Beggar or Treasure?
There’s a story in India about the beggar who lived under a tree. When he died, villagers dug the hole for his grave right where he had sat. To their amazement, they found a trove of diamonds and gold. The beggar had been sitting on a treasure all along and didn’t know it!
This is our predicament, the sages tell us. We are sitting on a hidden treasure and don’t know it. The beggar is our small self. It feels incomplete. It “begs” for attention, love, money, accolades, things, thrills, and security.
What if the beggar, instead of reaching out his hand for crumbs and coins, had dug into the ground he sat upon? Instead of reaching outward, what if he had reached inward? If only he had dug a little bit, he would have found an inner completion, an ever-present joy. He would have discovered the innate dignity, beauty, lovingness of his own Higher Self. When living from our Higher Self, we have self-respect. We know our life has meaning and purpose. We sense there is a mystery at work we may not understand. Our worth comes from who we are, not what we have, what we do, or who know.
A major turning point in our journey comes when we stop begging for energy outside of ourselves (money, love, esteem) and, instead, own the dignity and singularity of our own existence. Finally, we look in the mirror and ask: “Who am I? Why am I here?” We stop running from ourselves. We no longer live to please others. We have the courage to own who we really are – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We take responsibility for our existence: What is the meaning of MY life? What does life ask of ME?
Yet, the sages say that most people never make this step. They are like automatons, acting out the scripts of cultural conditioning. They make their moves on a game board of interacting small selves, trying to stay one step of ahead of the rest. Like the beggar, they’re not aware of the hidden treasure lying within them – their own innate dignity, their unique light in this world. In Sufi wording, they have “forgotten” who they are; they live their precious incarnation without ever realizing their deepest potential. St. Teresa of Avila, the Catholic mystic of Spain, was matter of fact about it in The Interior Castle. She said that few souls ever approach the threshold of the “interior castle” and enter within. The distractions and pleasures of the outer world are too enticing. According to Asian religions, it takes many lifetimes for a soul to encounter spiritual truth and decide to follow it. (A great spiritual truth is that each human life is sacred, endowed with dignity and significance.)
Often it’s a crisis that wakes us up. Life is going fine, then suddenly something occurs we don’t expect and it throws us onto the ground – addiction, car accident, natural disaster, cancer diagnosis, tumultuous love affair, loss of a child or significant other, betrayal, unemployment, divorce, or even a spiritual experience that leaves us quaking in our boots.
Suffering serves as the great catalyst for going deeper. When we’re in pain, we want a change. We start asking questions, shifting our stance. We become more open-minded, willing to consider new ways to approach life because suddenly the old framework isn’t working any more. We look at the ground we’re sitting on and wonder, “What if I dug a little deeper?”
We take up the mantel of responsibility for our life and ask, “What is the meaning of MY life? What is life calling ME to?” The answer is unique for each person. No one can determine the meaning of life for another — not even a parent for a child. The child has to grow up and uncover their own treasure. We each have to dig down into our ground of being.
The Soul’s Purpose
If we weren’t necessary to the web of life, we wouldn’t be here. Our existence is proof that the Source of Life wants us here – just as we are. There must be some place in this world where we can be our truest self.
How could it not be that each of us has a distinctive purpose for being here? If we examine any eco-system – even our own backyard – we will see how each piece of life relates to and serves the whole, just as it is. The mere existence of a thing IS its meaning, for the web of life would be incomplete without it.
The place to begin is where we are sitting – our circumstances, our biology, our traits, our passions, our longing, our struggles. How else do we come to know our meaning except through the human circumstances that we ourselves embody? We may not like our life circumstances. We may be doing everything we can — like the beggar — to escape, avoid, distract away from ourselves.
A basic teaching from the world’s spiritual traditions is that our soul chose the circumstances of its birth for the purpose of its spiritual evolution and that of others. What we are and where we find ourselves are not accidental. Our soul is on a journey. Buddhist and Hindu teachings refer to “Karma.” Sufi teaching calls it “The Book of Soul,” the idea that each soul has its destiny to live out and chooses its parents, genetics, and physical conditions accordingly. Christian writer Roy Mills, in Soul’s Remembrance, recounts his unusual memory of the pre-birth process. He recalls how his soul selected his parents and his life experiences, including the painful one of being abandoned by his birth mother. He saw that, before birth, our soul consents to our family, religion, culture, and biological traits, because our soul wants to serve and to grow. We may be tempted to believe that our traits are “pathological” but it makes more sense to assume that they are, instead, our path.
Meaning in Suffering
Viktor Frankl, author of the famous Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, demonstrates that we can extract meaning even from the most horrific suffering. I learned this lesson firsthand during the last six years of my mother’s life. She lost all physical and cognitive functioning. She had no memory. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t do anything without assistance. Outside observers said, “How tragic. How meaningless. She’s just a vegetable.” Yet when I dug below the surface for hints of meaning in my mother’s “tragic” condition, I found a hidden treasure.
For one thing, her condition required the employment of three women caregivers in rural Mississippi. The money they earned from taking care of my mother fed many children and grandchildren. One of the caregivers had just lost her job because the local factory shut down. She was a mother of three young children and recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She never stopped telling us how grateful she was for the job with mother. The world is an interplay of circumstances that are interconnected and purposeful. Everything serves everything else.
On the inner level, mother’s illness transformed her. She had been an anxious person, careful to put a good image out to others, as in “What will the neighbors think?” Though she became incapacitated in mind and body, her inner essence became more vivid and she showed a new capacity to endure and to love. She totally surrendered herself into the hands of those that loved her. In this way, she was my teacher. Vulnerable, decrepit, and helpless – still, she trusted the power of love. Isn’t the ultimate test of loving to give ourselves as recipients of love when we have nothing to offer? During her last few years, my mother lived her inner treasure. Those taking care of her said it was a blessing to be around her. I saw the light in her eyes become brighter and brighter. When the clouds are removed, the sun shines forth.
Ultimately, Existence is its own Meaning
“Whatever a thing IS — THAT is its meaning.” When I heard this from my teacher, “Doc” Hawkins, it stunned my mind. “Existence itself is its own meaning.” Whatever exists and however it IS, THAT is its meaning. Our minds come up with endless sophisticated theories of meaning, religious beliefs, symbolic interpretations, and philosophical treatises. But all of these are merely mental projections onto Reality. Life is already intrinsically meaningful without our mental theories saying so. Nothing would exist were it not meant to exist! Everything that IS, is meant to be here; it is inherently meaningful by virtue of its existence.
One time I was standing with my teacher near a tree. “The tree knows when love walks by,” he said. The tree is alive. The tree is aware. Its roots reach for water and its branches toward sunlight. What is the “meaning” of the tree? The mind has many theories and loses the moment of wonder. “The mind is the slayer of the Real,” says the Upanishads. To behold a tree without my theory about a tree – this is the hidden treasure.
We can know someone – a partner, a child, a colleague – for decades without ever really knowing them. We know only the mental thoughts, theories, expectations, fantasies, and ideas we have about them. It’s a useful exercise to behold a beloved person as if we didn’t know them, to let go of all our mental ideas and emotions about them. “Apart from all my feelings, needs, wishes, and thoughts about you, Who are you in your essence?” Shifting from head to heart, we touch the treasure.
Much of what I heard from the spiritual teacher bypassed my logical mind and went into a deeper place. He would say, for example, “Nothing causes anything. Everything arises spontaneously by virtue of what it is.” This seemed concordant with the Zen saying, “The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection/ The water has no mind to receive their image.” How to experience the tree as a tree, not our thoughts about the tree?
Existence IS its meaning. Nothing else is required. In the Oneness of existence, knower and known are one. Things are as they are, intrinsically meaningful – just as they are. All that exists serves all that exists. Everything in existence radiates its Source. To know any single piece of life just as it is, is to know the Real. “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the world (Hadith)” — thus Divinity speaks.
Why be a beggar when you are — we all are — a hidden treasure revealing Itself, moment by wondrous moment?
~Fran Grace, Ph.D., serves as Professor of Religious Studies and Steward of the Meditation Room Program at University of Redlands (CA). She has received numerous recognitions for her teaching and research into spiritual life, including appearances on CSPAN and NPR. In 2004, following a major life event and meeting her spiritual teacher, her life was dedicated to the “inner pathway” common to all religions: compassion, joy, love, humor, and beauty.
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