Joy From Learning
When 2022 started I only had one goal for the year–to find and cultivate joy. To help me achieve this I read The Book Of Joy. I was motivated and determined even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy with the presence of wars (e.g. Yemen and Ukraine), humanitarian conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan and Ethiopia), the Covid-19 pandemic and a looming global economic crisis. As we are coming to the end of the year I’ve been reflecting. Remarkably, I can say that I did manage to find plenty of joy this year. I’ve realized that the most joy I’ve gotten has come from learning.
Leave your ego outside
One day at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) school, I noticed that Prof (the term used in BJJ for sensei) Pedro bows at the entrance before entering the training studio. I asked him why he does that. He replied it was a reminder to leave his ego and any baggage outside and enter with an open mind. He said it is from his Judo training (he also has black belt in Judo). But for the rest of us mere mortals without Judo training, if the BJJ warm up session doesn’t take us down a few pegs, the moves drills that follow will. And by the time you get to sparring you are the epitome of humbleness. The warm up usually lasts 10 minutes of high-intensity calisthenics. It consists of exercises I tolerate like squats and sit ups, ones I avoided for years like jogging (in all directions, including backwards and sideways) and jumping jacks, and exercises that I loathe and never did like burpees and push-ups. You are so busy trying to keep up with the exercises that you don’t have time to think. Should you arrive to the class even a minute late, that’s 20 extra push-ups for you. When you hear the Prof say “get some water” signaling the warm up is over, you are filled with an enormous sense of relief and eagerness to start learning. Because you know that you will have a couple of minutes rest while you watch the Prof demonstrate the first move.
He will usually explain the mechanics and show you how to do the moves three times and then you pair up to have a go. Within seconds of starting, you start questioning: What did he do with the arms again? Why can’t I get my leg over? Why is my partner not feeling any pressure? And you wonder if it is your attention span or memory that is bad or it is both. If you are smart enough to pair up with someone with a higher belt (more experienced) then they will guide you. However, if it is a new move or a new take on a classic move you could both struggle and have to wait for the Prof to come around. You will drill back and forth with your partner for about 30 minutes until the Prof announces it is time to line up for sparring. For the last 15 minutes of the class you get to try out the skills you have learnt earlier on a range of partners of varying belt levels, shapes and gender. You fist bump your opponent, then you start fighting. Before you could finish muttering “relax” to yourself (because according to Roger Gracie, considered the greatest competitor in BJJ, it is important to relax before and during any fight), your body has tensed up, shocked by your opponent’s first move. You are now in a reactive mood, you pull, you kick, you roll. Whatever hope you may have of showing off your newly acquired skill is dashed within seconds depending on the experience level of your opponent. Many times I’ve lasted just 10 seconds before I was defeated. You simply get up and walk to the back of the line and wait for your next opponent. As you catch your breath you observe other fights going on. You see a 5’2 tall woman take down men way bigger than her one after another. You marvel at her mastery and wonder if one day you will be at her level. Prof says yes, but it takes years and years of training because being good at BJJ is about skills and technique rather than strength. Then sparring is over and you all line up according to your belt levels. The class ends with everyone going round to shake the hand of every single person (even if there are 30 people present) there, to thank them for helping you learn. A reminder that you can’t learn without others, and to ensure you leave the studio without any hard feelings. Often, as soon as the class is over, the higher belt opponents that beat you will come and find you, if they think you are open, and will show how they did it so you know for next time. You leave the studio lighter, warmer and stronger (you’ve survived another class). And strangely you feel a little wiser too even though you’ve just had your weaknesses exposed and used against you. But you’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter, you now know better and eventually you will do better. You grasp that the lightness you feel isn’t because you sweated off 2 kilos but from the ego the class has chipped off. This fills you with enough sense of joy that subdues any aches you may be feeling. I’ve felt like this every single one of the three times per week I’ve attended BJJ class this year.
Growing up my mother and teachers used to say that studying would make me smarter. So I was taken aback when I heard Richard J. Haier, an expert in human intelligence and cognition, say in a conversation with Lex Fridman that intelligence is determined by genetics and that we still don’t know how to improve it. I thought I could give up reading books, stop learning new things, and just watch more of the Mexican and Korean TV shows I love. Then it dawned on me that learning might not make me smarter but it has certainly made me less ignorant. And I believe books have done more to reduce my ignorance than anything else this year. Of the many books I’ve been blessed to have read this year, the two that have left the most lasting impact are: How The World Really Works and Whole Brain Living. The former book, as I wrote about in my previous newsletter, answered many questions I had (and didn’t think to ask) about my external world, while the latter book amplified my understanding of my internal world.
I’ve heard many say “people are generally good”. I don’t believe this. Neither do I believe we are generally bad. I think we all possess all positive and negative human traits but in varying degrees, and how and when they manifest is based on circumstances. I ask myself often how to ensure I tap into my positive side. But it is still hard because I feel that most things in life are out of my control, myself especially. For example, I detest laziness but I see it in myself every day. It takes me at least 30 minutes longer than it should to get out of bed. I will skip exercise sets in the gym and put off doing certain work tasks till the very last minute. In Whole Brain Living,Dr Jill Bolte Taylor stipulates that once we understand how our brain works “we ultimately gain the power to choose who and how we want to be in the world each and every moment, regardless of what external circumstances we find ourselves in.” (Whole Brain Living (p. 10)). She believes this not just because of her decades long career as a neuroanatomist studying the brain and mental disorders but also because she had her own mental disorder–she had a stroke that caused her to lose function of her left brain and it took her 8 years to recover. If you haven’t seen her TED presentation on what she learnt from having a stroke, I highly recommend you do.
Contrary to popular belief that the left side of the brain is rational while the right is emotional, both hemispheres of the brain actually have both characteristics. Dr. Bolte Taylor writes: “From a neuroanatomical perspective, although it is true that our left thinking tissue is the home of our conscious, rational mind, both our left and right brain hemispheres share the cells of our emotional limbic system equally. The major structures of the limbic system are mirrored in each hemisphere such that we have two amygdalae, two hippocampi, and two anterior cingulate gyri, among others” (Whole Brain Living (pp. 12-13)). There is also higher cortical thinking tissue in our right brain. However, the emotional and thinking group of cells found in both hemispheres have different functions. She groups their functionality into four different characters.
The four characters of the brain
Character 1, the thinking part of the left hemisphere is like a serial processor. It’s verbal, thinks linearly and in language, analytical, judgemental, past/future based, detail oriented, orderly, seeks differences and focuses on ME. Character 4, the thinking module of the right hemisphere is more about the WE, seeks similarities and to connect. Thinks in picture and experientially, it is nonverbal, kinetic, focuses on the big picture and the present. It is open, fluid, unconscious and lost in the flow of time. Character 2,the emotional module of the left hemisphere, is fear based, rigid, cautious, loves conditionally, selfish, manipulative, independent, and feels superior/inferior, good/bad, right/wrong. Character 3, found in the right hemisphere, is emotionally expansive, open to risk taking, fearless, friendly, grateful, trusting, loves unconditionally, kind, goes with the flow, and creative/innovative. At any moment in time both hemispheres (and all characters) are active but dance between dominance and inhibition. For example, when we are focused on the words someone is saying (left brain) and we will miss the non-verbal clues such as inflection in their voice or body language (right brain).
Dr Bolte Taylor guides the reader on how to see what characters are dominant in one’s self and consequently in others. I now understand what characters are present when I’m feeling lazy. For example, I usually wake up with either character 2 or 3 dominant. When it is character 3, I want to (and do) stay in bed to luxuriate in its warmth and coziness while meditating on all sorts. If my character 2 is dominant, I stay in bed because I think there is no point in getting up to do the same thing I did yesterday, and I run through a list of things I have to do but don’t want to. I become dejected, pull the duvet over my head. With this awareness I’ve figured out how to switch my wake-up dominant characters to characters 1 and 4 as soon as possible. Picking up my iPhone to study some Chinese characters or reading on my Kindle will swap the dominant position of character 3 to character 1. By reading and studying I’m doing something useful, not being lazy. With character 2, I rely on the cat. As soon as the cat senses I’m awake (or she thinks it is time for me to be) she walks up to the side of the bed and meows. She will stay there staring at me wide-eyed, which never fails to make me smile and get up. I do, and pet her, and she will then lead me to start our morning routine.
I’ve also worked out why I like BJJ so much. Each session is goal-oriented and structured. I’m focused on taking in the details (character 1), learning and practicing the drills with partners (character 4) and to achieve this I have to be open, flexible and trusting (character 3). I realized this is why the most unassuming, kindest and best teachers and opponents at the studio are those who have been practicing the longest.
Writing this blog through the year has given my characters 1, 3 and 4 space to shine so I thank you for taking time to read. Special thank you to my editor, SDK, whose characters 1 and 4 I have benefited from. If I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of you directly this year, thank you for your trust and lessons.