Life is a Gymnasium

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(in which even what seems “bad” becomes good)

gymnasium

EVERY MORNING WHEN I AWAKEN (after feeling gratitude for a life still lived and some considerable amazement that I’m still alive!), I make this affirmation: “May I be open to *any* experience which comes my way today?” I always place the accent on the word “any”. It’s easy to be open to pleasant and familiar experiences but how open are we to unexpected ones – even what one might think to be “unpleasant experiences”. This is the space where I want to be. Every day. Even though there are some days when I say it with some trepidation and wonder if I’m going to bite off more than I can chew (though I never do)! To be continually able to regard every occurrence, no matter how seemingly “bad”, as an adventure and a boon in my life.

This is a serious issue. For behind it lies the extraordinary notion (which I believe with all my heart) that life is a gymnasium. The original meaning of a gymnasium speaks to me in such a way that it is not merely somewhere one can exercise oneself in every way (although I take that meaning into it too) but particularly carrying the idea that life is a school. (In some languages, schools are actually called gymnasiums). Interestingly, the word itself comes from the Greek, gumnazein, which means to exercise naked. This is poignant. For we have come into existence in order to learn as vulnerable people standing naked before the cosmos as pupils and students in the universe. Two of the unexpected major ways that we do so are through making mistakes and having adverse experiences. I want to look at these two a little more.

We live in a world where it is, in a way, frowned upon to make mistakes — where people will give us a “tut-tut” or a “tsk-tsk” — where we have to keep apologising for them or feel foolish about them or ashamed of making them. In school or at work we are harshly penalised for even the smallest of errors. People often ridicule others when they make mistakes. But this is the way of the old aeon and not the new. People need to be given the space to be able to be vulnerable enough to make mistakes without being cursed for it. Life is a trial and error process. So let’s not go on a victim-based guilt trip if we mess up sometimes. Personally, I am happy to make occasional mistakes and will not spend my time chiding myself for it. Acknowledge it, apologise for it (if it affects someone else), learn the lessons which it generates, then move on and don’t make the same mistake again. Mistakes only become undesirable when they keep being repeated; for then it shows that the lessons have not been learned.

The other major way that we learn is through having adverse experiences. While it would be foolish to go out seeking such experiences, we should not shy away from them when they happen to us. For there is a sacred pattern to them. I have found that an adverse experience will come into my sphere at precisely the moment when I need to learn the lesson which is associated with it. It may be small or it may be vast. For example, if I try to obtain something but it continually eludes me so that I am bereft of it, what does that tell me? It could be teaching me the art of patience, or it could be showing me that my wants are not the same as my needs. When some cataclysmic event happens in the world, rather than go into a self-centred meltdown, this is another opportunity to learn major lessons in the quietness of our hearts. Why has this happened? How can I help? What good will come out of it? And so on. If I am robbed at knifepoint, instead of going into victim-mode and running around telling everyone how traumatised I am, wouldn’t it be better to go quietly into my room and meditate on what the experience might be teaching me? To be more courageous and less fearful? To not be so attached to my stuff? To relish adventure and the unexpected? There are any number of permutations. If we ask the right questions honestly, then we will get good answers. And here’s the biggie: What if I am diagnosed with some terminal illness? There are reasons that the body degenerates in this life. The event that we call “death” is not the horror-story that we have been conditioned to believe that it is. It’s just a transition on a very brief part of a vast journey. Life doesn’t last long even if we live into “old age”. It’s nothing. Just a whisker on the outskirts of infinity. Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is actually a piercing opportunity to meditate on the place and purpose of what we call “death”. How can I die nobly and honourably? How can I use this experience to help others? The same is true if a loved one receives such a diagnosis. Such times are learning experiences on steroids. I could say the same of any seeming tragedy. For tragedy is all around us, waiting to be milked of its lessons; and there are many.

I remember reading in Jean-Paul Sartre’s self-effacingly small autobiography, “Les Mots”, an account of how he was in the street one day with a friend who was hit by a car when crossing the road. As he reached his friend and asked him if he was okay, the stricken man — despite his broken leg — shouted: “At last! Something is happening to me!” Now that is the right attitude! For it is often only in such freak and savage seemingly random events that we actually wake up in life. Have you noticed how such events are drenched in some kind of heightened reality. This is the purpose of seemingly “negative” experiences: To wake us up to another level of existence and encourage us to explore everything in life as if it was some kind of extraordinary adventure. Which, indeed, it is!

Today it is very trendy to “think positively” and to avoid any kind of negative experience. It is even said by some that negative experiences only happen to us if we allow ourselves to think negatively. Not only is this untrue but if we demonise all bad experiences as unnatural and somehow only happening to spiritually inferior people, not only is that a narcissistic way of thinking but it actually attempts to bypass the negative experiences which are necessary for us to undergo as part of our deep education. It also nullifies the forces which work with us to improve us and “bring us on” through both glory and gargantuan challenges. Thus, when something seemingly “bad” happens to us, we should always ask the all-important questions: “Why is this happening to me? What am I meant to learn from this?” When those questions are asked honestly and from the heart, extraordinary things begin to happen in our lives. For at that point we are cooperating with invisible forces which will come to our aid.

When one begins to dedicate one’s life to promoting love and light in the world and to exploring what lies behind that which can be seen, one begins to understand well that *everything* is a lesson in this life and one then avidly begins to look for the lessons in everything. For even in nature, in the small and hidden things of life, in the faces of animals and children and in the unfolding stories of our own lives — whether seemingly good or “bad” — lessons are to be found which will lead us into progressively deeper territory. Isn’t that where we want to be?

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© Alan Morrison, 2017

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