The Discomforts of Unlearning

Sheela Pimparé <s.pimpare@unesco.org>

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organised; nor should any organisation be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented…You must climb towards Truth, it cannot be stepped down or organised for you.

On August 3, 1929, J. Krishnamurti spoke in the presence of thousands of members of the Order of the Star, to announce his determination to dissolve the Order of which he was President. His talk that day was the result of his unlearning. Proclaimed at the age of fourteen by the Theosophical Society1  as the world teacher-to-be, Krishnamurthi underwent twenty years of training to assume this Messianic role. The intensity of the sorrow experienced at the death of his brother Nitya is said to have shattered his faith in the future as outlined by the Theosophical society and triggered off a wordless perception, new insights and the unfolding of a new consciousness. He rejected his Messianic role as well as the legitimacy of the Theosophical society. Henceforth he was concerned with only one essential thing, seeking to set man free: free of all fears — fear of salvation, fear of religion, fear of life and that of death. Free from social conditionings, he spent the rest of his life helping people discover Truth as it delves deep inside each one in order to experience true happiness.

In doing so, he urged people to "unlearn" their assumptions on how to reach happiness, assumptions on the need for an authority be it in the form of a religion or an institution2  or on the need for having an organisation3  or on their dependencies on others to make them happy, to enlighten them or even the assumption that ‘only a few hold the key to the Kingdom of Happiness’. Like for thousands of others in contemporary times, not only did his thoughts (which took me a long time to penetrate and understand) but also the story of his life had a very strong impact on me. My own process of unlearning took root in the early years of my stay in France and my story often resembles some of those related in this book.

Writing down stories of this kind requires not only a lot of courage and honesty with oneself, but also a lot of objectivity and I think the authors have done a brilliant job. However for a publication devoted to "unlearning," I thought a few things seem to be missing. Almost all focus on unlearning is with regards to schooling or other development paradigms and visions. Unlearning, I think has a much larger dimension and relates to many other fields such as spirituality, sexuality, institutions of family, marriage, and so on. Secondly I thought that in order to enrich our discussions on the issue, you must consider stories of those who, in our opinion, are "closed" to challenging current paradigms and their logic. I do not think they do not unlearn. I know of many who continue to operate within and for those systems and yet have undergone deep learning and unlearning processes, very often spiritual in nature. Thirdly, the stories relate life experiences leading to unlearning of old assumptions and learning of new ones but do not sufficiently explore the process of unlearning in the light of the latter. I mean, for the authors, is the process still alive today? If so, how? Lastly, I thought that the stories do not or only superficially explore the question of the family in the unlearning process. We all agree that family plays as much if not a more important role in forming our initial assumptions. Since unlearning consists of rejecting/replacing these, where does the family stand in the process?

As areas for research, I thought of three related to the process itself:

1. What it is that really provokes unlearning? Is it simply random experiences in life or is it a certain disposition of the mind which enables and facilitates the process? If so, how is the mind disposed and how does one come about being in it? Can this state of mind be nurtured from outside or is it your own experience which nurtures it? How does this state of mind evolve once we are in the process of unlearning?

The roots of my unlearning experience, lie in my encounter with another culture4 — another way of thinking and believing. But I do not think that it is the said encounter that provoked unlearning but rather a certain state of mind. I was in search of an identity in an alien country. I was lost in a whole set of values, meanings and relationships to which I could not relate. I was depressed, disillusioned and totally destabilised. I looked for refuge in prayers. That set my mind off on some kind of a spiritual quest. It was this state of mind, I think, that triggered off the process in me. I do think unlearning is deeply linked to spirituality.5  My hypothesis is that, when you engage in unlearning you feel a "spiritual" need to do it. We are dissatisfied or uncomfortable in our rapport with the world around and hence decide to create a new rapport, a new understanding of the world around us, a new meaning of our existence on earth. In the process we unlearn our old assumptions and create new ones. All the stories in this book talk of the spiritual steps if not leaps made as a result of unlearning.

2. Another area of interest could be what "unlearning" as a process involves in terms of personal effort, feelings, emotions? In my case it involved a great deal of inner turmoil and suffering. For example, when you have grown up with career ambitions strongly nurtured by your mother, and you have to tell her one day that all that means nothing to you, that she was completely mistaken in her vision of quality life and that she had better begin to unlearn, it cannot happen without at least her suffering if not you too.

Unlearning entails suffering, anger, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, solitude etc. Discarding a certain number of assumptions, in order to replace them by others necessarily implies inner turmoil and turmoil in our relations with the world around us. Unless we learn to understand these feelings, I do not think we can handle them intelligently. How did each one of us handle these feelings? Where did we seek our comfort? I often tried to find a compromise between old and new assumptions in order to maintain a certain rapport with the world around me. In the process I did often engage in hypocrisy. Understanding the difficulties involved in unlearning will help us nurture the compassion required to allow for unlearning. If we wish to promote a culture of unlearning, we need to find ways in which we can help our children face and handle these feelings.

3. I thought the third area of interest could be to observe the post-unlearning process. As a result of the process how do we change in our rapport with the immediate world around us — people and nature? After unfolding a new vision of the world and giving a new meaning to our existence on earth, what is the place of unlearning? Is it a one time process or a continuous process? According to Pupul Jayakar, the talk that Krishnamurti gave on August 3, 1929, was possibly a seminal statement of his position, one that remained unchanged throughout his life. He probably did not need to change his position. But not all of us are capable of reaching the enlightenment he reached. However after going through a tedious process to come to an existence with a certain degree of peace in it (I mean in peace with our inner selves), are we ready to unlearn again? How are we handling the education of our children? What are the new values we are inculcating in our children? Are we leaving them enough of scope to unlearn so as to develop their own understanding of the world?

It has been about two to three years that I have been trying to observe myself and consciously help myself to unlearn. And I must admit it is not easy. It however reinforces my opinion that unlearning does not just happen out of a set of experiences but can be consciously adopted as a way of living.

Endnotes

 1 A movement that combined Western occult philosophy with Buddhist and Hindu teachings, founded towards the end of the 19th century at Adyar, India by Mrs. Blavatsky and later presided by Mrs. Annie Beasant.

 2 You are accustomed to authority... Which you think will lead you to spirituality. You think and hope that another can, by extraordinary powers… transport you to this realm of eternal freedom which is Happiness. Your whole outlook on life is based on that authority. Pupul Jayakar, J. Krishnamurthi: A Biography,1986.

 3 ‘Organisations cannot make you free. No man from outside can make you free: nor organised worship, nor the immolation of yourselves for a cause, make you free. Nor can forming yourselves into an organisation, nor throwing yourselves into works make you free’. – Ibid.

 4 I got married into a French family and decided to live in France. However an encounter with another culture does not necessarily mean that which results out of living in another country or out of a meeting with people of a different race or religion. It also includes encounters between traditional and modern cultures within a same village or town or even the same family

 5 I would like to clearly distinguish between spirituality and religious practices. I am talking of the spiritual being inside every human which, with or without a religious practice, guided by the conscience, evolves with each life experience and influences his rapport with the world. As an example, ten years ago, I thought that in order to prove myself right at work, I had to prove all the others wrong. Today, I would not do that. I would just say what I think is right. My ego has diminished, although not disappeared, which makes me simply see that the others are human beings like I am, need to work as much as I do, have as much of a need for an identity as I do and so what is it that makes me more important than them?