“Unlearning is the process of discarding something from your memory. When you unlearn something you forget it, put it aside, and you lose knowledge of it.” Source: LogicEarth 

Do you ever feel that you need to unlearn something? I must admit, I often find myself in a desirable place when I really want to try and start all over again. Now we’ll admit often, when I have that feeling, it’s based on some level of frustration. A great example would be many years ago when I first learned to ski, downhill skiing, that is. At 37 years old, this was not a trivial exercise. I had never been on a set of skis before, and I certainly had never skied on the East Coast. For those of you that are not skiers, people that ski on the Eastern side of the country describe what they call hardpack snow, which to most skiers in the West at least would consider ice or at least icy. 

My point is that balance and control are extremely important in learning the sport. It took me about a year to learn, and many falls in the process. Being somewhat determined or stubborn, depending on your perspective, I continued until I could make it effectively down to the bottom of the slope without too many embarrassing “yard sales”. (A yard sale is a term for all your equipment being spread out across the slope after falling in the snow).  

After several years of instruction and practice, my skiing gradually improved, not at the rate of course a child might, but it did get better. However, one of the frustrating things about learning to ski is that many of the techniques that you learn in those early stages have to be unlearned in order to increase your performance. The technique you use to make it down a slope of a 5% slight grade is almost the opposite of what you might do navigating the black diamond. And of course, in the case of black diamond, everything is happening much faster when you have 230 pounds plus the weight of the ski skis and equipment heading down a slope considerably steeper. 

So, we’ll learn a technique that actually has to be unlearned, or at the very least added to for a different set of skills and results to kick in. Many of us have some natural resistance when we have learned something a certain way to produce a particular result, we are reluctant to unlearn and are more likely to force our opinion, method or technique on those requesting that we change how we’re doing something. In a way our natural resistance to change, particularly when we think we’re doing something well already, becomes the obstacle for us to learn. 

Being willing and open to change is the gateway to unlearning. Often the things we have unlearned through experience, usually bad ones, become a doorway to success. Some might say success is built on the hill of failures, but often as not, it’s built on unlearning, relearning and institutionalizing or capturing that new learning. 

So learning is not a linear process. It’s not just additive. Just as in our faith development, learning something new is not just an additional fact that we can add to our arsenal of apologetics. In fact, our ability to show off our capability or knowledge of a topic often causes us not to hear new strategies or ways of doing things. I have been literally in thousands of management meetings throughout my career; the inability to listen or being willing to unlearn something are two of the most significant inhibitors to improvement in anything. 

I wonder if you have examples of where you have unlearned something and made a deliberate attempt having seen that what you were doing or experiencing was ineffective or unproductive, perhaps even dangerous. How did you deal with that? Did the decision to unlearn something teach you something just by making that decision? 

In contemplative prayer we often offer ourselves up to the Holy Spirit knowing in our hearts that we don’t know much. Then the knowledge, the change, or the grace that comes from that offering, that willingness to accept the grace, the change, the peace, the love, makes all the difference. 

I wish I could pray like a statue

Frozen in purpose,

Locked in desire to serve,

Distracted by nothing,

Aware of no thing, on earth,

Except the love radiated from the image she views.

Receptive but immovable, 

Her clothes, and body, eyes and mind transfixed on God.

No cause to blink or think of any earthly trinket,

Unaware of the snow, the rain, the sun,

Always there kneeling, adoring, listening to her Annunciation of the Heart.

Let me be that statue just for a moment. 

An instant when all will be clear. 

Praying Like a Statue 

Reflection, Poem and Image Copyright 2023 Michael J. Cunningham

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