Sunday, March 22, 2015

Unlearning and Learning

As I discussed in my last blog entry, growing is not the same as learning.  Even when the two are related, growth often has dimensions that are beyond the scope of thought and knowledge.  Many times, I've been told that spiritual growth requires unlearning.  I've certainly learned that there is truth to this.  Especially in the West, we are taught many ideas and perspectives that inhibit psychological and spiritual growth and prevent an integrated, holistic view of the human experience.

Despite the admitted dangers of overvaluing intellectualism, I've seen people take the idea of unlearning  too far, adopting fearful, dismissive, and hostile views of academic learning and rational thought.  They seem to believe that enlightenment is a regression to some “pure” state of the mind that exists before the polluting influence by earthly ideas.  The implication of this reasoning is that babies are enlightened beings, and perhaps so are animals. 

Babies are able to live more fully in the present moment than most adults are   Their perceptions are not distorted by problematic mental constructs.  And they may resonate to subtle empathetic energies (if you believe in that sort of thing) more easily than most adults who are not empaths.  Despite all this, I do not think babies are enlightened. 

The qualities of presence, unclouded perception, and interconnectedness may be necessary for (or perhaps symptomatic of) enlightenment.  But they are not sufficient.  Most of us have had experiences in our lives when we were fully present in the moment, and we did not achieve enlightenment.  Recently psychologists have been studying flow, but notice this is not the study of enlightenment.  Our perceptions are inevitably distorted by our knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. But these mental objects give meaning and context to our perceptions.  For example if you listen to someone speak your native language, you will have a difficult time focusing on the aural qualities of the syllables and sibilances of the speech.  Your mind will be occupied by attaching meaning to the words and vocal inflections.  If however, you listen to someone speaking an unfamiliar tongue, you will find it easy to focus on the subtle qualities of the vocal sound, but you'll have little understanding of the content of the speech.  Without knowledge, we don't gain much from our perceptions.  Unfortunate as it may be, the informative and distorting aspects of knowledge on perception are two sides to the same proverbial coin.

If learning was not necessary for balanced spiritual practice, then there would be no need for the great spiritual teachers.  Lao Tzu and Gautama Buddha stated that their teachings are only a framework for spirituality, acknowledging that transformation, growth, and experience cannot be taught.  But they apparently believed that teaching the framework was worth their time and effort.

Our perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge are all interdependent on each other, so to some extent, this whole thing might be a bit academic.  But I think it's important to respect the place of intellectual activity in a holistic spiritual life.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

1 comment:

  1. What I appreciate about Buddhism is its emphasis on learning through experience (ehipasiko) rather than memorizing through blind faith.