Wisdom is one of the Five Inner Strengths that can be cultivated to help us in our mindfulness journey. The Sanskrit word for wisdom, prajñā, is also translated as understanding or insight. From the perspective of the ancient traditions from which modern mindfulness springs, this is a deeply embodied knowing that cuts through surface appearances.
What do wise people have to say about wisdom?
Wisdom is most often gained through direct experience and this can happen in the experimental laboratory of our mindfulness practice as well as the proving-grounds of our daily lives. Insight Meditation Teacher Gil Fronsdal said wisdom “helps us determine which movements of the mind and heart, which thoughts and feelings, are useful. What can we let go of? What should we develop further? …With discernment, we begin to take responsibility, not just for our behavior, but also for our mind and what it does. We notice what is or is not conducive to greater peace.”
Another characteristic of wisdom is that it can be a byproduct of facing difficulty with an open heart and mind. Insight Meditation Teacher Sarah Doering wrote, “As mindfulness reveals our [the sources of our suffering] and we experience its pain, we begin to feel the suffering of others. Boundaries disappear, and we turn to the needs of others as if they were our own. Gradually the delicate art of loving without possessing becomes apparent—the art of how to care, yet not to care. There is a growing sense of similarity, of oneness, of communion with all—which more and more means that the only possible response is concern and care for all… It is in the deep understanding of suffering that compassion comes to full bloom. For when the heart/mind no longer holds to anything, it is fully open. There is no self-centeredness and so, no separation. No I, no you. Love then is boundless, and ceaselessly responsive.”
Three General Truths
The wisdom traditions supporting modern mindfulness teach us that insight into several interrelated universal truths is essential for clear perception – and of course, you get to decide for yourself whether or not you feel they are truly universal:
- Impermanence – all worldly things and circumstances, including our corporeal selves, eventually change, transform, or pass away.
- Dissatisfaction – because everything changes, including our own feelings about things, nothing worldly can offer us deep and lasting happiness.
- Conditionality – Every worldly thing is made up of interdependent parts arising out of a vast web of complex causes and conditions. Nothing is inherently or intrinsically existent, including our corporeal selves.
Recognizing these general truths helps us take things less personally, let go of things that are not in our control, have greater compassion for ourselves and other beings (who are also subject to these truths), and respond to our circumstances from a place of clear-minded understanding.
More About Conditionality
The concept of third general truth of conditionality (also known as “emptiness” among the wisdom traditions) can be especially difficult to wrap our minds around. Let’s explore the conditionality of the self by way of a scientific example.
What we think of as the self is actually a very complicated confluence of dynamic systems and interdependent parts, some of which are still mostly theoretical because science has not yet found a way to measure them. One interesting aspect of the self is the left-brain interpreter, also known as the “self” module, theorized by psychologists and neuroscientists. The self module is a function of the brain that generates explanations for our experiences. It tries to create a sense of coherence and make meaning by justifying our moods and behavior. Sometimes it is helpful, but other times it is mistaken.
The right side of your brain sees things pretty concretely. But that guy to his left is always weaving tales to try and make sense of the information coming in. That’s his job. We need Lefty to give meaning to life. He interprets your experiences. If Lefty sees real patterns that others don’t, people call you creative. But there’s also a problem… Lefty often screws up… Lefty isn’t “you.” Like your liver or your spleen, he’s a part of you, doing his job… sometimes ineptly. But when you realize this and listen for his voice in your head, you can double-check his work. – Eric Barker, author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree
Some really interesting “split brain” experiments involve providing written instructions to the visual field accessible only to the right brain among people who have undergone surgery to sever the corpus callosum. Even though the left hemisphere is unaware of the instructions the right hemisphere is following, the left-brain interpreter will create an explanation for the action, often with imaginative results. While the explanations of the self module helps us feel more secure and in control, it also strengthens problematic opinions and reinforces biases, sometimes creating stories out of whole cloth.
Those of us who are unaware of our inner world live as though the left-brain interpreter is us. We don’t tend to question the interpretations we are receiving, but instead react as if they are truth. This is one of the many evolutionary features we’ve inherited that can’t be simply turned off, but can be harnessed through the practice of mindfulness. We begin to notice the stories the left-brain interpreter is telling us and recognize “this is not me, it is simply phenomena of the mind”. With this recognition, we can be more choiceful about how we respond in any given situation.
Fortunately there are many paths to developing insight. One ever-present source of wisdom that we often neglect is the body, which is one of the four foundations of mindfulness. There’s great wisdom in the body that transcends words and often arises before the moment of conscious awareness. So many important processes happen in the body, all on their own, that are crucial for survival (breathing, circulation, homeostasis, the blinking of an eye) and that are deeply interconnected with our circumstances and environment. Practicing mindfulness of the body can give us access to this important source of wisdom.
The ancient sages have long understood that there are many different types of learners and styles of learning. Therefore it is necessary to have a variety of skillful means for developing wisdom. Its sometimes said that these pathways are like a “pointing finger” directing our attention so that we might clearly see. If we insist on one “right” method, it is like we are elevating the importance of the pointing finger over the view.
It is like when someone points [their] finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If [they look] at the finger instead and mistake it for the moon, [they lose] not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because [they mistake] the pointing finger for the bright moon. – Shurangama Sutra
Here are some examples of different pathways to cultivating greater wisdom, all of which are explored at the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness:
- Listen more than you speak
- Pause and take time to reflect upon what you experience
- Be open to opportunities to experience wonder, awe, and flow, which naturally invite pure presence and need no interpretation
- Embrace uncontrollable difficult experiences as opportunities for practicing letting go
- Engage in formal contemplative practices such as meditation
- Spend time with wise people (such as joining a practice community)
- Cultivate beneficial qualities in yourself that are conducive to deeper understanding (such as the other inner strengths, the attitudes of mindfulness, the four flavors of love, or the steps on the path to freedom)
- Find a teacher you trust and follow their teachings
let us listen
just for a while
let us silence our minds
and open our hearts
just for a while
let us listen from within
not to gain knowledge
not to formulate questions
rather to chance upon sacred bonds
and profound wisdom
let us not rouse the intellect
but embrace the spirit
if thoughts cloud the brain
let them pass
if words tingle on the tongue
let us breathe them away silently
return to them later
here in this precious time of sharing
let us listen
let the words wash over us
and seep into a still quiet pond
let us listen
– Winged One, Listen
Kristy Arbon, Somatic Self-Compassion Teacher on Tuning Into Body Wisdom
Art of Play on the History of the 9-Dot Problem
Barker, E. (2016). How to Make Your Mind Happy According to Neuroscience. Time
Blakeslee, TR (2004). Beyond the Conscious Mind: Unlocking the Secrets of the Self. iUniverse
Gazzaniga, MS (2012). The Storyteller in Your Head. Discover
Johnson, M (2020). Psychology of the Left Hemisphere: The Brain’s Interpreter. Psychology Today
John Vervaeke, Psychologist explores the question What is wisdom
Spring Washam, Insight Meditation Teacher on Listening to the Wisdom of the Body
Wolman, D. (2012). The split brain: A tale of two halves. Nature 483, 260–263.