My eight months in Thailand are nearly over – in two more days I’m flying back to Australia. I’ve been reflecting on what I have learnt during this adventure. I’ve learnt things during my time at the temple, on Koh Tao doing my dive master training, at the Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, and even on the plane flying over here! There is far too much to fit into one blog post, but here are 10 lessons that I’ve learnt that will make a difference to how I live my life from now on.
1. Fit your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you
Eight months ago, as I was settling myself into my seat for my flight to Bangkok, the flight attendant gave this very important safety advice. However, the advice is useful in a much broader sense in life. If you don’t look after your own well-being, you are not able to be any help to others. This connects with another important lesson I learnt during my time at the temple:
2. Be compassionate to others, and also to yourself
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama
Being compassionate to others is not about pity, and it’s not about only being compassionate to those who are ‘worthy’. True compassion is that which we feel when we are confronted by someone who we find incredibly difficult, ignorant, rude, violent or evil – it’s about understanding that those people are suffering and their behaviour stems from this intrinsic suffering. It’s about wanting the best for them so that they have an opportunity to break free from their suffering and become the good person that is trapped within all the bad habits and thoughts they have built around themselves.
Being compassionate to yourself is about recognising that you are only human; that you are not perfect; that you have a lot of potential to improve yourself – and it’s especially about realising that this is ok! It’s about understanding your own suffering and wanting the best for yourself, so that you can be the best person you can be, and be happy!
3. Always see the good and rejoice in the merits of others
Encouraging and honouring the goodness of others is really important. We do not do this enough in life. We are quick to criticise others, and to notice faults. We may think that some casual compliments are enough to make up for this, but while commenting on somebody’s outfit or hair style is a nice gesture, it’s not very meaningful.
Think about the qualities and behaviours that you admire in others and aspire to develop in yourself, then look for them in those around you. Look actively for the good in others, and let them know that you have seen it. There is nothing that makes a person feel so truly understood as when another acknowledges something good about them. It builds a connection and motivates that person to continue with that goodness.
4. It’s more important to be good, than to be right.
There is an important distinction between good and bad, and right and wrong. A person may be right, but if they are not good, then they may be right for the wrong reasons, or by accident. Whereas if a person is good, they may be wrong, but they will be motivated to try to make it right. A person who is truly good will be right most of the time anyway.
5. Wisdom is far more important than knowledge
No amount of knowledge in the world is valuable unless the person with the knowledge also has the wisdom to use that knowledge effectively. Even if a person has no formal education, if they have wisdom they can contribute an enormous amount to the world. We need to spend time and effort developing our wisdom, not just accumulating more academic qualifications.
6. The worst thing you can be is unwise and active
The monks taught me that there were four different relationships between wisdom and action:
1. You can be wise and active
2. You can be unwise and inactive
3. You can be wise and inactive
4. You can be unwise and active
The first relationship is clearly the best. If you are wise, and you are active, you will do good. The second relationship is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the second-best option. This is because, if you are unwise, doing nothing is actually the most sensible course of action. The third relationship is actually worse – if you are wise and inactive, then you are not doing as much with your wisdom as you can. The last relationship is the most dangerous – if you are unwise and active, you are likely to do more harm than good, despite your best intentions.
The monks’ teachings were reinforced in our Peace Fellowship lectures on Mary Anderson’s principles of “do no harm”.
7. Think about how you use the energy you consume
We think a lot about the purity of the food we eat – we take care to avoid artificial colours and preservatives, we try to eat low-fat, healthy meals. However, the monks taught me that the purity of our food is more than just its nutritional values. It involves four different factors:
- Nutritional value
- The origin of the food (e.g. whether we stole or killed for the food)
- The mood in which you eat it (e.g. if you eat in a bad temper you might get indigestion!)
- The way in which you expend the energy that you gain from that food (i.e. do you use the energy to do something bad, or something good and constructive).
How do you use your energy?
8. Remember to breathe
During my Dive Master training on Koh Tao, I was reminded of the first rule of scuba diving, and of life – always remember to breathe!
I would add to that the notion of mindfulness – and the usefulness of the breath to bring you back to the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely meditation to use while concentrating on your breathing: “Breathing in, I dwell deeply in the present moment; Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
Learning to scuba dive, and breathe underwater, you are suddenly acutely aware of every breath in and every breath out, and there are pretty dire consequences if you hold your breath. For me, working with first-time dive students was the perfect reminder about something that I had started to take for granted – how magical it is to breathe underwater. It made me start to again notice every breath, how deep it was, how the pressure of the water affected the feeling in my lungs…Who’d have thought that scuba diving was so good for meditation!
9. Always leave a bit of air in the tank
Another important bit of advice for scuba diving and life in general! You never know when you are going to need that little bit of reserve for an emergency!
These eight months have flown by so quickly that it has reminded me that there is no time to waste! If there’s something that you want to do – do it now! If there’s something that you need to say – say it now! Live every moment to its fullest, learn from everyone and everything around you, do as much good as you can cram into every twenty-four hour period (including taking good care of yourself).
This morning prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh is now the first thing I read every morning. It reminds me of how I want to live my life, day by day: