Uncovering Your Own Spiritual Wisdom
by Rev. John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min.
How do we get to a genuine personal wisdom? The time-tested way has always been to ask ultimate questions—deep, probing, personally important, big questions, such as: “Why are we here?” “What is this suffering about?” “Why is this happening?” “What is the meaning of life?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (1)
Do you ever ask yourselves these kinds of questions? Questions like these are incredibly important. The poet Rilke advises us to “…love the questions themselves…(and) live the questions now” so that one day you may “live your way into the answer.” What he means by this is to go deeply into the question—taking it deeply inside yourself, fully absorbing and experiencing its real significance, even carrying it around with you all day—until your own deep knowing begins to bring forth answers.
The Greek philosopher Socrates understood this kind of wisdom. Karen Armstrong explains, “Socrates’ purpose was not to impart information, but to deconstruct people’s preconceptions and make them realize that in fact they knew nothing at all…(i.e., at the level of real wisdom)…You did not receive true knowledge … second-hand. It was something that you found only after an agonizing struggle that involved your whole self. It was a heroic achievement.” (2)
When we enter this process, in other words, we are doing heroic work! And just as importantly, “To fail to think deeply about meaning” Socrates said, is “a betrayal of the soul.” (3)
One way to access deep wisdom is a simple but powerful Socratic technique. It involves repeatedly asking the same deep question—one you select—over and over in a safe and sacred context, and then letting your own responses come up spontaneously from within. Like sending sonar waves down into the ocean depths and then recording the patterns created as the energy waves bounce back, this method asks you to send powerful questions down into the depths of your being to evoke its wisdom and then, in the inner stillness, listen for the answers.
The great Zen master Suzuki was asked once, “What is Zen?” He answered, “Zen is that which makes you ask the question, for the answer comes from where the question arises…” That’s such an important statement: the answer comes from where the question arises. It comes from the same deep place.
Exercise: You may wish to try this method of inquiry as the beginning of your own personal wisdom project. Here are some simple instructions:
• Write down several questions of personal significance. Reflect on them, pick the one that seems to call to you most powerfully, and start repeating this question to yourself.
• Write down a different answer to each repetition of the question, letting it go as soon as you’ve written it so you mind can be open to more answers. And as you answer your repeating question, relax your critical or logical mind. Let your responses come spontaneously from somewhere deep inside you. Don’t judge, don’t censor, don’t interpret, just receive what comes to you.
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ crazy or inappropriate answers, and this is not a test! Rather, your various and changing answers represent the many facets of this topic that are being revealed as you receive and release each response, allowing you to open to the depths of your own unlimited wisdom. You can do this process alone or with a partner. It is far easier than it seems, and you may find the results to be both surprising and amazing.
Here are some additional guidelines:
• Notice any feelings that arise in the process. Sometimes your response may be just to express your feelings about the process.
• Sometimes you may find yourself repeating the same response over and over for a while, and that’s ok but that, too, will change.
• If the questioning process begins to feel frustrating, if you can’t seem to find more responses, just ‘free associate,’ that is, say whatever comes to mind and just go along with the exercise. You may be surprised by what happens after several ‘dead-ends.’
• You should expect to feel some frustration, irritation, and confusion as you work with your question. Remember, Socrates said that finding true knowledge only comes after an “agonizing struggle” and is a “heroic achievement.” Your question may even begin to feel like a burden or curse, but stick with it.
• You’ll know when you’ve found real wisdom—you may have the ‘aha’ experience, or feel slightly stunned, or emotional, or just sense that ‘this is important.’ There may not be a final definitive answer, but instead a range of meaningful answers—and that’s ok too.
• Trust the process. Don’t worry about whether your responses make sense, whether they seem important or not, or whether you’re making progress. Just let whatever happens to happen.
Now take a few minutes to review your answers. Reflect on which answers feel the most real or meaningful to you, what you discovered from this process, and any important feelings that arose. If the process led to another question, write it down. Then consider journaling about your experience for a few minutes. What have you discovered? What touched you?
I have been implicitly doing this kind of personal Wisdom Project my whole life. It finally occurred to me (in this wisdom stage of life) that a formal method of deep questioning might have a role in helping people to discover the kind of wisdom we all need to learn how to live in peace.
We can all experience this process of spiritual revelation. Our questions are, in a very real sense, a form of prayer, a vision quest, a longing for spiritual direction and guidance. They open us to another dimension of consciousness—Divine consciousness—so that we may become co-creators in the moment-by-moment flow of Creation.
I invite you to begin such a Wisdom Project to discover your own deep knowing and your own unique and infinitely precious place in the universe.
(1) From Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume I (Beacon Press, 1993):
“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
(2) Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Knoph, 2006), p. 257.
(3) Armstrong, p. 260.