What Is Wisdom?

Posted December 1, 2014
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What Is Wisdom?

I'm reading through the first chapter of Germer and Siegel's book "Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice" and I'm struck by what Germer and Siegel point out as a lack of a definition for wisdom. Germer and Siegel describe wisdom as, "knowing deeply how to live". Is it that simple? I am looking at this through the lens of the Tibetan practice of "cutting through thoroughly" (Trekchö). In other words, slicing through the delusion of ordinary life to see clearly into the dreamlike nature of reality. Perhaps wisdom or a wise person is someone who has learned how to cut through the delusion of their suffering and is willing to apply this to help others. Wisdom in this tradition, also implies something that is spontaneously revealed. I assume that through the process of cutting through, we have something revealed to us. Both Loizzo and Germer suggest that wisdom is a top-down process. A top-down process uses our rational and organizational abilities to take the information at hand and rather than acting on that information on a gut-level, we think about and process it before responding. Perhaps we are cutting through the information of ordinary life to see what holds. As an aside, in Germer's text according to Birren & Svensson, Christian texts view wisdom as, "revelation of truth from God". This appears to agree with the Tibetan tradition of it as "spontaneously revealed" somehow.

In any event, Germer points out that wisdom has been with a few exceptions, neglected in Western Psychology. Erik Erikson's definition of "truly involved disinvolvement" is an attempt at a definition from a Western Psychologist. This neglect is odd in that we often seek from our counselor's and therapist's someone wise. Wisdom is quite possibly the "magic ingredient" or trait we seek from those who provide counsel. I believe that Linehan's definition is missed in Germer's text and though it is not a definition of wisdom per se, it is an attempt at defining the "magic" or way to get into a wise state of mind. Linehan directs us on how to get to "wise mind" by balancing the emotional mind and rational mind. This suggests that we are applying the emotional mind and rational mind to each other, as needed. It may be a way of applying a top-down process to a bottom-up one, and, perhaps "spontaneous revelation" is when we hit that middle point (middle way or wise mind) between rational and emotional. Perhaps it is when we hit the end of either our rational or emotional mind or when the two merge at the same place. We then get the lightning bolt (spontaneous revelation) to the head, precisely when we hit this merging point. One thing I've noticed about all of these definitions is that they involve the application of opposites in some way, i.e. involved versus disinvolved, rational versus emotional, top-down versus bottom-up. All of these more or less imply getting to a mid-point or point of failure between the two opposites.

Now we run headlong into compassion and its relationship to wisdom. Ultimately, at least in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, compassion and wisdom are inseparable or nested within each other. Wisdom must be applied with compassion and compassion with wisdom. Again, opposites merge. My working definition of wisdom amounts to the application of reason to gut-level emotion and vice versa, in a way that cuts through illusions and self-centered limitations to reveal a deeper knowing. All of this is applied with compassion as an end to alleviate suffering. When I think about it, this has been my most effective approach to clients. In practical application, I get that gut-level emotional connection which I infuse with deep compassion both for myself and other. Rather than going with the unskillful words of gut-level reactions, I apply reason, and the more sophisticated element of wisdom (top-down) to that reaction. In this way I am able to respond with sensitivity, knowing and allowing for the other's process to unfold.

I am leaving a lot out here in terms of research and neuroscience on the subject of wisdom. There are some interesting things out there involving community wisdom and the interplay of social and personal domains. If you'd like to learn more I am including links to some resources below.

Germer and Siegel's book - Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice


The Use Of Animal Imagery In Compassion Meditation

In this article I explain how I’ve taken deity meditation, used animal imagery and applied it to loving-kindness (metta) meditation.. Read more

Dream Body, Dream World

A guided meditation practice to transform the stress-reactive body-mind. Read more

The Book of Living

Ways we can prepare for death during our precious life. Read more

Mindfulness Group for At-Promise Youth

Practices for eliminating doubt and performance anxiety in at-promise youth. Read more

Breath, Body and Open Field

A meditation to help you let go and access deep acceptance. Read more


All blog posts here

About the Author

Chris Heinisch is a counselor and psychotherapist in Tucson, Arizona. She integrates the practices and wisdom of Eastern traditions (primarily Buddhist) with Western Psychology. She is currently studying Contemplative Psychotherapy at the Nalanda Institute in NYC. Please visit her website at http://twowingstherapy.com for more information.




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January 7, 2015

Caila, I am really interested in midpoints and opposites. I like your example of this idea in comedy. The absurdity of an opposite often emphasizes the absurdity of the original notion. It truly does have the effect of dislodging and disorienting us in a way that we are able to come to new conclusions or let go of old blocks and patterns.


January 6, 2015

What popped into my head while reading this is that comedy is also based on the moment of two opposite ideas in collision. It's interesting and no surprise that humor and healing come from a similar pattern.. Opposites clash and reveal a new, different truth, or just reveal nothing at all, nonsense and emptiness, clearing a mental space where old ideas were lodged, where a person can just breathe.

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