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Mystery: Learning To Walk In The Unknown

Mystery invokes learning. I use the word invoke to focus my attention on the unknown, or more specifically, what I don't know about learning and life. When we invoke learning we summon ourselves into action or make an attempt to bring something new to us into existence. This helps us to more closely link the idea of learning to the artist's perception. It also helps to retrieve some of the more magical qualities of learning in the moments of quiet awe and wonder we experience at times in our life. In a mythological sense, we are calling down the spirit of learning from the mountain and invite consideration of learning through mystery.

If we are to move forward in our understanding of learning, then it is necessary to invite and contemplate it from a wide variety of perspectives. Too often I see the idea of learning discussed as if it were the exclusive domain of educationalists or corporate idealists. There is, of course, benefit in these perspectives, but left unto themselves they are incomplete and isolated. No one I am aware of can articulate the precise relationship that is imagined to exist between schooling and learning or training and learning. We assume a connection exists, but the nature of that relationship is illusive...

Embracing Mystery

Where there is no artistry in learning, there is a weakening of the intellect, emotions, and spirit. Learning in the absence of artistry leads to the denigration of experience.

Artists embrace and live mystery openly and authentically. Too often we confuse artistry with the production of pleasing things. While the end product of the artistic endeavor may in fact be quite pleasing, it is not the end purpose of art. An artist not only embraces mystery, they learn to fully walk alone in the unknown.

Each of us, whether it is comfortable to admit or not, walk in the unknown. For example, you simply do not know if you will wake up tomorrow. You may assume you will, but there is no guarantee. This thought should not provoke fear; it should invite life. It seems, however, that a great deal of our time is spent trying to avoid the unknown and remain steadfast in the familiar.

To get to an unknown land by unknown roads, a traveler cannot allow himself to be guided by his old experience... When an apprentice is learning new details about his trade, he works in darkness.
- Dark Night Of The Soul: St. John Of The Cross

What we do need is an exploration of learning from as many different perspectives as possible. And to explore it means we must face mystery and uncertainty, two qualities that make people biased by logic shudder. Life simply isn't logical, neither is learning. Neither can be reduced to theory or a single definition, nor do they need to be.

Sitting On A Bench And Staring Into The Unknown

In Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert I promoted Jarrett's performance as one of the most compelling examples of musical improvisation of our time. Some musicologists might have us believe that by transcribing the performance into musical notation we can gain further insight into Jarrett's creative process. They are wrong, and it is a waste of time to learn a performance like this from notation. There is nothing of real value to be gained by looking at Jarrett's performance on paper. Imagine listening to another pianist playing Jarrett's Koln Concert note for note precisely as it was performed. Who would we applaud for at the end of the performance? More importantly, would we applaud?

To restrict learning means we restrict possibilities for living. Learning atrophies in the absence of mystery.

Learning to perform Jarrett's concert note for note means we restrict musical creativity. Worse, we remove the underlying sense of mystery that drives the creative process forward.

There is a very clear connection between Joseph Campbell's idea ofmythological transformation and the The Koln Concert. In a sense, we are all sitting on that same piano bench staring directly into the unknown. We are alone with our own creativity and our own mystery. Improvisation itself is a means to embrace mystery.

The absence of mystery is apparent in many descriptions and approaches to education and training. Curriculum in fact should be a piano keyboard that is played just as Jarrett performed in the Koln Concert. Instead, curriculum is a piece of sheet music that everyone repeats ad nauseum. This kills the creative process and denigrates mystery to obsessively controlled activities and outcomes.

Numinous Learning

The word numinous invites us to consider the mysterious power of life that can be seen in nature, people and works of art. If an experience is numinous it inspires a sense of awe and wonder.

It is probably safe to say that we have all had experiences in life that have inspired awe and wonder. This is not an experience that requires religious belief. I know for myself watching the birth of my two children in a complete sense of awe and wonder, and inspired an unusual sense of quiet and stillness in me. I have had a similar feeling in specific places as I described in Spirit: The Animating Force of Learning. Moments like these lie beyond words.

A numinous experience is mystery revealing itself, even if it is only for brief moments in time. In some manner, we are overcome with awe for life itself. Young children seem to possess a very natural and open relationship with mystery. Somehow, they lose that over time. As adults we have somehow acquired the habit of fearing mystery.

Scintilla is a word used to describe the spark that lies at the heart of a person. It is something more than motivation. We can be motivated to do many things in life, some of which may be beneficial and others not. Our sense of motivation can also be controlled or imposed upon, and we are made to believe we want to do something whether that is true or not. The spark that lies at the heart of a person refers to a pure sense of passion for life. It is unchanging. Each of us has a spark in our heart, a source of energy that defines who we are and what we do.

The scintilla within provokes the mystery of identity. We feel a sense of what we want to do in life, yet when we look at the practical reality of our life we may find ourselves far removed from it. This creates a sense of conflict within, the feeling that we are not doing something that we should be doing in life. This can also lead to profound periods of darkness in life as well as psychological illness.

The Ultimate Mystery for Learning?

It has been said that a wise person prepares for the inevitable in life. Perhaps one of the most inevitable and profound mysteries we all must face is that of death. Not only our own death, but also the passing those that are close to us in life.

The most sensible, balanced and helpful thoughts on death and dying for me come from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in On Death And Dying: What The Dying Have To Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, And Their Own Families. Another book written with David Kessler called Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living is equally compelling.

...if I could relax enough to release my fear in the face of death, I could truly enjoy life.
- Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living

The mystery of death is a pathway to a vibrant life. In describing what they have learned, Kubler-Ross and Kessler state that through death they have learned: how love grows; how relationships enrich us; have universal power within; truth about illusions; about happiness; that we have been given everything we need to make our lives work beautifully; and that love is the only thing that we can possess. Much of the learning that they describe involves a stripping away of the masks, roles and layers we wear in order to reveal the authentic self. Dan Blogs is a compelling real life experience that reaches directly into the heart of this mystery.

Thomas Moore and Carlos Castaneda remind us that the real task in the darkness is in appreciating its true value and loving its irreversible qualities. In Journey to Ixtlan Castaneda learned that, "death is the only wise advisor we have."

The true teachers are often the invisible ones.

The dark night is not an abstract notion on some list of spiritual experiences every seeker is supposed to have. The dark night descends on a soul only when everything else has failed.
- Dark Night Of The Soul: St. John Of The Cross

It is amazing to see the proliferation of ideas surrounding the notion of lifelong learning that completely ignore death and dying. For that matter, life is ignored as well. Instead, we are lead to believe that lifelong learning is equated with economic utility. Lifelong learning is also an election platform for the acquisition of votes. In fact, this thing called lifelong learning has little to do with any meaningful perspective on living. It is the child of our obsession with economic materialism. It is also a fatal delusion. Every material thing we own is on loan to us.

To consider learning in the absence of death and dying removes an essential mystery in life. We might think it is easier to avoid such emotionally difficult topics, however, this avoidance is at best temporary.

Embracing Mystery

Embracing the mysterious is a fundamental source of creative energy. All creativity presumes mystery just as it presumes destruction. Creativity is what we do with the unknown. And without creativity, learning is crippled.

We can explore the stories of people's lives that embrace mystery in concrete and authentic ways. We avoid mystery by immersing ourselves in data, facts and predetermined forms of knowledge. We might feel safer here, but it is a temporary refuge at best.

Does it not seem odd, perhaps even foolish, that many definitions, discussions, conversations, ideas, and concepts about learning are void of any real human experience?

Perhaps it is acceptable for educational and training techniques to be void of practical human experiences in their description, but it is not in any way acceptable for ideas about learning to be described in the absence of authentic human experiences. Are the authentic experiences of people simply too diverse and mysterious to fit into a description of learning being promoted? If authentic experiences are too diverse to be confined by definition or theory, then embrace the diversity and do away with the description. Otherwise we are nothing more than educational jargon generators.

How many descriptions of learning refer to the experiences of a real person?

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Hi Amy,

You're quite welcome. I decided to simplify the categories a while ago. Prior to that I had far too many of them. By keeping them to a minimum and then using the first word of each entry as a subtopic/keyword I found it helped me to better organize them. Keep up the great writing on your site!


Just a quick note to say thank you for commenting in my weblog. You are the first person I've ever received a comment from!

What an impressive collection of posts / articles you have here! I really like your categories or "themes" - very nice archives of your material organized in a way that's easy to find an idea about that topic.

Thanks again for taking time to comment.

Amy Hendrickson

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