Living the Love of Wisdom: Spirals of Transformation

In a recent post describing the daily reading that serves as an intimate and attentive ritual for Carolyn and me, lectio divina, I acknowledged the serendipitous turnings on the road to Living the Love of Wisdom.  These are moments of grace, inviting a turning of our whole being. The road to love and wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at helping us to become more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live.

Beliefs, however, while important, are not enough.  Aristotle emphasized that human flourishing (eudaimonia) is realized in action; it is a matter of living life from the very best in oneself.  Living the Love of Wisdom, then, involves a nexus of practices whose pursuit gives direction to an entire lifetime.  These practices deepen commitments to patterns of behavior that in turn enlarge the soul’s perspectives and reinforce our commitment to kind and thoughtful behavior.  Thus, the actions that constitute the pursuit of Wisdom as a Way of Life both flow toward the flourishing of Wisdom, and then flow from Wisdom into life’s daily actions, spiraling toward ever deeper wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world. Herein lies the spiral of transformation.

galaxy

Golden spirals and Fibonacci spirals are found everywhere in nature, from galaxies to flowers, from snails to the human body–and even to the human soul.  The path to a robust love of wisdom is not a straight line, but swirls and spirals as we succeed and fail in the daily rhythms of life. Sometimes the spiral path is intentional as we seek to incorporate our highest values into daily living.  A wonderful example of this can be read in the blog Soul Harmony on Demand, where Veronika applies some of the teachings of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra to our daily drive to work. In my opinion, she does an inspiring job. Thich Nhat Hahn advises us to bring mindfulness to washing the dishes, and Thomas Moore has written extensively on the holiness of everyday life.

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Sometimes, however, the spiral path toward love seems chaotic, and out of our control.  Our lives have the opportunity, however, to become more vibrant as we meet the obstacles and challenges placed (or we place) in our way.  Slowly it dawns on some of us that these obstacles are in fact invitations to change our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior.  So often in my life, my beliefs would slam me into a wall that seemed to mock my good intentions. But after many head and heart aches, I began to learn to go around the wall, or to find another way, and finally to adopt an attitude that dissolved the wall entirely.  As I noted in my essay On Sin, the recognition and acceptance of my fallible and vulnerable humanity has the power to deepen my reservoir of compassion, and every return becomes a renewal.  As T.S. Eliot famously observed in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes when I find myself revisiting issues with which I have been contending for many years, discouragement looms on the horizon.  Bernard Malamud once asked “If it’s a sentence Lord, how long?”  But Martin Buber advises us to get over our negative self-judgment, which actually is a form of narcissism. He relates this wonderful insight from the Rabbi of Ger:

“He who has done ill and talks about it and thinks about it all the time does not cast the base thing he did out of his thoughts, and whatever one thinks, therein one is, one’s soul is wholly and utterly in what one thinks, and so he dwells in baseness.  …What would you?  Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way–it will always be muck.  Have I sinned or have I not sinned–what does Heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven.”

And so we “human merely beings” follow the call of Love, sometimes joyfully in the light of conscious awareness, and sometimes stumbling through the dark night of confusion and what feels like self-betrayal.  It has been my experience, however, that at least once in a while I return to the darker places of my being with more understanding and love.   Slowly I am learning to trust the spirals of existence that swirl in the cosmos and in my own heart, to lead me home.

5 thoughts on “Living the Love of Wisdom: Spirals of Transformation

  1. Hariod Brawn

    John, thank you once again for yet another lucid and engaging article; yours are always so consistently as such, whilst humbly giving expression to your impressive erudition too. I always come away with some refinement of my own understanding.

    You speak here of the need for intentional practices, or as you say, ‘Sadhana’ in Eastern traditions. The rise in a contemporary (and also corrupted) take on classical Advaita, wherein considerations such as ethical behaviour and formal practices of mental culture are deemed superfluous, seems to me to reflect the laziness of Western consumer culture, [i.e. choice is paramount] and might be seen as a pernicious trend.

    May I ask of you whether you sense a similar movement from where you stand; or do you see the Westernisation of Eastern ontologies/doctrines as being in good and ever-maturing fettle? The picture here in England seems rather mixed to me.

    Thank you once again.

    Hariod.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Dear Hariod, I am so grateful for your kind encouragement, and excited by your provocative (in the best sense) insights. I see three levels in your remarks that I can only begin to explore. The first is the general question of whether Eastern ontologies and ethics can find an authentic home in a Western soul. I have only a vague idea of what to say about this right now. I think you have inspired a new blog essay. The second point seems more clear to me, and that is the pernicious trend of the commercialization of spirituality in the western world (and frankly, in the East as well). This has led, I think, to very self-involved “gurus” and to seekers who want to take a road to maturity that is, if not lazy, at least easy. I know of one ‘school’ in the US that offers a Ph.D. for attending a few workshops, and writing a subjective paper. This, to me, is a travesty, although I must say that many of the students (mostly women in their 50’s and 60’s) rise to the occasion and engage in meaningful growth. Your third point is, in my experience, nuanced. Granted that many people are in a rather undisciplined pop-culture phase, many of my international students in Japan were clearly luminous souls who gave themselves unstintingly to understanding and absorbing Eastern cultural values and worldviews. I was deeply moved by their dedication, and felt there was hope for the future despite the raging hatred and violence in so much of the world. There are also meditation centers here, such as Spirit Rock and the Zen Mountain Center, where people from every walk of life follow traditional Eastern practices with sincere zeal. As I think about it, I would add that even those folks who seem to be dabbling–reading a couple of books and meditating once in a while–have a sweetness to their seeking, and one never knows when and if their life’s agenda will kick into high gear. “There is more in Heaven and Earth…”

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