Academic learning vs Emotional learning

When I first became a Buddhist and I was suddenly mixing in spiritual circles I hadn’t entered before, a few people tried telling me I should read less. Don’t go too fast, they said. I was like: are you crazy, I’m not going to learn more slowly than I can. And indeed I devoured easy to digest (and harder to digest) material in order to understand the tradition into which I had hurled myself. I’ve since slowed down, mainly because my store of easy to digest literature has run down. 

However, I wasn’t fooling myself: I knew that learning to meditate, really ‘realizing’ the teachings and transforming my life wasn’t going to go as fast. I had been preparing my mind for Buddhist teachings for nearly two decades, no wonder I could digest the literature quickly. I knew a bit about practical psychology as well: I’d been ‘focussing’ for about as long.

‘Focussing’ is mindfulness as practiced by humanist psychotherapists in the tradition of Carl Rogers. My mom taught me almost as soon as she’d learned herself and it’s been a quiet part of my life since. Not in the sense that I have ever had a daily mindfulness routine or anything like that, but in the sense that when something emotional came up I had tools to deal with that. And since my life hasn’t been easy, I’ve been practicing a lot. 

I was preparing for a two-speed track: academic learning at one pace (pretty fast, by most standards) and emotional learning at another. The result was, as I’ve reported, that I got happier very fast as well. Although I do think it was Tibetan Buddhist visualization meditation that did the trick, I know it would not have had the impact it did, if I hadn’t been working on myself for so long beforehand. 

The problem is, I suppose, that most people who meet Buddhism are pretty smart people. They’ve had academic success to a degree, perhaps a good job, a partner and kids and yet at some point find that there is something missing. When they first try to meditate, or study Buddhism, they know that this is something that may change their lives, but they have no experience with the processes involved. 

In other words: they have practical experience of academic learning, but much less of emotional learning. 

The thing is, emotional learning is slow. You may be able to cram 20 words a day into your head, but to remember them next month you’ll have to repeat them regularly. When it comes to personal change, changing one thing a month is quite a lot. That’s a VERY different speed than reading a (say) book a week. 

It’s no wonder people looked at me and thought: she’s going too fast. For most people the advice to not read too much is probably decent. However, personally I think the best advice isn’t to give some random limit to what a newbie should try and digest, but to help them learn to judge for themselves what they can handle. Keeping in mind that the first lesson is the same for everybody: emotional learning is slow. 

3 thoughts on “Academic learning vs Emotional learning”

  1. I am happy to read that your mother taught you as soon as she had learned herself and it had been a quiet part of your life. You gave us valuable material regarding reading and memory. Thank you Katinka Hesseelink.

    1. My parents are both teachers, within their profession. We were taught everything they were capable of teaching us, that we wanted to learn. And yes, that’s very lucky. And all three of us made extensive use of their large collection of books.

  2. I cannot agree more, “emotional learning is slow”. And often, it is painful because old habits die hard. But the gain is greater than the pain, so like you, I resolved to continue to travel the spiritual path.

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