Knowledge vs. Wisdom

von Rohden

“Meditation is not passive sitting in silence. It is sitting in awareness, free from distraction, and realizing the clear understanding that arises from concentration.” 
— Thich Nhat Hanh

As a lifelong reader who also meditates every day, I’ve had no choice but to swallow my pride and acknowledge that some things cannot be learned. What do I mean by this? Many people think of wisdom and knowledge as the same thing. Many educational institutions, scientists, artists and others simply believe that the more knowledge they acquire, the smarter they’ll be. People spend lifetimes trying to conquer knowledge at the expense of wisdom. In spending more and more time working with computers, it seems humans have started to believe that they themselves function similarly to computers. The more information they can fit into their heads, the better— or so they think.

A friend recently tried to argue the point that humans today are inherently more wise and more ‘valuable’ than humans of the past simply because they have more potential access to information. I found myself vehemently disagreeing with this sentiment. Time doesn’t objectively make anyone smarter and it certainly doesn’t make anyone wiser.

Those who choose to access wisdom find it, but throughout history they have always been a small and select population. Time may contribute to a larger collective pool of potential knowledge, but this is not wisdom. Access to this information may give people the appearance of being better informed, but it doesn’t make them wiser.

This fundamental error comes from people feeling historically distant from the idea of wisdom. Young people in America today are not all that religious. If they are religious, it’s rare that they are spiritual. Religion has been pitted against knowledge and, as always, the popular arguments against religion rarely take into account the valuable wisdom that can be produced by spiritual experience. Even meditators often just start because they think meditation is going to make them calmer and more productive. A mere century of industrialization and modernization has convinced people that man’s highest consciousness is productive consciousness. What an odd paradox that as man moves towards material satisfaction and comfort he finds himself further and further away from spiritual life.

Here’s the fundamental difference between knowledge and wisdom— knowledge comes from ‘out there’, while wisdom comes from within. You can spend your life holed up in the Ivory Tower at a respected university reciting the same old lecture on Wittgenstein ad infinitum til’ kingdom come, but that doesn’t make you wise.

To put it simply: knowledge is acquired, wisdom is uncovered. The things that you truly know, not facts or statistics or even things that can be expressed though language, are already in you waiting to be uncovered by your attention. Spiritual experience is the process of recognizing this innate wisdom. Compassion comes when we recognize that others have this wisdom and can access it if they wish. Sitting and reflecting often requires a certain humility and calmness. When we stand back and give ourselves some respect and some space, wisdom emerges. It comes in the quiet periods after thoughts begin to fade away.

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