I first noticed it in Taipei while immersing myself in Chinese. Erroneously, I thought that the drip, drop, drip of daily lessons and street-level exposure would generate a steadily rising line graph of comprehension and ability.
I was wrong.
Learning Chinese, like most other processes of learning or transformation, is more about plodding weeks of flat plateau with occasional short brilliant bursts of head-spinning improvement. Followed again by a long slog of wearisome incremental changes — and eventually another seemingly overnight leap in comprehension and skill.
Regardless of the time spent writing characters, endless repetition of new words, or mental fasts where I’d completely avoid English, the pattern held. Slog, slog, slog and then BAM! Seemingly I was speaking like someone else.
Lots of learning seems to work this way. Anyone who has dedicated enough hours to a pursuit to get some degree of facility knows that the process of improvement is stutter-step at best. That’s if you do the work; if you don’t, then forget it.
Somewhere in my third or fourth month of renaming the world in Chinese, I noticed a sudden drop in my language skills. Something I could say and have people understand last week now brought shrugs or tiny smiles that suggested I had just called someone’s mother a horse. Pages of Chinese I could read a few days earlier now sent me fumbling for the dictionary.
It was frustrating as hell!
This backslide would last days to a week or more. It was like watching someone you still loved cozy up to someone new. Then suddenly within the space of hours, the frame would shift and my skills would rocket to a new level. Grammar tightened up, tones hit true on, comprehension and ability to translate inner experience into staccato tones of Chinese would all take on a new brilliance.
Then it was back to the plateau for weeks, and in some cases, months. Then would come that peculiar falling apart, followed by tighter and more comprehensive integration.
Eventually I came to trust it.
You may have noticed this too, that growth comes in bursts. Especially if you are focused and actively participating in the process of cultivation, be it anything from writing to music to computer programming, meditation, building a business or learning to get along with your spouse. Sometimes, everything seems to come unraveled, as though the very fabric of your being and understanding dissociates into a soft staticky goo, and then BANG! A new and more integrated order suddenly appears.
It’s easy to think that when things are falling apart that it means we are going backwards, or are in the free-fall of failure. That could be the case. But it also could mean that there is no way to make the leap to that higher level of integration without softening your current constructs of the world just enough to allow for a recrystallization at a higher level.
Sometimes things feel like they are falling apart — but really, they are falling together. It could be that Life just needs to soften us enough so we can let go of our current limitations and open to a more profound integration and depth of connection and understanding.
Is this time of free-fall uncomfortable? You bet it is!
Is it necessary to reach that promised land of deeper skill and ability?
I don’t see how it could be any other way.