Since ancient times, men and women have been on a personal quest for wisdom. It's hard to put into words exactly what we are seeking, but it has to do with discovering the meaning and purpose of life in general and specifically what's happening in and around us.
This month you and other college graduates will start the transition from the academic world where you have learned from books and the great minds of history to the larger world where consciousness is informed by the popular culture of television, movies, music, and posts on social media like Facebook and Twitter. In this speeded-up world, wisdom is delivered in sound bites and YouTube videos rather than in the lectures and discussions of college classes and seminars.
Despite the differences in format, all this wisdom sharing is part of a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years in the sayings and writings of spiritual sages, philosophers, scholars, novelists, poets, scientists, and theologians.
The moment you step out the gates of your campus, you'll encounter strange and unfamiliar sources of wisdom. To help you navigate the options, we have some recommendations. Our tools for self-growth are short (an important quality in our distracted times), deep (they can take you on an inward journey), and playful (they'll draw out your creative soul). So here's some wisdom to go for this age of fast food, fast cars, and fast movies.
The first stop on your quest for fresh sources of meaning are proverbs — people's wisdom passed from generation to generation. Robert Peter Tristram Coffin writes of them:
"Proverbs are not merely decorations on life, they have life itself in them. They are the bedrock substance of living built up by many people and many years."
In Elizabethan England, schoolboys memorized hundreds of proverbs and maxims. According to Abraham Ibn Ezra, "wisdom is to the soul as food is to the body." You will want to integrate these vitamin supplements into your education diet. Here are some examples.
• There is a Arab proverb that goes: "If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart." This wisdom pulls down the walls between the rich and the poor and shows that each of us in our own way can practice generosity.
• The Chinese have a proverb: "If you keep a green bough in your heart surely the singing bird will come." Joy and happiness do not just come about magically. We have to use intention and in all our deeds demonstrate a positive attitude.
• "God did not create hurry" is a brief but profound Finnish proverb. We live in times when "hurry sickness" is a national outgrowth of our worship of speed and productivity. Slowing down is a spiritual antidote to our habit of rushing through things and often ignoring what is right in front of us.
Another source of wisdom, not very well known in the West, are the pith instructions of Tibetan Buddhist sages. Buddhism is a very practical tradition that reveals how we can navigate through the emotions and encounters of our ordinary experiences. As Lama Surya Das explains in his book Natural Radiance, pith instructions are teachings which are not only helpful in meditation but also as tips for daily life. They address fundamental wisdom questions such as the nature of God, the soul, birth and death, and the purpose of life. Here are a few examples of Lama Surya Das's pith instructions:
• "Let go and let be" is a spur to the practice of not clinging or getting too attached to people, ideas, or stories about ourselves.
• "We are all Buddhas; we only have to recognize that fact." We spend far too much time and energy trying to prove ourselves to others when we already possess the miracle of Buddha's natural mind.
• "Not too tight or too loose" expresses in a nutshell the Buddhist emphasis on living a balanced life that eschews one extreme or another.
Also from Buddhism comes wisdom to go in the form of mind-training slogans. In Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa, one of the great Tibetan masters of meditation, presents 59 slogans which have been used for centuries to engender loving-kindness. They are designed as exercises to reverse the ego and all its campaigns to keep us focused on self-absorption. Here are three of the slogans:
• "Be grateful to everyone" challenges us to see how dependent we are on others, even difficult people who can teach us patience and empathy.
• "Abandon any hope of fruition" is a slogan that advises us to stop trying to control the future or acting so as to insure that things go our way.
• "Don't expect applause" goes against the cultural shibboleth of winning and admonishes us to not take credit for making things happen.
12 Step Sayings
Meeting Wisdom: Tap into the Wisdom and Insight of Thousands of 12 Step Meetings in a Single Book by Brian L. contains his favorite slogans picked up in 12 Step programs and tried out in everyday life. You don't need to be dealing with an addiction to find these short sparks of wisdom helpful. Turn to them whenever you are facing a challenge that requires courage, patience, and perseverance.
Here are three examples from Brian L:
• "Everything can go wrong today and I will still be okay" offers a note of encouragement when we are disheartened by setbacks and feel like giving up.
• "Visualize yourself getting out of the Director's chair" is a clever way of surrendering the idea that we can control everything.
• "Whenever you have a problem, you will always find your fingerprints on it" is a reminder that we must take sole ownership of our problems and mistakes. Playing victim and blaming our problems on others is a dead end street.
Last but not least we have aphorisms which are defined as catchy observations that contain a general truth. Under this wide umbrella we can find many different kinds of wisdom from sayings of famous writers and spiritual teachers to playful observations that at one time or another have held the public's fancy. Here are three examples of both genres:
• "Work of the eyes is done/ Now go and do heart work" from poet Rainer Marie Rilke wisely advices that we all do inner work to fulfill our potential as rounded and creative human beings.
• "To be impatient is to be hooked on the future" is a right-on-target observation by psychologist and spiritual teacher Gerald Jampolsky about how we miss the gifts in the present moment when we focus on tomorrow.
• "Maybe so" is a favorite saying of Buddhist Zen master Suzuki Roshi who liked to emphasize the "don't know" dimensions of everyday life.
And here are three popular saying with no specific authors:
• "Drink it all in" helps us stay fully present and be open to what unfolds within us and around us.
• "Don't look back" carries with it a warning against getting hooked on yesterday and past events and experiences.
• "A good time was had by all" celebrates those magical moments where everyone is pleased with what happened at a party, meeting, or social get-together.
The seeds of wisdom are found in everything that life brings our way from good to bad experiences, from failures and successes, and from all our relationships. Wisdom is one of life's grandest gifts but we have to keep our eyes open and our hearts and minds responsive to her comings.
When we practice this wisdom, it becomes like a flower, giving out a fragrance that is so alluring that we want to return again and again to re-experience the scent, the sweetness, and the beauty.
As graduates, you are all already on the path of wisdom. There is no turning back. Come join the rest of us on this continuing quest. Plant the seeds. Pick up the scents. And use these out-of-the-box teachings to transform your life.
Thank you and bon voyage to those traveling with wisdom to go!