Bypassing the "PowerPoint Mind"
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Marisa Guerin, PhD – September 16, 2019
There are a lot of ways to learn things, to gain insights, to take in the world. While my dominant style tends toward the intellectual, over the years I have come to appreciate the arts – especially music and poetry -- as portals to experiences of great depth and power.
In my own US majority culture, when it comes to knowing things or persuading others, there is a bias valuing logical reasoning. Intelligent thinking is assumed to be orderly and evidence-based. You might think that this is primarily a masculine orientation towards ways of knowing – and perhaps it is – but reliance on this modality tends to characterize both women and men in our culture because it is ingrained in our education system.
I refer to this way of perceiving as my “PowerPoint mind.” It’s the mind that can think about something and discern the 6 key points, or the 3 reasons why, or the what-comes-first and what-comes-next. It’s very useful. I can’t count the number of times I have worked my way out of writer’s block for a professional project by starting a list of “dot points” to clarify what I actually am trying to say. This kind of logical, critical thinking is present in all cultures, of course, or they wouldn’t be able to work the levers of science, technology, or complex organizations.
But many cultures value ways of knowing that tap other sources of wisdom. Having given due appreciation to the PowerPoint mind, I’d like to reflect on how other modes of knowing can enrich our personal and professional lives. There are two experiences that brought this awareness home to me. One had to do with music, the other with poetry.
Years ago, I attended a national conference in Arizona for professionals who worked in the fields of leadership, organization development and human resources management. You can picture it: several hundred men and women spending three or four days listening to keynotes and attending parallel session workshops on a range of topics. The theme had something to do with leadership. What knocked it out of the ball park for me was the evening session devoted to something called “The Music Paradigm”. (I'm not writing this as a pitch for that program, although I found it excellent; it’s just that there isn’t any way to describe the power of the experience without identifying it properly.)
As we took our seats for that session, we participants found ourselves intermingled with the sections of a small orchestra – strings, horns, winds, percussion, etc. The 25 or so musicians sat among us with their instruments, and all of us faced the podium of the conductor. As the evening progressed, the conductor/leader did a fascinating variety of things. Near the beginning, he had the orchestra play 5 or 10 minutes of some familiar pieces, then stopped and engaged us, the audience, with various questions: What did we notice? Were the musicians looking at the conductor? Not much? Why not? Interacting with our observations and questions, he spoke to us about what is going on in the interplay of an orchestra with its conductor, a highly sophisticated communication among very talented people. He made connections throughout the experience with our conference topic of “leadership,” doing it all with direct demonstration.
For example, he led the musicians in another 5-10 minutes of performance, directing them very “tightly”. When he stopped, he asked the musicians some questions: How did you feel about that bit of playing? “So controlled, not fun at all.” Why? “It didn’t seem like you trusted us.” He repeated the selection, with more nuanced and generous conducting, and checked in again with the musicians about their experience – which was, as could be predicted, satisfying and energizing for them. At another point, he invited an audience member up to conduct the music with his guidance, teaching the process in front of us. Moving elegantly together, the expert and the neophyte, they demonstrated with great immediacy the way that the bodily communications of the conductor enable the musicians to pour forth the astonishing beauty of orchestral music, something no one musician can produce on his or her own.
When the evening session concluded, the participants were invited to an end-of-day social for conversation, networking, etc. But I found myself completely unable to speak at all. I had no words in me, just powerful emotions, awareness, appreciations. So I wandered apart from the conference group and sat on an outside bench in the clear desert night, just looking at the stars and taking in the fullness of what I had been privileged to experience.
Trying to describe this powerful learning experience to someone else, I found myself saying “It just totally bypassed my PowerPoint mind.” It blew right past argumentation, key points, validations, citations, or anything of that nature. The normal way of perceiving and thinking felt thin, colorless, empty – whereas my heart and mind and soul had been filled up with learning of great intensity. And the surprising thing was not the beauty of the music – this I had encountered in my life many times – but the power of being invited into the living interaction between a conductor and the men and women of an orchestra in making the music. The dynamic reality of human leadership and the creativity it made possible were alive in the room, alive in me. It transported me out of my familiar head space, and I have never forgotten that particular learning experience.
If that evening of music-making was like a fireworks show, my experience with the power of poetry is like the steady flame of a little candle in a quiet room. It was my volunteer work with Cranaleith Spiritual Center that introduced me to the loveliness and boldness of poems as portals to inner wisdom.
Along with other volunteers, I have facilitated various retreats in what Cranaleith once called its “Work and Spirit” series. These were programs that aimed to provide an opportunity for renewal and reflection to people from the business, professional, or nonprofit sectors, regardless of religious affiliation. The reflection topics were not difficult to find – most people are able to ponder what concern keeps them up at night, or what experience brings them joy, or what small stirrings of the heart might be inviting them to consider a change of some kind. But if we were not to assume any shared religious language or ritual, what “prompts” might serve as a path to the soul, a door to one’s inner life? How could the reflection be guided so that it engaged the retreat-goer at a deeper level? The answer was poetry, the language of the human spirit.
Poems arise from the insights of our heart and soul. They may speak of nature, or of memories, of love or of loss; they may express feelings, or tell stories, or lay a truth bare. Like music, poetry, too, bypasses the orderly, bloodless PowerPoint mind. When we read a poem, we allow its wisdom to touch us, without the critique and evaluation that might be evoked by a presentation. (Some favorite poets for Cranaleith programs are Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, David Whyte, Denise Levertov, Maya Angelou, among others.)
There is no way of knowing which poem might speak more directly to one person or another, but it doesn’t much matter even if they are just interesting excursions into the mind of the poet. Poems live in that other part of our knowing – not the logical reasoning place, not the critical thinking place – but the place of awareness, emotion, and wisdom. Poems live “next door” to prayer, spirituality or meditation; poems are accessible to all.
PowerPoint is my favorite way to organize my thoughts…but music and poetry are among my favorite ways to discover the movements in my soul!
Let me leave you with a poem...
By David Whyte
Above the mountains the geese turn into the light again
painting their black silhouettes on an open sky.
Sometimes everything has to be enscribed across the heavens
so you can find the one line already written inside you.
Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that
small, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.
Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out
someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving
You are arriving.