Looking back over my life, I see that some of the most profound lessons have come in the most unexpected ways. I suspect that such major teachings are always available; it’s simply up to us to be present enough to receive them.
For example, take the time I was in basic training – those six initial weeks of general instruction when the U.S. Army prepares all its new recruits for combat. One morning our company of newbies was issued gas masks – a curious relic of trench warfare, with two oversized glass portholes that make humans look like claustrophobic insect-people. Our only instructions were to secure them to our web belts – the Army’s version of a carpenter’s carry-all.
We were marching in formation to our next instruction site when several sergeants suddenly threw tear gas canisters at us, yelling “gas attack” at the top of their lungs. If their screams weren’t enough to disrupt the semblance of order, the first whiff of tear gas certainly did the job. Within seconds, everyone had broken rank and taken off in every imaginable direction. For some reason I’ll never completely understand, I didn’t move. I just stood there, held my breath, and watched all hell break loose around me.
I saw the three canisters that our trainers had thrown at us. I also saw our company commander, a second lieutenant, standing just a few feet away from them, obviously untouched by the gas as he surveyed the scene. I walked over to where he was standing, curious to see why.
The lieutenant, a kid just a few years older than I, said, “Koven, what do think you’re doing?”
I snapped to attention and saluted. “Standing two feet upwind from the gas canister, sir.” I remember stressing the last word.
“You can’t do that,” he said, “this is a gas attack.”
“It appears I just have, sir.” At the time, I had no intention of being a wise guy. I was just making a simple declaration of fact. The company commander didn’t say another word. He let me stand there, and together we watched the mayhem unfold before us.
I’ve carried two life-changing lessons with me from this unlikely experience. The first is: no matter what befalls us, there is always a place two feet upwind from the gas canister that offers a broader perspective. The trick is to remember this when every instinct shouts at you to run away from the perceived source of pain. Now whenever I find myself in a bit of a bother I take a deep breath and try to find a place next to my “company commander” (my higher self) from which to revisit the situation. Immediately a bigger picture is visible, and what at first seemed like Armageddon reappears as part of a larger context. Options previously hidden from my consciousness become plainly visible. This powerful tool has served me often and well.
The second lesson took far longer to emerge, though it might have been obvious at the time to one more perceptive than I: what you see depends upon where you’re looking from. Each of the participants in the “gas attack” had a distinctly different take on the incident and reacted accordingly. My life changed dramatically the day I grasped the fullness of this lesson. Reality as we know it is simply a function of perspective. Even what we might consider an absolute right or absolute wrong is ultimately just a judgment derived from a particular way of seeing things. There isn’t a killer or liar who, at the time of commission, didn’t believe his or her action was necessary, despite society’s subsequent opinions.
If where you stand determines what you see, and if, as the saying goes, “seeing is believing,” then the reason why disagreement and strife are so rampant becomes clear. We tend to defend our particular perspective on the world against all comers, and the more we commit to the rightness of that viewpoint, the less we are able to see beyond it. It is said that the Indians living on Tierra del Fuego were unaware of the first European explorers until their rowboats landed on the beach. Being accustomed to dugouts, they literally could not see the huge galleons moored just offshore because the galleons were unlike anything they had seen before. To paraphrase Lyall Watson, reality is simply an idea that has gained universal acceptance.
Then there are those who so firmly believe in their own way of thinking that they stamp it with the imprimatur of God, call it a religion, and reject all other perspectives. Whenever these well-meaning folk take to the hills (or television screens) in search of new converts, they engage in a curious act easily definable as bigotry: an obstinate and irrational, often intolerant, devotion to one’s own church, party, belief, or opinion.
Later that day during basic training we were shown the proper use of our gas masks, and I got to experience the distorted field of vision afforded by those two glass portholes. I suspect if that was all I had ever known, I too would believe it to be reality.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2018. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.