Tuesday, December 20, 2022

"This Is How Spirit Works"

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa

I've been driving cars for 45 years. It's been decades since I spent time and energy thinking about driving. I just do it. When I was first behind the wheel, when I was learning about driving, I had to think about every aspect of what I was doing, but today it is second nature.

As Tyson Yunkaporta explains it in his book Sand Talk: "At the simplest level, when we hold a tool, our brain recognizes it as an extension of our arm. It isn't really part of our body, but it becomes an embodied extension of our neural processes."

This ability to make and use tools, like hammers or cars, is one of the things that makes Homo sapiens the species we are. Of course, other species, like apes, otters, and crows, use tools, but none to the extent that we do.

I recently observed a toddler stop to consider a stick on the ground. On wobbly legs, she stood over that stick for a moment, before carefully, awkwardly, bending at the waist and knees to get closer to it. Again, she paused to catch her balance before reaching out her hand, fingers splayed. It took her a couple attempts to grasp hold of it. She fell on her bottom in the effort to stand upright again, but then, without dropping the stick, she pushed herself back onto her feet. She then began testing the world with that stick, tapping it on the ground, poking tree trunks, sticking it into holes. It had become "an embodied extension of (her) neural processes."

We've all observed young humans doing these kinds of things. This urge to extend our bodies and minds out into our environment is, in many ways, what learning is all about. Reggio Emilia educators consider "the environment" be a teacher, equal in significance to human teachers. Indigenous wisdom, no matter where we find it in the world, has always acknowledged the interconnectedness between we humans and the rest of creation.

"At more complex levels," writes Yunkaporta, "the meaning we make with places, people, and objects and the way we organize interactions between these things become an extension of our thinking. Through meaning-making, we effectively store information outside our brains, in objects, places, and relationships with others." (Italics are mine)

Recently, I went golfing for the first time in 30 years. I was concerned I would make a fool of myself, and I did, but not nearly to the degree I'd feared. Indeed, the moment I picked up a club, I was reconnected to the golf clubs of my youth. I thought of my father's persimmon wood drivers, then my father, then of taking those clubs to our local municipal course and the pride of having the pro there enthuse over their rarity and beauty. I thought I'd forgotten everything about golf, but the moment I took my first swing, my body and mind embodied much of the knowledge I had stored away in those clubs from long ago. As I went around the course, I was in the past as much as the present, as the course itself -- the grass, the sand traps, the greens, the balls, the tees -- taught and re-taught knowledge, even wisdom, that I'd left stored there long ago.

Many of us will gather with our extended families over the holidays where we will will reconnect with knowledge that we keep stored in our relationships with others. Perhaps we will spend time in our childhood homes or engaging in rituals and traditions that reconnect us to things we thought we'd forgotten. If the lessons we learned were of kindness and love, those will surround us. If they were harsh or sad, we will resist or avoid the people, places, or things that store our pain, which is probably why so many of us find the holidays challenging.

Our children are just beginning this process of extending themselves into the world, of connecting their neural processes with their environment. They are just beginning to store their knowledge and wisdom outside of their brains. They will learn things in school, although most of it will remain in school, stored there in the classrooms, teachers, and classmates. Their important connections will be made with the people, places, and things from life itself.

"If you use a familiar object to help you encode new knowledge that you are learning," write Yunkaporta, "then when you pick up that object or even just visualize it, you instantly remember what you learned. It has become a tangible metaphor, an overlap between the two worlds." This goes for people and places as well as things. Writes Yunkaporta, "This is how spirit works."


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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