the little-known art of being a good student

“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities.
In the expert’s mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki

Someone I know well recently set up the entire electrical system in a house we were renovating. She had never done such a thing before, and she had a teacher who showed her the basics of what she had to do, but towards the end of the project she already hardly needed him any more.

For me it was quite an amazing thing to see somebody able to learn so fast, and so well. I saw her way of learning as a skill, almost an art. I have met few – very few – true masters in this art of learning; people who soak up knowledge from all around them like a sponge, and, better, are able to use this knowledge right away. These great learners are twice as rare as the great teachers of the world; for it is a difficult thing to be a good teacher, but in a subtler way, it is even more difficult to be a good student.

This might sound a bit strange. After all, to be a good student, you might think that all one has to do is to listen carefully to what is being said.

Yet have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to simply listen to what is being said?

I mean to REALLY listen. Listen with all of your attention, all your mind, all your focus, all your energy. Listen with the ear of an elephant.

Listening without ego: this is the main reason that it is more difficult to be a good student than to be a great teacher. While being a great teacher can often admit, or make use of, a certain amount of ego, being a good student implies putting your ego down, making your ego small. The role of a student implies that we have a teacher who has a level of knowledge and experience that is greater than ours; that, in the field of study, the teacher is ‘better’ than us. Being a student means accepting that in some sense we are lower than someone else, not equal, and that kind of humility is a rare thing in this world.

When we want to listen to something, our ego is one of the biggest things that can be a block to proper understanding. It causes us to get attached to our ideas, to our way of doing things, to our beliefs, to everything that we already know, or rather, everything we think we already know. With one peek at a room through a keyhole, we think we know the room by heart, and when somebody explains something to us, we reply, ‘I know, I know.’ This attitude of ‘I know, I know,’ is problematic for several reasons.

First of all, the attitude of ‘I know, I know,’ can also be a block to simply hearing the teaching in the first place, because the mind is so full with what we think we know already. If I want to be a good student, I need to make myself an empty cup, to throw out, for the time being, anything I think I know already about the subject. If somebody wants me to get to know the taste of coffee but I want to keep my cup half full of tea, the resulting mix will not taste good. And then of course, when I take a sip and say “ugh, that’s terrible, take it away from me, I don’t like your coffee,” the other will roll their eyes and laugh at my worthless judgement.

 Even if someone repeats to you many times what they want you to understand, the ego will still not want to let in the information, as it will be busy getting offended at having the explanation repeated!

 If we’re able to put down the ego, it is not a problem to hear the same explanation several times: each time is a new opportunity to grasp something that we didn’t understand before. We should never assume that we have understood everything about a subject. Each repetition is a chance to let the teaching sink deeper.

Another important point is that the one who approaches learning with the attitude ‘I know, I know,’ and who is shown that, in fact, he doesn’t know, will find it difficult to step on his pride and admit he is wrong. If someone is unable to admit to being wrong, he can never correct himself. He will prefer to stick to his own idea, with the single and unique objective of not losing face, while the one who values the lesson above his ego, has to step on his pride, and let go of this stubbornness and stickiness to ‘MY idea.’

The ego that craves to be GOOD at something can also make the process of learning more painful, as it can make us insecure: more afraid to ask questions, for fear of looking stupid or ignorant; more anxious and afraid of making a mistake when learning something for the first time, and more sensitive to getting our feelings hurt in the process of making mistakes and being corrected.

Being a good student means that when somebody tells you –“No, that was wrong, you shouldn’t do it this way – look, I will show you a better way,” you are able to hear this without feeling hurt. It’s not easy to listen carefully and understand a correction if we are busy feeling hurt.

To open up this subject a little more: instead of feeling hurt when somebody corrects us, or even when we are told off or reprimanded, we should understand that their aim is not to put us down, but to help us to become a better person.

This is especially true in the case that the teacher is a spiritual or moral guide: It is because they care about our development and happiness, and because they believe that we have it in us to be better, that they give the correction; if they did not care, they would remain silent.

When they speak harshly, we should understand that they speak to the fault inside that is causing harm to both ourselves and others – the laziness, the selfishness, the carelessness, or whatever it is they point out. If we take this personally, it means that we identify with the problem, thinking of it as Me or Mine; or else we are not honest enough to admit that we have a problem.

If we really want to learn from this teacher, we should be even more determined than they are to get rid of the wrong that we have inside, and we should be grateful, not resentful, when they point it out to us and help us to see it so that we can remove it!

There are a final few small points that are not necessarily all about the ego, but which are important to acknowledge as things that can stop us listening carefully, or things that can prevent us from learning quickly. 

1. A mind that is distracted, in the cloud, somewhere else, thinking about something else; whether one is preparing his next joke, thinking of a counter argument to the one who speaks, or simply not there, not present, for whatever reason. When the mind is lost in the cloud like this, it is like hearing the explanation over a telephone with a bad line, full of noise; the clouded mind cannot properly listen at the same time as following its own train of thought. 

2. Being in the grip of an emotion; disturbed, stressed, angry about something, whether it is over a completely different subject or the subject of teaching; or else being too excited and impatient over what we are learning, like a teenager learning to drive.  

3. Laziness. This is another big problem that can cause difficulty when trying to learn something; all the more so, because it is not always so obvious and easy to see as you might think. When  I say ‘laziness,’ here, I don’t just mean ‘Oh, I can`t be bothered, I don’t want to get out of bed to go to school,’ (although that too is of course a pretty big block if you want to be a student!)

Here I mean the laziness of not thinking, not calculating. The laziness that is content to stay on the surface of the subject and doesn’t want to make the effort of looking deeper, looking further; or the laziness that, when you don’t understand something right away, makes you just automatically announce, ‘I don’t get it’.

I noticed that often I would  just ask a question the moment I have a doubt about something without thinking through the subject first myself. This means that sometimes when the question is answered, I realise I could have answered it for myself if I had just thought about it a little longer, or sometimes I see that even if I could not have answered the question myself, I could have worked on it more to make my question and the reply to it more useful.

This was also something I noticed in my friend the electricity apprentice: she does this as a matter of habit, never letting herself react to her first moment of confusion, but always waiting until she has thought about it more before asking. Then when the answer arrives, it makes sense to her, solves the problem faster and leaves less space for more confusion.

So now, every time that I want to ask a question, I ask myself: Have I tried to find the answer myself, or am I just asking the first question that appears in my mind? Do I know clearly what the aim of my question is and what I want to learn from it? 

And whenever I want to learn something, my aim is to put aside, for the moment, everything I think I might know about the subject, all previous ideas I have, and simply listen to the teacher. If I have another idea, I can come back to it later if needed. 

I would like to be in the role of a student all my life; I do not want ever again to fall into the trap of assuming I already know, that I am right. I want to learn from every situation, to see what I can learn from every person that I meet. Being a good student is truly an art, believe me; a beautiful and worthwhile art!

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