How often do you focus on the one thing you don’t want to think about? When I was learning to paraglide, the instructor said ‘Don’t look at the tree’. So, what did I do?…
Hard to Miss
The training slope where I took my lessons had one, solitary tree – right in the middle. During a Question & Answer session, early in our course, one of the pupils asked: ‘has anyone ever hit the tree?’. The instructor replied ‘You’d be surprised’.
You see, although this is a lonely oak – with space all around – it can be hard to miss. When making an approach to land, a pilot can easily fixate on an obstacle he or she would rather avoid. Unfortunately, since the majority of us are visually-biased, should we look at something, our inclination is to steer towards it. And, when landing a paraglider, this is a bad idea.
So, why am I telling you this? Apart from the fact it allows me to casually mention my flying exploits, it does have relevance to creative pursuits. This has to do with our innate sense of vulnerability when expressing ourselves. And when we feel vulnerable, it’s all too easy to focus on our fears.
Imagine that, rather than training to fly, you are learning a song. It’s a lovely, lyrical piece that fills you with joy. You want to sing it publicly but are terrified of performing in front of an audience. Your kindly teacher tells you to forget about the listeners and not look at them.
Now the audience has become ‘the tree’. Even if you keep your eyes tightly shut, you will inevitably think about the people in front of you. So, rather than immersing yourself in the pleasure of singing this beautiful tune, you become filled with anxiety. Which can spoil the whole experience.
Don’t Look Now
Whereas I didn’t actually hit the tree, in my early attempts to land a paraglider safely I did come pretty close. The instructor’s well-meaning exhortation to ‘not look at the tree’ actually had the opposite effect. Much the same as if somebody says ‘don’t look now’ and glances over your shoulder. You are pretty-much guaranteed to look behind you.
In leading creative activities with children, we need to be aware of this potential pitfall. Our attempts to steer pupils away from their concerns may actually lead toward them. There is little point in pretending the proverbial tree doesn’t exist. However, drawing attention to it may not be the best strategy.
In the case of flying, the solution is simple. Focus on the place where you do want to land. That way you are assured a safe flight and a soft landing. The equivalent, in our singing example, might be to concentrate on your breathing, your posture, the words you are conveying and the story you want to tell.
Enjoyable & Enriching
Creative pursuits can be a terrific tool for confronting our fears. By immersing ourselves fully in our chosen activity, we can forget about what scares us. Those concerns become as irrelevant as a solitary tree in a huge landing field, so long as we resist the urge to say ‘don’t look’.
If we are absorbed by the act of creation, we need not concern ourselves with the outcome. Paradoxically, the chances of that outcome being subjectively ‘good’ are then greatly enhanced. And if not, who cares? We’ve had an enjoyable and enriching experience. Which is what really matters.