What does it mean to learn? Most people would probably reply that learning is the accumulation of knowledge because that appears to be the role that societal institutions of learning have adopted. Schools, universities and academies transmit knowledge to students. This knowledge comprises technical knowledge, the execution of methods or the training of certain behaviors. Most of the time, the acquiring of this knowledge serves a determined goal that is supposed to repay in form of prestige, power, money or career opportunities. We would like to present a view contrary to this conception and say that learning is, in essence, a process of the development of spiritual structures – be it in the human being or in nature. And it is only wholesome if it takes place free of intention. The art of learning is revealing when the mind is opening towards the unhindered unfoldment of the all-encompassing movement of divine creation.
A flowing communication with the environment
If we observe young children and see how they live their daily lives, we will rapidly understand that what they are doing is entering in a playful way into relation with their environment and communicating with it by different means. They receive signals from their surroundings and respond to these signals by laughing, screaming, by putting one block on another, by climbing on something or by lying flat on the floor. All these behaviors are part of a flowing communication with the environment – with what is. But these outwardly perceivable acts are only one part of a holistic process that is taking place. That which is acting through the body of the child is its mind, and the mind of the child communicates with the mind of its environment.
The natural environment has an inherent order which shows itself in its most apparent form as natural laws. But also, the nature of the fellow men is part of this ‘order’ of the environment which shapes the child. The mind of the child is building itself in interaction with this order. This process is called learning. The young child is acting in this process fully out of itself, without planned intentions and without outer constraints but within the framework that the parents provide. The accumulation of knowledge is secondary in this process. It is part of the process of learning, but it doesn’t receive any particular attention. Reward and punishment with regard to the final end don’t have any place in it. But what is happening is the continuous development of holistic, spiritual structures in the mind-heart-system of the child. It is the manifestation of an order in the mind of the child that develops through the communication with the field of “what is”.
Evolution as a process of learning
Now, how does this learning relate to nature? The whole process of evolution can be understood as a process of learning. Learning that takes place in nature is the continuous refinement of the spiritual structures that underly all physical expressions. These evolving spiritual structures express themselves in the realm of the minerals, plants and animals as ever more subtle and complex forms. The whole planet earth can be understood in this process as one single body which tries to respond in an ever more resonating way to the all-encompassing movement of divine creation.
And what does learning mean in the societal teaching institutions? Many students in schools and universities probably don’t learn out of an inherent, playful curiosity and urge to explore. There is usually very little room for this intrinsic motivation. Rather, most of the time students “learn” because they want to use or are supposed to use the acquired knowledge for achieving a predefined goal. Therefore, at the core of this process lies the expected future and self-projected result, not the movement of learning. The impulse to accumulate knowledge originates, in this case, from the impulse that was bestowed upon the mind from outside and the associated driving feeling of, for example, desire or fear, but not from the wordless spontaneity of asking. The same is true for the accumulation of knowledge with the intention of boosting one’s career, or even for achieving self-projected spiritual goals like enlightenment. Often people force themselves to “learn” certain information by heart, to consume externally selected information or to introduce certain patterns of behavior. The “should” and ”must” that is subtly accompanying this conduct is an indication that the fundamental state of mind of the pupil is a state of inertia which turns any activity into a form of effort and control. This, in turn, indicates that the person has never given loving attention to this persistent inertia by observing how it unfolds and fully understanding it.
The process of real learning, of the unfolding of spiritual structures, appears to have come almost to an end in most grown-ups. Instead, the existing mental structures are being loaded with more information out of self-interest. This is, if one looks at it closely, a self-destructive process because stagnation means death. And the absence of real learning is stagnation.
A fundamental aspect of the development of new spiritual structures – of learning – is newness. This means that action of learning is always carrying in itself a spark of newness despite a seemingly outward repetition. This newness is something that is not brought about by the known, but which is an original quality of life itself which is not burdened by the known.
In this context, we can see that the human mind knows basically two forms of action. The first form is an action that is born out of the known. This action comprises the activities of analysis, interpretation, comparison, recognition, speculation, evaluation or projection and imagination. All of these activities are done out of the known. The second activity is the openness to the unknown – which is sometimes also referred to as action through non-action. Examples of action through non-action are wondering, asking, being in silence, inquiring, observing and perceiving what is. Interestingly, this second type of action cannot be intended or trained if it is genuine. But it is unfolding spontaneously from within, like it often happens with young children. The action that arises from the known is informed by the past. The movement arising from the unknown is free from the past.
It is in this way that the burdens of the past, like the above described inner inertia, are falling away in a mind that is open to the unknown. Overall, one can understand the art of learning as the art of opening towards the movement of divine creation. In this process of insight – which means to be touched by the harmony of wholeness – new structures in the human mind-heart unfold. The vital essence of insight is thus wordless. The formulated information of that which has been understood is always nothing but a temporal shadow and finally turns into a burden if not given away. To be distracted by words means to remain on the surface.
If one observes it by simple awareness, one can see that the described unfoldment of spiritual structures in the human heart-mind is part of eternity. This is because these spiritual structures don’t evolve in an isolated individual that projects an intention, but they emerge from the order of wholeness into wholeness, through the human being.
The movement of insight, which is free of the known and of words, is immediate action. It negates that which is in disharmony and allows the harmony of divine creation to express itself in ever more glorious ways. In this way, non-action gives birth to true action which is free of the intention of a separated individual.
Hence, the art of learning is not to be found through the action of will that seeks a result but reveals itself where the detrimental limitation of the intention to achieve the result is seen and, therefore, fully left aside. In the art of learning, a relation to wholeness is being established whose fundamental nature is love.
Finally, we would like to return to the question: What is the movement of learning? How can there be understanding within if there is no outside authority to explain? In openness there is relation with wholeness which has its own order and harmony. And in relation to this divine order, the human being evolves, the whole of life evolves.