I write for one of two reasons, usually combined:
Either I feel the need to explore something that’s relevant to my life, and in doing so, start a conversation about it with you or anyone who will listen. Or there’s something bothering me that I haven’t fully addressed, and I’m hoping the conversation will make me feel better about it – maybe even you.
Writing about some ‘bothering’ stuff here.
I am in Chicago finishing my Master Yoga TT. Becoming a sefu (wise one) in the yogi tradition is a huge responsibility, and I am pondering just which of my failings I will be facing this week, and the week after that, and so on…
And I am also in America, where in the public arena at least, truth has become inconvenient, facts are false, statements made are bereft of independent judgment or analysis, and fully loaded with popular appeal. Not the only place this is happening either.
What does it really mean to be wise in this world? How do we build wisdom? Share it? How can we get it back when leaders begin to deny its appeal? And the community agrees?
‘The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”
An underwhelming statement – what exactly is the purpose of wisdom if you have to go around knowing nothing? Knowing nothing and pretending otherwise is not wise (maybe this is the intent of this message – I recall as an adolescent often pretending to know something when I didn’t, and as an adult, had to really shake myself of the habit).
Neither is pretending to know nothing when you do. It might feel humble, but feels to me more like humbug. Why would you not want to help people if you have insight they might not?
So I assume, dear reader, that you are interesting in giving wisdom. Which means you need to think about how you get wisdom.
Getting of Wisdom
In the yoga and Buddhist tradition (also others), we respect those who are older than us – the virtue of age makes them innately wiser. We assume they have much life knowledge and experience, most of which we cannot see (like the tip of the iceberg). We either ask or wait for them to share it. Sometimes though, they will tell us it is better to learn ourselves than to have others tell us.
Here are my tips for getting wisdom while waiting for the wise ones to offer it up:
1. Try different stuff. Get out of your comfort zone. Warning: this new stuff may be uncomfortable, perhaps even terrifying. The creation of new knowledge requires finding courage in yourself in places you have never looked. And doing stuff you may not even be proud of. This is known as ‘mistakes’, one of the greatest places of learning – and not about how to apologise, either.
2. Listen to people talk about their life and experiences, preferably people you don’t know that well. When we ask others we are close to about their life, they tend to validate what we feel and already know.
3. Don’t get caught up in the allure of the ‘lie’ – Henry Handel Richardson wrote a book, the Getting of Wisdom, which was turned into a movie by the film director, Gillian Armstrong. The subject matter: a young woman in the early 1900s: an awkward, insecure, restless and ‘knowing’ child who learns that self-realisation depends on rebellion and escape, but that the latter will first demand at least the semblance of conformity. In telling lies, Laura learns both the astonishing allure of fiction and the social costs of stepping beyond the bounds of propriety, gender, class, and family ties. The allure of fiction to maintain a social identity (constructed by yourself) is the largest barrier to the getting of wisdom. It is hard enough to become wise when you are open, but when you start to construct smoke and mirror identities, well, almost impossible. Starting to see the problem with international politics, yet?
“A mind so full of other things she went on giving orders while she was shaking hands.” Richardson, the Getting of Wisdom
The idea of personal change – not all of it that great in the process. No one tells you that great wisdom means acknowledging great personal failings. And a load of lies to ourselves and others, too. Which leads us to becoming pretty humble, when we realise the pack of cards with which we have built our house…
The most impactful giving of wisdom is that which is humble. Given without need for authority, the wisdom stands on its own merits, the person giving it completely exposed. ‘The ring of truth’ – we have all heard it, experienced it, when someone tells us something from so deep within themselves from that place of terrible pain and great learning, that is so universal in its truth.
So… once you realise what it is all about, what do you do with it all when you are ‘wise’?
One of the other great yogi traditions is pass it on. For free, for money, in whatever way people are open to receiving it. In the original lineage of yoga, generally, this meant passing it on to your children, who may or may not be the best people to be given carriage of the wisdom. But there’s a learning there, too, right?
I think sharing of wisdom has to be more widespread, dare I say it viral. We have to use the technologies now. In wisdom, there also passes values, contained like a tiny trojan virus in every piece of knowledge we share. The passing of values like compassion, caring and connectedness through information has become even more important now that ‘fake’ news is out there to tell us everything hateful about each other and ourselves.
Share that news story that shows we have a heart, post on Facebook something that has made you and others feel good about themselves. We need to do this at least 10 times more ‘cos, as human beings, we love suffering – we tend to remember the bad, and forget the good.
“If you knew what I know about the power of giving you would not let a single meal pass without sharing in some way.”
Buddha apparently said this (might have been in conversation, I cannot find it in his direct teachings). If not him, some other really smart spiritual identity. Like a meal, wisdom can be shared without making a triumphant announcement which turns out to be a complete falsehood. You in your own world, can have more impact than pronouncements from the West Gate Lawn.
“Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is so dark” Zen Proverb.
An edited version of this article appeared in the 70th birthday edition of the ANZA Singapore Magazine. Happy Birthday ANZA, the community from the past, the present and the future. You have never stood in your own shadow. May we all continue to give and share what we know and value.