Ten Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier

 New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti
I‘m such a slow learner. I am capable of learning, but it seems I need to be hit over the head before I recognize a truth, and to work twice as hard as others to acquire a capacity to do something. It’s not that I’m set in my ways and not open to change — it’s more that I just seem incapable of paying attention. Not paying attention, alas, has been one of my ways of coping with what I did not dare to see.

So here’s yet another list, in no particular order: I wish I had learned earlier…

  1. That unschooling and deschooling are essential prerequisites to learning. Not that my teachers and parents and others who presumed to tell me useful truths were lying — they were doing their best, and just didn’t know any better. They were passing along the myths that they’d learned. Only after being exposed to unschooling, and then deschooling myself, did I finally learn how to learn, how to make real sense of the world.
  2. That work is an abomination, unnecessary in any healthy society. When I first sensed this, I was called lazy, a coward, a parasite. Work is good for you, I was told. It’s an essential part of building character and of good relationships. But despite some joyous moments, work has mostly made me sick, angry, bitter, tired, and cynical. The people who benefit from the “work world” are those fortunate enough to be privileged with wealth and power, and as Trump has shown these have nothing to do with competence, character or capacity. We are meant to be wild, not to work. My greatest wish is that after the collapse of our industrial civilization, the concept of ‘work’ will not be reinvented.
  3. That our culture makes us utterly dependent on it, and that dependence prevents us from being who we really are. Complex systems evolve to self-perpetuate and resist change, and our culture — social, political, economic, financial, educational, technological, food and pharmaceutical — depends on us remaining dependent on it, and doing what we’re told no matter what the hardship. A global, complex, interdependent set of systems cannot allow people to walk away in significant numbers or it will fall apart. We can criticize the system, and play at the edges of it, but we are all caught up in it, and belief that we could survive long outside the system is fanciful thinking. We are all in thrall to what we have collectively created. Until it collapses.
  4. That there is nothing ‘natural’ about loving only one person. We romanticize couples who have stayed together for 50 years or more, and wild species which supposedly ‘mate for life’ (which very few actually do). The wedding business is just the pinnacle of a complex system that has evolved to venerate monogamy, because it makes us more dependent on all of our cultural systems, isolates us in ‘nuclear family’ units, and creates an artificial scarcity of love that is enormously profitable to exploit. It may require more self-knowledge and honesty than most of us have the time and fortune to be able to cultivate, but loving abundantly, without limit and without boundaries, was the prehistoric norm, and is our natural birthright.
  5. That most of us are biologically best suited to eating a varied whole-plant diet. Yes, when, after 30 million years in balance with the rest of the natural world, our tree-living simian ancestors left the abundant tropical forest only a million years ago, we had no choice but to alter our diets, and our bodies are, with some considerable struggle but reasonably successfully, adapting themselves to our changed diet. But most of us still thrive best on a varied whole-plant diet. And there are many other reasons to eat that way, mainly to thumb your nose at the horrific industrial food system.
  6. That every body is different, so we have to take responsibility for managing our own health. For those competent at research (don’t get me started on that), the internet finally allows each of us to partner with health care practitioners in diagnosing and treating what ails us. Ignorant doctors, with my complicity, did some severe if well-intentioned damage to my body when I was young. Since the internet, I’ve co-managed my back spasms, kidney stones, ulcerative colitis and shingles, and am now in the best health of my life. I use regression analysis to track what correlates, for me, with health (eg regular aerobic, core and upper-body exercise , working standing up, vitamin B12 and D3, anti-inflammatory foods, stress-reduction activities) and with illness (prednisone, stress, being cold, sudden weather changes). In this one area, at least, I am less dependent.
  7. That nobody knows anything. So much — our personal and professional reputation, our self-esteem, our perceived competence — depends on the pretence of knowing more than we really do. Humility generally doesn’t garner much reward. Once we realize that we’re all faking it, making it up as we go, suddenly we’re freed from expectations (and especially self-expectations), disappointment, and over-reliance. Forget the gurus, the ‘leaders’, the experts, the consultants — they’re just better than we are at persuading others (and themselves) that they know something. Realizing that no one knows anything is the most liberating thing that can happen to you.
  8. That we’re all healing. And no one is to blame. When I was young, you didn’t talk about mental illness. Sufferers of that sort had character weaknesses that they needed to work on. Awareness of childhood trauma was pretty much non-existent; it was ignored, as was the damage it did to abusers and victims alike. Only recently has the breadth and depth of trauma inflicted by one form or another of the emotional damage that is part of what I call Civilization Disease become apparent. Even now, acknowledging that we’re all victims of Civilization Disease can be taken as belittling the experiences of those most hurt by abuse, or even justifying the abuse. And saying no one is to blame is seen as letting the worst apparent perpetrators off the hook. A friend has a sign in her window saying “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I think of this now whenever I hear or see anything that upsets me or makes me want to judge them.
  9. That we’re wise to trust our instincts. Several indigenous creeds refer to four ways of ‘knowing’ — intellectual (with our heads), emotional (with our hearts), sensual (with our senses), and instinctual (with our intuition). They describe the wisdom of ‘sleeping on’ a difficult decision to allow these four types of knowledge to be integrated subconsciously. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to be less trusting of my intellectual and emotional assessments and reactions — to some extent I sense they’re not really ‘mine’, and are instead entrained, enculturated, patterned behaviours. So now I trust my senses, and my instincts, more. They seem somehow more deep-rooted, and hence more reliable. And even in the rare cases when I conclude that my instincts were flawed, it’s immediately apparent to me why they were telling me what they were telling me.
  10. That you don’t approach predicaments the same way you approach problems. Problems may be complicated, but they can be solved. Predicaments cannot; we can only accept, appreciate, probe, and then adapt ourselves to them, work around them. Almost everything seen on the news, and dramatized in novels and films, are predicaments. On the news politicians and pundits are always quick to proffer their ludicrous “solutions” to them. In novels and films they always work out somehow to be soluble, usually thanks to some heroic effort. They do us a disservice and don’t prepare us well for the many monumental complex and interrelated predicaments that climate change and civilization’s collapse are going to present us with.

Of course, there is an 11th thing for the list, my newest and still most tenuous learning:

That we, separate individual ‘selves’, don’t exist.

I’ve written endlessly about this over the past three years. If you want a succinct explanation of this, here’s one. I don’t expect most readers will understand what I mean or why I believe it, because to the individual self, it just doesn’t — can’t possibly — make sense, unless and until the self momentarily drops away and there’s a glimpse of ‘this’ directly. After such a glimpse, the self lives in a kind of limbo. There’s a realization that the 10 things on this list aren’t so much a list of things to learn as a list of things the opposite of which are to be unlearned.

I can only hope that I am a faster unlearner than I am a learner.

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9 Responses to Ten Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier

  1. Namcy says:

    So much to reflect on but im going for a walk! :) But I must stop and say THANK YOU.

  2. Ben T says:

    I really appreciate this, Dave. Thank you.

    Now I only have to embody the above in how I live my life…hah!

    To live without work, to transcend the most toxic elements of culture, to accept my ignorance, to trust my instincts despite my ignorance, to love others despite theirs, to heal even though I don’t know how, and to live without my-self…and to un/de-school myself sufficiently to stand a chance of achieving any part of it!

    Sounds like the job of a lifetime…

  3. Dave says:

    Krishnamurti, Wei Wu Wei…

  4. Brutus says:

    About no. 7, I wouldn’t say that nobody knows anything. That’s too absolute. However, I’d agree that most of us don’t know very much. I’ve always harbored envy for people who are polylingual. They know how to communicate differently and have often subtly different cultural models for the same things — isomorphisms, if you will. I feel limited in comparison. As to faking it, I prefer to say we’re mostly making it up as we go, which means that it’s improvisatory. How could it be other? Recognizing that we’re in a flow and behaving spontaneously is far saner than adhering dogmatically to fixed plans or ideologies.

    About no. 11, I’m roughly halfway through Daniel Siegel’s book Mind and have deepened my intuition about the situational, relational, and entirely porous notion of cognition as something that exists as much between us as within us. Siegel doesn’t equate the mind fully with consciousness or the self, nor do I, so I haven’t come over to the idea of nonduality, but I’ve taken a giant step toward it.

  5. Don Stewart says:

    I previously recommended that you check in with the psychologist Dan Siegel. I perceive that you are very reluctant to look at the journey of a neuroscientist, having arrived at your own conclusions relative to dualism. So you still may not wish to look at this. But here is one more opportunity…Don Stewart

    Listen to the Podcast
    By following both his scientific curiosity and his heart, Dr. Daniel Siegel began to question one of the most fundamental assumptions about human psychology and even biology: that we are an individual, separate self. Dr. Siegel discovered that our concept of “I” turns out to be more accurately a “we”—encompassing not only our own senses, brain, and awareness, but also—surprisingly enough—the world itself, including everyone around us that we interact with and merge with in every moment of our lives.

    If the link above doesn’t work, search on
    Sounds True
    Daniel J. Siegel: What Is Interpersonal Neurobiology?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. I’ve listened to several recordings of Dan Siegel, and I respect what he says, but he’s a long way from radical non-duality. In terms of his practice he’s actually quite close to Narrative Therapy, which is loads better than CBT and mainstream psychiatry. But he clearly believes we have free will. I did for most of my life, and I might change my mind again, but for now I am persuaded that we do not. I’m writing another article to elaborate on how this recent shift in my worldview has coloured everything I think, do and believe. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable, but from my current vantage point I don’t see any way back. As Neil Young wrote “I bought that ticket and I’ll take that ride.”

  7. Don Stewart says:

    If you become ‘exceedingly uncomfortable’ enough, then you should check out Lisa Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

    Suppose that humans are destined to do what they think will feel good. Barrett shows in her discussion of the Default Network how our brain is constantly, and mostly unconsciously, developing a myriad of alternatives in every moment. Barrett believes we have some ability to choose among the alternatives. (We can’t choose in every case, for obvious reasons. We don’t have the cognitive power to try to decide everything consciously.)

    ‘We are performing a synchronized dance of prediction and action, regulating each other’s body budgets. This same synchrony is the basis of social connection and empathy; it makes people trust and like each other, and its crucial for parent-infant bonding.

    Your personal experience, therefore, is actively constructed by your actions. You tweak the world, and the world tweaks you back. You are, in a very real sense, an architect of your environment as well as your experience. Your movements, and other people’s movements in turn, influence your own incoming sensory input. These incoming sensations, like any experience can rewire your mind. So you’re not only an architect of your experience, you’re also an electrician.’

    I find Barrett’s formulation very similar to Siegel’s ‘betweenness’ concepts. Robert Sapolsky, who has just published his own book Behave, writes a blurb:

    ‘Lisa Barrett draws on contemporary research to offer a radically different picture: that the experience of emotion is highly individualized, neurobiologically idiosyncratic, and inseparable from cognition.’

    Barb Fredrickson says the book ‘will help you remake your life’.

    If I were quarreling with Sapolsky, I would point out that the ‘highly individualized’ comes from all of the ‘conversations’ you have ever had with your own body, other people, and the whole universe. So ‘you’ are unique, but your are also a product of billions of interactions. You were born with tools which gave you tremendous capacity to develop along many different distinctive paths.

    Don Stewart

  8. Matt Colombo says:

    Thanks, Dave, great stuff. Always good to know that others are thinking the same things.

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