Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Better Sudent Makes a Better Teacher

Here's an article I am working on on the very difficult task of chucking your ego out the window so you can become a better student. There's more in the series, one that follows this is... "Yes, but HOW?"

“You need to stop dropping your hand” your clinician says to you.

Internally, you answer; “But I wasn’t, or I did, but only on the two turns that you saw! And I’ve been working on my hands.”

You may feel several emotions with this internal monologue, anger, frustration, like you’ve been short changed, not honored for your hard work, misunderstood, and as thought the clinician thinks you are a much poorer skier than you feel you really are.

But let’s take a second here. If the clinician saw you drop your hand in two turns, that means that during those two turns, your hand was in a less than optimal position. Lets say that you have been working on your hands for just this reason, It’s been mentioned to you, you are aware of it. It’s the thing you are working on in your skiing.

So its frustrating that you’ve been working so hard to make this change in your skiing, and the one thing the clinician says to you is not, “Wow, you’ve been improving your skiing! You are doing a much better job with your hands, but I saw them drop twice in that run. Try to remember to keep them ahead of your midline and soft and quiet. Keep working on it, it’s much better!” but “Keep your hand up.”

What you are experiencing in this moment, most likely, is the presence of your ego. Ego is defined several ways, in the west we tend to think of someone as “having a big ego” meaning they think a lot of themselves. The “all that and a bag of chips” syndrome.

For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to use a more Eastern definition of Ego, one that does not imply negative connotations. It simply is. It is a part of human consciousness, and in many philosophies, the goal is to eliminate the Ego in order to be able to be open to Truth. How in the WORLD this applies to skiing is coming, just hang with me here for a second.

In eastern philosophies, the Ego is seen as the idea of you as a separate “I” or self. When we believe that having our selves validated, the thing you wish the clinician had told you, is just and deserved. You earned that validation, and before you will accept the teachings, the teacher must placate that desire for validation. Even if it’s just a nod, a smile, something, we all search for it.

That searching enforces the idea of “I” or “self”, and puts a block between you and your ability to absorb information. Your Ego is a wall, an obstacle between you and the thing you are trying to accomplish, to become a better skier. You are actively standing in the way of your own progress, because you are unable to receive teaching like a master student: you are a sponge, opening your ears as wide as you can to catch any wisdom that may fall through the net of your mind.

Now, what if you personally think this clinician is a total dip sh*t and you don’t understand what they are saying, or agree with half of it? What if you have a lot of training and the way this clinician is either critiquing your skiing or teaching their clinic is becoming personally offensive to you?

Your Ego is in the way of you becoming a better Clinician yourself, or a better teacher, and you certainly are not learning anything right now, which means you are standing in the way of your own goal, again.

Yes, you may be technically correct. The person teaching the clinic may be giving information that is confusing to you, or contradictory to what you believe. This makes it hard to receive. You may start looking around for compatriots in the group: does anyone else feel the way that I do? You make eye contact, give a nod or a raised eyebrow. You have now completely tuned out your teacher in your attempt to validate your desire to know that you are right, you are feeding your Ego.

What if you could challenge yourself to actively set aside your Ego? What if you took the moment that hurt the most, the moment you wanted to justify “Yeah, I know, my hand dropped for those two turns, but it was up the rest of the time, I’ve been working hard on that.” And asked your self to follow this path instead:

“My hand was down when my teacher saw me.
I joined this clinic and therefore accepted that whoever is teaching me has wisdom to share.
I will now set aside my ego, open my ears and swallow my pride.

If my hand was down, that means it drops, which means I need to work on it more. I choose to take this comment as something that I need to change in my skiing, and since that is why I am here, to improve my skiing, I will accept this comment with an open heart.

I put aside the feelings that are fighting to protect my ego, set my ego aside, and challenge myself to be grateful for the accurate feedback that I am receiving.”

NOW, and ONLY now, are you ready to apply and ask for change in your skiing.

Think about what you could do in your skiing if you were able to set aside your ego whenever you wanted to learn a new skill. Your learning curve would never level off, because you would always be open to new sources of knowledge and new levels of understanding, you would never be bored, because you would always be challenging yourself to set aside your ego to take the lesson.

Now, this may seem really touchey-feely navel gazing to many people. But again, I ask… if you wish you could rip with the best of them, but currently, you don’t ski as well as you dream you could, and you were able to realize that the thing standing in between you and skiing like you dream you can is your own ego, that part of you that can only hear information from certain sources, distrusts information from other sources, and needs to be validated as separate, “I”, self, you might be motivated to give this a try.

Here’s the rub. We all have an ego. It will come and go, your ability to set it aside will come and go, you will fall victim to it when “surprise attacked”, especially by certain types of individuals, those folks who just rub you the wrong way for no particular reason, or maybe for a very particular reason.

photo by TheOtherPeteOne of the most difficult times for me to set aside my ego in skiing was luckily early on in my skiing career. It was the end of my first season, March, and I’d been teaching for about two months. I was out for my very first Ridge Hike with Josh Spohler and Joe Krakker. I was not a very good skier, but I really wanted to be.

I hiked up the bootpack nervous as hell with sweat dripping off of me. I’d been hiking all summer, so I thought I was in pretty good shape. I was ten steps up and getting my ass kicked. I’d never worn skis on my back before, my goggles had slipped off my helmet, which I had stupidly left on. My ego drove me to hike faster than I could handle, so my heart was pounding, I was not oxygenating my blood because I was totally anaerobic, so I was fatiguing my muscles at more than twice the rate I could have, had I just slowed down a bit.

But I was grateful that Josh and Joe were willing to take me up to the Ridge, and I didn’t want them to regret it by having to wait for me. Of course, they both knew exactly what was going on, I could hear them talking.

“So what do you think, the Apron? Or the Nose? Or Z?”.

“Not Z. With legs? Don’t you think?”

They were speaking in a short hand, trying to protect my feelings, but I knew that they knew that I was suffering, and I was pissed because of it. I want to be strong! I don’t want to be a sweaty, lame girl.

Then some dude hiked by me in the snow off the boot pack, because I hadn’t thought to pull over and let the stack of people piling up behind me go, and he looked at my bright red face, my goggles steamed and askew, all my layers stripped and hung variously around my waist and neck and skis… and he says, “Gee, you are kind of a mess, aren’t you!”

Yeah, thanks, buddy, that helps.

Realizing that it was obvious to everyone that I was a total gaper and a junk show, I pulled over, and could feel the lactic acid burning through my legs, I could feel how heavy and shaky they were. I had no idea how I was going to ski down, and really, I’ve never skied in powder before. I mean, I’d momentarily hopped off the groomed, but I’d never been in waist-deep, bottomless powder on a steep pitch before.

Josh and Joe took me down the most direct route from where we topped out, thank god, but if my ego wasn’t burning yet, the best was to come.

There was a huge crowd of people at the top of the ridge, and fresh powder to be had everywhere, it was a beautiful bluebird day. By the time I’d got all my gear back on, my legs were still shaking and I was still overheating from the hike, but Josh and Joe had been standing on the top for what felt like 20 minutes at least cooling off, and I knew they wanted to go skiing.

Josh asked me how I was doing, and, letting my ego answer for me, I replied “Great! Lets Go!” My legs, however, could have used another two minutes and another quart of water.

Josh dropped in and did about three turns. He’d been patiently holding my gear, coaching me up the boot pack, chilling me out, supporting me, and telling me I was doing well. He was trying to coach me into not being embarrassed about being slow and sweaty and lame. He was trying, whether he knew it or not, to teach me to set aside my ego so I could just experience what was happening in the now.

I was standing at the top, they’d made a plan that Joe would follow, presumably to put together the junk show that might appear somewhere on the run.

I made one turn. One. And exploded. I must have been as far back in the back seat as one can get, and turned my skis completely across the fall line, going ass over teakettle, loosing ALL my gear, both skis… a total and complete catastrophe. One turn. When I came up out of the snow, I heard it. Josh was laughing. No, Josh was howling. His head was thrown back, his face was red, he was genuinely belly laughing at me. Then, off the ridge, “New kid, Josh?”

And Josh, back at them, as he began hiking up to me, “Yup, we like to make em explode as early as possible now!” laugh laugh, hike, hike hike, and still, here I am, kind of frozen.

I have a choice here. I can let my burning pride rise up inside of me, and allow my ego to take over, protecting me from embarrassment, hurt, and harm, or, I can open my ears and my heart to the lesson that my teacher might be teaching me right now. I chose to do this hike with Josh. I asked him to take me off the ridge. I asked him to teach me. Up to this point, he has been taking spectacular care of me, even thought I’ve been trying to pretend that I don’t need any help at all. Why would I choose NOT to listen to this teacher?

What is the lesson, right here, in the place where it hurts the most, in public, as an ass on my face. The lesson is, its funny. I fell over in the snow after my first turn. This is going to be a long freakin’ run, I’m in over my head, but I’m not hurt, and I get to have an adventure, an experience, that not everyone gets to have. I get to hike up (part of) a mountain, and then ski off the tippy top of it with two spectacularly talented skiers and teachers.

This thought flashed across my mind and I looked at how hard I’d been working to get up the boot pack, to suck it up, how badly I wanted to be a bad ass killer kick butt skier, and the reality of how far I was from that. I felt proud of my work ethic, sheepish about my overestimation of my ability, pleased that Josh took me anyway, and found humor in my ridiculous yard sale. A real and true laugh escaped from me, as I shook my head while Josh built a platform, and got me back into my gear.

Needless to say, it took a ridiculously long time to get down, Josh built a ridiculous number of platforms while I re-collected myself over and over again. I was never so grateful to see the Alpine road in my LIFE. I was sure we were done, that I’d proven to be way too much of a goober to go ski anything else, and Josh turns to me, “Game for more?” a minorly evil smile on his face.

You bet. I was ready, really ready, psyched and pumped, but open to coaching, finally. My ego took so many spills down that top run that I was gratified to be invited along for more, and then I set that aside as an ego-feeding feeling and just went skiing. They took off through the trees and out to the boundary of the meadow, and I learned a lot, about skiing, about myself, about learning, and about how far I have to go as a student, a teacher, and a person who is practicing loosing ego.

Of course, I still suffer from it. We all do. Of course, there are times when I want to correct the person who I feel has made an assumption about me. I want to defend myself, to prove myself. These are my unique emotions that are tied to my sense of self, they are the seat of my ego.

But the greatest challenge is also the biggest reward. When that urge is at its strongest, it comes with a reminder: you learned to find humor in hurt, open your ears and listen to the teacher. Set ego aside and listen, you might learn something.” I repeat this mantra to myself during almost all my training, during lessons, clinics, free skiing, hiking up hard stuff. I repeat this mantra with my mother and with my sisters, with people I’ve just met and people who feel they know me well.

Every time I have the discipline to set my sense of protective self aside, I learn something. Today, I learned from my three year old client that pink light feels like magic. I also learned that I can solve my still-existent powder problem by standing against my platform wherever it is in the turn rather than panicking and trying to create an emergency platform to crouch against.

There were a host of other lessons that are kind of ripple effects of setting aside ego in a learning environment, but my favorite as they apply to skiing are these:

When you challenge yourself to set aside your ego and open your ears to the teaching, no matter the source, or your apparent human emotions, when you create just the smallest amount of space internally, just a titch of distance from the thing sparking your ego, you become a sponge for knowledge. And then, you can truly ask your body to perform the task the teacher is requiring of you. If your ego isn’t standing in your way, your body can do what you want it to, the directions have clarity.

Another great effect of this practice is that in setting aside your ego, you create an atmosphere that fosters community. The locker room becomes a non-judgmental place, where people of all abilities are simply on their own paths, working towards getting better at balancing on their skis so they can have more fun playing in the snow. Suddenly, there is a group working together, rather than factions talking behind backs.

This is not to suggest that you have to agree with every statement a teacher makes to you. This is to ask that you set aside ego, open your ears, and catch whatever wisdom you can find. Then, go fill out a clinician evaluation. Your honest, real, NON ego driven report will help the trainer to evaluate how the clinician is truly operating, and he won’t have to put your evaluation through a “filter.” (Oh, this person said this because they don’t like this clinician, therefore, your comments, which may be valid, are totally ignored, and no change is made.)

If you can begin this practice, you will become a master student, able to truly absorb every drop of teaching and wisdom you can get close to, and then ask your body to sort through the information and process it. Your learning curve stays steep, you improve, you empower others around you to improve, and you help the program itself to improve, because the truth you tell in your evaluations is not ego driven.

This suggestion is the foundation for excellence as a student. And, as we all know from our deep dedication to Kung-Fu films, excellence as a student is needed if one wants to become a master, and then a teacher. True Mastry can only be achieved if one can achieve excellence as a teacher.

Thanks for stopping to gaze at your navel for a moment with me, and good luck with your quest!


Anonymous said...

Great discussion Kate. I think it can get harder as you get older especially in areas you are somewhat proficient. I have to daily remind myself to set aside my ego in my relationships with family, friends, collegues, and patients. Lead the way Kate! But just because you have excellent insights doesn't excuse you from turning my kids into monsters!

a said...

ha ha HA! That's my job! Now you have to learn to keep up with them! I do agree that it gets harder as you get older, but I also think that our ability to understand why its important improves with wisdom and age, so... it's a wash. In any event, I believe that simply being mindful and practicing it helps move you towards openness, even when you fail!

Thanks for reading!!