I begin the following article with a story of a conversation, reflecting on aspects of it along the way. There is a moral, maybe more than one, to the story – at least I think so!

Very recently, a person close to me made a comment using the phrase, “the university of life.” It popped up in a conversation between the two of us, and the way in which it was used, considering the context of the conversation, really surprised me. I’ve been reflecting on the conversation for a few days and I found that it had a lot to offer as a tool for broadening perspective on certain matters.

We were talking about people we know, specifically one person whose main theme in life is how much work is stressing her out and wearing her down. Based on some of my life experiences, I know that a person can always change her situation – people have done it everyday throughout history (whether they wanted to or not is a different topic), continue to do so, and will always do so. I articulated this knowledge to the person with whom I was chatting, and that’s when her next actions and words surprised me.

She looked away from me with smirky smile on her face, shook her head, and after a pause expressed the typical pessimistic point, which is that there are no jobs and money is scarce; a person can’t just ‘up-and-go’ from a job. I tried to continue by saying that those points are not true, that they are fragments of a limiting mindset, and certainly express a limited view on the choices that people have in life. However, I was interrupted with the following: “You don’t know what it’s really like in the world; I know, because I have graduated from the university of life”.

The old me, at that point, would have promptly left the person’s company for making such an opinionated, self-obsessed, purely-subjective, judgmental, incorrect comment. By ‘the old me’ I mean the purely debate-and-argument focused critic who had not learnt how to practice compassion. I did feel the heat start to tingle my spine, but I simply observed myself, observed my breathing, my pulse, my thoughts. Let me point out here that I felt, and still feel, no sense of judgement towards the person, and indeed rather a sense of gratefulness for having initiated a thought process that has further contributed to the positive state I’m experiencing lately.

But what she had said was a negative judgement of me, and a massively inflated positive judgement of herself. After a moment, I asked, “which university?” She said, “THE university of life – there is only one.” Now, this particular person, as dear as she is to me, had made the egotistical assumption that so many people I know have made – unsurprisingly, people whose lives are filled with so much suffering – which is the assumption that they reached a point somewhere in their lives where they had learnt it it all, experienced it all, and that nobody and nothing else can teach them any more.

Two massive paradoxes are immediately evident. A seemingly infinite amount can be said about life, most of which is up for debate. What is difficult to deny – dare I say impossible – however, is that everything in life changes. Change – or better – impermanence, is a fundamental ontological principle. Yet the person was trying to argue that one cannot change jobs, based on the ridiculous claim that her education at the ‘university of life’ taught her so; which is highly unlikely, because if a university of life had even the faint ability to detect fundamental principles, change would be one of the few on the list. To condense this paradox into one sentence: a ‘university of life’ cannot be a ‘university of life’ if it does not embrace change, yet the person in question was not embracing change.

Then there’s the notion that ‘the university of life’ offers an education that eventually leads to a cognitive stagnation – i.e. a belief that all has been learnt and experienced. How would it have ever been possible to acquire any information in the first place if such a state of mind were ever to be endorsed – i.e. a state of mind that does not allow for learning? In other words, if one wishes to claim that they have graduated from ‘the university of life’, then it is impossible for that person to believe that that they have learnt all there is to learn and experienced all there is to experience, because the very notion of a ‘university of life’ requires an (ultimately ongoing) receptive state of mind in a person in the first place.

Consider further this person only ever worked for a few years in the town in which she was born – the town she never ventured far from either – and that her life was entirely confined within the borders of materialism, consumer capitalism, patriarchy, domestic family values, racism, and fundamentalist christianity. Is this what the university of life is about? Are these discourses not crashing and burning, thankfully, in a manner they deserve?

[If you think that the above-mentioned discourses aren’t crashing and burning, take a look at the rate at which we as a species are ploughing through resources, and eliminating life-supporting biodiversity, with complete disregard for the spirit of the planet. Such action (among so many other detrimental types) is directly justified by the named discourses; and with an exponential population, exponentially consuming resources in a way that will eventually cause immense survival challenges to all members of the human race, two main courses of action are likely: either we continue with business as usual and hit the wall, so to speak, or we actively change the rules of the game for sustainability. Either way, the named discourses will crash and burn – if it continues, the former ‘course of action occurs; the latter ‘course of action’ requires the named discourses to be eliminated. This is probably the topic of a later post!].

I don’t ordinarily think these kinds of thoughts about the person in question, but remember, in the conversation I’ve referred to, she explicitly made a judgement about me – it was said that I do not know how the real world works, and that my life journey has nothing to do with the ‘university of life’ (surprising, seeing as my range of experiences is off the cart compared to hers, a statement that can be supported by fact, i.e. it’s not opinion). It has taken me the kind of process evident above to see what she meant by ‘the real world’ and ‘the university of life’ in a calm, equanimous way, and her conditioned response reminded me of some important points.

One of these points is to have compassion for each other. Sure, I initially detected a taste of anger, but observed it and let it subside; controlled the breathing; calmly continued the conversation, and left on good terms. The person in question is, after all, an unquestioning product of her social conditioning – i.e. she is a victim of the named discourses that are crashing and burning around us. In not reacting, I managed to maintain happiness – I have not had anything but positive vibes since the chat, whereas the old angry me would have replayed a debate over and over until a future confrontation – living in the past, living in the future, missing the present.

Another point is that everyone is constantly involved in some kind of education, whether they know it or not. Impermanence – i.e. change – is a fundamental ontological principle, so even if one spends 17 years working the same job and not ‘developing’ much, that situation will change, even if it’s right before death. The 17 mundane years might be very necessary in order to learn a certain lesson, even if it does not feel like it at the time. In the same way, the person in question is actually still learning, but does not know it. She will have to confront her limiting beliefs at some stage, as we will all have to, even if it’s on the death bed.

Which brings me to the person whom the conversation was about. Her job is partly the cause of her suffering, but it’s really her inability to embrace change / impermanence, never-mind direct it, that is truly the cause of her suffering. The same is true of the person with whom I had the conversation – her life is also full of suffering, and she too has placed an embargo on the concept of impermanence and change. So the person working what feels like a job that is the cause of all her suffering has been in such a place of suffering many times before, and will be again if she continues to apply the same blame game.

When I said to the person with whom I was conversing that the person stressed by her job can change the situation, I only touched on a massive series of topics that require one to look at factors like intent, motivation, meaning, inspiration, happiness, self-fulfillment, spirituality, mindfulness, etc. I won’t touch on any of those topics now, but will instead work to a conclusion here by making a few practical points. Note that these points are all focused around the scenario of a person seemingly stressed by a job in which she is employed by a higher-ranking boss.

First, if the problem is perceived to be the suffering the person is experiencing from the job, then how certain is it that the person is not causing some of the suffering herself? Is the person smoking cigarettes? Dependent on alcohol, caffeine, or sugar? Unhappy in her relationship? Not exercising? Oversleeping? Yes – all these things partly cause suffering, and if you are offended to hear it, know that you can alleviate suffering by changing these things – and trust me and millions like me, if you are doing these things, you are suffering, because a far higher quality of life and consciousness can be experienced by dropping them. One can ‘blame’ a job, in this instance, for suffering, but until you have made active steps to eliminate yourself as the cause of suffering, then it doesn’t matter what job you work, you will always find yourself suffering. Making such steps to work towards the elimination of suffering is… tada… change! Change yourself, change the situation.

Then, other than pointing out again and again how stressed she is, what has the person actually done to change her situation? Has she put out her CV and been rejected repeatedly? If not, put out the CV. If one cannot do this, has the person been actively communicating with the kind of people who are likely to be able to link her to a network where jobs are likely to come up? Has the person considered self-employment, considering that she could have established herself as a crucial link in, for example, a supply-demand business? Even one step in any of these directions would be an acceptance that change is at least likely, not something to fear entirely – even though change is unavoidable and fearing it is like fearing the air around you; but baby steps are better than nothing.

Has the person actively tried to change the ballgame at work? Has she approached the boss and had an open and honest conversation about the things that are stressing her out? Has she thought of solutions that she can offer to the boss, ones that will benefit both her and the boss?

What limiting beliefs is the person replaying in order to believe that she cannot change her job or he stressed disposition? Is she repeating the mantra, ‘there are no jobs out there; we’re in a recession; money is tight’; etc.? By doing this, she would just be focusing on the negative, while even a small self-experiment involving repeating positive mantras will show such a method to be highly effective – even if the results defy the intuitive ’cause-and-effect’ laws that people so often rely on but which tend to be mainly associated with the dominant materialist paradigm – there are plenty of alternative paradigms that raise the consciousness of people. Start small and repeat basic positive mantras.

Finally, how repetitive and mundane is the person’s life? Is the job the main thing that she does? Does the person have a hobby or hobbies? What kind of books is the person reading, if she reads at all? Is the person watching television? Does the person venture into the outdoors, like to the beach, a mountain, a park? In other words, how is the person spicing up her life? If she is not, then the world is her oyster, because she has many options in this regard.

I have written about only very accessible, practical actions that can be taken in order to control some of the ways in which one’s life can change, with specific reference to a job-stress scenario. These have all been mentioned due to their relevance to the conversation I had with the person who blurted out the cliché of the ‘university of life’, and their relevance to person who is stressed by her job. In a future post I will take the notion that you can always change your situation to a different level and focus on radical changes that have specific financial consequences.