Wisdom in a Wisdom-starved World
Announcing a new series—a daily practice to reconnect.
“Where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” — Job
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — T.S. Eliot
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov
Imagine you woke up in a field 100,000 years ago with nothing but a set of clothes and a wooden spear.
How long would you survive?
For my part, I’d be useless — unable to hunt animals of any size, discern poisonous berries from edible ones, or start a fire with flint. The more I think about how inept I’d be in such a setting, the more I’m in awe of how our ancestors managed.
Fortunately, the struggle to find food isn’t as severe in most cases today. Many people simply grab something from their fridge, drive to a restaurant, or pull some cereal from a pantry (a process so effortless it’s awe-inspiring in its own right).
And yet our relationship to food still isn’t simple. For those who have immediate access to meals, it’s genuinely difficult to not overeat empty calories, as evidenced in part by the more than $60 billion spent yearly on the dieting industry in the United States alone.
Our abundance has brought us face to face with a new set struggles. There are generally enough calories to go around, but not always enough nutrients.
Something similar has happened to timeless wisdom. That is, just as global internet access has given us immediate and inexpensive access to the world’s wisdom traditions, we’ve simultaneously seen a climb in the number of distractions at hand. Viewers of Netflix collectively watched over one billion hours per week in 2017. Viewers of YouTube collectively log over one billion hours a day. In addition, the average American watches TV for nearly 5 hours a day, and internet users spend an average of more than 2 hours a day on social media worldwide.
Almost without exception, we’d all likely admit that these activities tend to be closer to the equivalent of empty calories than satisfying nutrients.
This isn’t to say that these activities are inherently bad — the same way empty calories aren’t damaging in small doses (and may even carry positive effects, especially when they’re fully enjoyed). What’s more, I’ve personally found some wisdom in all the activities I listed above.
However, these activities can fill us with regret. One long-term study found that “people who watch a lot of television can exhibit symptoms similar to substance dependence, including making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use and even experiencing withdrawal when use stops.”
I regularly experience this dependence with my digital technology. My Android phone wants me to read the latest from Google News, and I do its bidding. Facebook wants me to see if I have new notifications, so I check in. Twitter yearns for eyes on advertisements, and I give them my eyes. I long to use these technologies more purposefully, and yet too often I feel powerless in the constant stream of new information.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve been programmed by my devices. They’ve eclipsed the amount of time I spend with wisdom.
To fix this, I’ve spent the past year collecting excerpts from the best of the world’s wisdom — the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the poetry of Rumi, the parables of Jesus, the passages of Lao Tzu, the philosophy of Plato, and more.
I’m now hoping to add more structure to the search and to explore these texts with a community, both in person and online. To this end, I’m starting a series here that pulls excerpts every weekday from the wisdom traditions and also offers up a meditative practice called lectio divina.
Lectio Divina: Reclaiming an Ancient Practice
Lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”) formally goes back to the 12th century and informally goes back far longer than that. The basic idea is to slowly and deliberately engage with a wisdom text (traditionally limited to the Bible) rather than ripping through it and moving right on to the next task in your day.
The practice has four parts — read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. Outlined like that, it may seem like the practice isn’t ideal for a modern, secular mindset. However, with a slight shift in perspective, I believe it can appeal to believers and nonbelievers alike. In this sense I echo the words of Confucius, who said, “In the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.” My hope is that even when the wisdom traditions use a potentially charged word like “God,” believers and nonbelievers can be open enough to read it in a way that works for them.
I might outline the practice as follows:
- Read an excerpt from a wisdom text slowly, out loud if possible. Focus on each word and phrase.
- Meditate on the text, noting what stands out to you.
- Reflect on any aspirations or feelings of gratitude the text might stir up.
- Sit in silence, allowing whatever arises to arise.
Some people have compared the practice to eating mindfully, where you 1) take a bite, 2) chew the bite, and 3) fully savor the bite, allowing yourself to completely experience the whole process. In a similar way, lectio divina is about the complete experience of engaging with a wisdom text, allowing it to bring about transformative change.
A Wisdom-starved World
I might sit with a wisdom text for 10, 20, or 30 minutes each day, transitioning from reading to meditating to silent sitting multiple times in a single session. The point is to carve out space for wisdom in a wisdom-starved world.
In writing this, I’m reminded that the writer Aldous Huxley once wrote, “The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.”
If the twentieth century was the Age of Noise, as Huxley says, what might be said for the twenty first?
This practice of lectio divina is a call for slowness, silence, and wonder. And, as Socrates said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
Here’s what the first week looks like.
Week One: Transformative Change
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
— Lao Tzu, trans. Stephen Mitchell
Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind.
— The Bhagavad Gita
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
— The Gospel According to John
- I feel a constant longing for security, a longing that too often causes my heart to clench, as Lao Tzu says. How do I learn to lean into risk?
- In making this process public here, I notice that I’m partly motivated by the fruits of my action. And I notice, as the Bhagavada Gita warns, that I’m anxious about the results.
- What would the metaphorical death spoken of in John look like for me right now?
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
— The Gospel According to Thomas, trans. Elaine Pagels
What you fear is an indication of what you seek.
— Thomas Merton
The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.
— Carl Jung
Be that self which one truly is.
- When I meditate on my true self, I feel a shared sense of weakness with others. And from that shared sense of weakness, compassion.
- And yet I fear compassion. I fear compassion because it pushes me away from the ego, which wants me to stand out, feel superior to other people, and be admired.
When I was a young man, I thought the earth was full of fools. I yearned to be a revolutionary and change the world to fit my perspective. “Please, God,” I said. “Help me fix each person I meet.”
When I grew a little more mature, I realized the task was too much. Half my life was gone and I had not fixed a single person to see the world just as I did. So I said to God, “My family will be enough. Help me fix my family.”
When I became old and near to death, I came to see that even fixing my family was too much. What right did I have to turn them into the people I wanted them to be? Then I knew what I needed. “Please, God,” I said. “Just help me fix myself. That will be enough.”
To this God replied, “Now there is no time left. This you should have asked in the beginning. Then there was a possibility.”
— Bayazid, a Sufi mystic, paraphrased
- What if I work from the end of this story to the beginning? From a deep inner sense of compassion and let that compassion discipline my actions?
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no ‘other world.’
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.
— Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks
- If someone told me I could become who I know I want to be — someone who exhibits deep love and warmth for everyone I meet — I would tell them they’re hallucinating.
- I am the embryo with eyes closed in the darkness.
A man has many skins in himself, covering the depths of his heart. Man knows so many things; he does not know himself. Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, just like an ox’s or a bear’s. So thick and hard, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know thyself there.
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The kingdom of God is within you.
—The Gospel According to Luke
“Do you imagine the universe is agitated?” — Lectio Divina, Week 2
Do you imagine the universe is agitated?
Go into the desert at night and look out at the stars.
This practice should answer the question.
— Lao Tzu, Hua Hu Ching
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
— Walt Whitman, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
- How do we suffer in cities where we can’t see the stars? How often do we set aside time for star gazing? Is there a comparable activity we can do daily?
- Do we mistake learning about something (such as the stars) with experiencing it? How do we intentionally balance the pursuit of both?
- Why should you see yourself running with the stars? Does it bring a sense that you’re part of something grander than just yourself? Do you sense abundance in the imagining?
It’s not what we have but what we enjoy that constitutes our abundance.
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
— Mary Oliver, “Praying”
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
- To enjoy what you have, pay attention to what you have right here and now
- We close ourselves up, unable to see the infinite, by not paying attention to what we have right here and now
Now that all your worry has proved such an unlucrative business, why not find a better job?
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
— Rainier Maria Rilke
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
— Jesus of Nazareth, New Revised Standard Version
- I can avoid worry by living the questions now. The answers will arrive as I live the questions without anxiety.
- Worrying doesn’t solve the problem. Living the question — being at home with the question — solves the problem, all because you realize you will “live along some distant day into the answer.”
A university student while visiting the Zen master Gasan Joseki (circa 1300 AD) asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”
“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.
The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for rainment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”
Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning. It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another . . . where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
— The Gospel According to Matthew
Because you are always pining for what is not and unappreciative of the things at hand, your life has slipped away unfulfilled and unprized.
— Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
“We are formed by little scraps of wisdom” — Lectio Divina, Week 3
We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.
― Umberto Eco
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
As the path of the birds in the air or of fishes in the water is invisible, even so is the path of the possessors of wisdom.
— Shanti Parva, from the Hindu tradition
The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him — a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.
“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”
With that the teacher called his happy dog.
“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.
“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.
“He’s looking at your finger.”
“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our words are only guideposts.”
They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers. Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.
— from the Bhagavad Gita
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Over-Soul
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
He laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
It wouldn’t be the Tao.
— Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell
The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
— Saint Paul to the Corinthians, KJV
Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.
— The Book of Proverbs, NRSV
Let all these things go, and do not look. Shut your eyes and change. Wake another way of seeing, which everyone has but few use.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to suffering, and those who go through it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to true life, and those who find it are few.
— Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Stephen Mitchell
P.S. I’m curious to hear which wisdom texts speak most deeply to you, whoever you might be. There are so many holes in my reading — especially from female voices. What voices should I be sure to include in the weeks to come?
If you live in Utah and are looking for a community to explore wisdom and mindfulness with, check out Lower Lights, which is welcoming for those new to the practice.