“Seek first the kingdom of god …” – Luke 12:31
“The kingdom of god is within you.” – Luke 17:21
The above wisdom sayings of Jesus are part of a deeper synoptic tradition, which according to scholars derived in part from an early collection of teachings called the Quelle (“source”) gospel, or “Q” for short. Although its existence is hypothetical, Q gets us even closer to the historical Jesus than the four canonical gospels, as they are more intent on constructing the situations and timeline of Jesus’ life, whereas his teachings were earlier still and are likely more true to who he was and what he was all about.
At any rate, I’m not intending this post to be about Jesus or the Bible, but rather about this particular bit of truth-telling from his essential message.
From very early on in life we are taught that we are empty inside. We might not be given this instruction in so many words, but the belief somehow gets planted in us.
Even if our parents were mindful and provident in helping us appreciate that we are perfect – or at least good enough – just as we are, we eventually had to venture outside into society where the Great Machine of consumer marketing incessantly pumps out the message of our emptiness, deficiency, inadequacy, and competitive disadvantage among our neighbors and cohorts.
We are not happy – yet: That’s the takeaway we carry with us in pursuit of what will make us happy. But because we have also been brainwashed into believing that our emptiness is more like an appetite to satisfy than a bucket to be filled, nothing can ever satisfy us for very long and our “happiness” is always gone too soon.
Maybe some more of this, a larger dose of that, an updated version (“New and Improved”) of what worked once upon a time (but not really), or a different brand of the same disappointing product, occupation, spouse, or religion – maybe that will be the answer, the key to happiness we’re looking for.
The teaching of wisdom advises us to stop looking for happiness out there, even to stop looking for happiness altogether.
Happiness is not, in fact, something we can find. No shiny new possession, fancy house, late-model car, or sexy partner will make us happy. Granted, these things might bring a flash or brief season of pleasure and excitement, but the “happiness” they might bring will not last. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “This is not the happiness you’re looking for.”
Jesus’ metaphor of the “kingdom of god” was his reference to a New World and way of life where we all love each other, where each of us is filled with a joy sourced from a wellspring deep within ourselves. Indeed, it is this internally generated joy that inspires and empowers us to love each other – even our enemy, according to Jesus. Instead of looking for love (“in all the wrong places,” as the song lyrics go), we share our love with others and the world around us.
We don’t need to go find love, but rather we take it with us on the journey of life.
So there’s the first radical insight of the Sophia Perennis – the perennial tradition of wisdom teachings that predates and transcends all the name-brand religions: Joy, as essentially different from the marketing illusion of happiness, is not derived from or found in anything outside us, even in another person. Should we be lucky to find another person to love, but we bring with us an expectation that he or she will finally make us happy, the love will eventually exhaust itself and our happiness will fade.
The reason, once again, is because real love is the outflow of joy, not its source.
For the source of joy we turn to a second insight of wisdom, which is that the kingdom of god is within us. If love is the outflow of a joy that gushes up from deeper inside us, then peace is its wellspring.
By this is meant much more than a calm and relaxed nervous state. True enough, a genuine inner peace will typically induce an experience of neurophysical composure, emotional balance, and mental clarity. But the Great Machine has tricked us into believing that simply by manipulating these symptoms of inner peace we can come to possess it.
This is yet another classic example from Western medicine where treating the symptom is presumed to address its underlying (and likely systemic) cause. We may feel better for a time, but vibrant health and wellness elude us, and we might actually be worse off farther along.
Lots of behavioral, sensory, and chemical interventions can help us relax and release the strain of everyday life. They do indeed help us feel better for the most part, but their effect is relatively short-lived. In the case of chemical interventions, whether legal, illegal, over-the-counter, or by a doctor’s prescription, we tend to need increasing amounts for the desired effect, which runs the risk of dependency, addiction, and even death.
But society (including conventional religion) has so successfully pitched our expectations outside ourselves for what will save us, that it’s nearly impossible to break free from the spell.
Here’s the truth as Wisdom sees it. We will not find lasting joy if we go looking for it in love, for love is the outflow of joy and not its wellspring. For that we must go deeper into ourselves – so deep in fact that the very sense we have of ourselves as lacking something, needing something, missing something, and looking for something is surrendered on our descent of the grounding mystery within.
As the inner wellspring of joy, this peace (as we can read in many sacred writings) “surpasses all understanding” – simply because true inner peace is found in a place where no words or even thoughts can reach, where it isn’t taken into our possession as much as our ego dissolves and we become one with it.
The paradox is that we are trying to describe something that is indescribable, to put words on an experience which is effable, utterly beyond words. Nevertheless, from deep within ourselves, in the very ground of our being, the busy retail marketplace of the Great Machine is seen-through for all its deception and futility. What we’ve been looking for has been right here, inside us, all along.
An illuminating story from the canonical Gospel According to John (4:5-14) brings it all together for us.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”