Living Life as a Learner

After the birth of our first child, I received bits of advice from friends.

One friend commented, “Too bad children don’t come with a training manual.” Her point was that in raising children there is a lot to learn.  As a new mother with our first child, I couldn’t agree more. However, for me, the idea of a manual did not resonate. I was not looking for a manual. I was hoping to discover who this new little being was and to learn how to relate to him.

Row of babies, all learning, all learners in life

Another well-meaning and loving friend brought several cloves of garlic and put them under my hospital bed. She shared that according to her Italian background, garlic will keep away any looming harm that may be out there in the world. I accepted her gift with thanks.

I figured we needed all the help we could get.  The birth and delivery were difficult and were rough on our son entering the world.

Yet another close friend, a gifted and loving preschool teacher, reassured me, “He will feel you trying your best. Pay attention to his cues, and he will guide you in what he needs.”  “He will guide you in what he needs.”  Those words stuck with me. I liked that approach, because from the get-go, it credited us both. It credited our baby son and me as developing an interactive, dynamic, reciprocal relationship. Forty-five years later the wisdom of that advice persists. It persists not only in the sphere of raising children, but as an orienting approach to how to live my life as a learner.

Paying Attention to Cues

Being attentive to the cues of a newborn makes a lot of sense. Now that I am many years older and a grandmother, I remember those first weeks of learning to listen to a baby’s cries. It was a revelation to discover that all cries are not the same. Subtle and not-so-subtle cries are communicated. There is a cry of hunger. A cry of discomfort. A cry of please hold me. We paid attention to our son’s cries. Whether we were wakened in the middle of the night or when he was fussing from the heat and needed one less blanket covering him we learned to respond. My husband and I responded to his needs for the obvious and simple reason that we loved him unconditionally.

Mothering a newborn was an introductory lesson in paying attention to another’s cues.  Other words for paying attention are being attentive, noticing, awareness, or consciousness. I discovered that learning to pay attention motivated by feelings of love was generalizable.  Life’s lessons are endless. They can be from unexpected occurrences to the dynamics of relationships with others to social and cultural shifts on a global scale.

The Teachable Moment

In the field of education, where my professional life began, teachers acknowledged the value of the teachable moment. These are moments that are ripe with potential for learning and are unplanned and arise naturally.  For instance, working as a social worker in an elementary school, I realized that knowing how to be a friend is not a given for young children.

Young children need to learn how to be friends with each other. Their natural social learning process includes many mis-steps. For instance, it was common that one or two children would roll their eyes when another child spoke. The eye rollers wanted to nonverbally communicate their judgment of the other child’s teachable moment. Learning could take place without shaming. Talking with children about how their behavior may have hurt the third child’s feelings was a more effective approach. I found a useful question to ask the eye-rollers when I met with all three children: “Did you know that when you rolled your eyes at so and so you hurt his feelings?”  Invariably, the answer was “no,” and a sincere apology followed. Walking through an action and its consequences with the intent of increasing understanding allowed a child to learn from his actions.

I experience a steady stream of moments to learn from in my adult life. Learning from life is an ongoing journey.

young girl writing and learning

A Steady Stream of Life Lessons

I don’t go looking for life lessons, but lessons present themselves. I am open to learn from them. Life lessons come in all sizes, from the smallest interaction to an action of significant consequence.

 I find a rich source of learning about how to live to be in the realm of relationships. All kinds of relationships, with just about everybody and everything. Relationships with family, friends, my testy neighbor, individuals with values and beliefs different from my own. Relationships with roots in the past that are resistant to change as time moves on. In relationship with Nature, the environment, as a citizen of my city and country. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to live without being in relationship. Even when I am alone, I am in relationship with myself.

Learning What Others Need

 Here’s an instance of learning from relationship. My husband and I enjoy taking long walks together. In addition to keeping track of our steps, it is a lovely way to be together. On one recent walk, I brought up something I had noticed and had been thinking about that was occurring in my husband’s life. He receives many phone calls, and he is frequently in meetings for groups and activities he participates in. Since he had a heart attack over 25 years ago, I have taken on the role of watchdog for his well- being. I raised the question about all the calls and meetings. I asked, “Does it ever feel like the calls and meetings are too much?”  His immediate answer, “Only when you ask me.”

His answer was an instantaneous life lesson. Sometimes what I say or do that may come from a place of caring for another, may not be the most helpful to what another person needs. The value of the lesson is to remember it, so what I learn can be applied at other times.

Learning from Pain

An example of a larger level of learning from life occurred several weeks ago. I tripped over something on the floor by my desk, lost my balance, and fell hard on my side. This resulted in a couple of broken ribs. Besides a trip to the ER, I understood in real time that my mind and spirit may be as energetic and active as ever. The reality is that as I age, my bones are more fragile than they used to be.

What did I learn from this? Many, many, things. That I have to treat my body with care and respect. It is not to coddle my body. It is be aware that a 73 – year – old body does not bounce like a 23 – year- old body. I learned that pain from an injury can be lived in several ways. It can either be an excuse to be preoccupied with myself or can serve as a conscious connection with others who feel pain in so many different ways. I learned that the feeling of vulnerability reminds me to express gratitude each morning when I wake up for being given another day.

Girl learning online

Making Mistakes in Life

My style as a learner seems to include making mistakes. I seem to need to get it wrong before I get it right. As a learner, I not only get an aha moment from the mistake, the moment says “oh, that’s how I do it.”  I remember when I first learned to drive and had to parallel park. As I backed into a space I sometimes bumped into the curb or even the bumper of a car behind me (a gentle bump). I had to repeat that process a number of times before I got it right.

Or as I learn to do new weaving designs, the same is true. Understanding what the mistake was about helps me to not repeat the mistake again. It is said there are no do-overs in life. I think this is true and not true. For instance, when I blurt out a comment without thinking how my words might affect someone else. It is true that I cannot take the words back.  However, when I pay attention to the effects my words have on another, I can change my pattern of speaking without thinking. For me, my pattern of learning seems to include repeating mistakes. I may make the mistake many times before the learning finally sinks in. Situations seem to have a way of repeating themselves over time, so opportunities to learn and to change are frequent.

Learning to be Open to Life’s Lesson

My experience is that being open to learning from a mistake is a more freeing attitude than being down on myself for the error I made. An attitude of being open to learn is what allows me to live life as a learner. Living life as a learner I recognize there is much more that I don’t know than I do know.

I have been fortunate in that I have been exposed to and have been in relationship with others who are role models for living life as a learner. To briefly site a few examples: My brother. By profession he is a gifted sculptor, a fine artist in wood work. In the last 15 years he went through many life crises. He had a debilitating cancer, went through a divorce, and the shop where he did all his fine wood working burnt to the ground. What is inspiring in his case is even though the pain of these struggles were deep, he learned to assess what was most important to him in life.  When confronting a potential difficult situation he says, “ Life is too short to get upset by the small stuff.”

 As I meditate and situate myself in the silence of my soul in the presence of something vast, my relationship with the unknown changes. Sometimes the unknown can be anxiety provoking. But in meditation, I experience the unknown as an energetic dimension of life. This dimension can open my heart to the feeling of wow! How amazing! I did not know that! I learn about openness from the practice of meditation.

How Meditation Leads to Living a Life as a Learner

Adults learning together

            Meditation is a practice of bringing silence into the interior realm of my being. In that silence I can reflect on how I live. Not only to reflect in an overall way about my attitudes and orientation to life. But within the meditation to look into the still, calm wading pool of my soul. Here I can notice how I respond in thought, feeling and action. Meditation allows me to notice how I live and how I aspire to live.

Referring back to the example of my broken ribs, I used it to learn many things about life and pain. I felt the need to meditate about how much of my mental, emotional and physical energy was preoccupied with feeling uncomfortable. Within the meditation as I opened my heart to the Divine Mother. I saw and felt pain as if it was a suction cup that kept my focus locked in one place and separated me from others. A response within the meditation arose from a longing to learn from this experience in a new light. I perceived that pain was a connector with others who hurt in so many different ways.

In my experience, meditation is that quiet inner space where I can temporarily leave the hustle and sometimes frenetic level of daily life. For me the quiet space of meditation is the optimal environment for reflection and learning. In this space of meditation, I want to listen to the authentic voice of my soul. I want to live with a pure intention to love.

About the Author(s)

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Allegra Magrisso is a social worker, therapist, long time meditator, mother and grandmother.