A Meditation on Learning

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Every moment has something to teach. Can you look closely, deliberately, at the landscapes in your life as opportunities to learn — to live fully and authentically as you, as nobody else can ever do, except the one and only you? You don’t have to do it well. Just try. Learning lends life its meaning, and that meaning is tailored specifically for you and only you.

The landscapes have so much to offer. Can you be open to what they have to say? They speak, if only we might get quiet enough to hear, to develop the ability to listen deeply. If only we might slow down. Just stop. Be. You don’t need to “use” the landscapes. You only need to be there: in them, on them, with them, and experience them fully, to appreciate them. You cannot wrestle meaning out of them; you must allow for that meaning to come to you, and it will. But it takes courage and patience and fortitude to act in a way that may be unfamiliar– to be a receiver, to be gracious, to allow. It is our true nature to live this way, in harmony with landscapes both inside ourselves and across the natural landscapes of the earth.

Listen to the landscapes– what stories do they tell? What lessons will you learn? What do the landscapes teach us? How can we learn to listen to them? In listening to landscapes we are listening to ourselves, our true nature. Indigenous people know this, intuitively, spiritually. We tend to disregard that type of “knowing” because it isn’t rational. It seems “beyond” us, a little bit too “out there” for us because we tend to want to master or utilize the products of learning for some sort of gain, to get ahead, to profit. But, there are more ways to “know,” beyond logic. It’s sort of like taking a leap and hoping a net appears. If you trust, the net appears, without fail.

Stay open to receiving the universal life force and energy which provides guidance to you; this is the other way of “knowing.” This type of learning through listening for what life is telling you can serve as an important reminder of how much you cannot control. It will show you your limitations and guide you to accept, let go, or move beyond those limits.

Have you ever had the experience where an answer to your problem just comes to you, seemingly from nowhere? A great idea just drops itself into your lap, like a butterfly lighting on your windowsill? The truth is that we are dependent creatures– dependent on the messages and unexpected experiences — the gifts and struggles– life sends to us. We are not as independent as our ego leads us to believe. For this, we should be grateful.

You don’t have to be in control or utilitarian when you are learning, only awake and willing and attentive. Lifelong learning isn’t like school. There are no grades. It’s not about progress. There is no competition. There are no parameters! Simply become a student of your own life to see what you can learn. As HD Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I hope to inspire and encourage you to recognize all that you have to learn about yourself and the world, each day, each moment over the course of your entire life. You have an inner wisdom waiting to be heard.

Learning requires openness, vulnerability, willingness, and humility. Children have such qualities, by nature. They are human sponges, intrigued by everything in their environment, but sadly that intrigue and openness stops. Why? School happens; western culture happens; socialization and conformity happens. But we can learn to recover from our conditioning. Learning can re-open us to our innocent and youthful natural curiosity. We can become a flower petal blooming, over and over again.

Learning will inevitably lead you to growth, but some people resist learning because they fear change, and fear overwhelms. This is also why we need to explore our interior landscape so we understand our emotional body, our psychology, and our physical body and how they work together to make us uniquely an individual human. Self understanding will enable us to do what’s best for us rather than copying the responses or choices of others. We don’t need to follow the crowd. We can trust ourselves.

Fear is so manipulative within the physical body and the mind, it can literally cause a person to see black as white or down as up. Reality becomes distorted through the lense of fear. It doesn’t just cloud our judgment, it changes our perceptions of reality! So much so that valuable learning is resisted or denied, and that is a tragic loss of opportunity for growth. Indeed, the hardest lessons are the most impactful, valuable, and memorable– but they hurt because they usually involve fear and other overwhelming emotions and reactions in the body. Nobody likes pain, and few learn about why it happens or how to cope with it when it does. We can learn to embrace our pain, our suffering and transform it through learning. Then we can find meaning, even in pain and suffering.

The fact is when you stop learning, you start dying; you wither. Water corrodes when stagnant. Human beings have to keep laboring, moving, thinking, feeling, learning, and thriving. Through constant and continual learning, that is, when you deliberately pay attention to life and see all your experiences as landscapes for learning, you will discover there is joy and wonder all around you, all the time (and always will be!), no matter what.

Even in the most brutal of situations there can be opportunities for learning and growth. At Auschwitz, Victor Frankl observed human beings, despite their tremendous pain and suffering in the concentration camps, continually finding reasons to live through learning. He writes in his famous, Man’s Search for Meaning:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add deeper meaning to his life… What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. (p.67,76)

Perhaps because most of us do not live under such duress, we take the power of learning for granted. Do we think learning or “education” is only for the privileged? Do we think it occurs in a particular or conducive environment? Do we forget or become complacent about the opportunities to learn and continually grow throughout our lives, across every landscape? Perhaps we are just too busy or distracted by the hustle and bustle of life in an industrialized economy that puts tremendous demands on us and constraints on our time, even though some demands we put on ourselves and are excessive or unnecessary.

You will find opportunities for learning in the places and faces that you meet each and every moment of each and every day of your life; you are surrounded by nature as well—that is always available to you as a landscape for learning! You will find learning opportunities in the steps that you take across the landscapes of your life, whether those steps are tentative, merely casual, or aggressively intentional. Together, we are all travelers over the landscapes of life where love, fear, pain, and joy are only some of the very best teachers, but only IF you are open enough and only IF you are aware enough to receive the lessons. Adjust your frame of reference to learning and the world will change right before your eyes.

Become an enthusiastic student of life. Take learning into your own hands, rather than living merely as the victim of what happens to you in your life. Rather than thinking that things happen to you, perhaps you might come to understand instead that things happen for you– they occur as continuing education, as Frankl noted, even within the most challenging environments and times. Developing the attitude of a student will transform the way you see the world and all of your experiences.

To develop a disposition for learning and openness you might be required to complete a considerable amount of unlearning as part of the process of growth. You have been taught and conditioned in ways that likely have severely limited the way you see the world and the way you see and think of yourself. Examining your own life– your mindset, your worldview, your values, your beliefs, how you spend your time, your habits, your carefully constructed perceptions about yourself (your identity) is a process every capable person can learn to address to better understand what it means to be human, so that self understanding can be gained as well as understanding of our fellow humans.

Indeed, it is every person’s responsibility to “know thyself” as many great teachers from Socrates to Buddha to Emerson to Martin Luther King have urged. What comes with self-understanding, though, is the often challenging process of unlearning, which is why many people start toward self-knowledge but abandon the path. It isn’t easy to deconstruct yourself because you feel like you might come undone or completely fall apart: emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially. Loss is part of the learning process. It takes a great amount courage to confront yourself, do the work, and rebuild yourself– to get your shit together, but the payoff is worthwhile both for you and for the rest of the world. This is what the hero does! This is what Frankl did and watched his fellow prisoners do, each choosing to “take up [their] cross.” Brave people look in the mirror. Cowards run, pretend, hide,or give up. They become closed, unwilling, ignorant, arrogant, and stuck.

Shedding limiting ideas about yourself, others, the world, and an inflexible mindset will allow you to become more pliant and supple, more flexible and strong (this is your yoga). You will discover your true self, the pure self you were born to be. You will have to excavate all of your social and cultural conditioning. You’ll have to go back and reclaim that innocent unadulterated, wild child you were, so full of potential and life force, that self you were before your were subjected to the “industrialized” world and “ schooled” and “socialized.” This is when you lost all that lovely divergent thinking and when your imagination was put to the side, or minimized, or put into the all encompassing service of your logical thinking / academic brain. It’s when you went indoors for hours and hours to be tamed and taught self-regulation and conformity and order; your head was then filled with “shoulds” and “oughts” and “musts,” and when you wandered away or imagined anything unconventional or you questioned authority, you were scolded back into the carefully shaped reality that was efficiently managed for you, lest you be labelled and cast aside as “abnormal” or a “trouble-maker.” It’s when you became disconnected from nature and thereby yourself.

You were kept inside the container of school, institutionalized, confined to a chair in front of screens for hours on end, and those who did not rebel, the do-wellers and the get-along-and go-alongs, who blindly accepted what they were fed without question grew up to be the same people who keep the system chugging along to inculcate the next generation in the same ways. This will stop when we begin to reconsider the real purpose of real learning. Rehabbing the current education system from within is not the answer. Reconnection with nature and ourselves, our souls, is.

It is my contention that the current mental health crisis among our youth, the skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression, is a result of our long-held Western cultural values based on materialism, excessive consumerism, ego-based competition, and progress. We have raped and pillaged the natural landscape and as a consequence soiled and littered our interior landscapes —the body, mind, and soul. The sacred has been replaced with science; beauty and mystery replaced with information and answers for gain. Yet, what we fail to recognize is that we are the natural landscape; we are not separate, as we have been conditioned to believe. So how can we create a more meaningful, healthy life for ourselves and others?

We can immerse ourselves in landscapes– that is, we can commit to lifelong learning. We can commit to learn about ourselves, our inner landscapes, finding good teachers (counselors, therapists, mentors, coaches) to help us explore. We can learn from the natural landscape to care for our world and all forms of life. We can learn how to learn better and more often, and we can make learning– authentic learning—our most important value, priority, motivation, behavior, habit, identity, right and ritual. Finally, we can find people to share our lives with –next door, across the street, or across the globe. We can share our humanity through learning.

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