We live in a world that is changing fast, often faster than is comfortable for many of us. What do we do when the things we thought we knew come into question? What do we take for granted now that we might one day see as strange?
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In 1960, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey hired a young woman as a secretary and brought her to an archaeological dig in the Serengeti. This young woman was from a well-off English family, but had left school at the age of 18. Now 26, she impressed her boss with her temperament and her “mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory.” Basically, she didn’t have formal education that shaped her interpretations. She had no university training, let along paleoanthropology.
Louis Leakey offered her a long-term immersion research position studying chimpanzees in the wild. It was in this state of a “beginner’s mind” that Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees altered our understanding of human evolution. She later went to university through to a doctorate degree, but her path began not through her expertise but through her ability to observe with an open mind.
Lila McLellan describes the beginner’s mind as “a way of thinking that keeps the mind open to new possibilities and aware of how little one knows or understands of the world and other people—or, framed more positively, how much there is still to learn.” It’s a wonderful way to approach life, spirituality, and the universe. But it’s also an elusive one. Much more often, we are like the proverbial fish swimming in the ocean who have no concept of water. We are embedded in our world, in our culture, in our families, in our own lives such that it’s difficult to cast our view from further afield, and see our waters in new and different ways.
And yet we can catch glimpses. I find that these glimpses often appear in clusters in my life, in the midst of new experiences and new learning that spark other connections.
My first glimpse happened when I realized my parents didn’t know everything; I was in my early 20s; clearly a bit of a late bloomer in this area. My mother, who has never been under the illusion that she knows everything, was happy to learn from me. But we had intense and fraught discussions as I processed the gap in our experiences and understandings, and as I realized that I had had some life experiences and exposure to ideas that she hadn’t. Graciously, she credits me with some of her learning in areas of social justice and walking with people in poverty, and now has her own direct experiences that allow us a give and take in similar discussions. But part of that difficult lesson for me is that wisdom and experience don’t always follow with age; nor, necessarily, does graciousness, but hers to me was certainly a gift. In time, I had to come to terms with my disappointment and frustration, and to look inward to process my feelings and enter into a new, more adult relationship with my mother
I have taken many other things for granted as certain knowledge, and it’s been difficult to wrap my head, and often my heart, around new ideas. I offer a couple of them knowing they may be as new to you as they were to me – or not – and that they may be dissonant, or simply untrue, for you.
First, it was a year ago that I learned that there is no evidence that depression and mental health issues are caused by chemical imbalance; while there may well be neurological differences, we can’t yet identify the mechanisms. And that mental health outcomes for many diagnoses are worse in the developed world than in less developed countries, in spite of what we think of as more advanced treatment. This challenged not just my understanding of mental health, but my understanding of our medical system and how we come by and perpetuate its “knowledge.” Clearly, there is far more we don’t know than we do know. What would a beginner’s mind look like here?
Second, I have recently been learning more about the history of our education system, and reading the book “Deschooling Society” written in the 1970s by Ivan Illich. A firm supporter of learning opportunities, equality, and justice for all, he argues convincingly that compulsory schooling accomplishes the opposite: a concentration of credentials and power among the already existing elite. As a long-time supporter of education for everyone, and especially girls in developing countries, his book challenges some of my core assumptions. It is not a criticism of teaching or teachers, but of a system that we trust to accomplish one thing that actually accomplishes another. I think “Deschooling Society” would make an intriguing, if not necessarily comfortable or popular, book club read. And it’s made me reflect on my own school experiences, where I excelled, and while at times wonderful, were often anxiety producing, interfering with my love of learning, encouraging performance for others over trust of myself and even true learning; and a perfectionism that it’s taken me years as an adult to work loose.
Deschooling society brings to mind a story in “Blackfoot Physics” about traditional teaching methods in Blackfoot indigenous culture. A child would learn how to hunt, for example, by travelling with his father. When it came time for him to hunt on his own, he wouldn’t be tested or watched. Instead, he would be sent into the woods to return when he had an animal. So if his early attempts resulted in multiple misses, rather than criticism, shame, or red marks, it would be his own private experience. And his success would be celebrated upon his return.
Last summer, a group of friends and I, including Ari who is here today, went to the Six Nations Reserve to help build a clay and straw oven. Instead of instructions given in logical sequence with clear indications of how and why, the elder who led our motley crew gave us one simple task at a time. Collect clay from there and mix it with sand from here. Shovel dirt into this wheelbarrow and pile it there. Make a mound. No, a much larger one. Even her toddler granddaughter was able to help in small ways, as she, too, mixed sand and clay and rinsed her hands in the pooled groundwater, imitating and smiling at us though we didn’t speak her language. It was not my usual way of learning a new task, and at times uncomfortable. Educated in the ways I have been, I’m used to explanations and logical step-by-step instructions from Ikea and Google.
When I participated in the Blanket Exercise with other Unitarian Universalists to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous People as a result of Colonization in Canada, I remember one of the group’s conclusions was that Indigenous children should have the same quality and type of education made available to all Canadians. And I can’t help but wonder; is that really progress? Might we instead learn from traditional indigenous ways of teaching?
Third, I wonder at what it might be like to step into a Unitarian Universalist congregation on a Sunday for the first time. Especially if I had never been to church of any kind, and had preconceived notions about religion and church that are so common in our culture. I remember my own trepidation after signing up for emails from a group called Open Circle at University, wondering if they were truly as open as they said. I received emails about spiritual discussion groups and events for a year before receiving a personal invitation from one of the leaders to come the next day to a group she was leading. Without that invitation, I may never have experienced the personal and spiritual transformation that Open Circle brought to my life.
And lastly, some new ideas have been easy. It took Curtis and I barely longer than the length of a pregnancy test to change from “not yet” to joyous anticipation.
Charles Eisenstein notes the unravelling of the social, political, and economic systems that we have relied on for centuries in the midst of the environmental destruction, inequality, and injustice that they cause. Perhaps we can add our medical and educational systems, and certainly, at least in moments, our political system, to that list; perhaps not. Regardless, Eisenstein calls this time “the space between stories” as we move from a story of separation from the earth and each other, to a time of connection that is dawning but not yet fully arrived.
Revelation is continuous, said famous Unitarian James Luther Adams. Or, as it’s sometimes paraphrased,“Revelation is not sealed.”
As Unitarians, we don’t have a canonized text or creed that makes claims of complete, exclusive truth.
Instead, our understanding of life and spirituality is ever growing and changing. Our truth is always evolving.
The world is still unfolding. And that may be our greatest gift, even our salvation.
Many years ago, I drew this image in a spiritual direction session, at a time when I doubted that my spiritual uncertainty held meaning. Now, it hangs in my bedroom as a reminder of the beauty of mystery at the heart of all things, from which I believe life and love flow even as I can’t understand or even glimpse the source; all I know and trust is my experience of that life and love flowing around me.
When we navigate the world from a place of expertise, we miss the nuance and mystery and possibility of our lives and all life. And our interpretation of new events tends to reinforce rather than challenge our assumptions. With humbleness, we can encounter the “More” that transcends any one of us. Ultimately, this is the spiritual life. When I forget, when I am disconnected from myself and others, when I can’t feel that Source of Life and Love, I know it is time to return to the water, to silence, to yoga, to a place of reconnection. To stay in the space between stories, I need those kinds of practices every day. Especially on those days when my worldview, my life, is broken open, vulnerable and yet ready for change.
In my times of doubt, I have also needed other people; my spiritual director, my counselor, my friends, my fellow Unitarian Universalists, my family, my partner all help me by challenging me, serving as a sounding board as I process new ideas, and offering comfort when things are raw and new.
I invite you into the space between stories in your life. Between expertise and the beginner’s mind. Between what is and what could be.
May we always have companions for the journey.
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