Life is about learning. No? From the lowest level of conscious life on this planet, learning is a must – and it’s a blessing. In life forms that are “below” the human level, consciousness of differing degrees is found. And, in many cases in direct proportion to the degree of consciousness, there are degrees of learning capability.
In virtually every sub-human existence, pain in some form is an absolutely necessary part of the learning process. 12-stepping addicts everywhere would agree that this is true in every instance, never mind sub-humans. Most of the animal kingdom operates on a majority instinct level, and learning happens as a matter of survival for the most part -either to avoid pain altogether, or to lessen current pain. When learning for survival provides an organism (or a population of organisms) enough of an “edge” in its existence, sometimes consciousness begins to expand. I have a feeling that this is a foundational element of nature’s evolution, and is also a huge part of why evolution is, typically and literally, painfully slow. In “A New Earth,” by Eckhart Tolle (a book everyone should read, at least once) this “blossoming” of consciousness was first evident in flowers. His words on this, which I think I recall coming early in the book, are very eloquent and powerful, and enlightening. (Through his own dedicated effort, Tolle is certainly a modern living Jnana Yogi. Believe it.) There are many sub-human forms of life on Earth that don’t learn ONLY in this way. Many mammals and some bird species (among an entire host of other life forms) are known to have “deeper” components to their lives. These components point to a level of consciousness much closer to that of humans, although these beings are still primarily governed by instictiveness.
Human life, on the other hand, has allowed its animalistic components to atrophy a bit in favor of a more developed consciousness. An unfortunate aspect of this trade is a simultaneous increase in ego, but that’s for another post. One of the biggest benefits of this swap, however, is the developed capacity for humans to learn without the aforementioned pain so often necessary for other animals. In truth, there are a number of animal species who have been discovered to have this capacity, too, but only in humans is this particular evolution of consciousness so well-developed and potentially (depending on the human individual) so finely tuned. Here, precisely, is where human consciousness has one of the greatest gifts. We can learn by the usual and common method of pain, but that mustn’t be the only way we learn. Indeed, we’re one of the only animals on the planet who are able to learn solely by observation, and we’re certainly the only organism on the planet to be able to learn so thoroughly in this way.
At this point, I’m recalling a common saying among my Nichiren Buddhist friends. I think it comes from the Daishonen’s sayings somewhere, but the idea is that through chanting we’re able to tap into “Myoho,” and transmute our karmas into something more, thus elevating our life state. I’ve known these great and optimistic humanists to be fond of speaking about “turning poison into medicine.” To me, this points at even deeper component to the human existence. We’re not only in control of our learning, but we’re responsible for it.
As we find ourselves in the middle of the yearly holiday season, many of us would do well to take a look at our “poisons” and search how we might turn them into medicines for our betterment. A poison might be defined, superficially, as anything that seems to rob us of happiness. Anyone who’s followed my writing at all, might be aware of how deeply I adore my parents. For me personally, few things in my current existence are likely to be as painful (…potentially poisonous…) as the eventual death of either of my parents. Certainly, I anticipate very few things with as much dread and immense pre-emptive sorrow as either of these two events.
With this in mind, my heart and thoughts go out to anyone who’s lost a parent, and faced such (potential) poison. Sadly, I’m able to list a number of acquaintances who fall into this group, from this year alone. For this post, and for sake of a wonderful example, I’d like to mention someone who is perhaps surprisingly, and definitely increasingly dear to me. And that’s my mom’s brother’s wife, Wendy. What I know about Wendy tells me that she’s a truly great human. Without spilling everything about her, I can surely say that she loves her family and friends and is loyal to them. She works hard in her career, like so many others. She does her best to enjoy life. And she fights her battles as best she’s able and keeps moving, knowing she has to be strong for the next. One of these battles, recently, was the loss of her own mother.
Three days from now will be Wendy’s first Christmas holiday without her mother. Without a doubt this season will be a trying time for her. Certainly, Wendy has experienced ups and downs in her time managing her grief. You can find her story about the poison she faced here.
One thing I’ve noticed is that she’s consistently able to “turn poison into medicine.” She could easily be paralyzed by her loss. I know I would be. She didn’t have much time at all to prepare for the poison she was about to face. Instead, she continues moving forward. She still works. She still loves her family and friends. And she’s investing more of her time in pruning her internal landscape in very practical and hopefully effective ways, which will be the surest sign that the poison she’s experienced has been transmuted into very powerful medicine.
As humans, we don’t need pain to learn. Ideally, we’d be gifted with both the foresight and the time to prepare and learn on our own so that the Universe and our karmas don’t have to facilitate this learning for us. For those of us, like Wendy, who aren’t allotted ample time for preparing for what we don’t want to come, it’s my hope that we can at least enter into such unfortunate experiences with a fully human awareness and, like Wendy, with the capacity to take that experience and turn its poison into our medicine.
As this year and holiday season comes to a close, my prayer is that your awareness and mine will expand and cause our hearts to swell. Realize what an incredible boon you have, being born a human. What an immense opportunity has been awarded to you to assume the responsibility for your own growth. Face the poison in your life, and let the divine with you change it into medicine for your betterment and healing.
In the coming year, all the grace that is mine to give I gladly forward on to you.