“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened Peter Senge and Fred Kofman’s seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations. They persist concerning adult learning in organizational life today.

Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a learning—let’s call it deep learning—that cultivates our capacity to learn, unlearn, and evolve as human beings. Deep learning encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions to unlearn outmoded thinking and experiment with self-discovery.

Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and information overload. With our abundance of (and access to) content, our learning challenges involve context—our perspective, worldviews, and discernment.

Our challenge is to bridge the gap between our cognitive and affective lives to integrate new knowledge and emotions or experiences in ways that alter our self-perceptions.

Learning vs. Knowing

As a society, instead of delving deeper into the important questions posed by Senge and Kofman, we’ve begun focusing on the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.

We develop assessments to measure knowledge and technology and thus access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery. We create new processes to repurpose ideas for faster consumption.

A quick review of the literature on learning and development reveals that data and analytics have focused on data-driven learning. Marketing has guided and scaled learning to focus on immediate benefits. ROI has focused on why and what we measure.

With our focus on technology, scaling, ROI, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating the cognitive (knowledge and knowing) from the affective (experience and discovery) aspects of being human.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that “one in five Americans have a mental health condition. Tens of millions suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders.”

What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters to ourselves and others?

Much of this involves a reduced view of learning that eliminates our experiences. We accumulate information without discovery, acquire knowledge without wisdom, and analyze thinking without a deeper connection or emotional satisfaction.

Learning today is so focused on achieving cognitive results that we fear not knowing and the possibility of discovery.

Learning, Emotions, and Fear

With all our knowledge, we’ve failed to realize that adult learning involves an emotional—not cognitive—challenge.

Learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience, where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Whether guilt, shame, despair, or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us. For instance:

Being a beginner and the fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. While the three words “I don’t know” are the most difficult to utter, “I’m a beginner” is a close second.

Being confused or stuck in confusion can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can isolate and prevent us from seeking support.

Critical self-talk judges one’s intelligence, abilities, and/or competence, increasing anxiety and/or stress.

Concerns about looking foolish, or being perceived as stupid or dumb can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.

Taking feedback personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.

Concerns about unlearning outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming, dreaded, or ego-crushing.

The fear we experience as part of any deep and personal learning process can become disorienting and even lead to a loss of identity.

Deep Learning Includes Emotions

Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the role emotions play in guiding and informing our learning. According to Alan Sieler, author of Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:

Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.

This is the paradox of learning: The very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.

Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions—we talk about them rather than experience or learn from them. We explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or felt experience as it moves through our body.

Intellectualizing our emotions aligns more with cognitive than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about understanding teachings than experiencing learning. While a wise teacher can bring teachings to life, ultimately, the learner learns what they care about.

Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than what is available individually or experientially.

This journey requires venturing East.

The Three Gems

Deep learning that expands our view of the self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our awareness of self.

Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community can we grow individually.

Alternatively, when it comes to individual growth, we must look beyond the self. Buddhist thought offers the three gems (or three jewels), which represent an interdependent whole that includes:

  • The Buddha (the teacher),
  • The Dharma (the teachings), and
  • The Sangha (the community).

The most important part of this triad, however, is not any single item. The treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature.

Western learners may view this triad as three separate items to combine. This fragmented view undermines an elegant, interdependent whole. The grid below illustrates some of the challenges of our default fragmented view.

The Power of Three

From an Eastern perspective, the elegance of the interdependent view locates each of these items within the others—three integral parts hanging together to support a greater whole.

Teacher (Buddha). The teacher cultivates wisdom from the community to better understand the teachings necessary to deepen awareness.

Teachings (Dharma). Here, teachings are contextualized as truth beyond any content. The teacher becomes the material from their lived experiences to practice with the community in dialogue and connect discoveries to each waking moment.

Community (Sangha). The community reflects the teachings and informs the teacher through what Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh terms “sangha eyes”:

When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns.

We learn about ourselves from each other. The Dharma, or teachings, bind the space with a commitment to becoming more. The context for community transcends the individual, yet mirrors the self to support the experience of being.

Deep Learning Requires Community

Appreciating the “three gems” requires examining two socialized elements that undermine community: our independent–individualistic worldview that shapes our competitive mindset.

We often accept learning in this context. We seek out a good teacher, purchase the suggested material, and go off independently to learn. Our independent–individualistic worldview seeks out ways for us to go it alone, and our competitive mindset motivates us to achieve more, better, and faster.

Many of us would pay more for a teacher or teachings to avoid becoming vulnerable in a community.

A learning community is not merely a sentimental view of learning, although it can evoke sentiments. Designing such a culture requires personal mastery and rigorous agreements and practices in listening, focusing attention, and cultivating the intention to develop compassion and patience.

Honoring the interdependent wisdom of the three gems constitutes community as integral to becoming fully human. Consider the following perceptions of a learning community:

  1. Everyone is polite and asks great questions that yield interesting discussions. I feel safe.
  2. Belonging to the community is rewarding and fulfilling. I like to connect with people who share a lot in common with me.
  3. Everyone encourages feedback and questions each other in ways that hold me accountable and respect me as a member.
  4. Belonging to the community can be rewarding, but being asked to explore questions that make me uncomfortable can be irritating.

If you are drawn to the first two items and repelled by the latter two, you have likely not yet experienced a learning community.

Community Beyond “Individual”

This “three gems” view of community is the very place where we can be vulnerable and open to learning about ourselves in new ways. As stated by Thich Nhat Hanh, “[T]ake refuge in the sangha, and you’ll have the wisdom and support you need.”

This kind of learning is beyond who we are as individuals. It demands honest interaction, deep connection, and critical self-reflection to discover a new relationship to our whole—cognitive, affective, and experiential—self. In community, we discover our self as an evolving process.

More importantly, community is the missing link that, when viewed interdependently with teaching and teacher, offers us the connection for deep learning. Through connecting with others, we experience our emotions as they emerge, are embodied, and pass.

The three gems offer fundamental support for being in community.

And in community, we learn a valuable lesson: to be a beginner.

Reading Time: 7 min. Digest Time: 12 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.