One of my most wise and productive colleagues in Transpersonal Psychology, Roger Walsh, has just published a book, The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies. His work helped crystalized some beginning ideas I’ve had about wisdom that I share here.
I’m going to keep Walsh’s wisdom book at my place at the table where I can browse in it easily. Wisdom is something that is always puzzled me, and I think I need to take little potshots at understanding it occasionally to try to really figure it out. The puzzles gotten even greater these last years, as people have told me I’m wise, and I get confused, I don’t really know what they’re talking about.
I guess my most naïve and long-standing idea about wisdom is that it has something to do with complete and relevant and infallible knowledge. If I were wise, I would understand the problem perfectly, I would never feel ignorant or inadequate. And it wouldn’t hurt if my reaction to my incredible brilliance got me elated every time!
Somehow I don’t think that’s the way the world is.… And I guess this is a common confusion of knowledge with wisdom.
But you are stimulating me to reflect a bit on what it might mean that I was wiser. Since my main research project in this life is figuring out how my mind works, I should have some relevant observations!
So one component is age and experience. A lot of the problems people talk about and get very excited about strike me as things I’ve been through, or friends of mine have been through, and I know that they’ve worked out, they are probably nowhere near as serious as people think they are, and there are a lot of solutions. So even if I don’t have any specific knowledge as to what to do, I have a certain general confidence that there are solutions.
A second component is my gradual development of some equanimity, both through deliberate meditative practice but probably primarily through life experience. When I teach my students about altered states of consciousness, for example, I often point out that any strong emotion is probably an altered state, or can at least be profitably understood that way, and one of the characteristics of such emotional states is that the emotion almost always lies. It says, in perfectly clear terms, “This feeling is The Truth Forever!” A lot of the time it’s useful for emotion to come with such strength, it may be alerting you to a potentially dangerous situation where you need to react quickly, not be relaxed and decide to deal with it later. Better to be frightened by that funny movement in the bushes and run away and then discover there was nothing there, you were a fool, than to stay there and possibly be eaten by an animal that was stalking you! For most of us, fortunately, life is not that dangerous most of the time. If you have a little equanimity in the first place that you don’t get so excited to begin with, and/or you at least remember intellectually that this Eternal Truth feeling is almost certainly a lie, that keeps your framework for looking at the situation wide, instead of very narrow down to the particular emotion.
This does not mean, of course, that you absorb yourself in some unrealistic belief system that says all is well and there is no danger, such that you don’t pay attention to what is happening! My experience has been that if one is more “present” or “awake” in the Gurdjieffian sense, in the midst of life, your sensitivity to environmental clues is, if anything increased, but you are more equanamous and less likely to be thrown off balance.
A third component is having a life philosophy, a belief system, a frame of reference, that sees the universe as basically been benign, so that even if something seems negative at the moment it will probably work out all right in the long run. Insofar as this belief is just intellectual, as it is for me at times, some nasty events are quite shocking and make me question my whole philosophy of life. But insofar as this view of reality has penetrated somewhat deeper, I do stay calm about the problem or situation presented. Again there’s a question of balance here, you need to stay realistic.
A fourth component I might call goodwill. Although I’m an introvert, and definitely have preferences to read a book by myself or write or something like, that rather than listening to people’s problems, when I am in a situation where someone has asked me for help I’m basically friendly toward them and would really like to be of some help. Just being friendly is probably helpful to people, and that might be perceived as being wise. Now I’m still often frustrated because in spite of all the above components, I still would really like to have the knowledge about The Solution, and I don’t have it! But probably these four above components combine so that even though I can’t tell the person The Best Solution, the fact that I’m open, relaxed and friendly helps them be more open and confident and see their problem on a wider scale than the dominant emotion tries to narrow it to.
Anyway, I’m grateful this book is stimulating me to think about wisdom some more, I assume that if I understood whatever this wisdom stuff is I might be able to manifest it better. Some of my dips into The World’s Great Wisdom will probably be quite helpful!