“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost
The day I finished school I packed my bags, borrowed some money from my mother and got on a plane to the Himalayas. I needed a teacher. I needed someone who could help guide me in my life, help me to make sense of the world I was living in. And after a few months of frightening train rides, painful illness and agonizing angst I found my teacher. As I sat there in a crowd of students listening to his talk I picked up on a very stark theme – you must become your own teacher.
Life gives you two options: learn or complain
As I get older I start to see that there are two types of people in this world. There are those who see the lessons and meaning in their life and there are those who complain. And its not just about optimism and pessimism. It goes deeper than that. Some people, for example, are naturally very pessimistic but when something goes wrong they choose to see it as a lesson. This is a very valuable trait to have and to develop.
Human experience is common. We are all different but in a way that makes us all the same. We all want to be happy and we all feel pain and sadness. Although the circumstances of our grief or our pleasure may differ the underlying experience is the same. We cry, we laugh and we die. The thing that differs is not what we feel but how we react to those feelings.
So here and now, as you sit reading this post, take a look back and see if you have been a learner or a complainer. Now is a good time to make a choice. Choose to learn from your life and its ups and downs. Promise not to complain and take the stance of a victim. Starting today you are going to take your life as your teacher.
Learning from suffering
When you choose to take your life as your teacher the first thing you need to do is learn how to deal with and view suffering. Here are a few ideas that I have discovered over my life, perhaps they will resonate with you.
1. Don’t try to stop the suffering
For some warped reason most people think that happiness is the absence of suffering. They think that happiness only comes about when there are no problems going on in your life. This is a mistake. There will always be problems and your joyful moments will never last forever. Instead, happiness is when you view your problems and suffering in a new way. When you see suffering as an opportunity instead of a burden you will grow into a much happier person. Don’t try to stop the suffering, just learn to view it in a different way.
2. Only through suffering can you grow
Have you ever met someone who grew up in a rich family, was given everything they ever wanted and never had to fight for anything? Have you noticed how vacuous and empty they are? Have you witness how weak their spirit is? That is because they have never experienced any great suffering and as such they missed out on the only opportunity there is for true inner growth.
Suffering is a catalyst for change. It is only through suffering that you grow and learn lessons about yourself and the world around you. View suffering as a great friend because unlike anyone else you know, suffering can make you into a better person.
3. It is your only choice
This point may sound somewhat doomed but it is a reality. You really don’t have a choice; if you want to be happy in this world you need to view suffering in a new way. Suffering will always occur. Old age, sickness and death are inevitable and cannot be avoided. Armed with this knowledge you need to adopt a new, more open stance towards the darker times in your life.
Learning from happiness
Life is not just suffering. There are many happy moments that occur from time to time. It is important to learn from these moments too – not just to let them fade away like a mirage or a dream. If you want to take your life as your teacher you need to look at the lessons of the happy times.
1. Everyone wants to be happy
When you experience happiness you feel wonderful and you want it to last forever. You hate it when the moment ends. One thing you can extract from this event is that everyone feels the same way as you do. Everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to experience pain and suffering. This is a wonderful method for developing compassion towards other living creatures. Next time you are laughing and having an amazing time cast your mind outwards and think about everyone else who wishes they were doing what you are.
2. Happiness doesn’t last
Whenever I write about impermanence I get emails from readers telling me to stop being so depressing. But I keep writing about it. Why? Because I truly believe that the idea of impermanence is something that everyone needs to be introduced to. Our parents rarely talk about it. It isn’t taught in school. But the one truth of this life is that nothing lasts, especially happiness.
When you are happy you need to live in the moment but you also need to let it go when it ends. Happy times can never last forever. Soon the people gathered at the party will part or the movie you are watching will end. But this is a source of great hope because you can be free of the suffering of change and loss if you are acutely aware that it will occur. Next time you are doing something that makes you happy remember that it is going to end and you won’t be as sad when it does.
3. Happiness is dependent upon others
In the west we spend so much time talking about “me” and “mine” that we often overlook the kindness of other people. When you begin to analyze and look at your life you will discover the 90% of the time your happiness is dependent upon others. This is a fantastic realization because it helps you to see how interconnected we all are.
Now, I am not saying that you need to rely on others to be happy. This is not some state where you are miserable whenever you are alone. That is not the point. What I am saying is that when you are happy it usually has something to do with other people. Think about how many people went into the production of a great movie. Without them you wouldn’t experience the joy of the cinema. Open up your mind and look at how kind other people have been to you. Life will become more joyful.
Life is one lessons after another. Some lessons are hard to learn, others are easy. But you really have no choice. If you want to be happy you need to view your life as a teacher or you will spend the rest of your days cursing all the mistakes, errors and pains that you experienced. Look at your ups and downs as a lesson. And if you have any tips or ideas to share please leave a comment.
This post was first published in November 2009; updated in June 2021