Twenty five hundred years ago there was an important conversation going on between philosophers in the part of the world that is now Greece and Turkey. The question being debated was whether we can know absolutely what exists in the world we perceive or whether we will always be interpreting what we experience never knowing with certainty that it is true. Those who supported the first view (let’s call it Idea A) believed that we could know with certainty how things are, how they work, their nature and the path to understanding was to gather information about the world around us. Supporters of Idea B said that what actually was going on was that there is something ‘out there’ for us to experience but that all we could ever truly know was our interpretation of those things.
It turns out this is not an antiquated hypothetical philosophical inquiry but rather a fundamental question for each of us. We do believe one or the other of these and act accordingly but we may not be aware which we believe or how that belief results in life being the way we know it.
Idea A proposes that if we continue to gather information about the world around us eventually we will be able to understand the nature of every aspect of the universe, where it came from, how it works and why it exists. It might take eons but this will eventually be the result. Furthermore Idea A says that when we know it all we will possess the Truth. Idea B says that no matter how much information we gather, and even if we could gather all there is, we humans would still reach different conclusions because understanding always comes through interpretation. Idea B says there is no truth with a capital “T” but for each of us the interpretation we have of the world is “true”.
The appeal of Idea A is that it can make us feel powerful as human beings, it can give us a sense of purpose for existence – to discover the mysteries of the universe, to “figure it out” -, it can also provide a sense of safety because if we know what is “True” we will surely know how to act in life. A couple of difficulties with Idea A are that we don’t have any evidence that it is the case. Many times throughout history claims have been made that we had arrived at a place of knowing all only to find we do not. The other difficulty, which is also a danger, is that if one can make the claim one has the Truth it allows that person or group to demand that others comply. This is a favorite strategy of presidents-for-life, dictators, certain religious leaders and even many of us in daily life.
The appeal of Idea B is that it legitimizes each person’s view of the world. It means that interpretations and opinions, if sincere, are true to that person and thus have value. It also helps us understand why any two people having the exact same experience may draw a different meaning from it. If this were not the case everyone would believe that sushi is by far the best meal one could hope for, as I do. But this is a truth of mine not the Truth. One difficulty of Idea B is that it can be interpreted as meaning the universe is random or chaotic or has no substance on which to rely. It can, at least initially, create confusion or something like cognitive schizophrenia where we have difficulty reconciling the seeming permanence of the world with the idea that it is all an interpretation. And it too holds a danger, which is that we might not hold others’ interpretations as valid in which case we will dismiss them as legitimate human beings. We do this individually and history is full of societies treating other cultures in this way.
Ontological learning and ontological coaching does not reject Idea A but does strongly embrace Idea B. We believe that there is a place for the application of the rigor of inquiry and gathering of information but, in the end, how we value that information or learning will be determined by our interpretation. We may often agree widely on an interpretation such as “water is essential for human life” but a statement like “water is essential for life” will not elicit the same agreement. It turns out that the idea of “life” is itself an interpretation.
On a personal level one of the most significant impacts these differing beliefs produce has to do with the emotion in which we live. Idea B strongly contributes to the emotion of dignity, which is the fundamental belief that “I am a legitimate human being” or “I am enough”. Believing that my interpretations are valid produces empowerment and ambition to create a path for my life. Does that mean Idea B is True? To my mind it does not. It demonstrates the idea’s impact and usefulness but it still firmly remains an interpretation. The question each of us needs to answer is whether that is enough to consider it a legitimate way of understanding the world or do we need to know what the Truth is?
In this day and age the idea of philosophy as something useful is considered laughable or far fetched. It is something we don’t talk about because we believe it is antiquated, irrelevant and boring. In other words useless. But if we understand philosophy as the attempt to understand how to live a good life it regains its relevance. From its Latin origin the word philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’. How interesting that in all our efforts to educate ourselves and our children we focus on specific skills such as literacy, mathematics and science but do not concern ourselves with the underlying reason to learn those. The question we don’t ask in any depth is how we will use those to live a good life once we’ve mastered them. Will they, when mixed together, add up to the ability to recognize what a good life looks like and give us the skills to live one? Are they sufficient?
In fact philosophy does show up in day-to-day life disguised as self-help books. The aim of them is to invite us to look at our way of understanding an aspect of life and changing it if we choose. We each live with beliefs about the universe, life, experiences, actions, learning, knowing…in other words all the things in the background that guide our thoughts and actions. Understanding the lens we are unknowingly looking through gives us the opportunity to choose a different lens or confirm that the lens we’ve adopted is the one we want to continue using.
What would one of those lenses be and what difference would it make? A very basic one is the belief you have about how you know things to be true. There is a belief advocated by Rene Descartes’ writing 400 years ago that the only way to be sure something is true is through reason. This is where we societally seriously began to think of ourselves as rational beings. And we have elevated the importance of reason to the point it is now considered the only valid way of knowing. In essence we dismissed all other forms of knowing – intuition, emotions, ethics – as inferior. As a result we’ve promoted cognitive and intellectual learning and ignored the other domains. As a practical matter it means that we are comfortable with intellect and uncomfortable with emotions. This reality shows up every time a leader invites us to work with his or her organization and concludes by saying “but no touchy feely stuff”. Because we’ve ignored or dismissed emotions as a valid domain of learning and knowing we have not grown in our understanding of it and see it only as unimportant or in the way of real learning and knowledge (and sometimes a little yucky). Such a statement by a leader is much more a reflection of society’s way of thinking than that particular person’s.
The difference this makes in your daily life is that you tend to make plans or resolve problems using only the tools available intellectually and are not aware of the emotional tools available. An example is the pros and cons list when trying to make a decision. The human brain is wired to be able to counter its own thinking, in essence to take both sides of an issue. As a result what a pros and cons list will do is organize information but the decision it helps you make won’t be made rationally. It will be the emotions provoked by that exercise that drive your decision. If we only stay in the realm of reason there will be no decision possible because reason does not value. That is the role of emotions. Emotions move us. Coming to understand how and trusting them is a tremendous area of learning. We can, when we choose, befriend emotions and make them our ally rather than fighting them forever as unwanted intruders.
We live in a world where learning has come to mean acquiring information. This is not how learning has been understood in all eras of human history. At times learning has been synonymous with gaining survival skills, in other times with understanding what constitutes a good life and in others what one needed to do to gain a good position in the afterlife. Our focus on acquiring information means that most of what we call learning happens cognitively through reasoning and language. The consequence of this is that our learning is heavily weighted in one direction and we lack the practice of learning in others. Where we do not put attention on learning is in either the emotional domain or the body. These areas we mostly leave to chance.
As an example our common sense belief is that we make decisions rationally. We even sometimes refer to ourselves as rational beings. However, none of us chose our partner, our car or our work for purely rational reasons. In fact our claim at UnLearnReLearn is that although we gathered information and data through reason our choice was made in the emotional domain. The idea that decisions are made in the emotional domain suggests that the more we understand what emotions are, what they mean and what they are trying to tell us the more intelligent our choices will be.
A similar situation exists in terms of our bodies. We largely pay attention to our bodies when they are ill or broken or for athletic activities. Sometimes we’ve relegated them to the role of simply carrying our heads around. However, it is through the body that we receive information from and send information to the world around us. The sensations we experience tell us which emotions have been triggered and the shape our bodies habitually take communicate volumes to those we interact with. Moreover the shape of the body co-creates the emotion we are experiencing and our thoughts and therefore the words we speak. Imagine a person in resignation who does not stand with shoulders slumped and head down and the thought that nothing he or she does will make any difference. There is a coherence among the three aspects of every human.
All of this is where we focus our work with you whether through coaching, training or mentoring and whether we are working with one individual or a team. Learning the fundamentals of human interaction such as the mechanics of language, how to make clear requests, offers and promises, the value of emotions, the ability to shift the body to support our efforts, trust, resilience or navigating change are available to every human being. The simple fact is that we have skipped over this level of fundamental human skills.
Thank you for joining us in this conversation and exploration. We look forward to joining with you to make this expanded view of human capacity common sense and common practice in the world.