It is the truth that liberates, not your efforts to be free. — J. Krishnamurti

Unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

In the first part of this three-part series, we examined four ways of seeing: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts; the small view, with concrete ideas; the large view governed by systems; and the whole view, which embodies an interdependent awareness.

Each of these views optimizes complexity and change by cultivating more space for unlearning.

Our second blog focused on cultivating the whole view by exploring some of the impediments and mindsets that can undermine unlearning.

This part focuses on practices of “changing our view” that cultivate an openness to unlearning.

The Issue Is (Resistance to) Change.

We begin by tackling the heart of the matter. For humans, especially Westerners and Americans, that is change. We create, manage, control, and predict change, but we have not been conditioned to accept impermanence as the ground of being and the natural order of things.

The implications of continual change rub up against deep-seated values around our view of safety, security, and certainty (addressed in the blogs on uncertainty and COVID and certainty and clarity).

In his paper What it Really Means to Consciously Evolve, Craig Hamilton speaks to the next level of pioneering development: “the evolution of consciousness and culture… the evolution of human nature.”

There’s a kind of fundamental attachment to security, safety, and certainty that drives so much of human behavior. In a sense, when we’re talking about the ego … a need to know what’s going to happen next and have a sense of certainty in the face of all the overwhelming complexity and challenges of life.

[Beyond] some idealized final state of perfection, I’m talking about getting over our resistance to being part of an unfolding evolutionary process. This means getting over our need for stasis, security, and certainty. This includes waking up out of our rigid sense of self, which defends itself from any information that would challenge it.

Ultimately, Hamilton invites us to become “part of an unfolding evolutionary process,” which involves embracing the art of unlearning.

Change as Unlearning

Facing an increasingly interconnected world of multiple perspectives and cultures carried through vast amounts of information requires an evolved consciousness. This necessitates an expanded understanding of the attachment that feeds our view of safety, security, and certainty, which shapes our unsustainable world.

Learning in the 21st century must center on the primacy of unlearning. Author and educator, Neil Postman, points out the following dilemma: “If a student goes through four years of school and comes out ‘seeing’ things in the way he did when he started … he learned nothing.”

Learning at the first-person level is not possible without unlearning. We replace concerns about understanding more content with learning to alter context. Changing our mind is about adopting something new.

“Being” different begins with “seeing” differently. Vertical and interior development here are supported by the cultivation of a beginner’s mind and a deeper understanding of humility as a source of development.

The Beginner’s Mind

The notion of the beginner’s mind comes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind published by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in 1970. Suzuki cultivates the beginner’s mind to access a fresh perspective in each moment as if it were new.

Used often, the term “beginner’s mind” usually lacks developmental definition or discernment. We have identified the following three fundamental aspects of “thinking and learning” in cultivating a beginner’s mind:

  1. Tolerate Discomfort: Be mindful of the process as you move through fear or confusion of the unknown. Learn to become comfortable with uncertainty, willing to look in the mirror to discover and name habits, defenses, and mindsets that reveal your blind spots (see previous blog).
  2. Not Knowing: Be willing to let go of needing to know as you move beyond “rational-only thinking” to embrace “not knowing” as a possibility. Be gentle and allow yourself to live with confusion rather than fixing, hiding, or protecting yourself.
  3. As-Lived Participation: Be willing to live with practice, by slowing down, creating space to become more present. We let go and unlearn outmoded assumptions, beliefs, and reactions in our lived experiences via self-reflection and questioning.

Unpacking “Humility”

Humility has been identified as a source of learning and unlearning, since Jim Collins’ research found it critical to developing Level 5 leaders.

Humility can be defined as meekness, humbleness, or modesty. The words “humble” and “humility” come from humilis, which is Latin for “low or close to the ground.” In the learning and leadership context, I define humility as freedom from pride or arrogance—to be a beginner and accept your humanity.

Collins’ research spurred the exploration of epistemic humility and its subset, intellectual humility, as well as ontological humility and its subset, cultural humility.

Intellectual Humility

Intellectual humility is part of epistemic, or cognitive, humility.

  • Epistemic humility involves a willingness to “not know” and comfortability with not knowing—accepting evidence that challenges our knowledge as valid.
  • Intellectual humility cultivates the intellectual machinery to both change one’s views when presented with new evidence or details and question evidence in a way that makes new facts and ideas possible.

This kind of humility can be challenging. Arthur Brooks, Professor of Practice at Harvard Kennedy School and Business School, wrote in the Atlantic, “Humans are programmed to think we’re right at all costs. Fighting that instinct will set you free.” His research finds that:

“Rethinking your opinions—and changing your views when your facts are proved wrong or someone makes a better argument—can make your life better. It can make you more successful, less anxious, and happier.”

Brooks identifies four practices that make our fixed intellect more supple:

  1. Accepting the fallibility of the self. Become comfortable making mistakes as a natural part of learning.
  2. Welcoming contradiction. When presented with contradictory evidence, the best practice is to pause and say, “Tell me more.” This creates space for new evidence to speak.
  3. Not documenting (sharing) all your beliefs. Sharing your beliefs on social media finds us identifying with them—forming an identity that we defend and protect. Share your views with trusted people who will check in on your perspectives.
  4. Starting small. Brooks suggests starting “with smaller ideas such as fashion choices, or even sports allegiances” to—gently, beginning where we are—reassess taken-for-granted beliefs with self-compassion.

Ontological Humility

Unlike epistemic and intellectual humility, which focus on knowledge, empirical evidence, and facts, ontological humility focuses on the nature of being—how we interpret our view of reality and identify with the cultural norms that form our beliefs and identities, as addressed by cultural humility.

  • Ontological humility involves our interpretations of reality—the emotions, mindsets, and projections that shape our understanding. It recognizes that none of us observes reality as it truly is. We accept every view of reality as partial and unfolding.
  • Cultural humility focuses specifically on the processes of reflection and lifelong inquiry, which involve increasing our self-awareness of personal and cultural biases.

In Conscious Business, author and thinker Fred Kofman details the importance of ontological humility through the archetypes of learners and controllers.

  • Learners work to see things as they appear and regard their view as part of a larger picture.
  • Controllers claim to know how things are, how they ought to be, and what needs to be done about them.

Ontological humility merits additional exploration because it is grounded in being as the foundation for epistemic, intellectual, and cultural humility.

Practicing Ontological Humility

Learners exhibit what Kofman calls ontological humility. Controllers do not.

Learners are comfortable admitting when they don’t know something. They accept that they don’t have all the answers and that the more they learn, the more they understand they don’t know. They grow as lifelong learners.

Controllers can become blinded by their own certainty of what’s right—unwilling to consider perspectives that differ from their own. Blinded by ontological arrogance (the opposite of humility), they stake their self-esteem on being right. Koffman states, “they equate being right with being effective. They can’t imagine not knowing and still being competent.”

A recent article in New York Magazine titled How the West Lost COVID finds an ontological arrogance in Western nations, whose decades of progress and overconfidence found them reluctant “to even admit that it was a big problem and then to really act without all the information available. To this day, people are still not acting.”

Three assumptions support shifting from ontological arrogance to ontological humility:

  1. My own rationality is limited. I understand the world through my own limited perspective, which doesn’t describe the whole truth of things.
  2. Other perspectives are complementary. The perspectives of others offer greater coherence; together, we can get a better picture of what’s going on.
  3. Errors reveal learning opportunities.

Three practices to cultivate ontological humility:

  1. Share your views with and listen to others. Check-in often with others to surface views and understanding.
  2. Make transparency real. Maximize internal commitment through free and informed choices. Provide maximal information and minimal coercion.
  3. Honor feelings as valid. These feelings are the other person’s truth, even if you can’t understand them. Accepting feelings as valid does not mean that you agree with all their conclusions.

Principles of Mind Practice

Mind practices that support unlearning feel different from skill-building practices.

First, these practices are as-lived practices that require endurance and courage. Living and experiencing practices involves the space and willingness to continually question our views to become more discerning. This is a mountain with no top, so we learn to enjoy the climb.

Second, these practices embrace paradoxes. Clarity and accepting change beget confusing paradoxes such as the fact that a greater understanding reveals more that we do not understand.

Third, practices that cultivate a beginner’s mind or humility evoke resistance. We will learn more in community with others where we are supported and challenged, can surface our assumptions, and become present to our views.

Finally, seeking clarity and truth often finds us experiencing pain before liberation. We are not conditioned to let go and let be. Layers of letting go can be overwhelming, as detailed in the Theory U model by Otto Scharmer.

Letting go and unlearning becomes easier when we embody these principles to build resilience. We become better at listening for it, accepting it, and learning to integrate it.

With this three-part blog series, we can discover our view, clarify the impediments to a new view, and practice unlearning to change our view. The peace and satisfaction realized by cultivating an unlearning practice will benefit us in the face of disruptive change, uncertainty, and increasing complexity.

Reading Time: 10.5 min. Digest Time: 17 min

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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.