The Imperative of Un-Learning

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    The cabin is at a mile elevation (about 1600 meters) in a heavily logged and developed section of the central Sierra Nevada. John Muir called the Sierras “The Range of Light,” and despite the stumps and slash in the national forest behind the place, the truth of that phrase is apparent as the afternoon sun slants through the ponderosas and pines.

    Surprisingly, there is an intimation of the sacredness of the mountains. Probably all mountains have this quality for those ready and able to feel it.

    The reddish mountain soil is damp from last night’s rain. And since it’s the first rain of the new fall season, the smells of earth and plants are almost overwhelmingly redolent. There is an excitement in the air (which abrupt changes in weather and season seem to always bring) flowing from a freshness and newness imbuing everything.

    I walk down the steep paved road in front of the cabins to a dirt road running along a creek, and sit within a foot of the thinly running but unexpectedly loud water. As the mind-as-thought settles down through simple sensory awareness and passive observation, a sense of stillness and reverence comes over one.

    Clouds begin to move in again, bringing with them distant thunder. As meditation deepens, the sunny morning becomes an overcast and even ominous afternoon. By the time I leave, lightening and thunder are nearly overhead and big drops of rain are beginning to fall, though I feel no danger or need to hurry.

    It’s quite incredible what happens when memory and thought fall silent. Sounds and sights take on a completely different texture. Everything comes alive, and reverberates with meaning.

    During deeper meditative states, one comes into contact with actualities beyond words and knowledge. Words like beauty, death, sorrow, and love become, if one uses them at all, mere indicators, without any of the content or association that experience and conditioning give them.

    In other words, during meditation there is no past experience; there’s just present experiencing. It is the quality of unlearning that allows one to grow as a human being.

    It’s not lack of education that makes a person ignorant, but ignorance that makes a person uneducated. Ignorance is not a lack of knowledge but an absence of self-knowing; education is not a lack of schooling but of curiosity and questioning.

    Why don’t more people value quietness? Why the everlasting chattering of the mind and mouth? Is it the pace of living now, the complete imbalance of society and most people’s lives adapting to it?

    Or is it because we don’t know how to unlearn, how to erase unnecessary memories?

    Too much memory clogs the brain and decreases the capacity not only of the intellect, but for awareness and depth of experiencing. Essentially, thought is the movement of memory, and if memory/thought is active all the time, as it is in most people, the brain grows dull and shrinks with age, or worse.

    But if one learns how to unlearn—that is, to let go of the movement of memory and allow attention to gather and effortlessly erase unnecessary memories—the brain is renewed, and the capacity for perception and insight grows.

    It’s only when memory and thought are completely quiet that the brain is renewed and true growth occurs. Stilling thought through passive watchfulness bathes the brain in the limitless energy of life, the same energy that continually renews nature.

    Of course this is completely contrary to current scientific and conventional thinking, which holds memory, thought, and the intellect to be the highest human capabilities. Nevertheless, we need to learn how to unlearn, how to delete the unnecessary files.

    True meditation deletes the files of psychological memory, but leaves utilitarian memory intact. Some higher order of intelligence in the brain makes the distinction; the self doesn’t. Indeed, the self, as a separate construct, dissolves.

    To my mind, unnecessary memory is most of what’s been stored up from experience. We think that kind of memory is what makes us us, but in truth it diminishes our capacity and uniqueness as individuals.

    As we develop ‘artificial intelligence,’ let the computers have memory as the basic principle of their existence. They are already better at recalling and associating than the humans that made them.

    But a computer will never be unable to act from memory, as a human being can. Few people do so at present with any regularity, but we all have the capacity to awaken the ‘cloud of unknowing.’

    True intelligence is action that springs from direct perception and insight, rather than memory and knowledge, which are always of the past.

    Martin LeFevre

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