It seems I have spent my life talking about stuff. My job as a research psychologist and academic was about finding out and writing about it. It strikes me that since choosing to end my full time academic career in 2010 I have entered a different stage in my development. This post is about that; reflecting on the obvious, that becomes obvious only when we are part way down the new road. I have been reminded of a favourite book by Arthur Koestler, ‘The act of creation’. In Koestler’s bisociation theory of creativity the link with analogy is a central focus. All creative activity is viewed as a kind of analogy-formation. He uses the image of a triptych to explore creative domains.

“The three panels of the rounded triptych … indicate three domains of creativity which shade into each other without sharp boundaries: Humour, Discovery, and Art… Each horizontal line across the triptych stands for a pattern of creative activity which is represented on all three panels; … The first is intended to make us laugh; the second to make us understand; the third to make us marvel.” (Koestler, The Act of Creation, p. 27).

The Koestler creativity triptych
The Koestler creativity triptych

The first he calls the Jester, the second the Sage and the third the Artist.  One can view these as unconscious archetypes in the creative process. The sage searches for the ‘ah-ha!’ moment in the world. The jester searches for incongruence or the ‘Ha-Ha!’ moments. The artist searches for that moment when something feels just right, that ‘ah-hh!’ moment.

I have spent part of my life unpacking the sage archetype through my academic and professional writing career. I discovered the jester somewhere along the way and became a ‘laughter expert’, according to our national media, after my second book was published. My only memorable moment from all that time is to have turned “Newsnight” down when they asked me to appear on their programme; it tickled me to think that I turned down Jeremy Paxman! ( A joke that might not travel well across the pond as  he is a British newscaster). I could have spent the rest of my days in the jester space, it was a good way to make a living. I got tired of stating the obvious, though. Laughter is good for you. Years of research and laughter therapy training to be believed as an ‘expert’ when I said what every kid in the world knows instinctively: you will feel better if  you laugh, don’t wait until you feel better to laugh. Got boring.

What struck me of late is that I did not become a comedian, I talked about laughter.

In the same way,  I became a research psychologist not a clinical practitioner.

What was consistent and in the background throughout my career was my teaching, and I always knew in my heart it did not matter what I taught if I could teach my students to think for themselves and love learning for its inherent value. When teaching, I show them my love for learning and inquiry by embodying it in my own life.

I love the sage space (mum tells me my first word was ‘why?’) and I love to attend to human incongruence in that jester space and name it. Sometimes to my detriment as not everyone values a contrarian. I am okay with that. Until recently I have not known how to make sense of the world in any other way: laugh at it or try to understand it or both.

I have used this blog to try to understand what it means to be an open educator. Reading and dialoguing with insightful educators about what it might mean to create a ‘fully functioning’ open educational experience. I started down the road of publishing papers, going to conferences, saying yes to interesting research projects – in short, my less than well-formed plan might have been to become an independent researcher focussed on open education continuing to inhabit the safe spaces of the sage and jester. Yet, it has not been a full hearted commitment.

I have not felt at ease of late reading open education research and commentary.  I keep getting a feeling of deja vu. I have been here before, I have had this conversation before, I have been outraged about this before, I have pontificated about this before… and so I note that I feel a little weary of talking about open education.

Developmentally, I find myself at that place David Whyte speaks of in his poetry when he advises us that one way into personal change is to arrange to get really tired of hearing oneself saying the same things over and over and over. It seems this psyche is moving to a different space and may be I need to find new conversations. Or may be a new way into a different type of conversation.

As some of you will know – my online love lies in the digital storytelling course DS106. I realised recently that this may be because it is a safe place to explore the artist archetype to my heart’s content. I have thought of it as a fun hobby until now, but may be it is a way into a new way of being – one the integrates the 3 domains of creativity Koestler talks about. May be making sense of the world through the ‘ah-hh!’ principle is a next developmental phase for me. This feels both terrifying and exciting. I am unsure what it might mean beyond making fun animated gifs, although I have found myself offering to make art to go alongside the thoughtful research my friends Jenny and Frances are doing.

What I do know is that it will mean finding a new voice and a new way to be in the world that comes from working with pause and silence in my meditation practice. I am reminded here of Krishnamurti,

“You know, in the case of most of us, the mind is noisy, everlastingly chattering to itself , soliloquizing or chattering about something, or trying to talk to itself, to convince itself of something; it is always moving, noisy. And from that noise, we act. Any action born of noise produces more noise, more confusion.”

I cannot act from familiar noise or I will just recycle old patterns. Yet, I know how hard it is to act from silence. The perceived dichotomy in online interaction between silence and noise, and the need to understand both these constructs more as a yin-yang symbol than an either-or choice has been a theme for me when exploring online education since I started engaging online. It is a tough dynamic to grasp for all of us.

I see that silence is lost in a background of online noise where I can be legitimately told, as I was on a recent tweet, that if I wanted silence, then I should leave social media or more precisely: “If I want silence, I don’t go on twitter/Facebook/internet”. I disagreed openly and profoundly with this idea and said: ‘Online can be used as much for contemplation as for noise. We all have a right to these spaces.’ I see this as an example of how we foreground and privilege speech over silence. Then, my friend Jenny directs me to this:

“As teachers enlist “participation” as an evaluation criterion, they inevitably suggest that silent active listening is not a legitimate form of “participation.” Huey-li Li (direct download)

and also this,

“Nowhere in any of these spheres [of education] is there a systematic education in the art of listening.”  Megan Boler

Megan concludes her article ‘The challenge of interpreting silence in public spaces’ with:

“If we are to take seriously a valuing of silence, then in a political and educational context where speech is privileged, where silence is automatically feared, pathologized, and has no currency, then there must — ironically — be a spoken and publicly shared interpretation and discussion of the meanings of these silences.”

And Megan also refers to how a pedagogy that emerges from silence, rather than one that uses silence in order to generate more ‘participation’, may make online education (in a non banking method sense) impossible,

“How profoundly difficult, indeed perhaps impossible, it is to interpret silence in text-based, computer mediated educational environments. How, in the absence of co-presence, is a teacher to “listen with the ‘third ear’ to what is often left unsaid” in online, text-based education?”

At the same time as I read above, I started teaching in the LMS. I am teaching mindful communication online and framing my teaching as a digital dialogue. I am applying my contemplative training to online interaction – my claim is that every word I type and every word I read is an opportunity for digital dialogue. I believe that existing guidelines for approaching interpersonal meditation face to face can be applied to mediated communication also. This is the inquiry I am engaged in with my students this semester.

I am doing what we do so well in DS106, showing my students what I mean by doing all the assignments right along with them and by inquiring into what it might mean to set up a virtual interpersonal meditation lab together. I must say that even within the constraints of the LMS, this is proving action not born from noise. We are working with interpersonal meditation guidelines as the netiquette to engage in the LMS. Showing them digital dialogue by doing, not telling them how it should be done. Dialogue in the Bohmian sense where ‘we are not trying to make our points prevail or, if we are, we look at that’.

How many conversations have I (have you) had online that would count as successful dialogue in the meaning above?  Taking a position and attempting to make it prevail by more talking or writing is simply fighting fire with fire even if what I am talking about is the need for silence and dialogue.

Engaging from silence is not the same as ‘using silence’ as a technique to get people to behave in a particular way as the quotes above show. It means engaging moment to moment with body, speech and mind from a quiet and still mind without attachment to a given outcome; engaging with a willingness to be surprised by what a next action might be. Speed and rushing are not part of this picture.

When I engage with other from a  ‘I have no time’ mindset, all I am saying is I have a clear purpose and I am not willing to be surprised by my own or others’ actions and ideas. There is a tension between teaching in this way and the need for traditional assessment in higher education. I am experiencing this with my students in the LMS teaching digital dialogue in a Masters programme. It is tough and nobody ever said teaching was easy.

How might my current reflections and practices translate into practical action for living and learning online? Here is a list to get me started with a new focus. I could,

  • comment on my understanding of others’ ideas without countering my own view
  • just take time to read to understand
  • not take a position to silence speech with silence (or talk about silence and its importance) but speak from the pause
  • ensure that my web experience stays noise free – that is driven from the situation I am in moment to moment and not a need cling to data and ideas
  • apply my interpersonal meditation practice to my online interactions and learn if it is possible to hear the unsaid with that mythical third ear
  • make art in a way that supports speaking from silence. Art as meditation that is shared with others

This is a substantive list with many implications.

For now, I will be engaging in digital dialogue blogging at the Still Web with my friend Alan Levine. We are practicing writing from a different attentional space there and may be evolving a new way to write collaboratively. It is early days yet, but I am as engaged with that inquiry as I am in my online insight dialogue inquiry within the LMS (… and it may yet prove an impossible nut to crack).

For my own development I look forward to discovering a new voice in my writing and interactions; one that does not privilege speech but explores how to use jester and sage wisdom into this new a scary space of the artist looking to make sense of the world through marvel. Laughter, understanding and marvel? Not a shoddy output for a life, I am truly blessed.