I have been thinking a lot about wisdom recently – in large part because I am approaching my seventieth birthday and keenly aware that the cultivation of wisdom is the crucial developmental challenge at this stage of life. However, I have also been thinking about wisdom because I am on the cusp of launching a wisdom school. This is definitely not something I would have undertaken if I thought of a wisdom school as a place where wise people teach others how to become more wise. However, understanding it as a place where all involved learn together how to access and live with deeper wisdom helped me understand and accept this as the core of my calling at this stage of my life.
When I think about the dimensions of my life in which I display the least wisdom it is quite apparent that the missing ingredient is not knowledge. Nor is it a lack of understanding. I still often eat more than is good for me when I like the taste of the food. And I am still vulnerable to holding onto resentment rather than immediately releasing it even though I know very well that the path to wellbeing is to notice and then release irritation as soon as it arises.
It seems to me that learning wisdom isn’t so much about acquiring additional knowledge as it is about remembering and living what we already know. At a minimum it seems it must start there. At some deep level we know that Wisdom invites us to stop trying to push the river and instead allow ourselves to be embraced by the flow of life that surrounds us. At some deep level we know that the route to inner freedom is less about acquiring and possessing than it is about softening our attachments and opening ourselves to the vulnerability we so desperately defend against.
But if wisdom is remembering what we already know, living the wisdom we know is deepening that knowing by moving it from our head down into our body and out into our life. Obviously there is a place for information in all of this – particularly, anything that helps us understand the big picture of the interconnectedness of everything within and beyond us. But, wisdom is a little theory and a lot of practice, and it’s the practice – the living of what we know – that is really important.
Marcel Proust tells us that no one can give us wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves. I think he is right. He says that finding it involves “a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.”
There are no shortcuts to acquiring wisdom. Wisdom comes from living, not simply from reading or listening to those who are wiser. Wise teaching has the potential to motivate us to live more fully the wisdom we already know but sadly, our tendency is to settle for simply acquiring information rather than working to live the wisdom of the knowledge we already have.
Wisdom is accessed through spiritual practices that have become woven into the fabric of daily life. The practices are not the end, merely the means to the end. Anthony DeMello describes the following interaction between a seeker and a spiritual master:
“What can I do to make myself Enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use are the spiritual practices you prescribe?”
“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
Some of these practices may appear more spiritual than others but all are deeply spiritual and all are essential if we are to be truly transformed and become whole. 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.
No single spiritual tradition has a monopoly on wisdom. However, it seems to me that wisdom can only be deeply accessed through deeply living one’s own spiritual tradition. I know how much this flies in the face of cafeteria-style wisdom and spirituality but I am convinced that pick-and-choose versions of either leaves us in shallow waters.
As is the case for all the really important things in life, wisdom is much harder to define than it is to know. In fact, because it can never be grasped by the mind it doesn’t lend itself well to being reduced to words. Fortunately, however, it can be learned and it can be lived and, as we have already seen, it is in living that it is really learned.
But let me offer my provisional way of describing what I take to be the essence of wisdom. I would suggest that, grounded in a deep awareness of the sacredness and interconnectedness of everything in existence, 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 wellbeing and wholeness that comes through participation in God’s transformational agenda of cosmic whole-making. It is learning to see all of life through new eyes – the eyes of an awakened heart.
Walking the wisdom path we discover that personal wellbeing cannot be achieved apart from the wellbeing of the larger spheres in which we find our belonging – our families, our communities, our nations, our world and our universe. As we learn to see all of life through God’s eyes, slowly but surely our center of gravity shifts from our minds to our hearts 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.