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December 2011

The Real Meaning of Christmas

I love Christmas, and I am especially looking forward to it this year because, as some readers of my articles may have deduced, I have been seriously ill and in hospital for three months. At one point it looked as if I wouldn’t make Christmas at all; and then as if I’d still be in hospital over Christmas. So to be out of hospital and at home with the prospect of Christmas before me seems truly wonderful.

 Of course, for some, Christmas is fundamentally flawed – it has been spoilt, commercialised, and all its true values have been destroyed. These people have a point; but what is the real meaning of Christmas?

 We will all doubtless have our own ideas, but for me Christmas can be expressed in five simple words extracted from the Nicene Creed. Personally, I am not a big believer in creeds as they tend to be divisive; so I use these five simple words and invite you to interpret them literally, mythologically or symbolically, or as you will.

 The five simple words are: ‘He came down from heaven’. The key word in the sentence is the middle one: ‘down’ – ‘He came down …’. You see this tells us about the direction of the godhead, of the divine. Human beings want ‘up’ – to ascend, to have more, to grow further, but the godhead comes down. Humans have enthroned themselves in the heaven of their own egos, exalted their own self-importance, and drawn immense satisfactions from promoting the works of their own hands. By contrast, the godhead comes down, and that is what we must recall.

 Before I fell ill in July of this year I was an extremely strong, self-confident individual who could anything I wanted to, or set my heart on achieving; I scarcely felt a sense of limitation. But as I lay there in the hospital bed, getting weaker and weaker, so my ego drained away and I began to see – to use a Biblical phrase – that my ‘own right arm could not save me’.

 And that was then, and this is now: some seven or so weeks after I left hospital, its memories get dimmer and more remote. The lessons learnt seem less important and we forget what we need to remember. Old habits return.

 So Christmas reminds me that God needs to come down – down – into my heart and mind and re-establish divine presence there. I pray then that that will be true for us all. And what does that mean?

 It means, perhaps, to become like the baby in the manger, like all babies in fact. Babies have no ego, they are open to all experience, and open to everyone. They are accepting – of all reality. If we could be more like that all the time how much better would this world be?

 May, then, the real meaning of Christmas come alive in your hearts and minds, as you reflect on that brilliant line from the Nicene Creed: ‘He came down from heaven.’

Pedagogy and Motivation

I was asked an interesting educational question recently about motivation and pedagogy: to wit, what pedagogy is used to create classroom strategies that each motivator prefers?

Pedagogy is a word that one doesn’t encounter as frequently as one did, say, in the Seventies; what does it mean? Pedagogy is the science of teaching, of instruction, of training. It answers the question of how people learn effectively. Just preaching to people may make the preacher feel good, but will the audience learn anything? An exceptional preacher, possibly, may well impart knowledge and information, even rouse people to take action; but in the real world if every teacher in the classroom used ‘preaching’ as their dominant pedagogy, there would be even more disaffected and bored youngsters than there are now.

To teach – or train - effectively we must understand how people learn effectively. This understanding then informs the way and ways we present, communicate and offer information, knowledge, concepts, ideas and even practical skills.

There is a definite correlation between Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and motivation itself; further, the nine motivators – as defined by Pink in his book  Drive, and by others in their work – are themselves grouped into three categories of three: some motivators, those relating to control, wealth and expertise, are predominantly about thinking. And this is obvious (if you think about it!): exercising control, creating wealth and developing expertise all have in common a planning element to them. They are the typical motivators of high achievers in the work place; they are also, to use NLP terminology, synonymous with the ‘visual’ – the what-you-see-is-what-you-get, with plans that are logical, coherent and highly visible.

By contrast, three other motivators are highly geared to feeling. These reflect the needs for security, belonging and recognition. Security is something that fundamentally we can only achieve through relationships; belonging is equally about relationships with others; and recognition can only come from others – and from positive relationships with them, usually. Relationships, then, are less about the NLP ‘visual’, and more about the NLP ‘auditory’; for it is in listening to others that the strongest relationships are built.

Finally, three motivators are related to knowing, which is intuitive and direct, rather than being logical and considered like thinking. These motivators are creativity, freedom and meaning. These motivators are at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy – they are self-actualisation motivators. And they are very direct. To take one example, creativity: everyone knows, or should know, that one doesn’t think one’s way to being creative, although much thought may precede the ‘creative’ moment. The universal testimony about creativity is that it comes in a flash – in poetry it is called the ‘muse’ – and immediately solves complex problems and produces outstanding works of art. It is instant, and invariably the creative, him or herself, knows they have been a conduit for inspiration. In NLP terms, then, this knowing corresponds with the ‘kinaesthetic’, because the creative moment goes through the body – it is felt, although that is not the same as being a specific feeling.

It should be clear from the foregoing that the pedagogy that motivation needs to use to create effective classroom strategies is NLP or the three modes of perception called Think-Feel-Know (TFK), and these two correspond. To take the latter, then, what are its characteristics?

Think-orientated people prefer detail, data, statistics, evidence, proof, references and generally lots of information. In complete contrast to this feel-orientated people like stories, examples, pictures, anecdotes, metaphors, analogies, graphs, diagrams and more generally and literally getting the picture! Finally, the know-orientated people like plain, simple facts – get to the executive summary as quickly as possible.

Each of us has all three modes of perception, but we tend to be dominant in one, and have a secondary backup. Thus classroom strategies need to reflect on how a balance of all three can be achieved; and better still, if the classroom and individuals can be profiled, then to weight the balance towards the dominant one or two tendencies. This is even more critical where special needs are involved.

And a curious thing also arises. It could be that the profile is done through a Think-Feel-Know or NLP test to establish which modes are dominant in any given student. But it can also be reversed engineered: namely, a motivational profile of the individual or class, based on the nine categories of motivation, and the three triads I mentioned, would give the teacher a clear idea of which of Think-Feel-Know modes of perception were most likely to be effective.

It can hardly be emphasised enough that an appropriate pedagogy for classroom strategies is essential, and equally, if don’t want to think about in that pedagogic way, presenting learning in a way that motivates students is core. Let’s learn, then, more about motivation.

Visiting the Underworld with Orpheus

When I was a child I was fascinated by myths, and especially those concerning the underworld, what we sometimes call journeys into hell. It is difficult to account for why these sort of stories appeal, although now – at the later end of my life – it’s all very clear: having been to hell – my 3 months hospitalization – recently, then obviously my fascination was a sort of premonition of the fact!

All cultures have stories of heroes who descend into hell, but the most interesting I know of are the myths of the Ancient Greeks. Many of their heroes stormed hell – Heracles, Theseus, Odysseus to mention only three, three who returned. Of course, some – like Pirithous – failed to make it back.

But of all the heroes who explored hell, the greatest – the one who descended furthest - was ironically not a great warrior at all: the poet and musician Orpheus went deeper into the Underworld than even Heracles, and did it through his music and poetry alone. What is the significance, then, of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?

First, the desire to enter hell arose not from a compulsion for heroics but because his beloved wife, Eurydice, had died as a result of a snake bite. Thus Orpheus resolved to enter hell in order to bring his wife back to life.

In facing all the dangers and perils of hell, Orpheus’ solution was the same: to play his music and sing his song. So Charon, the ferryman, rowed him across the Styx without the obligatory payment; so Cerberus, the three headed dog that was virtually impossible to subdue, except by Heracles, was charmed into sleeping by the music; so all perils and obstacles yielded to the music. Till at last, Orpheus stood in the very throne room of Hades, lord of death and hell, himself.

There, before Hades and his queen, Persephone, Orpheus reached the climax of his song and struck the notes. It is said for the first and only time Hades wept – tears of molten tar. But more remarkable still, being in the throne room itself meant that the sound within its box vibrated throughout the whole domain of hell itself. All in hell heard the song of Orpheus.

Thus it was that the damned, Ixion at his wheel, Tantalus striving for his water, and Sisyphus fruitlessly and endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill only to find it roll back down each time, suddenly froze. They heard the music and their pain lifted. Their dull animal instincts to repeat and repeat their pointless activities – like rats in a maze- gave way to the return of human cognition.

For a moment they experienced relief and were enthralled by beauty – the beauty of Orpheus’ singing.

And then it ended – and the damned returned to their endless damnation. Hades was grateful for the entertainment and said he would grant whatever Orpheus wished for; and Orpheus requested the return of the life of Eurydice. This was granted but with one tiny condition:  that she follow him some twenty paces behind and that he must not turn to look at her before reaching sunlight again. Orpheus eagerly agreed.

So Orpheus retraced his happy steps, knowing Eurydice was right behind him, following him back to life. But then tragedy struck – within sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel leading up to the world, Orpheus needed to check she was still there. He turned, looked, and even as he did so her form, which had gained substantiality on the way up, now began to de-compose; she waved one last despairing wave, and was gone, forever. His journey had achieved nothing, and he returned alone to the world of sunshine above ground.

But had he achieved nothing? It seems to me two important lessons emerge from the tale. The first is by asking the question, why did he fail? The answer is clear: he failed because of his unbelief – his lack of faith – he did not take the god at his word. The god, who was delighted with the song and the singer, had no reason to lie, and yet Orpheus in turning refused to believe him.

And this is our problem: we do not believe the god who speaks within us – what Jung called the Self – the deeper part of us that incorporates the unconscious and the archetypes. We rationalise and we think our egos know all the truth – and then as we disbelieve the god we are struck down with our own specific tragedies.

The second lesson, however, is far more optimistic. It is to contemplate how hell itself began to turn into heaven as the song was sung; and that reminds us that the universe – the uni (one) – verse (song or poem) is precisely that. All life, all joy is in the music, the pattern, the structure that underpins all that is. And so, even hell is transformed if we can sing our own song.

Are you Orpheus? Are you singing your song – being your own poem? Or are you someone who will die with their music still unsung and inside them? The message is clear: get singing – who knows – you may well rescue your own Eurydice from the depths.