Unlearning to Grow

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

– Jiddu Krishnamurti

We tend to abandon challenges we set ourselves, individually or collectively, once we hit the first hurdle. Our approach to change will often begin by adding something to what is already there, be it more knowledge, more policies, even more people. But, if what was already there was problematic, are we not just increasing the burden, confusion or bureaucracy? How could the process of unlearning help us?

Unlearning asks us to step away from what we already know (or think we know) and see it from a different perspective. According to Mark Bonchek “unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm.” And this goes to the core of many of our problems, he argues, “we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organisation to leadership.”

But this process is much deeper than, say, changing our operational systems, it runs to the core of who we are and how we learn and unlearn individually, and how we adapt – and the impact that this has on the world around us. 

Of course we cannot look at unlearning without delving critically into the learning many of us have grown up with, including through our education systems. Manish Jain, whose work aims to unschool society and instead build societies as learning ecosystems, believes education is part of the problem, “[n]ot only is it irrelevant,” he suggests, “but it also is actually creating, reproducing, the same sicknesses which are killing the planet.” 

Unlearning he tells us “basically starts with the idea that the crisis that’s facing us runs much deeper than simple management shifts or technology fixes, that there’s a deeper question, crisis, story, around how we perceive ourselves in the world.”

One of the purposes of colonial education, at least in India, Jain explains, was to destroy the sources of people’s imagination, including local language and culture, which is deeply connected to biodiversity. This left many people with a scarcity mindset which in turn, filled them with fear. 

Part of the work, then, is to free people from this ‘there is no alternative’ worldview. What he is proposing, however, is a generative process, not a nihilistic one; a process  which would allow us to reconnect with traditional wisdom and imagination.

A key way to set our imagination free is to build up our critiquing skills. In a conversation on For the Wild Podcast, Anjali Nath Upadhyay talks about radical unlearning as a form of liberation. Her work is guided by the idea of ‘pulling weeds and planting seeds,’ which means that critiquing the system and developing the new vision are both indispensable. 

Unlearning, she suggests, may “excavate the curiosities that might have been dormant.” Instead of piling onto what already exists, we should do “a little bit of decluttering and a little bit of reorientation so that then we can get in touch with our instinct, our intuition, maybe healing our relationship with critical thinking.” Unless those of us who support communities go through this process of unlearning, she says, we may risk perpetuating the same illusions that plague our own processes. 

So how can we develop a process of unlearning for ourselves personally, collectively and in our organisations? 

Mark Bonchek says there are three steps necessary to unlearn: the first one is simply to recognise the mental model which is no longer relevant or effective; the second is to find a new one better suited to achieve our goals; and the third is to “ingrain the new mental habits,” which would be similar to creating any other new habit or personal practice.

Unlearning reminds me of an old parable that tells of a university professor who travels to visit a Zen master to ask him to teach him everything he knows. The master invites the visitor to share a cup of tea. They sit down and the master proceeds to pour the tea, but keeps pouring as the cup overflows. The professor eventually shouts that the cup is full and no more will go in. The master responds that just like the cup, the professor’s mind is full and nothing more will go in. He invites him to come back once his cup is empty.

Perhaps before developing a new practice, we should begin by asking ourselves: how full is my cup?

Words, Veronica Yates and Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

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