Learning to learn, what does this mean? When a new discipline or activity catches our attention, to the point that we decide to devote a tremendous amount of our time and energy to it, instead of focusing entirely on the content do we actually question ourselves enough, if at all, about learning (i.e. the process of absorbing and making ours new skills and knowledge)? What if learning was not just a question of time and effort, but a matter of clarity and vision as well? What if learning was a skill in itself? Wouldn’t there then be a way to optimise every ounce of effort we put in the aquirement of a new technique, and therefore acheive results faster without extra effort?
In any discipline or activity, there are always those who train hard for years only to acquire mediocre results, and those who seem to fly over every difficulties in their way, is it human nature, or just a different kind of perception that one could unlock ?
This is an attempt to explore these questions...
Being in the moment: the right here right now equilibrium.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote : “May one examine their own thoughts, and they will find them all focused on the past or the future. We almost never think in the present, and when we do, it is only to shed light on what to do with the future”.
We live in the present, it is our only field of action, and it is only then that we can interconnect entirely body, mind, and environment to create a sense of pure awareness; but how often do we actually do this? What Pascal wrote has never been so true: most of us have grown up and are still immersed in a world of distractions: television, cell phones, advertising, work, social activities, internet, games... the list is endless.
From birth we become accustomed to the habit of being constantly distracted, it is for most of us a normal thing that we accept and agree with entirely, our rare moments of boredom are those that we find awkward and that we will strive to fill with more mind-absorbing activities.
How is this related to learning? I had a student who was a very slow learner and had grown to accept it as part of his nature: he would make the same mistakes many times before understanding the lesson, and he would sometimes learn only to drop back into those old mistakes again. I didn’t really know how to help him until I realised something essential: that even when training his mind was constantly drifting away in thought, absorbed in the past or future, inconspicuously slipping out of the “right here right now equilibrium”.
I understood that one’s learning is clearly improved by being in constant connection with one’s present sensations.
Sensations are feedback, they tell us if what we do is right or not, they show us what we should improve on and how to do it at the condition that we pay attention to them. Repetition alone is pointless if there isn’t constant attention to what is being done, just as it is being done. Learn in real-time, be awake and aware, feel and analyse what you are doing. Trying again doesn’t mean doing again; every attempt is a new opportunity to do better, based on the knowledge and experience of past tries.
So avoid any type of distraction when you are training, let your entire self be directed towards what you are doing and all your energy, all your qualities, all that you are made of will cease to be dispersed and wasted but, instead, will work for you towards one clear goal that you have chosen, like a whole army marching in unison towards one unique target.
I took the time to explain these things to the student, letting them slowly soak in over time, and he has since then made tremendous progress and is now one of the quickest learners I have ever taught to!
Constructive criticism: the positive vision
Collecting feedback and endlessly integrating it in what you do is a major element of learning to learn, but doing so with absolute positiveness is the key principle that will create the alchemy. When we try and fail, we try harder, but if we fail again, most of us will tend to get upset or irritated, and our emotions conquer us and corrupt the positive learning mindset we were in. It is then very easy to slip into negative criticism and to start asking ouselves the wrong questions, such as “why am I so bad at this?”, or even “why can’t I ever get things right?”
The mind, in these cases, is bluntly stupid in the way it works, as it searches for a direct answer to these questions; for instance: “you’re bad at this because it’s not your thing”, or “you can never get things right because you’re not meant to be talented at this”. The answers it gives us are often conveyed on a subconscious level, and thus we unknowingly hypnotise ourselves into failure.
Therefore, one must ask themselves the right questions if one wishes to find the right answers: “How can I improve on this?”, “How can I avoid doing these mistakes?”, “What is holding me back from complete mastery?”
Condition your mind for positivity and you will get positive results. A positive vision is one that can picture a clear objective and a list of ways to reach it, regardless of what stands in the way. And any resistance in your progress, instead of being a source of frustration, will become a call for a new accomplishment, a treat of self-exploration. You won’t need to ignore your frustration, it won’t be there anymore, transformed into a new exciting feeling of challenge!
Training, as intense as it may get, is never but a game so don’t take it too seriously, even if you’re at it every day for hours, be relaxed about it, inner tension will cause outer stiffness, let it flow inside and it will flow outside. Lightness is key.
Discovering rather than manufacturing: the blossoming flower concept
“When I and my students think of strokes as being discovered rather than manufactured, they seem to learn the game much faster and without frustration.” Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
I will humbly paraphrase this great book here.
As explained earlier, a major part of the process of learning is directly linked to how we visualise things. Manufacturing skills would imply that there is you + all that you’ve learned. Like costumes worn over each other, your skills are not connected to who you are, they are merely added to you in a very impersonal way. Progress, in this mindset, appears as having no end and worse, as being perishable...
Now, let’s talk about flowers... flowers don’t grow, they blossom: from the instant they exist as a tiny seed, they are already the future flower that they will turn into, just like a new-born baby is already in essence the future adult it will become.
They constantly express themselves as flowers and day by day, instant by instant, they become a little bit more their blossomed selves, what they were right from the start is now fully expressed and they are purely themselves.
If you visualise all your skills as being within you right from the start, on standby, waiting to be discovered and released, you will get rid of a lot of the pressure that athletes face with intense training because it means that you are simply learning to express yourself, zeroing in ever more on your true self. One could almost call it a process of enlightenment. In this case, nothing is really learnt, everything is simply revealed and therefore it is an undisociable part of you.
Progress is not an addition of bits of knowledge and skill like Lego pieces stacked on top of each other, it is only the elimination of what is keeping you from expressing your true self.
Conclusion: expanding the horizon
Throughout this article, I’ve never once mentioned parkour: the reason is that “learning to learn”, once acquired, is a skill that transcends any activity it may be applied to. One who understands it may use it in any field equally.
As a matter of fact, in order to explore a single discipline one is required to branch off continuously into other fields, as no knowledge is ever completely isolated.
A samurai once wrote about his art: “The practice cannot be confined to swordsmanship, if one limits it to that, they will not even know swordsmanship“. The same warrior added: “I have applied the lessons of my art to every other discipline I have encountered, therefore in any discipline I am my own master”. The road that leads to the mastery of one discipline will lead to the mastery of others; following one is close to following them all because, more than just the discipline, it is ourselves that we learn to explore and know through our practice. The discipline itself is never the end, but the means to a more noble, meaningful and everlasting end: our blossomed self.