Transcript of Copthorne
Macdonald’s April 2, 2006 address to the
University Unitarian Universalist Society in Orlando,
AND SOCIETAL WISDOM:
Some thoughts on their nature and development
This morning I want
to share some thoughts with you about the nature and development of personal
wisdom and its offshoot, socio-cultural wisdom. There will be some overlap
between this talk and the longer one I’ll be giving next Wednesday evening
at Rollins College.
Should you be interested in the role that colleges and universities could
play in wisdom development, you might also want to attend that event.
I won’t be getting into that subject today.
Let’s start with
personal wisdom. At every moment in our lives we face some real-life
situation, some fact-based reality. What do those facts mean?
And what’s the best thing to do about them? Wisdom answers the
meaning question by looking at the situation from a variety of helpful
perspectives. It answers the action question by bringing wise values
into the decision-making process. There are many of these helpful perspectives,
or “wise ways of seeing.” There are also many “wise values.” In wise
people these basic building blocks of wisdom combine in various ways to
create an array of “wise attitudes” and “wise ways of being.” And because
the mix of characteristics differs from person to person, each wise person’s
wisdom has a distinctive character or “flavor.”
A key point is that
personal wisdom is internal, embodied by persons. Words of wisdom arise
from it. Wise behavior arises from it. Socio-Cultural wisdom arises
from it. But wisdom itself is not its products. Rather, it is a mode
of cognition — one that couples relevant intellectual knowledge with some
important perspectives, interpretations, and values. Wisdom is a kind
of meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense of the rest of our knowledge.
between two varieties of wisdom: one having a practical everyday-life
focus, the other an existential, metaphysical focus. I would add a third
variety, wisdom that has an activist, change-the-world focus.
is an information-processing modality in which everyday situations are
evaluated from multiple perspectives, multiple contextual points of view.
Howard Gardner wrote, “The defining characteristic of wisdom is the breadth
of considerations taken into account when rendering a judgment or recommencing
a course of action.” Common evaluative contexts include the pragmatic,
Will this work? What are the consequences? Does this
fit with my goals? Is this part of the problem or part of the solution?
Does this represent excellence? Is action needed or not needed?
And there are many
others, including a variety of ethics–, morality–, and justice–related
Big picture, existential
wisdom is a variety that Eastern spiritual practices help to develop.
Rational evaluation still plays a role in this form of wisdom, but rationality
is not enough. That’s because the goal is insight into both the informational
aspect of reality (that is, form and appearance) and the noninformational
aspect (Being, Spirit, Energy, Awareness). Eastern practices develop
and harness the psychological modalities of intuition and identification.
These modes of cognition potentially allow us to see beyond the transient
to the eternal. Beyond maya to Brahman. Beyond form to the carrier of
Activist wisdom starts
with a well-developed foundation of personal wisdom. But the wise person
who wants to change the world adds to that foundation an intellectual
and experiential understanding of the world situation.
Through reading and
direct experience they explore the world problematique — that matrix of
interconnected problems the world faces. Wise Activists then focus on
some limited part of it, and devote their time, energy, and wisdom to
changing it for the better.
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 can provide illuminating
slants on the data of life. Second, they guide the decision-making process
toward wiser decisions.
Brain processes and
their values work together to make our decisions and control our behavior
in much the same way that a computer’s hardware and software work together
to make the computer’s decisions and control its outputs.
The brain is the
hardware of our behavioral control system. The elements in red constitute
the heart of the software. They work together to make our decisions.
Information about the immediate situation is presented to the brain by
our senses. The brain also has access to memories of other situations
and other decisions as well as previously acquired knowledge and perspectives.
At the heart of the process is our hierarchy of internalized values.
In ways we don’t yet understand, the brain takes these informational elements
and arrives at a response to the situation — a decision to act in some
particular way, or not to act at all.
Playing a central
role in all this are the values. Roger Sperry, who won a Nobel Prize
for his split-brain research, put it this way:
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.” I would add a corollary: superior values, “the
values of the wise,” produce superior decisions and superior behavior.
What are those superior
values? There are many lists, and on The
Wisdom Page there is a
document that contains several of them. Here, we’ll look at just
and ego-transcending people that Abraham Maslow studied were wise people.
And Maslow’s reports on their behavior and mindsets tell us a lot 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. On the screen is
a set of values that were central to their lives. Maslow called them
the Being-Values, or B-Values.
Early this morning
Alan Nordstrom sent me a poem which fits very nicely here. It is by a
poet named Barnabe Googe, and is entitled WISDOM:
What is this thing we WISDOM call?
An act it is, no thing at all:
To choose to do that which will bring
The happiest of everything
To everyone is WISDOM’s aim;
That we do not, is our shame.
A final word about
values before we move on. In my comments about values I’ve been referring
to a person’s deep down, internalized, operational values. These are
not necessarily the same as a person’s professed values. The internalized
values reveal themselves in behavior. The professed values may be there
only in words. To understand what values are really in control, we can
work back from behavior — our own behavior and that of other people.
Pleasing to us or
not, there it is.
Let’s switch our
attention now to socio-cultural wisdom. Societal institutions — corporations,
political systems, economies, NGOs — are purposeful entities. They exist
to perform certain functions and to behave in certain ways. And that
behavior is directed by values. Those values are typically a combination
values of the people who created the institutions in the first place,
the values of
the people who currently run them, and
from outside, such as laws enacted by governments and the interpretation
of those laws by courts.
were imbued with wise values at their founding, but were co-opted later.
Among the drafters of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights were some
very wise people, and that wisdom was reflected in the governmental structures
they created. But they couldn’t anticipate every future happening, nor
build into the constitution ever possible protection. As early as the
1860s Lincoln warned about the control that big money
could exert over government — as has clearly happened in the years since
Economies are another
example. Economies were created as societal subsystems to provision people.
Group A had more of some good than it needed, and it traded the excess
to Group B for a different good. The provisioning function hasn’t disappeared,
but today’s economies and their institutions have superimposed other purposes
on top of the original one. Making a lot of money for a small group of
people has become the primary purpose; benefits to society are secondary.
The economic tail now wags the societal dog.
It doesn’t have to
be this way. Governments can be configured to serve the many instead
of the few. And the original purpose of economies can be restored.
In my view, a wisdom-based
society would be one in which many of the high values that guide the lives
of wise people would also guide society’s institutions. Among those values
would be truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal
well-being, creativity, and comprehensive knowledge. These values would
be implanted into institutional systems in ways that insured, as far as
possible, wise institutional behavior. And there would be safeguards
in place to insure that those values would be maintained on into the future.
We’re going to move
shortly to the development of personal wisdom, but first I’d like to touch
on the back and forth relationship between the personal and the societal.
It starts with personal wisdom. If a societal institution ends up being
guided by wise values, it is almost certainly because wise people designed
them in. So there is a creative movement from wise people to wise institutions.
But it also works in the other direction. Wise societal institutions
support and encourage the development of wisdom in individuals.
If we want to become
wiser people, we can develop the characteristics of wisdom — the relevant
perspectives, and values, and intellectual knowledge — and incorporate
them into our lives. We’ll look now at some tools to help us do that.
This talk is a brief
introduction to the subject of wisdom. Back in 1995 I started The
Wisdom Page, now located at www.wisdompage.com. Check it out if you’re interested in
digging further into the subject. There you can find links to many free
resources concerning wisdom, as well as information about helpful books,
audio, and video materials.
Becoming 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 we need them, 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. As I’m sure you know, 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.
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
about these things can help us understand them and perhaps motivate us
to try them, but reading is not a substitute for the practices themselves.
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 have they made 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
— 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,
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
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 wisdom-development path.
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? Right here for one thing.
Groups that focus on personal growth and doing good in the world — groups
such as Unitarian/Universalists, Quakers, and Buddhists — 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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 my books Toward Wisdom
and Matters of Consequence.
And I’ve put some of this information on line. The
Wisdom Page also has links to information concerning
Thank you for being so attentive, and if
you have questions, I guess now is the time.