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Meditations: Two Kinds of Learning

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Two Kinds of Learning

I’ve never been one for Zen koans. They’ve always seemed to me to be trick questions designed to produce insights that simple, undivided observation can engender. But here’s a kind of koan: What is learning when it is based on unlearning?

The implicit corollary of this question is even more paradoxical--is there a knowing that is not a matter of knowledge? In philosophy, this entire area of inquiry is known as epistemology, defined as “the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, in particular its foundations, scope, and validity.”

Though I have a strong philosophical bent (construe that word as you will), I’ve always felt toward epistemology the way students of anthropology feel toward a bones and stones approach to that discipline. “Dead archeology is the driest dust that blows,” it’s been said. Except perhaps for epistemology.

To learn the art of meditation is to realize, at the outset, that there is nothing to learn. The intent is not to add more knowledge, but to free the mind from the grip of knowledge.

As I see it, knowledge is of two types—useful and useless—but neither has anything to do with the awakened state. Obviously, at one level, people need to know how to build a bridge, and at another level, how to drive a car.

But much of the content of knowledge that people lug around is of the worthless, chattering variety--what is usually called ‘experience.’ Most experience is just the residue of the past. A good example is a grudge, which is the memory/feeling of how someone did me wrong. Not resolving and ending that experience, it hardens into hate, which is a most destructive sort of emotional knowledge.

We humans are very proud of our capacity for learning, but unlearning is even more important than learning. So can unlearning be taught? Can a non-accumulative kind of learning be transmitted?

Recently I watched a documentary about a species of heron that had learned how to ‘fish,’ but was unable to transmit that knowledge to its offspring. The heron normally feeds on fish that it spears after waiting and watching patiently for a prey in the shallows. By observing children throwing bread to fish in a lake, a few exceptional herons learned how to use bread as bait.

These heron scoop up a piece of bread, fly off to another part of the lake, and carefully place the crumb in the water. When a fish surfaces to eat the morsel, it grabs the fish. Managing to be at once speciesist and sexist, the segment ended with this silly statement: “But sadly, the herons don’t learn from each other; when this one dies, his knowledge dies with him.” Each heron that learns the trick learns anew, and cannot pass it on to others.

Beyond the prejudices, the implications of this example of animal learning rippled with insight in my mind. Knowledge is accumulative, but understanding is a matter of continually unlearning what we know and think we know. How is that kind of learning to be transmitted? Can teachers and parents teach children to not carry over unnecessary knowledge?

Learning how to meditate is to human civilization what individual heron learning is to heron culture. That’s because meditation involves both unlearning, and non-accumulative learning. Both are meaningless to the vast majority of people. And yet, human survival and growth now depend on this completely different kind of learning.

Obviously, it must be possible to convey these things, or we couldn’t write or speak about them. Part of problem is developing a language for the new territory. But the real issue is not letting words and ideas become a substitute for one actually exploring the inner landscape.

Is it possible to raise children without conditioning, and to show them how to keep their minds and hearts unconditioned? That is true freedom. For the more conditioned one is, the more one is a slave.

A young child learns by watching. If she sees adults who are deeply aware, she will develop awareness. Occasionally someone will say to me, “That’s easy for you to say, since you don’t have children.” Maybe so, but one day these things will be ‘common knowledge.’ However, there is no method, no technique, no ritual to awaken total awareness, since these are, after all, still a matter of knowledge and conditioning.

To look with eyes and mind and heart that have been bathed clean of conditioning, of all prior experience, and see again as a young child sees, is to receive the greatest gift of life. If one lives that way, which entails ending self-centered activity, and dies not carrying anything over, is there death, or simply awareness?


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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