There’s an old story of a poor man who has a recurring dream of a treasure buried beneath a bridge in a distant city. He travels to the city, digs beneath the bridge and finds nothing. But an old man passing by says he too had a dream – of a treasure buried beneath a poor man’s bed in a distant village. By his description the man recognizes his own house and his own bed.
He returns home, digs beneath his bed, and finds the treasure.
This story is an illustration of the divine paradox. Different contemplative traditions emphasize different aspects of this central truth: “the kingdom of God is within you” and to get there, we have to “take up our cross and follow.”
It’s the already and the not yet. It’s the pre-existing divine spark that is always already there, and the journey of awakening, the process of realization.
Zen master Suzuki Roshi said “You are perfect just the way you are. And there is still room for improvement.”
What this story glosses in brief the wisdom literature delves into more deeply. We leave home. We leave the garden. We let go of our familiar surroundings, ways of coping. We enter the unknown, the wilderness, the fear. That departure is part of the journey of discovery.
This is part of the pattern of the great world literature. It’s Odysseus stuck on an island longing for home. It’s Dante waking up in a dark forest and finding his way up Mt. Joy blocked. It’s lovers lost in a forest in Midsummer.
We’re lost. We’re trying to get home.
That’s the spiritual journey, the process of inner discovery. There’s digging in the dirt as we confront and process our shadow side, our addictions and toxic thoughts and emotions.
Of course we can dissolve the story into a cliché: what we’ve been looking for was there all along, all you have to do is click your heels and go home.
But this can distract from the depth of wisdom offered on this path. In the wisdom myths ancient and modern, there’s a state of unease, of spiritual poverty, a recognition that something has to change, to be realigned.
There’s a departure. In most stories there’s a death of some kind, whether a death and resurrection like a Gandalf-figure, or a death of the shadow-figure the hero is intimately linked with like Gollum or Darth Vader.
In the Christian tradition we tend to focus on the sin-and-forgiveness dynamic, but so many wisdom traditions, including the Christian mystics teach of our fundamental goodness. After creation, God saw it was good. That’s our primary state. It’s the original blessing.
The fallen state, the sin nature of ego and craving, of insecurity and self-consciousness, is a secondary state, an overlay.
It’s really this secondary self, this ego or small self that has to go on the journey. The innermost core or true self is the treasure.
This informs our contemplative path and describes what happens when we practice diligently. In entering the silent space, resting in the presence of God, we ease our grip on this limited self-sense. Effortlessly, our inherent nature shines through like shafts of sunlight through thick cloud cover. As we go along, we discover, like the treasure under the wanderer’s bed, the ever-present sun casts of its light like rays of gold giving life to our planet and our very bodies.
In our contemplative practice, we’re taking the time to let the clouds drift apart a little, to be receptive to that growing light.
The Kingdom of God is within you. What’s the journey you’ll take to touch it?
Richard Rohr on the Journey to the Center
Thomas Keating on Affirming Our Basic Goodness
A Little Book of Contemplative Practices by Contemplative Light