Reflections about Wisdom

In October, when I was at the Contemplative Care retreat at the Garrison Institute in New York, my teachers, Koshin Paley Ellison, Dai-En, and Chodo Campbell, spoke about wisdom.  I’ll weave some of their insights into reflections on that theme.

Koshin points out that wisdom signifies “before knowing.”  Often, before the rational brain revs up to generate possible ways of reacting to internal or external changes and stresses, we sense intuitively what is the right and timely response.  But, because left-brain rationality is so highly valued in our culture, most of us have learned to discount what we call our “sixth sense.”  It is rare that we allow whatever life brings us to be our teacher.

The Buddha was called “The Awake One.”  In our Dharma practice, we learn to wake up and to “simply be here now.” As the nervous system calms down, and the mind clears, we recognize unhealthy or nonproductive habitual patterns, and have the option to pause and reorient ourselves.  As Koshin says, “Remember that this is the last and only time that [what is happening] will occur just the way it is right now.”

Rather than avoiding challenges, we can welcome them and notice, “This is different than what I thought would happen.”  Instead of anticipating or assuming that we know all about a situation, we can focus on the basics of sitting, walking, eating and listening, allowing ourselves to be surprised by what unfolds spontaneously.

Despite his role as an accomplished Zen priest and a compassionate Contemplative Chaplain, Chodo humbly admits, “Most of the time, I bumble along, trying to get it right.  I work with the [Buddhist] precepts [of non-harming] and attempt to stay present.  [The first] half of my life was full of mindless reactions to desires and fears.  The second half of my life has been karmic payback!  Practicing the Dharma has given me the tools to carry on.”

To help with challenging interpersonal relationships, my friend Scott recommends a Toltec wisdom practice called “The Four Agreements:”

  1. Be impeccable with your word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using words to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love. (As Dharma practitioners, we can see similarities between this first agreement and the Buddha’s teachings about Right Speech.)
  1. Don’t take anything personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.  When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.  According to Koshin’s teacher, Dai En, “The world is a mirror for us to reflect on others’ projections.  We need to be willing to show up and to be present with whoever crosses our path.  If we look into people’s eyes, we will see their suffering and humanity.  [With dedicated practice,] we can free ourselves from our habitual conditioning. We are all unfinished business.”

A Course in Miracles suggests viewing any verbal or physical attack as a cry for help and love.  Instead of asking, “Why is this happening TO me?” I can ask myself, “What can I learn from what is happening FOR me?”  If I pause and listen within for an answer, a wise inner response often emerges.  (On the Dharma path, a related practice entails letting go of defending a fixed sense of self in order to flow with the reality of each unfolding moment.)

  1. Don’t make assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.  (The Buddha’s teachings emphasized the value of Right [or Wise] View, which involves surrendering rigid viewpoints.)
  1. Always do your best: Your best will change from moment to moment. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret. (Likewise, on the Dharma path, we practice Wise Intention, which naturally leads to Wise Action.)

When we stray from the path and make human errors, we can find refuge in the wisdom of offering forgiveness—to ourselves and to others.  Forgiveness has the potential to alleviate suffering.  When I forgive someone who is causing harm and focus on good traits in that person, my perception and state of mind shifts, whether or not the other person makes any changes.  Scott reminds me of a wise phrase, which is pertinent to this holiday season, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”