With respect to learning, the one law that is absolute is that in order to learn we have to attend to what we are learning.
I expected to spend my one free Saturday this month slogging around the greater metro area to test-drive used Civics. Instead, I am flying west towards the Shenandoah mountains with the pooch panting out the back window.
I pass two Mazdas — one a hatchback, one a little Mazda 3 coupe. The tires really are shallow, just like my mechanic said. A Sienna bears down on me so I move over, then a smaller Matrix passes behind. An Accord — probably an 04 or 05 — slides past followed by a late-model Elantra with its sleek body and moonroof, then a Lexus SUV.
I catalog vehicles for a good 15 minutes before I realize what I’m doing. It’s been a week since I signed the check. No need to look out there anymore. My little 2009 Corolla’s new tags are a perfect complement to its azure sheen.
I turn my attention back to This American Life. As I cruise along, housing developments thin out, the road narrows to two lanes, and meadows roll across the landscape.
A little blue Ford Fiesta sporting a kicky spoiler is keeping pace with me. I leave it behind and head off onto a mountain road just as three Mustangs in a row come growling around a curve.
I remind myself all over again that this is unnecessary. Soon I am scanning the wooded edges of a winding road, peering into dappled green curtains to make out the break where a postage-stamp sign points to a trailhead. Only after I have missed the turnoff three times and driven a dozen fruitless miles in both directions does my mind finally release its grip on the make and model of every vehicle I pass.
My errant focus is a curious creature. It’s “me,” right? Yet most of the time it acts like an obstinate kid I have to keep from throwing tantrums and running into traffic.
As recently as July, my automobile attention was limited to scanning for maniac drivers on the Beltway and looking both ways when walking to the park. I could identify Ford and Jeep emblems because they make them for dunces like me by including the actual word. The rest of them? A Toyota is an Audi is a Hyundai is a Honda.
Then my Saturn failed its emissions test and its registration was due to expire. I gritted my teeth and willed myself to scan and sort. I would walk through a parking lot and shelve images of body types and model names. Back home, I’d surf dealer sites, Craigslist, Edmunds.
Until August, auto-speak was a foreign tongue. I knew maybe 10 vocabulary words and none of the grammar. This was all by choice. The list of activities I would actively pursue before learning about cars is about 350 items long. Cleaning toilets is among them.
But that deadline was closing in. Proficiency in car-talk shot up to into my top 10. Then top 5. Soon Auto took its place as the Lingua Franca of Chez Smirk.
A mere five weeks of sporadic car-noticing and car-shopping have turned me auto-conversant. Auto-philic. Auto-matic.
My distaste for cars is irrelevant. Because I trained my mind to attend there, it attends there.
I have to say this again:
I get it now. I mean, I really get it.
We become what we pay attention to.
– Sue Monk Kidd
If this fleeting moment of focusing one one thing leads to an almost habitual orientation towards that thing, what happens after a few months or years or decades? Of course the mind returns again and again to its old ways. No matter how ineffective, unwelcome, toxic, and tortured a habit is, the mind will revert to it. No matter how many time the mind tries to pull it up by its roots, it will creep back in.
Until that mind plants something else in its place.
Because I learned them, deeply and well, my tricky old habits stick around. I was a dedicated pupil. I practiced practiced practiced them. You name it, I mastered it: eating for comfort, grasping for love, stirring up drama, running from growth. I am most expert at the daily recitation of mantras of doom.
By orienting towards a set of ideas about myself and the world, I moved from proficiency to fluency and beyond. Now I pass as a native speaker, and believe myself to be of-and-from this dystopia I created.
And while un-learning may be necessary, I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of giving any time at all to the old ways.
Overriding them may be as simple as the mindfulness gurus say it is.
If a dab of urgency and a grudging choice could hook me on something I detest, just imagine the possibilities if the aspiration actually appeals. If cars lack that jazz, then pick something that calls to the better self. Pick colors or maps, grains or flowers, the names of the kids in the neighborhood. Pick robots or kitchen chemistry or home organizing or local politics. Pick a skill a craft a mission a tongue. Pick it, peel back one manageable corner of it, and stick it on a square on the calendar one or three months from now.
Then pay attention.
The new hunger will overpower the old drives. Let it fill the vision. Let it loom.
Learning will render yesterday’s habits impotent. They may nose around for a place to squeeze in but all seats are taken and all eyes are forward.
Draw the gaze back to the place it belongs.
Peer into the green tangle at the side of the road and seek an opening there.
From The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain By Terry Doyle, Todd Zakrajsek (Stylus, 2013).