In Pursuit of Wisdom
Part 1: “Even a Little Drop Will Do.”
I’m trying to tap into some wisdom,
Even a little drop will do.
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage
Before I’m through.
– Paul Simon, “Wartime Prayers”
Wisdom – How would you define that word? In Simon’s popular song,
the pursuit of wisdom is elusive, as he settles for “a little drop.” It’s a
work in progress that he hopes to achieve some semblance of before
he’s “through.” Isn’t that what growing old is all about?
Psychology Today provides a succinct and meaningful definition:
Wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep
understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life
as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play
out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.
It’s much more than that.
Contemplating the Surf
I think the pursuit of wisdom starts with deep contemplation based on
one’s life experiences. It comes from a close examination of our
failures and successes, our suffering and joy. Without deep
contemplation, wisdom does indeed become increasingly elusive.
Deep contemplation also brings disturbing emotions, inner turmoil,
and sometimes memories loaded with shame and guilt, so our
immediate response is to take flight, stop thinking so deeply, and go
back on our merry, but thoughtless, trail.
However, “the goal is not to make thoughts and emotions disappear
but to prevent them from proliferating and enslaving us,” says
Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, from the recent book “In Search of
Wisdom: A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters
Ride those disturbing emotions like an ocean wave that comes
crashing onto the shoreline only for the next wave to come rolling in,
sometimes with more ferocity. The waves never go away. You can only
continuously practice riding them. The seasoned body surfer does not
experience as many crashes as the novice body surfer. Simple, right?
Well, of course, there’s more to discuss here in our opening (Part 1)
conversation about wisdom.
The philosopher for In Search of Wisdom is Alexandre Jollien, and the
psychiatrist is Christophe André. Their views with Matthieu Ricard’s
make for an interesting and enlightening read. Together they bring a
wealth of insightful Buddhist- and Western Positive-Psychology-
oriented guidance that supports the pursuit of wisdom. The entire
book is a long conversation between these three men. I felt privileged
to be exposed to their sincere thinking, like they had come over to my
house to pay a visit and transparently shared their deepest knowledge,
personal stories, anecdotes, and travails.
Here in this early exploration into wisdom, I’ll synthesize a “little drop”
of what I found helpful in this book and strongly suggest you purchase
it if you are seeking wisdom and can afford to buy it. For me, it was an
easy, highly useful and helpful read loaded with positive perceptions
that can be picked-up at any time and on any page.
First, since I write about aging, I was attracted to what they had to say
about “impermanence,” although it was a very small part of the entire
book. The western definition of impermanence is straight forward – it
simply means not permanent, like our lives, our strong bones and
muscles, our sharp brains, etc. In Buddhist culture, it’s called “anicca”
and takes on a hugely important significance as one of “three marks of
basic characteristics of all phenomenal existence,” as defined in
That the human body is subject to change is empirically observable in
the universal states of childhood, youth, maturity, and old age.
Similarly, mental events come into being and dissolve. Recognition of
the fact that anicca characterizes everything is one of the first steps in
the Buddhist’s spiritual progress toward enlightenment.
Christophe, the psychiatrist, puts a positive spin on the impermanence
of growing old, explaining how the changes in his hair’s composition
and color, his new inability to actively engage in athletics, and his no
longer painless joints are all part of an aging process that teaches him
how to be detached and at home with getting older and ultimately
accepting of death.
“Resigning ourselves to age normally can help us have less fear of
death. It seems to me that aging is made for that, to make it so that at
the end, you don’t regret leaving the body,” Christophe says.
“Sooner or later everything will break down. Everything is
impermanent,” says Alexandre, who finds “a kind of liberation in
seeing that everything is fragile.” He gives up on stability and “learns
to swim in impermanence. If I keep trying at all costs to find a terra
firma where I can stay forever, I will inevitably be disappointed,” he
More “drops” of wisdom in future posts, including reference to some of
the interesting academic studies on this topic. . .
Thanks for stopping by,
“There is a discreet
getting up in the