Everything Is Our Teacher

by Brandon Nappi

As the late winter sunlight grows stronger each day, I look out beyond the terrace here at Copper Beech Institute and watch the koi happily dancing within our small pond. I remember the last time I stood here on a steamy summer day, peering down through the black water and following the long slimy stems downward until they disappeared into the murky depths. It’s amazing that these magnificent blooms which begin in the mud can courageously stretch their way toward the surface until they finally drink in the full radiance of the sun.

The waterlily and the lotus flower, its Asian cousin, share this dual life in sunlight and mud. Both are necessary for blooming. For this reason, these plants have become a poignant symbol of the contemplative life.

Spiritual practice is about stretching the heart open to contain both the darkness of pain and the lightness of joy. I’m aware of my own inclination to hoard the light—to accumulate as much pleasant experience as possible. Of course, it’s only natural to desire as much pleasure as possible in the form of laughter, happiness, fun, and positive experience. Yet, the waterlily reminds us that this is only half the story. Life is always a combination of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences, a mix of light, dark, and many shades of gray. Our mindfulness practice helps us to welcome the reality of all aspects of life so that we are not enslaved by the constant need to get our own way.  

We practice not to minimize negative emotions and maximize positive emotions; rather, we practice so that no matter what happens, we can receive whatever arises with equanimity and grace. We practice so that whether we are experience the mud of life or life’s sunshine, we remember that both are necessary for growth, both are necessary for blooming. When you realize that you can feel everything and anything—including unpleasant emotions and sensations, then you are free.  

Only the soft heart can stretch open to contain both the beauty and brokenness of the world. The hardened heart is brittle; it fractures easily and its fragility needs to be carefully guarded. Yet for the soft heart, everything becomes a teacher. All of life is a classroom, an opportunity to grow in wisdom in awareness. The availability of this freedom brings us to practice over and over again.

In these days of growing light, the warming mud will incubate the awakening roots of the waterlilies here at Copper Beech Institute. In the coming months, we’ll enjoy the blooms, not in spite of the darkness, but because of it. Soon, this courageous flower will reach up to greet our guests who come to Copper Beech to practice mindfulness and learn this central lesson of embracing the intermingling of light and dark as we seek together to remember that everything is our teacher.

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice offering more than 50 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

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