Musings on the Nature of Wisdom

Spirituality has become mainstream. Bumper stickers now caution us to “live in the moment”; magazines tell us to “live our wholeness”; teachers everywhere are touting “do what you love”; Confucius is urging us to buy the next mobile phone, and facebook proliferates with “inspirational quotes” telling us how we should be living our lives. This is not a bad thing, in my opinion – it reflects a shift in consciousness, a global reaching towards something larger than ourselves, an opening into other ways of connecting with who we really are and an opportunity for our human expression to reach greater heights. But it’s also an issue when spirituality and self-exploration become a kind of snack food – when we grab a bit of bite-sized pop-wisdom at the drive through because we are too lazy or too busy to eat a nourishing meal of true inspiration.

The thing I’m learning about wisdom is that is can come from anywhere – any religion, science or doctrine has truth in it, but wisdom is different to learning. Learning is found all over the place, and we are trained in it from an early age through our schooling system, which teaches us to take on facts, memorize things, and repeat them in a rote way to get the good marks. Learning requires very little engagement from the student – it’s as simple as the ability to remember and regurgitate – it is essentially uncreative, because there is no need for the student to involve themselves in the process, and as long as they can store things in memory little else is required.

Wisdom is different. Wisdom is not gained by rote repetition of things we have heard out there in the world. It is a process of the individual connecting with the learning, filtering it through their own consciousness, receiving it into their being, and finally embodying it. It’s a journey. It takes time, and usually, it takes pain. The greatest lessons I have learned in my life have come through or around the times of my greatest challenge, the times when I was confronted with my own narrow-mindedness and invited to step beyond it into something larger.  Wisdom doesn’t end. It’s not like you understand something and then it is done. Wisdom is not static. Knowledge is static, because once you have memorized something you have it and can repeat it. But this does not mean you have really received it. Great wisdom requires a continually open mind – one that is prepared to be wrong, one that is prepared to accept that everything you have been certain of up until now can shift and change and become unrecognizable and yet retain the same essence of truth that was there from the beginning.

Wisdom is like a dance partner – it’s like a marriage – it’s an interaction. The minute you think you know it, the minute you think you have it all sorted, right then, if you look, wisdom will already be changing, already leading you somewhere else, already tempting you to explore another aspect of yourself and itself. Wisdom is the willingness to learn, the willingness to be open, the willingness to lead and be lead. When the dance stops, when things become still and static and certainty and sureness step in, there truth dies, and doctrine steps in. Spirituality then becomes nothing more than a series of rules, things one should be, right and wrong pathways to follow – it becomes a bunch of pat answers, an excuse to judge oneself and others or be on a high horse.

The greatest enemy of wisdom is separation. Arrogance is a form of separation, but so is too much humility. Wisdom is found only in an open, honest and direct connection with truth – in the willingness to be lead a merry dance through life, and find a thousand times that we do not know.

In the last year and half I have had everything I thought I knew questioned. Certainty is something that I desire greatly, as I have a deep insecurity inside me that calls to find something I can cling to – knowing makes me feel safe in an uncertain world. So I have fought this process. I have held on to what I thought was right and tried to prove it’s veracity. Nonetheless I have been broken down – my structures have died – the things I thought I wanted have shown up empty – the ideas I clung to have not protected me as I hoped they would. This has been a terrifying process. But now I have bare ground. I have an inner world that is rich in possibility because it is not made up of rote sayings and pat answers, but is a journey that unfolds daily, step by step. This is an incredibly fulfilling place to live, and a very vulnerable one.

So I come to this: to be wise we must burn. Like a bushfire that ravages the forest, but brings new life in its wake, like the phoenix that burns itself away so that it may be reborn – so is wisdom. It is not something that can be attained, but like the fairy lights of old mythology, something that is chased down, grasped, and then flickers and twists out of one’s grasp so that we must chase it down again. New life comes from the dying of the old.

There is a story that used to be enacted in the goddess rites, wherein the new king would dress himself in antlers and hunt down the old king and kill him, so that the new king might be crowned. Then, in time, his turn would come to be hunted down and killed. This myth expresses the truth that to find wisdom we must burn our old structures down, we must be prepared to surrender what we know to something deeper, older, more fluid and be enriched by it. We must be both new king and old, dying and being reborn, moment to moment.

William had said it to me often: we must be idiots of god. The symbol of knowledge is an over full cup, into which no new elixir can be poured. We must empty our cups, that they may be filled again and again and again. When we fill our cups with snack food wisdom, there is no space for the truth to visit us. How many times have you heard “just be in the moment”, or “go for what you love”, or “that ailment you have means this about you”? Repetition breeds contempt and rote learning is no kind of learning at all – after all, a parrot can be taught to say “live in the now”, but it does not make the bird a wise man.

“The only way to get rid of anima is to bore her. In this case she manifests herself as absence, as loss of soul in the dead mechanical language of theorists who are bent on defining and categorizing what cannot be treated in this way.”

Patrick Harpur

Shamanism was defined to me recently as simply the capacity to interpret the voices of nature. To hear the truth in the song of the rippling wind, the roar and tumble of waves on the beach, the trickle-ickle of a forest stream. And if the voice of nature, then why not every voice? If there is wisdom in a blade of grass, then why not also the simple truth of a child – the didactic teaching of a guru – and the confused ravings of a madman? Wisdom is not contained in the words – it is not the province of language. Wisdom is more likely simply the tuning of our own instrument – making ourselves sensitive enough to be able to receive – to really hear.

I think there are many ways to wisdom, many ways to find our truth – it is not the pathway that is important, but the capacity to receive, to be with – to go deep. Go deeply into anything and you will find truth, to my mind. Whether that be some spiritual wisdom, a religion, a vocation, or your sexuality – if you dive in, open enough to let it touch you, deep enough to be revealed to yourself, you cannot help but be transformed. And what is wisdom but simply the capacity to continually be moved, continually transformed, continually uplifted?

So if you would be wise, my advice to you is simply this: don’t stop. Don’t ever think that you have arrived. Be open. And Go Deep. 

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