Monday, April 27, 2015

The Rising Lotus

[This piece originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2015 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]

The lotus flower is a powerful visual metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Rooted in the mud beneath the pond, the stem rises up through the water, breaking through the surface and blossoming into startling beauty. To the casual eye, the exquisite refinement of the lotus blossom seems superior to the muck at the bottom of the pond. But in contemplation we come to know that there is no hierarchy between the mud, the water, and the rarefied air – each proves to be an essential environment for the unfolding.
The lotus blossom is not an alien visitor from a transcendent world. Its vibrant color and delicate form are simply an expression of the root, hidden deep beneath the mud at the bottom of the pond. Sure, the flower gets all the attention. But where would it be without its formative period? Our analytical mind divides the process into parts and stages, even imposing preference for one stage over the others. But the fact remains – each stage contains all the other stages. We are witness to a seamless unfolding not of sections, but of an indivisible unity.
Enlightenment, it turns out, is our natural, innate state. But in the depths of gestation, it’s easy to forget our original nature.
In the Indian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism the lotus stands as a wordless lesson – we are all on the way to our fullest realization, and our highest manifestation exists already within us in embryonic form.
Awakening is not becoming something we’re not – it’s becoming what we already are. Our dawning realization is a birth process – we are all at once the mother, the midwife, and the newborn. And as with childbirth, there is little to be done other than to ensure that optimal conditions exist within which the natural process can unfold on its own.
How then can we give birth to our highest, most fully-realized state? By what steps can we become more empowered? A lotus plant can live for thousands of years. We don’t have that much time.
Here’s a shortcut that could save you years of needless searching: Empowerment is not acquiring power you did not previously have; empowerment is uncovering power you had all along. You don’t need anything. You only need to remove obstacles. We become who we are, wrote Meister Eckhart, “not by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction.”
In the great hero myths of all cultures, the hero finally uncovers his or her power when all of the stultifying comforts – misunderstood as supports – are stripped away. It is only by dying to our previous stages of existence that we are reborn into our newly revealed authentic expression.
The obstacles to our empowerment are many. It’s naïve to ignore external conditions like poverty, violence, trauma, and the debilitating stress they cause. But where we can often do the most immediate good is by claiming our freedom to assert new thoughts in response to these vexing conditions. In his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl noted that among his fellow inmates at Auschwitz, the ones who survived all shared a common characteristic – they imposed meaning where there was none. Out of the depths of their being they mustered the will to live and a genuine optimism despite unbearable conditions.
In Camus’s analysis of the Greek myth of Sisyphus we see a similar theme. Sisyphus had been condemned for eternity to roll a large rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down while he slept. Every morning he rose to commit the same futile task. Yet Sisyphus overcame the absurdity of his existence through a sheer act of will. He could have succumbed to the apparent meaningless of existence, but by his willingness, courage, and perseverance he transcended his fate.  
Empowerment is an inside job. It begins with a decision. “Once you make a decision,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the universe conspires to make it happen.” What if our awakening were inevitable? What if the end was already assured and we had only to attend to the means? What if our limited thinking is the biggest hindrance to our empowerment?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wisdom, Incorporated

What is Wisdom?
Wisdom isn’t an idea. It isn’t a doctrine or a belief. It isn’t a theory or an ideology calling for our consent.
            Wisdom isn’t a product to be bought or sold. You can’t possess it or hold it.
            Philosophy, religion, and art point to it, but they cannot contain it.
            Wisdom lies outside all ideological boundaries and conceptual frameworks. It can never be conveyed with words or teachings. Yet words and teachings point the way.
Like water, wisdom is impossible to hold. Like air it is impossible to see. And like water and air, we can’t live without it.
            How can something so elusive be so essential?
            The good news is this – wisdom is not mysterious. It is not distant, arcane, or esoteric. It is nearer to us than the blood in our veins.
            Wisdom is simple as sunrise and rich as rain.
Wisdom is a way of being in the world.
Wisdom belongs to the body, to the wholeness of what we are. It rolls through our bones like a seismic wave. It brightens our sight from the inside. It lifts our feet when the path is true. We do not gain wisdom, learn wisdom, or understand wisdom – we embody wisdom. We incorporate it into the very fiber of our being. We become wisdom.
Wisdom is what we are when we finally learn how to let go of our illusions.
The tree of wisdom has many fruits – humility, simplicity, love, willingness, and freedom. One taste is proof enough that it is real.

Parting the Curtain
Immersion in the world’s wisdom traditions takes you on a surprising trajectory. What at first seemed convoluted and contrived becomes simple and innocent. What at first seemed dry and doctrinaire becomes limber and poetic. Rules and creeds give way to the immediacy of wordless knowing. More and more you come out of thinking and into being. You finally start to see through the curtain and realize that wisdom is vast, formless, and unlike ordinary knowledge.
Knowledge is full of concepts, analogies, propositions, and finite rational sequences. Wisdom is empty and infinite.
Knowledge is the weather. Wisdom is the sky.

Closing the Gap
If wisdom is the content-free awareness of how to live well, then how do we gain wisdom? How can we close the gap between our messy, chaotic life and the promise wisdom offers? How do we move out of these clouds of confusion, suffering, and dysfunction and into the clearing of joy, freedom, and wellness? The journey begins and ends in humility.
We must first admit our ignorance. We must first admit that all of our ideas about everything are second-hand. After a great house cleaning of belief, superstition, unexamined assumptions, and self-serving delusions we stand empty handed at the edge of a great wilderness. We respect the past and the well-intentioned teachers we’ve known. But we start fresh.
We start walking.
And if we are willing enough the entire universe conspires in our favor. The right books, the right people, and the right situations show up just when we need them most. They shine light on the tender shoots of our budding insights, nurture our dawning realizations, encourage our virtues, and embolden our convictions. Sometimes this divine assistance manifests as loss and destruction. Old forms are torn asunder to release the energy and raw materials necessary for the miracles ahead.
Wisdom knows a lot about letting go. Soon enough, we do too. As our old understandings (which were just opinions anyway) turn to ash, we are freed to see anew. The world opens up to us as a beautiful, grace-filled place of abundance and healing. Even our sorrow slips into its rightful place in the grand unfolding. We stop craving pleasure and distraction. It is enough to breathe, and be a part of it all. How could we ask for more? We come to gradually know, not in our minds, but in our bones, that we are O.K., and that this is enough.

Wisdom Incorporated
We had it wrong all along. We mistakenly believed that wisdom was a kind of knowledge, a cadre of secrets that would solve our riddles and cure our confusions. We can be forgiven for this naiveté. How can the unwise know what wisdom is?
            Through direct experience we come to know the simple truth – wisdom is not advice, or rules, or someone else’s idea of the good life. Wisdom is a lived realization that defies expression. We can sing about it, dance about it, point at it with painting, film, poetry, and music. But whatever “it” is, it eludes our conceptual grasp. We cannot think wisdom, we can only be wisdom.
            When we incorporate wisdom, that is, hold it in our corporeal form, we embody it and feel its thrum in all of our energy systems – the wisdom of digestion, the wisdom of perception, the wisdom of cognition, the wisdom of emotion, the wisdom of intuition, the wisdom of loving-kindness, the wisdom of willingness, the wisdom of pain, the wisdom of healing, the wisdom of action, the wisdom of reciprocity – in short, the wisdom of our inter-being. For we are not alone. Our being is everything’s being. We exist in a continuum of causation that entwines all consciousness, matter, and energy – what the theistic religions call God. But no matter what your faith-family of origin or current belief system, the fruit of wisdom is the same – a well-lived life.
            Wisdom doesn’t mean you have all the answers. But you move more graciously through the questions. Wisdom doesn’t set you free from the pain of being alive. But it teaches you that suffering is optional. Wisdom doesn’t set you above anyone else, in fact, it destroys all hierarchies. Wisdom doesn’t make you rich. But it shifts your understanding of wealth and success. Wisdom doesn’t make you clever and powerful. But it sharpens your mastery in the midst of a deep acceptance of the messiness of life.
            Letting go of the notion that wisdom is a thing to be coveted and grasped, we are free to move into its influence, the way a sailboat finds favorable wind when it heads in the right direction. Loose hand on the tiller, eyes on the horizon, and joy in the heart – this is the wisdom incorporated.