Learning and Teaching

In my recent “Reflections From A Great Distance,” I compared the thinking life to backing away from a mirror. Seeing yourself too close up exaggerates one’s perception of the immediate foreground of life, the accidental details of the moment — flaws, errors, pleasures, excitements, fears, frustrations, and all the rest of the transient and noisy. As you back away, those accidental details of life’s “face” recede in favor of a wider picture of the context of one’s existence, and hence a truer understanding of what one is.

What my image was intended to describe was the slow, gradual advance toward wisdom, which is to say the process of learning, in the strictest sense of that overused and too-often trivialized word. The principle upon which my description was founded was the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to “Know thyself.” In our late modern misconception of self-knowledge, we are incessantly urged to get as close to the mirror as possible, and stay there, dismissing the surrounding context in favor of the minute examination of one’s most immediate details. “Describe what you are feeling right now,” say our scientific psychologists, as though a feeling of the moment were more important to self-knowledge than the careful and strenuous examination of nature and being. But on this model, the mirror is no mirror at all, but rather a confusing trap and source of optical illusions. For reducing the world to your transient mental motions is little better than looking through a kaleidoscope, which provides only a colorful display of nothing

The mirror only achieves its proper function as a means of learning, self-development, the widening of context, when one sees its true value and begins to exploit it. Contrary to the modern error of mistaking self-absorption for self-examination, the trick to using the mirror correctly is to back as far away as possible, always keeping oneself in the image, but occupying an ever-decreasing proportion of the overall picture. The goal is to eventually reduce one’s practical, temporal “self” to a barely visible dot within the most expansive surrounding context. Then, at last, one will have found the truest perspective possible to the human mind, and may claim to have gained some degree of self-knowledge. 

It is important, however, to understand that this goal — reducing oneself to a dot within a vast view of the cosmos — is not psychologically belittling or demeaning. This is not an exercise in self-criticism or self-doubt (although it will involve both as transitional steps), but rather one of genuine self-discovery. It is a process of broadening one’s horizon as far as possible beyond the trivial limits of immediate experience, and thus overcoming the false perspective that results from ignorance of everything beyond one’s narrow “self.” In truth, this goal is dangerously aggrandizing, perhaps even hubristic, since it involves reorienting one’s view of oneself to include the universe. The Greeks taught mankind a lesson that we have too easily and too often forgotten, which, in its basic Aristotelian formulation, is that “the intellect and its object are identical.” In other words, in essence, the soul is what it thinks. Therefore, to see only one’s immediate emotional flux is to be very small indeed. By contrast, the soul that apprehends the world around it most widely and with the greatest depth has, to that extent, become the cosmos.

And that is what I mean by saying that the goal of human life is to back so far away from the mirror that one sees oneself as a barely perceptible dot within the widest possible context. I mean one must draw oneself as far into the distance of life as possible — one must strive to become the vanishing point of the picture. This is learning in the proper sense, and the only true path to self-knowledge.

Much depends, then, on the availability of a good mirror. A true teacher, in whatever form one can find one, is a kind of mirror. The teacher provides the reflective surface one needs, in which the ever-expanding image may be found. But he also, by setting the angle of reflection, helps to determine the path on which this wider perspective will be gained, since it is essential to back away without ever losing one’s own identifiable presence within the expanding image. This is in a sense the teacher’s defining role: to help a soul move away from its immediate and accidental life without simply becoming lost, while at the same time remaining fully focused on the wider and deeper context of the picture developing around it.

One more essential element of the teaching and learning relationship may be gleaned from a careful examination of the above analogy. The learner is focused intently on the mirror, which means he feels deeply invested in the other’s presence — and yet he is actually looking at himself. This is the soul’s natural sleight of hand, typical of any human relationship involving emotional need — love, friendship, religious or filial devotion, education. The attachment is experienced as being directed outward, toward the other, but in truth entails a process of revealing and discovering oneself. The best mirror, then, is the most subtle and discreet mirror — the most ironic mirror, if you will. This is the reflective object that attracts the eye with a glint of sunlight, and then holds it while quietly bending the eye’s awareness back upon itself.

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