Have you ever noticed how easy it is to gravitate toward those you consider to be wise? When you’re in the presence of a truly wise person, you might even find yourself thinking, “I’d like to have more of those qualities!”
This begs the question: Is wisdom innate or can it be learned? Even though philosophers and scientists have grappled with this question for a very long time, there is still no widely accepted answer.
I’ve looked at this question for as long as I can remember, and no matter how I view it, I always come to the same conclusion: wisdom is innate – it’s our connection to wisdom that suffers, but that connection can be strengthened.
In a previous post, I talked about the science behind wisdom and aging. I mentioned the factors of wisdom that researchers at UC San Diego have identified in order to pin down exactly what wisdom is and measure it 1. Here are the factors of wisdom these scientists uncovered, and the 1Body principles that can help you actively cultivate a deeper connection to these wisdom factors on a holistic level.
The primary factor of wisdom the research identified is emotional regulation.
Being able to regulate your emotional reactivity is the key to keeping calm under fire, and it’s arguably the holy grail of your connection to the wisdom within you. This core wisdom skill hinges on being aware that you’re reacting and that your mind is racing in a way that feeds that reaction.
At 1Body, the Practice provides the way to gain this awareness. No matter what is happening, the Practice is the simplest tool for regulating your emotions. The first step is to tear your attention away from whatever is triggering you and focus instead on your breathing.
- Notice that as you maintain this focus on your breath, you become aware of the muscular tension that occurs as a result of the stress response.
- As you continue to breathe, feel your posture soften and relax a little. (Deliberately relaxing your shoulders while you focus on your breathing is a great way to support this process.)
- When your thoughts intrude, just keep returning your attention to your posture and breath.
Here is the reason it works: Focusing your thoughts primarily on your posture and breath keeps them from fueling your emotions. More importantly, focusing on your posture and breath activates the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that can consciously focus on your physiological state and quiet your body’s emotional alarm systems when you’re under stress.
The ability to routinely reflect on our character, thoughts and motivations was seen by these scientists as another vital factor for wisdom.
Nurturing self-awareness is a lot like tending a garden, which is why I sometimes refer to it as “cultivating the ground of reality.” Once you’ve calmed your reactivity, it’s much easier to access the self-awareness you need to be reflective and objective, with a focus on the facts of your situation.
Be mindful that self-reflection is not the same as ruminating, or obsessively rerunning the tape of something that you said and did. If you find yourself rewinding and playing that tape again and again, that’s your cue to pause and focus on your posture and breath until your mind quiets down.
Your prefrontal cortex has a regulating effect on your actions as well as your emotions. It’s the part of your brain that can self-reflect, and in so doing, recognize what is in your long-term best interests. This helps quell your impulse to act on your reactions and emotional distortions, and it ensures self-reflection will assist you in making better, well-thought-out decisions.
The scientists involved in the UC San Diego study called this factor “decisiveness.” This term isn’t the best choice, in my view, because it’s so easily conflated with impulsiveness. Most people would likely define decisive as being able to make decisions on the spot. But it’s pretty clear to me that wisdom has little to do with whether or not a decision is made quickly.
I use the term “constructive decision-making” because it better represents what a wise choice entails. It implies you’ve thought your decision through by examining the ramifications of your options, and you’ve settled on the one that will improve your situation in a realistic and balanced way. Realistic and balanced may be the quintessential characteristics of a wise person.
Compassion and Empathy
The researchers referred to this wisdom factor as “pro-social behavior.”
Spiritual teacher and psychologist Ram Dass talks about compassion as consciously recognizing our shared humanity. He also said, and this is key, that compassion happens without judgment. Emotional pain is the force behind our emotional reactions. When we can recognize this in ourselves and others, we’re already halfway there. Then we must learn to reserve judgment when we or those around us are reacting out of emotional pain.
A word of caution though about empathy. While you may have an intuitive sense of how someone feels, especially if you know them fairly well, be respectful that you might not really understand the complexity of what someone else is thinking, feeling or experiencing, especially in a crisis. To me, the most effective and wise way to be empathetic is to simply relate to the humanity of emotional pain and uncertainty we’ve all felt when we’ve undergone something traumatic.
Providing Accurate Reflection
The researchers called this factor “social advising.”
A wise advisor helps others come to the most constructive decision possible, reflecting back the possible options and their ramifications, along with lots of encouragement to think things through. Frankly, the wisest advisors I’ve consulted haven’t told me what to do, but instead they’ve held up a mirror that allowed me to reflect on my choices and what may be driving them.
To give good advice usually requires a certain amount of detachment from the outcome. Wise advisors are good listeners, more than anything. They are compassionate in the sense that they understand what it will take for me to transform, and they have a neutral, detached perspective about the process.
But maybe the most critical quality wise advisors possess is a willingness to wait to be invited before giving advice. They understand that unsolicited or unwelcome advice only results in alienation.
Acceptance for Divergent Perspectives
Acceptance for other perspectives requires a good deal of neutrality at times. As much as we may enjoy learning about other cultures or points of view, it can also be very easy to make assumptions or judgments.
Wise people have the uncanny ability to set aside their deeply held convictions enough to be tolerant and compassionate in the face of opposing views. Again, compassion goes a long way here. To be wise, set aside your expectations when you go into a situation where the viewpoints of others may diverge from your own. Being accepting and open-minded isn’t about forcing yourself to agree. It’s about witnessing the humanity in those whose views diverge (sometimes wildly) from your own.
The researchers defined “spirituality” as the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to physical or material things. They defined it as focused on relationships, values and purpose, but not necessarily on religion or religious beliefs.
For me, spirituality is about being self-aware, responsible for the impact I have on others, encountering others with emotional intelligence, and living in the awareness that we are all in this together, and therefore we’re all worthy of kindness and respect.
The Benefits of Strengthening Your Connection to Wisdom
No matter who we are or how wise we’ve become, I think it’s fair to say there is no upper limit on wisdom. Approaching life and its challenges with inner wisdom as our guide has limitless benefits. As a wiser person, you’ll be more calm and confident in the face of stress, and your impact on others will leave the world a better place. Most importantly, your life will work for you by allowing you to live it with less drama and more objectivity and authenticity.
The pain and uncertainty that are a natural part of the human experience will always be there, but you’ll be wise to the pressure they present. As you make more and more wise decisions, your problems will lead to real solutions. And you will feel more peaceful and confident about the process your life takes, even when things aren’t going the way you’d like them to.
Take good care : )