Wisdom – especially when we feel anything but wise
I feel so happy when I read the following words from the French writer, Marcel Proust: “”The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes.”” Wisdom is a way of seeing: a way of seeing ourselves, others and life itself. It may even be a way of living – even and especially for those of us who on a daily basis feel anything but wise.
We are gathered here today [at one of the Interfaith services offered by Stephanie Dowrick at Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney] to celebrate wisdom and my first thought is: Are we really wise enough to do so? Wherever we look we can see only too clearly the ways in which we have not been wise. We can see where we have hurt other people or ourselves, where we have made frightful decisions or gone in unhelpful and definitely unwise directions. We can also see where our attention has been repeatedly drawn to things that hurt us or things that truly don’t matter. Without even trying, we can feel overwhelmed by what we regard as our limited and limiting habits, even when we are apparently doing our best.
Yet, for all that, one of the great and many gifts of meeting here as members of one single human family is to see freshly that across time and across all cultures, wisdom is here for us. Wisdom is another way of talking about grace. And grace, as well as the strength and peace that flow from grace, is not for special people only.
Wisdom is for everyone. It is a spiritual quality that literally transforms lives.
What’s more, wisdom is found not in the very big or grand gestures of our lives, but far more often in the small choices, decisions and actions that make up our lives. It is found in our acts of restraint; it is found in our acts of connection.
Just one example of this is the humility, love and absolute wisdom shown in the story Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, only days before his death, tying a linen cloth around his waist, picking up a bowl and washing the feet of all the people in the room with him. And not just washing the feet of his favourites, but taking his time and with what we could imagine as great gentleness and focus – as though time had stopped and the world had fallen quiet – washing the feet of all. Everyone present was worthy in his eyes. Judgement was not even in the room. This was a moment in which all the hierarchies we take so much for granted, and all the expectations that usually rule our behaviour, were turned upside down. It was a moment of absolute forgiveness as well as unconditional love…and utterly sacred in its exquisite humility.
It is so good to remember that humility and wisdom grow back to back. Humility is the soil in which wisdom can grow and kindness is wisdom’s greatest expression. Humility is not abasement. Humility is a sense of oneness with all that is. It brings awe, and openness.
Buddhists call this kind of openness a beginner’s mind, not cluttered with preconceptions, and judgements but wise enough to be fresh in this moment, for this experience, aware of what is called for right now.
Christ also had something useful to say about the beginner’s mind. “Unless you become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, if I may: unless you and I and all of us wise up to the freshness of being here now you and I and all of us won’t know the absolute joy of dancing to our soul’s song and living as our sacred selves. We won’t know what it means to draw on the strengths of our souls and the heavenly trust that comes with that: This will pass. I am not alone: I can draw on love. I am an expression of love, even in the midst of my confusion. We won’t know our eternal selves and our souls’ strengths.
Wisdom needs the spaciousness that humility offers in order to grow. Wisdom is not knowledge but it depends on knowledge. First, it depends on us knowing who we are.
When it comes to wisdom, the deep and inevitable facts of our interdependence become very clear.
Just thinking of our human species alone, and all the differences of class, religion, race, gender that we fetishize or even worship, it is quite obvious that we literally breathe in the same air and breathe it out again. We live in and through one another.
Whatever our faith background, and in whatever physical posture we worship, meditate or pray, when our minds turn towards something far greater than ourselves, they turn in the same direction.
Who are you? In your order of service each month I include a statement from African-American writer Howard Thurman that gives us a marvellous clue. He says: “In the presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”
You are that human spirit. So am I. And when our minds touch that place and draw from that place, we cannot help but be a little wise.
Our wisest decisions reflect our soul’s strengths. And not just that we have those strengths – that’s not in dispute – but that we are wise enough to call on and use them even in the presence of our greatest doubts.
Do no harm, do good, said Rabbi Hillel the Pharisee. Rabbi Hillel, the very, very wise. Wish for others what you would wish for yourself, said the Prophet Mohammed. See yourself in others and others in yourself, as the sublime Upanishads urge. See yourself in others and others in yourself. Not once, but daily, hourly.
For this call to love also needs to translate into action if it is to mean something. “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth,” said a wise teacher (1 John 3:18).
Which takes us to one of Wisdom’s most lovely aspects. If being wise is as simple as being compassionate, forgiving, inclusive and good humoured (how simple is that!), then being wise is also about receiving those qualities. And not from other people only. Take a moment here. Do you give yourself, your own self, the precious opportunity to receive divine love on a daily or an hourly basis? Are you open to that?
Or perhaps you are sceptical? Maybe you suspect there is no such thing as divine and divinely unconditional love – or none for you?
How would a wise person meet that scepticism?
Perhaps they would turn not to theories or other people’s teachings, but to their own heart and life’s experience.
When you give yourself the opportunity to reflect compassionately on what you have experienced, there is always something of value to be learned. But we have to risk opening to those teachings from our own lives and hearts, “in actions and in truth”. Sometimes we do it in stillness. Sometimes we do it on the run. Sometimes we do it in the face of our fear. Sometimes we do it trusting in our own courage.
Perhaps we already know that our lives – complex, contradictory, sometimes more down than up – are also our greatest teachers. What can my life tell me right now about what matter, and what does not; about what brings greater happiness and what banishes happiness; about what causes suffering and what relieves it? What do I already know? More to the point: how am I allowing that to change the way I think and live?
Many of us love to be in the presence of great teachers or teachings but when it comes to wisdom, I want to say it again: our own life, and especially our reflectio
ns on it, may well be the most significant teacher we will ever have. But only if we allow it.
From some of the worst and most unwelcome moments, some of your greatest and most precious learnings have come. You know that. I have no doubt about it. Everything is an opportunity for enlightenment, for waking up: for the simple and utterly profoundly realisation that you have the choice to be a source of love and wisdom and joy and comfort and peace and enthusiasm and service – not for others only but also for yourself.
It helps to know some basic facts about your own existence. What do you draw upon for insight? What do you focus upon in the privacy of your own mind? What do you talk about, read about, think about most insistently? How do you distribute the precious hours of your waking existence? Where do you turn for inspiration? What do you allow yourself to receive? What and how do you “invest” in your eternal self? What is pouring into you and what is spilling out of you?
There is a wonderful story from the East, but it might also be from the West or the South or the North, that a great teacher was asked by some students: “How do we become wise?”
The teacher was silent for a long time.
Finally the teacher said, “Good choices.”
The students then asked, “How do we make good choices?”
The teacher was silent for a long time, before saying, “With experience.”
The students then asked, “How do we get experience?”
The teacher was silent for a very long time, before saying “Bad choices.”
Everything is an opportunity for waking up and learning what really matters. Bad choices; good choices: how we see life, what we see life as for, how we extract and create meaning – that will also profoundly shift our capacity to learn, come into this present moment, and live wisely. The Course in Miracles is confident: “You are irreplaceable in the mind of God.”
Seeing yourself in the light of divine love – through the compassionate perspective of Spirit – is not just the first step in finding wisdom: it is wisdom. Loving kindness flows quite naturally from that recognition: kindness to others, kindness to ourselves.
Wisdom is both arrival and gateway. It is both song and singer. It is both grief and transcendence of grief.
We are, after all, here in this blessed, mixed and challenging life not to be perfect, but to remember perfection. We are here not to struggle with our imperfections or to focus on them, but to learn who we most truly are, how easily we can give what is needed and how gracefully we can receive – seeing the Divine in it all, honouring through our actions the Divine in one another.
The Jewish Talmud teaches us, “”We do not see things the way are. We see things the way we are.”” Can we afford not to be wise? Can we afford not to be open, flexible, humble, grateful and joyful – all gifts of wisdom? Can we waste this precious life living in any other way but open to what we can learn and what we can become?
Ask for what you need. Remember who you are. Trust in your own existence. Live in gratitude and joy. And go in peace. Thank you.
© Stephanie Dowrick, 2007
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