Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Marshmallow or Two?

Today marked the halfway point for my summer T'ai Chi Chih class. Unfortunately, instead of an outdoor practice, this was the fourth consecutive session held inside. And, if the weather follows predictions, there's more rain to come.

A quick glance at weather on the web this morning showed seven continuous days of thunderstorms starting tomorrow. And today we're already hunkered down under scattered showers.

Still, 10 students showed up this morning (the largest class thus far despite students' overbusy summertime schedules) and it felt wonderful to move together in a large circle of harmonious energy. Our post-practice discussion of Buddha's Brain was feisty and animated.

Chapter 6, "Strong Intentions," highlighted the brain's evolution and discussed the manner in which the brain's neuroaxis sends signals up and down between the emotion-based amygdala and the deliberate, highly-reasoned cortex (metaphorically the head and the heart). The authors' final key point asserted (p. 108):
Inner strength comes in many forms, including quiet perseverance. Get familiar with what strength feels like in your body so you can call it up again. Deliberately stimulate feelings of strength to deepen their neural pathways.
Today's conversation was inspired by a study I described to the class at the beginning of our discussion: In the late 1960s Walter Mischel of Stanford University took children between 4 and 6 years old and put them in a room with a marshmallow. He then told each child that they could eat the marshmallow or wait until he returned when they would get another marshmallow.

About a third of the kids resisted eating the marshmallow until Mischel returned 15 minutes later which led Mischel to conclude that age does affect our ability to delay gratification. But the really interesting results came in followup studies that continue to this day. Ten years later Mischel found that the students who waited for the second marshmallow out-performed those who didn't by more than 200 points on their SAT scores.

Further studies found even more benefits for those with the ability to hold out: these kids were more likely to attend college and get good grades; they also had a lower body mass index, a clean criminal record, and a higher annual income. What does this suggest to the rest of us? That the most important quality for determining success isn't intelligence or talent but ... the ability to delay gratification.

As college student Andrew Shockey wrote about these discoveries (at, "The kids who waited didn't do it because their brain told them they didn't want to eat the marshmallow. Every child was tormented by the treat--some were just better able to resist its allure. Everyone has this ability to some extent, but the key is practicing it (emphasis mine)."

Once again, we're back to what Justin Stone and our teachers told us when we initially studied T'ai Chi Chih moving meditation: Practice. Practice. Practice. How do we become expert? Practice. How do we gain benefits? Practice. How do we resist the marshmallow (pie? cake? new car? etc.)? Practice.

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