The first thing for us to examine is our own selves. Why should this be so? Purely because, if we wish to be able to understand anything else aright, it would make sense to have an understanding of ourselves – the very ones who would understand.
To Know the Knower
If one’s instrument is off kilter, one gets a wrong result from using it. Whether a guitar out of tune, a miscalibrated microscope, a faulty computer or bug-ridden software, the ill-functioning tool is not apt for generating the right effect. In order to get the right effect, we have to make sure that the tool is in good working order.
This applies just as much to our own bodies and minds as it does to external tools and instruments. The eye disfigured by disease will not see properly; the perforated ear-drum will not hear properly; the blocked nose cannot smell, and the burnt tongue can’t taste. Similarly, the unbalanced mind will be the prey of ill thoughts, the soured heart the source of foul emotions.
Going yet deeper, all of these things are seen to be external to us, on the most fundamental level. What we are is somehow prior to all of this outer functioning. Our senses report to us, our mind reports to us, our heart reports to us. What we see, hear, taste and smell is not what we are. Similarly, what we think and feel are not what we are. We are the experiencers of these things; we’re the ones who are aware of these phenomena. We can say for sure that, at the most basic level, what we refer to when we say “I” is the one who is experiencing the things that are going on, not any of the things that are going on.
This “I,” then, is the principle tool. It’s by this “I” that all things that occur in our experience are mediated: all of the senses, the mind, the heart, and whatever else might be informing our experience – all of these things report to “I.” In order to have a good grasp of all of the things which are occuring to this “I,” surely we must have a good grasp of this “I” itself?
Without knowing the knower, how can we know the known properly? This is the rationale for choosing our own selves as the beginning point of our quest for wisdom. I can assure you that it will also prove to be the end point of our quest for wisdom – for it will be shown in the course of investigation that wisdom is nothing short of knowing the source whence this “I” arises in the first place.
We can look to the very late myths of Woden for some kind of scriptural report of this. Woden hung nine days on the world tree, offered as a sacrifice unto himself. At the end of his trial, he fell into the waters beneath the world tree, and took up the runes – the “secrets” – from there. The language is poetic, for sure, but to an initiate, the import is clear: denying all external things – oblivious even to the wound made in his side by his spear – his attention was fixed firmly on the “I” within. This is what it means to “make a sacrifice of myself to myself.” Penetrating the mystery of this “I,” the truth was revealed to be as it always is.
Woden returned to the land of living, but he took back with him the Knowledge, the direct experience of reality. In a way, he was changed irrevocably by this: for it’s said in the final stanza that, following this experience, Woden found that everything transpired without agency. The “I” that had formerly functioned as an independent entity had been sacrificed unto itself and existed no more, like the proverbial camphor that is so utterly consumed by the fire that it leaves no residue. Words followed words, and deeds followed deeds: but who spoke? Who acted? These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking ourselves in our investigation, since these are the questions which lead us to look beyond the “I” to its source. This source itself is wisdom. This source is where all of the secrets emerge from. Knowing the source whence all emerges, we know the reality.
The Universal Wisdom Tradition
Such a story as is found in the Hávamál is corroborated by every culture the world over. Woden’s account in that poem is not unique in its essence, even if the details are Norse in flavour. All cultures can profess to having produced characters who have undergone similar trials and have had similar experiences. Thus the wise of human history have unanimously declared that wisdom is not found in knowing the things of the world, nor in developing mastery over the human faculties, but rather in knowing the self. Thus was it maintained by the ancient Greeks, by their Egyptian teachers; by the Indians of yesteryear and of today; by the masters of Tibet, China, and Japan; by the indigenous American peoples, and by those of Africa and Australasia. Our own Northern European tradition is not out of keeping with the rest of the world when it maintains that wisdom is found in total self-sacrifice.
It’s also said in our mythology that Woden was a Wayfarer, a Wide-Wanderer: he traveled through all the lands of the world, and was known by countless names by all the peoples of this Earth. We can see him teaching the truth of his own direct experience of reality to those who were ripe for it – for is it not natural for the wise to spread wisdom where it will take root? If we look to the traditions of other lands, we see many such figures cropping up: foreigners from far afield who would wander the lands and reveal mysteries to the people there.
Some of those who heard these mysteries would themselves comprehend the truth, and would take to wandering and teaching in their own way. Thus the wisdom traditions were started and maintained, in every place, by every race. Language and culture would differ: the way of expression would be unique to each place and time. But the wisdom which was being shared is one: it’s the same the world over, across all times and in all places. It is the same throughout the entire universe, in fact: all Gods, all Spirits, all entities of any kind are privy to the same essential wisdom, for wisdom is only the natural self-knowledge that is inherent to being itself.
Wisdom cannot be “taught” in the way of skill or knowledge: rather, the wise know the ways to remove the obscuring ignorance that blocks what is so fundamental, so natural, that nobody can be without it. Wisdom is actually held by every being in existence. There is no such thing as an “unwise” person. Even the mountains and rivers are as wise as the highest Gods. There is nothing that is not wise, but there are those who profess ignorance of their own wisdom. These take to the instructions of the wise for the removal of ignorance. The principle instruction, given by all sages to all seekers, is always the same: “know thyself!”