October 03, 2008

Stretched Beyond the Learning Zone

video by Chrysalis Studios

I’ve been wanting to learn a new skill called Graphic Recording (watch the video to see a professional in action). I love to doodle, love listening for the essence of what a group is saying and enjoy trying to make the ideas and abstractions visual and concrete. I know that I am not a skilled drawer. I’ve never had a natural ability to draw real things (I do draw abstractions) and I’ve never practiced or taken a class to try and learn this skill. So off I went yesterday to a beginner’s graphic recording class to try and develop this new skill that I could integrate with an old one. At least that’s what I thought I was there to learn!

What I really learned about was the intensity of feeling overwhelmed, frozen, unable to act, stretched beyond my capacities to learn, inadequate, and unclear about where to start.

The first three fourths of the class I was doing great and enjoying myself. I was learning new things and loving that! We were going over basic lettering and drawing skills. The other participants in the room with me were 2 professional artists and 2 art history majors who work in other fields. My drawing station was sandwiched between the professional illustrator and the professional graphic artist. I was fine with that. As we’d draw various icons, I’d copy what the instructor drew, laugh at my attempts, keep trying, look around the room and learn from what others were drawing. I was humored by my products and inspired by those around me. Sometimes I was even impressed by what I drew. I felt comfortable with the fact that this was a skill that I currently didn’t have and that I was in the process of learning. I was mildly embarrassed at how un-people like my efforts to draw people were, but this was the time to learn and I was clearly showing up to learn so it was okay.

And then the last section of the class. We had two opportunities to do live graphic recording. First we listened as a brief article was read to us and we recorded. It was fast, confusing and my graphic was a mess. I could get words out but not images. I was flooded with information and stuck between trying to write down everything fast, create images, and fill my paper. Phew… it was done. My product was awful, but that was fine. To the garbage it went, a fine first experience. I learned how I had to slow down and really listen and not just try and write everything down (or I wouldn’t understand any of it).

Here we go, we’re doing it again. This time we’ve got a 10 minute lecture on dog training to graphically record. I know to save a lot of space, I know there is a lot of information (10 minutes worth) to get recorded on my 8 foot piece of paper. I’m going to go slow, listen to the heart of what is being said and record what moves through me.

Midway through this process, I reached beyond my stretch zone, beyond my learning zone and into a place where I felt frozen and inadequate. I was stretching myself on too many fronts and I was unable to find moments of success in any of them. The organization of ideas on my page was a mess, I wasn’t clear if I was capturing the main ideas, I had no idea how to even begin to draw a dog and there were many places where I wanted to, and I was trying to think of other images that would help my page not be all words. And all of these things that I didn’t know were effecting the things that I thought I did know. Even the words that I was writing were often too small, illegible and upon later viewing contained many misspellings. At one point the instructor noticed that I had frozen, that I was breaking down or giving up. She encouraged me to just keep going, record whatever comes through me. I felt a little bit of relief. Okay, just listen to what comes through you. The problem was that everything that emerged through me at this point was filtered through a feeling of inadequacy. I made it to the end. I spent the next 10 minutes along with my classmates ‘making it pretty,’ adding color, filling in details, trying to create a whole out of this mess. It was not fun. It felt pointless. There was no way to turn these parts into a decent final product.

As I shared this story with a friend, he kept asking if I was embarrassed. I was a little, but that wasn’t my strongest emotion. I was totally discouraged. All of the hope and possibility, all of my sense of ‘just keep trying,’ ‘you’re just learning,’ ‘just do what you can,’ ‘you’re learning a new skill’ had emptied out of me. I felt overwhelmed, inadequate and discouraged. And then, feeling all of that weight, I just wanted to quit.

The opportunity to experience paralysis and all of its accompanying emotions and responses was my greatest learning yesterday. While the experience itself was brief and passed, after the class I allowed myself to stay with that feeling of failure, the feeling that I couldn’t do it, the reality that I was stretched beyond where I had tools to help myself stay engaged. I slipped deeper and deeper into how little of a person I felt. It’s really hard for me to be asked to do something and then constantly be confronted with the fact that I can’t do it. There must be something wrong with me, right?

If I intellectually look at it now, I don't feel any of those things. However, in the moment, that is what captured me.

I think about a 5 year old friend of mine who at times expresses his emotions of anger and embarrassment by lashing out and hurting another person. I hear him, after the fact, telling me that he feels sad that he’s hurt the other person. I imagine that in the moment of lashing out and pinching another, there is a part of him that is aware that he’s ‘not doing it right’ and yet the other parts of him have no idea as to how to stop and act in a different way. Just like I haven’t learned the skills of drawing and graphic recording, he hasn’t learned the skills of recognizing his emotions, choosing how to respond and thus having a respectful engagement when he’s feeling a strong emotion. In those moments, does he feel the same sense of overwhelmed inadequacy as I did yesterday? Does he feel frozen with no ideas about where to successfully start?

In retrospect, there were many places that I could have started. I could have taken a deep breath. I could have picked one skill to work on instead of trying to accomplish all of them. I could have chosen to start with only paying attention to how I organize my page, or simply capturing the content, or just try to draw images, regardless of what they look like. Any of those would have been simple places for me to narrow this seemingly unapproachable task and find a place to make contact, to re-enter, to focus my attention. But in the moment, I didn’t see those doorways. I just felt paralyzed by this overwhelming flood of sensations, thoughts and feelings. And there was this non-stop voice of the lecture and the unyielding presence of this task I was supposed to be accomplishing staring me in the face.

I walked away from the experience with half of me feeling deflated, depleted, and quite down on myself. I was also frustrated and disappointed in that side of myself. I had kept such a great attitude, stayed so open to learning and so accepting of where I was in my skills and abilities. I had such courage to walk into something as a complete beginner with openness to learn. And then, once that place of being pushed beyond my capacities was activated in me, it was so hard to rediscover solid ground. Intellectually I was able to come back to the room, the group, and recognize the great job I did by just jumping in and trying. But experientially, it was like a toxic chemical had been released in me and it was hard to cleanse it out of me. On a small scale it feels like a dose of shock and trauma to my system. It was as if I had been stung by a bee. I wasn’t hurting that much any more, I was calm again. And yet the shock of being stung was still in my system and I could still feel the echo of the poison reverberating in my being.

And so the questions that I sit with: How do I recognize when others are stretched beyond their learning zone? How do I recognize and support them if they have hit a place of discouragement and despair? How can I offer children and adults opportunities to see places to start? And for myself, I hope that in the future I will recognize when I reach that break down place and will remember to narrow down my choices and find one place to focus my attention, finding a place to start.

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