Of course I should have expected it, but over and over again since launching the CASCADIA Living Wisdom School people ask me a question that I am still unable to answer – at least in any adequate way. The question is, “What is wisdom?”
Wisdom is hard to define but easy to recognize. Most of us can think of someone we know or have met who we would describe as wise. And it is usually quite easy to think of many who we would call foolish. This easy contrast between the wise and foolish person is so obvious that the wisdom literature of the world makes extensive use of stories of fools to illustrate the distinctives of wisdom. Think of Jesus story of the fool building his house on sand while the wise person builds on rock. The difference is obvious.
The Dali Llama drew on the same contrast in answering a question about what most surprised him about humans. He answered that humans sacrifice their health in order to make money. Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health. Then they are so anxious about their future that they do not enjoy or truly live in the present. Then they live as if they are never going to die, and die having never really lived. Although he never mentions wisdom, his description of foolishness clearly identifies at least part of what wisdom involves.
The reason it is impossible to adequately define wisdom is that it cannot be grasped by the mind, only accessed by the heart. This means that, unlike mathematics, philosophy, or communications skills, it cannot be taught in any traditional sense of that term. Fortunately, however, it can be learned and that learning can be facilitated. And even more importantly, it can be lived. But for this to happen three things are essential:
After a lifetime of research in psychoanalytic developmental psychology, Erik Erikson concluded that wisdom is the capstone of human development. It was, however, something that arises from a particular way of living, not simply from the passage of years or the accumulation of information. He described that way of living as learning from life experience. Wisdom does not arise simply from experience, but from reflection on experience. This is the reason that while lots of old people never become wise, no one becomes wise apart from ageing.
Wisdom can never be fully acquired if its pursuit is left to the last stage of life. Each stage of life offers essential contributions to mature wisdom. This is why it takes a lifetime to develop.
Knowledge comes from learning. Wisdom comes from living – and from learning from our lives. This begins with noticing the wisdom that we already know but do not live. Remember, wisdom is not simply information. It is a way of living. We already know much of what that involves. What’s missing is living the deep wisdom that is present within us – within our bodies, within our souls, within our communities, within the contemporary science, and at the heart of our spiritual/religious traditions.
It is quite surprising to notice how much we have lost sight of the central place that wisdom plays within spirituality – Christian spirituality certainly included. Too many Christians think of their spirituality exclusively in terms of “me and God.” But this sort of narcissistic spirituality is far too small to help us walk the path of human spiritual development. If wisdom is the capstone of human development how could it be anything less than the capstone of spiritual development? But this is exactly what it is.
As the books of Wisdom in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures make clear, nothing is more important than the pursuit of wisdom. Proverbs tells us that “Wisdom is more precious than jewels, and nothing else is so worthy of desire.” Why, then, do we not hear more about it? How did we ever settle for a vision of a personal relationship with God, or even union with God, that does not explicitly include the wisdom of God becoming our wisdom and then flowing out through us into the world?
Wisdom is deeply spiritual. It is accessed through spiritual practices that have become woven into the fabric of daily life. Some of these practices may appear more spiritual than others but all are deeply spiritual and all are essential if we are to be transformed and whole. Regular exercise and good eating habits are every bit as spiritual as prayer or meditation. The whole of life is either sacred or nothing is sacred. Spiritual practices are simply ways of living in response to the transcendent horizon of our lives.
Contemplative practices have a particularly important role in learning to access and live wisdom because of the way in which they open up regions of the heart that are essential if wisdom is to get us as opposed to us simply getting it. As I said earlier, while the mind cannot grasp wisdom the heart recognizes it immediately. It operates on the wisdom, harmony and wholeness channel and is keenly tuned to this family of related treasures as they are present or emerging in the world.
Finally, the learning of wisdom must be built around the transformation of our being. Wisdom comes from new eyes, not new information. Acquiring these new eyes, and the consciousness and identity that go with them, lies at the heart of authentic transformation.
Wisdom is grounded in a deep awareness of the sacredness and interconnectedness of everything in existence. The cultivation of this deep awareness involves an awakening of the heart. This does not mean leaving the mind behind. In wisdom psychology, the heart is the fullness of the mind. It includes all the normal mental faculties (such as reason and logical thought) but integrates them with the more subtle and usually underdeveloped faculties of intuition and imagination. The awakening of the heart is always at the core of any authentic transformation and apart from this, wisdom can never be deeply accessed or lived.
Wisdom is living in alignment with the creative Spirit of Wisdom who inhabits all of creation and who is our truest and deepest self. Much more than information or even knowledge, wisdom is a way of living that involves every aspect of our being. It is learning to access the well-being and wholeness that comes through alignment with the Spirit of Wisdom who is the Divine Presence and hidden wholeness pervading all of creation. Movement toward this alignment is walking the transformational path that is the way of wisdom.
But let’s briefly return to the question with which we began. If wisdom is the Divine Presence, then perhaps the question we need to ask is not so much “What is wisdom?” as “Who is wisdom?”
Wisdom’s voice is at the center of Biblical wisdom literature. And both what she has to say and what others say about her make clear that she is the Divine Presence.
In the Book of Proverbs she often speaks in her own voice. She tells us, for example: “Yahweh created me . . . from everlasting, I was firmly set, from the beginning, before the earth came into being . . . When he traced the foundations of the earth, I was beside the master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence.”[i]
The Book of Wisdom describes Wisdom as “the fashioner of all things . . . the breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty . . . a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness . . . She renews all things . . . She passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God for God loves nothing so much as the one who lives with wisdom.”[ii]
Wisdom is not some New Age add-on to Christian spirituality. Wisdom is the Divine Presence that is the foundation of everything in existence. This is why the quest for wisdom draws not just on explicitly spiritual matters but also includes such practical things as nutrition and lifestyle. And this is why CASCADIA Living Wisdom School draws not only on the riches of Christian theology but also on science, the arts, medicine, psychology and aboriginal wisdom traditions.
So, what is a wisdom school? And how does it teach something that can’t be reduced to words?
Rather than focusing primarily on communicating information, a wisdom school places the primary focus on helping people live wisely. Through readings, teaching, conversation, modelling, and practices, teachers and participants learn from and with each other. Together they learn to access the well-being and wholeness that comes through participation in God’s transformational agenda of making all things new in Christ. Together they learn to see all of life through God’s eyes. And, as we do this, slowly but surely our center of gravity shifts from our mind to our heart, and our consciousness and identity expand. Slowly but surely we move from duality to integrality as we increasingly relate to life not by differentiation and judgement but with heartful compassion for all that share earth as our home. Slowly but surely we are transformed and we become more whole.
A wisdom school is a community that is designed to facilitate these things.
[i] Proverbs 8: 22-31
[ii] Wisdom 7: 22-28