The Transformative Power of Learning

Enlightenment Begins with Learning But Modern People Trust More Their Feelings

In the summer of the year 386 AD, Augustine of Hippo was resting in his garden. According to his own account, suddenly he overheard a childish voice telling him: “Take up and read!” (“Tolle, lege!” in Latin.) Augustine picked up his book, read a passage and he immediately experienced a powerful transformation. He would record this impactful story in his seminal work Confessions.

We can all relate to this: who hasn’t found transformation while reading — while learning? Countless stories run in parallel to Augustine’s. Learning may lead to enlightenment, to an exact instant in which we acquire a new knowledge or perspective that changes our old self into a new one.

But transformative learning doesn’t stop at books. Listening to someone or having a profound dialogue are also great ways of luminous learning. These exchanges with others may impart wisdom that impacts us. Through mindful attention, we can recall the precise moments where our lives changed forever when we heard the right words uttered.

These enlightening episodes may seem to be isolated and wholly spontaneous. Yet, a long journey leads to them. We may have been preparing to receive such learning, such clarity. Indeed, most authors would agree with German philosopher Immanuel that the more we learn, the more we acquire luminous learning.

As an example among many, the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato chose the format of the dialogue to impart transformative knowledge. The dialogues follow a progression and culminate to the moment in which one of the participants pronounce deep wisdom that impacts the audience.

Philosophy has traditionally been the most powerful transformative and healing tool available.

Scholars have long acknowledged the power of learning in personal enlightenment. French professor Pierre Hadot devoted most of his research to the concept of “spiritual exercises” in Antiquity. He successfully demonstrated that ancient philosophy had been conceived as a practice for inner awakening and elevation. Through the study of the practices of Stoicism — one of the main philosophical schools of Antiquity — , he unearthed an ancestral method used by philosophers to cultivate the self through deep, mindful and guided learning. The extremely popular Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius are the greatest example of these Stoic “spiritual exercises.”

In more recent times, German-Brazilian philosopher Carlos Fraenkel, professor at McGill University, has devoted his studies to the healing power of philosophy. In his 2015 book Teaching Plato in Palestine. Philosophy in a Divided World, Fraenkel examines how people turns to learning philosophy in order to understand the current world and how to heal it — beginning by healing themselves. The book demonstrates how valuable philosophy can be to relieve pain and bring clarity and the luminous moment. This is what Fraenkel calls the “healing power of philosophy.”

The current wellness momentum overemphasizes feelings and the body in the transformative path. We generally forget that the primordial change starts through an intellectual shift — and this intellectual mechanism is always expressed by learning. We live in a rushed society burdened by modern diseases of alienation. Thus, in the same rush we seek “enlightenment now.” We trust our feelings as a way to protect and insulate ourselves. However, without the astounding impact of learning there can’t be any transformative journey.

Those who seek awakening and enlightenment in their spiritual journey have many simple tools at hand: from the Vedas to Plato, from the Tao Te Ching to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. But the transformative power of learning isn’t restricted to philosophy. Literature has exerted an incredible force for change over the centuries: from Homer’s Iliad to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, prose and poetry have provided luminous clarity to many.

So, how can you find enlightenment through learning?

Read. There is just one way to read: open the book and mindfully focus on the text flow. Dive deep in the ideas and the setting. Find yourself among the different situations and people. Either philosophy or literature, develop empathy to what you are reading. Identifying with what you read is the best way to become what you read. You have plenty of libraries around where you can find great books. Or you can look to the biggest library on earth: the Internet.

Listen. The most unexpected conversation can bring you clarity wisdom with unintended consequences. Be attentive and fully mindful of the other when talking to someone. Plain speech can hide greater truths. But sometimes it’s good to go to lectures and talks where knowledge flows at higher rates. Originally, universities were conceived as places were a select few could gain this inner, luminous wisdom through the professorial lectures — before becoming the institutions we know today.

Find a mentor. The oldest method to transmit and acquire knowledge is through the relationship between master and disciple. The great world ideas have been created, transmitted and preserved from mentors to their students. In the esoteric traditions, where learning is explicitly used as a way for enlightenment and transcendence, the master-disciple setting is the basis in which the initiation and luminous insight are born. In the West, Masonic, Hermetic and Rosicrucian societies have been practicing and preserving this transformative learning method.

Like centuries ago, we need to listen to that voice telling us: Take up and read!

Modern society has never been so eager to learn — and we have never had so many resources at hand. Our stimuli have so many options to choose that we end up reading or listening to things that only create the appearance of learning. In our quest for immediacy, we forget that learning is an art: it requires time and, yes, it requires efforts.

But these efforts are available to everybody. Professor Pierre Hadot is very clear about this in his 1981 book Philosophy as a Way of Life: ancient philosophy wasn’t conceived as a theoretical abstraction for an elite, but as a guide for a better life. Philosophers like Plato, Epicurus, Epictetus (who was a former slave!) or Plotinus sought to find enlightenment and to provide luminous transformation to all through learning.

Like centuries ago, we need to listen to that voice telling us: Take up and read!

Tolle, lege!

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, Ph.D. is a religion scholar, previously at Columbia University and New York University. He obtained his doctorate in history of religion from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France. He studies the relationship between ancient religion and modernity.

Proficient in ten languages, Dr. Boaz ​was educated in both Paganism and John Calvin, before having an intense spiritual journey, including Catholicism — a tradition in which he is ordained priest — and Judaism. Equipped with this rich Pagan, Catholic and Jewish background, Dr. Boaz believes in the power of syncretism and interspirituality for the modern man.

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, PhD

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Religion scholar, Columbia University alum. Art, nature, spirituality & history

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