In the first of three posts, I discussed two of the most significant life lessons I've learned from the likes of Jesus, the Buddha, Lao-Tzu and many current spiritual masters or practitioners of higher states of consciousness, such as Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama.
Here are three additional lessons I've learned.
1. I question everything.
The Buddha said, "Do not believe anything simply because it is spoken or rumored by many ...found written in your religious books. ... Do not believe in traditions just because they've been handed down to you ... but, after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
Good advice, although just the opposite of what I was taught, which was to question nothing. To question things was too often regarded as a breach of faith. I know now, however, until you question your faith, you have no faith. You might have beliefs. But, as Deepak Chopra has rightly noted, "Beliefs are just a cover-up for insecurity; you only believe in the things you're not certain about" ("Why Is God Laughing?").
There are two things I question religiously: 1) The things my religion says are true and 2) The things that come to my mind. I think it was Wayne Dyer I first heard discuss the thousands of thoughts that invade your consciousness each day -- something like 64,000. I found such a thought staggering, to say the least. When you pay attention to these mostly random thoughts, you discover two things distinguish them: They are repetitive in nature, and, most often, they are just plain wrong -- or, at a minimum, suspect. What I've discovered over the years is that my own thinking has often acted as a deterrent to my happiness and inner peace. So, today, I make it my practice to observe my thoughts, as well as to question them when they arise. In other words, I catch myself thinking.
Yes, you guessed it, there are at least two people inside my head, perhaps more. There's what Eckhart Tolle calls "the egoic self or mind," the endlessly chattering one. And there's a deeper self that many spiritual traditions refer to as the soul. This deeper "me" or soul, for want of a better description, is what easterners sometimes call "the witnessing presence." This presence has the capacity of observing the stream of thinking. As it does, there is created within you a space of stillness and peace. I've learned, as I practice catching myself thinking, as well as questioning the thoughts that arise, I become instantly more peaceful. Try this and see what happens in you.
2. I do unto myself as I would have myself do unto me.
A little different twist on Jesus' Golden Rule, which appears, by the way, in some form in virtually every spiritual tradition. I turned the words around, however, because I've learned that you only ever do to others what you do to yourself. And, conversely, you do to yourself what you do to others. I think it was the Buddhist, Pema Chodron, who first taught me this. So I can't help but wonder, when a nation like the U.S. goes to war and kills others, there's perhaps a sense in which we kill something within ourselves in the process. Which is probably why the Chinese say, "Before seeking vengeance, better dig two graves."
3. I look for the life lesson hidden like a pearl in a oyster shell in every life experience.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was one of the first to help us understand the stages of grief. She once said, "There are no mistakes in life; all events are blessings given for our edification -- our learning."
I think she's right. What's unquestionably certain for me, however, is that when I began looking for the lesson in life's experiences, my reactions toward life, particularly the tougher parts, took a dramatic turn for the better. I'm not suggesting you and I should lay down and just let life roll over us. And neither am I suggesting you gloss over evil and injustice as if it's necessary for the service of some grander purpose. I'm only suggesting that you join me in the practice of acceptance. We are taught to resist what is. Discontent is the ego's twin sister. Learning the art of acceptance, however, is a learned skill. And inner peace is its reward.
On the day my father unexpectedly died, for example, I was devastated. During the dark days that followed, had someone suggested to me that his death was "God's will," I probably would have punched them out. But, as I relate in my book, in the mystery that is Life, his unexpected death turned out to be the occasion of my unplanned but welcomed rediscovery of the sacred self.
In retrospect, how could I be anything but happy? Whatever else the nightmare taught me, one thing is clear: At the moment of a crisis, you and I usually "see through a glass darkly," as Saint Paul put it (1 Corinthians 13:12). But know this: the day will come when you look back and see that what appeared as a puzzling jigsaw of unwanted pain and confusion has given way to the beautiful tapestry that is your life.