Developing Personal Wisdom

by Copthorne Macdonald


In the late 1990s there were meetings in Burkina Faso of a "Council of the Wise." This was a group of people from different countries and backgrounds who wanted to foster the development of wisdom in African culture. A useful outcome of these meetings, and a good starting point for this topic, was the identification of four levels of wisdom development.

  • POTENTIAL SAGES includes almost everyone. These are busy people who have the potential to become wise, but have never felt the call to intentionally develop wisdom.

  • SAGES IN INTENTION have come to understand what wisdom is, realize that they have the potential to become wise, and have decided, as the Council put it, to "follow the path of their potential."

  • DEVELOPING SAGES are actively involved in wisdom-developing activities.

  • ESTABLISHED SAGES are those who are recognized by others as wise people.

As I have come to understand it, we become wiser people in two ways:

  1. By exposing ourselves to wisdom-fostering INFLUENCES, and

  2. by energetically dedicating ourselves to helpful PRACTICES. That is, we intentionally practice, with effort, the behaviors and attitudes that we someday hope to become effortless expressions of our deepest, truest selves.

If we want to become wiser people, we can become "Sages in Intention," then "Budding Sages," and develop the characteristics of wisdom — the relevant perspectives, and values, and intellectual knowledge — and incorporate them into our lives.  Here we'll consider some tools to help us do that.

1. A clear understanding of what wisdom is

The purpose of recent wisdom research and websites such as THE WISDOM PAGE is to help you get that clear understanding. There are many views on the subject. Read about them. Get a sense of the wisdom characteristics you would like to develop, and start working on it.

2. Counseling and various kinds of psychotherapy

Becoming a wiser person is an exercise in inner development, and there are activities that can help us along the way. Counseling and various forms of psychotherapy can, if needed, help us reach the starting point for advanced work which we might call responsible adulthood or mature ego.  A person at this stage is free of psychoses and crippling neuroses and has developed emotional control and empathy to an ordinary degree.  There are many forms of therapy, including life management counseling, therapies to help us get over fears, therapies to help us manage anger, therapies to help us get over compulsions and addictions, and others.

3. Intellectual knowledge that is relevant to the kind of wisdom we are trying to develop

Reading about inner development can be very helpful for anyone who wants to become wiser.  To go beyond normal healthy adulthood — “that starting point for advanced work” — many people turn to writings that discuss the further reaches of human development.  Such writings, in turn, lead us to do-it-yourself practices: mind-quieting practices, self-knowledge practices, ego-transcending practices, and oneness-realization practices.  Reading about these things is not a substitute for the practices themselves, but reading can help us understand them and perhaps motivate us to try them.

Novels and biographies are valuable resources for the development of practical wisdom because they present us with countless examples of wise and unwise behavior, skillful and unskillful handling of life situations.  Biographies of wise people can be especially helpful.  How does their behavior differ from ordinary?  What values guide their lives?  What perspectives and interpretations of life situations do they make use of?

For those who would like to develop existential, metaphysical, spiritual wisdom, the world’s spiritual literature is a vital intellectual resource.  There is also an extensive literature on specific go-see-for-yourself spiritual practices that take the practitioner to deeper levels of understanding than reading can.  Also helpful in developing the “Big Picture” view are books that deal with the nature of mental and physical reality, the cosmos, and evolution.

If we want to be effective change agents, then we need to select resources relevant to the kinds of change we are trying to bring about.  Among the possibilities are the “new disciplines,” including the sciences of complexity, cosmos-wide evolution, and the human brain/mind system.  Important for many would be learning more about human cultures, economic systems, and the biosphere.  Of general importance is an understanding of ethics and techniques for changing ethical perspectives; probability as a decision-making tool; the techniques of conflict resolution and effective persuasion; and information on current transformational activities.

4. Full and varied life experience

If we are open to learning, life itself teaches us.  Having many and varied life experiences obviously teaches us more.  We not only need to structure our life so that we have many kinds of experience, but we also need an open, curious, inquisitive, appreciative mental stance so that we get the most out of whatever experiences we have.  Travel; getting to know people with different skills, outlooks, and values; engaging in different kinds of work; taking up a variety of hobbies — all these things enrich our life and potentially take us further down the path toward wisdom.

5. Feedback and counsel from wise people

Hanging out with people who are already living the values we’d like to make our own can be most helpful.  Where do we find such people?  Groups like Unitarians, Quakers, and Buddhists that focus on personal growth and doing good in the world are a best bet.  Local and online discussion and activist groups are another possibility.  Some of these focus on psychological or spiritual growth.  Others focus on various social issues. We can experiment, and when we find groups that feel right, get involved.

6. The observation of behavior — our own and others

People all around us are struggling to up level their lives — some skillfully and successfully, others very unskillfully and unsuccessfully.  The world’s literature and films present us with countless additional life stories.  What can we learn from them?  Can we pick out the strategies and behaviors that work and those that don’t?  Can we start to sense some general “laws of life” behind the specifics?  And can we learn to pay attention to our own behavior, and become aware of the underlying values?

7. Practices that help us internalize values

Becoming clear about the values we would like at the center of our lives — the values we want to make truly our own in a deep and powerful way — is the first step.  The challenge then is to move these values from our head to our heart and our guts.  In psychological terms, we must internalize them so they are not merely nice thoughts, but actually guide our behavior.  Doing this takes effort, and during one of his trips to North America the Dalai Lama gave an example of what we need to do.  He spoke to an audience about the need for everyone to internalize that key value of wisdom, compassion.  His advice to those who wanted to develop compassion was to put themselves in challenging situations and then, despite the natural reluctance to do so, behave compassionately.  By making the effort to engage in value-based action — again, and again, and again — we eventually internalize the value. Expressing the value in action gradually takes less and less effort until it becomes part of our outlook, part of our natural way of being, part of who we are.

8. Body–awareness practices

In our culture we fill our waking hours with discursive thinking.  We think about the past.  We think about the future.  We plan.  We solve problems.  Wisdom, however, demands that we spend a lot of time paying attention to what is happening in our immediate situation.  Body awareness practices such has Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi, Vipassana meditation, and many sports can help us break the mind-tripping habit.

9. Meditation

The last tool I’ll mention — though definitely not the least — is meditation.  In fact, meditation is generally considered to be the most powerful single tool for developing wisdom.  Psychologist Jane Loevinger’s research produced a 9-stage scale of psychological development.  The terms she uses for the two highest stages are “autonomous” and “integrated.”  It turns out that less than 2 percent of the general adult population have managed to reach these top two categories.  However, for people who have had a meditation practice going for several years, that number is 38 percent.

Meditation retreats of 7 to 10 days duration are especially helpful.  This graphic might help get that idea across.  At the left we have the usual noisy-mind situation.  Pure quiet awareness is there as the substrate of the mind, but it is modulated by a lot of high-intensity information — thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc. — much mind content.  At the right, the graphic depicts the quiet mind.  This is not sleep.  The person is highly alert and aware, but the quantity and intensity of mental information is way down.

The transitional slope between one state and the other depicts what happens during the first 3 or 4 days of a meditation retreat.  The key to going from a noisy mind to a quiet mind is paying attention to something subtle.  Why?  BECAUSE WE CAN’T THINK DISCURSIVELY AND PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AT THE SAME TIME.  In a sense, the noisy mind is a habit.  A quiet mind is a different kind of habit.  It turns out that if we spend several days paying attention to subtle bodily sensations — like those arising in the nostrils when we breath, and those arising in feet and legs when we walk, the mind gradually shifts from habitual noisiness to habitual quietude.  It usually take 3 to 4 days of diligent morning-to-night effort in a supportive environment to make the switch.  But once you’ve entered the quiet-mind mode, interesting things start to happen.

  • For one thing, you have become more sensitive to your surroundings.  With the mind quiet, many people find themselves looking at the natural world around them with a new sense of wonder.  And insights may arise about our relationship to nature and cosmos.

  • “Know thyself,” said the Greeks.  And when the mind is quiet, that begins to happen in a serious way.  Normally, we identify strongly with the busy, buzzy mind content that constitutes the melodrama of our life.  We see this unfolding informational story as ME.  When the mind is quiet, however, we have a certain detachment.  We are no longer overwhelmed by massive amounts of mind content, and are not so identified with what remains.  We begin to see how our mind works, and may eventually get a glimpse of who “I” really am. 

  • A quiet mind also opens the door to the subconscious. Mental quiet thins the barrier that exists between conscious and subconscious mental processes.  Messages from our subconscious are better able to bubble up into consciousness.  We may start to see things about ourselves that we were never conscious of before, things that we’ve been pushing out of awareness.

  • Improved creativity is another benefit of quieting the mind. Under quiet mind conditions, the intuitive process’s creative Muse is able to communicate effectively with the intellect and the global workspace of the mind.  The number of Aha! and Eureka! experiences goes up. This is not too surprising when we think of the number of writers and artists who find solitude essential for significant work.

  • Another plus: when the mind is quiet, insightful shifts of perspective can occur. We suddenly apply a new interpretive framework to the same old facts and see things in a dramatically different way. 

I discuss still more benefits of meditation in the books Toward Wisdom and Matters of Consequence, both of which are available in print form from online booksellers, and free of charge as screen-read Ebooks. Online resources include an excerpt from Matters of Consequence on "The Importance of Meditation", and a guided mindfulness meditation which you can listen to now in streaming audio. Sit in a comfortable position, click the Play button below, and gently close your eyes.

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Copthorne Macdonald is a writer and independent scholar. He has written 8 books (3 of them on aspects of wisdom) and many articles, reviews, and column installments. Since 1995 he has tended THE WISDOM PAGE — a website devoted to wisdom resources at