A significant consequence of our fast-paced, distracted, and unsustainable way of life is that our brief glimpses into the enduring truths of existence are almost as quickly forgotten. It’s not that we’re any less intelligent than our ancestors were. We certainly know a lot more; or maybe I should say that we have a lot more information than they did. But we just don’t give the same quality time and caring attention to meditating on what really matters – not anymore.
The flashes come, but then we’re off to something else.
A much-loved metaphor from the perennial tradition of spiritual teachings (Sophia Perennis) invites us to think of our life as a Garden of Intention. If you’ve ever tended a garden of flowers, vegetables, shrubs or trees, you know how important it is to ensure that seeds have the water and nutrients they need, that weeds and pests are kept out, and that your growing plants have the proper exposure to sunlight and temperate conditions.
You can’t just toss seeds on the ground and walk away.
There’s no doubt that we today have all the essential seeds for living healthy, happy, and harmonious lives on Earth. And yet, an alarming percentage of our present population is clinically unhealthy, chronically unhappy, and perpetually in conflict with each other and the larger web of life – more so than any generation and civilization before us. We have at our fingertips a vast library of ancient and timeless wisdom, uploaded from every quarter of the globe and cultural heritage.
And yet we appear to be spinning out of control, lost and disoriented among the volumes, wandering aimlessly through the stacks of volumes and alcoves of stacks that contain all we need to be healthy, happy, and whole. That library of ancient and timeless wisdom is analogous to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, where the biodiversity of food crop seeds are currently safeguarded from total extinction that may occur due to agricultural mismanagement, crop failure, species devastation and catastrophic disease.
What we need right now is not more information but a proven method for sowing seeds of insight, cultivating genuine understanding, and harvesting the inspiration and guidance of true wisdom. Thankfully, along with the library or vault of wisdom seeds, we already have access to the know-how (i.e., the method) for becoming wise.
Given the prescient naming of our species, Homo sapiens or “wise one,” this is an opportunity to live into our nature and fulfill our destiny.
Before we take a closer look at this method for becoming wise, and therefore also more fully human, let’s resolve not to wait on others to get started or take our cue from what they are currently doing or not doing. While it is certainly true that wisdom is a cumulative feature of cultural evolution, its progress is measured only at the level of individuals and their daily life choices.
We can no longer allow the inertia and confusion of others be our reason for putting it off.
Returning to the Garden of Intention metaphor, we will follow a method for becoming wise through three major stages of spiritual growth: Insight, Understanding, and Wisdom. We can further clarify these stages according to their characteristic forms: the SEED of Insight, the BODY of Understanding, and the FRUIT of Wisdom.
As a garden of intention, we are reminded of the critical role that mindful stewardship and creative purpose play in managing the conditions in which wisdom can flourish. Managing these conditions entails five specific intentions, correlated with the stages of Insight, Understanding, and Wisdom proper. Let’s explore them in their developmental sequence.
Intuition is often regarded as a kind of intelligence in its own right, but as I’m using it here it refers to the introspective turn of consciousness to its own depths, and the retrieval from those depths of truths that we already know subconsciously but rarely if ever apprehend in our conscious awareness. They come as “flashes” and in “lightbulb moments,” when our mind is on other things or playing among the free associations of a dream. As such, these insight-seeds present themselves spontaneously to our attention, breaking in from the margins of active thought.
Like the soil of a fertile garden, intuition is a mind open and receptive to an ‘aha!’ from beyond.
Mythology worldwide depicts this arrival or “advent” of truth as revelation, literally referring to the moment when a veil is pulled back on something previously concealed or hidden from view. As a spiritual intention, revelation involves a more sustained attention to the alien character of an insight, to the fact and degree in which it breaks through the tapestry of our assumed picture of the world. According to this meaning, revelation is not simply what happens to us (as with an insight), but signals the onset of disillusionment whereby our mind is forced to surrender – or at least reconsider – its operating beliefs under the light of Truth.
In the Garden of Intention, weeds, rocks, birds and pests can interfere with the health and survival of seedlings (i.e., fresh insights and developing revelations). Cultivation is the specific intention that tends the soil, removes impediments, and guards against potentially damaging threats. It’s not just about taking things away and keeping things out, however. The soil must also be invigorated from time to time with water and essential nutrients. As an analogy, cultivation here involves building on the insight and replacing the veil of illusion with a reality-oriented understanding.
What was revealed becomes an informing principle of a new vision.
Every new insight and ensuing revelation must gradually push its roots deeper into the ground for the support and material elements it needs to grow. In terms of spiritual intentions, this disciplined practice of a deepening meditation is called contemplation. Here our mind drops below the reciprocal (back-and-forth) functions of analysis and synthesis, seeking to anchor our new understanding and emerging worldview in the grounding reality of being, in our own innermost depths.
In contemplation we release and descend to the inner sanctum of a present Mystery and boundless Presence, to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “beyond in the midst of our lives” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 1951).
We are identifying the fulfillment of Wisdom with the fruiting tree because it is ultimately about creative expression, productive virtue, and the actualization of hidden insights and breakthrough revelations in a consistent way of life. This is the point at which we can see the difference between a truth merely understood and one that is embodied, personified, and demonstrated in purposive action.
A “life of wisdom” is one that seeks reconciliation and actively promotes unity by the embodiment of compassion, forgiveness, and an all-embracing love.
In Christian mythology this is where the generative principle of “the Father” (Ground), centered by the individuative principle in “the Son” (Ego), flows outward and across the manifold of creation by the unitive principle of “the Spirit” (Community). The Greek name for Wisdom is Sophia, as in philosophy (love of wisdom) and the Sophia Perennis (the perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom). Personified as feminine, Sophia is what connects and includes all things in a higher wholeness.
This entire process – germinating with Insight, developed through Understanding, and culminating in Wisdom – is not actually linear but circular, where new seeds are contained in the fruit and ready to fall into fertile soil.