From the book Living
a Life of Value
the Wisdom Game
Some thoughts about the nature and development of wisdom
is wisdom? Like stupidity, we know it when we see it. But because wisdom
manifests in so many different ways, it can't be adequately defined in
a few words. Short dictionary definitions highlight some of wisdom's characteristics
such as "keen discernment," "a capacity for sound judgment,"
and "the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships,"
but they don't get to the heart of the matter.
Joseph W. Meeker's
eloquent yet concise statement about wisdom is much more illuminating:
a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding and
deep insight. It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive
formal knowledge. Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people
can be found among carpenters, fishermen, or housewives. Wherever it
exists, wisdom shows itself as a perception of the relativity and relationships
among things. It is an awareness of wholeness that does not lose sight
of particularity or concreteness, or of the intricacies of interrelationships.
It is where left and right brain come together in a union of logic and
poetry and sensation, and where self-awareness is no longer at odds
with awareness of the otherness of the world. Wisdom cannot be confined
to a specialized field, nor is it an academic discipline; it is the
consciousness of wholeness and integrity that transcends both. Wisdom
is complexity understood and relationships accepted."1
Wisdom is internal,
embodied by persons. Words of wisdom arise from it. Wise behavior arises
from it. But wisdom itself is not its products. Wisdom is a mode of cognition
one rooted in perspectives, interpretations, and values.
Wisdom is not about
facts per se, it is about the context-linked meaning of facts. It is about
the significance of facts and their implications. Wisdom is a kind of
meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense of the rest of our knowledge.
Wisdom does this by relating our ordinary everyday knowledge to a variety
of contexts, and by viewing it from a variety of illuminating perspectives.
Among those perspectives are:
Wise people have a greater than ordinary understanding of themselves.
They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and have developed "workarounds"
to stay out of trouble. Because they have paid attention to how their
own minds work, they are better able to understand the mind processes
We contemplate doing things in the physical world and ask ourselves: Will
this work? What will be the consequences of doing this? In such circumstances
an understanding of basic scientific laws can at times lead to better,
If we are observant, we eventually sense some general rules that apply
in our relations with other people: Sexual infidelity almost always causes
pain for someone. Angry words shut down communication. We rarely adopt
other people's lists of dos and don'ts, but if we see these generally
applicable truths for ourselves they can help guide our actions.
The system perspective
The system perspective on reality is a powerful tool for understanding
the world around us. Complexity in the natural world emerges as a hierarchy
of natural systems or holons which have the property of being a whole
at their own systemic level and a part or component in a system at the
next level up the hierarchy. The physical hierarchy of systems moves from
subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to crystals and cells, to living
organisms, then to ecosystems, the biosphere, the solar system, the galaxy,
and the universe. In another branch of this hierarchy, human beings start
communicating with each other and give birth to those systems we call
societies, economies, and nations.
What is the universe up to? Where does humanity fit in? Have we become
agents of the evolutionary process? Some wise people have developed an
understanding of our cosmic and evolutionary contexts and found it helpful
to look at the human situation from this "big picture" vantage
There is a human tendency to simplify causation. We pick out some dominant
element in a situation and call it "The Cause," when in fact
there are myriad necessary elements an entire causal matrix
with roots that go back to the origin of the universe.
and "oneness" perspectives
As a person develops psychologically and spiritually, their sense of identity
tends to broaden. Their circle of concern and identity widens from me,
to us and for a few, to the entire universe and its underlying
Time is the raw material of our life, and a conscious awareness of our
eventual death helps us to keep our life on a meaningful track and avoid
meaningless, life-wasting detours.
A host of "high-values"
The deeply-held values of wise people are vantage points from which to
view life situations and the world: Is this just? Is this truthful? Is
this caring and compassionate? Etc.
Role of Values in Wisdom
Maxwell has called wisdom "the capacity to realize what is of value
in life for oneself and others."2 The embracing of "high"
or "superior" values is a hallmark of wisdom. High values have
two roles in the lives of wise people. First, they provide those illuminating
slants on the data of life. Second, they guide the decision-making process
toward wiser decisions.
is a largely unconscious process in which a constantly shifting hierarchy
of internalized values interacts with a constantly shifting set of perceived
circumstances and retrieved memories.
Some values, such
as survival and reproduction, are hardwired. Other values, and their position
in the value hierarchy, are the products of life experience and the influences
to which we have been exposed. At any given moment our decisions are made
by the combined action of:
- The brain-mind
process currently in charge
- The hierarchy
of value priorities that exists at that moment
- The perceived
nature of the situation calling for a decision
- Memories of similar
or related situations
item one, above, there are three distinct brain-mind processes, each having
its own hierarchy of values:
- The instinctive/reactive
process located in the earliest parts of our brain to evolve
the structures of the brain stem and limbic system and their change-resistant
- The intellectual
process: Typically centered in the left hemisphere of the neocortex
- The intuitive
process: Less clearly understood, but generally associated with the
right, nonverbal hemisphere
processes and their values work together to make our decisions and control
our behavior in the same way a computer's hardware and software work together
to make the computer's decisions and control its outputs. We can look
at the three brain-mind processes as the hardware of our behavioral control
system. And the internalized values that each process utilizes constitute
the heart of the software.
ask a person to list their personal values in order of relative importance,
you are likely to get a list with some pretty impressive stuff on it.
Yet if we look dispassionately at that person's behavior, it might soon
become apparent that their deep-down, internalized, operational values
are not the same as their professed values or at least do not have the
stated priority. People always do what seems best, and that "best"
is determined by how their hierarchy of internalized values interacts
with the brain/mind's assessment of past, present, and anticipated future
circumstances. As Nobelist Roger Sperry put it, "Human values...can...be
viewed objectively as universal determinants in all human decision making.
All decisions boil down to a choice among alternatives of what is most
valued, for whatever reasons, and are determined by the particular value
system that prevails."3 Superior values, "the values
of the wise," produce superior decisions and superior behavior.
self-actualizing and ego-transcending people that psychologist Abraham
Maslow studied were wise people, and Maslow's reports on their behavior
and mindsets tell us much about the nature of wisdom and the values that
underlie it. Maslow's self-actualizers focused on concerns outside of
themselves; they liked solitude and privacy more than the average person,
and they tended to be more detached than ordinary from the dictates and
expectations of their culture. They were inner-directed people. They were
creative, too, and appreciated the world around them with a sense of awe
and wonder. In love relationships they respected the other's individuality
and felt joy at the other's successes. They gave more love than most people,
and needed less. Central to their lives was a set of values that Maslow
called the Being-Values, or B-Values: wholeness, perfection, completion,
justice, aliveness, richness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, uniqueness,
effortlessness, playfulness, truth, honesty, reality, self-sufficiency.
values express themselves in wise attitudes and wise ways of being and
functioning. Among the value-based expressions of wisdom that speak strongly
to me are:
- Feeling fully
responsible for one's life choices and actions
- A positive, "let's
make the most of it" attitude
- A reality-seeking,
- A desire to learn,
and a feeling of responsibility for one's own learning
- A desire to grow,
to develop, "to become all I am capable of becoming"
- Being attentive:
aware of mind events and mental processes as well as what is happening
- Being creative:
producing uniqueness and novelty that has value
- Being a two-brain-hemisphere
person, with intellect and intuition working together
- Being self-disciplined:
able to work now for a reward later
- Being courageous:
able to face dangers and fears with clarity and skill
- Being aware of
one's own eventual death to the degree that it helps guide one's life
- Being able to
deal with situations appropriately, using a large repertoire of approaches
and techniques. Choosing the approach that best fits each situation:
appropriate planning, appropriate timing, appropriate problem-solving,
dealing with commitments appropriately, etc.
- Being non-reactive:
able to deal skillfully with powerful emotions
- Being deeply loving,
and able to manifest love in appropriate ways
- Having a sense
- Being compassionate
- Behaving in ways
that benefit others
- Possessing a deep
happiness that is independent of externals
- Recognizing that
there are limits to personal knowledge and to the ability of our species
world is not divided into wise and unwise people. None of us is perfectly
wise or totally unwise. We are wise to the degree that characteristics
like those mentioned above are part of us, to the extent that we actually
live them. The specific qualities developed will differ in kind and degree
from person to person, and this results in each wise person's wisdom having
a distinctive character or "flavor."
good news is that the acquisition of wisdom is not something we must leave
to the whims of fate, as many in the past have assumed. If we want to
become wiser people, we can develop the characteristics of wisdom and
incorporate them into our lives. The bad news is that we're pretty much
on our own in doing that. It would be nice if we lived in a wisdom-fostering
culture one in which every institution was dedicated to helping
us become wiser. But we don't. So how do we become wiser people? In short,
- exposing ourselves
to wisdom-fostering influences, and by
practicing, with effort, the behaviors and attitudes that we someday
hope to become effortless expressions of our deepest, truest self.
role of influences
don't like the values we have internalized to date or the particular mental
process that is calling the shots, then we must change things. We are
surrounded by influences that push us toward ordinary behavior and ordinary
ways of thinking. But we need not be prisoners of ordinary; we can shift
the balance of influences. We can intentionally increase our exposure
to positive influences influences that promote and reinforce the
kind of changes we are trying to make. We can, for instance:
out with people who are already living the values we'd like to make our
own. Where do we find such people? Groups that focus on personal growth
and doing good in the world are a likely bet. Among these are some open-minded,
non-doctrinaire religious groups such as Unitarians, Quakers, and Buddhists.
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 a group
that feels right, get involved.
out more about the nature and development of wisdom. As a starting
point you might want to visit THE WISDOM PAGE, "a
compilation of wisdom-related resources," at http://www.wisdompage.com/.
Read biographies of exceptional people. Your local library has many of
these, and your librarian would be pleased to suggest some good ones.
from the experiences of 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 movies
too, 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?
open to wise sayings that energize and motivate. Twice in my life
sets of words have resonated so deeply with me that they initiated significant
life changes. The first of these was a statement by Etienne de Grellet,
a 19th-century Quaker, that I encountered as a university student:
"I shall pass
through this world but once. If, therefore, there is any good thing
I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer
it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
second turning point, a decision to pursue my own psychological/spiritual
development, was triggered by the words "become all you're capable
of becoming" at a corporate seminar on Abraham Maslow's theory of
was also a third set of words. It didn't change my life direction, but
confirmed and clarified it. It is Goethe's admonition to "Go and
dare before you die."
role of practice
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 next challenge 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.
a wiser person is an exercise in inner development, and there are activities
that can help us along the way. Counseling and other 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. To help us move beyond
this stage we need other resources. Many people start with writings that
discuss the farther reaches of human development. The writings, in turn,
lead us to do-it-yourself practices: mind-quieting practices, self-knowledge
practices, ego-transcending practices, and oneness-realization practices.
You can find many suggestions at http://www.wisdompage.com/innerwork.html.
widely recognized that the fast track to self-knowledge and other important
aspects of wisdom is meditation particularly the kind devoted to exploring
the mind/body process, variously called mindfulness, vipassana, or insight
meditation. For more information about this and related practices read
"THE IMPORTANCE OF MEDITATION" at http://www.wisdompage.com/meditation.html.
on a Larger Scale
essay has focused on what I call life-centered wisdom the wisdom
that results in a happier, more productive personal life and more harmonious
interpersonal relations. But there is also the big chaotic world out there
that needs all the wise guidance it can get. I have written elsewhere
about a variation on the wisdom theme that strikes me as particularly
suited to the initiation of wise action in the political, economic, and
biospheric arenas. I have called it deep understanding. In short, it involves
coupling the wisdom development process just described with the acquisition
of intellectual knowledge relevant to the world problematique.
to grips with the major scientific, social, and economic issues that bear
on the present world situation, we must all become more holistic knowers.
The way I see it, we can deal effectively with humanity's problems only
if we have a deep and comprehensive understanding of the context in which
those problems are set. This includes knowledge of the systemic nature
of the cosmos, the evolutionary process in its most general sense, consciousness,
human cultures, economic systems, and some of the more important principles,
laws, and regularities that underlie functioning in all these areas.
broader application of wisdom piques your interest, you might want to
read the book Matters of Consequence; info about it is at http://mattersofconsequence.com/.
Also of possible interest is the essay "Deep Understanding: Wisdom
for an Integral Age." It is available online in two places: http://www.cejournal.org/GRD/DeepUnderstanding.html
1. From LANDSCAPE, Vol. 25, No. 1, Jan 1981
2. From Nicholas Maxwell's book Is Science Neurotic?, London: Imperial
College Press, 2004, p. 119
3. From Roger Sperry's article "Bridging science and values: A unifying
view of mind and brain," American Psychologist, April, 1977,
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 http://www.wisdompage.com/