In The Skill of Wisdom: Part 1 we defined wisdom as insight in action: The integration of the rational brain (knowledge), with the emotional brain (experience), which creates insight; or deeper, intuitive knowing. This deep knowing put into action is wisdom. To practice wisdom so to practice living from the balanced state of the wise mind.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), says “Wise Mind is like having a heart – everyone has one, whether they experience it or not.” Thus, this is something we all possess naturally, even if we are not aware of it all the time or even know how to use it.
The core of a wise mind is based on intuitive thinking and looking at the bigger picture. It strikes a balance between the emotional and rational parts of our minds. A developed intuition is perhaps the highest achievement of this mind function. It is an art to listen to your wise mind.
So, how do you know if you are acting from your wise mind?
Most of us are aware of the times that we are heavily in our emotional mind because our emotions can be so large and loud. In those moments it can be hard to find balance and pull in the perspective of the rational mind. On the other hand, many of us live in the grips of our rational mind, which can be really skilled at dismissing the quieter emotions coming from the other side. Many of us are taught from a young age to temper our big feelings with rationality; and instead of seeking a balance of the two, we learn to routinely dismiss emotions whenever possible because they get in our way or take us places we don’t want to go.
When the waters of the emotional mind crash over the metaphorical break wall, we can feel like we are drowning. We get caught up in it, and it feels threatening. Once the waves subside, we disconnect from that side again until the water rises to a level that cannot be contained.
“Many people are frightened by their feelings. They hope meditation will help them to transcend the messiness of the world and leave them invulnerable to difficult feelings. But this is a false transcendence, a denial of life. It is fear masquerading as wisdom.”
― The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology
Mindfulness as a route to the wise mind
Mindfulness is a buzzword these days. You might equate it with meditation or with being in the moment; and although those are aspects of mindfulness, the heart of it is a purposeful awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences, in a non-judgmental way, on a moment-to-moment basis. It is all about being curious about your thoughts and emotions, without making judgments about what you find.
The way to know if you are acting from your wise mind is to use mindfulness to be aware of what your rational mind and your emotional mind have to say about any given experience.
For example: think of a recent conflict or hard decision you had to make, and ask yourself:
Were you mindful of the objective facts of the situation or the problem? If you were still clouded by emotions and you didn’t really take into account the facts of the situation then your solution probably is not based on your wise mind. When we are too emotional, it’s often useful to cool down first and make the decision later.
Were you being too objective and blocking out your emotions completely? Were you unaware of your feelings about the situation? Were you aware of how your body was reacting when you thought about the situation; or were you just pushing it all below the surface? Take a few moments to reflect not just on the facts but on how it all makes you feel.
If like most of us, you are not used to exploring whether you are in a balanced state of wise mind, then this skill takes practice. But, like anything you practice, it does become easier and more natural. A long-term goal is to get to the point where you intuitively “know” whether you are in the wise mind, and when needed, be able to easily reconnect with its truth and wisdom.
Here is a great link with more mindfulness exercises to help you connect with the wise mind and practice the skill of wisdom.
How practicing “Wise Mind” encourages a wise heart
What is really beautiful about living from a wise mind, is that it encourages you to cultivate the traits that we all associate with wisdom. For example, psychologists have found open-mindedness to be one of the traits associated with wisdom. By being mindful (aware without judgment) of your thoughts and feelings, you will notice that you have emotions that conflict with your rational thoughts and vice versa, or you might find yourself questioning something you had believed to be true. As you are more open to your own mind, you become more open-minded in your approach to others and to life itself; which I view as a wise heart.
Wise people understand the limits of their knowledge, and because of that, they are more open to take different perspectives into account and consider diverse viewpoints. This intellectual humility allows us a greater sense of compassion for ourselves, and the perspective to view the self as just another human going through the school of life. We can also develop more compassion towards others as this humility allows us to be more open to other viewpoints. This is how the wise mind expands into a wise heart and lets us act through wisdom.
The wise heart as a personal practice
When we practice acting from the wise mind, it begins to feel natural. We start to develop a personal philosophy; a way of guiding our lives based upon the fundamental truths we have discovered about ourselves, the world, and our relationship to/in it.
For those of us who are religious, we may look to the teachings of our tradition to show us how to cultivate wisdom, and in that way, we practice the teachings that we follow. For those of us who do not follow one spiritual path, practicing the skill of wisdom is a way to create our own path. As we discover what rings true for us, we shape our personal philosophy; which are the principles that we live by.
Living from your personal philosophy is a way to practice wisdom.
As Stephen R. Covey says “If you’re looking to create a timeless sense of purpose and to shape the overall mission of your life, then you should use principles. Establishing a set of principles creates a compass to which you can refer whenever something is in doubt or you need to take a stand or evaluate any particular opportunity, behavior, or situation.”
Developing a personal philosophy can be a grounding base to live from. Even if you do follow a spiritual or religious path, you can personalize those teachings and prioritize where your focus is, or reflect on what areas need practice to become second nature.
For more specific how-to: here is an article on how to draft your own personal philosophy.
If you are someone (like me), who doesn’t love formal explorations and wants to organically find your philosophy, just use mindfulness. Practice being in your wise mind and notice what traits repeatedly surface. Does your wise mind feel compassionate? Curious? Open? I name these because those are a few of the big ones that come up for me, but we all have our unique combinations. Finding these characteristics and using them as guiding principles is the way to practice the skill of wisdom. My personal desire is to recognize more of them and integrate them into my personal philosophy as I cultivate more wisdom throughout my life.
When I experience something that upsets me, often I can see that it is at odds with one of the principles I hold dear, and just knowing that helps me be okay with feeling the associated emotions. This feedback actually reinforces the benefits of focusing on the wise mind because I can see how it’s helping me to stay balanced. Instead of dismissing emotions that I’d rather not feel, I can use my rational mind to allow them into the balanced center.
So returning to the title, and my original assertion; Wisdom is a skill. A skill is the knowledge and ability that enables you to do something well. Wisdom is something you practice in order to live well, and it is through living that you hone that skill. In my view, it is what this school of life is all about.
For more explorations in wisdom visit: https://evidencebasedwisdom.com/
Thanks for reading.
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW