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Toward Wisdom   by Copthorne Macdonald

Chapter 1 --- What is Wisdom?

Wisdom is not one thing; it is a whole array of better-than-ordinary ways of being, and living, and dealing with the world. Because of this, and because individual wise people express wisdom's characteristics in different ways and to different degrees, this chapter's question has no brief answer.

Short statements about wisdom can be helpful as long as we realize that each expresses only part of the truth. We could say, for example, that wisdom involves:

  • seeing things clearly; seeing things as they are
  • acting in prudent and effective ways
  • acting with the well-being of the whole in mind
  • deeply understanding the human/cosmic situation
  • knowing when to act and when not to act
  • being able to handle whatever arises with peace of mind and an effective, compassionate, holistic response
  • being able to anticipate potential problems and avoid them

Each statement helps clarify some aspect of wisdom, but none tells the whole story.

The self-actualizing and ego-transcending people that Abraham Maslow studied were wise people, and Maslow's writings tell us much about the nature of wisdom. 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.

The inner directedness that Maslow noted is a key feature of wisdom. It arises, in part, from acquiring new, more helpful perspectives. We live today in a swirl of information, and we need some of this raw data to arrive at the answers we seek. Knowledge, however, is interpreted data. If the perspective or conceptual model through which we interpret our data is inappropriate, or flawed, then our knowledge is flawed and will lead us astray. For many people, the task of becoming wise is not one of absorbing more information, more raw facts; it is to put the significant facts they already have into appropriate contexts, to view them from more helpful perspectives.

In later chapters I will attempt to show that we human beings acquired certain perspectives from evolution and culture which are, in fact, flawed perspectives — perspectives that limit and distort our understanding of reality. Certain biology-based perspectives, for example, arose to aid personal and species survival in more trying, more primitive times. Today they impede our movement toward a global kind of understanding; they impede our movement toward wisdom.

Certain culture-based perspectives also stand in our way. Our industrial culture — in actualizing its values, in looking out for its interests — has indoctrinated us with interpretive frameworks that reflect and promote those values and interests. It has passed on to us a set of approved ways of looking at things and has said, "Look at the data of life from these vantage points; interpret your facts according to these guidelines." There is nothing unusual about this; all cultures do it. But cultural institutions that prompt us to see the world from a having, desiring, possessing, consuming perspective aren't leading us in the direction of wisdom, inner peace, and deeply-felt contentment. Becoming wise requires that we adopt other perspectives, other interpretive frameworks — ones that do reveal truth and encourage movement toward holistic understanding and widespread well-being.

The words of the great spiritual teachers have added much to our understanding of wisdom. So have the writing and thinking of the wisest of the world's leaders: Jefferson, Lincoln, and Gandhi, for example, and more recently, Gro Bruntland and Vaclav Havel. Writers of serious literature helped by giving us literary role models — wise people, and people in the process of becoming wise — Lawrence Durrell's Clea, for example, Herman Hesse's Demian, Nikos Kazantzakis's Zorba — and Kazantzakis himself in Report to Greco. Reading books by and about wise people can help us grasp the multi-faceted nature of wisdom. Here, however, let us focus on a few specifics. Let's look at five frequently-encountered attributes of wisdom — five characteristics that appear to have special importance to us, the people of earth, in this last decade of the twentieth century.

A reality-seeking attitude

Wisdom, maturity, and happiness seem to go hand in hand with figuring out how life and the world work — with discovering the nature of the rules, laws, and programming that dictate what will happen under what conditions. Wise people know that the more deeply and accurately they come to understand key processes within and without, the better able they are to live their personal lives in harmony with what is happening moment-to-moment. Wise people want to find out. Wise people are reality seekers.

Developing an accurate, comprehensive picture of reality does not happen easily. We arrive on earth having to play the game of existence but not knowing the rules or even the object of the game. Then, gradually, each of us builds a worldview — a mental map of how it all is and what it's all about. The maps made by wise people are in many respects more complete and more accurate than the maps made by others, but for even the wisest, their picture of how it all is never becomes much more than a rough sketch. Despite talk about "fully enlightened beings," I strongly suspect that no one has ever been completely out of the dark.

Almost by definition, reality seekers remain open-minded, flexible, and receptive. They know that all explanations, models, and metaphors are just pointers to truth and crude maps of reality. All are approximate and partial. Further refinement of the maps is always in order. And since wise people are not ego-attached to their present views, when they do get new data, or flip to a new perspective, their worldviews and explanatory words change.

Spiritual teachers have created cosmologies, psychologies, and ethical systems. Many of their psychologies are similar. So-called mystical experiences are largely independent of specific information; thus, they tend to be similar for everyone who has them. It is because of this that the perennial philosophy is perennial, and independent of culture and geography. People who have seen the world from a perennial philosophy perspective recognize the reports of others who have done so. There is agreement.

Cosmologies, on the other hand, tend to differ widely — leading me to suspect that they are based, at least in part, on culturally-acquired information. If Gautama the Buddha lived today I suspect that his psychology would not be much different, but that his cosmology would be.

Imagine that the great reality seekers of ancient times — people like Jesus and Gautama — had continued to live on through the centuries. Do you share my guess that they would have made the transition into the present smoothly and organically — excited about each breakthrough in knowledge along the way, each widening and refining of their views? The Great Ones had to be open-minded reality-seekers. It is their followers who have sometimes become closed and rigid — true believers — guardians of temple and church who took each word of their leaders to be absolute truth. Words aren't truth. Wise people recognize this; they remain seekers rather than becoming believers.

A reality-seeking attitude can also help us find ethical and moral truth. Many wise people of the past — spiritual leaders, philosophers, and great writers — observed what works in human society, and what doesn't. Over the centuries their observations have been shared with an ever larger audience, yet their advice is largely ignored by each new generation. Moses was one of those wise people. Now, at this point in my life, I think that his Ten Commandments are a pretty good set of guidelines for living. Nevertheless, since first hearing about them at age five or six I have lied, stolen, dishonored my father and my mother, committed adultery, and more. We seem to find it very difficult to take someone else's word on ethical matters. We feel the need to explore life's limits for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

I don't think our distrust of do-what-I-say ethics will fundamentally change, and that's okay. We don't need new lists of do's and don'ts. We don't need new codes of conduct. They wouldn't really help. What does help is a reality-seeking attitude toward our own experience. "Why do my relationships fall apart?" "Why do I keep getting myself into this kind of mess?" "What is reality telling me?" "What is the lesson in this?" "Is there a general rule of the Game that I've missed up to now?" Wise people ask themselves these kinds of questions, and when they do, the answers come. Wise people are attentive people, and their attention to what is not working well eventually leads to greater harmony. They know that the solution to a problem almost always lies in a clear understanding of the problem itself.

Staying open is often uncomfortable. The pain of uncertainty, of growing, comes with the territory of human existence. A certain directivity toward perfection may well be built into the cosmic process and, as Maslow's research indicated, into each person. But the means to actualize perfection are not ideal. Some degree of discomfort appears to be the price of continual transcendence, continual replacement of old ways of seeing with new ways.

Non-reactive acceptance

As we will see in Chapter 2, part of evolution's legacy to the human species is the mammalian brain structure called the limbic system and the palette of intense, reactive emotions associated with it. These strong emotions — fear, anger, lust, hatred, greed, craving, jealousy, envy, etc. — are the cause of much human suffering. The person experiencing these forms of emotional reactivity suffers, and if reactive emotions take control of our behavior, others are often made to suffer too.

Wise people have learned how to deal with reactive impulses so they don't become prolonged reactive states of mind, and so they don't result in reactive behavior. Wise people don't rail against the present moment's informational content. They know that by the time we become aware of this moment's event, it has already taken place. Accepting it is therefore the only sane, rational response. It's not that wise people avoid acting. In the moment that follows they may very well choose to act. But their actions are almost always guided by wiser centers of control; their actions are not knee-jerk responses to impulses from the limbic brain.

For the most part, wise people live non-reactively. They live the present moment from a center of awareness, acceptance, energy, basic goodness, and quiet joy. They know that when fear is dropped, courage fills the mind. They know that when anger and hate are dropped, compassion is there. They know that when wanting and greed are dropped, mental peace, primal happiness, and equanimity will be present.

Holistic seeing

The attention and energy of most people is focused on their immediate situation. The intensity of their concern about other situations, people, and events drops rapidly as those things become more distant in space, time, and relationship. The concerns of wise people, on the other hand, go far beyond the immediate and the personal. They have acquired a variety of perspectives that I lump together under the umbrella phrase holistic seeing.

Many of these holistic perspectives are intellectual ones. An understanding of concepts like system, evolution, and problematique, for instance, can help us appreciate complexity, interconnectedness, and wholeness. When deeply understood, such concepts lead to more expansive, more holistic kinds of thinking. Let's touch briefly on the three I just mentioned.

A system is a whole that consists of interacting and interdependent components in a persisting pattern of relationship. The human body/mind is a system. The universe is a system. A TV set is a system. The relationships that define a system may involve events, or spatial configurations, or both. System components frequently capture our attention; we can see them directly. Unfortunately, system relationships tend not to be as flashy and grabby as the components. In some cases they do not give rise to sensory messages at all, and may totally escape our notice. To understand what is really going on in a system it is often helpful to create a visual model of the relationships involved. We can look carefully at a radio's innards, for example — perhaps even name and count all the various parts — but unless we are familiar with what each component is capable of doing, and can visualize the complex way in which they are interconnected, we won't know how or why that radio works.

People who have thoroughly internalized the system concept realize that the bits and pieces around us don't tell the whole story. These people know that to really understand what is going on you must also come to grips with the pattern of relationships that exists between and among those bits and pieces.

Evolution, in the most complete sense of that term, is the "complexification" of the universe, a process of system building and information creating that has been going on since the Big Bang at t=0, about 15 billion years ago. Using Jacques Monod's terms chance and necessity, we could say that evolution is driven by necessity, and its details are elaborated by chance. Necessity, in this case, is the entire ensemble of natural laws, working together. Chance is sometimes absolute randomness, as in quantum processes. It is also the unexpected and unpredictable that occurs when highly-independent chains of cause and effect intersect: Two people, living their individual lives, are invited to the same party. A meteor, traveling through the universe on one trajectory, strikes the earth, traveling through the universe on another. One of a hundred million sperm wins a race, enters an egg, and combines its genes with that egg's genes.

Without a grasp of evolutionary processes we have little sense of our deep kinship with the universe. In addition, we fail to sense the role that we humans are now playing as active agents of evolution.

Behind the uncommon term problematique lies a powerful perspective. I first encountered it in the 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, and it changed forever the way I look at global difficulties. The idea behind the term is this: The world's people do not face a basketful of separate problems. The world's major problems — population growth, environmental degradation, resource depletion, etc. — are so intimately linked that they are best thought of as facets of a single overarching problem, a problematique. To avoid making other aspects of the problematique worse, our problem-solving must be done with all of it in mind — not just the particular aspect that happens to occupy center stage at the moment.

Realization of oneness

For a long time now there have been small groups of people who saw some form of unity that most others could not see — or at least could not internalize to the point where it motivated their actions. Several of these unitive perspectives relate to the world of form and function; one is rooted in Being itself.

Among the information-based, form-and-function unities is the unity of human psychology. I experience fear, and hatred, and jealousy. So does every other human being. Seeing this can eventually lead to a unity of compassionate understanding. Our unskillfulness and outdated programming unite us — as does our potential for wisdom.

The evolutionary view of what is going on in the universe points to another form-and-function unity: the unity of process, a unity based on the physical interdependence that permeates the entire cosmos. In this view the whole universal process is one entity. We humans are localized, aware nodes of that process. My physical body is not a process unto itself, a closed system; it is an open system, an intrinsic part of a much larger physical process. It is a subsystem in a process that includes the biosphere, the sun, and in fact, the entire universe. This is a solid tangible unity based on the physical reality of our existence.

Then there is the unity of biological kinship. Not only do all humans belong to one species, but we are in some sense related to every other living thing. The twist of all DNA is in the same direction — one of two equally possible directions. This indicates to many scientists that all plant and animal species descended from a single early cell. Then too, the chemistry of all life forms is the same. Every organism in the diverse biological world was constructed using just a few standard chemical building blocks.

Some of the wisest people have seen a primal Being-based unity. This unity is the unity that the perennial philosophy would have us see, the unity dealt with in the mystical traditions of both East and West, the unity of transcendence, of Maslow's "Farther Reaches." It is an intuition-based type of holistic seeing. Coming to see this unity requires an intuitive shift of vantage point — and ultimately, of identification. The world observed by these people is the same world that everyone else sees; nothing external has changed. But they suddenly see that reality in a new context; they see in the data of life a meaning that wasn't evident before.

Involved here is what we might call an intuitive version of the perceptual gestalt flip. The gestalts that most psychology books discuss are visual gestalts. We might look at a set of black marks on white paper and say, "That's a face." It's not really a face, of course, but our brain has conjured up a "face" gestalt from the arrangement of marks. Or, as usually happens when we look out the window, we attend to our visual field not as single field of varying color and light intensity, but as a collection of gestalts, a collection of separate "things."

We're all familiar with drawings of objects that can be seen in more than one way. I recall one such drawing. At first glance I abstracted from it subjective reality number one: an attractive young woman seated at a dressing table, looking at herself in the mirror. Then my perception did a flip, and I saw the same pattern of black marks on the paper as the image of a skull: subjective reality number two. Which subjective reality truly represented the objective reality? Both did, but each was an incomplete representation. The drawing itself, the objective reality, contained both a skull aspect and a seated woman aspect. Both of the conscious experiences were valid, accurate, but incomplete analogs of the objective reality, the drawing itself. Most introductory psychology texts include drawings that produce this gestalt-flip phenomenon. Typical pictures are a vase that can also be seen as two faces, a stairway that can be seen as a ceiling cornice, and a young woman that flips to an old woman. Each is a drawing that can be viewed in two completely different and mutually exclusive ways.

The point here is that it is possible to have gestalt flips of conception and intuition as well as perception. Profound insights often involve a flip from one conceptual interpretation to another, or one intuitive sense of things to another. The old way of seeing the reality is still an option — and perhaps valid for certain purposes. But there is now a second way. It was always there. Others had seen it, and might have told us about it — but we hadn't seen it for ourselves. Then one day, FLIP. In a fraction of a second, we switch perspectives. We find ourselves still looking at the same old data, but we now see those data in a dramatically different way. We experience another valid — and sometimes more significant — way of understanding what is.

People who have flipped to the universal-wisdom or perennial-philosophy perspective report that existence involves two different kinds of reality. One is a transient, fragmented, surface reality which most of us mistakenly take to be THE reality. The other is an eternal, enabling oneness which these people realize is our true nature and identity — our deepest, truest Self. For millennia, insightful people have been beating about the bush of Truth, trying to express this realization clearly in words. Here, in the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to do that once again — this time using language, concepts, and metaphors of our present "information age."

Psychologist Maslow referred to Being, but in doing so he was an exception among scientists. Being is not something that scientists normally talk about. Scientists talk about phenomena. It is philosophers and spiritual teachers who have talked about Being. The ancients spoke of Being and Existence, Essence and Form, the Unconditioned and the Conditioned, Spirit and Manifestation. Later, Kant spoke of Noumenon and Phenomenon in a similar way. The general sense of those who used these terms was that Being/Essence/the Unconditioned/Spirit/Noumenon was ungraspable but eternal, primary yet unknowable. It was the Real. In contrast, Existence/Form/the Conditioned/Manifestation/Phenomena was knowable yet transient, ephemeral — even illusory. It was the Unreal.

When I first encountered this sort of thinking, years ago, I brushed it aside as irrelevant metaphysical hogwash. What could be more real than phenomena? Later, when I began to find science's answers less than complete, I asked myself why these two groups of serious, sincere people were talking past each other. Sages and philosophers, after all, are reality seekers. Scientists are reality seekers too. Both groups are interested in what is, and both groups comment on it — yet the two groups have historically described the same reality differently. Why is that?

The reason eventually dawned on me: science and philosophy approach reality with different aims, and with different questions in mind. The two groups do deal with the same reality, but they don't get the same answers because they don't ask the same questions. They subject the data to different interpretive frameworks, and this results in different — though not necessarily incompatible — descriptions of reality.

Our modern-day concepts of medium and message helped to clarify the situation for me. Science has declared its chief interest to be the study of physical phenomena, and these phenomena involve both a permanent medium-like aspect and a transient message-like aspect. The medium is energy. The message is the space-time patterning of that energy — its informational configuration as specific forms of energy, varieties of matter, and the relationship of these to each other. For most scientific purposes nothing would be gained by splitting a phenomenon into its medium and message aspects. It would not help answer scientific questions. It would have no explanatory value within that context.

The philosopher and the spiritual seer occupy the same world of phenomena in which the scientist lives, but they do find value in making a distinction between phenomena's temporary and permanent aspects. Seeing that phenomena have both an eternal "medium" aspect and a transient "message" aspect does have explanatory value within a philosophical/ spiritual context. This perspective gives better answers to questions that involve meaning, and it illuminates the eternal. It gives us a view that takes us beyond the usual scientific view without in any way negating it. From the medium-message perspective, scientific truth and philosophical or spiritual truth are seen to be non-conflicting subsets of a more complete Truth.

The medium/message model also applies to mental reality. Here, the underlying medium is pure awareness, sentience, subjectivity, the ground of mind. The mental message is mind content in its many forms — thoughts, feelings, perceptions, imaginings — all of them being informational modulations of awareness, modulations created in human beings by the patterned firing of brain neurons.

Concepts like medium, message, and information — as they are currently understood — were not common currency even a few decades ago, let alone in ancient times. In the past, words like Being, essence, Spirit, and form were the best terms available for getting an intellectual grip on the perennial-philosophy view of reality. Today, the new terms and concepts enable those who understand them to get even closer to the heart of the perennial-philosophy view. The information-age explanation goes like this:

Existence involves the interpenetration and interaction of three strata, or realms, or types of reality: energy, awareness, and information. Energy and awareness are media. (Or more probably, two aspects of one medium.) Information is message. Energy and awareness are the grounds from which existence springs (the paint and canvas). Information is the content (the brush strokes, the emerging pattern). Energy is the eternal ground of all physical existence and the active principle behind all change. Awareness is the ground of all mental existence. Information is the evanescent, space-based, time-based, always-changing overlay which — as form and content for the other two — creates the mental/physical drama of existence.

Pure, formless energy is the cosmic modeling clay — the medium which is overlaid with informational patterns, with form, to become the objective universe.

Pure, contentless awareness is the medium of subjective experience. It interfaces with informational patterns of energy difference that wave or modulate awareness, creating mind content and the phenomenon we call mind.

Information — form, pattern, difference — is that third element. Information is the abstract organizing matrix that lies at the root of any expression, in any medium. It is the organizing principle embodied in the blueprint of a building and in the building itself. It is the sameness to be found in a book written in English and in its French translation.

In information theory this abstract organizing matrix is seen to be a matrix of differences. Gregory Bateson defined the elementary unit of information as "any difference which makes a difference. . ." Information is the array of significant differences that defines form. Differences in position. Differences in time. Differences in color, intensity, pressure, texture. Differences of any kind signify information.

Information is knowledge in the abstract, disembodied knowledge. It is there in the concept, and the physical structure that embodies the concept. It is there in the motion, and in the equations that describe that motion. The same information exists in the imagination of the composer, the musical score, the performance, the wavy groove of the vinyl record, the electrical signal going to the loudspeaker, the sound in the room, the vibrations of the eardrum, the pattern of neuronal firings in the brain, and the subjective perception of the sound.

The universe is a display, a composition, a work, wrought in the primary media of expression. It is an ongoing "media event": an ever-changing in-form-ation and re-form-ation of energy — exhibiting and enjoying a vast variety of phenomena, effects and characteristics.

From the standpoint of energy, the universe is a giant physical process — a system of systems, a megasystem or suprasystem. From the standpoint of awareness, it is a mosaic of thought processes — a megathought or suprathought. From either standpoint it is an informational construct — a molding, a forming, a dynamic patterning of the two-faceted ground of being: Energy-Awareness.

It would be foolish to deny the reality of our physical existence, or call it an illusion. But there is a difference between the reality of form and specific function, and the reality of the underlying interpenetrating ground of being that makes form and function possible. I might give you a lump of modeling clay having some shape and ask: "Which is real, the clay or its shape?" The reality of the shape exists until you squish the thing in your hands and make another shape. But the reality of the clay itself remains unchanged. The perennial philosophy view holds that our true Self and Being inheres in the cosmic modeling clay. The body/mind's earthly existence inheres in the temporary shape — the temporary systemic pattern — into which the clay has been molded.

Cosmic modeling clay is more sophisticated, of course, than the stuff kids play with. It is energized, and can mold itself. In that respect it is more like yeasty bread dough than passive clay. The yeast within a lump of dough is active. In creating bubbles of gas it gives microscopic texture and macroscopic form to the loaf. The dough, in rising and baking, develops an intricate informational structure. The original dough is still there, but no longer as a homogeneous lump. The dough's active principle — the yeast — has been at work creating an informational labyrinth. The only physical reality is still the dough, but an informational reality has also come into existence: the bread's texture and overall shape. The universe behaves similarly as it evolves. Guided by the entire matrix of natural law, the universe — like a giant lump of rising dough — acquires form.

Being, however, is more than just its energy and awareness aspects. It is also the realm of potential and potential-actualizing process. It is the pregnant Void — void of form or information — but the source of all form, capability, and wisdom. Being has the potential to clothe itself in a bewildering variety of informational patterns. And the universe is rigged so that this will happen. The cosmic algorithms that define the laws of nature work together to actualize potentials whenever they can be actualized. This results in a general tendency for something to happen rather than nothing. The universe has a built in YES! It is intrinsically adventurous. Energy says YES and does. Awareness says YES and experiences.

Those who deeply internalize the perennial philosophy perspective experience a shift in identification. Their former primary identification as a person is replaced by a new primary identification as Being itself. Identification as a person remains an option, and is useful in everyday circumstances, but they can flip to their new vantage point at will. From that vantage point they see themselves as Being. To use my terminology, they see themselves as energy acting to uplevel the informational process, and awareness enjoying the perception of it.

Making this shift of identification does not happen easily. Although we are surrounded by evidence of the unity, very few are ready to see it. Our biocomputer/brains are currently programmed to believe in a personal self, and our whole personal-survival pleasure-seeking orientation comes out of that belief. Gut-level acceptance of oneness means gut-level disidentification with a small-s self — and most people are not ready for that. In later chapters we will explore this identification issue more deeply.

Behavior that benefits others

Wise people live their daily lives in accord with wise perspectives and wise values. As a result, their actions make the world around them a better place. They help others to grow. They live compassionately. They resolve conflicts and in other ways maximize harmony and general well-being. If their own growth in wisdom is carried to the point where identification with Being takes place, they stop differentiating between themselves, the universe, and what needs to be done. At that point they see themselves and the rest of humanity as Being itself — evolving, and living progressively higher values.

As Maslow pointed out, when you see clearly what is, you automatically know what to do. Reality, in other words, has its own ethical imperatives. These ethical "musts" become obvious when the mind becomes quiet — when the clear truth about what needs to be done is not obscured by personal wants, fears, and dislikes. Wise people are able to sense ethical imperatives and act on them because intuition and intellect — working as coordinated partners — now run the show. What to do becomes clear under these conditions. So does what not to do. Wise people not only work to uplevel the process, they refuse to commit their time and energy to the unhelpful.

E-mail: cop@copmacdonald.comCopyright 1995 by Copthorne Macdonald