These times demand life-long learning from wisdom. Let’s consider how learning exists today. We often interact with three versions such as training, education, and development, each with a focus and purpose.

  • Training focuses on repetitive tasks to build new habits or skills;
  • education focuses on studying research and topics to expand knowledge; and, 
  • development focuses on increasing capacity to expand mindsets, often in unpredictable ways.

Developmental learning integrates all three of these focuses and involves another element: unlearning. This requires challenging assumptions and beliefs and letting go of outmoded views.

Developmental learning is often transformative with the power to cultivate the mind, open the eyes, and expand the heart. Unfortunately, many attend learning programs expecting to study a topic or acquire a skill. In this regard, we may be ready to study, but not yet open to learning that challenges our assumptions and views.

To relieve practical concerns and cultivate deep insight, requires a combination of relevant knowledge and timeless wisdom. I offer four principles, termed the “four reliances” in Buddhist thought. These “reliances” or principles bring wisdom to our program designs and offer access to the wisdom steeped in expanding human awareness.

Confusion Precedes Wisdom

This fuller view of learning will be confusing – even paradoxical – as its deeper truths transcend the rational mind of practical solutions, explanations, and relevant knowledge. When engaging these principles, first, note that it is not a formula or recipe.

These principles work together to cultivate an intention at the heart of a particular view — to delve into the wisdom beyond our rational expectations!

It is equally important to notice what may seem confusing or what doesn’t make sense. Notice who we become in the face of confusion, and then sit with this confusion. The capacity to be with confusion and allowing it to use us — to question what we know — will eventually dissolve into insight.

Together, these four principles shape the view we bring to program designs that inform goals, outcomes, and pedagogy. When internalized, each principle will challenge our assumptions and expand our capacity for unlearning.  And when practiced, these will awaken a larger mind for engaging life-long learning.

Principle 1. Do not rely on the personality of the teacher, but on the wisdom of the teachings.

Often we enter a program, and we begin to assess the instructor for style and personality. This places the focus in the wrong area. Beyond all teaching is learning. Often the learning is not delivered in the content but in our ability to BE WITH a different context, as in the discomfort of different experiences or assumptions. The dour and exacting teacher can be the very irritant required to interrupt our thinking and open us to something new.

There are two kinds of teachers: one whose speaking is the center of attention, and one whose focus on teachings cultivates learning. The emancipatory impact of learning happens when it comes from the wisdom of the teachings, not the one who teaches it.

Principle 2. Do not rely on the words or terms, but on the meaning and connections.

The attempt to understand words and terms amounts to grasping at the wind. The juice of learning lays beyond words, and in the meaning and context, as well as the connections and relationships the words activate. A single word has no meaning outside of a sentence. Even though a word holds definitions, its meaning comes to life in communication and connection.

knowledge-is-learningFor instance, for some the word learning may lead to better problem-solving; for others, it reveals a vulnerable fear of not knowing; or, invites discovery and inquiry for its own sake. Yet, for others, it may convey a loss of identity that can be disorientating or inspire reinvention.

In this example, by holding on to the word learning, we overlook any meaning revealed, miss the experience of those using the word, or lose any connection implied, such as a deeper relationship to “self,” to “change,” or to one’s “past or future.”

Words invite us into worlds that can move us to experience life newly. If we understand what is meant and its deeper relationship, then the need for the word disappears. When the finger points to the moon, the child looks at the finger itself and misses the moon.

Principle 3. Do not rely on the timely information, but on the timeless meaning.

When it comes to meaning, distinguish between relevant/timely information of this moment or situation, from what is universal/timeless or eternal meaning. The difference often demands we look beyond just the practical and find the wisdom. Once you distinguish between the two, remember this guide: the timeless informs the timely.

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Our education systems and learning programs forget this and react to what’s relevant, or the latest “need” often defined by fleeting markets, trends or fads. Science trumps art even though art reveals the humanity behind science.

If I have a chance to take a two-hour seminar on Shakespeare to expand my view of the human condition, or a new web application or skill to add to my CV, which will I choose? Am I drawn to practical training, or to learning for its own sake? Remember, the most important things in life do not ever end up on an exam.

Great learning designs include a combination of timely/relevant, and timeless/universal. These teachers understand how to use timely concepts to entice learners to dwell in the timeless. They create experiences that involve both a practical application and a profound insight from which they will nourish lifelong learning.

Principle 4. Do not rely on the ordinary mind, but on the wisdom mind.

For this principle, we question the view we bring to our life and living. The ordinary mind is transactional, grasping words and chasing concepts. It gets caught up in the obsessive need to know, and binary extremes of denial and assertion, seeking what’s right and wrong, and what’s useful or not. Items deemed not useful right now are dismissed out of hand.

By integrating the previous three principles, we cultivate the wisdom mind, an understanding that transcends the fragmented “either/or” thinking and adopts a “both/and” view. The wisdom mind remains open to receive meaning that is both understood conceptually, using ideas, and experienced directly as the object of awareness.

With this mind, the concrete arises from the vastness of possibility. Teachers that have adopted this view, cultivate learning as inquiries and practices that encourage questions and confusion as fundamental to insights.

Concepts define and delineate understanding; wisdom illuminates expands and connects understanding. Bringing the wisdom mind to learning allows us to be a beginner, to engage inquiries and to internalize the direct experience of our growth. We understand both the need of this moment and the wisdom that informs it.

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Design Your Learning

The best learning and development professionals engage developmental learning first to expand awareness, then to achieve new levels of performance and leadership. While technology can deliver specific content most efficiently, human connection alters context to transform the self. Developmental professionals that include wisdom in their designs can manifest transformative learning that transcends static perceptions from past frames of reference to generate new openings for possibility.

The way we come to learning is more important than what we learn. Ultimately, it impacts who we become. These four principles, together, offer a meta-frame through which to engage learning and to bring wisdom to any learning program.


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.