The pursuit of wisdom seems to be intimately sewn into humankind’s existence and definition of self. We are born to learn, to gain knowledge, to experience fail and to contemplate life. Our capacity of self-awareness inevitably leads us to the questions “Who am I” and “Where do I come from” and “Why?” We search for the answers and forget time and time again. We forget our true nature a hundred times just to remember it once more. When we begin to question our existence and searching for the ultimate truth, we are drawn down an infinite path of inconclusive discoveries and paradox. Perhaps it is because the path to truth is infinite that we call it the “pursuit of wisdom.” This makes me wonder, can wisdom ever finally be achieved? Or is wisdom of a more intangible nature, ever-changing and ever-expanding? Is wisdom not a fixed thing but rather dynamic, flexible and spontaneously created in every moment? Are we destined to forever be in the pursuit? And if so, what does it mean to be wise?
From the beginning of this course, I had the inkling that maybe I had no idea what wisdom really is. My former definitions were no longer reflected in my real life experiences, which I took as a hint that I was on the wrong track. For a long time I defined wisdom as the attainment of knowledge through experience, usually embodied as an old, wrinkled man or woman with twinkling eyes and a sharp wit. I saw myself as being too young to have the wisdom of the elders. The prerequisite of age made wisdom difficult for me to claim. Or I idealized a few exceptional individuals that are simply born wise as if by lottery chance. I felt jealous of these “chosen” ones, all the indigo children, prodigies or spiritual geniuses, and perceived a lack on my part. The fact that I was just a “normal kid” also robbed me of the opportunity of being wise myself. Because of my predisposition, I found myself trying to say wise sounding things and act as if I knew the right answers. Ultimately, I think I acted more foolish than wise.
More than once in my life I have been advised to imitate the virtues of the wise, such as Jesus or Buddha, until those virtues arise naturally in myself. For a long time, this is how I pursued wisdom. This approach always resembled a fake it ’till you make it method in my mind. But, it works for many things, so why not for spirituality as well? We fake a smile to change our moods. We fake confidence in our stature to give the right impressions. We fake calmness to in times of stress. So I have tried faking the tranquility, kindness, compassion, and even happiness I imagine Jesus must have embodied. Yet, in my interactions with the world, faking it till I make it makes me feel just that; fake.
My repetitive experiences of feeling fake revealed to me that my vision of wisdom was more of a naive idealism, mainly because my attempts at wisdom didn´t seem to help anyone, not me, not anybody. It disconnected me from my inner and outer world more than anything. In spiritual psychology circles they call this a spiritual bypass, which is considered a defense mechanism to avoid unpleasant experiences. For me, this felt like being hypnotized by my ideal to the degree of abandoning my real life. Little by little I have been waking up from the hypnosis and coming to terms with the idea that real wisdom might come from the acceptance of my very “unvirtuous”, “unwise”, and seemingly “unspiritual” life. Real wisdom, I have come to believe, ought to be applicable to my very real human life as well inspired from it. Real wisdom, I am convinced, cannot only be for the saints, but for the criminals, the mentally ill, the rich, the poor, and for just plain, normal people like me.
Realizing this, the great possibility emerged that wisdom was something much more mysterious than I had ever imagined. This was the call to open my mind beyond the peripheries of my knowing in order to discover what it really is. With this mindset I read the writing of Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau as well as attended afternoon lectures on Indian yogic philosophy. Each source of knowledge sprung forth new ideas on spirituality, truth, and the human condition. Each was its own expression of the pursuit of wisdom, its own path to the same truth. I offered up my old ideas to the wise sages of India, the modern saint Gandhi, and the transcendentalist hermit and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in the hopes of discovering a new understanding of wisdom, one that fits my vision of the world as well as my experiences. I would like to share my observations on these three examples and how they led me to unearth my own definition of wisdom.
I found that each of the three examples emphasize the importance of a clear vision and a consistent practice. They also illustrate a lifelong balancing of these two things, the vision and the practice, as one of man’s greatest challenges. Padma Shambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism articulated this struggle and aim of man beautifully when he said “Descend with the view, ascend with the conduct.” Padma Shambhava’s ‘view’ refers to a grand vision, a life philosophy or worldview, and ‘conduct’ refers to the actions or practice in Finding a balance between the vision and the conduct is the work of a lifetime. It inevitably entails a lot of trial and error, self-discovery and the transformation of beliefs.
I like to translate this concept of vision and conduct to the experience of an inner and outer reality. It is my belief that everyone, be they spiritual or not, experiences an inner reality that is seemingly separate from the outside world. This inner reality is where we develop our vision of life. It is where our intuition, our hearts, and the sense of connection to all things can be found. Looking inside ourselves, we contact the center of our being, or our soul. Depending on how aware we are of our inner state determined the quality of our relationships, work, projects, health, or in Shambhava´s words, our conduct. This is why Padma Shambhava accentuates the cultivation of one´s vision first and foremost. Without an inner vision, our actions lose purpose and meaning. I would add to Shambhavas teaching the importance of developing one´s own, unique vision. In my days of imitating saints, I copied and pasted their teachings without doing much introspection on my part. I believe this is why my efforts of thought, word, and act ultimately felt fruitless. They didn´t emerge from my own soul.
Throughout history, cultures around the world have marked the importance discovering one´s inner vision. The Native American tribes consider it a natural part of life and a necessary task for everyone to fulfill. Once their youth reach a certain age, they retreat in solitude a vision quest. In India, monks embark on their own vision quest for decades at a time. They do this in service to humanity believing that the illumination of one mind means the liberation of all. Once the inner vision is discovered, the work of service, or selfless action follows next. The idea is to find the balance between the two. I find that Gandhi´s philosophy focused more on the ascension of one´s actions to meet his ideals whereas Thoreau was more concerned with the descent of his vision into the practical world.
In Gandhi’s autobiography, Experiments with Truth, he speaks to how his convictions have changed throughout his life, but the pursuit of truth has remained constant. He admits that his past convictions often contradict those of the present. I find Gandhi’s experiments with eating meat as a youth to be a poignant example. I believe Gandhi’s wisdom was in his willingness to change and evolve yet maintain his actions alligned with the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence. The complete realization of Ahimsa, for Gandhi, is an expression of his ultimate truth, or God. In other words, Ahimsa was Gandhi’s code of conduct to realize his vision, God. Yet, finding the meeting point between the two was a constant struggle for Gandhi, even as he wrote the last words of his autobiography.
In the chapters of the book, Ghandi wrote a little bit about the difficulties of Ahimsa in a world governed by the forces of creation and destruction. “Then again, because underlying ahimsa is the unity of all life, the error of one cannot but affect all, and hence man cannot be wholly be free from himsa.” I get the impression that Gandhi´s ideals were so high and perfect that their realization through action was impossible. This left the aspirant of ahimsa only to strive, but never fully fulfill ahimsa due to the fundamental nature of the universe. He goes on to say, “…all actions of compassion, then he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.” Gandhi´s lofty ideals did not “descend” to the mundane life of man in other ways as well, such as with sexuality and desire. Reading Gandhi, I learned importance of having a pure vision. Personally, however, I would like my vision of spirituality to be more inclusive of human life. In this aspect, Henry David Thoreau has a lot to say.
Thoreau was a very pragmatic man that didn´t believe what he had not experienced for himself. Instead of letting this limit is breadth of understanding, he went into the woods for two years to put his ideals to the test of experience. “I went to the woods,” he says, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I really like Thoreau´s down to earth approach. He didn´t reject world of men and nature as an obstacle of the divine. He studied nature vigilantly and watched as the divine, or the vision of God, descends in the many manifest creations.
Henry David Thoreau’s pursuit of wisdom was also one of immense transformation. In his book Walden, his concluding thoughts on life are very different from the beginning of his voyage into the woods. Yet, just as Gandhi said in his introduction, the change of opinion in no way discredits the search for truth. On the contrary, it enriches it. The arrival at any truth would not be possible were it not for the journey leading up to it. And usually the journey to truth is filled with doubts, errors, and reconsideration. “The universe is wider than our views of it.” Thoreau writes in his conclusion to Walden. I interpret Thoreau’s words to mean that no one view point can encompass the universe. Maybe he is saying that the only way to know the universe is to experience the constant transformation of one view to the next. Could the pursuit of wisdom a surrender to change and transformation? I believe so.
The ideas of the 20th century ecologist, Gregory Bateson, inspired the definition above. Bateson, renowned for his work in inventing cybernetics, had a very unique vision of the world. He was able to observe life as a network of relationships and therefore see the connections between the individual and the whole, the macrocosm and the microcosm. Looking at his hands, he saw the spaces in between fingers as four relationships. He saw that life was in constant flux, making one’s ability to change their greatest skill. I find this to be true as I watch single birds spontaneously shift their flight to maintain the formation of the flock. I observe it in the caterpillar that sacrifices its life to transform into a butterfly. Whole ecosystems flutter and shake in spontaneous reactions to the demands of the climate. Meanwhile, things die when they cease to move, change, and evolve. The shark, when still, cannot breathe. Similarly, people start to feel dead when they cannot let go of the past.
Maybe being flexible and going with the flow is inherent in wisdom. Bateson never placed any concrete value on the stability of an opinion because he believed that “the landscapes that survive are the ones with enough flexibility to endure the shaking of the earth beneath them.” (Bateson, Ecology of the Mind) Bateson is at once describing a truth that is flexible enough to withstand the changes of human life as well as the flexibility in one’s conduct to maintain a steady vision. The vision and the conduct, therefore, interdependently rely on the other in the pursuit of wisdom. I imagine them as two sides of the same coin.
Through my own search for wisdom, I have arrived yet again to a definition of wisdom that is congruent with my greater vision of life as well as my current circumstances. The journey is the destination, because destination itself is infinite. There is nowhere to get to. We work and work for self-realization only to be told by the enlightened ones that we already are what we search for. So, wisdom is constantly evolving, transforming, and recreating itself in the moment. And the pursuit of it is in the conscious, momentary choice to look inward with the question “what is true now?” It is a focus on wisdom. It is a personal inquiry to be taken up at anytime, anywhere and by anyone as to what is needed, what is real, what is the message trying get through? It is entering into a state of mind, into stillness and faith so that one can hear the murmur of the soul. In these moments of stillness, vision and conduct are one. The wisdom is in the pursuit, the pursuit is the wisdom.
Gandhi, M. (1957) An Autobiography: the Story of My Experiments with Truth, Beacon Press. Boston, MA
Thoreau, H. (2005) Walden, The Penguin Group, New York, NY
Bateson, N. (Director) (2011). Ecology of the Mind [Motion picture] The Impact Media Group
Padma Shambhava quote: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=LOC463
© 2015 Madison Dezelsky