What Is Wisdom?
Wisdom isn’t an idea. It isn’t a doctrine or a belief. It isn’t a theory or an ideology, calling for our consent.
Wisdom isn’t a product to be bought or sold. You can’t possess it or hold it.
Philosophy, religion, and art point to it, but they cannot contain it.
Wisdom lies outside all ideological boundaries and conceptual frameworks. It can never be conveyed with words or teachings. Yet words and teachings point the way.
Like water, wisdom is impossible to hold. Like air it is impossible to see. And like water and air, we can’t live without it.
How can something so elusive be so essential?
The good news is this: wisdom is not mysterious. It is not distant, arcane, or esoteric. It is nearer to us than the blood in our veins.
Wisdom is simple as sunrise and rich as rain.
Wisdom is a way of being in the world.
Wisdom belongs to the body, to the wholeness of what we are. It rolls through our bones like a seismic wave. It brightens our sight from the inside. It lifts our feet when the path is true. We do not gain wisdom, learn wisdom, or understand wisdom – we embody wisdom. We incorporate it into the very fiber of our being. We become wisdom.
Wisdom is what we are when we finally learn how to let go of our illusions.
The tree of wisdom has many fruits – humility, simplicity, love, willingness, and freedom. One taste is proof enough that it is real.
Parting the Curtain
Immersion in the world’s wisdom traditions takes you on a surprising trajectory. What at first seemed convoluted and contrived becomes simple and innocent. What at first seemed dry and doctrinaire becomes limber and poetic. Rules and creeds give way to the immediacy of wordless knowing. More and more you come out of thinking and into being. You finally start to see through the curtain and realize that wisdom is vast, formless, and unlike ordinary knowledge.
Knowledge is full of concepts, analogies, propositions, and finite rational sequences. Wisdom is empty and infinite.
Knowledge is the weather. Wisdom is the sky.
Closing the Gap
If wisdom is the content-free awareness of how to live well, then how do we gain wisdom? How can we close the gap between our messy, chaotic life and the promise wisdom offers? How do we move out of these clouds of confusion, suffering, and dysfunction and into the clearing of joy, freedom, and wellness? The journey begins and ends in humility.
We must first admit our ignorance. We must first admit that all of our ideas about everything are second-hand. After a great house cleaning of belief, superstition, unexamined assumptions, and self-serving delusions we stand empty handed at the edge of a great wilderness. We respect the past and the well-intentioned teachers we’ve known. But we start fresh.
We start walking.
And if we are willing enough the entire universe conspires in our favor. The right books, the right people, and the right situations show up just when we need them most. They shine light on the tender shoots of our budding insights, nurture our dawning realizations, encourage our virtues, and embolden our convictions. Sometimes this divine assistance manifests as loss and destruction. Old forms are torn asunder to release the energy and raw materials necessary for the miracles ahead.
Wisdom knows a lot about letting go. Soon enough, we do too. As our old understandings (which were just opinions anyway) turn to ash, we are freed to see anew. The world opens up to us as a beautiful, grace-filled place of abundance and healing. Even our sorrow slips into its rightful place in the grand unfolding. We stop craving pleasure and distraction. It is enough to breathe, and be a part of it all. How could we ask for more? We come to gradually know, not in our minds, but in our bones, that we are okay, and that this is enough.
We had it wrong all along. We mistakenly believed that wisdom was a kind of knowledge, a cadre of secrets that would solve our riddles and cure our confusions. We can be forgiven for this naiveté. How can the unwise know what wisdom is?
Through direct experience we come to know the simple truth – wisdom is not advice, or rules, or someone else’s idea of the good life. Wisdom is a lived realization that defies expression. We can sing about it, dance about it, point at it with painting, film, poetry, and music. But whatever “it” is, it eludes our conceptual grasp. We cannot think wisdom, we can only be wisdom.
When we incorporate wisdom, that is, hold it in our corporeal form, we embody it and feel its thrum in all of our energy systems – the wisdom of digestion, the wisdom of perception, the wisdom of cognition, the wisdom of emotion, the wisdom of intuition, the wisdom of loving-kindness, the wisdom of willingness, the wisdom of pain, the wisdom of healing, the wisdom of action, the wisdom of reciprocity – in short, the wisdom of our inter-being. For we are not alone. Our being is everything’s being. We exist in a continuum of causation that entwines all consciousness, matter, and energy – what the theistic religions call God. But no matter what your faith-family of origin or current belief system, the fruit of wisdom is the same – a well-lived life.
Wisdom doesn’t mean you have all the answers. But you move more graciously through the questions. Wisdom doesn’t set you free from the pain of being alive. But it teaches you that suffering is optional. Wisdom doesn’t set you above anyone else, in fact, it destroys all hierarchies. Wisdom doesn’t make you rich. But it shifts your understanding of wealth and success. Wisdom doesn’t make you clever and powerful. But it sharpens your mastery in the midst of a deep acceptance of the messiness of life.
Letting go of the notion that wisdom is a thing to be coveted and grasped, we are free to move into its influence, the way a sailboat finds favorable wind when it heads in the right direction. Loose hand on the tiller, eyes on the horizon, and joy in the heart – this is the wisdom incorporated.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. Everything you need is at www.peterbolland.com