Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Becoming Wise

Last Tuesday night, I attended a talk given by Krista Tippett, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, National Humanities Medalist, and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living in San Francisco. Wisdom is not a cheap, throw-away word. It has heft and substance, but what exactly is wisdom? I believe it’s not quite the same thing as intelligence although I would argue that intelligence is a prerequisite of wisdom. It’s also not quite the same thing as being knowledgeable. I’m sure everyone knows someone who is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, but simply possessing a tremendous storehouse of knowledge is not very helpful if you don’t know how to properly apply what you know. My friend, Peter, is an applied mathematician, which is a fancy way of saying that he formulates and figures out how to apply mathematical methods, models and theorems to solve practical problems in science, engineering, business, computer science and industry. Of course, you need a certain amount of knowledge to be wise, but you don’t need encyclopedic or dictionary knowledge.

If you look up the word, wisdom, in the dictionary, what will you find? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, wisdom is the “understanding of what is true, right or lasting.” It’s also “common sense, good judgment, learning and erudition.” That definition didn’t feel entirely complete to me so I was intrigued when Krista broke down her definition of wisdom into five ingredients. In today’s posting, I’ll explore the first three ingredients. In a future blog posting, I’ll discuss the other two. According to Krista, the breeding grounds of wisdom include words, body, love, faith and hope.

I majored in English at Indiana University so I’ve always had a lifelong love affair with words. When it comes to wisdom, Krista believes that words should open imaginations rather than shut them down. Think back on conversations you’ve had with loved ones and important people at work. If the person you’re speaking with is constantly shutting you down, how can wisdom be transmitted and shared? I love this quote from Krista: “The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”

The world of wisdom would not be complete without the second ingredient, which is body. Krista defines body as the physicality of who we are and the world around us. “The body is where every virtue lives or dies. Our physical selves, as we are learning, are so much more than merely physical. They carry trauma and joy and memory and our capacity for opening or closing to life and one another.”

Closing to life can be just as important as opening to life. Back in 1988, I worked as a Financial Consultant for Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. I sat in a cubicle so more often than not, I met clients and prospects in their homes and offices. On a late Friday afternoon in December, one of my client appointments in Oakland took much longer than I anticipated and by the time I started driving home the sun was setting. I wasn’t that familiar with Oakland and in 1988, there was no such thing as GPS. I ended up getting lost so I pulled into a gas station so I could ask for directions on how to get to the Bay Bridge. The gas station was deserted except for a group of scruffy-looking young men hanging out near the entrance. As I pulled into the station, they started walking rapidly towards my car and they did not look friendly to me. I felt my skin become cold and clammy, which was my body’s way of telling me that I needed to get the hell out of there now. Fortunately, I found a safer street where I could pull over and I figured out how to get home by looking at my map. We tend to take our bodies for granted, but ignoring the deep wisdom your body imparts can be a matter of life and death.

Our bodily wisdom can also help us in areas other than life and death decisions. In early April, I visited Breckenridge and Denver, Colorado. I really wanted to love Breckenridge because I enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In April, there was still plenty of snow in Breckenridge and I spent several days cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in a pristine, winter wonderland. Denver appealed to me because my dear friend, Diane, lives there. I met Diane the same way I met Bonnie, another dear friend, through my Awakening Joy class. Unfortunately, I developed a permanent side effect of my LASIK eye surgery surgery – dry eye syndrome. Breckenridge is 9,600 feet above sea level and Denver is 5,130 to 5,690 feet above sea level. As you get higher in altitude, the atmosphere becomes thinner (less pressure).  This means that the total amount of water vapor the atmosphere can potentially hold is decreased. Arid climates, smog, pollution and dry or windy conditions increase dry eye risks. Even though the cost of living is lower in Denver compared to San Francisco, I need to live in an unpolluted city on the West Coast in order to maintain the health and comfort of my eyes.

Our bodies are what keep us alive, but I don’t think life has as much meaning without the third ingredient of wisdom, which is love. According to Krista, “love is the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of human community and challenge in the twenty-first century. Love is a virtue and way of being that we have scarcely begun to mine. People who have turned the world on its axis across history have called humanity to love.” I think she was referring to luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa. I believe that choosing to love another person is one of the most daring acts you can commit because it forces you to become vulnerable and receptive. Let’s face it. In order to receive wisdom, you must be in a receptive state and love helps us become more receptive and open.

If you’re open to becoming wise, I highly encourage you to read Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise. In her book, you can explore the following dimensions of wisdom – words, body, love, faith and hope through the amazing interviews she conducted with the leading thinkers of our day from theoretical physicist Brian Greene and mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn to New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown and Brain PickingsMaria Popova.

I began this posting with my favorite ingredient of wisdom, which is words and I’ll end my discussion with words, but not just any words. Krista Tippett’s favorite words are: nourishing, edifying, redemptive, courageous, generous, winsome, adventurous, curious and tender. My favorite words are wholesome, intelligence, spirituality, and engagement. These four words encompass my own personal definition of what it means to become wise – leading a Wholesome life with Intelligence, Spirituality and Engagement.

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