Kyra Shaughnessy

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Raised Free Range: The Inside Scoop From Outside the Box

I grew up an experiential learner, guided by my interests and the love of learning that is natural to all humans. (That’s right; I said learning was natural to all humans.).  As a teenager I chose to go to public school for the final two years of high school. I wanted to have some real perspective on both forms of education.

At this point in the story I am usually bombarded with questions. “How did you adapt? Were you homeschooled or unschooled and what’s the difference anyway? Weren’t you isolated learning at home?” As someone who has experienced both sides of the educational fence, I hope to shed some light on the reality of being raised free-range.

In my life as a self-employed artist I’m often called on to talk about my background. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of misinformation and stereotypes that exist around alternative education, not to mention the sheer disbelief I encounter from people:  “YOU were homeschooled? But…you’re so…functional!” “Ooooh boy. Here we go again” I sigh.

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Homeschooling vs. Unschooling

First off, let’s get our labels straight. Homeschooling is a form of education where, generally speaking, the learner is following some form of curriculum, often provided by the government or other governing body. Most of the time a homeschooler will have someone, usually a parent, who is responsible for giving lessons and evaluating their progress. The option also exists, at least in Quebec, of completing the same exams you would be taking in school.

Homeschooling is often still with religious groups but the reality is that more and more people of all creeds are opting out of the existing educational structures. Many people are choosing homeschooling simply because of the environment of violence and bullying that pervades many large public school these days. Others find that the student-teacher ratio and pressure of standardized tests detracts from the quality of learning. Reasons can vary quite a bit from family to family.

Un-schooling is a term coined by John Holt in the 1970’s and generally refers to a philosophy that rejects “compulsory institutional education”. This philosophical base distinguishes it from homeschooling, which is usually follows a mainstream framework (even religious homeschoolers would tend to approach schooling in the standard North American way). Many people who have received a mainstream education call themselves “unschoolers” when they choose to begin “unlearning” the worldview and values supported by said education system. As with most things there are exceptions and variations to the use of both terms, but that gives you a general idea.

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Self-Direction: The Passion approach

For myself, I tend to say I had a self-directed education. “Wait…a 5 to 15 year-old directing their own education?
Don’t children need adults to direct them in order for them to learn?” In all honesty, no. Mentors, guides and intergenerational exchange are completely essential to the evolution of people of all ages. But, quite frankly, children can learn a lot without the constant surveillance of adults. We are born to learn. The only thing adults need to do with kids is to make sure nothing gets in the way of their curiosity and safety to explore the world and to provide resources when necessary.

As I said before, humans are natural learners. We all start out loving to learn. The current education system is not built around encouraging an individual person’s passion. It operates on the belief that all people need to learn the same things at the same in order to develop as functional members of society.

Self-directed learning relies on the fact that by learning about things we’re passionate about we develop other necessary skills by default. This was my experience and that of most other self-directed learners and unschoolers I’ve encountered. (For those interested in how this philosophy could work in a more formal school setting I suggest you read “Summerhill” by A.S. Neill.)

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Going beyond separation

By seeing all subjects as separate from each other we limit our learning potential. Here’s an example of what I mean. A child fascinated by insects could easily learn reading, writing, arithmetic, biology and geography, to name only a few subjects, just from researching what interests her: bugs.

Tell her she can’t just obsess about bugs because she has to learn things in a more focused way, and you will most likely take the fun out of a few things. We all know that learning anything when we don’t want to is an uphill climb. However, people are willing to learn just about anything if it allows them to fulfill a personal goal or interest. If you want to do any research about insects, you’re at some point going to have to learn to read. You might need to learn some Latin or other languages. You will most likely discover things about various remote areas of the world. Ba da bing, ba da boom. Welcome to the tumbleweed of knowledge approach.

For myself, I discovered an early interest in world cultures, languages, history and human psychology. (Somehow these merged into a brief but intense obsession with Star Trek.) I discovered that music was an access point to all these interests. The first song I learned, at age 11, was Sinead O’Connor’s “The Potato Famine,” followed by The Neville Brothers “Sister Rosa.” It’s likely that in a grade 6 class I would not have gone about researching the Montgomery bus crisis or the Irish potato famine but in the context of self-directed learning I was free to follow my natural curiosity and delve deeper into both topics at will.

Ask me how I learned just about anything I know how to do and I won’t be able to give you one single answer. Everything being connected means exactly that. I learned countless things by extension of following my interests, and because I learned them in the context of my life, was never a chore. Ever subject was connected to every other one. Learning was part of every moment of every day. Learning was life. Simple and exciting as that.

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Unlearning learning

My first shock in going from self-directed learning to formal education was realizing that the majority of my peers had completely no interest in learning. This was really confusing. How could anyone not want to learn. “Well,” said my peers, “try 13 years of having to memorize facts that don’t seem to have any connection to your everyday life”. Okay, I see your point.

I also remember the very moment in my life when I first understood boredom. It was in a grade 10 math class. The epiphany struck as I sat doodling while the teacher went over a trigonometry problem for the nth time. The lights started going off in my head. “Aha! This is boredom!” I flashed back to a childhood of excitedly asking my school-going friends what they had done all day. “Nothing…it was boring,” was the most common response. I didn’t feel like I really understood this whole boredom thing but I knew it wasn’t good.

I suppose I could be grateful to have not known boredom until my late teens and leave it at that. However, I can’t help feeling like the fact that slews of young people are coming out of the school system feeling completely uninspired  by at least 10 years of their lives…is a bit of a problem.

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For each one their Way

I think it’s important to say that I don’t believe that any one form of alternative education is The Truth, the Way and The Light. The point is exactly that there is no one formula for learning. How could there be? We’re all unique individuals with different passions and different ways of processing information.

Standardized education may have certain benefits, but cultivating creativity, self-motivation, independent thinking and personal empowerment is not among them. Yes, this may have been some people’s experience. There are some absolutely amazing and dedicated teachers out there. But a look at the overarching system, from the perspective of someone who experienced other ways of learning at a young age, is not encouraging.

There are many challenges facing parents these days and questioning the education system is no small undertaking. The main crux of the matter as I see it though is that we need to reframe the way we see and approach learning and education. We need to take a new (or old, depending how you look at it…) perspective, one that recognizes the importance of integrated learning and passion and contextual relevance as primary motivators.  We need to accept that we might not always know what’s best. Sometimes we just need to throw the program out the window and go with the flow of natural  curiosity.

I, for one, dream of a world where we cherish, protect and encourage the natural love of learning of every child, every person, in whatever way necessary.

What if You Could Choose to “Live Your Dream”?

The conversation begins “wow, you mean you actually make a living doing this? You’re so lucky!” Lucky to do what I love, lucky to make ends meet as a young, female, independent singer-songwriter…”Lucky?” Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  My perspective is a bit different. Luck implies a sort of serendipitous divine intervention in your favor. In my experience anyone living from what they love has made a conscious choice to do so.  Without recognizing our choice in matters how we can get back to a state of empowerment in our everyday lives?  Building a life that works for you opens up a world of infinite possibilities. Of course there are lots of challenges involved in “living the dream.” Ready to take the leap and see what’s on the other side?

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The Road Less Traveled

Let’s start with that familiar conversation. The distinction between being “lucky” vs. choosing to live from your passion may seem like simple semantics, but it has huge implications, the main one being that including choice means that ANYONE can CHOOSE how they make a living. That’s right, all of a sudden you are being handed full responsibility for your life. Artists, inventors, self-employed freelancers are not the elite, fortunate few who for some reason get to live “the dream” while the mainstream masses are doomed to a life of 9 to 5 daily grind.

Of course there are many people in the world living in situations of extreme poverty or oppression who this all may not apply to.  But we’re talking about you, who are reading this blog, right now. Seeing artists and entrepreneurs at any level of renown as “lucky” is, in my view, simply a way of avoiding taking a good look at one’s own life and fully reflecting on what it would mean to commit to whatever it is you are passionate about. Harsh words? Take it as a case of “if the shoe fits…”HPIM0748 (Small)

While there may be many people with very legitimate reasons for not pursuing their passions, a large percentage are simply convinced of their own (false) limitations. This fact always strikes me when I respond to people’s amazement at my music career. Whenever I get a chance I ask people what they would love to do and then why they aren’t doing it. I am almost always met with a large wall of “I have to’s” and “I can’t’s,” if not simply with a shrug and a change in conversation topic.

Take a minute. Think about it. Do you spend the majority of your time doing something that feels truly meaningful to you? If so, you can stop reading now! If not, try and conjure up in your mind, without any input from the “be realistic” internal peanut gallery, what your ideal life-work would be. If you didn’t have to worry about making X amount of income per year for this and that reason, what would you do with your days?

What makes you feel totally accomplished and satisfied, what gets your creative (in the sense of “action-oriented”) energy flowing? It might be reading sci-fi novels. It might be having conversations with people where you feel you’ve helped them process some deep conflict. It might be climbing mountains. Whatever makes you tick. Now keep that thing, or things, in mind.

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The Freedom of Responsibility!

I’m pretty convinced that if everyone took full responsibility for their lives we would have a far more engaged, conscious, overall healthier and happier society. Granted, we would no longer have the ability to blame our circumstances or our unhappiness on someone else. When I wake up on the wrong side of the bed feeling like nothing I do is worth a dust bunny’s attention I often long for someone I could blame for my existential discontent. Alas. No such luck.

Now that you have some kind of basic vision in your mind of what you would like to be doing with your time let yourself think about why you aren’t doing whatever it is as your primary occupation. Open the floodgates of inner-commentary. Are there a lot of voices clamouring to say things like “it’s not realistic,” “there’s no way I could make a living doing X” or “don’t be ridiculous”? Most likely.

What if instead of letting yourself stop there you decided to walk through the wall of nay-saying voices and consider the possibility…Consider. The Possibility. What if you decided to turn the whole system upside down and do what you want to do? If no one has ever been there to tell you “anything is possible” and “there’s always a way to make it work,” I’m telling you now!

Of course all this hesitance to do what we dream of doing in life also has a lot to do with our learned definitions of “success.” In my opinion we would all benefit from redefining success so that it lines up with happiness and fulfillment rather then material wealth or social status. If this little piece of writing can contribute in any way to some of you internalizing a new vision of success, than I will have accomplished a great deal.

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Committing to Possibility

Let’s be clear. Doing what you want to do is not about a narcissistic refusal to consider the well-being of others. It’s about recognizing that a) by filling our lives with meaning (by using our time in doing what we love) we are actually contributing to the overall wellness of society and the planet. Miserable people make for a miserable culture. So let go of your attachment to martyrdom and accept that doing something that makes you happy might actually be good for more than just you. Staying at that job you hate because you feel like they really need you is not actually helping anyone.

Of course “making it work” doesn’t necessarily mean you will all of a sudden magically be able to switch to doing what you love %100 of your waking hours. There will be challenges, there will be a lot of self-doubt, and there will be a lot of people who will tell you you’re crazy for trying. There will also be a community of people ready to welcome you, support you and believe in you because you will be giving them motivation and inspiration to maybe, just maybe, commit to their own dreams.

5 Great Ways to Get Grounded

The majority of us living “modern” lifestyles struggle to maintain a healthy balance and connection to our bodies. We move less, spend less time outdoors and consume things like sugar, conservation agents and caffeine in amounts never before seen on earth. Our energy is sapped by the pervasive electromagnetic fields of our innumerable gadgets. Assuming we’re not all going to go off-grid and return to the wild tomorrow, how do we find a sense of grounding amidst the hum and buzz of “society”?

When I say grounding I am referring to being connected to one’s body, to the earth and to one’s immediate environment. It is often equivalent to being present and in a relative state of calm. Feeling connected to ones surroundings and to a sense of inner balance. Grounding is an essential tool for people going through major shock or emotional pain. It’s also an incredibly useful thing to keep in mind in our daily lives as a practice to help us stay centered, focused and healthy.

At the moment I’d like to focus on the most basic aspects of grounding. Not dealing with a specific “out of body” crisis (though hey…come to think of it, I would consider the majority of our social norms these days to be related to a massive “out of body” crisis, but that’s for another time!). Rather, let’s look at why we might often be in less-than-grounded states and then some ways to re-center ourselves in the face of all these factors.

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How do I know if I’m grounded?

Do you sometimes feel like you’re “floating,” cloudy-headed, “spaced-out” and giggly for no particular reason? Do you have a tendency to go through major energy fluctuations, revved up one moment and totally exhausted the next? Do you have a reaaaally hard time making decisions, a hard time sleeping, are you constantly distracted? Are you constantly craving sugar or caffeine? In all probability you could use some grounding!

Whether it’s a question of your work being mainly computer related (spending most of your time sitting and doing mind-activating tasks) or a stressful schedule that leads to a lot of late nights and eating out (irregular diet, stimulants, depressants and additives unless you’re very intentional about avoiding them), it’s very easy to end up in a frenetic tizzy where we no longer feel our feet, let alone the earth beneath them.

Cleaning out the closets

Aside from lifestyle factors a lot of us have more than a few reasons to avoid, consciously or unconsciously, being fully in our bodies. Sometimes our hectic schedules and endless list of things we have to do are actually sneaky ways of avoiding…ourselves.

But guess what? No matter how much you may not want to deal with your shadow, it’s stuck to you. Your subconscious is like a mini Peter Pan, constantly chasing said evasive shadow on our behalf until one day…wham! We are re-united and have to deal with the darkness. Besides which, our bodies accumulate and express all our repressed emotional and psychological scuzz anyways. Might as well consciously choose to take a look in the closet rather than spend all our time struggling to ignore the noise from the other side of that closed door, no?

winter-598631_1280 Transcending transcendence

On top of the temptation of emotional denial and the pressures of modern life, many of us also have to deal with a history of religious influences that elevated the spirit, and mind, over matter. Of course we’re going to walk around escaping from our bodies if our parents and their parents before them were taught that the body was the vile, dirty origin of sin and human suffering. I ain’t exaggerating. There are strong currents of belief still flowing in which physical life is seen as lowly, impure and altogether less worthy than pursuits of the intellect or soul.

Coming back to center, grounding ourselves in our bodies, might mean confronting some of these beliefs. It is my belief that a true definition of balance has to include an equal valuing and respect of the physical, material world in which we walk. Call me crazy. Or read on!

You can’t have Branches without Roots!

Seems pretty basic, right? Even in hydroponic situation (growing in water) plants still put down roots. So if you want to expand your consciousness, if you want to open your mind…think about starting from a solid base. Think of grounding as the gateway to elevation, or, depending on your worldview, as a fundamental element to personal growth and maintaining your effectiveness in other spheres of your life.

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Techniques

One of the most obvious ways of coming back to our bodies (remember, that’s how I’m defining grounding!) is movement. What better way to remind ourselves that we are a body? Incorporating regular movement into your daily life can be a great first step to living a more grounded life.

So, you have at least 11 hours of computer work ahead of you, you’re behind schedule and planning on cramming it all in to one day? Okay, Pace yourself! You may have developed a tolerance or strategies for long hours, but ignoring the needs of your body won’t do anyone any good. A walking, jumping, dancing, running break will not only feel good, it will increase your ability to focus and efficiently produce whatever masterpiece you are working on! Here is some purely mechanical reasoning for you. Oxygenation is a key factor in optimal brain functioning. Staring at a computer, or anything else, without interruption is a really good way to wreck your eyesight. Sitting in one position for long periods is a primary cause of back, shoulder, neck and joint problems. If you’re one for 10 year plans, you might want to plan in daily movement. Otherwise you are looking at a much less spritely version of yourself down the road.

It’s great to have a training routine, to go for jogs every couple days or take dance classes once a week. Yes! Do whatever you can to move more! But don’t consider those chunks of activity as way to write off moving for the rest of the week! In a society where comfort is our main deity, it might be hard to replace the easiest ways of doing things with the most all-around beneficial. The physical results are well worth it though. Walk or bike to your destination whenever possible. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Find fun ways of integrating movement in to your work days.

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Head for the Hills!

Secondly, try getting out of urban environments! If you already live in the woods, congratulations! You probably are doing okay on this front. If not, you may need to figure out some way of accessing wild, or at least less concrete-covered, spaces. Even if you don’t think you’re affected by the noise, pollution and constant over-stimulation of the city or suburb in which you live you will notice a difference when you step out of it.

If your mind refuses to acknowledge the impact, your body will still breathe easier. Even if we reduce it to the fact that our genes evolved in environments without right angles, there is a benefit. Many studies exist about the positive impact of trees, the color green and fresh air on mental, physical and emotional health. If you feel destabilized by your own company, silence or wide open spaces, find someone to go on a hike with or go to a music festival in a remote area. Being immersed in nature doesn’t necessarily have to mean exiling yourself from society! Find what works for you and let yourself roam free. If you live in a city like Montreal you might even simply work in a visit to “the mountain” (a.k.a. the hill in the middle of the city) as a way of getting more nature-time.

If you’re a runner or jogger, running on soil has much less negative impact on the knees than running on concrete! Try it out!

Sleeping on the earth (camping or “roughing it”) is number one way to get back in touch with the energy of the earth. This is essentially the basis of all magnet therapies, where an injured body part will have a magnet placed on it that has been charged with the same electromagnetic field as the earths.

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Unplug

It may sound radical but…what about unplugging for a day? Per week, per month…whatever you can handle. Give yourself some time and space to be creative with. It was only when I got rid of my cell phone recently that I realized how within only a year of having it I had begun filling all my free time with it. Every moment of rest became an opportunity to fiddle with my phone and text someone I hadn’t spoken to in however long. Now I’m not suggesting everyone get rid of their phones (not that I would mind if you did!) but disconnecting from it for a day every now and then can really do a world of good if you are looking to be more grounded.

In writing this piece I’ve realized there are a lot of ways to get more grounded and that some of them might be worth a bit deeper exploration. Maybe I’ll get around to writing more about them…for now, enough screen time for me. 😉