The Transmission of Wisdom

03-03-2016 | Friend of Silence

A sharing delivered by Cynthia Bourgeault on November 13, 2016 to a group of "Wisdom interns" preparing for the Wisdom School at the Kanuga Episcopal Conference Center in North Carolina.

Listen to this story from Kabir Helminki in Living Presence about the  transmission of wisdom:

A Sufi came to a remote village where he knew no one. After meeting some people he found that those of this village had an unusual hunger for spiritual knowledge. They invited him to share his knowledge at a gathering they would arrange. Although this Sufi was not yet fully confident that he could transmit spiritual knowledge, he accepted their invitation. Many people attended that gather and the Sufi found his audience to be extremely receptive to what he had to say, and most significantly, he found that he was able to express the teachings he had received with an eloquence he had never before experienced. He went to sleep that night feeling very pleased.

The next day he met one of the elders of the village. They greeted each other as brothers, and the elder expressed his gratitude for the previous evening. The Sufi was beginning to feel very special. He even reasoned to himself that he had been guided to this village to impart the wisdom that he had accumulated through his long years of training and service. Perhaps, if these people were sincere, he could stay with them for awhile and really offer them some extended instruction in the Way of Love and Remembrance. They were certainly a deserving and sincere community. Just then, the elder invited him to another gathering that evening.

The villagers assembled again that evening, but this time one of them was chosen at random to address the gathering. He, too, gave a most eloquent discourse, full of wisdom and love. After the meeting the Sufi again met with the elder. "As you can see," the elder began, "the Friend speaks to us in many forms. We are all special here and we are all receptive to the Truth and so the Truth can easily express Itself. Know that the 'you' who felt special last night and the 'you' who felt diminished tonight are neither real. Prostrate them before the inner Friend if you want to find wisdom and be free of judging yourself harshly."

If we look at it, this story really says everything about wisdom transmission. What is something that surprises you or catches you unawares in this story?

Where does the wisdom lie in this teaching? In the people, and even more so than in the people than in the whole synergy. It takes two posts, just like in a battery, a positive post and a negative post, in order for energy to flow. And you take either one of those posts away, and there is no energy flowing. Both are equally important. Both are mutually dependent upon each other. They form a feedback loop. And if you break the feedback loop, the energy does not flow.

That's the most important thing that can be said about wisdom teaching. If you keep that in mind, you'll have essentially a bearing about you as you go into this. It's a dance. It's a two way street. The place where we really get off on a difficult starting point and make things fifty times more harder than it needs to be by ourselves, is by this assumption, that is built into our ego to begin with and into our Western culture as ego writ large, that spiritual transmission is a function of the teacher. If you make that mistake, you will have a hard time. You will go through all the learning curves that this guy went through, if you're lucky. The lucky ones see it. The unlucky ones never do. We are really so in the west geared towards idolizing the individual genius. The way we like to picture it in our mind is that there are those out there who for some reason have been given special gifts. And we begin enumerating them as soon as a child is in kindergarten if not before. And that those ones who have these special gifts will be the teachers. And that they share their special gifts is to prepare, in the west, a lesson plan, a lecture, a pre-prepared rendition which somehow beautifully sets forward this tremendous bounty of knowledge that they have. And then they deliver it. And everybody sits there saying, "Oh, I never thought of that before. That's wonderful. Oh he's such a genius." So that's what we are used to. When we do it really well, we get this feedback, "yes we are on the right path. God intended me to be a teacher." If we do it not well, we go "oh, I'm ruined. I'm shattered."

So it's all, as the story beautifully says, equally unreal. My favorite part in the story comes in those wonderful things where he talks about "being guided to this village... to impart the wisdom that he had accumulated through his long years." He was an intern in a wisdom school. "Perhaps, if these people were sincere, he could stay with them a while and really offer them some extended instruction in the way of love and remembrance." At this point, if you are not rolling about laughing. "They were certainly a deserving and sincere community." See how he becomes identified with post. That just slips in on us. I can remember many times, lying in bed at night after a particularly stirring meeting, and just replaying the whole thing in my mind to the tune of "How great thou art." It is a trap. It is a trap indeed.

And of course the other side of the trap is self-consciousness. It makes you afraid to get up there. You think you are stepping right into the lime light. And if you are not perfect, if you are not brilliant, you think that nothing happened. That's the thing we really have to struggle up against. In our western tradition, our unilateral and hierarchical model of the transmission of knowledge. That it goes in the direction of the teacher, the one who has attained everything, to the students who then frequently remain students all their lives, faithfully going to workshop after workshop, without any sense that there is anything more down the path for them.

The transmission lies in the whole vessel. And it is just as important not to steer to the opposite extreme. The wisdom does not lie in the people. Because the people just by themselves do not self-organize. I think that is one of the reservations and drawbacks in the otherwise wonderful of the Parker Palmer model of the circles. There can be sharing, certainly. But there is a holarchy involved in spiritual transmission. Someone has to hold the post. Otherwise you get a certain art form which is sharing. It's an art form that has its own brilliance and place, and we are going to be doing a lot of that this weekend. But to galvanize something else, to reach something which is a level that everybody is aspiring to and yearning for, then somebody has to do it, has to create the place in which that can come together. A beautiful image of it. You can take a hundred people who have incredible expertise on their respective instruments, but only when the conductor gets out in front do you begin to create a symphony which plays together. The post is a really important thing. And its completely a mutual feedback loop.

The post allows people to self-organize as a higher energetic field. It has to be held with a consciousness that it is a sacred function in the transmission of wisdom. If you happen to be sitting on the post, you cannot just sit there. "I'm not used to this." If you are there, you have to put the thing in gear and drive it. That's your responsibility. In the process, you will receive assistance, if you are clear and transparent. A lot of people ask me, "How do you know what you know." I don't. It's as simple as that. Wendy could tell you from the nights we have had dinner together in Maine. It's a function of the whole energy of the group, to be able to gain access to that which you know, but you know in a relational context. It's buried until its called forth.

Just as the story so beautifully exemplifies, the fellow discovered that he could do things with ease and eloquence. I never knew I could do this before. Like Peter walking on the water. And that's true. Because that is one of things that can come from being on the post. If you hold it, knowing what the whole thing is as a mutual energetic exchange. You will receive assistance. But don't go looking for it in the wrong directions.

What we have traditionally done in Christianity is to say that the Holy Spirit is helping us, which again makes it unilateral and vertical. The Holy Spirit is helping all the time, but it works through the medium of the collective synergy of the group. So if you take either of the pieces away, it's not going to work.

Without the lively energetic engagement of the participants, the ones who are sitting in the student role, the teacher is not drawn forth to access this deeper knowledge, which is not "my" knowledge, but the collective knowledge which is being downloaded.

But without the teacher, the students can't reach it either, because it needs a shaping and a mid-wifing. Does that makes sense. Can you see how that's liberating. It takes a lot of that personal onus off us and gives you a sense that there will be support. But your role in this is to remain clear and humble, not in the ego sense of "I can't do it." But in the sense of being flexible. Humus means good soil, its top-soil, and stuff can be planted and it will grow. That's the kind of humility we are talking about, a supple, alert, flexibility. And if you always look at your teaching more along the line of mid-wifing, something that is actually there already, and if you look at it a little bit as third force. Not "I'm going to impart knowledge" and these people are going to listen and take notes. It's not like that. It's more "I bring a sense of what I have prepared and intend to go on." The group plays a resisting force, pushing back against what I initially bring. And if there is an alertness there, a third force will enter. Which is basically where we are really met, where the real teaching is meant to emerge out of that group. And sometimes it is really unexpected.