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The Power of Unlearning

 

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

 

The second line of the Jedi code tells us “There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.”  Knowledge is also the central pillar of the Jedi pillars of strength. Yoda tells Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah that A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense.  So, knowledge and the acquiring of it through our experiences, our studies, and even the Force is part and parcel for being a Jedi.

Being a Jedi means a commitment to life-long learning.  We should strive to practice intellectual wellness daily, making learning part of our day-to-day routine.  But what about all the stuff we shouldn’t be learning? Certainly, along the way we have picked up things that do not serve us, nor serve the task of world-betterment.  Sometimes it is not as simple as learning a falsehood that we then must discard in the light of new evidence or true information.  No, there are things we have learned our entire lives, attitudes, and biases that our environment and society have driven home that we have accepted – perhaps for a lifetime because, “that is just how things are.”  So along with the pursuit of knowledge, we must also do the hard work of unlearning wrong, harmful, toxic, and oppressive attitudes and behaviors.

When we carry things within ourselves without questioning when we are comfortable with the status quo in the light of suffering.  This is the time we must examine and reflect on our inner landscape, walk around it, and get to know just who we really are.  This work of self-examination and reflection can be exceedingly difficult because one of the first things we must unlearn in this work is our attachment to our own self-image. We all like to believe that we are good people and getting so attached to that image of a good person, it can blind us to unintentional harm we do walking this world because our biases and attitudes go unexamined.  This is ignorance or more specifically self-ignorance which we must counteract with self-knowledge.  We gain this self-knowledge thought examination and reflection. We do this by doing what I call a reflective meditation.

To do reflective mediation, take some time where you will not be disturbed, and you can have quiet.  This can be done sitting still in a quiet place, but another option is to do this on a walk, or in the shower, any activity where you have time alone, undisturbed.  Reflection and examination occur when we learn to “think about thinking”.  Allow thoughts and feelings to arise as you meditate, then engage your mind to find where that thought came from.  What experiences in your past color this line of thinking or feeling? What influences are coming to bear that lead you to any conclusion?  What assumptions are you making, and where do these assumptions come from? In time you can dig down to perhaps a memory where you first felt or thought this way or a memory of where you saw it modeled. Once you find the root of something, once you have a conscious understanding of what you think and feel, then you can use the plasticity of your mind to do the hard work of changing what how you think and feel.  We do not have to be a slave to our upbringing, but we can unlearn anything we choose – but first, we must be aware of why we think or feel in a certain way, and under the bright light of examination, we can go forward crafting new attitudes and behaviors mindfully.

 

This is an extremely difficult technique, so I suggest starting small.  Just a few minutes a day to start. Try three minutes your first day and in time work it up to five or ten minutes, until you get comfortable enough with the practice that you can find yourself doing it easily with any idle time you may have or able to get right to work when setting time for your daily meditative practice.

On a personal note, in my nearly 15 years walking the Jedi Path, I believe it has been my ability to unlearn that has served me more than my ability to learn.  And I had quite a lot to unlearn. I had many prejudices and biases, and many of my behaviors were oppressive or toxic.  I was ignorant of my privilege of being white and male-presenting, not realizing that even though I had an extremely difficult life, it was absent of many kinds of oppression and discrimination that people that did not have my appearance had.  I was ignorant that we lived in a society that valued some segments over others, and that we were surrounded by oppressive structures, which I both participated in, and benefitted from.  So, I had to unlearn a lot. It took many years, and it is a process that is still ongoing. But where am I going to go? This is my own mind we are talking about, and it is the only one I am ever going to have, so I might as well shape it how I want it to be, instead of mindlessly let it be shaped by those around me.  

I want the same for you, dear Jedi.  For those that walk the Jedi Path, we are committed to doing the difficult work of being the best version of ourselves – a constantly moving target I am afraid. So, don’t look too far ahead.  Be a bit better than you were yesterday and set a goal to improve tomorrow. We don’t need dramatic transformations in a short time, but small, incremental progress is all we ask for. Allow yourself to take the small step that is just for today, then another small step the next day, and the next, and before you know you will have traveled far down this path.