The Skill of Wisdom: Part 1

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Wisdom is universally desirable, but most of us don’t realize wisdom is a skill that must be practiced. When we feel like we are lacking wisdom, what we often feel is a lack of internal guidance. Many of us lack wise elders to turn to, so we fill this need through spiritual or religious teachings, or we look to therapists and self-help books to guide us towards cultivating wisdom. Although we desire this trait in ourselves and seek wise counsel from others, many of us find this trait hard to really define. 

How do we practice a skill that we can’t even define?

If you ask 10 people What is wisdom?” you will likely get 10 different answers, but connecting them is often an underlying theme of having a wealth of knowledge, but knowing the limits of that knowledge, taking different perspectives into account, giving good advice, being experienced. Often we decide who is wise by observing the outcomes of the decisions they make in their lives, the quality of their relationships, and the level of peace and harmony they are able to maintain. We see the wisdom they hold through their actions. Often wisdom is used synonymously with knowledge or insight, but if you dive a little deeper, you will find that knowledge and insight are aspects of wisdom. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts that you have learned, or information you have gained through experience. Knowledge is about study, research, investigation, observation, and experience. As a culture, we are good at obtaining knowledge, and fact based, left-brained, intellectual information is revered. Insight, the other aspect of wisdom, takes knowledge to a deeper level. It is an awareness of the interrelated nature of that which you are knowledgeable of; something that is not so easily taught. Insights can come suddenly, and can feel like a piece of the puzzle just dropped into place. This deep-seated intuition comes from an integration of “direct experience, immediate cognition, and the grasping of the meaning, significance, or truth of an event without relying on intellectual analysis. Insights can feel like a gift, bestowed upon you from an invisible giver. wise owl The pervasive myth of the wise owl, likely originated with legends of the Ancient Greek goddess Athena. The goddess of wisdom, Athena was often portrayed in art holding an owl, or described in literary works as “owl-eyed” or even “owl-faced.”

The Wise Mind

The cultivation of wisdom is  Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) concept of “wise mind.” It is the sweet spot between the rational (fact based) part of our minds, and the emotional (feeling based) part of our minds. DBT is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy that focuses on balancing the tension between acceptance and change, which can enable the synthesis of opposing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The core sense of wise mind involves a deep sense of intuitive knowing (insight).  The wise mind is insight in action: which is what I believe to be the true definition of wisdom, and also to heart of a personal philosophy. It is the fruit of knowledge and experience. The integration of these 2 “minds” creates insightful thinking, and insightful thinking put into practice is wisdom. WiseMind Cultivating wisdom is using the seeds of knowledge and experience to grow trees of insight that produce fruits of wisdom. As with any new skill, getting into a state of wise mind (or cultivating wisdom) requires practice. Sadly, may of us humans can gain a lifetime of knowledge but never derive insights from it, and never move towards practicing wisdom. In modern times, we look at knowledge as power; a resource that we can use to gain status, authority, and financial security. We are overwhelmingly rationally minded, and when we do leap over to our emotional mind, it is often so chaotic and foreign feeling that we can’t wait to jump back out. The idea of learning how to act from wise mind is that with enough practice, it will become natural. Once you practice new skills consistently and persistently, they become second nature.  Obtaining knowledge, being open to insights, and then living (acting) from the truths you discover is practicing the skill of wisdom; which leads you to live from a wise mind more often than you are living weighted towards either a rational or emotional mind. The familiar association between wisdom and old age, is connected to the idea that first one must have knowledge and insight before they can practice the skill of wisdom, but even young people can be mindful of discerning which aspects of knowledge are true, right, lasting and applicable to their life. What other pieces of knowledge might I be missing, and what insights can I continue to draw from that which I know? How can I encourage insights in my life and use them to direct my actions? A great way to answer these questions is through the use of a personal philosophy.

Practicing your personal philosophy

Quite literally, the origins of the termphilosophy” means “love of wisdom. In a broad sense, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other. Used in this way, a personal philosophy is another way of saying “the wisdom I live by.” To study Philosophy is to see the connection between ideas, and to explicate that connection in a reasoned and logical way. I think it could be said that cultivating wisdom is connecting knowledge and insights in a logical way, and practicing the skill of wisdom is acting based upon the fundamental truths you have discovered about yourself, the world, and your relationship to/in it. Even those who look to religious teachings for these fundamental truths, refer to “practicing” their chosen faith; and this is where the action comes into play. To practice the skill of wisdom is to actively utilize your understanding.

The harmonious center

The harmony of the center between the rational mind and the emotional mind is also connected to “The Middle Way” as taught by the Buddha. Buddhism encourages reconciling opposing viewpoints and maintaining balance. The right way is somewhere in between; just like the wise mind is the in between where the rational/knowledgeable mind meets the emotional/insightful mind. Having said all that, doesn’t it make perfect sense that so many of us are seeking to cultivate more wisdom in our lives? The balanced middle is where knowledge and insight blooms into wisdom; we intuitively know it is THE place to act from. In part 2 of “Wisdom is a skill” I will share methods for practicing the skill of wisdom and cultivating a wise mind.  
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Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Founder of Wisdom Cultivators

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