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An Exploration Into Reading Wisdom Literature

May 10, 2009

Dennis Lewis

Dennis Lewis

I have been writing reviews of wisdom literature, both classical and modern, for many publications for many years. My intention in this brief essay is to explore how we the readers of such literature–the personages who usually believe we can sit down with a spiritual book and quickly form a more or less objective opinion or view of it without any inner work–can open ourselves to receive more of what the author actually intended.

For many of us, reading is a highly mechanical act, an automatic reflex that kicks in when we have some spare time, are bored, are excited by what we have heard about this or that latest book, or have a genuine interest in the subject. We may find ourselves reading spiritual classics while sitting on the toilet, lying in bed, standing in line, or eating a meal. On rare occasions, we may realize that reading the great wisdom literature is very much like meditating, and that it requires special inner and outer conditions.

Many of us are great believers in our own powers of discernment, and we are more than willing to share our view and even argue with others after only a few minutes or hours of reading a book that an author may have struggled for many months or years, sometimes with great suffering, to write in the truest way possible.

What we perhaps often forget is that in reading a spiritual book we are establishing a relationship with its author. We are opening ourselves to receive perceptions, insights, impressions, ideas, experiences, principles, methods, and even the joy and suffering of the person who wrote the book. And like all real relationships, listening is required, a willingness to receive what is being communicated without suggestibility and without immediately interpreting it in relation to what we think we know or understand. We need to find a silent, open place within which to receive and ponder what is being said. If we cannot find such a place, at least we need to observe, impartially, the point of view from which we are reading or listening, so as to see how it is shaping what we hear and experience.

Some time ago, I wrote a short essay entitled Reading & Silence. I am including it here to help us go deeper into this question. All the quotations within this passage are from The World of Silence, by Max Picard, itself a wonderful representation of wisdom literature.

“‘Today words no longer arise out of silence, through a creative act of the spirit which gives meaning to language and to the silence, but from other words, from the noise of other words. Neither do they return to the silence but into the noise of other words, to become immersed therein.’

Those of us who still read in pursuit of meaning are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, many contemporary writers of so-called wisdom literature today have little understanding of the relationship of language to silence, and so are little able to awaken the silence in us. On the other hand, most of us as readers have little direct experience of the ‘substance of silence’ in ourselves, and so the words we read fall only on other words and simply increase our own internal noise.

If reading is to be more than a diversion or exercise for the mind, we must find a new way of reading, a way which helps us experience the origins of language and thought both in the writer and in ourselves. For as Picard makes clear: ‘In every moment of time, man through silence can be with the origin of all things.’ Allied with silence, man participates ‘not only in the original substance of silence but in the original substance of all things.’

At its best, reading helps us to participate in a primal process of creation and discovery. In reading the great wisdom literature, the words or works of Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Milarepa, Socrates, Plato, Gurdjieff, and so on, one can hear, if one knows how to listen, an underlying call to return to this original substance of silence where deep contemplation and participation can arise. But most of us most of the time are unable to hear this call. We have little practice in listening within as we read. And so we read only words, and the words bounce off of one another and our memories and associations and seldom reveal their inherent power to awaken us to new levels of ourselves.

One might wish to undertake an experiment here, an exercise, to help us listen, and, of course, there are many useful exercises one can try. But the problem with such exercises is that we most often read and hear them in much the same way we read our books–mechanically, with little real presence.

What is presence? What would it mean to be present to ourselves not only as we read but as we do everything else that we do? There is a mystery here, another paradox. To be present, to consciously participate in the creative flow of life, I must return to the original substance of myself and all things; I must return to the unknown, to the ‘uncarved block,’ to the vast underlying silence of myself.

How will I undertake this return? Where will I turn? Am I really interested? Perhaps these questions will take on new significance as I learn to read with presence in my pursuit of meaning.”

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis. This essay appeared in the review section of the March/April 2009 issue of The Journal of Harmonious Awakening, which is no longer being published.

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