Practices to break out of the cycle of not-learning

At each step in the vicious cycle of not-learning, there is a choice I can make. I can follow the familiar habit or I can practice a different path – and eventually free myself from the trap. “Eventually” is an operative word. Once in this trap, there is no easy way out. It takes conscious work to slowly chip away at each stop of the wheel of suffering.

Here’s a peek at the guide that I have for myself. For each step – a practice, five in total. First, I try to orient myself. At what station am I currently? Then, I draw on the corresponding practice. I’ve collected these along the way, learning them from wiser people and years of practice of my own. Perhaps they will work for you, too.

Before I go on with the second trip around the circle, I’d like to clarify something. These practices can be useful for working through mild instances of the trap. Like, closer to “why do I find people around me so irritating?” and “why do we keep having this argument over and over?” If there’s actual aggression and violence involved, please seek professional help.

I’ll start with Confrontation, because it’s the easiest to detect and the respective practice is the least subtle. Just stop. No matter how close the victory seems, no matter how clever the next attack you’ve prepared, just stop. Apologize and withdraw as quickly as possible. Even if your opponent is still throwing punches. Yes, they will hurt. Remember – it won’t be as bad as remaining stuck in the time loop.

The Fallout station will feel like ruin, and most of the pain will come from the sense of a broken connection. This is your blunt-force contact with the prediction error and it will suck. The practice is to sit with pain. Look at it, turn it over. Focus on the pain itself, not its source. Witness it, and try not to be alarmed by it. Slow down and breathe. Recognize that this is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, presenting itself in yet-unrecognizable form. Hang on to your hat: your mental models are due for some serious readjustment. As one of my acquaintances says, embrace AFGO: another freaking growth opportunity.

At the core of this practice is separating the pain from Self. It is in these moments that we’re most tempted to use the pain to confirm our fears that we are worthless. Use this precious moment to practice self-love. For me, the most resonant and eye-opening writing came from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. There’s also this fairly obscure book by Doug Silsbee, titled Presence-based Leadership that I found useful for learning how to sit with discomfort.

Lament will feel the most uncertain and disorienting of the five. If you’re confused and unsure what’s going on, you’re probably entering this phase. There will be a pull to ground your experiences in something. And usually it means looking around and relating them to others, along with the intuition that someone else might be responsible for your suffering. The Lament phase is where the narrative emerges and the structure of this narrative will define what is to follow. The practice is to focus on your agency in this narrative. How did you contribute to the situation? There will be a distinct desire to shift quickly to other factors, to things that happened around you and are not in your control. This is not bad in itself, but the thing to watch out for is the subtle flip from “what are all the factors?” to “how was my behavior not a factor?” To break free from the vicious cycle, we need to focus on the things we can control. As Derren Brown put it: “The only things you’re in control of are your thoughts and actions”. His book Happy has been a well-rounded lesson in the practice of agency for me. For an even more robust, more densely-packed wisdom on agency, check out The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich.

Indirectly, the practice of agency is poking at a curious part of the trap. There are some things within you that have worked really well in the past, things that you may see as important parts of your identity and perhaps even virtues. It is likely that you holding on to these things is what creates the inflexibility that powers the cycle of not-learning. If you feel like staring directly into that particular abyss, consider Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan or writings on the topic of “shadow work”.

Blame will have this delicious feel of knowing what the problem is, and it will be shaped like someone else. There will be the distinct flattening of the picture of our supposed offender.  Sonder is a wonderful way to capture the countervailing practice. As the author John Koenig put it: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”  I used to call this practice “empathy” and “kindness”, but both words have too many different competing definitions. As for the practical bits, the concept of fallback, a concept from adult development theory, has been very helpful to me – specifically, learning to recognize it in myself. Because fallback happens so quickly and feels so natural, I often find that this practice is only possible in retrospect. It is still worth it. Even noticing fallback in the moment despite not being able to do anything about it is a significant breakthrough. Sometimes, a quick reminder of “wait, this is another person whose internal experience is as rich as mine” seems to help shift thoughts to a more productive space.

Resentment is where the anger burns, confined only by civility. The easiest way to spot it is the righteous indignation that’s bound to boil over. If you were brought up in a culture where “being nice” or “not sticking out” is important, you may spend a lot of time in this particular kettle. As hard as it might be, taking off our own armor and being vulnerable is the crucial practice at this stage. This is the moment to reach out. To say something, however awkwardly and imperfectly. To give voice to the pain beneath the anger. Brené Brown has a ton of helpful advice here (Daring Greatly is my favorite), so you don’t have to struggle alone. If you’re really puzzled with how to even say things, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication might be useful to start speaking, though robotically and haltingly at first.

These may not be the definitive set of practices. I am certain that I will evolve mine over time, so this here is a static snapshot of the continuing process of understanding. These practices aren’t “shoulds”: don’t follow them because they are somehow good. These aren’t rules. They are one random person’s learned guides for a willing participant who is looking to unpick the knot of a mental trap. Remember the first rule of the “trap club”: to get out of the trap, you have to be aware that you’re in a trap. What happens next is up to you.

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