that culture can be a dark and destructive force which extinguishes the Human Spirit in so many of us. The talent and creative intelligence that seeks to be discovered, developed, and expressed instead goes undiscovered, or worse it gets suppressed by abusive or incompetent parents, teachers, trainers, and coaches.

The old argument between those, like Thomas Hobbes, who regarded culture as a civilizing influence upon a savage animal nature, and others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw it as having a corrupting influence on a native innocence, has been exposed as based on a false dichotomy.

It’s not human nature on one side and human culture on the other, but a human nature expressed and further developed through the mediation of culture. Human culture is technically an “exaptation” that human nature produced by virtue of its creative intelligence, and then used that creation to support, drive, and inspire the prolific output which has expanded and accelerated ever since.

Culture quickly became a kind of scaffolding for human progress, to the point where now human survival is nearly impossible without it.

It’s certainly true that the higher we climb into this scaffolding of culture and the more reliant on its support we get, the weaker our animal instincts, native intuitions, and “natural wisdom” also tend to become. Like Darth Vader in Star Wars who was unable to live without his breathing mask and protective suit, humans have grown existentially dependent on the artificial habitats and support of culture.

But this post is not intended as another dystopian scenario of our human fate. I will invite my reader to climb back down with me, closer to that generative threshold of human creativity where our native intelligence as individuals was originally coaxed and guided into learning the foundational skills of culture.

Almost by definition, a skill is an ability that must be learned and typically also taught, then practiced towards mastery.

Humans don’t know how to perform a skill by instinct. We may be naturally predisposed with a talent or knack for it, but its performance is something that requires instruction, training, coaching, and consistent practice to even stand a chance of approximating the level of proficiency known as mastery.

And because learning a new skill depends on other humans (even with today’s addition of instructional AI), this “learning alliance” is where the process can really take off – or fail.

My question, then, is about successful skill instruction, acquisition, and mastery.

What makes for a strong and productive learning alliance? Whether we’re talking about parents and children, teachers and students, coaches and players, therapists and clients, physicians and patients, trainers and trainees, what is the path by which human nature gets lifted into culture’s scaffolding of skills and thus equipped for the higher flourishing of our species?

The above illustration depicts a piano lesson in session. A student sits at the piano as an instructor stands behind her, commenting and advising on the recital underway. The “path” in question is laid out schematically like a circuit, using a magenta-colored line with numbered nodes to indicate key junctures where a learning alliance facilitates, or otherwise impedes, the creative flow.

1. Internal State

Human nature shows up to the session in the animal biology of both the student and teacher. This node is positioned in the “gut” or viscera where the body’s internal nervous state is registered and managed. The optimal internal state for learning is coherent, composed, and calm, making it more likely that each partner of the learning alliance can give their attention and effort to the challenge at hand.

An anxious, agitated, or depressed nervous state, on the other hand, does not support mindful intention and effective learning, but is instead susceptible to distraction, forgetfulness, disengagement and performance errors. What is called a grounded state identifies the optimal psychosomatic (mind-body) alignment where an individual is centered in present awareness, mindfully attentive to Reality and fully embodied.

An effective learning alliance is rooted in the grounded internal states of both teacher and student.

2. Interpersonal Rapport

Neither partner has any direct control over the other’s internal state. Still, the evolutionary design of their nervous systems gives each a natural ability (not a skill) to sense, react, adapt and influence the other. In an effective learning alliance, a “teacher” traditionally has the greater responsibility for managing the communication and other conditions that are conducive to a calm, focused, and engaged session. Under such conditions the student is more likely to learn what she needs to know and know how to do.

Many students are naturally nervous in facing the challenge of learning something new. Their natural curiosity is often counterbalanced by a self-conscious awareness of the fact that they don’t yet know nor can they do very expertly what the teacher may be expecting.

A skillful teacher takes responsibility by affirming effort, recognizing progress, and encouraging improvement – all the while assuring the student of their unconditional confidence and patient support.

3. Technical Mastery

Progress to skill mastery can take a while, particularly for more complex skills like playing the piano. But with calm internal states in both teacher and student, and a positive interpersonal rapport between them, the implementation and correction through consistent practice makes the approach to mastery much more likely.

The student will typically be expected to practice on her own between lessons, demonstrating her growing competency and exposing where she needs to improve on her skill each time.

The learning pathway for a new skill moves through distinct phases: (1) a mimetic phase where the student mimics or mirrors what the teacher is modeling; (2) a practice phase where specific moves and routines are repeated over and over again; and finally (3) a performance phase, by which time the mechanics of the skill require less conscious attention and effortful control, liberating the new “master” for a flawless rendition, fresh improvisation, and even creative innovation.

4. Creative Transcendence

This ascending progress, where the technical mastery of skills at one level serves as the foundation for the learning of skills at higher levels of cultural engagement and production, is what has lifted our human potential to new heights over the long millenniums of time. Along the way we have become more connected, more involved, and even more creative. All of our knowledge, technologies, and skills have united us into a single global community.

The cultural scaffolding of skills has elevated us to a level of diversity awareness and inclusion never before possible. We have created new dimensions of identity, new architectures of intelligence, new technologies of communication, and new possibilities for self-transcendence. We seem to be just on the cusp of a new communal way of being that is mystically grounded, socially engaged, and ethically enlightened.

And just now, wouldn’t you know it, we are starting to devote less attention, invest less time, and accept less responsibility for managing the healthy learning alliances on which creative culture and human fulfillment depend.

Maybe it’s not too late.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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