We often hear about the importance of learning in our lives, but these days, some experts are stressing the importance of unlearning. What is unlearning? Unlearning is letting go of what we have learned and what we have been taught. Unlearning means being open to new ideas and suspending judgment about right and wrong. Spiritually speaking, it means reaching for a higher truth, which is an ongoing process, not an end result. Unlearning has been described as being like stripping the paint off a wall so that you can repaint it. Stripping is about 70% of the job. Repainting is only about 30%.
The reason unlearning is becoming increasingly important is that the amount of information we have about ourselves and our world is increasing exponentially, in large part because of new technology and the advent of instant global communications made possible by the Internet. In fact, the rate at which information increases is itself increasing, which in turn drives the pace of change. Much of what we’re now learning contradicts what we thought we “knew” before. In order to accept this new information, individuals have to “unlearn” the old information.
Sometimes this unlearning comes from the top down. Scientists nowadays often know things that are still not taught in the public schools, which may not catch up with new ideas for a decade or more. Other times unlearning happens from the bottom up. Take the Catholic Church’s stance on the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. Those of us alive today all learned in school that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, but it took the Catholic Church about 400 years to admit officially that Copernicus was right. A lot of information coming out right now will threaten the Powers That Be – not only those in political power, but those who control the economy of the entire planet: Big Business, Big Oil, Big Banks and Big Pharma, to name the main players. Like the Catholic Church of yesteryear, those currently in power will resist some of this new information with all their might, and will mobilize considerable resources to do so.
More and more people are starting to realize that humankind is once again at a point where our most cherished notions and assumptions are about to be replaced with information that is so radically different that some people will not be able to accept it. In his books Fractal Time and Deep Truth, Gregg Braden talks about some of the assumptions that underlie our self-image as human beings and our notion of the progression of history. According to Braden, it’s getting to the point where our current assumptions are getting in the way of our learning. This is why we need to do some unlearning.
One such assumption is that human beings at any point in history before the present were necessarily less evolved or more primitive. Man-made structures are now being discovered that pre-date the Pyramids, for example, and that show evidence of advanced mathematical, technical and astronomical knowledge. The more our scientists and engineers study the Pyramids, for example, the clearer it is becoming that the ancient Egyptians of historical record could not possibly have built the Pyramids, given the tools and information available to them. A civilization that existed before the Egyptians must have built them, and they must have been even more advanced than we are today, because we are currently incapable of reproducing the Pyramids using our most modern technology. Why don’t we know about these people? Probably because there was some sort of natural cataclysm that wiped out most of the people, structures, artifacts, and historical records. Those people who were left were reduced to the level of basic subsistence, and were therefore not able to reconstruct their civilization. Braden says this has happened at least once, and probably a number of times in the past, according to the lore of various Indigenous people. He also says that it can – and probably will – happen again. How will we handle such a disaster? What, if anything, can we do to prevent a disaster of this magnitude? How can we store our knowledge safely in order to make things a little easier for those who will survive the next cataclysm? These are the questions Braden and others are asking us to consider.
I have read two books recently, both written by highly knowledgeable scientists, whose personal experiences trumped everything they thought they knew. In his book, Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, describes an incredibly moving out-of-body experience that he had while he was clinically dead. His first-hand experience contradicted almost everything he thought he knew about how the brain/mind works. In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor talks about her first-hand experience of a stroke. She learned much about what actually goes on in the mind of a stroke victim and how best to recover from a stroke. She also came to appreciate her left-brain and its contribution to her sense of well-being.
In the realm of the individual, as well, we must learn how to unlearn. We must question our old assumptions and start listening more to our inner wisdom rather than relying on so-called authorities. Here are some things you may need to unlearn.
Assumption: Problems are bad. When we stop applying value judgments to our experiences, we find that problems are actually opportunities for us to grow and change. They are opportunities for us to learn new skills or manifest qualities such as patience, perseverance, or discipline. And the experience of problems in our own lives makes us much more sensitive to the suffering of others.
Assumption: It’s important to be happy all the time. Life is cyclic, with ups and downs of all sorts. Not only is it impossible to be happy all the time, it may actually be unhealthy. How can we appreciate happiness, after all, if we haven’t experienced its opposite? Admitting that things are not going the way we’d like them to is the first step toward making a change that will eventually make us feel better. Our unhappiness is simply a symptom of an underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Accept that you don’t feel happy now, and then start to focus on making a change.
Assumption: My past has damaged me beyond repair. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever happened in your past does not have to define you. You can rebuild your self-image and clean out old beliefs and fears buried deep in your subconscious mind. You are your harshest critic. Believe it or not, most other people do not judge you as harshly as you do yourself. Those who do should be shown to the door, pronto. You don’t have to hang around with people who are unwilling to allow you to turn over a new leaf.
Assumption: Work is more important than play. Nope, it’s the other way around. Many of the skills you learn in your recreational activities can be accessed in your work, but if you don’t allow yourself time to play, you will never have a chance to hone them. Even if you don’t think you’ve learned any skills while at play, remember that everyone needs regular periods of rest and relaxation. We do our best work when we are refreshed.
Assumption: If I fail, I can never succeed. Success is rarely a one-shot deal. Most successful people will tell you that they failed not once, but many times, and that they learned something each time. In that sense, failure is part of the process of success. Jerry Seinfeld totally bombed the first time he went out on stage at a comedy club. It’s a good thing he didn’t let that first failure stop him, or we wouldn’t have enjoyed watching Seinfeld on TV.
Assumption: It matters what other people think. I just wrote about this in my blog entry the other day. Click here to read it. The gist is this: nobody knows you better than you know yourself. People make erroneous judgments about others all the time. Nobody is an authority on you except you. And what if you do make a mistake? People love a comeback kid. Everyone admires someone who can pick himself up after falling flat on his face.
Assumption: All decisions should be made rationally. There’s a place for rational analysis, but the fact is that our emotions are an important part of decision-making. It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of our decisions are actually made subconsciously, and not with the conscious mind, as many believe. To read more about this, click here to go to my blogspot entry on the subject.
Assumption: Pretty girls and handsome men are happier than the rest of us and have fewer problems. How can anyone believe this when we have story after story in the media about so-called beautiful people who have gone into rehab, overdosed on drugs or alcohol, gained or lost large amounts of weight, experienced nasty divorces, been sued for millions of dollars, or killed themselves? Come on, folks, it’s just not true that beauty will solve all your problems. Ditto for money, power or fame.
Assumption: If all my wishes came true, life would be perfect. Probably not. There are an awful lot of lottery winners whose lives became a nightmare. The rich, the famous, and the exceptionally talented all have the same sorts of problems we all have. In fact, those of us who do not lead fairytale lives are often much better at coping with problems than those whose every whim can be satisfied.
Assumption: I can’t live without (fill in the blank). Sure, it may be hard, and you may not be very happy for a long while, but life goes on and you will survive. It’s too bad that we don’t teach our kids this lesson as early as we should. Divorces and business failures happen. People get evicted from their homes. People lose their jobs. People have their possessions stolen. Loved ones die. Friends disappear. What is important is how you eventually recover from these losses.
Assumption: It’s antisocial to want to be alone. Some of us need more alone time than others, but it’s good for each and every one of us to take some time to be by ourselves, to meditate and just reflect on our lives. Meditation and journaling are important tools to help us clarify our thoughts and goals, and to release old fears, old beliefs, and old ways of reacting to events or other people. Time spent on our own between relationships is also valuable, because if we don’t make some changes, we will end up drawing into our lives the same type of people that we had trouble with before.
Assumption: It’s better to be married or in a relationship than to be single with no relationship. It’s true that relationships are important for our growth as human beings, and our process of spiritual maturation, but it’s important to remember that we learn from all of our relationships, not just romantic or marital ones. Just because you don’t have a dance partner, that doesn’t mean you are an inferior human being. You are whole, worthy and perfect just the way you are. And if you are changing for the better, that’s perfect, too.
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Learning to unlearn is the most important way to move ahead in life. Try to unlearn as many things as you can. 🙂