“But we don’t want to TEACH ’em,” replied the Badger. “We want to LEARN ’em–learn ’em, learn ’em!” (from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

I have been pondering the how, when and why of learning recently, because I have come to believe that we each individually made the decision to incarnate because, in part at least, we wanted to learn and develop in various ways. (Some say planet Earth is one of the toughest schools…)

When growing up I had some idea that we learned things at school, and when we knew everything we would be grown up. We would then get a job and use all those things we spent years learning. Learning was therefore about knowing things. It could be fun, it could sometimes be very satisfying, but frequently it simply had to be done. Spellings. Times tables. French verb declensions. Physics equations. Do children still learn these? I’m sure they are still taught, but as Badger said above, learning is quite a different matter.

Then there was learning a musical instrument, a skill that required many hours of practice and eventually some fun came out of it. Changing from the violin to the french horn helped me find the fun aspects! To reach the highest levels I can see with hindsight it was necessary to become an independent learner; to want to practise, to improve, to be the best I was capable of. To want to learn.

Whitewater kayaking and canoeing was something I did for many years, from my early twenties until shortly before I got pregnant with M. I eventually learned not only how to sit in a boat and stay upright with minimal effort while letting the river do all the work, but also a lot about visualisation which has been useful in many other ways. There was also, for me, a lot of learning about how to cope with the emotional side. Running rapids, be they rocky and technical or large and powerful, surfing waves, going over ‘drops’, is to experience nature in a very raw state. The mental anguishes I went through, and on occasion saw others going through, ‘learned’ me a lot about preparation, confidence and eventually trust. The fact I kept going back for more suggests that on some level I wanted to learn.

It was when suffering from ill health in my thirties that I really started consciously learning about life and developing my awareness of how I behave and think. A very different sort of learning, and life can present some tough lessons at times! Somewhere along the way I think I finally managed to become that adult I thought I’d be in my twenties, and become my own person. Lessons tend to have a much more practical nature though, like learning how to relate to other people with honesty and integrity, to be aware of their needs and also my own. I’m still learning; I still get things wrong and take people too literally, but I’m learning.

But what interests me most is how our rate of learning doesn’t seem to change much throughout our lives. I have spent many hours over the past year and more watching M learn, and just as I was struck a few months ago by the fact that we change and develop mentally all our lives, I have been surprised to notice that she doesn’t actually learn any faster or slower than I do, or than most people do.

Take language. Some people have a natural gift, others struggle. M appears to understand a lot more than she does, and can make a few words go a long way – in exactly the same way as a foreign exchange student will work out the jist of what you are trying to explain. Like the foreign student, she has a few words that she can say very well, a few ‘starters’ where I can work it out, and unlike the foreign student who would probably feel silly, a lot of babbles. Adults in the right environment are equally capable of learning a new language. Physically, M learned to walk, and then to cope with uneven ground, steps, etc at pretty much the same rate that most people I have taught to canoe or kayak learn. Looking back I don’t remember seeing a great deal of difference in those learning canoeing at age 16 or 56 that couldn’t be explained by self confidence; age itself was rarely a factor. Behaviourally three weeks is long enough for M to learn most things to a basic level, whether it is not to bite me when feeding, or to leave things in a particular cupboard. This is the same length of time we adults are told it takes to break a habit, or to form a new habit.

If, as many have suggested and I believe to be true, we are all eternal spirits having human experiences, then this makes perfect sense. Our higher selves have different levels of experience, but are all old enough that the differences between say a million and one or a million and forty one or a million and eighty one are negligible. So where does this leave us? We can all learn whatever we want to, no matter what age we are, and have every expectation of succeeding. We can put our fears aside and give things a go. Trust in life, and trust in our ability to learn.

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