The word "wisdom" tends to cause embarrassed confusion, even anger! Today, we think that we're far "too sophisticated" for such old-fashioned, naive ideals. Whether or not we consciously identify as a 'scientific materialist,' most of us are cynical & fatalistic about our life, world peace, the climate, the very survival of the human race. How often do we hear - and support - those who, with a smug swagger quickly shoot down any plan to solve serious problems with: "Well, I HATE to be the devil's advocate, BUT ..."? This dominant worldview - "Life is hard, and then you die - end of story - it's all meaningless!" - is imho profoundly problematic & unsustainable.
There is an infinitely healthier, more realistic alternative - WISDOM.
“What is wisdom and how can it be cultivated? These are two of the most important questions of human existence, yet they are tragically neglected in our contemporary culture. We are inundated with information and drowning in data, yet largely bereft of wisdom. As T.S. Eliot (1936) put it:
‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’
This is a dangerous imbalance, and the fate of our species and our planet may well depend on giving wisdom a more central place in both our personal and public lives.
How did wisdom fade from our awareness? After all, for centuries it was revered as one of the greatest of all human virtues. Thousands of years ago, sages such as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus urged, ‘Content yourself with being a lover of wisdom, a seeker of truth,’ while Jewish proverbs exclaimed, ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom.’
Yet in recent centuries, wisdom slipped from Western awareness. Dazzled by the flood of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, people dreamed that science would answer all questions and technology solve all problems. Science became scientism, technology the new savior, and knowledge – not wisdom – the key to living well.
Science and technology certainly delivered miracles. Yet in unwise hands, they also delivered unpredictable and unprecedented disasters, as the awesome power of modern technology dramatically multiplied the impact of human actions. As a result, populations exploded, pollution spread, resources were depleted, wars became genocidal, and the very health of the planet deteriorated.
Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, humankind now possesses enormous knowledge, awesome power, and little wisdom. And that is a potentially lethal combination. [eg See: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain ] As Robert Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association, lamented, ‘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.’
Fortunately, recent years have seen the beginnings of a major reevaluation. Science is no longer worshiped as simply a savior, technophilia and technophobia jostle ambivalently, and wisdom is coming out of the closet. In society at large, there is talk of, for example, elder wisdom, native wisdom, and wisdom cultures.
Scientists have recently joined the quest. Though they long regarded it as too abstruse for investigation, research on wisdom is beginning. But though there is growing interest, the research is as yet preliminary and the information obtained is, by traditional standards, far from profound. The great questions of life and death that sages ponder are as yet unasked in modern laboratories. Of course, this is not surprising for a new research field. Moreover, science must measure and count. Yet what really matters can’t always be measured, and what really counts can’t always be counted.
If our contemporary culture has only a superficial understanding of wisdom, then the obvious question becomes, ‘Where can we go for the deepest understanding of wisdom and of how to develop it?’ The answer is clear: to the world’s great religions and their accompanying philosophies and psychologies. For here, often hidden behind conventional beliefs and rituals, are preserved records of the insights of sages, the depth of existential exploration, and the heights of human understanding.
Of course, the world’s religions contain a curious mix of high and low, transcendence and nonsense, sagacity and stupidity. Yet the quest for wisdom has long been one of their central goals. For example, Jews and Christians claim that wisdom ‘is more precious than jewels,’ while the Koran declares, ‘those to whom wisdom is given; they truly have received abundant good.’ In Hinduism the cultivation of wisdom constitutes a major spiritual path or yoga, while in Buddhism wisdom is regarded as the preeminent spiritual capacity.
But what we need above all else are methods to nurture wisdom. Fortunately, the contemplative core of the great religions contains these methods. Each tradition preserves methods for actually cultivating wisdom through systematic practices such as contemplation, meditation, yoga, and reflection on the great mysteries of life and death. These practices constitute a veritable ‘art of wisdom’ or ‘science of wisdom.’ At their best, therefore, the great religions contain both timeless treasuries of humankind’s accumulated wisdom and effective methods for fostering it.
How can this treasury be brought to the contemporary world? One strategic method is to gather distillations of wisdom from each of the great religions and their accompanying philosophies and psychologies. In short, to create a book that offers summaries of each tradition’s sapiential principles and practices. These are the goals of The World’s Great Wisdom.”
Roger Walsh ed. “The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies.” State Univ of New York Press, 2014.
“The journey of awakening is the most remarkable adventure any human being can undertake. No other activity is ultimately so rewarding for ourselves or so helpful to others.
Our world is in desperate need of healing. But it also rests in good hands, because it rests in yours. And in you rests the Source of all healing, and all that is needed to awaken you and the world.”
Roger Walsh. “Essential Spirituality. The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind.” John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1999.
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