Learning to Learn

In a world of continuous change and constant social innovation learning has taken on a new meaning. Where it was once sufficient to be competent at the same job over a lifetime we are now required to continually learn new skills, to adapt to people with widely different backgrounds, and to be flexible enough to change roles, job positions, and organizational directions. Learning over the course of our career has become a necessity, but even more critical is learning how to learn. To become competent in the ‘how’ of learning increases our productivity as well as enhancing our general well-being. Learning how to learn is one of the most powerful ways of dealing with the changes of today’s world. In this time of accelerated change learning to learn gives us a competitive advantage. To succeed in the future we must be learning individuals in learning organizations.

Learning is Taking New Actions

In this paper we propose a radically different approach to learning. We begin with the claim that learning is the ability to take actions that were previously unavailable to us. Secondly, we offer a new interpretation of the body that is fundamental to learning how to learn. This interpretation challenges the rationalistic tradition, the dualism of mind and body, that our educational system has maintained over the past three hundred years. (In another paper, The Historical Background of the Mind Body Dualism we elucidate the effects of this philosophy on our acting and thinking). In contrast to this tradition we say that learning is the result of new practices that we commit our body to, not in gathering and understanding information. Here, we can remember the words of William Shakespeare who said, “By my actions teach my mind.” We challenge the notion that cognitive understanding produces the ability to take effective action.

The Rationalistic Tradition

To say we learn through our bodies and that learning is assessed by our ability to take new actions is somewhat startling at first. Trained in the rationalistic tradition to value theoretical knowledge we’re pre-disposed to think of learning as something that happens in the mind. When we look back on our education we recall reading books and listening to lectures about theories for acting in the world. The body was simply the delivery system that transported us to the classroom and then remained in the background as we absorbed information. In this model we say someone has learned something if they can understand and analyze data. This person, we would say, is smart because they can prove what they say is true. There was little recognition given to someone who could produce value through certain actions or coordinating with others to produce a desired goal, like the team leader who gets his team to meetings on time.

A Call to Action

Because this model of education has historically produced tremendous advances in science and technology it’s understandable that we consider learning to be about accumulating knowledge. Since the time of the industrial revolution it has served us well. In addition, as recently as a generation ago there was time to ponder over the information that was given us. When people were at the same job, working with the same machine, over a lifetime, this way of learning was satisfactory. This is no longer the case. Not only is there too much information for any of us to process, we are moving at a velocity that demands action instead of theoretical knowledge. We are now at a historical transition in which it is crucial that learning be placed in a context of action, as a way of being in the world, instead of being intellectually smart.

Emotions and Moods are Fundamental to Learning

It is also important to acknowledge the role of emotions and moods in our inquiry of learning through the body. We distinguish moods and emotions in this way: Moods exist as a general orientation to life over an extended period of time. People, for example, live in moods of appreciation, bitterness, wonder, or cynicism over days, weeks, and sometimes months. We will be drawn to or repelled by people because of their mood. Moods are fundamental in that they open and close possibilities for relationship. We avoid being on someone’s team because we assess them as being impatient and critical. Others we want to partner with because of their openness and supportive mood. Over a period of one’s life we will characterize someone as embodying a particular mood.

Emotions, on the other hand, exist in a shorter horizon of time. We are consumed by a flash of anger for a few moments and then it subsides. We become sad for a morning over a particular event and then it’s resolved as we engage with life. If we’re not skilled in resolving our emotions they take on a life of their own and begin to live in us as moods. The person who does not effectively deal with his anger, for example, may settle into a mood of resentment.
In the not so distant past the emotional element of being human was considered an anomaly in the work place. It was thought that people could separate their learning and work from their emotions, in much the same way the body was divided from the mind. Now we know that the way we observe the world is not independent of our emotions and moods. If, for example, we’re gripped by anger or resignation our learning and productivity will be adversely affected, regardless of how skillful we’ve become in our job. On the other hand if we’re open and curious we’ll be receptive to learning and increase our possibilities for innovation. We’ve all had the experience of being so upset that we couldn’t “think straight”. We must take into account that moods and emotions are fundamental to how we orient to life and they must be factored into our learning. In order to learn how to learn it’s essential that the teacher and student agree on and collectively produce an emotional atmosphere of openness, curiosity and wonder.

Moods and Emotions are a Bodily Phenomena

Moods and emotions are a bodily phenomena. To be able to manage our emotions without either repressing them or being victims of them, and to observe and manage them in others, it’s necessary to approach them from a bodily perspective. Imagine, for example, someone who is slouched over, with their eyes cast downward saying, “I’m really glad to be on this project with you.” We can see that what we listen to is not the words being spoken, but the message being communicated by the body.

In the same manner, it’s also in the body that we can shift our moods and develop the skills to manage our emotions. We begin to see that the way we organize ourselves bodily produces certain moods and emotions, both positive and negative. The body cannot lie; it is incapable of lying. What comes out of the mouth can lie. We all know people, for example, who are exceptionally bright and perceptive, but with their chests constricted and caved in they’re plagued by low self-esteem and self-doubt. Regardless of how many positive affirmations this person repeats about himself, he will be locked in the same mood of negative self-assessments until he shifts his bodily organization. Our emotions are usually resistant to being dealt with on a rational level. When we intellectually dismiss our moods and emotions as irrelevant our communication will lack a coherency between what we say and how we say it. This will send a mixed message that confuses people. Imagine, for example, the person who is about to deliver an important sales presentation to an important vice-president. While she is well-prepared and wants to make a good impression she is also intimidated by her boss. She is anxious and tense. Her breath is shallow and high in her chest, her shoulders are squeezed together, and her eyes are darting from side to side. Her colleague, sensing her mood, asks how she is. “Fine,” she replies. “After all,” she thinks to herself, “I know my material, there’s no reason to be nervous.” Yet this explanation doesn’t shift her body and her colleague notes the discrepancy between what her mouth says and what is observed in her body and actions. In the presentation her tense mood causes her to stutter and forget key points. By thinking she could mentally override her emotional state she produces negative assessments from her boss and fellow workers.

As we become competent in this area, we can begin to observe other people’s moods and learn to work with them in producing emotional states that are conducive to creativity and teamwork, rather than being in a state of reaction to them.

Humans Live in Bodies

Whatever we do as human beings we do in our bodies. The sum total of our history lives in our body. The accidents and broken bones we have live in our body as does the history of being in abusive or caring relationships. We are predisposed to act out of the conditioning of this history. In North America, for example, when two men meet they will automatically put out their hands for a handshake. In contrast to this, men in India never shake hands, but put their palms together as salutary gesture. Wherever we are our bodies and our history is present. This is so obvious and simple we overlook it. The poet William Blake spoke to this when he said, “Man has no body distinct from his soul.” Once this fundamental fact is grasped we can see that learning does not happen in the mind. We begin to see that what we call the mind is a metaphor for that part of the nervous system that is housed in our bodies. Learning can then be seen as changing our bodies capacity for taking new actions. When we take new actions, perform in new ways, or behave differently we will be seen as someone who has learned something new. The converse is true in that if we don’t act in a new way we will be assessed as not learning. Take, for example, a manager who is evaluated as not fulfilling on his promises. He decides to learn about keeping commitments to satisfy his customers and his boss. He reads the latest books on commitment and responsibility. He becomes intellectually knowledgeable on the subject and can speak convincingly about it, yet does nothing to modify his actions. Despite his knowledge in the subject he continues to find himself not fulfilling his commitments. Regardless of his understanding and theories about commitments he has not changed his actions and continues to be assessed as someone who has not learned. What is missing is a set of practices that will allow him to modify his body in a way so that he will act consistently with his declaration of keeping his commitments.


Learning is embodied through practice and recurrence. If I want to learn to be proficient in the next iteration of Lotus Notes, for example, it’s not enough just to read the instructions. Nor will I gain competency by mentally memorizing the sequence of certain functions. To be able to use it without having to consciously deliberate over my moves will take practicing the program over time. When we think of how we learned to drive we can see the common sense in this. We first distinguished the various parts–gas pedal, brake, steering wheel, turn signals, speedometer, etc. Then as we began to drive under the tutelage of a teacher (often a certified driving instructor, sometimes an older friend, sibling, or parent) we drove deliberately and self-consciously. Now we drive and converse with other passengers, plan our day, listen to music, daydream, and even talk on the phone. The ability to drive a car is embodied. It’s invisible to us. It is so transparent to us that it may even be difficult to teach. It’s something we just do. Through a practice of recurrent actions we’ve embodied the capacity to drive without having to consciously reflecting on how we’re doing it. We can now say we have the body for driving a car.

The Body For…

As managers, executives, customers, analysts, and salespeople we are continually required to learn new skills. It is not enough to simply be knowledgeable about something; it is necessary to act and perform in new ways. We are not suggesting to abandon cognitive learning. We are saying it is only one aspect of learning. We also don’t claim our interpretation is right or the only one. We do see, however, that learning happens in our bodies. When we understand, for example, the power of making grounded assessments, requests offers, and leading those we manage, but find ourselves incompetent to do so we see its necessary to design practices that train our bodies for these actions. Once we are able to perform these actions in a recurrent, graceful manner we say “He has the body for making requests”; or, “She has the body of a leader”; or “He doesn’t have the body for making offers.”

When we learn how to learn many possibilities open for us. We see that we can change and we see how we can coach others to change. The possibilities for coordinating with others is enhanced and we become more capable of producing a future that takes care of our concerns.