One of the more serious consequences of stress – by which I mean not our response of “stressing out,” but the sheer pressure, commotion, demands and distractions of everyday life – is in the way it causes our attention to close down on what we think we can manage. Problems come as this collapsed perspective and diminishing mental bandwidth limit our capacity for making life truly meaningful.
At times like these, we can start to feel that life itself isn’t meaningful, and even that it’s not worth living. It’s as if we’ve been given the task of building a house, but all we have to work with is a single board and one nail. If our “house” is a meaningful life, then constructing one of our own seems out of the question.
What we need are four essential things: (1) sufficient materials and tools for the project, along with (2) some basic construction skills, as well as (3) a blueprint or building plan for the house we want, and (4) a self-responsible authority for the work needing to be done.
When our focus gets riveted by the urgency of our problems and we’re standing here with our one board and nail, we’re more than willing to abandon our creative role and give the job to someone else.
There’s lots of people standing ready to tell us what our life means: Advertisers, politicians, clergy, our own friends and family members. But typically there’s an ulterior motive laced into the advice they give.
Once again, this is where our perennial philosophy of spiritual wisdom can help us out. I’m not talking about the scrolls of pithy proverbs and sage counsel we will find in its library, at any number of cultural locations around the earth. These wisdom sayings are themselves generated on a four-dimensional matrix organized around the sacred center of intentional awareness – where you are and I am, here and now.
From this center of intentional awareness we are invited to look – to direct our attention – into four dimensions: behind us and ahead of us (in time), as well as around us (in space) and within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being. I will call these, respectively, hindsight, foresight, outsight, and insight.
While the answers we come to in considering these four orientations of consciousness are expected to be fairly individualized, as each of us is traversing a unique path across a particular set of life circumstances, the questions themselves are the same no matter where or when we happen to live.
The first-order achievement in any case is to locate our center of intentional awareness – not what we’re focusing on or thinking about, nor even the mental act of attending, but that which attends, considers, and actively creates the meaning of life. It’s not who we are pretending to be in our various roles in life, nor the one (called ego) who is carrying on the charade.
We can name this center of intentional awareness our authentic self.
From this timeless location in the here-and-now we are invited to remember, to “bring back to mind,” the path that brought us here. The quest for wisdom through hindsight involves more than merely rambling through the debri field of our past, looking for a memory thread or storyline that might help us make sense of what’s going on.
Hindsight is not about recalling specific things that happened in the past, but is rather the capacity for seeing our life as an unbroken heritage of experiences that have shaped and delivered us to this present moment. Although we don’t ordinarily appreciate it as such, this heritage of experiences holds signals and reminders, persistent patterns and recurrences that reveal how we got here. Inside that tapestry design are essential clues to our life’s meaning.
Directing attention ahead of ourselves to the future, the dimension of foresight invites us to trace out the trajectory of those more persistent patterns and recurrences, but not simply in the interest of predicting what is still to come. In reality, the future (i.e., what’s ahead) doesn’t come to us already predetermined, but instead emerges out of the present, from the rich mixture of persistent patterns, current conditions, creative opportunities, and our intentional awareness.
Recurring events in our past, particularly the painful ones, can be seen from the perspective of wisdom as opportunities to pay attention and learn something, and then to apply this new understanding in a more adaptive and successful response to life. Many of us keep falling into the same opportunity to learn a crucial life lesson, but our lack of hindsight pushes it away and in a sense predestines us to have to go through the same pain, again and again.
Alternatively, as our length of hindsight increases through the discipline of contemplative remembrance, the clarity and reach of foresight increases as well.
As I mentioned earlier, one serious consequence of stress is to close down our attention to what we think we can manage and control. This lets us screen out everything except for what we are convinced is “making” us anxious, frustrated, vexed, and exhausted. Wisdom tells us, quite otherwise, that our liberation will come as we open attention with outsight to the larger context – not in riveting our focus down, but expanding outward our horizon of awareness.
Most of our neurotic disorders are actually caused by the contraction of consciousness into the insecurities, obsessions, defenses, and convictions of an isolated ego. Outsight helps us see and understand that we are not alone in our experience, that everything is connected, and All is One. Nothing, anywhere, is really separate from the whole. We come to appreciate our life as participation in this higher wholeness, but also as having creative agency in its communal wellbeing.
Perhaps the strongest association with the cultivation of wisdom in popular culture – to whatever extent anyone really thinks of it these days – is in the meditative introspection of monks, mystics, and spiritual masters across the world cultures. What they all have in common, beyond the esoteric and labyrinthine metaphysics they frequently espouse, is a quest for insight – literally to “see into” the depths of experience, the inner life of the soul, and the ground of our very being.
Getting there, however, can be an almost impossible task for those of us who are entangled in attachments and desperately trying to hold ourselves together.
In this condition, we are convinced that below this neurotic highwire act is an oblivion we are saving ourselves from by all our worry and hard work. The wisdom of insight encourages our release and surrender nonetheless, with the assurance that underneath us is not a terrifying abyss but a provident ground; and further, that the terrible depth of our so-called fall is only a delusion of ego consciousness. Ego itself doesn’t “fall,” but our contemplative awareness descends away from ego, leaving it “up there” in the tangle of self-concerns.
At the start of a New Year, this is the perfect time for us to get centered and begin (again) the creative work of making a more meaningful life. With hindsight, foresight, outsight and insight, we can build a house that is beautiful, spacious, uniquely our own, and welcoming to every guest.