On feeling like the dumbest person in the room (and being OK with it)
-Damcho Gyalten, MA TTIP student from Spain
Learning a new skill is usually challenging for a variety of reasons. It takes:
- a lot of effort,
- a great deal of persistence,
- loads of openness to new ideas, and, above all,
- a generous dose of tolerance towards feeling ignorant.
We often forget that “learning”, at the most basic level, is a process that takes us from “not knowing anything at all” to “kind of having a notion” about something.
The problem is, none of us want to acknowledge that we’re ignorant about most of the stuff going on in our lives, regardless of whether it is happening “out there” in the world or “in here”, within our minds.
Like anyone else, I always dreaded feeling ignorant, but I had somewhat managed to avoid doing so most of my life. However, once I started learning Tibetan (especially in its colloquial aspect), feeling dumb became more and more frequent, and eventually there came a day when it was no longer escapable.
From the lab into the jungle
Once the pandemic was officially over (sort of) in mid-2022, I moved to Kathmandu to continue my studies of Tibetan at Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI). During the first months, I lived with a lovely elderly Tibetan couple. They were really supportive in bridging the gap between the language skills I’d learnt in the artificial environment of the virtual classroom and the idiosyncrasies of day-to-day conversation.
Not much of a threat to my self-esteem. Yet.
At the beginning of 2023, I moved to the International Buddhist Academy (IBA), which soon became my first proper Tibetan language immersion. That was possible thanks to the kindness and generosity of its two resident khenpos, Dr. Ngawang Jorden and Lama Jampa Losal. They provided me with a hearty welcome, a clean and luminous dorm room and willingness to support my studies in any way they could.
Everything was ready, and I was finally going to get into the thick of it. To be honest, I was feeling quite puffed up about my level of colloquial Tibetan. After all, I had completed the Translator Training Program half a year ago and had recently done a homestay, right? Living in a monastery with other fellow monks would only prove to be the “final push” I needed to achieve mastery of the language. Or at least that’s what I believed.
But of course, something quite different was in store for me.
“Wait, what did you just say?”
It turned out that most monastics at IBA speak Tibetan with a Khampa accent.
As a side note for the newcomer: The Central Tibetan dialect (the one that I’d been learning) is considered “standard” among the diaspora. However, the dialects of the two eastern Tibetan provinces, Kham and Amdo, are almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear (even for native speakers themselves) because of the significant differences in pronunciation and vocabulary.
Now, when I said that IBA’s monks spoke Tibetan with a Khampa accent, that’s something that I only came to realize several weeks after having moved there.
In our first interactions, their speech was so unintelligible for me that I immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were communicating in the actual Khampa dialect instead of in the Central Tibetan one (which I was accustomed to) with an added Khampa accent. (Only later did I learn that a few other IBA monks speak very clear Central Tibetan, but they weren’t the ones with whom I’d established my first relationships.)
So there I was, confronted with communal breakfasts, lunches, dinners, afternoon teas and whatnot, having no idea of what was being said. At all. Not even catching the overall gist.
If lucky, I would manage to make out the occasional time auxiliary (“bla bla bla yod red”), but that was it. The worst was when they —eager to know more about the new and confused looking member of the community— asked me questions… which I only knew were questions because of the staring and the awkward silence that followed their inquiries.
I’d better change something inside me, ASAP
This pattern of interactions kept occurring for the next three or four months. During that time I committed (i.e. forced) myself to continue working towards the objective. I would participate in as many group conversations as I could, and would even bring up random topics during mealtimes. Above all, I tried not to get disheartened by the Tower of Babel that my new home felt like.
Keeping my morale up proved to be the most difficult issue. Once I noticed that feeling emotionally low was the norm rather than the exception, I realized it was time to ask myself why that was happening and how I could fix it.
After some self-scrutiny, I came to accept that the main —if not single— factor that was making me feel miserable was my own arrogance. That, plus the exaggerated expectations I had for myself (which, by the way, usually go hand in hand with pride).
Somehow, I had inadvertently allowed my train of thought to go in the direction of something like: “Back in the West I was quite an accomplished young adult! I had this and that college degree, I was respected, and I was an interesting person to talk to about a variety of issues!”
(Notice the “I”, “I” “I” pattern there?)
That kind of thinking was doing nothing but making me feel like the dumbest person in the room. Because now I was in a context where I couldn’t even reply to basic questions, much less understand the most simple jokes.
This pattern of toxic rumination and its underlying arrogance had become the most significant obstacle to my learning process and, in general, to my quality of life. It was high time that I do something about it (or alternatively, move into a cave and enjoy the virtues of social isolation).
Dharma, as always, to the rescue
At that moment, I remembered this line from the Seven Points of Mind Training:
“Transform adversity into the path of enlightenment.”
“Adversity” for me was not being surrounded by people who spoke in a way I didn’t understand. It was the self-defeating arrogance that ignored the facts that I really did not know and, that yes, I really did speak like a 6-year-old. In other words, I was desperately trying to protect the idealized version of myself as someone who is ultimately accomplished, capable and proficient.
So how was I going to get over myself? Well, two poignant pith instructions that I had received in the past came to my mind. The first was a powerful aphorism that I had read back in my secular mindfulness meditation days:
Zen mind, beginners mind.
There you have four words that contain more depth than I can currently dare to understand. But in terms of dealing with my language situation, they made me realize that a mind that isn’t fixated on what it knows, but rather on what it does not know is much more spacious, flexible and ready to improve, both intellectually and spiritually.
Whenever I’m in the company of others,
I will regard myself as the lowest among all,
And from the depths of my heart
Cherish others as supreme.
OK, so that’s definitely something I should be doing all the time, but in this particular context, those lines helped me realize that feeling like (and actually regarding myself as) the lowest among all was actually the most sensible thing to do. After all, I really was the lowest among all present, not only in conversational terms, but also in age, life experience and monastic tenure.
Not only that, but also cherishing others —aka, my fellow Khampa monks— as supreme was also the better way to proceed, since on a daily basis they were really providing me with an opportunity to get familiar with vocabulary, expressions, pronunciation styles and a whole world of Tibetan culture that was nowhere to be found in books.
So, trying to keep those key points in mind —especially every time I noticed I was feeling demotivated—, I would intentionally stop myself and make a concerted effort to appreciate what a wonderful situation I was living in.
What an interesting experience it was to sit in the midst of a lively conversation in which I could only understand two or three words, yet still appreciate the informational value of non-verbal communication.
How extraordinary it was to see that (even without doing anything special) I was learning something new every day, proving that my brain was tirelessly working behind the scenes, figuring out the way to put all those unconnected strings of odd sounds in order.
How kind it was of my new friends to repeat their same words or sentences two, three or even four times and to keep talking to me day after day, even though what I kept misunderstanding was basic.
What an applause-worthy accomplishment it was when I understood a joke, even though someone had to spell it out three times before I finally got it.
And how wonderful to see that, after nine months of these sorts of things happening every day, I started having actual conversations with my fellow Khampa monks, not to mention talking with other Tibetans with a half-decent degree of ease and enjoyment.
Looking to the future
I’m fully aware that the road to fluency is (still) a long and winding one, but in the meantime, I am grateful for having had the chance to learn about the benefits of being comfortable with not knowing. I’m sure that this lesson will have many, many applications in my daily life and Dharma practice. And I hope that the next time that you, dear reader, are the one feeling like the dumbest person in the room, you will also remember that that is totally OK.
PS: If you’d like to read more about humility, the Tibetan language and trying to become a better person, I suggest taking a look at another article I wrote last year: An Allegedly Annoying Thing That I Learnt to Love (Thanks to my Tibetan Language Training).
PS2: Have you had a similar experience to the one I’ve written about in this article? Share your experience in the comments below!