The Essence of Wisdom

How do you become wise?  Most often it’s acquired from wise people and through hard experience.  But it is also possible to actively create wisdom yourself.  It’s not difficult to do once you understand the essence of wisdom.

But what is wisdom?  Wisdom is something beyond knowledge, beyond right and wrong, and beyond what is provable.  Science tells you what is true.  Laws and rules tell you what you’re supposed to do and not do.  Wisdom is the perspective that tells you what is personally right for you in complex and uncertain moments.  Breaking the speed limit might be physically dangerous and legally wrong, yet absolutely the wise thing to do if you can’t wait for an ambulance to get you to the hospital in time.

Defining wisdom isn’t easy, though it can also be understood as being the result of wise thinking.    So what is the wise way to think?  Holistically.

Holistic thinking is multidimensional.  It combines multiple sources of information that come from multiple perspectives.  More specifically, wisdom results from the integration of reason, emotion, and intuition, connecting your head, your heart, and your gut.  When you learn to integrate these contrasting sources of information, your perspective will expand to see a bigger picture – from the view of the individual trees on the ground to the whole forest from above. The more complete your perspective is, the wiser your decisions are certain to be.

Reason, emotion, and intuition are handled by different regions of your brain, and these regions often won’t communicate or agree with one another.  Many people make their decisions based on reason alone without reflecting on their emotional or intuitive signals.  Others follow the signals from their hearts or their guts without subjecting those signals to any rational analysis.  Making decisions based on head, heart, or gut alone can be unwise and end with regrets.  In hindsight it may seem obvious to you that either, I should have listened to my heart, or  I should have gone with my gut, or I should have thought this through better.

Imagine a family with two parents who offer different kinds of care to their children.  One parent’s abilities include acquiring information, organizing, analyzing, and creating rules to guide the children’s behavior.  The other parent’s abilities include empathy, intuition, understanding, and caring for the emotional needs of the children.  The children need both of their parents’ influences to develop best.  And they’ll benefit most when their parents communicate and combine their influences to make the wisest decisions for raising them.  This is the same thing you want your own mind to do in order to create wisdom.  

Generally speaking (and oversimplifying), your brain’s left hemisphere is where analytical thinking takes place, while your right hemisphere processes your emotions, sensations, creativity, and intuition.  But just like many parents, your two hemispheres won’t always communicate, cooperate, or combine their input.  For parents and brains to create wisdom, they must develop a holistic perspective by integrating their distinct perspectives.

Sharing and integrating different perspectives is a form of reflection.  Reflective thinking is more complete than reactive thinking, which is more automatic, impulsive, and limited in scope.   Reflective thinking is a matter of putting heads together, and it is a wise saying that “two heads are better than one.” This is especially true when different heads bring complementary perspectives to the table in a cooperative way.  This process of integration is what creates more holistic perspectives.  Thinking collaboratively forms unifying partnerships which in turn creates wisdom.

Wisdom generated by holistic thinking does not mean that you won’t make mistakes or have regrets about your decisions (though there will be fewer of both).  However, when your head, heart, and gut make decisions like unified parents, mistakes and regrets will not lead to self recrimination. If two parents agree to send their child to a private school which doesn’t work out, the mistake won’t result in them blaming or resenting one another.  They’ll share responsibility for the mistake and their unity will remain intact.

The reason that integrating multiple perspectives is wise is because it promotes greater wholeness.  Where there is collaboration and integration, there is greater unity and wholeness.  In contrast, where there is contest and disagreement, there is division.  Unifying perspectives requires replacing judgemental right/wrong thinking with mutual respect and understanding.  This more harmonious type of interaction makes it easier to think holistically and strengthen your sense of inner peace and oneness.  And that is the essence of wisdom.