Seven Steps to Wisdom
Imagine you wake up one night and your barn is on fire. You jump out of bed and race to your shed where you have two buckets, one filled with water and one with kerosene. Because it is so dark and chaotic, you cannot tell which bucket holds which liquid. Make the right choice and the fire is extinguished, make the wrong call and the flames become worse. The stakes are high and it is very hard to know how to proceed.
Many of us feel that our lives are filled with fires, with problems that seem difficult to analyze and resolve. We go from one stressful situation to another – dealing with health, family, relationships, money, politics, etc. -- feeling like there are more balls in the air than we can ever manage. It seems like we put out one fire only to be confronted with another, and another, and another… “It’s always something,” we conclude.
Even with our best intentions, no stable peace is ever established, neither internally nor in the wider world. Good people seemingly try to do good deeds but their efforts are thwarted due to details and complexities of shifting circumstances and relationships. Our hopes get mangled on the shore of a powerful external world filled with uncaring forces. Many succumb to despair, concluding there is no real peace, no true love, that the best one can hope for is to squeeze out a tiny measure of happiness and safety before the other shoe falls, before the proverbial ‘you know what’ hits the fan.
Into this dismal experience come the yoga sages, telling us we can develop the wisdom we need to resolve our problems. We can quiet our minds, open our hearts, and become inspired to love others. We can, truly, learn how to determine which buckets in our lives help us fulfill our potential and which make matters worse.
In this essay I will outline seven steps that can stimulate a transformation in consciousness, diminishing suffering and nurturing wisdom. These steps are simple but they are not easy. They will take practice, repeated practice. Aren’t good things worth working for? And what could be better than developing the two great boons of yoga: shanti, peace, and shakti, positive energy? Yoga acknowledges that growth takes work, and since we are fallible human beings our development will invariably involve taking two steps forward and then one step back. Still, how wonderful to know, to really know, that there are steps you can take to help you grow into the person you feel yourself capable of becoming.
Steps to Wisdom:
1. Recognize not all problems are a big deal. If your barn was on fire, chances are good you would stop worrying about how fluffy was your pillow. Similarly, be aware that not every problem is a crisis. Not every play is a goal-line stand. Develop a vision of relativity. Save your sense of burden for times when your load is actually heavy.
2. Take responsibility. From the yogic perspective, whatever is happening in your life is the perfect fulfillment of karma, previous causes. Karma is not a straight line of independent action, though; you cannot trace cause and effect because everyone’s karma is mingled together. This is called “co-dependent arising.” Whatever is taking place must take place, and it will take place whether we whine about it or not. Also, keep in mind that all things will pass, so neither pleasant nor unpleasant circumstances will remain in place permanently. The path to a fulfilling future is to act with peace and positive energy now.
3. Recognize your negative patterns and cease hoping they can ever produce a positive result. Have you ever watched a dumb movie but keep yourself awake late into the night just so you can see how it ends? The result of negative patterns, like bad films, was, is, and will continue to be a waste of time. There is no need to fight this law. I used to listen to the fools on AM talk radio. I held out this nutty hope that one day I was going to tune in and they were going to apologize for their nastiness and turn over a new leaf of cooperation and engaged conversation. Ain’t gonna’ happen. I’m not saying that people can’t change, just that certain environments are designed to present a fear-based perspective. That’s what they are there for, that’s what they do. Sometimes the best thing you can do about a negative situation is to vote with your feet by walking away (or in my case, vote with my fingers by turning the radio knob).
4. Stop trying to improve others. The yogic vision is that each of us is endowed with a native intelligence. If I imagine that I know more than you, that I know what is best for you, that I know how to fix your life, I am denying your intelligence. It’s quite surprising how bright, capable, and attractive other people are when we stop seeing them through the lens of our own confusion. It is just as easy to extend love and respect as it is to project incompetence onto others due to our own low self-esteem.
5. Adopt spiritual aspirations without getting caught in a role. From the yogic perspective, it is very difficult to solve problems on the level at which they manifest. A couple years ago we had some nasty burdock on our land that kept getting on everyone’s clothes and hair. You may know how hard it is to get burdock off something once it takes hold. I dug up a number of the plants by the roots. A few of them, though, had roots so darn big and thick that, in the spirit of laziness, I concluded I could get rid of those plants by clipping the stems down to the bare ground. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Sure enough, my two-bit job was not sufficient and the following year the roots produced new plants. Lesson: if you want to solve a nasty problem, grab it by the root.
Yoga teaches that if we want to truly solve our problems and bring about real change, we need to do it on an energetic level. This means changing our consciousness through spiritual practice. Regular practice of yoga and meditation will cut the roots of the weeds in one’s life while nurturing positive growth. As we develop spiritually, however, we want to avoid using our spiritual identity as another form to parade our self-conceit and self-deprecation. Be yourself, not a poser. Honor your abilities; make friends with your limitations.
6. Cultivate unconditional love in any form, no form, or all forms. What we in the West call God can be thought of as a level of consciousness, which is eternal, unconditional love. Imagine what a consciousness like this must feel like, and how creation must appear to such a consciousness. Entering into this consciousness is what is called enlightenment, or God-realization. Imagine what it must feel like to be bathed in the perception of a being residing at this level of consciousness.
Yogis promise this unconditional love is available to us if we apply ourselves to spiritual arts and sciences like meditation and yoga. Our task is not so much to develop this consciousness as it is to openly and honestly increase our awareness of what impedes the arising of this consciousness. We need become aware of the selfish and self-centeredness of virtually all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Then, bathed in the grace of God, we enjoy a good, hearty belly laugh at our own fallibility. When it comes to self-improvement, laughter is, indeed the best medicine. It may also turn out to be the key to heaven.
7. Embody this love now. Eternal means eternal. Not a long time, but always, forever. God, the consciousness of unconditional love, is available here and now. This love doesn’t wait on self-improvement or worthiness, only on desire. Long to be a vessel for love and see what happens. As an experiment, if even for one moment, try and feel yourself a chalice of love. Release all concerns based on past and future events. In 100% faith, not 99.9%, open and feel what is deep inside. Let what seems to be outside in, and what seems to be inside out. You can always resume feeling stressed and guilty after the experiment is over. The path to God is tread by the footsteps of longing.
Life in a world of unenlightened beings will always present challenges. There is no way around this fact. There is, though, a way through. This way is the spiritual path. By undertaking spiritual practice and developing wisdom you can discriminate between what will make your life more peaceful and what will inflame suffering. Learn to choose well, for life is a lot more fun when there are fewer fires to douse.