Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Spirituality of Unlearning

"Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, a friend of mine who is beginning her final year of seminary training told me that she has “learned so much” in her years of theological education. I am happy for her and I am convinced that her many years of education will be beneficial to her and to the church. I also believe that (and I told her this) she will soon need to start unlearning some of what she has learned.

When I was talking with my friend yesterday 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.

When I think about my spiritual path, I realize that my own years of theological study have been very helpful to me, but my knowledge and ideas about “God” and “faith” have, at times, been a  roadblock for advancing on the spiritual path. As I think about it, all my years of “study” have sometimes been an exercise for “gathering evidence” to help confirm 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 and control, but they also leave me spiritually asleep and lead me into accepting the “delusion” that what I “think” about God and about everyone and everything is the way everything really is.

My education and my ordination as a priest in the Christian tradition have made me an “expert” in my field, but there is an inherent danger in being an expert - being an expert can make you dull, complacent and even arrogant on the spiritual journey.  Buddhists say that the ultimate goal of wisdom is to acquire a “Beginner’s Mind,” to get to a point in life where you can wake up every morning and look at everything and everyone for the very first time again, always open to fresh insights and new revelations.

There is a Zen saying:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.

I find great wisdom in this observation, that’s why I told my friend that when she gets finished with her seminary education she should begin to think about how to unlearn what she has learned.

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.

For the past several years my wife and I have been living in a desert region. Many people think of the wilderness as a very spiritual place and for me it is so "spiritual" because the desert is an ideal place to “unlearn.”

When I walk out into the wilderness, the utter silence and the lack of any familiar landscape in an endless terrain with no clear paths often leaves me frightened, disoriented and very much out of control. I 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, surrender to the silence, I always experience something greater than myself. The desert is a deeply spiritual place where you can “unlearn” and “listen.”  

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 faith-journey no longer offers me security but it does lead me into a place of wonder and amazement.  Following a spiritual path is like walking with confidence through an uncharted wilderness - it’s a wonderfully frightening 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.

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