The Process of Learning

Learning is not a event in time. On the contrary, it is a process and spiritual learning is no exception.

There are three steps in the learning process. The first of the three is cognitive in nature. This is the input step during which we receive information through the cognitive senses: hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Learning at a school or college primarily involves hearing and listening. Listening is involved during a presentation by a teacher in the classroom and seeing in reading a book etc..

Sense input is the beginning of learning. Sense input is like receiving data. The information input by the senses then has to be processed to become knowledge and understanding in harmony with previous knowledge and in many cases modifying it. New learning invariably involves unlearning some previous ideas, replacing or modifying the old by the new. This happens when one considers the incoming information in the light of the previous ideas and harmonizes the whole. It is a slow process requiring continuous attention until the whole seems coherent without conflicts. The intellect is not satisfied in the presence of an inner conflict. This process is called reflection.

The next step in learning is to make the knowledge useful in practice. Understanding without a practical purpose is a useless intellectual exercise. This is true of secular knowledge as well as of spiritual knowledge. In this respect, knowledge is just knowledge and there is no difference between the secular and the spiritual.

For knowledge to be useful in practice, it has to be taken deep into our consciousness. Learning to apply secular knowledge to serve a selfish purpose is easier. Secular knowledge is also easier to understand as it relates more with our the physical world of sense experience while the spiritual is related with our subtle existence. It is also harder to learn to apply the spiritual knowledge because spiritual knowledge is meant generally to transcend our superficial good and narrow selfishness to care deeply for ourselves and the others. We all know how we are incapable of looking after ourselves even when we 'know' what really is good for ourselves.

The process to take knowledge deep into our consciousness and to be of practical use is called contemplation or meditation. This process, is in a way, is a deeper form of reflection. In this process, a person takes the time out to be alone, shut one's senses to further sense input as much as possible, calm one's nerves to enable deeper thinking and insight, recollect and consider the relevant sense data and conclusions to-date in detail focusing without distractions on the mind and its contents only. Knowledge thus becomes even more coherent removing subtle conflicts and doubts hitherto not perceived or misperceived. In addition, there is the problem of one's own subjectivity which needs to be filtered out to see the truth in its reality.

An important subject of spiritual learning is knowing ourselves: how our inner faculties use our feelings ranging from simple likes morphing onto strong desires, cravings and addictions, from simple dislikes to objects of hate and aversions, and fears. We need to learn about them and then learn how we take charge of our life rather than let them control it. Focus on our mind and its content in calm meditation experientially helps us understand our mind and help it transcend our likes, cravings, addictions, dislikes, aversions, hatreds and fears in running our life rather than being a mere slave to them. Our likes, dislikes and fears also define our subjectivity that we must filter out of knowledge of something to learn about its objective reality. This is essentially mind studying itself to be free of our cravings, aversions and fears that ordinarily run our lives. Being free of cravings, aversions and fears defines spiritual behavior.

The deeper and longer one contemplates and meditates without distractions, the higher the degree of objectivity and conviction, the deeper the ensuing knowledge gets into ones consciousness and the more useful it becomes in practice.

Because of the relative profundity of spiritual knowledge and its conflict with one's shallow selfishness, contemplation and meditation are considered more important in spiritual learning than in secular learning. Therefore, spiritual education regards all the three steps of learning (sense perception, reflection and meditation) with due importance. Therefore, spiritual education must include instruction in both the process of learning and the cognitive content of learning. In other words, the content of learning must include the process of learning which, some authorities insist, is the only thing worth learning.