I want to learn to meditate. More than that, I want to learn presence, the art of being in the moment, aware, relaxed, attentive, competently and appropriately responsive and adaptive, taking everything in intellectually, emotionally, sensuously, and instinctively, collecting, engaging others, letting things come, challenging, playing imaginatively and creatively with them, reflecting, understanding, synthesizing, integrating, acting responsibly and passionately, and letting go of what I cannot change or control. I think this is an essential competency, and I suck at it. I’m unintentionally inattentive and insensitive, and I have a terrible memory.
I am a great belief in self-directed learning — that, with sufficient self-knowledge, we are vastly better off deciding personally when, what and how to learn, and learning our own way at our own pace, than relying on education systems and processes that inflict a one-size-fits-all process that presumes what we should know and how we should best learn it. Most of that self-directed learning is solitary (though a mentor might be selected to bounce questions and ideas off).
I am also a great believer in on-line learning, since the essentially infinite resources of the web are vaster in breadth, depth and media than any preset course or curriculum taught in a classroom could ever hope to match.
But I’m learning that there are limits to what you can learn online, and what you can learn alone, even if your research and self-directed learning skills are exemplary. For example I have tried a dozen self-paced, self-directed ways to learn to meditate, from books, recordings and even a few real-time mentored telephone and face-to-face instructional sessions (thanks in particular to Indigo Ocean). Still, I cannot meditate.
I have come up with several excuses for this:
- I have taken hands-on courses in swimming, dancing and playing musical instruments, and haven’t learned from them either, so perhaps the problem isn’t that I’m trying to learn meditation online, it’s just that I’m hopelessly uncoordinated.
- I haven’t practiced much. There is a substantial consensus that learning difficult skills like meditation often only occurs with lots and lots of practice. So perhaps the problem is lack of practice, combined with lack of patience.
- There are limits to what anyone can learn, period. Perhaps with meditation I’ve just pressed up against another of those limits.
But I find these excuses unconvincing.
I’m wondering whether some critical skills and capacities are far better learned face-to-face, real-time, in a group. We often learn well from observing others doing and learning. And it seems almost ludicrous to think that essential skills like collaboration, empathy, mentoring and facilitation could possibly be learned online or alone, no matter how brilliant the simulation of others’ presence the Internet or self-paced learning exercises and case studies might provide.
My friend Raffi asked me the other day if I think I can really learn to meditate without a real-time, real-space ‘expert’ teacher. Reluctantly, I’m beginning to think the answer is no.
We all learn differently, of course, and for each individual there is a need for different types of learning to acquire different knowledge, skills and capacities. The chart above summarizes everything I’ve learned over the years about learning styles, along with a few really outrageous generalizations. I have always aspired to learn naturally (the left-side choices in the table above). However, thanks to my upbringing, my learning style might more accurately be labelled Old Liberal Male learning style.
Most of my actual, meaningful, useful learning (none of it in educational institutions) has come from either (a) solo research and study (mostly online) or (b) conversation and collaboration with people in real time and space (mostly working on real, long-term, important projects). I find (a) easy and fun, and I’m good at it. I find (b) arduous, and I’m terrible at it. I talk a good story about the value and importance of stories, learning-by-doing, empathy, learning from mistakes, facilitation, conversation and collaboration in community, and I really believe it, but if you want someone with skills in any of these areas, you had best look elsewhere.
Hence I am constantly bumping up against the limits of what one can learn alone and online. Here’s a controversial list of things I believe you can’t learn (very well) alone and online (or from books for that matter, since they’re more or less all online now):
- The social skills and capacities of getting along well and effectively with others (e.g. empathy, facilitation, conversation, collaborative skills, consensus, invitation, conflict resolution, improvisation, elicitation, story-telling).
- The wisdom of crowds (it’s just too hard to organize group brainstorming, focused knowledge-sharing, and Open-Space style creative interactions online).
- Anything about human nature.
- To really know yourself.
- Most self-sufficiency and survival skills.
- What you’re meant to do in this world, and with whom.
- How to be more truly yourself (e.g. generosity, vulnerability, taking responsibility, caring, drawing on instinct, intentionality, adaptation, resilience).
- How to really play.
- How to make a living for yourself.
- Competencies and capacities that require real-world practice (e.g. meditation, being present, languages, physical recreations and sports, dealing with illnesses and traumas, self-management, acceptance, and a host of technical skills).
This is an important list, and it’s just off the top of my head. What’s even more annoying is that learning a lot of these things doesn’t lend itself well to natural (or Old Liberal Male) learning styles.
So if I’m serious about learning to meditate and become present, not only am I going to have to turn off the computer and get with other people in real space and time, I’m going to have to try a new style. I may have to be perseverant and studious, learn to accept and follow instruction, follow a prescribed curriculum, get results-orient, and practice, a lot, even when it’s no fun. Ugh. Do I really want to learn this that badly?
That’s really what it comes down to, when push comes to shove on difficult learning. Pollard’s Law states: We do what we must (what we ‘have’ to do, our personal imperatives), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. For me at least, learning meditation and presence is not going to be easy or fun. Is it enough of a personal imperative that I ‘must’ learn it, or will I fall back into the habit of doing things that are easy and fun instead?
The answer to that question is depressingly obvious. Things are the way they are for a reason. I have the time to learn these things, and I know I want to learn them, but I’m not doing it. Same applies to a lot of the things I think I want to do. Instead, I’m learning about and playing with Google+, online and alone (easy and fun). I know my limits.