This world is a dream, a self-authored story. It is a school and a gift and a playground. We are here to learn lessons, to serve those we find ourselves with, and to enjoy our lives. That’s all. There is no true purpose, no final end. We must simply live our lives as artists painting a canvas, dancers dancing a dance that only we can dance. So long as we aim to avoid harming others, to help them instead, to learn from our days and our years, and to enjoy what comes to us, we cannot go wrong. In its living, our life is already fulfilled.
I’ve always been curious about what this world is, and why we’re here. Why is there anything at all? What is life, and what are we supposed to do here with our time?
The answer that I’ve come to for myself is threefold: we are here to learn lessons, to give gifts, and to play and enjoy our lives. Life is a combination school-playground, that we experience for our own enjoyment and the benefit of others.
This essay is about life as a school—not a school where we learn facts and figures, where we take tests and are graded, where discrete knowledge is transmitted and exchanged—but one where we learn lessons, where we receive and cultivate wisdom.
Wisdom is knowledge about how to live a beautiful, excellent life.
There are two primary methods for learning wisdom: received wisdom, and earned wisdom.
Received wisdom is wisdom that we can learn through the experience of others, as transmitted through scriptures, art, or instruction from spiritual teachers.
Earned wisdom is wisdom that we learn through our own direct experience.
Ideally, we learn from others, from received wisdom, whenever possible. There is tremendous wisdom on offer from the ancient teachers and our present peers. If we have the humility to learn from others, we can rapidly deepen in our own wisdom, saving us from mistakes and unnecessary suffering.
We can also learn from our own direct experience of our lives and the world—and sometimes we need to.
The places where we experience friction, pain, and suffering in our lives are signals of the areas of our lives where we can learn lessons from our own experience.
If we look closely at these areas, we can usually discern some kind of lesson about how to act more skillfully, ethically, harmoniously.
If we don’t learn the lesson from our experience, the good news is—that’s ok! We’ll get another chance to learn the lesson.
Sometimes in life, we’ll experience a problem that’s oddly familiar. It’s familiar because it’s eerily, uncannily similar to something we experienced earlier in our life. When we cyclically experience similar problems, that’s often a sign that we still have a lesson to learn from that kind of problem.
The bad news is that typically, when similar circumstances arise and we have another chance to learn our lesson, those circumstances are typically louder, more painful and challenging. It’s as if our experience has a volume dial with our suffering on it, and if we don’t learn from our experience, the suffering is turned up until we are forced to look closely at our experience and learn from it.
That’s why it behooves us to learn from received wisdom, or, if we need to learn from our own experience, to learn them quickly, deeply, and completely.
In my freshman year of college, I drank alcohol for the first time. (At my 21st birthday dinner, my cousin slyly remarked, “Here’s to your first beer!”)
I didn’t like beer at first—it was thin and bitter and I didn’t like the taste enough to get drunk.
One night, I had a number of drinks—perhaps some kind of tequila cocktails? I got stupendously drunk and had a positively wild night, with all kinds of embarrassing escapades I’ll leave you to imagine. The next morning I woke up in severe physical and emotional pain. I remembered bits and pieces of my actions from the night before and felt ashamed, embarrassed, and regretful. I also had a pounding headache from a blistering hangover. I’ve had many headaches and migraines in my life, but the headache I had from that hangover was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I resolved right there and then—no more of that.
For the rest of my college career, I only ever drank beer, and only ever one or two beers at a time. (I did develop a taste for beer, eventually.) And When I ended up deciding years later to take the Five Ethical Precepts from Buddhism, it wasn’t very hard at all to set aside alcohol entirely. I do enjoy a non-alcoholic beer from time to time, though.
You could imagine an entire alternate history where it took me a long time to learn this lesson. Maybe I developed a drinking habit, and embarrassed myself further. Maybe, in this alternate timeline, it got worse, and my health and relationships suffered, and my finances dwindled, and I lost my job, and my house, and my family. For whatever reason, in this reality, I was able to learn that lesson—don’t drink too much!—quite promptly and easily. And I’m grateful for that.
If you know that life is a school where we can learn lessons, you can anticipate your lessons when they come.
You can notice where you experience suffering, and listen closely to that, with patience and humility. You can then reflect on what you’re noticing, and submit yourself to the reality of your situation as best as you can encounter it.
In their book Conscious Loving, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks recommend that you make “a silent agreement with the universe that you are willing to learn however you need to, but you prefer gentle lessons”:
I’m willing to see and handle anything I need to be free, and I would like my lessons in a friendly, loving way for me and others around me… I want to learn all the lessons I can through wisdom, not experience.
I’ve found it helpful to write down the lessons I learn, and recall and reflect on them often. Otherwise, I tend to forget what I learned previously, and end up having to re-experience the same sufferings and lessons.
carve the wisdom you find into the trunk of your heart,
ink it on your flesh, paper your walls with it,
let it be indelibly etched into the hours and days and years of your life
Much of my tweets are just this: aphorisms written as reminders for this guy. Of course, I also hope that my writing will help others. But I am first and foremost the audience for my own wisdom, the wisdom I’ve found and needed in my own life.
If you learn to listen to the wisdom the world is showing you through your life, you can avoid a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. And even if you don’t, you’ll eventually learn what you need to, anyway.
Received wisdom when possible, earned wisdom when necessary, all paid forward for the benefit of others.
From this perspective, the “problems” we experience in our life can be seen as opportunities. Each problem is an opportunity to learn lessons and deepen in our wisdom, so that we might live our life more fully, with more enjoyment and benefit.
Once you have the experience of approaching a “problem” in your life as an opportunity to learn, and you fully learn the lesson it held within it, you’ll never want to go back.
You stop being a victim of the universe and its mercurial whims, and start having confidence that you can handle the challenges your life brings you.
You become a hero on your very own, never-ending adventure—there’s always more lessons to learn and more gifts to give.
When we see life as a school, problems transform into opportunities. In the same way, mistakes are seen from a totally new perspective. We realize that there are no mistakes or failures, so long as you learn something from each situation, or at least try to.
We begin to see ourselves differently: not as broken people, doomed to make mistakes—but instead as fundamentally good but imperfect beings, who intend good things for ourselves and others, and are learning and growing at our own time and pace.
When we accept that it’s ok to learn slowly, to have challenges along the way, we begin to we have a newfound attitude of love, patience, and kindness towards ourselves. We can access compassion and forgiveness for ourselves in our challenges and our setbacks. And we can also access this same love and forgiveness for others—seeing them as beings who are also imperfect, also learning and growing, also trying their best.
Moreover, we begin to have a sense of confidence. We recognize ourselves as able and willing to learn from our experience, and to apply what we learn to living a full life, for our own enjoyment and the benefit of others.
From this place of love, we can be usefully, kindly honest with ourselves about our flaws, faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses.
And we can be brave, and courageous—having the courage to go our own way, to walk our own path, to take our own time, to learn our own lessons.
We see ourselves as our best selves: good, kind, wise, strong, brave. And more and more, we are that person—our everyday actions demonstrate that highest good that is within all of us.
Life unfolds in chapters. Every chapter has its adventures and excitements, gifts and joys, growth and lessons, challenges and losses. All there is to do is to enjoy and learn and grow and always to turn the page, onwards, onwards.