Ancient Spiritual Wisdom

I have always been drawn to the big-picture view of things. If some people climb mountains simply because they are there, I am always pulled toward summits by the promise of an ever expanding vista. There is simply nothing like a macro perspective on life to help me live it on the micro level at which it comes at me. This, to me, has always been the attraction of the perennial wisdom tradition. To someone who is hardwired to seek big-picture perspective on life, an encounter with perennial philosophy is like leading a child into a candy store!

But because it is a stretch for most of us to think of philosophy as candy, let’s talk about this tradition in terms that are more descriptive of what it truly is. Calling it the Perennial Wisdom Tradition draws our attention to the fact that it is a compilation of the deep sources of wisdom that have shaped human culture. Identifying the common core of the various wisdom traditions does not mean that the distinctives of the religious traditions it draws on are unimportant. Christianity is not the same as Sufism, Islam the same as Baha’ism, or Taoism the same as Hinduism. The distinctives allow each separate tradition to speak with its own voice and tell its own story, but the common core allows us to hear that story in broader and deeper terms.

As a Christian, I find it encouraging that there is such a significant shared core to these various wisdom traditions. I find it helps me understand my own tradition when I encounter it in the light of the spiritual wisdom that is quite easily found if one considers even the contours of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition. And that is what I propose to do – simply look at the contours of this common core of wisdom. For even those, I think we will see, are enough to help us ground ourselves in, and align ourselves with, a reality that is vastly grander than what we usually realize.

Contours of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition

All wisdom traditions have something to say about four important matters: the nature of ultimate reality, the possibilities of human knowing of this ultimate reality, the nature of personhood, and the goal of human existence. In what follows, I will draw together some of the central insights of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition associated with each of these four areas and conclude with several important consequences for living that are suggested by them. I do so as a psychologist interested in spirituality, not as someone with expertise in philosophy, religion or theology. But, that’s the whole point of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition – it offers ancient wisdom for contemporary living that is relevant to all of us, not just to a few.

Ultimate Reality

However named, God is the Ultimate Reality. Language does not serve well to describe this Ultimate Reality since it is so profoundly supra-human and trans-personal. Yet, humans need to name things and so across time and the various wisdom traditions we have adopted such linguistic handles as Spirit, Divine Presence, The Wholly Other, The One, or The Ground of Being. All names for this foundation of existence point to the same reality – a reality that, at the same time, is both transcendent and immanent, not set apart from the world of humans and things but deeply connected to everything that is.

All names fail miserably in the task of capturing Ultimate Reality. How easily we forget that language does not hold reality; at its best it merely points toward it. Our problem, however, is that we confuse our puny constructs and construals with the reality to which they, even at their best, point.

Anthony de Mello tells a very short story from the Perennial Wisdom Tradition that nicely illustrates this.

The master encouraged his followers to look at the moon by pointing toward it but noticed that his followers inevitably looked at his finger, not the moon.

The story tells us that Ultimate Reality will always lie beyond all the fingers of our images and concepts that we use to point toward it. We must, therefore, be ever vigilant in realizing the danger of getting stuck in our words and concepts rather than getting in touch with the reality behind them. This is true in all of life, but nowhere more true than when we use words to point toward the Wholly Other that is Ultimate Reality.

Ultimate Reality is the source, substance and sustenance of all that is. Nothing exists without it. To be removed from this vital connection would be to instantly cease to exist. We exist because we are in relation to Ultimate Reality, or more precisely, because we exist within it.

The Possibility of Ultimate Knowing

This raises, however, a crucial question. If this assertion about the nature of Ultimate Reality is to have any meaning for us, it must be knowable in some way. The mystics of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition assert that direct, immediate knowing is possible. They tell us that such knowing is not based on reason nor deduction but on communion. We only truly know that which we become one with. Communion is a knowing through union. Knowledge of God, then, means union with God – something that the mystics have always proclaimed to be not just possible but the goal and fulfilment of humanity.

Knowing is, therefore, becoming one with that which we seek to know. We see this in the Hebrew Bible’s use of the language of knowing to describe sexual intercourse (as in “Adam knew Eve”). Knowing is intimate and this intimacy is transformational. We come to resemble that which we know. The more we resemble that which we seek to know, the more we truly know it, and the more truly we know it the more we are one with it.

Union is not sameness but likeness. However, in union, the dualism that initially separates subsequently dissolves and we experience the unity that holds us both. This is, of course, a profound mystery – a mystery that lies beyond understanding but not beyond experiential knowing.

The Mystery of Personhood

The possibility of human knowing of Ultimate Reality also lies in the fact that humans are a reflection of this reality that is remarkably similar its source. All personal knowing is based in likeness. We can only truly know that which we already resemble in some important way. This possibility lies in the human soul where we retain traces of our origin. In other words, the ground of our being is the Ground of Being.

This brings us right to the core of the mystery of human personhood. Humans are especially connected to Ultimate Reality because, in some mysterious way, the human soul contains something similar to, possibly even identical with, the Ultimate Reality we name as God. Humans are a unique expression of this reality. The depths of the human soul mirror the depths of Spirit. There is a place in the depths of our soul in which Ultimate Reality alone can dwell and in which we dwell in Ultimate Reality. Meister Eckhart says that “the nameless depth in me cries out to the nameless depth in God” – our profound human mystery crying out to the divine mystery beyond names, forms and distinctions that is our source and ground.

To be – as described in the Christian tradition – made in the image of Ultimate Mystery, means that humans will inevitably be a fundamental mystery to themselves. Human mystery is an echo of Ultimate Reality. The key to knowing human mystery is knowing Ultimate Reality. And the key to knowing the mystery of Ultimate Reality, is meeting that Reality in the depths of the human soul.

The Goal of Human Existence

The knowing that humans seek in every cell of their being is to know the source and ground of our existence. This, the Perennial Wisdom Tradition teaches, is the goal and meaning of being human. Life has a direction. All of life flows from and returns to Divine Presence. Our Origin is our Destiny! So, as the river said to the seeker, “Does one really have to fret about journey? No matter which way I turn, I’m homeward bound!”

Once again, words do a very poor job of describing this direction of the flow of human life. In the Christian tradition we speak of union with the Divine – sometimes daring to adopt the even bolder language of theosis, or divinization. Take, for example, the words spoken by the priest when mixing the water and the wine in the Roman Catholic mass – “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Union with Ultimate Reality is sharing the divinity of Christ. It is participating in the Divine Presence. This is the fulfillment of humanity.

Consequences for Living

Many things flow from an appreciation of the fact that the purpose of life is this unitive knowing of the ground of our being. When identified with our bodies, minds, experience or any lesser thing, we lack full awareness of our spiritual nature and the truth of the ground of our being. The moral of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition is “Don’t settle for anything less than the truth of your Christ-self.” The ego-self with which we are all much more familiar is a small cramped place when compared with the spaciousness of our true self-in-Christ. This is the self that is not only one within itself, it is at one with the world and all others who share it as their world. It is, therefore, one with Ultimate Reality.

Life, therefore, is a constant flow of invitations to awaken to these spiritual realities. Spiritual practices are, at their best, cooperation with life’s inherent tendency toward spiritual awakening and unfolding – a tendency that Christians name as grace. Awakening is the expression of that grace in which we see through our apparent separation and notice that we are already one with Divine Presence and with all that is. All that is missing is awareness.


Adapted from: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living, an article first appearing in Oneing, a publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation,
Spring 2013, Vol 1, No 1.

sculpture by Paddy McElroy
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