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June 1st, 2020
Learning is often a difficult process. Before we have understood what we are trying to wrap our mind around, the experience is confusing and uncomfortable. Often, learning is just pure frustration.
I don’t understand.
How does this make sense?
This must be wrong.
It’s debilitating to experience something that has a hidden logic, a framework that deceives your ability to grasp it. Emotionally, it is an assault to our sense of agency. It functions like an impassable wall of reality that withholds our ability to move forward. It seems pretty natural to grow frustrated, even angry that such a thing should happen. It can even seem like it’s unfair.
Why is this happening to me?
Notice the focus of attention in this description. The whole point is the person with the experience. The focus is inward, but that’s not where the problem lies. The problem is out there, with the framework that is still invisible, the rules and principles we have yet to figure out. But meanwhile our focus is elsewhere, turned inward.
How can we figure something out without focusing on it?
The question frames the issue well enough to highlight the mistake in a painfully obvious way. The more we focus on our inability to figure something out, and the emotional experience of that inability, the more distracted and detached our focus becomes from the actual problem: that thing in the real world that we are supposed to be figuring out.
It is possible to focus on a problem with such a balance of concentration and intensity that you forget yourself. Like watching an engrossing movie, or playing a sport, our experience of what it is to be alive in those moments is entirely externalized. We fail to notice how hungry we are, or that pain in the back, or anything. It’s as though the mind transports itself on rays of attention to immerse itself in what is happening. Many people refer to this as a flow state, when concentration and learning, and problem solving all seem to be in harmony, composing an engine running at full tilt in its highest gear. It’s a fantastic experience, nearly otherworldly. In fact it is otherworldly. It’s the difference between the cramped internal world, and the expansive external world of our experience.
The juxtaposition leaves a tremendous and difficult gulf: how can the two be bridged?
How do we transform the frustration, exasperation and powerless feeling of inability and a lack of understanding – how does all that get transformed into a flow state?
The answer is best encapsulated by a simple formula:
Frustration combined with infinite patience turns into curiosity.
Patience is key. A willingness to endure feelings of inadequacy, and the further ability to understand them, recognize them, note them and move on in faith that you can figure it out – this faith and memory of the fact that you’ve figured out things before, it allows these feelings to settle. Accepting the reality of our inability and the perfectly natural feelings that arise allows us to let go of such feelings. Only then do we gain the ability to focus on the task at hand, externally instead of internally.
With a bit more clarity, the mind can reroute the buzz of that anxiety into one of it’s most powerful tools. Questions begin to form about the problem at hand. Ideas about the underlying nature of situation arise, guesses to be tested. We turn from the inner realm and let loose our most valuable asset to it’s natural habitat, the playground of external reality, where curiosity weaves out to explore and bring back the treasure of new understanding.
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