“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman. They persist concerning adult learning in today’s organizational life.

Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a kind of learning that cultivates our capacity to learn and evolve as human beings. Let’s call it deep learning—it encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions, to let go of outmoded thinking, to experiment with differences, and to develop practices that sustain continuous learning.

Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and content overload. With our abundance of information (or access to it), learning challenges do not concern content, but rather context: perspective, judgment, and attitudes.

The gap we must bridge involves the distance between our cognitive and our affective life to integrate new knowledge in ways that alter our self-perceptions and our view of others.

Learning vs Knowing

Instead of delving deeper into these questions by Senge and Kofman, much of our attention and time since the publication of their seminal paper has focused on the surface of learning: the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.

We focus on assessments to measure knowledge; technology to access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery; and new processes to reallocate ideas in micro-learning-sized bites for fast consumption.

A quick review of some of the literature for learning and development reveals the following: Concerns about data and analytics and transitioning to data-driven learning; use of marketing to guide or scale learning; the impact and ROI of learning; questions of why we measure and what we measure.

With our focus on technology, scaling, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating learning from knowing.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that “one in five Americans have a mental health condition. Tens of millions suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders.”

What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters for ourselves and others?

Much of this has to do with larger inquiries of meta-learning. What is learning, as distinct from knowing? How do we cultivate a mindset for continuous learning? How can learning offer refuge for humans to process life at the speed of thought?

Learning Is Emotional

An area to begin our inquiry is the realization that adult learning involves an emotional challenge—not a cognitive one.

Emotions are important, as they can either motivate or impede learning. For learning professionals, navigating the emotional terrain can be demanding, especially with experiential learning, which is effective but can evoke emotional responses.

To experience learning as-lived requires an emotional understanding as follows:

  1. Resonance—to connect cognitive and affective experiences to understand the responses in our body that lives in us.
  2. Context—to leverage that understanding to create an emotional context that motivates and sustains learning that lives for us.

The result is that we are more likely to learn something we care about, that matters to our future—or that lives in our lives.

Still, learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience — where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey, noted “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Whether guilt, shame, despair or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us, such as:

— Coming to terms with being a beginner, and fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. If “I don’t know,” are the three most difficult words to utter, then the second most difficult are, “I’m a beginner.”

— Being confused or stuck in confusion, can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can be isolating, and prevent us from seeking support.

— A self-critical mind that judges one’s intelligence, abilities, or competence can increase anxiety or stress.

— Fearing being perceived as stupid or dumb, or concern about looking foolish or asking silly questions, can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.

— Taking feedback so personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.

— Discovering the need to let go of outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming or even dreadful, and can lead to a loss of identity.

Learning, Teaching, and Emotions

Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the roles emotions play, both as information to guide us and as the context for powerful learning.

According to author and thinker Alan Sieler in his text Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:

Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.

This is the paradox of learning: the very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.

Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions: we talk about them rather than learn from them. We will explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or direct felt experience as it moves through our body.

Intellectualizing our emotions aligns well with cognitive learning, rather than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about the teachings than the learning. Emotional resonance or context is rarely a consideration.

A wise teacher can bring teachings to life, but ultimately the learner learns what they care about.

Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than is available individually or experientially.

This journey requires venturing East.

The Three Gems

Deep learning that expands our view of self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our sense of self.

Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community with a shared understanding can we grow individually.

Or, the notion of “individual” is bankrupt as we seek to evolve our being.

In Buddhism, the idea of the three gems (or three jewels) represents an interdependent whole that includes:

  • the Buddha (the teacher),
  • the Dharma (the teachings), and
  • the Sangha (the community).

The most important part of this triad, however, is not any of those items. The real treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature, an insight that is too often overlooked or dismissed.

In the West, we view this triad as three separate items to combine. We may add the element of community to our design without revisiting the teacher or our relationship to the teachings. We’ve now added a fragmented view to what is an elegant interdependent whole. The grid below illustrates some of the challenges of our default, fragmented view.

From an Eastern perspective, the elegance of the interdependent view locates each of these items within each of the others—three integral parts hanging together to support a greater whole.

Teacher (buddha). The teacher represents the awareness to cultivate wisdom from the community to better understand the teachings necessary to deepen awareness.

Teachings (dharma). Here, teachings are contextualized as truth, beyond any content. This involves the material embodied by the teacher and the material in the community that emerges in discussions, and especially the practices that metabolize and connect the content to each waking moment.

Community (sangha). The community reflects the teachings and informs the teacher through what Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh terms, “sangha eyes”:

When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns.

We learn about ourselves from each other. The Dharma or teachings bind the space with commitment to becoming more. The context for community transcends the individual, yet mirrors the self to the direct experience of being.

Community Is Key

Our Western pedagogy and context of learning demand a bit more attention.

Honoring the three gems requires looking deeply at two elements of our deep socialization that undermine community: our independent–individualistic mindset and our competitive attitude.

We often accept learning in this context. We seek out a good teacher, purchase the suggested material, and go off on our own to learn – often to achieve more, even faster. Many of us would rather pay more for a teacher or teachings that release us from becoming vulnerable in a community.

A learning community is not a mere sentimental view of being human, although it often reveals that dimension. Designing such a culture requires personal mastery and rigorous agreements and practices in areas of listening, focusing attention, and cultivating intention to develop compassion and patience.

Honoring the interdependent wisdom of the three gems constitutes community as an integral part of becoming fully human, not as a social place to connect with others. Consider these perceptions of a learning community:

  1. Everyone is respectful and polite and asks great questions that yield interesting discussions. I feel safe and respected.
  2. Belonging to the community is rewarding and fulfilling. I like to connect with people who share so much in common with me.
  3. Everyone encourages feedback and questions each other in ways that hold me accountable and respect me as a member.
  4. Belonging to the community can be rewarding but also annoying and irritating, as I am asked to explore questions that make me uncomfortable.

If you are drawn to the first two items and repelled by the latter two, it’s likely you have not yet experienced community as outlined here.

Community Beyond “Individual” to Evolve Being

Community as an interdependent element of the three gems is the very place where we can be vulnerable, open to learning about ourselves in new ways. As stated by Thich Nhat Hanh, “take refuge in the sangha, and you’ll have the wisdom and support you need.”

This kind of learning is beyond who we are as individuals. It demands honest interaction, deep connection, and critical self-reflection to discover a new relationship to the self as an evolving being in the world. This realization happens in relation to others, to other ideas, or to situations that disclose individual identity to our self as an evolving process.

More importantly, community is the missing link that, when viewed interdependently with teaching and teacher, offers us refuge to learn from the direct, felt experience of our emotions as they emerge in our body and pass.

Embodying the three gems offers emotional resonance to connect cognitive and affective experiences that live in us with an emotional context to encourage and sustain learning that lives for us.

The three gems offer the fundamental support for being in community.

In community, we can be a beginner.

To continue this discovery, this post is a complement to the following blogs:


tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.