Twelve Life Lessons

A dozen things I learned over the past year.

By:Nina Gheihman
Photo:Sunset over Jaipur, India. January 2018. © Nina Gheihman

Exactly a year ago, I left my comfortable existence in Cambridge, Massachusetts to embark on a year-long travel adventure for my dissertation research. My first stop was Paris, then Tel Aviv, and finally Los Angeles. In retrospect, I suppose it was a bit like my version of “Eat, Pray, Love”, but if I had to choose verbs to describe the dominant feeling I had in each place, I would probably choose “Escape, Despair, and Renew.”

To be clear, it wasn’t so much the places that evoked these emotions, but instead the point at which I was in my own life. I was leaving behind a difficult breakup, and it took a very long while to “find myself” once again. That said, I am amazed to see that despite being convinced the pain would never pass, after twelve long months traveling the world, I have finally come to find gratitude for the experiences that both led me to the trip and the emotional growth borne out of suffering. In the process, I learned a few life lessons. As always, they are ever-evolving and overlapping, but I think they are worth sharing all the same.

I. Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is not an indulgence — in fact, it is the only way to move through pain and to heal oneself not only for yourself but also others. As my favorite author Leo Tolstoy says: “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” The only way out is through.

II. Seek those who fan your flames. Fill your life with those who have a positive outlook, energy, perspective, aura, or whatever other word you like. As Rumi says: “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.” As somebody who craves social harmony and validation, I sometimes invite those into my life that sap my energy rather than expand it. I tend to fall in love with people impulsively (I do not mean only romantically but in friendships too). I make fast judgments and then dive in, not allowing enough time for deliberation to see how things unfold over time. Time gives us new and important perspectives and an opportunity for reflection.

III. Be content with reality as it truly is. Unhappiness is partly a matter of perspective. While sociology, the discipline I study, offers important structural explanations for unhappiness (stemming from inequality and oppression) which are often factors that are overlooked, there is still something we can do to affect our internal contentment. Being content with what we have does not mean renouncing yearning for more — it just takes away some of the unnecessary angst and stress in the process. As Lao Tzu says: “Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” Therefore, “letting go” is not about not trying hard anymore, but instead trying hard while also accepting reality as it truly is, rather than as we want it to be. One can do both simultaneously, holding space for ambiguity.

IV. Be Here Now. “Being in the moment” is a matter of moment to moment practice, not a perspective one takes in a given moment to be felt for every moment after that in continuity. It is a commitment to start over and try again. Every time. Over and over again. I like Ram Dass’ mantra of “Be Here Now” which answers the questions What? Where? When? in a more apt way than simply “Live in the moment”, “Be present” or even “Be mindful”. As S.N. Goenka says: “The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.” What happens if we are attentive to this moment, whether joyful or painful, and do not live in a constant state of rumination about the past or future?

V. Everything is impermanent. Change is inevitable. As they say in ancient Pali, Anicca. Embracing the inevitability of change can lessen suffering. As the Persian sufis apparently said, echoed centuries later by Abraham Lincoln: “This too shall pass.” S.N. Goenka adds: “Real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is impermanent. With this insight you will not be overwhelmed by ups and downs. Living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, you will surely progress towards the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering.” A trying but noble quest.

VI. Your “perfect self” already exists inside you. As perfectionists, we are constantly in search of something external, just of reach. In doing so, we miss that this perfect being is already inside us. This sounds cliché, but it can be a paradigmatic shift of perspective. Take exercise — it is not to build muscles we do not have, but instead allows the muscles we already have to emerge. It’s a subtle shift and yet I find it freeing. As Michelangelo says: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”Doing so with kindness and self compassion makes a world of difference.

VII. Knowledge comes from learning, but wisdom comes from experience. Experience itself is important above and beyond comprehension or theoretical understanding. Pure theory and analysis may feel compelling, yet it means nothing if not applied in the real world. As anyone who has ever mastered a physical skill (dancing, biking, or painting) knows, our bodies and hands know things that our mind cannot quite control. As Confucius says: “You can learn knowledge from others, but you can’t learn wisdom. Wisdom you learn from experience.”

VIII. There is power in action. When in doubt, take small steps and trust that you will gain insight in the process, accepting imperfection along the path. As Goethe says: “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.”

IX. Suffering is rooted in a lack of acceptance. Pain = Pain but Pain + Lack of Acceptance = Suffering. As Viktor Frankl says: “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering. He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Focus on meaning, especially in the moments that hurt the most.

X. Cultivate the skill to know when to control and when to let go. It takes effort to figure out when to try and bring about change and when to accept things as they are. As a Greek slave from ancient times says: “Of things, some are in our control and some are not. To try and control that which is not controllable is to be a slave. To think of things that are are in your control as things that are in your control and things that are not in your control as being not in your control, that is to be free.” Similarly, the Dalai Lama says: “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” Finally, as the Serenity Prayer says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

XI. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself. Decisions are always challenging, but we need to be cognizant of reality versus the stories we tell ourselves when making them. Often, we make decisions from a place of fear rather than of openness and expansion. A feeling of relief deep insight the pit of the stomach, despite the difficulty of the potential implications, is often that which people refer to as “Intuition”. Make choices from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. As a punny quote I saw says: “Make choices based on the whole self, rather than the hole in the self.”

XII. Cultivate equanimity. Seek a balanced mind, one that responds, rather than reacts. Over time, you will change your habits. But be patient, as such change takes time. In fact, a lifetime.

In the end, of course, I need to take my own advice and seek to actually implement these insights in my daily life, rather than simply to theorize. And so, moment to moment, I keep practicing. Being open to new insights along the way.

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