Learning with what is at our feet
We must be astonished. What does not make us astonished does not transform us. The shock of seeing what has always been before our eyes is one of the ways to break the indifference towards the world.
-Eliane Brum (2006)
…to write is the way of those who have the word as bait:
the word fishing what is not word.
When this non-word - the between the lines - bites the bait,
something has written itself.
Once you've caught the between the lines,
you could, with relief, throw the word away.
But then the analogy is over:
The non-word, in biting the bait, incorporates it.
What saves then, is to write distractedly.”
-Clarice Lispector (1973)
Over the last couple of years, I have been writing narratives of scenes of human encounter that have struck me as agitating: a tense meeting, a conversation that left a bad taste, an interaction I kept thinking about for days afterwards. The writing would take me back to the details of how the scenes unfolded, capturing the swiftly moving sensations, the visceral feelings and impulses that were inhabiting my body at different moments. Having them on paper was a relief, not only to let go of some of the emotions I carried after the encounters, but also because the process of writing them down was revealing aspects that were not visible to me before. As the collection of scenes grew, I began to see a familiar pattern. Suddenly, something difficult between participants would happen. A sense of collective coherence was broken, where I experienced a sinking, anxious feeling. I seemed to be verging on ‘dangerous ground’.
I also noticed I was not so interested in exploring how such difficulties could have been avoided, or how I or others could have ‘managed the situation better’. My interest was in seeing more of how things were playing out in the exact moments of disruption: my fast judgements, the shifts in the meaning I was making as different ‘inner voices’ spoke, how each move I made was influencing further moves.
As an educator in a Brazilian school offering spaces for adults to reflect about their participation in different contexts of human organizing, I began to be curious about how these narrative explorations could be of use.
In this paper I will work with just one scene in some depth, to illustrate and highlight some aspects of my learning process. By elaborating a personal experience, my intention is to spark memories in you, reader, of moments in the social realm when you too might have felt on the edge of entering ‘dangerous ground’; of facing differences at the risk of affecting or damaging relationships.
By articulating what is often inarticulately experienced as we enter such danger zones, my aim is to make all this more accessible and available for reflection, turning unpleasant moments into spaces for learning.
My way of working involves two ‘takes’ on the same scene.
The first take describes my experience of the scene in slow motion, including what I recall thinking and feeling at the time: the different voices playing out mentally.
The second take opens to a wider context for the scene, bringing more of what happened before and after the event.
It’s important to mention that I have disguised names and other details to protect people’s identities.
Finally, I expand on the implications I see for educative practice, inviting other thinkers into this conversation, and exploring how we can develop our ability to work together in and with ‘dangerous territory’.
Our guest speaker for the evening enters the online room.
I'm already tense. He's twenty minutes late for the session.
I look at his tiny Zoom window.
I can see someone helping him to sit on a chair.
I can see someone else trying to fix his mobile in a position where we can see him.
I remember his sarcastic tone on the meeting we had as a preparation for that session.
Deep inside I already knew having Carlos with us was potentially risky.
But despite the felt risk, I invited him to come.
I have all the accumulated anxiety present in my body, anticipating things might not go well.
Carlos is looking around as if he is not really sure what’s happening.
It seems as though he was carried by others to that particular room.
He closes and opens his eyes slowly.
He holds his head with his left hand.
I feel my hands and feet sweating.
My heart is beating fast.
It is hard to swallow.
Time has another pace.
A second feels like a whole year.
He looks confused, lost, in a different reality.
I can instantly tell what's going on:
This is crystal clear to me.
I assume it's also clear for everyone else in the zoom.
I quickly text Rafael, who is hosting the session with me:
‘What do we do???’
Rafael replies saying he thinks we should wait a bit longer, see how it goes.
I am nervous.
My senses are dizzy, I feel lost in my own thoughts. I listen, and drift out simultaneously.
I anticipate that the session can’t happen with him in that state, I predict a disaster in my head.
But, despite my worries, I continue with the original plan for the session:
‘Welcome Carlos! I was just telling everyone about how we met, and how you got to be here today.’
My words seem disconnected from my body. As if it’s someone else saying them, not me.
I don't know exactly what I am saying, my mouth speaks whilst my mind rushes, trying to think about what to do about this whole situation.
In the meanwhile, the situation is there, unfolding in front of me.
‘What question do you have for me?!’ Carlos asks carrying a certain impatience in his voice.
He goes straight to the point - we agreed on a previous meeting that we would be asking him questions, so that's what he wants us to do.
I try to invite a slower start by sharing the conversation we had as a preparation for the session. I want to give some context before we start asking him questions.
He refuses my suggestion, iterating his request for a question.
‘Can you hear me?? Hello?? Is there anyone there?? Hello!’
I experience some irony in his tone of voice.
‘Yes, yes, we can hear you!’ I nervously reply.
Whilst texting Rafael, I invite the group to ask him questions.
Not because I think this is the best thing to do, but because that's all I am capable of doing right now.
It is such a difficult, dangerous, possibly explosive territory we are in; I see no other way than trying to avoid any risky move.
So, I continue to pretend it’s all fine.
After my request for questions to the group, a long silence.
What I imagined for this meeting was quite different from what is unfolding in front of me.
I have around 20 people who paid to be here to have an open dialogue with Carlos. As the head of the school hosting the session and the person responsible for the space we are in, I feel I have to solve this.
So my mind rushes imagining possible solutions for a way out of that.
My body is in panic mode whilst trying to sense what is manifesting, how people and Carlos are responding
Too many voices, feelings, responses fighting for space simultaneously.
Finally, a first question to Carlos.
A gentle question about who he is. Great! I think.
A question that tries to help the group to survive this moment.
No one dares to mention what is actually in front of us.
What are others thinking, how are they understanding the scene? How is Carlos feeling about being there?
I have no clue.
Lost in my own thoughts, I do not dare to disclose any of my discomforts and questions.
I need a safe way out.
Carlos replies with a confusing response, a response that doesn't really mean anything to me at this point.
He asks something back to the person who originally asked the question.
I hear a bit of sarcasm in his tone.
I´m looking around the tiny zoom squares on my screen, trying to read people's faces.
But the impersonality of the digital interaction allows me only a vague sense of what others are experiencing.
I don't know what to say.
Or even if I should say anything.
But I'm still here.
in the same place,
trying to be present to the conversation
whilst trying to find a way to articulate my concerns.
I wait for Rafael´s support to make a move, but he doesn't seem to be ready to interrupt what is going on.
I text Vanessa, who is also part of our school, trying to get a sense from her. She also seems unsure, maybe less concerned than I am. She does not immediately realize he is drunk; I sense from her message in response to mine.
I can't really be present to what is happening.
I can´t stop looking at Carlos’s slow gestures, his dizzy tone. I can only think about interrupting the session. But as I don´t have Rafael or Vanessa´s initial support, I try to wait a bit longer. I´m also not really sure about how to interrupt, what to say.
‘Do you work with ‘X’, Carlos? How do you see your work as part of the ‘Y’ movement?’ asks another participant who had her camera off.
The question seems like a ready-made script, another attempt to hide what is un-hidable.
Carlos gives another confusing answer.
I can't bear it any longer.
I need to do something about it.
I breathe, deeply:
‘Carlos, I have to say I'm uncomfortable with the situation and I think I need to make this visible to everyone. Maybe we should postpone the conversation to another moment. I'm finding it hard to have a dialogue with you like this.’
As I try to swallow, I feel the dryness in my throat.
I have a half-smile on my face, a mix of desperation, with an attempt to pretend it's all ok.
He asks me to repeat what I just said.
I repeat it, and quickly ask what others think about my idea.
To my relief, three people quickly respond with a strong yes.
I sense their tone also carries a certain relief mixed with tension.
However, Carlos looks irritated. He frowns.
He asks others to respond.
Another few people offer a hesitant confirmation ‘hum….. y y y e e e s s s, we should move the session...’.
With a provocative sarcastic disappointment in his face, he says:
‘We should give up on talking at all, this conversation has no possible solution!’
I feel my heart in my mouth.
This is it.
He's pissed off.
OMG, what do I do now??
How can I escape this?
The session continued for another 30 minutes, but I will pause my account here as this already gives enough for the reflection I want to explore.
I will now track forward and back a little.
Right after the session I spoke to Rafael and Vanessa. Together we tried to make sense of what had happened. Something neither of us had ever experienced. While talking to them I realized the amount of stress present in my body. I cried, realizing I felt assaulted, exposed, offended by Carlos. I remembered old experiences with people under the effect of alcohol.
The next day we offered a session with those who wanted to reflect on the experience with Carlos, who was not with us this time.
Some people said they took a while to notice that Carlos was ‘drunk’, whilst others were still questioning if he was in fact drunk; there was someone who wondered if it could be part of his culture to be under the effect of some substance. A woman believed Carlos had brilliantly planned the session to be a shocking experience as a pedagogical tool.
Some people felt extremely uncomfortable with the aggressive tone of the earlier conversation with Carlos, whilst others were excited about the social tensions revealed.
What struck me was how quickly it became a discussion around our different opinions about what we saw. We went off giving explanations to justify what we each thought had happened. Quickly the conversation became polarized, expressing different political worldviews and strong positions about people’s personal ideas and ideologies.
Although my understanding of the different narratives around the same event was amplified, by the end of the session I noticed my own opinion about how I was making sense of the scene did not change. I was even more attached to my own way of seeing the situation.
And that bothered me.
How could such a strong experience serve only to reinforce my own meaning making?
This was the pivotal moment that turned this experience into the focus of my investigation.
That’s when I decided to write the scene down.
I wrote as a means to organize my thoughts, to experience the scene for another first time in slow motion
, opening the black box in my head and allowing some fresh air in.
With the writing I began to see what was present in the messy periphery of my consciousness: bodily sensations, feelings, different inner voices playing out, my quick responses, my anticipations.
Eliane Brum, a writer I really admire, articulates quite precisely my experience:
I am a writer who writes as a reader, surprising me with the words that come out of me. (2021, pg63)
There was also something of what Lispector says in the poem I shared earlier around ‘writing distractedly’ as a means to catch what was still ‘non-word’. (Lispector, 1973)
To allow other voices, the between the lines, the non-word, to become visible, I had to momentarily suspend a certain control of the writing. I had to let go of articulated thoughts about the experience and allow something new to become visible. A paradoxical state of distracted focus; the distraction holding me from reproducing ready-made thought, and the focus catching what was still in formation.
Through the writing I noticed how much we, as a group, avoided or could not talk about what was in fact happening in front of us. Maybe we just didn’t know what to do. I felt frightened, I imagine others felt something similar. I could see very clearly how the panic I felt with the situation prompted me to act out of impulse, privileging a voice that was only trying to survive, to get out of there.
I could see how limited my thinking at that moment was in terms of what I could have done in response to what I was experiencing. Maybe I could have asked Carlos if he wanted to postpone the session before I suggested us to do so. Or perhaps I could have asked participants how they wanted to continue, giving them the space to voice a possible discomfort.
How might I deal with such difficult encounters?
How can I discern the different voices present at the moment of meeting difficulties?
How do I notice blind spots in an experience of tension and conflict-filled emotions?
I’m interested in how these moments can become the focus of personal learning.
What is an education that attempts to go back to examine dangerous territory more carefully, learning to notice judgments forming and shifting, so that meaning and actions can move?
Let me start by affirming I learned a lot through this experience.
I could go on articulating the different ways in which I learned; how I started to see the situation in different ways, how the experience has informed the way I organize new courses, how it changed my understanding of Carlos’s movement, how I started to be more sensitive of people’s participation in gatherings like this, how it has helped me develop a capacity to judge what to say in a way that others understand.
Let me give just one example to illustrate the subtlety of the learning:
Carlos is part of an important grassroots movement in Brazil. A movement I deeply admire, and want to learn with, to support and promote. The school I’m part of is a Brazilian school deeply inspired by an European academic tradition. My intention on inviting Carlos to the session was to connect the school to his movement.
It was only through the work I describe in this paper that I understood that my invitation to Carlos, having had only three online meetings with him before, was too hurried. Carlos and I come from completely different contexts, we didn’t know each other, he didn’t know anything about our school, around our intentions, around the people who were joining the session. Although my invitation came from an authentic desire, it disregarded some very important aspects of our relationship that needed to be further developed before we could have a session together.
This was quite a big learning for me. How did I get to this learning?
By distilling the scene carefully in take 1, I remembered the sarcasm I felt on the previous meeting and how that memory came back strongly as soon as we began the session with him. I remembered how he questioned (in quite a provocative manner) the fact that our school was inspired by an European tradition although being Brazilian. At that moment I grasped his provocation, but I ignored it. It’s as if I did not allow the full understanding to get to my consciousness, I didn’t want to do anything about it. Something was sensed, but not taken seriously enough to inform an action that would respond to it. I ignored what I felt, and continued with the original plan.
A learning that emerged out of the continuous effort to stay with the scene longer, to see what was present with more details, tracking backwards and forwards, seeing what was present but not fully articulated.
I will now invite other thinkers to this conversation whilst I highlight two wider aspects that became visible to me, one on human perception, the other on human learning.
John Shotter uses the example of our two human eyes working in an orchestrated activity to create a unifying view, and not two separate ‘visions’ of what is in front of us. (Shotter, 1999). He draws on Merleau Ponty to affirm: “Our senses ‘orchestrate’ their ‘inter-working’ to provide us with a richly ordered sense of the world around us - for it is ‘out there’ in the world around us that perception brings all our different sensory experiences together into a unitary whole.” (Shotter, 1999)
I believe that the kind of writing I experimented with was a means to catch many nuanced layers of what was happening before my perception created a rapid unitary whole as my understanding of the scene. It’s like I could catch the different ‘visions’ before they were unified into one understanding of the scene.
Let me go back to the scene one more time.
I was very convinced of what I was seeing and what needed to be done:
Carlos was drunk, and I needed to find a way to end the session.
This was crystal clear to me, and I assumed it was also clear for everyone else.
Henri Bortoft uses an image that has really helped me understand more of what I think happened in that moment:
When you look at this image, you might quickly see a giraffe that stands out of the different shapes of black and white. You might take a while to see the giraffe. You might even never see a giraffe. Once seen, it’s hard not to see it.
The image helps us to notice what happens so fast in our perception of the world. We tend to think that what we see is what the world is.
However, when we have the experience of catching the moment in which we see the giraffe, we realize there’s more to seeing than only the sensorial stimulus. The image does not change whether you see or you don’t see the giraffe. What changes is what Bortoft calls the ‘organizing idea’, something is organized in our thinking that suddenly makes us see a giraffe. There’s an intentionality in our thinking that helps us to see a giraffe, and not only mixed shapes of white and black.
We are always participating in the meaning that we make of the world, things are not just given to us by our senses. Through our thinking, we transform sensorial stimuli into our understanding of the world.
In this case, the way we use language blinds us to the complexity of the experience. When I say ‘I saw he was drunk’, using the verb ‘to see’ implies invisibly that our sensorial experience is the world. We miss the thinking part of seeing, which helps us make sense of things. Otherwise, we would only see a mix of shapes, forms, colors, smells, but we would not attribute meaning to them.
In the scene with Carlos, I quickly make meaning out of what my senses were telling me – a drunk speaker who should not have a conversation with participants.
In the moment I understand the scene, I stop looking at it, withdrawing to my thoughts, which are extremely efficient in giving me the alternative for action.
I jumped from noticing the slowness in his movements, the way he held his head, the way he was opening and closing his eyes, the way he was talking… to him being drunk.
I quickly interpret, judge, make sense of the scene. Based of course on my senses and on a repertoire of past experiences that I had with people under the effect of alcohol.
I instantly know how I must act in response. The meaning I make of the scene quickly informs my impetus to end the session as soon as possible.
What is interesting to me about this reflection is not to find the truth whether Carlos was drunk or not, whether I was right or not, but to hopefully make explicit what so often happens to us in moments of difficult encounter (and not only) and the consequences of it.
Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch. (Sheldrake, 2021)
This explains my speed in making sense and acting in the scene. My action is automatic, running over my perception. These automatic behaviors kill the potential for anything new to be accessed, it blinds me of any other possible ways of responding.
The process of writing helped me to notice more of what was happening in the scene, going slower with the meaning making and, with that, amplifying what I could see. By doing so, I can enlarge my understanding of the world, and that’s the moment I begin to learn.
John Dewey distinguishes an educative from a non-educative experience. For him, a non-educative experience is one that produces the effect of stopping or distorting growth, or that closes down to the opportunity of new and richer experiences in the future (Dewey, 1997).
Socially difficult experiences have the tendency to become non-educative. These are usually quite unpleasant moments that intrude into people’s lives without any warning. At any time, a conversation, a meeting, a gathering can become dangerous ground. An encounter can leave you speechless, remove your confidence in a ground of common understanding, of safety. Such moments spark anxiety, anger, fear, dislocation. The tendency is to want to withdraw, as these are challenging situations, including a sense that things might get out of control. Very quickly others seem a threat and things become black or white.
I can recall various relationships that have been affected, sometimes even ended, because I (we) did not dare to enter, or could not stay together on, dangerous ground. In this article I’ve chosen one particular incident as the focus for reflection. But I could have chosen to work with many other moments, all of them potentially resonant for others, like for instance a difficult meeting where a very important business partner announced she had decided to leave the organization, when most of us had no idea she was planning to do that. Or a meeting where a friend asked me to run a project with the organization I’m part of, and I couldn’t find a way to say no without damaging our relationship.
So how can one turn a potentially non-educative experience into an educative one?
Tim Ingold talks about education “as the hesitant overflowings or deviations that pull us out of certainty, out of our defensive positions and standpoints – that disarm us”. (Ingold, 2018, p37). He argues that when we share a common point of view, we inhabit the same space of comprehension, and so we stay there, safe in our foundations. However, for him the potential for learning lies exactly in what shakes our ground, what removes us from our known point of view. In these moments, although we feel exposed, at risk, all our senses are amplified with intensity. That’s why these dangerous grounds are actually gold mines. These moments hold enormous potential.
The process of writing removes my certainty in making sense of a scene. I can revisit it and look at it again more carefully, with more sensitivity, leaving the ‘role’ I was playing in the moment, suspending the need for quick answers. By observing with more details what was perceivable, looking from other angles, noticing nuances, distinguishing responses; my experience is expanded, gaining more colors, shapes, and textures.
In the session we held the day after with the group I had a sense we were sharing our own personal meaning making of the previous day, which rapidly turned into opinions reflecting worldviews. We quickly again jumped from the experience we shared the day before, to opinions that justified our participation and meaning making.
Jorge Larrosa Bondía says that the excess of information that we encounter prevents us from really entering into the experience. We are so obsessed with wanting certain knowledge that nothing really 'happens' to us, we cancel the possibility for experience. We jump directly into explanatory justifications or conclusions (Bondia, 2002).
In exploring this question of how learning happens, I also draw on the legacy of Goethe through the work of some contemporary scholars like Craig Holdrege. Although Goethe was interested in studying plants, the weather, colors, among many other themes, I am particularly interested in the social realm, in moments like the one I have narrated here. Despite the difference in context, I find resonance in the method of active observation suggested by Goethe. In the words of Craig Holdrege:
If I can just attend to them (the phenomena) in a fresh way, they have the power to help me break through mental barriers and awaken to new insights. (Holdrege,2017)
In the experience of this session, I felt a responsibility in my role and a big risk on behalf of the school. I thought my own sense of identity could be questioned, depending on how I responded to the situation. So, opening up to what felt like a minefield was not easy. Even now, as I write these words, I anticipate some of the consequences of sharing this paper with others… how will people understand it? What am I leaving out? Who could I be disrespecting? What would Carlos think about it? These are questions that take me to the edge, where I am faced with a choice of either stopping or continuing to write.
I am reminded of Dewey’s words: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” (Dewey, 1997)
I would perhaps expand on this. For me education aims for an ethical life. And I don’t mean an ethic that morally judges what is wrong and right; but an ethic that does not avoid or retreat from what appears, but that dares to stay and deal with the discomfort instead of running away, denying or absorbing it.
The experiences described in this piece have motivated me to invite a particular quality of reflexivity from those participating in the different educational spaces I offer. Not with a specific format that can be applied in different settings, like for instance suggesting people write scenes featuring difficult encounters. It manifests more as a way of sustaining conversations, not jumping too quickly to opinions and justifications about topics and things, trying to hold firmly and maybe uncomfortably onto the process of how we are making sense of collective experiences, trying to catch more of that on the go, in the unfolding.
I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t experienced being on dangerous ground in their lives. What I see is an incapacity to talk about them, especially while they are happening, to learn better ways to navigate them, to be open and willing to learn more about them. This is not a skill we learn at school, or in any organizational training.
We may be taught methods of conflict resolution, but this is not what I am exploring here. I’m talking about a step before the resolution. Or even before the conflict. I’m talking about developing a capacity to make more discerning judgements when my body is strongly engaged in an experience. I’m talking about developing refined feelingfull thought. A thought that is born out of feeling and sensing, but that is not overwhelmed by it.
This paper makes visible something central to my exploration, by choosing to highlight particular aspects of it. The choice I have made to work with just one scene, not revealing or exploring the full picture around it, leaves a lot out. And that is intentional. What I have portrayed here is a small glimpse of what I began to see in this learning process. I don’t want to give the false impression that this is the kind of learning that you can just ‘learn and apply’. This is a practice and, as in any practice, there’s no end to the learning.
Bortoft, Henri (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. s.l.:Floris Books .
Brum, Eliane (2006) A vida que ninguém vê. Editora Arquipélago
Brum, Eliane (2012) Banzeiro òkòtó: Uma viagem à Amazônia Centro do Mundo. Cia das Letras. Brazil.
Bondia, Jorge Larossa (2002) Notes on experience and the knowing of experience. Brasil. Revista brasileira de educação
Dewey, John (1997) Experience & education. The Kappa Delta Pi Lecture Series.
Lispector, Clarice (1973) Água viva. New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Holdrege, Craig (2017) Do Frogs come from tadpoles? a Collaboration of The Nature Institute and the Myrin Institute.
Ingold, Tim (2018) Anthropology and/as education. Routledge.
Sheldrake, Merlin (2020) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. Random House
Shotter, John (1999) Writing from within “Living moments: withness-writing rather than aboutness-writing”. Paper written for Fourth National ‘Writing Across the Curriculum Conference: Multiple Intelligences,’ Cornell.