Forgetting is an unwelcome factor in learning. We’d love to stick knowledge permanently in our mind and pick it at convenience. Alas, human brain works differently.
The hyppocampi are neural structures in our central nervous system that, said simplistically, select what to remember. The hippocampus is responsible for the short-term memory. Information does not pass the test of time to become indelible, rather a cerebral one. And since we cannot employ the same amount of focus and energy in everything we learn, forgetting becomes a natural part of learning.
Or rather, it has always been like that. It is not just that we forget things, sometimes we also want to forget them. That is one way we tend to deal with trauma, unpleasant events, and all boring stuff.
Surprisingly, the process of forgetting might become useful for the purpose of learning. This is something that I have learnt myself, because of my passion for martial arts. Eastern philosophies seem to appreciate the power we can harness from forgetfulness when applied in the right context.
In this article I want to share some martial art wisdom that I have applied in any learning for many years. The following can be considered almost universal principles, however I shall leave a word of caution: what we are going to discuss is not the conventional forgetfulness. It is a subtle, induced form of it.
Learn and Forget! Learn and forget!
Morihei Ueshiba (1883 – 1969) was the founder of aikido. The philosophy reflected in the discipline he devoted his life to, seems to have been triggered by three epiphanic episodes. Along with the martial arts practice, Ueshiba used to write poems and aphorisms that you can read in a recent edited collection. I learned much about Ueshiba’s philosophy through his writing.
Whereas most of the poems are of spiritual entity, I came to appreciate their usefulness in the matter of learning. The one that I will never forget is precisely to “learn and forget”. My interpretation of these words is influenced by the fact that I am also an amateur martial artists.
I practiced Karate and Tae Kwon Do, and I studied Wing Chun Gong Fu, which I currently incorporate in my workouts (you can read it here). In martial arts we study techniques and patterns (also called forms), but these are just ideal representations and therefore, as the name suggests, technical. Their application in real scenarios is much different. Broadly speaking, forms are the codification of a style: a teaching/learning method.
We experience the same in real life. We study many years to become experts in a field, but on the day one of the job we discover how much we do not know (yet). In our mind, we have a picture that does not reflect the reality. Thus we need to learn how to use what we got for the sake of the job, and to demonstrate to ourselves how competent we are.
This form of “forgetting” is actually “relearning”: we bring ideal concepts and theories to real context. It is indeed the first step to mastery.
Be water, my friend
It is one of the most famous quotes of Bruce Lee. Everybody knows that. Little one might think that it is not just about training. These words are the best way to describe adaptation.
Let’s take it into the context. In 1959 Lee, who was 19 y.o. at that time, left Hong Kong and moved to San Francisco (USA). By the age of 24, he was already developing the Jun Fan Gong Fu, better known later as Jeet Kune Do. The popularity of this style comes from using no form, contrary to traditional chinese boxing. (I read about it in this and this book).
What does that say us? Lee came to live in the country then involved in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), which fueled already existing prejudices towards Asian immigrants, as part of the non-white population. Second, Lee also had to deal with preconceptions of the other Gong Fu masters living in America, who not only refuted to teach non-Chinese people, but also praised tradition to the point of sacrificing innovation. We can infer that, prior to become a movie superstar and world renowned martial artist, Lee’s life wasn’t easy at all; yet he endured to become the best in his field, against all the odds.
It is an amazing life lesson. Lee started as a traditional Gong Fu practitioner, but went as far as consolidating multiple discipline in a unique method and philosophy. That was possible by eviscerating the essence of skills from their paradigms, and fighting bias with meticulous practice, study and a multidisciplinary approach. Call it growth mindset if you like: “forgetting” unnecessary roots to find purposeful new ones, and give new value to what we have learned. No learning is ever wasted.
Shuhari roughly translastes to “to keep, to fall, to break away” (source: Wikipedia). It is a concept that I actually learned at work. It has to do more with Japanese culture than with martial arts, but either way, it is the latter to have been influenced by the former.
I ought to describe the Shuhari way as a learning best practice, by breaking it down in three stages.
SHU: it is the phase where we learn from another source. We must follow a paradigm in order to get the basics. In martial arts, it is where we are corrected by our masters in our movement, stances and positions. In life, it is the stage where we go through training and we know nothing. Yet, it is also a stage where we have unconscious incompetence: we don’t know that we don’t know. Soon we realize our ignorance, shifting to conscious incompetence. It can be overwhelming but it also puts us on the right way.
HA: it is the stage where we acquire a certain level of knowledge or skill. Using Karate or Taekwondo as analogy, this is the stage where a practitioner receives the black belt. And that is not the ultimate goal: it is the real beginning. Now we know something, and eventually we can pass the knowledge over. It is also a time where we build confidence. Like when we cooked something following a recipe so many times that we feel comfortable not looking into the cookbook anymore.
RI: when we internalized the knowledge to the point that we do not follow any pattern: experience and intuition are driving us rather than the rulebook and the technique became a second nature. We are shifting towards mastery, and we can create value by adjusting what we know to any situation, unconsciously.
That’s right: we “forget” the guidelines, for we have become the guideline.
There is much more wisdom I’d like to share, but then it would take an hour to read this article. The message I want to share is to understand the meaning of “forgetfulness” as a way to loose mental constrains, assumptions and even structures when necessary. That is for passion or for necessity, we can find more meaning in learning than the skill itself.
All it takes is the right mindset; and apparently, modern psychology supports what the holistic approach of martial arts has to offer to everyday’s tasks.