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Take Me to the River

- Learning and the Mind

by Michael Maciel

The word educate comes from the Latin word educare, which means to draw out. This implies that knowledge comes from within us. Facts act as catalysts to activate the knowledge that is already there. This leads us to think that learning is more a remembering than it is an accumulation of new ideas.

Of, course, this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which places great importance on deriving knowledge from the world of objective sensory experience. Knowledge isn't knowledge unless it comes from the world "out there". Ironically, this belief is held by a world whose major scientific discoveries have come through flashes of insight, dreams, and hunches more than it has through rational deduction and objective evidence. Nevertheless, the world persists in believing that the mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, built up from birth out of input from the senses. Most of today's learning methodologies are based upon this premise.

We are now compelled to consider an alternative: there is nothing to learn. Everything that has ever existed, does exist, or will exist exists now. In a way that is perhaps impossible to articulate, existence does not relate to time. The principles of electromagnetism were just as real for the Neanderthals as they are for us today. We did not invent them - they have always been, and they will always be. Likewise, the principles of cold fusion, anti-gravity, the cure for cancer, and physical regeneration are real now, existing right under our collective nose, waiting only for the proper insights that will bring them to light.

The second premise to be considered is that what we call mind has its origin in the total spectrum of existence. It functions as an ethereal organ of reflection, a cosmic web browser that, depending on how it's configured, sorts out and interprets the One as the Many (the "ten thousand things" of Lao Tzu). Why it occurs this way is anyone's guess, but it does present us with a whole new way of learning, because knowledge does not originate with the senses.

If everything that can exist already exists, then learning about a thing happens when we focus our attention upon it. We simply look in that direction. The only hindrance to this process is our own preconceptions. Instead of simply looking, we try to superimpose our ideas onto what we're seeing - we try to make reality conform to our ideas about reality. It is only when we can, as William Blake put it, "cleanse the doors of perception", or as Emily Dickinson said, "see with the unfurnished eye", that we can re- relate the parts to the whole.

The new model for learning, therefore, is to UNLEARN - to take our mind and "wash it down" of the opinions and preconceptions that prevent our vision. Daisetz Susuki called this "beginner's mind", which strips away the superficial clutter of collected facts and uncovers the total spectrum that forms the foundation of our experience.

The ancient rite of baptism reminds us that underneath the encrustation of earthly, sensory interpretation lies the direct perception of the total spectrum - not as a new insight, but as the very water out of which we are born. All we need to do is immerse ourselves in the silent depths and release our preconceptions and opinions. This is important. The Sufis say that what you are looking for, you are looking with. The mind, and, by extension, the objects of learning are not "out there". Everything, again in a way that cannot be articulated, exists right here, right now. Part of that "everything" acts as a reflector of itself, and that part we call the mind. A good analogy is the surface of water and the way it reflects our image. But when we go beneath the surface, we are left with the one thing and not the reflection.

Can you do that now? Can you release your ideas about "baptism" as something done to you? Can you unlearn what you "know" so that you can see it with an unfurnished eye and perhaps glimpse the reality that it affirms, that we are not born of flesh and blood, but that we are children of the Infinite?

Our senses and their cranial counterparts tell us things that the heart cannot reconcile - that we are separate, that we are different, that we are isolated and alone. Can we unlearn this? Can the mind realize that it reflects that which is "above" and that it is not merely an aggregation of sense-born data? When the mind pulls back the veil and finally knows its origin, it will never again hold itself separate and apart. It will stand aside and let the Thinker, the User of the mind, come forth in fullness and in joy to experience the multifaceted splendor (Indra's necklace) which It has created.

What to Learn

If everything that can be known is already known, and if the word "educate" means to draw out, then it makes sense that some forms of learning help to draw out the total spectrum of real knowledge, and some forms actually get in the way. We have seen through the study of Zen, the mindfullness teachings of Thich Nat Hahn, and the quiet mind spoken of by Eckhart Tolle that the vision of unity comes upon us when we let go. As all of these people will attest, this is easier said than done. Even when we are able to do this for brief moments, we are quickly pulled back into the thrall of objective, sensory stimuli. Fortunately, there are systems of thought that are designed to "activate" the wholeness that forms the foundation of the mind and thus transform it from within.

Wholeness is a powerful elixir - it knits together the fragments of what we have "learned", fills in the missing pieces in our knowledge of ourselves and the world, and eliminates the repetitive and superficial facts that relate to nothing but themselves. Anything that can spark that wholeness within us and fan it into flame is worthy of our most careful attention. You might think that I'm referring to symbols or rituals, and, yes, these can act as activators, as long as they are intelligently constructed and carried out. But the Infinite is not a static thing - it is alive. So in order to activate it and bring it to awareness, the activators have to be alive as well.

How do you have a living symbol? A living symbol must have movement. It must have a pattern which progresses through tme and space. It cannot simply repeat itself, because that would be a static condition. It has to have a sequence, like the notes in a piece of music, before it can animate the mind. Not only does there have to be a sequence, but the sequence must have an order to it, like DNA. How does this relate to learning? It relates in that it not only matters what pieces of information you learn, it also matters in what order you learn them.

Consider this: we did not lose our vision of unity all at once; it happened over a long period of time and in a series of interrelated steps. It stands to reason that the road back will also consist of separate steps, each one building upon the other. This, of course, is the message of religion - not just one religion, but all of them. They all have a "program" or a prescribed way in which to learn their truths. Some religions have a well-defined catechism, a step by step process for spiritual realization. Others have stories, the characters and actions of which lead the reader or hearer through a series of ideas, pictures, and feelings designed to awaken the inner consciousness to wholeness. If the stories are tampered with, if the elements are changed or rearranged, the process that the story was designed to activate will be altered and lose its effectiveness. This drives the fundamentalists of the world to insist on the integrity of their teachings, which they seek to validate by interpreting them as literal events. This is no different from societies that relied on the oral transmission of their mythologies. They had strict rules about accuracy and even stricter rules about artistic license. Scribes and storytellers had to toe the line, or they would lose their heads. It's no wonder that fictional writing took so long to appear on the scene. Stories were meant to relate eternal truths, and as such had to be well crafted by those who knew how.

Once the world was interrelated; now it is fragmented. The postmodern view of the world has blown the vision of unity apart. Even before the modern era, we tended to separate our inner experience from the outer. In short, we saw ourselves as separate from God. To find our way back, we need tools of consciousness that catalyze the foundation of wholeness that lies beneath the surface of our human experience, tools that peel back the layers of interpretation one at a time, that take us from where we are and lead us back step by step into our original vision of unity.

The task before us is not to create the correct order of learning (or maybe it is) but to look at the written traditions that we already have, with an eye for their elementary concepts and principles, and especially for the sequential order in which they are presented.

All living organisms have a maturation cycle, the driving information for which comes in "sets". Humans, for example, have a seven-year cycle of development, each cycle differing qualitatively from the next. We lose our baby teeth at the close of the first cycle, come into puberty in the second, reach the age of majority in the third, and so on. Each cycle has its own "set" of in-formation. Logic dictates, and intuition confirms, that these physical cycles, which differ markedly from each other and build one upon the other are reflections of a process of spiritual maturation; Spirit gradually reclaims and manifests Itself in the flesh in an intelligent, sequential order.

The ancient seers and shamans knew and understood these cycles and passed on their knowledge symbolically within the stories and "historical" accounts that we now know as scripture and myth. This is not new information. What is new, or rather what is now being re-revealed, is the knowledge of the sequential order contained within these symbolic representations.

The Seeming Paradox

It might look like I'm proposing two contradictory models for learning, one of unlearning and the other of in-depth study and interpretation of sacred writings. And in fact, when unlearning is complete, there is no longer any need for study. But the mind is tenacious, and must be persuaded on its own terms. It can only be turned by degree, and will never let go as long as the dots of one plane are left unconnected to the dots of the next. This is why there are stories and myths. Besides, the mind cannot escape its own cycles of development, and the stories and myths mirror these cycles, adding their catalyzing images and concepts in order to dress the mind in progressively finer and finer garments. All of this in preparation, of course, for that high state of spiritual union wherein garments are no longer needed.