Art of Unlearning, part 2: Mindsets that Impede Unlearning

In our last blog, we explored four ways of seeing: the default view, the small view, the large view, and the whole view. Each of these views expands beyond the self to include more variables, optimize greater complexity and change, and cultivate more space for unlearning, which is critical for learning today.

In this part, I focus on impediments to unlearning that cultivate the final “whole view,” and in Part 3, I will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.

Recall from the last blog that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases. We recall the following views: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts, the small view, with its concrete ideas, and the large view, governed by systems.

The Challenges of Dualism

We are now ready to leap from the large view of separate systems and structures to the whole view based on interdependent awareness.

Our first challenge is to venture beyond the external view of systems and structures to consider and integrate mental structures such as attention, thoughts, and language.

Attention supports focus, discipline, and direction. Thoughts support forms, concepts, and sense-making. Linguistic structures, such as signs, symbols, and words, create distinctions that bridge our inner and outer worlds.

Mental structures are often seen only as content. Yet, they govern what we conceive of as a structure or system.

For instance, evaluating systemic bias in policing includes external structures like qualified immunity agreements, unions, and use of force doctrines. It also involves mental structures such as patriarchy or unconscious (implicit) bias, which determine how we perceive threats.

Here, the mental structure of patriarchy (macro) and unconscious bias (micro) conceives the external structures to remedy a “perceived” threat, which are also conceived of by these mental structures.

Consequently, when we observe structures and systems, we are unaware of our own mental structures.

This puzzle brings us to our second challenge: recognizing the power of dualism. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that dualism is hardwired into us and that, from a very early age, infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things.”

The artificial separation of process and content in knowledge becomes especially problematic in systems of thought that seek to encompass the totality of existence (e.g., grand, unified theories in physics). According to physicist David Bohm (1980), it becomes easy to slip into “the trap of tacitly treating such a view as originating independently of thought, thus implying that its content actually is the whole of reality.”

Our final challenge requires integrating consciousness as fundamental into our view of reality. This interdependent awareness, arising from interconnecting causes and conditions, dissolves the “separateness” and “dualism” that objectify structures and systems as things “out there” to observe and measure.

The consciousness of any system involves unexamined thoughts informed by history, lineage, shadows, mental models, ideology, and culture. Dualism dissolves when we integrate consciousness as an essential part of a structure or system.

Defeating Mindsets and Views

Paradoxically, embracing a whole view recognizes the partial and incomplete nature of our conceptions; at any moment, the only part of an iceberg we can view is the tip. Thus, when more of the iceberg surfaces, we are not threatened, resistant, in denial, or attached.

Accepting this paradox requires moving beyond three common views that preserve dualism to undermine our unlearning: fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness.

1. Fragmentation supports a view of reality as binary.

We’ve discussed much of this “separation” as dualism, which, when optimized, perpetuates multitasking, silos, otherizing, either/or thinking, and fragmenting attention.

Regarding separation, Bohm emphasized: “a major source of fragmentation is the presupposition that the process of thought is sufficiently separate from and independent of its content, to allow us generally to carry out clear, orderly, rational thinking, which can properly judge this content as correct or incorrect, rational or irrational, fragmentary or whole, etc.” (Bohm 1980, 18).

2. Reactiveness attached to a permanent or fixed view of reality.

For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced daily in school. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became second nature. Fitting in — being accepted — became more important than questioning, learning, and growing.

Author and thinker Peter Senge calls “reactiveness [the] bane of continuous learning. The attitude, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ prevents the steady improvement of products and processes.”

Reactiveness also cultivates two pervasive identities: the problem-solver and the expert.

The Problem-Solving Mindset. We cannot unlearn something if we don’t question our current view. Senge has noted, that many of the problems we want to fix arise from previous solutions, and many of today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.

Problem-solving as a method can work with inanimate objects, but as a mentality, problem-solving trains us to become fixers. We wait for answers and stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we habitually perceive and diagnose observed problems.

We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, and what succeeds or fails — all to render quick fixes for instant satisfaction and to avoid deeper questions and possible pain.

The Expert Mindset. Beyond problem solving, we become “experts” to fix that which we diagnose. This is the attitude of someone who believes to have gained enough experience to know how certain things are done.

The expert mindset questions fewer aspects of a situation while assuming more about it. This limits perception and the performing of tasks in an official, established way while dismissing alternative ways of dealing with the situation.

The expert mindset supports confirmation bias and the earned dogmatism hypothesis, both of which cultivate close-minded views of new or different ideas. Expertise is useful and different from an expert mindset, which becomes an identity that undermines learning and unlearning.

Consequently, the expert mindset eliminates the possibility of cultivating a beginner’s mind, which requires comfort with “not knowing” and willingness to unlearn and relearn.

3. Competitiveness supports a view of reality as scarce.

Overemphasizing competition reinforces our fixation on short‐term and zero-sum thinking, measurable results, scaling services, getting ahead, achieving status, and perfectionism (which deserves more attention).

Consequently, we lack the discipline for steady practices vital to deeper learning, including unlearning. To embody new competencies, we must practice continuously through periods of no apparent improvement.

In any performance-based endeavor, practice is essential for continual discovery and growth to hone skills and acuity. Artists, writers, photographers, athletes, and actors practice 90% to realize 10% performance.

The business ethos, however, favors performance over practice, where as little as 10% practice must sustain 90% performance. This ethos undermines our capacity for change and adapting to new situations.

A busy mind is not an open mind. You will learn more by letting go than you will by repeating the same thoughts over and over in your mind.

George Leonard, author of the classic Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment posits that mastery means to “practice diligently … primarily for the sake of the practice itself.” He acknowledged (way back in 1992!) that this is contradicted by “current trends in American life” and worried that “our hyped-up consumerist society is engaged, in fact, in an all-out war on mastery.”

Our Western worldview is so focused on results that we have little appetite for constant practice.

Becoming Whole

Becoming whole begins with dissolving reactiveness, fragmentation, and competitiveness through questioning our assumptions and unlearning our beliefs.

Bohm suggests that the movement of thought is an artistic process that yields ever-changing form and content. We flow with ideas and thoughts, evolving with situations to encourage learning and unlearning.

Imagine that we treated our technology as we do our mind. If we relied on 20-year-old technology, how effective or accurate would we be? That is what happens when we don’t upgrade our internal operating system: our mind. We hold onto outmoded thoughts from antiquated assumptions that permeate obsolete norms and cultural mores.

We find ourselves in a paradoxical time; we strive to possess the latest technology that creates new ways of doing and producing but resist upgrading the beliefs that keep us stuck in antiquated ways of seeing and being.

To evolve your view of change itself, consider your answer to the following question posed by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti: Why don’t you change? What do you hear or see when you ponder this question?

Part three of this blog will focus on practices that support unlearning to make the leap from a large view to interdependent awareness, thus cultivating a whole view.

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As an educator, coach, activist, and researcher at Bhavana Learning Group, I work with coaches, learning professionals, and executives to bring wisdom to learning.

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I venture into Eastern wisdom and Western knowledge, exploring the learning and unlearning that reveals what it means to be human. More