What is wisdom and is it something that can be taught or learned? Philosophers have debated this for thousands of years. Aristotle said that “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Put another way, intelligence that is not informed by our hearts- by compassion- is not really intelligent at all.
Looking around at our world today the human family is at a crisis point. Young people spending more time playing video games and texting then reading books, learning crafts or communicating with members of their family. Investment bankers and corporations seeking wealth and profit without concern for the health, happiness and well being of those who purchase their products or work for them. Consumers everywhere buying and throwing away materials in such a way that our planet is being treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet table and a garbage dump, simultaneously.
How did we get to this point in our “evolution” as the dominant species on the planet? Can humanity change course, solve the complicated problems we’ve created and become wiser? There’s no simple answer to this, but I will share a few thoughts on what I see as a primary cause of the problem and a possible solution.
In short, I think that we need to bridge the gaps that exist within many of us – between our hearts (compassion), our imagination (visual thinking) and the complex yet disconnected bits of knowledge we hold in our heads. Bridging those gaps is how greater wisdom arises, in my opinion.
Compassion means to care, to feel empathy and sympathy for fellow beings. That’s pretty straight forward. Knowledge is the complex information we teach our children and consider to be important as a culture. But what is imagination, and why is that so essential?
Most of us think of the imagination as something active only in creative people and artists, a tool for making ideas and things that do not yet exist. That is indeed one of it’s primary functions, but even more importantly, the imagination is the means by which we do visual thinking, how we mentally represent and understand the world around us. When used this way the imagination provides a kind of virtual landscape for organizing information and knowledge.
Our world view- our understanding of everything around us- makes use of mental models and visual representations of the world. We build these up over time, based on the information that comes in – from teachers, the internet, television, books, movies, friends- work, school, entertainment and play – all realms of human experience.
What is sometimes called “systems thinking” is a mind building such visual models so that they represent the complexity and interdependence of reality accurately, and then becoming skilled at using these understandings effectively.
In many tribal traditions the imagination seems to be used in this way, where visual thinking informed by the heart is the primary mode of reasoning, the basis by which wisdom is generated and shared. Unfortunately, in modern societies much of the information we have been taught in schools has been separated and divided up, compartmentalized.
As such our visual understandings do not accurately represent the connections between phenomena. People’s minds have become ignorant- they ignore- the interdependent nature of reality as it actually exists.
The psychologist Ellen Langer talks about this in terms of mindfulness and mindlessness. Mindfulness is thinking that stays open to input from our surroundings and generates a clearer representation of what is really going on. Mindlessness, as she uses the term, is thinking based on received knowledge from the past that does not accurately reflect the current situation.
Langer has written about how it’s a common trap of “experts” in all fields, who have been “well educated” and think they understand what they are doing, where in reality they don’t have a complete or clear picture of the situations they are dealing with.
In Eastern traditions such as Buddhism the term mindfulness is used in a related way. The term means nonjudgemental observation, carefully observing what is going on without conceptual ideas and judgements. There methods such as meditation are used to help a person train their awareness, to master a way of observing the world that is open to sensory input and free from the bias of dualistic and compartmentalized beliefs. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki put it, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts mind there are few.”
Wisdom, in my opinion, arises when we bring together compassion, mindfulness, imagination and knowledge synergistically, so that we are developing more accurate understandings about the world around us, and then making decisions guided by all of these faculties together.
It’s what has given birth to the deeper forms of art, literature, myth, science, movies, poetry and music that people have created; and its what leads to wise decision-making by leaders in all fields of human activity. The imagination’s accurate representations of knowledge help us to understand the nature of situations, what is really going on. Feelings of compassion help us make wise choices, aware of (and caring about) how actions will affect others. Mindfulness allows us to stay in touch with what is really happening, to update our knowledge representations, and to become more skillful in our actions.
On the other hand, the meaningless, destructive, selfish and manipulative activities of humanity represent people’s imaginations cut off from deeper wisdom and accurate understanding. Knowledge and imagination that is not grounded by mindfulness and rooted in wisdom creates fantasy worlds that can quickly become nightmares. Without basic common sense and wisdom we have been unable to solve our problems and continuously create new ones.
This is the “modern” world we live in, a world we have created together. It is the result of minds that have been compartmentalized, where different areas of society and the brain are not communicating with one another. To bridge these gaps we all need to grow more connections between the various areas of our bodies and brains, and in society as a whole. We need to listen to our hearts, re-learn what we think we know, and encourage our children to think and behave differently, to live more in synch with Nature.
If we do this successfully we can become wiser as a species, more “eco-logical.” We and the planet that gave birth to us can be happier and healthier, healed and transformed.
The Art of Learning/Creative Systems Thinking
Feb. 20, 2013