NG: When does one know that it’s time to get ourselves a heart of wisdom? To enter into this work? Is there a “right time” in life?
MD: When my mother died, I discovered that you can’t be an elder until you lose a parent. The wind was at my face. Now I was called to be my own shelter, derive my own wisdom, and enter my full power. The price for greater personhood is the loss of the ones we once believed knew everything and could do everything. I think loss has the potential to make us wiser.
NG: Are you suggesting that when you felt the wind at your face, you had more direct access to…what?
MD: I learned to turn to myself for resources I wasn’t sure I had. I learned that absence of a loved one is as palpable at times as having lunch with a friend. I learned to look at what remained after loss.
NG: So this is more about tapping into what was already there, rather than gaining some new access or insight? How would you describe the imperative, in the face of that loss?
MD: Maybe life’s greatest paradox is in understanding the preciousness of something only after we no longer have it. And what we’ve lost inspires us to appreciate more keenly all that we still have. We discover, also, that the past is not immutable, that although a life ends, a relationship does not. We continue to have relationship with those who are no longer on earth but remain with us always. I call the shift of perception “wisdom”.
NG: In my experience, one of the greatest sources of wisdom has been my relationship to my own mortality. When my father died, I became acutely aware of the preciousness of every moment, now that I knew that only the present moment was guaranteed. I would never again know that I could count on the future in any way. The illusion of immortality was forever busted. And, in discovering the beauty of this moment, and the gift of this life, I began to appreciate and access that source of wisdom within.
MD: I have to confess, I wish I knew more than I know. I always wish that each experience would make me wiser than I am. The closest I can come to what I know to be my own most useful knowledge is in acceptance of all that is, all that includes loss, unexpected gift, and andall that I don’t know. I pray to embrace it all.
NG: Isn’t this precisely the wisdom that comes with life experience? When my children wanted an answer to something, and all I could say was “I don’t know”, they simply couldn’t accept that. Youth demands an answer, clarity and certainty. As life unfolds, with all its complexity and losses, both small and great, we learn to surrender to the not-knowing and to live with paradox.
MD: The choice is ours to decide which story we will tell ourselves. We can grow bitter or we can, in accepting the changes happening to us, find the unique gifts that this time brings. I find myself more tolerant and less judgmental, for example. Actually, maybe not exactly that. It’s more like, as I’ve become increasingly aware of the shadow parts, I can accept them, after embarrassment, with self forgiveness.
NG: There’s a Native American story I love to share. A grandfather is teaching his young grandchild that two wolves live inside each of us. One wolf is mean, angry, hungry and prone to violence. The other is good and does no harm, he lives in harmony with all that is. Each one wants to dominate our nature. The child asks, “Which one wins?” And, the grandfather answers, “The one you feed”. I have learned to accept that both wolves are indeed a part of me. I have found that growing older has brought a new sense of spaciousness to me, and I can stop before reacting to ask myself, “Is this the wolf I choose to feed?”
MD: Both of us got our awakening when we lost parents. By sharing our experience, we hope that readers who also have lost loved ones are consoled by the vision of growth that we suggest loss can offer. We also would hope that those who have not yet experienced this can enter the realm of imagination and glimpse the possibilities of wisdom without profound loss. At the least, it may prepare them for what they may learn.
NG: Either way, we hope the vision of Sage-ing offered by Reb Zalman will inspire our readers to enter into the work of this book. We offer it with the framework that he called “the Sine Qua Non” of the Sage-ing work – a curriculum in ten parts. Each of the ten chapters will expand on these elements and offer exercises that make the book experiential and personal. Once again, as the Nike ad says, “Just do it!”