Learning Happens in the Present

If you’ve read or followed me for even a short time, you’ll know how much I believe in and embrace the power of being present – in the moment and in the now. As I’ve deepened my understanding and experience of the present, I’ve also learned some amazing things about learning – how we learn, where we learn and some myths about learning – that I want to share with you.

How we learn is a complex subject, but I want to focus on a simple approach, especially when it comes to learning from past experiences. Here’s the formula:

  • We bring our past experiences into the present
  • We review and assess those past experiences
  • We hope to apply this review and assessment to make different choices or take different approaches in the future

Notice that we go to the past to retrieve the experiences and the information– we don’t learn in the past. We also don’t continue to think about what we did, didn’t do, could have done, should have done, etc. Shoulding and coulding yourself based upon the past is not learning. This is one of the myths of learning.

As you can see, the real learning happens in the present,and then the new learning gets applied for the future (but still is lived out in the present). When you make a different choice in the future because of your learning, the choice still gets made in the new moment—the present. In other words, learning something but not applying it (or doing something different as a result) is not really learning, and the present is where we not only learn, but apply the new learning. The different outcomes and experiences occur in the future, but the learning is real in the moment.

Now here’s a tricky part – what are we actually learning from past experiences? Too often our supposed learning is limited to coming up with how we’d do things (or like to do things) differently in the future. However, this learning is really only valuable if the future situations and experiences are identical to those we experienced in the past. Thus, assessing what we would do differently in the future is not really learning, but rather just differently assessing the past experience and hoping that we’ll act differently in the future. This is not real learning because the future experience is almost never the same—there are often different players, and there are nearly always different emotions and context. This highlights another myth about learning – that trying to figure out what to do different in the future is learning.

True learning from past experiences involves not just looking at what happened and what you did (or didn’t do), but going deeper to understand why you did what you did, reacted the way you did or failed to do something you could’ve. This involves going beyond the choices and actions and digging into what drove your decisions and what got in the way of you making different choices.

For example, if you failed to take a certain action because of fear, understanding the fear and the source of the fear will help you make different choices in the future even if the situation is different from the past experience.Likewise, if your past choice or action was a reaction based upon a need to protect yourself, understanding your need for protection, identifying the source of that need and getting to the point that you don’t feel that need for protection will help you choose and act differently in the future. This is real learning that will serve you in future and different situations.

In short, this approach to learning is about becoming more aware of yourself and what drives your choices and actions, and this awareness (applied in future present moments – yes, that’s what I meant to say) is the learning that will serve you well in making different choices and taking different actions in the future. Thus, the real goal of learning is awareness and understanding, not trying to figure out how to be different in a still unknown situation in the future. The greater the awareness, the more likely that you’ll be, act or do differently. This is real learning, and it only happens in the present.

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