The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

The Dark Night of the Soul
The woman I had married was gone and taken my beloved children with her. For years, she had been telling me clearly how unhappy she was. I was so secure in my “knowledge” of marriage and life that I spent hours writing to her and talking at her. I told her in no uncertain terms exactly how she should be thinking and feeling. She needed understanding, love and hugs, and all I had to give her were words. No wonder she hit the road.

Shortly after she left, my father died. As I stood by his bed staring at his dead body, I realized that although I “knew” everyone dies, I really didn’t believe it in my heart of hearts. Maybe everyone dies, but not MY Father!? But there he was: pale, not breathing, dead. The stark reality was overwhelming. My soul shut down. The sun went out.

Death and Divorce were the outer events that ignited an internal turmoil that was ultimately transformative. My bewildered mind could no longer make sense of life. I had played the game according to every rule I knew, and lost. My father and my marriage were dead. The beliefs and values that had formed the walls of my ego had shattered, and I could find no solid ground on which to stand. The superhighway of the American Dream had ended in Dukkha, the Buddha’s truth of suffering. I was 37 years old.

Finding the Way
Little did I know that the dismantling of my ego was exactly what I needed. In retrospect, it is clear to me that at every turn, life was keeping up the pressure of its transformative love. For after every shattering of my egoic walls and periods of darkness, the dimensions of my awareness coalesced into wider spaces, and the content of my consciousness—my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings—became more expansive as they shifted to wider, and therefore wiser, perspectives. Thankfully, too, the periods of darkness became shorter and less traumatic, until finally the shatterings morphed into gentler dissolves that opened immediately into a warmer light. As Derek Wolcott says: “Break a vase, and the love which reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

It’s Not About Me
One of the most transformative lessons I have learned is that “It’s not about me.” For years, I lived in the illusion of the Vedanta notion of Ahamkara—of “I-ness.” Even after years of seeking and reading and teaching, “I” can still unexpectedly demand attention or protection. When that happens the life, the quality, goes out of what I do. Let me give you two quick examples, one from music, and one from teaching.

After some unsettling experiences at the piano, described in another essay on this blog, I came to the realization that my musical gift was not about making money or about me looking good, but about becoming an aperture for the life and joy and beauty of music to enter the world. Music is about sharing the joy and sadness of life in a way that I find truly mysterious. But now I know that “I” am literally its servant. “It don’t mean a thing,” said Duke Ellington, “if it ain’t got that swing, ” and swing does not come from between the ears but from your heart of hearts. Beethoven said, “music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and all philosophy.” All one needs to do is gently give the ego the night off. That’s all—and that’s everything.

My other arena of powerful challenge was the classroom. It was during those difficult years that I received a grant to videotape myself teaching, and to bring this tape to Boston to be seen by award winning teachers from all over the country. We saw many wonderful examples of teaching during the week. Finally on Friday, it was my turn to shine. I was lecturing on Sartre’s play The Flies—one of my favorites, but what I saw on the screen horrified me. There, for all to see, was PURE EGO. Professor Show Off. I wanted to crawl under the table.

One of my colleagues was fond of saying that I “had the gift of gab,” and I am sure he did not mean that as a compliment. As I noted in the essay on Shoddy Virtues, our gifts can actually waylay us, and seduce us into an inflation of the ego. I realized that I had been trying to carry my students willy nilly into the world of Philosophy. My teaching style, however, changed on that very shameful day. I stopped telling my students what was in the readings, and trusted them to have taken care of that themselves. I gradually developed a more dialogic approach, learning to listen, and asking more questions than imparting information. I began to think of the classroom as a field of love, a sacred field, in which I was privileged to midwife the burgeoning minds and hearts of the young people life placed in my care. Finally, before every jazz gig, and before every class, I would remind myself: “It’s not about me. I am not the point.” And sometimes I would even remember it.

4 thoughts on “The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

  1. mravaioli

    Thank you for sharing your hard-won wisdom and experience! Please keep sharing your beautiful thoughts and ideas–they give me pause to reflect on the things that matter in life, and make me feel like I never left your classroom in Hirakata-shi.


    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      It is delightful to hear fro you Matthew. We did have a grand time in Japan, didn’t we? Complete with hospital stays and lots of sincere exchanges. I am so happy to see your life unfolding so beautifully. I send my best wishes.


  2. Eileen

    Thanks for taking us along on your journey. I particularly needed to hear the parts about ego inflation and seeing others as empty cups for us to fill with our hard earned wisdom. Years ago I was much better at encouraging dialogue in groups I led and valuing and affirming others’ thoughts. I think at some point in my late sixties I realized that I was running out of time and switched to just wanting to somehow get what little I have to offer “out there.” But unless we give others the chance to think on their own and to believe in their own ability to find wisdom, it’s water off a duck’s back.

    Very glad I discovered your blog.


    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      It is so good to hear from you, Eileen. Thank you for your encouragement. And I, too, am gaining perspective from reading your thoughts. Who knew the blogosphere was such a rich resource?



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