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Dharma as Education for the Metacrisis (part IV)
"The Tao of Education"
That truly great & widely-praised Chinese wisdom-book, call’d the Dao De Ching of Lao-tse, opens with the following luminous sentence:
dao ke dao, fei chang dao
This pithy statement is conventionally translated into English as, “The Way that can be spoken is not the true Way.” That is a beautiful and poetic invocation of the authentic intelligence that operates beyond mere verbal knowledge. However, it is not a very good technical translation.
A keen eye will have noted that the original sentence features the same word (dao) repeated three times — presumably with three slightly different significance. A more realistic translation might read as follows:
The way that we go about “going-about-things” is not the best way to go about things.
The suggestion here is that we have a normal, natural way of doing things. An approach, a style, a “how,” that is simply appropriate to the human-animal in the biosphere — but this is not necessarily ideal. It works, to some degree. We live and get things done. We learn technical skills suited to our physical and social environments. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it fails spectacularly.
However, we have another possibility.
When we take a meta-perspective on this process — examining how our way of doing things actually operates -- then we might observe both its imperfection and its active elements. Our skill development is usually not as graceful, efficient, transferrable or universal as we might prefer. Perhaps it is not even personal enough. How much of what you’ve learned so far was learned in the way that you really wanted to learn?
The way that our learning process just “goes the way it goes” might not really be the best way for it to go…
We naturally do a lot of things whose nature does not feel as natural as we would like them to feel...
This is what I would like to say about wisdom as a form of education. It is a trajectory that diverges from nature to aim at something more natural. This seems paradoxical — and so it should. That is often the signature of wisdom (or folly).
We are all learning all the time. We train. We gain experience. Some of us are better at certain things in certain situations. This human activity is also exactly what animals do. They are exposed to circumstances whose pressures cause them to adapt. Survival of the fitted-ness. Unfortunately, these normal learning processes are insufficient for our broader human goals. While some people will do better than others in any particular social or environmental niche, we all tend to get trapped in our small areas of competence without much incentive or capacity to keep adapting and inquiring.
That is not what we want “education” or “wisdom” to mean. We are hoping, as a species, for a little more — a trajectory that deviates from the ordinary way. We have an attitude about, or a perspective upon, our own process of acquiring understanding. A certain amount of meta-learning (learning-to-learning) is therefore implied in the activity that we truly call education.
Just as wisdom suggests something a bit broader, deeper, and more general than knowledge, so too does an “educated man or woman” suggest something more than just a person trained at some activity or competent for some job.
This mysterious “something extra” is related to the WAY that we go about relating with knowledge, teachers, situations, and ourselves. So it is no surprise that modern secular education grows out of the great religious traditions who imagined a more perfected and universal human being. And it is equally no surprise that so many of the great religious spoke obliquely about “the Way.” Dharma & Dao are translated into English explicitly with this word signifying how things get done — rather than what gets done.
Meta-learning must involve your reflection upon the basic skills that are successfully deployed in your own assimilation of knowledge & worlds. Assimilation implies that understanding enters deeply and richly into your personal, embodied, enactive, and even subconscious selfhood. You do not quite understand until you see it, feel it, and act upon in novel ways that are both satisfying to your peculiar nature and adapted to all the different facets of your existence. Many dimensions impinge upon our lives and we are only as wise as our ability to deploy our basic learning skills in as many domains as possible. Wisdom in one area will always seem insufficient if it gets hijacked in another area. The balanced integration of many areas of life is accomplished through the generalization of our learning skills and the degree to which our conscious mind can “hack” our normal habits so that we can bring our deeper self into more direct developmental engagement with knowledge & circumstances.
Today, our knowledge about the circumstance of the Metacrisis is something that requires a robust intensification of our developmental education.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao.
Continued in Part V….