Saturday, June 27, 2015

Learning vs. Growth

In my previous post, I explained my perspective that logic and science are not at odds with spirituality and religion.  The me from a few years ago would have responded, "Yeah, so what?"

"So what?" is an often under-appreciated question.  The answer is that we need both.  The way I see it, there is a two-dimensional graph.  By science and reason, one progresses along the x, or learning, axis.  And by action and experience, one progresses along the Y, or growth, axis.  Effective action is the goal, and it lies infinitely to the upper-right.

I've seen people who don't value reason and science rely too heavily on their own narrow and biased perceptions.  About once a week, I see one friend or another post some meme on Facebook along the lines of "All you need is love."  I mean no disrespect to fans of Jesus or the Beatles, but you need more than love.  Action born of love and pure intentions can be dangerous and destructive if it is not directed by knowledge and wisdom, hence the proverbial paving of the road to Hell.  With understanding, we can predict (with at least a little accuracy) the outcome of our actions.  Without it, you just try, and then hope for the best.

Think of a charity giving free food to some hungry villagers.  Short term everyone's happy, but the local economy gets thrown off because the farmers can't compete with free, and then they lose revenue they need for investing in next year's crop.  Or think of an overprotective mother who shelters her son.  She genuinely wants to protect the child from harm.  But when he grows up, he can't function as an adult in society.  He never learned how to manage risk and danger.  He was taught to fear strangers, so he misses opportunities to make new friends, and his social life and career stagnate.  Love is not enough!

But knowledge and wisdom alone are not enough either.  Every employer knows that even the best education is no substitute for real world experience.  But I had a tough time figuring out that the lesson applies to psychology as well.  Without a spiritual perspective and orientation, I found my own views could become myopic, and I lacked the tools for psychological growth.  I found certain concepts easy to comprehend in an abstract, academic way, but difficult to actually incorporate into my life.  No amount of reading and learning can make up for a lack of real growth and transformation.

Think of going to the gym as an example.  If I don't learn to exercise properly, I won't benefit as much as I could.  And with bad technique, I actually risk injuring myself, especially as I progress with heavier weights and more intense workouts.  This is why learning is necessary.  But no amount of learning will actually get me in shape.  If I want to increase my strength, flexibility, and endurance I need to show up and do the work.  This is why growth is necessary.  Effective action requires both dimensions.

Buddhist teachings handle this subject well.  The student is encouraged to read the teachings, but also to question them, to think critically, and to acquire knowledge through observation and empirical investigation.  In this way, one learns.  The student is also taught to practice meditation, generosity, and other healthy behaviours.  In this way, the student grows.  Both dimensions are valued.

For a long time, I mistook learning for growth.  Intellectuals often commit this error.  You can see evidence in the emotionally stunted nerd or genius stereotypes (think Good Will Hunting for example).  People like this may understand there's a problem, but they feel helpless.  Without life skills, they're always victims of circumstance.  On the other hand, I had one friend in particular, who I watched continually mistake growth for learning.  This too is common, and it's why a lot of very spiritually oriented people seem so divorced from reality.  They believe the spiritual insight gained through growth has some external, empirical truth to it.  People who make this mistake generally lack the self-awareness to even see there's a problem.  They are content to let emotion or faith guide their actions, indifferent to the damage they cause to others.  Even with a genuine sense of compassion, they'll rationalize the suffering they cause, saying, "It's God's will" or believing their victims will benefit from it in the end (whether true or not).  As obvious as the distinction between growth and learning may sound, it's quite easy to mistake the two.  I'm grateful that I've finally come to understand the difference and to value both.

So if you are lacking growth, as I was, I humbly suggest you begin to adopt a spiritual perspective, focus on improving your behavior and habits, and continually confront whatever makes you uncomfortable.  And if you are on the other end of the spectrum, please challenge your own beliefs and understandings with skepticism, and learn from people who think and act differently than you.

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.

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