In Pursuit of Wisdom

Part 1: “Even a Little Drop Will Do.”

I’m trying to tap into some wisdom,
Even a little drop will do.
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage
Before I’m through.

– Paul Simon, “Wartime Prayers”

Wisdom – How would you define that word? In Simon’s popular song, the pursuit of wisdom is elusive, as he settles for “a little drop.” It’s a work in progress that he hopes to achieve some semblance of before he’s “through.” Isn’t that what growing old is all about?

Psychology Today provides a succinct and meaningful definition:

“Wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.”

It’s much more than that.

Contemplating the Surf
I think the pursuit of wisdom starts with deep contemplation based on one’s life experiences. It comes from a close examination of our failures and successes, our suffering and joy. Without deep contemplation, wisdom does indeed become increasingly elusive.

Deep contemplation also brings disturbing emotions, inner turmoil, and sometimes memories loaded with shame and guilt, so our immediate response is to take flight, stop thinking so deeply, and go back on our merry, but thoughtless, trail.

However, “the goal is not to make thoughts and emotions disappear but to prevent them from proliferating and enslaving us,” says Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, from the recent book In Search of Wisdom: A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most.

Ride those disturbing emotions like an ocean wave that stops at the shore but comes back, sometimes with more or less ferocity. Realize the ocean never goes away and it’s your duty to continuously practice riding its movement that will surely take you to more solid ground, but only temporarily as another wave rolls in. The seasoned body surfer does not experience as many crashes as the novice body surfer. Simple, right? Well, of course, there’s more to discuss here in our opening (Part 1) conversation about wisdom.

Meaningful Dialogue
The philosopher for In Search of Wisdom is Alexandre Jollien, and the psychiatrist is Christophe André. Their views with Matthieu Ricard’s make for an interesting and enlightening read. Together they bring a wealth of insightful Buddhist- and Western Positive-Psychology-oriented guidance that supports the pursuit of wisdom. The entire book is a long conversation between these three men. I felt privileged to be exposed to their sincere thinking, like they had come over to my house to pay a visit and transparently shared their deepest knowledge, personal stories, anecdotes, and travails.

Here in this early exploration into wisdom, I’ll synthesize a “little drop” of what I found helpful in this book and strongly suggest you purchase it if you are seeking wisdom and can afford to buy it. For me, it was an easy, highly useful and helpful read loaded with positive perceptions that can be picked-up at any time and on any page.

Impermanence
First, since I write about aging, I was attracted to what they had to say about “impermanence,” although it was a very small part of the entire book. The western definition of impermanence is straight forward – it simply means not permanent, like our lives, our strong bones and muscles, our sharp brains, etc. In Buddhist culture, it’s called “anicca” and takes on a hugely important significance as one of “three marks of basic characteristics of all phenomenal existence,” as defined in Encyclopedia Britannica. “That the human body is subject to change is empirically observable in the universal states of childhood, youth, maturity, and old age. Similarly, mental events come into being and dissolve. Recognition of the fact that anicca characterizes everything is one of the first steps in the Buddhist’s spiritual progress toward enlightenment.”

Acceptance
Christophe, the psychiatrist, puts a positive spin on the impermanence of growing old, explaining how the changes in his hair’s composition and color, his new inability to actively engage in athletics, and his no longer painless joints are all part of an aging process that teaches him how to be detached and at home with getting older and ultimately accepting of death.

“Resigning ourselves to age normally can help us have less fear of death. It seems to me that aging is made for that, to make it so that at the end, you don’t regret leaving the body,” Christophe says.

“Sooner or later everything will break down. Everything is impermanent,” says Alexandre, who finds “a kind of liberation in seeing that everything is fragile.”  He gives up on stability and “learns to swim in impermanence. If I keep trying at all costs to find a terra firma where I can stay forever, I will inevitably be disappointed,” he adds.

More “drops” of wisdom in future posts, including reference to some of the interesting academic studies on this topic. . .

Thanks for stopping by,

George

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