“Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us.”
By Maria Popova
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and the journey of becoming who you are. Albert Einstein, in a letter of advice to his young son, argued that the secret to learning anything lies in “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” And yet the dominant Western system of education is predicated on the mindless laying of factory-made bricks via the rote memorization of information — a method impoverished of enjoyment and dismal at equipping us with wisdom in the age of information.
One of the simplest, most elegant, and most urgently necessary perspectives on fruitful learning comes from legendary martial artist and underappreciated philosopher Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973). In this excerpt from a recent episode of the altogether wonderful Bruce Lee podcast, co-hosted by Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee reads her father’s philosophy of learning, originally published in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — the trove of wisdom that gave us Lee on self-actualization and the origin of his famous metaphor for resilience.
Learning is discovery, the discovery of the cause of our ignorance. However, the best way of learning is not the computation of information. Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us. When we discover, we are uncovering our own ability, our own eyes, in order to find our potential, to see what is going on, to discover how we can enlarge our lives, to find means at our disposal that will let us cope with a difficult situation.
At the heart of Lee’s philosophy of learning is the essential difference of learning as limitation, in the form of static memorization, and learning as liberation, in the form of dynamic self-expansion. In another section of the book, he revisits the subject:
We do not have to “gain” freedom because freedom has always been with us and is not something to be gained in the end through strict and faithful adherence to some definite formulas. Formulas can only inhibit freedom and preformations only squelch creativity and impose mediocrity.
Learning is definitely not mere imitation or the ability to accumulate and conform to fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery and never a concluding one.
Further along in the book, Lee addresses the paradox of learning from a Zen-inspired perspective and adds an essential caveat:
Learning gained is learning lost.
The knowledge and skill you have achieved are after all meant to be “forgotten” so you can float in emptiness without obstruction and comfortably. Learning is important, but do not become its slave. Above all, do not harbor anything external or superfluous; the mind is the primary.
You can never be the master of your technical knowledge unless all your psychic hindrances are removed and you can keep the mind in the state of emptiness (fluidity), even purged of whatever technique you have obtained — with no conscious effort.
Complement Bruce Lee: Artist of Life with Lee on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem, the strength of yielding, and his never-before-seen writings on willpower, emotion, and the intellect, then revisit John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Lewis Carroll’s four rules of learning, Parker Palmer on learning as a spiritual practice, and Sister Corita Kent’s ten timeless rules for lifelong learning, beloved and popularized by John Cage.