Burning the Notebook
And losing our minds just a little bit
One of my teachers once shared a story about spending time in South America with elders. He had taken copious notes about everything, pages and pages of quotes, descriptions, and things to remember. One day, his mentor picked up his notebook and flipped through it. “Oh,” he said. “That’s all very interesting.” Then he threw it in the fire.
I laughed when I first heard this story, but mostly out of nervous horror. I’m a loud and proud nerd and the notion of having all my notes burned away… <shudder>. Man, I thought, what a disaster. Let’s avoid that at all costs, amiright?
A few years later, when I was in Peru, I kept a journal. I wrote down everything that had happened. I gave myself extra time at night before bed to make sure I created a permanent record of The Important Things.
Because you might have guessed that foreshadowing is a thing, I got mugged in Lima and off went my camera and passport — and journal — into the ethers. Into a different kind of fire.
The Western, European-influenced way of learning tends to be head-first. We do copious mental exercises, inquire, articulate, read, write, and analyze. All good, useful stuff; many of us really excel at philosophizing and reasoning and it serves us well. I’m a fan of the scientific method, for instance.
But there is another way of learning, one that often involves circuitous stories, symbols, and intuition, where time isn’t linear and schedules are suggestions, where the moon and seasons matter more than the constructs of the clock. In this other way, language is peripheral to direct experience. I can’t call this way a different mindset because that places the emphasis in the head again, so let’s say it’s a separate paradigm in which understanding becomes embodied. It soaks in like water rather than being gathered like firewood.
I got to spend time with some elders I met in Peru when they were in New York a while back. I also caught up with a friend who has known them longer than I have, and asked about his experience with them. He commented that lots of American people kept asking for translations of the prayers that were being said during ceremony. “I tried to tell them…