Learning to Heal
I was dancing with someone the other day, and he said, “Wait, I’m not ready to try this new part of the step yet; I haven’t even figured out the first part!”
“Let’s focus on the first part, then,” I told him, and we began practicing. When he stumbled, unsure of where to step, I stopped him. We worked very, very slowly through the first step that he was struggling with. When he stepped correctly, I said, “Okay, now let’s do that ten times!”
This is a familiar learning technique for me. Growing up, I studied Suzuki piano with a pretty serious, and occasionally terrifying, teacher. When I stumbled while learning a difficult passage of music, this was exactly the technique she used to help me learn. Slow it down. Stop at the first stumble. Don’t move on until you’ve fixed that first little bit. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Don’t Shoot the Dog is a book about teaching, and therefore it’s also a book about learning. While reading it, I thought often about the ways I had used similar conditioning to learn music. Don’t do things that reward or engrain the mistake. Use repetition to reinforce the things that you want to learn. This was easily applied to learning something in tango, and I thought, why not go a step further? If I can use it in tango, and in playing the piano, why not other types of learning? Why not in solving thorny problems? I discussed this briefly with a friend, who had an even more insightful idea: why not use it for healing?
Now, I’m not talking about the broken leg kind of healing, here. I’m talking about the kind of hurt that lives somewhere deep in your chest, makes it hard to breathe, chokes you up with its wrongness, forces you to squeeze your eyes shut and wish that everything would stop being as it is, if just for a moment. It’s the kind of hurt that lingers, that jumps on your back and digs ugly sharp claws into you, whenever you think it might have gone away. It’s the kind of hurt that feels unending.
It’s not unending. Just like learning that impossible piece of music, that terrifying dance, you don’t have to figure it out all at once. Gradually, you will start to feel better. First you’ll have moments of peace, then hours. Maybe there’s a bad day, but that’s okay, because you don’t have to fix everything at once. It’s okay to focus on the just first thing; the first line of music; the first step forward. Maybe you’ll make a mistake, but now you know that it’s a process, this learning to heal. Don’t do things that reward or engrain that hurt. Slow it down. Stop at the first stumble. Don’t worry about moving on until you’ve healed that first little bit. Repeat, repeat, repeat.