The commitment to always be learning, whether it’s a new language, stretching skills, better communication … is something that keeps us mentally agile and open.
Yet it’s also the case that over the years a lot of what we learn is not what stretches us and stimulates creativity, but what undermines us. For writers and artists, the voice whispering, ‘You can’t…’, ‘You will never…’ For all of us, that voice that says you are too fat, thin, young, old .. too clever, stupid … too much or not enough …
And this voice doesn’t only undermine our individual senses of embodiedness, integrity or creativity. It also works on communities and societies, as we see in the toxic myths that ‘there is no alternative’ to ecological collapse or vast inequalities of wealth and health across the globe. It operates in ‘work ethics’ that are anything but ethical, demanding that more and more people be almost permanently available; a feature of work that has perhaps worsened with lockdowns and with emails that follow us home wherever we work from. It is even embedded into our views of relationships when, trained by platforms like FaceBook or apps like Skype, we feel that we should constantly be in touch, even if the exchange is pressing a ‘like’ button or saying something banal.
We are surrounded by messages that the whole world needs to unlearn if out species is to survive and understand again that we are not seperate from or superior to ‘nature’. But the voices of those messages are loud: go faster, consume more, work harder, chalk up more ‘peak’ experiences, sleep less, do more, get back to ‘business as usual’ in the wake of the pandemic …
Unlearning isn’t easy, but there are models.
Unlearning is the mechanism
A few weeks ago I wrote about the need for writers to be radical, to conect with our rootedness and be radical in our connectedness and in our self love so that we have the confidence to be radically generous, which spins into a radical witness for justice; all of which requires us to take radical rest so that we have the emotional, physical and spiritual resources to create radically different stories for this planet.
And in another recent blog I focussed on slowing down; remodelling our relationship with time because when we do so, we return to ourselves, to our humanity, and the spaciousness to listen and connect. When we do so, we reclaim our souls and find the courage to advocate for the soul of the world.
Unlearning is the mechanism by which we break the patterns that harm us, including all the self doubt that needs to slowly and gently be transformed into radical self-love. It is the mechanism by which we forge new stories of myths: of collaboration, slow living, of a life that allows rest and creativity, that isn’t about having more or doing more about about the depth of simply being.
of trying not to try
Earlier this year I read Edward Slingerland’s Trying Not To Try. Slingerland is professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and his cenral idea is that we often try too hard, to the point of stressing ourselves into failure; that life has become overly concerned with working, trying and striving.
Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.
He considers that we do this not only in areas of competition and achievement, but also in how we approach happiness, and even traits like spontaneity. Instead he suggests trying not to try, a translation of a Chinese concept: ‘wu wei’ or effortless action.
… the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order.
It’s a complex concept and seems counterintuitive to much of our busy, striving lives, but it’s a concept that resonates with creative flow and with allowing the unconscious to have more play in our writing and in our lives.
We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. Unfortunately, in many areas of life this is terrible advice. Many desirable states — happiness, … spontaneity — are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment.
These states often revolve around values and embodied feelings. And Slingerland goes on to discuss how these values, which have strong emotional and embodied elements, can also be reflected in our aesthetic choices. By immersing ourselves in an environment that supports our values we aid the process of unlearning — we begin to sleep as we need, take walks and treat our bodies well, know that we are part of nature not separate from it …
For Slingerland this springs from his studies in Daoism and his subtle understanding of Chinese philosophy. But for a poet like Wendell Berry something similar arises from sheer resistance to the prevailing voices of those toxic myths I mentioned earlier, summed up with wit in this poem from the early 70s.
The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.
and living with uncertainty
Not only is unlearning a pre-eminent mechanism for resisting the most loud and toxic myths of our times, whether those myths are about the environment or our individual creativity, but it is also a way to live with uncertainty. This is vital for artists and writers, who spend their lives making things up in order to throw light on the ‘real’ world. Writing about this uncertainty, and the ways in which our writing can take on a life of its own, surprising even its author, Milan Kundera says:
When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.
The Art of the Novel
The ‘suprapersonal wisdom’ isn’t the dominant voice of our times, but what Kundera describes as ‘the wisdom of uncertainty’.
The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin. […] Every novel says to the reader, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.
This is not what we usually learn. The world is so much more often polarised into simplistic dualisms. We oppose the rational agaisnt the emotional, rather than embracing the ways in which these essential human ways of perceiving and knowing are complex twins. Or we see simplistic thinking in how groups become polarised, such as the social media scapegoating of the unvaccinated as ‘the problem’ in the landscape of the pandemic, all the while ignoring how societies around the globe continue to refuse to take action over much bigger issues such as humanity’s ongoing destruction of habitats, which can only give rise to more and more zoonotic viruses.
But writers can create worlds in which simplistic thinking does not prevail, in which, as Adrienne Rich put it, we explore that ‘arts of the possible’. Kundera goes on:
A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities,
To dwell and create in the realm of possibilities with all its uncertainty, rather than from the slick certainties that come with a host of dualisms and shutting down of alternatives, demands a great deal of unlearning. It demands humility and a high tolerance for not having all the answers. As the artist Ann Hamilton put it,
In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.
In our creativity and in our lives there is always more to learn, but also so much to unlearn. If we are to create novels, poems and essays that avoid easy answers or poisonous and unnurturing myths, we will have to unlearn to hate our bodies and our hearts. We will have to unlearn to bow to the dominant voices and pace of the world in favour of something kinder, slower, more unconscious, and less striving. We will have to unlearn compliance in favour of the courage to be as questioning as Wendell Berry’s mad farmer, able to utter the important words ‘I don’t know’. We will have to unlearn certainty for possibility, including the radical possibility that if we slow down and stop knowing it all (as a species) then we might disrupt the awful slide into our species’s oblivion. Wouldn’t that be a story worth the labour of unlearning?