B3. The Art of Learning How to Learn.
It is a commonly received opinion, that in youth it is easier to learn than in after years; that at “middle age,” or after, the mind becomes, as it were, set in a rut of mould, which does not readily receive new impressions. This idea is expressed in the adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
People have made this a truth by accepting it as a truth. It is not a truth. If your mind is allowed to grow and strengthen, it will learn easier and quicker than during the infancy of the body. It will learn more and more quickly how to learn any new thing. Learning how to learn, learning how to grasp at the principles underlying any art, is a study and a science by itself.
The child, in most cases, does not learn so quickly as many suppose. Think of the years often spent at school, from the age of six up to sixteen or eighteen, and how little, relatively, is learned during that period. But this time of life is not regarded as of so much importance as that after eighteen or twenty. He or she would be deemed as having a dull intellect, who should require fourteen years to gain what a large proportion of children do gain from the age of six to twenty.
It is possible for any man or woman whose mind has grown to that degree, that they can acknowledge that every possibility exists within themselves to learn any art, any profession, any business, and become skilled therein, and this even without teachers, and at the period termed “middle age,” or after; providing:
First, That they are in living earnest to learn.
Second, That they fight obstinately against the idea of “can’t,” or that they are too old to learn.
Third, That in all effort to become proficient in their new calling, they cease such effort so soon as it becomes fatiguing or irksome, and that they make of such effort a recreation, and not a drudgery.
Fourth, That they allow no other person to argue, sneer, or ridicule them out of the truth that the human mind can accomplish anything it sets its forces persistently upon.
Fifth, That they keep their minds in the attitude of ever desiring, demanding, praying for whatever quality or trait of character or temperament they need to succeed in their effort; and that whenever the thought of such effort is in mind, it shall be accompanied with this unspoken thought: “I will do what I have set out to do.”
There should be no “hard study,” at any age. Real “study” is easy and pleasing mental effort; as when you watch the motion of an animal that awakens your curiosity, of a person that interests you. You are studying when you admire and examine the structure of a beautiful flower; you are studying the method and style of an actor or actress when they most hold and compel your attention and admiration. All admiration is in reality study. When you admire anything that is beautiful, your mind is concentrated upon it. You are quite unconsciously examining it. You remember, without effort, many of its features, or characteristics. That unforced examination and attention is study.
To “study hard” is to try to admire; to try to admire is to try to love; to try to love, or to be forced by others to try to love, generally ends in hating the thing or pursuit so forced upon you,—one reason why so often the schoolboy hates “to learn his lesson.”
The experience of those who have gone before us in any art, trade, occupation, or profession, is unquestionably valuable, but valuable only as suggestion. There is a great deal laid down as rules and” canons of art” which shackle and repress originality. The idea is constantly, though indirectly, impressed on learners, that the utmost limit of perfection has been reached in some art by some “old master,” and that it would be ridiculous to think of surpassing him.
Now, genius knows no “old master.” It knows no set form of rules made for it by others. It makes its own rules as it goes along, as did Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott, in literature, and the first Napoleon in war; and your mind may have in it the seed of some new idea, discovery, invention, some new rendering of art in some form, which the world never saw before.
Any man or woman who loves to look at trees and flowers, lakes and rivulets, waves, waterfalls, and clouds, has within them the faculty for imitating them in the effects of light, shade, and color,—has, in brief, a taste for painting.
You say, “People to be artists, must have the art born within them.” I say, “If they admire the art, they have within them the faculty for advance in that art.”
You say, “But because I admire a rose, or a landscape, is no sign I can ever paint either.” I say, “Yes, you can, providing you really want to.”
But how? Put your effort on it for an hour, half an hour, fifteen minutes, a day. Commence. Commence anywhere. Anything in this world will do for a starting‑point. Commence, and try to imitate on paper a dead leaf, a live one, a stone, a rock, a log, a box, a brickbat. A brickbat lying in the mud has lying with it light, shade, and color, and the laws governing them, as much as a cathedral, and is a better foundation than a cathedral to commence on. Commence with the stub of a pencil, on the back of an old envelope. Every minute of such work after commencement is so much practice gained. Every minute before such commencement, providing you intend to commence, and do not, is so much practice lost, as regards that particular art.
Mind, though, you make of such practice a recreation, just as boys do in ball throwing and catching, or as the billiard player does who takes up the cue for half an hour, matched only against himself, or as the horseman does who exercises the horse for practice before the race. When the work becomes irksome, when you get out of patience, because your brickbat won’t come out on the paper like the original, drop it, wait for your patience‑reservoir to fill up, and take for your next copy a log, a tree trunk, or anything else.
You say that you should go to a teacher of this or that art, so that you can become “properly grounded in its principles,” and that, by such teacher’s aid, you shall avoid blundering and stumbling along, making little or no progress.
Take up any trade, any handicraft, any art, all by yourself, and grope along in it by yourself for a few weeks, and at the end of that time you will have many well‑defined and intelligent questions to ask about it, of some one more experienced in it than yourself,—the teacher. That is the time to go to the teacher. The teacher should come in when an interest in the art or study is awakened. To have him before, is like answering questions before they are asked.
You cannot teach a dog to paint. The intelligence using the dog’s organization has not grown to an appreciation of such imitation of natural objects. But you can teach him to draw a cart, to “point” to game in the cover, to swim out to the water‑fowl you have shot, and bring it to you. Why? Because the dog has these instincts, or desires, born in him. The trainer, his teacher, brings them out. Some men and women have no more admiration for a beautiful landscape than the dog. Of course, neither can ever be taught to paint, because they have not the desire to paint, nor the admiration of the thing to be painted.
“Then, whatever a man or woman really desires to do, is to be taken as some proof that they can do?” you ask. “Yes; that is the exact idea.” Desire to accomplish is a proof of ability to accomplish. Of course, such ability may be weighted down and kept back by many causes, such as ill health of body, ill health of mind, unfavorable surroundings, and, perhaps, greatest of all, utter ignorance that such desire is a proof of the possession of power to accomplish the thing desired.
How did you learn to walk, and how did you learn to talk? Could anyone have taught you, if desire to walk and talk had not been born with you? Did you go to a walking teacher, or a talking teacher? Did you not learn both accomplishments after ten thousand failures? So far as you can remember, was it not rather an amusement than otherwise, to learn both, or at least, was there any idea of work associated with these early efforts?
You place a boy or a girl by the water‑side, and give them full liberty, and they will learn to swim as naturally as they learn to walk, because the desire to swim is in them. If, after learning, they see a better swimmer, they will naturally try to imitate him; and all this endeavor, from first to last, will be for them far more recreation than work. The better swimmer who comes along represents the teacher; and the boy or girl who can already swim fairly well, and are anxious to swim better, represent pupils who are in a fit condition to be taught.
Think for a moment, how much it was necessary to teach your body, in training it to walk. First, to balance yourself upright on two feet without falling. Secondly, to balance yourself on one foot without falling. Thirdly, to move the body. Fourthly, to give it the direction in which you wanted to go. And yet we call walking a “mechanical,” and not a mental, effort.
If you are determined to paint, and love the creations of nature and art well enough to try and imitate them, you will be constantly studying effects in light and shade on rocks, stones, cliffs, towers, steeples. You will observe and study, and be rejoiced at the many changing aspects and colors of the sky, as you never were before. You will discover, as you continue to observe, that nature has a different shade of color for every day in the year, and almost every hour of the day. You will suddenly find in all this a new and permanent recreation, without money and without price. You will then find new interests and new sources of amusement in studying the works of painters and their methods, which will be revealed to you just so fast as your appreciation grows up to them.
The same principle will apply to any branch of mechanics or art,—to anything. Of course, it is best to pursue that for which you have the most inclination, that is, admiration for. If you are in any occupation that does not suit you, and you want to engage on some art that does suit you, if you have fifteen minutes in the day to spare, commence on that art.
If it is painting, paint a brickbat in some idle moment as well as you can, and only as a means of amusement. If it is carving, you have always the means for practice, if you have a jack‑knife and a bit of wood. If it be music, a banjo or guitar with but a single string will give you means for practice. For you must commence in the simplest way, even as you crept before you walked. There must be imperfect effort before there can be relatively perfect result.
Because, when you do so commence, you commence to practice with one instrument far more ingenious and complicated than any you can buy for use in your art; namely, your mind.
If we commence in this way, we commence something else; we commence drawing toward us ways, means, helps, and agencies unseen, but powerful, to help us. We are not to expect success in an hour, a day, a month, a year. But if we persist, a relative success is coming all the while. The effort of this month is better than that of last. There may come periods of weariness and discouragement; periods when, as we look back, we seem to have made no advance; periods, in fact, when we seem to have gone back, when we seem doing worse than at the start; periods when we lose all interest in the work. It makes us sick to look at it, even to think of taking it up again; and a certain sense of guilt at our neglect intensifies the sickness.
That is a mistake. If, in our music, our painting, our profession, our business, be it what it may, we strive for some certain result, and fail time after time, and week after week, to effect it, yet we are still advancing toward it.
We may not see such advance. That is because the advance is not in the direction we think it should be. There may be a screw loose in a part of our mental being that we have taken no note of, which keeps us back. That screw, in very many cases, lies in the state of mind in which we take up our work or pursuit.
We may be too anxious or impatient. We take up the pen, the brush, or the tool, in a hurried frame of mind. We want to do too many things at once. Or we endeavor to crowd the doing of several things in too short a limit of time. Or we are unable to dismiss all thought, save what bears on the effort now in hand.
All such moods are destructive to the best effort. They take much of our force from that effort. A common result is that we can do nothing to suit us. We throw down our work in disgust. We may not take it up again for weeks. We do take it up at last, perhaps, in a listless, indifferent frame of mind. We do not then set our hearts on doing anything perfect, or making it come up to our ideal in a moment, and that is the very time when we produce some new effect; when we hit the idea we have aimed at; when we are surprised at the apparently accidental development of a new power within us.
There is a great mystery in this,—a mystery we may never solve,—the mystery that whatever purpose this power within us we call mind sets itself upon, fixes itself upon persistently, that purpose it is accomplishing, that purpose it is carrying out, that purpose it is ever drawing nearer to itself, not only when we work for it with the body and the intellect, but we are growing ever toward it when it seems for the time forgotten, or when we are asleep.
That persistent purpose, that strong desire, that never‑ceasing longing, is a seed in the mind. It is rooted there. It is alive. It never stops growing. Why this is so, we may never know. Perhaps it is not desirable to know. It is enough to know that it is so. There is a wonderful law involved in it. This law, when known, followed out, and trusted, leads every individual to mighty and beautiful results. This law, followed with our eyes open, leads to more and more happiness in life; but followed blindly, involuntarily with our eyes shut, leads to misery.
To succeed in any undertaking, any art, any trade, any profession, simply keep it ever persistently fixed in mind as an aim, and then study to make all effort toward it play, recreation. The moment it becomes “hard work,” we are not advancing. I mean by “play,” that both body and mind work easily and pleasantly. It matters not what a man or woman is doing, whether digging sand or scrubbing floors, when the mind is interested in that work and the muscles are full of strength, such work is play, and is more apt to be well done. When the muscles are exhausted of their power, and will alone drives the body forward, the occupation soon becomes work, drudgery, and is much the more apt to be ill done. I commence low down with illustration, down to sand, mud, brickbats; but the principle is the same, be the worker a hod‑carrier or a Michael Angelo.
The science of learning to learn, then, involves largely that of making recreation of all effort. This is not as easy as it may seem. It involves a continual prayer for patience, patience, patience.
“Patience to play?” you ask. Yes. When we are amused by any effort of our own, be it effort of the eye, in seeing sights that please it, or effort of the ear, in hearing sounds that please it, or effort of muscle, in exercising them, that is the very time when we are most attentive and most absorbed. The very time when we forget there is such a thing as patience, is the very time we most exercise patience.
That is the mood we need to cultivate. Because moods of mind determine the character and quality of effort. The painter writes out his mood in his picture; a mistake, a blur, a defect, a daub, may write out in that picture too much hurry to get ahead. He took up his brush, possibly, full of irritation, because his wife asked him for more money for household expenses; result, he puts a woman in that picture twelve feet high as proportioned to other objects, when she should have been but four. What put on that extra and needless eight feet? A mood born of household expenses. Or the scrubber wrote out her mood of mind on the floor. Where? In that neglected corner, where the last dust of summer lingers alone. Why? Because her mood of hurry to be through with her work is there written; or her mood of dishonesty, in doing as little as possible for the money to be received; or her mood of anxiety concerning the sick child, left at home in some squalid tenement; or the poor woman’s mood born of physical weakness, in thus trying to do a man’s work, with no nutritious food in her stomach, and no money to buy any till the work is done.
My very practical friend, you who despise all “art flummery,” all and everything that is not “business,” and smells of wood, or stone, or leather, or bank‑bills, this cultivation of the mood is of vast importance to you, also; because, when you meet your brother Hard Cash, to have a wrangle over bargain and sale, the man who is in the coolest mood, the most collected mood, the mood most free of other thought, or care, the man who is in the least hurry, the man who throws overboard all anxiety as to results, the man who is not too eager, who can lay back in his chair and make a joke or laugh at one, when millions are trembling in the balance, who keeps all his reserve force till it is needed, that is the man who can play the best hand in your game, and make the best bargain. That is the man who gains his end by some knowledge of spiritual law; and spiritual law can be used for all purposes, and purposes relatively low as well as high; and in some things the wicked, so‑called, of today, are better informed in some phases of spiritual law than those who call themselves good.
How shall we get ourselves, then, into the most desirable mood for doing our best? By praying for it, asking for it, demanding it, in season and out of season. We can wish an earnest desire in a second, no matter where we are. That is a prayer. It is a thought that goes out, and does its work in bringing us another atom of the quality desired. That atom is never lost. It adds itself to and adds its strength to all the other atoms of the same quality so gained. So you call this simple? Is the method too easy? Remember, we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made; and when Solomon wrote this he had an inkling of the existence of powers wrapped up in human bodies, that startled him, and would us, did we more fully realize them.
Possibly this question may be asked: “What is the use of cultivating, or encouraging others to cultivate any form of art, when for thousands the struggle is so hard today for bread?” Or, in other words, “What is the use of educating people to wants and desires they cannot satisfy?” Or, “What bearing and benefit has art cultivation in righting the ‘great wrongs’ of the hour?”
It is of the greatest possible benefit. Art, art appreciation, art cultivation, refines human nature. Refinement demands finer surroundings, finer food, finer houses, cleaner houses, cleaner clothes, cleaner skins. You can’t make people clean, neat, tasteful, by telling them they “ought” to be so. They must have brought out of them some calling, some occupation, some work which will implant ever‑increasing desire for more of the elegancies of life. Much of what is called the “oppression” of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, comes because so many of the poor do not aspire above a pig‑pen under the window, a mud‑puddle in the back yard, and a front garden growing tomato cans, dead cats, and old hoop‑skirts. Much of the money today given in charity to the poor, is really poured from one rich man’s pocket into that of another, and relieves only a temporary distress. You roll a half a ton of coal this winter into the poor man’s cellar. His family are warmed for the hour. The profits go into the safe of the coal corporation. Its heat warms human beings with little ambition above animals. You encourage that man’s boy or girl to paint ever so roughly with the cheapest of water colors, to mould forms in clay, to have any faculty awakened which shall show them what a beautiful world they really live in, and soon with this there may come a growing distaste for the mud‑puddle in the back yard, and the display of hoop‑skirts and tomato cans in the front. You show those children that they have within them more or less of this mighty and mysterious element—mind, and that through its exercise they can become almost anything to which they aspire, and that the more of the Infinite Spirit they call to themselves, the more will they have to strengthen, beautify, enrich, invigorate, and electrify their souls and bodies, and you have then started them on the road of doing for themselves, by the powers in themselves. They are then on a road leading away from both charitable soup‑kitchens and gin‑shops. If they cultivate the love for grace and beauty in any direction, they cultivate also an ability for expressing such grace and beauty. If they follow the law of persistent demand for improvement in such grace or beauty, whether it be by the exercise of pen or tongue, of painting or sculpture, or self‑command, or polish of manner, or the art of actor, elocutionist, musician, or worker on stone, worker in metal, cultivator of plant, tree, flower, they will at last do something a little better than anyone else can do in their peculiar way, and through their self‑taught, peculiar method; and when they can do this, the world will gladly come to them, and bring them its dollars and cents, for what they can please it with.
None of us know what is in us till we try to bring it out. A man, a woman, may go their whole life with some wonderful power, some remarkable talent which would benefit and please mankind, feeling it ever from time to time, struggling for expression in a desire to use it, in a longing to express it, yet having it ever forced back by that fatal thought, “I can’t.” “It’s no use.” “It’s ridiculous, the idea of my aspiring to such a thing.” We are treasure boxes, holding wondrous powers. We brought these treasures with us into the world from an immeasurably far‑off past—a past we may not compute—a past of the spirit, born into being, the tiniest atom, the faintest movement, drawing to itself ever, age after age, through unconscious exercise of desire or demand, more and more of power, more and more of complex organization, more and more of variety of talent, more and more of the marvelous power coming through combination and recombination of element, until at last the man is born, the woman is born, blind at first, blind as millions now are regarding the wealth within them; blind to faith and belief in themselves, until the veil is pulled from their eyes, and then they shall soon spring up into gods, destined to a career of eternal life, eternal growth, and eternal and illimitable happiness.
Blocked communication is unhealthy! Speak your mind so your heart can feel lighter.
The Luxury Travel Expert (n.d.). [Image]. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from https://theluxurytravelexpert.com/2018/05/21/best-resorts-maldives-for-couples/
Mulford, P. (1886-1887). The art of learning how to learn. Your forces and how to use them (pp.285-296). Hollister, Missouri: YOGeBooks by Roger L. Cole. doi: 2015:01:16:10:43:09