HJ: We live in a world where we are told by our culture to trust only science and that which can be seen and felt, that which has been studied, dissected and proven. But this completely ignores the fact that wise men and women throughout the ages have been trying to help us realize that our most profound guidance in life comes from within. Our inner wisdom, in every sense, the voice of our soul, is a profound ‘spiritual compass’ that effortlessly guides us on a journey towards our highest self-realization. However, we must first learn to deeply trust ourselves in order to be able to take full advantage of this incredible tool with which we all are born.
In his book new book, The Four Virtues (2014 Beyond Words), Tobin Hart leads us on a journey to discover these four powerful and necessary virtues within ourselves. Below, you will find an excerpt on guidance and the search for inner wisdom, which, in our eyes, is perhaps the most important of them all.
When Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel he painted both the major and the minor prophets. They can be told apart because, though there are cherubim at the ears of all,
only the major prophets are listening.
—J. C. Gowan
Wisdom involves recognizing the limits of what we know and seeking some help to reach beyond those limits. But where do we go for guidance?
If we’re sensible, we seek advice from experts we think we can trust, from tax talk to car talk. The ancient Greeks who could afford the visit consulted the Oracle at Delphi for her cryptic pronouncements. Wise elders are typically sought out in many traditional societies for their counsel. Spiritual guides and teachers steer in religious or moral contexts, while therapists and executive life coaches dot the landscape of contemporary allies. Experts in every field from financial planning to home repair expound advice—“Do this,” “Don’t buy that,” “Move here”—but wise allies often also spend plenty of time listening, which helps us to find, activate, and clarify our own views. Wise guides tend to draw us out, and in doing so, help us to see more clearly.
Wise guidance is more than just bits of information or technique, however helpful. Instead, it activates a shift that moves us from a limited, denser, reactive or off-center state like fear, anxiety, or discouragement to see from a greater height or perhaps with greater heart. The exchange essentially raises, deepens, and opens our level of being. In this sense, wisdom seeks to change nothing but the way we look at something.
Beyond experts, ideas also provide guidance. From fiction to philosophy, we may find a compelling story or an inspiring line that has the effect of expanding the way we look at our situation, such as Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” or Oppenheimer’s “I believe in the possibility of all things.” The great texts of the wisdom traditions or a great line of poetry or prose, or even a simple phrase, can serve as living words that activate and shift awareness to take in a new view or affirm a new day.
Values and virtues can serve as important guides. Our actions are often guided and measured by the values we hold dear. If we see the world as a place to win at all costs or instead as an opportunity to care for one another, we tend to act according to these values. But values, virtues, and aspirations do not come to life by themselves. Recall that wisdom is not something we have, it is instead something we do—we act wisely, or not. What we learn very quickly about values or virtues is that they are . They are breathed to life by our choices and our actions, our words and our deeds. But how do we proceed? Which ones should we choose?
At thirteen, Jiddu was discovered on a beach in a small town in southern India. He and his brother were soon adopted by Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society. Besant and others proclaimed that Jiddu was to be the “World Teacher” whose coming the Theosophists had predicted. To prepare for the teacher, a worldwide organization called the Order of the Star in the East was formed and soon enough the young man was made its head. At a large annual gathering of the order, the crowd hushed as Jiddu Krishnamurti prepared to address his followers, who had waited for this moment in great anticipation of receiving inspiration for their spiritual quest. What happened next was unexpected to say the least. In one sweep of his words, Krishnamurti renounced his role, dissolved the Order with its huge following, and returned all the money and property that had been donated for this work. He had come to see that:
Truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding the contents of his own mind.
In this powerful act of spiritual integrity, Krishnamurti invites each of us to take active responsibility to find our own way.
Virtually all the wisdom traditions have a list of values or virtues that we are invited to abide by, from the Ten Commandments to the Three Jewels of Jainism. Serving as guideposts to be consulted and lived by, most of these tenets seem like pretty good ideas. The challenge isn’t to find good values, it’s to find how the values live in us and see how well we can live them out. “Truth is a pathless land” implies that full responsibility is not only about living in alignment with some set of values but to also assume responsibility in constructing our essential values, making them ours, ensuring conscious ownership at each step. They require us to enact them, but also to co-construct them, examine them, tend to them, grow them.
Business consultant Fred Kofman has a few simple questions that he uses as a way of helping clarify our values. Give it a try:
- Think of three characters, real or fictional, that you consider admirable.
- Ask yourself: what is it that I admire about each of these individuals? What is it that makes them special to me?
- How or where did that character express that quality in some situation?
- Would I put myself in my list of people that I admire?
- If not, what’s missing? How do these three characters live or what do they have that seems to be missing in my life?
In posing these questions to thousands of individuals, most of whom are in the field of business—a domain associated less with virtue and more with achievement and success—Kofman says that has anyone identified success or its trappings as the admirable quality.3 Instead, qualities of the order of courage, compassion, and the like are what folks recognize as significant and worth aspiring to. The gap between the virtues our heroes embody and how many of those qualities we embody is a trail- head for our conscious growth.
To live from these admirable virtues is to live less with our worth tied to an outcome, which is something we do not have full control of. The stock market goes up and down, accidents happen, the world turns. To tie our satisfaction, meaning, self- worth, or happiness to a particular outcome is to set ourselves up for who knows what. But these virtues we identified come largely from the inside out. They are journeys, not outcomes. While we cannot often be assured of an outcome—winning a game, getting the date, landing that job—we can assume complete responsibil- ity for how we go about it, maintaining our integrity of values in the process. Regardless of the outcome, at the end of the day or the end of life, we can usually live with that.
In a world that can seem out of control and certainly beyond our control, the central hope for a sense of peace and integrity lies in staying true to our values and ensuring that they are worth being true to. This means radical and ongoing responsibility to be accountable for the values we live by.
A Second Knowing
Many traditions and plenty of wise souls describe two general aspects of the human being, what we will simply call the “big self ” and the “small self.” The small self is understood as the ego in Western psychology or the “lesser self” in several traditions. It’s not hard to recognize a small self as it develops into an orchestra of parts. The small self generates that internal dialogue that occupies so much of our daily existence: “Do I like this?” “What should I say?” “He’s hot!” Buddhism calls this chatter the “monkey mind.” It offers nearly incessant commentary and judgment ranging from worries about the past to plans about the future. Sometimes, one or another dimension of this voice seems to dominate, and we hear plenty of self-criticism, judgment of others, or maybe fear. This is the ego-generated voice that is simply a part of being human. But in the sacred traditions, the lesser self is not mistaken for our whole being.
As a source of wise guidance and insight, Sri Aurobindo, the Indian sage, called the big self the “Inner Teacher.” Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Dominican priest, referred to the “Inner Man.” Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the “Oversoul.”
Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli wrote about aspects of our greater dimensions as the “Higher Self” and “Transpersonal Self.”7 Time and time again, we are asked to loosen our identification with the chattering self and raise our level of being in order hear the voice of our deeper nature, and sometimes the means are very simple and very quiet.
As a teenager, George left home to try to find the person that would inspire and serve as guide and mentor. He came away from his visits with each candidate more disappointed and discouraged. Finally, sitting in silence one day he began to hear a deep inner source—what he called the “Inner Light.” George was George Fox who founded the Society of Friends in the seventeenth century, better known as the Quakers.8 In recognition of the Inner Light, Quaker worship services proceed largely in silence in order that participants may listen for that inner voice. The power of presence that we spoke of in previous chapters helps to set the stage for our availability to guidance. We hear this wellspring described throughout the wisdom traditions and wise souls. Fellow Quaker William Penn, for whom Pennsylvania is named, described what arises out of the silence “as the word in the heart from which all scriptures flow.”9
Discerning the difference between the inner voice and the ego’s voice is a little tricky. Even when the ego-generated voice sounds reasonable and logical, it will typically prejudge a situation with a tone of self-interest, lack, and fear—fear of missing out or perhaps being hurt. By contrast, that deeper voice gener- ally feels more generous rather than self-interested, works from abundance and possibility rather than lack and limitation, feels more peaceful than fearful (although it may offer warnings), and is open-ended rather than prejudging. With practice and awareness, we can recognize the different timber and tone of these voices. In addition, the inner voice is often accompanied by a felt shift—a feeling of things falling into place and a sense of flow. It often emphasizes a way of being rather than simply doing—holding an attitude of openness or forgiveness rather than specifying the precise action, for example.
Guidance in the form of an inner sense, insight, or inspiration comes unbidden—you cannot will it to be. The opening can come unexpectedly: perhaps while in the shower, or in that liminal space just as we are waking up, or as we relax and let go. Although not willed, such guidance can be wooed and welcomed. A variety of contemplative invocations ranging from poetry to radical questioning to certain meditations create a recipe that welcomes insight, which generally includes:
1. Focus, as when we have a problem to solve or a question we’re pondering
2. An open, receptive, “soft-mind”
Sometimes, we have to get out of our own way in order to find another approach to guidance. Sometimes, it helps to find an ally—“What would [one of our admirable characters] do?” Wise historic figures or loved ones can serve as touchstones, power- ful sources to dialogue with through our imagination, and in so doing, call forth wisdom. When the question or concern is posed honestly and deeply, it can serve as a surprising invocation and activation.
However, guidance might not only come through an elder before us, a rich encounter with a good book, the depth of our values, or an imagined ally, but also arrives in a fashion we could hardly have imagined.
Beginning when she was thirteen, Jeanne saw a brilliant light and said that she touched, smelled, and heard various saints.11 Her first encounter occurred in her father’s garden when, as she explained, “God sent a voice to guide me. At first, I was frightened.” But in time, she came to trust and rely on this guidance. At seventeen, the voice, steady throughout her teens, instructed her to leave home and join the army. This was simply an outrageous suggestion at that time. Even more extraordinary was that in time, she was put in charge of the entire army. Under her lead- ership, this army led the defense and liberation of France from the invading British. Jeanne is better known as Joan of Arc, who lived in the fifteenth century. Jeanne was later persecuted and ultimately executed because she refused to deny the source of her guidance, her inner voice.
Great sages and mystics have recognized the possibility for hearing deep sources of guidance. Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, and Mary all claimed to hear, see, or feel a deep source of wisdom. So, too, did Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatmas Gandhi, George Washington Carver, and Winston Churchill. Socrates called his inner voice daimon, meaning “divine.” The Hebrew prophets claimed to have received illuminated truth through a connection with the divine. In first-century China, individuals called the wu received guidance from inner voices. Christian mystics attributed their inner guidance to the Holy Ghost, deceased saints, and angels.
The word —from the Latin—once meant “guardian spirit,” and each of us was meant to have at least one. Genius is the origin for the word genie, and in the Middle Ages, the genius came to be known as a guardian angel. The notion has changed over time from the ancient idea of everyone , a personal guide, to extraordinary poets in the Middle Ages as itself, to the contemporary understanding that an unusually talented individual might a genius. The notion of guidance and guardianship has been supplanted with the idea that our minds are self-contained and that insight becomes self- generated—a kind of noetic narcissism we might say. But in an age desperate for wisdom, it may be time for a rehabilitation of that ancient notion of genius as involving a kind of intimate dialogue. We don’t have to make any commitment to the ultimate source of such insight. We need only decide its value based on how functional it is, that is, the quality of the information provided and the impact that it has on life.
Across traditions, sometimes even animals are claimed as wise allies. In most traditional explanations of animal guides, you do not choose the animal, it chooses you—it pays you a visit. For example, the animal is seen as a power or “medicine,” as some Native American tribes refer it, which serves as a link, symbol, or totem between the invisible world and the physical one.
Seven-year-old Laura’s dog, Adam, had just died, and Laura was having a very difficult time getting over the loss. She had really loved Adam, and she didn’t know how to deal with los- ing him. According to her mother, “Over many days Laura was crying a lot about him, and I just didn’t seem able to comfort her very well.” She explains that one day they were driving in the car, and Laura was talking a lot, as she often did. “I was tired and I asked her to please just lie back and rest for a few minutes. Thankfully she did, and after about twenty minutes she sat up and said, ‘Mom, something wonderful happened! I left my body and went to talk with Adam. He told me that my being so upset about him dying was making it harder for him, and if I really wanted to help him, I should send him love and light. So I did and it feels better.’” Laura paused and then added, “‘Adam said the reason he came to see me is that when somebody close to me dies, I’ll know what to do.’”
A few weeks later, Laura’s aunt gave birth to a baby with a terminal illness. It was a very difficult situation for everyone as we could imagine. Laura insisted on visiting the baby in the hospital. Her mother said was not too sure about this. “Normally, given Laura’s emotionally charged personality,” she said, “I would have expected her to fall apart, to be really hysterical, and I didn’t think this was what the family needed.” But Laura was so persistent that her mom finally relented deciding that it couldn’t really hurt at this point. “We went to the hospital, and in the middle of all this grief, Laura insisted on holding the dying baby. She was unbelievably calm and clear; she was not upset or crying, but was working hard to help this dying baby by sending him love and light. She helped all of us.”
There are certain states of consciousness that tend to reduce the amount of mind chatter and open us to more internal imagery and sometimes insight. In a sudden “Aha!” moment, consciousness has shifted, opening to some current that a moment ago was out of reach and, a moment from now, may slip away. Those moments at the edge of sleep, or in a deep relaxed state, or maybe in the midst and mist of a long shower are times when this kind of consciousness becomes available on its own as well as through intentional meditative means. We don’t know the whole story (or even close to it) about how the mind oper- ates, but we do notice that these kinds of breakthroughs are often associated with an increase in theta brain wave activity, a state of deep relaxation defined by brain activity between 4 and 8 hertz (cycles per second). It is also intriguing to realize that the high end of theta waves, around 7.8 hertz, is also the resonant frequency of the earth itself, the Schumann Resonance, first rec- ognized in the eighteen century and scientifically confirmed in the 1950s. In a very real sense, we seem to be in tune in moments of insight.
Field and Stream
The contemporary stories that form our understanding of the mind are shifting. The mind is contained inside the head in most contemporary accounts, virtually indistinguishable from the physical brain. But a more expanded story from across sci- ence has been emerging that helps to give a bigger account of wisdom and of ourselves. We mentioned this renewed story of interconnection in the previous discussion on compassion; it has particular implications for wisdom as well.
From computing and biology to physics and neuroscience, we are increasingly describing how the world works with words like “networks,” “webs,” “fields” and “streams” instead of simply individual parts, bits, and components, reduced to their lowest independent nature. The forward edge of technology, for example, isn’t bigger computers, it’s better networking—ways of tapping into webs of information. In biology, interactive field14 and sys- tems theories15 are more complete (as opposed to the atomistic “component”) explanations for understanding the mechanisms of biological organisms, from the cellular to the social level. The flourishing field of brain science tells us we operate as a neural web, one that even networks with others, underlying our inter- connection in the field of consciousness. This has come to be understood as a neurological reality through the emerging field of social neuroscience. In physics, field theories explain the subatomic world (non-local influence and electromagnetism, for example) in a more satisfactory way than, say, Newton’s description. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku captures this sense of unified field when he claims “The Universe is a symphony of vibrating strings.” Physicist Erwin Schrödinger concluded, “Mind by its very nature is a. I should say: the overall number of minds is just one.” And as William James recognized, with just a little self-awareness we come to notice that consciousness itself does not exist as chopped up bits, but instead as a constant flowing stream of experience.
If the mind and the universe are indeed webs and networks, fields and streams, then cultivating wisdom is not about merely with more information—the typical goal of contemporary education—but it is especially about to this inherent interconnection, that is, cultivating the skills to open and expand the range and reach of the mind so that we can see more and more richly, tapping streams of consciousness as a source of information and guidance.
In this sense the capacity is to raise, open, or deepen our being to expand the reach of the mind. Through clarifying values, thinking rationally, seeking allies, asking earnestly, listening for that inner light, and resting in the larger self, we stretch past the gravitational pull of the chattering mind and tap the stream of consciousness to which we are all apart.
Uncovering inner and outer sources of guidance
Write a dialogue with your “higher self ” or the wisest being that you can imagine.
Begin first with entering a contemplative state and then write the following: “There is something I would like to tell you; it’s time for you to hear . . .” Continue writing both the part of the higher self and whatever other part responds. Go back and forth in the dialogue. It might feel awkward at first, but allow yourself to go with it and give enough time to let it unfold.
Draw a picture of a guardian angel or spirit in your life. After you are done come back and answer the following: What stands out to you about this drawing. Is there anything you want to remember, hold near, and carry with you?
Consider the following question: Who would be a trustworthy and wise guide for this current situation or for my life at this time? It does not matter whether they are in your living room or in your mind. Ask them what you would like to know. If they are physically available, you could ask them. If not, begin a dialogue in writing with them. You might begin by writing your question or difficulty and begin to free write a response.
As we have explored, inspiration cannot be willed, but sometimes it can be wooed. What inspires you? Is there a movie, music, poetry, person, activity, or something else that raises you up? Find something that inspires. It might just sneak up on you, or you may call forth a memory or music, an image or word, a sense of mission or founding principle, or an inspirational figure or motivational sight. Or maybe an action helps to invite it, like stepping outside for a moment, reading a poem, being kind, gen- erous, or courageous, whatever takes us beyond our limited self and into our deeper nature.
This does not need to be too fancy or formal, although that’s fine as well—just a moment of shifting, welcoming, wooing, and being filled. What inspires you?
Perhaps this could be a way to start or end the day, reading from a special text, calling forth the images and feelings that we want to hold and convey to the world. As a daily practice, this shapes our consciousness.
Tobin Hart, PhD, is a father, professor, psychologist, speaker, and author of The Secret Spiritual World of Children. He has spent more than thirty years as a researcher and ally helping students, clients, and patients integrate their psychological and spiritual lives. He serves as professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, as well as co-founder and president of the ChildSpirit Institute, a nonprofit educational and research hub exploring the spirituality of children and adults. He is sought out as an expert resource and keynote on children, spirituality, psychology, and education. He serves on various advisory boards, think-tanks, and organizations. Beyond Words | Child Spirit