erased chalkboard - unlearning

In his recent book Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get in the Way, Jason Siff discusses the concept of “unlearning.” He says that unlearning means “seeing into the habits of mind that create obstacles and impasses.” Siff explains that for people who meditate, “unlearning comes about through the learning of what has not been beneficial in their meditation practice” and through being attentive to moments when meditation is actually being hindered by strategies that haven’t worked (read more from Jason Siff here). In this way, unlearning those habits of mind that haven’t been helpful is an essential part of developing a healthy meditation practice.

Unlearning has an equally important role to play in any form of education. As a university instructor, I’m always struck by how much my students need to unlearn; that is, how much of their worldview is based completely on what they’ve taken to be true, and not what they’ve bothered to look into for themselves. At its least harmful, their reliance on preconceptions simply results in things like hilarious spelling mistakes (no, cologne and colon are not the same thing) and factual errors (no, the West Indies are not west of India). At its worst, ideas that they “don’t mean” to be classist or xenophobic will reveal how much of their understandings are based on stereotypes and plain misinformation.

There are three excellent reasons we need to unlearn:

1. What we think we know is wrong. Or at least, incomplete. That one undergrad class in Western religions didn’t make any of us an expert in Islam. It takes a lifetime (or more) to really understand any subject or idea, so if it’s taken less time than that to feel like we “get” something, then we don’t understand it sufficiently.

2. What we think we know is out of date. That textbook from Western Religions 101? Nobody uses it anymore. Knowledge is changing all the time, and every day, perspectives are expanding. As soon as we start thinking that we already know about a given topic, then we’re not current anymore.

3. What we think we know is holding us back from actual learning. Once we think we understand something, we’re less likely to seek out information about it, which means that our partial, out of date knowledge will be all we ever have.

There are actual implications to feeling like we already understand the world. Siff explains that in meditation, if a person doesn’t unlearn a practice that hasn’t really worked before trying something different, then the “same habits of mind that have shown up as obstacles and impasses in the previous practice will most likely emerge in the new one.” The same things happen when we apply that concept to anything we study (people, our jobs, the world). If we don’t get rid of the habits of mind that our faulty conceptions have engendered in us, we won’t fully process new information.

It’s why people are the worst at giving up things that are bad for us. It’s not that we don’t know that chips/cigarettes/fossil fuels/etc. are unhealthy. We’re not stupid. But that knowledge isn’t enough. We have to change the underlying mental habit of reaching for those things—a habit built out of a previous understanding of those things as “good” in some way. Cultural habits work the same way. We on some level understand that prisons don’t work. They’re astronomically expensive, and recidivism rates are through the roof (in America, they hover around the 66 percent mark). But the knowledge that comes from recent statistics has to contend with lifetimes of cultural beliefs that “bad” people should go to jail. The underlying habits of mind that those beliefs have built—habits that make us feel like some people shouldn’t mix in common society, and that it’s better that the police and courts handle those people—make prison seem like the best option, and thus, we don’t rethink the problem.

Every thought, opinion and assumption we have is learned in some way. None of them are natural to us. Unlearning gives us a fantastic opportunity to be critical of where our ideas and beliefs have come from. It also lets us see how much there is to know. Once we realize how little we know, the world becomes a place to explore and discover things again. This can keep us open to alternative perspectives by constantly remodelling our brains before they get a chance to get all cobwebby in their ways of thinking. Which is necessary, because being open to alternative perspectives is really the only way anybody ever learns anything.

Read more about embracing a new way of thinking in IMAGINAL PEOPLE: Embracing destruction of the old while birthing something new>>

image: karindalziel (Creative Commons BY)