The word “overlearning” has struck a chord with me this morning. Let me try to unpack it a little. First let’s begin with the opposite of overlearning, which in a spiritual sense, is not “ignorance” but rather “no mind”.
Our hearts, through the out-of-control conditions of our birth and upbringing, have learned a way of responding to life and its challenges in very efficient, nearly autonomic ways. As I have repeatedly blogged about, I am pretty certain that the vast majority, if not all, our actions are determined below the threshold of consciousness. Any experienced meditators out there will be able to vouch for the difficulty or being aware of thought formation at the source. It is slippery like a fish in water.
This is where our inner (and outer) training comes in. We train more than our bodies to perform certain actions (as in sports or yoga). We train our very neural pathways, and push down new processes and modes of behavior to be available to that subcutaneous consciousness which makes our decisions for us. We, in short, train our instincts.
Obviously, as successful organisms in this planet, we have many pre-programmed mechanisms for survival literally embedded in our bodies – what do you think the cerebellum is, if not the physical manifestation of the drives, desires, hopes and fears of billions of ancestors as they ran, played, prayed, fought, loved and died? The same, of course with all other bits and pieces of this modular lump of gel safely ensconced in our skulls.
So when threatened we have survival instincts which take over the body to ensure survival – releases of adrenaline, pain receptors numbed, higher power and endurance, and so on. We are all, when it comes to survival, incredible Hulks!
A long time ago, I think I might have been reading Jung, I came across a mantra (of sorts) of the alchemists, “opus contra naturam”, which means “Work against nature.” For me this encapsulates pretty much all of the history of Western Civilization. Progress is work against nature, to better our chances of survival. Of course, what is lacking in this saying is some way to break the loop, which can quickly become vicious. For example, our desire to work against nature, has had some (ahem) less than desirable consequences. Eventually our very desire to make gardens out of every wilderness, may lead us to not being able to cultivate any gardens at all.
But I digress. The point here is that the monastic training, the practices which form the core of all monastic experience in all religions, most especially the copious recitation of sacred texts, are there to both overwhelm and then override the natural impulses which are spinning out of control. That is, overlearning.
These methods are, in programming languages, a loop break. The purpose of a loop is to enable us to do something many times over. Most of our lives require an amazingly small set of elements (actions, emotions, thoughts, words!) which are just repeated over and over. But these same elements can congeal and become the only way to respond to every thing. A fear response might have been valid once, but to continue to apply it to every relationship and situation, is clearly an unskilled use of human nature. So there are many times when you not only want but need to stop running a loop. This is what monastic practices are, at their core. They break loops in our minds, enabling us to recover the fully possibility of expressing our human nature.
So there is a need to add a second level to the old alchemists desire to work against nature. We need a loop break! This would give us a more complete and workable monastic process. Something like: Work against nature but only until we find/become love. Then you work with nature, with your natural self, which is the image of God.
Any Latin scholars out there care to find a way to make this into a pithy motto?