03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Classroom of Life and Death

Ever think about the Teachers in Life? Look around you day in and day out - the co-workers you really don't like, the neighbor who causes you problems, the parent or child who 'pushes your buttons', or the casual encounter with a stranger that angers you.

Our experiences are our best teachers, perhaps more than any grade school, high school, or college instructor. The majority of our learning happens beyond the traditional classroom, but how you learn from them may take multiple incidents or happen in one felt jolt. The greatest teachers are often the experiences that are most painful or most difficult, which is why so many proverbs reflect this truth: 'Every cloud has a silver lining' 'When one door closes another one opens'. 'A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner'. This is because in painful situations we often uncover new insights about ourselves and our direction or purpose in life. Part of that arises because in difficult situations we are forced to 'let go' of attachments - ideas, feelings, or things (living or not living).

Letting go of such attachments yields a sense of freedom and an increased knowledge of one's own role in shaping life. Yet in the midst of pain, the parts of the brain designed to react to pain are active - the limbic structures, the seat of emotion - and the subsequent cascade of biological processes - molecules encoding memory, molecules triggering hormone release, molecules quieting reason - hinder the body's ability to learn. Our biology often keeps us from learning from painful events until their aftermath, depending on the magnitude of pain they trigger, such as a death of a loved one, the onset of illness, or a divorce or breakup.

We can be more or less prepared for the painful, difficult challenges of life but this preparation usually begins in childhood (is beyond our control), and it is our experience with love. In healthy infant attachment, we learn that love (in this case of a parent) provides the body protection to handle pain, and as we age, if love is stable, supportive and unconditional in the world around us, we begin to trust that we can deal with life's challenges because we have a strong sense of self, a view that we are inherently lovable because we are loved. Without love and a growing stable sense of self that emerges from it, the pain response overwhelms the body leading to varying degrees of over-utilization' or shutting down of the emotional response. Reason provides a viable tool for maneuvering through life, but intuitive awareness or knowledge arises when there is a strong enough sense of self to let go of it, to release attachment to the "I" and experience life as it happens. (The Taoist saying reflecting this truth is "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving, a good artists lets his intuition take him where it may, a good scientist lets his opinions go and sees what is").

Without the love that arises in a healthy parental/home environment when young, we can perhaps learn to love ourselves, to develop a strong sense of our lovability in other ways. Many experiences - such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and psychotherapy - are tools to help us do that. Many bring calm to the emotional centers of the brain so that we begin to apply reason to difficult situations, rather than emotional reactivity.

Many provide a practice of calming the body so that it becomes habitual in the face of minor difficulties (pain of a particular physical pose in yoga, pain of an emotion or thought experienced in meditation) to be better prepared in real life painful events. In these practices, an attitude of self-compassion is taught - an orientation to be present with whatever painful events arise and to trust that you can handle it (because the 'you' throughout human existence have done it before and will do it again). Overtime, there is an emerging love of the self (not in a narcissistic self-love but in a trustful way) and this provides the foundation for learning.

With age or experience and a strong sense of self, we can learn to even release or let go of the self we have created without a strong emotional response (fear, flight, fight). For many, this ability to let go of the self without fear arises in their Religion and belief in God, for atheists or agnostics like me, this ability arises in the intuitive knowledge of the continuance of life or knowledge - a sort of super-organism of which we are a part. Science is demonstrating this knowledge more and more using reason as well.

I believe wisdom is the convergence of intuitive and rational knowledge of this truth and the happiness that emerges in its discovery. Before death, we may see the beauty in this constant continuation and we may see how we, like a single cell in the organism of an individual, are a part of this ongoing super-organism. In awareness of this constant continuation, we learn to release attachment to the self, to transcendence the self, and to lose our fear of death.