Connecting with the Inner Light is the birthright of every human being. There are times when we’ve all been in touch with it: the exquisite sense of being in love—when you’re “home” in your partner’s arms, perfectly content and fully present; the ecstatic moment when you feel as if you’re in the right place at the right time, living your purpose in a graceful way; the mystery of moonlight illuminating the landscape when you sense the living soul of the natural world.
These experiences of being at home in yourself, centered in some essential kernel of what it is to be human, are profoundly natural. They’re both “inner” and “other,” in the sense that when you’re in that center of goodness within you, you also feel connected to a greater wholeness—a higher intelligence—that’s hard to express in words but has been called many things, including wisdom, God, the Source of Being, or Ultimate Reality.
Sages from all of the world’s wisdom traditions tell us that such experiences of “true nature” are expressions of our essential inborn humanity—like the nectar that’s the subtlest and most exquisite essence of a flower. True nature lacks the self-consciousness, fear, and compulsive need to make things happen in our own way, which creates so much suffering and unhappiness. Aligning with true nature allows freedom to move into alignment with larger currents of wisdom and bring new ideas to fruition.
Think about Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—their personal alignment with a larger Source was not only a matter of singular importance to them; it was the center out of which their lives, and their service to others, flowed. When there’s alignment between personal essence and a greater intelligence, happiness and purposeful action well up like sweet water from an underground source.
Whether you realize it consciously or not, the experiences of daily life are a form of feedback about whether you’re getting closer to that state or farther away from it. Are you all stressed out, with a mind that won’t stop running in circles, or can you rest in the contentment of your own true nature and wait for wisdom to arise of its own accord? In one of the most ubiquitous spiritual metaphors, are you asleep, locked into your own fearful fantasies . . . or are you awake, present to conscious choice and the infinite possibilities that each moment contains?
Waking Up: The Hymn of the Pearl
The parable you’re about to read will make the ancient spiritual concepts of being asleep and waking up—and of following guidance that’s freely given by a loving Source—more transparent. Then we’ll explain what the Soul’s Compass is and how you can use it to guide you on the journey of becoming a Homo sapiens caritas: the kind of wise and loving being whom we believe is the ultimate perfection of human life.
Written in the 2nd century C.E., the Hymn of the Pearl—also known as the Hymn of the Soul—is a Gnostic poem that’s a parable of the soul’s journey and the essential questions Who am I? and Why am I here? Gnosticism was a 1st- and 2nd-century spiritual movement oriented to direct knowledge of the sacred, which the Greeks called gnosis. This tradition most likely predated Christianity but was also thought to reflect the experience of Jesus, although eventually it was considered a heresy. Nonetheless, the Hymn of the Pearl made its way into the apocryphal Christian gospel the Acts of Judas Thomas the Apostle. It’s a map of the soul’s journey home—the human migration out of a separate sense of self ruled by fear and the need to control (sometimes called the false or egoic self)—to true nature or the Inner Light, whose expression is love, clarity, and co-creation with wisdom itself.
The young prince makes the arduous journey to Egypt and settles down near the Serpent’s lair, hoping to snatch the Pearl while the awful beast lies sleeping. In the meantime he puts on Egyptian clothes so as not to look suspicious, and the locals give him food. As soon as he eats it, he forgets that he’s the King’s son, loses all memory of the Pearl, and sinks into a deep sleep.
Meanwhile, his parents anxiously perceive what’s happening from afar and are beside themselves with worry. They write a magical letter to arouse the prince from his sleep and to remind him of who he is and of the purpose of his journey—which is to get the Pearl, return home, and take his place in the Kingdom as a noble who can rule with wisdom and compassion. The letter takes the form of an eagle, which flies to their son and speaks the message of truth.
At the sound of its wings thrumming and its beautiful voice, the young prince awakens and remembers who he really is. He realizes that the words of the letter are already written in his heart (within him as true nature), and he heeds their guidance. At once he charms the Serpent, snatches up the Pearl, strips off his Egyptian clothing, and turns toward home. The magic letter guides him with its love, and at the journey’s end the prince has matured. He has found the Pearl beyond price—his own divine nature—and the childish aspects of false identity are gone. Now he’s ready to be a wise leader.
Your Soul’s Compass
A compass is an instrument that orients to magnetic north so that we can tell which way we’re going. Migratory birds know how to find their way over thousands of miles of unknown territory because of small particles of magnetite (akin to tiny micromagnets) embedded in their brains. A hummingbird headed from Colorado for a winter sojourn in Mexico doesn’t usually wind up in Chicago by mistake. Its guidance system is hardwired for precision. Many mystics believe that human beings have just such a built-in guidance system that takes us home to the Source of Being. We’re hardwired for God. But rather than being embedded in our brain, the magnet for our spiritual journey is located in the heart.
There’s a certain felt sense of being centered in the heart. Felt sense has been defined simply as “a bodily sensation that is meaningful.”2 When we’re centered in true nature and our minds are as steadfastly present to the moment as a mountain is to changing weather, there’s a feeling of peace and fullness in our being. When we say that our heart is full or that a person is “heartful,” it’s to this meaningful bodily sensation that we’re referring. We know somehow that we’re at home in the universe . . . that all is well. And as you’ll read in later chapters, this felt sense is a source of wisdom beyond words.
When we’re in the essential core (what some traditions refer to as the Self with a capital S), we organically align to True North—wisdom, God, or Ultimate Reality. It’s as if our heart is at the center of the compass. When the needle is free to be in present time, rather than fearing the future or regretting the past, it moves effortlessly to True North. In that state of alignment with Source, we know—in a way that may be more intuitive than cognitive—what any situation requires. We’re confident, competent citizens of the world; and whether we’re sitting on a park bench gazing at the first cherry blossoms of spring, changing a baby’s diaper, or passing a bill in Congress, there’s an unmistakable felt sense of something larger moving through us.
Scientists tell us that a compass can be fooled by what they call magnetic deviance. If there are large lodes of iron ore in the ground, for example, and a migratory bird flies over it, it can attract the magnets in the bird’s brain and lead it astray. The same is true for the magnet of true nature that resides in our hearts.
The biggest source of magnetic deviance is fear. When we tell ourselves frightening stories, it’s hard to find the peaceful felt sense in the heart or to engage other forms of guidance, such as the sense of unease that may be signaling that we’re going the wrong way. Other sources of misdirection, as you’ll read about in the chapter on blocks to guidance, include habits of mind—for example, judgment, pride, willfulness, sloth, and desire.
The Hymn of the Pearl suggests that we aren’t wandering alone, strangers lost in a strange land. Some Higher Power or Greater Reality is looking after us, sending the guidance we need to awaken from our sleep and come home to ourselves and to our place in the family of all that lives. Even when we fall into materialism or despair, that loving Power is still there, emitting a mysterious force of attraction that we can learn to recognize, and respond to, as spiritual guidance. When we act on that guidance and move toward our center, it feels like the sweetest relief, akin to manna that falls from heaven and nourishes the hungry soul.
Sleep is represented allegorically in the Old Testament as enslavement in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “the narrow place.” It refers not to a country, but to the areas in ourselves that hold us back and keep us imprisoned. Those narrow places of habit—of the many false identities that we assume and the destructive emotions that take us over as a result—are ingrained. But we’re not without resources. We’re being watched out for—or drawn toward wholeness—and sent guidance in “magic letters” such as dreams, synchronicities, illnesses, and insights . . . the message of which is already engraved in our hearts.
Variants of the Hymn of the Pearl show up in a range of wisdom traditions. The Sufis tell a similar tale about a prince who ends up wandering in the Land of Lies, forgetting his true identity. In the Jewish tradition, there’s the story of Zusya, who’s a very pious man but has gotten stuck in his false self. His rabbi tells him, “When you die, God isn’t going to ask you whether you were as brave as David or as wise as Solomon. He’s only going to ask why you weren’t Zusya.."
A Christian counterpart to the Hymn of the Pearl is the understanding that it’s the Father’s pleasure to give us the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit, like the magic letter, functions as a guide to wake us up and reveal the way back home. Nonetheless, the journey is difficult because it’s unknown. Sometimes we don’t even know where we are, much less where we’re going, and perhaps we fall into despair or confusion. But even so, when we’re willing to look for wisdom or God, we finally discover that it was looking for us all along. It pulls us toward it as inexorably as iron filings are drawn to a magnet. That’s how the Soul’s Compass works.