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Emptying Ourselves to Learn

January 13, 2010

If you have seen the movie Avatar, you may recall a couple of scenes where Neytiri—the indigenous huntress—is telling Jake (or more exactly, Jake’s avatar)—the Marine who was sent to planet Pandora to gain the trust of the Na’vi indigenous people—that in order to learn the Na’vi’s culture and way of living, he must empty his mind.  The learning process that Jake has to go through is not a mere accumulation of new knowledge but an adaptive learning process: to learn, Jake must challenge his assumptions and worldviews and develop the same way of “seeing” as the indigenous people.  As Jake learns the indigenous way, he must abandon his old values and beliefs.  His only option, then, is to join the Na’vi people in the fight against the army of his ex-fellow Marines.  (My interpretation, of course.)

It is well known that we only see what we are prepared to see.  In the book “The Art of Possibility,” authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander recall an experiment with indigenous people of Ethiopia who had never seen a two-dimensional image.  When presented for the first time in their lives with a photograph showing people and animals, the indigenous people were unable to actually distinguish the characters represented on the picture.  Instead, “they felt the paper, sniffed it, crumpled it, and listened to the crackling noise it made; they nipped off little bits and chewed them to taste it.”*

What I find most amazing about this story is not that the indigenous people could not “read” the photograph.  No, what amazes me is the realization that I am just like them—that there is an entire world out there, made of things that I am unable to see because my worldviews are preventing my mind to begin to imagine those things even exist, and even less comprehend their meaning if and whenever my eyes are eventually able to notice them.  We might be a very developed specie, yet we must nevertheless admit that we are still very much like the cavemen in Plato’s Parable of the Cave, mistaking the shadows we see on the walls of our “caves” (i.e., our minds) for reality.  Albert Eistein was no fool when he exclaimed: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

The ability to empty our mind to make space for a new reality is a critical capacity in any developmental and transformative process.  But how can we develop that skill?  Before answering this question, let me present a bit of theory that will shed some light onto the nature of the learning and developmental process.

Living systems theory teaches us that the behavior of a system is less influenced by external forces than by the specific organization of its internal structure.  For a human being, the structure consists of the mental models, assumptions, beliefs and values that the particular individual has accumulated overtime through her education and diverse life experiences.  A living system learns and adapts over time by changing its internal structure while maintaining its identity.  Over time, the history of structural changes in a system defines the system’s development path.  Moreover, it is the structure of a living system that selectively determines which perturbations or information in the environment the system will notice or ignore, and which new interactions will be created between the system’s components.  One says that a living system is structure-determined.  This explains why the indigenous people of Ethiopia—having a completely different life experience than ours and, thus, different mental models—were unable to identify the objects photographed and only saw a shiny paper.  The structure of their minds selected what they were able to see and dictated how to interpret what they saw.  In other words, the mind constructs its own subjective reality.

The concept of structure-determined systems allows us to reconcile the notions of freedom and determinism within human beings.  Indeed, this theory implies that our development path is both determined and free: we are determined by our own structure (i.e., mental models), yet we maintain the freedom to define what in our environment triggers our learning, adaptation and change.

In order to open our mind to a new reality, we must become aware of our own mental models; accept the fact that there isn’t an objective reality of the world and that, consequently, none of us owns the truth; understand that complete freedom is an illusion, yet we have the inner power to choose to challenge our assumptions; and know that our mind can be “unwired” and “rewired” to generate new thought patterns.

Here are some useful tools that can help in the process:

  • The “Ladder of Inference,” developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, is helpful for understanding how our mental models are formed; it helps investigate what data from the world we select and how we interpret it to build meaning and take action.
  • The “Eye of the Needle,” developed by Nancy Eubanks Oelklaus, is especially useful within the context of difficult conversations.  The tool helps identify the parts of a conversation that remain unspoken and the feelings that underlie those responses so that by integrating our emotional and logical response we can communicate completely and from the heart.
  • Causal Loop Diagrams (CLD) is a system modeling technique that provides a language for articulating our understanding of the dynamic, interconnected nature of our world.
  • Meditation and other Buddhist mindfulness/awareness practices help free the mind from thoughts.  With an empty mind, we can better connect to our Inner Self and Creative Source.  (Note that in the Buddhist tradition, “emptiness” (sunyata) relates to the notion that all objects are empty of “inherent existence,” which is another way of saying that the way we perceive and experience the world is fundamentally different than the way things are.)

Finally, emptying ourselves to learn requires us to be very intentional in our learning process and to practice humility.

I wish you the best in your journey.

* The quote is from J.B. Deregowski, “Real Space and Represented Space: Cross-Cultural Perspectives,” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12 (1989), 57, cited by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, in “The Art of Possibility” (2000), Penguin books.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Charles Bergeman permalink
    January 13, 2010 8:25 pm


    Nice Post. The herd insists we see things the way we do. And yet, their well-defined reality is often out of touch with our environment.

    The crisis we are all facing in our economy, environment and even our society have challenged us all to see things differently. I have personally been considering such things for several years now.

    I would enjoy chatting again with you sometime. Best of luck in your endeavors.

    • January 14, 2010 6:53 pm

      Hi Charles, it’s nice to reconnect with you after so long. Thank you for your comment. I look forward to catching up with you soon.

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    January 23, 2010 1:05 am

    Wonderful post, Beatrice! I really like the mix between the theory (which is fascinating) and the practical tools you provide to integrate this new information into one’s life. This post gets right to the heart of why social change can sometimes be so hard–because we have to change ourselves from the inside out first! This can be some of the most powerful, yet challenging and often overlooked, work that we can do in our lives I think.

    I so enjoyed getting to catch up today and am looking forward to continuing the conversations!

    • January 23, 2010 1:21 am


      Thank you for the feedback. I also enjoyed our conversation today and learning more about your interests and projects. What you are doing is important. Keep up the good work and please stay in touch.


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