A friend recently shared with me a reflection on learning by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Ken Holmes. I was struck by how well it describes how I learn in the modern world and how unsatisfactory I often feel it to be. I have the author’s permission to reproduce it here:
Listening, Reflecting, Cultivating
I’ve come to notice more and more the power of word “interesting”—in Britain and France at least— and the way it reflects on our modern mentality. It has become the guideline of evaluation, a key factor of measurement. Something or, worse, someone, can be rather interesting, quite interesting, really interesting, not very interesting at all and so forth. When it comes to giving dharma talks, you are better off making them “interesting” for people otherwise you soon lose them, one way or another. Their mind wanders or, with time, they find other teachers. People like the charismatic speakers, with the clever ways of putting things, new buzzwords or phrases or perhaps those who come up with original examples or metaphors that keep the listener’s mind “interested”. The spiritual quest is mixed with a quest for entertainment and one has to learn to live with that.
This is surely in part due to the conditioning of TV and cinema, where the audience needs to be held captive in order to watch the adverts. It is doubtless also to do with the easy availability of information nowadays. Gone are the days when a spiritual seeker needed to risk life and limb travelling the world to find the rare holy person who would impart the sacred knowledge. The wise words are nearly all just a click or a Youtube away. Their value has plummeted due to market surplus…In-Your-Face-book. If we consider the acquisition of information as being the key point of study, in Buddhism’s famous study-reflection-meditation three steps to wisdom, then this impinges very much on step one-study. There used to be only an oral tradition, in which one listened so, so carefully to what one was being told and tried to commit it to memory; to learn it by heart. Very often these days, people feel this first step—study—to have been accomplished if they have attended a teaching once, or seen the video or read the book. To have encountered and received a first impact of the idea suffices, because one knows it can always be Googled later or found on the hard drive where it has been archived. That is delusion. It is a vital task to study and study and study again, to a point where the knowledge has been properly conceptually mastered and is now inside oneself (in the mind) and not in an object. You can’t take the hard drive into the bardo.
The second step—reflection on the facts acquired—was traditionally where the “interest” came in. It is, in fact, the story of deepening and deepening that interest. It becomes a fascination, just like artists or scientists or other people have who are passionate about their subject, the reward for us Buddhists being for more and more truths to emerge from those basic, acquired ideas. Ones eyes open and open even further. The words which had originally been thought to have been understood now take on much more significance and a real appreciation of the depth of the Buddha’s understanding arises. One peels off layer after layer of the onion (sometimes bringing tears to the eyes). The etymology of the word “interest” comes into play here: the Latin meant “what matters”, “what makes a difference” or “what is of concern”.
The fast-moving mind of today keeps wanting to find new things of interest, to meet new and interesting people. It quickly loses interest. It is interesting (!) to listen to the conversations around one to realise the importance of things being superficially interesting, just enough to amuse the mind for a little while or to titillate the fancy of one’s friends. Deep interest is something else and one hesitates to venture into someone else’s territory of deep interest for fear of being suffocated.
The third step—usually titled “meditation”—is actually one of familiarisation. The Tibetan term sgom which can mean “meditation” more generally means “becoming familiar with” or “becoming habituated to”. The practice of meditation on the cushion is just that—a process of giving oneself the time to discover and become habituated to new states of mind. Here, sgom does not mean what many people assume, i.e. that one has gained deeper understanding through reflection (stage two) and then, in this third stage, one sits down on a cushion and meditates on those, in some quiet, deep calm state—kind of “going cosmic” on the understanding. It means, on the contrary, integrating the insights acquired into one’s everyday world, all day long in all situations, because now they are becoming familiar. It was a long journey to get there. What started out as a search for truth-and a whole process of unveiling it-has led to a state where the truth is blatantly obvious, unavoidable and could not be anything else. At this point, disinterest is natural. What was an extraordinary discovery has become “normal”, almost boring.
A final note of caution. The boredom and the disinterest will come naturally, just like facial hair comes to a man with growing up. Those who read the texts of yogis and enlightened beings and who are trying to jump to the stage of disinterest without having gone through the interest, deepening interest, deep interest and so forth are like little children painting beards with felt pens. The very fact of doing that does not make them grown-up but proves they are children.
I hope this was interesting.