“The root of happiness: Discover which actions truly produce happiness and which result in suffering. Using discernment, take up what brings benefit and discard what causes harm. Live accordingly and you’ll be on the right path.”
– H.H. Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje
What is wisdom and how can we find it? Certainly we all would like to have more of it, especially in those moments when we feel that we are at the end of our rope. But surprisingly, wisdom doesn’t seem to be a very popular topic in scientific research. It can seem a rather vague (though certainly positive) quality.
When we look for wisdom, we typically look to religious traditions—but what we find can be confusing. Christians teach about it differently than Buddhists, for example. There are many different wisdom traditions in this world and each might have a different understanding of it.
Even so, we all know people who embody and offer wisdom to us. In their presence we feel understood, well supported, maybe even safe and unconditionally loved. We feel inspired to bring them our deepest questions; we don’t typically go to them for advice on the color for our new car. Though we might too.
Wise people seem to have a kind of knowledge that they have gained through experience in life. It’s different from the knowledge learned in school. They are often able to understand what few others do. We sense lack of prejudice in them, a depth that’s difficult to fathom. We trust their often intuitive judgment, even if we don’t immediately see how they came to it.
A response, attitude, or comment that feels wise to us often combines rational and intuitive elements. It’s based on knowledge, experience, and instinct, but often it’s broader, deeper, and more compassionate than what we were thinking. We sense the truth in it, but are not necessarily able to clearly articulate it ourselves.
In our own lives, sometimes we notice that after a challenging experience, we somehow gain a bit of wisdom. Often it’s others who point that out and we are somewhat surprised. It’s a complex process, but difficulties we experience can transform into wisdom. They don’t have to become traumatic memories. I believe one important element in this process is that we do not feel alone with our suffering. We recognize it in others too, and we also find help from others.
Good preconditions for the development of wisdom
I think the following qualities can enable us to develop wisdom: Openness, an interested and friendly approach to our own emotions and those of others; a willingness to self-reflect about what we witness in ourselves and others; and a sense of personal efficacy, the conviction that we are not helpless, a victim of fate. These qualities are the lack of bias as well as the confidence we need to see how things really are, for ourselves.
I love the way the Tibetan-Buddhist teachings distinguish between three different kinds of wisdom that arise from a progressive deepening of understanding and experience. According to the tradition, they develop by listening to teachings, contemplating them, and meditating.
– Listening to a respected authority provides us with definite knowledge, but it is “second-hand,” no matter how true it sounds to us. It’s ordinary knowledge of what Buddhism refers to as the “relative” truth of how things appear.
– Reflecting, thinking deeply ourselves, allows us make that knowledge ours and to see what’s most important in it. We learn to separate provisional from definitive teachings, which are about the “absolute truth” of how things really are—beyond the truth of how they appear.
– With meditation we begin to actually experience the truth beyond our mere ideas about it. According to Buddhism, the highest wisdom reaches beyond what we can describe with words. It’s not a mere knowledge, but an experience of liberation from any kind of mental fixation, and from suffering itself—while containing extraordinary insight into helping others.
In my eyes this is a very practical description of a very wide context. It reaches far beyond our normal experience, but really starts where we are right now, a place where we can learn to listen well. It’s so inspiring to know how far this approach reaches and at the same time I’m so grateful when I learn about the tiny steps that help in each moment.
For these little steps it’s necessary that we have a clear orientation, that we really know what is a good deed and what not—so that we can live accordingly. To know that this path of choice is the path to liberation gives me the patience to go on moment by moment and day by day. I can reflect on my small and large experiences and to move on with focus and joy.
There is so much more to learn and read about the subjects of meditation, truth, and wisdom. Simply by having an interest in these topics and in living this way, we are well on our way on the long, interesting, and beautiful journey towards wisdom.
As I’ve described many times now, I love to use this slow time of winter and the new year to reflect on my life and my approach, to find new inspiration and new light. May the new year with its fresh and unknown 365 days be an inspiring, happy, and healthy time for all of you!
With this said I wish all the best for you and a beautiful week! Thank you so much for having spent some time with me here this year. Next year I’ll have something new for all of us here in this place. More about this very soon.
For now, enjoy your days and see you soon,