Recently in my Wednesday night Buddhist study group, we had a vivid discussion about the concept of wisdom. We were eight persons of different ages and backgrounds around the tea table, each with our own personal views on what wisdom is. But even though we had slightly different perceptions and came up with a variety of definitions, it was clear that there is a common core that we could all agree on. Inspired by our discussion, I will share what wisdom is to me, and why it is so important.
Before trying to define wisdom, I will start with what it isn’t. Wisdom carries elements of intelligence and knowledge, but it goes much beyond these traits. You could know everything that could be learned from the books, but still lack wisdom. Even deep knowledge combined with sharp intelligence, may not carry you very far, unless you also know how to best use these gifts.
I would instead say that wisdom is the integrated insight and experience related to the true meanings of life, or as one grey-haired lady in the group expressed it; “wisdom is experience melted down”. Wisdom is thus the ability to combine our own life experiences with the knowledge and insights learned from others and apply all this to how we best live our lives.
Wisdom also requires that we as much as possible rid ourselves from our ego, self-conceit and treacherous beliefs that we have all the answers, or as Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”.
True wisdom is stripped from all non-essentials. Many things and circumstances that once were of great importance will with increased wisdom gradually become less and less significance. But also the other way around. Things one can buy will become of less value, while family and friendship will mean more. Situations which earlier in life may have been very upsetting could be regarded with equanimity and calmness. Life is becoming simpler, calmer and more peaceful, and we can live it with gratitude.
But wisdom doesn’t come automatically with age. It requires curiosity and an inquisitive mind. It is achieved not primarily by knowing, but more by understanding, trying to get beyond the surface and finding the answers to the question “Why?”
But understanding life is not sufficient for being wise. The understanding must also be integrated in ourselves. This requires deep reflection leading to self-awareness, and the best mind tool for integration is meditation.
Wisdom thus attained will help us to make the right decisions at the right time, independent of the circumstances, and at the same time help us understand the full consequences of our actions.
Buddhist teachings then adds one more element. According to the Buddha, true wisdom cannot exist without compassion, and we should therefore use our wisdom for the for the benefit both of ourselves and others.