My nephew who was 16 at the time once made a statement that brings into sharp focus the journey of coming to wisdom. He said somewhat authoritatively, “when I was 14 I thought I knew everything; now, I know I know everything”! Profound words for a sixteen year old. Some 2,500 years before him a fellow named Socrates is attributed a statement that sits at the other end of life, “wisest are they that know they do not know”. These two quotes embody the essence of the journey to find wisdom.
In Buddhist philosophy, enlightenment is said to be achieved when we fully realise wisdom and compassion within. Known as the jewel and the lotus, wisdom and compassion are the Taoist yang and yin that come together to complete the whole: they are the two wings that allow us to fly. The getting of wisdom is necessarily one of the highest gateways that we pass through on our path to being fully human: but what is wisdom and what is it to be wise?
Many people live their entire lives gathering great knowledge, but never embody a depth of understanding that would be called wisdom. Age is no precursor to gaining wisdom, indeed if you were to think of the truly wise people you know personally you would be fortunate to know even one or two. Wisdom carries a depth of understanding that goes beyond the mere retention of facts; it is signed by a suppleness of perspective, or a willingness to let go of a viewpoint. It also has the ability to foresee the consequences of actions beyond the immediate ripples in the pond and adjust accordingly; but most of all wisdom carries great humility. Of the few wise people I know, humility would be the most outstanding characteristic. Without exception, they are very humble beings.
So let’s look at this distinctly human quality. In context with its partner compassion, wisdom is the yang side of the coin and as such it carries the archetypal qualities of the masculine: rationality, expansion, activity, and extroversion. Its counterpoint is fear, which ‘coincidentally’ is the predominant driver in the world today, indicating a distinct lack of wisdom. Fear is contraction, born of ignorance; of contact with the unknown, so when we have wisdom there is an absence of fear because we ‘see’ and we understand. These qualities of wisdom, give us an indication of how we can work towards embodying this part of our humanity. The masculine, rational character is to use the logical mind (not necessarily thinking brain) to understand. It is a process of understanding that uses a set of ingredients to arrive at a flavor known by experience. Qualities such as expansion, activity and extroversion guide us to understand the world ‘out there’. When we put these together we have a path to follow in our quest for wisdom: we undertake a conscious journey.
Thus the means of getting wisdom is to know ourselves on a very intimate level. This self knowledge is the ‘science’ side of the equation; the art of compassion being the other. Science is reductionist, seeking to understand but isolating, observing, and then using those observations to direct outcomes. The trick is not to lose perspective, something that science is often flawed by, thereby directing outcomes that are not in the greater good. To build the level of self knowledge required to distil wisdom requires a great amount of work in what is today most often known as mindfulness: simply to watch ourselves in every thought and action. The more we experience ourselves, the more we understand, and the more we understand, the more our wisdom builds: it is a slow process of trial and error. A strong foundation for this watching is to eliminate distraction as much as possible: we do this to provide the simplest possible background against which to ‘see’ ourselves in action. It is much easier to watch a fly in a bottle when there is only one fly. Every extra fly that is added to the bottle make the task more difficult, until ultimately it becomes impossible. Creating this blank canvas is a very difficult task in our modern world where distraction is a way of life, but by becoming aware of unnecessary activity and eliminating even one thing makes our task easier. For those who are really serious in this quest, living a very simple life is a key ingredient for success. To simplify our life means to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more. To ‘do’ less correlates to having less, as the more we ‘have’ the more we have to ‘do’ to maintain that having. One of the most common practices that is of immeasurable benefit to building self knowledge is to dedicate a part of each day to sitting and watching the breath. Meditation on the breath would have to be the most powerful tool for getting to know yourself, but here are countless others that are of great benefit. In fact, any of the arts are a way to self knowledge. It is paradoxical that we use art as the instrument of science, but we also use science as a tool for developing compassion (more of that another time). For now the focus is on the inner landscape and coming to know cause and effect in that world. It is also important to know that wisdom is not an exclusively intellectual capacity: knowing goes beyond the thinking process; it is acknowledged in our whole being; understanding is imbued throughout our being. Becoming aware of, and understanding sensations, feelings and emotions is just as important as knowing the origin and effects of our thoughts.
As our inner understanding grows, so does our understanding of our environment and those we share our world with. As we understand the microcosm, our understanding of the macrocosm also grows. Unlike much of science today though, we keep perspective, which is to understand the big picture and our connection to it.
Wisdom not only allows us to foresee the results of our actions, it gives us the ability to modify those actions so as to allow the future to unfold in a way that is the most beneficial to the whole of humanity and those beings we share the planet with. Knowledge without wisdom has the ability to build technology to the point of singularity (the point where machines become more intelligent than humans), but even though we may foresee the danger in this we will continue: we have no capacity to change the course we have set. In a child like way science gives us incredible capacity to create through the power in our intellect but without wisdom we have no way of controlling our actions and will thereby create situations that are to the detriment of humanity; potentially to the point of annihilation. Nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence and climate change are but a few examples. True wisdom cannot allow actions that are not to the benefit of the whole, for the whole includes the self.