The lessons we learn by actively engaging with our experiences constitute an invaluable education that we should pursue throughout our lives. Just imagine a surgeon who has read a book about how to do an appendectomy, but has never actually touched an instrument. This is far from the ideal situation.
And the opposite is also true — experience alone does not constitute learning. We need to meet out experiences with presence of mind and consciousness to fully integrate what we are exposed to into a true understanding; one marked by the ability to teach others what we have learned or to reach out and help others with our “knowledge” directly. It is only then, with this practical appreciation for life and the development of a skill to make a difference in the world, that we have truly learned.
But to be clear, this is not always an easy process, nor a straight road. Inevitably some of what we learn comes from things that do not work out. To that end, we should not fear making “mistakes,” because those experiences can also lead to learning if one stays primarily focused on the lesson and not the outcome. This is not to say that mistakes should be intentionally sought. Rather, if one is committed to learning, than one can cultivate an attitude of better awareness and creatively use “mistakes” so that they transform into something positive.
When one grows from their mistakes they become a positive force for change and influence. Ultimately, this is about being conscious at every turn and maintaining deep awareness. In addition, it means maintaining faith that there are lessons from every situation that fulfill our lives and enrich our destiny. With this in mind, in the end, these mistakes really can be viewed in an entirely new context — not a mistake at all. Indeed, this is about finding new eyes.
Question: I am lucky to be a physically healthy person with a wonderful family, but I hate my job. Unfortunately, I really feel trapped in my career; I’m in my 40’s and have never done anything else, so I don’t have any other skills. The negativity I feel towards my job has started making it hard for me to enjoy the good things in my life. I have such regret for not pursuing something else when I had the chance and know that it was a big mistake for me to follow this career path in the first place. Is there anything I can do to feel better about this?
Answer: First, I advise you to reconsider the “mistake” you made when choosing a career path. What have you been able to learn about yourself from your experiences in this job? If you are able to learn from what you think is a mistake, then it is not really a mistake in the end. The ancient Romans understood this concept when they wrote about a Felix Culpa, which in Latin means “happy error.” Often, these sorts of mistakes lead to the greatest discoveries. At this point, I would simply recommend that you take an inventory of your creative potential, looking back at your interests over the past 30 years or so, particularly at the time before your committed yourself to your current work. Next, I would suggest that you begin to formulate a new vision for your life, without any determination just yet as to how practical that might be. Ultimately, you should find a suitable guide or source to identify a practice of “letting go” and slowly develop the courage to move out and up.
In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out that “the average American moves more than six times, changes jobs more than ten times, and marries more than once, which suggests that most of us are making more than a few poor choices.” However, we do not need an expert to point out this obvious fact. In life, many of the best lessons do not come by emulating excellence as by learning from the pattern of people’s errors, including our own. Ultimately, however, to pull ourselves back on course, we need the courage to make change.
Statistics reveal that less than 45% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs and unemployment continues to soar. Whether it means reinventing yourself within your field, changing career paths entirely or broadening your concept of “work,” I understand how essential it is to find meaningful work. And thus, for the upcoming Labor Day Weekend installment of The Skillful Living Room, I will be discussing this issue with Cathleen O’Conner and Robin Queen. I hope you can join us: Saturday, September 4th at 12pm EDT on Business Talk Radio or visit the archives after it airs by clicking here.
As you appreciate the abundance of this season, think of it as a metaphor of the time in your life when you reach this stage of fullness. It happens somewhere around mid-life, but is really more a matter of awareness and perspective than timing. We reach this season when we have matured; when we are at our most effective and our life is at its fullest.
Although our culture often glorifies the phase that precedes this – when we are at the height of youthful energy and physical beauty – reaching this part of your life doesn’t have to be a sad thought. This is a time when we can enjoy the fruits of our labor by cultivating the presence of mind to actually bring sweetness into our lives. In addition, it is a rich and full period that we can sustain for a very long time if we understand what it takes to live skillfully. Although the late summer season in nature is relatively short, this stage can be the longest “season” in our life cycle if we learn to live it that way.
Question: I’m approaching my 50th birthday, and I’m getting depressed because I’ve started to feel old. How can I approach middle age with a more positive attitude?
Answer: First, let me say that I am with you. In fact today is my 50th birthday!
And here is what I would offer in response to your question…. If you and I were to take a simple survey, I think we would find that most people associate aging with death as opposed to growth. Indeed, in modern society, people carry a profound fear of death. Disconnected from the practices and wisdom of a vital spiritual context, many not only fear the dying process and the pain associated with it but also death itself and what, if anything, follows. If this is how we live, as we age, we will, in our mind, inexorably move closer and closer to this end game. For many, aging represents a ticking bomb and death a leap into the great unknown. Unless we find an alternative way to organize our thinking this will always be our view. Only by coming around to a more enlightened understanding of our lives and the relativity of death will we ever truly experience the fullness of living.
In fact, considering the inevitability of our own mortality can enrich our lives. It can help us appreciate the bounty around us. It pushes us to work harder on our relationships-strengthening those that need support and letting go of those that no longer serve us. It can show us how to truly appreciate what we have and take less for granted. It can help us reconnect to others and to all life on this planet. It can point us in the direction of meaningful work and help us renew our commitment to discovering our true dharma. In short, confronting our existential anxiety puts us on the path to the ultimate state of being. To do this is to live skillfully.