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What is it to learn?

When we lead, innovate, or propose new behaviors and actions with others, we are on the path of learning. The automatic response from people in our culture to new action is to take on “doing;” doing what they already know. We live with the common approach that we get a theory or concept and then we “apply” it. And actions of this type imply that we do not fundamentally change in ourselves, we don’t learn in any meaningful way, we just “do” something different with the skill set we already have.

However, success in any of these endeavors at a non-trivial level cannot happen without deeper learning. We cannot learn courage by doing something we already know. We cannot learn love or listening or connection doing what we already know.  We cannot learn leadership or coaching or healing by doing what we already know. We must enter the unknown. We must engage in new experiences.

Our predominant mode of learning is intellectual, conceptual, or academic learning. We have been taught to “understand,” and that we know when we understand. We know when we can pass a test that shows understanding. We have devolved knowing into understanding, although understanding the instructions of the tennis coach does not in itself produce the capacity to execute better tennis. The body must learn, not just the intellect. So it is with leading, being a professional, and with life.  We must learn fully in the body.

Learning in the Body

In learning in the body, we shift what we pay attention to – we see differently, we make different distinctions. Through practice, doctors see different bodies than non-doctors, and an architect sees a different building than that of a non-architect look at. And we can also learn new actions. Learning the science of health is not to learn the practice of medicine, and learning the theory of architecture does not enable you to design buildings without the practice and experience of designing buildings.

Learning in the body happens through practice, through the recurrence of facing and shifting our own embodiment, facing variations of situations, and learning to generate an outcome through embodied action. Studies have shown that physical actions, which include conversations, emotions, and presence, requires on the order of 3,000 repetitions to produce transparent embodiment, a habit or skill. And what is crucial to understand is that our bodies are always practicing. It’s not an option to practice or not. The only option is to choose what we are practicing. This requires new skills for most of us, new practices of awareness and attention, and new practices of practicing.

Studies of high performance and mastery have revealed that masters practice in a particular way – they engage in “deliberate practice.” [i] This is a practice of learning – of staying on the edge, and slightly beyond it, of their current competence. Masters are always entering into what they don’t know and are not yet skillful at.

We have found that to embody new skills we cannot leave out emotions. The work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio shows that emotions – rather than being a separate compartment from reason that must be kept fully shut for rational behavior – are in fact part of the process of “rational” thinking and choosing. We cannot be rational or intelligent in the world without full engagement with our emotional faculties. The coach Julio Olalla shows that emotions are a “predisposition to action,” and open and close the possible outcomes for our actions. We cannot produce excellence in performance from resentment or resignation.

So, we see that learning, the path to new actions, new outcomes, and new possibilities for the future, the world, and what we are about, must include our bodies and emotions in addition to our conceptual understanding. But with all these present, this may not be the whole story.

Learning with Heart

There is also another way to learn – to learn with heart. But this “heart” we are referring to is not just the physical organ, nor is it just our emotional being. The heart is a place in the body where we experience our connection with life, where purpose and meaning surge through us as felt experiences, not just opinions. We know this in western culture when we say, “I don’t have the heart for it,” or “my heart is really in it,” or an experience is “heartfelt.” In this use of the word “heart,” we are referring more to the core of our being than its emotional side effect. In Chinese medicine, the heart is the coordinator of the body, hence our own embodied leader, and the place where action initiates and meaning arises.

In Chinese wisdom, there is the term “gan dong,” which has been translated as “the transmission of knowledge that takes place only when the heart is moved.” This is a way of learning in which understanding concepts is not adequate, and even embodied learning through recurrence may not be sufficient.

Thea Elijah, a teacher of Medicine Without Form, writes “Unfortunately, for most of us, Gan Dong (the transmission of knowledge that takes place only when the heart is moved) was not a significant aspect of our early educational experience. In and out of school, we were usually asked to accept ideas, concepts, theories and “data” as reality, often without any experiential component to the transmission.” This kind of learning requires a particular aspect of our embodiment to be brought to engagement and engaged in particular ways.

Learning with heart is not only a way of learning, but is also an important purpose for learning. In the writings of Carlos Castaneda, he introduces the shaman don Juan, who says that the only path worth walking in life is “the path with heart.”  And in the end, learning is for the sake of life and living, living a good life for ourselves and others, creating a future in which we take care of what we care about.

As leaders, we can guide, coach, and lead only when we are on the path of learning ourselves. I invite us to the path of lifetime learning, including and beyond understanding, walking the path of aliveness in the wholeness of our bodies, emotions, and heart.

To listen to the audio recording of this conference call about Leadership Inside Out, CLICK HERE.


[i] Colvin, Geoff, Talent is Overrated