In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists. — Eric Hoffer

On this occasion of a new American government, broken systems and conflicting cultural norms and priorities reveal the importance of Hoffer’s words. Yet, learning today requires focusing on unlearning outmoded knowledge.

In this first of a three-part blog, I explore the art of unlearning through four ways of seeing. Part 2 will examine impediments to unlearning and part 3 will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.

The Four Ways of Seeing

Each of these views offers our world – the water we swim in, shaping our actions, beliefs, and possibilities.

As we move through these worlds, unlearning increases in importance until it becomes foundational in the final view. We navigate each view’s characteristics, focus, and learning and unlearning.

1. The Default View

First, we learn to see our default view. A feature of this view is habitual energies and actions that lead to downloading beliefs and uploading responses to situations and experiences.

Core Focus: The Ego System

This view identifies our reactive impulses and becomes attentive to the effects of our filters, maps, and blind spots on our interactions.

We project these blind spots and assumptions onto the world and seek evidence to confirm them. The default view reflexively sees “time” as related to instant satisfaction.

Learning and Unlearning

Ironically, unlearning our default view involves learning to recognize it. It begins with learning about what the self is as we acknowledge and examine our own default view. We ask ourselves: Where do these beliefs come from? Are these aligned with the life I want or the person I want to become? Do I believe this to be true to myself?

Learning to recognize our default view in our choices, feelings, and actions begins to surface constraints to listening and blind spots in the face of threats, concerns, insecurities, fears, and misperceptions. By setting aside impulses and habits, we perceive the more accurate view of a small view.

2. The Small View

Second, we see the small view. This less reactive view considers content, and one of its features is its focus on objective details and subjective experiences that impact the world closest to us.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz recognized the knotty nature of culture, made up of many layers of intertwined symbols and signs. He introduced the concept of thick description into the discipline to detail the many layers of context in culture.

Geertz writes that the “Grand Realities” of “Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Passion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, and Prestige” in the give-and-take detail of everyday life to “take the capital letters off of them.”

Core Focus: Infrastructure

This small view reduces the larger “Grand Realities” or cultural context to discrete content that we interact with daily —“kitchen table” issues such as finances, occupation, social media, religion, business, policing, healthcare, government bureaucracy or services, entertainment, and schooling.

We experience this infrastructure with individual beliefs and knowledge via as-lived experiences, facts, details, concepts, rules, policies, and laws that shape our worldview.

A man might become aware of women’s issues because he has three sisters and two daughters, become aware of health issues because a lack of healthcare affected someone close to him, or view the concept of police brutality from personal experiences with the law.

This view processes information in a binary manner. For instance, inadequate healthcare is due to a lack of a consistent job; thus, the remedy requires finding a good job. And people ought to follow police orders to avoid trouble.

Learning and unlearning

The small view pays close attention to what happens and what is said and who said it, how they said it, to whom they said it, and when, where, and eventually can discern why they said it. Discerning patterns in details, facts, and information reveal emerging systems. The view of time here is more deliberate within the immediate scope of events.

Moving beyond this view begins with discovering patterns to question beliefs. Unlearning supports breaking down the origins (beliefs and assumptions) of thought, attitude and behavior patterns, and feelings that reveal our biases and blind spots.

3. The Large View

Third, we see the large view. This view accepts the nature of discerning patterns and complexity to recognize systems and structures.

Greater complexity evaluates the patterns of information, behavior, and structures that constitute the society, economics, media, technology, and political forces that shape our everyday lives. We can now see how these larger structures and institutions socialized our previous two views.

Core Focus: Separate Systems

Like the previous views, this view seeks discrete causes to explain experiences, specifically by predicting problems and solving them. Here, time includes a strategic view: We ask ourselves how history might view this situation. We seek greater productivity and strategic planning, resulting in greater control and more predictable outcomes.

So, diagnosing an inadequate healthcare system is owed to inefficiencies, improper management, and lack of “access.” With an enterprise view of the system, we diagnose problems, optimize inefficiencies, and create subsidies to offer access. This solution maintains the underlying belief in private, for-profit healthcare as a privilege, an unexamined view rooted in capitalism and individualism that binds delivery of care to our employability.

We diagnose the recent spate of police brutality incidents as bias and lacking accountability and then propose “implicit bias training” and employ police cameras to hold officers accountable. Both solutions leave unquestioned our view of policing—based on power symbolized with a badge and a gun—as synonymous with public safety.

Learning and unlearning

This larger view appreciates patterns of complex nature of discrete systems as existing “out there.” This view is structured, pervasive, and present in all aspects of our lives, from our economy to our worldview; however, it fails to integrate each element of culture with the other elements. We continue to seek out discrete causes to explain our experiences.

Unlearning at this level loosens our dependence on rationalistic, “problem-solving” modes of thinking that offer discrete, reductive, and linear explanations.

4. The Whole View

Finally, we learn to see wholes and parts inside of interdependent awareness. We move beyond a view of systems as separate and fragmented to recognize the interconnected nature of reality.

A feature of this view involves 5Cs—context, culture, complexity, change, and co-creation—as part of a whole view. We begin to appreciate the complexity and interdependence of our thoughts, culture, and ecosystems.

Primary Focus: Systemic Awareness

The difference between thinking about systems and systems thinking is deep, comprehensive, and pervasive, integrating thoughts and worldviews with cultural norms, historical patterns, and society’s structures and institutions.

Systemic awareness views experience through complex adaptive systems, cultural ecology, ecosystems, feedback loops, and mutual dependency. An interdependent awareness recognizes the interwoven nature of human consciousness, culture, and society in a way that ponders the relationship between clouds, water, and paper.

The notion of time in this view includes temporality, in which a historical context and the future shape the present moment. The past and future intersect to shape the present.

We now recognize healthcare as related to worldviews that intersect with such institutions as democracy, capitalism, education, and technology, stemming from perceptions of history, identity, justice, power, economic mobility, inequality, and poverty.

In his article From ego-system to eco-system economies, Otto Scharmer of Theory U states, “What’s really needed is a deeper shift in consciousness so that we begin to care and act, not just for ourselves and other stakeholders but in the interests of the entire ecosystem in which economic activities take place.”

Unlearning and Learning

This view places unlearning at the heart of learning. A unified, whole view depends on unlearning to question socialized paradigms that are obsolete, ineffective, or incomplete.

This level breaks down subtle, socialized, and ingrained impulses toward our view of separation and fragmentation, creating space for paradoxes, polarities, and possibilities.

Our beliefs about separation, from which we conceive of “others” and which consist of fragmented thinking, shaped our response to a pandemic. False choices between healthcare and business ignored culture, poverty, and inequities to undermine efforts to manage both the virus and the economy.

We can now recognize policing as relying on problem-solving approaches and fragmented thinking that react to crime. How might we reimagine a view of public safety involving beneficial healthcare, education, and economics that creates wholesome justice while examining conditions of poverty informed by culture, identity, and individualism?

Unlearning finds us questioning socialized views, norms, and beliefs that permeate history and culture to shape structures and systems — all of which give us pause. A whole view recognizes interdependence as seeing part of an unseen whole that may not be fully known. With greater awareness of interconnectivity and change, we contemplate certainty, question knowledge, and acknowledge unpredictability. We lead with questions, not solutions.

Unlearning and Change

These views offer different worlds. Like fish in water, we ask: What is water? Unlearning becomes important to opening our minds, adopting new views, and seeing the water we’re swimming in.

Over the last century, we have learned to acquire and optimize knowledge to manage change. Then, knowledge became fungible and drove change. Now, learning involves unlearning to examine the minds that marinate our knowledge.

We grow from discerning outmoded knowledge to jettison, from discovering useful knowledge to expanding our views, and from expanding our views to reveal gaps in our awareness. Living, surviving, and flourishing today involves cultivating minds for unlearning.

Part 2 of this blog will explore the impediments to this whole view and part 3 will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.

Reading Time: 10 min. Digest Time: 16 min

Special Citations:

This is Water, by David Foster.

Thick Description, by Clifford Greetz

Theory U by Otto Scharmer

Cultural Ecology (review)

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.