When I was six my life was in turmoil. My parents were grinding through the angry preliminaries of divorce. I struggled in school, finally failing the first grade. As my friends moved on, I wondered what was wrong with me? The question remained an unwelcome companion for years.
I remember escaping to the backyard that summer and lying hidden under an arbor of grape vines my father tended. I watched the clouds drift by through the wide, fluttering leaves wondering what would happen to me, trying to understand the events churning around me. I was afraid, hurt and angry, but more than anything I was frustrated. Why? Why? I didn’t understand.
Soon after, I recall a single clear moment in the fog of childhood memory that likely set the course of my life. I was in a bible study class with a group of children sitting on the floor. The young man teaching the class read bible passages and explained them to us. We went over the usual bible stories that introduce children to biblical principles of faith, obedience and morality. I was bored and distracted, paying little attention until the bible teacher started reading from Proverbs. I remember his white shirt and thin black tie as he read about wisdom. Reading Proverbs years later I recognized the passage.
Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
- Proverbs 4:5-7
I asked our teacher who was wisdom. He explained to the collective children that wisdom wasn’t a person. Wisdom was being very smart. The answer confused me.
“How could you get smart?” I asked. “You were born smart or not.”
“Wisdom is a special kind of smart, it can grow your whole life,” he answered.
That answer, at that time, set the stage. Wisdom was the first adult thing I remember wanting. That desire grew in strength becoming a passion that guides me still.
Solomon valued nothing more than wisdom. He knew it to be the single greatest asset to living a great life, be it the life of a king or a peasant.
Wisdom is the art of integrated intelligence. It employs a range of cognitive tools to tease out the subtleties of truth and shape rich fields of comprehension. Reason, experience, intuition and knowledge all play a part in its art. Wisdom is broad and deep enough to hold patterns and realizations that more limited kinds of intelligence miss. Wisdom is the freedom to understand without the constraints of convention. It is the precious perspective of a disciplined, artful and liberated mind.
Spinoza said wisdom was understanding sub specie aeternitatis – in view of eternity. He understood the usual context of human understanding was limited to the material, personal and immediate, while wisdom looks deeper and farther. From mountain peaks of transcendent perspective wisdom, the humble sister of enlightenment, surveys the eternal.
Yet the world has largely forgotten the disciplines of wisdom.
Wisdom traditions and teachings were at the core of most religions. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sufism and Taoism were built on similar, now obscured foundations of wisdom. The classical mystery schools were promoters of wisdom practices as were the contemplative practices of Buddhism and Vedanta. The schools of classical Greek philosophy, the writings Plato and Aristotle were explicitly dedicated to the development of wisdom.
The Cynic, Epicurean, Pythagorean and Stoic schools each promoted rigorous disciplines and practices for the life-long development of wisdom and a life well lived. To the ancients, a wisdom practice was as necessary for a good life as a compass was to sailing. A man lacking such guidance was little more than a child.
The human capacity to think and reason was sacred to the wisdom schools. It was also the key to developing wisdom. Strength of mind was the only human attribute comparable to the Gods. The life-long development of virtue and wisdom guided the course of life and fed the flame of human divinity.
Knowest thou what a speck thou art in comparison with the Universe? — That is, with respect to the body; since with respect to Reason, thou art not inferior to the Gods, nor less than they. For the greatness of Reason is not measured by length or height, but by the resolves of the mind. Place then thy happiness in that wherein thou art equal to the Gods.
-Epictetus – Golden Sayings – XXIII
The old disciplines of wisdom were vanquished by the wheels of history, religion and the growing seductions of prosperity. We have advanced in wealth and capability, but lack guidance. We lack the insight and vision of wisdom.
We need wisdom but it comes at a cost.
Unlike a quick wit or raw intelligence, wisdom is not inborn. It‘s earned through the effort of an examined life, through experience, mistakes and triumphs, joys and pain. Wisdom grows slowly, unfolding over a lifetime of practice and development.
Confucius identified three broad categories of practice.
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
… The wise and intelligent practice attaining self-knowledge.
-Vivekachudamani – Advaita Vedanta
Reflection requires a subject; for the cultivation of wisdom the subject is a broad and thorough study of self, the human condition and the changing panoply of life. The merit of reflection is arriving at wisdom by your own evaluation, an earned wisdom that reflects your individual mind and perspective. Such creative reflection adds unique, individual elements to the collective heritage of human wisdom.
The self is always the starting point of wisdom. Experience and judgment will always be filtered through your particulars of mind, emotion and experience. Wisdom starts with an honest understanding of self that acknowledges strengths and weaknesses. Truth is beyond self yet only known through the sieve of self.
The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.
―Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
I studied anthropology and religion in college to understand humanity, but meditation and contemplation taught me much more. Inner truths proved more universal and instructive then any academic pursuit.
When we know ourselves, reflection can grow to the world beyond. The habit of honest self-evaluation will foster an appreciation and greater perception of truth. Wisdom will grow, rooted in the deep soil of self-knowledge. This approach, free of illusion and seeking truth, embodies the ideals of Confucian nobility.
Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the sincerest form of learning.
–George Bernard Shaw
Imitation can be a direct and clear path to wisdom. A previous master has already blazed the way, clearing the path of confusion, and missteps. Imitation offers the fruit of another’s efforts early in the wisdom seeker’s journey. That fruit can sustain you through hardship, adversity and the more difficult parts of life’s journey.
Imitation requires belief and trust in the subject of imitation. There have been many great and wise teachers, each with their own perspectives and hard-earned wisdom. At the same time, many teachers are less than they seem or unsuitable to the seeker. Let caution and intuition guide you.
The way of imitation should not preclude reflection or developing an individual perspective. You may walk a well-trodden path, but what you take away, the perspective you find at your destination is your own creation. Every monk in a monastery may chant the same prayers and walk the same halls, but the wisdom they find over a lifetime is the individual expression of their mind and soul.
From the time I was a child, I held the image of sagacious Solomon as my model. Solomon became an ever-changing, ever-growing symbol of what I was to be. Others sages, masters, philosophers, scientists and prophets supplemented the model, but my imagined, wise old face of Solomon remained. I never settled on an established path or master, but Solomon always offered direction.
On the path of imitation, you may only watch a finger pointing the way, or immerse yourself in a complete and codified practice. Committing to a matured practice requires less exploration, less uncertainty and less failure. It is the easier, most reliable path. It can also lack the fruits of exploration and failure.
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
There is merit to each path identified by Confucius and I have taken from each. I meditate, reflect a great deal and attempt to imitate the best in others, but I walk the path of experience.
Much of my life has been unconventional and even adventurous. I’ve never been afraid to try, to act and live boldly. I’ve reaped a wonderful harvest of memories and lessons and I’ve suffered the consequences.
I’ve failed, I’ve lost and I’ve cried, earning my scars and earning my wisdom. Through difficult times, wisdom has provided perspective, insight, understanding and more.
Wisdom sees the beauty of pain – it understands its necessity in growth. It knows that comfort is often the enemy of life, that privilege can be a curse. It sees wonder and purpose in the hidden cycles and currents running through our lives and well beyond. Wisdom knows the good is not simple, not neat and never free of cost.
Unlike the noble path of Confucian reflection, experience happens on the ground, in the dirt, sleeves rolled up, fists held high. Experience is the way of life, unbounded and pushing the limits. For me – that’s the point, that’s why we’re here. We were made to experience life.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The eternal part of ourselves is shaped and formed in human experience. Our lives become unique and enriched expressions of the absolute, apprehended in wisdom. As the painter needs the spectrum of his pallet, we need the spectrum of experience to give depth and texture to our souls and our wisdom.
The wisdom path of experience is wild and overgrown. You’ll walk much of it alone without light or compass. The way is filled with hazards, obscuring smoke and the fires of passion, destruction and creation. You’ll earn your wisdom every step of the way, but it will be the genuine expression of your unique soul.
Wisdom was the first serious thing I ever wanted. The child I was struggled through life, and craved understanding. Experience, attention and the work of steady evaluation presented the seeds of understanding that blossom now.
My image of Solomon grew distant and unattainable as my wisdom matured. While my emerging wisdom sees sweeping vistas of truth, it also sees the oceans of my ignorance. That doesn’t trouble me like it did in the past. I’m more comfortable with unanswered questions. I’ve also learned that where wisdom goes serenity follows.
From lofty perspectives wisdom knows its place, it knows truth and it knows the face of mystery. Wisdom banishes the shadows of fear, anxiety and insecurity in its growing light. Beyond the shadows, waiting in bright clarity, is contentment and serenity – perhaps wisdom’s greatest gift.
Whatever path you choose, embrace wisdom. She will care for you, ease your mind and open the way to the sacred in your heart.
I reached in experience the nirvana which is unborn, unrivalled, secure from attachment, undecaying and unstained. This condition is indeed reached by me, which is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, tranquil, excellent, beyond the reach of mere logic, subtle, and to be realized only by the wise.