Unlearning or Re-Learning in Trans-modern Times

Jennifer Gidley <jgidley@scu.edu.au>


The stories of unlearning presented in this collection are inspirational. The thread through all the stories I have read is of young people from a range of cultural traditions (mostly non-Western), who are awakening to the view that the Western cultural paradigm is deeply flawed. They have all been exposed to its influence in some way, by being born or educated in the US or in a system of education ‘imported’ from the West. Their exposure to Western culture and their awareness of its influence on their own cultures of origin has for most stimulated a huge struggle and in most cases a rejection of what the West has to offer, particularly from a material point of view. In many ways, as an ‘elder’ Western academic/activist I feel humbled by the consciousness and intelligence in their stories and particularly by the activism of their lives. For me this ability to go beyond mere critique and put our unlearning, (or re-learning) into action is the key to transformed futures for us all. So please take what I offer here, as it is meant, humbly, to add to the ‘trialogue’ between our various views.


I was born a third generation Australian (of Celtic descent), though I don’t any longer identify with nationality. I went through my university years (late adolescence and early adulthood) in the late 60s and 70s, when the West itself was going through a major cultural revolution. So while my ‘official university education’ was a Psychology Degree, my other educational agenda was engaging in feminism, gay and indigenous rights, anti-Vietnam war marches, etc. I read lots of ‘alternative’ literature, explored various spiritual paths, and began to travel outside Australia all of which opened my eyes and built on my inherent disenchantment with my ‘own culture’. Throughout my professional working life of 30 plus years, I have been a psychologist, teacher, mother, bar-maid, flower seller, university lecturer, farmer and writer (listed in no particular order!) I have swung back and forth between creating and developing innovative alternatives (eg founding and pioneering a rural Steiner school over ten years), and going back into the state education system to try to work on change from within. My last experience with this was disastrous and I became very sick. I had to unlearn the hard way, and relearn what I already knew and had ‘forgotten’, that the type of worldview and energy that I have needs to be directed towards transformational processes, actions and projects with like-minded people. In this case my illness and recovery have strengthened my commitment to going forward using ‘trans-rational’ consciousness (explained below) to create with others an authentic pluralistic ‘trans-modern’ world.


As part of my husband’s and my commitment to bring up our own two children to have more than one lens in which to view their culture, we took them on a ‘cultural unlearning’ trip when they were 8 and 12 years old. We spent three months travelling in Nepal, India and Thailand to open all our eyes, hearts and minds to other worldviews and cultures. To our delight, our son, now 19, decided in his first year out of school, to go back to some of those places and also many other places as part of his own self-education. Our daughter now 22, a dedicated political activist, intends to do the same some time soon. So I think ‘unlearning’ or ‘relearning’ can come from both positive exposure to wider influences and also from more negative directions such as illness, and other apparent misfortunes, which are sometimes needed to shock us back to our senses. To me these are two of the faces of karma and destiny.


I have seen that critiques of modernity, or Western influence (or their amplifier, globalisation) tend to fall into two traps:

1) Critique that offers no alternative at all. Many aspects of post-modernism fall into this category, where there is plenty of deconstruction, but not much energy given to visions of reconstruction.

2) A recommended turning back to how ‘it’ was before (i.e., pre-colonial times, traditional cultures, or other Arcadian myths).


I believe that this either/or approach to problems is as deeply flawed as the modernity project itself. Duality in thinking is at the heart of all conflict. The great threat to world security today is based on this limited dualistic view – whether it is the terrorist claiming that Western materialism or influence is evil and must be wiped out or George Bush claiming ‘you are either with us or against us’. Both fall into this trap of dualism which underpins intellectual rationality.


I would like to present an approach to thinking about thinking which places it in the context of the evolution of culture and consciousness. In earlier times, before science began to dominate western culture and thinking, we all lived within a more holistic, more spiritual view of the world. Knowledge was transmitted more through art and myth than through rational discourse. However, in the West, once science became the dominant power in the 18th century, it gradually took control of how we were supposed to think. The scientific method of thinking started to take over all spheres of life. Before long, all other kinds of thinking (mystical, imaginative, indigenous, artistic) were considered to be lower than scientific thinking and eventually not ‘real’ thinking at all. As science became more materialistic so did the dominant scientific thinking of the day. Monasteries were replaced by universities, and ‘official academic thinking’ had to meet rigorous standards set by science.


As the grip of scientific and materialistic thinking tightened over Western culture last century, more and more people started to react and believe that there was something wrong with intellectual or academic thinking. We began to think that rationality and logic (often referred to these days as masculine thinking) were the problem and that we had to throw them out and get back to heart thinking in order to experience our spirituality. However, I believe that we have run the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. If we try to bypass or throw out the great cultural gift of scientific intellectual thinking we are in danger of falling back into the stage of ‘pre-logical’ thinking described more below.


Evolution of Thinking - Pre-Rational to Rational to Trans-Rational

I propose that there are three major layers of thinking the pre-rational, rational and post/trans-rational. These are part of a broader framework of human development where human nature is seen as having nine major parts, three bodily, three soul-related and three spiritual. This vertical layering of the different aspects of the human being is found in a slightly varied form in many of the Perennial philosophies (Eastern and Western). Similar frameworks can be found in Vedanta Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, the Kabbalah, while Ken Wilbur cites dozens of such frameworks in his book on Integral Psychology.


It is the task of our own era (1500 A.D. to the present time and on into the future) to develop the trans-rational or post-rational thinking. This new stage is necessary if we are to rise to a new conscious accessing of spiritual wisdom. Some of the great souls of the Renaissance period could be seen as expressing the first glimmerings of this stage of consciousness. It is well demonstrated in the multi-faceted holistic integral human, such as Leonardo Da Vinci.


The trans-rational imaginative thinking that we need to develop in the present era was called by Rudolf Steiner ‘consciousness soul’. In this view, imagination can be seen as a first step in transforming the thinking from matter bound intellect to spiritual consciousness. The three stages of imagination, inspiration and intuition are universal concepts found in many spiritual paths. The development of imagination is thus a vitally important, yet neglected, part of education at all levels. This can apply to personal development, as well as laying foundations for a spiritual transformation of culture, beginning with developing our thinking beyond the rational intellect to encompass imaginative consciousness. Essentially it also involves a reinvention of human values to reincorporate the sacred through a shift from solely ‘brain centred’ thinking to ‘heart and brain centred’ thinking. Some people might argue that this is a reversion to the past and to pre-logical thinking. There is, however, a crucial distinction: pre-rational, pictorial thinking was largely by unconscious revelation. Trans-rational, imaginal thinking incorporates all the earlier stages and goes beyond them in full consciousness.


Evolution of Cultures - Pre-modernity to Modernity to Trans-modernity

In the same way that I propose three levels of thinking, I also propose three major stages of cultural development: pre-modernity (pre-Western influence), modernity (Western development and influence) and trans-modernity (a transformed globalism which includes an authentic pluralism of cultures which grows from the best that different cultures have to offer, including the West). In this view, we do not throw out the baby (of cultural renewal) with the bathwater (of Western cultural domination).


In some ways the events of recent months and years (terrorism, the aggressive war agenda of the US) have polarised the world’s population more than ever before into a Western vs. anti-Western stance. This polarisation is the greatest danger of all, because we all stop seeing reality and start seeing only our own categories. I believe a crucial aspect of unlearning, though I would prefer to call it relearning is to go beyond the swinging from one side to the other that comes with polarised views. The best example I can think of for this is the Zen Koan which uses terms such as ‘the gateless gate’, ‘the full void’. Within the decadence of the West/North we can find the seeds of its renewal. Within the oppression of the East/South lies the courage and vision to resist. The ability to live with paradox is part of the new type of trans-rational consciousness that will be needed in a trans-modern world. It takes us beyond dialogue (which often become debate – if I am right you must be wrong) to trialogue (your view, my view and a third one which incorporates the best of both).


I happen to believe from the wonderful stories that I have read in this volume that the young people speaking through these pages are well placed because of the struggles they have gone through (and still do and will), to come to terms with the paradoxes of their relationships to their own cultures and to the West. They are also well placed to become trans-rational thinkers as they have the privilege of dual cultural lenses. If they are able to keep both eyes open they will find a powerful focus and energy for cultural transformation into a trans-modern world.