When a great aunt died, my father inherited all her jewellery. My mother sifted through it and deemed most of it worthless. There were gaudy cubic zirconia rings that would dwarf any finger, chintzy stuff that was thinly plated with metals of dubious authenticity. My mother dumped the load on my sister’s bed and said “keep what you want, throw away the rest.” My sister, not knowing the value of anything, decided to take it up to the local jeweller. It was valued at $27,000!
The greatest treasures our lives give us are often the ones we least expect. Author Paula D’Arcy’s quote “God shows up as our life” expresses how reality is trying to tell us the theme of our lives. For example, if I get offended when I am dismissed, my constructed, insecure self is showing its brittle nature. This is the story I tend to pay most attention to. But underneath, my true self is humming quietly, knowing it is inherently valued. It is from this deeper self that my false self got the notion that I have inherent worth, and fretfully projected it into the world to demand validation from everyone else. The true self knows it, always. The false self needs constant reminders. Your inherent self cannot be offended, not ever.
I was recently listening to Rob Bell talk about how wisdom shouts from the streets (Proverbs 1:20ff). She (a fertile, life giving force she be) makes her message clear, but our false selves can never hear the wisdom, only unwanted noise. Last week a friend sent this wonderful poem by Mark Nepo called “Understory”
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
I am being told, by my life, what I am about. The truth is quite wonderful, regardless of how I initially hear it. So I keep retelling what happens till it comes out right – and it never does. I grumble, I complain, I plead and beg, and nothing changes. I ask for wisdom, not realising she is shouting! The raw ingredients are always inviting me into discoveries that liberate me from the shadows. Josh Korda wrote that “in order to authentically and securely connect with other human beings, first we must dare to connect with what has been consigned to the shadows.” Religion scapegoats this shadow energy as our sinful self, or worse, demonic. We end up resisting our ally.
The capacity to welcome humiliation and learn from it is, I believe, the single most defining mark of a mature person. It shifts the locus of control from the external environment to what is going on inside. Such people turn every lemon into lemonade. In his poem “The Well of Grief,” David Whyte related the process of reclaiming our story to diving through the down through dark water to find in the darkness shining, small round coins “thrown away by those who wished for something else.”
My spiritual director told me a while back that I am always praying. When I curse, grumble, am fearful, whatever thought, emotion, word or action I employ, it is actually a prayer to God, an expression of my life. I had a very difficult dream just before I woke up late last week. Two days later, a friend sent me a poem and I actually woke up! It was by Rumi, and offered this:
“We search for Him here and there
While looking right at Him.
Sitting by His side, we ask
‘O Beloved, where is the Beloved?’
“Enough with such questions! –
Let silence take you to the core of life.” (Ode 442, trans Jonathan Star and Shahram Shiva)
There’s that disquieting quietness again, the importance of quieting our need to steer the plot. As we surrender into the ego-disarming silence, we will slowly begin to hear wisdom’s subplot. The false self hates silence, but the false self cannot hear wisdom.
The Beloved is showing up right now, often wearing a disguise, hiding under that garish junk jewellery we keep throwing out. Underneath all our complaints is the basic premise that reality is not as it should be. The problem is, reality is still reality. Personal growth merchants peddle techniques to shift reality to our narcissistic whims, but Westerners are no closer to contentment. In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen made the words ‘prayer’ and ‘Reality’ interchangeable. This ties back into what my spiritual director told me. I am always praying, but is the prayer resisting what is, or is it learning from what is? When Jesus said “the truth will set you free” he was not speaking of doctrine or theology or any other celestial ideology, but a new way of seeing. The word “truth” is best translated “reality.” Only reality can set us free.
In his book The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer wrote:
“Who is you that is lost and trying to build a concept of yourself in order to be found? The question represents the essence of spirituality. You will never find yourself in what you have built to define yourself. You’re the one who is doing the building. You may assemble the most amazing collection of thoughts and emotions; you may build a truly beautiful, unbelievable, interesting and dynamic structure; but obviously, it’s not you. You’re the one who did this. You are the one who was lost, scared and confused because you focussed your awareness away from your awareness of Self. In this panic, in this lost state, you learned to cling and hold onto the thoughts and emotions that were passing before you. You used them to build a self-concept that would allow you to define yourself. Awareness rested itself on the objects it was aware of and called it home. Because you have this model of who you are, it is easier to know how to act, to make decisions, and how to relate to the outside world. If you dare to look, you will see you have lived your entire life based on the model you built around yourself.”
I see five stepping stones that rescue us from this futile awareness (which scripture calls blindness) and take us towards an awareness of wisdom into our lives. They are: Allowing, forgiving, observing, discovering, and applying. This is not a recipe or formula but a process, a new way of being.
Allowing reality to be what it is, is the first step to wisdom. It is what Christians call surrender and Buddhists call non-attachment. Silence is the surrendering force of allowing. We have a saying for this step: It is what it is. This is not fatalism or resignation, but initial acceptance.
Forgiving permits reality to be what it is. It’s a slightly more active step than allowing, as it employs a deep compassion for our battered false selves and releases the debt we carry for all the things that haven’t happened the way we wish they had. Forgiving is grace. It is never about what we ‘should’ do, but how we express kindness to ourselves. My past experience of forgiveness made this the only step, and it was forced, contractual and obligated upon me. Such false forgiveness leads to denial and pretending, not release.
Observing, the capacity to notice what’s really going on in the message, can only be accomplished from this quiet, non-attached, compassionate stance. It lets us stay with our difficult energies long enough to learn what they are saying, without re-attaching the old meaning to them. It’s like imagining the constructed you is on a big screen and the real you is watching the movie, discerning the meaning. This requires patience, because the learning is not fast, but procedural.
Observing in turn gives us space and time for discovery. It is only in discovery that we first start to taste any freedom or growth from this difficult process. These new discoveries bring joy and freedom, without the circumstances changing at all. This is how reality sets us free. We discover the story we are in, the one that keeps telling us.
The final step, applying, is the process of laying down this discovered wisdom in the minutia of daily life. It requires a contemplative stance towards this moment, this person, this experience. Neuroscience tells us that neurons that wire together fire together, and neurons that fire apart wire apart. This is how we embed wisdom into our lives as a new automatic, held lovingly. This way, our lives become a gift to the world. Our life invites others to step back from the stories they keep telling themselves, so that their stories might discover them.