What will you do with what you learn?
Part One: Information Intake vs. information embodiment
Our culture is one of learning - we love information.
Thanks be to Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and the plethora of destinations from Podcasts to news media to Facebook (sometimes?) to conversations with wise sages around us in our lives that pour the vast global knowledge into our heads. Today, we have an almost infinite access to information that only grows exponentially every single day.
And this can be helpful. We have before us a possibility of knowing a lot of stuff. Being an informed, intellectual, enlightened trivia master is certainly in your grasp. With a click of a button you can create a new wrinkle in your brain and even be entertained in the process.
This is one type of learning: the intake of information.
Whether for pleasure, interest, education, or curiosity you can upload the world's knowledge into your brain and know lots of things. Our culture arrived at an information era where this type of learning became possible through the advent of mass produced books and once we saw that we can pass on information through various media, we prioritized its distribution to the extent that it became the normal way to interact with information. This started with dictionaries and encyclopedias, but further evolved to create more accessibility with a seemingly infinite amount of books and then websites, Podcasts, YouTube videos, and anything that can be printed, downloaded, or streamed. Is social media with sites like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (which give everyone a place to share the vast information of their lives, but have also become a primary destination to get up-to-the-minute news) or sites like Medium (which gives a platform to anyone who wants to say and share and add their information to the globalized pool) or even the forums and messaging boards and chatrooms simply a way to express our culture's desire to know anything and everything? Is not my ability to create a website and publish anything I want an extension of the information age? An industry was awakened that was fixated on the conglomeration & intake of information that now defines our educational system, our social experience, and our goal as informed, knowledgeable beings.
We now hold the world's information in our hands.
Again, I believe this is helpful, but I would argue that this norm has produced only one type of learning; a type that is relatively new to the majority of the historical population. The information age became about being able to intake lots and lots of information and, in the process of this norm, we seemed to stop worrying about what we might actually do with the information.
I would also argue, then, that if the intake of information ends with the intake of information, then it is incomplete.
There is another form of learning that doesn't need discovered, only recovered. Because of the explosive growth of available information, this type of learning is kinetically poised for possibility that we can take advantage of now more than ever, but it has also been diminished by the ease and prioritization of simply knowing stuff. The availability of information makes learning easier, but intaking information becoming the end goal in and of itself might not be that helpful. This being the end goal is also dangerous as it gives us permission to neglect what the other type of learning seems to be pointing to as the goal of learning in the first place:
That Intake must lead to embodiment.
Part Two: A funeral's guide to the second type of learning
I am often asked to do funerals and I have a subversive objective when the occasion occurs - because my experience of funerals are that they are often done quite poorly.
While there are several reasons for this (I’d be happy to share them with you, if you are interested), it has led me to focus on one basic thing each time I speak those last words over someone’s life on behalf of family and friends and communities.
Because the gift of someone’s life builds the world we find ourselves in. When a person dies, we have this overwhelming affirmation that they changed things. They left a mark. This place and these people are different because they were here.
Is this why we have funerals?
We take one last moment to collectively breathe in their life?
I think so and, when we do, something happens.
Therefore, when I officiate a funeral, I will sit down with the family and friends and I will collect my own experiences with this individual and I will say, “Tell me some stories.” There is usually laughter and fond remembrances. The content of the person's being is poured out - the good, the beautiful, the dirty, the messy, the failures - and we compose this image of just who this person was in the world.
My goal then becomes this - I need to take these stories and distill them down and ask, “What is the thing?”
What is the theme, the narrative, the direction, the pull, the vision that defined their existence?
What is the art that is their life?
What is the gift?
Both the gift that they uncovered through the trajectory of their days and the gift that then radiated from what they embodied.
Because the point, for me, of a funeral is to honor the person’s life. But we don’t honor someone by just talking about them. We don’t honor them by giving them 1 hour on a Monday morning and taking a half day off work and wearing a better outfit than we normally do. Those things might help, they might be a medium to assist us in honoring them, but honoring a person’s life involves something deeper.
Honoring a person happens when you hear and experience their story - you expose yourself to that gift - and you refuse to let that gift end in a casket.
But how does that happen? If the person can no longer affect the world with their life, how will it continue?
You could say that what happens at the ceremony is you learn the gift, you discover it or remind yourself of it, and then you lean into it so much so that you begin to embody it; that a piece of their life is now embedded in your flesh.
Intake leads to embodiment.
We only honor a life if we leave different than when we walked in.
The only way to truly honor a life is to be changed by it.
Part Three: The second type of learning
This has serious implications, then, for us - because we also know that the whole world is a gift. And while “learning” or “intake” isn’t essential for embodying, it is helpful (embodiment can happen without intake. Intake without embodiment is much less valuable). So you learn, you discover, you take in the plethora of information being deposited everywhere you look by everything and everyone you look at (again, undisguising the world), but then you lean into it. You distill it, you parse it, you connect with the “thing” - the gift, the image, the story, the root that arches through what you are learning - and you take it in so as to shape you. You honor that gift that is now seen via knowledge, but then you allow yourself to be changed by it.
In the words of most ancient philosophers and traditions, this would be called wisdom.
It is the difference of looking versus seeing. You can look at lots of things, but to actually see is when that thing enters and becomes a part of you.
In the Christian tradition, this is why “Incarnation” is so important.
Christians have this understanding that the divine, the mysterious transcendence, the ultimate reality that is beyond and behind everything and yet is also the source of everything is somehow brought into contact with us. They call it the “logos”, the word. It is this inherent reality that abstracts the world.
Incarnation, then, is where the word becomes flesh.
The abstract is made real.
Maybe we could say that this second type of learning, this realization of wisdom, is incarnational.
You intake words so they embody flesh.
You take whatever knowledge and information has entered your brain, but you don't end the process there...you take that information and you finish the learning process by enfleshing it.
Which is why this type of learning doesn't need discovered because it was actually the norm for most of history. An ancient way of learning was to understand and experience something to the point where that act or way of life or work now extended from your being. There is a reason why most wisdom traditions didn't have students, they had apprentices.
My hope is that, in this unprecedented capitulation of the information age, we can confront that our preferred type of learning has been incomplete; that information intake is helpful, but it is only part of the process. My hope is that we can continue to learn and share and discover and read and listen, but instead of the intake being the norm, we can normalize the completion of the process by always asking the question, "How does this information take on flesh? What should this information now look like? How do I move from information intake to information embodiment?"
Our learning needs to be in conjunction with the question: “What will I now do with what I have learned?”
If you hear a story on someone’s life and their gift or you read an article on the science of fasting and its nutritional value for your physiology or you explore the fundamentals of how leaves change color on trees in the fall, you can stop with the information.
Or you can allow that knowledge to become wisdom.
You can take those words and put them into flesh.
Learning should be more like a workout than a disengaged act; it should pronounce something on our identities that helps us become more human. If anything I produce ends with just adding ideas to the pool of intellect, then I would say that I have not allowed us to truly learn. If the world is a gift, how do we honor the gift? How do we keep from simply knowing stuff, but, instead, allow our knowing to move from our heads to our hands to shape and transform and change us?
How do we live differently in response to what we have learned?
How do we embody what we have taken in?
We must ask ourselves what we are going to do with this information now that we have breathed it in. We must distill the gift of something down so that we are changed by it even if that simply means navigating the world a bit more coherently and masterfully. We must deconstruct and undisguise and learn and explore and discover, but then we must practically embody it in the world. Like a funeral, our learning must be incarnational.