The Tree of Knowledge
Lessons that Life teaches us
— Swami Nikhilananda
Life is a great teacher. Life continues to teach through the various experiences as we grow. From early childhood till we depart from this world, there are some lessons that naturally come into our lives and if they are not learnt well, the class is repeated. As in school, where one has to learn a particular syllabus and if it is not learnt properly, one is specially coached and if one still doesn’t do well, then one has to repeat the class. Similarly in life, lessons that are not learnt well are repeated again and again. This is evolution or natural growth.
The human body consists of 60 trillion cells and each cell has knowledge of the entire body. Every moment many cells die and new ones are born. Once a cell dies all its information is transferred to the new one. After every seven years the entire body renews itself. The body we had seven years ago is no longer the one we have at present. Every seven years there is a complete overhaul and the body is as though reborn. A similar thing happens to our minds. If we observe our lives carefully, we will find that a transformation takes place roughly every seven years, give and take a few years. We notice a definite paradigm shift taking place in the personality. These are lessons that Life teaches us. We can either go with the flow and learn them effortlessly and naturally or learn them in a more proactive, conscious sort of way.
Lesson one – ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’: The first lesson begins from the time of birth itself. Birth takes place in much the same way that noise emerges from silence and the number one comes after zero. Then miraculously we experience the sense of ‘I’, a strange experience of being. At birth, the first lesson is to become aware of the mystery of this ‘I’. This experience of ‘I’ begins from our early childhood and continues till the end. Till age seven the child thinks that everything revolves around it. It is the centre of attraction. Children feel important knowing the world serenades to their tune.
The lesson here is to understand the significance of one’s own being. It is a great mystery and there is tremendous joy in self discovery. The child first becomes aware of its body, then its personality. It starts understanding how to walk, talk, climb, jump and dance. It exults in self-discovery, “I can walk! I can sing! I can dance! Look at me”! The twin concepts of ‘I’ (aham) and ‘my’ (mama) become apparent. “This is my mother and my father. These are my toys, and this is my house, my cat!” We discover our sense of being.
We believe we are the most important people in the world and imagine that the immediate world is meant for our enjoyment. Though we experience the presence of others, we assume they cater to us only. Either they belong to us or we don’t notice them. Everything known to us belongs to us. We know nothing about anything else. “Whatever doesn’t belong to me like my neighbours or what lies at the periphery of my world means nothing to me.” In this way everything rotates around the sense of ‘I’.
Lesson two – ‘You’ and ‘yours’: After the age of seven we discover the presence of others around us. We become aware of our siblings and the other children at school. We come to realise that these ‘others’ also have their own identities. We recognize that our parents and siblings, though belonging to us, have their own identities. We learn that some of our toys are also shared by our siblings. In other words, we learn to cognize and accept the presence of others in our lives. From birth to seven are the selfish years. Thereafter, we recognize that other beings exist. Also, we come to understand that certain things belong to them too. These are the years where friendships are developed with other children. The gender difference has not yet entered into our awareness. Just as the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘my’ were present, now ‘you’ and ‘yours’ become apparent. ‘Aham’ and ‘mama’ is the first lesson and ‘tvam’ and ‘tava’ is the second one.
Sant Tulsidas says in Ramcharitra Manas “mai aru mor tor tain maya” — this is the beginning of maya. Animals understand this lesson and depict it through their territorial instincts. Even youngsters exhibit this trait of possessiveness towards their belongings. They say, “This is my room”, “This is my dress, or toy or poster”! Parents further encourage this behaviour by making them aware that certain objects belong to them and others to their siblings. This lesson is relevant at this stage of life. Later, it helps in accepting the presence of other beings. It is best learnt during one’s childhood years at school from seven to fourteen years.
Lesson three – Gender and personality awareness: Lesson three begins at fourteen. This is when we discover the gender and personalities of others. From fourteen to twenty one years, there is an exploration of the other species, one from Mars (men) the other from Venus (women). There is an attraction towards and an attention to the opposite gender. Boys discover the presence of girls and their thoughts are riveted in that direction. Girls, though being aware of their own personality and identity, are also aware of boys. During these teenage years children live in a dream world. Their parents often do not understand them, occasionally giving rise to unnecessary rifts and discord. Here, the lesson of accepting the other gender is learnt. Those who fail to learn this do not respect or value their spouses. As a result, they face problems in their married lives. It is important to understand and accept the differences and special traits of the opposite gender. This empowers them to revere and regard the other.
Lesson four – Family growth and acquisitions – ‘Us’ and ‘ours’: Familiarity with the opposite gender brings a feeling of possessiveness. Between the ages of 21 to 28 one gets married and experiences a sense of belonging to another. In the beginning, we know we exist and have a host of possessions that include other people. Now the reverse happens. We realize that we could also be a possession of another. ‘Somebody else belongs to me’ and ‘I also belong to someone’ and ‘something belongs to us’ are the threads of the husband-wife-children relationship that bind the family together. There is an experience of oneness with another being which is a wonderful experience in itself. Later this guides and aids in the realization of the Ultimate Truth.
These years are spent in profession or job enhancement, house building and rearing of children. We learn the invaluable lesson of somebody belonging to us. ‘This is my wife, my husband, my children.’ This lesson, if felt and deeply understood, enables one to identify with the world in a more humane manner. We are able to understand the value of other families, other peoples’ wealth and properties. We begin to see things from another perspective. This applies not only to human beings. Appreciation of the lives of animals and birds also permeates our understanding. We realize that just as we have families, so do animals and birds and others in the natural kingdom. We become sensitive to the presence of other beings. This fourth stage spans the years when people are beginning their careers, seeking stability in their jobs, getting married, nurturing desires to build a house, buy a car and get their children into the best schools. The emphasis is on us, our families consisting of spouses, children, grand parents, relatives, education of children, house, and other personal assets and possessions.
Lesson five – Exploration and travel – ‘They and theirs’: Lesson five is recognising/realising that families other than “mine” also exist in this world. From 28 to 35, people explore the world. This is the stage of an explorer and an adventurer out on an exploration trip! At a physical level, this is actually going out and visiting places and meeting new people. At a mental level, it is reading books and expanding one’s horizons of knowledge. Such people are no longer bound to their families. They do not remain mere householders in the sense of holding on to their households. They move out into society and the world at large. At this stage we realize the existence of ‘they’ and ‘theirs’. We understand that there are others in this world and some things belong to them.
Swami Nikhilananda, a direct disciple of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, was born in a small Indian village in 1895 and was ordained a monk of the Ramakrishna Order in 1924. After spending several years in the Himalayan monastery of his Order, during which time he made a study of Hinduism and other systems of philosophy and religion, he was sent to America in 1931. He founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre of New York in 1933 and was its spiritual leader until his passing away in 1973.
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