Teaching to the Unconscious:  On Learning and Transmission

Over the years, I have become aware that most of our work happens in the unseen. The surface work of the content and poses is just the smallest bit. I have always felt the depths and intricacies, and have studied them in many ways. I want to speak to the subtle work of a teacher, as too often the less visible is over looked and undervalued. A relationship with the nervous system, unconscious, and subconscious underlies any content. We should remember to see our own value in all of the layers of teaching.

The following is some information and thoughts on how these deeper layers apply to learning and teaching. My hope is that consciously seeing our depths may help us remember our richness. It also reminds of how deep teaching goes; asking us to consider: what is teaching, what are we really teaching, and how can we do so more consciously and effectively. In order to responsibly dwell in the unconscious of our students, we can strive to make our unconscious conscious, while always trusting our depths.

Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers  ~ Richard Bach


The act of teaching is a choice point—if we become conscious. The job of a teacher is not simply to pass on information as it has been handed to you. Do you want your students to learn every lesson that you have had to learn (and unlearn)? Often, teachers teach what they have been taught—both consciously and unconsciously—without questioning. They teach information as they have been taught it, they also teach subconscious rules about what the world is, who the student is, what people are like or should be like. Some lessons are more obviously helpful, some more obviously harmful, but all lessons have a shadow. The true job of the teacher is to imagine the world as it could be and, as best as possible, teach in a way that supports that world.

The 3 Mandates of Leadership

  1. See it as it is—not worse than it is
  2. See it better than it is. (Have a compelling vision for how things could be)
  3. Make it as you see is. 

--Tony Robbins

If we do not examine what lessons we want to pass on, we too easily become professors in the school of hard-knocks: recreating, in large ways or small, the difficult lessons that formed us. In conscious or unconscious ways, we may dole out the adversity that made us strong. This could be as deep as inter generational cycles of violence, or as small as not being fully present or committed, or hesitating to give a hug or kind word. It is beautiful and true that our most difficult experiences can turn into our strengths. But, just because there is nothing to forgive in our own past, doesn't mean we should repeat it on others.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter. ~ Confucius

There is a healthy tendency to idealize teachers (this is an essential part of the process of finding one's self), however, if wisdom is to be a continuous thread through the generations--rather than starting from scratch--the student in some way should surpass the teacher. That is the goal. To save someone the time and energy of our pitfalls---out of the belief that there is more evolution, more vitality, more wisdom to be found.

Memory Here is a bit of the neuroscience of learning and transmission. There are 2 categories of memory that it is important to be aware of, especially when working with kids.

• Explicit memory is the conscious, intentional recollection of previous experiences and information. This information is coded in words, and by place and time. People use explicit memory throughout the day, such as remembering the time of an appointment or recollecting an event from years ago. These are memories that can be retrieved by a conscious act, as in recall, and can be verbalized.

• Implicit memory is a type of memory in which previous experiences effect the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences. This is body memory or motor memory (i.e. riding a bike). Often considered "unconscious" memories or memory without awareness, these are differently encoded memories which can affect conscious thought, mood, and behavior. These memories are not sorted by time or place. This means that, when having an implicit memory, we feel that it is happening in the present, even if it actually happened in the past. This can be a feeling of warmth and love, or of rejection and assumption of failure.

It is believed that up until at least 18 months, a child is entirely in implicit memory. However for much longer than that, kids spend good amounts of their time in states that build implicit memory. These states that are highly receptive and suggestible. This means that—even when a child does not appear to be listening to you (and really especially when they do not appear to be listening to you) their subconscious is taking it all in.

Often people become aware of implicit memories through trauma. And a healing device is to feel these implicit states and use words to help make the implict explicit—thus placing the feeling in the past, not the present. But more related to our jobs here, the importance is to know that we are in these kids subconscious….so what do we want to put there?

Our Shadows Come Out to Play

One way that we might see our own implicit memories or states come up in classes is in the themes of behaviors in classes. This is the way our classes become beautiful mirrors for what is going on in us. If there is a difficulty in class, sometimes its just the kids (sugar for lunch, day light savings time, testing at school)....sometimes it may be something in you as well. You may meet repeated themes in classes--such as distraction, disengagement, boredom, judgement from parents, lack of gratitude, disrespect or physical themes like a certain body pattern, congestion, injury, or diagnosis. These may be a part in you and a part in your students that is rising up from all sides to find healing.

This is the perfect relationship, if handled consciously. Remember, you are in the role of the teacher---what is being asked to rise up and shift in you? However it is sometimes reasonable to pose the question to the class as well--they tend to have brilliant insights.

(to make it more concrete) Ways we, as teachers, effect the subconscious:

• our state of being. Both affective state, and degree of presence.

• our language – does your language communicate bias or judgement? Are these things you want to convey, or is it someone else’s teachings coming out of you?

• Touch (this is huge) –and the state and emotion you are in with your touch.

• Movement. We are giving them different nervous system possibility.

Trust the Subconscious

 This is all a suggestion to listen to yourself, check into your ways of being, make the unconscious conscious, and make choices. You will watch how you repattern your language and ways of being. In this way, teaching becomes a way to work on yourself. To learn and teach something new.

However, the more detailed information you have about your potential impact, the more a daunting a task or heavy a responsibility it might seem to be. So, it is always most important in talking about the subconscious and unconscious to remember that these are the rich and infinite reservoirs that nourish and take care of you. The dancing shadows are not to be feared. They are the location of the wisdom that beat your heart with out you having to think about it. They are the home of creativity and wisdom that comes with every breath and the knowingness that has been unfolding since you were your first cell. It is most important to remember that there is a goodness in you that teaches for the purpose of meeting the goodness in your students. And you are taken care of by that. This is even deeper than the implicit memories that may travel through feelings, thoughts, and sensations of all sorts. And when difficulties come up, they have been brought to you by this goodness---as an opportunity to heal and grow. You can trust this goodness. This is the real teacher.

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