An important and often misunderstood concept of Taoist philosophy is the idea that followers of the Tao must unlearn. It sounds confusing at first, as though one is expected to forget a lifetime of learning and return to ignorance. Should we truly snub knowledge?
Then the true geniuses among us assert we should expedite the process of learning and unlearning by just never learning at all! We can sit on the couch and play video games, comfortable that our illiteracy is the true path. Of course, that is not the intention either.
Lao Tzu tells us:
(The Master) has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
— Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64
How should we interpret this?
First, once a person who follows the Tao has filled themselves with scholarly knowledge, it will become clear that academic learning is limited and lacking. Therefore, listening to professors and reading books — while important when one is young and unrefined — will eventually cease to be worthwhile or fulfilling. Instructors will sound stale and lifeless. Your comprehension and interests will outpace the patience you have for teachers. Moreover, academic learning can never replace your own observations, experience and wisdom cultivated through decades of life experience. In this sense, we unlearn.
Second, unlearning is the point where circles aren’t round. When one begins to learn drawing, for example, we start with circles, squares and basic shapes. We learn about light and add shading. Circles are round and trees are green. These are the learned rules of drawing. But eventually, if we are to be true to our own style and expression, we will unlearn that circles are round because it is the only way to move forward in our craft. What others tell us is merely a starting point meant to be discarded and replaced with what is true for us.
Third, for the Taoist unlearning means we must peel off the values and priorities society places upon us that cover up our inner nature. We were closer to the Tao at birth than we have ever been since, and every layer that covers us is a societal affectation, not an inner truth. The values we were told to adopt are not true to our inner nature, but rather a reflection of the society we dwell in with its economics, politics, social protocol, familial expectations and definitions of success. All this must be unlearned.
Finally, unlearning to a Taoist can be seen as “putting things down.” This should be done throughout one’s life but is especially noticeable in old age. If you have observed an elderly person in the final years of life, you may notice hobbies and tasks that were once of great importance to them cease to be a part of their activity. As they approach death, they put aside the possessions and actions that once filled their lives. It can be distressing for those around them, yet the elderly often show no discomfort with the process.
As a more refined individual of Tao, you go through the process of “putting things down” many times at all stages of your life, whether it be when you graduate from school, watch your children leave the nest or stop doing a sport that your body is no longer able to engage in. There is nothing wrong with satiating your curiosity and participating in the world, but eventually all relationships, hobbies and efforts will have run their course. At that point you unlearn and put these things down in favor of returning to your inner nature.
When others interpret the Taoist concept of unlearning to be a support of ignorance or anti-intellectualism, they miss the opportunity to shed the weight we carry that keeps us away from our true nature that aligns perfectly with the Tao.