While reading The White Album, the Joan Didion essay collection not to be confused with the beloved Beatles' record, I was suddenly compelled to underline a sentence in pen. It was page 134, and I, up to that point, hadn't established this as an underlining type of book, but sometimes a sentence resonates with me so strongly I have to drop everything and underscore it in ink.
Here's the line:
"I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point."
Some friends found this quote depressing; I can see that. But to me, that sentence feels full of unspoken promise.
If everything you were taught is beside the point, then maybe all the things you struggle with, all the things "wrong" with you, the things that keep you up at night, that torture you, all those things, are not actually you. They are things you were taught. And, therefore, you can unlearn them as you once learned them.
It's not you, it's the system—and you can break free from the system.
I began noticing a theme of unlearning in spirituality books, but that's not the only place this theme emerges. Before Yoda says his famous, "Do or do not, there is no try" line in The Empire Strikes Back, he first says to a discouraged Luke Skywalker:
"You must unlearn what you have learned."
There's a profound truth in those seven words.
It's often tempting to think personal growth is all about learning new things. Read more books! Attend more conferences! Watch more TED talks! Listen to more podcasts!
But I'm starting to believe unlearning is equally, if not more, important. A lot of transformation is about returning to who you already are, at your core. Removing blockages and disposing of unhelpful stories you (consciously or subconsciously) believe can be more important than adding "new" knowledge.
Imagine you are trying to grow a basil plant in a small pot. You plant it as a seed, and it sprouts! But right along side it are a few weeds. You ignore them, and keep watering your beloved basil plant devotedly. It grows a little grows more, but doesn't seem to be doing so hot—because as you water it, you're watering the weeds, so the weeds grow, too. You decide you love your basil plant, and you'll do anything for it (all while ignoring the weeds), so you go see a plant specialist. You start moving it around constantly so it is in optimal sunlight every hour of every day. You read books on basil. You start playing music for your plant, since you heard that helps. Still, it's not really thriving, and there are those growing, pesky weeds you're not ready to think about...so you buy special plant food, you add healing crystals to the soil, etc., etc.
What you really need to do—obviously—is not add anything to that little pot. You need to take something away.
You have to pull the goddamn weeds.
You must unlearn what you have learned.
It's absurd, but I've found it's often difficult for me to pull the metaphorical "weeds" in my life—to kill off stories that don't serve me, even after I've become fully conscious of them (which is the first step).
You see, I've grown attached to my weeds. I mean, I've hung out with them for years. It feels like they're a part of me. Who am I without them?
It goes something like this: Hmmm...maybe I'll read more instead of addressing the realization that I've had this damaging thought pattern for over a decade...I mean, sure, it sucks that after I hang out with people my mind lists all the reasons those people don't actually like me, but that's just me. Whatever. Rather than consider stopping that, let me re-read some Rilke...
We often erroneously conflate familiar things with comfortable things; even if those things are literally hurting us and preventing our growth—still, we cling to the familiar.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says:
"Once you have identified with some form of negativity, you do not want to let it go, and on a deeply unconscious level, you do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity as a depressed, angry, or hard-done by person. You will then ignore, deny, or sabotage the positive change in your life.
This is a common phenomenon. It is also insane."
In addition to the negativity you've personally identified with (your "little" weeds) there are larger, society-based "weeds" worth unlearning, as well.
These can be even more challenging (no honest person said personal growth was a day at the beach) because the first step of removing anything is becoming consciously aware of it. Some of these larger societal "weeds" have been engrained since birth. You might believe them so strongly you don't even realize they're learned beliefs; you might mistakenly assume they are, simply, true.
I'm talking things like:
Life is fun when you're a kid, but sucks when you're an adult.
More is better.
Net worth is correlated with self worth.
Success is quantifiable.
Some people are better than other people.
I don't believe any of those statements—not at my core. Though, sometimes, I know my actions or words say otherwise. My life reinforces the very ideas my soul rejects. But, I'm trying to be patient with myself—because just like learning, unlearning is a process, too. As Rumi says:
"I need more grace than I thought."
with Love and with Light,
p.s. The White Album essay collection is the only Didion I've read. I enjoyed it and she's a very talented writer, but I occasionally struggled when she made in-depth references to books or people I hadn't heard of.
p.p.s. The Power of Now is one of my favorite books. I, personally, recommend reading Singer's The Untethered Soul first to establish a foundation and then The Power of Now—but if you're only going to read one, I say, go with Tolle. He blew my mind.
p.p.p.s. Context for the Rumi quote here. (And a bonus Rumi poem!)