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.

  1. Prior to the beginning of serious work, whether spiritual or not, those who are wise will commend and commence study.
  2. The subject that is perhaps most often recommended for spiritual study, is, of course, oneself.
  3. 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 linked.
  4. So, which self does one study first when the motivation is spiritual?
  5. Self-deception prevents knowing, prevents study, prevents spiritual growth.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Humility is not a decoration, it is a necessity, in order to learn.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Study may involve turning a portion of ones attention onto a subject and holding that attention there for some time.
  14. One may require some motivation to do this.
  15. 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.
  16. Anything whatsoever that could interfere with those steps is something to be treated with great caution.
  17. 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.
  18. It can be a great shock that precipitates one into serious study.
  19. 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.
  20. 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 actually doing.
  21. Yet, many human cultures reward or even sanctify this behaviour.
  22. Instead of saying: You are amusing yourself by engaging in this game, the cultures say, this is a serious and worthy endeavour.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. Most people, whatever their opinions and protestations, do not want to learn necessary spiritual truths.
  28. They are trying to effect something else, no matter what they imagine they are doing.
  29. They tend to engage in activities which they use as a substitute for learning.
  30. 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.
  31. It is certainly no problem to indoctrinate others, to train, school, engineer and manipulate others to be concerned about study.
  32. This may have benefits but I confess to being unable to see them.
  33. 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.
  34. Would the earnest student rather:
  35. 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.
  36. Which of the three seem more likely to convince an inquirer that Theosophy is worth studying?
  37. It is true, as the lazy will remind us, that without any effort or study a person can have a sensation of truth.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. The Buddhist religion rightly emphasises the importance of ignorance as a factor in the causation of suffering.
  41. 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.
  42. (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.)
  43. As for ones failures, one can only retreat a little, acknowledge that yesterday's efforts failed, study to understand why, and try again.
  44. The goal is said to be worth the effort.
  45. (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.
  46. But the true purpose of study is to empty the mind, to make it entirely translucent and pure, to end compulsive thought.
  47. 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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