The Alchemy of Wisdom
This is the sixth of a six-part series discussing the mental qualities required from a new generation of innovators
“If there is anything the world needs, it is wisdom. Without it, I exaggerate not at all in saying that very soon there may be no world” — Robert Sternberg (former President of the American Psychological Association).
I’ve been writing about the state of human thought and the qualities we will have to nurture within us in order to maintain our relevance on this planet. The final act left to discuss is the cultivation of wisdom. This is overlooked more often than not and is easily misinterpreted. Wisdom isn’t attached to any ideology or political leaning. It is a method of processing information we receive from the world to make it work for us.
Never before have we collected and stored such vast amounts of data. Ninety percent of the information we’ve accumulated as a civilization has been created in the last two years alone. Think about that. A great part of modern living is having to decipher and absorb from a glut of information.
The natural conclusion would be that the spread of this knowledge can only lead to a better, inter-connected human species capable of solving all of its problems. In actuality, our ability to rapidly generate and spread information has created a polarized world. We are intoxicating ourselves with the messages that reinforce our worldview, rather than opening ourselves to rational discussion and empathy towards alternative perspectives. We are at risk of losing the progress we’ve made on how we think about human and planetary concerns.
“Humankind now possesses enormous knowledge, awesome power, and little wisdom, and that imbalance is a recipe for disaster.” — The Integral Review
We need to develop a framework from which we can use this breakthrough period in our history to finally turn the tide and upgrade the standards of human living. This requires a holistic approach, not just how we manage the knowledge we consume. It is a shift in the way we approach life. Such a guideline can be created by understanding the nature of wisdom.
I’ve combined three key theories on this subject to come up with the framework below (see the ‘further reading’ section below).
To build wisdom…
- Balance interests — of yourself and the common good. This means being ethical and making decisions with the primary consideration of the long term good of the collective, while ensuring your personal needs are also met.
- Overcome subjectivity and build empathy. Have the capability of looking at yourself and ideas from multiple perspectives, and truly feel the repercussions of holding these alternative mindsets. Actively indulge in the other person’s worldview and perceive from this standpoint. This exercise can only be complete when empathy and compassion arise from it.
- Take the time for contemplation and self reflection. All it takes is a moment, of stopping and seeing things as they are. This could be time for a mindfulness or journaling practice. Taking a break from the momentum of life will help make sense of the story you’re living.
- Know the limits of your knowledge. Life is a continuous process of learning and growing. We can’t possibly know everything we need to, so we must be open to the idea that we could be wrong in many fundamental ways. Be open and keep questioning your underlying assumptions on life.
- Connect with your mortality. Understanding the finiteness of your existence and of your loved ones will open you up to the greatest gift you’ve always had — life itself. The quality with which you spend your time will dramatically improve when you contemplate the natural destination of all existence — destruction. The Buddhist practice of daily contemplation of death will breathe meaning into each of your life’s moments and improve the quality of your relationships.
- Manage emotions and uncertainty. Going through life’s vicissitudes in a state of calm is a tremendous skill to have. Once we accept that a core tenet of life is its state of constant change, we can detach ourselves from our circumstances (both good and bad) and live knowing that everything that arises also passes. Mindfulness does wonders in giving us this ability to observe the unfolding of our realities, free from its inevitable ups and downs.
Unprecedented amounts of information and knowledge is creating more intelligent and creative individuals. This, however, doesn’t seem to correlate with a planet and people in harmony with each other. There’s a missing piece in what society prioritizes in its education: the cultivation of wisdom. This is a holistic process that requires one to shift her mindset from that of an individual to being a part of a larger whole, with both interests equally respected. It requires one to understand herself and make an equal effort to understand others, while remaining open to being proven wrong on fundamental beliefs. And finally, approaching life knowing its two key truths — its ever-changing and mortal nature — will insulate you from shifting circumstances and add quality to every moment.
“To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
For further reading –