Wisdom of the Ages

War, selfishness, greed, poverty, the abuse of power – all modern day problems…or are they? Psychologist Cynthia Hickman ponders whether the sages of the past may have the answers to our modern maladies, if we are willing to look within ourselves.

“I’m concerned for my children. What sort of world are they going to grow up in?

For heavens sake – we have to line our streets with bollards just to stop someone running a car into innocent people. Its just crazy.”

This was Jess1, a thirty six year old mother of two, speaking. I work as a psychologist and Jess had come to counselling to sort out some relationship issues. But along the way we encountered her fears about the state of the world.

And this was not new. Time and again in the past couple of years I have been hearing people voice their concerns about where the world is headed. They are worried about the environment, about refugees, about violence, about mental illness, about what sort of world we are creating for the future.

These sorts of issues weigh heavily on people, even though they often don’t have time to consider them in detail since the pace of life is constantly increasing. But these matters put an unconscious pressure on people, which adds to the stress load that people are already experiencing.

It is no wonder the rates of mental illness are through the roof. Today, on average, one in four people experience anxiety and one in six experience depression2. That’s a lot of people. And it’s no surprise. There is so much going on in the world that is challenging to deal with.

As we tumble towards a chaotic future there don’t seem to be many helpful sources of support. Politics for so many is now often considered a joke, full of egos feathering their own nest instead of providing genuine leadership. And science and technology continue the forward march of research regardless of ethics or what is truly needed to heal humanity.

Ancient philosophies

As I ponder these issues with clients I am often drawn to reflect on the perspectives that have come from elders and sages from past ages. If people like Jess are to find a positive way to approach modern life could it help to refer to teachers who have already pondered humanity’s problems?

We are currently so mired in materialism that I feel we have forgotten to go to the foundational source of love and wellbeing that could assist us to deal with our current situation. This source actually exists within the human being, within every human being – so ancient wisdom has told us through centuries past.

Teachers such as Hermes, Zarathustra, Patanjali and Pythagoras for example were all eminently revered teachers in their time and would have an important perspective to bring to bear on our current times. They all insisted that the inner life came first. It was the foundation for everything else. They explained that a disconnection from this inner life would lead to all the ills that humanity is prone to. As a psychologist I would have to strongly agree!

Some might say that these teachers lived in different times and that their teachings no longer apply. But is this really the case? Haven’t the issues always been around? War, selfishness, greed, poor leadership and disparity in wealth. The only difference now is that these issues are so much more extreme. And we have a global perspective so we can see them writ large across the whole of the world.

This new global perspective amplifies the importance of the matter. We have completely turned our back on such teachings. We now live inside out. So the external world reigns supreme and the inner life is ignored. To our extreme detriment.

Life in the shadows

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was well known for his metaphor of the shadows in a cave. He explains that humanity is like a group of people in a cave looking at the shadows on the wall of the cave caused by the sun outside. The people are mesmerised by these shadows. They think that this is all there is. They fail to realise that the shadows can only arise because there is a source of light outside of the cave that allows these shadows to be. Although the sun is the source of this light, if you get lost in the shadows then it is possible you would never know that there is something far grander behind you outside the cave.So it is with contemporary society. We are completely lost in the shadows. We think that materialism is it. We get lost in our jobs, in social media, in politics, in consumerism, in entertainment and we think this is all there is. There is no inner foundation to determine the focus for human endeavour. So it becomes individual focused or else determined by whoever can access the most power.

We have forgotten that there is another reality underneath all of this that is actually the true source of our existence. This greater reality has many names, it is called the soul, the source, God or divinity. Whatever you want to call it, the reality is the same. That reality is the source of our being and without it we would not be. Yet if we choose we can completely ignore this source. Like the cave dwellers in Plato’s metaphor we can turn our backs on this source and think that the shadow of material reality is it.

Accessing the source

Many people are actually beginning to wake up to a deeper inner reality. They are recognising that without an inner connection that awakens us to the truth about our true nature then we will remain lost in the suffering of the external world.

This knowledge used to be the domain of esoteric students who had to go through rigorous trainings to prepare their consciousness for this understanding but human beings have evolved such that in this era this knowledge is available to anyone who is prepared to put it into practise in their lives.

At present much of humanity lives within a very narrow band of consciousness. We are only aware of what we can experience with our five senses. But we have another sense that would allow us access to a different level of information, an expanded level of consciousness. This sense is our feeling sense, an inner sensitivity called clairsentience.

This quality of consciousness can only be accessed if we cultivate an inner attention and stillness so that this beauty within can arise. Too often we are over-stimulated by substances such as sugar, coffee and alcohol or numbed by an obsessive focus on media of various kinds or distracted by stress and busyness. Instead, we need to take small moments to pause and focus within.

As we pause we can choose to take a gentle breath. And another. Just letting the air enter gently through the nostrils. We can put our hand on the centre of our chest and connect with our sensitivity and care for ourselves. And then we can choose to make our very next movement a gentle movement, guiding our bodies to move in a flow, with ease and presence. No racing, no hardness, just gentle presence.

The inner heart

In this way we begin to access our inner heart, instead of our ‘outer heart’ where we feel the expression of our emotional life. When this outer heart is activated, we can get lost in drama and stimulation. We can get drawn into waves of sadness, grief or depression or anger, resentment, jealousy or anxiety. The list is endless. Such emotions can be understandable reactions to everyday life but there is a deeper more profound well of feeling underneath all of this.

If we spend time focusing within, instead of on the outer issue that triggered us, we can gradually learn to contain our emotional life. Such emotions begin to be put into perspective. Yes, there are things that make us sad or angry, but there is a deeper context underneath all of this that will soothe our emotional reactions.

An inner focus would give the foundation we need to ease the pain in this world. When we access our inner heart we experience the same impulses that arise within every single person. I have seen this time and time again in my counselling practise.

The truth within the inner heart

Firstly as people connect within, compassion arises. People actually do care about each other. They want the best for each other. They know people to be equal. They don’t want some to have success at the expense of another. They want all to flourish. And it hurts them that people are suffering. Without fail this is what arises.

Another impulse that arises from within the inner heart is the desire for true connection with others. Too often we connect superficially via social media, perfunctorily via daily transactions or functionally via work or domestic arrangements. But underneath all of this we want more.

To access more requires an openness and preparedness to be vulnerable, and such qualities enable a heart-to-heart connection that nourishes us, nourishes us deeply in a way that the external world cannot. It is the antidote to addiction and depression. We crave to feel meaningfully connected to other human beings.

Take Faye for example. Faye was a thirty-two year old primary school teacher who had come to see me because she was noticing that she seemed to be in a low mood a lot of the time. She was wondering if she was sliding into depression. I worked with Faye to develop her connection to her own inner heart.

Faye had been very focused on her work, so much so that she was losing her connection with her friends and was finding them irritating and draining. But even though she loved her work she was actually very stressed by it and had very little energy left for anything else in life. Here was the source of her depression.

If we don’t allow time for a deep engagement with others we lose our spark for life. Human beings naturally need to be connected; it warms our heart. And when we feel this warmth it connects us even deeper within our inner heart where the source of this warmth resides. There is a stillness here, where we are all connected with each other. Harm one person and we are all harmed. Cut off from people and you cut off from yourself. And in doing so you lose access to your own life force.

As I worked with Faye, she began to put her work into perspective, She saw that there was a perfectionism that had been driving her and that this was leading to her being obsessed by the tasks associated with her work. Yes there was a lot to do, but when we use our work to make up for some inner insecurity then it will begin to drive us instead of inspiring us. Again, another reason for depression.

As Faye worked through her issues she began to feel a new care and concern for her friends rising within. She did actually have compassion for where they were at and wanted to be there for them, and in turn wanted them to be there for her.

The other thing that always arises within the human heart is meaning and purpose. When people settle deeply within themselves they find that a desire to make a contribution arises from within. It is not enough to be focused on the self. We want to make a difference to others. This lights us up, it ignites our passion for life.

This is what Faye found as she uncovered the unhealthy drive that had been running her work life. When she reconnected to her love of the children she taught and her care for them, she began to feel the impulse that had originally drawn her to primary teaching. She loved the delicate and sweet sensitivity of younger children and she wanted to foster this and encourage them to affirm their true nature so that they didn’t have to shut down and toughen up later in life.

As she connected to this meaning, the focus on getting everything ‘right’ and perfect eased off. There was less control and more flow. Her body felt lighter and her heart felt softer and she began to feel her joy for life returning.

The antidote to outer pain

Faye had begun to connect to a deeper source within herself. By learning to focus within and to become more still and gentle she began to access a profound quality of consciousness that exists within us all.

This is what the ancient teachers have all pointed to; an inner reality that gives us a steady foundation for life so that we are not rocked so much by the harshness around us.

We access an inner light that brings meaning and fulfilment to life. And we open to other people and thrive on the nourishment that comes from a compassionate connection with other human beings.

It seems strange that such necessary wisdom has always been available to us, throughout the ages. I am often reminded of the lines from a famous poem by T.S, Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.3

Indeed. The wisdom is within us already. The access is there when we are born. But most of us will only recognise it when we return to it in later life. But fortunately, like Faye, many are returning. And slowly one by one we can begin to bring this planet back to harmony and balance. Working together to heal the pain we have created. Now there’s a purpose to light us up!

1 Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008), National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007, Cat. no. (4326.0), Canberra: ABS.

3 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.

 

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Six Tips for Bringing Ancient Wisdom into Everyday Life:

  1. We need to make space in life for contemplation. Turn television and social media off and see what arises within this space.
  2. Take the time to notice and appreciate your best self. How does it show up in your daily life? Keep an appreciation diary.
  3. Connection is the foundation of life; with ourselves and with others. Take an extra moment in the small daily interactions with others to look them in the eye, smile and demonstrate care.
  4. Contribution to others ignites our passion for life. We need a bigger context than just the self and its own needs. Get involved in community projects and events.
  5. Do a daily inventory of when your best self shows up. Celebrate this. Note and take responsibility for when you behave in a less respectful manner.
  6. Our quality of life is based on the level of love we allow into our lives. Starting with ourselves bring one self-loving action into our daily life. Then bring the focus to a generosity and care with others.

 

What Do Ancient Sages Say About Life? (these include: Hermes, Zarathustra, Krishna, Patanjali, Pythagoras and Plato)

  1. We need to wake up and ask questions about life. Wellbeing does not come from staying complacent and comfortable.
  2. We have to look beneath appearances. There is more to being a human being than how we look, the job we have or the status we aspire to. We have a true nature underneath our outward appearance and it is vital we connect with this.
  3. When we connect within we find that our true nature is not about our personal identity – it as about an interconnectedness with others.
  4. We need to take responsibility for being fully engaged with the world and contributing to the degree we can.
  5. There are energies of light and darkness and we have to choose which we want to align to. In this way we can take responsibility for the type of life we live.
  6. We cultivate quality of life through self-care, equality and respect.

 

Cynthia is a psychologist working in private practise, Melbourne. She is the author of the book, Return to the Soul. See: www.cynthiahickman.net

 

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