What is Unlearning?

Unlearning is not reframing or refreezing or something along that lines. They all focus on an end state whereas unlearning is about moving away from something rather than moving towards something.

So unlearning is exactly what it says. Intending to let go of what we have already learned or acquired. It is not about right or wrong. It is about being open to and exploring something that lies underneath the judgment, underneath the right and the wrong.

Unlearning and Spirituality

In spirituality literature, we talk about liberation or freeing oneself from the bondage. Whether it is Sufi, or Hindu or Buddhism or Judeo-Christian religions, unlearning the conditined or acquired behaviors and reaching for the higher truth, or Spirit, or God is the ultimate goal. Jiddu Krishnamurti, a well known Indian philosopher of the 20th Century had said repeated that the 'truth is a pathless land' and focused on freeing us from the conditioned responses. The process of unlearning is about liberation or freedom from the conditioning or from the known.

Obviously in this context of exploring unlearning, learning is used as acquisition of knowledge or information. In Vedanta, they talk about 'para vidya' and 'apara vidya.' One is learning about the manifested, external world and learning to manage and become good at dealing with what is outside of you. The other is about what is inside of you and knowing yourself and exploring who you are and what you are. In other words, the first one is about objective knowledge and the second is about subjective knowledge. Unlearning what is learned so that you are open to learning 'what is unknown' and to experience it is a path that interests many people.

It could also be a behavioral pattern or a habit or a mental construct too.

I saw somebody using an example of zen master and emptying the cup as the metaphor for unlearning. The essence is about 'emptying' and not about 'emptying so that we can fill it up.'

Dr. Benjamin used an example of a woman falling from the bicycle and her sari getting caught in the wheel. While the focus for the helper might be to get the woman to safety while the woman might rather focus on modesty than safety. It requires unlearning on the part of the helper to see what is really needed and how to help while including her need.

Another example is learning how to ride a bicycle (click on the title Bicycle Built for Two to read the story). You cannot focus first on balance, then on peddles and looking ahead. You have to do all of them simultaneously and it comes by letting go of the focus on any one of them and mastering all of them.

Unlearning could be also described as stripping the existing paint of a wall so that new paint sticks. As you know stripping is 70% of the job and repainting is 30%.

Another metaphor that describes unlearning is removing the old plants in the farm so that you can plant again.

Unlearning is also about a mental construct. For example, In my experience, I found that people who have high cognitive focus do not like the word unlearning at all. They would rather find another word.

In all these examples, the focus is on emptying and creating an opening. Once openness is experienced, learning and creativity become easier.

If we think about learning to have two components: one that leads to tool building (information and knowledge) and another that leads to wisdom and transformation (subjective learning), unlearning is extraordinarily important component of the second kind. So the phrase 'learning to learn' probably is more closely related to unlearning though the focus is 'freeing from what we have learned.'

I have created a framework for learning that has the following components:

  • Instinctive learning (what we are born with)
  • Conditioning (what we teach our children and new employees)
  • Unlearning (breaking free of the limits and conditioning)
  • Openness (a state of freedom and possibilities and a larger view/perspective)
  • Manifestation (making things happen coming from a larger perspective)
  • Coaching (consciously focusing on others and helping them to go beyond where we have been)

Again, these are some of my views and I am sure there are many different ways we can understand unlearning. Of course, more we know about unlearning, more we have to unlearn to be open to others....

Please email your comments or suggestions to: Prasad Kaipa.


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