Learning to Unlearn

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It was in the hot room at a Bikram yoga studio,
standing directly under the bright lights,
in front of the mirrors,
trying to balance,
in silence,
everyday, for 90 minutes,
where I learned the art of unlearning.
I learned to let go.

A vital aspect of learning is unlearning.

Unlearning is intending to let go of what you have already learned or acquired. It’s an undoing the effect of, a discarding the habit of what you have learned. Unlearning must be intentional, deliberate, and active, otherwise it’s merely forgetting. Sounds simple, right? Not easy because the problem is that our learning leads to beliefs which lead to habits and, as you well know, habits are hard to break.

yoda

Frustration, pain, crisis, and suffering usually catalyze the process of unlearning. This is why psychotherapists sometimes encourage us to “lean into” the painful experiences of our lives. Our yoga teachers do the same. “Hold” the uncomfortable posture, they say, “using stillness and breath.” With compassionate support, yoga helps us uncover lessons we might learn from our pain, cope with suffering, and see ourselves more clearly, all to enable functionality as a healthy human being in the world. For me, yoga is not about how high I can kick my foot to the ceiling or how deep my backward bending, it’s about living an authentic life of quality and purpose.

Pain is our best teacher. She is real and unrelenting in her demand for our attention. Almost always, her lesson involves unlearning, a letting go, a clearing-out, sloughing. When we run from pain and discomfort, we miss out on growth and added strength and flexibility in both our minds and physical bodies. Maybe we push too hard in our consistent pursuit for more, recklessly moving beyond our range of motion, causing unhealthy stress rather than healing. This is a common scenario for many people who have been raised with a Western mindset, schooled in an American culture of competition and lack. 

What’s challenging for most people about “Letting Go” is that it’s about loss, not gain. Letting go is unlearning the habit of clinging, of hanging on; of wanting to have more– more time, more money, more attention; it is the relentless battle— to the very end— to avoid losing; it’s the widely admired “never give up” attitude we reward and for which we earn trophies and accolades. The problem (among others) with these attitudes and habits intrinsic to a competitive mindset is that very often it involves personal comparison, which can lead to feelings of lack, of not having enough or believing we are not enough. We lose and feel inferior. We don’t “suffer with” a competitor (even if it is ourself); we try to outsmart, outdo, beat down, or absolutely destroy them to cross the finish line first or to win the match or to best our prior “time.”

notgood-enough

The fear of poverty and competition are taught to us when we are very young, when we are most vulnerable and open, by our schools (administered and reinforced through the grading system), cultural icons who act as our models and mentors, our peers, our families, and by industry, entertainment and social media. These values are then consistently reinforced over time. But I believe we can live compassionately within a competitive landscape. We can live a soul-centered life in an ego-centered world. Compassion and competition are not mutually exclusive; we do need to function and take care of ourselves in the world we find ourselves in. We have to survive.

yin-yang

A little unlearning isn’t such a dangerous thing. By making yourself more open and a more compassionate competitor, you can bring out the best in yourself (if you really know who you are at your core) and your opponent. It’s about your intentions and aiming for balance.

Discovering yoga began some very crucial unlearning for me. While practicing, I learned how to lean into the discomfort I felt in my body and in my mind, under the duress of intense heat and within the strict discipline of the asanas, including savasana which requires lying still on your back with eyes open breathing consciously through the nose. In savasana, “less is more” which is incredibly challenging for people who are conditioned to solve problems, attain goals, want more, do more, be more, have more. In fact, it can be incredibly painful.

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Compassion literally means “suffering with.” I had to teach myself, through disciplined daily practice to stay with my suffering, to stay with myself, to not abandon myself or my pain. I had to stay loyal to that which underlies the labels and the cultural conditioning, my spirit. The yogis on their mats next to me aren’t my competition; they are my fellow sufferers, my fellow spirits. The hot room is a community of compassion. And, as I look back on the history of my most memorable life experiences, compassion was beckoning me to embrace it all along. Apparently, I wasn’t available to listen or open enough to accept its invitation. I am grateful yoga found me and that compassion continued to persistently knock at my door.

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By clearing the way, unlearning has positively affected my understanding of my own capabilities; my intrinsic value; my true strengths and weaknesses. In the past, I passively agreed to labels my environment pinned on me, and unknowingly, I internalized these labels, turned them into limiting beliefs, then turned them into “truths,” and acted accordingly. That was “me.” How could I be anything else?

And I wondered why I suffered.

Yoga taught me that the problems in my life were not the fault of others, as I had always hoped; blaming is easy, a shortcut, because it seems to relieve pain, at least temporarily. No, my suffering and frustration were the result of my own doing, my own “learned” habits, my carefully schooled perceptions. And although done to me when innocent and indefensible, I must take responsibility. I make my own choices. I agree more with my inner voice rather than with Father culture.  This is work. This is struggle. This is uncomfortable. This is freedom.  
Notes

Unlearning and unschooling are not new concepts. This post is about an example of how the notion of unlearning has affected my personal life through the yoga; but if you are also interested in the application of unlearning to business, click here and here, or if you are interested in unlearning as it applies to education, click here.

“My yoga class is that sweltering day. It’s one long, hot meditation. We put incredible pressure on you to teach you to break your attachment to external things and go within. Instead of blaming others for your own weakness, fear and depression, you will learn to take responsibility for your own life. You’ve got to face yourself in the mirror, every part you don’t like, every mistake you make, every excuse your mind creates to limit your potential liberation–there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No escape from reality. With these kinds of demands on your abilities and attention, you will soon forget that there is anyone on the next mat in the classroom, much less notice what they are wearing. After you learn to discipline your body and mind under these conditions, you will truly be able to concentrate; no external will be able to break your powerful focus. That’s why I say the the darkest place in the world is under the brightest lamp. In the Torture Chamber of my class, you will find a beautiful light, and the source of that light is within you.”

—–BIKRAM CHOUDHURY

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