Tag Archives: transformation

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.

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.

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Monkey Reaching for the Moon #2: Grasping The Branch

tohaku

Some folks have asked just what is the branch the monkey is holding on to. Let’s start to approximate some insights by refreshing our memories of Hakuin’s poetic interpretation:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’s let go the branch and
Disappears in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
with dazzling pureness.

It seems to me that the monkey’s grasp on the branch symbolizes the attachment that the Buddha taught was at the root of all human suffering. I’d like to look at three facets of this attachment.

First, the Buddha taught that human suffering is caused by attachment to wanting life to be the way we want it to be or think it should be. This causes us to resist life as it is, which in fact sets us in opposition to life. In his Handbook Epictetus says that we will drive ourselves crazy trying to control what can’t be controlled, and what can’t be controlled is everything outside our own minds. Our attitudes, beliefs and values are under our control, he says, and this is where we need to focus our energy and attention. What happens to us is never the cause of suffering. What we think about what happens to us causes our suffering.

This fundamental attachment, then, is actually to our own ideas. This is perhaps the most difficult prison from which to escape, the prison of Plato’s Cave which is of course the Cave of our own minds. The difficulty lies in the fact that our minds create the world we live in, and to change our basic beliefs is to transform the world as well. That is easier said than done. The old cliche about the devil you know is relevant here. Like the monkey, I hold onto the conditioned ideas that bring me security with ferocious rigor. Yet as the Dhammapada teaches in its first lines: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure (negative) mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. … Speak or act with a pure (positive) mind, and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.”

The second facet of attachment is a corollary of the first. The mind is something like the static lens of a camera. It freezes the world and other people so that I can be secure in my (supposed) knowledge of how things are. But, really, this is like trying to capture a river in a water glass. The world and the people in it are constantly flowing, and in order to see this we need to relax the grip we have on old ideas. When we think we know something or someone, we stop looking closely. This casual taking for granted is especially easy to do, and a fundamental cause of suffering, when that someone is an intimate member of our chosen or natural family. When you live with a person for years on end, it is tempting to think that we know them like a book. What a tragic misconception this is.

The third facet of attachment is a further corollary. Not only does the mind freeze the world and other people, it also freezes my idea of who I am. This is Ahamkara in Yoga Psychology, the I-Maker. When I latch onto the ideas of who I think I am (John the Good, Cool Philosophy Professor), my words and actions emanate from that Cave of ideas, and I am neither Good nor Cool. This is what Lao Tsu is getting at, I think, in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “A truly good man is not aware of his goodness, and is therefore good. A foolish man tries to be good, and is therefore not good.” If I am good because of some idea of rightness that I think allows others and myself to see me as good, that “goodness” is actually flowing from Ego, and what I do (in music, or teaching, or intimacy) might be Right, but it is never very Good. Continue reading