What is wisdom? Understanding of oneself is part of it

BY ROGER WALSH / UC IRVINE, Orange County Register

“Happy are those who find wisdom… She is more precious than jewels. And nothing you desire can compare with her.” – Jewish Proverbs

What is wisdom, and how can we cultivate it? These are two of life's most crucial questions, and our future – as well as that of our species and our planet – may depend on how well we answer them. Yet today, in our frantic sound-bite driven world, we are inundated with information and drowning in data but are largely bereft of wisdom.

This is more than unfortunate; it is downright dangerous. For like the sorcerer's apprentice, humankind now possesses enormous knowledge and awesome power, but lacks the maturity to manage them. And that is a potentially lethal combination.

Throughout history, countless men and women have been questioning, just as you and I often do, how to live wisely and well. For more than 30 years, I've been researching how to enhance wellbeing – physical, psychological, social and spiritual – and I turned to eminent scholars from each of the world's major religions for their insights. Earlier this year, I published them in a book, “The World's Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies.”

So, what is wisdom? It seems to have two major components. The first is a deep understanding of oneself and of the central existential issues of life.

These existential issues are inevitable life challenges that we all deal with, such as facing sickness and suffering, finding meaning and purpose, loving and relating well and, finally, confronting death.

The second component, practical wisdom, is the ability to skillfully and benevolently respond to these kinds of challenges so as to benefit not just ourselves but also other people. To benefit only ourselves would be selfishness. To benefit only others would be sacrifice. The wise person finds a middle way that benefits everyone. The greater our wisdom, the more we can help ourselves and others.

This leads to an important question: “How can we cultivate wisdom in both ourselves and our society?” In “The World's Great Wisdom,” I identify six central approaches:

• A lifestyle of voluntary simplicity that minimizes distractions and trivia and frees time for what is truly important.

• Friendships with other wisdom seekers and teachers. “Make friends with the wise” is a recurrent refrain across cultures.

• Study of wisdom texts and memorization of their key ideas so they pop to mind and offer guidance when needed.

• An ongoing exploration of life and of oneself. Jewish sages say that a wise man learns from every phrase he hears, from every event he observes, from every experience he shares. This allows one to see deeply and truly, and as Jesus said, “The truth shall will set you free.” And Buddha observed that a sage finds peace “by knowing how things are.”

• Another way to develop wisdom is to cultivate supportive virtues such as ethics, love, and generosity while gradually winnowing away painful, wisdom-destroying motives and emotions such as greed and anger. “Greed steals away wisdom,” Mohammed said.

• Sages have long considered practices such as Christian contemplation, Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga to be essential. Now, research demonstrates their multiple benefits – such as calm, clarity, concentration and compassion – that support and strengthen wisdom.

One of the great challenges of our time will be how to reform education and media in order to create wiser societies. Education can potentially help people to make a good living and also to make a wise life. Media can not only entertain, but must also uplift. Which will we choose?

Becoming wiser can be challenging. However, it can also be deeply rewarding, and fortunately we can follow the guidance of the many wise people who went before us.

Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry and human behavior, philosophy and anthropology at UC Irvine.

Read the article.

Join the Network    
Users are able to post wisdom-related news & publications, maintain a profile, and participate in discussion forums.