Sometimes we have to unlearn in order to learn.Sometimes it is necessary to burn a thing, to do away with it in a way that reduces it to metaphorical ashes.No doubt the idea sounds preposterous at first.But when you take the time to really think about it, you see that it is a frequent pattern.We do not experience rebirth without death. Pablo Picasso turned the art world on its head with his cubism – his unique way of manipulating form and shape in ways we had not seen before.Would it surprise you to know that he studied classical form for many years, finally mastering the traditional techniques of line and colour and shape and perspective, only to break the very rules he worked so hard to master?What is more, his breakthrough could not have happened otherwise.He learned to work using all the artistic conventions, and then systematically undid the very lessons he mastered. Galileo. Einstein. Bob Dylan. T.S. Eliot.Tiger Woods.They all unlearned.And they are joined by many more.
The unlearners are the world’s best learners.They are not limited by convention, by widely accepted views, by critics, by trends.They are, in essence, not limited by what they have learned and by what is considered knowledge.Or, put another way, they learned to overcome, or transcend what they leaned, in order to tap into an even greater knowledge.
There is a classic Zen story that tells of a learned professor who asks a Zen monk to explain what Zen is. The monk pours the professor a cup of tea, but does not stop until the tea begins to overflow the cup. The professor finally protests, and says, “Stop, my cup is already overfull. No more will go in.” The Zen monk smiles and says, “exactly, and your mind is like this cup. If it is already too full there is no room for Zen.”
Unlearning comes when we take our learning so far that we can see its shortcomings. We see that it is not complete.We used to think that atoms were the smallest building blocks of matter.These atoms could bond together, much like piece of lego could stick together, to form all that is: tables and people and rocks.Now Quantum science has shown us that atoms are not the smallest particles in the universe.And the subatomic particles behave in ways contrary to much of what science has learned.The world was once thought to be flat. The sun was once thought to revolve around the earth. Many things once considered facts have had to be unlearned.
There are many, many things we would do well to unlearn. Too many of us have learned to naturalize a disjointed, fragmented mode of existence.We have learned to spend money we do not have.We have learned to eat food that is not good for us.We have learned to fall for the hype.We have learned to dismiss our inner voice.
Sometimes we have to unlearn in order to learn.Sometimes it is necessary to burn a thing, to do away with it in a way that reduces it to metaphorical ashes, so as to create the space and conditions for something new to be born.