Why experiential learning is superior to every other kind

Why is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.

“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.

Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.

When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.”
—Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikebaird

I stop talking for five days. You won’t believe what happens next.

vallecitosI do something I’ve never done before
In August, I stopped talking for five days.

I flew to New Mexico and drove four hours to Vallecitos, a remote ranch in the heart of the Carson National Forest.

For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.

Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.

What happened next?
A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.

When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.

Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.

What can we learn from my experience?
Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MD calls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.

Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.

What else did I learn?
Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.

As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.

A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.

In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!

My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.