On Learning, Doubt, and Identity
To learn anything requires an admission of the need to learn it. When we are afraid to doubt our understanding, the sad result is perpetual ignorance.
Modern culture values self-confidence. I am not against the idea of confidence in general, but I do find most self-assertion to be compensatory more than revelatory. In other words, a wise and intelligent person is not afraid to doubt their ability and understanding. They are reluctant to be prematurely seen by others as expert. Presenting oneself as completely competent beyond question seems, in many cases, as if it masks what is actually an underlying low self-opinion. Being riddled with unjustified doubt is certainly not desirable, but to project a false sense of certainty isn’t helpful either. This is one of those areas that requires a balanced approach based on a deeper understanding.
I taught full time in the public school system here in New Zealand for some years. This put me on the front line in the field of “applied psychology”. To get our job done, we had to work with the current mentality of the students, wherever that took us. Some concerning trends became apparent.
I noticed that the ability for most students to ask questions and openly doubt their current understanding was almost nil. Modern teaching practice leans towards facilitation over didactics. “Don’t be the sage on the stage, be the guide on the side”, was a mantra that I eventually had to adopt if I wanted to be effective.
This kind of anti-educational culture is the fruit of societal degradation and mistrust. Being young traditionally comes with the advantage of being easily teachable. When a child is in so much anxiety that they are afraid of being seen as dumb for asking questions and use so much energy to hide their completely understandable lack of expertise in a subject, the result is systemic ignorance. This unteachable condition is a broad societal tragedy which, if I’m completely honest, I’m glad that, at my age, I likely won’t be around enough to wince at for too long.
According to the Vedic conception of cyclic time, we are currently in a “winter” age of deterioration characterised by conflict and misrepresentation. There is a palpably increasing sense of fear and desperation in the collective consciousness. Trust between one person and another is eroded to the point where family members turn on each other. Many are so despondent that they even turn on themselves in the form of substance abuse and self-harm. In this far too common human condition where someone feels that their very survival is at question, the vulnerability required for impactful learning seems superfluous to one’s needs. Instinct is king. To admit the need for others’ help or to openly doubt oneself is weakness that can make one prey in the eyes of perceived predators. The exterior toughness is a consequence of interior weakness. Despite that fear is the driving force, we become convinced that we must, at all cost, appear fearless and in need of nothing.
Other than divine intervention, what can rectify this distressful trajectory upon which our globally connected society is set? In my opinion, nothing. We require help from beyond ourselves. Traditional institutions of religion are failing to get the job done. If we want to save the world, we have to do it ourselves, starting with ourselves—and this is a monumental task to undertake. Yet, without this endeavour towards self-realisation, what is the lasting value of our lives? What else do we have to live for?
The mystic paths within all sacred traditions are ego-effacing. This inward apprehension goes much deeper than doubting our understanding, but puts a question mark on our very identity. Existential uncertainties like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” are not symptoms of madness, but are a necessary part of our psyche that undermines the tendency to let external anxiety drive us into a false sense of ourselves.
The amazing part about sincerely turning to God for answers is that we will get them. We aren’t alone in our journey of self-discovery. Friends look after our best interest and, when that friend just happens to be the source of everything, we can take confidence that, by grace, we will be alright. There is no need for anxiety for one’s survival. We are looked after on every level. The karmic problems and suffering don’t disappear entirely, but become seen more as an impetus to not get too caught up in the toos and fros, the backs and forths, or the ups and downs of the external world. Internally, we feel like we have a treasure and our hearts celebrate with gratitude our discovery of real divine relationship.
We become teachable again. We give ourselves permission to be a “work in progress”. We can acknowledge the need for a guide and ask God for a helping hand.
A very relatable explanation of this heart transformation is given by sixteenth century author Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī in his Sanskrit work Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu. He describes the experience of kleśaghnī which is the burning up of our feelings of suffering and the ignorance that lies at the root of the anxiety. Śrī Rūpa then goes on to explain the dawning of śubhadā - the gift of auspiciousness in the outlook and character of the devotee. This develops into mokṣa-laghutā-kṛt which describes such a deeply satisfying connection to God that to maintain even the desire for personal salvation from this world seems a bit pointless and self-centred. The less our lives are centred on the pursuit of our own gross or subtle pleasure—the more we see our life as an expression of gratitude to God, the less anything can disturb our timeless sense of internal joy.
With such progress in learning to live a life of love, there isn’t much room left for debilitating fear. Even death becomes a mere matter of transition. This liberated state of consciousness is entirely possible to achieve in this life from wherever we are at currently. I pray that we can all work towards this and elevate each other.
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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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