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On being the eternal student

By Satya Robyn from Malvern

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” ~ Thomas Szasz

I’ve always been terrible at history. Last week, as part of a Buddhist study programme, I had to write an essay about what was happening around the world in 500 C.E. I didn’t even know what C. E. meant. I didn’t know where to start. I felt very stupid. I struggled for hours, getting more and more frustrated.

And then something happened. I started to be interested in what I was reading. I realised that the facts I was finding out were about real human beings, living their lives so long ago. A small spark of interest in history was born!

Learning isn’t always this painful. But, as Szasz’s quote points out, learning often includes letting go of something we thought we knew. Most of us like to know who we are, where we are and what we’re doing. Acknowledging that we don’t know can take a little bit of courage.

This courage is necessary if we’re going to continue learning. And being open to learning brings us many treasures. We don’t just find out new information which will help us make better decisions and live more skilfully. We remind ourselves of how little we really know about other people and other things, and we become less judgemental. We get to know others and the world more intimately, and we feel closer to them and to it. We experience wonder, and awe…

Here are a few tips to help you reawaken your hunger for learning. 

One: Prioritise learning
If you’re busy, it might help to consciously make space for learning. Do some reading for twenty minutes every lunch time, or book a class at your local college. Spend an hour every Wednesday working at your online writing class. Meet with a friend every month and talk through how you’re getting on with your work–life balance. Put time for learning in your diary, and honour it.

Two: Follow your curiosity
Curiosity is the foundation of all learning. You can practice curiosity at any time; waiting in the queue at the bus stop, watching a documentary or listening to your own thoughts. You can be curious about facts and figures, or about how people (including yourself) tick. Ask yourself questions like ‘why are things the way they are?’, ‘what’s underneath?’ or ‘how does this fit with what I already know?’. Indulge your curiosity; use Google, ask people questions or go to the library.

Three: Be interested when your feelings are stirred up
If you’d like to learn more about yourself, pay attention to whenever you feel angry, frustrated, resentful, betrayed etc. These feelings usually reveal something about ourselves as well as about the other person. If we can think about our own part in what’s happened, we’ll often discover a wounded part of ourselves and we can take responsibility for this. We can then take steps to look after ourselves better next time, e.g. by setting better boundaries for ourselves or by being more honest about what we need.

Four: Enjoy yourself!
Although it can sometimes make us vulnerable, learning can also be a lot of fun. It gives us a chance to try out new things, find things out about ourselves and the world, and to play. Sign up for a flamenco class, borrow some books about pop art, or go on a walk with a book for identifying wild flowers. Take notice of what the world has to offer you.

Enjoy!

Satya Robyn is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Malvern, a novelist and a Buddhist priest. She also runs a mindful writing company with her husband - find out more at www.writingourwayhome.com