Learning the stages of mastery from the Four Sons and their questions.
This week is Passover, and I decided to devote my writing to exploring the themes and lessons we learn from this holiday.
The Passover Seder is filled with rituals designed to provoke questions from children, which opens the door for us to tell them the story of how God freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. But why do we need the questions as a springboard?
In Part 1, I used the framework of the Four Sons to illustrate four roles that questions play in the learning process.
The Four Sons as a Model for Mastery
We typically think of the Four Sons as individual people, or as stages in the development of a child.
I’d like to propose looking at the Four Sons in a different way: as a model for developing mastery in a new subject area. This is especially applicable to anything we learn on the spiritual or personal development path.
Specifically, we learn from the Four Sons that there are four stages in obtaining mastery, which we can apply to the study of any discipline:
- Learn the language: before we can ask questions, we must learn how to ask questions by learning the unique language of the discipline.
- Curiosity: questions that open the mind and heart to learning, and keep us engaged in the process.
- Challenge: questions that illuminate areas where new information conflicts with entrenched belief systems, and define the boundaries of our understanding.
- Clarification: questions that seek to uncover new distinctions and deepen the learning.
I’ll explain these further below.
Stage 1: Learn the Language
When we first begin to learn a new discipline, we don’t yet have enough knowledge to ask questions coherently. Every subject has its own terminology, slang, and shorthand. Until we understand this, we are ill equipped to ask questions. The first stage of learning is to learn the “language” of the discipline so that we can ask questions. As we begin to learn the language, we open ourselves to receive the teachings.
Stage 2: Questions of Curiosity
Once we learn the language, we can ask questions. Questions open our hearts and minds to receive the wisdom and teachings offered to us, and keep us engaged in the process. Our questions at this stage are simple, and we learn on a basic level. We begin to investigate and test what we learn by trying it on and assessing how it fits into our existing frameworks and models.
Stage 3: Questions of Challenge
As we experiment and test what we learn, we start to integrate the information and convert it to embodied knowledge. In this stage, we begin to push against the limits of our understanding. We may meet resistance at the points where new information conflicts with entrenched belief systems and established structures. Our questions in this stage may appear to others as challenges to the information they are sharing, but those who know how to listen between the lines can correctly hear that we are confused or uncertain. In this stage, we might separate ourselves from our communities, as a way to protect ourselves from competing ideas while we resolve the conflicts that arise in our learning process. We sort through our beliefs and values to determine what makes sense to us in light of the new things we are learning.
Stage 4: Questions of Clarification
As we resolve conflicts to whatever level is available to us at this point in time, we ask deeper questions to gain clarity in our understanding. As we ask deeper questions that reflect our exploration and experience, we create new distinctions that open up new levels of understanding. Each new distinction might send us to one of the other stages again, or open up a new portal through which we explore new territory.
Mastery = Embracing the Process
The key to mastery lies in recognizing that (1) the process doesn’t end and (2) that it’s not linear. This is a continuous process. Each new distinction might send us back to any of the other stages. A new life experience might facilitate new distinctions for us without the struggle of stage 3. Or, we might reach clarity around a certain issue and then have an experience that throws it into question, sending us through a period of challenge around something that was previously clear.
Mastery is the recognition that each new distinction opens up doors for further exploration, for learning how to ask better questions, for challenging our beliefs regarding what we’re learning, and for seeking further distinctions.
Mastery and The Passover Seder
Viewed from this perspective, the purpose of the questions at the Seder is not simply to open the door to tell the story of the Exodus to the children. The focus on questions at the Seder teaches us about the importance of questions in the learning process, regardless of our age or stage of development. Learning is not only for children. Learning and growth continue for as long as we are alive.
This fits with the central commandment of the holiday, which tells us that in every generation, each person should view himself or herself as if he or she has personally been freed from Egypt. We must bring our current experiences with us to the Seder, telling the story from where we are now. How do we fit the themes of freedom into our current lives?
This command is the essence of the process of mastery: application of the principles and themes from a story that is thousands of years old to our modern lives.
How can you apply this process to something you’re learning now? Please share in the comments!