True Learning

I just returned from an inspiring meeting in Amherst, Mass where I joined with a group of colleagues in a pioneering enterprise focused upon creating a secular-based ethical foundation for education and human flourishing. The gathering was convened by the Mind and Life Institute at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The stellar group included renowned scholars, philosophers, educators, scientists, and an artist or two – all coming together to begin our journey together and launch this project. Our work will unfold over the course of this next year, and beyond, through a series of whole group gatherings and small team gatherings, in between, as we gradually and carefully bring this ambitious project into existence.

There were so many inspiring and beautiful moments. Among the most touching for me was my own reaffirmation of learning, itself, as perhaps the most secular and ecumenical and yet sacred (not in the religious sense) of all human activities – and ultimately – among the most moral, intrinsically. Perhaps that is why I call true learning, by which I mean learning that sets us free, a practice. And, why combining  learning with love – i.e. the Academy for the Love of Learning – continues to ­make infinite sense!

In response to one of my remarks about learning during the meeting, my dear friend and colleague Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College, shared this beautiful quote from some writing that she holds dear:


Learning Cures Sadness…

Excerpt from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King:

[Merlyn, responsible for raising the boy who is destined to become the king of England, is an unusual teacher.  Here, he tries to help young Arthur cope with frustration and sadness.]  

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn–pure science, the only purity there is.  You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics–why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it  is time to learn to plough.”

(Merlyn, advising the young King Arthur in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Berkeley Medallion Edition, July, 1966, page 183.)

What do YOU think about the role of learning in our lives? Maybe begin with your own life. What has it meant to you? And what do you think of this notion of ‘learning as a practice’ for waking up?