Thursday, September 27, 2012

Self Efficacy and being on a Roll

Self-efficacy is the degree to which one feels capable of effecting what they desire to effect. By sharpening one's skills in a craft, one can attain a high level of self-efficacy in relation to it.

According to renowned 20th Century psychologist, Albert Bundura, there are four basic ways to increase self-efficacy level. In order of most to least significant:

1) Past successes: the larger the number of past successes, the more competent and capable a person feels they are at an activity;

2) Vicarious leaning: Observing others succeed at an activity;

3) Persuasion: Having significant others offer encouragement and positive feedback;

4) Physiological state: Psyching oneself up (rather than feeling disinterested or anxious) can help albeit more superficially than the other ways.

These tactics are not mere theory, they have proved efficacious through extensive research and controlled experiments. The first, however, has proved most effective of the four, so I'll explore it a little bit further, in context of skateboarding.

Innumerable times, I've hammered away at landing a new trick, watching the consecutive failures hack away at my confidence and efficacy levels as a skater. Often times, the despondency bred by the string of defeats sapped my confidence levels to the point that I couldn't even land my usual bag of tricks.

On other occasions, however, I've employed a different strategy. After a series of failed attempts at a trick, instead of obsessively grappling with it, I'd start performing tricks that I recently learnt to land, and the performance of which help bolster my confidence in my skateboarding abilities. On returning to the elusive trick after this string of successes, I often land it first or second go. This, I believe, is largely owing the increased level in self-efficacy induced by my chain of successes.

This is the power of self-efficacy; the power of being on a roll...


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Skateboarding as Leisure

Many people classify skateboarding as a form of leisure. Perhaps that's true. But what is leisure? Is it relaxation, an escape, a way of enjoying oneself, or something else?

Commonly, leisure is seen as a counter-reaction to work. Indeed, sociological research suggests a correlation between the nature of people's work and the types of leisure activities they engage in. Particularly, three relationships have been identified:

1) Overspill: People who find their work meaningful and enjoyable commonly engage in leisure activities associated with their work or where they can apply their work skills.  

2) Neutral: Those who find their work to be monotonous, commonly engage in leisure activities that have no clear correlation with their work at all. Book keepers and bank clerks have shown this pattern. 

3) Compensation: Individuals with little autonomy in their work may compensate by seeking leisure activities which offer high levels of creativity and control such as chess, art, and sport. Workers with very difficult work conditions such as miners and pipe layers are statistically more likely to engage in leisure activities that allow them to vent their frustrations, including alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, and violence.

Interestingly, leisure as a counter-reaction to work only accounts for some peoples interest in leisure activities; many others actually take work with them into their leisure time.

More than specific types of activity, work and leisure are states of being. The implication being that one can be 'leisurely' in the office, and at 'work' on holiday. Here are a few of the psychological factors that distinguish between leisure and work states of being:

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic motivation:

When one engages in an activity in order to receive some sort of reward, such as payment, one's motivation is deemed extrinsic. If however, one enjoys the activity for its own sake, he is said to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is apparent in children playing games where their motivation appears to be the enjoyment of the game itself and not some external factor. Intrinsic motivation is considered by many to be the hallmark of leisure.

Whereas many serious joggers will admit that they jog primarily for the health benefits of the exercise (though they may enjoy it as well), one rarely encounters a serious skateboarder who skates for any reason other than the sheer joy derived thereby. Almost all people at the skatepark are intrinsically motivated to skate. This is one reason that the skatepark environment is so easy going: the people there are doing what they love to do.     


'Flow' is a psychological state where one's immersion in an activity reduces one's awareness of self and the passage of time. According to one theory, the 'flow' state is aided by undertaking challenges that match one's skill level. Generally, there are four combinations between challenge and skill levels, each with allegedly different outcomes:

1. Challenge and skill levels are both high = 'Flow'
2. Challenge is high and skill level is low = Anxiety
3. Challenge is low and skill level is high = Boredom
4. Challenge and skill levels are both low = Apathy

In actuality, whereas the product of the skill/challenge balance in 1. and 2. have been substantiated by research, the effects of 3. and 4. have proved less predictable. For instance, people seeking leisure activities that allow them to feel in total control, or completely relaxed, commonly choose activities belonging to the 3rd and 4th categories, respectively.

Every skater knows that a skate session is one of the most effective ways to forget about everything other than the present moment. In this way, skating offers a rather accessible and reliable flow experience. However, there's flow and then there's FLOW, and if a skater desires the latter, then he must challenge himself according to his skill level.  

Positive forms of High and Low Arousal:

Research indicates that people commonly use their leisure time seeking activities that induce either high or low arousal levels. There are two major theories explaining this trend:

a) Optimal arousal theory states that an ideal arousal level exists. Hence, one under-aroused feels bored and lethargic, and one over-aroused, feels nervous and stressed. Much like one that feels too warm seeks ways to cool down, and one that feels cold seeks ways to warm up, one over-aroused seeks activities that induce calm, and one that's under-aroused seeks excitement.
b) Reversal theory holds that there are two general frames of mind: 1. Telic: one pursues serious goals and must plan, strategize, and execute one's strategies in order to attain them. 2. Paratelic: one is playful and lives in the moment. In the former, high arousal levels are allied with stress, anger, and anxiety, whereas low arousal levels relate to confidence, and security. In the latter , however, low arousal equates with boredom, while high arousal implies increased fun and stimulation.

The name, 'Reversal Theory', relates to the fact that the negative high arousal in the telic state - i.e. anxiety - can be reversed  into the positive high arousal of enjoyment if one shifts into a paratelic state of mind. Conversely, positive low arousal in the telic state - confidence - can be reversed into negative low arousal - boredom - in the paratelic state, etc.

Whether one has a low level of arousal and wishes to increase it, or whether one has a high arousal level but in a telic state and wishes to 'reverse' it by entering a paratelic state, skateboarding offers a solution. However, some skaters seem to have a highly telic state of mind while they skate. As a consequence, their increased arousal levels while skating are not experienced as fun, excitement, and enjoyment, but as frustration, stress, and anger. For such individuals skating is no longer pure leisure, it has taken on the character of work...       

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Vote: Is skateboarding Sport or Art?

Sport is typically defined as competitive physical activity aimed at developing or improving physical skills and providing entertainment for participants. The Olympic Games thus only admit sports meeting this criteria, and the Council of Europe completely excludes non-physical activities from classification as sport. However, several competitive non-physical activities claim wide recognition as 'mind sports'; Chess and Bridge being examples.

A Sport is usually goverened by rules that serve to ensure fair competition and consistent adjudication of winners. Winning can be determined by physical events, such as jumping over a bar, or by judges who score a competitor's performance using both objective and subjective measures. Sport is also a major source of entertainment for non-participants.

Art has been defined as a human product intended for aesthetic appreciation. Let's breifly explain the key concepts in this definition:

a) Aesthetic: Everything, be it natural or synthetic, organic or inorganic, can be perceived as existing in multiple dimensions.

- moral: Is it good or bad for human existance? Does it find favour before God? etc.
- economic: Can it make money? How much does it cost? Is it economical?
- pragmatic: How practical is the object? Is it versatile or limited in function? etc.
- psychic: How does the object make one feel? happy, sad, angry, grateful, etc.
- aesthetic: How beautiful is it? Is it elaborately ornate? Does it suit the decor? etc.

Of course art, as everything, exists in all the dimensions. However, its central dimension is aesthetic.
b) Human: This excludes natural objects such as sunsets, flowers, spider webs, etc. Though these may have a strong presence in the aesthetic dimension, they do not constitute art because they are not made by people.

c) Intent: If a person accidently spills paint on the floor which forms a rather beautiful symmetrical pattern, it would not constitute a 'work of art' since there was no intention to produce it. If however, the individual deliberatley knocked paint on canvas to produce a work of art called 'The Spill', aimed at providing people with aesthetic contemplation, it would constitute a work of art.

Based on these definitions, how would you classify skateboarding: sport, art, or other?           

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A leg to stand on

It was two weeks after my knee injury, the swelling subsided and I'd regained most of the movement in the joint. I thought I'd almost healed and was excited to resume skating in a matter of days. God had other plans. As I walked through my garage, my knee abruptly gave way and twisted in the same manner I'd initially injured myself. To make things worse, I fell directly on my knee cap which, until then, had been intact. In a matter of minutes it was heavily inflamed.

Worse than the acute pain was my loss of trust in my leg's ability to support me. I realised that at any moment my leg could collapse again under my weight and send me crashing to the floor in agony. Nevertheless, as horrible as the experience was, it served as a catalyst for deep insight into the correspondence between the legs and two of the Sefirot - spiritual energies - on the Tree of Life, the central Kabbalistic model of reality.

Trust and Loyalty
The Sefirot associated with the the right and left legs are Netzach (trust) and Hod (loyalty/sincerity) respectively. My former understanding of the link between these qualities and the legs focused mainly on the fact that as the legs must work together to enable a person to walk - unlike the hands or eyes which, relatively speaking, can function independently of each other - trust and loyalty are interdependent qualities. One can only trust someone who is loyal, sincere and committed, otherwise the trust is misplaced and will sooner or later be undermined.
Trust and Loyalty

After my second fall, however, I discovered a more obvious connection which had been right under my nose (pun intended) the entire time. Since the legs support one's entire body, they, more than other limbs, require our trust in their loyalty. I'd always taken my legs' 'loyalty' for granted. I hardly noticed that I had to trust them to support me at every step. After my second fall, however, where my leg was 'disloyal', my trust in it - or the lack of it  - became apparent.

At this point I needed reassurance that my leg was indeed healing and that I could safely rely on it in the near future. I visited my physiotherapist. After examining my knee and explaining why it failed to support me, he bolstered my confidence that my normally loyal friend would come around and regain my trust - of course, on condition that I stop 'looking down' at him!

So it seems, I still have a leg to stand on...


Friday, August 24, 2012

Rage against the Machine - Part II

Open any of the numerous books on anger management and you'll find many effective strategies for combating anger, from reducing stress levels to cognitive-behavioural therapy. These are certainly worth exploring and trying. I'd like to touch on an antidote which I believe targets the cognitive root of the anger problem.

In a nutshell, the antidote to anger is truth. The notion of truth, however, is multi-faceted, so let's explore how some of  the quality's different aspects can help one deal with some of the triggers of anger - 'board abuse' - identified in the previous post.

a) Everything has positive and negative aspects, advantages and disadvantages. To perceive the truth, one must see both sides. One who angers on account of 'failure' in skateboarding sees only the negative in the experience. By identifying the positive elements as well - I.e. one learns from one's mistakes, one still gets exercise even when failing to land a trick, failure is part of the process of skill development, etc - anger can be tempered or even precluded.

b) Wisdom results from pursuing truth. Wisdom is the ultimate source of human strength,  esteem, and influence. The wiser a person, the less he requires superficial expressions of power to influence others. This is highlighted by the teaching, 'the wise speak softly.' Because they speak from a place of wisdom and feel the potency of their messages, they need not shout them out, for the message will have impact regardless. In contrast, one communicating nonsense compensates by forcing  his message onto others through means such as violence and anger.

c) One who gets angry at others has typically lost sight of their feelings and sensitivities. He has lost his empathic sense and become detached from the truth of the other's being. In our case, the skater has not only lost sight of the value of his skateboard, but more importantly, his own well being which is harmed by his anger.    

d) Anger is usually an impulsive and premature reaction to a situation where one believes he has grasped the situation at hand and sees it worthy of 'indignation'. In fact, however, anyone trying to discern the truth of a matter, from the true nature of an object to the details of an event, must investigate the matter thoroughly. Indeed, one who pursues truth senses that he only ever has a limited grasp of things and thus seldom angers, for anger stems from presumptuous conviction.

e) Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers, sold into slavery, separated from his father for many years, and unjustly imprisoned for a decade. If anyone should have been bitter at life, and particularly at his tormentors, it should have been him. Yet, when his brothers came before him and, as 'Prime Minister' of Egypt, he had the ability to exact revenge, Joseph did nothing of the sort. Instead, he assured them that though they acted malevolently toward him, God sent him to Egypt for his and their benefit. Joseph saw behind the smoke screen of the external world and connected to the beneficent God governing it. Yes, his brothers did choose to sell him as a slave with mal-intent, but God wanted him in Egypt having had those the experiences. Had the brothers not sold him, God would have used other means to send him into Egypt. Truth is about looking beyond the surface of things to their core. Underlying reality, as difficult as it may be to see, is the guiding hand of a benevolent God. Anger is thus never warranted. (Indignation, however, is a different story).  

f) Truth also involves maintaining focus on one's central objectives, without distraction. Unless a person is getting paid to skate (and even then), he does so to enjoy himself through one of the craft's many benefits: fitness, artistic self expression, relaxation and escape from stressors, challenge, skill development, fun, etc. One should savour the gift. And, since no one is forced to skate, one frequently angered by skateboarding has lost the plot and should ask himself: Indeed, why do I skate?                           

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rage against the machine: anger and its antidotes - part I

Every now and again I'll encounter a skater exhibiting anger management issues. Typically, the anger is sparked when his skating level doesn't conform to his expectations; when he repeatedly fails to land a particular trick, or when he falls and hurts himself.

There are three common ways he vents his anger: a) he raises his board above his head and forcefully casts it to the ground; b) he spins around like a discus thrower and send his board hurling across the skatepark; or, less frequently, c) he stomps on his board and breaks it in half - or at least attempt to.

In attempting to make sense of such 'board abuse', I focused on two aspects of anger:   
a) Its predominant psychological trigger;
b) The intention of the anger; what its trying to accomplish.

On this basis, I loosely identified several types of 'board abusers' (you know who you are!): 

1) The 'Macho' thinks anger is manly. He exhibits anger even in the absence of any clear triggers. Why? Because, to him, anger signals power, independence, and authority. Bashing his board makes him feel tough and cool.

2) The 'I'm better than you think' uses anger to indicate, to himself or others, that he usually skates better than he is at present. He thinks that in showing onlookers that he's really angry about his present inability to land a certain trick, they'll think he usually lands it or is on the verge of landing it. Bashing his board is his way of saving face. Though he can, and often does, achieve this by simply cursing, sometimes his board is used for a more dramatic display.

3) The 'Blamer' bashes his board to indicate that his failed attempt is the skateboard's fault, its not 'obeying' his instructions. By directing anger toward the board he not only diverts his anger away from himself but may subconsciously feel that the now disciplined and reformed board will be better behaved.  

4) The 'Victim' has suffered abuse and mistreatment, especially in his formative years, and so sees reality, in general, as a hostile enemy. As enemies are typically angry with each other, this poor fellow constantly harbors anger. His anger surfaces with slight prodding -such as failing to land a trick - whereby he feels he's once again a victim of an unjust world. He beats his board to a pulp in order to fight back and get even.

5) The 'Hungry lion' roars impatiently when reality does not-comply with his desires. He burns up out of painful frustration, often damaging things and even injuring people around him.
Nonetheless, his anger is not malevolent in intent, but simply a 'blowing of steam' due to built up stress and frustration. The poor skateboard was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6) The 'Psycher-path' gets angry because he intuits that the increased physiological arousal induced by anger - the Adrenalin rush and the reduction in sensory sensitivity that it engenders - will fortify him  to land a trick. In other words, he uses anger to 'psyche himself up'. His anger is the most constructive of the types and commonly stems from him taking his skateboarding goals very seriously. Professional skateboarders who are under pressure to land serious tricks for a film or magazine often exhibit this form of anger.

7) The 'Helpless' feels that all is lost. His anger is like the horn signaling the end of a soccer game for the losing team. It's all over, there's no way to correct the situation. 'It's all rubbish anyway!' he thinks, or, 'if I can't win, no one will!' Such anger is malevolent in intent: this guy wants his board to feel pain and suffer.

 To be continued...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Theory, demonstration, and empathy in teaching

Yesterday I took a group of kids skateboarding. One of them requested help learning kickflips which he'd been attempting for some time. Initially, I taught him all the trick tips that I'd been taught and found useful when learning the trick. This helped him significantly, but he was still far from landing on his board. Normally, I'd combine the theory with a demonstration of the trick and oscillate between the two so that they complement each other: the former speaking to the intellect, the latter, to the visio-spatial brain. However, my knee injury rendered this approach unfeasible.  

Frustrated somewhat, I intuitively stood behind him and projected 'myself' onto his board, into his shoes, and into his body and imagined myself performing kickflips using his body as I'd normally use mine. I then asked him to attempt to kickflip and tried to imitated him, not only with my mind but - as best as I can put it - with my 'astral body', the part of the psyche that's like a spiritual counterpart of the body. The part that wills, imagines, and controls the body, just before the body is affected. The part that allows you to perform an action invisible to all but yourself, but that could easily translate into real action with only the slightest assertion of will.  

In this way, his sequence of movements appeared on the backdrop of my own, and the differences between them became strikingly vivid to me. Owing this empathic sense, I managed to  give him insights into the adjustments he must make in order to land the trick, tips that I'd never come across on 'trick tip' videos and the like. Furthermore, I felt as though I could tangibly 'lift' his skating actions - using my 'astral body' - to my level of performance. Amazingly, after just a few tries he landed on his board, and did so again three consecutive times.

I'm sure that I learnt remarkably more than he did from that interaction: He learnt how to kickflip; I learnt that explanation, even when coupled with demonstration, is a mediocre way to teach. Only through empathy can one teach in a way that's tailor-made for the recipient...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Order out of chaos: the worlds of Tikun and Tohu

Before creating our world, God created other worlds and destroyed them. Kabbalah adds that the 'evil' in our world stems from the fragments of these worlds. What were these worlds? Why did God create them only to destroy them? How do they relate to evil? What is the role of evil? And, most importantly, how does all this apply to skateboarding?

Kabbalah describes the former worlds as comprising immense 'light' and few vessels'. As a result, its 'vessels' shattered. This is the world of Tohu, chaos and desolation. The latter world, on the other hand, constitutes abundant 'vessels' and little 'light'. This world is sustained, but its vessels do not function at full capacity. This is the world of Tikkun, repair. It's important to note that these worlds are not physical but spiritual. Nonetheless, since the shards from Tohu 'fell' into our world, they are visible in the physical plane. Additionally, according to the principle of inter-inclusion - the notion that every part of reality contains the whole in micro - our world has elements that parallel both spiritual worlds.

 For example, take a series of light bulbs charged with excess voltage. What is the result? The bulbs may burn out or even shatter. Conversely, if there's insufficient voltage, the bulbs won't function at full capacity, if at all.  The first scenario parallels Tohu; the second, Tikun.

Alternatively, take a passionate individual who lacks the wisdom and skills required to express himself in a refined and constructive manner, whose energy often erupts in anger and unruliness. In contrast, consider the individual who is highly skilled, articulate, and wise but lacks fervour and zeal. He may be harmless, and probably accomplished, but he's certainly not functioning optimally. These opposites are often associated with the young and the old respectively. The young are energetic and dynamic but commonly behave in unsavoury ways. The old are wise and mature but lack gung ho.   

The ideal state combines the advantages of both realms: the many 'vessels' of Tikun and the immense 'lights' of Tohu. In combination, you have many bulbs functioning at full capacity, and you have dynamic individuals articulating themselves in ways that benefit society.

Now to the subject of evil. In essence, evil is characterised by intensity in the absence of effective management and constructive outlets. For instance, anger and rage are excess forms of passion and judgement; depression is typically an excess of sensitivity and seriousness; lust and promiscuity result from a mismanagement of sexual energy; frivolity and silliness result from an overload of humour. (Even the 'evils' of natural catastrophes conform to this pattern: floods are an excess of water; draughts, of dryness; tornadoes, of wind; volcanoes, of fire, etc.)

Evil exists in the world so that people may exercise their free-will to attain the wisdom and skills necessary to harness and channel it in constructive ways. To fuse Tikkun and Tohu as they manifest in our world - and particularly within ourselves - and attain thereby the ultimate state of being:work which is mad but brilliant, creations that are transcendental yet practical, copious yet unique; achievements that are part human and part divine.

 World class skateboarding, especially among the pioneers, follows this pattern perfectly. It tends to be wild yet graceful, boundless yet precise, explosive yet masterly, aggressive yet elegant...part human and part divine...a fusion of Tikun and Tohu...                                             

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Treat pain as you would treat yourself

I've been out of skating action for a week and a half owing my knee injury. I must say, not being able to skate is definitely causing me more discomfort than the physical knee pain. How am I to deal with the physical and psychological pains?

In general, there are three methods of dealing with physical pain:

1) Eliminate the source of the pain;
2) Reduce the pain itself;
3) Change one's interpretation of the pain.

Let me briefly consider how these strategies apply to my knee injury:

1) To eliminate the source of pain - clearly the ideal - I must rest my knee allowing it to heal. If my body can't heal the knee on its own, I'd intervene with exercises as directed by a professional. If that too proved inadequate, corrective surgery may be in order.

2) The reduction of pain when its source can't be (or while it's being) remedied is commonly through painkillers of different strengths and varieties. Of course, other methods exist. One such method applies the Gate Control Theory of pain, according to which pain and touch receptors/sensory nerves are independent of each other and even compete for the brains attention. Interestingly, touch signals travel to the brain faster than pain signals. Hence, if a person's skin is stimulated while they feel pain, the touch signals enter the brain and somewhat block the pain signals. Some chronic pain is treated through the insertion of devices that stimulate touch receptors or nerves in the spine. This theory explains why people tend to rub their hand or knee on having struck it: the stimulation of the touch receptors helps block pain signals.       

3) If pain persists, I can interpret it in more positive ways. It's one sort of pain when one interprets it as an unnecessary nuisance or as a sign of one's own stupidity and clumsiness. It's another, more tolerable sort, when it's seen as a lesson in future safety measures, as a challenge to draw on ones hidden psychological powers, or simply as a 'battle scar'. Though often viewed as a last resort, in actuality, this strategy should accompany the preceding strategies, as it can aid the entire process of pain treatment.

I can employ these same approaches to help me deal with my psychological pain of being unable to skateboard:

1) I could try to heal my knee so that I can resume skating. Any progress toward that goal should provide me with increased optimism and hope and thus reduce pain levels.

2) I could engage in other activities to divert my attention from skateboarding altogether, and thereby 'block' the pain signals.

3) I could submit my will to God's will by remembering the formula: a) Everything is from God; b) God is good; c) therefore, what I'm going through now is good as well even though I can't see how. In this way I can be at peace with my situation, and with reality.

Similar to how the third approach should permeate the preceding two approaches when treating physical pain, the above formula should accompany the treatment of psychological pain. Moreover, it should be in place even if no pain is felt, for such a belief can help prevent much psychological pain from ever arising...


Painful Pain

My lingering injury pain brought me to contemplate the nature of pain. What is it? Where is it located? Is it a subjective or objective phenomenon? In researching answers, I encountered more subtle and sophisticated philosophical questions concerning pain, with fascinating, though speculative, answers.

Commonsense tells us that pain is located in the physical limb in which it is felt, as though it occurs to a body part as an injury does. Children, in particular, view pain in this way. This chimes with pain's obvious function of drawing one's attention to an injury. However, given that people can experience pain without any apparent injury - as, say, in phantom limb pain -or injure themselves without feeling pain - such as through strong pain killers - this commonsense  view seems illusory. Pain seems to be all in the head.

It's widely accepted that pain is a subjective and private experience. Firstly because only the individual in pain senses it. Hence, unlike the sight of an apple which can be seen by others, no one can literally feel an other's pain. Moreover, the very existence of pain depends on a person's awareness of it. This is certainly different from seeing an apple, the existence of which clearly doesn't depend upon one perceiving it.

Still, since one typically relates pain to a physical body part in time and space, how can pain be understood as an entirely subjective phenomenon, dependent on a subject's awareness for its very existence?This tension has intrigued philosophers over the ages.

Some philosophers hold that all perceptions, hallucinatory or 'real', are perceptions of projections of one's own mind. Thus, as one projects redness, roundness, smooth texture, etc, onto one's mind's 'screen' when imagining an apple, seeing an apple with the eyes also brings the mind to project redness, shape, texture, etc, onto its 'screen', creating a mental counterpart of the apple in the external world. It is only these mental counterparts of reality that we ever perceive. This explains why we often err in our perception of things: our eyes look at a red ball; our mind projects an image of an apple.

In this scheme, pain, like all perceptions, is a projection of the mind. It is unique in that the subjective nature of its perception is more obvious. Thus, when looking at an apple we're normally unaware that we're really perceiving our own mental counterparts of it. In pain, however, the dependence of the perception on one's awareness is more noticeable. According to these philosophers, the subjective/objective tension mentioned earlier spans across all perception, pain just helps bring the paradox of perception to light.

The above theory aside, is pain comparable to other sensory perceptions like seeing, hearing, or touching, where one experiences objects outside the mind? Perhaps pain offers us perception of the body's tissue damage, potential damage, type of damage, or the like?

Whereas perception through other senses is vulnerable to a mismatch between appearance and reality (one hears a voice which is really wind), pain is apparently immune to such incongruity: if one feels pain, one is definitely in pain. Pain thus differs from other sensory perceptions.

In defense, some argue that since pain merely carries the message of tissue injury (as reflected light carries the image of an object for visual perception), though one cannot be mistaken about experiencing pain, one can be mistaken about the body part that pain is a messenger of: we may think we've injured our hand due to pain signals but in actuality we haven't.

Yet, another problem exists. In normal sensory perception one typically focuses on aspects of the  perceived object, its colour, shape, texture, etc. Concerning pain, however, one chiefly perceives the 'feeling' of pain itself rather than the nuances of the object its supposed to help us perceive, the damaged tissue that is.

Some say that pain differs to other senses in this respect because pain is negative and signals danger. It thus impels one to focus primarily on it in order that one attempts to alleviate it and thereby increase one's chances of survival.

But another question surfaces. Relative to other sensory perceptions, pain is strongly entwined with emotion. When seeing, touching, or smelling something, we do not necessarily experience any distinctive emotional arousal or response. And, even when we do, the emotion seems to be a secondary effect of the sensory perception. Pain is different: a feeling of dislike and desire for relief seem intrinsic to it.

Indeed, some philosophers don't classify pain as a 'cognitive' sense, a sense that can be separated from feelings and evaluations. Rather, they view it, and its positive counterpart, pleasure, as feelings of good or bad, positive or negative experiences.

Others, however, claim that the reactive-emotional component of pain is not intrinsic to pain. For instance, lobotomy patients, those on morphine, among others, may experience pain without being bothered by it at all. The pain perception is present but unaccompanied by the typical negative emotional reaction toward it.

It may be argued that still, in 99 percent of cases the emotional reaction does occur, which is atypical of other perceptual experiences. Furthermore, perhaps the 'pain' without the emotional- reactive element cannot even be classified as pain at all; who knows?

To conclude: the exact classification of pain remains just that: a pain!


Thursday, August 9, 2012

No gain; No pain I

On an overcast Monday evening, Raph and I skated the freshly built Croydon Skatepark. I felt energised (having drunk a long black en route) and was on fire from the moment I got on my board. With increased confidence, I challenged myself to, and eventually nailed, boardslides down a low hand-rail spanning three long steps - simple for many but a big deal for me.

As we were leaving, Raph suddenly fixated on landing a bs boardslide down a lengthy hubba - a ledge on an incline. After much effort, sweat, and repeated bails, he triumphed. We were ecstatic. It was the classic 'gain after pain' archetype. Hyped-up, I decided to give it a go. On the first attempt I almost succeeded; on the second, I sprained my knee. Within an hour my knee joint inflamed and I was in agony. Even the slightest leg movement yielded a shooting pain. I knew then that I'd be out of action for at least a week.

Oh well, at least I had the opportunity to meditate on the nature of pain.                  

Houston taking a spill
The basic biological explanation for why sentient beings experience pain is that pain is necessary for self-preservation. Usually, pain signals that there's something wrong with a body part and that it needs attention. Additionally, it serves to warn creatures that a certain behaviour or object is dangerous. Hence, one avoids touching fire because of the resultant pain.  

However, pain is not always associated with the avoidance of injury or death, mysteriously, it accompanies the birth of new life as well. In fact, in eastern philosophy pain is seen as a veritable hallmark of life. Thus in dreams, where consciousness parts somewhat with the body and enters 'imaginative space', gruesome injuries and accidents, excruciating in the corporeal world, are painless.

The Scream
However, not all life forms experience pain, and certainly not as acutely as humans. A centipede may lose a few legs and continue on its way without distress. In contrast, the dismembering of a human limb is agonizing. Similarly, fish reproduce by easily laying multiple eggs, a dramatically different experience to a woman's labour pangs.

Is the extra pain experienced by people just a sign of human frailty and inferiority?

On the surface level, we are much more delicate than animals. We require shelter, clothes, shoes, cooked food, the right temperature - even comforts and perks - otherwise we become ill, fataly ill. We are not exactly tigers, not even bunny rabbits.  

In fact, however, the opposite is true. Because other species procreate more prolifically and often have a redundancy of body parts, they needn't be as protected from injury for their survival. In contrast, because the human body is so finely tuned, - created in the Divine image - every nuance of his being is important, and more so, sacred. The extra pain in humans is God's protective mechanism for what he cherishes most. At war, one places most guards around a king, not a foot soldier.

Additionally, humanity suffers more pain because he possesses superior intellect and insight which allow him to infer the consequences of the pain. For example, he understands that a broken leg can prevent him from engaging in his favorite sport for months, cost him his job, make him more dependent on others, make life harder for others, and generally limit his freedom. This awareness of the ramifications of the pain can exacerbate it.       

The human was also endowed with a heightened level of cognitive sensitivity in order that he may be 'touched' and 'moved' by the most subtle and elusive of things: abstract thoughts. No other species on the face of the earth can have direct contact with it, not only because they lack the intellect, but because they lack the required sensitivity. In other words, we feel more pain than other creatures because our distinguished raison detre is to bridge heaven and earth.

The ancient Hebrew language helps us further appreciate the nature and purpose of the greater pain level of humanity.

The letters of the Hebrew word for pain, 'Tsar', can be rearranged to spell, 'Atsor', to 'pause and absorb'. This intimates that pain often brings a halt to the hum drum and routine of a person's life, making her aware of her fragility and mortality, heightening her sense of dependence upon God or the existence of an afterlife. Simply put, pain tends to soften the ego, making it more receptive to the transcendental.         

Another lesson can be gleaned from the Hebrew word for affliction, 'Nega', which has the same letters as the word 'Oneg', pleasure. The two words are intertwined to intimate that God 'creates one thing opposite the other.' That is, because the human was granted the greatest capacity for pleasure, he is inevitably prone to its negative counterpart: affliction. This is largely because the existence of pain allows one to discern pleasure, much like dark allows one to discern light.

This last point helps somewhat demistify why human mothers especially suffer during childbirth. Because she can delight in the miracle of bringing a soul into the world, her experience is heightened by the pain. Mothers often experience absolute bliss once their newborn baby is placed into their arms. In part because the pleasure is experienced on the back drop of pain, and in part, because, as  she caressingly embraces her child she thinks: 'You were worth it; I'm glad I did this for you.'

(This applies even if she had an epidural, for the birthing process is still highly distressing, and dangerous. Though it may help explain why many mothers prefer to have a completely natural delivery.)

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Skateboarding, Solitude, and Socializing

One of the advantages of skateboarding, which distinguishes it from many other sports and activities, is that one can skate either socially or alone.
This reflects the dual nature of a person who is both a private and sociable creature and for whom both elements are  indispensable for psychological well being(despite people's proclivities toward introversion or extroversion).

In his book, "Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore", Rabbi Mannis Friedman compares these two dimensions of a human to animal types: the land and the aquatic. Land animals are naturally visible to the human eye; aquatic life is concealed beneath the ocean waters. The social dimension of a person, the way she presents herself and interacts with others thus parallels the land animal, while the private self, who a person is within, what one believes, thinks, and feels when alone, is the aquatic animal.

As land animals cannot survive in water, and aquatic life perishes on dry land, analogously, the private self flounders without solitude and the social self languishes without company. Both states are required to maintain the respective dimensions of a person.

Unfortunately, there are individuals that are not in touch with themselves. Their thoughts are perpetually preoccupied with how they will appear in public, who they will go out with, and the like. When alone, they seldom reflect on life and develop their own understanding of things, nor do they introspect and attempt to discover their own inner nature and identity. Even when alone, they seem to be in the company of others.

At the other extreme are individuals that have lost the ability to interact with others, to enter into shared experiences or exchange thoughts and feelings, to develop intimacy and camaraderie. They're preoccupied with their own formulation of things and endlessly plumb the depths of their inner selves. Even when among people, such individuals are isolated and alone.

Often, such lopsidedness occurs because people erroneously -typically subconsciously - believe that the opposite mode will somehow detract from their preferred style of being. The contrary is true:

a) The extrovert who lacks a genuine identity is shallow when relating to others. She cannot share of herself in any profound, potent, or genuinely interesting manner as there's effectively no 'self' to share; only 'Still waters run deep'.

b) On the other hand, the introvert who feels that socializing diminishes her ability to make sense of outer and inner reality, is majorly handicapped, for often the best way to learn about oneself is through explicit or implicit feedback from others. Additionally, when one's understanding of things are challenged by others, one is forced to reformulate, modify, or strengthen their beliefs.  

The opposite mode of being is not an adversary but a complement.  

Sometimes I prefer to skate on my own, especially at night when it's quiet. The tranquility not only allows me to analyse why I'm failing to land particular tricks and to imagine ways of improving them, but affords me the opportunity to learn about myself: my learning style, how I manage fear, and what really makes me tick, etc.

On the other hand, late afternoons at the skate park are amazing opportunities to share new tricks and experiences with others, to learn from better skaters, to cheer and support - or get supported by - other skaters, to compete, and to generally enjoy socializing and meeting interesting people.  

It is important for people to exist as amphibians, regardless whether they are predominantly land or water oriented...  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Avoid bad; do good; pursue peace

Turn from evil and do good; request peace and pursue it...
King David

King David meditates
while playing the harp
According to Kabbalah, there are two basic approaches to life:
a) avoid bad and b) do good. These are highlighted in David's sagacious instruction quoted above.

This theme applies to the entire gamut of human function. For instance, in the cognitive sphere one desires coherence, a harmony between the apparently disjointed or contradictory ideas, facts, and impressions within one's mind. Yet, two basic forms of coherence exist: negative and positive. 

In Negative Coherence one avoids inconsistencies and contradictions, averting the distressing tension they produce. In Positive Coherence one creates meaningful patterns out of the diverse contents of one's mind so they gel and cohere. This is acheived by discovering the 'cause and effect' relationships between them, through the correct categorization of information, through logical deductions which reveal the relationships between premises and beliefs, or through the identification of common denominators.

Similarly, when refining one's character traits, one can focus on removing negative traits such as stinginess, cowardice, arrogance, cruelty, etc. Alternatively, one can focus on cultivating their positive counterparts: kindness, courage, humility, and compassion, respectively.

Health-wise, one can centre on curing or avoiding disease, or one can work towards increased health and fitness levels as part of a more general pursuit of fulfilling one's purpose in life.

In skateboarding, both approaches are necessary. One should identify errors and correct them and one should also envisage the correct way of executing manoeuvres and apply it. In practice, the difference can be subtle - a mere shift in attitude.

But what did David mean by his conclusion where he urges the pursuit of 'peace'? And how is it relevant to the preceding theme of his instructions?

'Peace'' refers to the harmonization  and combination of the two approaches that David initially highlights. Particularly, it suggests that the most effective way to 'avoid bad' is by actually 'doing good'; 'doing good' usually includes 'avoiding bad' within it. To explain: whereas refraining from hurting people doesn't neccessarily entail or result in actively helping them, if one's objective is to help people, one automatically avoids harming them aswell as that's counterproductive to the objective.

Recently, I observed someone learning how to perform a kickflip. After every failed attempt he muttered that he has to stop leaning back. He was right, he was leaning back too far. However, it was only after I helped him imagine the correct technique for a kickflip - such as proper foot placement, the angle one flicks one's foot to get the board rotating, and how the overall action is similar to an ordinary ollie - he landed the trick for the first time ever within five minutes. And know, this was after months of failed attempts! By focusing on what he should rather than shouldn't be doing, he automatically corrected his habitual error as well.

  In essence, his success resulted from living David's ancient wisdom of how to create  'peace' between 'avoiding bad' and 'doing good'...

                  Long live the King!                    

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Skate 'switch'; touch the transcendental

Recently, I began to experiment skateboarding in the switch stance, that is, with my left foot forward instead of my right. I felt like I was learning to skate from scratch; even basic turns were difficult. However, after only a few sessions I felt dramatic improvement and surprised myself by performing several semi-technical tricks including switch shuv reverts, switch flips, switch 180 ollies off curbs, switch 360 shuvs, and switch 180 to tailstall on ledges.

In the last session, in particular, while skating with Raph at St Kilda Beach, I felt strange sensations in my brain. I was mildly disoriented and confused as I had to near reverse many of my techniques in order to perform them in the opposite stance. Yet, more interestingly, I palpably felt the right side of my brain come alive.

My hunch was that using my non-dominant left side may have opened the right hemisphere of my brain, since the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. Upon arriving at home, I started to research the theme of 'hemespheric lateralization' and the effects of using the non-dominant side of one's body on the brain. Here is a distillation of my findings:                         

Handedness is rooted in the brain: right-handed people have left-hemisphere-dominant brains and vice versa. 95 percent of right-handers have brains that rigidly divide up tasks. The left hemisphere handles language, logic, and speech; the right handles emotion, creativity, and pattern recognition. However, only about 20 percent of left-handers have brains that divide up these tasks so rigidly.

Since 90% of people are right-handed, the vast majority of the population have strongly lateralized brains. Biologically, this makes sense, for it would be inefficient for both sides to, for example, process speech when one side can do so effectively by itself. Additionally, this frees the other hemisphere for other tasks, such as identifying the emotional - 'prosodic' - content of speech.

Brain hemisphere specialist, Michael Corballis, PhD adds, "There's an advantage to cerebral dominance because it localizes function to one hemisphere...otherwise, information has to cross back and forth across the corpus callosum [the nerve bundles bridging the two hemispheres], and that can sometimes cause problems." Indeed,  in 2007, geneticists identified a gene that seems to be present in most left-handers and that has been linked to schizophrenia as well. This further dovetails earlier findings that people with schizophrenia are significantly more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous.

However, research also suggests that a less compartmentalized brain can lead to more creative  thinking. Hence, for years, anecdotal evidence indicated that left-handers are more creative, and studies found that musicians, painters and writers were more likely to be left-handed than control-group participants.

Corballis theorizes that just as information is prone to errors as it shuttles between brain hemispheres, it's also more likely to encounter novel solutions. Right-handers might reject an idea as too illogical (being left brain dominated), whereas non right-handers may be open to the idea nonetheless, and develop it into a viable solution.

Many people claim that by regularly using their non-dominant hand they can actually feel a buzzing in the right brain. Others further report that through their non-dominant hand they connect to their emotions, playfulness, creativity, stamina, intuition, and claim that their creative problem-solving skills are improved, helping them heal discordant relationships.

This makes sense on two counts:

a) The brain keeps us functioning with predictability. It has developed routine patterns for controlling the body and has quite consistent feedback from the body's behaviour in the world. However, when one writes with their weaker hand, the brain gets disoriented and temporarily breaks out of its habitual patterns, opening the gateway to creativity and a fresh perception.

b) Studies have shown that when using one's dominant hand, one hemisphere of the brain is active. But, when the non-dominant hand is used, both hemispheres come alive. Since the non-dominant left hand is (in 95% of right handed people) linked to the non-dominant, creative, right hemisphere of the brain, it makes sense that using it may stimulate creativity and insight...

So skating switch can indeed open the gateway to creativity, insight, and the transcendental... 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Who are you calling goofy?!

It's well known that the vast majority of people are right-handed. I always assumed that about the same amount were right-footed as well. In skateboarding, however, skating with the right foot forward is called a 'goofy' stance, while skating with the left foot forward is called a 'natural' stance. Does this suggest that the left foot is dominant in most people - or at least among skateboarders?   

              Approx. 90% of people are
Statistically, some 90 percent of adults use their right hand for writing and two-thirds favor the right hand for most activities requiring coordination and skill. Most people also have a preferred eye, ear, and foot, though the statistics are significantly less polarized. For example, one study that showed 72% of people to be strongly right-handed and 5.3% to be strongly left-handed also found only 46% to be strongly right-footed and only 3.9% to be strongly left-footed.

Only 46% of people are strongly
Footedness is visible in peoples' first step forward, where about 56% step forward with the right foot, 22% favour the left, and the remaining 22% step forward with either foot. Similarly, in a 100 metre sprint, most runners take off on their left foot, with the right foot making the first stride forwards. However, research also indicates that the left foot and leg are the stronger in about 90% of the population. How is that the case?

Since most people are right-hand/foot dominant, using the right for skillful movements, the left leg and foot serve as supports, bearing the body's weight and maintaining its stability. Hence, in right-handers, the left leg is usually the stronger. Hence, the vast majority of high jumpers and basketball players leap off the left foot to propel themselves into the air.

Thus, either leg can be viewed as stronger. The right leg is quicker and more dexterous, the left, more powerful and stable. In fact, their relationship is complimentary and circular: if the left leg is more stable, it offers the right leg more opportunity to develop finer motor skills. On the other hand, because the right is more dexterous, the left becomes stronger and more stable in order to support the  right - the good old 'chicken or the egg' conundrum.

Based on the above, two differences emerge between hand and foot dominance:

1) Statistically, there are significantly less right-footers than right-handers, and dramatically less strong right-footers than strong right-handers.

2) Whereas the left hand of right-handed people is typically both weaker and less co-ordinated than the right, in the vast majority of right-footed people, the left leg is still the stronger and more stable of the legs, albeit the less co-ordinated.

This helped me make some sense of why there appeared to be equal numbers of  'natural' and 'goofy' stance skateboarders. However, it only confused me all the more as to why right-footed skaters are called 'goofy'. Fortunately, I stumbled on an article which explained that people who surf or skate with their right foot forward are called 'Goofy' after the Disney cartoon character who is depicted as surfing with his right foot forward.

This brought me some relief:
I'd prefer to be called Goofy rather than goofy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Body; Emotion; Intellect

Many philosophers, mystics, and more recently, psychologists, divide the human psyche into three levels: intellect, emotion, body.

These are the basic mediums through which humans experience and interact with their environment.

Keeping warm
a) Body: The body brings one to experience reality through the  five senses - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching - and through its survival instincts such as safety, hunger, and procreation. The body thus typically perceives reality superficially, as it appears to the sensory organs or caters to bodily requirements.

b) Emotion: This involves more transcendental feelings such as the love felt for  a friend, the awe felt when gazing at the stars at night, the exhilaration of listening to an orchestra, the gratitude felt toward one who generously offers assistance, or the  motivation to triumph in an endeavour. Often such feelings exhibit little practical/biological value and may even prevent a person from satisfying their biological needs.

c) Intellect: Allows one to perceive reality through reasoning and insight. Deep thinking allows one to penetrate the world's exterior by entering into the metaphysical world of equations, logic, and abstraction. 

How do these three psychological components interact with each other? Here are two basic ways:

1. Hitlabshut (Investment):

a. Intellect 'invests' within emotion, arousing and guiding it.
b. Emotion 'invests' in the body, energising it according to the particular emotion felt.

A higher faculty enters a lower one to vitalize and regulate it. 

2. Hitkalelut (Inclusion):

a. Intellect becomes so preoccupied in abstract thinking that it subsumes emotion within it. The emotions go cold.
b. One becomes so emotional that they lose the ability to function effectively in the world. For instance, one who is overwhelmed with love may stand transfixed by the object of love, paralyzed. More commonly, severe anger impedes one's ability to talk coherently or to perform activities requiring delicate actions.
A higher faculty subsumes the energy of a lower faculty.

kurt godel    
Kurt Godel:
Austrian Mathematician/Logician  

Some individuals view reality primarily through the bodily lens, others, predominantly through emotion, and others, the intellect.

We've all heard complaints that someone is too pragmatic
and unsentimental; so emotional as to be deemed irrational; so intellectual that they're detached and insensitive, or short of practical commonsense. 

Bob Dylan:
Poet, songwriter, and musician
     Babe Ruth:
      Baseball Legend
Yet, anyone can train themselves to function better at any of the three levels and thereby become a more balanced person. 

In order to skateboard effectively, one must allow oneself to enter the realm of time, space, and sensory perception. If one remains attached to one of the higher forms of perception such as emotion or intellect, this typically hinders one from skateboarding optimally. 

 However, this only applies to Hitkalelut where the higher faculties impede the functioning of the lower ones. In regards to Hitlabshut, however, where the higher forces of intellect and emotion are recruited by the body in order to refine, regulate and energise one's bodily functioning, one's skateboarding can be greatly enhanced...