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Almost Dying in a Foreign Language  (part 2)

by David Gorman

NOTE: This is a record of a session that took place in a 5-day workshop. The names of the person who brought up the issue and the other participants as well as some of the details have been changed in consideration of everyone's privacy.

I have edited the flow of the spoken words to improve readability. Here and there, I have added some explanations of the work and its tools that the participants had at other points in the workshop. Aside from these edits, this article is almost verbatim from the actual session.

Because of the length of this article, it is primarily aimed at teachers, apprentice-teachers and those with some experience of the LearningMethods work, though others may find it interesting to pore through the whole piece. There will be a shorter version coming soon that just covers the main points of the problem, the tools used to explore it and its solution.

This version is a long article (over 30,000 words) so it has been split into 4 parts:

               part 1    part 2    part 3    part 4

PART 2 (... continued from part 1):

Margaret (another student on the workshop): Where does vision come in, or making goals?

David: Something that is absolutely essential if we are to understand and solve our problems is to not forget that we are dealing with a specific situation here, not a generality. What you are asking now is about a different situation than this one. Someone with a vision of what they want or someone making a goal is not someone in the middle of emotional distress or being blocked from learning. To understand the nature of that one, we’d need to have an actual person with a vision or in the midst of making a goal and explore specifically what is happening for them.

This is why I have said there is nothing wrong with the word ‘should’. It has a perfectly appropriate use in the language, for instance, "Next time I should leave earlier if I don’t want to miss my train."

But, when you know you have a problem and you are exploring to find out what it is all about, and in that context those kind of red-flag words pop up, then you want to be alerted enough by them to look underneath and see if it is one of those kind of situations where a dearly-held idea has acquired the power to make the reality seem wrong and to stir up emotional reactions.

As Raphael can testify, these emotional reactions are not minor feelings, and they have the power to stop you from doing the very learning that, if you did it, would lead you in six months or a year into a totally different place where you wouldn’t even have those feelings because Hebrew would then be as easy for you as it is for your study partner.

Raphael: You know, I think I may have internalised something that the Dean said to me once. I was required to have special tutoring by the faculty in order to continuing in good standing in the college. And the tutor, instead of helping me to learn the language just did the translation for me, so all I did was take notes. So I’ve had experiences where I thought I was learning but I wasn’t.

And the Dean asked me one day how was it going? And I said, "I am doing a whole lot better than I was when I first got here." Which was true, because I had been learning and the more I learn, the more I learn and I do know a whole lot more and after having been a rabbi for almost 20 years I am actually a really good rabbi. I don’t have the Hebrew skills that I should have, but anyway that’s beside the point. I have been learning and I have been growing and it has been changing.

So I said to the Dean, "I know a whole lot more and I am doing better", and he replied, "Knowing more than what you did when you first came is not the issue. The people out there aren’t going to know where you were when you started. They are not going to say, ‘oh, he is so much smarter than he was before’. They are going to have an expectation of your capabilities from the onset."

So, perhaps I have internalised that conversation.

David: Well, other people might or might not have an expectation, but what relevance does that have to you?

Raphael: Much relevance… OK, how do I explain this?

David: By the way, we are now beginning to get into the other side of what you brought up earlier about your assumptions about other people’s expectations about what you should know. We didn’t get into it much at the time, but the thread has led us back to it now.

Raphael: There are pragmatic realities that I am responding to. Two situations come to mind immediately. One is when I was a rabbi for a while in Manchester and I am doing a sermon dialogue which is my style. We are doing the question and answer part with the congregation and a 12 year old child who hadn’t yet had her Bat Mitzvah is learning in the day school and she’s asking me a question about the Talmud and Jewish law. I don’t even know as much as she knows in order to ask me the question, let alone how to answer it and here I am in public.

David: You have just told us a fact. Is there a problem with that fact?

Raphael: [Laughs] The problem with that fact is that anybody who is a rabbi should not bested by a 12 year old in terms of text studying knowledge of Jewish law. But the game is to attack the rabbi and try to score points. Because the rabbi in the Jewish world is the supreme scholar. The rabbi is the top of the hierarchy.

David: "Anybody who is a rabbi should not bested by a 12 year old." So is this another idea or construct you have?

Raphael: Yes, we are back to an idea again.

David: And is it the actual reality in the entire rabbinical field that all rabbis are supreme scholars, except for you?

Raphael: No.

David: So what are we talking about here?

Raphael: We are talking about how I don’t want to get clumped in with the ignoramuses who are rabbis. I don’t want to be considered an ignoramus. [Laughs] OK, yeah, there are rabbis who are stupider than me. But I want to play with the big boys, I don’t want play with the dumb ones.

David: So what would it take for you to fulfil that desire?

Raphael: Well, there we come to the other half of the problem. I was on my way towards the solution, but it seems that the world at large is in my way. I applied for and was accepted to study in Israel for a month this summer all expenses paid. And I was thinking, Aha, now I can learn Hebrew. I have never been to Israel longer than the time I was in the hospital. So I haven’t had the experience of Israel that is so normative with my colleagues, which is to spend a year or more there.

David: Sorry, but the question I asked is what would it take for you to reach the level that you want to reach?

Raphael: Yeah, I am getting there. It takes studying and it takes studying in an environment where I won’t be shamed by what I don’t know and Israel is the best place to study…

David: For the moment let’s just take it bit by bit. In other words, it would take you studying. It takes you learning what you don’t know at this moment.

Raphael: Right.

David: Is there any way to get there without taking that step? The learning step?

Raphael: No… have to learn.

David: If you took the steps, the first step you’d learn a little bit and the next step you’d learn a little bit more and the next more and at some point you’d be on your way to where you want to go. But it appears that you run into something here that stops you from starting those learning steps.

If I heard you correctly, it appears to be those bad feelings. And what we are exploring at the moment is where the bad feelings come from. Whether they are because of these ideas of what you should have known but don’t, or the ideas of how quickly you have to learn but didn’t, or about other people’s expectations that are stopping you from taking those steps from where you are — the simple first step that you can take?

Raphael: Yup. Yup. The shame is very powerful.

David: OK. Let’s take a moment with that one. You have just said what I call an unfinished sentence. You have named a powerful experience you have — shame. But you haven’t finished the sentence to say what the shame is an experience of.

What is shame? What is actually going on when you have that experience? Ashamed of what?

Raphael: This is coming back to the same place. Shame of not knowing and being shamed — actively being put down by somebody else.

David: Has there actually been somebody putting you down?

Raphael: Oh yes, all through rabbinical school. My first year instructor had a primo reputation for embarrassing people and putting them down, not unlike what happens to many doctoral students and doctoral candidates along the way. It is partly an academic game, but, yes… daily.

David: I suppose one could call it a game until you look at the consequences. It might be a game for him, but how much of a game was it for you?

Raphael: No, not a game for me, no.

David: So, at the very least we are looking at extremely bad teaching. In fact, I wouldn’t even call that teaching. That’s not an instructor, that’s more of a destructor.

Raphael: I was well schooled in knowing that I didn’t know.

David: This kind of mistreatment is a very important thing to see through, because there is certainly no end of that sort of ‘teaching’ around. Probably all of us here have experienced it in some way or another. It can be very powerful stuff that can have a long-lasting effect as you can see.

But it has relatively little to do with you if someone else fails to see where you are in your learning and consequently fails to help you move from where you are to somewhere else. In that sense it doesn’t reflect anything on you or your ability, but it sure says a lot about him.

Raphael: So why have I taken this in and taken this on, again and again, oppressed, repressed depressed, suppressed… pained… been deeply pained by it?

[Pause for an emotional moment…]

David: Well you have at least a little bit of an answer from what we’ve found here already. Because, notice, if you have those ideas that come up in the moment — those ‘I should have known’, ‘I have to learn quickly’ ideas — then at the very moment when you have those, they are not just ideas. There is an entire set of experiences that go with it — shame, feeling stupid, frustration. Those experiences are very real and quite powerful, and if you misattribute them and you think they say something about you, you end up actually identifying with them.

This reinforces the ‘I should know’ idea so the next time the not-knowing situation happens, you think the same way and have the same experience. In that sense, the idea quickly becomes a ‘reality’ — for you. After all, there is no ‘reality’ like an experience, or to put it differently, there is nothing like a powerful experience to make something seem like a reality — even if it isn’t.

Of course, the experience you are having is definitely very real, but it is not about what you think it is about. It is not at all an accurate description about your intelligence or your ability to learn, but it is certainly a very real experience.

A moment ago you said a very interesting thing when you said, "I am a very good rabbi, I just don’t know the Hebrew." But then contrast that with your statements about what a rabbi ‘should know’. And yet here you are a rabbi, and a very good one by your own admission. You just have this particular territory of your Hebrew knowledge that could be improved.

Now take in that you have had a number of actual experiences in the past with that instructor (and perhaps other ones) who did say very direct and belittling things to you. You thought they shamed you and put you down.

But it is an interesting thing to consider that they didn’t see the situation accurately either. They thought you should be somewhere more knowledgeable, when in fact reality at the moment was showing them (and you) that you were here not there. Unfortunately though, rather than do their job of helping you move from where you were, they ‘put you down’.

However, can you really put somebody down if where you are putting them down to is where they already are? It’s only a ‘down’ from their inaccurate expectations of some sort of ‘up’ where you weren’t.

But because of your ‘should’ ideas and these painful past experiences, every time you hit another moment when you don’t know the Hebrew, you feel as if someone is putting you down or judging you even when you may not know exactly what they are thinking. This, of course, stirs your emotions up again and reinforces the feelings and the ideas.

Raphael: Well, then I have the internal jury…

David: But if you feel the same sort of shame and put-down-ness from your internal jury, then you’re really saying that now your own thinking has the ability to reinforce this circle and stir up the emotions you go through because of it, even when there’s no actual external person putting you down. Nothing except your own framework of thinking.

You may not have an answer for this and there may be no way to know without trying it, but here’s a question for you to think about. What might happen if that internal jury was not there judging according to the ‘should’? If instead you simply recognized, "Oh, here is the level of my knowledge", and for instance when your study partner says it is easy, you might say back to him, "Well, it’s not easy for me. It might be easy for you because you had a different background that I didn’t have."

Notice, in that situation there is no one putting anyone down and no one being put down. There might, in fact, be sympathy from him, or understanding, or who knows what. That would be a very different situation.

In other words, you are right, you have the internal ‘jury’ which reconstructs it as if the same thing was happening again, when in fact no other person has done anything, outside of your own thinking.

Raphael: No other person is currently doing anything. They have in the past, and they may quite easily in the future.

David: But they may not. Notice your framework doesn’t acknowledge a ‘may or may not’. So you don’t get a chance to actually find out. With that framework you automatically assume it is déjà vu all over again and automatically jump to the conclusion of being shamed and put down and so out come all those emotions and feelings again, even before it happens.

Raphael: Yes, but there really is an external reality. When I go to rabbinical conferences or a study session and they don’t hand out a translation, I am lost.

David: That’s a fact. One implication of that fact, as you said before, would be to do the study so that in six months or a year from now you wouldn’t be so lost. End of the problem.

Raphael: I acknowledged that studying and learning the language is a remedy to the situation. But I don’t live in such a world where I can simply immerse myself in the study of Hebrew for a year, and even if I could, I don’t think a year’s immersion would bring me to the level where I should be at.

‘Should’… I know, I heard the should.

David: Good. That’s why I’m pointing it out each time, so that you'll begin to hear it yourself on your own.

Well, I just picked those figures of six months to a year out of the air. But the point is, whatever you could do would be an improvement from where you are now and whatever you can do after that would be an improvement again. You would be doing that which is actually possible. Is there anything else that is actually possible?

Raphael: Yes, I could continue to avoid situations that require text study.


David: Yeah, you could do that. But would that solve anything? Other than to keep the same lack of knowledge there that would keep you from your desire, as you called it, to ‘play with the big boys’? It would preclude the movement of learning, and it sounds like as long as you keep those other ideas intact then any time a similar situation came up, you would feeling the same shame — of being an impostor rabbi.

Raphael: And we still then come back to the emotional reality which in most cases prevents me from asking for help. So let me follow through with another concrete one. I have been given this opportunity to study in Israel this summer. Given the situation, I don’t know what to do. The anxiety is building…

David: Let’s just go back to when you said the emotional reality stops you. What exactly is the ‘reality’ part of the emotional reality that prevents you from asking for help?

Raphael: OK. So the possibility is that I will go to Israel for this program and that I will stay a second month and study. A friend of mine is the assistant director at a school in Jerusalem. She has suggested that I would love that program; the teachers are great, and you take a language exam and they assign you to a level. So I wrote back and I say, so tell me…

[pause] Sorry… emotions…

Am I really going to be able to study there, or will the teachers shame me for what I don’t know?

David: You are speaking as if the teachers might shame you. How can a teacher shame you?

Raphael: Been there, had that.

David: The teacher can say certain things, but the shame is your response. I can think of a situation where the teacher could say the same thing to someone else who just happened to have the same level of knowledge — or lack of knowledge — that you have, but that somebody will not have any experience of shame.

James: So you are saying, David, that a teacher could have the intention to shame somebody else but it is the actual taking in of that shame and accepting that attempt to shame you that causes the experience of shame?

David: Yes, well sort of, depending on what you mean. Notice the implication here is that the shame is caused by the teacher. "The teacher is shaming me." But does the shame come from the teacher, or does the shame come from the idea that I should already know this?

It doesn’t even matter if what the teacher said was, "You should know this, are you an idiot or what?" Take my example of someone with the same lack of knowledge as you who goes into the same situation. The difference is that this person doesn’t have the same set of ‘I should’ ideas as you do. This person is in the same classroom and he knows what he knows and he also knows what he doesn’t know and he knows he needs to learn.

Then if such a teacher said, "You should know this, are you an idiot?", he wouldn’t feel shamed, he would just say, "Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t. That’s why I am here for help. Will you help me?" With a subtext of, "Either you are going to help me or you’re not. And if you are not going to help me, what kind of teacher are you?"

So the teacher may be saying whatever they are saying with whatever intent they may have, but our person wouldn’t be feeling ashamed unless he also had some idea that he should know something which he doesn’t know.

What’s the shame in knowing what you know and not knowing what you don’t know? That’s just where you’re at. That’s why you are there — to learn.

It’s essential to see this clearly, because otherwise you will be taking it into yourself as if you have done something wrong. But if you look closely, any teacher who would say something like that has a big problem. They’ve done something virtually unforgivable as a teacher — to make a student feel bad for being where they are. Their job is to help you, not to make you feel bad.

But when they’ve come out with rubbish like that, you tend to see it as something wrong with you. You don’t see it as something that they did and talk to them about it, or get out of there, or complain because that’s extremely bad teaching and it’s abusive to boot.

And by the way, it doesn’t say a single thing about you, but says a huge amount about them.

Raphael: So shame is a response to a perceived situation, or to an actual situation. Nobody can shame me unless I allow them to shame me.

David: I would say nobody can shame you regardless of what you do. Shame doesn’t came from them. It comes from your ideas that you shouldn’t be where you are.

Put another way, use my example again… If somebody went into that same class who knew exactly what he knew and didn’t think he should be anywhere else, and knew what he didn’t know and who was there to learn, why would there be any shame? Where would the shame be, no matter what anyone else said? How can you be shamed unless you feel that you are somehow somewhere you shouldn’t be?

The bad teacher didn’t cause the shame, though they are making the same mistake as you are of thinking you should know what you don’t. Unfortunately, it is exactly that kind of attitude and statements from others that bring up the shame feelings in anybody who has this idea that they should be somewhere they are not.

To prove this, all you would need to do is change the way you see the whole thing and you wouldn’t feel any shame at all, no matter what someone else said. You’d simple recognize what they said as very unconstructive teaching that isn’t helping you learn.

Do you see the point I am making?

Raphael: I see the point, and as a teacher I understand that it is the job of the teacher to teach. And my experience in seminary and upper level educational experiences is that there is a culture of who knows the most, who has the most, who is the cleverest, who is the best writer, who is the whatever — a kind of academic machismo, if you will.

David: Well, I would say it is more an academic insecurity. The way you have just described it is how it may look from the outside, but think where that attitude comes from on the inside… It must be coming from some insecurity or tiredness or frustration which is sitting squarely in those academics.

Carl: Where are we now in term of process?

David: In the larger sense we are exploring to help Raphael see what it is that is stopping him from doing the learning of Hebrew. The learning which, it seems inescapable, is the only pathway that would lead towards what he wants. Knowledge of the language would be very helpful in what he does but he doesn’t have it at this moment, and in the real world you can only get it by getting it step by step. But something appears to be blocking him from taking those steps, and we are exploring what that is.

So far it appears to be his own conceptual framework that’s stopping him. Under that framework we are seeing a number of places where there are misattributions or misperceptions of the feelings — experiences that are not quite about what he thought they were.

Margaret: You don’t include history at all? The history of an adult saying to a child, "You’re naughty when you do that." People have had that experience of directly being shamed: "You are a bad person for doing that, you are bad, that’s a bad thing to do, don’t do that again." The feeling has some history and that’s not important for the process?

David: Oh yes, and I acknowledge that. I’m the first to acknowledge that this is huge stuff. But notice, is what the adult says actually accurate? Are you actually bad? Is the kid bad because he took the cookies? Or do we have an adult here who is mistaking the whole situation?

Where is the badness here? In the child or in the act? Seems to me that the act of taking the cookies may have been bad, especially if he was told not to. But the child himself is not bad. So the second way you phrased that may be more accurate: "That’s a bad thing to do, don’t do that again." That’s something a kid could learn from and maybe change his future actions.

But the first one: "You are a bad person for doing that." What can a child do with that if they take it in? Probably end up thinking his very nature is bad? Get into a struggle trying to change himself? And how does he do that? Try to be good? But if he’s come to believe he is bad, that doesn’t change him into being good. He’s just a bad kid trying to act good…

Margaret: But that feeling is sometimes overwhelming for a person who is not able to see that?

David: Yes, it certainly can be and often is. But in what context is it overwhelming? That is, why does it become overwhelming for that person? If you look closely, is it only overwhelming if you do actually take it on that maybe you yourself are bad? This is what we’ve been looking at here. That could certainly be overwhelming, especially for a youngster who is dependent on being loved, not being rejected for being bad.

However, if it was stated accurately by the parent that your actions of taking the cookie may have been bad, then that’s just a small matter of what you did for a few moments and can be opened up as a learning moment so that you can simply change your next actions. If it’s just your actions and not you who is bad, why would it be overwhelming? Especially if love for the child is shown all the way through and it is just disapproval of the actions.

In Raphael’s case, what’s to be ashamed of in not knowing something? It even makes sense that he wouldn’t know it, given his background. It’s just a fact. Mind you, it is an awkward fact for him because he’s put off learning it for quite a while now, and it will get more awkward the longer he puts it off.

Raphael: Bingo.

David: But nevertheless, it is still a fact. And an important one we cannot avoid.

And if we’re looking closely here it also becomes unavoidable that your overwhelming feeling of shame — not as it was years ago but as it is reinforced and recreated at each moment — comes from your framework that this is actually about you, about your intelligence or your learning ability. Isn’t this clear from the number of examples when this feeling comes up and there isn’t anybody else there at all except for your framework of thinking?

It’s essential to realize that the power of these long-standing problems is not because of the past. It’s because it has been recreated each time since that it is still powerful now. Or to put it slightly differently, every time that you re-experience it powerfully, it is not the past that is causing it anymore, it is your current misperception or misattribution that is responsible.

This is not a theoretical idea of mine, by the way. We’ve seen it right here each time by just exploring closely what you are actually thinking in that present moment.

If your ‘I should know it’ idea and that resulting feeling hadn’t been recreated and reinforced over and over again in each present moment, the whole thing would have been long forgotten. This is another of our wonderful human characteristics — the ability to forget things that are no longer relevant to us.

Raphael: You know, right now the feeling gets in the way of being able to hear you. Literally it is like the fog. The shame that comes up from that old habit — the feeling is so intense — that I can’t even hear what you’re saying.

David: Yes, I can appreciate that from my own experience and from working with others, so there is no rush to get to anywhere here. We can take all the time in the world and say it as many times as necessary and go over it as much as we need.

Margaret: So you are modelling this non-shaming learning…

David: Yes, I suppose I am. You’re very perceptive.

Don: I see a real confrontation of ideas between David and Raphael as to what is an accurate picture of reality here.

Raphael: It is not a confrontation of ideas I am resisting. What I am hearing, and of course I may not hear it correctly, but what I am hearing is that the shame is not coming from the outside, it is coming from the inside. And if it is coming from the inside, then I ought to be able to change it.

David: You can.

Lisa: What is the it?

Raphael: The shame. The shame is coming from the inside not from the outside, But then I get a little angry. I think that you’re not really hearing me.

David: Understandable, but here’s a chance to go over it again. If you went into the situation where some teacher was saying to you, "You should know that, you are a rabbi!" And if, in that situation, you were to say, "Well, I am a rabbi, and I don’t know that, and I am here to learn — that’s where I’m actually at." Where would the shame be in that?

Raphael: If I could see it that clearly there would be no shaming in it.

David: That’s where we are headed — for you to see it that clearly. In fact we are already almost there. Notice that what I just said was simply describing the facts. You are a rabbi. And you don’t know as much Hebrew as you need. And you do want to learn. Those are simply facts. I am not saying anything other than facts.

And another fact is that you are there to get some help, hopefully. As opposed to have somebody telling you that you should be somewhere where you are not.

This is important because if you are actually going into a potential learning situation like that and you happen to be carrying around these kind of ideas and feelings where you could feel shamed by someone, then you are in a very helpless position. In a very real sense, you’re justified in being afraid of that situation because if those heavy-duty emotional reactions really could happen and you had no control over whether it does happen, and if it was that overwhelming for you, then who on earth would want to put themselves in that kind of situation?

Raphael: Yes!

David: The anxiety is quite literally justified… but only if the way you see it is the true and actual reality that was there.

Raphael: I think it is the reality that is there, and I think that what you are suggesting is that my individual response could ameliorate that reality.

David: No, not at all. What I mean is that if that really was a reality that some outside person could make you ashamed, you’d be justified in being anxious. And you do happen to think that this is the reality. But everything we are uncovering here shows that this is misconceived. It is not the reality. So, I’m not after you changing your response. I’m after you seeing clearly what is the reality. Then you won’t even have that response.

It is true that when a teacher has acted toward you that way, you have had a shamed feeling. It might well be true that those kinds of bullying teachers are quite common, but how does that force you to feel ashamed?

Like my example before, I can easily imagine another person with a very different attitude who could go into the same situation with a teacher like that and end up with a very different set of feelings — no shame at all. The same teacher ‘does’ the same thing to both of you, yet the two of you have different responses.

When this happens, how could it be the teacher who causes the shame? That is impossible. It can’t be. If the teacher caused the shame, then it would happen to everyone they act that way towards. But the feeling of shame doesn’t happen to this other person because he has a different point of view.

So it’s the point of view that causes the shame, not the teacher. I can’t see any way around that one, can you?

Raphael: No, well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I want to learn, teach me.

I’ve grappled with this one. Victor Frankel basically says similar things to this, that no one can take away your humanity from you unless you allow them to. He was responding to his experience in the camps in World War II. The Nazis could take away everything from him except his control over his response to the situation. I think that he is brilliant, and I think I would have crumbled long since. I think there are people in the world who rely on being able to create a certain reaction and I am hearing you say that the response of shame is my response and that I can unlearn that response to a given situation.

David: See, this is where you have it turned around for yourself. You believe it is a response to the situation, and as long as you do, you’ll have that response. They go together.

But what I’m showing you is that the shame is not a response to the situation. It is a reaction to the framework you have that you should be somewhere else in your knowledge than where you are. It is the inevitable feeling you will have if that is the framework you bring into those moments when the reality is that you don’t know the language but the idea is that you should. Anybody carrying that idea into that situation would have the same sort of reaction.

[To the group:] I am sure you can all relate to this sort of thing yourselves.

Lisa: It’s not like you’re trying to change the response in an indirect way. It’s understanding what it is a response of…?

David: Yes, yes. Showing you that with that framework of ‘I should…’, you will have that reaction every time and…

Raphael: Can you say that again? Anybody with the same framework… And the framework is: ‘I should…’?

David: Anybody hitting the situation where the reality is what it is and yet they think it should be something else — in this particular case where you don’t know something but you think you should — would have a similar reaction because of that ‘should’ framework.

By the way, we are still exploring the process tool of red-flag words and why they are important to catch. Because if you don’t wake up to them you can’t explore under them enough to start to see how accurate or inaccurate your ideas and points of view are to the situation.

Notice when we caught the red-flag words and did a little systematic digging, we quickly found that the problem is that you are attributing the shame feeling to the ‘not-knowing Hebrew (…when you should)’. As we explore around it more the question gets raised: can that feeling of shame be coming from not-knowing Hebrew or is it coming from the fact that you think you should and yet you don’t?

Because, as you said yourself when I asked you before, "If you hit that moment and didn’t have that ‘I should’ idea, would you have any feeling of shame?" And you said something like, "I don’t know, I might have feelings of excitement about learning or I may not want to learn, but shame is not one of the feelings that might come up. Excitement or interest or boredom maybe, but not shame."

Lisa: Also the power of the should is that it seems the reality then becomes unacceptable. That this should is the only acceptable thing. It is not that you say that you don’t want to learn or, yes it would be great to know Hebrew. It’s ‘I should’, which makes the reality of where you are actually at unacceptable. I’m clarifying this for myself, but I can ask it as a question: when you are at the level you are at with your Hebrew and you have this idea that you should be at a different level with it, how does that ‘should’ idea then make the reality seem?

Raphael: My experience of this dilemma is not a cognitive one. My experience of the dilemma is not that I hold an idea of a certain level of achievement. My experience is that I open a prayer book and the habit of my childhood of just having to try to make the right sounds is dominant as opposed to connecting to the page and the words as an actual language. So that I don’t experience the language as a language. I experience it as a set of sounds that carries me somewhere.

My experience when I prepare my weekly Torah study for the students is that I don’t access the Hebrew language, I don’t access the text of the Torah, of the Bible, in its original without using English. My experience when I try to do Talmud which is mostly in Aramaic, or these texts that I am studying with my partner over the phone, is that I am illiterate. I can’t access the language.

My experience in the Hebrew classes that I am taking now at the college is a different kind of experience altogether, which is an interesting one that somehow, since I am able to say quite easily, well, I am a rabbi but I don’t know modern Hebrew. The study of modern Hebrew is not quite so loaded for me, so I am actually being able to learn the language and use all kinds of vocabulary that I had accumulated over the years and bring into this experience of the modern Hebrew.

And I am having Aha moments with grammatical things like how you do the definite noun phrase. I didn’t even know what a definite noun phrase was few weeks ago, but now I have learned what a definite noun phrase is and when I see it I can get it. But primarily my experience is that I am illiterate. And I am a very literate person in English and I hate being illiterate in Hebrew!

So that’s my experience. But what David is suggesting to me is that the emotions of shame come from a cognitive framework of ‘I don’t know but I should know’ and therefore I feel ‘arrrgggh’!

But I am not having that cognitive experience of the idea of shouldness. I am having an actual experience of not being able to penetrate a text when I am used to being able to access the written word. And the written word — not only in Hebrew but in the Jewish tradition — is vastly significant.

David: But if you are having an experience of not being able to penetrate it, how does shame come into that?

Raphael: I’m stupid… because I should be able to… Ahhh! [laughing]

David: You see, you’re starting to catch the red-flag words.

You say, "I’m stupid because I should be able to…", but look really closely here. I propose to you that the feeling of stupid comes because of that idea.

"I’m stupid because I should be able to…", as opposed to, "It is simply a fact that this is the level of my knowledge at this point."

Notice you just described a situation where your framework is more accurate and accepting of the facts — that you don’t know modern Hebrew — so you can go ahead easily. It is interesting to learn and you progress. And there is no shame. On the other hand, the framework that you ‘should’ know the rabbinical Hebrew when in fact you don’t know it, gives you the shame and stops you from progressing.

If you had the same attitude as you do with the modern Hebrew, is there any reason when you think about it, why your other Hebrew learning wouldn’t be just as interesting and you would also be progressing?

I think what Lisa was saying, or at least the opposite side of what I understood, is that if you didn’t have those ideas of what you should do, where would you be but accepting where you are? Here is what you do know and here is what you don’t know. You would accept that this is where you are, since it is, in fact, where you are. You could then move from where you are to the next step.

Raphael: OK! I give up. I agree. The problem is my cognitive framework. Now what? How do I unwire it? It seems to be infused in me like a tea bag in water.

David: Yes, I’m sure it is and it’s something that has been probably reinforced many times and it has been reinforced all the more powerfully because there are huge emotions that go with it.

There is nothing like an actual experience to make something seem real, especially if you misattribute the experience as if it has to do with your level of knowledge, your intelligence, or your stupidity — until you actually start to believe that you are that. But the point here is not specifically how to disengage it, the point is to actually see that it is only an idea you hold — an inaccurate idea. It is not the reality!

You know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s the reality. And your idea is not just an idea. It is a particular sort of idea. It is not: "Oh I don’t know this, but some other people do" or: "I don’t know it, but it might be kind of nice to." It is: "I don’t know and I should know it."

If you really pause a moment to think of the implications of this kind of should. What you are saying is that there is something wrong with the situation as it is because it should be a different situation. It shouldn’t be this one. It is exactly saying, ‘This reality is wrong to be this way, it should be or has to be another way."

Literately, it is a fixed idea. You are holding on to that idea very, very strongly as to what should be, and judging reality as being wrong because it isn’t what should be, and then going through big emotional reactions because of this. That’s the very essence of this problem.

But reality is what it is — you learn at the speed you learn; you don’t learn any faster. To the degree that the idea is fixed, the idea will be held onto in the face of repeated experiences that show you that reality is not what the idea says. And in spite of having these experiences over and over, you never get to take in what reality is because the idea is always making reality seem wrong. Consequently the idea gets more fixed and every time you hit that situation, reality seems wrong again and isn’t what it should be and this generates the shame and frustration experiences, which as long as you interpret them as being caused by not knowing the language, will reinforce you to experience it the same way the next time…

Do you see how it works? Soon you end up where the idea acquires more ‘reality’ than the actual reality. And you are stuck in an endless series of trying to change the reality to match the idea, which would be very wonderful if you could manage it. But notice, reality seems to be most uncooperative in matching itself to your idea. And through all of this, it has never occurred to you to really look at these two and see which one is real and which one is an idea. So you’ve been truly stuck in it.

If you had the tools to explore it carefully and get outside the preconceptions as we are learning to do now, then you’d easily see what is real and what is the idea. This is what unfixes the idea from seeming like the reality you think it is. Then, rather than trying to get reality to change to suit your ideas, you could perhaps operate the other way around and let the idea shift to match the reality. Then there’d be no conflict and no reactions and no problem.

Raphael: And so I’m now wanting to resist you completely. I am seeing in my peripheral vision Lisa stretching and I’m thinking of all the dancers I’ve known where there was a certain level of physical flexibility in the body and strength and endurance and grace required in order to be a dancer. If you put ten people in front of an audience you would probably have the audience saying that x-percentage of them really were dancers and x-percentage hadn’t quite got there yet. I think that with the Hebrew there is a reality there. The parallel of putting myself on stage as an accomplished performer and I am not!

David: Why are you putting yourself on stage as an accomplished performer when you are not?

Raphael: Because I’m a rabbi!

David: But you’re not being the rabbi that you are, you are trying to be some rabbi that you are not.

Raphael: I know, but rabbi-ness like dancer-ness has a certain set of implications to it.

David: Notice you have another idea here — of what rabbi-ness is. Are you saying that if whoever is in control of assigning and/or taking away rabbi-ness knew where you were they would take it away?

Raphael: No, they can’t!! haha!

David: So where did you get this idea about the definition of rabbi-ness, especially when you see that there are other rabbis that don’t even know as much as you do?

Raphael: But those are reform rabbis and I am not a reform rabbi.

David: Ahh, does that mean you’re an unreformed rabbi then?


Raphael: My apologies to any reform rabbis who might be listening. Many of them are much smarter than me and have more skills.

David: Let me just say something here on the process level. Something I can speak about from my teaching experience and which I think is important to mention now.

We were working this morning with someone else whose issue was being caught up in a circular problem — where his way of seeing things takes him around and around in a circle. When somebody is caught in such a circular issue, the problem more often than not isn’t one of avoidance or resistance, though that may also be there in some cases. It is more that somebody is truly caught in something that they can’t see their way out of. They are in a maze. They are in a labyrinth. Every time they think they are heading for the exit, they end up over here back in the circle with the symptoms again. It is the nature of that one until you work out how to escape from it.

Don: Yes, and the intention is to get out of the maze, it is just you miss the door every time.

David: Eventually through exploring and exposing these vicious circles, you’ll know the nature of them and understand how you keep caught in them and how to liberate yourself from them.

Here we’ve uncovered another bit of it. The very essence of this circle is that the ‘should’ thing seems more real than the reality — literally. Reality does seem wrong and you are not the only person in such a circle who is going to keep on insisting that the way you see it is a reality and that you really should know it. That’s why you are caught in it, because you have such a degree of forceful fixedness on the ‘should’. If you didn’t have so much certainty in the ‘it has to be like this’, you wouldn’t be caught in a circle and it wouldn’t be vicious.

I already know this from helping others, so I know that this is what is going to happen. That in our process here we do need to go around it all more than a few times because you do really need to take in the degree to which you hold the ‘it should be like this’. We don’t say these words for nothing. "It has to be like this", and you really do think that is the way it should be.

Lisa: And it should already be that now, it’s not like something for the future…

David: Yes, these are real words, with a real meaning for him.


... Article continued in part 3 ...

part 1    part 2    part 3    part 4


There is a small biography with some personal details about the author below.

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About the Author

David GormanDavid Gorman has been studying human structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page text on our human musculoskeletal system, called The Body Moveable (now in its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd edition in colour).

David has been working with performers (singers, musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the Alexander Technique and has taught all over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras; for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.

Over the years, his changing understanding about the root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.

For the last 6 years, David has been running online post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives and work, as well as a group for those who want to go on to train as LearningMethods teachers.

E-mail:     Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
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