What Makes Life Worth Living? (Part 3 – Experience)
How can we experience life to its fullest?
There is infinite information in this world on everything and anything. The Internet has created a unique scenario that has never before occurred in the history of the human race in which anyone with Internet access can source information. It is key to practice what we have learnt as study is irrelevant without the practical application of the knowledge we have gained. Incorporating personal experience, variety and individuality through the widespread practice of what we have learned means ideas can flourish. As well as this it is key in advancing thought, discussion and others’ future learning experiences by incorporating their own personal experience and moving the ideas from theory into practice. For example, when we study subjects such as philosophy to enhance knowledge do we then apply and practice the knowledge we have gained in our everyday lives?
What do you think? How can we experience life to its fullest? What makes us appreciate an experience? What would you have changed to make your life better or happier?
Maybe take 2 minutes out of your day, grab a piece of paper and a pen and try to write down your answer to this question.
I can imagine some people would give answers such as; trying new things, doing things outside of your comfort zone, traveling around the world, being present in the moment, always giving your best in any situation, being loving and compassionate, facing your fears, taking risks, being yourself, learning, improving, developing. Maybe I’m being a bit idealistic – again – and the more realistic answers may be; making loads of money and spending it, driving fast cars, becoming a celebrity, going on a game show, having sex with lots of people, smoking weed everyday, taking drugs. All these answers have one thing in common; they are subject to our own experiential understanding.
Many people in our world seek an understanding of our existence, of life, of happiness, of this planet rotating in space. Whatever it may be it appears that we have a built-in curiosity to know why things are the way they are. At age 8 I had a plan to solve famine – I would ask all the rich people in the world for £20 each (as £20 for the rich is nothing) and I could give it to the African people that I saw on the TV starving. At age 9 I wanted to be a pro-skater, age 10 a magician, age 11 I was looking up at the sky through a telescope wondering what a star was and so on. I’m sure it’s a very similar story for a lot of other people as we are impressionable, naïve and fickle with our ideas and ambitions when we are young. Around age 18 I began seeking a meaning to life and this search is what led and inspired me to learn about many schools of thought, different ideas and opinions regarding this subject. This information plays a large part in my intellectual understanding of life but when I reflect none of it compares to what I have learnt from direct experience.
I think we all know that our direct experiences are the most powerful teachers in our lives. Yet sometimes we limit ourselves by not experiencing life to its fullest because certain things are too far from our comfort zone or too far from where our mind can envisage ourselves achieving. I’m going to explore an example that many people may relate to; you want to go somewhere like a coffee shop, a gym, another country, a seminar, an event. However, none of your friends are able to accompany you, as they’re busy. So you decide you will skip this experience because you don’t have a friend to go with and can do it another day. If we decided that we would go alone, we may feel uncomfortable as we are facing a new situation and don’t know what could happen. Regardless, if we persist and go the experience may be good or bad, we may have felt a range of sensations arise such as fear, anxiety, loneliness, happiness, ecstasy, etc. We may learn from the experience, make new friends, enjoy a great coffee and find a new interest. The next time we are in a similar situation with no friends to go out with, we face this resistance inside and go out again, repeating this over and over. Gradually, this sensation that used to overwhelm us so much that we wouldn’t dare go out alone becomes weaker. We begin to have a direct experiential understanding of the reaction that comes with putting ourselves ‘out there’ and begin to accept that this feeling rises and falls, comes and goes.
One of the greatest lessons I have come across for experiencing life fully was the Buddha’s teaching on the impermanent nature of everything. Change is the only constant. Each day, each hour, each minute and each moment, we are gradually decaying. Everything changes – transitions from birth to death, leaves and flowers bloom and decay as seasons change. As we grow older our perspectives change – at age 5 perhaps you wanted to be a fireman but at age 18 you decide to be a musician. This law of impermanence is true for everything – rising and falling, coming and going. It is within our own life that we can practice facing our fears and reactions to unknown situations gradually integrating this understanding of the ‘law of impermanence’ within.
I have written this to give you an alternative approach to experiencing life to its fullest with impermanence as a key teaching. I’ve always thought that what you’re doing currently is what you’re meant to be doing. We all have different paths to understanding life and I hope that your experiences will lead you to a path of liberation and happiness.
This story I heard S.N. Goenka tell at a meditation course explores how important practicing our intellectual understandings in day-to-day life can be. (See www.dhamma.org for more information)
Once a young professor was making a sea voyage. He was a highly educated man with a long tail of letters after his name, but he had little experience of life. In the crew of the ship on which he was travelling was an illiterate old sailor. Every evening, the sailor would visit the cabin of the young professor to listen to him lecture on many different subjects. He was very impressed with the learning of the young man.
One evening as the sailor was about to leave the cabin after several hours of conversation, the professor asked, “Old man, have you studied geology?”
“What is that, sir?”
“The science of the earth.”
“No, sir, I have never been to any school or college. I have never studied anything.”
“Old man, you have wasted a quarter of your life.”
With a long face the old sailor went away. “If such a learned person says so, certainly it must be true,” he thought. “I have wasted a quarter of my life!”
Next evening again as the sailor was about to leave the cabin the professor asked him, “Old man, have you studied oceanography?”
“What is that, sir?”
“The science of the sea.”
“No, sir, I have never studied anything.”
“Old man, you have wasted half your life.”
With a still longer face the sailor went away: “I have wasted half my life; this learned man says so.”
Next evening once again the young professor questioned the old sailor: “Old man, have you studied meteorology?’
“What is that, sir? I have never even heard of it.”
“Why, the science of the wind, the rain, the weather.”
“No, sir. As I told you, I have never been to any school. I have never studied anything.”
“You have not studied the science of the Earth on which you live; you have not studied the science of the sea on which you earn your livelihood; you have not studied the science of the weather which you encounter every day? Old man, you have wasted three quarters of your life.”
The old sailor was very unhappy: “This learned man says that I have wasted three quarters of my life! Certainly I must have wasted three quarters of my life.”
The next day it was the turn of the old sailor. He came running to the cabin of the young man and cried, “Professor sir, have you studied swimology?”
“Swimology? What do you mean?”
“Can you swim, sir?”
“No, I don’t know how to swim.”
“Professor sir, you have wasted all your life! The ship has struck a rock and is sinking. Those who can swim may reach the nearby shore, but those who cannot swim will drown. I am so sorry, professor sir, you have surely lost your life.”
You may study all the “-ologies” of the world, but if you do not learn swimology, all your studies are useless. You may read and write books on swimming, you may debate on its subtle theoretical aspects, but how will that help you if you refuse to enter the water yourself? You must learn how to swim.