It was the King James Bible of 1611 that first rendered metanoia as redemption. But that’s misleading. “Redemption” sounds too much like salvation, which suggests damnation, which paints humans as wretches incapable of self-repair. Originally, metanoia had a far simpler meaning, one less charged with, shall we say, religiosity. To experience metanoia in the purest sense was to simply change one’s mind – to let go of old ways of thinking, and adopting new paradigms and priorities. With new thought comes a new world. As the Jewish book of wisdom the Talmud put it: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Perhaps deeper still, metanoia aligns with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or awaking. In metanoia it isn’t new knowledge we’ve received, but a new way of knowing. This higher consciousness – prajna in Sanskrit – isn’t just the attainment of more or more accurate information. It’s an entirely different mode of awareness, beyond the realm of words and concepts.
In the gospels, the first use of metanoia appears in the oldest gospel, Mark. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent…” (Mark 1:15 NRSV) If we read this passage not with repentance, but metanoia in mind, what is Jesus suggesting? One thing’s certain – the kingdom of God is neither a place nor a future event. It is here and now, available only to those who have undergone a deep-tissue shift in consciousness. Whenever you read the word “repent,” swap it for the word “shift” and you’ve got it.
In the Buddhist tradition, the running metaphor is sleep vs. wakefulness. Budh means “to awaken,” and Buddha means “the awakened one.” In the Gospels the running metaphor is blindness vs. sight. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Jesus asks. (Matt. 7:3 NRSV) And in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “For now we see as through a glass, darkly.” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV) No matter the image – awakening or envisioning – the shift is the same. These master teachers reached for every tool in the kit to lift us out of the darkness of our habitual slumber. If, as Buddha claimed, our life is a product of our thoughts, then we not only need new thoughts, but an entirely new way of thinking.
Another facet worth noting about metanoia is this – that in this more fully realized state of consciousness we don’t just think different – we are different. Destructive behaviors fall away, old obsessions fade, and things that used to matter don’t matter anymore. Now we’ve arrived at the most empowering aspect of metanoia – as all of the flotsam and jetsam of life slips through our grasp, our feet touch down to the ground of being. There, firmly planted, we root deep into the real, finally finding an inexhaustible strength to love and serve the needs of others.
[A version of this piece first appeared in my A to Zen column in the September/October 2021 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]