Friday, March 4, 2016

Unlearning and Listening

"Silence and Emptiness"
- sunset in the wilderness -

The other day a friend of mine told me that, before Lent ended he wanted to come out to the desert for a few days so that he could learn a little more more about himself and about God. Interestingly enough, lots of people come out into the quiet of the wilderness to learn something more, but the truth is, the desert is a bad place to learn anything.

When I was talking with my friend about his upcoming trip to the desert I was immediately reminded of something priest and author, Anthony DeMello, once said about the spiritual life:

Where spirituality is concerned,
learning is all about unlearning -
unlearning almost everything you’ve ever been taught.
It’s all about unlearning and listening.

I find great wisdom in this observation.

When I think about my own spiritual path I realize that, like many people, I have spent lots of time gathering evidence to confirm what I already believe. Over time I have accumulated a whole set of beliefs about God and for the most part I read books or studied theology that basically confirms those beliefs.  Over time, I have also acquired a whole set of beliefs about myself and others and the world, and much of the time I do my best to confirm and strengthen what I already believe,

My ideas and beliefs about God, myself, others and the world make me comfortable and give me a sense of security, stability and control, but they also leave me spiritually asleep and lead me into accepting the “delusion” that what I “think” about everything is the way everything really is.

Many ancient mystics and teachers have wisely said: anything you think you know about God is not God.  Indeed, in a very real sense “God” is unable to be known, unable to be captured by language or ideas. “God” is a transcendent presence unable to be fathomed or explained by propositions in a belief system.

That why, when it comes to spirituality, you have to unlearn almost everything you’ve ever been taught.  Unlearning is not the same as doubting what you believe or denying what you have learned.  Unlearning involves emptying your mind and letting go of the safe secure ideas you have been taught. Unlearning involves listening and making yourself available so that something new can happen in your life.

Many people think of a desert as a spiritual place and for me it is exactly that because it’s an ideal place to come to unlearn.

When I walk out into the wilderness, the utter silence and the lack of any familiar landscape in  the endless terrain with no clear paths to follow sometimes leaves me frightened, disoriented and very much out of control. I sometimes become fearful because I’m not exactly sure where I am or where I am going; but if I am able to calm my fear and instead of running away, when surrender to the silence, I always experience something greater than myself. The desert is a deeply spiritual place where you can “unlearn” a lot.

Many times people turn to religion or embrace a spiritual path hoping to find comfort and security in their lives. I have come to the point where my spiritual path no longer offers me security but it does lead me into a place of wonder and amazement.  Following a spiritual path is like walking through the uncharted wilderness- it’s a scary thing to find a way to deeper peace.

Anthony DeMello offers this wisdom:

On a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
You cannot fear something that you do not know,
nobody is afraid of the unknown.
What you really fear is the loss of the known.

I hope that my friend makes it out to the desert before Lent is finished, not so that he can learn a little something more about God and about himself, but that he might take the risk of unlearning what he already knows and not be afraid of letting it all go.


  1. The wisdom in your posts continues to astound me xx

  2. Only in stillness and silence do the illusions of ego disperse so that the Kingdom is revealed to us. <3 Lovely post, and I too love the desert, blessings.