Spiritual Study: Learning How to Learn
(Portions of this lecture can be found in Idries Shah's 1978
Learning How to Learn, which is warmly recommended
for deeper study. It was still in print, in paperback, 1993,
Penguin/Arkana, last century.)
The lecture, in its entirety was given twice to the same small
group of students, spaced four years apart. After the second
reading, during which frequent reference was made to the fact that
it was a second reading, only one student could remember having
heard it before.
- Prior to the beginning of serious work, whether spiritual or
not, those who are wise will commend and commence study.
- The subject that is perhaps most often recommended for
spiritual study, is, of course, oneself.
- But we aren't one self, we are multiple selves, of
different types, in different circumstances, with different
qualities and characteristics, in different times and places, yet
- So, which self does one study first when the motivation is
- Self-deception prevents knowing, prevents study, prevents
- If there were a self to which one were linked which was
accustomed to the daily support and practice of self-deception,
whether consciously or unconsciously, one could well start with the
observation of that self, noticing
- when it is in operation,
- how it deceives,
- and for what reasons.
- Social community, friendship, togetherness, attention ...
all welcome when chosen consciously, and consumed in moderation, if
chosen unconsciously, or consumed to excess, can almost totally
subvert successful spiritual study and practice.
- The remedies of humility, abstinence, dedication,
restraint, obedience, and self-denial are widely talked of, but in
any grouping of spiritual seekers one can notice even these rare
qualities being readily imitated rather than practiced.
- Humility is not a decoration, it is a necessity, in order
- Yet even that sentence can be repeated for purposes of
gaining approval and attention by those who know no better than to
learn at the level of social imitation and social reward.
- There are people who won't study, won't allocate time,
won't rearrange their lives, won't spend money on books, yet still
somehow manage to think themselves serious.
- Perhaps one should study greed, and pretence, in particular
socially approved greed and pretence; greed disguised as objectives
of the group to which one belongs, which in fact perpetuates greed
and addictive behaviour, and pretence disguised as sincerity.
- Study may involve turning a portion of ones attention onto
a subject and holding that attention there for some time.
- One may require some motivation to do this.
- Most motivations are not spiritual; they are low and
habitual, and with them we get by, we get what we deserve, and we
get little else.
- 1. One needs to find a high motivation;
- 2. One needs to free up spare attention (there is no other
way of learning);
- 3. One needs to apply ones attention to spiritual
- 4. Action can appropriately follow in a life that has
been prepared by quiet questioning and watching from moment to moment.
- 5. It is an illusion to think that enlightenment or
liberation can come merely by attempting to "study" at a set time,
for a set duration each day, if during the rest of the day we ride
along as the unconscious and unobservantly captive passengers of a
compulsively, habitually motivated, personal self.
- 6. It is necessary to discover, by observation, which
self has imposed itself, perhaps at the starting-point, as the
starting-point for any thought process or sequence.
- Anything whatsoever that could interfere with those steps
is something to be treated with great caution.
- That which might constitute the greatest threat is the
pretence (conscious or unconscious) that one had already carried out
successfully those steps, or the illusion that one didn't need to
even try to do so, because one was somehow special, or had
discovered a fairy-tale way to bypass study, and its prerequisites.
- It can be a great shock that precipitates one into serious
- If one is unconsciously pretending to be open, loyal,
enthusiastic, sincere, humble, kind, fairminded, devoted, dedicated,
and to be acting out of notions of service to others, one hasn't a
hope of learning anything.
- Nor is there more than the slightest hope that such a
person can be shown, by teacher, friend or enemy, what he or she is
- Yet, many human cultures reward or even sanctify this
- Instead of saying: You are amusing yourself by engaging in
this game, the cultures say, this is a serious and worthy endeavour.
- It is to a degree easier to study with other like-minded
students in some sort of spiritual study group; there is an
atmosphere, a momentum which is built up.
- In searching for such a group it is possible to encounter
deteriorated groups; groups which once were composed of real
students, coming together for a little while, but which some time
ago began to decay.
- While a reputation, a public venue, literature, attitudes
and leaflets may remain which lead the ordinary public to assume
spiritual activities (whatever they are) still take place, there is
actually no longer such capacity or function.
- A persistent confusion between the figurative and the literal
is one of the many signs of a dysfunctional group, and is the sign
of an individual who would benefit from study.
- Most people, whatever their opinions and protestations, do
not want to learn necessary spiritual truths.
- They are trying to effect something else, no matter what
they imagine they are doing.
- They tend to engage in activities which they use as a
substitute for learning.
- This fact makes the carrying out of the 2nd Object of the
Theosophical Society (the first four words of which are "To
encourage the study ...") particularly difficult.
- It is certainly no problem to indoctrinate others, to
train, school, engineer and manipulate others to be concerned about
- This may have benefits but I confess to being unable to see
- If a paraphrase of Annie Besant is allowed; she once said
something to the effect that you will have to study deeply, or
give up any hope of spiritual progress entirely, to
continue in your illusions that you are already studying and making
progress, or your illusions that you cannot study, it is too hard,
you haven't the mind for it.
- Would the earnest student rather:
- a) be trained to be concerned about truth
- b) receive an explanation about truth
- c) experience a direct perception of truth?
- The first is merely a temporary social conditioning; the
second may be an intellectual amusement, the third, if it is an
unordinary higher experience, has the immediate possibility of being
more valuable than any conditioning and any explanation.
- Which of the three seem more likely to convince an inquirer
that Theosophy is worth studying?
- It is true, as the lazy will remind us, that without any
effort or study a person can have a sensation of truth.
- But the unorganised and fragmented mind which is most
people's heritage, and is all but universal among the lazy, tends to
distort the quality and quantity of this sensation, leading to
almost completely false, confused, conclusions.
- Most so-called spiritual groups spend far less effort than
would be necessary for a group seeking athletic success, mineral
deposits, medical remedies, scientific knowledge, or financial
gains, yet assume they are making equal if not more progress.
- The Buddhist religion rightly emphasises the importance of
ignorance as a factor in the causation of suffering.
- We can go a little further by summarizing what I have been
trying to convey as the importance of unconscious yet energetically
self-perpetuated ignorance as a major if not the sole cause for the
failure to learn, for the failure of spiritual efforts.
- (How such an outrageous situation could come about is
something to be studied until one is in direct contact with the
truth of the matter.)
- As for ones failures, one can only retreat a little,
acknowledge that yesterday's efforts failed, study to understand
why, and try again.
- The goal is said to be worth the effort.
- (So if we study to good effect, what are we doing? It is
generally believed that we study to add to the contents of memory,
to fill the mind with more and more furniture, wealth.
- But the true purpose of study is to empty the mind, to make
it entirely translucent and pure, to end compulsive thought.
- We have to find out as we go along whether the study we are
pursuing is helping to free and empty the mind or is merely adding
to its clutter.)
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