Intensive Interaction and Mindfulness – Part 2

Last week I wrote about Intensive Interaction in the context of Jon Kabat Zinn’s foundation attitudes of mindfulness.  The first two attitudes were Non-judging and Patience and I explained that I find that these ideas can be helpful in Intensive Interaction practice.  Because the most fundamental principles of the II approach are to be responsive to the moment-to-moment behaviour and interests of our partner, I believe we will have more success if we practice with a patient attitude while acting on intentional judgements rather than those made habitually. This week we will look at the next three attitudes:
Beginner’s Mind: While non-judging is the attitude we take to our habit of discriminating based on how we value things, beginner’s mind is how we deal with the habit creating expectations based on our past experience and how we then let our thinking and beliefs about what we ‘know’ prevent us from seeing things as they really are. In my qigong class for example, beginner’s mind is the attitude that my new students have in the first few weeks and months of coming to my evening class.  In this initial stage they do not yet have enough knowledge to question what they are learning and they will usually accept what I say and just practice the exercise.  Students tend to begin to ask meaningful questions once they have a basic understanding of the principles of the skill and have practiced the movement frequently enough so as to be able to reflect of what they are doing.  While this is a critical part of reflective practice, this knowledge can also be a trap.  Once we think we know something it can be easy, when we see that thing again, to see it as we have ‘known’ it to be rather than as it actually may be now.
A good word for this habitually formed expectation based on our past experience is ‘preconception’  which in the Chambers dictionary is defined as ‘an assumption about something not yet experienced, often a prejudice‘. Another, slightly stronger word for this is ‘stereotype’, which in the Oxford dictionary is described as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing’. The saying goes that stereotypes exist for a reason but what really exists for a reason is a collection of observations – stereotyping is the fixation of these observations into a simplified expectation that influences how we interact with something in the future.  When we are acting from these preconceived ideas then we risk not being centred upon the person in front of us.  In contrast, if we are aware of our preconceptions then we can put them down and concentrate on what is happening now or alternatively we can reflect on them and consciously decide if they are useful.
I have many conversations at Woolley Wood School about preconceptions and how these fixed ideas can affect our sensitivity as practitioners. Only last week I commented during a video reflection session that one teacher seemed to be trying to instigate an interaction every so often by tapping her leg.  Her attempt at initiation was rejected each time and, since she did not appear to be initiating based on a cue from her partner, I asked her why she was doing what she was doing.  The teacher’s astute reflection was that she had had a really good intensive interaction experience with another child and that she was instinctively trying to recreate this level of interaction with her new partner.  We talked about how it is easy to let these past experiences affect how we see what is happening now and that this can mean that we fail to see the extraordinary things that are right in front of us. In this case, the teacher’s expectation of how success should feel had blinded her to the success that she had was already a part of…the teacher and the child were happily sharing space, enjoying each others company and engaging in what was, for the child concerned, a rare moment of cooperative play.
Trust: Trust is very important on a number of levels but in our intensive interaction (and mindfulness) practice it begins with a basic trust in yourself, your feelings and your practice.  As Jon Kabat Zinn notes, it is far better to trust in your intuition and your own skill, even if you make some mistakes along the way, than to always look outside yourself for guidance.  In Intensive Interaction we need experience and mentoring in order to develop this ability and as I mentor the staff at Woolley Wood I have found that I need to highlight the good practice that the staff are already doing in order to help them to develop this trust in themselves.  But there are some obstacles to this that make it a little tricky.  For example, as an external practitioner who visits class for short periods of time each day, some staff were of the opinion that I was there to assess and report on them.  This led them to think that I was ‘correcting’ staff practice and this would in turn lead to staff to doubt their existing practice.  This could be compounded by the fact my purpose in teaching staff reflective skills is to encourage the teachers and teaching assistants to question what they do and why they do it which, without sufficient mentoring, could lead people again to doubt their ability.
So it important for my work as coordinator that the staff trust me.  Without this trust the development of a community of practice would be very difficult and much of the work would be for nought.  While strategies such as developing clarity in my explanations and making myself available to engage with staff can help develop this trust, I think it probable that the reason the staff trust me is that I have the same strong trust in myself and my practice as noted at the beginning of this section.  I think that this trust permeates though the things I say and do and is felt by the staff I work with, giving them confidence in me and our collaborative work.
Further on the topic of trust, it is important that our partner trusts us too.  Following the principles of intensive interaction will help us to develop trust with our partner because we will be presenting ourselves with a non-threatening, safe, available and appealing demeanour.  By responding to our partner we are in fact trusting them to lead the interaction and our acceptance and affirmation of their behaviour (in contrast to correcting it) will help them to develop trust in their own ability.  If we take this approach then I believe that our trust in our partner will be reciprocated and a relationship will develop.  As this relationship flourishes the opportunities for natural interactions will naturally grow as our partner feels more and more confident. So true this seems to be that, conversely, I have often thought that it is very difficult to separate communication development from the development of a relationship because it seems to me that two people will co-create more sophisticated way of being together naturally as they learn more about each other.  This is something that I am still pondering and so rather than going further, I would like to finish with a practical way to develop trust during intensive interaction, especially when meeting our partner for the first time.
As a musician I am inclined think in terms of repertoire.  For example there is a classical repertoire and a folk repertoire and a pop repertoire.  With music there is also a common repertoire of songs that everyone knows.  Applying this idea to intensive interaction we can say that there is a common repertoire of themes that we can use as practitioners to share space with our partner and gain trust.  Examples could include high five, give and take, throw and catch, rolling a ball, tapping a rhythm, clapping hands… all of them interaction themes.  Can you think of any others? When I meet a new person I sometimes try these simple themes to see if they already understand them.  If they do then this game becomes part of our shared repertoire and our relationship is all the better for it.  Try it out and let me know how you get on.
The next attitude of mindfulness in non-striving which I’m likely to write at length on so I’ll leave that until part 3 :0)

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