Learning mind – Rivers of Tea and Psychic Denial

A Zen master was sitting down to tea and quiet reflection as the sun started its decent over the horizon, when a stranger arrived.
“Excuse me” the stranger asked with polite urgency, “I have been told that a Zen master of the highest order lives on this slope”. The master looked at the stranger with kind eyes which the stranger took as a cue to continue; “I am from the new philosophy department at the university”, he stood a little straighter, catching his breath, “and I am here to see what you can teach me”.
The master unfurled aged fingers to indicate a place on the other side of the small, low table “Would you like some tea?”cupsmall
The stranger nodded and continued “I have studied with masters of more than a dozen philosophical and religious disciplines and have written many books on Buddhism”. The master, having poured his own tea, turned his attention to the stranger’s cup whilst continuing to give audience. “And I have heard that you are one of the wisest men in these parts and so have come to hear what you have to …” the stranger leapt up narrowly avoiding a small river of boiling liquid cascading over his already full cup, the master kept pouring with a slight sigh. “My cup is already full!” the stranger spat his words as though they still contained his unfinished sentence.
The master stopped pouring and spoke with the gentle smile he had never lost; “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Whilst this story has many versions, one of which was a Brice Lee favourite (no doubt he encountered many of his own cup-full students) it exemplifies something that I am coming across more and more in the modern age.

I have, for most of my professional life, been a trainer. Sometimes management training, sometimes personal effectiveness, sometimes team and culture change programmes, and whether explicitly or implicitly the only thing I have ever asked for, and required to be successful, is empty cups. Or at least half-empty. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about not being able to convince, I have also made successes of sessions where people have turned up arms folded with a firm belief that they have more knowledge than anyone in the room. But in an ideal world you don’t want a battle of knowledge and will and it is the capacity to accept incoming information without a significant ‘filter’ (so less gets through) that I value the most. Once you have ‘received’ the information you can do what you like with it.

So a subtler, and perhaps more pervasive version of ‘full cups’ is ‘Already always listening’ (AAL) derived from the ideas of Werner Erhard and the EST programme. AAL is the sum total of all of your experiences and the things you ‘know’ to be ‘true’ – which my experience are a heuristics your brain uses for things you ‘think’ are ‘likely’ as they may rarely stand up to even self-originated scrutiny.

Whilst your particular filter is unique to you it is sometimes selective in its application for example:
“What can someone younger than me teach me”
“This person always talks non-sense”
“Urgh its one of those feminists/macho men”
“I’m too busy and this isn’t worthy of my time”

As judgemental as the above might sound they may well be running all the time. That’s why I call them subtle. They may well be things you don’t wish to admit to, but they may well kick in before you have time to really observe them. Another argument for mindful listening, which goes far beyond the ‘active listening’ training that featured heavily in my early training career.

We shouldn’t be too tough on our AALs though. They protect us from ‘wasted’ time, ‘toxic’ experiences and situations that could deplete our daily decision making capacity. However, like all habits they need reviewing on a regular basis to determine their usefulness. This is easier said than done since they may not always be entirely compatible with our self-image.

One of my least palatable AALs, as someone who prides themselves on being an ‘open-minded critic’, relates to my mum. She is an advocate of spiritual healing and all things psychic, concepts which I am open to. But on the basis of current scientific enquiry I have formed the belief that there is a lot more opportunity for exploitation than there is for life enhancing experiences (for which there are plenty of non-psychic interventions). The initial feeling is laudable – I want to protect my family. Out outcome is less so – a sort of internal call screening which says ‘Press 1 for psychic evangelism’ and promptly cuts the caller off. I’m winning the war against this defence mechanism, but not all the battles …

What are your AALs? When do they serve you and when do they remove an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised?


What are Acronyms Again?

When I ask people how they would like to ‘be better’ and amazing number say they would like to improve their memory. In general this is an attention issue not a memory issue (see my post on Mindfulness for some help with this) but I will keep adding mini posts to help those who are similarly afflicted.

So what are acronyms again? I often think that people need a memory aids to remember what memory aids are! Acronyms are commonly used by students and teachers alike but they are often not nearly as effective as they could be because no one ever seems to teach how to create them in the first place.

Acronyms are easy for anyone who has written, probably in their formative years, an acrostic poem (although technically these are backronyms), as the principle is exactly the same: It is a word that has a ‘second layer’ that has more information. When I say it is a word, it doesn’t have to be a real one. Confused? Here are some examples:


Explain the consequences

Listen to the response

Agree options

Contract for success

Thank them

DELACT – A method of giving feedback (sorry to whoever invented this I can’t find a reference).





STAR – The stages that need to be included when responding to questions in a competency based assessment.

So with this in mind what are they key components of an acronym:

  1. They need to be a relatively small amount of information to be retained (to be most effective)
  2. Each letter should be the first letter of the key word in the sentence/concept you want to retain
  3. The letter (and therefore the word they represent) need to not be easily substituted with other similar or related words or other words with the same first letter when the order is important – meaning should be clear.
  4. Each word or sentence that is represented by a letter needs to be fairly close in terms of relative importance (you aren’t throwing in letters just to make a funny word)

With these rules in mind how do the examples above do? Have a look now and evaluate them before reading on.

So what did you think? Let’s take DELACT, which isn’t bad. Once you understand the meaning behind it becomes clear that it is very important to remember to ‘Thank them’ at the end (i.e. it is as important as the others). It doesn’t matter that it isn’t a real word, in fact in some ways this may make it more memorable (you can’t substitute with another word with the same meaning). There are two letters that do concern me in this acronym – E: Explain the consequences. The reason for this is that the E is for ‘explain’, if you only remember the ‘E’ and therefore only the ‘Explain’ would you explain the reasons for your belief, or the explain the options or explain the theory of relativity? You get the idea. What would be a better letter? C. This is the more key concept, if you remember that the next stage is about Consequences you are more likely to remember that you need to explain them than visa versa. The next one that could cause concern is agree options. Why because the A leads the mind to Agree, in my mind at least I would be thinking about agreeing a way (singular) forward. This stage of the process is actually about creating options to choose from and then narrow down (Contract for success). So ‘O’ would be a better way forward, we then know that the stage is about creating option, there is a slight danger that we might think this is about presenting ultimatums but if we have our fundamental approach right this acronym should just be about remembering the recommended order of events. What are we left with ‘DCLOCT’. Now we know why that wouldn’t work – hard to remember because it is hard to pronounce. We can compromise with DELOCT.

This may seem like a lot of work for an acronym but there are some consequences I have experienced of getting it wrong (or not very right) such as:

1) The learner trying to remember the process, to remember the word, to remember the process: “I know we start be describing the Issue, and the Consequences, but that isn’t a word, I think we explain the consequences, that’s It! DELACT, so then we must  Listen, I think”. So this only really helps in that it makes the whole thing memorable (if confusing) but it not the speedy result that acronyms promise.

2) Substituting different word that confirms pre-existing beliefs, so A becomes acknowledge their feelings because I am a great believer in ‘that sort of thing’. All of a sudden we have very different approach I am acknowledging their feelings and then moving straight into contracting the outcome I want. I have gone from being very collaborative to dictatorial whilst superficially nodding and saying “Hmmm I understand”. This is in fact the exact opposite of what we were going for.

3) SHIFTY might be great and funny for remembering the neighbourhood watch code (very memorable because it fits) but you could spend a lot of time trying to rem,ember the last two eventually realising it was ‘That’s it, Your done’. You added it on the end just to make it fit. There is a balance between making it memorable and meaningless.

The above confusions are possible  no matter how good the acronym but I strongly believe that this can be significantly reduced by refining and using the best acronym possible (spend enough time on it and it will itself become very memorable). What you are aiming for is to improve the means of recalling something better that without the acronym. Even average acronyms can do this but poor acronyms can actually hinder recall.

So here is how to get your acronyms right – SKIM:

  • Small amount of info
  • Key words only
  • Importance of each word is similar
  • Meanings are clear/hard to Misinterpret

Ok so they aren’t the best sentences in the world but it obeys the rule. The truth is you are probably better off creating few acronyms with these rules in front of you and checking each one off. Once you have done this enough you won’t need the list anymore. Practice is the best memory aid.