The Jeans of Ignorance

Just as airplanes have a “cruising altitude” at which it is efficient, easy, and uncomplicated to fly, people have their own clothes that they are comfortable with. Those particular clothes might make it easy to function in the environments a person finds himself in. That ease may be about physical movement, physical comfort, social acceptance and prestige, etc. A person might wear tight jeans because that is that they’re most used to, it is what their friends wear, it’s what they won’t get teased or harassed about, it’s what will keep them warm or cool enough in the places they happen to go, etc. All of these are things the person may well be unconscious of. They do it simply because it seems natural and easy.

I recently talked with a university physics professor, who described how his masters and PhD students were not interested in how a machine produces results in their experiments, only how to operate the machine and that they get results. They’re not curious about what the machine is actually doing and they’re not interested, more practically, in how to fix the machine. Regarding innovation, they are not interested in gaining any knowledge about the workings of the machine that would allow them to break out of “the box” and try out new things.

While we may reasonably expect a masters or PhD student to be more of an expert than a layperson, it does not necessarily make them experts within their field, nor does it mean they are effortlessly competent with all aspects of their field, such as writing papers and operating machines. So part of any problem here is the general expectations outside people, and consequently even people within the field, have.

This entire issue is more compounded when there is no particular need to produce results or exhibit competence. To take two examples: cultural competence and practicing aikido as a lifelong discipline as opposed to a skill to master.

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We are all subject to the conditioning of our cultural environment, which shapes our grasp of places, people, customs, traditions, etc. that we are unfamiliar with. This grasp of what’s foreign is usually not required to be stronger or deeper, especially if you remain in your home environment (or surrounded by similar compatriots). What happens, then when a person wants to go “out” but only partially? And maybe this endeavor is partial because of their need and commitment (i.e., they are fine with remaining partially ignorant), or because they have no idea what the whole deal is (i.e., they are ignorant and don’t know it).

When a person wants to learn a foreign language, they are inevitably confronted with the fact that language is only part of communication. Other big factors include whether that person is motivated at all to communicate – some people want the language skill but only as a sort of safety net. It’s like learning to swim to avoid drowning or to enjoy the water and see the sealife; also, what they have to say – the social and conversational norms are likely different; does the person want to use the language successfully by learning the norms also, or do they want to use the language skill according to the norms and situations they already know?

In the safety net case, it’s very difficult to practice and acquire the skill because that person’s comfort zone is in contradiction to the wearing of whatever scraps are at hand that the skill is about. A survival skill is one you don’t want to have to use, and it’s reasonable for a person not to have the desire to use it, let alone repeatedly practice it. Regarding cultural competence, their stated interest will be simply to avoid disaster, but since disaster (e.g., making someone enraged at you, humiliating yourself) is not easy to practice, they will struggle to develop that skill. (Unless they accept as part of the endeavor getting used to disasters.)

Regarding the issue with learning norms, the person may be puzzled and perplexed when they are not able to use the new skill in a familiar way. If they struggle against the realization that there’s a whole other part to their objective, they will certainly struggle to progress in their endeavor. If they passively accept that they need to do something differently, then the core nature of their adjustment will still be based in their “native” state. It will be like wearing tight jeans even though they are now trying to learn soccer. Standing on the soccer field is fine, but they will naturally figure out how to run, jump, slide, etc. as little as possible and otherwise hitch up their jeans only when they need to. On the other hand, if they actively accept that they need to do something quite different, then they will accept and study the core nature of the change they need to make. If they are initially wearing tight jeans to play soccer, then they will try to see when and how the jeans interfere and perhaps later see why others are wearing shorts, and even later figure out how to get shorts of their own. How this applies to cultural competence is, when the person experiences “foreign-ness” or “other-ness”: the first person will perhaps focus on how to tolerate and get past those awkward moments, without any improvement in understanding except to now know that that kind of thing might happen; the second person will realize that their core grasp of matters is actually one of many, not absolute, and consequently take advantage of opportunities to examine their grasp and, from there, evolve their own core way of being.

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Regarding practicing aikido as a lifelong discipline, the beginner, or layperson, is of the perspective that they are learning various new skills. These skills are visible and apparent, i.e., physical. There are also other aspects. Sometimes they will have a teacher who mentions these other aspects. Sometimes they will encounter the necessity of these aspects through their own progress; they will come up against certain walls.

As with the person who is only interested in a minimal safety net, they will only be inclined to practice that which is immediately comfortable, and nothing that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, awkward-feeling, and requires them to learn or do related things like stretching and falling. They are not interested in learning the curriculum or the tradition, let alone the deeper aspects that the practice may beget. Even mastering the survival skills will be difficult because practicing those requires the person to experience the uncomfortable situations.

As with the person wearing tight jeans to a soccer match, one type of person may strive to resolve the other aspects only when they have difficulty executing a technique on a certain day. They will gravitate toward doing technique in a way that is comfortable, not in a way that excels and may require them to overcome other issues. The other type of person will perhaps realize that there is something fundamental there – this thing, whether it be psychological or spiritual, is not relevant only some times but all of the time. They will actively keep an eye out for instances where it is more apparently relative, and seek out opportunities to hone it. As with the above cultural competence analogy, that aikido student may evolve their core way of practicing, which is that mastering a technique will cease to be the main focus, but one that is inseparable from honing all these other aspects of themselves. The important point here is that the last type of person is, or becomes, interested in the practice, not parts of the practice.

Necessity is the mother of invention. When it comes to executing a technique, one will come up against a wall if one does the technique only according to one’s initial senses and understanding. The expanding of one’s practice may be prompted by one’s desire to overcome this wall. For some, they will realize this wall exists everywhere, and may just become apparent at any given moment. For these people, they will encounter the option of changing the core nature of their practice of mastering many techniques, overcoming walls wherever they are encountered, to becoming a person who has mastery. This last kind of practice does not show day to day results. In fact, part of the deal is shedding oneself of the desire to see and check results, while paradoxically continuing to hone one’s practical, not imaginary or theoretical, grasp.

(People seem to be inclined to go through life at a certain “cruising altitude”. Sometimes life events may force a person to plummet and see the ground uncomfortably close. And in many cases, a person says they dream of flying higher, at the edge of space, in ecstasy, beyond any mundane concern, yet in the end they stay at that same cruising altitude. )

What is the nature of that cruising altitude? Let’s say there’s no turbulence, nothing except a perfect flow of air. The person doesn’t really need to operate their aircraft. They can practically just glide along. Further below, however, they need to pay attention to updrafts, crosswinds, how much power is needed from the engine at any moment, etc. They’d always need to be operating the craft. As for the edge of space, people imagine the beauty, the absence of any resistance of air and how free that would feel, the experience of being above it all, etc. At the same time, people often neglect to consider how much or what kind of effort it would take to stay up there and how comfortable the other aspects would really be, such as temperature, breathability, etc.

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