“When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Contemplate this: never could one individual conceptualize and grasp all there is to learn in a lifetime.
While this may seem to be quite a pessimistic view of our fate, maybe the exact opposite of learning is the key to finally understanding who we are. Maybe we need to unlearn to truly learn again.
When I first heard of the concept of unlearning my mind went spinning. It was a word that described the point in my life where I stood surrounded by what I was told and what I was beginning to believe.
So what is unlearning? The concept is vast, but in general terms I define it as the following:
The process of replacing deep-rooted norms and knowledge that limit you with ideas, perspective, and beliefs that allow you to soar.
And as a soul who has already dove head first into the unlearning process I can safely say the vast majority of what we are told about ourselves and the world around us keeps us limited.
This isn’t saying what we are learning about in textbooks is wrong and limiting, although you might make that argument. It is largely about what we learn outside of them: what we are told about life, what we are told about ourselves, and what we are told is unachievable.
Think about the travesty that is an adult’s vision of creativity and play. By the end of our education the value of our creative expression is squashed and deemed unimportant in comparison with “what we need to survive” in the scary, dark, and ever dreadful “real world.” This learned belief breeds mediocrity, but that’s not why we are here. Life is about living. And what’s living without expression?
At some point I began asking “what the hell?!” I began viewing the notion of working tirelessly for five days out of the week, and then sleeping, slumping, and stooping for the following two, more of a joke than anywhere near reality.
I unlearned what life was. I unlearned what I was told and relearned what I witnessed, researched, read, talked about, experienced, and studied. Some of what I unlearned I count as totally viable and I relearned it, and some of what I unlearned I fight to keep out of my conscious every day.
The art of unlearning is uncertain. By nature as humans the idea of not knowing, not being able to manage what is coming, can create deep fear. But once you’ve crossed the threshold and begin stripping away the chains of “think, act, and learn like this,” the fear of the starting new becomes a passion.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been frustrated. In fact, some of the most frustrating parts of my unlearning process was looking at oppression in our culture and our world. It’s a rabbit hole that starts with an inclination of “hey that doesn’t seem fair” and spirals into “holy hell 50 years from now we are going to look like 50 years ago.”
The point is a lot of what keeps us in our frame of mind is the unwillingness to see the problems for fear it may upset, anger, or put responsibility on us to change. I say feel frustrated all you want if, and only if, you are taking action to improve what it is that frustrates you and what it is you believe needs to be done.
I began my unlearning process in college. I was about to finish up a BSW and continue to graduate school, and for all intents and purposes I was doing pretty good. But pretty good isn’t great, it’s not spectacular, and it’s not mind boggling. I knew mind boggling was real. I knew to get there I couldn’t just change what I physically did, but to also get clear on what I believed both emotionally and spiritually. Most important of all, I was going to have to feel confident in my intuition.
So there it is, the choice. You can feel safe in the moment and do what people won’t judge you too harshly for, suppress the urge of asking “what if” or “why,” or you can unlearn. I can tell you unlearning feels like thinking for yourself. Slightly confusing and messy at times, it means leading from the heart out. This doesn’t mean ignoring what people have to say, but allowing yourself to critically think about what you’re learning with an open mind, therefore forming your own beliefs and your own destiny.
Unlearning is about analyzing what it is we fear in life and why. It is about personal exploration that starts by unlearning what beliefs you hold that aren’t working for you. This can be spiritually or mindfully based. It can be expressed in science or art. It is what works for you, which means a major lesson to unlearn is judgment.
Judging, labeling, and competing continue the pattern of a limiting life. Don’t do it. And if you must judge, try with every fiber of your being to turn it back on you. Ask yourself what it is about this person or situation that angers you. When you know who you are and what you believe in it is much easier to force field off negativity and project harmony.
If you are feeling like this is vague let me reiterate that the art of unlearning is uncertain. It is to trust in what we have been told not to trust—ourselves, our deepest selves. Call it what you want—the divine, God, the universe, biology, your inner guide, or intuition. It’s relearning through the eyes of whatever that is for you.
In my case, unlearning was guided through spirituality in a way that gave me confidence to examine my life and the world around me through the lenses of love instead of fear and anger. It got me hyped on an adventure examining everything from our energetic connection with thought to the corruption of the American banking system. A crazy spectrum, I know, but I unlearned because I allowed myself to be open to it.
So what can unlearning do for you? Well that’s entirely up to you. You can unlearn your fears of not being able to live the life of your dreams. You can unlearn why you can’t make a significant change in your world and the one around you. You can unlearn what you’ve been told to think and act like.
You can unlearn and unlearn until you realize the only person who will ever be able to predict and tell you what you can and cannot do is you. So unlearn away my friends and enjoy the totally unpaved path you’ll find yourself on.
Danielle Lewis is a passionate soul searching college student at West Chester University interested in connecting her social work degrees with a way to teach and demystify what it means to follow your bliss. During the day, she works as a Domestic Violence counselor with a strong message that women can empower other women to find their self-worth and potential. Outside of work, Danielle can be found tirelessly writing, reading, and meditating. It is with those hobbies and many more that she has found the meaning to her life to be in the adventure of living it fearlessly.