My Most Memorable Learning Experience

Just recently I was creating a profile for myself in Montana State University’s D2L online course interface for a class I’m teaching for MSU. One of the questions in the profile was, “What was your most memorable learning experience.” Hmmm. I had never really thought about that, weirdly enough. But I found the question intriguing, so I drafted a response.Then I got an error message telling me that my answer could not exceed 256 characters. How in the world can you communicate an answer to an important question in 256 characters or less?

I found the question interesting enough and my own response informative for me, so I didn’t want to truncate it. I’ve posted it here in its entirety.

This is too personal to share in specifics or detail, but I’ll give you a story that illustrates the nature of the lesson. Several years ago I watched a documentary on the current Dalai Lama. At some point in the program, an interviewer asked him, “Who was your greatest teacher,” apparently expecting the Dalai Lama to name another Lama who instructed him in Tibetan Buddhism. To the interviewer’s surprise (and to mine), the Dalai Lama answered almost before the interviewer finished asking the question, “Mao Tse-Tung!” Shocked, the interviewer asked why, and the Dalai Lama explained that all of life is suffering, fear and desire are the causes of all suffering, and Nirvana is the absence of fear or desire (my paraphrased summary), which is all in the mind, and not dependent upon our actual circumstances. According to the Dalai Lama, no one in his life or experience had ever inflicted more suffering on him than Mao Tse-Tung, which gave him the opportunity to conquer fear and desire.

I recently had an experience not so nearly as dramatic as the Dalai Lama’s and the Tibetan people’s suffering under Chairman Mao. But it was extreme in its impact on my life, and every bit as instructive and important. What I learned was that we don’t necessarily learn the most (if anything) when we are happy and everything is going well. Suffering and those who inflict it can be great teachers, if we are masters of ourselves and our responses to them. The greatest lessons are lessons that cause suffering, and the greatest rewards are available to those who can emerge from the experience better for having had the experience, and without asking, “Why did this happen to me?”

Why did this happen to me? Because all of life is suffering, and everyone suffers. One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” In that movie Westley says to Princess Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I agree with the Dalai Lama, and I agree with Westley–we learn through our suffering, mostly about ourselves. Socrates directed us to “know thyself.” If we emerge from our suffering having learned something about ourselves, and apply what we learned in future, we will suffer less, because we understand the causes are not external (no matter how dreadful the circumstances or perpetrators of our pain may be), but rather internal; all is revealed in our reactions to the situation or person(s) causing the suffering. If we are able to learn from that and move forward with new understanding, less fear and less desire, the lesson was worth learning. It was in my case.

Thus endeth the lesson. ;-)

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