Life is What We Learn, Life is What We Teach

“You are only a disciple because your eyes are closed. The day you open them you will see there is nothing you can learn from me or anyone. What then is a Master for? To make you see the uselessness of having one.” ~ Anthony de Mello

We are all teachers, just as we are all students; life is what we teach, and life is what we learn. The wise understand this. Genuine students are open to understanding this. Both are needed for the cycle of mastery to remain a sacred cycle, rather than a degradation into base linearity.

The problem is awareness, or the lack thereof. Most of us are not aware that we are both teachers and students. The majority of us move through life in tiny comfort zones, paranoid and fearful about having our precious beliefs and/or worldviews questioned. We are content to remain the loyal subject of a tiny god.

Like Carl Sagan powerfully said, “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”” Oh the delicious tragicomedy of it all.

But how can we expect to learn anything if we are not first willing to be vulnerable? How can we truly understand anything if we aren’t willing to get down to the nitty-gritty and really question things?

How can we learn something if we’re not willing to allow the defensive ramparts that surround our comfort zone to come crashing down so that it can be rebuilt further on, broader, less defensive, and even more robust than before?


And how can we expect our tiny god – the one that barely governs a tiny portion of our brains within a tiny portion of our culture within a tinier portion of our planet within an even tinier portion of our galaxy within an infinitely tinier portion of our universe– to ever become the Big God that is able to subsume infinity, if we’re never really willing to let that god be infinite?

There may not be an answer. But at least we have questions to play with. Or maybe it’s as simple as taking into consideration these words by Alan Watts: “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”

Life is what we learn

“He who cannot bear doubt does not bear himself. Such a one is doubtful; he does not grow and hence he does not live. Doubt is the sign of the strongest and the weakest. The strong have doubt, but doubt has the weak.” ~ Carl Jung

Doubt is a thorny concept. We’re typically torn between wanting to seem confident to others, and wanting to be open minded enough to learn from them. Perhaps the best way to navigate through the brambles of doubt is to simply remember to use doubt as a tool toward leveraging knowledge, instead of becoming a tool to doubt, which merely compounds ignorance.

Another strategy is to keep in consideration two things: these words by Bill Nye, “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t,” and these words from Carl Sagan, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.” These two concepts alone can make us better students.

Or consider Richard Ogle’s explanation of reach & reciprocity; where one begins with the core knowledge in a field, then ventures out and learns something new, “then they come back and reintegrate the new morsel with what is already known.

Then they venture out again, back and forth, again and again. Too much reciprocity and you wind up in an insular rut. Too much reach and your efforts are scattershot and fruitless (Ogle).”


What’s needed, it seems, is a healthy balance of expansion and integration. The breakthrough, of course, is the realization that learning is not linear, but exceptionally cyclical. We stretch, we learn; we retract, we integrate. We stretch further, we learn more; we retract, we integrate further.

And the cycle continues. With enough reach and reciprocity the cycle becomes a cycle of mastery. If life is truly what we learn, then it behooves us to seek and find mentors that can teach us about life. Our mentors become the giants whose shoulders we stand upon.

And since everyone has something to teach, anyone can be a mentor, and thus anyone can be the giant whose shoulder we stand upon. If we master what they have to teach, we’ll be able to see further and farther than they did.

If we don’t master what they have to teach, we can at least assimilate their knowledge and move one smartly.

Like Robert Greene succinctly put it, “Choose the mentor who best fits your needs and connects to your Life’s Task. Once you have internalized their knowledge, you must move on and never remain in their shadow. Your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance.”

Life is what we teach

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

True mastery is not mastering others; it’s mastering our former self. We all know this to be true, to a certain extent, but we also struggle with the cultural conditioning that competition trumps cooperation.

It doesn’t. Or at least it shouldn’t. Cooperation must be primary and competition secondary for any healthy evolution to occur. Whether that evolution is learning, teaching, or living.

The basis of nature is cooperation and democracy. It’s in our DNA. It can be seen in every organism from ants to primates. Indeed, even in The Descent of Man, Darwin mentioned “survival of the fittest” exactly twice, and he mentioned the word “love” 95 times.

Let that sink in for a second. Competition has always been secondary to cooperation; otherwise we wouldn’t have survived as a species. The problem is that we’ve had the cart (competition) in front of the horse (cooperation) for roughly 2,000 years. And we see, first-hand, the unhealthy state we’re in because of it.

There’s nothing wrong with competition, mind you. It’s still primary over everything else other than cooperation. But when we focus too much on competition we lose sight of the importance of self-mastery.

And there is this dangerous tendency to try and master others instead. But it’s always better if we focus on mastering ourselves rather than others. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, it’s all a matter of awareness.

Like Leonardo da Vinci said, “The average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting… and talks without thinking.”

A wise human realizes the difference between looking and seeing, listening and hearing, touching and feeling, eating and tasting, and talking and thinking. A wise human also realizes the difference between mastering others and mastering the self.
expect the unexpected
Self-mastery is the ability to self-overcome, to consistently and persistently ward off the master complex. The master complex is the false notion that we’ve somehow learned all we need to learn about a certain subject or even about life. It’s the idea that our expertise will suffice, and that nobody else can teach us anything.

Like Kathryn Schulz said, “Ignorance isn’t necessarily a vacuum waiting to be filled; just as often, it is a wall, actively maintained.”

Sadly, it spells the end of our journey of knowledge. Beginner-mind begets expert-mind begets master-complex which must be destroyed by beginner-mind in order to renew the cycle and in order to recycle the mastery. Recycling the mastery is the best way to self-overcome and to master our former self. And it keeps knowledge cyclical as opposed to linear.

At the end of the day, there is no such thing as a true master. We’re all ignorant about something. Socrates realized that no one was wiser than he because no one understood their ignorance as well as he did. As Shakespeare imparted, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Indeed, we are all ignorant, but the smart thing is to become wise to it. The closest we can get to being a true master is understanding that there will always be something we don’t know, and some things we can never know, and then laugh about it. In the end, cultivating a good sense of humor is probably the closest we’ll ever get to “true mastery.”

Like Alan Watts said, “When you attain Satori, nothing is left for you in that moment than to have a good laugh.”

Image source:

Trenfor quote
If you’re not willing to learn
Best teacher

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Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.


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