Monthly Archives: September 2014

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.


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.


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.

The Beauty of Aging

Some Mature Cherry Trees in Kyoto–and a couple of maturing folks in front of them.

May you walk in Beauty
An Ancient Navajo Prayer

May the Beauty we love be what we do
Jellaudin Rumi (1250)

To speak of aging and beauty in the same breath might seem to be hopelessly naive. The physical and mental debility of aging leads only to the grave, and it seems a vicious joke that all our dreams and hopes and efforts should end in the disgraceful and ignoble mire of old age. Moreover, in western countries, the cult of youth marginalizes those of us with white hair. We are certainly not a sought after demographic. A recent advertisement for a job at the United Nations warned that those over 58 need not apply. Many universities are looking for excellent young teachers because the image of the old dried out professor reading from his yellow notes is deeply engrained in the collective imagination. Many of us go through our days experiencing new and mystifying pains, being shocked by the person we see in the mirrors and windows we happen to pass, and either being ignored or patronized by the vigorous young people around us who are going about the important business of life. On this far side of Middle Age, I find Robert Frost’s couplet particularly apt: “Oh Lord, if You forgive my little jokes on Thee, I will forgive Thy great big one on me.” We put on a brave face, but in our heart of hearts, we know the terrifying truth that the game is up.

Or is it?

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Death tears the fabric of our lives. The wrenching loss of beloved, vital people seems an impossible affront. I know St. Paul said that faith would rob death of its sting, but that just doesn’t feel right. The loss of a beloved presence in our lives leaves an emptiness that will never fill–nor should it. It seems to me that grief is the sword in the heart of love. It is love’s burden, and love’s gift. For while faith might not rob death of its sting, the death of a beloved person can indeed bring many gifts. If we allow it, the finitude of life can come crashing into our awareness and bring with it a lasting perspective. Our broken hearts can break open to a love that cracks the shell of ego, so that grief is no longer the pain of self-centered victimization (Why did this loss happen to Me?), but a deep recognition of the interplay of life’s precious beauty and heartfelt sadness. I find consolation in the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. It is a powerful mythic rendering of the transience and the mystery of life.

These reflections are not purely theoretical. Our 30 year old daughter died a few years ago, and it was then that the above perspectives began to grow.

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Lao Tzu on War


Given the perfect imperfection of this dewdrop world, it seems that we have a long way to go before the human family absorbs the faith and the hope expressed so long ago by Albert Camus: that words might some day have a power greater than bullets. That day is clearly not here, and if it is inevitable during this turbulent era that war and violence continue to well up from the pain in the human heart, it would be a significant step toward sisterhood and brotherhood if these ancient words of Lao Tzu from verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching could be inscribed on the heart of everyone, warrior and non-warrior alike:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

The Gift of Listening


In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.
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A Dialogue from the Blogosphere

Lao Tzu and Confucius

This morning, Hariod Brawn and I exchanged these ideas sparked by a remark I made in the post  Living the Love of Wisdom: Spirals of Transformation.

I think this is worth sharing as an example of “dialogue” in its literal sense.  The word does not refer to a conversation between two people.  The prefix “dia” means “through” as in diaphanous or diagram.  “Logue” comes from Logos, that has many meanings in Greek, but it generally refers to the process of thought.  So “dialogue” could perhaps be best understood as “Thinking something through together,”  whether between two people or among thirty.  In the following brief exchange, we are working together toward a deeper common understanding of cultural and philosophical trends that we both care about. Rather than “answering questions,” we are probing possibilities, and sharing insights and experiences. Parker Palmer has defined Philosophy  as “the eternal conversation about things that truly matter.”  I think the blogosphere has become a marvelous forum for enlivening this eternal conversation, and it is my hope that the following might be seen as a brief verse in the song of wisdom.

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