Three wondrous abilities - Part 1

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We often have a hard time with questions such as:

What are your main abilities, what are you good at?

We think of something that suits us, where we have talent, such as musical talent or a sport. Or we immediately associate the question with some kind of job application and then think of something we have learned or what we have been trained for. In this article, we want to look at three wonderful abilities that every human has, but which we generally do not consider. In a way, they are even aspects that we do not see as abilities, as something we can do.

The first wondrous ability: considering the meaning of life

The first ability is miraculous, because it is already our own, or at least possible for us, when we are still very young. Most of the abilities we have at any point in our lives, we have had to develop. We had to learn something, often in several steps, in order to be able to do something at a certain moment. Tying the laces of our shoes is one such an example.

In order to be able to ask meaningful and possibly far-reaching questions on a complex subject, we normally also need to acquire a certain amount of basic knowledge first, supplement it with an understanding of how what was learnt takes shape in real life, and then we attempt to come up with an intelligent question. That is why all courses have a theoretical part and a practical part.

But a human being, even a relatively young person, such as a child, needs very little information about the world to be able to formulate far-reaching questions about the world, the universe and its sense. For example, it can happen to parents that, apart from the infinite 'why' questions, a child suddenly has a very direct question about why we live, what life really is and why we are here. We already are able to formulate such questions, even if we cannot tie shoelaces yet, so to speak.

If it really were the case that we had to gain knowledge step by step on all the complex issues in order to be able to ask a truly appropriate question, then actually this would not be possible at a young age.

But it is true that profound questions arise in people, they bubble up as it were, and not so much is needed for this.
It is enough to sit outside in the evening and watch the starry sky and we can hardly help but wonder how it all works. These are questions that indicate a longing to understand the extent of our entire situation… as a human being in a universe with a globe full of apparently coincidental life.

We don't generally consider this to be an ability that we have. We don't say to each other:

How clever that we can formulate profound questions from just some general information - or sometimes even just out of ourselves.

The second wondrous ability: to live as if we will never die

Before going into this further, we would first like to introduce to you the second miraculous ability: to live as if we will never die. To see this as an ability may seem nonsensical, but in various sacred scriptures we find references to the opportunities that a clearer awareness of our transience holds. For example, in the Bible we read:

Teach us to count our days in a way wisdom fills our hearts. [1]

In German, this Psalm reads:

Lehre uns bedenken, daß wir sterben müssen, auf daß wir klug werden.

Both formulations indicate that through a deeper awareness of his impermanence man will make progress on wisdom or insight.

In the Indian Mahabharata epic, we read in a section that takes place at the Lake of Death, as part of the question-and-answer dialogue between Yaksha and Yudhisthira[2], Yaksha asks:

But now comes my last question: what is the most miraculous in the world?

Yudhisthira thought carefully before answering this last question. He took another look at his dead brothers. Full of conviction, he said,

Day after day, living beings enter the house of death. No one can escape this, yet those who are left behind think they will not die. Could there be anything more wondrous than this?

Maintaining such an attitude towards life, while the transience of ourselves and everything around us is evident, is truly miraculous – especially when we consider that within our modern society and also in many ancient cultures a life based on factual data is generally considered intelligent and wise. If we now try to investigate what reasons there might be that we as human beings do not pay much attention to our own impermanence or to profound questions that bubble up from within, then two aspects emerge that could explain this.

The first aspect is, that the answer to the question about the meaning of our existence does not seem easy, given the fact that even the best scientists do not seem to be able to answer it. On top of that, we may consider our own ability to search for answers as insufficient. Our motivation to get started is not too high. When the tasks of everyday life call for our attention again, we quickly return to our 'normal' rhythm of life, with which we simply have to continue; we cannot dwell on thoughts of our transience.

Another reaction many people experience is gloom at the thought of how unlikely it seems that there are answers to profound questions. It can even go as far as that we can no longer continue 'normally' with our lives and all tasks and social relationships as before. For these reasons, parents regularly advise their children not to dwell too much on questions about the meaning of life

... because you can't hope for an answer.

Then a subsequent problem might be, that we find ourselves on a social paradox. While every person can understand such questions, we become cautious about broaching the topic because time and again it is apparent that others see it as an undesirable topic of conversation. If nevertheless we might want to have a conversation with someone, we may come across the view

that everything eventually happened by chance and therefore it is not wise to think about it too much. 


(To be continued in part 2)


[1] Psalm 90:12

[2] Yudhishthira Answers the Yaksha’s Questions,  Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Complete Mahabharata, Digireads.Com, 2013

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